Behind the Beat w/ Tristes Tropiques (Autobahn, Radioactivity)

Categories: Behind the Beat
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Josh Widmann should be a household name in San Francisco. Over the past three years, he's been working a strange, inventive production style as Tristes Tropiques, making frequent radio appearances and hosting numerous club nights around town. 

This Sunday, May 9 he launches the brand new club night, Autobahn, and his regular happy hour at 222 Hyde, Radioactivity, follows soon after, on May 21. We had a recent chat with Widmann, who let us in the kind of samples you'll never hear in a Tristes Tropiques track, how he's inspired by the Karate Kid series, and why his heating bill remains low.

How do you describe your music?

Sex Pistols NyQuil Africa

Explain the origin of the name Tristes Tropiques.

It's a memoir about traveling in South America. Nice fricative, heavy French name conjuring up tropical soundscapes and moody vocals. Ultimately, a bad choice due to unpronouncability and its difficulty to remember. However, I'll probably keep it so I can compete with other French sounding DJ brethern like Jacques Renault and Altair Nouveau.

What are some of your favorite samples that you've uncovered and used in your music?

I must admit I enjoy the occasional ceremonial chanting or sandstorm wind record. Oceanic moans and groans are also fun to throw in the background at low levels. I buy lots of vinyl soundtracks because they are usually a dollar or two, and contain great material, anything from synthy credits music to snippets of dialog. International horror film soundtracks also are worth tapping into for direct sampling or inspiration. Language learning LPs can also provide interesting dialog from around the world, along with goofy sound effects used in the tutorial scenarios. One genre remains off limits however: falling water. No raindrops, no rivers.

Describe your home studio set up.

The studio is basically a number of instruments strewn about the apartment. I have some dusty guitar pedals, on-loan synthesizers, MIDI controllers, a $99 "Memphis" bass guitar, an old drum machine my brother gave me, and an Ableton Live setup with 1,000,000 underutilized effects. There are some other rooms I occasionally use, including the EchoPlex (aka the bathroom) and Zootopia-Unbound (aka the backyard).


Besides your computer, what piece of equipment gets the most use when making a track?

Well, all instruments are eventually recorded on the computer, but I am getting better at recording my own handclaps with my microphone. It is easier said than done, especially if you know nothing about "miking" stuff. It is probably spelled "micing" for all I know, but that just looks even more funny.

Are you working on any tracks right now?

I am working on a few songs, most of which incorporate stuttering handclaps and something that resembles a cowbell. I think it's possible to program percussion-heavy tracks that are stimulating to listen to, but not so crazy you cannot locate the 4/4 rhythm driving the song. The recent songs are also marked by barely discernable vocals in the background, some Juno synthwork, and one even includes an attempt at an English accent that only a poorly trained studio Italian singer could produce. I would say recently I'm trying to emulate maybe the style of the '80s synth duo Blancmange. The newer songs I've been working on attempt to be fun, but not as wonky as previous attempts (i.e. no bird noises and less telephone ringing). I'm also working with steam, but when you tell people that, they think you are working on a NIN type of song. Um, some other motifs I'm going for are flute jams with synthesizers. These could be songs you hear during a Karate Kid II montage, for example.

If you could sign to only one label for all time, currently active or not, which one would it be?

ZYX in 1983. Just about "everyone" was on the label. A powerhouse of sorts for Italo, proto house, and electronic disco. Also, it would be fun to be on a label that people probably drunkenly confuse with a zipper brand (YKK).

Tell us about the parties and events you're involved with in San Francisco.

Radioactivity, a cold wave happy hour with Robots.In.Heat on third Fridays at 222 Hyde, has been going on since the end of last year. We play minimal wave, krautrock, Italo-disco, post-punk, and related genres. Autobahn, which will be second Sundays at Koko Cocktails, starts May 9. It is more of an Afro-cosmic and Italo night, so you will hear synthesizers imposed over the occasional Italian rap or pitch-shifting, percussive-heavy songs containing electronic bleeps from roughly 1970-1984. The ubiquitous Conor from No Way Back will be my first guest for the inaugural night. Here are some examples of what to expect:

Burundi Black - "Burundi Black"

Meco - "Ewok Celebration (Club Version)"

Sizike - "Don't Stop"

Who are some of your favorite local producers/bands right now?

There are more bands than I can keep up with, but some of my favorites are ones I have DJed with or seen recently including Group Rhoda, 3Leafs, Bronze, Psychic Reality, Inca Ore, and Ssleeping Desiress. Local producers are a little easier to keep tabs on, but sometimes a little tricky since there are thousands of small press dance labels. It seems I am always learning about someone that has either just moved here or has always been here. Garth and his Grayhound label have been releasing some edited versions of some great post-punk and leftfield disco types of songs. The 40 Thieves collective has put out some stellar recent releases on the Chinatown and Permanent Vacation labels. Tal Klein, with his Aniligital label, and The Beat Broker continue to churn out great tunes every few months.

Any advice for aspiring producers?

Don't be concerned with fidelity at first. Find out what equipment you need to make the sounds you want, and combine them to make the songs you want. Buy old dollar records for sampling based on cover art alone. Sometimes trying random things when recording produces amazing results. I've found it's difficult to be productive unless you get in the habit of working your projects daily--a level of dedication is required. Lastly, keep the blinds shut, turn your TV into a fishbowl, and turn the heat off.

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