Gordon Voidwell (aka William Gordon Johnson) has an undeniable knack for teasing the best out of strange sounds and pulling inspiration from the old and the new while simultaneously wrapping them around recognizable melodies. Simply put, Voidwell’s sense of musicianship is more of a cultural and harmonic meeting point than a sonic bag of tricks. He delivers a signature sound with devastating effects and a swagger all his own. The talented producer/DJ/singer/writer has been compared to heavyweights like Prince, Talking Heads, David Bowie and Cameo, which serve as solid points of reference, but what is even more precise is his distinct ear for blending traditional sensibilities with current sounds. He creates music that has value beyond a specific genre. It’s this unique musical identity that has quickly earned him praise from critics, music enthusiasts and colleagues alike.
Since releasing 2009’s Voided Checks, Voidwell’s career trajectory has seen him go from promising young talent to Internet darling (with the release of his debut single, “Ivy League Circus”), to being handpicked by Mayer Hawthorne to join him on a six-week tour at the end of 2010.
Voidwell spent the majority of 2011 in the studio recording his debut album, Leap Into The Void, and the ambitious 22-song mixtape, MalcolmXXXMclaren—due for release February 1st. In typical Voidwell fashion MalcolmXXXMclaren features a curious merging of genres (no wave, electro-funk, disco, rap and post-punk) that when compartmentalized really shouldn't blend as seamlessly as they do, but somehow Voidwell brings them all together. Do not mistake Voidwell as a man unsure of what he wants, his eclectic array of sound is calculated… and you’re all invited to the party.
Home Town: Bronx, NYC
Currently Living: Brooklyn, NYC
Origin Of Name: Picked from a hat
Weapon of Choice: Stage Banter
Est. Miles Traveled per year: Mmm’Idonevenknow
Gigs Played / Nights Out Per Year: 366
Source Of Power: Boomboxes with 6-band EQs
I was raised across the street from the projects where hip-hop was created so there was always loud music in my apartment growing up. In the Bronx, you hear music blasting from every car and every apartment. You’re overwhelmed by sounds—whether or not you want to be. I absorbed a lot when I was young and always have stuff in my head. I had a Walkman CD player and then when people started getting MP3 players I got another Walkman. I like listening to analog media; you get more information from it. But the downside of listening to a Talking Heads tape issued in ‘83 is that the tape decays. Because tapes vary in sound quality, I started caring about the headphones I wore while listening. The older the music I listened to, the more important sound fidelity became. The music I make relies on understanding how things used to sound and fitting my retro sensibilities into a contemporary context. Headphones can be an important tool for that.
Can you walk us through your various musical phases? From early interest to actual creative output, how did they tie into your waking life?
I’ve been pretty much into the same type of music for the last 20 years. I like strange sounds that play familiar melodies. As such I’ve gone through various phases of liking one style of music or another, but in the end all can be classified as strange and familiar. I think that idea of strange/familiar can be carried over to my taste in art, fashion and literature as well. I like things that make me think—but like, not too much.
What life activities are made better when listening to music?
I never go jogging without music. Never. In fact, I spend a little time each day seeking out new music I can listen to while I exercise. Exercise is important, but it’s not always fun. Music sometimes can distract me from the fact that I’m doing something I don’t necessarily want to be doing. I guess the same goes for listening to music while cleaning my apartment.
If you visualize music as your listen, what (generally) do you imagine?
Flat multi-colored shapes with a layer of film grain on top.
If you could send advice via a fortune cookie to up-and-comers, it would read:
Do You Papi!
What is a song that inspired you to create?
What is a song that hasn’t inspired me to create? Either I hear something I think is terrible and I want to make something better or I hear something that’s amazing and I want to make something better. The worst is mediocre songs.
What (type) of music makes you reach for the headphones? What (type) of mood makes you reach for the headphones?
When I’m doing sound research for samples and referencing songs I might want to borrow ideas from (see: stealing), I usually listen on headphones. For one, I don’t want anyone else to know what I’m jacking—plus it’s usually late at night so even if I want to blast music—out of respect to my neighbors—I usually don’t. SOL REPUBLIC headphones sincerely trick your brain into thinking you’re listening to music in a room alone. Aside from getting louder than most headphones, you can feel subtle vibrations from low frequencies. You end up both feeling and hearing the music differently than what most headphones offer. The design of the actual headphone blocks out noise so you just hear more from the music’s frequencies. It’s honestly just a different headphone experience than most.
Tell me about your most memorable night out.
The first time I ever DJd it was at a club on the Lower East Side called the Slipper Room. I don’t know if I was even legally allowed to drink. I was pretty young. I only brought vinyl to the gig because…truthfully, I thought I’d be cooler for it even though no one seemed to care one way or another. Anyhow, towards the end of the set, Iman (David Bowie’s wife) walks in with Adrian Brody and the owner of the club runs up to me and tells me to quickly put on a David Bowie song. Because I’d only brought vinyl (and not enough of it), I had to embarrassedly tell him “I don’t have any David Bowie, just ESG.” He was not impressed. Moral of the story: always bring Bowie (or an emergency iPod) when DJing vinyl only sets on the Lower East Side as a teenager.
Tell us about a specific event or period in your life that is linked in your mind to a song/album.
The first time I ever heard Of Montreal and Bloc Party it was from the same Vice Magazine compilation CD. It had some other bangers on there too. But this was before Bloc Party or Of Montreal exploded. This was like Vice’s “up-and-coming” compilation. I remember taking notes on both bands. I’m kind of ashamed to say I listened to that CD a lot, and then listened to the Bloc Party album a lot, and the Of Montreal album a lot too. This was during my first year at NYU and it kind of made me stop listening to hip-hop music and start listening to more indie stuff. That year I started shopping at Other Music and searching for the bands James Murphy talked about on “Losing My Edge.” I’m not sure if it was a high point or low point…yet.
Is there a band whose album covers you love? Or a designer of gig posters?
For me, the king of gig posters is Buddy Esquire. He did all the early ‘80s rap posters. He just had a knack for presenting hip-hop in this classic, artistic and tasteful way. Even if the show was at a gymnasium in the South Bronx, Buddy Esquire always made it look like it was happening at the Apollo Theater. Presentation matters a lot in music.
Do you remember the first time you had a live audience’s complete attention?
The first house party I ever DJd—I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t care about BPMs or smooth transitions. I just wanted to play dance records—everything from Tribe Called Quest to the Rapture—and so I did that. I think most of the people at the party were strangers who were about my age and didn’t care about genre or my technical skills as a DJ. They wanted to dance and so they did. It’s nice to feel a human connection with listeners when you’re performing or spinning records. Sometimes it’s important to forget what you’re supposed to do as a DJ and just do what feels right.
Soundtrack Of Life:
Lately the best way for me to relax in between mixing, producing and writing music is playing chess. I know—that’s kind of lame a little bit, but whatever, Rza does it. This is the playlist that will guarantee your opponent in checkmate position:
Intro says it all; a sword fight is like a game of chess. You must think first, before you move.
When you get anxious—both in chess and life—it’s important to remember a racing heart means you’re still alive. Unless you made a really bad first move.
I like to learn my opponent before I make any serious mistakes. As such, I’ll sometimes do annoying things like moving bishops and knights back and forth, without really going anywhere. This song’s a good reminder that this is allowed. Right? That’s allowed?
Dizzy K is a Nigerian boogie artist from the ‘80s. His lyrics are hard to make out through his accented falsetto, but you can always hear his hooks. In this one he says, Excuse me over and over. I try to be polite before I say checkmate, so I’ll get my opponent’s attention before breaking the news, Excuse Me. Checkmate fool!
If I’m in a position to take out every piece on the board before ending the game, I will. And I’m going to sing this song as I take the last remaining pawns still guarding the King.