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Deconstruct to Reinvent: Interview with Public Memory

Public Memory is the work of one Robert Toher, who has been busy recording and releasing music in Brooklyn under various monikers since before 2010. In ontrast to his sullen, expansive compositional style, Toher is noticeably excited when I contact him, having just touched down in Austin for one of the largest musical gatherings of the year, South By Southwest.

Hi, how’s it going Robert? How’s it been at SXSW?

I’m doing well. Yeah [Public Memory’s debut] Wuthering Drum is coming out Friday. We played our first show on Saturday night, in Brooklyn, and it went well, and now we’re in Austin at SXSW, and we’re going to be playing at eight o’clock, as part of the Felte and Part Time Punks showcase. Um, we haven’ really done much, you know what I mean? We flew in, everyone was tired, I worked all weekend and we have our show. We had to check in and stuff, so we kind of saw downtown Austin a little bit. But we’re here till Friday, just to hang out, do some interviews, press-type stuff too. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve always heard it’s kind of a shitshow, you know? And it probably will be, but that can resolve to be an interesting experience.

Is there anyone you’re particularly excited to see?

The thing I’m most excited about is on Thursday, Faust is performing. And then there’s like a panel discussion on Krautrock music afterwards, I’m very excited to go, and be nerdy , and totally sober for it, even though its really late. I really like Krautrock, and the history, and some of the myths about it. 

Excellent, so for this new project Public Memory, is this project entirely you? Are you there by yourself?

It is my project. “Producer” – I don’t really use that term, but it’s my project. I made the record myself, recorded everything and mixed it all myself. Vanessa and I, it’s the two of us performing live, with some samplers, and we both sing… And you know having her allows me to not have play with a laptop. I’m not really against that, but you know, you see a band. It’s a laptop: With the Apple logo, and oh! It’s me playing songs off my computer. That’s fine, but I’m more interested in having two synths, two samplers, a bunch of effects pedals, stuff like that. It’s just more exciting, more fun. 

I read that a large component to Wuthering Drum was the Korg MS-20 mini?

It is. It’s a remake of the old synth. It’s the same thing, maybe there’s one aspect of it not, its got MIDI out, but it’s all analogue otherwise. After one of my older bands had done some tours overseas, I met some Italian bands in the Italian Alps. They asked me to come there and stay in this mountain house that they had by myself, around my 30th birthday. It was this totally romantic, weird experience. They asked me to play with them, and go on tour, and they had an original MS-20 with them, and it was so… I just fell in love with it. We spent an hour with this thing and we couldn’t get it to make a sound, except for this little clipping sound. I mean, it’s not hard to use or anything like that, but I just started playing it and wow. I use it like a classical instrument. I don’t do a lot of things that are like, UFO/sci-fi sounds. I do a little, but I just like the way it sounds as a tonal keyboard you know?

There’s a really diverse selection of samples on the album as well. Do you record all of the sounds yourself?

I do. I recorded a lot myself, but I also got some from free-sounds.org. It’s a great website with just like, sounds people have uploaded. Some of them are musical, some of them not; there’s a lot of interesting stuff. A lot of spooky stuff. You can sort them by license too, creative commons license is great, because you can use it for profit and not just worry about licensing and all that. So I just have external lard drives with tons of collections of categorised sounds I’ve found. Music is very visual, sitting down at night I’m like “I’m to listen to some weird sounds.”

When you’re looking for samples, do you have an idea or aesthetic that’s driving you?

It’s a little bit of both, I think chance is so important to anything. If you steer something too much, it can be really bad and unhealthy, in terms of the creative atmosphere. So I feel like chance is really important, and you should always be open to it. Sometimes I know generally what sort of aesthetic I’m going for, but sometimes I just go on the site, there’s new things going up all the time, and I’ll check it out. I really want chimes… So I’ll listen to 50 chime sounds and download 12 of them. Sometimes I know the aesthetic of what I want. Never the exact thing, it’s never like that.

You mentioned enjoying, dynamic performances earlier. How have you transferred the songs to a live setting?

We have, like, huge samplers, that have a lot of percussion on the. But the live versions of the songs – it took a while. We’ve been rehearsing since like August or September, and we just played our first show on Saturday. 

We needed to deconstruct the songs to do them live, and I prefer that. I like it to be different. I like when a band is playing and you don’t recognise it, and then, “oh, its this song!”

We plan parts where we’ll improvise. We know where it will happen, but we don’t know what will happen. It took me a long time to start on this album, because the whole time I wondered how the fuck I was going to do that? I’ve been in larger bands; my old band, Apse, A-P-S-E, had six people. We toured six people and it was ridiculous, not very efficient environmentally. Why do six people need to do this? But I can’t just play this off a laptop, and play a synth with it, I need to figure this out as I go. It’s just something I need to do – if you constantly think about what people say, you’re not going to make something good. So I just need to do this. Now we’re at the stage where we’ll figure it out later. I always say when I play live like I have to deconstruct it and reinvent, and it’s exciting. I love it.

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