Guest post: Snakes of Russia
This is part of a series of guest-post tutorials from Noise Engineering users showing off various tips for NE modules, modular use in general, or how they integrate modular into their workflow.
This week, Kris chats with Joseph of Snakes of Russia. We met Joseph in a winery in downtown LA (for real) and discovered that he was incredibly talented. We had him by and played with modules, and I first had the idea of a guest post. But mostly I just put his songs on repeat on Spotify.
However, Joseph has a new EP out NOW, and with that, has agreed to do a Song-Exploder-sort of breakdown of one of the tracks, Heart Caves In. Find the full breakdown at the end of the post, with clips sprinkled throughout. He’s a big dorky gear head with a ton of knowledge, so I hope you will enjoy this as much as we did.
Kris: Tell the people at home a bit about yourself.
SoR: Hi I’m Joseph, I make music as Snakes of Russia. I’ve been making music since I was a kid, and professionally for awhile now. As a performer, producer and writer, I’ve made all kinds of music and have been lucky enough to have it be used in commercials, trailers, tv shows and movies, and even an Academy Award-winning animated short film. While I enjoy working in all different styles (I studied jazz drumming growing up, love writing pop melodies, and have spent time screaming in loud rock bands for years), electronic music is where my heart is.
KK: How did you get into electronic music?
SoR: I got my first sampler in high school (still have it) and started sampling everything I got my hands on back then making some awful industrial music and even worse hip hop.
KK: I bet that is amazing and awful.
SoR: Soon after, I got a few analog synths (still have those too!) and it all kind of really started there. My very first synth was a Roland SH101. It's still my favorite filter ever. I got it because I found out that's what Portishead used on "Mysterons" , and I was obsessed with them. I used it in a bunch of bands and on countless recordings.
And a few years later I got a Roland Juno 106. The chorus chips are going and it’s so noisy but I refuse to change them. I still can't believe I managed to hang onto them all of these years.
KK: Mysterons is pretty much all I listened to for about a year and is still in reasonably regular rotation...So you had an array of hardware. How did you end up getting into modular synths?
SoR: I have always seemed to work synths and electronic elements into most everything I produced, and after some bands I was doing ended I really was confused as to what to do next musically...what kind of music I would really enjoy doing? Stylistically I was really all over the place, and it took a long time to figure out what that would be, but I knew I wanted it to be electronic. During this time of trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I fired up some of my hardware again and started using it a bit, eventually wandering into Perfect Circuit and the rest was history. I really dove into modular, and that blew things wide open for me. And about 6 months ago I ended up here, releasing the first Snakes of Russia single.
But what really appealed to me about modular (and pretty much electronic music in general) is the literal infinite possibilities within the sound design. It felt like there were no limitations as to what you could do. This of course was a distraction at first, it wasn’t until I really had a focus on what I wanted to do and how to use these tools in a way unique to me that everything started flowing.
The other thing I enjoy is the impermanence of modular...once you pull out those cables it’s GONE. I love that. Live in the moment. We have been so accustomed to our DAWs and infinite recalls and saves...this is a great contrast to that.
KK: Having so many possibilities can definitely be a distraction. How did you hone that focus and create the Snakes of Russia sound?
SoR: It really took me a long time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do...even though I knew I wanted to write mostly instrumental electronic music, I couldn’t land on something that made me happy, or that I could imagine pursuing. Within the landscape of electronic music, you take out (or add) a kick, or change the tempo 10 or 20 bpm in either direction, and you literally have an entirely different sub genre of electronic music. It was those small details I was stuck on.
I wrote tons of music in that time, and eventually even released some...but it became clear that my heart wasn’t in it. So then I just decided to step away and kind of go with my gut and make the music that I myself would want to hear...honestly at first I thought it wouldn’t be my main focus...I thought I would just “scratch my own itch” while I made the stuff I “should” be making because I spent so long developing that. But then I put some of this into the world, and people started connecting with it (I am so thankful for that), but most of all, I myself connect with it.
KK: You’ve had your music used in all sorts of places. How do you get music placed in movies, trailers, commercials, etc.?
SoR: I have an amazing team of people that basically pitch everything I write to film, tv, trailers, ads and video games. They are also my management.
This of course includes all of my Snakes of Russia stuff, but I also have spent the last 6 years writing with other writers and producers making stuff that tends to swing in that direction...whatever it may be for that particular use. And then these songs exist in my catalog forever. I’ve done library music as well, but this stuff is different...it’s definite artist tracks with personality...and I try to put my stamp on everything and make it unique. I can say the most important skill I learned doing this that I carry over into my personal projects is working fast, but more importantly being able to finish that song, and ultimately being able to walk away.
KK: How does modular factor into your workflow? Your day job requires you to write really diverse stuff, and then it seems like Snakes of Russia is still a complete other musical personality.
SoR: Traditionally, I would set up a patch, multitrack into Ableton, hit record and experiment a bit then pull out the good parts to process further...warping them, changing the pitch drastically. One of my favorite things to do is take a sequence with a lot of delay or reverb tail, grab a bar from it and throw it into Ableton and then chop it up according to the tempo of the song. Then I play it back in a different way. Or just grab a slice that has just an effects tail on it and mess with that. Sometimes I will do this and make some percussion hits out of smaller chops.
I will say lately though it's been changing as I’ve got some new tools in the case that enable me to write more complex sequences and even song structures, so I am definitely making some more detailed and layered patches so that is changing what I bring into the DAW. There is almost a small stylistic difference between my modular “sketches” and the songs I release, and moving forward I am hoping to blur this line a bit.
KK: Most musicians seem to focus on a genre or two of music, but your day job requires you to write music spanning a wide range of genres. How do you hone those skills across such a range?
SoR: I spent a few years growing up basically listening to only heavy metal, and had a drum teacher that tried to push basically everything but heavy metal on me. He always said “you can learn something from every style of music to bring into your own playing and make your playing unique.”
Years later I still stand by that...there is always something to learn from all different types of music, even music you hate. So that pushed me in the right direction to absolutely devour every bit of music I could...and this was PRE internet where that meant really having to work to do that. Haha.
KK: GET OFF MY LAWN! Haha
SoR: And then all of that goes into my subconscious and I am always pulling from it.
I’m not a great player really, but I understand now what my strengths are...give me a reference, a feeling, and emotion, a scene...and I can get us there. Which is why I think I can both write music to sell beer in my day job and write music that feels like the apocalypse in my own projects. haha.
KK: Tell us about the new EP.
I write quite a bit, practically every day. Most of this just goes into a folder and maybe I will pull something from it. I really enjoy going back about every month or so and listening to everything, because sometimes stuff will connect with you in a different way that day. I realized I had a few things I was excited about that I hadn’t finished, so I just set a mastering deadline and got to work.
While I enjoyed doing things this way, I really look forward to sometime in the future where I just block out my life for 2 months and start from scratch with all the sampling, sound design, etc. Just live in it. Kind of like method acting. Lock myself in some cabin, only listen to Nico records, black out the windows. Kind of like the Marlon Brando of dark slow jams.