Interview: Audio Collagist Co La on Past, Process, Ponytail (R.I.P.) and Plunderphonics

Many a freelance music journalist takes on copywriting for artists, labels and PR firms to round out what’s typically a rather spare and piecemeal income. I’m no exception. We don’t talk about it much because it seems like, and can be, a compromise of integrity. We make rules for ourselves to keep our motives pure or, at least, bifurcated, but we typically don’t give away our employers. I’m making an exception for Baltimore’s Co La, recently featured on Pitchfork behind his just released Daydream Repeater LP (NNA Tapes), because our fact-finding interview was so fascinating that I’d be remiss as a journalist (so much for bifurcation) not to share it. It’s been itching at me for three months.

Co La, a.k.a. Matthew Papich, is a collage artist at the surface. He samples, he interpolates, he rips off, he recreates. He borrows from sun-dappled reggae and dust-caked soul. He takes bricks from Spector’s Wall of Sound and builds strange huts from them. What traditional beat-makers call loops, he calls “loopholes,” not because they represent his circumnavigation of copyright law, but because they act, for him, as portals into “magic grooves that can just roll forever.” The best part of a song for Co La is like that bizarre kismet tube that leads Donnie Darko from one surreal scene to the next on the way to the end of the world. I’m for music that compels without added exposition, but reading Co La’s thoughts on process provides the listener a loophole into his strange songs.

So hit the jump below to check out a tune, then to dig into the conversation. The questions are incredibly banal since my job was simply to gagther cold fact for a press release (which I’ll include at the end), and the exchange was by email, but, the answers more than make up for it. Let’s start at the beginning…

“Egyptian Peaches” from Daydream Repeater

Were you born and raised in Baltimore? If not there, then where?

Nope, I was born in PA, grew up near Lancaster. In the suburbs, kinda of a highway town, or like Virgil in True Stories. A little ambient but also slightly creepy, like David Lynch or something.

What are your most salient music-related memories as a child?

Shit, there’s a bunch. Being super young I really remember listening to Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits on cassette. Like, a lot, in the car. At that point I had a pretty bad stuttering issue, but I could sing fine, so Cat was cool in that way too. My mom dug the Dead so I was hearing a lot of that — hippie stuff, I guess. At about 8, I remember this lifeguard at the pool I went to explaining how he was leaving to go follow the Dead on the road. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but I admired it in some way. I think seeing that kind of commitment was boggling, but it also opened a door for me.

At what age did you start experimenting with music-making? Was a guitar your first instrument?

Yeah, I started playing guitar probably at 15, just learning Misfits and Ramones songs. There was a small but kinda thriving punk scene in Lancaster, so it was pretty easy to get the idea to just learn guitar and do a band. Like, I remember it clicking when me and bunch of skater kids were cruising down a residential alleyway, with garages for extra family cars, and we heard a band practicing. And it was this band that we all dug, but they were older, maybe just beyond high school. It was bonkers to be like, “Oh wait, they’re just dudes practicing in this garage, in the town we skate in.” Nicely demystifying.

What led to your decision to study action, event and performance at the Maryland Institute College of Art?

I ended up doing that and art education I think ultimately because of this Chris Burden book a high school teacher gave me. It was his first retrospective catalog and for a bunch of reasons — aesthetics for sure, like the way his early stuff is pretty punk — it opened up this whole potential that wasn’t really available in the music I was digging then. I fucking loved that book. And Chris Burden is super clear when talking about his work. Getting into that and realizing there were all these things at play — absurdity, humor, science, violence — I was just so stoked. It was a medium that I didn’t know about before then. Then, going to MICA, I wound up in a class with Jeremy Sigler, who had studied with Burden. He had this very, very fresh approach, where he wasn’t just teaching action/event as an art form; he was weaving it into both contemporary and retro pop culture.

How else did Sigler influence you and your work?

First of all, he had this kinda punk or Beastie Boy feel. I thought he was a student when I first met him. At the same time, he was able to slowly pull these very real ideas out of a lecture that was basically improvised. The conversations would morph and realize themselves in a way. He talked almost as much about music, musical performance and John Cage, and showed films like Nashville, Don’t Look Back and The Last Waltz, and related those things not so much as documents or artifacts to contemporary art and pop culture, but as possible lifestyles or even possible ideologies. That was big for me.

He also did a class called ParaPainting, although no one really painted. Instead on the first day of class Sigler sized up the students for about six hours and, at the end, divided us up into groups of three, four or five. The assignment was to start a band. Not everyone played instruments, or had ever even been interested in music-making, but we had a big warehouse show at the end of the semester and there were some great performances. Totally wild. It let me get rid of so many preconceptions about what a great band is and can be. Some stuff was cheeky, but playing music in front of not just your friends but your peers at large was a pretty real experience. Ponytail was actually formed in that class, its lineup fully picked out by Jeremy. Not bad, right?

How does your approach to Co La differ from that toward your better known project, Ecstatic Sunshine?

In the most basic way, I try to make the music content of Co La pretty straight — tweaked, but using a pretty common pop logic when it comes to arranging things. So the music is forward, but the ideas that surround it are much further out. It was basically the opposite with ES, where the music was always pushing against the common logic, but the ideas that surrounded it were more normal. With Co La, I’m hoping to affect people in many different ways simultaneously. Each performance, or even playing the record, should feel like you’ve been at multiple parties. I’m interested in riding this gray space where the music is very familiar, but also sounds like it’s from the future. At shows, I’m trying to build a new kind of performance style that brings everyday actions into the fold. It might be as simple as me eating a peach during the performance. It can come off as cheeky, but really I’m trying to both make an everyday gesture feel evocative, and empower the audience to feel like they too can do anything at the show.

“Vanity Plate” from Daydream Repeater

What’s in a name? How did you arrive at Co La?

I wanted a name that was extremely recognizable but slightly tweaked, in the way that the space between the letters creates uncertainty. “Cola” is generic, but you can’t think of it without imagining brands. So “Co La” is calling that relationship into question, between the word phonetically and how it’s being used. The way people say the space becomes this accent on the name.

I know you utilize Abelton in your production. Do you incorporate live guitar too, or any other instruments?

No, no live instruments. I’m kinda done with guitar for a while. I feel like ES was all about deconstructing guitar music in as many ways as possible, and ultimately I feel like I unlearned how to play.

What do you like about sampling as a medium?

I absolutely love that it makes listening to music part of my practice — really, the main part of my practice. I want to just erode that whole distinction between listening for leisure and listening as a producer, and this is beginning to do that. Plus, I really think that a lot of songs have this magic in them that can often be lost in the mix. I try to focus on those — the sounds that are extremely evocative and are kinda what the song really is in an almost physical sense. It’s helped my ear pick up on more micro-level shit in songs, little moments where however it happened, that moment wound up shining beyond the rest.

This’ll be Co La’s fourth release this year. How has the project evolved from Rest in Paradise to Dial Tone Earth to Fugitive of Leisure to Daydream Repeater?

I guess when I made RIP, I was thinking of the Co La stuff as listening music, furniture music, all that. But I feel like my interest in that purely heady way of dealing with music has faded recently, and you hear that on DTE and especially DR. I’m really interested in making the songs work on a few different levels now. One being that gray, familiar-but-forward-feeling area, but also affecting space in this sculptural way with sound. I’m trying to use bass in a physical way, where the perception of how a room feels is changed by it. I’m also into incorporating a wider variety in source samples in one song on the newest stuff — like building the percussive kit out of an array of sounds, from music that’s old and even older and brand new. Overall, I would say Co La is getting a little more tech-y, more suave with the technology, more forward in the purpose of the sounds. I definitely wanted DR to feel cinematic in that it kinda has scenes. I wanted it to be more evocative of the reality that I experience, and to define different kinds of time: slow time, fast time, high time, paranoid time, erotic time.

Are there any particular influences or sample sources that deeply inform Daydream Repeater?

When I was making DR I was digging pretty deep into Grace Jones — the Slave to the Rhythm record especially. I didn’t sample her that heavily, so it was more of an influence thing, but I love the producers she worked with, and the whole package, the aesthetics, the lifestyle …

And here too — how did you choose the name, Daydream Repeater?

The name came from thinking a lot about loop-based music, and this idea that the goal is to find these “loopholes,” like these magic grooves that can just roll forever, daydreams within a song. I guess it’s kind of what minimal techno is about, the Basic Channel type of thing. At the same time I was thinking a lot about Exotica, both the music and how it was used as this kind of leisurely escape, and how it played with erotic ideas in a pretty forward way. So taking those ideas and boiling them down, I guess I ended up with DR. At first I was unsure about riffing on “Daydream Believer” and “Repeater,” but thinking about it more, I dig it. I think it’s cool to reference those songs in this coded way.

In the Altered Zones interview, you spoke about a “New Anything sound,” and making things hyper-real. Can you elaborate?

Yeah, the New Anything sound is what I mean when I’m talking about this kind of cross-platform evocation — cross-time, cross-genre. It’s a blanket term, but I like it for that openness. The idea of what is “New” is something I’m always chasing, this progressive idea derived from a ’50s idealism, or a German thing like Cluster or Kraftwerk. With “Anything,” I mean to reference an openness, in a John Cage way, where the everyday, or the banal, or the already-been is all okay and on an equal playing field with artistic expression and symbolism.

“Manhattan Possessions” from Fugitive of Leisure


NNA Tapes is proud to announce the label’s inaugural foray into full-length vinyl, Daydream Repeater by Co La, a.k.a. Baltimore’s Matthew Papich. The Ecstatic Sunshine founder may have earned a rep for his radical deconstructions of the guitar, but with Co La he sets his mind to building a sound using sampled material, arriving at a more visceral, more lived-in, more bursting genrelessness. His brand of reuse facilitates rebirth, whether the source material is left familiar so as to evoke its old magic, or chopped to pieces, the parts of a new potion. With each of Daydream Repeater‘s ten songs, Co La lets the deepest groove be his guide — the loophole through which all passes, and by which all is bound.

A pair of back-to-back highlights go a long way to describing the album’s character. On “Wanna Say Faux,” drums from the Wall of Sound set the pace, then become the backdrop to propulsive blowouts of sped-up funk, whose house-like pulse is soon accompanied by the strings and, eventually, the voices of “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. It’s the same kind of warmth found in the plunderphonia of Avalanches or Daedelus, while the following track, “Turned Twice,” does more to evoke Cornelius. Here, smaller bits far removed from their original context — twinkling keys, guitar hits, chopped voices, beachy synth — become a seamless swirl of goopy psychedelia and tropical pop.

Elsewhere, vintage rocksteady is folded into hypnagogic meditation (“Smooth Solidarity”), unearthed sax blares like the sun itself (“Egyptian Peaches”), and LL Cool J brushes up against disco (“My Jamaica”). The point is to further a New Anything Sound, where time, place and style are subducted beneath a larger, more limitless dubplate whose impact is equal parts body and mind: old is new, everyday is exotic, idealism is openness, and vice versa. This is Co La’s fourth release since materializing in March 2011 — following cassettes Rest in Paradise (Watercolor), Dial Tone Earth and Fugitive of Leisure (Friends) — and his approach has become broader, taller and longer with each iteration.

Co La’s birth could similarly be composed of snapshots: Papich’s childhood in the ambient, slightly creepy suburbs of Lancaster, PA; the time a lifeguard at the local pool explained he was leaving to follow the Dead around the country; discovering, while skateboarding through an alley, that the punk outfit his friends revered practiced in a regular old garage; attending the Maryland Institute College of Art, where a class taught by the poet Jeremy Sigler called ParaPainting turned out to be an exercise in forming bands; and his time in Ecstatic Sunshine, which ultimately turned him to Abelton once he’d unlearned the guitar. Slow times, fast times, high times, low times. Daydream Repeater gathers ’em, loops ’em and lets ’em go.