Imagine you’re in your college canteen and legendary Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance are having coffee at the next table. After skulling your cuppa you rush to lectures past electronic composer Dorian Concept on the stairs, then nearly bump into Nicolas Godin from Air, who’s organising a gig on campus that night. Your lecturer is Sheila E, who demonstrates with a glass bottle how she came up with the intro to Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, and Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man.
These mini WTF moments all happen within my first hour at the Red Bull Music Academy. I’ve only gatecrashed for a day but I’m turning into a swot already — no one’s too cool for school here. Even after lectures there’s a nightly gig, with the Academy hosting acts as diverse as Nicolas Godin, ghetto house don DJ Funk and black metal act Liturgy.
It also helps if your ‘campus’ is La Gaite Lyrique in Paris – a modern digital arts and multimedia performance space that preserves the facade of the grand 19th century Theatre de la Gaite, with its own leftfield history. After a century of operas and ballets, the building was bought in the 1980s by the creator of Inspector Gadget and half-destroyed to make way for a doomed theme park. But after years of decay it opened again in 2010 as one of Paris’s most prestigious digital arts centres.
The RBMA likes to leave a stamp on a building and its host city as well, but we’re not talking cheesy rollercoasters here. Since the Academy was created in 1998, it’s been hosting its intensive temporary music course in a different city every year — leaving a permanent legacy of new studios, performance spaces and a network of participants that carry on collaborating long after the RBMA crew finish the term.
The list of world-renowned RBMA alumni could prop up any festival line-up, with Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Katy B, Evian Christ, Objekt, Nina Kraviz and TOKiMONSTA just a few who have passed through the doors over the last few years.
With thousands of entrants and a 20-page application that asks you to draw diagrams of your music collection and a map of your place in the musical universe, the RBMA may be harder to get into than Berghain on New Year’s Eve, but it leaves the participants feeling privileged, in the true sense.
After a few introductory years – including a Dublin edition in 2000 – the format has settled on two terms of a fortnight each, with a week break between each session. The class of 2015 has 61 participants from 37 countries, split into 31 in term 1 and 30 in term 2. After the recent terror attacks, the Academy had to postpone the second term, but added that a “full two-week Academy experience will be ensured for all participants in term 2. Not now, but rather soon.”
During term, participants spend most of their days spent in the sixth and seventh floor of La Gaite Lyrique. This section of the building has been fully redesigned to the RBMA’s specifications, with eight ‘bedroom’ studios and a live recording studio dotted around the sixth floor. Walking through the corridors at any time you can peer in and see participants in groups hunched over synths, drum machines, laptops and regular live set-ups – often with mentors who are on hand for advice or even to collaborate on tracks.
This year’s term 1 mentors included Detroit techno icons Underground Resistance, 50 Weapons electronic duo Modeselektor, blockbuster hip-hop producer Just Blaze, Italian techno don Marco Passarani and Austrian electronic composer Dorian Concept – himself an RBMA graduate from Barcelona 2008.
Our informal tour guide Sabine points out that it’s not a PR back-slapping caper with the mentors – and you won’t find any patronising from the artists on Twitter about helping “the kids”.
“We’re not saying that the mentors are here in secret, but they’re genuinely doing this to help the artists, it’s not for themselves. They’re basically here 24 hours a day. They’re not making a big deal in public, there aren’t loads of photos on Twitter or anything,” she says.
Sabine’s claim isn’t spin – Underground Resistance is techno’s militant wing, shying away from public grandstanding, and they’re not mentioned in Academy programmes. In UR live shows ‘Mad Mike’ Banks stands at his synth rig with a bandana over his face – to see him huddled in with participants is pretty inspiring, even for an outsider gatecrashing for the day.
The collaborative aspect of the RBMA is its main drive throughout the two-week term. The application is only open to individuals (although technically members of a band could apply separately), and with 30 musicians and a floating team of mentors spread between eight studios, the only option is to team up and zone in on complementary artists.
Ireland’s got a participant for the second year in a row – after James Kelly aka WIFE joined the class of 2014 in Tokyo. This year’s Irish representative is Dublin electronic artist Gareth Anton Averill, aka Great Lakes Mysteries, whose astral plain modular synth compositions and soundtracks nod to John Carpenter, Global Communication and the outskirts of Blackest Ever Black-style dark ambience.
He says the first session at the Academy is “pretty nerve-wracking”, as all the participants engage in a show-and-tell – introducing themselves through their work, inviting all sorts of first impression pitfalls.
“You’re given two minutes to play a selection of your work… that’s pretty hard with my music, it mightn’t seem that immediate,” he says, in a chat in one of the studios.
“But it doesn’t take too long before people gravitate towards each other… you soon have an idea of who you’d like to work with. You get to work with people you’d never have thought of.”
A few days previously, Averill had performed live at the venue Garage as part of an RBMA showcase, a pulsating, nebulous improvised piece that shifts from pastoral beauty to heart-skipping dread and mourning synth lines.
It wouldn’t be light years away from the sub-aquatic planet mythology of sometime Underground Resistance act Drexciya, or even some of UR’s self-contained sci-fi worlds, but Gareth says he didn’t bond with Mad Mike while they were hunched over a MiniMoog or an 808 drum machine.
Gareth says: “Mike is a super interesting guy, and we kind of connected in the most unlikely way. Early on, I really was just experimenting around the studios and Mike was still a mysterious character at that point.
“I was recording some drums for a track, about 2am, and Mike was sitting in the control room, nodding away. I proclaimed that I hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing, and he said something along the lines of, ‘I like that. That shit’s crazy’. 15 minutes later, the guitar is plugged in and he’s playing this kind of hardcore-punk guitar riff over my track, and what came out what this acid-house-krautrock-hardcore-skate-punk mess of sound. It was pretty terrible, but the two of us were smiling ear to ear. That was the perfect encapsulation of the spirit of the Academy.
“Aside from that, all of the mentors were super helpful, Dorian Concept, Modeselektor, the whole team, and they were seemingly as excited as us to be there.”
Averill says that he has the “extreme luxury” of having his own studio at home, but bought his first laptop in the past few weeks.
“It’s true,” he says. “I always wanted to keep my music and home life separate. I thought if I started on the laptop I’d never be ‘off’. I usually work on hardware instruments, but I bought one before coming here to finish off a piece, but I actually wrote a piece of music on it since I’ve been here.”
Gareth says getting the laptop has been an “overall epiphany”, and the immediacy hit him after a group trip to Versailles.
“I found the ability to sit in a quiet corner, or the back of a bus at dusk driving through Paris, to have a similar effect on me as watching a film that I was going to score,” he says.
As well as a hive mind of young artists learning from each other, the RBMA calls on some heavy-hitters each year for talks, workshops and lectures.
“The lectures can be very inspiring as well,” says our guide Sabine as she shows us around the radio studio, with Mad Mike on air. “We had a girl last week who was so overcome at the lecture by Laurent Garnier, she said she was going to cry.”
The lecture aspect of the RBMA is one of the biggest clinchers. You wouldn’t be sleeping in with five snoozes on your alarm, or skipping class to doss around. There are two a day, and this year’s lectures also included talks by Kindness, Hudson Mohawke, Craig Leon, Che Pope and Nicolas Godin. The list of past speakers join the dots between performance, production, art and technology, with A-listers like Brian Eno, Derrick May, Erykah Badu, Michael Rother, Peaches, Bob Moog, Madlib, Debbie Harry, Carl Craig, Larry Heard, Andrew Weatherall, Bootsy Collins, Frankie Knuckles, Philip Glass… the list goes on – an ‘etc’ doesn’t do it justice.
The lectures are geared toward advice for the young artists – a music education without being heavy-handed. During Sheila E’s talk she recalls going on tour with George Duke in the 1970s and thinking, “Oh wow, I’m getting paid to go to school”. Her lecture goes over the two-hour mark, and even after 36 hours without sleep, the jetlagged Ms Escovedo is never more than five minutes away from an inspirational nugget – recalling 10 hours a day jams with Prince, learning discipline from Marvin Gaye (“when NOT to play”), and punching walls to numb her hands so she could go through concerts without doubling over in agony. Her life mantra: “No doesn’t have to mean no. No means opportunity. I can’t go through the door? OK, I’ll just go through the window.”
In the afternoon lecture, producer and mixer Andrew Scheps offers up the pragmatic advice: “Know that you suck,” saying to embrace your limitations and keep learning from other artists and peers. Even while Scheps answers many technical questions about side-chaining, compression and recording levels, he says still mixes and produces with an impressionistic touch – saying after decades in the business he trusts his gut.
Scheps has worked with Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Adele and Hozier for starters – and remains unapologetic in his maximalist mixes. He’s been accused of taking the ‘loudness war’ to extremes and losing dynamic range with his extreme compression, but he advises not to falter if you believe in your own work.
“If you would be unhappy with the change, then they’re wrong,” he says, and gets a bit of an Amen from the room. He adds: “It’s important to be humble enough to listen to criticism and decide whether or not you should do anything about it… but you have to be silently arrogant enough to say, ‘My art is going to be destroyed if I change it’.”
When his mix of Jay Z’s 99 Problems is played over the PA and 30-odd heads nod in the auditorium, it confirms that sometimes we’ll take that sucker punch to the gut over delicate dynamic shifts.
After Scheps’ lecture we’re invited for a chat with Air’s Nicolas Godin, who’s pacing the corridors with his team, in the middle of organising soundchecks for his first ever solo show. He’s presenting the live show for his debut album Contrepoint – a concept album based on scores by Johann Sebastian Bach.
When I ask if he’s buzzing about playing in front of his home crowd he lets out an exaggerated, “pffffff”, elaborating: “I am terrified… this is my first solo show for my first album, in my home city, in front of all my friends. Of course they want it to be good but I wish it could be anywhere… maybe China!”
It turns out his nerves were unfounded. I bump into him a few hours later after the show, pint in hand with a big relieved grin. His proggy interludes, avant-pop and three-wall projections get him a pass with his home crowd, and his mates didn’t desert him after all.
Godin’s lecture earlier in the week is another one that’s been passed around as one of the highlights, but he also says the education goes both ways.
He says: “It was very inspiring… there were so many intuitive questions, a lot of engagement. And it’s great to answer questions but very important to listen to young artists as well. Listen to young producers on the radio, even pop and hip-hop producers. You hear them on the radio and they are so avant-garde. They don’t even know that they’re avant-garde, or shaping the future.”
Even though many speakers at the Academy have decades of experience, this idea of investing in the future seems to be the over-arching goal of the RBMA. It goes way beyond slapping a brand on a few festival stages. The participants are initially chosen for their individual talent, but the collective pool can only thrive after they pack their gear and fly back home.
“I think a few seeds were sown that will blossom in the near future,” Gareth Averill says in the days after his return to Ireland.
“The final day was completely insane. Nerves had been left at the door at that point, in exchange for a generous glass of straight vodka. It was a kind of ritual hosted by RBMA co-founder Torsten. We listened back with all the mentors in attendance, and toasted to our time there, not fully believing our two weeks were over.
“I have used the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comparison a few times. This felt a bit like the Great Glass Elevator scene.”
- For more info on lectures, events, broadcasts and daily long-form music journalism, visit redbullmusicacademy.com
- Keep up to date with Gareth Anton Averill aka Great Lakes Mystery at garethaverill.com
Printed in Irish Daily Star