‘Lead with ideas, not the gear’: Talking Tech with Tristan Arp

Tristan Arp’s output has been characterized by the interplay of organic and inorganic sound sources. Spaces, both biological and built, have informed the work he makes, taking the experience of the outdoors and trying to evoke them in the studio. In that way, it makes sense that his newest record came out of a move to Mexico City, as he adjusts his practices – both composing and painting – in light of new surroundings. 

A series of shows germinated the idea of moving to Mexico, and after spending a few months in the capital, the move was cemented as Covid swept in and the world at large started to lock down. Sculpturegardening, his sophomore LP released on Wisdom Teeth, was written over the course of lockdown, as Arp dug deeper into generative music and the intermeshing of acoustic and electronic instruments. 

In our interview, he talks about process, leaving room for physical and temporal space, and the importance of leading with ideas, not gear – an approach that’s been going on since a teenage Tristan learned to work around the limitations of a 16-track recorder. It’s accompanied by photographs of the beautiful studio Arp shares with his partner, including custom-built furniture and the collection of plants that enliven the space.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music? 

My first setup was an electric guitar and a Tascam 4-track tape recorded, which I started experimenting with when I was 12. I would layer parts in reverse and at different playback speeds, which led me to realize it was the manipulation of sound that I was most interested in. 

What’s your musical education?

I taught myself how to write and produce music when I was a teenager in Michigan, first on the 4-track Tascam and a 16-track Fostex, and then on Ableton. Then I moved to New York when I was 18 to study sound and production more in depth. Was it worth the student loans? I have no regrets :~) it was the context in which I moved to New York and it opened up a new chapter that I can’t imagine not living through.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

When I was 15 or 16 I worked teaching music lessons to kids in Michigan in the town I grew up in, and saved up to buy a now-archaic piece of equipment: a Fostex digital 16-track recorder. You could burn your sessions and mixdowns straight to CD and that’s what I used to make my first records as a teenager in the 2000s.  

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components? 

The main components for me for the past year and a half have been my modular, computer and cello. I also really enjoy the NordDrum for sound design and playing synthesized percussion by hand.

Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

My studio is the second room in my apartment in Mexico City. I love inviting friends over who are curious about sound and music to play with the things that I’m lucky to have and be able to share. I live with my partner who is an industrial designer and sometimes we work side by side in this room :~)

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

A nice balance of tools at the ready and negative space in the room to think clearly. My partner’s uncle is a carpenter and he made tables for the room at the right sizes with wood my partner won from a design competition and contributed as a gift.

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

It’s definitely been bit by bit and choosing tools is always based on what sounds I’m trying to achieve. I think it’s served me, especially for the majority of my life when I didn’t have any money for equipment, to lead with ideas and not the gear. That’s helped me avoid getting a piece of kit that seems enticing or powerful but ultimately doesn’t help me make anything new or exciting.

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change? 

No, I’m more focused on how to develop myself as a person and develop my creativity and craft. I avoid thinking too often about changing or adding equipment.

If money were no object what would you add?

I think it would probably be an investment in finding a really magical space in nature: a wooden room with big windows and lots of sunshine.

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

It might not be the machine that gives me the warmest, fuzziest feelings but I think it would have to just be a computer with Ableton Live installed on it. It’s the most powerful, flexible instrument I know ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets? 

I’m working on a live show that will be a hybrid of the modular and CDJs, or modular and laptop with my Livid controller that I use as a MIDI mixer. I’m bouncing out rhythm-only tracks and tonal-only music beds and stems from my records for the CDJs/Ableton, allowing me to improvise on the modular and have the freedom to not depend on it alone to keep things evolving and exciting. 

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

I think about what I want to listen to that doesn’t already exist in the world and try to imagine it in as great a detail as possible before going to realize it with the tools available. I also like to ask myself: what would be the most fun thing I could do in the studio today? Sometimes the task at hand is a final mixdown, which isn’t always the most fun part of the process for me, but still I’ll challenge myself to approach it playfully and look for the interesting sweet spots in the process.

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

It’s both: a concept or sound in my head that I use as a guide, followed by playfulness and improvisation. Writing is usually improvisation for me but I’m wary of aimless improvisation. Concept and intuition make good friends when in conversation with each other.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

I try to embrace a quick, “first thought best thought” approach and like to finish tracks in one sitting if I can, but more often it’s a couple sessions: the first being a quick burst where the elements of a track take shape, and a second where the sequence and mixing get fine tuned. It’s really important for my spirit and creativity to move quickly but also mindfully.

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writer’s block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

Sometimes I have to force myself to not make music, which is hard for me because making music and new sounds is an addiction of mine. But I know it’s in my best interest and the best interest of the music to create space between projects for new ideas and new approaches to take shape. Painting or focusing on a new book can be good diversions that give me new ideas. If I really want to be making sounds but know it’s not time to make a record, learning a new instrument like the cello was a really positive experience for me. 

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Interactions with human beings, creatures, nature, speculative fiction, anime, video games, bike rides and generally working towards living in a joyful way with a curious outlook.

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new album, and why?

The modular or the cello? The cello or the modular? Maybe it was the idea to pair the two, if we can think of an idea as a piece of kit. I like your use of the term “mental hardware” earlier; I think mental software is the most important tool we have.

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

If Covid conditions allow for it I’ll be DJing and performing in Europe in the Spring and possibly Japan in the Fall. Fingers crossed! A few different collaborations are taking shape and at least one will be shared this year, which I’m really psyched about. After Sculpturegardening it will be a return to club music form, but from the kind of new angle that collaborations are so good at presenting us with.

I’m also really excited about the next releases on Human Pitch from new artists that Simisea and I began working with last year. It’s been a joy continuing to make new friends around the world through the label.

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