Sweat, Tech, and Film: An Interview with BT
Having the opportunity to meet artists who are not only creating great music, but also shaping the way music is produced is inspiring. With a lot of what is happening in the EDM scene today, particularly the popularization and homogenization of sounds being produced, it becomes a bit tiring (for some of us at least). But BT brings to the table a background in classical music, a passion for electronic sounds, and fantastic coding skills. The synthesis of these skills is pretty much amazing. BT’s sound is diverse and he is greatly respected in several independent fields for his innovation and creativity.
In terms of EDM, BT is most known for his background in trance and IDM. He has nine full length albums to date. His album These Hopeful Machines was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album in 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, he was regularly named one of the top 100 DJs in the world. Music programs he helped to design, such as Stutter Edit and BreakTweaker, are used by artists both big and small around the globe. He’s written for and collaborated with artists including (but by no means limited to) Paul Van Dyke, Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, Depeche Mode, Sting, The Roots, Madonna, and Tiësto. Oh, and he’s composed original scores to the films Go, The Fast and the Furious and Monster— no biggie.
I was able to check out BT’s set at Electric Zoo (before sitting down with him)– within the first five minutes of his set he was covered in sweat. BT was fully into the music and the crowd was dense and cheering:
I was at your set… It was pretty hot in there huh?
BT: Yeah, god, my shirt is destroyed. I’ve changed thankfully. When it’s that good of a crowd, I’m lost in 5 minutes. I was right there with all those people that whole time. It was wonderful. I played a bunch of my legacy tracks that I know people want to hear, but I also played a handful of new things too. [Such as] a track that I did with 3LAU. I’ve played it 2 or 3 times, this was probably the third time I’ve played it. People have watched YouTube clips of [the track], so then you have a couple thousand people singing the words to a song that’s not even out yet. Crazy. Freaks me out. So it was really good tonight, I really enjoyed myself, they’re a great crowd.
How does it feel to be playing at Ezoo?
BT: Amazing. I love NYC in general, so I’m really happy that this happened again. With what happened last year, so I’m glad that the city was willing to take a chance on this festival and see what’s good about dance music and dance music culture, and also to help the economy of NYC. So I’m glad that it happened and I’m glad to be participating in it.
What do you find more challenging: writing a track for a film or writing a track for another artist?
BT: They’re different challenges. Interestingly, they’re both kind of team challenges, where you’re working as part of a greater whole. You have to consider the totality of what you’re working on. I love that because I work in isolation a lot too, so it’s really nice to collaborate with other artists or scoring a film where you’re part of a greater whole.
I just finished a movie called Solace with Anthony Hopkins, I worked with the directors and producers for 8 months on it. Every single day we were on the phone, on Skype, in person, on email. It’s a wonderful process and it’s super aggravating because it’s all artists and everyone is super passionate about what they’re doing. When it really clicks and what you’re writing is really augmenting what’s happening [in the film], or to have an actor say to you, “You made the scene for this”— that’s an extraordinary feeling.
I wrote the music for Monster, that Charlize Theron won the Oscar for. When I scored that film a crazy thing happened: the director got a call from Dustin Hoffman. He saw a screening of it and he said, “You know I’d like to take you guys out and talk to you about this movie.” One of the things he said to me was, “You do work like this 2 or 3 times in your life if you’re lucky.” It’s crazy to hear Dustin Hoffman say that. He was like, “Really take this in. This is the good stuff.” He told me, “What you wrote for this movie, absolutely made the film.” To hear something like that from someone who I admire– this is awesome. This instantaneous feedback. These kinds of things mean more than any accolade or screaming audience– to hear this from someone whose work you admire.
How did you get into film scoring?
BT: I started with classical music as a kid. I started piano when I was 4. I studied screen writing, orchestration, soprano/alto/tenor/bass writing, counterpoint, and theory at the Washington Conservatory when I was 7 up until when I was 11. I was studying computers and synthesis, mowing lawns to buy my first keyboard. Then I went to Berkelee School of Music when I was 15 to study film composition. I stayed for 2 years and then went to LA to work on a record deal and then went to England and they got it. I’m rooted in classical music. As much as I love dance music and the instrumentation of electronic music, the things that really deeply inspire me are beautiful chords, beautiful writing, beautiful songs, interesting harmonic movement, interesting melodic movement, unavailable tensions – I love what’s happening now in dance music but I love great writing.
With all of this background in classical music and composition, do you ever get frustrated with the direction EDM is going in?
BT: I can find something to like in anything honestly. It’s the elephant in the room: this is really quickly bottlenecking in this funnel. This one specific thing is popular in our country. We have a very narrow way of seeing the world. Right now in Germany there are tens of thousands of people convening to listen to experimental deep house music. Or at Stanford University with Kurtis Rhodes there are 2000 people listening to academic electronic music in 17 channel surround sound. We’re focused on this one little things that’s happening because it’s “the thing” right now. But there are so many interesting things happening in the world right now with the use of electronics in music… I love that there is this attention being drawn to our culture. Some of it’s cheesy but some of it’s good too. There’s a lot more that will come in behind that. We have to have faith that this is the first cresting in America and there is a lot more to come. We’re in an education process.
How do you incorporate this interest in experimental sound into your music?
BT: For something like this I know what I’m playing to. I know what people want to hear from me and there is a pretty rigid frame work you have to go in. That being said, I’ve gone on tour– I did a tour 7 years ago with Thomas Dolby in surround sound. I played 6 instruments throughout the course of the evening and 5 more instrumentalists played with me. We also announcing soon a show coming up in the spring in Miami so definitely stay tuned for that.
Tell us about more about your software background.
BT: I started Sonik Architects in 2003. Me and 3 guys sitting on a couch. Like I said, when I was a kid my background was in classical music and programming, anything electronic. I’ve always hit a wall compositionally where I want to do this thing but there isn’t the software to do it. So, for the last 20 years, I’ve been making little apps to do something that I want to do in composition. In 2003, I began in earnest this software company to make specifically (to begin with) these two applications: Stutter Edit and BreakTweaker. I needed these applications to do very specific things. Me and three guys, about 1,800,000 lines of code in three years. We sold the company to iZotope and I remain on it as creative director. Then we finally got it to market and it’s nuts: my daughter was watching Taylor Swift on TV singing the song “Trouble” and she said, “Dad, she’s singing the lyrics through Stutter Edit!” Taylor Swift, Skrillex, the Black Eyed Peas– artists who are really ubiquitous. I can’t go to the movies now without hearing it in a movie trailer. And it was just something I needed for my own work. And I have more stuff that I’m working on that I need for my own work. I love thinking and dreaming up news way of creating and treating audio, it’s something I try to do with a great deal of reverence for my heroes growing up. I think about what pioneers of early electronic music would do with the tools that we have now. I want to incorporate new things into my music and push it as hard as I can.
It is refreshing to have the opportunity to talk to artists who are more than “just” DJs or producers– they become audio engineers, coders, film composers. With his deep understanding and breadth of wisdom in music, we look forward to checking out what BT has to offer this spring! In the mean time, BT has just released a new track, “Paralyzed,” featuring singer-songwriter Christian Burns which you can preview below or download on iTunes, Beatport, or Amazon.