Christopher Greenspan, the San Francisco artist behind oOoOO makes pitch-black witchy R&B mini-opuses. His memorable 2010 self-titled EP, released on the New York/London imprint Tri Angle Records, traverses warped worlds of Southern rap, hyper-dub, horizontally integrated vocal samples and goth-pop delights. Spectrum Culture spoke to Greenspan upstairs at the Rickshaw Stop in downtown San Francisco during the Noise Pop Festival where he and fellow goth-wave savant Claire Boucher (Grimes) co-headlined a sold-out showcase. Below we and oOoOO chat Mexican food in San Francisco, the ongoing dominance of garage-rock in the Bay Area and his new EP out next month, Our Loving Is Hurting Us.
I want to start by asking you how the Tri Angle showcase in Paris went. I only learned recently that there was a whole slew of Tri Angle mini-festivals in Europe. How did it go?
Oh yeah it was really cool, the Paris show was the last one of five. There was one in London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin and the Paris one was cool. I had never been to Paris before.
Had you seen your label-mates play before? I know you had played with Balam Acab and Holy Other.
Yeah, yeah I had seen them play and we’ve played together before.
I think that your label mate Holy Other, at least for us in the U.S., is something of an elusive character because he’s kind of teased us here and there with canceled shows when he had health problems and couldn’t come out.
And I don’t think Holy Other has been to the U.S. I suppose I bring Holy Other up in conjunction with our discussion because in my experience of listening to your work, you and Holy Other are the brothers in the family of Tri Angle Records.
It’s been publicized that your very first live performance premiere was August at 103 Harriet with Water Borders.
That was my first show in San Francisco, yeah. That show did not go so well.
Yeah, what happened, what was that like? I was there and I had to wait long after two in the morning for your set. I wasn’t expecting that.
Well I don’t want to shit talk on anybody but I’ll just say that there were too many bands booked for that show and we didn’t go on until after 3 AM. I mean we got there at five in the afternoon and sound checked and there were just so many bands playing that there was no way that the sound people could manage making sure that everybody’s shit was all set up again like the sound check was… one of my keyboards just didn’t even work and I started playing it and there was no sound coming out of it. I think that the monitor mix and the room mix had gotten mixed up somehow because it just sounded- it just didn’t sound at all what it sounded like to us [on stage].
I’ve seen videos of that show and they were just awful and we were just tired and wanted to go home. We had been touring and had just come from seven other shows too.
Okay, so since then you’ve played with Balam Acab at Public Works; so tell me about what has happened between that first show and deciding to go to Europe and Chicago to DJ instead because you weren’t yet ready for a full live set up, and then you had some more live opportunities after that. Tell me about you strategizing live and how it comes together for you.
Well most of the time… I’ve only played a handful of shows that are solo live shows. I usually play with Laura Clock who does live vocals and when I play with her the live shows are a lot different and they’re a lot more focused on the live vocals; I do less, you know? Definitely when we play live. But it’s really hard to get her to come to the U.S. just for one or two shows because usually I’m not touring, I’m just playing this one show in San Francisco and obviously I can’t afford to fly her from Berlin. I think this summer in the late spring we’re going to do an extensive U.S./North American tour and she’ll come for that too I think, so it will be more like that. But my solo live shows are a bit different. Basically what I’m doing is just kind of like live remixing of the original tracks, you know? I’ll add different percussion and chop up the vocals and shift the pitch on vocals and things like that so it’s more a nerdy electronic thing rather than a pop thing that’s more focused on the vocalist.
But the new EP that I just finished recording and will be coming out in April is stuff that I sing on or is just instrumental and there’s a few tracks that Laura Clock/Butterclock sings on too. So with these new batches of songs Laura is on the recordings, and now she’ll actually be singing those same songs when we play shows together.
That’s really interesting that the live manifestations of songs from the first self-titled EP are just sort of these versions of themselves live and aren’t necessarily meant to be representative of their album form.
Yeah, some of the songs are a bit different and we even play one or two or sometimes even more of Laura’s own solo songs when we play live as oOoOO. A lot of times we’ll build the shows as oOoOO and Butterclock, not just oOoOO, because she helped write some of the new songs, and so I don’t know if we’re a band now or if it’s just me and she works with me sometimes, but it’s kind of blurry, you know? Until now the live sets have been pretty different from that early material but now with the new material coming out I think that if people like the new EP, people will like the live shows too because it’s the same vocalist.
I really like that title Our Loving Is Hurting Us.
Yeah, yeah. That’s what it’s called.
Can you say more about that title?
Um. Mmm. No.
Okay, how about the MicroKorg as an instrument. I feel that it’s very much so an instrument of the now. I see all kinds of different bands with it.
You know? Like all kinds of people. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I actually don’t use a MicroKorg. There’s a few of my songs that actually have little snippets of MicroKorg in them but like hardly ever do I ever use it. Almost all of the stuff that I use are software-synthesizers. It’s not hardware at all. I have an old Roland Juno 60 that I use for a few songs but mostly like now I just use software stuff.
Oh I see. I thought maybe I saw Laura Clock on stage with one at some point.
Oh yeah, yeah she uses one for… the stuff that she does live with the MicroKorg again is, it’s different from the recordings. I didn’t use it on the recording at all, she just kind of adds to the live show with the MicroKorg. And I actually don’t even know what she does [with it].
Can you talk about how you and Robin [Carolan, of Tri Angle Records] got involved?
Yeah, he just got in touch with me when he was starting up Tri Angle. He contacted me and asked me if I wanted to put something out because I hadn’t put out a proper release yet and I was looking around for a label. I had been a fan of 20 Jazz Funk Greats, this UK blog that he had been a part of at the time and I really like their musical sensibility. Some of the other bands that Robin told me he was interested in sounded really cool to me too so I just figured I’d give it a chance and I’m glad that I did. I like a lot of the stuff that he’s put out and obviously the label has gotten bigger than he expected or I expected it would be, so it was a good decision I think.
But yeah he just contacted me through email. I didn’t know him before.
Have you ever given away, well, I’m not sure that you’d give away something like this but I’m curious about the samples on the s/t opener “Mumbai.” There’s someone saying, “Nothing’s wrong,” and there’s a lot of intricate stuff like that on the Tri Angle EP.
I’d rather not say. I’ve noticed some people are really… I’ve looked at, I don’t know, people commenting on YouTube and stuff, and some people have actually figured it out.
But yeah there are a bunch of vocal samples on “Mumbai.” They’re just from all over the place. Some are from other songs and some are from films – the talking is from a film. But that’s all I’ll say about it.
The last few things I want to ask you about are just related to San Francisco. First, I want to talk about the scene here and then I want to talk about how you are here inside of it or not inside of it. You’ve made a lot of comments about people knowing more about you and your music in Moscow, for instance than in San Francisco.
Yeah definitely, when I first started playing shows or just putting out tracks and stuff, it was mostly people from like New York and London and Russia some reason as well that would contact me about it and try and get me to play shows. The first shows I played were in Chicago and in New York. And even now I play more frequently in Europe than I do here just because there’s more of a- I don’t know, I guess in general people in Europe are more interested in electronic music I think. But in particular I think that San Francisco is more of a… it has this history of rock-oriented scenes dating back to the 60’s. I mean there are obviously people making electronic music here and a lot of it is good but considering the size of the city, the electronic scene feels pretty small. I mean festivals like Noise Pop you know, they’re kind of dominated by guitar rock and indie rock and stuff like that and for whatever reason it’s just more popular here than any other kind of underground music.
I’m really curious, [with] electronic artists or darker industrial artists here, like Water Borders for instance or even Soft Moon, who are really big sounding and really, really great… what do you think it is about the dominance of the garage rock or guitar-centered music, why do you think it’s so strong and why do you think it has such a following in San Francisco.
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m totally speculating, but LA and San Francisco, both have this really strong history of guitar rock, and […] I guess people are drawn to California, people come here from wherever in America because maybe that’s what they’re into and that’s kind of what they think San Francisco is going to be about. I guess that it keeps drawing generations of people who are interested in that history so they keep making guitar-based rock music but there’s the whole hippie thing that’s going on in the Bay Area too so that plays a part of it. But I mean I don’t know. I don’t really know.
But have you felt though, that in the past couple of years that with 120 Minutes and other proliferations of dark electronic artists, that there is any chance that it will change or that maybe something is erupting underneath?
No. I mean, I’m pessimistic about it, honestly. I feel like the Bay Area and the creative energy here – well not that guitar rock isn’t creative, it’s cool [and] I like a lot of it but it is kind of like… the stuff that people are making today in indie rock could have been made 10 or 20 or even 30 years ago. It’s not really progressing that much in terms of its form. It’s sort of redundant in a lot of ways and I think because of the way the Bay Area economy is structured, it just draws people who are interested in that kind of thing. All the innovation, all the innovative creative energy in the Bay Area seems to go into things like Google and Twitter and technology-oriented stuff. For whatever reason people who are in those industries kind of just want to go out and see rock bands play the same stuff that they’ve been listening to since they were kids. They want to go to an 80’s night even or something like that; they’re not really looking for music that’s new and unusual or experimental or anything. So even with something like 120 Minutes, it’s been more successful I think, in the last six months or whatever but when you go to see bands play there are some people who definitely show up specifically to see whoever’s playing that night, but a large number of people are just wandering off the street because they’re walking up and down Valencia Street looking for something to do. They don’t even know who’s playing so it’s weird, whereas if you go somewhere like Glasslands in New York, it’s packed with people who are there to see that band that’s playing there that night, specifically.
That’s very powerful insight. I think that’s something that some of us and myself have been looking for in terms of a theory, even. That whole idea of garage versus electronica has been really mysterious to me and that shed a lot of light on the climate here and in the U.S. at the moment. Last thing- where do you like to get pizza or donuts or hamburgers in San Francisco?
I live in the Mission by 24th Street so I eat at El Farlito’s like every day.
I don’t know if I like it but it’s right by my house.
What about coffee?
Coffee? I just make my own. Sometimes if I go to St. Francis for breakfast or something I’ll drink coffee there I guess.