Artist Talk: John Tejada
If there’s a producer stateside the world has admired for style, knowhow and panache, it’s John Tejada. The Los Angeles-based recording artist has long flown the flag for house music to come out of America’s west coast, years before those three words ‘electronic dance music’ were compounded into EDM.
Cleaning up or scrubbing down sounds, nevertheless, is Tejada’s forte, and his ability to make the chip tones of his machines shimmer, glisten, hiss and hum is what’s drawn him so much attention over the years, and it’s something he even acknowledged himself in 2006 with an album called Cleaning Sounds Is A Filthy Business.
Come 2018 and Tejada finds the release of Dead Start Program, his 13th official long player as John Tejada and fourth for long-standing German label Kompakt, of which he’s a key artist. The name of the LP is in reference to a 1960s super-computer, the CDC 6600, reportedly made up of 400,000 transistors and more than 100 miles of wiring. It was a machine designed to revive computers from archaic crashes, Tejada explains, and following the loss of a dear friend, he says the album and the imagery used was a way for him to connect with rebooting. “It’s very now for me,” Tejada says.
With mention of his Recovered Data Volumes releases from a decade ago, restorative themes have appeared in Tejada’s work before, although it generally seems that the idiosyncratic nature of hardware instruments and their insignia is what lends great inspiration to the music. Albums like The Matrix Of Us (2000), Logic Memory Centre (2004), The Predicting Machine (2012) and Signs Under Test (2015) all hint at Tejada’s own way of embracing the semantics of vintage equipment, house music culture and science behind the productions.
“I do still have a decent amount of hardware, but I’m mostly focused on two polysynths and I use a little bit of modular here and there as well as my (Roland) SH-7,” he says. “My first synth was a (Casio) CZ-101 and a bit later I had a (Yamaha) DX-100,” Tejada recalls, “in a way I prefer the CZ,” he says. “It was a little easier to navigate than FM (synthesis).
“It’s been ages since I explored much phase synthesis, but the Phase-4 was instantly nostalgic,” Tejada adds of Bitwig’s newest plugin ensemble, “but with so much more power and familiarity to, I’d say west coast synthesis, in the mix.”
Modelled on classic analogue technology, Bitwig’s soft-synth Phase-4 takes in early but overlooked digital synthesis methods, and at its core are two focal techniques; phase distortion and phase modulation. Both principles were developed in the early days of commercial digital synthesis, during an era where the sound of digital technology was often ridiculed, or unfairly compared, to an analog aesthetic.
“I was a big fan of Vember’s Surge,” a popular plugin by Bitwig developer Claes Johanson, and he and the team have “done an amazing job with Phase-4,” Tejada says. “The voice stacking is really powerful.”
Given the grand scope of technology made available to Tejeda on a regular basis he’s able to explore the flex of pretty much anything and, perhaps surprisingly, reveals, “in a way my studio is getting a little smaller and simpler.” This really helps his creativity flow, he says. “If I have too many instruments that do the same thing the decision-making starts to slow down. Same with plugins. It’s fun to try things out, but I have to make a conscious decision to stick with my go-to tools.”
Tejada’s mastery over his tools across a 20 year career has seen him influence the sound of definitive sub-genres like tech house, progressive house and a classic strand of minimal associated with the mid-2000s. While still gripping the edges of house and techno for the club - with releases over the years for labels like Ferox and Mosaic to ~scape and Acid Camp (and his own Palette Recordings) - it got to the point that these stylistic tropes were pitched into the mainstream, notably with his remix of the Postal Service’s ubiquitous indie pop hit, “Such Great Heights”.
Auxiliary to Tejada’s oeuvre is remixing and collaboration, and at the time of this interview he reveals remixes for Dirtybird, Afrocentric and Micronautics are in the ready. With Reggie Watts, a surrealist comedian, TV personality and musician in his own rite, Tejada has recently formed a new collaboration called Wajatta. The pair’s debut album, Casual High Technology, sees Watt’s do “a lot of the looping he’s known for in his performances,” Tejada says, “and I’m doing what I do, but the sound is also inspired by him so it goes a bit broader style-wise.”
“He’ll give me ideas for the music side of it or sometimes he’ll play something as well and we’ll finish it up,” Tejada says. “We’re doing all the songs in person in my studio, pretty much from scratch, which is important to me.” Released by Comedy Dynamics, the album’s sound takes in strands of Detroit techno and Chicago house with elements of '70s funk and ‘90s-styled hip-hop. “Reggie was making music for years before getting into comedy so I feel this is him being a serious music maker,” Tejada says. “We’ve really connected on our lifelong influences and music that excites us and we bring a little of that to Wajatta, so that is sort of the energy behind it.”
It presents Tejada’s first major collaboration following the five albums he’s released as I’m Not A Gun with friend Takeshi Nishimoto, while other solo Tejada work under various aliases, that mostly come from the mid-‘90s (Autodidact, Lucid Dream, Mr Hazeltine., And 2) represent a time when “labels wanted an exclusive name,” Tejada says. “Mr. Hazeltine was made up by my Plug Research friends at the time and it stuck. If I had a choice I may not have used an alias on half of them, but it’s also fun to try out different names and feels. I should do more of that now.”
As his person today, a John Tejada studio session will usually begin with sculpting tones and sound design as a way to decide where a potential production will go. “Sounds usually come first and they inspire the melody and rhythm,” he says. “The way the sound moves, or the length of overtones, will give me some idea of some melodies to try. I do think I arrange things somewhat in a classic instrumentation order,” he says. “I end up thinking of the elements like a little band.”
“So many times I’ll start over with barely anything and just work more on the levels themselves and fix what needs fixing,” he says. “I’ve been finding more and more that the more I mess with the sounds the worse they get,” Tejada adds.
“The elegant part of Bitwig for me is I only need one channel to do so many things.... and I can use modulators to modulate my hardware which is just incredible,” he says. “So I’m still learning on this never ending journey, but definitely less is more.”
(Words: James Manning)