Released last week on Domino, New York-based Joe Williams’ first full-length album as Motion Graphics is a dizzying journey through the infoxication of our daily lives. Partly inspired by the “ambient sound effects of digital menu systems that decorate today’s auditory landscape”, the album’s tracks resemble the onslaught of the endless notifications of our mobile devices. Williams sculpts these lifestyle noises with an imposing dexterity, creating custom randomised software instruments with Ableton Live to form ambiguous sounds that collide with more obvious signifiers of jazz, technopop, footwork and classical music. His own voice spreads across much of the album, from the effervescent dream pop vocals of ‘Lense’ to the giddy auto-tuned runs of ‘City Links’ – this is a record that pulls from a soup of genres.
Williams’ producing and composing talent over the past decade has been impressively varied. After releasing the 2007 Smoke album as White Williams, he devised the score for 2013 feature film 12 O’Clock Boys, which documents the dirt bike riders of Baltimore. His collaborative projects have included Maxmillion Dunbar’s Lifted ensemble – who released 1 last year on PAN – and production work for Software Recording artist Co La.
We caught up with Williams over email as he touched on hanging out with the 12 O’Clock Boys, some of the instruments behind the album’s ambiguous textures, as well as his work with animation collective Culturesport on the visuals for ‘Anyware’ and ‘Lense’.
Did you find that living in LA, NY and Baltimore specifically influenced the album? Are there certain sections that feel more inspired by one city than the other?
Not directly. If anything I don’t see the music exactly tied to a location. However, I definitely love aspects of all of those places and wouldn’t discount any of my experiences there. There are some specific locations; Mt. Washington in LA, Highland Park, LA Chinatown, Flatbush in NYC, Beverly Hills, Floristree in Baltimore.
It’s been almost a decade since you released Smoke as White Williams. Since then, what major changes have you noticed in terms of your creative process, and in the music landscape in general?
That would be difficult to boil down an entire decade into a short answer. My process is a lot simpler, I’ve totally foregone any complicated hardware setups. I basically make music the same way I did when I was 17 – keyboard and mouse. For lack of an easier signifier I would say the early stages of Soundcloud seemed to be a big moment for music.
When did the initial ideas for Motion Graphics as an artist form?
It started a little before I worked on Moody Coup, I was doing remixes under that name, around 2011.
How did you come to start working with Culturesport visually?
I had been aware of John’s work prior to Culturesport and really liked it. There was something about the aesthetic of Culturesport that seemed to really speak to what I was doing with the Motion Graphics record. I think I just emailed him my Soundcloud page and a few tracks from the record, and he was down to work together.
How did you find yourself working on the 12 O’Clock Boys project, and had you worked on anything similar before?
I was living in Baltimore in 2009/2010 and knew the director. He wanted me to work on the soundtrack around then but the film was far away from being a feature. I was already helping out with the film while it was being produced, I would assist with the cameras and do audio recording. I’d never done soundtrack work prior.
Are there any parallels or shared material between that work and your album? Have you found your time living in Baltimore helped shape the score?
The choral elements of the film definitely extended into writing the MG record. I would say living in Baltimore, spending time with Pug, and hanging out with the riders all shaped the soundtrack in one way or another. Yeah, I can’t really see it happening any other way.
How did you get involved with the Lifted project, and how did that differ to your work as Motion Graphics? Was this a more collaborative process than work you’d done in the past?
I met Andrew through my friend and roommate Jason Urick in Baltimore. We were around a lot of the same shows, I went to see Swimmers in D.C. and in Baltimore whenever they were in town. Andrew had ideas about a jazz and electronics style of record. He’d heard and liked Moody Coup, the record that Matt and I worked on together. We were all talking about ECM records a lot around that time. I think Lifted started through that. Re: process I had been collaborating with Matt (Co La) for years prior to that so it didn’t feel more or less collaborative. Co La is more like collaborating on production, Lifted is a lot more free-form to start out with and then tracks are whittled down from there.
On album tracks like ‘Airdrop’ it sounds like you’re using very obscured sound sources that resemble something else (‘Airdrop’ almost resembles dolphins swimming) but then you anchor the album with easily identifiable sounds like the drum machines on ‘Anyware’ – is this balance important to you?
That’s funny – yeah, ‘Airdrop’ is actually voice, saxophone, and kantele, really sped up. I think the choral instrument can’t keep its pitch with the rate of the notes so it’s doing this pitch bend thing and bringing the Dolphin out. They’re really normal instruments, it’s more just how they’re organised. I have been noticing lately when I’m writing how generic instruments with the right settings can be made to sound like other things. A saxophone can become a voice, or a violin, or a field recording of a tropical bird.
Whilst creating your own software instruments, and other techniques you use, are rooted in music that’s emerged in an internet age, there are definite shades of regional US club styles born in a specific time and place. How do you find these two worlds meet?
I’m not really coding my own software, more like augmenting pre-made instruments to do something much different than intended using Max For Live. I’m not sure where everything meets there. It’s important for me to have a reason to be making something and I guess creating these techniques helps me to create my own lane with the writing process. It’s hard to separate influences into direct references like that but I do listen to a lot of different types of dance music.
You said ‘Anyware’ was written on the road, and you moved location a few times during the album’s creation – do you think it’s impacted on its sound and structure, compared to if you were sitting in one studio?
I think that was one of the only pieces of music I wrote “in transit”. I guess I see a certain kind of perspective building from traveling and living in so many different cities that shows up in my tracks.
What music did you find yourself coming back to whilst writing this LP? It seems like it’s massively varied in influence.
I listen to so much music that it can become cloudy. I’m not sure that there’s a hard line where one influence starts and another begins. I can hear influences from ambient music, film music, technopop from Japan, T-Pain, video game music, jazz etc. – each song is so different.
Motion Graphics is out now on Domino. Order it here.
Featured image: Andrew Strasser