paul b. davis select magazine interview


from select magazine issue #2, dec 2001
questions by doug lussenhop (over the course of a few days in august 2001)

[note: this interview is taken from the source emails and includes questions 
and un-edited answers not printed by Select]


Hey Paul,
Did you see the Select mag? Still down for an interview?
If so, let's get started cuz the deadline in coming sooon!
Before the questions, let me just say that I'm sort of a layman 
when it comes to computers. Not to say I don't use them, I do, it's 
my job and I'm using one right now at work. I firmly believe in 
exploiting the workplace for personal business, so, much of this 
interview will be done while I'm at work, looking over my shoulder 
writing run-on sentences at high speed so no boss sees me.
So when I say I'm a layman, I mean I don't know the stuff you know 
about them, I know how to use the software, maybe install RAM too, but 
you know like... how to make software and stuff right?

right. i actually can build my own turing machine using nothing but matches, string, some pvc piping, q-tips, and a stereolab cd. what it does is calculate whether an album was recorded at Soma studios even faster than the 5 seconds it takes the average listener.

Where and when did your knowledge of computers begin?

i'm not sure when i first used a computer...probably a terminal in a branch of the st.louis public library. but the earliest computing memory i have is in i think 1982 when one of my father's friends was away for some time and dropped off his ibm at or xt or whatever it was at our house for us to play with. i would have been 4 or 5 and i remember just typing in random words for hours trying to figure out DOS commands on a monochrome monitor. after that i was exposed to the usual home/school computers...writing programs in LOGO on apple IIe's, playing hardball on commodore64's... but i didn't really start to learn what was up with computers though until my folks bought a 386 when i was in about 7th grade and i got a modem and learned about BBS's. it was there that i found a community of similarly-interested boys (mostly) who knew things i wanted to know and freely shared information and pirated software and made really cool looking ANSI logon screens. not too long after that i was making music on it, and then by the time i was in high school i had been introduced to the internet and gotten myself a dialup account which was sort of overwhelming. i hit up wuarchive and hyperreal and all these telnet chats...i should probably stop here cos, for better or for worse, it's easy for me to wax nostalgic about the early 90's.

Whoah, BBS's and ANSI logon screens, you're really bringing back some memories for me! About the record: I heard it's been getting pretty popular with some hotshots like Mixmaster Mike and Luke Vibert...

oh the story on that is: we had 8bit white labels pressed in '99 before it was released (in 2001) and gave two to mike at a show about a year and a half ago. and his manager, stefan (real chill dude), has been in touch just saying how much he likes the record and stefan also runs a reggae/dub label and has sampled it a few times. luke vibert apparently keeps a copy in his freezer at all times. aside from "hotshots", it's been really interesting how the record is being accepted by different audiences both as an art object and musical tool - getting orders from distributors who carry nothing but hip-hop right after orders from super-hipster indie/weirdo distributors right after calls from art galleries who want to carry it with some of our prints and hearing back from their respective clientele is really closer to the kinda of audience beige is about than anything we've done yet. cos what we did with the 8bit record is appropriate an historical technology and interface, and create something which can have purposes so widely varied as rocking krunk beats or commenting on the aesthetic use of technological obsolescence - or both at the same time which perhaps means those purposes aren't widely varied at all.

Since I don't have an Atari or Commodore 64, what does each program do for their respective computer systems?

each program is an "8-bit suite" of sorts - the atari has some sound software, both ours and some old public domain stuff (thanks to Glenn Gutierrez and the long-defunct Atari Program Exchange), there's a few shout outs, and it also lets you see into the future of computer art through the eyes of the "post-data" art movement. the c64 side has a bunch of shout outs and a program written by DJ Cougar Shuttle called "SID-303" which is a roland tb-303 emulator for your commodore64. no need to explain anything else except that it comes with instructions on how to hook up potentiometers to the c64's joystick ports and have real-time control over filter cutoff frequency and resonance and stuff. loading instructions for each program are inscribed on the inside of the record, and the c64 data especially makes for great long-tone scratching if you don't want to bother with getting the program off of it.

I know categorizing sub-genres of electronic music is a shame but it's still kinda fun and sometimes, it's necessary. Like, if I want to go dancing, I need to know what kind of music they're gonna play. But sometimes this categorization can be misleading, like IDM, (intelligent dance music) no one dances to it, not even intelligent people. So, is there a name for this genre of old technologies?

yeah thats funny, i'm not sure if there's a term for it. i've seen people describe it as "SID music" (referring to the commodore64's SID sound chip) or just as "8bit" or whatever. when we played in minneapolis people were telling us about bands up there that play "atari rock" which apparently is regular indie rock with atari 2600's somehow involved. incidentally, Pone coined the term "8-Bit rock" as a description of the Slowes' style when their first ep came out a few years ago. so i don't think there's any overall name to describe this stuff, and there probably shouldn't be because any name you give it really only describes the tools/processes you're using, not necessarily the music - which is a cool thing and actually applicable to our record, but not usually why people come up with names. it would be like lumping everything else together under the category "16-bit" or maybe a few radio hits these days could go under the new "24-bit" label or something. not very helpful to consumers, i'd think. for our record, calling it "8-bit style" or something would work just because thats the point of it - to investigate these abandoned interfaces to computing and take them as far as we can...or at least make some maxxximum dance power beats. but most of the other records that have come out with 8bit stuff just seem to be stealing from that time peroid cos it's so hot right now and not caring about or understanding what they're doing. it's music made with a different purpose than ours and, even if there's commodore64 sounds on both records, i feel uncomfortable being lumped in with the others.

Are you talking about "Dis*ka presents: C2064" and "Commodore 64: C-Sid Musique?" Those tracks just sample Commodore sounds, they're not made with Commodores?

yeah that c-sid musique record was made with SidStations... these pricey retro synthesizers that use the same SID sound chip but cost like $650 as opposed to $20 for a real c64. also they're midi-controlled with no user-accesible assembly language interface, which in addition to being much more inaccurate, removes you from the heart of the chip's soundmaking process. it's something for babies, really. that c2064 record i haven't heard it all - i listened to the first track on it and it was just the demo song from a common commercial c64 music program so i figured the rest wasn't worth listening to after that. both of those records use the sound of a real SID chip but neither care about the process of creating music with a commodore64, or what it means to interact with your computer and its representations of the world in its own (assembly) language. in the end i think both those records just abuse our 80's nostalgia, which makes them conceptually very uninteresting and musically unimaginative.

Conceptually uninteresting yeah, but musically? Can't music be good without having to be conceptual? I remember hearing the "Dis*ka presents: C2064" and liking it. Are you just mad cuz they are doing it the easy way?

well, as someone that puts out records and is a general music freak, the reasons behind music can certainly affect my liking or disliking it. like how when i was learning Schubert lieds in music conservatory, and the lyrics were super super sad and people are committing suicide cos of unrequited love, etc. it seemed a little hokey. but when i learned that Schubert was super gay, which was not exactly accepted in 19th century Austria, listening to his songs became a more complex experience because they became beautiful metaphors for the social and cultural isolation he probably felt due to his sexuality. or how when you really like a particular artist at first, but the more you learn about them and how they make their work, the less and less you end up liking them cos it turns out to be dumb? like Oval. it's always so discouraging. that's how i feel about c2064 - it's musically less interesting to me because the music carries so much less meaning behind it. they aren't interested in making music on a commodore, or really in the making of computer music at all. they are just interested in cashing in on the sound that a c64 makes which happens to be really trendy right now. so in that respect it's a good record, they did as little work as possible - stealing some people's c64 tunes and putting them out and selling a bunch of copies - and they are probably meeting their goals of financial success and hipster credibility. but when someone hears the 8bit record and says "oh cool, check out this c2064 record it uses commodores too", it's not really a compliment.

What about these newer programs like Rebirth or Reason, taking old Roland sequencers and drum machines and making them available to everyone in easy software form? It's sort of exploiting 80's nostalgia also like the SidStations, do you think that stuff's for babies too?

yeah, or people who just don't think about what they're doing much. it's like this: the computer is a still a straightforward system at this point - it can "sample" data, "remember" that data, process it in some predetermined way or use it as instructions to execute, and apply data at a particular output. every 1 or 0 that exists in a computer's "memory" is a representation of some real object or idea...but those representations are not subject to the same existence as their originals, nor to representations of that existence, necessarily. they can be acted upon by representations that would never have acted on the originals ...a computer can be described as a sort of "representation" rather than "information" processor. yet we have all this software which only creates and manipulates representations of the same old crap. these days, everything you see on computers, especially on the web, is just appropriated from print and television aesthetics. it completely ignores the computer's own identity and the computing process is hidden behind flash plugins and bloated corporate interfaces...and as a result artists fail to understand the aesthetics of the very medium within which they work. they have no idea how to release 1's and 0's from the restraints of adobe photoshop filters or pro tools reverbs and i think it calls into question the authenticity and intentionality of computer art - in that "made with Macromedia" also gives Macromedia credit on a conceptual level to anything made with their software. programs like rebirth and reason fit right into it, they hide behind simulated knobs and wheels meant to exactly resemble analog synthesizers or whatever...it's not computer music, it's more like commercially designed graphical user interface music. and it sounds like it too - cougar shuttle made a funny remark to me the other day, he told me he's noticed that while a lot of people have said to him "hey, have you played around with reason?" nobody has ever said to him "hey, i just made this cd that i'm really proud of with reason."

the purpose of the 8bit stuff is just to investigate the aesthetics and mechanisms of computer representation through an interface to the computer which has been discarded by contemporary art culture - that being programming your own shit and understanding the fundamentals of the computing medium. the 8bit record gets its inspiration not from video game music, but from the spirit of investigation and learning about computers that was the foundation of the early home computer scene...early home computers had a different approach to the mass market - they believed that the average joe could learn to use computers both as a delivery system for commercial applications and as a platform for tool development. today you only see that in the linux community, which is great but not at all widespread and still seen as relatively hard-core and sort of isolated...moms aren't out buying their 8 year old kids books on how to port C++ applications to linux like they were out buying them books on how to program BASIC with an apple IIe 15 years ago. and it's sad because the point is this - every bit, every representation, every piece of information in a computer is yours to fuck with. and the potential always exists for you to acknowledge that a computer is completely programmable in every aspect and that it's most powerful function is to facilitate tool creation. because if you don't, then the computer becomes solely a vehicle for content delivery to a captive audience (aka TV). in other words, if you don't learn to use and understand your computer, then some big software company is going to tell you how. and what kind of art is going to come from that?

I'm glad that Beige Records is doing: 'Brown' at the Dirt Room ( at the Double Door) Teusday nights. A few years ago Tom Popp used to run the show down there with the Leading Brand DJ and remote control Ataris. Then it all went away. Now there's so much great electronic shit happening in Chicago, like 'Play' and Weekend Records & Soap is always setting up cool shows, Tommie Sunshine... It's kind of scary because, it's so fun and the music is really good, it's gonna reach a fever pitch and explode!

yeah i agree that chicago is a nice place to be right now. i think that there has just been so much crossover from the electronic to the indie scene that, with chicago having such a huge indie scene, it was just inevitable that the electronic stuff became established. and of course chicago has a huge club scene and house music started here...people in this town have been dancing to drum machines for 20+ years so it's probably nothing new. but at the same time, it's not all perfect...it's taken play a couple years to really get established. and that thing at rednofive LAZYFM with tommie and weekend's Warm Leatherette just ended. and with our brown night, we sort of get two left-over tuesdays of each month which leaves very little time to get the word out. so it seems that clubs still aren't ready to really support electronic weirdness and cos of that i would look forward to seeing people get together with some salons/house parties/etc. just to hear this music in a non-club environment and help solidify the audience.

I noticed on the beige records website (beigerecords.com) that you guys are pictured with Michael Schwartz (former director of Activision Audio). How did you hook up with him and how does he fit into the 8 Bit set? Let's get some info on the other members too: where are you guys from? How did you end up in Chicago? (if you arent originally from here)

dj cougar shuttle and i are both from st.louis and we started beige records together in 1997, which was also right around the time i moved to ohio to go to school. in ohio i met perry "pone" mahone and dwayne delario (the other two 8bits along with cougar and myself - as rick stryker), and by late 1998 the 8bit construction set project was conceptually underway and finished in 1999 as the fourth beige release. dwayne and i moved to chicago after school, i was going to grad school at the art institute, but he has since moved to LA cos he didn't like the weather and it was too difficult to maintain his habits here. pone is currently living in nyc (he's originally from buffalo) and recording with his band the Slowes. cougar remains in st.louis and runs beige, i'm staying in chicago probably for some time. the thing with michael schwartz was cool, he was just giving a "master class" about music in the videogame industry which pone and dwayne and i attended, and we told him about the project. he was really enthusiastic and we just grabbed him for a couple quick photos, one of which ended up on the record.

I received your solo ep, and to me, it sounds more 16 bit. So you aren't solely dedicated to obsolete technologies?

all that stuff was recorded before the 8bit record, dating back to 1996 (it's the third beige release). although i'm remembering that there are a few atari locked grooves on it, the five tracks don't have any 8bit stuff and just use my usual assortment of crappy digital synths, samplers, and drum machines. there is one track that uses a Buchla modular analog synthesizer, but aside from that there's nothing else special. the 8-bit construction set is more of a specific project and method of thinking about computer art rather than my sole gig. but some of the ideas on the ep are the same, mostly ideas about preserving craft in computer music and just really trying to write good songs (i should emphasize "trying"). for me that means lots of silly harmonies and structural signifiers, it probably means different things for other folks. but you can hear the stylistic similarities i think if, say, you listen to the atari track on the 8bit and the first cut off my ep...they're both full of really stupid arpeggiated harmonies and drum breaks.

What modern day software do you use or recommend for electronic music making?

for creative applications, i recommend any software that you write yourself, and csound - it's free. and if you're going to make music with poop commercial software, at least don't pay for it.

What are you doing next?

eh well in terms of making music, i really haven't written anything for almost two years...ever since i finished with the 8bit stuff. so i'm itching to bust out with a bunch of new work. i have bags full of dat tapes of old shit (thats what my solo ep was compiled from) and it's high time to add to the collection. so... for 8bit - just started working on a new song for TellusMedia, a sound art label out of NYC, and just finished negotiations to license the c64 track off the 8bit record to Matthew Herbert for his Accidental label. also licensed an 8bit song to Contact Records which puts out compilations in Japan, and it was funny because the other folks on that record are like sweep the leg johnny and shit...real chicago bands, not a bunch of retards with old computers. and 8bit is heading to germany for a some dates in late october (first time i've ever been out of the country). for new solo stuff, i had a bit of a crisis with my living situation so am now staying in the back of an art gallery with no phone and i gave all my gear away cos i had nowhere to put it. i kinda put everything on hold till i get that figured out (another nice thing about the 8bit stuff - i only need an atari and a $10 tv to make music). but i've been talking with a great band from minneapolis called Fog who just signed to Ninja Tune about a remix, and looking to acquire a harpsichord and start playing again - did 4 years at a music conservatory and up until this spring i was studying with David Schrader here in chicago. for beige programming ensemble stuff, we're working on an editioned letterpress print for Michele Thursz (art dealer in nyc), and we just started work on an artist book which teaches contemporary computer fundamentals to children.

What are these prints you're talking about?

along with doing the music and label stuff, i make "art" or Art or whatever too, and there are some cronies that i work with. it's some 8bits and other friends and we have a loosely organized clique called The Beige Programming Ensemble. probably the most well known one is Cory Arcangel, a visual artist who lives in nyc and makes moving ASCII videos and screenprints and things. anyway, we have a little manifesto on how we make art, like we have to program every creative act ourselves and can only use commercial software for file translations, and we coined a term called "Post-Data" to describe our art and try to work within it. a lot of what we do uses the computer's own identity as a medium, so along with ASCII videos and hacked up nintendos and stuff, we also try to legitimize computer aesthetics by applying them to traditional printmaking practices - sort of thumbing our nose at how the computer is abused by aesthetics from other media that are just stuck on it and called an "interface" instead of trying to understand that a computer has it's own set of aesthetic criteria. so thats what these prints are...manual screenprints and i also do letterpress printing (which is really interesting what you try to apply it to computer aesthetics). you'll see them around at our shows, we've started to exhibit more as our careers develop, and i think that they'll be popping up on beige record jackets in the near future.

Is it true that you guys are working with Nintendo prodessors?

well see actually the magic is that the original Nintendo uses the same processor, a 6502, as the commodore64 and atari 8-bit computers. after realizing that i started to look into it, and my senior lecture in college was on hacking the nintendo entertainment system. since then, i've programmed music cartridges which 8bit uses to play live with as the first-ever ROM jockey's - sort of "dj'ing" with two nintendo decks and swapping hacked carts with roms i programmed with our own songs. we were just in nyc giving a lecture on this stuff and played at a soundlab party for about 500 folks and got written up on the front page of the nytimes arts section which was funny cos they basically said we were the biggest nerds they'd ever seen. since then we've had a beige "solo" show at deadtech and participated in a group show at fassbender here in chicago where we showed our hacked Nintendo video installation "Fat Bits". it's a set of three monitors on podiums and each one has a Nintendo on top of it and a hacked cart that generates the video. for this project we invented our own little "Nintendo Movie" format which uses the nintendo's graphics to play little loops of converted video footage. pone collects footage of hockey fights on beta, so he got a nice fight of Rob Ray of the buffalo sabres (his hometown hero who also has the same name as the guy who runs Deadtech) and he converted it to our nintendo format and thats what the video loops are...just three different loops of rob ray beating the shit out of someone in 8x8 NES pixel tiles. then we've been working on a Nintendo music cart release on Beige for a few months, but i dunno when it'll be done. i'm pretty sure it'll be the first of its kind tho.

Yeah, well I was the first one in my Junior high to save the princess. And I can do it without warping from level 4 to level 8, people who skip those levels are babies!

word up. we spank babies.

Well, I guess that covers it. Anything you want to tell the kids?

yeah - up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a, b, a, start. don't forget it. and i dunno if it's just chicago or what, but the lineups for most of these electronic music/DJ events are just way to sausagey - definitely would like to see many more female performers involved. chi-town shout outs to bee, weekend records posse, ray_rod, kim soss, brian keigher, rob ray, and bob probert. and remember to check out www.beigerecords.com for all your data storage needs.