Tuesday, October 30, 2018

All-around Breakdown: The Skull Eclipses' Producer Botany Pens PENUMBRAS "Beat Album" Track-By-Track Breakdown (Western Vinyl)


"A penumbra is the space between the shade and the light of a partial eclipse, the area that is neither blacked-out nor illuminated fully. More broadly, the word is defined as something that surrounds or enshrouds a region or object. Like this twilit fringe between being and non-being, the production of Spencer Stephenson—known for his output under the name Botany—gives shape and circumference to The Skull Eclipses' self-titled debut.​ PENUMBRAS lays bare that album's hybrid scaffolding of ambient Boom-Bap, dubby Jungle, and hauntological sample-collage revealing a multi-faceted beat tapestry unadorned by lead-vocals, standing alone as a full-length listening experience. On ​October 26th,​ Western Vinyl is releasing ​PENUMBRAS by ​The Skull Eclipses​, an album of beats and previously unreleased pieces from the self-titled collaborative debut of producer Spencer Stephenson (​Botany​) and rapper Raj Haldar (​Lushlife​) that featured Laraaji, Open Mike Eagle, and many others."

- The Skull Eclipses (Western Vinyl)


01. "YEARN FINITE"

"It didn’t make sense to put the same track on two different releases, as the original is already instrumental, so this is a truncated version of what appears on the vocal record. That version was called “Yearn Infinite” this one is called “Yearn Finite.” The “Yearn” phrase refers to The Institute of Higher Yearning. If you’ve ever picked up a physical copy of a Botany record, you might have some reference point for what that is.

This intro embodies what Lush and I were calling “rap-salad” in the studio, which is a term that embodied our method of using rap vocals as a deconstructed, abstract texture rather than a lyrical vehicle. Hip hop digests so many other musical forms it was interesting to attempt to make it digest itself and alchemically become a weird kind of ambient music. The flute noise in the background is a tape recording of my brother playing wood flute while I mimicked him in the background with a flute-esque monosynth patch."


02. "ALL FALL" (FEAT. DEF RAIN)

"Def Rain is a Dallas electronic act who I’ve shared a bill with several times. Dallas is a scene that--for all its rockism, fracturing, and cannibalizing--produces some wildly psychedelic, forward-thinking acts, and Def Rain is part of that pool which I have had a foot planted in for about a decade (see also: Black Taffy, Melting Season, New Fumes.) I have always enjoyed hearing them play a particular song called “ENEMY,” so I simply asked them for stems of the track thinking I’d remix it. Around that same time Lush flew down to Austin to hem up some vocal tracks for The Skull Eclipses s/t debut, and the remix I was sketching up for Def Rain just ended up becoming one of our tracks. They were kind enough to let us sample them. Chronologically, I think this may have been the final track that we committed to for the debut LP. It’s funny then that it shows up first on the album."


03. "ANGELS DON'T MIND"

"I think Lush and I tend to think of this as The Skull Eclipses’ anthem. I named the beat “Angels Don’t Mind” just because the looped-up choir vocal phonetically sounds like it’s saying that, although I think they’re actually singing in Latin. That phrase just kinesthetically works for what we were expressing tonally and lyrically, and I haven’t really been conscious of it until now. Mythologically angels are supposed to be protectors, chaperones, saviors, but here they can’t be bothered. This era tends to feel like that in some ways."


04. "PILLARS"

"On the vocal version of the record this track features Felicia Douglass (from Ava Luna, Dirty Projectors) and Tendai ["Baba"] Maraire from Shabazz Palaces. I believe Ishmael Butler from Shabazz was going to turn something in for this track too, but I think that was right around the time he started working at Sub Pop, and his priorities shifted. So the result is that this track ended up sort of being steered by Tendai, whose contributions really made it what it is. Even though his verse is removed on the Penumbras cut, his percussion still forms the golden thread of the track. The top-layer of hand-drum is all him. He was able to effortlessly sink into the pocket of my production both texturally and rhythmically.

And I have to add that on the vocal version Lush’s second verse is one of his most crushing on the whole record. He came back months after the first verse was recorded because the track needed to be extended for flow and pacing of the record as a whole, and he turned in a really strong performance despite the time in between.

In the final few seconds during the interlude, you can hear a woman describing a vision of herself as an ancient astronaut talking about how she never ages, that she’s always been in the state that she’s in now. Lush and I tried to incorporate as much of this kind of thing as we could into the album; the latter 20th century fixation on aliens and cosmic entities as these modern transfigurations of--once again--external savior archetypes that society seems to so desperately crave. I feel that if the power is in us to cause hurt and dissonance then we shouldn’t dream up outside forces to counterbalance that, we should instead put more stock in our ability as highly evolved creatures to create that harmony ourselves. The animalistic aspects of our species get too much media credit likely because that serves somebody’s bank account, and justifies too many people’s low view of themselves."


05. "TAKE MY"

"This is where the record downshifts to a melancholic, tragic tone. This beat is dear to me, and probably my very favorite on the record. Its minimalism is pretty remarkable when I consider it for a moment. The entire track is just a flipped sample with some drums under it. There are no tricks, no glossy YouTube tutorial type bullshit, no bloated producer-y, gimmicky stuff that tends to make me want to distance myself from the world of “beats.” It feels really pure and honest to me. I sampled the 60’s pop group The Free Design, who has been one of my favorite groups for a long time, and we were lucky enough to clear it with the son of one of the band members. He was really easy to communicate with, and very gracious in letting us use the audio."


06. "ENCYCLOPEDIA"

"This ended up on the record at Lushlife’s urging. He really gravitated toward this one. There were two big phases to the self-titled record: The first, and the largest part, was hammered out in a few short days in Tulum. I sent him a handful of demos, and he headed down to Mexico with a mic and a preamp, and laid out the majority of lyrics and vocals in just a week or so. This was not part of that. It was one of the few that we added in the second round the following year. What I appreciate about this one is it feels kind of classic without being on-the-nose boom-bap, and it doesn’t fall into the modern trap-beat pocket either. It floats outside of genre descriptors while still referencing them, which is what Lush and I intend to do a lot of the time."


07. "GONE"

"Here’s another one on the melancholy side. When I re-listen to this one, the thing that stands out compositionally is that bouncing eighth-note kick drum. It sounds impatient under the relative serenity of the melodic elements. I like that dichotomy of tranquility and urgency, and I think that characterizes a lot of what I do. This one is kind of classic Botany in that sense.

Toward the end you hear audio from the Judica-Cordiglia radio hoax wherein two Italian radio operators claimed to have captured the sound of a solo female astronaut dying in orbit because her spacecraft had caught fire. According to the hoax the USSR had carried out the mission completely off the books knowing the woman would die. Whether any of that’s true or not Lush and I liked what that said about how government regimes can end up treating their subjects: “we will launch you into impossible circumstances, knowing full well the odds are against you, then when you’re facing doom we’ll act like we never knew a thing, all so we can advance our own interests”. In a way that speaks to Open Mike Eagle’s verse in the vocal version: “police should break arms, instead they just shoot to kill, and murder is a sentence for cruising a boosted Coupe DeVille, like having a toy gun or selling single cigarettes, or just having a snack when you wasn’t ready for dinner yet--dead. I’d like to stay up out the judgment biz but wonder which Republicans know what a Republic is.'"


08. "GUN GLITTERS"

"The title for this one came from an acquaintance of mine in Luxembourg, Victor Ferreira, AKA Sunglitters. The sparkly texture of the harp and other elements reminded me of his production, but the whole thing has a more aggressive momentum than anything of his I can recall, thus “Gun glitters.” Lojii, who featured on the vocal version (my favorite track on that iteration of the album), ended up setting up the chorus around that phrase. When we were trying to secure premieres for this track the Parkland mass shooting occurred, and we pulled the track immediately.

Sadly, if it weren’t for this shooting, we’d have had to pull it for a different one, that’s how frequently they occur in the US. We never intended this to be an un-nuanced promotion of guns in any way, we simply included the imagery in the song with artistic objectivity, the same way a painter who paints a picture of a gun isn’t immediately associated with being pro-gun. Guns are a part of the modern US (and world) landscape. It’s impossible to blur that out and still maintain an accurate picture of modernity."


09. "PUSHING UP THE HILLS"

"Here’s one of the first beats demoed. That would make this one about four years old at the time this article is published. Pretty straight-ahead Botany fare. This wasn’t intended for anything from the outset, Lush selected it out of the initial batch of demos I sent. A bit of trivia; he and I had considered (half jokingly) naming our duo Feel Spectre based on the line from this song: “I’m Phil Spector in your sector with beautiful strings.” That’s a pretty classically Lushlife reference, and its indicative of our approach to this record. One of our points of commonality is that we both think of hip hop production as something not entirely disconnected from the baroque pop production of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, George Martin, and whoever else."


10. "YEARN INFINITE II" (FEAT. LARAAJI) / EXTENDED

"One afternoon while Lushlife was here (where I live in Austin) recording some parts for the record he passed an open laptop over to me, and on the screen was some email conversation he’d been having with Laraaji. Unbeknownst to me Lush had sent Laraaji the sketch of this track, and Laraaji had recorded several layers of electric zither over my demo. This was a huge surprise to me given how big of a fan I was/am of Laraaji. Lush just reached out and secured it as a nice gesture to me, and only notified me once it was done.

Laraaji apparently records some of his stuff on a digital multitrack box which has a DVD-R writer built into it for exporting tracks. Instead of hassling with ripping all of the tracks from his machine to a computer, then uploading them and transferring them over, he just mailed me a DVD case with DVD-Rs of his zither tracks. It was wild to me at the time to receive this set of DVDs in the mail hand-addressed to me by Laraaji himself.

I finally met him just the other day. I told him who I was and that we had worked on a track together over the internet, expecting him to have forgotten about what must have been a blip in his busy life, but he goes “Oh yeah, I remember that track. "Yearn Infinite."' The title wasn’t even readily accessible in my mind, I had to pause for a second to piece together what he was saying. He just pulled it out like magic."


11. "SPACECRAFTS IN RAJASTHAN"

"Here’s another one of the initial tracks from these sessions, probably close to four years old as well. This is an odd breakbeat flip, it kind of plays with listener perception of where the first beat in the measure sits, but once you catch it it’s pretty easy. I love the the David Axelrod feel of this beat, and once again, how it doesn’t fit within normal hip hop production pockets of trap or boombap. It is neither, but it still feels like a hip hop beat. The demo title for this track became the name of our band, and the record, “The Skull Eclipses.” I named it haphazardly, from the gut, yet it seemed to evoke the appropriate kind of imagery for the project. This title is an incomplete sentence that was looping in my head, “The skull eclipses the [insert object here].” Eventually the word “sun” landed in the blank spot. “The skull eclipses the sun.'"


*BONUS* 12. "MUM UM"

"I have been playing this one out since 2013. I really wanted it to go on the self-titled LP, but I didn’t want to force the issue, and Lush didn’t seem to readily gravitate to it, though he really appreciated it on its own. I’d love to talk about what was sampled for it, but I’ll leave it for whatever curious niche of the public to discern. It seemed only right to make this one a part of the beat tape. It sounds inherently like a Skull Eclipses track to me."


*BONUS* 13. "LOOK"

"I cooked this one up around the time of the initial round of Skull Eclipses demos, but I guess I had intended it to go on a Botany record, and it never did. Probably for good reason. It matches this project better, tonally. There’s a prominent vocal sample in here of a young girl singing “if you look very carefully, there’s a goblin, behind that tree” which I assume is an elementary school Halloween singalong from the 70s or 80s. I grabbed it from a collection of secondhand tapes I was given that included a bunch of home-audio recordings. Several years back, a guy who helped my parents with some painting and repairs just walked up to me with a stack of those fake wood-grain cassette storage drawers and was like, “you collect sh*t like this right? I got these from so and so when I painted their house.” I spent the next month sorting through them one by one and grabbing pieces of them with the SP-404. There was one tape I found weirdly stuck in the back of one of the drawers, and the label says in scribbled handwriting “6-1-78 HAUNTED CHURCH.” I’ve never listened to it, and I probably never will. I think that makes it better."

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