Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, there’s very little chances your ears are still virgin from Shawn O’Sullivan’s shape-shifting modular techno and primal synth eruptions. Under his real name or one of his many aliases – either him flying solo as Vapauteen or 400PPM, or as a member of Civil Duty alongside Beau Wanzer, Further Reductions with his wife Katie Rose and the dormant Led Er Est trio, Shawn has kept assaulting the highfalutin, unblinkingly 4/4-obsessed status quo with a ferocious appetite for change.
On his newest outing, which also makes for his debut full-length as 400PPM – a moniker exclusively alloted to Guy Brewer’s Avian imprint, Shawn lets loose on sizzling electronics, rough and tough industrial power and other predatory bass moves. Smashing strict frameworks and rigid functionality to pieces, ‘Fit For Purpose‘ merges the organic with the synthetic, shifting scales and gamuts as Shawn explodes the heat meters with end-to-end consistency. We caught up to discuss his multi-faceted self, creative process and inspirational figures. Stream ‘Sintered Bauxite‘ down below.
Interview by Baptiste Girou Photography by Magda Krzyzanowski
"The album, and the project at large, is an exploration of environmental metabolic processes and human-machine interfaces."
You’ve been active under your own name, Shawn O’Sullivan, with releases on multiple labels such as WT Records and Fifth Wall, as Vapauteen on L.I.E.S. and as 400PPM on Avian. What sets apart each moniker from the other?
My projects are delineated more by timbre palette than style or genre. If you’ll indulge some light facetiousness from me, basically 400ppm is about scraping and droning sounds, Vapauteen is about clanging and bashing sounds. It’s sort of arbitrary to be honest, but it all makes sense to me. Under my own name, I tend to explore melody a little more. At one point my goal was to accrue as many monikers as Marc Acardipane, one of my musical heroes. But that was too ambitious of me!
‘Fit For Purpose’ is your third joint effort with Guy Brewer’s Avian imprint. How did this collaboration come about?
Guy messaged me asking if I wanted to submit some material, because of he was a fan of the Led Er Est stuff, a band that I’m part of. I gather he was expecting some ambient or noise stuff for the (now-defunct) Mira sub-label, but I gave him an EP of techno, which he really liked. It’s been great working with Avian. There isn’t a bad record on the label. Guy has a really keen and specific ear, but is also super open-minded, and gives good guidance in general.
It’s your first album as 400PPM. How did you approach this shift to the full-length format?
The techno LP is a really difficult format! The last thing you want to do is follow the standard formula of 5 bangers, 3 ‘deep’ cuts, and two ambient/noise pieces or whatever. And it’s tricky balancing techno’s utilitarian functions with the narrative demands of “the LP”. I’d tried maybe three or four times previously to record a solo LP, but it was very hard to get things to gel. These tracks were almost all culled from maybe four or five sessions over just a couple weeks, so hopefully things feel relatively cohesive, with the same methodology and mindset running throughout.
"It's tricky balancing techno's utilitarian functions with the narrative demands of the LP."
What is the central focus of this record? Was it a way to put ‘traditional’ techno into perspective again?
The album, and the project at large, is an exploration of environmental metabolic processes and human-machine interfaces, but I try not to be too literal or strict when I’m working with these kind of conceptual frameworks.
I feel it’s becoming less and less easy to find really challenging techno out there, so your album really felt like a breath of fresh air. What’s still exciting about techno for you these days?
I have an intense love-hate relationship with techno. It’s puzzling to me that such an open, malleable form could produce what is at times a reactionary musical environment. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still lots of good contemporary techno. But long-format parties can encourage a kind of dull linearity.
So I try to channel my main loves in techno: the early Roman stuff like Anibaldi and Lory D, everything PCP/Acardipane-related, Woody McBride and Midwest acid, Birmingham techno (Regis – ‘Penetration‘ is probably my favorite techno LP), Sähkö and Dum, Zhark, E-Com, the Dutch acid and electro stuff, free-tekno, and of course the Detroit mainstays (Mills is god, duh). I’ve long been involved with the minimal synth/coldwave scene, and I grew up DJing gabber/experimental hardcore/breakcore, so all that filters in as well, if sometimes in subtle ways.
Indeed this one sweeps a wide spectrum of styles, from new wave to industrial onto noise music, but is that reflective of your own taste and day-to-day listening habits also?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve been DJing and collecting dark and weird electronic music for almost 20 years now, and I’ve explored most facets of dance music, from disco to gabber. My musical loves are broad but specific. Don’t you dare play an instrumental Italo cut in my presence! Although these days I kind of only listen to Chrome albums or Acardipane’s Cold Rush EPs.
"I think what I found most striking about the images was how they capture that moment when reverie turns to terror. There's something genuinely uncanny going on"
The LP artwork and sleeves feature pictures from Ernie Glam’s seminal late ’80s – early ’90s club chronicle ‘Fabulosity’. How did you discover Ernie’s work in the first place?
I leave the art direction up to Guy! But the images really work, I became quite taken with them. And I think it’s important to highlight this continuity of NY counter-club-culture.
Is it in some way the rejection of norms and rules that spoke to you through these photographs?
I think what I found most striking about the images was how they capture that moment when reverie turns to terror. There’s something genuinely uncanny going on. To me this gets at the essence of *pure rave*. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it also points to our current juncture as the crisis of climate change unfolds.
What’s your usual studio modus operandi like? Do you prefer to jam around and let the ideas flow as they come, or is it more of a “tidy” technical process?
Yup, I set stuff up and jam. Generally I either start with a technical idea, like an idea for a patch or a processing technique – “play around with audio rate modulation of the Morphing Terrarium”, or I start with a more musical one, like a specific song or style – ie “let’s try ripping off ‘Step to Enchantment'”.
Of course, things never proceed in a linear fashion from these starting points, as these two approaches can quickly co-mingle, something goes awry, everything breaks, I’ll have another coffee, etc. I don’t do very much in the box – EQ, maybe some compression, occasionally some simple edits. I spend enough time on the computer for job stuff, so I can’t have the screen be an integral part of my creative practice.
"I have an intense love-hate relationship with techno. It's puzzling to me that such an open, malleable form could produce what is at times a reactionary musical environment."
What’s your setup comprised of?
Basically cheap pedals and expensive modular stuff. Some drum machines, a handful of vintage pieces. Lots of spring reverbs. Everything goes through an old Soundcraft S200 board. I work at Control, the synthesizer shop here in Brooklyn, so I’m frequently shuffling modules in and out of my set up, etc. Keeping things in flux is good.
Any essential piece of gear? One you’d never part with?
Although I don’t use it much these days, I’d never part with my SH-101, which was previously owned by Trek with Quintronic, the cult Buffalo-based minimal synth act. I’d had my SH-101 stolen off stage after a Further Reductions gig at the Wierd party – the coldwave and minimal synth party where I spent the tail end of my 20s and my last few remaining brain cells.
Frankie, who was one of the main DJs at the party, and who runs the Systems of Romance blog, was in touch via his record collecting circles with someone who knew the band back in the day, and who’d had their 101 sitting in storage. The 101 has been my main instrument at various periods, I know it well and love it dearly.
What’s the next one you’re looking to get?
What’s your schedule like right now?
Various gigs, working at the synth shop, attempting to finish some recordings with my wife for our project, Further Reductions, and a couple other music things. Should do a proper EU tour soonish for the album. My wage labor consists of writing indexes for textbooks and medical journals, so that’s where most of my energy goes. I keep busier than I’d like to be.
1. Bølling Oscillation
2. Metabolic Grift
3. New Expiration (featuring Rose E. Kross)
4. Sintered Bauxite
6. Into the Heap
7. Fit for Purpose
9. Larsen C
10. Mauna Loa Lows