Tornados generally have a knack of leaving behind a trail of roof tiles and displaced livestock, but so far Australian producer Tornado Wallace has left behind one of the most varied back catalogues on labels like Beats in Space, LateNightTales, ESP Institute, Second Circle and, just weeks ago, delivered his brilliant first full length LP on Running Back. Originally from Melbourne and part of the Animals Dancing crew (makers of the best music T-shirts in the Southern Hemisphere, two years ago he made the move to Berlin.
Seeming to master any style he chooses, from chugging acid electro, stomping Aussie Bush techno or funk that could have been stolen straight from Prince’s vaults, we set out to find out how he does it. You can also sample some photos of his studio as you read the in-depth interview.
Hi Tornado, thanks for the photo of your studio. Let’s get straight to business – how do you do it? Talk us through what we can see.
Well this is my studio in Berlin that I share with Luca Lozano. I moved two years ago from Melbourne where I still have a lot of my favourite bits of gear, but I wanted to start fresh as I was finding myself too dependent on some certain sounds. So I have a motley crew of hardware that all has a particular role in doing the things that I want them to. Everything is wired up to the patch bay which I can then send through mixer channels and then into the RME UFX Fireface where I can have the various sounds coming through split channels in Ableton. All midi-synths are running through a MOTU midi-interface and I use the Sync-Gen to sync the drum boxes with the Ableton clock.
Where is your studio located? Do you go for the home studio, making tracks in your dressing gown over breakfast, or do you have your own separate space where you escape to create?
It’s in a separate space behind a bar about a five minute walk from where I live. There are some other studios in there too.
Have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?
Yes my girlfriend and I found a cool fake plant store at this massive Vietnamese warehouse complex in Lichtenberg, so I bought up on the stuff to help create a vibe. There’s very little sunlight and Lucas and I travel a lot so we can’t be trusted to rear real plants.
A lot of your music has an abundance of space, something not going short in Australia. How do you go about that? Is it samples, field recordings, or all original copyright T Wallace magic?
It all comes down to the mix really. Making sure everything has some space to breathe. Sometimes it takes some discipline to keep something you think is really cool very low in the mix for the sake of the track’s sound. But yeah I’m not one to shy away from any audio resource available to me be it phone recordings, samples, EQing, reverbs/delays etc.
What’s your approach to working with samples? Do you build tracks around them, or add them as a garnish to an existing idea?
Yeah I’ll generally find a little something interesting in a record store or online – a little percussion loop or a pad or effect – and switch on the machines and jam over a four bar loop until there’s something worth expanding on. I’m a massive fan of sampling and usually find, ironically, that it’s the best way to make something sound unique.
Speaking of samples, you were behind the sensational Aussie bush anthem ‘Kookaburra’. What’s the story behind that one?
I was working on a track with Tom Moore (the other half of Coober Pedy University Band) and it was really taking a lot of work and not really gelling together even though we’d spent hours and hours on it. We decided that it might be fun to try make a ‘tool’ version of the track, so we took out the best bits which was some afro percussion loops, a didgeridoo sample that we lifted off a German made Australian library record that I bought in Amsterdam, and then added a big 909 kick drum underneath it all. It was sounding OK but it was missing something so we thought we’d try add an Australian bird sound. Of course we went straight for the most famous Australian bird sound – the Kookaburra – which we ripped from a Youtube video. The idea was to put it low in the mix and have it be a subtle little addition, but when we dropped it into the project, Ableton had automatically tried to quantize it and it sat very up front in the mix. It was never the plan but it sounded great/stupid/ridiculous so we moved it around a bit and it turned out to be the cherry on the cake. From starting the new project to finishing it took about 2-3 hours.
You made the jump from Australia to Berlin in the last few years. Have the new surroundings affected the type of music you want to make?
Only in a way that going through a bit of change like moving to the other side of the world has affected me in terms of personal development and maturity. But I don’t think that the specific surroundings in Berlin have had much of an influence on the sound of my music very much.
RA held an interesting round table about ‘Process vs inspiration’ – where does your inspiration come from in the studio? Do you have a process that you follow? And how do you go about balancing the two?
I go through phases where I’m really influenced by something and for a few days or a week or something I’ll get really caught up in an idea and experiment with that sound and usually wind up with a few new tracks. But that doesn’t happen too often and usually I follow a loose process like the one I mentioned earlier about finding a weird sample and building ideas around it. It’s a nice way to create something unique when the inspiration just isn’t making itself too aware.
What was your original set up when you first made tracks? Were you a laptop only wizard, or did you go straight for hardware?
I was 15 and I used my school laptop with a demo copy of Fruityloops and Cool Edit Pro I got in a Computer Music magazine. I could move around pretty well on those programs but it wasn’t until years later when I added a bit of hardware that I started making music that I felt was good enough to be heard by other people.
What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?
I had bought guitars and drumkits and various percussion instruments and effects pedals throughout my teens but the first electronic piece of kit I bought was a microkorg.
Do you fetishise that old sound, or put your faith in new technology? What’s your current split like between software and hardware?
I like technology that has its limits. The problem with some newer technology is that there’s so much you can do with one machine, but it doesn’t necessarily do any one thing particularly well. Developers have realised this along the way though, which is why you now see the main manufacturers remaking older gear that have their limitations and their strengths. I have various bits and bobs in the studio that can do their one thing particularly well, whether it’s the Cruise for it’s strings, the Kurzweil K2000R for it’s digital pads/leads or the Chroma Polaris for analogue SFX and basslines. I use some software for effects but I don’t use VSTs, purely because I like generating sounds with a more tactile approach rather than a belief one sounds better than the other.
What kit do you think is a modern classic?
I don’t have too many new bits in my studio nor have I played around with many new pieces so I don’t think I can think of one.
Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio? If money were no object what would you add?
Yes definitely, there’s always more money that can be spent, mostly on more cables and cv/midi converters and things that make the process a bit smoother rather than anything particularly interesting. But I’m pretty happy with the way things are at the moment. If money were no object I’d probably just get some things I still have in Australia sent over like my Prophet 5 or my Arp Odyssey.
What impact have some recent changes made in your approach and sounds?
The patchbay is a new addition. And for the first time I can easily patch things through an FX chain without having to muck around for ages. So it’ll be nice to incorporate the Filterbank, Space Echo and DPX into the workflow more easily.
You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?
Maybe the Matrix 1000 or the 808. They’ve been with me the longest and I’ve used them the most so there’s that sentimentality value as well as both being badass.
The new album is a masterpiece, something not just inside the club walls. A first album is a big step for any artist, but it must be especially hard when it deviates from a club-centric sound you’ve made your name on. What were your sonic intentions with this album and what else were you listening to during its inception?
The LP is a product of several years of working on music for both listening at home and dancing to in a club. Along the way some of the tracks that I didn’t want to previously release started making sense together and the idea of making an album formed and then it was just a matter of finishing it with a couple of extra tracks and some mixing down. So along the way I was listening to lots of different music but I think the most influential on how it ended up were artists that I’ve been listening to over many years, like Dire Straits, Wally Badarou, Daft Punk, Sade, Boards Of Canada.
How involved was Gerd and Running Back in the creative direction of the album?
Gerd came in late in the picture actually. I had finished the album before I approached him. We had talked about doing things in the past but it hadn’t worked out so this time we were both keen and we had pretty much informally agreed to do the LP before he had listened to the tracks.
The guest vocal with Sui Zhen is a real highlight. Do you take a different approach working with a singer? And do you have more plans to go down that route?
I’ve never really worked with a singer before but I had an idea for this track to be like a wavey, 80s synth pop track, and to really bring that home I felt a vocal was needed. Sui Zhen is a very talented vocalist and can pretty much twist her voice to how it’s needed and for Today we felt like a Nina Hagen/Laurie Anderson sound would be cool. She got the vibe and we had a chat about how it should go with the track and she came up with a really cool lyrical direction and that was that. She recorded it with quite a few variations and I arranged it in the studio. I don’t think it would normally be that cool/easy working with someone, so I’m not in a hurry to try it again (unless is was Sui Zhen again). That and generally I have a habit of listening to mostly instrumental music.
Are you considering performing the album live? What would you bring from the studio to the live set up?
No I’ve got no plans to do a live show any time soon. I’ve heard too many horror stories from other artists. But I also love DJing and that makes more sense for me relating to an audience at the moment.
Beyond the album, what other plans are afoot for the rest of 2017?
Maybe a remix single from the album, and an EP for Animals Dancing, hopefully something from Coober Pedy University Band. Otherwise I’m going to keep the focus on DJing and traveling around with that for the year.