'You're asking what I learned? I learned I was an idiot," says Prefuse 73.
A prolific and celebrated electronic musician, Prefuse, aka Guillermo Scott Herren, is on the phone from his Brooklyn studio talking about his latest venture, an innovative new label called Yellow Year.
The question he's responding to is how this new label has evolved in comparison to his now-defunct venture, Eastern Developments. During the first decade of a still-young millennium, his previous label released works by fine musicians who often surfed the line between electronica and hip-hop, among them Ammoncontact, Dabrye, and Daedalus.
The source of Herren's self-described idiocy? "I wasn't keeping up with the proper technology," he says. "I wasn't ready to go completely computer. I had a huge learning curve to take on, the whole new way of releasing music and doing music."
Glitch in the machine
The idea of Herren being anything less than computer-literate will surprise fans, and even those more casually aware of his music.
Herren's myriad activities — solo and collaborative, as well as remixes for the likes of Cornelius, TV on the Radio, and Amon Tobin — have from the start been marked with a highly nuanced digital and otherwise technological ingenuity. Tracks on his earliest releases, such as the 1997 album Sleep Method Suite (which was credited to Delarosa & Asora), mixed Internet-dialup burbles amid lush, lounge-ready techno. His off-beat syncopations challenged the genre's often robotic rhythmic sensibility.
Later, as part of Savath and Savalas and alone as Prefuse 73 — among numerous other identities — Herren became closely associated with "glitch," an electronica flavor that explores the textural elements of digital production.
"Those in-between moments, the parts that aren't so obvious, are usually the parts I'm attracted to," he explains. "That even goes for my earliest music, just sampling. I was always into the parts in between. I never wanted the break — I didn't ever want to just put the break or the hook or the meat of a song. I had to get in between it, find the weirder part of it, and then chop that all up, and make that into a full-on melody unto itself, out of this in-between nothingness."
Herren's most recent album as Prefuse 73 was 2011's The Only She Chapters, which applied his alternately brittle and gossamer synthesis to female vocalists, including Zola Jesus, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and the late Trish Keenan of Broadcast. Texture was king on that album as well. "It was an exploration of those voices, for sure," says Herren. "Any way you could take them, so it wasn't just the centerpiece, wasn't just like sitting on top of a crazy beat. It was all the way. I wanted to take those songs all the way left."
Prefuse and persist
In the years since, Herren has decreased his recorded output significantly. "I've already over-saturated the world enough," he jokes. "For a while there I was releasing four different projects in a year."
Instead, he focused on playing solo. After years of performing live as part of small ensembles, he's taught himself how to go it alone: "Playing solo at first just sucked. It took two years. It's been a beta test the whole time, just getting comfortable playing solo, playing these machines in different ways."
That's the approach Herren's bringing to his current headlining tour, with five-hour shows that include sets by two fellow beat creators, the Los Angeles-based Nosaj Thing and New York City-based FaltyDL.
Touring these days is, he acknowledges, an essential component of a working musician's income. But it's also been a learning experience for him, especially back when he was lower down on the bill. Signed to the estimable British record label Warp, Herren was frequently teamed with Broadcast, Boards of Canada, and other Warp acts.
Sometimes their accomplishments were downright intimidating: "I got totally jealous and wanted to throw all my shit in the garbage. When I started, I was playing with these dudes who were super intelligent, wondering how Christian Fennesz was playing with just a laptop and his guitar, what are Autechre doing in the dark smoking cigarettes? I was so enamored of that."
Herren describes his increasing comfort with electronic music technology as a matter of learning to "take the studio out onto the road."
Another lesson he learned from Eastern Developments is that the traditional record company system is not suited to the 21st century. Rather than a standard label that signs numerous acts and promotes them, Yellow Year will more often team up Herren with collaborators.
First up is Sons of the Morning by Herren and Teebs, a producer based in Los Angeles. Their seven-track record is awash with hazy, dubby rhythms that echo and sway with enticing fragility.
Also planned is a magazine-like format of monthly releases called the Speak Soon series. Forthcoming Yellow Year records will feature current Herren tour-mate Nosaj Thing, as well as Lapalux, Synkro, Nathan Fake, and Dimlite.
Still, for all the learning of the past two years, Herren says he hasn't gone "completely computer." He singles out a fundamental to his recording activities: "What I like is having something in a song that is genuinely played, no matter what. It gives it a different feeling, a dirtier, raw feeling, and makes the process more interesting."