ill.Gates Dishes on Upcoming Album, Philosophy, Creativity and More
It’s no secret that Dylan, AKA the incomparable ill.Gates, is one of the most versatile and innovative electronic producers in the game. For over a decade, he has created an abundance of incredibly dynamic and influential music, and he has headlined major festivals such as Burning Man, Shambhala and the World Electronic Music Festival. He’s collaborated with other long-standing artists (like Bassnectar) producing intense, face-melting tracks and also has a passion for teaching; which is apparent in his online tutorials and workshops he offers for free so aspiring artists can get the inside scoop on the craft and deepen their knowledge of the industry. Sensible Reason sat down with ill.Gates at Dreamscape to talk about his upcoming album Terminally iLL, the Urban Teahouse Remix Project, his recent international travels in the quest for musical inspiration, philosophy, culture and much more.
SR: Let’s talk about your newest album that is coming out soon, Terminally iLL. Is the name a metaphor for anything or is it just an homage to you always creating sick beats and you’ll just never recover?
IG: Yeah, I got a life sentence, man. I’m ill-born… I am terminally ill. I’m doing this until the day I die and I hope – like the legends B.B. King and Prince and James Brown – that I never retire and I’m still on stage killing it until I physically just can’t do it anymore.
SR: What are some of the album’s impacts and themes? Are there hints of an underlying worldview or cultural inspirations in your album?
IG: I’ve been digging deep with the sampling on this record and trying to find a lot of evocative samples that are in the public domain. For example, on “More Tea” I sampled Bruce Lee’s famous “Be Like Water” interview, as well as Alan Watts, who expressly put his samples in the public domain. On “Unsung Heroes,” KJ and I sampled a Mario Savio speech that he delivered (Operation of the Machine) during a protest at the University of Berkeley and it was such a historic piece of American political oratory that the steps were later renamed from the “Sproul Hall Steps” to the “Mario Savio Steps.” During Occupy, that was exactly where a lot of the protestors gathered and they were all beaten down by police. I like to plant these sorts of Easter Eggs in the tracks that – the people who care – will look up and learn more about different great leaders (unsung heroes) in life and really explore some of the people that make our lives, our freedom and our musical freedom possible. I think a lot of the sampling in the record is really about getting people to appreciate the world around them and appreciate what’s going on other than what’s just being shoved in their face with their Facebook feed or some sponsored content about the top ten reasons you’re wasting your life. I really try to encourage people to recognize that they are living for a limited time on this earth and they should really make the most of it and look to some of these amazing people in history that are not at the top of their Facebook feed but are worth investigating, studying and learning from.
SR: “More Tea” is a change of pace from your recent material; it’s definitely more mellow and psychedelic. What inspired this track and can we expect the other tracks on the album to be similar in tone?
IG: “More Tea” was kind of a result of an interaction that I had with a fan who later became one of my very good friends. His name is Nathan and he is a self-proclaimed Tea Traveler. He decided that he was going to spend his life traveling through the world meeting tea farmers and mailing tea back to his supporters on the Internet. He really enjoyed my music and decided that he wanted to mail me some tea. So he asked and I said, “Certainly, go ahead,” and he mailed me some really amazing teas from Taiwan, where he was living at the time. I was just so impressed with his lifestyle and what he was doing, and one thing led to another and he offered to bring my wife and I to Taiwan for a tour playing music there. That seemed pretty cool, so I said yes and the next thing we knew, we were blazing around on rented scooters with no license in this crazy, smoggy, industrial beauty of Taiwan and drinking tea at this beautiful teahouse with this crazy koi pond surrounded by skyscrapers. Afterwards, we flew to Austin and drank tea until our palms were sweating, and then I made the track in one, furious, tea-fueled session. It was one of those tracks that came out effortlessly and smoothly. I find that my best material comes out in one long session or maybe two days. The tracks that I feel the most come out in one, simple piece where’s there’s no hang ups or sitting there tuning some sample and hating life. “More Tea” was one of those magic tracks; it just came through me and happened. Terminally iLL is a bit of a different take. A lot of people think of me now in terms of heavy-duty bass music. But, I’ve always written more mid-tempo, experimental, left-field music and in a lot of ways, Terminally iLL is focusing on returning to the more experimental roots of what I do. Its got its share of dance-floor crushers but there’s a lot of mid-tempo, glitch hop and tracks like “More Tea,” that are just really outside of the box; just music for the sake of music. The album is going to be a lot like ill.Methodology in that there is a wide array of tunes. I’m probably going to put Orange Sky on it since it never came out on the label and I really feel like it’s worth re-releasing. I’m still finalizing a few new ones because I feel like if I am going to re-release anything it should be far outweighed by new material. I’m in the process of finishing a lot of new tracks I made when I was in Jamaica and Cuba. The most exciting part of making a track is when you’re saying “yes” to all these new ideas, and then you have this big pile of ideas and then you have to start saying “no.” And you have to say “no” again and again to everything and that part can be a little disheartening and demoralizing but, to get a track really polished, you have to say “no” a lot. A lot of tracks need that phase of grinding and ruthless problem solving.
SR: What was the basis for the idea of the Urban Teahouse Remix Project?
IG: The whole idea with the Urban Teahouse Remix Project was that we would get other remixers involved. My friend, Nathan, was impassioned about this idea and wanted to basically form a bridge between traditional Chinese music as well as Asian producers and the glitchy, bass music scene on the West coast, and to have a remix project where these two worlds could collide. I thought that was interesting and said I would be down, but the next step was the samples. So, over the next year or two, he eventually managed to meet this man named Alex Peng, who was an aging producer in Taiwan who had all these archives of DAT tapes that he had recorded of traditional Chinese music. He understood Nathan’s vision for the project and gave him access to these recordings on the condition that we actively promoted Chinese and Taiwanese tea culture, which is a perfect fit for the Urban Teahouse Remix Project. So, I went and called up a few different friends of mine and everybody just kept saying yes. Sonia Calico turned in a crazy remix – it’s awesome – and she’s from Taiwan. She’s part of this band called BxxG (Bounce Girlz) and she makes the sickest trap but she has a totally Taiwanese take on it; you’ve gotta hear it. We also have Liquid Stranger on there and Mr. Bill, David Starfire, and there’s a Mochipet remix that I’ve been sitting on that’s going to come out that’s also very good, but it really deserves special showcase so it’s going to come out on one of the other EPs. The whole thing just came together very naturally.
SR: The intro to “More Tea” is obviously the late Alan Watts. A lot of artists seem to use samples from him and other philosophers. Do these individuals have any significance to you regarding your own personal beliefs or views?
IG: Yeah, Alan Watts changed my life on a very deep level. I’ve always been interested in studying Eastern philosophy. For those of you who don’t know, Alan Watts was an English guy who lived on a houseboat in San Francisco and he was one of the first to travel to Asia and bring back Asian philosophies to the western world in an unpretentious, easy-to-understand way. I spend a lot of time on airplanes and in cars traveling to gigs and I just developed a real taste for audiobooks, especially philosophy. I studied Asian philosophy at the University of Toronto for a good while. I find Daoism to be one of the most fruitful forms of philosophy to study. I feel like western philosophy is not as practical, it’s much more concerned with the truth of the matter, but I think that’s a pretense to pretend that you know the ultimate truth, which is something that is inherently unknowable as human beings. Eastern philosophy (Buddhism, etc.) does not claim to know the ultimate truth; it’s all about finding your place in the dynamic of life and the world around you. It’s about compassion and finding your place as you relate to other human beings and to let go of the quest for an ultimate truth and embrace the study of what you can know. There are patterns and dynamics in the world that are much better expressed through poetry than through science, and I feel that Alan Watts is one of those people who has the potential to open a closed mind – or open further an open mind – to really appreciate your relationship to the world around you without pretending that you can know everything that there is to be known. I find that this philosophy as expressed by Alan Watts is just one of those things that will make your life more bearable and positive. When I do sample these people – especially when I sample Alan Watts – it’s an active endorsement and encouragement, that fans who are interested in understanding philosophy should go out there and look up Alan Watts and indigenous Chinese music. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. If you go and seek out new and interesting ways of thinking, regardless if you think it’s the ultimate truth or not, you will enrich your own mind.
SR: You recently went on a musical pilgrimage to Jamaica. Why Jamaica and what inspired you to journey there?
IG: Well, we didn’t just go to Jamaica. We also went to Cuba, Costa Rica, Bali, Singapore, Australia, Israel, Hawaii, Canada and Alaska; it was a real mission. But, Jamaica – and Jamaican music specifically – probably has the most high-quality, creative output per capita than any other place in the world. You’ve gotta recognize, there are not even 4 million Jamaicans today and their impact on international music is insane. The first people to ever have the producer treat the mixing board as an instrument, and have the producer be part of the band, were Jamaicans. Dub producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby were the first ones to make the bass the primary instrument. They were the first ones to play the delays and to work the mixing board. They were the first ones to say, “You know what? This track needs less singing and more delays and bass.” They completely rocked the music industry; you can play that music now and it will still stand up to the mixes out there today. So, we got a place (in Jamaica) that was walking distance from Kingston Dub Club and went there to check out Gabriel Sellassie. They just had this giant fucking sound system that was so loud you couldn’t even go near it. Everybody from Jamaica goes there every Sunday and they just play the music at maximum volume. So, yeah, we just got place down the road from this mountaintop dub fortress and admired the view and listened to the good music. It’s a process musicians call “Woodshedding,” where you basically retreat from the distractions of your life and go to the woods and hone your craft; I really felt the need. Everybody’s good at music and there’s a million amazing musicians coming across everybody’s radar all he time. If you want to stand out, you have to take time to hone your craft, be inspired and take it to the next level. So, we went there to write, we went to Cuba to write and also Costa Rica. All these places changed who I am and changed the music I make but Jamaica especially was a really inspiring place. We spent a whole month living in Kingston and it was just incredible.
SR: You’re one of the few artists who do instructional videos and workshops. The desire to teach is obviously a big part of who you are. What prompted you to open the lines of communication to reach out and educate aspiring musicians on the craft?
IG: Well, the main thing is, my mother is a teacher. She’s one of the greatest influences in my life; she’s an incredibly beautiful human being. She used to run the Association for Canadian Publishers and put out tons of books and then she handed off her role in the company to raise her children. After we grew up and she was given the opportunity to do anything with her life, she decided to go to the inner city and teach kids who came from disadvantaged backgrounds and had it pretty rough. Compassion is the ultimate virtue that human beings can have and, back to Buddhism, there is one underlying thread there that is all about compassion. It’s about going outside of yourself to the other and to help people and give back. I feel that the most effective way that I can give back is to share the things I’ve learned as an artist and as a producer because we are in a bad way as a society. I mean, there’s wars everywhere, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and if you fight violence with violence, you just get more violence. We need to fight to educate people to stand up for themselves and to not just do what they’re told all the time and to not just follow the herd and to actually think creatively. It’s important to pursue non-violent solutions to the problems we face as a society and encouraging people to think for themselves is one of the best ways to stop that violent mentality. There is definitely a deficit of creativity and independent thought and encouraging people to question the life society has designed for them, I think, is a very real way that I’m suited to contribute to society. Whenever I come across one of those lightbulb moments that unties a knot in my mind, I write them down and make workshops out of them to give to people. Much of what I do is free, but there are a lot of people who feel like buying my workshops is a good thing to do and I’m so grateful to those people. Without their support, I can’t continue to give in that way. That’s my way of giving back and respecting my mother.
SR: Going back to the basics… in the early days you did a lot of vinyl mixes. Do you ever feel like mixing with vinyl again or do you think it’s a lost art today?
IG: I don’t think that’s an “or.” I definitely feel like vinyl is a lost art, but I also LOVE playing vinyl. I got a pair of turntables in my house that some fans were nice enough to mail to me. When I DJ in my living room, I play vinyl with Serato and I love it. Sampling vinyl is excellent and it’s a huge part of music culture, and really, you don’t own a track until you got it on vinyl. Otherwise, it’s everybody’s track but when you got that 12-inch and you can hold it in your hands and look at the cover art, it’s like you own a piece of that person’s soul. It’s totally different than an MP3 on your computer, and the people who support the labels and support things like record store day or go out and buy records, they are – in a very real way – helping to make the good part of the music industry possible. The labels who put out records on vinyl, that’s pretty much a charity operation. None of them are making money and the little bit they get from the vinyl sales is just enough to keep them going for another year.
SR: On the subject of visuals, I notice when I go to a lot of shows some artists use heavy visuals while the musical component is less than stellar. Do you think that people rely too heavily on visuals today or is there a healthy balance?
IG: Well, you gotta keep in mind that most people don’t know what AWESOME is. Most people need to be tricked into having better taste in music than they actually do… it’s said but it’s true. And to a great extent, that’s your job as a DJ; to be like, “Here’s some things that you can get down with but here’s some other shit that you should maybe be curious about.” In a lot of ways, that’s the role of a DJ. Visuals and everything are a great way to make a DJ-style presentation fill a large stage but at the same time, it’s a double-edged sword. There are people who can afford crazy light shows, cakes and inflatable rafts, and they are maybe not focusing on the music as much as they should. It’s sad but it’s a dynamic that’s there. People want the spectacle; they want to feel like they are at the ultimate party. Also, most people don’t really care about the music as much as being able to say they were at the best party ever, get fucked up and maybe get laid. The spectacle is a part of party culture but it’s not that necessary and I think that the real heads are always going to value real music. If you are using visuals as a crutch or a trick, there’s only so far you can take that and you’re not going to impress the real music heads; they can either take it or leave it. That being said, when you have artists who incorporate visual elements to compliment the underlying messages in their music, it can amplify it and make their intentions understood, which can be a real challenge when creating instrumental music. It’s just a tool that’s wielded well by some and wielded embarrassingly by others.
SR: If your music was a hybrid of two animals, what would it be and why?
IG: It would probably be some sort of luminescent, deep-sea jellyfish and also a dog. It would be like a cuddly, luminescent, deep-sea jellyfish. A luminescent dog.
SR: What was the most monumental moment to date, in your career?
IG: The one that probably made me go “HOLY SHIT” was getting to party with Bill Gates for a night. That was wild. I never thought in a million years that would happen when I chose the name ill.Gates. I was playing at Burning Man back when I was still living in Canada, and everyone in Silicon Valley goes and parties at Burning Man. So, this woman named Danielle – who later became one of my best friends and most inspiring people in my life – was at the False Prophet kick-off party, she asked her boyfriend what my artist name was and he said it’s ill.Gates. She thought that was hilarious since she worked at Microsoft and was the General Manager of Bing. So, a few months pass and I get a call from her telling me that she was arranging a party at Sundance Film Festival and was hoping to book ill.Gates. I thought it was a crank call so I said I want all the monies and requested to meet Bill Gates, and she said that can be arranged. I was still thinking it was a prank at this point, so we agreed on those conditions. Two weeks later, I got a call from some organizers for the event and they gave me directions and plane tickets to go perform at Sundance. The first night I played, I met the dudes from Def Jam Records who showed me a cell phone video of Justin Bieber before anyone knew who he was. Eventually, night two rolls around and I sit down at a table and in walks Bill Gates and he sits down at the same table. I just go outside for a second like, “Oh my God, I’m totally partying with Bill Gates. This is the craziest shit EVER.”
SR: When there’s an infinite amount of music out there, the lines are becoming blurred of what constitutes an original and a remake. What is your opinion on the importance of roots, traditions, and respecting originals and sources?
IG: Well, everything is a remix now, nothing is truly original. None of us invented the synthesizer or the 12-note scale. We’re built on the backs of giants; people who have innovated for us and there are many innovators yet to come. Every musician copies on some level and many good musicians steal. But, when you bring something new to that and you bring your own individuality and personality to it, and do it in a way that becomes striking, people will respect that and the history books will know you as an innovator. But, every innovator starts as an imitator and it’s about bringing your own life experience to that, transcending the tools and using them to communicate your own emotions. It’s really about being an effective communicator and using the same shit to do something different.