Bubbling Under with Butane
Alphahouse founder and minimal producer talks technique and travel
Dimitri Nasrallah - March 23, 2008
by Dimitri Nasrallah
If you were to look at the decidedly strict form of minimal techno Andrew Rasse has been producing in the last five years, it would be fair to say that, as Butane, he prefers his techno pared down.
But that doesn’t mean Butane tracks don’t arrive with a strong sense of style; Rasse’s version of techno is confrontational, filled with unexpected shifts and wobbling with ghostly chatter. He likes his minimalism to play with the listener’s head.
The first Butane singles appeared as mp3’s in 2004 on Philadelphia’s Unfoundsound, and soon after Rasse moved on to labels such as Jeremy P. Caulfield’s Dumb-Unit and Rrygular. He also releases regularly on his own label, Alphahouse, an outlet that has run part and parcel with the Butane discography since Rasse’s early days of Djing. Alphahouse also plays home to various other young American producers like Miskate and Someone Else.
This past month, Alphahouse released Butane’s debut album, Becoming. The album coincides with a big move in Rasse’s life; he has recently moved from St. Louis to Berlin. In our correspondence, he says that this shift in cities has given him more freedom to focus on his career. The album bears out that focus. For Butane, Berlin provides what North America couldn’t muster, an environment where an up-and-coming producer has a real chance to develop a viable career. Perhaps this is why Becoming is flourishing, even by Butane standards.
MUTEKMAG caught up with Butane for an extended email conversation to figure out, among other things, where he’s coming from, where’s he’s going, and why he can’t get there from St. Louis.
You were born in St. Louis, a city not typically renowned as a musical hotbed. How was it growing up there, and how and when did you find your way into techno?
Just to clarify, I wasn’t actually born in St. Louis. I moved there after University, and that’s where I began the Alphahouse party and label. I grew up in a small town in the middle of Missouri, population 13,000. After high school I went to the University of Missouri to study philosophy, but I ended up spending more time studying drugs, alcohol and music than anything else. I guess you could call that philosophy, in a rough interpretation of the discipline. That’s where I first discovered “dance music” and then techno. The kind of music I was into wasn’t really represented around St. Louis at that time, so my friends and I would fly/drive to Chicago, New York, WMC in Miami, and other cities to seek out new sounds.
When did you first start DJing/performing? What got you into crossing the line from fan to participant, and how were those early gigs received?
I decided to start DJing around the fall of 2002. I was going back to graduate school at University, and I really had a passion for house and techno music, so I thought it would be cool to start buying the records. I never really intended to “be a DJ”. I was just collecting cool music and playing it for some of my friends while we all got trashed. The early gigs were at local bars/clubs around town where my friend John was the resident DJ. I was train-wrecking tech house records to drunk college kids who mostly wanted to hear Missy Elliot or something. Not that I’m knocking Missy Elliot or anything, but you get the idea. My friends were all front-and-center listening because they were just as crazy about the music, and I like to think other people started to catch on a bit too.
What kind of music influenced you in those days?
Some early influences were Tyrant (Craig Richards & Lee Burridge), Danny Howells, Danny Tenaglia, and a lot of the other Global Underground progressive house scene. I basically entered dance music through the big compilation DJ’s and worked my way down to deeper sounds from there.
How did you eventually get into recording and releasing your own tracks? When and how did the decision to get Alphahouse started come about?
I dropped out of graduate school after one semester to move to St. Louis and concentrate more on throwing the Alphahouse monthly party with my friends at this great little club called Lo. I had been DJing for about two years and running the party every month in St. Louis, when I decided to try making my own music. Like DJing, I never set out to “be a producer”. It was more of an exploration for me. I wanted to know how this crazy music worked. I’ve always had a desire within me to understand how things work, so I had to get to the bottom of exactly how people were making this music that was having such a great effect on me.
I decided to start Alphahouse Records after about three months of making my own music. The sixth or seventh track I finished, I really felt was good enough to be on a piece of vinyl and that a few people somewhere in the world might be interested in it. I never considered sending it as a demo to a label – the first thought that came into my mind was to make my own record out of it. So I did. Luckily my friends turned in some really nice remixes of it, and the label was born.
Your tracks exhibit a pretty rigorous, refined approach to minimal techno. Can you describe your personal views on the kind of minimalism you like to capture for a successful Butane track?
Well I don’t really have any preconceived ideas about what my music should sound like, so let me start at the beginning to give you some insight about my methods.
I usually start by just fiddling around with some samples, VSTs or hardware pieces, listening for particular sounds that grab me. It can be anything from a nice hi-hat to a synthy sound to a kick drum. I’m naturally drawn towards snappy percussion, minor chords, and fat round kick drums, so I simply pick out what sounds good. As I work more and more into a loop, a direction for the track presents itself, and I start to sequence the piece. Sometimes it works very naturally and intuitively and I can finish the track in one or two days. Other times I work to a point and get stuck, so I’ll go back over the track many times over the next days stripping back all the “blockages” until I’m left with just the basic groove and work again from there. At some point in this process, afterworking and reducing and working and reducing, you begin to come to a really concentrated groove in the piece, and that’s more and more what I’m looking for these days.
I want ALL of the sounds in the track to make sense. Nothing out of place; that’s my idea of minimalism. “Minimal” is not a quantity thing, it’s a quality thing. There needs to be efficiency in the sounds. There are so many tracks these days with unnecessary clutter; sounds that don’t make sense in the overall structure of the piece. I’m interested in pushing that stuff to the side and finding the real essence of the groove, which leaves room for the listener’s imagination to roam free. I know a piece is going well when I can hear, in my imagination, small melodies or rhythmic parts that don’t actually exist in the track. There’s just enough arrangement and theme to engage you, at the same time leaving enough space between sounds that the listener can discover new things in the music with each successive listen.
Marcel Duchamp said, “The creative act is not performed bythe artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” I firmly believe that. Music should be heard as an interaction between the artist and the listener. I like to try to challenge the listener by giving him or her a bit of room for interpretation, thus adding his or her own “contribution” to the piece.
I guess the last thing that I should mention as a criteria for “a successful Butane track” is the overall sound quality. The first consideration for the sound of my music is that DJ’s will (hopefully) play it on big, clean club soundsystems. I pay special attention to the low frequencies in my tracks, because bass is good. It took me a little time after the move, but I’m finally in a comfortable place in my studio so that I can really concentrate on the quality of the sounds and the overall mix of my tracks. I don’t have a “professional” studio by any stretch of the imagination, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the technology that enables people to produce really professional sounding electronic music. I’m eager to keep learning and become a better engineer.
You've recently moved from St. Louis to Berlin. Can you talk a bit about what led to this move and how it has affected your career?
Techno music so far in my career has been like a river that just carries me along in it’s current. Sometime I just feel like I’m along for the ride. That said, I’m in Berlin at the moment because it’s a fucking amazing city. It’s a very culturally and historically rich place. If you can get past the shitty gray skies in the winter, the overall quality of life here is incredible for an artist. I’m able to live and work only on my music, DJing, and my label, which I felt was essential to me being able to make this into a viable career. There aren’t many cities in the world where a person can properly live as a full-time emerging artist, so Berlin was an easy choice for me. I’m living in the midst of some of the most talented artists in the world here. I can only hope some of it is rubbing off on me.
A number of North American producers have made the move to Europe in recent years. Do you find there is a glass ceiling in North America in terms of how much you can get done as an electronic music producer? In your opinion, what would have to happen in North America to change that trend?
I can’t speak for Canada or Mexico, so most of what I have to say will be in reference to the United States. I want to say that I don’t think there’s necessarily a glass ceiling in North America for electronic music producers. You can make good, relevant music anywhere. There are good reasons why some of the most important electronic music has come out of the Midwestern United States. That said, it’s certainly pretty difficult to pursue a career in underground electronic music while living in a city like St. Louis. I go back and play in the United States several times a year, and the scene is definitely growing there, but the overall market is just not big enough yet to sustain an upcoming artist who’s trying to live from his music.
I’m going to resist the urge to go into a political diatribe against the US government and conservative Christian whack-jobs, but I will say this: There’s a pretty big difference in the way countries like Germany, Holland, France, and others over here view civil liberties and personal freedoms. I feel there’s a certain intellectual respect that you’re given here by “the authorities” that you’re not given in the US. This goes a long way in cultivating art scenes. People who are into “fringe” stuff, underground stuff, are not the type of people who like to be beaten up by SWAT teams and sprayed with tear-gas because they’re taking ecstasy and dancing at a rave. Most European countries have at least partially accepted the idea that people are going to experiment with drugs, and they’re probably going to listen to weird music while they’re doing it. This is a good thing.
Look, when I moved to Berlin and I went to the Immigration office here, the lady I was dealing with for my visa application was actually impressed that I was some kind of “famous” DJ. Those were her words, not mine. Imagine if I were in a government office in the US, and I had to tell someone that I make and play “techno music” to people for a living. They’d look at me like I was some kind of drug dealer! My point being – there’s a whole perception problem in the US about electronic music. It comes all the way down from the government through the media and into the house of Joe construction worker and Jane teacher. Somehow the majority of people there don’t respect what we do as a real form of art. It’s exactly the opposite here. Electronic music is an integral part of the popular culture in Europe. There are probably more worthwhile EDM publications in Germany alone than there are in the whole United States.
Step one for changing the mass-artist-exodus trend in North America: elect people with liberal social values into the government. The more Giuliani’s they elect there, the further into the dark ages they’re going to go. Step two: the media needs to step up and portray electronic music as the viable art form that it is.
Becoming, your debut album, is an impressive piece of work. How long have you been working on it, and what did you want to achieve with an album?
First, thank you for the compliment. I’m very flattered that you like it.
Technically I started working on it in about February of 2007, two months after I moved to Berlin. I took a live PA booking for the DEMF in May, and I had never used Ableton before, so I had three months to prepare a live set. I lot of the foundation for the album was laid during those three months writing new material for that performance. After going to DEMF and Sonar, I came back to Berlin and started thinking about turning some of these pieces into tracks. I hadn’t finished a track in about 6 months at that point, so when I finally sat down it came pretty fast. I think I wrote around 15 tracks in the next 2-3 months. The album came out of that.
I guess there are a few things I wanted to achieve with this album. The first was to feel like I offered something new of myself in the music. I have released quite a few records over the last three years, so I wanted this music to be seen as an evolution in me as a person and an artist. I really attempted to work harder on these tracks, spending more overall time with them before I declared them finished. It’s an especially personal collection of music for me, and I hope that people can hear that. I was in a very particular mindset while making this music, all the time reading and considering neuroscience, consciousness, astronomy, physics, etc. I think all of these themes can be seen and heard in the overall concept of the album. From the design of the jacket to the title of the LP, and hopefully through to the music, I want people to view it as a cohesive project.
You can’t force people to like something. All we can do is make the music to the best of our abilities and put it out there for people to judge. If at least a few people get some kind of enjoyment out of it, then I will consider it a success.
What new tracks/acts are turning your head at the moment that we should look out for?
There are, without a doubt, a lot of talented new people in this music scene at the moment, but I’d like to give them time to see if they can sustain themselves with good creative output before I start blowing the trumpet and calling someone the new Ricardo Villalobos. Talented people who work hard and have good intentions will get what they deserve in the end, without becoming over-hyped internet sensations.
Most of the acts turning my head these days are not very “new”. It seems like a lot of media outlets right now are searching for the next big thing. Instead, I prefer to talk about people who have been consistently doing amazing work for the last 10 years. Or about some of the all-time great techno and house records that are 12+ years old and I still play every time I DJ. When I think of inspiring artists, these are some of the names that come to mind: Daniel Bell, Zip, Dandy Jack, Ricardo, Losoul, Carl Craig, Mathew Herbert, Baby Ford, Moodymann, Jackmate, Styro 2000, The Kooky Scientist, Thomas Melchior, Maurizio.
Those are the people you should look out for.