Ming Kurray's universe of warped beats and warm synths
A talk with the Madison electronic artist, who plays February 19 at Mickey’s Tavern.
Ming Kurray, the electronic project of 25-year-old Madison resident Jack Pizzo, seems to dwell in a cloud of fragmented graphical and sonic experiments. Pizzo’s hand-drawn stickers around town, the digitally scrambled design that accompanies his new self-titled album, and his use of stretched and pitched-down samples add up to a persona of sorts, but all of that stands in contrast with the disarmingly warm synth lines and episodic structures of tracks like “Seagull” and “Blind On These Thoughts.” Another track from the new album, “Chuft,” combines brittle, anxious hi-hats with languid and strangely tender melodies.
The self-taught producer started delving deeper into making and listening to electronic music a few years ago while attening Columbia College in Chicago, in part because he discovered Flying Lotus’ 2008 album Los Angeles. In addition to Pizzo’s own beats, analog synths, samples, and occasional vocals, the project features bass and guitar from collaborators including Steve Queen of Madison band Lover’s Spit. Pizzo is also a co-founder of a small label called Imperial Garden Record, and will play at a showcase for the label on Friday, February 19 at Mickey’s Tavern. We met up recently to discuss how the Ming Kurray project has evolved over the past few years.
Tone Madison: When you first started producing, were you mostly into hip hop or did you have another starting point?
Jack Pizzo: Oh god, no, I started out listening to DDR music, like Dance Dance Revolution, because my brothers were into that shit. I was like, "I like techno music," and then my brother got XM in his car, and I discovered the channel "Chill," and I was like, "this is dope. This is really dope." Then I found Flying Lotus, and Flying Lotus just opened the door of just, what is this?
Tone Madison: A lot of your beats on the new album have a sense of playfulness and humor, but there's also a lot of atmosphere and almost a melancholy mood. What kind of feeling were you trying to create with these songs?
Jack Pizzo: Are you familiar with vaporwave?
Tone Madison: I mean, I've heard the term but subgenre terms are just, you know, gahhh!
Jack Pizzo: Yeah, exactly. It came out of 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr, of like a post-music genre, where it's more focusing on, like "Fuck consumerism and all this stuff, we're gonna take samples and pitch them down and take someone else's stuff, but slightly do it to make it our own stuff." It's more about telling a narrative and setting the scene and everything. When I make something, it's just like, alright, this is exactly how I feel. I don't know, it's weird to describe, because it's definitely a mindset in my head, and I'll get it out and be like, "Alright, that's exactly how I feel." I listen to some of this stuff, like "Blind On These Thoughts," and I'll just be like, "Alright, I was just listening to these four people, I was kinda sad. That's the total vibe I went for for it." But like, I dunno, just fucking around and knowing more about the process of how to make music and a dope community of people online who actually give me feedback—"This is what you need to do, let's hop on Skype and I can show you how to do this, this, this, and this," and that's a person in Japan. The online community in the past few months has gotten me to where I wanted to be with music. I'll randomly have people email me like, "Hey, let's collaborate. Your stuff's sweat." And the anonymous aspect of it is just like, I don't know who this person is. They're from Sweden, could be a guy or a girl, not that that matters or anything, but it's just like, whoa, I never thought that my music would leave Chicago or Madison, and maybe my buddies in New York would share it or something.
Tone Madison: How has your processed changed since you started doing this?
Jack Pizzo: I'm using the software that I started with, a way-old version of Ableton. I've learned so much about that version that if I were to [upgrade] I'd lose something in there. Maybe they've made it better, but I'm so comfortable with it. Before, I was just chopping samples up and I'd be like, OK, I don't know how to make a drumbeat at all, or I don't know how to make a bass line at all, and I'd just copy a sample of a super-sweet jazz song or something. But now it's come to the point where I make a drum beat, I've got 20 drum beats in my head that I can go for, here are the tempos that I'm comfortable with, and then, alright, now I have four synthesizers, a sampler. Actually I recently added it up and I have 120 gigs of samples, just shit that I've found online, whether it be Star Trek samples, a whole folder of Bill Murray talking, there's stuff where it's like, "Oh, I could just pepper this in there." Sampling from my VHS too, and just getting that warm tone, because my analog synthesizers with the VHS and all that just embodies that warm, atmospheric feel. It's more hands-on and more me playing rather than being like, "alright, I can take this sample from blah blah blah and turn it into my own thing."
Tone Madison: So you've put more focus on the compositional aspect?
Jack Pizzo: Yeah. Beforehand, I couldn't lay structure down to anything. I'd always show it to people I'd collaborate with and they'd go, "Well, you need to give me a structure," and slowly but surely I was like, "alright, cool, I can turn this in and record it," and now I can bust out a loop in 15 minutes and turn the structure out in 5 and just spent the next two days working on that song.
Tone Madison: Were there any particular moments in making these new songs where you felt challenged or surprised?
Jack Pizzo: Yeah, because I quit my job at That BBQ Joint, I went to New York City for Halloween to play three shows, and realized that it's a whole different game when you're playing shows. That kind of threw me off and I came back to Madison and started producing everything. It's always just one small aspect of a song—that synth line, or the vocal samples that I need. And it was usually the vocal samples, because I'm comfortable with my drums, comfortable with my bass line because I've got two sweet bassists that come over and hop on stuff, but it's always vocals that were the one thing that I would be like, "Oh, you're not in key," or "That's not what you need to sound like." That's the one thing that I really want to expand upon. I've got the stuff behind it, but I don't have the voice right now, I guess.
Tone Madison: How do you feel the new album is different from what you've done in the past?
Jack Pizzo: I think it's more concise. It has more of a narrative aspect to it. The other self-titled one was more scattered—"Hey, this is what I can make"—and it sounds good, but it's not a concise album. Whereas this one, you start out with proto-syrup-sippin', which would be "Aesthetics," and then it's telling a story and it goes into another vocal thing, and it's all in the same vein, maybe the same key. It's all keys that are relative in the circle of fifths where you can jump, so it's all chromatically mixed. This one ends on a song where it's like, "Oh, shit, this is a banger. I'm waiting for more to happen.”
Tone Madison: How has your approach to the live set evolved? You mentioned feeling a bit new to the live thing.
Jack Pizzo: I started out with a laptop, DJing on a laptop, and every time I'd make a set I'd be like, "This is garbage." I was playing somebody else's stuff, and as much as I like to think that I could mix this band and this band together and make it sound good, it's still not my stuff. So I stopped doing that for a while and produced my own stuff, then made a bunch of money and bought an SP-404 [sampler], and then the day after I bought it I found a 555 [analog synth] online for $150, and I was just like, "Oh shit," so in an aspect I have a deck A and a deck B, and the sampler's just beautiful, because it just has infinite potential. The live aspect, now it's awesome, because I make my songs in separate clips...and then I can just be like "alright, those are all on pads," and instead of being like, "here's my structure," I can just take whatever I want and turn it into a live set.
Tone Madison: So the live set has kind of a fluid relationship with the recordings.
Jack Pizzo: Yeah, and what I was really hoping for with the show was to take Tom playing as the Stamp Collector, and then I flawlessly transfer in, and then Tom plays and flawlessly transfers into Queenager, and plays it again. When you think of it like, "the music stops here," people will go out and smoke cigarettes, but if you have that solid flow of music, they'll just continue to stay. I don't know if continuity is the right word, but just keeping it as one solid thing is way better.