Lisa Eriksson and Ryan Harlin met at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, where they were both studying sound technology, but it wasn't until they both hit Los Angeles that Technosquirrels was formed. In between, Lisa became one half of an art rock band called Schulte/Eriksson and Ryan was co-founder of Emo Riot Productions. 3 EPs and a full length album later, they are still exploring all types of electronic music production. Recently, the duo dived into Tabletop and tried out some of the new devices, including our recently released Magic Mic and T-Pain Effect. They've even produced an all new track using Tabletop and we are thrilled to feature it here (see the end of this post!). Read on for Lisa's thoughts about Technosquirrels, Tabletop, and mobile music making (In the interest of full disclosure, Lisa works for Retronyms doing Community and Marketing).
Hello Lisa! As I mentioned in the introduction, you both met at Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts. Do you think this background has naturally led to being more open minded towards music experimentation in general?
Yes, I would agree that going to Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) led me to be more open minded towards experimenting, but frankly it also led me to be more open minded about creating more commercial/conventional music. Not so much because of the classes at the school but because of the people at school. I was already very focused on experimenting with the boundaries of traditional music making when I came to LIPA. I felt totally free in my approach because I was working in the fringes of the music industry and was comfortable there. I came from my own lo-fi, almost art-music kind of background in Sweden. I felt it was a feminist approach to music that deliberately broke the traditional rules and guidelines that felt very restricting and old fashioned to me. I believe that most things are politics and music is no exception. I developed a love for everything that was anti-tradition, so I focused my music on everything discordant, dissonant, and unusual, and I often used polyrhythmic time signatures like 7/4 and 11/4 rather than 4/4. Of course dance music then inspired me to "experiment" in the very traditional 4/4, 4 on the floor model, but I never stopped trying to add a sense of chaos and anti-tradition to my music. Over time though I felt I was working against myself and got focused on a more commercial sound. I am often the one pushing Ryan and I to leave a sense of imperfection and spontaneity in our music though it is often hidden in there now and not very obvious at first glance. I usually am the one to vote for ending production and leaving things as they are in a kind of "good enough" state, where Ryan would love to continue making the production more glossy. This comes from my desire to not over produce a track but to leave humanity and spontaneity in the music if at all possible.
While you certainly use a wide variety of instruments and techniques, your music retains a strong pop sensibility. Do you think that's important?
Yes, that has been an interesting and challenging area for me to push myself to develop. That's what I wanted to learn more about after breaking every rule in the book for so many years. I wanted to feel like I could also master something more glossy and conventional.
What's your normal music writing process like? Do you have a typical division of creation?
Usually both me and Ryan will independently create musical ideas, quick little loops and drafts of songs. Then I usually dominate the lyrics and melody writing department simply because I want to have that expression available to me. I don't usually like to sing what someone else has written because it's not my honest expression when I do. In the case of this track that we made for Tabletop 6.3 though, Ryan wrote the lyrics and the melody for the vocal. What he wrote resonated so much with me I didn't feel strange performing it. It became my own expression. I love creating poetic language and I often go towards the more surreal writing. Ryan then often helps me refine my lyrics to be more understandable and perhaps applicable to a wider group of people. In the case of this track though we ended up refining Ryan's lyrics together and ended up co-writing parts of it. This co-writing process is usually what happens unless some lyrics just fit from the start. Once we have the drafts of the instrumental music I like to record ideas of melodies and lyrics onto some small handheld moblie device like my iPhone or a small dictaphone. Then lyrics usually just come to mind at that time, or I look at older notes of lyrics. I tend to write lyrics on a semi-constant basis, on my iPhone Note pad, no matter where I am, on the MUNI, at a cafe, waking up first thing in the morning etc. Then I use that as a raw pool of ideas that I can borrow parts from or just let it inspire me to write new things. Then when we both feel that we have a song structure we start the really long, slow process of production and arrangement. This often takes us weeks, and months. Writing the songs and coming up with ideas is the quick and easy-ish part. The production time is our bottleneck most often.
It's great that you were able to create a song within Tabletop. How did you find the process? Can you describe how you created the track?
Working in Tabletop feels a lot more like working on a 90s era workstation than desktop software of the modern era. Workstations always felt self-contained, pinned in by the 4 walls of the box you were working in. Within that environment you made your song and it's a nice way to work. The isolation of the workspace makes you focus on music in a way that concentrates the experience. With my desktop production DAW, I've got Skype bouncing in my dock for my attention, incoming email sounds beeping, and TweetDeck flashing up on screen. Having my production workspace tied into my entire computer makes for ample opportunities for distraction. "Let me just browse Reddit while I wait for this save to finish..." In that way, I liked launching Tabletop and only focusing on the sounds, the devices, and the Tabletop... nothing external. The song came from a synth arpeggio and delay effect that helped create some ping pong effects. From there, I layered a bass and added some Progressive House style drums. By setting up a few different blocks, I was able to bring in different elements to make the song develop and build. Once I had the vocal recorded, I round-tripped the file over to my desktop so that I could cut up some vocal syllables and move them back using the iTunes file transfer to Tabletop's gridlock sampler. I found that working in Tabletop meant having an idea of what you want to do but being open to catching a cool moment that might happen along the way. Just like desktop production, Tabletop can have some of those happy accident moments that take an idea and lift it to a whole cooler level that you never planned on. Being open to embracing those moments when they happen is what makes music production fun.
Did you encounter any special limitations or secret tricks?In a lot of ways, making music on the iPad is like making music in the era before desktop production allowed for unlimited tracks, virtually unlimited DSP, and microscropic levels of perfection. And while those things have been great for music production, they have also caused us to lose something intangible in music and that is the imperfection of live performance and the creativity that's spawned from limitation. In making this track and other tracks in Tabletop I'm forced to think about music production more similarly to how I used to on my actual tabletop when I had my TR-606 Drum Machine and Korg MS-10 synth plugged into a cassette 4 track. Working in an environment that has limitations forces you to think of new ways to work, new ways to maximize your resources, and ultimately it makes you create differently. And different is always good for creative people. The track was originally written using 2 303s and a few effects devices but when I realized the tabletop surface would soon fill up with just those devices I started moving those ideas over to the Gridlock, triggering them that way, and freeing up space for vocals, drums, and bass. It's the same way production worked on SP1200s or MPCs in the 90s. Samplers like the Gridlock became far more than drum machines. They were storage for musical phrases and layers of production that could be stored inside the sampler to great effect. So when I saw my production filling up fast I instantly reverted to that mentality — "Okay, well I'll just fill up the one sampler instead of filling up the whole Tabletop."
What do you think of working on touch devices like the iPad? Do you see these types of devices becoming more prevalent in music production and creation?
Production on the iPad is definitely different than the way we've become accustomed to modern desktop production. In some ways, it offers incredible mobility and on-the-go produciton. n other ways, you have to be more considerate and deliberate about your moves and decisions. The 303, for example, was never a simple device to compose on from the hardware days of the 80s to the ReBirth days in the 90s. And the 303 in Tabletop is faithful to those originals, both in sound but also in its quirky interface. That's usually a mixed blessing for me because sometimes I wish I could just play on a controller keyboard to get an idea down but other times — and frankly more often — the quirks bring out an idea that wouldn't have happened if I let my fingers noodle on a keyboard. In fact, I find myself using less of the keyboard based devices in Tabletop and more of the pattern devices, like the M8RX. The form factor of the iPad and the touch screen is a perfect fit for things like that so I take the opportunity to break out of my keyboard-playing routines.
What did you think of our new devices, the Magic Mic and the T-Pain Effect?It's funny when I listened recently to "Jagged Little Pill" by Alanis Morrisette I was shocked at how sharp and flat her vocals were. And don't get me wrong, in 1995 when it came out it never sounded like that to me but that was before our ears were trained by pitch correction pluggins to expect 100% perfect intonation. T-Pain helps us to not just correct incorrect pitch, but to deliver vocals that sound as rigidly perfect as people expect to hear nowadays. It's become a necessary tool of the vocal production chain, as important or even more important than a good mic. In fact... if I were given a choice between a nice mic but never having something like T-Pain in my arsenal or the built in iPad mic but having access to the T-Pain effect I'd have go for the latter. I can always make that built in mic sound filtered and cool if I have to and T-Pain helps me on the "cool" part of that equation. Magic Mic does what it promises and that's good for me too. A producer friend of mine once said that the dividing line between amateur beatmakers and song producers is vocals. Beatmakers make endless 8 bar loops that never see the ligtht of day. Song producers add vocals to their 8 bar loops and suddenly people have top lines and hooks they can identify with. Listen to a Katy Perry song, for example, and imagine it without the vocal. It's usually just an 8 bar beat with different layers of production coming in and out with the verse/choruses. Vocals make all the different so in that way Magic Mic takes Tabletop from being a beat production tool to being a song production tool. It's a simple device that makes a much larger impact than you'd first assume.
Do you think you will use the iPad and/or Tabletop in your music in the future?For sure I know I will. I now use Tabletop regularly and I really feel that it will come to help me thrive in my music production. There is no going back now. I'm really inspired by Tabletop and am currently working on getting a set together for DJing at one of Retronyms' future Mobile Music Meetups.
What does Techno Squirrels have on the horizon? New releases?Yes, we have lots of new tracks that are semi-ready but not fully refined yet. We hope to be releasing some EPs on iTunes in the not too distant future. Can't wait for it. I always love releasing music.