The Gaslamp Killer: the interview

Record shopping? The LA producer would rather go to Mt Fuji

The Gaslamp Killer: the interview

Anyone who managed to squeeze into Eleven when Flying Lotus last played there in 2010 will probably remember the amped-up, head-banging mass of curly hair that accompanied him at the decks. Beneath that impressive mane was The Gaslamp Killer, aka William Benjamin Benussen: crate digger, DJ and producer, but most of all DJ. A key figure on the LA beat scene for the past decade, where he's a regular fixture at the weekly Low End Theory parties, Benussen makes hip hop as it might look in a world where the familiar reference points are Turkish psych, astral jazz and library music. This distinctive vision has informed both his mind-altering DJ mixes and production work (including the majority of Gonjasufi's 2010 album A Sufi and a Killer); this month, it's getting the widescreen treatment in the first full-length Gaslamp Killer album. Breakthrough marks a change of approach for this magpie-like producer: rather than work with samples lifted from his voluminous record collection, Benussen and a cast of musicians including Daedelus, Shigeto and string player Miguel Atwood-Ferguson have recreated the sounds themselves.

The Gaslamp Killer will be hitting Tokyo this weekend to headline the latest Low End Theory party, where he'll also be taking part in Beat Invitational, a breakneck session in which producers are given just a few minutes each to show off their latest rhythms. Time Out caught him at home in LA, just after getting back from his first trip to the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

So how was Burning Man?
It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life: it's like being in space, or being underwater. The stars were aligned beautifully and there was a full moon, so you could see tons of astrological symbols in the sky – and at all times you felt like you were experiencing a really magical energy. I wasn't that into the music, but everything else I really liked a lot.

I feel like a lot of people have been hating on Burning Man recently. Did you get that?
Yeah, a lot of my friends were surprised I was going, and a lot of people told me I wasn't going to like it. And I realised there were aspects about it that I didn't like, but overall I thought it was incredible.

It'd be fair to say that your album was a long time coming. Was it hard to find the time to create something so substantial?
I was just touring a lot, and I felt like I had a collection of stuff that I really liked, but I wasn't sure if it would fit into an album. I had all these loose beats everywhere, so I started getting the musicians and trying to create stuff from scratch and play over old stuff and bring life to it, and I really just stayed at home for three months. I actually got sober for six months, and in my sobriety I found a lot of clarity, and I found it a lot easier to work harder on my music and my craft, and not go out as much. That was an enlightening experience. I finished the record with a bunch of help from my friends: we did it in LA, the whole community gathered around it and helped me do it. Well, not the whole community, but a lot of people.

You said in interviews a few years ago that you still weren't sure if you'd found your voice as a producer yet. Do you feel like you've found it now?
Still not exactly, but close. Getting there. Everybody tells me, 'Oh man, that totally sounds like you: it totally has your vibe and it has your sound.' So I guess I'm doing something right, but I'm not satisfied yet.

So is there anything you think you could've improved on?
Of course. There could be another five layers on every track of the coolest shit going on: the drums could be harder, more complex, break down more; I could've put in way more hours on every song. You always can, though, and walking away is one of the most special things a producer can do: walking away and letting the people decide, instead of obsessing over it for fucking too long. You've gotta let it go eventually.

How do you know when to stop?
When you play it for a few people and they're like, 'This is done.' That's how I do it. You feel it in your gut, also.

I don't have the liner notes, and I was curious about how much of the album is based on samples…
There's probably five samples.

Yup, only five. I was trying to have a logical progression from [EPs] Death Gate and My Troubled Mind. Instead of sampling these records, I want to cover them or I want to take the vibe from that song, and lift the vibe and make my own music. Like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones – all these bands copied blues, you know. I'm just trying to get ideas from world music, different rock 'n' roll records, library records, psychedelic shit, jazz – getting ideas from other records and trying to recreate them with musicians. So for this record, I got in the studio with a bunch of musicians and we created a lot of stuff, instead of sampling.

With a track like 'Nissin'…
Yup, that's all the way live – no samples. 'Nissin', that's one of my favourites, and I didn't play on that at all. I had Amir [Yaghmai] put a band together. I played the drums, Daedelus played the bass and Amir played the guitar, and then he got some band members to come in and listen to that rough idea and take it from there, and then he got some real talented guys from UCLA world music department to do it. It sounds fucking incredible. Daedelus engineered that track, too, so he made it bump in the club, but it also sounds very crafted, you know? I love that track. That track is for my brother and my grandfather: it's a dedication song.

Are these tracks that you think you'd be able to do live, with a band or something?
I'm not really into that. Every time I see a producer do that, it sucks. I saw my favourite producers do it – I'm not going to name names – and it wasn't as good as it needed to be. I'm not going to have a band up there unless we're fucking on point. And do I really want to be up there making sound effects and shit, while a band plays all the music? Is that going to be fulfilling for me? I DJ: it's what I do, it's fun. I also produce, but they're two different things. I'll play the songs [in my DJ sets] after I make them… maybe. Maybe not. Lately, I haven't been playing any songs off my album because I'm just trying to make it a really educational, awesome party, and I've just been forgetting to put my tracks in there.

Have you not seen any beatmakers do a good show with live instrumentation?
Bonobo does it: he does it good. The Heliocentrics – they're already a band, but they're pretty amazing. I think bands do it great, but I haven't really see any DJs or producers bring it together that well. Bonobo's pretty damn good, though. Maybe I'm forgetting a few, I don't know.

On the subject of DJ sets: the only time I've seen you was when you came over for that Brainfeeder night a few years ago with Flying Lotus…
Nice. That was so fun.

It was a very different vibe from what you get at most Tokyo parties, with all the shout-outs and stuff. Is that basically what Low End Theory is like all the time?
Low End Theory is a little more comfortable than that. We built it from the ground up; even though we didn't build the building it's in, we feel like we did, you know? But yes, we're very interactive there, we have a lot of moments with crowd participation, and they're very, very active, they're very motivated to join in the fun, they're really cool people.

It feels like Low End Theory has really taken off in Japan. Did that come as a surprise?
I saw Prefuse [73], and how well he was doing out there. And Ras G and Flying Lotus and Samiyam sold more records out there than anywhere, and had more downloads there. Low End Theory… we had a good feeling – and we were right. Japan is very futuristic. They get it.

Do you have any plans when you come over this time?
No, I don't really have much time: I'm gonna just promote the album and give a lot of love at my shows, and then I've gotta get back for a lot more shows in the US and all over the place. This is an official album release party: both of these gigs [in Tokyo and Osaka] are celebrating my new album, you know? Doing Japanese release parties – that's pretty damn cool. New York, San Francisco, LA, Japan: that's pretty dope.

They're doing a Beat Invitational session at this gig again, right?
Yeah, exactly. So some of the young producers from Japan are going to join us – and some old guys like Grooveman Spot are gonna get up. It's gonna be dope – it's gonna be like a really heavy beat crowd. I can't wait.

Did you hear how it went down the last time they tried it here?
I did. I heard it was unreal: I heard there was mad talent from this girl that was hella young, that blew everyone away.

Yeah, that was probably Jealousguy. Do you get a chance to listen to many Japanese producers?
No. Well… Shing02. I was listening to him ten years ago. He's really the only producer besides… all the Jazzy Sport guys are dope. DJ Muro is dope, for a beat digger.

Do you still do much beat digging yourself, or have you got all the records you're ever going to need?
I trade with friends and buy from collectors. I'm trading records with Egon from Now Again tomorrow. Mostly [I trade] in the US, because when I'm travelling I like to go see cool nature and shit instead of records. As I got older, I felt records were less important. Seeing Mt Fuji or something: that's what I would do if I had time. I've been to England so many times and I've never been to Stonehenge, and I feel really stupid about that. I'm so mad I haven't been there yet.

Do you ever stop travelling?
Yeah, I was home for three months to finish my album.

But apart from that, is it pretty much constant?
That's right. I don't have any kids, I don't have a girlfriend. I'm young, I'm healthy – it's perfect timing to be out there in the world, right?

The Gaslamp Killer plays at Low End Theory, September 28 at Unit, Daikanyama. ‘Breakthrough’ is released on September 26 on Beat Records / Brainfeeder

By James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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