My Angel Boy Hudson Mohawke: On Memes and Music

Interviewed by Max Alper

Audio transcript available wherever you get your podcasts.

Picture this if you will: I'm sitting on my front porch enjoying a nice evening to myself. Drink in hand, perhaps a bit of smoke. Off in the distance I see a shining orb slowly approaching me. I realized that it is a Scottish, or an orb of the Scottish variety… it couldn't be… is it seminal electronic musician and producer Hudson Mohawke? A hologram appears out of the orb. I gasp with excitement. I hope he has an interesting conversation about sound and media with me…

Max Alper: Oh my god, Hudson Mohawke... how'd you get here? You're in my house, you just showed up, just showed up out of nowhere, begging for scrap metal to be sold at the junkyard. How are you today? What brings you here, how does it feel to be the first guest artist that we're speaking with for Klang Magazine?

Hudson Mohawke: It feels great. Thank you for having me. Yeah, nice to be here.

MA: Well, I want to just get right into this shit because you know how I roll on the internet: How do you feel about memes in relation to your music?

HM: Funny sort of thing, like I remember going on… a couple of years ago on the Wayback Machine and looking at my old MySpace, and this is like, probably 2006 or 2007. And it's essentially the same content as currently [what we have]... so like, it's sort of, in a weird roundabout way, it’s always that side of things has always kind of been a part of [me] online.

Yeah, I feel like…I think I said before we started recording, I feel like you've [La Meme Young] got a pretty good grasp on that side of things as well, because you're doing something which, at a base level, is pretty interesting and has some substance to it. And, you know, if it happens to throw some humor in there at the same time, then that's [that.]

MA: I appreciate you saying humor, because I think, you know, the world that extends beyond yourself, myself and this giant umbrella of electronic music is pretty serious, self serious, right? Do you think that this kind of humor and by extension, the meme, internet meme culture, because not… like you said, going back all the way to MySpace through your old material being going viral as a sex meme on Tiktok? Do you feel like this is kind of a natural guerilla marketing? Do you see any material benefit to being funny?

HM: I mean, I'm certainly not quantifying it in any sort of like, material benefit, because it's just sort of become sort of threaded through the music in some sense and also through the artwork, certainly. And also, like I kind of, I saw and I do see a lot of parallels between like now, or even, you know, traditionally in the last 20 years or wherever, where you get like a little sort of emerging scene or genre in the music world. And it’s kind of like riffing off of something which is maybe recontextualizing something that is popular like in another space or with like a different audience and it's sort of like turning it on its head and recontextualized and taking elements from that and bring it into a different sphere. And I can see some parallels within that and then the kind of memes as well.

Some of them got really big, a lot of kind of niche sort of like, DJ meme pages or techno meme pages, and things like that. You're taking a lot of the same tropes and the same kind of meme formats but like turning them on their head to be something that has this incredibly niche specific meaning but using a template or something or something that's familiar to wider people. [You’re] putting it in this context which is going to be extremely funny to like a tiny group of people…

MA: Do you think that with that being said, CBat having its moment — it's a 10 year old song right? Do you think that that's, and by larger extension, TikTok, now a good force for this re recycling of material that meant something to someone else 10 years ago that means something completely different to a Gen Z person now?

HM: Seems to be. Part of it is [that] in the grand scheme of things TikTok is still in its infancy. It's really like there's no rhyme or reason to what becomes popular and that is pretty cool. I think from what I can tell anyways, and I'm not like massively in the TikTok space but you know, it hasn't been around long enough for it to have a set of rules of, These things are that do really well…it's just kind of a lot of people throwing shit at the wall right? It’s the same reasons that I really used to love Vine.

MA: Exactly. Yeah, I mean it seems to have replaced that kind of universal itch that people have for meaningless content that could very well improve your day for the stupidest reason. Everybody has, at some point in their day, a need for anything but serious work. RIP Vine.

Speaking of being a musician with an online presence…I guess like six months ago there were those viral posts with Dua Lipa and Doja Cat saying, “In our contracts we have to make TikToks in order to market ourselves...” At a smaller scale than the pop stars, how do you feel in regards to social media for working musicians online? It’s hustle culture, because you know, album sales aren't going to pay the bills. What do you do? How do you survive now?

HM: Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of conversations about this. A number of instances throughout my career, there’s been this thing of like, I'm not gonna make like a template fucking thing [to market] because, like, I know when I see people doing that, I'm like, This is bullshit. I know that you don't want to be doing this. I think I have an allergy to anything that seems sort of disingenuous and I remember speaking to my management about it, like, prior to the viral thing and being like, basically saying, Look, if you think I'm gonna make like a fucking TikTok of like, Here's five songs you didn't know about… like, you can fuck off, I'm not gonna do that, y’know what I mean? And if it happens, if anything happens for me on any of these platforms, it's going to have to come to me on my terms. And, bizarrely, that sort of randomly worked out.

MA: A lot of these people nowadays, obviously talking about AI in visual art, although you're seeing it in music as well on these ambient, meditation apps like Endel, where it just is a synthesizer engine that generates pads and sweeping little arpeggios and field recordings. And then you go all the way to Lo fi Hip Hop channels on YouTube, where there isn't even an artist anymore. It's just like a company that's just pressing print on some generative, you know, software, that creates this quote, simpler music.

I mean, do you have any optimism for somebody that wants to just make like, X template style of production? Or are we all going to have to aim for becoming indescribable because you know, your music in particular isn't safe. It's not hip hop. It's not by any means, you know, UK dubstep or experimental kind of hyperdub influence, sort of sound there, you have a sort of foot in… and it's not concert music, and yet you have ambient and string arrangements and all the other shit. So like, do we all have to aim for [something] new in order to escape the automation? Or are you optimistic that we can still make tight beats in 10 years?

HM: Yeah, I wonder. I don't. I try not to get that much thought, but I do feel to some extent that like, when people in general first become aware of a new technology that might be a threat to XYZ, there's always a furor or like, you know, a period of time and then… what my idealistic optimistic view of it is that for the foreseeable future anyways, it's going to take a human ideas to keep feeding these things and keep these things adapting and evolving,

MA: Right. It's not actually intelligence. It's just data learning human material, right?

HM: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, it's not going to be able to like scrapes that day or wherever, until, until it exists in having been created by a human and I think that's probably going to be the case for a while.

MA: Do you think that people, you know, people are saying…because I've heard the analogy that this is kind of like, the Marvel character universe of art now where it's all going to be just nostalgia, because of its feeding on previously made art, and music and visuals, it's never actually generating new ideas.

Are you worried that if any sort of, you know, a sick, J Dilla style beat, being churned out by machine learning, has the ability to be as popular as a human being making it… are you worried that we might have a plateau if this takes off in any way?

HM: I think in many ways, there already has been a sort of plateau in innovation. As I often think about, like, you know, what is in music and art, fashion, wherever, you know, what the current climate is predominantly sort of regurgitating 90s and 2000s work. And I know that that kind of runs in a cycle of whatever it is 20…20, 30 years, whatever. And then I'm like, Well, you know, there's a lot of very popular dance music, specifically now, and pop music as well. But like, you could have told me that was a record from 1993 or 94. And, you know, it's almost inconsequential to most people, that it's sort of a regurgitation of that and I don't know, I mean, I think in that kind of sense, it already has plateaus and that's not even necessarily have anything to do with AI.

MA: Right. Now, it's just now the risk of it being the same cycle of nostalgia, but this time not being generated by a person, but by the third of the last 30 years of data rather than people.

HM: Yeah. It's going to take a human to relate that emotion, I feel like the real records that define a particular generation are you know, the real like seminal projects that are not only different, but also like capture people's emotion and attention, you know, it’s to sort of like, slice through all the bullshit and really get people. That takes a human sensibility, I think.

MA: It's magic, I mean, it's irrational sometimes, you know like that's the one thing that computers are — is irrational .

HM: It's not when it comes from something that exists.

MA: Well, to end it out on a strictly music educational note, can you tell us one sonic tool, technological or physical object, that you've discovered in the past year or so that has become essential to your sound workflow?

HM: There's one thing that I got like I'm very fortunate to live like down the street from Perfect Circuit… you know, I don’t know if it’s one guy or was like a small company, but the Soma Labs Company, like they had that…I'll send you a video of it afterwards… But it's basically like a microphone and it has weird controls on it. But there's a video of this crazy Russian and Ukrainian guy or something like making sure and it's like two metal [pieces] and they react to… like, it's not a button, it's just like a current thing that reacts to ….voltage…

MA: Voltage kill switch…

HM: Exactly, no terms for anything on it just like symbols like nothing that tells you what anything is. You just like twisting knobs on like…

MA: Incredible. So is [an] effects processor of your voice going into it?

HM: Basically yeah, I mean it has a microphone and the end of it, and it can translate your voice into [it] and discern what you want to be a kick or a snare or a hi-hat. And can just make some like… can be very straight up or can be like the most intense horrific thing you've ever heard.

MA: This is why I'm very glad I asked this question at the end though, because that's fucking cool. I hate gawking over gear but like, I knew that you have something unique. I want this material, [not] like, Well there's this filter module that I just picked up — nah, I don't want that. I want the fucking…”blow into it thing” from Ukraine.  Please give me a link [so] that I can hyperlink it in there, and we’ll get Soma to inadvertently sponsor this.

MA: Aw man, Hudmo, thank you so much for being our…for popping our cherry of our podcast interviews.

HM: My pleasure.

MA: It is wonderful to talk to you and we hope for you to be involved in future endeavors as we take off. Now, as I had mentioned at the beginning, since you're breaking into my house, I will humbly ask you to leave. Well, now your hologram is fading away into the distance. Thanks so much, man. I'll talk to you soon.