Ohio-born John Roberts quickly ascended to deep house royalty with his stunning debut album, Glass Eights on Dial. With his new album, Fences, due at the end of the month, we caught up with John and talked travel, beginnings, samples, and Willem Dafoe.
Could you tell us about how your new album came together? I understand you’ve been traveling a lot recently.
I was fortunate enough after the release of my last album to be invited to a fair amount of places that I hadn’t spent much time in before and coincidentally also started producing a magazine, The Travel Almanac, with Paul Kominek (Pawel, one of the original founders of Dial Records) which additionally facilitated a number of other trips and extended stays.
You were born in Ohio, so how exactly did you become exposed to the sounds that have influenced your production?
I started getting interested in electronic music in my early teens and ended up going to raves in the Midwest when I was able. More importantly, I bought a lot of tapes that were made by Chicago DJs and sold at parties and record stores in Cleveland, where I was going to school at the time. A lot of these tapes were copies of copies of copies that just came with inkjet-printed labels and I loved the way they sounded; like melted figments of their original selves.
How was it that you hooked up with Dial and moved to Berlin? Was it an easy transition?
When I finished college I started visiting friends in Berlin here and there…sometimes for a few weeks and sometimes for a couple of months. I ended up meeting Romy Zips randomly who was a longtime friend of everyone from Dial. She DJd with them and was doing all of their bookings at that time.
I sent her some of my music and she ended up giving it to Pete (Lawrence), David (Carsten Jost), and Hendrik (Pantha du Prince) at a dinner party and they wrote me an email shortly after asking me to be a part of the label. It was an incredibly sweet letter…Romy ended up moving to New York for awhile where I was living and she encouraged me to move to Berlin and offered to be my booking agent. So needless to say, I am eternally thankful to Romy for all of her help!
What did you think of the response to your debut Glass Eights? How much do you pay attention to critical and audience response?
I was incredibly thankful and humbled by the response as I certainly hadn’t planned for anything like that. Of course it feels nice to know that people appreciate what you are doing and I’m always very surprised and thankful when anyone tells me that they’ve enjoyed something that I’ve produced, but at the same time I try not to let opinions guide or change what I’m doing in any way. I try my best to keep as genuine and personal an output as possible.
Your new album, Fences, sounds rather different to previous material. The instrumentation seems busier and more organic, and perhaps less overtly orchestral? What has shaped your sound in the intervening years?
It’s difficult for me to evaluate something like that as I don’t really have enough distance from the music to analyze it in that way, but I think it’s just like any other sort of work…you learn new tricks, preferences, etc. along the way and those, combined with changes in your personality due to new experiences, spit out some sort of final product that hopefully doesn’t exactly replicate what you’ve produced in the past. I’ve always loved the idea of being able to look back on what you’ve done and see visible progressions and refinements over time.
You’ve said before that a lot of your music stems from samples of different origins. Is there a big difference in what you’re sampling and how you use these sounds on Fences? Has your process changed much?
I am still really open to samples from any source as long as they make sense to me aesthetically. With this album I made a lot of cassette recordings while traveling and cut those up once I returned home, but I approached the use of those sounds in the same way that I might use a sample from a record or an instrument; recording large pieces, slicing those into smaller more appealing portions, and leaving them in a pile to rearrange later.
Likewise, the track titles struck me as found objects, things you’d find on a walk or on a beach. Each has this kind of faded atmosphere, where did they come from?
I think the analogy of found objects on a beach perfects sums up how I arrived at the titles. Just like the samples that were used, the titles were ‘found’ pieces as well. I oftentimes have this experience where I’ll be somewhere like a hotel, or a flea market, and see a book title and quickly imagine that it is something really amazing about a particular topic, but after opening it, realize that it is actually completely mundane. For example, I was staying at a hotel in Massachusetts awhile back and saw this cloth-bound book with gold-foil stamped lettering called “Fences” on the bedside table, which I imagined as some sort of strange collection of short stories, but when I opened it it was just a book about different types of fences that one could build. I guess I like the idea of trying to re-inject the titles with what I was hoping they would be in the first place.
You release a magazine, The Travel Almanac, which deals with the artistic side of travel and temporary living. Where did the ideas for this come from? Has the nomadic life had a big influence on your musical output?
The original idea for the project came from Paul Kominek, who asked me early on to work together with him on developing it into a physical publication. The idea behind the magazine is to examine the ways in which traveling and temporary habitation affect artistic output, behavior, and modes of thinking.
I think that the influence of travel on creative pursuits is unavoidable and I definitely feel that it has changed and altered what I am doing musically and just generally in many ways. I know that personally every time I visit someplace new, or revisit a place that I’ve already been after some time has passed, my perception and way of interacting with that location and ways of working on whatever project I am consumed with at that time is definitely altered.
The magazine has interviewed big names not only in music but also in film, such as David Lynch and Harmony Korine. How does all this come about? Who would be your dream interviewee?
I feel really fortunate to have gotten a chance to feature everyone that we’ve interviewed thus far. Usually the opportunities to speak with our contributors has come through patience and gentle persistence. I think Will Oldham and Harmony Korine were two of my dream interviews, but right now I am really excited about our next issue with Willem Dafoe!
You’ve mentioned that you don’t listen to great deal of new releases. What do you tend to listen to?
When I’m home I listen to the classical radio station WQXR in the mornings and then the rap station HOT97 in the afternoons or while in cars. I usually don’t listen to much music when I’m traveling, but I am in Paris right now and have really gotten into this station here that plays sort of an insane medley of classical, jazz, and French songs. Although yesterday they played a deformed rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” so I’ve decided to give it a rest for awhile.
John Roberts’ new album ‘Fences’ is out on the 27th May.John RobertsDialMay 2013Deep House