David Last's music grapples with the past and the future

The veteran electronic producer and Madison native regroups, starting with two recent releases.

  David Last, right, with Chelsea Faith Dolan.

David Last, right, with Chelsea Faith Dolan.

There's a restrained, methodical quality that runs through David Last's music. His electronic tracks pull from a whole host of reference points and boil them down to a sonic landscape of dialed-in separation. He's never exactly released things at a rapid clip, though. Last began producing his own music as a teenager in the late 1980s in his mom's basement in Madison, but didn't put out his first proper solo album, The Push Pull, until 2005. Throughout the 1990s he was making a lot of music and developing a lot of collaborations, first while studying at UW-Madison and later while living in New York City (he later moved on to Colorado and then to San Francisco), but it took him a long time to feel that he'd developed a distinctive voice to really put his work out there.

Last has finally opened a window into those early years with the collection 88-99, released in December through Detroit's Jacktone Records. Though he made these 14 tracks in his teens and early 20s, and views them as the work of someone just finding his way, they're remarkably assured and uncluttered. From the minimal, loping "<ESC> Hatch" to the gentle ambient lift of "88 Deep Sampler," there's a palpably mature elegance on display.

Last began preparing these early works for release on 88-89 at the urging of his partner and collaborator Chelsea Faith Dolan, who produced extraordinary electronic music under the name Cherushii up until she was killed, along with 35 other people, in the December 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship venue in Oakland. (Joel Shanahan, a mutual friend of ours and a Tone Madison contributor, was among the seven artists scheduled to perform that night and survived the fire.) Last was left coping with a traumatic loss in the wake of that tragedy, and has shouldered the burden in part through musical projects that honor Dolan and the community of musicians she energized in the Bay Area.

Before the fire, Dolan and Last had been developing a new collaborative studio space called Last Faith Studio. In the wake of her death, that project has continued on as a label and collaborative platform. Its first release, Constructions Vol. 1, came out last month and finds Last weaving together contributions from a number of Bay Area electronic musicians into eight serene but emotionally weighty tracks.

Oh, and the release notably includes one far-flung contributor: British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, who wrote and recorded a surreal spoken-word piece for the track "Mister Seaweed Part 1." Hitchcock's unmistakable, wry voice tells a story set in an airport, involving passengers buying "inflatable cacti" and airport retail stalls having an angry philosophical argument. At the surface, it's laced with the strangeness and humor one would expect from Hitchcock, but it creates a feeling of tenderness and dissociation that, for Last, resonates profoundly with the experience of grief.

While processing the loss of Dolan and the fallout of the Ghost Ship fire, Last has recently begun moving back to Madison and plotting the future of Last Faith, in an effort to make something good come out of an extraordinarily difficult time. Last hasn't lived in Madison since the mid-1990s, when, he said, "There was a lot more Clyde Stubblefield. I used to go see Clyde play with his blues band." While growing up in Madison, Last also did some early recording at Smart Studios. The beloved local recording studio closed up in 2010, but Last reconnected with it in a way while finishing Constructions Vol. 1. Some of Smart's speakers are now at another local studio, Audio for the Arts, and Last used them to mix a few of the tracks on the release.

Last sat down with me recently to discuss how he began making electronic music, the music on 88-99 and Constructions Vol. 1, and what he has in store for the near future.

Tone Madison: How old were you when you made the music on 88-99, and where did that fall within your early experiences making music?

David Last: I was 17 in 1988, so that was the end of my teens and into my 20s. Maybe the first third of it was recorded in Madison, and two-thirds of it were recorded in Brooklyn, in my apartment in Park Slope. I had a little studio in my mom's basement here with a drum kit and hardware gear, hardware sampler, synthesizers, mixing desk—because no one used computers, I mean, there was Atari ST, but most people didn't use computers for making music, so it was basically a hardware setup with guitar amps and much more of a physical thing. It's kind of fun to see people going back to making hardware music now. It's funny how a lot of people think, "Oh my gosh, it's this thing that's really happening now and, like, we invented it." It's kind of amusing to those of us who are older.

Tone Madison: Well, things are cheaper and smaller now.

David Last: Oh, seriously. That was one thing that was a pain about trying to play live at that time, was your sampling keyboard weighs 55 pounds and altogether all your stuff is like 300 pounds' worth of gear, you had to have a sizable mixer to do your effects sends and stuff. So it's just much easier for people to do it now, but I like a hybrid approach these days. But it was fun to have a workshop here, and at the time, there weren't as many genre distinctions. Electronic music was just kind of one thing. There were the beginnings of stuff like acid techno in various forms, and there was a Midwest techno scene and stuff, but by and large, electronic music as a whole was less siloed and genre-fied. For me, it was just fun to put everything together that I liked. On the record, you can really hear, oh, now there's shoegaze influence there, or this maybe has New Jack Swing influence, or whatever, depending on the time of the piece.

And also, since it's my earliest stuff...I'm mildly embarrassed about it, because I hadn't developed the voice that I grew into as an adult. There's something fun and fresh about it as an adult, but I wouldn't have put it out unless my partner Chelsea had strongly urged me to do so and urged the record label, Jacktone Records, to do it. She was saying, "This is something that's actually really relevant to what's happening now, and it's maybe a cyclical thing, and now is a good time for this to come out." So I just kind of took her word for it. And then after the fire and everything, it became kind of a tribute project in a way, so it was good to see that reach completion.

Tone Madison: Did you do much remixing or revising while getting these older tracks ready to release?

David Last: In some cases I edited for length. There were a couple of spots where I had to do crossfades, but I didn't do any remixing...The vast majority of it was made closer to the mid-'90s or late '90s, so that stuff I was in my 20s, 24 or 25 years old, so I'd had a few more years. There's an '88 song on there that's one of the crudest things on the record, and you can definitely hear it was recorded on a four-track. It's kind of an ambient piece ["88 Deep Sampler"] and I think I sampled a pretty classical piece and layered it with another thing, and that was done with a Korg sampler that has analog filters built into it, the DSS-1. They're fantastic instruments, but they use floppy disks, so nobody wants them.  

Tone Madison: You mentioned working with a disregard for genre or subgenre barriers, and that's something you talk about in the Bandcamp liner notes for that release as well. Has that changed for you as more of those subgenres and factions have developed and defined themselves?

David Last: I think everybody kind of internalizes that stuff. Whether people choose to act on it is kind of another thing, but I was lucky enough to figure out what I was interested in musically, and then kind of start, within those boundaries, finding a place to play. I'm not particularly tempted to say, "Well, you know what's really big right now is this style of music, so I'm gonna make a record like that." I've kind of always made what I felt like making, and I really like to listen to artists who are influenced by things but aren't copping to something they aren't or trying to bandwagon or whatever. I love it when you can tell an artist has listened to a lot of different kinds of music—"oh wow, this person has probably listened to a lot of different kinds of Jamaican music, or they may be aware of certain traditions in Asia"—you can hear in people's stuff that they've internalized some stuff, but they're not trying to drag it out for everybody to look at. On 88-99 it's sometimes painfully obvious what the influences are because I still hadn't kind of fully figured out who I was and what I wanted to say musically, but even still on there, there's no, "OK, now this is a rave track," or whatever.

Tone Madison: What initially drew you into electronic music?

David Last: When I was a kid, my dad got an electric piano. I think somebody owed him money and didn't have the money and gave him the electric piano instead. I would just make up songs on the electric piano, and then around that time, we moved to Austin, Texas, and I went to grade school in Austin and heard a lot of different kinds of music there. One day, I think it was on HBO or something, I saw an animated short and the soundtrack to it was "Autobahn" by Kraftwerk and that blew my mind—I was like, "What is this?" And then I had a friend, and a couple months later we were hanging out and doing a sleepover at his house, and he had a 7-inch of the Kraftwerk tune "The Robots," and I hadn't actually been able to track them down. I didn't know where that song came from that was on the animated short, but I was obsessed. We listened to that one song over and over for like three hours, and then flipped it and listened to the B-side for like three hours, and then I started asking questions.

I used to go to record stores and be the shortest record nerd in the place, and ask a lot of questions. I was actually really into film soundtracks as a kid, so I was asking about film soundtracks and then I started asking about Kraftwerk, and at that time stumbled upon dub, and Sly & Robbie in particular. This one record, which at the time was called Reggae Greats but has been re-released as A Dub Experience, which is an absolutely fantastic record. It's a dub of a Black Uhuru record called "Chill Out," from the early '80s, and I think Scientist actually is assisting on it, and it's right before they started using drum machines in reggae, so it's a human rhythm section but then all these crazy weird digital effects. They got an ultra-harmonizer or something, like an Eventide box, and they were doing all these insane bizarro treatments. I was amazed. I had never heard anything like that. I'd heard reggae music before, Bob Marley or whatever. But then when I heard that, it was a total eye-opener and changed everything. So it was basically around the same time discovering Kraftwerk and Sly & Robbie, were the two things that totally blew my mind and made me think, "I want to do this."

Also this friend of mine, Geoffrey Keezer, our parents were in a band together, he was a really good keyboard player and piano player. He ended up being in the Jazz Messengers—the final lineup of the Jazz Messengers before Art Blakey died. He had a Juno 60 [synthesizer] and I used to go over to his house every once in a while in Eau Claire and listen to him play on the Juno 60, and that's what kind of clicked, like, oh, you could do this—you could save up your pennies and buy a synthesizer. I got a Yamaha CS-01 and then with help from my parents I got an SH-101, and I had a really cheap Dr. Rhythm, the DR-110. I still use the hi-hats on it. The kick sounds absolutely terrible, but the hi-hats are better than any analog drum machine. It's just a beautiful, clean-sounding machine in some ways. So I started kind of building kit after being inspired by those artists and then realizing, after seeing my friend starting to make electronic music, that that's something that you can do.

Tone Madison: So getting back to the period that 88-99 captures, how long did you end up living and working in New York after leaving Madison?

David Last: There was a period during high school here, where I was working with a guy called CX Kidtronik, who's still making records. He's on Stone's Throw and is a super-wacky talented punk-rock kind of a guy. He had a cousin who lived in New York and used to record Kiss-FM, Kool Herc, and all these different electro hip-hop DJs, and whenever he'd get a tape, we'd hang out on a weekend and just burn through it and listen to it over and over again. So I kind of had it in mind that there was something interesting about New York for electronic music. And actually, CX and I ended up recording some music here at Smart Studios, Butch Vig's studio. This is before Nirvana and all that...'88, '89.

After graduating from UW, I was kind of figuring out where I wanted to go, so New York was a strong contender for that reason, and I went to visit my brother who was living out there, and he's a jazz guy, so I met a lot of jazz musicians out there, recorded some music, and I was like, "Wow, this is really cool." A lot of the musicians that I met, they weren't making electronic music, but were interested in it. It was kind of easy to find people to work with in terms of instrumental performances and stuff. So I think it was maybe both kind of having checked out the culture as a kid, and then also the contemporary jazz culture at the time. I ended up meeting a guy who lived down the street from us the first day after I moved to New York. My brother went to a jazz jam and he came back and said "Hey, I met this guy who plays vibraphone through effects, like digital delays and pitch-shifters and stuff...you should meet this guy." It was this guy Yusuke Yamamoto, who lived down the street from me, so I ended up with a couple of great jazz-musician friends, Japanese jazz guys. I got interested, through them, in different kinds of Asian music because they were into Indonesian music and all kinds of stuff. New York was a really positive, eye-opening musical place.

Tone Madison: How did you end up going to the Bay Area?

David Last: Well, after New York, I took a brief break and moved to Colorado to relax for a couple years, and then once I got fatigued there, I met Chelsea Faith. We had played a festival together in Missoula, Montana, and we were staying in the same house with a couple of mutual friends, and they were a couple so they kept disappearing, so Chelsea and I spent, you know, five solid days together, basically, and we were like, "Wow, what's that?" We weren't living in the same city, and I already had been thinking about moving to the Bay anyway, so it just kind of came together in kind of a natural way. And yeah, that's how that happened—just met the right person at the right time.

Tone Madison: What was the process like for making Constructions Vol. 1?

David Last: Well, Constructions is a very particular type of thing because of the Ghost Ship fire, and losing Chelsea in the fire. It was a way of finding something for myself to do, and also kind of finding a creative project that I could work with other friends on that would maybe sometimes help them also work through their own feelings about the event. Chelsea and I had set up a studio in our apartment two weeks before the fire, and we had made one tune there together, and she'd done a bunch of work and I'd done a bunch of work separately, and we were excited about the future of that space and collaborating. Once the fire happened, I was wondering what the fate of that studio was going to be, and I kind of figured—Chelsea had been a champion of a particular crew of people in San Francisco who are all really talented but maybe they're not aggressive about getting their music out there. Most of the people she hung out with were kind of shy or intellectual or weren't the kind of people that are going to doggedly pursue the music industry, like being an active part of the music industry.

So I kind of felt like I wanted to continue what Chelsea was doing with supporting this group of people, so I made the studio into an organization and in order to create that platform, I wanted to have a point of focus so that I wouldn't just start releasing things and nobody would know what the thing was. I wanted to create this compilation. When most people do compilations they're asking for full tracks...but for this one I asked people for individual sounds, like just a synthesizer part or just a voice or percussion or whatever, and then I would sew those together into larger constructions—that's where the title came from. It was a way of kind of getting a bunch of friends together and having a communal thing that also supported a community.  I'm going to release some of my friends' records, albums and EPs, and then eventually, there may be other volumes. Sarah Bly, who records as Bleie, is releasing with us. We haven't announced the other ones, but there's some fun stuff that's going to come out. So it's been a lot of work, working with that many people, there's a lot of logistical stuff to deal with, but it's been a great way to—it's been therapeutic.

Tone Madison: Constructions is interesting to listen to knowing that there are contributions coming from so many people, but it has a cohesion to it on an emotional level. Did you have any framework in mind for how you wanted it to play out or the kinds of moods you wanted to capture, or did you just let yourself be guided by what people sent you?

David Last: Well, a little of both. Initially, the grief was so massive that I basically only wanted to make really pretty music, so the first record is mostly kind of beautiful sounds. Eventually, I could get into a more complex palate, but I think it was a combination of grieving and feeling like I wanted to give people something soothing to listen to as they went through a shitty year.

Tone Madison: Right—things can be pretty on the surface but still have a weight to them.

David Last: I think there is definitely emotional information on the album. It's not simplistic music, but that all comes from just extreme grief basically.

Tone Madison: What was the impetus for reaching out to Robyn Hitchcock for his spoken word piece on "Mister Seaweed Part 1"?

David Last: I was listening to a song of his—he's actually got a song, its a B-side from the '80s, called "The Ghost Ship," and I had been thinking about the lyrics and listened to it, and thought, "You know, what the hell. I'm gonna write to his manager. Probably we'll get no reply, but you never know." So I wrote to Robyn's manager and then heard from Robyn within a week, and he was just great to work with. He's such a genius, and he's been a hero of mine since I was a kid, so that was really fun to work on.

Tone Madison: That story he's telling, was that something he wrote with you in mind or that he just had and shared with you?

David Last: He had heard about what had happened, and he said, "I don't want to actually make a portrait because I didn't know Chelsea, but if you want to give me some personal details, because I write mainly surrealist stuff but sometimes specific details would be cool." So I sent him a writeup about who Chelsea was and how she was, and he used a couple of things in there. I think it also comes from his own experience with grieving, loss of family members and stuff. He's talked in interviews about the death of his father. I think he was writing from a place of understanding that people were going to be grieving, and I think he understands that emotional Twilight Zone of feeling like nothing else in your life makes any sense or that you're cut off from the rest of society because you're in this place that no one else is. I think even though it's quite funny and it's basically a surrealist story, I think the emotional resonance probably comes from his own experience with grieving.

Tone Madison: When you first hear that track, there's that element of humor and weirdness that jumps out, but as you revisit it, there's a richness there and a whole storytelling structure that completely changes as the piece goes on.

David Last: And then there's his voice. He's got such an amazing voice. His depth as an artist is really impressive, and I've always been in awe of what he can do off the top of his head. I mean, when he plays shows, in between songs, while he's tuning his guitar, he'll start rambling, just stream-of-consciousness, surrealist stories, and they're amazing. That's kind of what led me to ask him to do a surrealist story. I've never heard him release anything like that. He always releases music, and at his concerts he'll do [spoken material], but I always thought it was odd that in order to hear him do that, which is really beautiful and impressive, you have to go to one of his live shows. So I was really excited when he said he'd be interested to do that, because to my knowledge there aren't that many recordings of him doing spoken word.

Tone Madison: What's next for you? Are there people back in Madison you're hoping to collaborate with, or anything in particular you want to do in terms of performing and DJing?

David Last: Well, apart from New York, I've never moved to a place with the goal of being in a music scene. It's been more like a decision where I wanted to live for other reasons. In the case of San Francisco, I moved to be there with Chelsea, not to be a part of the Bay Area music scene—although I like the Bay Area music scene. And even doing the Last Faith Studio thing as a label, I'm working with Bay Area artists but that's because I'm buddies with them and it's a personal thing. Being in Madison is about getting back on my feet after the fire and so I haven't really given much thought to music-scene stuff. That's the kind of stuff that happens, I think, kind of naturally, which I'm interested in, but it's not something where I think, "OK, I'm going to live in Madison for a while, so I'm going to start being on the scene, man." It's a bit more personal, and especially as I get older, I have less interest in kind of the random element of scenes, which is not to say that I don't enjoy participating sometimes, but I'm happy that Joel Shanahan lives here. I met Joel through Chelsea and we became buddies slightly before the fire happened, and since then, since we kind of have an understanding about what the other person is going through, we've been spending a lot of time together. I'm glad that he happens to live in the same place as my family, because we can make music together. I guess in the short term, I'm going to continue on with the label, even though the physical studio is no longer there in San Francisco. It's now here. I'm still going to continue with that project and keep my eyes open here. It's good to have a place to re-focus and it's fun to be back after so many years.