Following the release of ‘Ghosts‘ LP this summer on Scissor & Thread, American producer Black Light Smoke steps up to deliver the 374th edition of the IA MIX Series, interweaving a subterranean masterclass of deep club sonorities, bolstered with his own edits of classic tracks from Maurizio and Chip E.
Originally from Chicago, Jordan Lieb studied in Massachusetts before relocating to New York in 2001 to pursue a career in music. He met Francis Harris (circa 2010), whilst Harris was looking for a studio to mix down his debut album ‘Leland‘. This initial friendship blossomed into a mutual kinship that resulted in Jordan releasing the first two vinyl releases on Scissor & Thread.
Jordan’s second studio album ‘Ghosts‘ is a woozy deep house LP packing 15 chugging grooves, analogue synth melodies and sultry vocals that will appeal to the deepest of house heads. In the interview below, we find out more about the makings of the album, its cryptic artwork, collaborations with vocalist Léah Lazonick and his long-standing admiration for all things Terre Thaemlitz, alongside studio gear and his approach to using social media.
Interview by Tom Durston
"The album is about my own ghosts, my own demons, connected to my history with dance music, party life, and all that comes with it"
Hi Jordan, first off congratulations on the release of ‘Ghosts’ – I absolutely love the album and the deepness that it emits. How does it feel to finally have it released into the world?
Thanks so much. I’m really proud of it. It was a long process, and it’s been really gratifying to see it out there. All the positive feedback has been really affirming.
What’s the concept behind the album title ‘Ghosts’ and how do you feel it compares to previous output?
The album is about my own ghosts, my own demons, connected to my history with dance music, party life, and all that comes with it. We are all haunted by something. Writing this record helped me process some of those things.
Secondly, I wanted the record to be a reflection on the spirit of house, the original meaning of house: community, struggle, and celebration. Not everyone in this new generation knows about Jack’s House. The founders, the originators, seem to have become the ghosts of house music. I wanted to honor them.
You worked on this album over a 2 year period and stated that it was quite the identity crisis. Please can you explain the challenges you faced during the album writing process and how you overcame them?
Honestly for a while I felt I had nothing left to say in this genre. Between moving out of New York City, giving up the party lifestyle, starting a family, not to mention Covid, I became really disconnected from a world that used to feed me and inspire me. Plus I’ve been focused on my own label, Death Decay Magic, which has taken me in a different musical direction.
The idea of writing an entire album for Scissor & Thread was uncomfortable for a while. I wrote a lot of stuff that was simply not right. I struggled to find a thread from my past that could connect with where I am today. It was kind of healing in that sense. Celebrating the past became my way through. It started to become a love letter to house music, which was really inspiring.
Tell me about where you live – what brought you to Rochester, what you love about the place and where you see yourself living in 10 years?
We moved to Rochester after we had our first kid and realised we wanted to be closer to my wife’s family. Kids change everything. No part of me wants to live in New York City anymore. I love it up here. I’m surrounded by trees. Being close to nature is a big part of parenting for me. In 10 years? I’ve lived long enough to know I have no idea. I imagine I’ll still be here since my kids will have their lives here – but you never know. We daydream about moving to Europe a lot. At the very least we want to make sure we travel and show our kids that there is more to the world than their American bubble.
Tell me about the mix you’ve recorded for us – what’s the idea behind the aura of the mix, where/ how was it recorded, any tracks that you’re particularly excited to include?
I wanted to put something together for the deeper heads, so I dug for tracks that are dusty, odd, and a bit left-field. There’s some good house and techno momentum near the middle / end. But I wanted it to be really abstract and musical as well. Tracey ‘Sidekick’ and Panthera Krause ‘Unraveled Dreaming’ really set that tone. I had to end with ‘At Home In Strange Places’ since you mentioned it here.
I recorded the mix in my studio using Ableton. I’ve been making mixes since the ‘90s, recording from vinyl onto tape cassette. In high school I used to go to my buddy’s house to record a mix almost every day after school, and would walk home smoking a joint, listening to and critiquing my mixes on a walkman. These days I have so many productions on my plate that I enjoy the convenience of using Ableton. It lacks a certain sense of flow, but I appreciate how I can save my mixes and work on them later.
I wanted to put something together for the deeper heads, so I dug for tracks that are dusty, odd, and a bit left-field"
Being a consistent fan of the deep house genre, I listened to the album in one sitting, on a road trip from London to Wales, and from the very start it pulled me in. Would you say this is a coherent album that should be listened from start to finish – or an album that you can dip into out of?
I was always too close to the process to listen all the way through. The only time I did was when I got the test pressing. That was the first time I could appreciate the arch of it. Of course a lot of thought went into the order, the flow. But honestly I have to depend on outside feedback to get a sense of it.
Tell me about the album artwork & photography and the cryptic diagram in the gatefold? The photo on the front cover and reverse appears to be a hoard of books (atomic/nuclear themed), a dusty turntable and a Sony TV all strapped up for safekeeping – what’s the story behind the setting and artwork?
The album artwork is by my buddy Sina Taherkhani. He is an amazingly talented artist. He did music videos of my tracks ‘Screws In My Head’ and ‘The Figure’. We basically went through his folders looking for photos and the ones from that shoot really stood out. They are shots of the inside of someone’s Airstream trailer.
I don’t know who… someone Sina met on a trip. This person just had this strange and amazing collection of books, tools, records and old equipment. It really feels like the inside of my head. It’s cluttered and arranged at the same time. The diagrams are totally mysterious. I think they were also in the trailer. They invoke a sense of mathematics, language, art, and maybe a little insanity. I wish I knew more about them.
Léah Lazonick has been your vocal counterpart for many Black Light Smoke tracks, tell me about how the two of you met and how your collaboration came to fruition?
It’s a little foggy, but I believe I met Léah through Francis Harris, an old friend and the Scissor & Thread label boss. The NY techno party scene in the 2000’s and 2010’s was like a big group of crazy friends. Léah and I have a lot of overlapping life circles. She’s a really unique talent and songwriter. I think the first thing I asked her to sing on was ‘Morning Comes’. I actually wrote the part for her to translate into French. It was such a great match that I’ve been working with her since.
Let’s discuss gear used on the album, Juno 106 and the TR 808 are replete throughout the album – what other instruments / pedals / are at your disposal in the studio?
I use hardware and software, whatever gets the job done. For this record I found myself using the Arturia synth collection a lot, mainly the Jupiter and Prophet plugins. I also use the Korg M1 plugin quite a bit – if you’re going to do house pianos then they’d better be cheese sounding. The M1 also has some great house organ sounds.
For drums I always pull in a mix of recorded drums from the TR-8S, kits in Native Instruments Battery 4, and a ton of folder digging. Especially for kicks. (Dear god, searching for the right kick drum.) For pedals I rely on the TC Electronic MojoMojo, and the Line6 Pod. Most drums and synths go through some form of overdrive.
The album begins with “Sprinkles Says” – an extract of Terre Thaemlitz in conversation at her RBMA lecture. As a huge fan of Terre and all her many facets, tell me about your relationship with her music and mindset?
I’m so glad you know about that lecture. You really are a fan. I’ve been listening to her music since I was a teenager. When I saw her play years back at club Output (RIP) in Brooklyn I couldn’t resist telling her that we must have played the grooves out of the track ‘Hovering Glows’. It was on some ambient compilation on Instinct Records.
Funny enough, there was also a connection through that label to Taylor Dupree, back then as Human Mesh Dance and Prototype 909. As life would have it, Taylor now masters all my records, including Ghosts. Anyways, Terre is one of those people who speaks from a really unique and genuine place. She is so witty and smart. It was an honour getting her permission to use that interview on my record.
One of the standouts on the album is ‘At Home In Strange Places‘, sounding akin to the smokey vibe that Darren Cunningham aka Actress emits in ‘Lost‘ – retro synth design and dubbed out house. Is this a fair comparison?
You don’t miss a thing. That was precisely my inspiration. Particularly the bit-crushed sound of the bassline. I am not shy about how I copy musicians I admire. I think originality is overrated. I could go through my catalog with you and point out my inspirations for each track.
The spoken word sample on there is actually Stephen Colbert speaking to Conan O’brien about his views on Catholicism. It’s very esoteric. I doubt we would have gotten cleared for that sample. Sometimes you just have to steal a little.
"Scissor & Thread felt like a safe place to express myself. It wasn’t just another party label, it felt like it was really about art"
I’m interested to learn more about your long-standing relationship with Francis Harris and Scissor & Thread – from the off you guys worked together after meeting in New York – cast us back to that time and tell us what provoked this friendship and how that friendship has developed?
I knew Francis as Adultnapper back in the day. I would go hear him play all the time. We met in person when he was looking for somewhere to mix his first Francis Harris album, ‘Leland‘. I was working at a studio with an SSL console, and we mixed his record there after hours. It was during that time I shared with him my early Black Light Smoke ideas.
Francis was so impressed he really encouraged me to help him start the label with those tracks. He really gave me my first big boost. We played a lot of gigs together, and shared a lot of the same views on music and the industry. We are really both music focused, more than anything else. I think we both felt like outsiders in some way.
Scissor & Thread felt like a safe place to express myself. It wasn’t just another party label, it felt like it was really about art. Since then we have both pursued our separate musical passions, but have remained friends and there is mutual respect. I put out a few other EPs on the label, but doing the album really felt like coming back to familiar territory – although we have both grown so much. We are older and (I hope) wiser.
You also work in the field of composing music for film and TV. Can you shed light into what you’ve been working on recent projects and how this differs from your approach to creating music as Black Light Smoke?
I’ve worked in the TV music industry for over 20 years. I started writing for soap operas, then moved on to advertising music. I’ve written music for every and any product you can think of. My film work has been much more limited, but fun nonetheless. Writing for advertising is different in so many ways, and in some ways easier. I don’t get hung up on my own music, it’s not precious. Writing for myself has to be really honest. Writing for TV does not. But in other ways I have learned so much working in that industry, and my own music has benefited. I really got my chops doing that work – having to write so much volume, and so fast.
There appears to be a lot of pitch bending / tape loops effects on the record – how do you go about getting this effect?
It’s a blend of things. In some cases I am using tape. On ‘In The Valley’, for example, I recorded the parts to 4 track tape and back, mostly for the noise that gets introduced. In other cases I am using samples of drones, hisses, noises, loops and tape sounds. And in other cases still I am pitch bending the synths myself. The keys on ‘At Home In Strange Places’ are getting bent up and down by hand. Needless To Say, My Bloody Valentine always looms as an influence for me.
You are donating proceeds of the record sales to the Little Bit Foundation – a charity that empowers students living in poverty to achieve their academic goals. Tell us about your connection with this foundation?
I did a bit of research and this one stood out. I wanted to find a charity that focuses on children living in poverty. As a father I connect with that. I can’t imagine how hard it would be putting your kids to bed hungry. The Little Bit Foundation has a really wholesome approach, dealing with education, nutrition, family support, etc.
What’s your relationship like with the rest of the artists on Scissor & Thread?
I am still good friends with Tom and Jimmy from Bob Moses. They started out on Scissor & Thread as two shy musicians from Canada. Watching them take off has been really fun. Tom and I text one another about music and dad stuff often. Anthony (Frank & Tony) and I have always been on good terms, although our journeys have just taken us elsewhere. The current artists I have not met, mostly due to geography.
When you step into the studio – what do you envision when you produce?
It depends which project I am focusing on. The last few months have been about promoting the album and crafting a live set to support it. So my mind has been very practical and chore oriented. There’s a lot of work that goes into it after the creative process is done. Especially getting a live set together – it’s very technical.
But now all this squared away, I find myself back in creation mode. I am drifting back to Death Decay Magic, a darker sound. I have also been gravitating to techno more than house. So lately I just come and start writing based on my mood. If I’m feeling stuck I will dig for loops and samples that might serve as a jumping off point. But usually it’s a day by day thing… depending on my energy level and what feels exciting for me.
"It really feels like the inside of my head. It’s cluttered and arranged at the same time. The diagrams are totally mysterious. I think they were also in the trailer. They invoke a sense of mathematics, language, art, and maybe a little insanity. I wish I knew more about them"
What other labels and producers are you into?
I’ve always admired Silent Servant, Luke Slater, Terrence Fixmer, Steve Rachmad, Robert Hood, The Hacker – producers that really have their own undeniable sound. Labels I pay attention to are Minimal Wave, Mannequin, Pinkman, Ombra International, generally darker and weirder music.
I’m a lazy music consumer, though. I find music shopping to be agonising, especially online. So much crap to weed through. I think because I make music every day for a living I am not a great customer.
New York is emitting some of the best experimental electronic producers at present, what’s your take on the NYC scene, Public Records, Nowadays and other venues/clubs?
I am truly out of touch with all that. I live way upstate and like I said, my daily focus is my family right now. I am glad to hear that New York is at the forefront though. I did just recently play at Public Records, and it was great to be back in the city. Whenever I play there I can feel the love for dance music, which is something I miss up here. As an artist it is so affirming to be received by an audience that gets what you are doing and really lets you know.
What’s your relationship like with social media – in terms of promoting your music and attracting new listeners? How are you using it / not using it?
Social media can be a great tool for promoting, and I use it a lot for that. I post a lot of promo art and DIY videos for myself as well as for my artists on Death Decay Magic. I also enjoy doing little tutorials and studio tips, mostly because that’s what I like to see from other artists.
I’m always so curious about how other producers work so I like to be transparent about my own work. I’ve been doing an Instagram Live series called Reinventions where I do shorter techno sets, then I post them to Soundcloud and YouTube. I think it’s great to keep that space interesting.
Social media has a dark side, and I am not immune to it. It is designed as a tool of addiction, and it preys on our sense of feeling less-than, or feeling left out. I can compare myself to other people’s likes and followers, and that is how it’s designed to make me feel. It’s really important that I check myself, and connect with my own sense of self worth. Self esteem comes from within.
Finally, do you have any other words of wisdom or warning that you’d like to share?
As I’ve aged my priorities have just changed. I’ve seen what’s out there and it was great when I was young. But the truth is nothing lasts. No fame, no high, no party lasts. And those people don’t really know you or love you. Gigging is actually very lonely. Most of the time is spent waiting for a flight or something. At this point my main concern is making work I can be proud of. Do I want it to reach as many people as possible? Of course. But I just don’t care about the big music machine anymore. Now more than ever I believe that good music matters, good performances matter. And it’s more important that they have a deep impact than a wide and shallow one. I can only hope that’s what I am doing.
‘Ghosts’ is out now via Scissor and Thread. Order a copy from Bandcamp.
Photography by Kevin Kendall
1. Tension – Can Do
2. Tracey – Sidekick [Voyage Direct]
3. Deadboy – Defrase [Aus Music]
4. Panthera Krause – Unraveled Dreaming [Uncanny Valley]
5. DJ Joe Lewis – Life Immoreal [Clone Classic Cuts]
6. Jasper Wolff, Maarten Mittendorff – Eleven (Sterac_Remix) [Indigo Aera]
7. Substance, Vainqueur – Immersion (Sleeparchive Remix) [Scion Versions]
8. Maurizio – Mø6B (Black Light Smoke Edit)
9. Mr G – Practice [Phoenix G.]
10. Branko Stojanov – So High [After Us]
11. Gunnar Haslam – Scale No Flam [The Bunker New York]
12. Chip E – Time To Jack (Black Light Smoke Edit)
13. Møzaika – T-T-Tool [Public Possession]
14. Black Light Smoke – At Home In Strange Places [Scissor & Thread]