We met up with Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson from the experimental hip-hop band clipping after their sold out show at Starline Social Club in Oakland, Ca. They were cool enough to tell us about their process and philosophy, interesting media they’ve consumed recently, and a bit about how they get the most out of the routing capabilities of the K-Mix.
Read the transcript of the entire interview:
For starters, who are you and what do you do?
WH: I’m Bill, I’m William Hutson. I’m in Clipping. I make the beats with some other guy.
JS: I am that other guy, Jonathan Snipes. I also make beats in Clipping. With that guy.
Tell me a bit about your stage rig…
JS: So I have a laptop that’s running a Max patch that I’ve been tweaking on-and-off for like 10 years that’s essentially- I would describe it as like a really buggy, terrible version of Ableton Live that crashes a lot that only I know how to use. It’s, like, utterly overly complicated. It involves way to many text files that it needs to parse all the time. It’s really kind of the dumbest way to do this, but every time I say I’m going to rebuild the whole set in Ableton I find myself saying “but I just want a knob here that does this exact thing…”
WH: – and Ableton doesn’t do that-
JS: Well it sort of does now with Max4Live, but I figure I have this whole structure and I might as well just use the Max patch, which I like.
WH: I liked finding out that because it was all built for a previous band there are weird vestigial limbs from the thing you used in that band that are still just running in the background sometimes.
WH: All that DMX lighting stuff and the video stuff from the old band was still running for a while…
JS: Well the DMX lighting stuff was actually built for us, we just don’t use it anymore. But my favorite thing left over from the previous band was that I had a song that there were 7 different versions of depending on which day of the week it was, because I would sing out about “it’s Tuesday Night, let’s party” or whatever. There were overdubbed vocals in the track that I was singing along with, so I had a part of the Max patch that, when I launched it, it would figure out what day of the week it was and load the right files in so I wouldn’t have to manually think about it every time. So that’s still in there, so if we ever wanted to do a Clipping song that there was a different version for each day of the week…
WH: – day of the week specific-
JS: All of the leap year programming was the most complicated part of it.
WH: So it’s actually become a perpetual calendar. It’s got moon-phase accuracy up to a thousand years!
JS: Well I realized I had to offset the time calculation because so often I was playing after midnight, but if you play after midnight on Tuesday you can’t sing about it being Wednesday night. Because it’s not.
WH: That’s true. It’s more complicated than you thought it was!
Haha, cool. So Bill, what’s on your side of the table?
WH: It’s sort of like a classic harsh noise pedal board setup. I have several inputs that can go into it. I’ve got a contact mic taped to a hobby box full of- it’s been so long since I made it… I think it’s full of screws or pennies or something?- and then the beats coming out of his computer and a white noise generator and some samples I play back occasionally on an iPad. But mostly it’s turning on and off different distortion chains.
With your custom Max patch and harsh noise table people may describe it as “experimental” or “avant-garde”, but do you think of it as being quite like that?
JS: Oh, not really. It’s still like a DJ party setup, pretty much. It’s just we’re using the things we know how to make and the instruments and the tools that we’re comfortable with based on our lives and research and upbringing. Which I think is what everybody’s doing.
WH: And coming from doing noise for so long that is literally the instrument I play. That’s what I’m qualified to do is punch pedals.
Do you build up a canon of techniques? What’s practice like?
WH: It is a kind of thing where we add a new song to a set and in the first 5 or 6 performances of that song I’m not sure what I’m doing and by the end of a tour the whole set is “I do this at this point, I turn this knob at this part” and it becomes really rote. I actually like the moments where it’s all “We threw this new song in. Wait, I don’t have anything that I already do during this song, but the beat’s playing so what does this sound like?” and then I’ll do something stupid for a while or I’ll figure one cool thing out and try it the next time.
JS: Yeah, I kind of do the same. I have another layer in the Max patch that I play over the top of things too that’s an iPad controlled synth effects matrix thing that I built that’s controlled by Mira on the iPad. It’s always nice to know that even if I do something stupid or nothing at all that the song is continuing and Daveed can still rap, but adding a new song is “what in this pallet is appropriate for this song and what should I do with these tools in front of me that actually add to this and sound cool.” It’s fun, that part is really fun – figuring that out.
You guys have backgrounds in sound design for theater and do sound design for movies, are those two different or different from what you do onstage in Clipping?
JS: Everything I do is more related than I think I ever used to think it was, and stuff only started to make sense in my life when I really started to treat them all as part of the same creative work and not as separate and needing separate techniques. And that’s really what Clipping is for me, the discovery that all of the sound design training I have is actually very musical too and should be incorporated into doing music, and all of the training I have about theater acoustics and time aligning speakers and coverage, and all of the knowledge about how the physics of sound work in a space and where you put speakers and how that works, informs how we make beats all the time too. It’s all super related and It’s always super useful to say “I know this about sound, so knowing that what does that mean to make this kind of beat, or how can I use that knowledge creatively to do something else.”
WH: And I think we’ve done a really good job of making Clipping into the project that can accommodate all of our other training and interests and hobbies and areas of expertise. We’ve made Clipping in such a way that whatever we’re thinking about at any time we can somehow force it into what we’re working on. Everything seems relevant to Clipping.
JS: It’s a funny kind of irony, that we’ve made this project totally devoid of persona and personality- there’s no identity of Clipping- and yet it’s absolutely the most personal project that I’ve ever been involved in. Maybe that’s because to make something so personal means it’s about my interests, because all I do is consume media and technology and things.
WH: But also my idea of saying there’s no first person, none of this is true, also says so much about my academic training and my interest in that kind of thing. It’s weirdly personal at the same time that it was an attempt to erase all of that stuff.
JS: But that’s a very personal idea for both of us-
WH: Right, and in the way that like… my mentor (I’ll grossly summarize a really brilliant idea she had in a talk she gave that she got attacked for) was sort of linking the erasure of authorship in John Cage’s music to what being in the closet in the ‘50s was. This sense that if you’re not in the music then you can stay in the closet. If you’re erasing authorship- because it’s coming out of modernism where there’s a very personal expression of who you are in your music- to erase that is super personal, even though he was trying to erase himself. But the act of trying to erase himself actually said a lot about what he was thinking about and going through and experiencing in a tough time.
You all have known each other for so long, how does that shape the music and band dynamic?
WH: It’s like a shared language. We can talk to each other really easily and communicate our ideas more quickly because we’ve spent so much time talking about music. Daveed said something in an interview that making a Clipping song is us having a long conversation. Whichever one of us brought in an initial idea, [we] try to communicate that idea, get everybody on board, and it takes hours but once we’re all on the same page having played different songs for each other or showed videos, then the song gets made pretty quickly. But it’s a long conversation about getting us all to make sure we all know we’re making the same song. And then once we know what that song is we make it.
JS: And if a song takes a really long time it’s not like we’re doing tons of revisions- we’re not remaking things over and over again- if it takes a really long time it’s because we had an idea that’s just very time consuming.
WH: The problem is we talk each other into these really ambitious ideas where we decide that’s the best idea and we can’t be like “well that’s unreasonable, we shouldn’t do that.” We get so married to these things; “Well that’s what we’re gonna do!” So that song might not come out for a while because we’ve got to put speakers at either end of the Grand Canyon to use it as a reverb chamber and WE WILL NOT DO THIS SONG IF WE CAN’T DO THAT.
JS: Well that’s actually something we did do on the album CLPPNG on SubPop. There was a bit where we had made this really sort of straight ahead boom-bappy feeling drum beat and we were like ‘but what we should do is play it out of speakers from like 200 feet away outdoors somewhere and then record that and just have that driving the song. But it’s like echoing off of the forest and the mountains from hundreds of feet away and we… 4 or 5 times we tried that and recorded it in different places and it just never quite sounded right so we kept going out every time. It was like a 2 day operation.
WH: Further and further away from Los Angeles because we were really trying not to get car sounds and stuff.
JS: And it ended up being a mix of like up in Angeles Crest we parked the car by the road and just hiked like 200 feet and somebody stayed in the car and just played it on the car stereo. That was part of it and then we also hiked a bit out with a Bluetooth speaker and somebody played it off their phone while the other person was like 100 feet away and we kind of blended those two. It ended up working really nicely, but we had like 6 others that didn’t sound good.
WH: We’d think we were going somewhere really quiet and then an airplane would pass over or a car… it just didn’t sound right.
JS: Or we just didn’t have it far enough away, or there was something off or weird about it.
WH: An optical cable failed while we were out in the middle of the desert once and so we couldn’t get that one after like hours and hours of driving.
JS: Yeah… this flawed field recorder rig of mine that relies on ONE optical cable surviving. I have, like, 9 of them in my bag all the time now and just throw one away every time I go out because they die all the time.
WH: Stupid cables… they’re awful…
JS: It’s really dumb…
I saw that you’re reading the Jason X novelization…
WH: Okay so yeah, that’s a weird thing. That is definitely unusual for me. But I got into a conversation with a friend of ours, the guy who runs Deathbomb Arc Records which co-released our last album, and he said “Hey, did you know that there was a novelization of Jason X” The tenth Friday the 13th movie where Jason is in space killing people on a space ship. It’s a masterpiece.
JS: – that movie is so good. –
WH: Not only is there a novelization of it, which is funny in itself, but that… Well, actually we got into this because I used to teach a summer course at UC Berkeley in the American Studies department called Monsters and the Uncanny in American Popular Culture and so I read the novelization of Nightmare on Elm Street for my lecture on that film and I had never read a film novelization before, like “That’s so trashy” and “I would have never bothered to do that before” and Brian [from Deathbomb Arc] said, “Well did you know that there are 5 sequels to the Jason X novelization that are not based on movies?” 5 original sequels that are like… you know… the first movie ends with Jason getting launched out of an airlock and so the next novel picks up when he, 100 years later, crash lands on a prison planet and kills everyone there. It’s just these crazier iterations of the story that never were movies, just this original series of novels. And so we looked them up and the first two are written by a sci-fi writer I’m actually a really big fan of named Pat Cadigan, who wrote these great cyberpunk novels in the late 80s and early 90s. You know, if you’re like a super sci-fi nerd you think of her and maybe Bruce Sterling and William Gibson as being the really good people of that time doing that stuff. And they were written by her, so I was like “Oh, I gotta get these, like, immediately.” And it’s funny, it is so fun to be reading what is clearly a first draft of something done quickly for money by someone you really admire. It’s like a really interesting lesson in what their writing technique is, or something. It’s like, because, I’d be shocked if there were many drafts of these novels. They are really silly and feel very tossed off, but it’s kind of amazing. I really love when really good sci-fi writers write tie-in stuff. Like one of my favorite writers, this guy Brian Evenson, has written two Dead Space novels based on the video game about zombies in space. And he’s the head of the MFA writing program at CalARTS, like he’s a really fancy writer and literary critic and yet, for cash, he did these crappy zombie space books and they’re amazing. They’re really good!
How does K-Mix work into your rig?
JS: What I love is how incredibly versatile it is. Occasionally we show up in a new environment and we’re like “Oh, we need to submix this that we don’t usually need to submix” and it’s like “Oh cool, I’ll just do that in a new layer and I’ll just spit you out this” and it’s like “Done!” And it’s so fast and so easy to do stuff like that. And it sounds really good. And it’s indestructible. So those are all really important things for the road.
WH: And it’s made our interaction on stage a lot easier and better now, because he spits me the beats out of an [output channel], and he can send white noise to a channel to save me a cable and stuff. I used to be on a separate DI so we would have my stereo out and his stereo out, and, because I’m using so much microphone feedback and distorted sound, sound guys would just… over the course of a show I would get quieter and quieter and quieter until at the end, the last song, I would be like “I’m off! I’m just… they’ve turned me off. I’m not even on anymore.” So now this has made it great because we never had anything we liked to submix me before. Now we give them just 2 channels out of the K-Mix so they can’t turn me off because I’m coming on the same channel as everything.
JS: And we can throw compressors and EQs on you that we actually like or, in your case, not roll off your lows and highs- because those are super important- which sound guys usually do to like “Oh, I’m totally going to throw a low pass on that… or a high pass…”
WH: And then you can’t catch any of the feedback you’re looking for… It’s unusual, but yeah sound guys used to have a hard time with what I was doing.
JS: The preset saving mechanism is great. It’s super useful in our setup just because of its versatility. I don’t feel like I’m using it to it’s full capacity, but things that are that versatile and deep are great because they can be exactly what you need in different situations and I like that about gear. When you need it to do one of those things in some outlier situation you’ll be really glad that it can do that thing. Which I’ve found time and time again with this box. We were talking about maybe moving Daveed to in-ear monitors and I was like “I could do the monitor mix in [K-Mix] because everything’s running through it at that point. I have Daveed’s mic going through it (even though a split goes out to FOH I still need to get little samples off of it) so I just split the mic and take a feed from it and use the preamp in it and grab little samples. I was like “Oh, I could do a monitor mix for you in another layer and spit them out of an aux and that’d be really easy, actually, and then if you need something changed in your in-ears I can control the monitor mix from stage.” It’s kinda cool.
WH: It’d definitely change the dynamic of our sound checks if you were mixing monitors for Daveed.
JS: Well we could not have to do it every time because I would just save it in a preset. We’d set it once and then at the end of a show he’d say “Well, actually this was little hot or this was a little different” and I’d save it and update it and we’d just kind of navigate it like that. I think that’s a great idea.
WH: It would save us time. We spend so much time dialing in exactly the balance so that he doesn’t strain his voice. And then he still does in every situation.
JS: I bet he wouldn’t on in-ears though…
Hey, so can we go back real quick and run down the signal flow through K-Mix?
JS: I’ve got 4 inputs. I’ve got the vocal mic input which goes through a Switchcraft splitter and one of those goes to FOH and one of those goes to me, but I don’t dial it up in the mixer on the K-Mix at all, I just have a little sampler to grab little phrases from it in Max or occasionally I’ll throw a distortion on it or a reverb.
But it’s running through the K-Mix Pre?
JS: Right, yeah. Then a second input is my microphone that’s a little microphone built into a shotgun shell by this company Twelve Gauge microphones that I really like. Incredibly cheap and very, very durable and small and I’ve really put it through some tough situations. Like, I grind it in broken glass every night during the show and it doesn’t break. Though it did shock the shit out of me last night when I put it in my mouth.
WH: You did complain about that.
JS: I did just take phantom power to the face last night. Maybe he should build a dynamic mic into the shotgun shell… I always feel like a little ‘oh-there’s-the-phantom-power’ whatever, but last night it was really… I think I was just drooling more than usual or something and really felt it.
So those are the first two inputs and the other two inputs are from Bill, from his table, which is just a stereo out that I have paired in channels 3 and 4 in the K-Mix and those are the channels that are going live through the K-Mix. Those are not being processed in Max at all.
So you’re sending the main bus to the FOH mixer, right?
And you have an aux bus going somewhere else?
JS: Right now that’s just all it is, but the idea would be to do the Aux bus as the monitor mix for Daveed.
and then do you get a return channel from FOH?
WH: No, I get a mono mix of whatever it is Jonathan’s doing out of his Max patch back into mine.
JS: That’s a different Aux mix that’s being generated, but that doesn’t include anything from my mic or Daveed’s mic. It’s just the beats.
WH: Just the tracks and their stuttering, so it’s got what he does to the tracks but not his inputs.
JS: I have that additional iPad instrument that’s also Max, but over the top of that, that I’m not sending to [Bill}.
WH: That’s true.
JS: But I could! We could make a mixer feedback loop inside the K-Mix if I started doing that. I was thinking we should start doing that, start doing no-input K-Mix. Like in Reaper how you can route a track to itself. That’s amazing that they made that possible, it’s so scary!
WH: And you could actually get someone who makes presets for a plug-in or a synth… you could get Toshimaru Nakamura to, like, make a bunch of knob settings for your mixer feedback presets that sound like different squealing tracks of his. I can get you his email.
Can you tell us a bit about how you use the QuNexus?
JS: I use the QuNexus at home all the time. I probably use it more than the K-Mix. I’ve got the QuNexus set up as a secondary keyboard above my main MIDI controller that I use all the time for holding drones. I love the auto-sustain feature on it because I do a lot of film scoring and many cues in film scores are just, like, one held note and then a sort of slow chord changes over the top of it and that’s essentially it.
WH: That’s how movies are made. This is the good stuff. These are secrets.
JS: Well, you know, sometimes you are working very quickly and you need to build tension and those two goals work hand in hand! So often I just wish that I could drone on this sound while I play this other thing over the top of it, but if I hold down a sustain pedal then everything will sustain. So having separate keyboard, one that’s just a sustain keyboard, is really really super useful. I love it for that and I love being able to sort of finger drum melodies on it, which is pretty unique. To have things that feel like finger drum pads in a piano keyboard layout because you can actually kind of play melodies in a totally different way than you would play with both hands on a keyboard. And I use it with FXpansion’s Geist a lot recently, which is such a smart plug-in and really cool. I love setting up QuNexus to trigger loops while my main keyboard is triggering individual samples so I can use the QuNexus to play the hi-hat part that’s programmed in the sequencer inside Geist while I’m just playing the kick and the snare on other pads. It just makes everything go a lot faster when I can do 2 or 3 things at once, you know? And it’s cool having a little thing that I can grab and move over to the modular really quick to do tuning or dial in a voice while still being able to play it even though the modular is on the other side [of the studio] and stuff. QuNexus would be a real cool thing to have, like, 4 of. Like there’s no place in the studio where you can’t reach one, because then you can always play everything. It’s so small and lightweight. I usually have it in my bag all the time on tour. That is a really really cool piece of hardware, that QuNexus. So smart and so simple and versatile. It absolutely replaced all of my little portable MIDI controller options because it’s so light and small.