Shlohmo, aka Henry Laufer, has been going through some bad stuff. From relationship breakups, to the pressures of school and his musical catharsis, it’s all on display on his new album, Bad Vibes. As an artist that made his name on thumpingly, beat heavy EPs like Shlomoshun and Shlo-Fi, the contemplative themes strewn across his debut LP might come as a bit of a shock, but there is a personal feeling woven through every fibre of his Bad Vibes album, something that’s exceedingly rare in electronic music.
While the Places EP was a good introduction to the type of music Shlohmo is making now, acting as an audible introduction to how he has transformed from his earlier work, it’s only on Bad Vibes that the meaning behind this new sound becomes clear. The languid and breezy first half of the album feels like a descent, a slow, inevitable fall into melancholy – his use of slide guitar and blues phrasing enhances the woeful acceptance of it all, like introverted sadness was always a foregone conclusion – with the track ‘Sink’ acting as the doorway between the light and dark feelings.
Certainly the anger of depression pervades the music throughout, but ‘I Can’t See You I’m Dead’ begins a run of tracks with a harder edge. It continues with the noise frenzy of ‘Trapped In A Burning House,’ which channels more the experimental guitar experiences of Fennesz, Machinefabriek or Xela than anything we’ve heard from Laufer before. The suite starts to lift with the gigantic sprawl of ‘Get Out,’ but it drifts back down with ‘Your Stupid Face,’ haunting like a forgotten memory that keeps popping up to unsettle you. It’s also the point where Shlohmo re-contextualizes the slide guitar sounds of the album’s first movement into an unholy complement to distortion soaked singing and deep bass.
With such a thick, heady and emotive tapestry of work about to be released on the Friends of Friends label, we took the opportunity to pick Laufer’s brain in an attempt to find out just where all these thoughts and musical tangents stemmed from.
Sonic Router: I wanted to talk a little about where you’ve been working the past couple years. If I remember correctly, you grew up in Los Angeles, then moved to San Francisco, and now you are in New York…?
Shlohmo: Yeah, I grew up in LA. I started applying to art schools, and I ended up going to one in San Francisco. I dropped out a little over a year ago and still lived up there for a bit, but I decided to move back to LA. Right now, though, I’m spending the summer in New York with friends.
Obviously you are involved in Wedidit Collective and the whole Friends of Friends community. Could you talk a little about how you got involved in these and how they influence you as an artist?
Wedidit is like my baby, I started it with some friends in high school. That’s always been the most inspiring thing to me; the people I grew up with – always bouncing ideas off each other. It’s kind of this childish, ridiculous entity, but that’s how I want to keep it. Then we met more cats like Jonwayne and eLan so we just collected more people. Besides that I pretty much grew up with everyone else.
While that was going on, I was releasing stuff by myself on Myspace and putting it on our blog. Randomly Leeor Brown from Friends of Friends hollered at me on Myspace about the Shlomoshun EP. He wanted to re-release it with some extra tracks on it. Actually it was weird because we had met a few weeks before when I was interning at Dublab. He came through with Ernest Gonzales (Mexicans with Guns) to record a live set, so we were talking for a while, shooting the shit. When he hit me up on Myspace, I had no pictures of myself there and I hadn’t even told anyone at Dublab that I made music so he had no idea it was me. He didn’t know until the first time we met up after that. And now he’s one of my best homies at this point.
In another interview, you described feeling out of place everywhere and that Places was a record that you needed to make. Do you see Bad Vibes as an extension of that feeling?
Living in San Francisco at that time was very weird for me. I had just gotten out of a long term relationship and I had just dropped out of school with nothing to preoccupy myself other than making music. I pretty much had no one to hang out with; there was just a lot of meditation on music right then. It’s hard to explain but it was a weird time for me and maybe that was what sparked it. After getting out of that relationship and dropping out of school, there was just a sense of like ‘man, what I am doing?’ I started looking at all the music I was making and the art I was making and thinking, ‘why does this exist? Why am I doing this?’ I dropped out of school to pursue this but am I really doing it? Do I really give a shit? I came to the conclusion that I didn’t, that everything before that moment I didn’t give a shit about.
There’s definitely a big difference between Places and everything before it.
Yeah, I don’t really like anything I made before. I look back on the older stuff and it surprises me that Friends of Friends signed me. I started looking at my creative process in a different light, you know? I didn’t want to make stuff that just sounded cool, I wanted to make stuff that was reflective of what I was thinking about or going through my head.
Do you find that most of your inspiration comes from an internal place instead of reflecting the world around you?
Definitely, yeah; one hundred percent. I mean, I think a lot of the internal stuff is reflective of external shit, but definitely the music comes from within.
Do you ever have trouble conveying these thoughts with music? What do you do in those instances?
That pretty much always happens and it gets me bummed out. I’m not a great speaker, so it’s generally easier for me to explain myself through music or art. So that gets really frustrating when I feel a certain way but I don’t know how to get it across sonically. If I get to that point, then I’m done for the day. I’m like ‘fuck this, I’m out,’ but sometimes, even months down the line, I’ll be able to pick it up again. On Bad Vibes, a lot of this stuff stayed as sketches for months, because I didn’t know what I was really trying to do. I had some idea of what I wanted to put across, but didn’t know how to really make it come full circle. I didn’t know if I had experienced enough of it yet. I would leave it alone for a month or two and then listen back to it and think about it. Then I would get it, I would understand how to finish it.
Have you always expressed through music and art?
I was always drawing since being a kid. I didn’t assume music to be something of importance to me. I loved listening to music and that was important, but I never made it seriously. I always thought visual art to be my thing, but when I dropped out of school, I realised that I hadn’t even been exploring expressing myself that way. I think a lot of it came out through drawing subconsciously but I hadn’t even tried to do it consciously.
Obviously, though, you reached a point where you had things that you wanted to say through music…
How would you describe the process you go through when creating music? Is it laborious or are you in the moment, mostly?
It’s pretty in the moment, I would say. I’ll just feel a certain way and pick up a guitar or play the keys. I’m not a great instrumentalist or singer, but I know what I want it to sound like it. So I’ll fuck around until I can get it to echo that feeling or vibe I have. Once I have a basis, it’s easier to put stuff on top and juxtapose the sounds. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like making an emotion an object, a sound, a song.
Do you use mainly live elements or do you use other sources?
This album is pretty much all live played stuff. Most of it is me recording a few seconds of me playing something, or singing something, and then making loops out of that, or re-sampling myself. I bring the live played stuff into a more electronic realm that way. Some songs I’ll play an instrument over the entire thing, but for the most I’m looping or re-sampling little portions of myself.
Drake – Marvin’s Room (Shlohmo’s thru tha floor remix)
There’s a pronounced use of slide guitar and a blues motif on Bad Vibes. Is that something you wanted to explore? How did you get started with that idea for this?
I’ve always really been into blues guitar. I started playing guitar when I was 11 or 12 and by the time I was in middle school, I was really interested in slide guitar. I would do drop tuning and all that stuff and was into steel body guitars. I think it’s always been a subtle influence of mine. It didn’t feel new for me on the album, it just feel like a sound that would go well for this record.
It feels like there are repeated themes, especially in the latter half of the album; like ‘I Can’t See You I’m Dead’ through ‘Your Stupid Face’ seems like they evolve the set of themes. Was this part of the songwriting or did it come up organically?
It just evolved, actually. The transition from ‘Get Out’ to ‘Your Stupid Face’ was always planned from the beginning. How they all work together, though, it came about from messing with the samplers, and having that theme through them.
It really feels like a suite of music, almost as if it’s narrative. Is there a narrative through the album that you are trying to impart?
I don’t know yet [laughs]. I still don’t really know what the music exists as. Like ‘Sink’ was actually started last August and I didn’t finish it until February with the whole second part. That song, though, I knew came from the thought of ‘I want to make a song about drowning.’ That’s the ‘passage into death’ moment.
Even though some parts of the album seem happier than others, there’s a kind of melancholy unease through it, which goes along with the title. When you were formulating the album, what were the concepts that you wanted to talk about?
It was pretty anti-concept in the beginning. I had an idea of what I was doing, but not what I wanted it to be. It was like letting go of concept and doing what I felt like I had to be doing with the music. Just for myself, not just for creating an album. For the most part, it was a very personal process, not thinking about anything other than trying to reproduce an emotive concept. That was the only concept, really, just a desire to reproduce my emotions, my insides in music.
Did that whole process feel cathartic when you were doing with it? Did you leave it behind?
Yeah… I still think I’m in the process of that, though. I don’t think its fully let go. It’s weird, because I’ve always had that artistic desire to show what I’ve made to people, but this is the first thing that I still haven’t sent to any of my friends, nobody has it. It’s difficult for me to understand what it is for other people. I sort of know what it is to me, but I think hearing what other people think will help shape my opinion of it. I don’t know if I can let go of it until it’s in other people’s hands.
Moving away from the album a bit, I’ve always found it interesting to hear your DJ sets and remixes. There is a lot of more up-tempo, hip-hop stuff in there, with Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy. Do you see a correlation between this stuff and what you are doing or doing you consciously separate the two?
No [laughs], it’s a pretty conscious separation. I don’t see any connection other than it’s all from me. It’s really weird now, with how people view artists. A lot of people don’t like multifaceted people, they like to attach to something where they know what they’ll get all the time and it will always been the same. It’s comfortable for an audience. Realistically, though, I don’t understand that because every person is multifaceted. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I for one am not bummed out all the time. A lot of what I’m putting on this record and in the future comes from a serious state of mind, but when I’m doing the other stuff, it’s more lighthearted. I’m a fucking goof, so that’s where all that stuff comes from.
It’s actually interesting for me, because I still don’t really know what to do in a live setting. When I play a show, I want to play my own music, but a lot of times I’m booked at more of a party atmosphere, so they might be expecting something uptempo. And I’m trying to have a good time, too, with playing some Waka Flocka or something.
Have you given a lot of thought to how to translate Bad Vibes to a live setting?
Yeah. Right now, it’s pretty stupid [laugh]. I don’t really have any idea of what to do with my current setup. Up till now I’ve just been stemming out the tracks and making cue points and playing pieces of the tracks with singing. I feel like it’s not really doing it justice at all. I might as well just be DJing and it’s not music to be DJed really. I’m starting to work towards a more live set, like playing the album all the way through. I might try to go no computer on it, but it’s hard because that’s what I know the best. I’ve never really done that before. I played guitar in a band… I played bass in a band, but the thought of doing it all alone and with some kind of looping workflow. I’m still trying to figure out the logistics of it. Maybe Ableton with loop pedals where I can loop myself and reproduce all the parts of the songs.
One of the funniest things in the past few months was when I played a dubstep night in San Francisco. It was mostly dubstep DJs and a few friends of mine, too. I was playing a prime midnight spot and it was packed. I opened with ‘Trapping In A Burning House’ with my guitar [laughs] …they were not really feeling it.
Wow. I could see how that would be shocking…
Yeah, I’ve played it a few times in maybe more appropriate settings, but I felt like it kind of worked best there [laughs]. Everyone’s eyes just matched the feeling of the music.
Shlohmo’s Bad Vibes is out on the 9th August through Friends of Friends.
Words: Keith Pishnery