The Philadelphia-based electronic music producer Starkey's third full-length album, 'Orbits,' dropped Monday (on Civil Music). Merging grime, garage, dubstep and hip-hop into a psychedelic space odyssey of ambient drifts, orchestral grandeur, sticky melodies, hard bass and neck-snapping beats, it is Starkey's most succinct and experimental work so far.
I recently met Starkey at a sound studio on the campus of the Community College of Philadelphia, where he teaches in the music department. He played 'Orbits' in its entirety (RedBullUSA.com's exclusive album stream is below), and provided a behind-the-scenes look at each track on the new album.
Track 1: Renegade Starship
When I wrote this, I knew it was going to be the first song. I wanted it to show we're I'm at musically right now. It went through many permutations, but I ultimately went back to my first demo version. It's not meant to have a big drop; it's meant to be a showcase of sounds.
I love how it takes a while to get going. It's really synth driven, with lots of arpeggios. There are these epic, big chords at the end. And there's this big hands-in-the-air moment, but it doesn't really go anywhere. It doesn't hit too hard, and it just abruptly stops.
Track 2: Command
This album gets a bit weird and experimental, so I guess this is the most straightforward track. This is probably the heaviest, dance-floor moment. I wanted to make a throwback 8-bar grime track, and I needed some melody.
For me, if there's no melody, the track isn't finished and there's nothing to grab onto. I don't want to just make loops; I want to make songs... I started with the vocal sample and just went from there. I loaded the vocal into a sampler and chopped it up using the Finger plug-in that Tim Exile made for Native Instruments and built a couple modules to do that with the vocal.
Track 3: G V Star (Part 1)
These next two songs are sort of my take on Radiohead's “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2).” I always liked the idea of having an opening bit that changes and turns into something completely different.
I played around with lots of weird sample libraries -- weird pulsing, toy pianos and cool string patches. I'm really into strange, boutique sample libraries. I also make my own sample libraries. I was listening to a lot of Sigur Ros and Mogwai, and this is me sort of playing with those sounds.
It's about how all people on Earth have visions of the stars, and this person's inside a capsule being blasted into space. It's also inspired by that movie 'Sunshine,' with Cillian Murphy, and the idea that the sun is dying and they need to send somebody to blow it up. I'm really into science fiction. People always fantasize about going to space, and how awesome that would be, but for me it's a much darker experience.
Track 4: G V Star (Part 2)
When it drops into this second part, things start to propel. Lots of arpeggios and big synths. This one drops into this weird sample that I morphed and pitched all over the place. If you listen closely, you can hear some breath samples in there, too.
This is sort of my strange take on what hip-hop producers are doing under the “trap” banner. There are these massive breakdowns and distant handclaps. This song has been working in clubs when I perform it, but it's not what people are expecting. The structures are weird, and there's a lot of nuance and transition.
"This song goes into a straightforward hip-hop drum beat, but it's disguised by all the other sounds going on... Whenever I get stuck creatively, I just try to make really cool, unusual sounds, and that's what I did here."
Track 5: Thugs
This is me playing around with the idea of a 140 BPM track. I was playing around with footwork bass and snares, but it's not really like that at all. Also, I'm playing around with early breakcore stuff. The programming and drums are really spastic. There's a huge intro with lots of synths. This is a slow, head-bop track.
I prefer slow music, like Portishead and Alpha. That's my favorite stuff to listen to. This track is constantly morphing, and it eventually gets meaner. There's a big breakdown, and everything gets bigger and more melodic. It's a dance-floor track, but it's disguised, I think.
Track 6: Lzr
I made this song after I made “Dystopia,” which appears later on the album. I almost wanted to one-up “Dystopia.” They are two similar ideas, with weird drops, but a bit more straight hip-hop sound.
This song goes into a straightforward hip-hop drum beat, but it's disguised by all the other sounds going on. “Dystopia” has more of an epic, techno-synth sound. Here, I'm playing with that massive wall-of-sound synths idea. Whenever I get stuck creatively, I just try to make really cool, unusual sounds, and that's what I did here.
Track 7: Synchronize
This is one of the more ambient tracks on the record. It begins with these distant sounds and an arpeggio, but it builds and swells. There are big crash symbols -- it's anthemic and orchestral. These things sound like buzzing bees at the intro.
It's a good time on the album to chill out. I'm using lots of big synths and organic sounds, like compressed cellos, which sound dirty, and then I sneak in some melodic ideas. This song abruptly ends, which I love.
I love the group Alpha, which has records on Massive Attack's label, and how some of their songs end in a really weird way. I didn't know how to end this song, so I figured I'd just abruptly end it, like Alpha does.
Track 8: Dystopia
This was originally gonna be the single, but we decided to go with “Command.” I'm into post-apocalyptic stuff, so this is playing around with those concepts. I typically name songs before I write them: I pick the names, and then I figure out how to make that sound, or that mood. Very rarely do I change a name after I've picked one.
There's a big, epic opening that drops into this weird synth. I use a lot of sounds here, and it's not quite clear what they are. There's a snare buildup that's buried in there, strange vocals, and this growling bass. Then there's some crazy hip-hop hi-hats, and a techno-y, pitched-up synth. Then it drops back into the first part, but with an 808 bass. The last part is probably the most straightforward hip-hop thing I've ever made. It's like a fun, 808 workout at the end.
"This track's all about the immediacy of the sounds... This does that: there's not a buildup, it just smashes. You know, God only has one day to build the cosmos, so he's gotta smash it out."
Track 9: …And Then God Built The Cosmos
Most of the samples here are taken from banging on trashcans and hitting dumpsters and stuff. Some of it is me banging on things, or like dropping my keys and sampling it, and other sounds are taken from sample libraries. There's a big hit, which almost sounds like “We Will Rock You.”
This is basically a grime, 8-bar track, but with me disguising it as something else. It's very melodic. This track's all about the immediacy of the sounds. I had a tendency for a while to do these songs with ambient openings, and then they'd immediately smash into the song. This does that: there's not a buildup, it just smashes. You know, God only has one day to build the cosmos, so he's gotta smash it out.
Track 10: Crashing Sphere
This starts out with some ambient strings. It has these weird tones, and sounds that aren't easy to figure out what's making them. They're odd synth sounds. The swell gets grandiose, and there's this slightly out-of-tune line that comes in, playing with tonality.
Civil actually asked me to fix the tonality on this, and I said “That's how it's supposed to sound.” It's playful, and disorienting. It goes in and out of tune, and almost sounds like a Pink Floyd album from the 1970s. Pitch is hard to control on some of those older synths.
This is one of my favorite songs on the album. This is the kind of stuff I personally want to listen to. I'll never play this in a club, but I'd like to eventually do a live set in a theater, with people sitting down and listening... but it has to be really good, and not just me standing in front of a laptop.
Track 11: The Shuttle
I got this vocal track of a guy saying “shuttle,” or at least that's what it sounds like he's saying. It was around the same time that the [space] shuttle was being decommissioned. I wanted this to be a straight dance-floor beat. It's head-bobby. It's a also a little silly, and works well after “Crashing Sphere.”
Track 12: Magnet
This is the second vocal song. I wanted to put these classic sound bursts into this -- these weird, distant, ultra-compressed space sounds and explosions. I played around with some pulsing, noise samples, too. There's a lot of timed, vibrating hiss. And then the hiss finally stops, and there's this clean, digital sound. It's a nice moment.
There's a lot of howling, too, and delays and changes in reverberation. There's a steady pulse, but even the percussion is very distant. I hate my voice, even though I sang in choirs in school, so I tend to add a lot pitch correction and effects to my voice. I love T-Pain a lot; I think he's a genius. I like the Auto-Tune sound, and I think it really fits my persona and my music. I sang a melody, and then built all the harmonies around it.
Track 13: Distant Star
As soon as I wrote this, I knew it would be the last track on the album. I have trouble writing 4/4 music. It seems like a cop-out to me, but I've started to learn that you can play around with rhythm inside the 4/4 structure.
There's a classic trance feel to this, but I don't like a lot of the corny parts of trance music, like the boring, diva vocals. Then there's a hard melody that comes in, which is pentatonic-based. There are a lot of strange chord changes beneath the melody. And then I give the dubstep wobble outro, which I did on purpose.
It's funny, because people are gonna say “This album doesn't sound like dubstep.” But I've never fit into that scene, I don't think, so I thought it would be funny to throw that in at the end. It's an interesting wobble, though, unlike the boring ones other people are using. I think it's a completely unexpected way to end the album.
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