Telefon Tel Aviv on Electronic Protest Music & Embracing Sparse Sounds

Josh Eustis is Telefon Tel Aviv

Josh Eustis is Telefon Tel Aviv Corinne Schiavone

Holed up in his home studio wearing sweatpants and drinking tea, Joshua Eustis makes no promises that he’ll ever finish the new Telefon Tel Aviv record.

Fans of the electronic musician’s work credit Eustis and his late creative partner, Charlie Cooper with heralding the entire cottage industry of IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, that has become ubiquitous in late-night hipster culture. But when Eustis and Cooper built these slow groovers from scratch 16 years ago at the start of the new millennium, they wondered if there would ever be a day when their music would be embraced and accepted by anyone outside of the electronic underground.

A lot has happened since then. Cooper passed away unexpectedly in 2009, abruptly ending Telefon Tel Aviv and leaving Eustis devastated. Without his best friend and creative partner, the project had no path to continue, and Eustis eventually put his creative energy into other work. He played on records by Nine Inch Nails, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle that demonstrated his sonic versatility. He started new projects The Black Queen and Second Woman with friends. He continued to channel his pain into his Sounds of Magdalene monicker. And last spring, after 15 years in the game, he resurrected Telefon Tel Aviv to tour again.

Beloved Detroit electronic label Ghostly International also brought him back to a new generation of listeners, releasing a remastered version of the first, now classic Telefon Tel Aviv record, Fahrenheit Fair Enough, much to the joy of Eustis’ longtime acolytes.

I caught up with Eustis ahead of a short tour that kicks off at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right this Wednesday. We talked about how the electronic music landscape has changed since 2001, the merits of sonic sparsity, and why its important to both challenge your listeners and reward their open ears.

What kind of rabbit do you have?

He’s a Tortoise Dutch, a rescue, just four months old in the alley behind our house one morning. He’d been abandoned and pretty much near death, so we took him in.

Very unusual for a rabbit to respond to a stranger like that, they get very scared.

Yeah, it was weird. I think he was abused, definitely neglected. He was in terrible shape when we found him. Now he’s fine, he’s grown up and kind of runs the place.

People often buy a rabbit because it looks cute but don’t realize they’re not the easiest to take care of, they get scared and have heart attacks easily. A lot of asterisks there.

It’s daily upkeep, but that’s fine. My studio’s at home, so I’m home working on music anyway.

Did you talk to anybody back home in New Orleans about all the tornadoes today?

Oh yeah, of course. I called my mother soon as I saw the news. I think everyone’s OK.

It must feel like such a holy city in a weird way with all these forces of nature. I’m from Miami and it feels that way back home around hurricane season.

It’s the same kinda town, man.

Right by the water, cultural melting pot.

Miami and New Orleans are the two cities in the United States that are both Caribbean, in weather and in outlook. The food’s weird for the rest of America, it’s very different even from other places in the south or on the coast.

“[F]or me, the future is reductionist.”—Josh Eustis

What does the future sound like?

For me, it sounds very sparse. I’m turning 40 soon and I’m not a kid anymore, even though I still feel like one. So I’ve been going through this process in my life of getting rid of anything and everything that doesn’t have to do with staying alive and making music. Like things—I don’t want things, on a studio level and a personal level. This means things that I own and things that I have, but it also means mindsets, habits, everything. So for me, the future is reductionist, on a personal level.

Does the electronic landscape, as it exists since you came back to TTA as a project, work well with that sparsity? With regards to being able to travel and just have a whole mix on a USB key?

In a way. I don’t know how to do the DJ from a USB stick thing.

Good!

I still haven’t learned. I want to, I need to, but I still haven’t learned how to do that. This past year I played a lot of shows, and I don’t want gear everywhere. Partially because of playing shows for cheap, trying to travel low and stay afloat, trying not to lose my ass on shows. Let me not bring a ton of baggage, road cases and all this crap. But part of it also is, how much can I do with as little as possible?

That seems to stand in contrast to you touring with Moderat. I talked to them last year when the new record was coming out and I thought they took such a maximalist approach to their live show, intentionally, to distinguish themselves from what they called “laptop boy bands”. They wanna put on the full band electro show. Does your sparsity and paring things down function to let you exist in multiple musical contexts? Are you freeing yourself up to maybe play more inaccessible places, weirder festivals?

Sure, that’s part of it. But even Moderat, considering what you see onstage, they don’t bring that much shit with them. They’re really economical. It’s still a ton by normal standards, but for what you’re seeing, it’s very lightweight. It goes on an airplane. It’s not like Nine Inch Nails, multiple 18-wheelers full of shit that gets dragged from city to city and carted across the ocean. They have some cases and they put it on the airplane, then they take it out of baggage and it goes to the gig.

It’s still a well-oiled machine.

Yeah, there’s very much a German efficiency thing going on there.

Joshus Eustis is Telefon Tel Aviv

Josh Eustis is Telefon Tel Aviv Ashley Klich

Can electronic music ever hit the same levels of timely relevance or subversion as traditional protest music?

For me, and for a lot of us, electronic music absolutely is protest music, first and foremost. Look at the history of Detroit techno, OK? It was protest music because it came out of a system, made by and large almost entirely by poor African American people in an awful economic situation, boot heel on their throats from the government and from every systemic issue that still plagues pretty much every African American in America. It was a response in the same way hip-hop or rap was a response, which predates techno. People were like, “God, we’re fucked, everything’s terrible. What are we gonna do about it? Let’s throw a fuckin’ party!”

I guess there’s a bit of reclamation of agency there, too. When you’re a producer or composer and everything you make can exist in closed system that you can control, and you have it all at your discretion, you’re able to create this adjunct infrastructure. So much music, particularly mainstream electronica, is car commercial music. It’s branded ad nauseam and becomes marketing copy. I guess when you’re a producer who keeps everything on a closed track it’s a way to fight back.

Yeah, for those of us who love it and grew up with it, techno, specifically Detroit techno, was absolutely political in nature. Its themes and interests lay in space, the future, technology and all of that sort of stuff. But it came out of a shit economic and social situation for the people who made it, a direct response to that. I can’t speak for these people like Juan Atkins or Derrick May, but it seems pretty obvious that your assessment of it as a reclamation is right. What did they do? They created this entire underground world where people could go listen to this music, have fun and not be judged. It was a direct response to, and a stepping aside from everything wrong in society.

“That was kinda the thing—to take you out of wherever it is that you are in the moment and send you somewhere else.”

Sure. I’ve been talking to a ton of people about Accelerationism, which seeks to understand the frequency with which we absorb shit now, how often we digest the news and our attention spans acclimate to that pace. But though your records all sound totally different, they all sit with things and ask the listener to slow down, almost demand that we be present with them in some way.

Yeah, we try to do that. That was kinda the thing—to take you out of wherever it is that you are in the moment and send you somewhere else.

So how do you embrace that sparsity and that parsing down, how do you go with the current technology that wasn’t around when you used to build these sounds by hand? And how much of a perfectionist are you now that you’re playing these songs out for people again? What space are they living in for you on the road?

Well I haven’t been playing a ton of new stuff out, only one new song, and it feels great. But the whole thing is a lifestyle choice for me now. I’m cutting everything out. I’m getting rid of the fat. I’m separating the what from the chaff a lot more. Telefon Tel Aviv before, as a duo, has so much going on in every song that people don’t even know about. There are subliminal messages on every song, all over all three records, all these tiny little details, and almost nobody has caught any of it. But now, instead of worrying about all these details that nobody’s gonna notice, I’m not. I’m putting a lot of my detail-oriented work into things that people will notice, and usually that happens by not having a million things going on in the song at once. I try to keep it to a few core elements that are simple, really file those down and sand the edges. Or make them serrated sometimes, sometimes I don’t want the edges filed down. I’ll work on the details that you can hear, if you’re paying attention. I want the listener to be rewarded for their attention and not looking for things to find, necessarily.

Sure. You’ve also said that the new material was the first you’d gathered since Charlie passed that really made sense to you, that made sense to play out and pursue. So in that vein, what makes sense about it, and why now?

Why now? Two or three years ago I was ready to scuttle the project. And after talking to close friends about it, my girlfriend and my mom, the general consensus was, OK dude, if you wanna ditch this thing, cool, we’ll back you on it. But you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, in a way. You’re kind of just getting rid of it without even looking at it. Maybe you wanna take the box out, open it, examine the contents first and make sure its not all burnt and destroyed before you throw the box out. Take a stab at it before you give up. If you fail at it, fine, then you can just let it go and move onto something else. Uber always needs drivers! [laughs] The world needs plenty of bahtendas! So to me it was kind of like, if I just give up on it it’s an artistic death in a way, and the wall really started closing in around me. I thought, “I got to take one more stab at it and see if I can do it.” I still don’t know if I’m gonna be able to finish this record. I’m working on it every day, a lot, and it’s going really well. But I’m not sure what’s gonna happen.

You’re playing the mad scientist?

Yeah, I’m super sweatpants and cup of tea mode, all day every day, late into the night, and it’s going well. So that feels good, like maybe I’m not going to completely fail at it and I’ll be able to continue to do this. But I definitely reserve the right to change my mind.

“I want them to be rewarded, and I want them to enjoy it, but I don’t want it to feel like they’re just eating a bowl of fucking Fettuccine Alfredo on every song. Sometimes you gotta eat your lettuce, man.”

You’ll be fine, I mean, TTA fans have always embraced the mystery of your presence or non-presence in the songs. It takes on multiple contexts to many different people. I listen to all kinds of stuff, but TTA comes up in many different scenes and many different tribes, however you wanna describe it. I guess I’m curious how you look at that influence now, especially considering how different each of your albums is from the other. How have these different sonic pathways crystalized into your live performance now, into playing them for such large crowds of people as you tour? Is that informing the composition at all?

Yeah, you know, for the first time ever it definitely is informing the composition process. Because before, Charlie and I would stop playing shows aside from a DJ gig here or there, literally work on a record and then deal with how to play it live later. Now, and maybe this isn’t a good thing, but playing a lot of shows this year and opening for Moderat and getting the best crowd responses that we ever got… 20 percent of them maybe liked TTA and liked it, the other 80 percent at least were in a position to not hate it. They were very generous with me, and it felt really good, so I started to notice what kind of things they were responding to and what kind of things they are bored by. That doesn’t mean I’m going to make a whole record of things that the crowd responds to all the time—I want to piss them off or be slightly confrontational sometimes. I want people to be challenged by what they’re listening to, you know, but not the whole time. I want them to be rewarded, and I want them to enjoy it, but I don’t want it to feel like they’re just eating a bowl of fucking Fettuccine Alfredo on every song. Sometimes you gotta eat your lettuce, man. They’re gonna get the pasta, but they’re gonna get salad with it, you know?

European crowds seem a lot more permissive. The American electronic music scene is a lot younger than the European music scene, too. Our EDM bubble is just bursting now, and I feel like in the UK they got over poppy electronica years ago. From what you’re hearing, are there any flowers blossoming out of the EDM shit glut, the Vegas nightclub spectacles and the video screens?

The rose growing out of it is that people like me are gonna use those motherfuckers as fertilizer when we’re all done. The good thing is that people are aware of electronic music now, in a very broad sense, so there’s a little bit more that some of us can get away with. But for the most part, the flipside is that now, a lot of people have this idea that that’s what electronic music is. It’s kind of a weird thing when I think about Charlie and when we were first getting together, thinking, “Is there ever gonna be a day when the stuff that we’re doing is generally accepted and liked by people, or are we just too weird and up our own asses?” Well it didn’t really happen the way that we’d hoped, you know what I mean?

You used to speak about the project as such a niche thing and say it’s not for everybody, but the modern festival context kind of allows for more cross-genre music to exist, too. You can see eight different types of music in an hour, and it’s a reminder that music can exist in multiple contexts now, much more than 15 years ago. For better or for worse.

Yeah! I see that. I feel like the general patience level for electronic music is much higher than it used to be. There were bumper stickers that actually said “Drum Machines Have No Soul”, which is actually the funniest fucking thing ever. I remember seeing them in the ’90s and the aughts from these old dinosaurs with bumpers stickers on their trucks, and my only response to that is, “OK, dude.” The Leboswki response—”That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” There are millions of people around the world that disagree with you on that, but I’m not gonna be the one to stat a fight over it.

I gotta find one of those bumper stickers now.

I wanna get one and put it on my road case.

Are you ready to release these new songs into the air yet?

Nooo, no, no, no. Not yet. There may be a little bit, it depends on multiple things. It depends on how I’m feeling. None of them are gonna be peppered in the set. If I start getting toward the end of the set and the crowd’s being really cool, if they’re super into it, maybe I’ll test it out and see if I like the way it goes. But right now? I don’t know. This is the Fahrenheit Fair Enough tour, so I’m starting in the ’90s and playing a little bit of everything up to this point.

A lot of people would love to have that vacuum perspective on their own creative history. Use it well!

I’ll do my best.

Telefon Tel Aviv plays Baby’s All Right on Wednesday, February 20th. 

Telefon Tel Aviv on Electronic Protest Music & Embracing Sparse Sounds