Switched On – Deepchord: Functional Designs (Soma Recordings)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s The Story?

Detroit musician, producer and field recorder Rod Modell returns from a relative sabbatical with Functional Designs, hid first album in five years.

Remaining with Glasgow label Soma Recordings, Modell has taken an enforced absence (see our interview with him) but one which has led to him coming back with more musical intent than ever. While it might sound strange to say that about an artist who makes very ambient music, Modell’s brand of ambience has an otherworldly intensity at its core.

What’s The Music Like?

This is indeed music on a deeply ambient plain. On first glance not a lot has changed in the Deepchord world – but given the earthy, weather beaten vistas we associate with him that is not a bad thingat all.

Amber sets the scene, with sheets of rain sweeping across the sonic picture, a wide open and comforting view if not completely settled. A four to the floor rhythm is established at the start of Darkness Falls, which is thick with outdoor ambience. Strangers is especially good, a moody cut that has a dub-infused undercarriage.

Deepchord compositions often feel like musical weather systems, such as Panacast, but Cloudsat feels in much more of a hurry to get across the sky. Ebb And Flow, on the other hand, is an effortless and beautiful sequence depicting slow progress against a warm bed of keyboard sounds. Warmer still is the dubby Sun, where a sonorous bass drum supports the heat haze of an incredibly restful added-note chord.

Does It All Work?

It does. As with almost all Deepchord compositions there is a surety to his work that is at once compelling and reassuring.

Is It Recommended?

Yes – and it’s great to have him back at the start of a new chapter.

Talking Heads: Deepchord

Questions by Ben Hogwood

It is five years since we heard from Detroit-based producer Deepchord, aka Rod Lodell. The artist, who records for Glasgow label Soma Recordings, returns with the highly atmospheric album Functional Designs, described as ‘music born from the dusk; made for when the sun falls in a big city;.

Like much of Deepchord’s more recent music it makes use of field recordings and a wide range of electronic tones that take in the influence of dub, techno and folk. A keen photographer, Lodell takes great care in matching his music and art.

In this revealing interview, he talks Arcana through his compositional process, his musical upbringing and why the end of the day is a key point in his music.

Arcana: With it being five years since your last album release, have you been busy musically in that time?

Deepchord: There was a two-year hiatus from the studio due to some family/medical problems, but thankfully, those have been resolved entirely, and life is moving forward now. So back in the studio again. It’s great to feel inspired again.

What effect if any did the pandemic have on your music?

It’s funny, the music post pandemic is somehow different. Maybe a little more melancholy. Seems more like “listening music” rather than dance music. The last couple of years was a dark time. Friends succumbed to covid. It feels like we’re on the upswing now. Like we’re coming to the surface after being underwater for 2 years. Maybe the music reflects this. Melancholy from the past two years, but with a glimmer of optimism.

How has Detroit responded in the last few years?

There is actually a very small group of people into electronic music in Detroit. So, although not a big demographic, they are most certainly passionate, and their support and feedback is greatly appreciated. I was born and grew up in Detroit, and even though I’ve lived elsewhere over the years, it always feels like home when I get back.

What music did you grow up with? Out of interest did you listen to much dub and / or modern classical?

In my youth, I spent lots of time with my grandparents. They listened to artists like Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Percy Faith. I still listen to this stuff today for nostalgic reasons. Since the mid-80’s, I listened to primarily experimental music. musique concrete, sound-design, and early industrial. Haven’t listened to much dub growing up. Acquired a taste for this later. I did enjoy lots of modern classical. Lots of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Music for 18 Musicians was one of my biggest influences.

What music do you listen to now, and take inspiration from?

Today, I listen to mostly field recordings and acoustic jazz music. Very little electronic stuff. I love field recordings. They are playing almost all the time in my home. Little sonic snapshots that I made around the world. I love how they make me feel. And jazz is the best for chilling out. It does what ambient music is supposed to do, but rarely does for me, because when I listen to it, I start to dissect it, and pay too much attention to it, and can’t relax. But with jazz, I don’t do that, so I just let it flow and enjoy it. I’ve really been into jazz the last several years. I don’t listen to anything mainstream. I like ethnic music. Middle Eastern music.This is influential for me. Persian music. In the electronic realm, I look forward to the next Hyperdub releases from London. They really seem to push envelopes in very interesting ways.

I really like Functional Design, it’s very atmospheric – and does what you wanted it to do, painting a picture of dusk falling in a big city. Did you have Detroit in mind when you said that?

Painting a picture of ‘dusk falling’ is a very accurate way to describe the album. Very accurate. I think all of my music is ‘night oriented’. I seem most influenced by night time. I like big cities at night. I’m definitely not a morning person. To me, “morning” is about 10am. I always get a second wind at midnight. I love night walks. And yes, this album has more Detroit DNA in it than any others that I’ve done. With the pandemic and everything else going on over the past few years, I was trapped here. During the pandemic, I would go to Belle Isle park in Detroit and sit. Or wander the (near vacant) streets downtown. And these moments got balled up into the new album. To be honest, I like the music that’s more influenced by favorite places like Amsterdam and Barcelona, because it takes me away from home. But this one is definitely steeped in “Detroit after dark”.

Your compositions often feel like weather systems. Is that intentional?

Maybe subconsciously. In the early days, my ambient music was very influenced by this. Weather has always been a big influence. Pressure zones and storms. And I think this is still buried in my head somewhere. I like air movement. I love stormy days. I prefer rainy days more than sunny ones. I like weather patterns. Weather is a bigger influence than any other music. Similarity, is architecture. I find the work of my favorite architects (e.g John Portman) more influential than any music.

Do you always make your music in the studio or do you go outside?

I haven’t been successful at recording music outdoors yet, but want to try more. I remember years ago, talking to Steve Roach on the phone, and he was telling me about how he’s been recording outside in his backyard (Arizona). May have been his Dream Circle or Slow Heat album. This blew me away. I loved the idea. I made a few attempts, but they didn’t work out. I would like to pursue this more. Or maybe have a greenhouse behind the house with a small studio.

This is a slightly nerdy question, but how do you get your bass drums so deep, as in Memories? Do you spend a lot of time perfecting your sound?

I’ve been asked this before, and I think it’s just through years of trial and error. I have a certain chain of compressors, EQ, and limiters that work for me. Also, I think it’s my idea of what a kickdrum should be. I’m not into sharp whacks. I think a kick should be almost subliminal. I like a deep whoosh of air in the room. A metronome to line up the other blurry elements with. But I want those “blurry elements” to take precedence. I think a loud kick takes away from the subtleties. So I keep it quiet. But, I wanted it to have more presence, so I do it by making them deeper.

Do you always think of the full album and place each track in context?

I’ll record a sequence of tracks influenced by a particular place, then arrange them to tell a story. I think it terms of a full length rather than singles. I like the full story. A concept. I’m most influenced by geographic locations, and they have multiple facets. So an album lets me describe those facets in 10-12 chapters. I find trying to get the picture across in one track is too restrictive. Many times, when you combine several tracks into album form, they strengthen each other. It’s definitely about the collection for me, rather than a single.

Are you traveling much and playing live or DJing?

We just got back from Barcelona last week, and spent some time in Amsterdam. But it was for pleasure rather than music. I was kind of scared to travel for the past couple years, but I think it’s time to venture out a little. I miss my favourite cities. There are a few EU shows scheduled in November and December. I think I will be making short trips to EU in the next year. Probably not staying there long-term in the near future. We’ll see how it goes. I do miss Amsterdam. It’s my true home.

The photography for the album is stunning – you take great care in how your music is presented.

Thank you. I always try to match photos that reflect the music. The image on the front of Functional Designs is in Detroit. It was shot near Broadway and Grand River, looking towards Woodward. It was a dreary autumn day at dusk. Damp, cold in the air. It felt like the music to me.

Was it your aim to release ‘dusk’ music as the summer is coming to an end in the Northern hemisphere?

Not specifically. But again, I do think dusk and night time is a recurring theme in my music. I make music for driving around at night. Music that just wouldn’t feel right in the mid-day. Unless it’s raining and dark maybe.

You can listen to clips from Deepchord’s Functional Design album, and view purchasing options, at the Soma website. Meanwhile the EP Functional Extraits 2 is due on 14 October – and you can view and order, also at the Soma website

Switched on – Celebrating Daft Punk

As of yesterday, it’s ‘au revoir’ to one of the best and most influential outfits in dance music.

Daft Punk, the duo behind massive hits Around The World, Digital Love, Get Lucky and more – not to mention three huge albums in Homework, Human After All and Random Access Memories – have decided to call it a day. The chances are this decision was made some time ago, for it is a long time since we have heard from them in a collaborative sense, their last released work being two brief cameos on The Weeknd’s Starboy album in 2016.

With Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo going their separate ways, it’s a good time to consider their impact on music and culture from the 1990s until now.

I can well remember when Da Funk came out, sneaking through the underground and on to an unexpected initial home, Glasgow label Soma Recordings. It was unusually slow for the techno label, and more guitar-laden than their roster at the time – but label heads Slam – aka Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle – spotted its potential. The instantly recognisable riff found a home in Chemical Brothers live and DJ sets, like a distorted version of Kraftwerk in the way it strutted across the dancefloor – and in the way it translated effortlessly to radio.

Daft Punk built on this with imaginative samples and utterly brilliant videos – both combining to mesmerising effect on their second UK top 10 hit, Around The World:

Homework, their first long player, appeared in many a ‘best of 1997’ list – by which time the pair had moved onto Virgin, their logo uncannily matching that of their new label. Four years later the second album, Discovery, raised them to another level, propelled by their first no.1 single, One More Time:

The breathy vocals from Romanthony (another unexpected Glasgow link) were initially divisive as they sounded exaggerated…but the longer the single loitered on the radio the bigger it became. The lead track on Discovery, it began an album of true dancefloor happiness, which reached giddy heights with Aerodynamic and Digital Love.

These were sleek, funky club cuts with a healthy slab of disco attached, and went perfectly with the robotic image Daft Punk had now created. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger – the next cut from the album – fared even better, its vocal calling card and riff picked up by Kanye West years later.

Live, Daft Punk were securing a devoted following, with winning sets at Coachella in 2006 and Hyde Park’s Wireless festival the following year. By that time album number three was on the streets. Human After All – good though it was – did not quite hit the heights of Discovery, in spite of Robot Rock and the title track.

By this time French dance music was enjoying a charmed life through the likes of Cassius and Etienne de Crécy, who worked close to Daft Punk and shared mutual influences in their work. Thomas and Guy-Manuel were enjoying success with their own collaborations, too – and we would soon see the fruit of their influence through the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta.

The pair’s next direction was unexpected but made total sense, realised in the Tron:Legacy film soundtrack of 2010. Again a little patience was needed on the part of the reviewers and record buying public, and sure enough after a few weeks it was confirmed to be one of the century’s leading soundtracks to date. The plethora of car adverts that still feature Tron:Legacy’s music are a testament to that, and the merging of electronica and orchestra is seamlessly achieved.

An unexpected treat was to follow in 2013, when Get Lucky surfaced – a superstar collaboration that delivered even more than it promised, with the effortless funk of Nile Rodgers’ guitar and the cool-as-California vocals from Pharrell Williams. The chart topping album Random Access Memories also delivered in this respect, though – Lose Yourself To Dance aside – it did not reach the heights of its lead single and even had an underlying melancholy towards the end.

We hardly ever saw their faces, but that was one of Daft Punk’s enduring qualities. They were friendly, robotic types, unable to make music without injecting a huge dose of funk into proceedings. Yet their soundtrack to Tron: Legacy showed there was so much more to their craft – and who knows, we may hear their work for Dario Argento‘s Occhiali Neri which was due to appear in 2020.

Even if we don’t, there is plenty with which we can treasure this duo and their lovable dance music, which makes the dancefloor a brilliant place to be when it’s on. C’est magnifique!