Eric Hall on creating in-the-moment live electronic sets
The St. Louis experimental musician plays October 17 at Good Style Shop.
St. Louis-based experimental musician, artist, and DJ Eric Hall may not identify with any particular scene or aesthetic. But his singular mix of deep audio processing, audio-visual collaging, installation work, and improvisational chops has cemented him as a fixture in his hometown’s creatively rich avant-garde circuit (which has also spawned the likes of Raglani, Brett Naucke, and Ghost Ice). Aside from perhaps his occasional work as a mash-up artist under his mind-blowing Lil' Daddy Reba McEntire moniker, Hall's immersive work—which can be deeply explored across dozens of free releases on his Bandcamp page—kind of re-contextualizes the classic electro-collaging concepts of musique concréte, conjuring sounds in the moment with contact mics while also employing homemade field recordings and synthesized melodies, transforming them through a detailed, home-built processing interface (i.e. through custom effects and stuff).
While some experimental electronic music is criticized for being a bit too closed-off and cold, Hall's sprawling movements always feel personal, spontaneous, and very much alive. This is probably because Hall is generating sounds and visuals from the room he's performing in in real time, but also because Hall never plays the same set twice. He plays a completely improvised set every single show—on Bandcamp, he has diligently recorded and posted every live set from his current tour, and each one sounds completely different. Ahead of his upcoming show on September, October 17 at Good Style Shop, Hall talked with us about deliberately destroying his Disco Duck LP as a child for his own listening pleasure, his lean toward improvisation, converting to software, and that one time he got to jam with Damo Suzuki from Can.
Tone Madison: You’ve been at this for a long time. What piqued your interest in diving into the abstract? Did you have routes in more traditional musical forms?
Eric Hall: My mother is a for-real musician. She can play any instrument by ear and is incredibly driven to play all of the time. She plays out and does guitar circle jams and whatnot. She'd always play at home when I was a kid, so I totally came up around music. She writes her own stuff, but would also do country and folk classics. When I was tiny, I liked the community and fun of it—going with her to open mics and coffeehouse shows. I even did a kazoo number at one of these when I was like four. I apparently did a false start, then pardoned myself, and said I had to tune up first—smacking the kazoo against my palm, and then resumed the song. So, I liked it. But then when it came time to actually try to learn something to play, I had no commitment. I stopped guitar lessons after only a couple and played snare in some grade school band, but that's just a snare, you know? I was quickly bored with it and stopped participating after school. Meanwhile, my dad had next-to-no interest in music, but he did have stereo equipment and a dictaphone, so I'd use that stuff when I was like six to record sounds around the house or the neighbors talking on their porch, and then I'd make collages and manipulate stuff. I didn't have the will power to learn to play anything, but I loved the instant gratification of being able to make weird sounds with that stuff. I also got into hip-hop as soon as I heard it and loved the sound of scratching, but I had no idea how it was done. I thought it was literally scratched records, so I went at my Smurfs and Disco Duck albums with gravel and tore them up and recorded that.
So, basically, to answer your question, I wanted to play like my mom, but was too impatient to learn anything, so I got into just busting stuff and making a racket. That's why I got into abstract music. I had no idea it existed anywhere else. I thought the world was Joan Baez, Afrika Bambaataa, and Disney records and that I was doing something crazy, but it was probably what every other bored kid was doing with a cassette deck, a pencil, and an FM-transmitting toy microphone.
Tone Madison: You’ve been very consistent about documenting your live performances and posting them on Bandcamp. It seems like you never perform the same set twice. Has it always been this way?
Eric Hall: Mostly. When I started playing out often in 1999, I had actual songs that I'd built on samplers, and then I'd just send the different outputs through effects and have tape loops play other synths and racket on top of it. It was really bad trip-hop and noise-collage stuff. It's humiliating to think about, to tell you the truth. In about 2003 I committed to not using pre-arranged sequences or songs anymore, so each show is usually prepared by building a new palette each time—picking a key and finding progressions I like in it, setting up the voices and processes for the piece, and then just improvising from that palette for the performance. After a set, the palette gets canned and I build something new for the next time. It's kind of a wasted gesture though, because I get things that sound so similar from one to the next, but there's always a lot of nuanced differences. Plus, I learn more about the sounds by making them from scratch each time.
Tone Madison: I feel like the last time I saw you play, you were processing certain sounds and images from the same night (including a certain audience member's goon-ish laugh). When did you start working your present environment into your live performances?
Eric Hall: I’ve always used contact mics and found objects, but now that I do live video stuff, I can find new objects for each performance and amplify the sonic minutiae of it with the contacts, and use a USB microscope to get super close to it visually too. The live microscope video feed gets processed and layered the same way the audio does, plus there's obviously tons of synthesized audio and video built up over that, so it's a live electroacoustic and synthetic audiovisual project.
Tone Madison: So, when you're doing a collaboration, like the one you just posted with Oakland-based guitarist and composer Andrew Weathers, is your role mostly to process what the other is doing in realtime?
Eric Hall: In that case, he played acoustic guitar through a few effects and I played sine waves and field recordings, plus I processed his guitar and my sines in realtime, while also manipulating the playback of those elements through granular sampling and speed changes. It turned out so tasty—mostly because of the grace that Weathers plays with.
Tone Madison: I also noticed that you collaborated with Damo Suzuki from Can a ways back. How did you approach that?
Eric Hall: There were probably eight players, each riding along as Damo ad-libbed vocalizations. It was two hour-long improvisations. It's a little hazy, for real.
Tone Madison: I feel like the first time I saw you play back in 2008, there was lots of gear and hardware samplers involved. When did you begin transitioning to the laptop?
Eric Hall: When I was finally convinced that the processors, interfaces, and controllers could replicate what I did with all that outboard gear. I'm all in Ableton Live, Max, and a lot of custom builds. There's finally nothing that I could do with those older rigs that I can't do with this set-up. It's been about three years since I played without a laptop.
Tone Madison: What do you mean by custom builds in this context?
Eric Hall: Max For Live is totally open to make anything you can think of—any effect, sound, video, light show, or garage-door opening. It's whatever you want it to be. You can build any device with enough effort. There's a huge community of people making and sharing these, plus some pros that make and sell theirs. It's really endless, though. It's the same as circuit bending, modding, hacking, or DIY process, except it's inside of a computer.
Tone Madison: One thing that people often complain about in regards to using a laptop is that there are "too many possibilities and not enough limitations." Do you try to set certain limitations for yourself for each piece or performance?
Eric Hall: As far as "too many possibilities," I only started using a laptop when I thought I could reproduce the same processes that I did with external hardware, so I didn't come at in open-ended wonderment, so much as spend a few years researching specific possibilities. Once I collected enough software analogues to my outboard rig, in Ableton especially, to know I could transition to that format, then I kind of phased the heavy gear out.
Tone Madison: Also, I've noticed that, in your work, there's usually some kind of comforting melodic component weaving in and out of the mix. How do you generally approach the melodic factor?
Eric Hall: The melodies are usually spontaneous and then I'll sometimes play them into an arpeggiator that repeats the play order and loops the pattern until I switch it off or replace it with a new melody.
Tone Madison: Many of the releases on your Bandcamp page are of various live sets spanning across the last decade or so, which is cool, especially since you have them all available as a pay-what-you-want. Do you have any plans to work on something that's more of a "studio album," per se, in the near future?
Eric Hall: I’d be smart to do a proper studio album, except it doesn't really align with my work flow. I could assemble a palette and improvise on it at home, same as I do on stage, but that's really the same process as preparing a performance for me. Otherwise, I could plan songs or whatever, but I'm horrible at that. I'm much better being spontaneous and feel a lot more at ease and prefer those results. When I do remixes or tracks for compilations, I realize what a lousy writer of music I am. Every remix I've done is weeks of me freaking out about it, then panicking and completing it several minutes after the last minute. Some of those have worked out really well, but some totally missed the target I had in mind, so I felt like I was doing a disservice to the artist and the opportunity. So, I'm always hesitant to accept remix offers. With compilation tracks, I usually just treat it like a live performance, but I perform it several times over and refine it until it's a fair compilation track length. I do not excel at writing or editing or condensing my stuff at all, unfortunately. That's why I just document each live set and then move on. Maybe it'll come to me some day and I'll do an album, but albums are kind of dead anyhow. I don't know, it's not regarded like any other art, which I've always thought was shitty. Like, if a painter shows a piece, nobody's ever obligating them to do nine more just like it. Actually, they might be. What do I know?
I've always hated the curator or benefactor or manager or teacher roles that some artists latch onto for their career plans. Good for them for finding a way to advance their careers, I guess, but if you're doing something for yourself, from yourself, who needs to be directed? If you're doing it for the sake of having a career, you're not much of an artist to me, but you're also not doing it for me at that point anyhow. So, get at your audience however you need to, I suppose. Not trying to be up my own ass too much, but it's like a sculptural process for me—I make it and that takes however long it takes, I display it or share it online, as it were, and then I don't think of it again. For how I work right now, an album would feel like making little gift-shop versions of sculptures I never intended to keep working on. I don't think this makes me better or cooler than anyone else. I fucking love pop and mostly listen to "songs" in my listening time—hip-hop, Top 40, stoner metal, art-rock, jazz, folk, all of that. But for me, I'm stuck doing it this way for now.
Tone Madison: What else does the immediate future hold for you? Any upcoming installations, releases, or new work of any sort that you'd like to mention?
Eric Hall: As for the future, you know, more of the same, I'm afraid.