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Warm Drag (Paul Quattrone on left); Photo Credit: Mark Champion
Paul Quattrone has carved a literal percussive path through the last decade of his life, first administering raucous groove to danceable punk outfit !!! and now landing in the blitzkrieg rock powerhouse Oh Sees as one half of their drumming section alongside Dan Rincon. When he’s not pounding away at kick and snare in the church of John Dwyer — but occasionally while sharing a tour van with him — he’s hard at work on a project with fellow west coast resident and DJ companion Vashti Windish called Warm Drag. Their oeuvre is the truest offspring of vinyl seekers, sounding unlike anything that’s painted his career thus far, yet the decibel level brought about by Bomb Squad -influenced beats and rockabilly atmospheric tones feels right at home.
I interviewed Quattrone for a short take that appeared in Big Takeover’s latest winter issue. Omitting a long discussion about robocalls, what follows is the unabridged conversation.
Ryan Gabos: How do you go about collecting samples for Warm Drag?
Paul Quattrone: I’ve been making playlists basically since I’ve started using samplers. I have a playlist of drum breaks that stand out to me, [for example]. When I first started using a sampler, I was just sampling all kinds of shit. Musically, stuff from YouTube, noise loops that I make; all kinds of stuff. When I moved to LA, Vashti and I had started DJing together and I knew that we had similar tastes in music but it’s funny, when you DJ with somebody—and the way we do it is I’ll play a song and she plays a song, so we’ll always compliment what the other one is playing. It really made us hone in on exactly what we’re both into. So I guess I started narrowing everything down to late ‘50s/early ‘60s kind of darker rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly-type stuff. But you know, then I take it and either put it through guitar pedals or pitch stuff down or time stretch it; so it has that quality of being kinda old and vintage, but my intention is to make most of it sound like you can’t tell where the original sample is coming from just to have a similar vibe that maybe sounds old and vintage but also contemporary since it’s being processed.
RG: So through DJing and mutual likenesses, you and Vashti have just amassed this library of samples.
PQ: Yeah, based on our mutual tastes, you could say.
RG: Now I don’t really understand the schematics of it, but running these samples through pedals and such—you’re distorting them from their original source so much that I wonder if you’ve run into the same sort of trouble that an artist like The Avalanches have with clearing samples.
PQ: Um, not yet, knock on wood. But that’s part of it; to not get caught. [laughs] A lot of time has passed between the early ‘60s and now, so I definitely want to make it sound like it’s coming out now. ‘Cause that’s the way samplers work. If I wanted to, I could take all kinds of samples, like drum breaks from that era and guitar riffs or whatever, and I could make it sound like you couldn’t tell that it came out from that time. But I like experimental noise. Like, abrasive noise music. And all of those things fit in together when you’re using samplers. You can create your own little sample sculpture, basically.
RG: I always feel that more often than not, especially in the case of those like DJ Shadow, the more obscure the sample you can dig up, the cooler the result.
PQ: At the same time, I get why another artist may want to use an obvious sample. It’s just not necessarily my thing. I know there’s a song where Animal Collective used a Grateful Dead sample because they wanted to pay homage, and that’s cool too.
RG: Oh, yeah. I appreciate Beastie Boys using “When the Levee Breaks” as well.
PQ: Fuck yeah.
RG: But what you put out with Warm Drag, you’re really all over the place. I wrote down that “Cruisin the Night” sounds like the lovechild of LCD Soundsystem’s “Movement” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”.
PQ: And that’s cool! That wasn’t my intention at all, but I’m sure somebody else could listen to it and hear something different. I would take that as a compliment.
RG: I mean it as one! Being a musician yourself, do you have any organic samples in there?
PQ: I do, yeah. They’re all sprinkled throughout. If I went through each song, I could tell you exactly which stuff I came up with on my own. There’s a little bit of drum samples too. Not as much as you would think—friends of mine have actually asked me that a lot, especially when they see us live and you can’t tell as much that they’re drum samples… I don’t know if you’ve seen us play live, but we’re pretty fuckin’ loud. [laughs] So when we play live, a lot of it sounds like booming drums. But it’s not as much of me playing drums as some people might think. There’s a little bit just to reinforce loops or samples I already have, but a lot of it is… over the years, I’ve just made these noise loops—some of them melodic, some of them kinda harsh—basically I would just smoke a shit ton of weed or hash just to get in the zone. The drone zone. I record everything and when I’m piecing samples together, I’m like, “Oh, this needs something ethereal,” and I go through my banks of loops and it’s like, “Wow, this actually fits perfectly,” and sometimes it’s like trying to fit two pieces of a puzzle that don’t normally fit together. I’ve realized that if it doesn’t click right away, then [I should] just move onto something else and see if it fits instead.
RG: You’re very open about your love for the Bomb Squad.
PQ: Fuck yeah.
RG: You’ve stated that you aim to make their version of a rock song, which is interesting because if you take away Chuck D’s emcee status, a lot of the production involved in those Public Enemy tracks are already the Bomb Squad’s version of a rock song.
PQ: Exactly, yeah. On It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, on “She Watch Channel Zero?!” they’re sampling Slayer, ‘cause of the Rick Rubin connection. I remember reading somewhere—I don’t know if it was on Fear of a Black Planet, but they were recording in the same studio as Sonic Youth and Hank Shocklee would pop in; he was really into what they were doing. I was listening to that stuff when I was just a kid. I was in fifth grade when I discovered Public Enemy and I was already into rock ‘n’ roll and I liked all kinds of rap, but for whatever reason, that music really, really just blew me away. Now that I’m using samplers and stuff, I’m like, “Oh, it’s probably because there was that rock ‘n’ roll and noise connection.” It just seemed so aggressive to me and it still does. I really still think that stuff holds up.
RG: You emulate that style of production, but you also have this flipside on “Sleepover,” for instance where it’s a lot more tender than anything I’d expect from the Bomb Squad.
PQ: Right. I think the main theme that I have taken from them has been that they use a lot of siren-esque samples. I don’t know why that stuff works so well for certain types of music but in “Sleepover,” I was just trying to emulate what it would feel like inside your head when you’re doing inhalants. I don’t know if you’ve ever done nitrous, but it’s like, even without listening to anything, you hear that weird kind of siren going on. That’s kind of what the song is about, partly.
RG: I think this is the first time I’ve interviewed someone who’s had history as a drummer primarily, and I wanted to hear your espousal on time signatures in general. “Hurricane Eyes” on this record is in 5/4, “Anthemic Aggressor” on the new Oh Sees record is this huge, 10+ minute 7/8 exercise; I always like picking that out in music and hearing it work really well, so I was interested in hearing a drummer philosophize somewhat about time signatures and busting up the typical 4/4.
PQ: It’s a thin line to walk because on one hand, a lot of music I listen to has odd time signatures and I enjoy listening to weird proggy stuff and even Herbie Hancock would do a lot of stuff in crazy time signatures. But I realize that it’s kind of, for most people who listen to music… like, you don’t wanna be Frank Zappa. [laughs] It worked for Frank Zappa. You mentioned that Oh Sees song that’s in 7/8, something like that works ‘cause it’s so repetitious that you can fall into a trance. What I’m saying is that too much of that and you get into nerdy, offensive territory, which I’m not into. Like… I hate Mr. Bungle. [laughs] Stuff like that where it gets to be too cartoonish. But a song like “Four Sticks” by Led Zeppelin, that song kicks ass and it’s in… that’s more of an Indian music style pattern, [counts out to himself] they do it in patterns… [counts again] I can’t remember exactly what the pattern is. They’re trying to emulate Indian tabla drumming but then it ends up being a Zeppelin song and it sounds great. Or, I was listening to the radio the other day and there’s that MGMT song… it was one of their big hits. The one that kind of sounds like “Dancing Queen”. Wait, no, not that one. It’s the one that’s like, “All along the western front.”
RG: “Electric Feel”.
PQ: Yeah. That song is in 6[/4], I think. But you can’t tell because there’s a 4/4 the entire time on the kick. So it’s still fancy. I think stuff like that really works too, it kind of throws you off a little bit but it doesn’t throw off the groove.
RG: I’ve always been enamored with odd time signatures and I agree, I think it’s always better if you can somehow mask it to not have it be a thing.
PQ: Right, where people can still dance to it. I think that’s the ultimate way to do it, because if you can do it in a way that people would actually still be able to dance to it… instead of being like, “Huh, that’s a really interesting time signature change.” Stroking your chin…
RG: What’s the collaborative process between you and Vashti like?
PQ: It depends on the song. Honestly, a lot of it is me coming up with stuff on my own. I spend a lot of time on the road, so sometimes I’ll bring my sampler. In fact, that’s what I’ve been doing today, I’m just trying to record as much stuff onto my laptop as possible ‘cause I’m leaving on Sunday to go on tour. So if I can get as many loops as possible into my laptop then I can start arranging stuff and sending stuff to her and she’ll on her own improvise and send me vocal melodies. That’s how it normally works. Sometimes I’ll just play her stuff live when we’re in our practice space and again she’ll improvise stuff. Other times, I might take a backwards vocal loop that I think sounds cool and make vocal melodies and have her emulate that and have her riff on that and she comes up with her own and then writes lyrics to it. But a lot of it is me in the back of a tour van with my headphones on. [laughs] That’s basically how I mixed most of this album, too. I recorded everything. We were on tour a lot last year, so I just did all the edits and all the mixing in the back of the van basically.
RG: You’ve been a working musician for a long time, going back to… is it “chk chk chk?” (referring to !!!) I’m always hesitant to say it out loud.
PQ: [laughs] Yeah, it’s funny because a lot of people in the Bay Area, people who knew them from way back in the day, call them “pow pow pow.” I think the original intention was any-three-sounds-repeated. But for whatever reason, “chk chk chk” was the one that stuck the most.
RG: And you didn’t come into that band from the start, correct?
PQ: Correct. I joined them about ten years ago and then I played with them… there’s a little overlap when I joined Oh Sees, but yeah, I played with !!! for nine years.
RG: So you’ve drummed with !!! and now as part of Oh Sees’ latest iteration. Is it now liberating to be more in the driver’s seat with Warm Drag?
PQ: It is. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to start this. Not that I wasn’t involved in the collaborative process with !!!, but I was just mostly holding it down. There are so many people in that band, everybody has ideas, so. I would get some of my ideas through and get my licks in as far as drumming goes, but for the most part, I was just holding it down. But they taught me how to use samplers, especially the [Akai] MPC, which is what I use now. So once I figured out how to use that, then I was like, “Oh, what would this sound like if I use this for music that I’m [making].” I mean like dance music and I like playing with them, but rock ‘n’ roll music has always been my main style of music that I’m into, so I started experimenting with using it as an instrument for rock ‘n’ roll and that became really exciting to me. I just wanted to have some sort of outlet where I could do that. And I think that’s part of the reason why I don’t incorporate a lot of drumming with Warm Drag yet, at least yet [laughs], because I do like having those two things separate. I like saving all my drumming ideas for Oh Sees because John [Dwyer] will let Dan and I take the lead. A lot of songs we’ve been writing recently have been based on jams. Dan and I will get together, just the two of us, and come up with some patterns a couple hours before John and Tim [Hellman] get there and we’ll jam on that and then pretty much instantly write a song. So yeah, I feel like I still have a lot of ideas drumming-wise that wanna incorporate with Oh Sees. As far as rhythms go with Warm Drag, I feel like at least for now and this next batch of songs that I’m writing, it’ll still be auxiliary, if that makes sense.
RG: I’m sure it’s a lot less physically taxing on you for Warm Drag as well.
PQ: [laughs] Yeah, well, I also use, like, six PA speakers when we play live, so it’s like Jamaican-sound-system-level. So I have that and two huge cases with my samplers and pedals and mixers and stuff, so it’s physically taxing to move gear still. One day I’ll get past that. But that’s the other thing too, is that I want the stuff in Warm Drag to be simple. I’m trying to keep it minimal. It’s tempting, especially when I start incorporating software because I mix everything on Ableton, it’s really tempting to just keep layering stuff and layering stuff, especially when I’m referencing Bomb Squad. So I’m trying to write some new stuff that at most has, like, three things going on. That’s gonna be my new rule for the next batch of songs.
RG: For the Oh Sees uberfan, is there a way to tell other than by speaker separation which drummer is you or Dan on a record?
PQ: Honestly, it depends on the song. On Orc, you could tell who’s who because John hard-panned the drums right and left, but this one I noticed he has them both pretty much up the middle. I’ve known Dan longer than John or Tim, Dan’s actually part of the reason why I’m in the band. Dan and I right off the bat were pretty intuitive on, like, “Okay, he’s gonna take the lead on this, I’m gonna hang back and just hold it down,” or, “Okay, he’s holding it down, I’m just gonna go off.” There’s that push and pull, that’s the only way for having two drummers to work. On the new album, unless I told you, “I’m doing this, I’m doing that, he’s doing this, he’s doing that,” there’s not really a way you could tell who’s doing what, which is cool, I think.
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