The drummer and cofounder of the influential Chicago band Tortoise details the gear and methods he used to get “jagged and weird” on his new solo album.
John Herndon is best known as a drummer/percussionist in Chicago’s Tortoise, the instrumental collective he cofounded about thirty years ago. Now an L.A. resident, Herndon has resurrected his solo music project, A Grape Dope, whose last release came out in 2003. Arthur King Presents A Grape Dope: Backyard Bangers is a collection of headphone-friendly avant-pop soundscapes crafted on bubbling synths and samplers in garages and backyard studios.
Much of Herndon’s work since moving to L.A. has been visual art, and you can see his animations in the video for Backyard Bangers’ “Puppet Clubbing,” a midtempo collage of quirky synth parts that at times sounds like a grittier Ratatat track. Elsewhere on the album, “New Age Cave Age” opens with an overdriven drum fill followed by bird samples and some gamelan-like metallic percussion, then alternates between a 6/8 groove with occasional synth marimba or sudden gritty synth breaks and jarring cymbal crashes. On the more club-friendly tracks like “Rats It’s Up” or “Rainbo Locals,” Herndon achieves almost a minimalist techno vibe, like a funkier Silent Servant. “Nod to the Peanuts” and “A Glorious Day” both feature vocals, but not in a traditional pop form. The latter of those tracks begins with a simple beat on a papery acoustic kit at around 96 bpm, but on repeated listens, subtle changes and layers within the drum track under the swirling analog synth sounds create a curious texture study. We asked Herndon to share some details about the making of the album.
MD: What was the recording and writing process like for Backyard Bangers?
John: Everything was recorded by me in three different houses that we lived in, in various garages and backyards in L.A., hence the title. I did a lot of sampling of noise from goings on at the football field in our backyard at various times of the day, which I put all over the record. The writing process was totally experimental, because I’m not really a songwriter. I wanted it to be like beats and sounds and textures, like if I smash this sound into this sound, what happens?
MD: What was the division of labor between acoustic drums and electronics?
John: My initial thought about making the record was to have all of the electronics be played live, with no sequencing, so I kind of started off with that idea. A bunch of the electronics that you hear that sound like programmed drums are me just playing an old Yamaha digital drumkit through a bunch of pedals, kind of chopped up or whatever. But then I got a step sequencer, an Arturia BeatStep Pro [sequencer/controller], and a couple samplers. I got a MicroGranny, which is a granular sampler made by BASTL instruments, and an Alesis SamplePad Pro that I primarily used as a sound bank, though I did bang on the pads a little bit. And then I just started writing stuff with the BeatStep. A lot of it, though, is really just like, “Okay, here’s a song, and it’s at like 120 bpm.” And then not even syncing the BeatStep to Ableton, just starting, and then pressing start on the BeatStep and then having to go and play the whole thing, just leaving it sort of jagged and weird.
MD: Did you use any unique percussion instruments?
John: A lot of drumkit, and then whatever percussion stuff I had laying around; just a lot of shakers, cowbells, some thrift store copper bowls that my wife found that sound really good miked and compressed because they’re really quiet.
“I really want to stay away from just hitting start and having it play a sequence.”
MD: Do you have a plan to play this material live?
John: My thought was to put together a band with me and two other people that were savvy with sampling and sequencing and just improvising electronics on the fly. I did a live show with my friend Dan [Bitney] from Tortoise and his wife [Selina Trepp]. For that I used an Elektron Digitakt drum machine, the MicroGranny, a Digitone—which is an FM synth made by Elektron—a couple of tape decks, and a live drumkit.
I pulled off the show, but I didn’t do much of the material on the record. Instead I wrote all new stuff for the set. I have all of the stems for the record on hard drive, though. So my plan is, when I get a minute, to start chopping stuff up into sample-size bits, putting it into machines, and see what I can get happening just on my own. I really want to stay away from just hitting start and having it play a sequence, and then we stand there and twist the filter knob or something. I’d really like to have it be open ended and be able to open up in different spaces when it feels right.