Julien Chang and Rusty Santos Wax Philosophical

The musicians/producers get into the relationship between philosophy and music, subconsciousness and improvisation, and more.

Julien Chang is a musician and producer from Baltimore, now based in New York; Rusty Santos is a producer and musician based in LA, best known for his work with Animal Collective. Julien just released a new EP last month — Home For The Moment — so to celebrate, the two hopped on a Zoom call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Julien Chang: How are you doing, Rusty?

Rusty Santos: I’m good. Nice to see you again. Are you are you still in New York?

Julien: Yeah, I’m still here. I’m going back to Baltimore today to start rehearsals for SXSW. But yeah, I’m here.

Rusty: Yeah, I had just been back in New York for a week or two, and then you were like, “I just moved here!” How do you like New York so far?

Julien: It’s great. All my friends are here, and playing shows and stuff.

Rusty: Yeah. And I imagine it’s not like you’ve never been to New York and done stuff here. 

Julien: Yeah. You’ve been kind of living back and forth between New York and LA, it sounds like?

Rusty: No, not at all. I came back here to do one album in 2021, but other than that, I’ve just been based in LA. I was here for a month in 2021, but I was in the studio every day. It felt very much removed from the daily life of being in New York. This time around, I do feel like I’ve kind of immersed myself back in the city, so it feels like being back. I lived here for a long time — I moved here as a teenager, and I was a downtown kid back then. Now I’m a downtown grown up. 

Julien: [Laughs.] That’s a good progression. So when you were doing the Animal Collective stuff, were you in New York or in Baltimore?

Rusty: I was in New York. They were in New York, we were all in New York. Dave, aka Avey Tare, went to college here, and one of the other members also went to college here. The other two guys went to college in Massachusetts, but by the time I started working with them, they were all living here. Actually, the reason I met them was, I met Dave at American Fine Arts — which was at the time located in Soho. I think it was somewhere just off of Broome Street. Dave was working there, and my friends Taka [Imamura] and Liz [Bougatsos] worked there as well, and were like, “Oh, you guys both should meet.” This was before they were even called Animal Collective. I’d heard the Avey Tare/Panda Bear Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’re Vanished

Julien: And then you worked together on Sung Tongs.

Rusty: Yeah, but prior to that, we worked on [Panda Bear’s] first solo release for FatCat. That was the first thing, and I did a remastering thing of Danse Manatee. We kind of eased our way into working together. That was my first foray into recording other people. I’d been doing live sound for quite a while at that time, and I had been playing in bands and recording my own music. Live sound was more of just a job, so I hadn’t really thought of that as a career path. I didn’t even know you could do recording as a career path. It’s come a long way from that — at the time, we were doing it on tape machines. Sung Tongs, for instance, was a hybrid approach where we recorded basics on tape and then overdubs on computer. Everything was just a lot of work to even just get things going. And now sessions like the one we did, it’s just like, “Here we go. We’re recording.”

Julien: Yeah. It was cool working with you, because I was just seeing a friend of mine — Jacob Garcia Bunuel, or Slippy, he goes by — I was talking to him about working with you, and he was like, “It sounds like fishing.” It was a lot of improvisation. I would just be playing stuff, and then as soon as you heard something, you’d be like, “OK, let’s get it down.” Which was really cool, because I do pretty much everything by myself, and it’s kind of like 90% thinking and then 10% recording. But with you, it was like we were thinking through the recording.

Rusty: Yeah. I enjoyed that session quite a bit, actually. That was definitely one of my favorite sessions I’ve done. For me, I noticed a long time ago that when you sit down at an instrument, you might just do a bunch of stuff and then that leads to somewhere where you have an idea, and then you might work on that idea for a long time, and you end up at something like, “Here’s the part I wrote.” But what gets kind of glossed over is that you first just sit down and you do a bunch of stuff, and sometimes that’s the actual idea, but you don’t even realize it yet. I feel like that’s the subconscious part of the process. Then once you have that stuff, the thinking is a lot more valuable because you need to think but you don’t necessarily need to think in the process of, where does the music actually come from? The music comes from somewhere beyond the thought process, maybe. I do think that not just music, but in general, you can’t force an idea. It just comes. And musical ideas come very fast. 

Julien: Yeah. It’s almost like you have to be ready to catch it. And I guess that’s what’s cool about contemporary recording technology — you really can just catch it as soon as it comes.

Rusty: And you have the equivalent with performance — you could be playing something that you already know, and then you catch that performance. The way that most people record their music, you’re performing something you’ve already written. And I would say that those first performances are going to have something that the 26th performance doesn’t have, if you happen to be unlucky enough to get caught in one of those feedback loops where like, “Oh, let’s do one more take, one more take, one more take, one more take.”

Julien: Right.

Rusty: So the magic does apply to composed works. I think probably the most revealing example of this is rehearsal versus concert. You’ve done it over and over again, but for some reason when you’re at the concert, it’s fresh and new and immediate and you’re in that moment. You could have played the set six times a day for the last three weeks, and you feel like you’re on autopilot, until you’re on stage in front of that audience. One of the things I found interesting about your music was, it’s at an intersection of classical music and, for lack of better a word, pop. But then at the same time, it’s not John Zorn, avant garde, The Stone. Have you been to The Stone yet, by the way? 

Julien: I’ve been, yeah. Actually, I went there like a week and a half ago. It was this quartet of two bassists and two drummers and it was so crazy, noisy, really good. And then I went to this show last night and met this bassist who’s living with the drummer that I used to play with when I was in college — I was like, “Yeah, I went to this show at The Stone last week, it was two bassists and two drummers,” and this bassist was like, “Oh, yeah, I was one of those bassists.” It was funny.

Rusty: That’s hilarious. It’s a small world. I had that happen yesterday in a session where I was working with two people and one of said, “We need vinyl toms on this,” like a sample. I go, “I got just the thing. My friend from Nashville just sent me this kit.” And I started flipping through the drum kit, because we’re using sample drums, and he goes, “Wait, play that again.” He was like, “I made this kit.” He had actually been the person that had recorded and made the sample library that my friend in Nashville had sent to me. 

Julien: [Laughs.] Wow, that’s funny.

Rusty: But yeah, you’re going to run into the drummer from The Stone while you’re hanging out. That could be because it’s a small world, or it could just be frequencies — the universe just kind of puts things together like that, you know? Because if you’re at a different frequency, you’re not going to run into them, even if they’re in the next subway car over from you.

Julien: Yeah. Just a minute ago, you were talking about the subconscious — I noticed when I was at your place, you had Jung and other psychology. 

Rusty: Yeah, that’s the only book I have here, actually, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. But I do feel like part of what I do is just maintaining energy flow in a session. Because I’m not trying to do too much, I’m trying to make sure that the energy is flowing. And there’s other stuff that can be done later… It’s a process. I really think it’s cool to work on something that’s patient. And that’s what I liked about your music — it’s patient. Because the song — or what we would call the song in other sessions that I’ve done — doesn’t start ‘til three minutes in.

Julien: Yeah.

Rusty: You remind me a lot of my friend Owen Pallett, who I’ve worked with on a bunch of albums in the past. I was actually thinking he would like your music, and he would be a really fun person to bring on the collaboration. He’s also very compositionally minded. He’s kind of my go-to person for strings, because he’s just such a great violin player, and he has this way of recording his violin where he could do the entire range of string instruments by pitch shifting it and stuff. So he could write quartet parts, but record them all himself and make it sound convincing. You’ve probably even heard some of them before, because he does a lot of records like this.

Julien: It works with the pitch shifting. I would imagine it sounds kind of cool and weird, funky…

Rusty: Well, I don’t want to give away his secrets, but he also doubles it with MIDI strings, too. Now, a lot of people would opt for a real quartet, and that’s also an option, but a real quartet can cost a lot of money. Not only do you have to hire the musicians, you have to pay for the studio time most of the time. I’m not equipped to record one at the moment here. 

Julien: I’m totally into the pitch shifting creativity. That’s cool.

Rusty: It sounds very organic. When he got his start, he was considered to be a real good looper — he would loop a part and then keep adding and adding, and it was all done in real time, just hitting the repeat button, but in a very precise way so that these massive orchestrations would suddenly emerge. And then he would get good at muting them and playing that all out. 

Julien: That’s cool, too, the multi-tracking thing. That’s how I kind of do all of my music. I never write a song with a band or anything like that — it’s always just kind of this multitracking construction, like looping something, putting something on that, and really fleshing it out that way. But it is a totally different thing than writing the song and performing it in the studio and recording that performance. It feels way more like construction.

Rusty: I think that both methods are so valid that it’s hard to always say beforehand which is the better approach.

Julien: Yeah, of course.

Rusty: A lot has to do with budget constraints, because if you don’t have the budget, then the multi-tracked one is the end result. But if you have the budget to go in the studio and perform it all out, then that might be great. But then there might also be elements from the multitracked one that are more immediate and closer to the original intention. A lot of the records that I’ve really liked that I’ve worked on, that have been ambitious in that scope, have had a hybrid approach of the two. You have the studio part, and that original performance from the demo still in there, because that had the vibe and it doesn’t need to be recaptured in the studio.

Julien: Yeah. That’s the impression I get from listening to the records that you’ve worked on.

Rusty: It’s a great way to work. It’s just harder to do that these days, when it’s more about getting the song in this burst of creativity in the moment. And then so much is done electronically. Then even in LA, where I have a full drum kit and everything like that set up, most of the time I’m just running stereo mics on the drum because I don’t have time to properly get a full drum sound. Then afterwards I layer in the rest of the drum kit on top of the stereo mic, either with samples or redoing the parts. And that’s because it’s more important to just get the part and the idea down than it is to obsess about it. If you listen to some great records from back in the day — I think the most glaring example of this is an album by Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden. The lore has it that they spent a month getting the drum sound, and ended up with a mic 15 or 30 feet away — I forget what it is — from the kit in the room after trying out every other configuration. And that was the drum sound of their record. I used to really think, Wow, that’s great. But there’s also something to spending, you know, 45 seconds getting the drum sound. [Laughs.] 

Julien: Yeah, it’s more rugged. Which I like. I mean, I’ve never been a gear head or anything. Working on a budget is, I think, a good thing for creativity in a lot of cases. Because then it’s not like, “OK, let’s really mic up the whole kit…”

Rusty: It’s necessity. If it’s working, it’s working.

Julien: Yeah. My first album, everything except vocals I recorded with two — you know how Pyle makes those knockoff SM57 that are like $15? I recorded drums with two Pyle mics, and recorded my guitar amp with the same mic.

Rusty: That sounds great. And the recordings sound good too.

Julien: Thank you.

Rusty: It’s really not about the equipment — although if you’re having that initial creative burst and the equipment is really nice, sometimes that can elevate it to a really high level. But when it comes down to it, that’s not what makes music good. There are historical examples where big records opted for the lower fidelity. One that pops in my head would be Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, where they spent almost two years recording that on a DAT machine. This is back in the early ‘90s, and instead of recording the vocal mic through condenser mics like we’re used to, they had the equivalent of karaoke mics with the on/off switch, and they’re all distorted. And that was on MTV! It was all over the place with the exact same type of mic you’re talking about. Of course, sometimes pairing that with a good preamp can be a vibe in itself too. 

One other thing, since we were mentioning how ideas come from the unconscious — another interesting thing that I recall from our session was how you mentioned that a big part of your own studies have been in German philosophy. I’ve never had an artist mention that in that context before. I was curious, how much has it informed your music?

Julien: I’ve always wished that I could find some way to reconcile those two very distinct worlds. I studied literature and philosophy in college — I was going to do music, and then I switched courses. But I’ve tried to find ways to reconcile them, and now I’m thinking that it’s better not to force any kind of connection, or force any conceptual thinking through music. I think the virtue of music is that it’s not caught up in the whole business of representing ideas. It’s more immediate than that. 

Rusty: Sure.

Julien: To put it very simply, it has a closer connection to the unconscious. I was thinking, explicitly conceptual or explicitly political music, for example, often will kind of come up short with respect to the thing that it’s trying to represent. Whereas, if it just really gave itself to the music, then it might have actually a greater chance at effecting those kinds of head spaces that are prone to philosophical or critical thinking.

Rusty: So you do anticipate you might be the artist that reconciles philosophy with music?

Julien: [Laughs.] I don’t know if I want that burden.

Rusty: Yeah, it’s a big one. Which philosopher, then, would you think came the closest to reconciling music with philosophy?

Julien: Well, you have the musician philosophers, like Nietzsche or Adorno, who were aspiring composers and then eventually jumped ship for philosophy. And then you have the philosopher musicians — I guess Wagner would be one of them, whose philosophy is not good.

Rusty: Yeah, I’m not much for his music either.

Julien: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Rusty: It’s also been tainted by a really terrible historical legacy.

Julien: Yeah, rightfully so. He was a horrible person.

Rusty: Would you say a mathematician might have a better go at being a musician than a philosopher, based on their vocation?

Julien: Yeah, I don’t know. You said you used to be kind of a big Nietzsche guy? 

Rusty: Oh, yeah, definitely. Guilty as charged.

Julien: How do you see this connection?

Rusty: Well, I’ve had a little more time to consider it. To me, they have a similar goal: Both philosophy and music’s end goal is to know yourself better. Or understand the world better, but really, I think the end goal is it tells you something about yourself that you couldn’t find out through any other way. For me, music has a more direct path, but it doesn’t translate into the language we use in our thought process. It translates to something closer to feeling. And philosophy, you might actually create sense in the language thought process, but it’s hard to then understand what you’ve grasped conceptually inside a feeling. So music — if it’s going to be a bridge between those two worlds, it happens more so not in the actual music or the philosophy; it happens in the way that I understand those two distinct disciplines. I have a more emotional understanding of Nietzsche’s writing after 20 years making music, and I have a more philosophical appreciation for music in its multitude of forms — the way you can have dance music and club music and orchestral music and acoustic music and electronic music, and they all are speaking to different emotional patterns that we feel. 

I feel like something like visual arts is interesting, because it also doesn’t use linguistic language to express something. We use both in music, though, because you have lyrics. So maybe not the mathematician — maybe the painter and the musician are kind of interchangeable.

Julien: Yeah. Well, Debussy talked about his composition as painting in sound, which I kind of like. I mean, I like a lot of very textural music.

Rusty: Absolutely. I love that about your music, too.

Julien: Thank you. So definitely the painting metaphor feels pretty apt.

Rusty: Now I’m excited — next time we jam, I really want to finish what we started, but I also just want to go fishing for more ideas. Now I feel like, What’s going to happen next time we put him in front of the piano?

Julien: We’ll get together soon.

Rusty: Maybe I’ll have figured out who’s the most musical philosopher by then. But I doubt it. [Laughs.]

Julien: [Laughs.] We’ll figure it out!

Julien Chang is a musician and producer from Baltimore. His new EP, Home For The Moment, is out now on Transgressive.