Self-Portrait: Superior Elevation

If you’ve been given some record store tips for your travels to New York, chances are Superior Elevation was one of them. The Brooklyn-based bricks and mortar store opened its doors in 2015, taking its name from the moniker that founder Tom Noble previously used as the guise for releasing and dealing music online since 2010.

Tom cut his teeth in the record dealing game back when he lived in Milwaukee, opening his first shop Lotus Land with his brother after the turn of the millennium. A move to LA saw him leave the shop but continue to reissue music under the Lotus Land name, but after his brother became busy with his band they called it a day: this was around the time that Superior Elevation was conceived.

After moving his online movements into the physical with the opening of the shop, he also set upon starting up the label arm which has welcomed producers like Mystic Pleasure, Phil Gerus and Automart, as well as acting as platform for Tom’s own production efforts, both solo and alongside the likes of Benedek, Roberto and Willie Burns.

Perhaps most recognised for his edits and remixes under his given name, and under his Beats In Space affiliated project House of Spirits, his Self-Portrait mix sees him piece together a few of these creations with a batch of original unreleased material, some of which will see the light of day soon on 5th June in line with the next Bandcamp fee waive day. Alongside the mix we talk to him about his evolution as a composer and producer and how he approaches a track.

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

It’s hard to say. I was definitely brought up in a hippy household. My parents were from the Woodstock generation, songs like Box of Rain by the Dead, and Heart of Gold by Neil Young give me flashbacks.

Did you have a particularly musical upbringing?

Not really. We had a flying V guitar at my house growing up and a couple classical nylon string guitars. Me and my older brother used to putz around on those. My older brother got into playing Bass at age 12-13, putting me at about 10-11.  Trying to understand why he chose bass, and then learning the function of where the Bass sat in music was definitely a big step in developing my ear and music brain.

What led you into music production?

“Production” is kind of a loaded word. At first I was mainly obsessed with song writing. I really enjoyed coming up with chords and bass lines but the holy grail would’ve been to write a soulful catchy song that warranted a repeat. So this led me into the band zone: metal, punk and then ska and dub. My longest running band was called the Thousandaires, and that group was basically me trying to write all of my influences, Rocksteady, Post Punk, New Wave, Funk, Afro, Soweto, Dancehall, Mod Rock, 60’s psych, Soul….all of that was in there.  We recorded a full length LP to 2″ tape and mixed everything on Protools.  I was early to each session and learned how to use Protools from watching the engineer – and desperately trying to fix our deeply flawed recordings.  Eventually that band broke up and I began Djing (1998) – which was more individualist than being the head of a band.  That eventually led to an obsession with 4tracking music alone.  I messed around with Hip Hop beats for a spell.  But eventually the early 00’s Schema style productions, Jazzanova type era… brought me into the solo producer game.  I was very inspired by making danceable Mod style music.  Hearing what Nicola Conte was doing with Jet Sounds really drove me to buy a computer and learn Ableton.  You could call that Production I guess.

Are there any producers or artists who have inspired your production?

Too many.  Nicola Conte kinda forced my hand at going the drum machine / looping of drums route style of production.  I was mildly obsessed with 90’s rap, so attempting to recreate Tribe Called Quest style beats, or Souls of Mischief.  But then I really wanted to be Lee Perry as well.  King Tubby.  And definitely Shel Tawny.  Phil Spector.  Dub, Mod & Girl Groups for live bands, Nicola Conte & Qtip / Primo for computer / bedroom beats.  Eventually I learned about Patrick Adams too, that kinda never stopped influencing my Disco vibes.  For House it was Larry Heard.  I’m never not getting inspired tho.  Who knows what I’ll be into next.  Garage is big on my brain atm, as well as Italo.

Are there any particular rituals you go through before you head into the studio?

Not really. I don’t go into the studios much anymore with a team of pro’s on deck.  It’s usually more like going into my computer in my drawers.  But in general if I am going into an actual studio environment, working with professional musicians, I like to come prepared.  Nothing worse than those who waste studio time, or try to learn how to engineer during the session.  I love it when engineers know their gear and their room.  And I try to work with only musicians who are potentially one take hitters.  Same for vocalists.  I’ve learned that starting at an advantage is the only way to produce material that actually resembles music.  After that it’s usually pure luck if that music warrants repeated listens.

Do you come in with a destination in mind before starting a jam?

These days I’m much more focused.  I’ll have a bunch of drums I’m into on deck.  I’ll have direction that I want to create in.  Like, OK let’s make a Hi NRG song today.  I like using a limited amount of gear so as to not get lost, but also like to mess around with sounds that are new to me, as they usually inspire bass lines or chords & melodic structures that I wouldn’t have gotten to on my ride or die set of instruments.  For example, messing around with chord mode on a synth, or picking up a 12 string guitar.  I’d choose chords that I wouldn’t be playing normally.  Or on a 12 string guitar I may come up with a bassline I wouldn’t hear on an actual Bass, or a guitar part I wouldn’t have gotten to on a normal 6 string.

Are you the type of producer to work on a track until it’s perfect, or are you more of an impulsive creator, happy with first takes and sketches?

I’m actually anti perfection. Not only in my own music but in others. I literally can’t stand polished music. Only if the song is absolutely perfect could I tolerate it, and even then I’d greatly prefer a dodgier version. Most of the biggest classics are far from perfect. “She Loves You” by the beatles is chok full of really bad tape splices where they obviously cut in better solo then they hit on the first take. “Imagine” by john lennon sounds like it was recorded on voice notes compared to the Coachella ready music of today. I appreciate the craft that mastering one’s skill can achieve in the studio, or on an instrument, but very polished mixes and tightly arranged music (fade up’s to breakdowns, 99% of the beat breaks I hear in pop music, or dance) isn’t going to stand the test of time.

Can you talk us through how you might construct a track?

I usually start of with choosing a drum track. Could be a sample I like, or could be a beat I made out of drum machine parts etc. Then usually Bassline and chords. That’s pretty much it. Sometimes I try to reverse engineers grooves that I like, kind of like going to a good restaurant and attempting to recreate the food I ate. That can lead to making original material that I may not have arrived at by starting fresh.

How much of your material is sample based and how much is original?

Well, I edit a bunch of music. Occasionally I’ll mess with a sample, and then build a song around it. I was into sample house for a minute. It’s fun because it’s quick and dirty. Club weapons etc. But I try to stay away from writing original music and using samples.  I rarely like what I come up with on sample tracks.

What’s the most important bits of kit that make a Superior Elevation track?

Not 100% what that means.  But if Kit means equipment, then I’d say it’s using analog devices mainly. Arp Strings, Space Echo, Rhodes, real basses and guitars.  And usually a ghetto synth.  Drum samples from bits and pieces of random dusted records I’ve ripped.  Or working with professional musicians, older singers, and analog studios.

This mix is comprised of 100% original Superior Elevation material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

It’s 90% original music in terms of what I created from scratch. I did include a couple sample house songs. I figure many people know me from my edits, so rather than offer up a pure edit (edit meaning using only elements of the song editing to restructure, no outside elements) I included two songs which are basically remixes, using either collage or remix ideas, such as in added drums. Those two being the Kikrokos flips, Hang with the Gang, the Sermons remix, Acid Tuna melt.  The rest are mostly original material, a few samples floating in the midst. None of them are more special to me than any other TBH. They are all just experiments or things that I haven’t put finishing touches on yet that I will release one day.

Anything on the horizon for you? Any releases we should know about?

I’m wrapping up the first instalment of a project I’ve been working on since 2008, called House Of Spirits. It’s been taking forever because it’s so hard & expensive to produce live music to my level of expectation. It’s got a very great band (Orgone) playing rhythms, got a cool group of actual Church vocalists doing vocals, guest spot from Dreamcast, and some really great hitters providing overdubs. Slated for release on Pacific Rhythm sometime late 2020; all original, all analog. It’s actually been knocking around on my HD’s and iPods over the years, and finally nearly complete and sounding damn good.

That and the endless productions I work on on a week to week basis. Loads of that stuff will drop as well, never sure when, but watch the Superior Elevation label as well as Rush Hour for new stuff from me.

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