Behind the Beat with Altair Nouveau
Altair Nouveau is a bit of a nomad and a vagabond. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, producer Brandon Mitchell only came down to stay in San Francisco for a small time before recently deciding to pick up and move on to New York. He's made his mark, however, playing tasteful, classic DJ sets throughout some of the city's best dance clubs, always sharing the cosmic-disco jams he produces for labels like Solardisco and DFA. Behind the Beat was able to grab a moment of Mitchell's time--amidst packing up his home studio and readying to traipse across the country--to find out about his boyhood fascination with space, why he always starts out a new song with drums, and how drunk dialing a record label may have helped Altair Nouveau release his latest single, "Space Fortress."
How would you describe your sound to someone that knows nothing about synthesizers or dance music?
I'm not really sure what I'd say to someone who knows "nothing" about dance music. It's sort of essential to be able to at least say "it sounds like disco." Often when I'm asked what my music sounds like, and I'm scrambling for references, I wind up mumbling something about "electronic music, kinda spacey, a little like John Carpenter sometimes, but not always." Not a great description! I might make a reference to lasers if really pressed. I usually end up feeling pretty uninformative.
Where does your fascination with space and magic come from?
I've been a bit space-obsessed since I was a kid, when I would read everything I could about the planets, galaxy, universe and so on. I'd replay any cassette that had space sound effects on it, audiobooks about space travel, music with spacey sounds, etc. I loved the planetarium. And really, I still enjoy all of that. Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" is a TV series I can watch endlessly. Aside from a brief (elementary school era) attempt at being a magician, magic never really was my thing. Because as we all know, magic is fake but space is real and amazing.
Describe your home studio set up. Where in your place is it? How much space does it take up?
At the time I recorded most of the tracks that are out now I had a respectable studio with a rack of keyboards, a mixer, and a bunch of outboard effects that looked really impressive. Over the past couple years I've trimmed back a lot (synthesizers in need of servicing, frequent moving, and small quarters) so that now I pretty much just have my computer and a single keyboard in front of it. Nothing else. I miss the wall-of-synths look and some of the flexibility before, but simplicity has its advantages. I might build up again once I feel settled in the future.
What's your favorite piece of equipment in your studio?
I can give an honest, tech-friendly, synthy answer to this. The Roland Juno 106 is the first synthesizer that I bought, and it's been used on pretty much every track I've ever made. It can't be beat for an amazing flexibility and ease-of-use combination. Not hard to find either. I can create a lot of pretty deceptive approximations of other synthesizers on it (Moog-sounding bass, Yamaha CS-80-sounding pads) with no trouble at all.
What is usually the first element you create for a track?
If I start a track with what I think is a great melody or chord progression and then work in drums later, it usually sounds awful. I've learned that it's always best to start with the drums. I can fall in love with a melody more than anything else, but starting with one will pretty much impede any creative ideas for drum programming to the point of ruining the track. Drums first, melody and harmony later (bassline in the middle). I do spent a lot of time just pounding out melodies on the keyboard, but they just get saved for later. The track itself starts with drums. Yeah, drums.
How do you know when you've got something worth turning into a full song?
If I get excited about something and start getting really into it, then I'll start sequencing it into a full song. As long as I'm still excited, I'll obsess over it until it's close to done. Then I'll spend forever and ever actually finishing it for real. I try to give myself repeated reality-checks along the way to determine whether it's actually good or not. If I can't be motivated to sequence a track out at all, then it's a pretty good sign that it doesn't contain any good ideas. There are also around 100 or so tracks that are completed, but just don't make the cut down the road. A lot of stuff I would not want anyone to hear!
Who are some of your favorite producers/bands out right now?
Speaking in categories: among friends, I really like Dominant Legs, (Ryan Lynch from Girls). In San Francisco (non-friends category) I have just gotten into Moon Duo, (Neu/Hawkwind/Suicide-sounding project). Labelmates category includes Marbeya Sound (who I am remixing right now and are on Solardisco), and the latest DFA singles from The Crystal Ark (aka Gavin Russom) and Shit Robot. Great and heavy music. Honorary old-music category: I have been listening to Electronic like crazy lately!
How did the process of releasing the "Space Fortress" 12" on DFA go down? Did they approach you? How did you feel when the deal was sealed?
They totally approached me, which is awesome since I had wanted to be on that label for years (I have a story about drunk dialing their offices when I was in NYC in 2004). I'm pretty sure they heard the track on a blog, [just like] Solardisco, and so we worked out a deal for Solardisco to pick up the single overseas and for DFA to handle it in the US. Blogging is real!
What's on the horizon for Altair Nouveau?
I'm moving to New York in April and am hoping to work on a few more collaborative projects. I should have a single coming out down the road, as well as a few remixes a little sooner. Finally, I've got a batch of tracks that I'm recording vocals on. We'll just see how those turn out, hmmm?
Any advice for aspiring producers?
Practical advice: arrange the furniture in your room to encourage recording as the go-to spare time activity. Like the keyboard/mixer/whatever should just be staring you down 100% of the time. Also it's nice to listen to your tracks while taking a walk. You'll suddenly realize about 10-20 obvious things that you need to change as soon as you get home.
Before leaving for good, Altair Nouveau will be playing one final time this Friday, March 19 for the Radioactivity