Daniel Martin-McCormick got his start screaming and playing guitar in the wild and wonderful Black Eyes, which released two records on Dischord in 2003 and 2004. Today, he’s best known as Ital, the name for his electronic dance-music project, but he’s also half of Mi Ami, which went from a three-piece rock band to a more dance-driven duo.
Sunday, Martin-McCormick, now based in Brooklyn, returns to his hometown for an Ital show at DC9. He has already released one LP of engrossing house music, February’s Hive Mind. I recently spoke with him about his forthcoming Ital record, his old project Sex Worker, a certain audio program, and the “mom-friendly” state of D.C. businesses. (Interview has been edited for clarity.)
Washington City Paper: You’ve got a U.S. tour coming up. How’s it been performing as Ital?
Daniel Martin-McCormick: It’s been a lot of fun, touring. Obviously, I really like playing live. It’s been cool. The way I make the tracks is kind of hermetic. It’s a lot of digital editing and kind of assembling more than performing them. So, it’s a lot of fun to get out there and do a way more jammed out version of everything.
WCP: What’s your live setup like for the upcoming shows?
DMM: Pretty simple, it’s just a sampler, it’s got like six outs in it. So, that’s like running different loops of drums and bass lines and stuff. And live, assembling the songs and then playing keyboards on top to make, basically like four pieces of gear: keyboard, delay, sampler, and a mixer.
WCP: Before [the U.S. tour begins], are you going to Europe as Sex Worker?
DMM: Yeah, I’m doing some shows with my band Mi Ami and one Sex Worker gig. Probably the last one ever. [Laughs] And then back here to do U.S. shows, more Ital stuff.
WCP: So, Sex Worker’s done?
DMM: Probably. I don’t really need to have two solo projects, y’know.
WCP: I saw a live video of Ital playing “Rhythm of the Night.” (The Cascada song he covers on Sex Worker’s 2010 record Waving Goodbye.)
WCP: So has Ital absorbed Sex Worker? Or is that done and separate?
DMM: I just thought it would be fun to do the cover live because a lot of times when I play, it might be in between DJs or something like that and it’s not always super clear what’s going on. Y’know, it’s like five people DJing over the course of the night and it’s one guy, me, playing live, but it all sounds, essentially, like one form or another of electronic dance music. Then it’s like, it was nice to open up with a song that has no drums and be like, “We’re in this new space.” And re-focus everyone’s energy. And I just kind of wanted to sing a little bit, but also get some good reaction if they could figure out what it’s a cover of, as opposed to like, “I’m now going to sing to you an original tune that you have no particular connection to.” And then like, get into it after that.
WCP: After the show in Europe, you think you’ll be done with that name?
DMM: Probably, yeah. I don’t do much with it at this point, it’s not like an active project. They asked if I could play and I was like, “Yeah, sure.” But I don’t really use it as what’s currently happening in my life. I probably won’t be doing much more with it. Unless I have a change of heart.
WCP: Are you more interested in the work you’re doing with Ital as opposed to Sex Worker—-it’s kind of more, I guess you could say, upbeat sort of stuff.
DMM: Well, I think—-with Ital, what I was wanting was to maybe not be more upbeat, but to have more space in a project to do whatever. With Sex Worker, it had a vibe and a name that I had cultivated over a couple of releases that I put out, that demanded a certain level of despair and harshness at all times. … Say if you’re in like, Slayer, you can’t write a chill pop tune, or you can’t do acoustic music if it’s called Slayer, you know what I mean? And I felt like Sex Worker was my own version of Cannibal Corpse or something like that, where … you have to live up to this certain intensity. I think there’s still plenty of room to be intense or whatever with Ital, but I feel like it’s a broader emotional zone. And I also feel like—-the only main difference for me, I guess, is I don’t sing in Ital. I wouldn’t mind singing more, but I haven’t really figured out how to work that in a way that makes sense to me. But otherwise, they don’t feel that fundamentally different. Like, I used to use a four-track, now I use a computer. But I could easily go back to a four-track, or whatever. But that’s just surface, you know what I mean?
WCP: When did you start making music for Ital, or with that idea in mind?
DMM: … I did a bunch without a project name or any thought of where it would go just for myself, starting in 2006, 2007… Then I put it away, because the band Mi Ami became more and more involved and I was really enjoying live setup and it just wasn’t calling out to me, but after awhile, I realized—-I was listening to a lot of techno and house, and stuff like that and that’s kind of where my head was at pretty much—-with a couple exceptions—-that was really dominating what I was listening to and I felt like, “This is stupid, I should make some tracks” [laughs], and not just make four-track songs that have components, and not just jam with some gear in the space. I should make something that felt like a track, that you would release as a 12-inch and you could DJ if you wanted to, whatever. So that was early Jan. 2010 when I made Ital and it was following up on that impulse and then a year later, the 12-inch actually came out. And that’s how it began.
WCP: Releasing stuff with this new identity of Ital offered some freedom to explore other feelings?
DMM: Well, yeah … it ends up being a lot of the same emotional zones whatever as all the other music, but … it started off small, like, “I’d like to make a 12-inch. I have all these 12-inches, I listen to all this music, dance music and stuff,” I was just like wanting to interact with that in a way that … feels legit. I really felt something … It started really humble—-I mean, putting out a 12-inch is not exactly a herculean feat. And I think the earlier stuff I made was just sort of exploring like kind of whatever feeling. It was very loose and not—-it wasn’t much big statement vibes going on. It was more just like, “Ah, I’m making this song and then this one, I don’t know if this is going to come out, but hopefully when this mythical 12-inch I’m working on comes out, some of these will be on it,” or something. And then as it’s grown and as I’ve played shows, and it’s sort of taken on more and more a life of its own, I think it’s gotten more serious musically, more serious emotionally, more connected to like—-I feel like I don’t want to leave behind a lot of the stuff I had been working on with the band or with Sex Worker. I’m not trying to crossover into anybody’s, anyone else’s territory—-that’s kind of backtracking, make it more my own or like figure out, “OK, now that I have this identity what should I really want to do with it?” [That’s] what I think the more recent material has been about.
WCP: To me, it’s different, but still feels somewhat close to what Mi Ami’s been doing recently. But I guess you wanted to explore something completely different with Ital—-do you feel that you’re doing something in the same vein with the band now?
DMM: It’s not related. I think it’s kind of ridiculous, if you’re an artist, to be like, “Oh, I make one thing over here that’s completely one vibe, and then I go over to this other project and it’s total different and these are completely segregated.” Y’know, I think, like, you end up, over your life, you keep making stuff—-you’re gonna be exploring a pretty small cluster of ideas over and over and over again in different ways y’know, and I think with Mi Ami, the big difference is that it’s collaborative and that it’s always a very special zone…collaboration is incredibly intangible, it’s very difficult to say what happens and it’s very difficult to steer it with any great amount of intention if it’s a democratic process. If you’re the boss and you hire everybody, you can say “OK guys, play like this,” you know what you’re going to get. But if you’re actually working on something with another person, y’know, it’s gonna take on the sonic dimensions of whatever shared space you have between the two of you. [Laughs] But, I’m definitely one of those two people. [Laughs] I think a lot of the stuff that happens in Ital happens in Mi Ami and vice versa. … Ital is all me [and] Mi Ami is half me, [laughs] I dunno. What I am trying to say… If you think I’m trying to say they’re totally different, that would be a complete misunderstanding. I think that they are highly related, but I don’t worry about it too much, y’know.
WCP: When Mi Ami first started exploring these other textures—-I know you talked about how you were a fan of electronic music for a long time, but was the new music sort of a reaction to losing a band member or was that the door opening that allowed for creative change?
DMM: Well, pretty much, when I met Damon [Palermo], this is 2006, and we really bonded over dance music a lot and that was what we were into. When we started the band it was just the two of us and we had this idea of being a disco band and we were careful…we did not know what we were doing, we thought we had to collaborate. Basically, we wanted to make a band, basically we needed a third member, and so [former Black Eyes member Jacob Long] came on who we ended up doing a rock band setup with, which I love, which I thought was great, but when he left, it was kind of like, “Oh okay, now we’ve been planning it for awhile, now that we have a sense of having tried this other stuff out that didn’t work at all in a rock three piece”—-so we tried bringing in a drum machine, electronic, weird synths, and stuff. …when [Long] left it gave us a chance to [maybe] pick another bass player, but he’s like a really special musician. The dynamic we had was really special and it just seemed boring to hire somebody else and just keep going in the same direction. That would be boring. Why don’t we just have a go at what we had talked about when we started? And it was a pretty exciting time because it was totally different to what we had done prior, but in a sense it felt more honest to be like, we’re not at all going to try to recreate something [phone line distorts]… We agreed we might as well start fresh.
WCP: You have a new Ital record coming out in November, right?
WCP: Do you have a name for that album yet?
DMM: Yeah, it’s called Dream On.
WCP: Is it going to be out on 100% Silk or Planet Mu?
DMM: Planet Mu, yeah.
WCP: The meaning of the phrase, do you want it to be interpreted as despairing?
DMM: Yeah, that’s how I hear it. If there’s something you’re hoping for in life, then you should just dream on because it’s probably not gonna work out so hot.
WCP: With Hive Mind, was that another sort of negative assessment of culture? What’s the meaning behind that?
DMM: I’m not sure it totally enhances the musical experience to completely explain a title, but, y’know, what do you think of when you hear the term “hive mind”? It has to have a couple strong connotations for me. I think the power of something like that … is that it has a sort of area, field of meaning and different people have different takes on it but it has a literal meaning and cultural connotations in the ways that different people take it or whatever but it comes pre-charged with various connotations, you know what I mean, versus, like, the new Fiona Apple record, which is a super long sentence that—-I dunno if she came up with it or it’s a quote or whatever, but it’s like, this super heavy long sentence, but you’ve never heard that sentence anywhere except for that record, so it’s like, you can puzzle over it and be like, “Sure, but what does this mean,” you know and like, focus on it as this very particular thing. I feel like I like both those two word combos [“hive mind” and “dream on”] because these are phrases that you find ordinary and you hear other people use in things—-that kind of ingrained power like that. “Hive mind” always struck me as a little disgusting.
WCP: It seems like in a lot of the work you’ve done recently, you’ve tried to use signifiers that may already mean something to people? Is that accurate to say?
DMM: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I just feel like, there’s always been an amount of—-maybe more so recently—-taking something and running it through the personal art filter or whatever, but making something that very much exists—-like, starting with some ingredients that are very much a part of the world. I think, when I was in the band Black Eyes back in the day, I was really, like, super young and I was really kind of wanting to make something that had never existed before ever. Totally new. And that got to be impossible. It was an impossible task, and not very fun. [Laughs] And you know, afterward, after that band broke up, I was kind of exhausted by the idea of trying to force something. You sit there and think, “Geez, everything’s already been done, every masterpiece’s already been written,” so you know, it starts to feel overwhelming to create something totally new because it’s patently impossible and moreover, you can just sit there looking at every incredible piece of music that’s ever been written and feel, like, super small but I feel like if you then… So I started doing stuff that had very simple ideas — that had a jumping-off point, like, “Let’s make a track that could be on a 12-inch or something like that.” And then you have a jumping-off point and you have all this room to interpret it, play with it and fuck with it, and that idea just becomes a frame and you can instill it with whatever you like. The best ideas are always very simple ones that can get very complex places but it’s not gonna be like — a good idea is not like, “OK, we’re gonna have three bassoons and they’re all gonna be playing in different time signatures,” you know, it’s like, no, the idea should be small to start with and then build on it or something like that.
WCP: With this project you haven’t used your voice—-was that something you intended or that just sort of happened to fit the ideas of the music?
DMM: Well, it started, I just felt like—-I felt like the way my voice overall worked in music was to be like, y’know, sort of, had a very specific song-based freak-out quality to it and I just wanted something like a track. And as the project goes, it wasn’t really appropriate at the beginning and as it evolved, the music I was making wasn’t really demanding my voice. My voice is rather particular and I didn’t want to do some Jamie Lidell shit, or whatever, and attempt some kind of weird, art-dance-pop crossover bullshit. I felt like I wanted to make it more about a larger sonic exploration or something like that. Sometimes playing live, when a dude’s on the mike, it’s kind of a bummer, in terms of dance music, ’cause I’ve seen it not work so many times and I dunno, I’m enjoying doing this more visceral electronic zone-out thing. It gives a really different feel. … It’s like how much of a capital A artist do you want to be and how much do you want to create just some kind of vibe in the room or something like that? How much do you want to be like, “Okay, I’m here to show you my art and we’re gonna,” I dunno… I’m speaking very impressionistically or something like that, I feel like, a lot of times, unless it’s very song-based, some guy getting on the mike can be kind of an ego-trippy sort of drag, more than anything that enhances a lot of techno that I’ve seen.
WCP: I’ve read that you’ve made some records entirely with Audacity, is that right?
DMM: Yeah, the process right now that I make records in, they are all assembled in Audacity. [Inaudible]… Logic and some are put together in loops…but there’s a lot a lot a lot of editing all this shit together in Audacity. Every single Ital song has been assembled in Audacity.
WCP: How do you manage that? Because I imagine that’s very time-consuming.
DMM: Yeah, yeah, totally. It’s a huge pain in the ass. But I like it because basically, it’s only audio editing and, as such, I mean, even though something like Logic sounds better, there are a few things I dislike about working in a program like Logic, the few times I’ve tried it. First of all, you upload, like, a soft synth or something like that and it’s called “Night Drive” and the synth has all of these LFOs on it and stuff like that, so you don’t even know what they’re doing or how they work or whatever. And it comes pre-loaded with a zillion connotations and shit. And second of all, the fact that you can go in and pencil change any part of the song at any point — y’know, you have your whole song laid out and you can go in and say, “Oh, I need to re-tweak the shape of this wave form,” — every part of the song is available for you to fuck with at every moment you’re working on the song. But when you’re working on Audacity — okay, that’s the boring rant about Logic, so here’s the nice thing about Audacity: Is that, you want to change something, you can change it right then and there, only the audio. You can’t have it sequence a synthesizer for you, it doesn’t come with any drum machines, it doesn’t pre-load your tracks with any compressions, it is raw data; the audio is sitting in front of you, you change a component, sounds good, you keep working on it, 20 minutes later, you’ve done 20 different things, 50 different things — whatever, it depends how fast you’re working — then I realize that that thing I changed awhile ago kind of sucks. Alright, so you have two options, the first one is to undo the 50 steps that you just did and then redo them all, which is a terrible idea — a huge waste of time.
Second thing is to think creatively about how you want to fix this problem because you can’t just endlessly tweak the parameters of this one part—-you’re stuck with whatever you do. So, it’s cool because you have to think decisively anytime you do anything in it, which is rare in a computer program, and I think that the huge weakness of so much music today is — music has always been 99 percent shit, one percent good, and at any point, there is a flaw in how it’s disseminated, in how it’s performed, whatever, I’m not saying that music today is worse. But I would say, a particular thing that is plaguing music in our particular time today is that so much of it does not require a lot of decisive thinking and it ends up being, like, super fluffed up and you can hear the program working with all the different compressors that it comes pre-loaded with and Logic is essentially made to be a toy, I feel like, for people to make something that sounds and feels like professional music without it necessarily requiring any vision or effort or expertise on their part. I’m not saying my music resolves every dilemma, I mean, I go back and listen to some tracks and go, “Man, this could have been a lot leaner, it could have been a lot simpler, whatever, blah blah blah,” but at least every single thing I did was super decisive and I really sculpted it out of what almost feels like nothing, or is not just some pre-set patch that I tossed in there like, “Oh, yeah cool,” you know what I mean? So that’s my piece for Audacity is that, yeah, it’s difficult, it’s annoying, it’s shitty, but at least you know what the fuck you’re doing and it makes you think. The decisiveness that it requires, to me, it makes things sound live because you put in an energy that is analogous to the energy you use when you play live when you’re making a decision in the moment you’re playing a song.
WCP: So, do you like the blank slate and challenge that Audacity provides?
DMM: Um, kind of, yeah. I usually start with some kind of idea of where I’m going but I like—-I just like how little it interferes. It could be a lot better. It could have better sounding effects. It could have MIDI. It could have better compressors. There are so many things — It could not crash on me when I’m working on it. It could be way better, but at least it doesn’t interfere, you know?
WCP: Would you consider yourself to be a patient person, using that kind of hardware?
DMM: It requires patience. I think patience is a virtue. I hope I’m a patient person. Sometimes—-I mean, I think impatience can also be an asset. I feel like, one of my favorite things in music across the board, and that I strive to put into the tracks, is like—-and sometimes I feel like I succeed and sometimes I feel like I fail at this — but it’s like, y’know, when you go to see a band or something and they start playing and maybe they’ve got a long intro to a song that’s supposed to be very dramatic. Like, “Aw man, this is gonna be awesome.” And they’re doing it, but then halfway through the drummer’s like, “Man, fuck this!” and kicks in, you know? [Laughs] And it’s like, “Okay, here we go! Alright, fuck it!” And that moment of impatience when he’s like “Eh, you get it, you get it, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s move,” and all of a sudden you cut the fat is something I really like in music. You need to be patient to work with Audacity, but I also think sometimes you just gotta be impatient and just cut out huge chunks of music you’ve worried over on your almost masterpiece or whatever the fuck.
WCP: So, you’ll be at DC9 on Sept. 23, is there anything in particular you like, or even dislike about returning home to play in D.C.?
DMM: Yeah. D.C. is…Uf. I have a soft spot for D.C. I feel like, as a city it often feels like every single thing — every new business, or new thing that happens there seems to go through a committee of lame liberal moms or something like that, and be vetted. Like, you’ve got a coffee shop, but it has to be called Busboys and Poets and be adequately mom-friendly or something like that. So, I always feel a little bit like, “Aw man, this place is a kind of a bummer.” [Laughs] But also that has to do with the feeling of coming home and feeling a little bit like a kid again.
Yeah, I mean, D.C.’s great. But what do I like best about it? I think my favorite part is going to New Orleans Café on 18th Street, I really like that spot. And I think my least favorite thing is when the bars let out because I feel like there’s a special brand of rage in D.C. that seems to really — I think it’s the sort of, like, Capitol Hill intern rage that seems super, super harsh when it’s like 2 a.m. and people are getting out of bars, so I don’t look forward to that. But I do look forward to getting some catfish po’boy on 18th Street.
Ital performs with Laurel Halo, Magic Tough, M Geddes Gangras, and Future Times DJs Sept. 23 at 8:30 p.m. at DC9, 1940 9th St. NW. $14.