Eris Drew is one of those DJs that you absolutely have to see – she’s a complete force of nature behind the decks, cutting and scratching and moving like few others can. But she’s also a dazzling producer in her own right, and we got terribly excited when we heard that she was preparing a new live, never before seen set of her own album ‘Quivering In Time’ for a few forthcoming shows.
Ahead of time (and potentially a few other shows in the pipeline), Eris Drew sat down with Clash and gave us a sneak preview into the workings behind the new live set just before its debut this week at Dekmantel Festival.
We broke down all the tech secrets involved, her inspirations for making the move to a live set, and a few sneak previews into some of the surprises she has in store…
Hi Eris! Thanks for taking the time to give us a little preview of the set. Why don’t you talk me through what you’ve got planned and how it came about?
Well I really wanted to try to bring my creative process in the studio, like the process I used for recording my album ‘Quivering In Time’, and to somehow make that into a live show. In the studio I’m very much a live producer, you know, doing live sampling and cutting, and doing lots of layers and overdubbing as well. So I was trying to figure out: How do I bring that to an audience?
I tried a few different things and ended up landing on the setup I have now which is, in some ways, like a very modified DJ setup. The heart of the whole thing is a standard Pioner DJM-900 Nexus 4-channel mixer just like I would have for a DJ set, which is kind of cool, because I can use the crossfader to go between the different channels of audio, and can also use the same kind of effects as you do as a DJ set. I’m basically using every last performance feature of that mixer that they’ve got!
Going into the mixer, on channel one, is just a turntable. But it’s not my normal thing of just playing like regular vinyl because I thought, well, how do I make it a bit different. So what I did is I ended up getting a Serato unit and all the samples that are on my songs, I was able to load a select number of those into the Serato. So this way I can leave a control record on there the whole time, but still be able to cut and scratch them. That’s actually how I do a lot of the sound design in my actual tracks at home anyways, is just through manipulating records. And I’m using a Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable because it has a +/-50 fader that can down samples by a factor of 50%, which is really dramatic. So I can do the little Hawk scratch but can double the time of it and make it super slowww. It’s a cool performance feature to have.
On channel two and three I’ve got my MPC, which feeds various stems and extracts from my songs; just enough so that the set keeps rolling with a constant beat and everything. Because it’s on two channels I can still do cuts between them and put FX on them separately, as well as EQ it and use the filters like I would in a DJ set if I was mixing two different tracks.
Feeding into the MPC is also a Nord Drum 2 which has a set of six pads that trigger sounds in the MPC, which allows me to play some drums during the set. Like during my song, ‘Baby’, I do like, like drum solo, and there’s some drumming and some of the other tracks too, because that’s how I like to programme the drums at home. You know, sometimes I’m just programming on finger pads or sampling. But I can get a totally different feel when I’m using drum sticks and a pad so I thought it’d be need to kind of show people that aspect of what I’m doing in the studio, and it’s visually you know, more, maybe a bit more fun than watching me tweak neat little knobs on a synth.
What synths are you using?
I really like to use orchestral sounds in my songs, and I’ve been obsessed with this instrument called the Mellotron for probably close to 20 years. I’ve actually used lots of different types of Mellotron sounds over the years, like sometimes I will sample the original tapes, because they’re available online, and then put those in a sampler, or sometimes I’ve used plugins, but for this set, I actually got the newest version of the instrument that the company makes – it’s the same company that’s been around since the 1960s. They make them in Stockholm. It’s a really neat unit called the Mellotron M4000 rack. That’s my main ‘string’ ensemble, and I basically have that off to my right alongside a controller keyboard that controls it and a synth called the Novation Peak, which works as a traditional polysynth.
Wow, this sounds like a lot to handle all at once!
Yeah, it definitely requires a lot of coordination and so as a result the set has a really specific structure, which I’ve practised quite a lot. But I do want some of it to be improvised too, which gives me the freedom to respond to the situation in front of me and to have all these different noise making devices.
Is there any laptop or Ableton or anything on stage with you as well?
There is a laptop running Serato for the vinyl, but it’s not doing anything else. But all the real sequencing comes from the MPC. So if that were to fail, then it would be pretty catastrophic. That would be a little scary. Hopefully it doesn’t happen!
How does it feel to be performing a live set? Has this been in preparation for a long time?
Well, it’s the first time I’ve done this particular live session for an audience. Before I started to tour extensively in Europe a few years ago, I was DJing a lot in the United States and I was actually also doing these mini live sets, where I would put a stack of synthesisers and drum machines in my little Kia Soul and go to tiny bars and play… But it was so different from what I’m doing now. A lot has happened for me in the meantime!
I also used to play live in high school in the 90s, with industrial and punk bands and so on. And that’s even before I was a DJ. So I definitely have some live experience. But it’s been a long time since I’ve done it now – maybe five years. And this rig I have now is just completely different than anything I’ve ever done before.
It’s funny, because I always felt that you were the most live DJ there was anyways, because you’re moving and you’re scratching and dancing with so much energy.
Thanks, yeah, I always say that to the sound engineers when they don’t want to give me a soundcheck, I tell them that I’m a little bit more like a rock band than a DJ in the sense of like – there’s gonna be a lot of movement up there.
And you’re playing all your own music for this session, right? Is there anything you’re excited to bring to the music that’s new to the songs?
I thought about doing a cover, but I didn’t end up having the time. So it’s all my own music. But when I programmed my album, I was very conscientious at the time of all the songs because I wanted to honour the album format, so for an LP, that’s 54 minutes, with no more than 13 or 14 minutes on the side. So when I would write something, I would often end up kind of editing it a little bit to fit within that time constraint.
And that’s not a constraint for the live set as much. So a lot of the songs are kind of expanded versions of what’s on the album. And then I’m just excited to be able to do overdubbing and the kinds of things I do as a live DJ, but like to actually do that with my own music – all this collaging in front of everybody (but with my own music is definitely novel to me). I’ve found interesting combinations coming out of it, and I’m excited to hear these older songs in a new context.
Is there anything you’re particularly nervous about the new set going in?
I’m mostly nervous about the MPC, and then I was having some MIDI issues recently. So it’s like the technical stuff. I just hope I don’t get thrown a real curveball in it, because of course, I want it to be good. But I’m ready for it, and if it happens, it happens. That’s part of being live! And thank goodness – I’m a vinyl DJ – so I’m used to chaos, and the kinds of mistakes and problems and things that you kind of deal with when you’re trying to play records on big systems.
Do you think depending on how this show goes, you want to bring this to different audiences?
I’ve already agreed to do it at Unsound Festival and my thought was that I would see how these first sets go, and then kind of go from there. The only thing working against it is the incredible time commitment it takes – I spent the last few months doing this, instead of maybe working on a new project or recording with Maya (Octo Octa) and so on… So that’s the cost of it.
I guess I’ll have to make an assessment after these couple shows on how much time I want to dedicate to this – but I love doing it. I think hopefully, in the right context, where people aren’t only there for a really intense dance and rave experience, but also to hear different music and to hear people experiment – think that’s where the live and direct set can hopefully shine.
It’s also different from many electronic live sets at raves in that it is not continuous. Each song has its own tempo, and I’ve joined the songs together with some field recordings or samples from the previous one, which I extend and manipulate with some FX.
So, for example I have a song about a beautiful night Maya and I spent at the ocean making love. And I’ve got this old field recording of an ocean which then I’m just manipulating on the turntable. And that connects the transition to the next song. So there’s actually these moments of repose, of, silence and of quiet – which isn’t what I would normally do in a peak time DJ set, maybe for more than 32 bars or something, but definitely not three minutes, you know? There’s almost like an ambient aspect to it. I really wanted to be a bit disruptive and actually have these moments where everything stops, where I can either just start the next song or maybe say thank you to everyone, kind of like in a more traditional rock show.
Yeah, rock bands get so much more applause because they get to stop! Is there anything else that you’re really excited about?
One more thing! I’m actually collaborating with someone, so I would be remiss not to mention him – his name is Jeisson Drenth. He’s going to be working with me on the visual aspect of the show. I shared with him the moments and experiences which form the inspiration behind each song, and so he’s going to pictorially give some life to my sonic abstractions of those moments with a visual element. Each one of my songs is a bit of a narrative in the sense that it’s about an experience or a moment I’ve had in time, so he’s going to help to tell those stories with pictures, where I try to tell them with samples and keys, and with chords and things like that, which I’m really excited about, and we’ll be on stage together – I’m so excited to see it!
Eris Drew will perform live and direct at Dekmantel festival on August 4th and at Unsound Festival on October 9th.
Words: Louis Torracinta
Photography: Desmond Picotte