After ten years of putting a unique spin on electronica, dance, and IDM, Outputmessage may just be hitting his full creative stride.
The DC singer/producer/DJ – Bernard Farley to his friends and family – released his long-awaited sophomore LP, Autonomous, to glowing reviews early last year. (BYT talked with Farley at the time about the album and the path that led to it.) But rather than coast on its success, Farley has only cranked up his productivity.
In June, he dropped Autonomix, a swirling remix record that found Farley giving Autonomous’ cerebral jams an extroverted, dancefloor makeover. The LP – like its predecessor – was distributed by Output Noise Records, the label that Farley established in 2009 and somehow finds time to operate.
His collaborative streak has also been on full display in 2011. On top of his work with Dmerit, Farley has lately been devoting a chunk of his time to cranking out house bangers as one-third of hot-shit electronic braintrust Volta Bureau. The local supergroup combines the creative forces of Outputmessage, Will Eastman and Miguel Lacsamana to produce – in Eastman’s words – “a cosmic, hypnotic, somewhat psychedelic take on house/techno/disco.”
At this point, the man is running up the score like an NBA Jam Chris Mullin on fire.
Farley took a break during a day – where else? – in the studio to chat with us about all these endeavors. He was a little coy about what we can expect from Volta Bureau in the next few months, but he did discuss the genesis and dynamics of the group, as well as his thoughts on Autonomix, record label politics, and the development of DC’s dance scene.
Outputmessage plays DC9 this Thursday with Small Black and Cigarette to benefit Grassroots Reconciliation Group.
Tell us a little bit about Volta Bureau. How did you guys come together?
I used to be roommates with Miguel – who’s [also known as] Micah Vellian – and we had a shared studio space in a house. I would work on my stuff there, he would work on his stuff, and we work together on Dmerit, which is our disco house group. Then Will [Eastman] started working there on his tracks, so we were all working in the same space. And then we realized, like, “What if we actually worked on stuff together?” [Laughs] You know, if we pooled all of our production skills together. That’s basically how it started.
What does each of you individually bring to the group?
I guess I’m more of the production guy. I’ve been making music for over ten years now. [Laughs] I’m more a producer kind of guy. Miguel plays bass and guitar. He also produces. And I sing too, so I’m actually going to be singing on the next single [“Hope”] – the single we have coming out soon. Will kind of comes a bit more from a DJ perspective. He produces, but I think he has more of an ear for the dancefloor. And he’s also way more organized than Miguel and I. That helps too. [Laughs]
Are you envisioning a Volta Bureau full length or are you all happy just focusing on singles?
Right now the focus is on singles. There are plans for an album, but right now we’re really focusing on the singles and on the live show. We should be having a live show in the next few months. [Ed: Stream all Volta Bureau’s work here.]
I saw you guys are opening for Thievery Corporation.
Yeah, it’s cool. We’re mainly going to be DJing between sets of Thievery and the other bands. I’m pretty excited about it.
So there’s a distinction between a “live show” and a DJ set?
Yeah, we want the live show to be a full thing. It’s not just going to be us on stage DJing; it’s going to really be a live show. We’re going combine all of our talents together. I’m going to be singing on some just tracks. Just stuff like that – I don’t want to get into too much detail. But it’ll be pretty different from our DJ act.
Prior to reading up about the group recently, I hadn’t realized there was an actual Volta Bureau. How did you settle on that name?
Will really came up with the name. He used to work in the Smithsonian, so he knows a lot of history about electronic music and just music in general. He threw the name at us one day, and we just really liked it, because we thought it represented how we as a group are kind of like a lab. We’re each working on our own little experiments and stuff, and we pool all of our work together.
Speaking of working on your own experiments, you’ve had a big year. You put out a remix record of sorts. Why did you decide to reimagine your own songs on Autonomix rather than farm them out the more traditional way?
It kind of just happened on its own. For Autonomous, some of the tracks were actually re-envisioned tracks of my older stuff. So, really, I started doing this a few years ago. Autonomous was a pretty big jump from my previous material. The original idea [for Autonomous] was that I wanted to add/subtract, kind of marry, both aspects of my older material and the new electro sound. So I kind of updated a few [older] tracks, and then once the album was done, all of a sudden I had to think about a live show. Autonomous is not exactly dancefloor-ready. It’s maybe more radio- or headphone-ready than club-ready. So I decided to do some special versions of the tracks, so I could play them live or DJ. My live performance is mostly the versions from Autonomix. There were actually even a few more new versions that I didn’t put out.
When you spoke with BYT last year, you had talked about starting your own label. You said: “I realized I had a strong vision with my music that’s sometimes hard to sell to other labels.” What kind of obstacles did you run into? If you had come to them with Autonomix, do you think you might have gotten a different response?
It’s hard to say whether I would have gotten a different response. I made Autonomous and it got rejected from the label that I thought was going to put it out. It was really surprising, because I thought it was the most accessible record I had ever done… I’ve basically stopped trying to guess what other people might like and have focused on what I like. Now that I’ve put out Autonomix, I would need a pretty good reason to release it with a different label or a bigger label. It’s kind of nice to put something out exactly they way you want to, instead of having people say, “Oh, I would go with this track,” or “Let’s split it up,” or suggest changes. As soon as a label is involved – especially if it’s a bigger label – they start being able to say a lot more about how to release it, the artwork, and what should be the single. I don’t know if that answers your question.
It does. My question was not very targeted. As someone running your own label now, do you take a hands-off approach with other acts?
Well, it’s a small label. I release a lot of stuff just that I like, or from my friends. I guess it’s pretty hands off. Now that [the label] is up and running, it’s a little less time-consuming to do stuff with it. [Pauses] I guess… what do you mean by hands-off?
You’re putting out records – on however limited a scale – by some other artists. I’m wondering if they get the full reins of creative control, or are you weighing in and giving your opinion.
I guess, given my experiences with labels, I make it a point to give as much freedom as I can. When I like an artist, I don’t nitpick about what they make. I kind of trust their creativity. I try to put minimal input into the project. If I think something really isn’t working, or something could be better, I might say something, or strongly suggest something. But I do try to have a hands-off approach.
You’ve called DC home for about a half-decade. Talk a little about the city’s electronic scene, and, more specifically, how it’s changed over the course of your living here.
I got here the summer of 2006. I think I came here right when Nation closed, which was a pretty big venue for bringing in a lot of big electronic and dance artists. And I guess just I saw [DC] morph from more of rock scene into one with a sizable, budding electronic scene. When I first got here it was a little bit harder to find a good dance or electronic show. But, I think that [the change] is also maybe a product of the time: when I got here was just before indie dance and nu -disco kind of took over everything, in terms of indie labels and dance nights. There were also just a number of DJs that got here around the same time or started doing stuff all around the same time. And now there’s the Nouveau Riche guys, there’s Will Eastman, there’s me and Miguel. I mean, there are plenty of other DJs that do it. Pretty much every venue has one, two, three dance nights a week. And then you have U Street Music Hall that popped up, and then a few other clubs that popped up. It feels pretty different lately.
I don’t know if U Street Music Hall has attracted bigger names, but it definitely I gathers them all in one place – that makes it a lot easier for someone who isn’t as tapped into the scene to still enjoy it.
When you have that type of venue, it provides this one place where you can go and catch a ton of good acts, or it’s a reliable place for you to go to when you want to dance, or you want to hear forward-thinking dance music. There’s one place you can go to all of the time, and there’s something there, and you can hear something you might like, or will probably like. I think it’s really good in terms of… not validating the scene, but kind of breeding a core for the scene.
Outside of U-Hall, do you have any favorite spots to play in DC?
Well, of course 9:30 Club is great to play. I’ve DJed there a couple of times. [Pauses] Uh, I mean… [Pauses]
It’s alright – that can be your answer.
[Laughs] I mean, the thing is that since U Street Music Hall opened up it’s kind of been night and day between when I played other places, because the sound system is so completely overpowering. I got pretty used to it, because for a while I was just playing a lot of shows there. And now I’m branching out a bit more, and there’s a big difference.
I could see getting spoiled there.
As someone who’s up on the electronic scene, can you share with us some recent releases you’re fond of? Any summer jams?
I kind of listen to stuff that’s all over the place. In terms of dance music, I’ve really been into Soundstream; it’s like this German kind of tech-house group. I don’t really know how to describe it to people. It has this kind of pure tech house vibe that I’m really getting into. Carlo Lio is another one that’s putting out some really good tech house. I mean, something not dance is the new Jill Scott record, which I’ve been really into. Been playing that a lot. [Laughs] I listen to dance music, but I also listen to a lot of R&B stuff that influences my singing. There’s another guy, Lone– he’s more of an electronica type. He’s a pretty cool dude. He kind of mixes house with more of an electronica thing. It’s really melodic. I love anything with a lot of melody. I’ve been listening to him a lot too. I guess that’s about it.
You seem well versed in the parlance of genres and micro-genres. Do you ever get frustrated with how your music is described?
[Laughs] I guess sometimes I do get frustrated. And the stuff coming out on the next record is probably going to be even harder to describe. I take elements of everything I’ve listened to and it gets pushed together. Maybe that’s the reason I’ve had some issues with labels and stuff, because I don’t think it’s purely in any one genre, or any one particular sound. Sometimes you have artists who make one particular sound and they make that phenomenal, but you wouldn’t describe that as genre-bending or anything. Not that my stuff is genre-bending, but there are elements in it that are kind of all over the place. Sometimes that makes labels a little nervous about, “How do we market this?” But the thing that attracts me to music often is stuff that combines elements from several sources, especially if its done in an unexpected or surprisingly way. I think it’s kind of rare to hear something that’s never been done before. It’s something I look for, whether it’s when picking DJ tracks or choosing stuff to download. Or when I’m making music, I’m always trying to do something a little different than I did before, or something I’ve heard before.
What next record are you referring to – Outputmessage or Volta Bureau?
Well, we’ve been working on the Volta Bureau stuff, and then I’ve been working on my own on a new Outputmessage at the same time, so it’s both.
Well, you sound like a busy man, so we’ll let you get back to it.