Wyatt Agard makes a warped house album
The Madison-based DJ and producer takes a dark turn on his latest release.
Wyatt Agard has spent several years as a DJ and booker in Madison, and initially started producing his own material as a career move, dabbling in various styles of house and techno on dancefloor-oriented tracks. His new album, Of Her With The Eyes, draws on that experience, but also subverts it with a scuffed-up production style and an overt focus on dark emotional themes. Agard says he made the record to process a rough year that brought a breakup, struggles with depression and addicition, and largely checking out of DJing and booking, including the end of the ambitious House of Love dance night he co-organized. The record opens with the ominously ambient “When We,” incorporates mangled vocals on “Fill Up” and “Dead Love,” and, even on more beat-focused tracks like “Silver Light,” swerves into anxious and dissonant territory.
Agard says he’s in a more stable place lately. In addition to spending more time on production, he’s been buying up a lot of vintage synthesizers and restoring them in his studio space on South Park Street. (He hosts an open-house there every Sunday from 5 to 7 p.m.; those interested can email him.) I visited him there recently to talk about the new record and where he’s going next.
Tone Madison: This record is a lot more dark and scratchy than the original tracks you've made before, and you're maybe fucking with the form a bit more.
Wyatt Agard: Yeah. There were some good parts about going crazy and not having a job and not caring about social responsibilities. I really got to discover myself as an artist and kind of define a sound. It's an entire album that's kind of, on the surface, about the loss of a relationship that happened because of my depression and addiction, and on a deeper level for me, about loss in general.
I decided I loved lo-fi music. I've listened to so much Son House. He was the only person in the world I could ever find, in the art world, who seemed sadder and crazier than me, so it made me feel really good in a way. So many old blues 78s and rips of them, and I went out and bought a bunch of 78s, and I love that lo-fi scratchy sound. I decided I loved hard-to-understand vocals. I think it makes people more drawn-in. I think as a social creature, we have a tendency to want to understand what somebody is saying so terribly, that if vocals are hard to understand but still present, it draws us into the middle of music, at least for me personally.
Tone Madison: And of course, vocals and vocal sampling have played a huge role in house music, but you're taking a weird and roughed-up approach to that.
Wyatt Agard: So, 95 percent of those are me.
Tone Madison: Just singing into this mic that's hanging from the ceiling of your studio here?
Wyatt Agard: Yeah. The second song on the album, "Fill Up," that's my friend Fitz. Both Adam Funk and The Quickening are just aliases of mine. In "Burn It Down," there's a sample of a guy who says, "I had a tumultuous relationship...." that comes off a self-help tape, which I love sampling. Dig N Save is across the street, so it's like 50 cents for a six-pack of tapes and they're super-dry audio and have that great tape awesomeness to them. The vocoder on "Burn It Down" is me. "Future Self," that's more self-help tape. "Dead Love" is me, "Evil" is me and a vocoder, "Silver Light" is me, "Need Love" is me.
Tone Madison: Was it weird for you to work with your own voice?
Wyatt Agard: I don't listen to myself. I auto-tune it instantly. I can't sing a lick. I'm a awful, awful vocal performer. It's not me at all. Very often, if I feel at all weird about it, I'll use one of the other plugins. There's one called Throat that lets you physically model a throat. It's got a picture of a person and its nasal cavity and its throat and you can alter the physics of somebody. So on "Dead Love," I made an incredibly short, incredibly fat person. Like beyond the ability of physics. So it's like a 4-inch person who's 8 feet wide, is essentially what the vocal is on that. [Laughs.] It's this really creepy, like, sea hag or witch of the swamp thing going on.
Tone Madison: Did you sample any of the Son House stuff you were talking about?
Wyatt Agard: I didn't. I'm not a great sampler. "Dead Love" has a classic drum-and-bass break. It's Clyde, it's "Funky Drummer." I went and saw him on a Monday and I was like, "Clyde, I did this thing!" And he was like, "I don't care at all!" That's not at all legally binding, but at least I talked to the man.
Tone Madison: Are there any particular Son House songs that are favorites of yours?
Wyatt Agard: There was a track I was playing [as a DJ] that sampled "Grinnin' In Your Face," on the Cajual Vs. Relief compilation. "Death Letter Blues" is kind of a classic one. Pretty much continuously the only TV or movie I watched at all last year was the Martin Scorsese blues documentary. They have "Death Letter Blues" in there a lot. I really like "Walkin' Blues." I really like him talking.
Tone Madison: Is it strange to you that you've spent all this time learning to use recording software and collecting all this synth gear, and then come back to being inspired by scratchy old 78s?
Wyatt Agard: Yeah. I don't see a difference between a synthesizer and a guitar, really. They're the instruments that captivate me. I can see some kind of irony in it, I guess—not irony, but I can see how some people would associate 78s and old synthesizers with being somehow different, but I think it's just an evolution. I'm not a great player, so I need to be able to write MIDI. I have no concept of how a fretted instrument works. My uncle is a very proficient 12-string guitar player, Peter Berryman, who's been around Madison forever.
Tone Madison: What does he think of your music, if that's not a completely inane question?
Wyatt Agard: I actually saw him for the first time in a few years on Christmas Eve, and I asked him and I don't think he had heard any of it at that point. It's pretty different. We talk. I email with him regularly about music career stuff, because he's a working musician, and it's like, how do you sustain yourself? But I don't particularly like his music, and I don't think he's particularly interested in mine [laughs], but that's cool.
Tone Madison: What's next for you?
Wyatt Agard: I'm working on a live set. I'd like to start performing again. The live set is a computer-less set. There's synths and drum machines and a sequencer, and it's kind of minimal. I like minimalism in art, I like graphics that are minimal, I like music that's minimal. It's one poly synth for chords and pads and stuff, and one mono synth for bass lines and leads, and drums that are mostly already programmed.