In today's interview we chat with psypad (Ivan Tolokonnikov) - an independent music producer from Moscow who tells us about his creative process, the Russian dance music scene, his debut album Sonos, and his latest music video that hit the world-wide-web just seconds ago. Enjoy!
Ivan, wow, man, who would have thought 12 years ago when we were both in school that one day we would be having this conversation about your debut album Sonos and your new music video?! Looks like you’ve come a really long way since I last saw you. Can you tell us a little bit about your development and how you went from being a school boy to becoming an electronic music producer?
After starting studying at university, I got bored of it fast and since I was previously studying piano at music school for seven years I found my escape from this boredom in music. At first I got myself the Korg's Electribe synth and started trying to make some music. In the beginning it was, well, how to say it... Bad? But then, after some time and practice, I started to like the results more and more. And after even more time and practice my tracks started to become more appealing to other people.
Do you remember what was the defining moment that made you think: “Yes, I want to do this, I want to be a music producer!”?
No, I don't remember that moment. But maybe that's because I was raised in a musical environment. My grandmother taught me piano since, I think, I was five. Then my parents sent me to music school and I studied there for seven years, training every day. But on the fourth year studying there I very much wanted to leave the school and to never come back there, but my grandma, thank god, was persistent and I graduated the school.
So why music? Why not, say, painting or writing?
Because at the time I was more interested in music. Even though I painted previously and still make sketches from time to time. And not writing because I never was any good at it.
Do you play any other instruments?
I tried to learn to play the guitar, but had no luck at it.
Tell us a little bit about Sonos. How did the idea come about, how long did the production take, and what did it feel like to be working on such a big project?
At first it was an EP, not an album. We planned to release an EP consisting of four tracks – "Alone", "Sunday" (Night and Morning) and I guess the fourth was "Delirium". But during the process the tracklist extended quite a bit. The idea to name it "Sonos" came pretty much by accident. Previously I wanted to release an EP with tracks named after Greek gods and other mythical creatures (i.e. Zeus, Hades, Medusa), but this idea never came to life. And "Sonos" was a word Latin enough for my liking. It also tied in pretty well with the idea of "handcrafted sound", so we stuck with that name.
Speaking of handcrafted sound, in the description of your album you mention that you’ve built all the sounds for the album using analog gear. Logistically that sounds like a very complex process requiring impeccable organization and lots of troubleshooting. Was it really so?
Due to my production habits it is really the only way it could be. I enjoy the ability to edit any sound at any time in the production process, so I try not to bounce the sounds to sample form for as long as I can. In terms of logistics it is quite a process if you are used to working with samples, but since I worked with live synths throughout the development of my production techniques it is just the way I am used to do things.
How did you go about writing the lyrics for the album?
Since the lyrics were written by Nikita (manager/co-producer), my role in them was only editing. But as far as I know, for Nikita this process included quite a bit of self-reflection.
Great vocals on this album by the way. Did you collaborate with Russian vocalists? And what was the recording process like?
Thank you! Yes we did. Aside from my vocals on "Alone" we have my friend Olga's vocals on both "Sundays" -- the night and the morning edits. Recording was both difficult and fun. The most difficult for me was "Alone". I had literally no idea how to work with my voice.
Any reason why you and Nikita chose to write the lyrics in English for this album?
We wanted to reach a wider audience.
What is the most enjoyable part of the production process for you? Composing, arranging, mixing?
I don't take these parts separately because even while I mix I can put some changes into composition or arrangement. So I think it is safe to say that I enjoy the process as a whole.
Which track is your favorite on the album? I personally really enjoy "Delirium", "Sunday [Night]", and of course, "Alone" - it stands out as the leader of the album to me.
My own favorites are "The Mountain" and "Sunday [Morning]". Hearing my own voice on "Alone" makes me cringe.
Really? I think that your voice is what makes "Alone" so memorable.
Yes, although the vocals are heavily tweaked and distorted at places, my voice is still well recognizable. Funny thing is that I really had no idea how to use it before starting with "Alone" so it took some time to get the result our team liked.
This is very interesting, but before we continue and talk more about "Alone" I think it is a good idea to watch your first music video for some context:
You know, the general vibe I get from the album is dark, melancholic. Some people I’ve asked to describe it say that it feels like an echo or a memory. Is this indeed a retrospective album, if you will? Would you say that it’s rooted in your past somehow?
This album, as we've realized ourselves after the release, is a retrospective of the year prior to the release. The album describes the things that have happened to me or Nikita during the year, both the heartbreaks, the good times.
How did you achieve that distant, introspective feel?
Can't say that that was intentional... I just felt connected with what I was composing about and tried to not to interfere with this flow. I guess I've managed that.
What draws you to the darker side instead of the brighter, uplifting one?
The darker side is deeper. As they say, a happy artist is a bad artist. While I can't wholly agree with that statement, I still think that making art about the darker sides of life can be easier and more colorful as a result.
Now your album has been out for a while and you’ve been very busy promoting it, directing music videos, and also acting in them! How do you manage to stay focused on making new music on top of all that and what can we expect from you in the future? An EP? Another full album?
Since the release I've been spending most of my time in the studio and I hope to have an EP ready by the end of the year. I think I'll take a little pause with releasing albums. For now I'd prefer to go smaller.
Okay, so let's take at look at your new music video now!
Tell us about it! What was the process like? What was the most challenging part of the production? How long did it take?
I myself didn't really work on the filming and editing, more so - the director refused to show me any cuts of the video apart the final. So all I knew about how it would be were the parts I took part in filming. The first time I myself saw it was just before the color correction phase. The production of the clip took nearly half a year, with the first scenes filmed in May and the last filmed in September. For me, the most challenging part of the whole process was being a camera trolley during the filming of the outdoor scenes. And the hardest part of that was when I had to go in reverse. Imagine: there's a cameraman in the trunk of your car, covering the view of the rear-view mirror and all what's left are the side mirrors and the director's vocal commands. There's an actor behind the car, that the cameraman has to make a close-up shot of. You can't see him, so you have to trust that the director will tell you to hit the brakes just in time.
I see some of the characters come from your earlier video – "Sunday [Night]". Is this the continuation of the previous story?
Depends on us filming the third video, but the chances of us doing that are pretty slim. So I'd say "no, it is not the continuation".
In the "Sunday [Night]" video our protagonist ends up laying unconscious on the road... Pretty much like in this video. So maybe they are connected, after all... That's for the viewers to decide.
Let’s talk gear because who doesn’t like to talk about gear? What’s your studio like? What DAW do you use?
I use Ableton Live because it's the only DAW where I understand the logic of the interface (points to you if you've noticed the pun). Now my studio looks like a gear nerd's lair - I have a case with my DJ gear (XDJ's 1000 and A&H Xone:92) sitting on my window, Sub37 and Virus Polar on the table right beside the window and the main workplace with all my little things - two Beatstep Pro's, the Roland's TR-8, the rack version of MFB's Dominion X and my favorite, the Tempest by DSI. Also there are two guitar pedals lost somewhere under all that gear - the reverb and the distortion.
What are your go-to synths and what piece of equipment did you find to be the most crucial to your progress on Sonos?
Since I try to move away from software synthesizers I try to use all the gear I have. So it will be easier to say what synths I prefer to use less and that's the Virus Polar. It has some weird issues syncing with Live and those are the issues I can't find a way to solve, sadly. But it was still used in pretty much all of the album. For example, nearly all arps in Sonos were made with the Virus' arpeggiator. But speaking of the synth that was the most crucial for Sonos, I think that the most progress I made was when I acquired the Tempest. It is a very powerful and fun little machine that has its own character in how it sounds.
What’s the Russian electronic music scene like at the moment? Is it young and vibrant? Is it growing? Are people in general excited about electronic music in Russia?
I am not so much involved in the scene and that is for a number of reasons. First of all, this and last year were my final years at university and I was focused on graduating. Luckily, I succeeded. Secondly, I'm just a grumpy guy and I don't really like to get into things that other people do. The last part is where Nikita helps me a lot, because apart from him writing all the lyrics for the tracks, he is my manager, the guy who makes me do stuff. And he also takes on most of the stress of communicating with people. As for what I know about the scene... Yes, I think it's quite vibrant now. As an example I have my friend Anastasia Kamanina, who won the MTV's Casa Musica project. So yes, I guess people are starting to be active. And about the excitement I think that accidents like the cancellation of the Outline festival this summer displayed that pretty well. When people refuse to return their tickets to get back their money for the cancelled event in order to show support for the people who tried to make this event, I think you could say that yes, they are pretty excited about electronic music.
Are US or European influences dominating the club scene?
I think that Russia is influenced more by the European scene. At least when it comes to House and Techno.
I feel like very few Russian producers have the same worldwide recognition as their American or European counterparts. Why is that? I think that we have amazing talent in Russia. What is keeping them away from major festivals and the biggest dance floors?
I think that that is where location comes into play. While we have some good labels here, they seem to operate exclusively in Russia. They always try to stick to the local scene, not the worldwide one.
Have you collaborated with any other Russian producers, and if yes, what was it like to work in tandem with someone else?
I have not collaborated with other producers, and to be honest I don't have much intent to do so. I'm not very good at teamwork.
What’s it like to play your music live to actual people standing in front of you? Must be a thrill!
It sure is a thrill! Especially when out of the 5 synths you have on the stage only 2 are working... But even with that I've managed to perform a 30-minute live set at the Sonos presentation.
Who or what are you main inspirations at the moment?
I'm currently in a search of a source of inspiration. I thought that it could be good craft beer, but how wrong I was...
Hahahahaha... That's a good idea! I should try it! Now, how much of your creative process is deliberate and how much is accidental? I am asking because, you know, for a long time I used to think that happy accidents while making art somehow devalued it, but I no longer think so and instead accept them as an integral part of the creative process. I am curious to hear your take on this.
I think that it should be both. You should start with the deliberate search of harmonies and melodies, but you should also let these happy mistakes to happen. That's how it is with analog gear - it is great because of its little imperfections. Speaking of happy accidents, sometimes you can get an awesome sound by mistakenly turning one knob, so I think that these accidents are a big part of the creative process.
How do you start composing a new track? Do you sit at the instrument and let your body do the work or do you start in your DAW? Is creativity more a physical or mental process to you?
That very much depends on my mood. Sometimes I sit at the piano and look for tonal combinations, sometimes I start by making a beat. There's really no set starting point for me.
Genres are ambiguous but if you had to define the genre of your music, what would you classify it as?
Hm... Deep techno?
In my attempts to make music, I found it extremely difficult to form musical ideas in my head, but I find it pretty easy to conceive of a photograph, for instance. Do you think in music? I guess this is a question about talent. Do you believe in talent?
Although it may sound commonplace, I really think that talent is a combination of dedication and practice. While you could have some kind of a head-start in a form of, let's say, perfect pitch, you still need to work hard to develop that into good music.
Okay, we’ve talked about creativity, now what about the business side? What's your team like? Who are some of the key individuals working with you and how are they helping you to achieve your goals?
Yes, we are a team of two -- me and Nikita. Sometimes we have some session-workers, but psypad is made mostly by the team of two.
What are your guys’ plans for the near future? How are you going to further promote the brand?
We have some plans. For example, while I will be in London studying at Point Blank, I will be making vlog videos about my days in there for our psypad Live channel.
I heard that you and your team are planning on starting an imprint. Can you tell us more? What’s your vision for this project?
Yes, we do have an idea to start our own imprint called - NØICE RECORDS. It’s all about the electronic music we love or enjoy. Initially this imprint was created only for psypad’s releases, but now we accept music from the outside. If we will like it, we will try to release it or give you some advice.
What’s the next step for you personally? Anything else you want to accomplish alongside music? Maybe some place that you want to visit? Some new food to try? A book you wanna read?
Yes, I plan to graduate from Point Blank's Music Production and Sound Engineering Master Diploma program.
That's a solid step forward. Ivan, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I think a great way to wrap this up is to listen to "Way" - the beautifully composed outro of Sonos.