When you think of sampling in music what generally comes to mind? For many it may be Kanye West's use and abuse of Daft Punk or any other rap song that has borrowed a chorus here or a base line there. However, there is a completely different world of sampling out there, and the results can be quite different. The electronic artist is able to sample songs in such a way that the end product only vaguely resembles the original. They are able chop the songs they sample into tiny pieces and then reconstruct into completely new pieces. In my mind I quickly make a connection to William S. Burroughs and his cutups. The technology may be different, but the concept is very much the same, that is to take an original piece or pieces and cut them into smaller pieces. The smaller pieces are then put together in a unique way to create a completely new document or song. One duo demonstrating this skill is Normal, Illinois' Oh Astro.
Comprised of Husband and Wife, Hank Hofler and Jane Dowe, who both have had productive solo careers in electronic music, Oh Astro works on a microscale to create grand pieces of electronic pop. The duo is preparing to release their full-length debut, Champions of Wonder, on November 6th (Illegal Art). This will be the follow-up to their 2006 debut ep, Hello World.
Recently, Hank Hofler of Oh Astro was kind enough to answer a few of my questions on sampling and the world of Oh Astro in general.
Orange Alert (OA): Where does the name Oh Astro come from? It makes me think of the Jetson's.
Hank Hofler (HH): We like to evoke playful images in people's minds. So the Jetson's dog or Astro Boy are both great associations. There's also the idea that it represents something other worldly, as in astro meaning something in the sky, but it's meant to be playful and not necessarily reference anything too specific.
OA: I am fascinated by the concept of creating completely sampled based music. Roughly, how many samples are there on Champions of Wonder? Of those how many have been cleared for use, if any?
HH: Each track generally consists of a few sources, but we usually take several samples from any of those sources. Nothing is cleared. A couple of the tracks are remixes for other artists, so those are done with permission.
OA: I recently attempted to read through Christopher Penrose's Spectral Signal Processing in Music Composition thesis, and I understand that he assisted in coding the spectral software that was utilized on this album.What is the primary function of that software in your music?
HH: Jane programs software, and for a while was really focused on the idea that new software could create new types of musical expression. Hello World, the debut Oh Astro EP, was much more centered on that idea. It was a search for something unique. Champions of Wonder is actually a step away from that. With the new disc, we were attempting to manually replicate some of the micro-sampling processes that Jane's software did. So, we manually cut up every tiny sample and then intuitively stitched it back together into something new. We wanted it to be less mechanical, so abandoning the emphasis on software processes was essential. There's still some of those custom spectral processes that Jane and Christopher made on the album, but it's more for sonic effect rather than central to how the music is constructed.
OA: Your label mate, Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk), is also making sample based music, but appears (to the ear at least) to be implementing a different technique or program. What are your thoughts on the success on Night Ripper, and how might that success translate over to you and Champions of Wonder?
HH: Night Ripper is an incredible album. We wouldn't dare compare ourselves to what Girl Talk is doing. It does raise the profile of Illegal Art, but while we hope that our music can reach a larger audience, we have no delusions of finding the same type of crossover appeal that Girl Talk's music is achieving.
OA: I know Normal is a college town, but I was still surprised to see musicians from Normal. Does your location hinder you in any way from a promotional, creative, or social aspect? Is there much of an electronic music scene in Normal or is location all relative in an electronic era?
HH: There really isn't much of a scene here, but I teach in an Arts Technology program and it offers a lot of stimuli through interaction with students,their projects, and just preparing for classes. We lived in Tokyo for a few years, so we've spent time in a more active environment. Sometimes I miss it, but we're so busy now it probably wouldn't make much difference anyway.Between the University and the Internet, there's no shortage of information and culture, and it's also somewhat liberating to not be caught up too heavily in the politics and trends of a more structured scene. We're very free to pursue our music at our leisure in the middle of the corn fields.
OA: What's next for Oh Astro?
HH: We'll continue creating tracks and exploring studio production. We feel that we're just beginning to tap into the music we want to create. I'd also like to play some live shows, but I haven't decided when I'll be able to do a tour of the Oh Astro material. For now it will just be ad hoc events. Jane isn't as interested in playing live and she has had a few opportunities open up for gallery installations, so she seems to be moving in that direction and working more with visual media.
OA: Coffee? If yes, what is your favorite type of coffee and where is your favorite coffee spot?
HH: I don't drink coffee as I'm a practicing Mormon, and the health code prohibits coffee.
OA: What is the strangest sample you have ever used in a composition?
HH: When I did more experimental live improvisation I used to mix in Chicago's"If You Leave Me Now." It's not that strange of a song, but with altering the pitch to harmonize with layers of itself and mixing it with arrhythmic bleeps and noises, it had a very odd effect.
For more information on Oh Astro please visit their website.