When Midi controllers and DJing first met, nobody knew what to call the emerging scene. “Mapping buttons to software in order to control recorded music” didn’t really cut it. Just as well, then, that Moldover – one of the scene’s earliest champions and now one of its brightest lights – was around to invent the term “controllerism”.
In the last week Native Instruments debuted Moldover’s performance video of its new Kontrol F1 hardware (see below watch it), and we managed to catch up with the man himself for this exclusive interview. So if you’re wanting to forge a name for yourself in controllerism, if you’re interested in knowing the skills that really matter in today’s electronic music culture, or you just want to know more about one of EDM’s nicest and most original characters, read on…
Hi Moldover! Please can I start by asking you if you have a musical background?
I’ve been into music all my life. I went to music school and then moved to NYC (I’m originally from the Washington DC area). The thing is though, that I didn’t really get interested in electronic music or DJing until college. Until then I was only into rock, pop and hip-hop. Electronic music happened to me kind of “later in life”, after I’d studied as a musician, played guitar, and been in bands.
How important do you think it is for DJs to have a musical background?
I think it’s really valuable having a deeper understanding of the basic elements of music. If you want to move from DJing to producing, or even just into harmonic mixing and so on, it’s important that you understand music creation concepts.
So you’re know as the inventor of the word “controllerism”, and therefore as a “controllerist”. What’s the difference for you between “controllerism” and “DJing”?
For me, I always wanted to do more – the basic styles of DJing weren’t satisfying to me. I was used to a more visceral way of performing; playing guitar, singing, and producing sound with my body in real time. For me, controllerism is more along those lines than DJing.
Would you call controllerism DJing at all? An offshoot of DJing, maybe?
Good question. Definitely in the beginning it was very blurry for me because there wasn’t a name or any kind of rules for what I was doing. I had never called myself a DJ. Even turntablism isn’t really DJing to me: it’s a whole different artform but it uses the same tools as the DJ. Controllerism is also related to “live production” or “live PA”, but is it an offshoot of that? I sometimes say it’s an offshoot to explain it to DJs, but there are lots of people who don’t have experience DJing who are doing controllerism.
Where is the line drawn between DJing and controllerism?
Well, in my mind pure DJing is just selecting and playing music recordings. It’s more about sequencing songs and responding to an audience, helping an audience dance, or creating a mood. Anything beyond that is controllerism.
But the important thing for me, is for people to understand that controllerism isn’t an elitist idea. It’s anything beyond DJing. It’s also anything beyond playing your music on traditional instruments! Basically,”real-time music making with technology” just about defines it for me.
You’re widely credited as having invented the name controllerism. Is that true?
Yes! I had a manager for a while when I was living in New York. What I was doing at the time with controllers and software was way ahead of the curve. I called the project “live remixing”, then I called it “live remashing”, hoping to help people understand the real-time nature of it, but the terms didn’t really work. Then I got more and more into studying turntablism (without actually using turntables) and I looked at how turntablists mixed that stuff into their DJ sets. At the same time I realised that, while the software I used was amazing, at that stage the controllers were really lousy.
The real instrument for me became the controller and the performance style moved closer to turntablism. Between my manager and me brainstorming names, we came up with “controllerism”. This was about 2006. My manager said: “This is a great word. You need to publicise this. You need to be ground zero for this!”
So in 2007 I published a video called Moldover’s Approach to Controllerism, and Ean Golden did an article on me for Remix magazine.
Among our readers we have a lot of highly talented new DJs and artists who are struggling to get breaks. How hard was it to get gigs for you back then?
It was really difficult getting gigs because I was using a very early version of Ableton, and I was mixing really wild stuff – classical, jazz, funk, doing these crazy mashups. Every song I wanted to play I had to meticulously tweak beforehand. I had to remaster stuff, especially the older stuff I was using, to mash it up with something new.
So I had to do a lot of prep and while I had an amazing set of tunes, they were a really small set! That meant I couldn’t do a weekly gig or anything, because it would have been exactly the same music every week.
Tell us where you got your first break.
It was at an event called “Amateur Female Jello Wrestling”, which was exactly as it sounds – a pool full of jello on stage! With what I was doing, I could react to what was going on on the stage, so I was a good fit for them.
I got the gig because when I moved to New York, I was working at theatres and doing lighting, and it was theatre people who started the jello thing. That was the steady gig that helped me to develop my technique and my sound, and I did it for a good three or four years I think.
What did you do next?
I started a party called Warper in 2004, which actually is still running. Warper really was pure controllerism, and was open to any type of music maker who was doing stuff with new technology. It was, and still is, an underground thing. I started it with the DJ who became my manager, DJ Shakey, and tons of people played there – it’s been going for six or seven years.
It was monthly for maybe five years, and now it’s irregular, with different types of events – radio shows, art gallery parties with installations, and all kinds of crazy stuff. Some of my favorite featured artists were Onyx Ashanti, Radio Wonderland (who does a crazy boombox / live sampling thing), and Elijah B Torn.
You’ve witnessed a lot of changes over that time, no doubt. Where do you feel you fit in with today’s electronic music scene?
It’s really changing now. Personally, I’m sort of moving further back into my roots and doing a performance where I sing and play guitar. When I do a DJ set, it’s not like I just play a tune; it’s always been about manipulation, but now I have a set with all live original music with live guitars and vocals, and I perform by mixing elements of the track, whereas when I started performing as a controllerist it was all sample based, all playing other people’s music.
So where do you play?
Nowadays I do festivals, bars/clubs, warehouse parties – it’s all over the map. My career is super-random. It’s challenging but it keeps it entertaining. I have friends who are much more mainstream DJs than I am, and they complain about what they’ve got to do all the time. You know, “I’ve got to fly to this city and play to 2,000 people!” The grass is always greener I guess. I get a lot of creative freedom, and I can also spend a lot of time on my music.
Having said that I’ve played all over the US (every major city, anyway). Most of my contacts are on the east coast, but as I’m living in San Francisco, I’ve also played a lot in LA and so on. On my last trip to Europe I played London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Barcelona; next month I’m going to a festival in Toulouse. Also Paris, Berlin… I think I’m also going to visit Moldova!
Electronic dance music is finally huge in the States. Is this a good thing?
I’m excited about it. In Europe everybody gets it, that’s why I’ve been going there semi-regularly; there are more opportunities for me there, especially for me to play stuff that’s less mainstream. Finally it’s happened in the States, it’s all blown up again.
This time, I hope it’s a permanent shift. People are just getting it and this needs to happen. I enjoyed being ahead of the curve as far as what was happening in music and technology, but sometimes it’s frustrating to be surrounded by people who don’t know what you’re doing!
Who’s been the biggest influence on you?
Squarepusher is biggest influence on me as composer and producer. As a controllerist, Tim Exile, who in my mind was ahead of me. Nowadays he’s doing all the craziest stuff with software, whereas I just do it with hardware.
You’re known also for having invented your own controller. How did you come to do that?
In 2005, there were no alternative controllers of any kind in stores. You could buy a box with a bunch of faders, or a keyboards with a few knobs – but there was nothing close to what I wanted.
However, what you could buy were bits and pieces of other things that were close. Kurzweil keyboard controllers had those cool touchstrips, and I love Kaoss pads, which were really intuitive ways to control effects. Novation remote keyboards were nice because they had lots of sensors, eight faders, eight knobs, eight encoders, buttons, a joystick – so many gizmos to play with.
These were the three things I could afford, so I was gigging with them, and eventually I hacked them together into the “Frankentroller” – the prototype for what my controller is now, which is basically just a custom-built version of that.
I call it the “Mojo”, and the core design philosophy was to make it really ergonomic. It’s based on the shape of your hand, because that’s what you play it with, and then it’s got all my favorite sensors: touchstrips, arcade buttons, DJ-style faders, switches and knobs.
Can people buy your controller?
Originally I was selling it privately from myself to other people – I made and sold ten like that. But now my friend Dave at 60Works.com is helping me make them, so anyone can buy one.
What is your advice to our readers who are dreaming of, or at the early stages of, making a living our of their passion for electronic music?
I guess there’s two sides to making it pay full time. One, you have to convince yourself and other people that what you’re doing is worth money, which is kind of difficult because the world wants to tell you that art and creativity and the things that you love to do aren’t worth money. They’ll say products that fill needs are worth money, not creativity.
You need to embrace that challenge and prove to yourself and others that music has real value. I believe that with all my heart. The best way I can describe it is to do it for love. I feel love when I’m playing live music for people and they’re smiling and appreciating it. I feel that same love when I’m working on my own stuff at home, and I listen to it, and it feels good. And of course, when I get a cheque for playing a gig or selling a controller design, sure, I feel it too, because money is part of the way the world works, and you have to make money to make that love viable.
So for newcomers, do it for the love, but appreciate that money does matter. There’s nothing wrong with asking for small fees for small gigs. Try and get something, because it will help you feel validation for what you love to do.
But I think my biggest piece of advice is to get out there and find other people to do it with. Build community. A danger in the internet age is thinking that you’re really connected when you’re at home with the internet. I got some advice from a friend, Martin Atkins, who’s an industrial drummer and educator. He said to me: “The only way to affect real change is direct human interaction.” Hats off to any artist like him who makes the effort to teach.
What mix of skills is it important for controllerists to have?
Four things I guess. First, a really important one that people don’t talk about or acknowledge often is the skill of performing itself. What do you do in front of other people to entertain them? Even in traditional musical performance, a lot of what makes a great performance doesn’t have a lot to do with music!
You can learn a lot from jugglers, ventriloqists, dancers, and so on. It’s really easy to jump around YouTube and watch the greatest performances of all time – Michael Jackson, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix – to see what they did.
Secondly, traditional musical training, as I said at the start, is pretty key. Learn a traditional musical instrument if you can.
Third, is skill with technology itself. I don’t feel like I’m particularly gifted as a performer or with musical instruments, but I’ve had a computer since before I can remember. As a kid I played lots of video games, then started writing video games. I grew up with technology in my house. I don’t even think about it but it comes naturally because of my experience.
I see this as a stumbling block for a lot of people, but if you learn a programming language it’ll help you understand why your plugin isn’t loading or your host software crashes, and not be at the mercy of your technology. You should understand that digital tools are really predictable and can be mastered.
Finally, social skills are really important. It’s true that “it’s all about who you know”. I severely lacked social confidence for much of my life. I’m a super-introvert by nature; really shy and private. Breaking out of that and learning how to be comfortable at parties, and how to meet people – that stuff is huge if you want to get on in the music business, because it’s an inherently social activity.
Great advice. So where can people see what you do, and find out more?
The official videos on my YouTube Channel are best place to see what I do. They’re well polished and there’s not that many of them. They go back pretty far so you can watch a video from 2005 before I really had any gigs; from where I was in the same situation as some of your readers, practising in the bedroom and every once in a while finding places to play. Then there’s my blog, controllerism.com, and my site, moldover.com.
Thanks a lot for your time!
Has Moldover inspired you to move further in this direction? What did you think of the Native Instruments video? Please share your thoughts in the comments.