Sound of the Week: Thug Entrancer

Arcology is Thug Entrancer’s second album on Software, the imprint of Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never. The record shows a slight shift of perspective for the Denver-based artist, moving away from the dominant footwork styling of his debut LP Life After Death, choosing to explore more free-forms of electronic music, aided by generous servings of 808 drum machines workouts and 303 acid bleeps. We caught up with Thug Entrancer a couple of weeks after the release of his album to talk about Chicago, the stunning video work that accompanies the album and the importance of being subversive.

KALTBLUT: Hi Ryan, thank you for speaking to us. Arcology was released last month. How’s everything been going so far?
Thug Entrancer:
It’s been great! I’ve kind of distanced myself from it to let the world interpret it. Everything I’ve heard has been great. I really try to stay in a bubble about it, because I want people to have their own relationship with it.

KALTBLUT: Did you feel less pressure because of it being your second album?
Thug Entrancer:
In a lot of ways this record has been my biggest endeavour. I usually work with brief ideas and in the past I was self-releasing a lot of different work and tracks. Arcology had more of a build-up. This was also the first time I’d worked with a solid concept with an album. In a lot of ways it feels like a more developed version of Thug Entrancer.

KALTBLUT: Your first album Death After Life was built around a strong concept as well…
Thug Entrancer:
Absolutely, but I view that record as being a little skeletal. I was doing these more meditative, one shot recordings and I wasn’t paying that much attention to production because it was more about this idea of working within time. With Arcology I worked with a fellow visual artist, Milton Melvin Croissant III. This is the first time I’ve sat down with a visual artist and really developed a world. Maybe it’s the collaboration of it that makes it feel new.

KALTBLUT: The footwork elements of Death After Life were seemingly what defined Thug Entrancer to the public. Arcology aims noticeably less towards that direction. Was this the result of you leaving Chicago and moving back to Denver?
Thug Entrancer:
I would never really say I’m a footwork artist because their craft if very different to how I approach things. It’s a style that I love and it was something that I was integrating into my work at the time. I’m not interested in being a rigid artist, someone who sticks to one genre. I have a lot of influences, a lot of ideas and I’d like to try and capture that as much as I can. The departure wasn’t necessarily intentional other than cognizant of moving away from footwork. I think these elements are still there but I think that I’m developing my own personality and language within that framework.

KALTBLUT: How were the couple of years you spend in Chicago?
Thug Entrancer:
Chicago was a formative time for me. I’m born and raised in Denver and I’ve been involved in the DIY electronic scene for a long time. Prior to moving I was playing 4 shows a week with 4 or 5 different projects and I felt burnt out by it all. I didn’t know anyone in Chicago when I moved out there, I was blasted into isolation really quickly but it was nice as it gave me time to sit back and reflect on what I wanted to achieve as a musician instead of this “Gotta keep performing, gotta keep playing, gotta keep self releasing” loop… It put some space between me and my artistic identity.

KALTBLUT: Did you drop all your projects when you moved?
Thug Entrancer:
A lot of them were one off live collaboration with people. I was playing improvised modular sets with free jazz players out in Denver. Denver doesn’t really have a set tone with its music. Experimental music seems to be the guiding thread for all of these things. It’s very well accepted there. I moved to Chicago because my wife went to grad school out there. I was listening to footwork before I moved out to Chicago, I’d also been aware of house and techno but my time out there really allowed me to explore these genres from people who’d experienced it first-hand. Even just going to the local record store, I’d pick up Dance Mania and Trax records everywhere. Access was a huge shift for me.

KALTBLUT: You were also trying to get involved with the free jazz scene. How does this fit in your scope as an electronic musician?
Thug Entrancer:
I’ve been pretty fixed in this electronic mode for the past 10 years. I grew up playing orchestral instruments, violin, cello, bass but I’ve always made electronic music. When I first started I was using trackers and game-boys. My introduction to free jazz was through electronic music. Anthony Braxton did this record with Richard Teitelbaum where he plays a Moog modular system. That made me get into modular synths. That was about 10 years ago and really opened new territories for electronic music for me. When you think about electronic music, a lot of time you think of sequenced music, very static music. It doesn’t have to be that way but machines are pretty limited. When you get into the modular realm you can do whatever you want. There are different inputs in terms of how you’re creating within a system. It’s a lot more gestural, a lot more akin to that free jazz mentality of having this guttural, cerebral experience with sound.

KALTBLUT: Were you collaborating with other electronic musicians?
Thug Entrancer:
I was releasing these modular compositions, playing these one off modular sets. In Denver I played in this project called Cougar Legs. It was just a group of free jazz guys, we had no real goal with it. We played at this local bar and it started growing and growing. Whoever was there would just come and bring an instrument. It was all improvised. That’s how I really got into this world. I think that it relates to techno or this trajectory that I’m on now because my live sets and my relationship with the music that I’m making now still come from that place. I’m still performing and trying to create an energy or a vibe, not necessarily play a track. I think that spirit really influenced me. I respect all the people doing that kind of stuff in Chicago but I think a lot of people get really wrapped up in technique, gear and the ethos of what it means to be a professional musician. I found that world to be not very humorous, very staunch. There’s this belief that we can have these free improvised performances but I think that if you came in there and brought a Three 6 Mafia tape and put poetry or played a drum machine over it you’d be shut down pretty quick. I love humor and I come from this punk and warehouse scene. We’d have an idea and the next night we’d go and perform it in front of our friends or some unfortunate people that happened upon us that night. I love that version of free creation.



KALTBLUT: Speaking about humorous, the whole world you’ve built around the release is deeply tongue in cheek… There are plenty of elements of pastiche.
Thug Entrancer: Humor is this universal language and I think a lot of people can connect to that. For me that’s my day to day personal interaction, how I interface with humans. I have a really hard time not being humorous about things but I think it’s hard to incorporate that into music. There are very few instances of good music that is humorous without being kitschy. That’s the benefit of working with a visual artist. You can make these decisions together. There’s something very serious about the science-fiction world that we’ve created, it does have this overarching dystopian feel to it, but that that was the jumping point for us. In a weird way I think it’s uplifting. I think the artwork complements that. The Calvin peeing decal on the guy’s head, stuff like that is just important to us because we want to keep this narrative of trash American culture. It can be pretty bleak here. You have to arm yourself with humor to get through the darkness that a lot of people deliver on a daily basis.

KALTBLUT: Music-wise, acid sounds take up a lot more space on Arcology. The 303 is much more present. Was this a conscious decision?
Thug Entrancer: It was a conscious decision for me to obtain a 303 because I’m interested in music technology, its place in history and how people utilized it and developed it. I have an interesting relationship with acid house. Some stuff I love and some stuff just doesn’t connect with me. I wanted to develop my own interpretation of it or how the 303 is utilized. If you look at how the 303 was being used in old acid tracks, artists were intentionally making it sound gnarly and alien. Nothing was sounding like that at the time. I’ve always viewed that as that moment in time where we were developing new languages with sound. The 303 has these weird formants, it’s very aggressive. It was inspirational to me to take that idea of what people thought was futuristic 30 years ago, start from there and see how I could integrate this into my own work.

KALTBLUT: Was it important for you to get an actual 303 as opposed to a plugin?
Thug Entrancer: I’m not a purist about it but I only use hardware to create music. It’s simply because that’s where I feel most comfortable. I can’t sit on a computer and make music. I have a day job where I sit in front of a computer all day, so the last thing I want to do is come home and be on a computer. I ended up getting an actual 303 but I don’t ever want that to be a focus of what I’m doing. There’s so much fetishism around gear right now and accessibility is such a hard thing for these instruments as prices go up. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, I started with a sampler and started getting more and more into it and refining which direction I wanted to go with things.

KALTBLUT: How do you find these sonorities still relevant 30 years on?
Thug Entrancer: Again, it goes back to my relationship with these machines. In the past 30 years we have experienced so much technology being developed and I feel like not many of these machines even had a proper life span. The 808 was made to replace studio drummers. It was on Marvin Gaye tracks, that’s where it started. Then no one liked it and everyone hated this mechanical sound. Techno and house adopted it, then hip-hop… But I still don’t think we’ve explored it fully. That’s why I think they’re still relevant. I feel that I can use these sorts of sounds in a classical futurist perspective because I know that people will relate to them and I can use and interpret them in my own way. With that I can throw in all these other sounds and styles and people will still feel safe because they know it’s a 303 or an 808. There’s a bit of safety in these machines. They’re classic machines by this point. People are still innovating with them though and a lot of the music technology that we’re creating today is inspired by the core of these machines. I use Elektron machines for example because they’re so familiar, so similar to these old machines. On a physical level that’s what makes them relevant. I also think there is this spirituality in electricity. There’s something when you’re playing with these machines, I don’t want to call it singularity but they become an extension of my physical self. And you can’t put time on that. That could be 30 years ago or 30 years from now but our spirituality, our way of connecting with things is almost timeless. I do these almost nightly meditative types of tracks. That’s how I unwind, without necessarily any intention of creating something. That’s also why I feel that this technology is still relevant.

KALTBLUT: In terms of aesthetics I see you on the same plain as Lotic or M.E.S.H in how forward-thinking your music is. But your sounds draws much more from classicism though…
Thug Entrancer: I love recognizing these sounds because they’re classic sounds. That’s almost an element of being subversive. I feel that if you have an 808 kick people are like “Okay” and within this context you can really fuck with BPM and texture and throw all this weird shit that people aren’t expecting. But I think that they’ll still feel safe at the end of the day. I still want to use the framework and context that we exist in rather than be outright divisive. I think that it’s crucial to be subversive both politically and socially. To appear to be a very normal and stable human being, but spend a night with me and we’ll probably get into some weird shit. But I want to be approachable and that’s why I intentionally use a lot of these tools. People are very hung up on their own beliefs, on what is pure electronic music… It’s cool to hear that you see that crossover because objectively I feel that way. I feel close to these artists even though we’re doing something entirely different but I think a lot of people get really hung up on this idea of what the future is and what the future sound is. I think that’s all relative. It’s hard to think of an abstract future when we have these physical things that we’re tied to.

KALTBLUT: This also translates into the visual side of your work. The press release for Arcology mentions alien colonies and I was actually picturing something more insect or ant-like. But the videos for both singles Ronin and Curaga / Low Life clearly feature humans. A future version of humans, but still very much like our version of what it means to be human. Futuristic but not inconceivable. Visually it also feels very influenced by the work of William Gibson.
Thug Entrancer: Totally and I think that’s the core of the record. Ultimately I want people to feel that this could be a dance record, a record that you could play in a club. I think we’re imagining a future that people in the 80s were striving to imagine. But we are that future now and it’s interesting to cross-collaborate different technologies to bring that future together. It might not be abstractly futuristic but within it there are these abstract moments, especially on the record. There are these stream of consciousness type tracks, things that don’t really subscribe to dance music but are encapsulated in this idea of club culture, techno and dance music. That was a discussion that Milton and I both had and that’s where we both landed: this sort of pre-future. That’s where we both felt it needed to be. With that, you’re allowed to tie in that humor, you’re allowed to bring these things that you care about into the fold without making it entirely abstract. There’s a lot of abstract video art and abstract music that I don’t really connect with because I can’t find its core. I love sampled music but it becomes so derivative and recycled. People use these samples and process them and process them. And at what point does this become anti-future? I feel that we’re just stuck, that we’re frozen because we’re just recycling the same shit. There’s no samples on the record and Milton built all these models himself from nothing, shaped in his 3D program and that was really important because we wanted it to be a unique experience to our personalities and really try to offer a new perspective even though we are confined by our influences and our experiences.

KALTBLUT: You appear in both the videos too. First as an ominous dancefloor god, then later plugged into a virtual reality system. Is this how you envisage the character of Thug Entrancer? What does Thug Entrancer mean and how does he relate to this world?
Thug Entrancer: The way it ended up in the video was sort of last minute, Milton really wanted to add that. Originally I wanted to keep myself out of it because we wanted to remove the personal narrative so that we could give something open to interpretation. We wanted to offer the world without the character. I appreciate that I am in the video though because it humanizes the music and reminds you that humans made this. It’s not this abstract computer generated thing. I don’t view my artistic character as a persona per se but I think I’d very much the music be the focal point rather than who I am or what I’m about. The name Thug Entrancer was a homage to rap. My goal in life was to become Mannie Fresh, find a rap collective and turn out beats for them. Maybe this is a common theme in my life: I get close to my goal and start to think “I dont know if this is for me”. That’s being a loner nerd for most of your life. When you’re in your head you think “I could be hanging out with rappers” but the truth is you can’t drink anymore and want to go bed. That’s where the name originally came from. As I started to develop the project, the trilogy of William Gibson was a huge influence. I envisaged the Thug Entrancer as this machine that played in futuristic dystopian clubs to hackers who were trying to take down the government, which was a very juvenile understanding of what hackers do. There’s this old video game on Super Nintendo called “Shadow Run” that I used to play religiously. It’s this cyber-punk influenced game and in the game there’s this club where you meet a fox shaman woman who performs on stage and everyone in the club are deckers and shamans and hackers. That’s where I imagined Thug Entrancer playing and that’s where I ended up with it. Thug has become a very politicized word in the States though and that’s something I’ve been trying to engage in conversation with people.

KALTBLUT: How is it politicized?
Thug Entrancer: A lot of people in the media are saying that thug is the new n-word and I think it’s a very coded word. I think a lot of white people call young black people thugs and that means something. I’m not sure what to do with this though. I appreciate the fact that people will engage with me if they want to have this conversation. Some people on Twitter will be “You’re a racist white dude who is jacking Chicago culture” and I can’t even speak to that because it’s so far away from what I’m doing and I’m not naive. It’s been interesting though, I think some people have been hesitant to book me because of it.

KALTBLUT: That’s interesting because the definition of thug is more related to the idea of a ruffian. In UK English anyway. I don’t think it’s seen as racially charged.
Thug Entrancer: That’s the thing, it’s also so different regionally. As of the last 2 years of the Black Lives Matter movement coming up, I think that people have been flippantly using the word thug. If someone’s triggered by it I’m not about to say “Wow, hold on” because I believe that the word is coded but that’s my narrative too. If I took out contemporary society it would just be that person who is criminally minded, up to no good, and entrancing was the idea of capturing their energy or influencing them.

KALTBLUT: Now that you’re back in Denver are you getting back into the DIY scene? You seemed slightly tired about it a couple of years ago.
Thug Entrancer: I think you can do it forever if that’s what you want to do but I want to keep progressing. I don’t want to degress or stay static. I feel that these spaces are intended for young people with young and fresh ideas. It doesn’t need to be the same dudes who’ve been there for 10 years still telling people “This is how you do it”. I think that’s almost counter to why these alternative spaces exist. They should fluctuate in style and taste and sometimes be awful and reckless and that’s what makes them magical for me. That’s why I got involved in the first place. I love clubs, I don’t go to clubs all the time but I love sound systems and that power, that techno shamanism… That as a concept is really important to me, because I really appreciate the power of dancing, the language that rhythm can create. I played in Berlin recently in Berghain for CTM and that place was enchanting.

KALTBLUT: How did you find playing there?
Thug Entrancer: It was amazing! I imagine that through CTM it was probably a skewed experience of what it would have been like but the sound system was incredible, the people there were wonderful, the space as well… I was a bit skeptical going up to the venue because I was thinking that nothing can be this crazy but it’s so well created. The illusion of time is completely removed or rather created in that space. You have no idea what time it is and it doesn’t even matter. That’s so special and I think that’s all we ever want because time is always this looming force in all of our lives. Be it death, getting off work, going to work… whatever it is. Time is always influencing our decisions. I just want to attempt my ideas in new spaces and refine my sound and my relationship with sound. That’s one of the benefits of being an experimental artist because I feel like the only bounds I have are self imposed ones at this point.

Arcology is out now on Software. Grab a digital download or a limited edition double LP on Bandcamp.
thug album

Feature image by Anna Stein