Ryan Burnett is the guitarist/producer in the Denver-based livetronica group Signal Path, who recently released a six-track EP and will be coming to Denver next weekend. We contacted him to learn more about mixtaEP and the artistic process of live electronic they’ve created. Read on to discover how it all comes together, and check out their homecoming show with Love & Light at the Bluebird this Friday.
How is the universe treating you at this moment?
Really well, actually. Just been really inspired lately, just really excited for springtime in Colorado and I get to do what I love to do every day, and a lot of cool stuff happened with the projects that I’m working in. Just inspired and stoked, man!
Tell me more about these projects you’re in, especially for our readers who don’t know about Signal Path.
Signal Path has been, for the last decade, my main creative output. It’s just been really fun lately because we’ve been able to try all types of wacky, creative ideas, approaching music in different ways and different ways of releasing it and looking at it. We haven’t felt tied down to any borders or anything that we fee we need to fit in, and that was an inspiration behind the mixtape and releasing four albums last year.
Last year, we decided like, “What we could do this year that would be really exciting and challenging?” and we decided to release an EP on the first day of every season. That was just constant writing on the road and off the road, and that was really fun. Then we came up with the idea, well, here’s all these other artists that we love, let’s totally hook that up and put that out there.
What did you prefer to call them, again? The seasonal EP’s, or the quadrilogy?
The quadrilogy, just because it’s hilarious, it has a little bit of Spinal Tap in it [laughs].
What was it like cranking out music that quickly? Did you learn a lot about yourself as an artist through the process?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely had a lot of conversations with my artist friends about it and they think I’m totally insane for trying to do that. It was pretty crazy, because I’m kind of a perfectionist and I spend a lot of time on stuff, and that really challenged me to just do it. Just put it out there and make it happen, and just go and not look back.
That was the most challenging part. I could have spent one year on one of those EP’s, easily. And it would have come out totally differently, some parts might have been better and some parts worse. So it was really fun to just kind of throw it out there.
In a way I thought of it as an artist having an art opening coming up, and you have ten blank canvasses in front of you and a bunch of paint and you just gotta go. Just make it happen, put art on the wall, y’know?
Was making mixtaEP any different after coming off of that rush of original tunes? Was it any easier to start a remix project?
Definitely easier. I think the most difficult part was sifting through hundreds of different tracks and finding something that we connected with, and taking certain elements from and representing what we were feeling at the time. Once we found the track we zeroed in on the process pretty quick.
Which track was the most fun to work with out of the six?
I’d say probably the Zola Jesus / Skrillex track. We’d been listening to a lot of music, and there was just something about that Skrillex track that I really liked. It had an old-school vibe to it, as far as old-school electronic music, and it made kind of a connection for me.
That was on the back of my mind, and while we were driving up to Aspen for a gig and listening to Zola Jesus and I heard that track, in my mind, I was like, “Holy cow, those totally have the same vibe” and part of me just wanted to pull over the rig and go back to my studio and make it happen. It was one of those rare moments where things happened in a certain way, and when I went down to the studio it happened, in the exact way that I envisioned it.
What was really similar was the Active Child track.
That’s probably one of my favorites.
I was listening to it and it put me in this space. Y’know, that’s what music does, that’s why it’s magical, it just takes you somewhere – and where that track took me, I heard one of our songs “Kaleidoscope,” the melody started playing in my head, and I thought “Whoa, this is great, it fits perfectly.” So I got out the lap steel guitar and all the instruments I wanted in there and started recording. They fit together perfectly like puzzle pieces. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I’ll probably never do anything like that again.
It’s really intense, the backing you put to the track amplified it. And in a frustrating way, it seems like it’s going to stop building at some point but just keeps going. It’s got a cyclical kind of feel.
I really think that’s kinda what I was feeling about that track! It’s got this longing to it. I feel like part of that emotion itself, that human emotion that everyone’s felt before, is the fact that it never does reach that point where it’s a nice little package you can put in your pocket. It’s this unending, building perpetual longing, and sometimes life and emotions can be that way. I really wanted to maintain that, and also add to it and have my voice heard as well.
What about the hip-hop tracks on the album with Main Attraktionz or Shabazz Palaces and how those might compare?
We’re all really big fans of hip-hop, but none of us rap. We have a huge respect for hip-hop that we like, and Shabazz Palaces, those are like new tracks that we just really liked and wanted to mess with. That Main Attraktionz / Modeselektor track, that track was just hilarious when I first heard it. It’s so funny, it had this palpable vibe to it that fit really well with the vibe of that Modeselektor track. It was really fun to put it together.
The album is really just a tribute to the stuff we really like. Just like anybody, our musical tastes – when it comes to what we listen to – is pretty diverse. I think that came out a lot in the EP because we were just messing with what we thought was cool and what we connected with and it came out fairly eclectic. My main goal in messing with it was to fully respect what the artist was originally doing, and being able to augment what they were doing with it connected to where we were coming from.
So it’s like taking the ingredients of what makes Signal Path, and finding out what goes well with these other sounds, like which pieces belong together? That must have been tricky, some of these remixes have three different artists involved.
Totally. The Roots /A$AP Rocky / Sleigh Bells track was kind of a beast because I really dig the vibes of A$AP Rocky.
We spent a lot of time discussing that track in particular. We just love A$AP Rocky’s feel that he’s been putting out. And the thing that was weird – and I’m kind of proud of it – is that when we started putting together A$AP Rocky stuff, I was like “Dude, I love the vibe, I love the tone, I love the musicality – but the lyrics, I just can’t connect to them. There’s nothing about that that has anything to do with what I’m trying to say as an artist.”
You’re not a pretty motherfucker?
[Laughs] Exactly, no, no. It was hard to erase twenty hours of work, but we did that because we wanted to keep it real for who we were and where we were coming from. We kept the vibe of that A$AP Rocky track with his melody line in there, plus a little bit of his verse. And then we mixed it with that Sleigh Bells track, which is completely on the other end of the spectrum. Then, when I was messing with that Roots track on a completely different song, I was like “Dude I’ll just put all these together.” What the Roots are saying, I can totally connect with that. The vibe of the A$AP Rocky track, and those elements of the Sleigh Bells which is this raw, glorified and bitcrushed thing…
That was the most challenging to put together, but I’m happy about how it came out. It’s got an interesting, almost apathetic feel to it.
I expect that’s going to be one of the more exciting ones to bring to the stage. I just love the sound of those bells on the A$AP Rocky track.
Yeah, I was feeling that, too. It’s sort of syncopated and stuff, I like how they approached it.
I also think your hip-hop-ish songs go better live just from making a broad assessment of your audience. However, that’s just one part of what makes you guys Signal Path. What would you say are the ingredients that come together to make Signal Path music? What is the recipe?
Y’know, we’ve definitely talked about that a lot as a band. We’ve gone through a lot of different incarnations of “What are our premises?” “What are our ingredients to make Signal Path?” And what we learned is that if we put ANY type of objective ingredient into what makes it what it is, we almost miss our mark, because then what we’re doing is trying to make something out of certain ingredients and that becomes our premise; versus, what we discovered our premise is, which is making electronic music as live musicians. It exemplifies who we are and what we express as us bearing our souls.
If that’s our premise – which it is our premise, making electronic music as human beings and staying true to who we are – then there are no boundaries. We’ve have different takes on that in the past: “Okay, we’re going to make electronic music with acoustic instruments, or with this or with that or these elements;” then we get off base, because we’re not focusing on the end product, we’re focusing on how we get to the end product and the end product ends up being whatever it is.
That’s a really interesting idea. It’s not so much like a recipe, where you have ingredients and the end product is the variable. It’s the ingredients that are supposed to be variable, y’know, who says you can’t make pizza without tomato sauce?
That hits the nail on the head. I think that’s where we’re at now, focusing on what it is we want to say and realizing how we get there doesn’t matter.
I don’t care if we have to use an MC and an accordion and a violin, or we use Ableton Live and a billion synthesizers and singer. Whatever it is, if we get to the point where we’re like “This is what we’re trying to say,” then we’ve hit our mark.
Or sampling Skrillex, which is arguably more offensive than any of those things.
[Laughs] Right! It’s funny, we’ve had a lot of fans who are trying to understand like “Skrillex? Really? What the hell?” It’s easy to do that; it’s easy to make blanket statements off of “we ARE doing this” or “we are NOT going to do that.” Who cares, if the end product says what you’re trying to say? That’s the space that I’m coming from as an artist. It doesn’t matter if you get a Justin Bieber song and a sample from a cartoon, as long as at the end you are accomplishing what you’re trying to accomplish.
I don’t know the complete back story to this, but I know Miles Davis used to challenge himself that way, like “I’m going to play this trumpet solo but only use three notes.” There’s something super cool and super fun, and also really self-absorbed, about doing something like that. And I love that – it’s SO fun as an artist to say “I’m going to take this red paint and this black paint and make the New York City skyline.”
We’ve been talking about having an Ableton challenge that we would host that I think would be super fun, where you take one square waveform, like one quarter-note, and try to make an entire song out of that one note by stretching it, putting it through vocoders, shrinking it down, pitiching it up and down, making kick drum and hi-hat sounds, reverb, delay – all sorts of stuff to make and entire song out of one square wave.
That sounds awesome, and actually that whole time I had my fingers crossed thinking “Please, I hope he says ‘Ableton Iron Chef Challenge.’”
[Laughs] Totally! We thought about doing stuff like that before and we’ll probably pursue different things like that.
But when you’re putting out music to your fans and asking for their email address for it – because that’s the cost of an album nowadays, I guess – I want to be able to say we put this album out not to just self-indulge and do something super-weird but to sound good and connect with people and inspire them in ways perhaps only we can do. Even though we’re a small band sort of in our own little world, but we put it out there with the listener in mind, not our process in mind.
Yeah, part of being an artist is finding the middle ground of expectation between yourself as an artist and what people come to see you do. Where have you found that middle ground to be between Signal Path and your audience? What have you discovered you do as a band that gets people going the most?
I think our fan base is a little bit divided in a way. There’s new fans who are just now discovering electronic music, like the first electronic act they ever heard was Skrillex or Pretty Lights, and then we’ve got fans from years ago who are fans because they saw us as a full band playing at Bonnaroo or something like that. So when we’re playing, we’re kind of walking a really fine line between being a producer with a laptop and being a live band.
I think that our fans want to see a live band, specifically Signal Path, because that’s always been our goal and what we started out trying to do. That’s one of the main things we stick to as far as this project, and I think there is a fine line, like “I could play this melody line on my guitar, or we could trigger this melody with a crazy raging synthesizer patch.” We’ve got to find a way where we’re balancing what sounds the best, and what is true to what we’re trying to do and say.
A lot of times that comes back to us… performing it, I guess.
Part of what we’re trying to do is have fun doing what we’re doing. The more that we’re performing, the more we’re having fun. We’ve found that over the last two years, so we’re definitely playing a lot more.
It’s a balance like you said, and for us it’s more of a balance between how we perform a song versus what the actual song is.
So what variation is there from tour to tour?
It’s evolved at a pretty fast pace. We were, maybe back in 2009, doing a lot more producer-based live shows to the point now, we just got off a two-week tour, and we’re playing way more live. There was a pointing between where we had computers and we were all triggering different loops at different times and in some type of no man’s land grey area, but we’ve even moved past that to the point where we’re performing every possible thing that we can do live. I think we have it set up in a way that is pretty unique and interesting.
Every time I talk to other artists about it, they’re always like “Wow, that’s crazy, I didn’t know you could do that with Live.”
So how does it work?
I don’t say this to say “What we’re doing is awesome,” I more so say it because I think there’s been an evolution in a way that glorifies the music in a way. Specifically, in one Ableton session we have maybe 150 different scenes set up. Those scenes are basically stemmed out to our house engineer who has control of the levels of everything, and then I have a foot pedal that allows me to move up or down or stay in place as far as the scenes are concerned. If you were to select a random scene in our live set, some of the loops are eight bars and some are as much as sixty-four bars. That makes the computer a total afterthought to what we’re doing on stage live. We can walk out and start playing any song we want, we can make intros and outros and any section as long or short as we want or skip them altogether.
We started out having hand signals so we would all be on the same page as to what we’re going to do next. It’s a really fine balance between having a structured song, but also being able to do anything at any time for any reason. We can be in a “jam” section and Matt, our bass player, could be playing a bass line on the synthesizer, and if the crowd is responding and we’re totally in the moment it we can keep it going as long as we want. And then we can go into a breakdown and come back to it again.
I’ve said for a long time that DJ’ing with Ableton is cool because it’s so easy to divide a song up into its different parts and totally control the flow of the set, just like you said. Just like a storyteller controls the pace of the story, and sometimes they get right to the exciting part and other times they make you wait for it.
The tricky thing is that every single scene has to stand on its own face value, and also be able to move to any other song at any time. It’s definitely taken two years to get there, working on the set every single day.
I think Colorado is an interesting scene because of the way the jam and hippie culture has collided head-on with electronic music. It’s a stronghold for jamtronica, partly because of that jam heritage we have. People like watching bands play, but at the same time they like things like crunchy, synthetic bass and hip-hop samples.
It’s what I like to call hippie bass. It’s music for psychedelic gansters, hip-hop with a trippy element to it. Every time I see a kid decked out in LRG and crystals I think of hippie bass.
Totally, and I think that’s what I was touching on when I said our fan base being two different elements, and that’s the electronic element and the hippie/jam element, both of which I love. And that’s the line that we walk when our live show happens.
To give you some more of my perspective on that, I was talking to my friend Nate who lives in New Orleans, who actually used to play with Signal Path as our keyboard player many years ago. We were talking about that whole thing about laptop musicians being able to play in front of thousands and thousands of people and how we never thought we’d see that in America, even though it had been going on around the world for many years.
He’s part of a production company in New Orleans and he mixes every major act that comes through, from Skrillex to Knife Party and SBTRKT who he recently did. And he was saying there’s something special about one person playing onstage. My perspective before this conversation, just as a music fan – I was raised on bluegrass and Phish, basically – I want to see a band, I want to see interaction. I want to see spontaneous creativity on stage. When I go see a producer, all I’m seeing is one guy and I don’t entirely know what he’s doing up there. But Nate was saying there something really special about one person with his music just putting it out there to the people, there’s a connection there that’s like “I’m giving you this music, and it’s really just between me and you.” There’s this total personal connection going on there.
He’s mixed electronic bands, and he was saying the vibe was different. It wasn’t about the producer connecting with the audience, it was about the band members connecting with each other and then the music connecting with the audience. So there’s almost a barrier there between the musicians and the audience when your first priority is to connect with the other musicians on stage.
I found that really interesting because it made a lot of sense to me. When you go out there and you see that, it’s all about you. It’s not about the band, it’s about you and your experience. I definitely take that to heart, and our whole band is going to take that to heart moving forward. Not that before we thought it was all about us, but really it is all about the fans. And if as a band we can directly connect to our audience with the music and have our instruments and us as a band so dialed that it’s an afterthought, we’ll definitely be doing our jobs well.