Taking a cue from Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, a publication that features intimate conversations between creative thinkers, we asked two of New York’s rising electronic music producers, SpinSpinNYC’s otodojo (Maro Kariya) and Twin Primes (Omar Ahmad), to record a dialogue about what inspires them to create music and what influences their productions. The artists did just that and then some, exploring politics, life lessons and visualizing the sound of molecules like benzene along the way.
Twin Primes (TP): I first heard your remix of “Says” by Nils Frahm through a friend who is known for being a huge critic.
otodojo (O): I didn’t think that putting drums on top of a piano sequence looping for 10 minutes would lead to such a great connection.
TP: What’s behind the name, otodojo?
O: otodojo translates to “a sound place for learning.” It’s an environment where I’m able to grow as a producer and experiment with various techniques to find a sound that’s unique and representative of my soul. I think I’m on the right track.
TP: Brings to mind some pretty distinct concepts had I not known what your music sounded like in advance. Recently, SpinSpinNYC helped you release your debut EP through their label, called “A Piece Removed”. Walk me through what went into that release.
O: Over two years ago a close loved one had passed. I was devastated, yet after an incomplete period of mourning, I became absorbed into a new relationship. One day my partner left for a business trip for two weeks and, in her absence, a crushing loneliness overcame me. I knew I had to break away from these bad feelings, so I decided to express them through music.
TP: This definitely sounds far more personal and autobiographical than a lot of your past tracks. What is the significance of each track?
O: The title track, “A Piece Removed,” represents the effect of my partner’s absence followed by the onset of the crushing loneliness represented in “Down,” and finally a period of, “Reflection,” an understanding of what was leading to these feelings, my lack of mourning for my lost loved one.
TP: That’s really moving, especially given the amount you’ve laid bare during the process. My next release channels some similar emotions, but coming from pretty different places.
O: Speaking of which, Twin Primes, it appears that your newest EP is very differently structured than your other released tracks, what was the impetus for this change in structure and how did you define it?
TP: My past releases have often been inspired by capturing a snapshot of a given theme or experience, which has lent them to more traditional song structure. Moving forward on this new EP, I wanted to take a step back and look at the process of the evolution of sound, and slowly, richly building until the listener is enveloped in a more airy, three-dimensional wave. In past productions, attention to detail has taken a backseat to the overall vision, but this is an attempt to give them both equal weight.
O: It’s a fine line to try and stay focused on the details without getting lost in the minutia of the production process. You mentioned the overall vision being important to you. Have the recent actions from our country’s current administration affected the structure or tone of any recent tracks that you’ve been working on?
TP: My new EP is viscerally reactionary to the atmosphere that’s been pervading the collective headspace of the world lately. At once it feels like a great, confusing injustice has befallen us, while unearthing the fact that yeah, many Americans are not only just okay with this, but pretty much prefer it. I’ve channeled the concepts of the pillars upon which I think our nation stands, the choices we’ve made as a population, and the need to lick our wounds and heal into my next release. What’s especially harrowing is that I’ve been struggling with my own feelings of loss in my personal life, which only furthered the emotional investment into completing this work.
O: I imagine being Palestinian-American during this time must have left some sort of impact on you as well. How much do those life experiences transmit through your music?
TP: Just about anyone with Palestinian heritage can probably relate to, from a very young age, needing to have an opinion on where they’re from. Even as a kid people would ask my ethnicity, and uncomfortably follow on with “...so, what do you think about everything going on over there?” I couldn’t fully grasp why I was asked this until I got older, but now living in a post-9/11 world I’m glad to say it’s taught me to always consider opposing perspectives. Everything I do needs to come with an alternative perspective before I can feel comfortable moving onto something else. As a musician I’ve been able to look at the crossroads of the world as my genealogical home, and as such my music pulls from multicultural influences, whether it be in the form of instrumentation, rhythm, or themes.
O: “A Piece Removed” actually has really come forth to represent how much my views, feelings, and even environments have changed lately. It serves as a good record of that.
TP: Talk to some of the environmental impacts there have been on your music, and really your life, lately; the natural, untamed world seems to be a theme. I know living up in Ithaca gives you some great scenery and that you had a pretty daunting Amazonian journey in Ecuador recently. How much impact do you think your physical environment and recent travels have left on you both as a person and as a producer?
O: Growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t really have the opportunity to be around nature regularly; so finally living in Ithaca as an adult, I’m able to wake up everyday and walk through wildflower preserves, gorges, and beautiful trails. It has changed the way I think, what I appreciate in the places I’m in, and subsequently how I approach music.
TP: And where else has this love for the outdoors taken you?
O: With this appreciation for nature and knowledge of how it affects me, I traveled to Ecuador. Ecuador is a fairly small country, however, from its serene coasts to extremely biodiverse rainforests--the biodiversity of trees in one hectare is roughly that of the US and Canada combined--it’s rich in diverse landscapes.
TP: Were you there exploring on your own, or was it more of a guided tour?
O: I had the pleasure of traveling with my partner and met many travelers and locals along the way, including a Kichwa shaman from the Ambiyaco tribe named José Miguel Licuy Yumbo. José has an impeccable ear and a great memory of sounds that he’s gathered from the jungle and songs that have been passed down from a long lineage of shamans--you can hear these songs in his album, Memoria Kichwa. He’s also quite the storyteller. Through spending time with him, I learned to be more observant and challenge myself to use my mind to record things through practice and repetition, rather than depending on technology. José told us that there’s a way of life in Ecuador to ride the “bién onda” or “good wave,” going with the ebb and flow of life. This idea had stuck with me throughout the rest of my travels and still does today. I’ve been thinking about what this means in terms of music and am trying to come up with more ways of applying it. I’ve come across artists, such as Flavien Berger, Polar Inertia, and Gabor, who understand this concept and incorporate it into their music in unique ways.
TP: That seems like such a rare encounter; were there any major takeaways from roughing it in the forest?
O: In the jungle I learned some pretty visceral life lessons.
- After an unpleasant encounter with a giant katydid I’ve learned to always check my boots before putting them on.
- It’s best to check a toilet seat if going to an open-faced bathroom in the jungle at night. There are lots of bugs that want to bite you...everywhere.
- Don’t eat papaya on an empty stomach while being extremely fatigued. It will make you throw up...a lot. I learned this the hard way on a 5 hour hike through a jungle mountain hike.
- Be patient with people, even when you’re feeling your worst. They’re usually trying to help and even if you feel like shit there’s no reason to take it out on others. I struggled with this following the jungle mountain hike.
- Don’t always plan your travels...but sometimes it’s better to plan them. A 10 hour bus ride to the coast can take 17 hrs otherwise.
TP: Duly noted. Next time I’m there I’ll keep an eye out.
O: Hah, something tells me these tips extend beyond Ecuador. You’ve been building up quite the motivational professional story yourself lately. How do you think transitioning into a lead role in a [biomed] company at such a young age has affected your approach to producing music?
TP: Not many people get to really see the fruits of their labor blossom from conception through to overseeing a team of amazing, talented employees. My role as an entrepreneur, inventor, and visionary has required me to think outside the box at all times and to always consider a new way of looking at even some of the most basic problems. An analytically challenging career with a dash of creativity and determination really bridges easily between biomedical engineering and music production. Music has helped my work grow, and my work has certainly left an impact on my music.
O: I completely relate to that. Speaking more of your entry into music, I know that you’ve played guitar for a good portion of your life and you started producing not too long ago, but you have improved vastly as a producer within a very short period of time. What do you attribute this fast growth to?
TP: I’ve informally picked up several instruments over the years, but guitar was the first that led me into the world of music production. As someone who never felt the impetus of wanting to be in a band or perform live instrumental music outside of a symphony, I naturally began toying with music production as a means to accompany my playing. Eventually, I found the physicality and disconnect between the notes in my mind and the frets of a guitar to be limiting, so I jumped headfirst into software. Despite the fact that I’ve been producing for less than two years I’ve had the good fortune of doing several shows throughout NYC, which have sharpened my concept of what truly guides a successful set and the importance of developing rich, big sound rather than overly complex, convoluted tracks. Shifting from splicing together instruments for the sake of imitation and jumping into pulling the soul out of a select few, well-curated sounds has helped me grow substantially.
O: Quite the story there.
TP: I think there’s definitely a flood of introspective musicians who have been given more of a chance to shine in recent years through DJing and production. I’ve been thinking lately about the burden of commentary on musicians, and how society places an almost disproportionately large amount of pressure on artists to lead the social, political, and universal movements for progress and change. As someone who has been no stranger to introspection in your music, do you feel any impetus to start using music as a tool to guide and teach?
O: Right now, I don’t feel pressure to be a leader in this way. I like to make sounds and tracks because I find it therapeutic and it helps me connect to my environment. If people understand what I was trying to get at through the track without scratching their heads too much then I would feel accomplished. What I eventually want to do is provide a unique sensory experience for people which may help unveil a new way of experiencing sound.
TP: It’s great that you’ve been able to afford yourself that time to grow and develop. Speaking of unique sensory experiences, there’s a rising amount of recognition and appreciation for visual accompaniment to audio/musical art. I know you’ve been dabbling more and more into a visual otodojo experience lately. What’s the inspiration for your oscilloscope project, and what was it like working through your first music video?
O: Ever since I joined the Schroeder lab at Cornell, I’ve been working a lot with Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectra and it was pointed out to me that these spectra of molecular structure are in fact the fourier transformations of their sounds. Since then I’ve been pondering up ways to visualize the sounds of molecules. My brother Tenkai had sent me a link to Jerobeam Fenderson’s oscilloscope music and I visualized some molecule sounds (like benzene), but I got distracted by the enormous potential of using synthesizers with an oscilloscope and I’ve since been practicing making oscilloscope music. Oscilloscope music is so fun and the possibilities for it are endless. I think that a proper projection of oscilloscope music with a proper sound system would make for an amazing show! There are, however, many people out on the interwebs who have had this same idea, using laser projectors and the like. I’m only one of many trying to find neat ways to deliver this music.
TP: Fascinating stuff; I can say I’ve seen the beauty of polymers and crystalline microstructures, which are likely going to make more of an appearance in my own visual plans. This has been an incredibly eye-opening first look at you, your music, and a sound place for learning.
O: Yeah, time to jump back in, thanks so much for your time!