Who Is Secret Mommy?
Andy Dixon Is Out There, Somewhere, Hunting For Sounds For The Next Secret Mommy Record.
As any fan will tell you, music can take you on strange journeys. Each time you discover one band, it inevitably opens a door to something else undiscovered and entirely unexpected.
I discovered Secret Mommy when I was waiting to interview US ultra-mash-up king Girl Talk. It was me, David Mattatal (the man in many local Vancouver bands, the Green Belt Collective being one) and Chris Kelly (from CBC Radio 3). We were all sitting at a table in one of those cheap fast food places on Granville watching Gregg Gillis aka Girl Talk wolf down a plate of chicken wings. As per usual, everyone at the table was talking about music they like.
These conversations quickly turn into strange contests of how you heard of this guy? Oh yeah, but have you heard of this guy? One name that quickly came up was local electronic act Secret Mommy. When I heard it, I drew a blank. Everyone at the table seemed to talk about this guy? band? who knows? in hushed awe.
So I had to find out why.
Although Secret Mommy did start doing Girl Talk-like mash-ups of popular contemporary top 40 songs, on records like Mammal Class (2003), the project quickly morphed into something a little more pure and artistic.I'm really interested in exploring things that might not be necessarily understood or accepted as musical sounds and fashioning them into something musical - well, some might argue that it's not so musical
Since then, each Secret Mommy release has been a sonic experiment with an almost school-assignment-type idea behind it. His approach has much in common with Amon Tobin’s much-hyped 2007 album, Foley Room; Dixon goes into the world in search of sounds, which he then fashions into songs. Each of his records has a theme. For instance, The Wisdom EP (2006) contains songs composed from samples from when Dixon had his wisdom teeth removed, and the Hawaii 5.0 EP (2004) turns found sounds from a vacation into aural pleasure.
To fans of electronica, Andy Dixon is Secret Mommy, but to everyone else in Vancouver, he is simply Andy Dixon—an integral and vital member in the local music and art scene for the past ten years. If you were going to play “Six Degrees of Separation” in the Vancouver scene, invoking Dixon will get you to almost anyone else in one or two steps.
I’ll tell you how with a little background.
Scott Wood:You aren’t even 30 and you are over 15 years into your career as a musician. What`s it like to be already a veteran?
Andy Dixon: A veteran... [He laughs.] It feels good. It feels like a really, really unique experience to be involved in something for so long and see it go through so many cycles and transformations—most of it positive. I mean, granted, it’s also probably made me kind of pretty jaded, but I think that`s impossible to avoid after seeing the same sort of things happen in patterns, you know? You can see it coming from a mile away and it’s like, Maybe [progressing from punk to glitchtronica is] a product of being involved in music so young that I got - not bored - but kind of dissatisfied with traditional or regular instruments. I was interested in exploring the sounds that made up the music I wanted to make. “Oh God, not this again.”
Scott Wood:Most people aren’t doing the same things that they were doing as a teenager.
Andy Dixon: Yeah weird eh?
I guess, every once and a while, people find their passion at an early age. And I guess music is the thing I gravitated towards when I was eight or nine. And it hasn`t got old. Well in some ways it’s gotten old, but in other ways it’s always new and exciting.
For the most part, I’m on a tangent from where I was when I was 14—it’s not like I’m playing the exact same exact kind of music or anything. It’s been a really positive experience, or I probably wouldn’t be doing it.
Scott Wood: I got into you because of the Secret Mommy project, the ‘glitchtronica’ stuff. But lately you seem to be concentrating on more “traditional” indie music projects, like your band Winning. Was the glitchtronica stuff a phase?
Andy Dixon: No I don`t think so. I don’t think I am done with that at all.
But it’s also not nearly even close to what you would document as “beginning” of my musical career either. It was sort of—not a tangent, that sounds like I am not taking it seriously ,or it’s like secondary—it’s a progression. It’s not where I started, and probably not where I’ll end.
Scott Wood: What you do as Secret Mommy is almost like “investigative” music.
Andy Dixon: I’m really interested in exploring things that might not be necessarily understood or accepted as musical sounds and fashioning them into something musical—well, some might argue that it’s not so musical.
For instance, I did an album called Very Rec (2005), where I recorded these hidden, clandestine recordings of public spaces that I turned into electronic music. There was a track “Tennis Court,” where I found sounds and recorded people playing tennis and there was “Pool” where I went in and recorded a bunch of kids in a public pool.
Maybe it’s a product of being involved in music so young that I got—not bored—but kind of dissatisfied with traditional or regular instruments. I’ve played the guitar since I was eight and maybe I feel like there are only the 12 notes to choose from, and only so many combinations, and I was interested in exploring the sounds that made up the music I wanted to make.
Scott Wood: Really interesting stuff. Can you take one of the tracks on the record and break it down?
Andy Dixon: Sure, the process of making it?
Scott Wood: Yeah, most people think about indie music—especially Canadian indie—in terms of building a song from a bass, guitar and drums, and maybe some keyboards, but you assembled all your Secret Mommy tracks using stray sounds as your building blocks.
Andy Dixon: Yeah it’s interesting. The process is very different and refreshing—not saying that playing in a band is negative, I do that too—but I really like the juxtaposition in the different creative processes.
If you’re in a band, you have a general idea for a song, you bring it to the other people in the band, then everybody jams on it and you come up with parts. It’s really communal and it’s an amazing thing. But with Secret Mommy, while I am writing it, it’s being created—like it’s done by the time it’s finished being written. The recording and the assembling of it is the process of creation, as opposed to, “Oh, I have this guitar riff now. I am gonna practice it a bunch of times and then we’re gonna figure how to use it in a song, then we’re gonna go in the studio and then we’re gonna record it.” It’s a much different process to be done the song, when it’s done.Sometimes I'll play a laptop set and after someone will come up to me and say, "That was really cool but next time, you should have visuals." Everyone's always talking about these visuals, but it should be this visceral experience. I think people are afraid to have nothing to look at.
I don’t know exactly what you mean by “take you through a song…”
Scott Wood: How do you go from sounds of kids playing in a pool to the backbone of a song? Is it like building blocks?
Andy Dixon: Exactly. I don’t have any real ideas, or expectations, or a melody in mind at all when I am working as Secret Mommy, I just sort of start. I would just listen to the recordings and start to think about what I could possibly squeeze a melody out of. Like “Oh, that kid’s foot squeaking on the side of the pool, I think that might have had a note to it.” So then I would see if I would squeeze a note out of that and then I would create a melody through some plug-ins and I’d pitch it around.
It’s a much more of a trust-your-gut and trial-and-error sort of thing. “Ok, so here’s this note. Maybe I’ll try to make a chord out of it. I’ll try to pitch it up five tones. Oh no. That doesn’t sound very good. Ok, so I’ll try four.” It just goes like that one little bit at a time. And generally, I just start at the beginning of the song and try to build it up. Most of my tracks start loosely and gradually gain momentum and gain a focus, which I tend to like. It kind of gestures at the creative process, you can sort of hear me thinking about where it’s going to go as the song is unfolding.
Scott Wood: I have been wanting to see Secret Mommy live for a long time. Last year, I finally caught you putting on a show, but I was confused and dismayed to see the Secret Mommy Quintet, which is a live band playing the Secret Mommy glitchtronica album Plays. Can you talk about this interesting experiment? And, by the way, the electronica fan in me wants to know why he didn’t get to see Secret Mommy “regular.”
Andy Dixon: I’m trying to keep them separate!
Every once and a while, the Quintet is accidentally billed as just Secret Mommy, but I’m trying to get word out there that both coexist. There is the Secret Mommy Quintet which is a live band, but I still do shows as Secret Mommy with a laptop set, and I’ll play just guitar maybe through my laptop, or something like that. So they both still exist.
The Secret Mommy Quintet was really only assembled to play music from a certain record that I did, which was actually instrument-based, the last record I did called Plays. With that record, I took a bit of a different approach than the other ones. It was similar, but quite different.
I was feeling this affinity for my friends; just how all my friends are amazing musicians that I have grown up with. Being a part of this scene or this movement whatever you want to call it for a decade is just really rooted me in this place that I really wanted to celebrate.
So I just booked some studio time where I just had all my friends come in. It was a free for all; it was like an open house where we just recorded a bunch of music, and it was just completely improvised. I took all those recordings and then I made that Secret Mommy record out of it. So Plays is processed recordings of all my friends.
But then in order to play those live, it seems weird to have all those instruments canned, coming out of this sterile source of a laptop when it’s such a beautiful human violin line being played by nobody, just sampled. It seemed a bit odd. So I decided to take a different approach for performing the songs by having the people in the original recordings try to relearn, or I guess just learn, what I cut up and made them play. It was like a second step. It’s like I am turning something organic in to an electronic record and then taking that electronic record and redoing it organically
Scott Wood: Wow. What an interesting experiment—and nice way to celebrate your friends. It would be a neat idea to do a live album of the Quintet reinterpreting the Plays album.
Andy Dixon: Yeah!
I think the next step for the Secret Mommy Quintet is to record as the Quintet. It will be like a backwards remix album or something, where the electronic version came out first and the organic album second. But even the organic stuff, I am playing the laptop and I am actually even re-sampling people while they are recording, like live manipulation of the instruments and stuff. It’s not like it is a completely organic experience as the Quintet, but it is definitely more organic than the laptop set.
Scott Wood: Yes, the electronic fan in me still wants to see a Secret Mommy laptop set! I want to compare it live to seeing other electronica live, like Amon Tobin or even Girl Talk (who is also a fan by the way). So how do you storm the stage with your laptop?
Andy Dixon: I don’t.
I shy away from spectacle. I don`t like it. [He laughs.] Totally no offense to people who like Girl Talk, I enjoy a show as much as the next guy. Dan Decon is a maniac! But I kind of can’t help to think that’s an apology for the medium. “Sorry, this is boring, so here’s something to look at.” It sort of irks me and it plays into that cultural ADD-sort of thing.
Sometimes I’ll play a laptop set and after someone will come up to me and say, “That was really cool but next time, you should have visuals.” Everyone’s always talking about these visuals, but it should be this visceral experience. I think people are afraid to have nothing to look at. Or have these rock-posturing ideas that create a distraction. There is nothing wrong with embracing the idea that it is a laptop set. And that you can get inside your own u head and experience it from a different angle. It’s not all explosions. It’s not an AC/DC concert, you know?
Scott Wood: Yes, I completely agree, but asking that of an audience is asking them to go against all the training they’ve gotten from all the other shows they’ve been to.
Andy Dixon: Yeah I’m not saying it’s easy. [He laughs.] A lot of people dislike the laptop sets. I get it, and I am sympathetic to that, but again I am not going to apologize for doing what I do by having a flashy thing for them to stare at so they are not bored, you know?
Andy Dixon is represented by the grace-gallery. His show, Andy Dixon: Such Events have Lead Us Here, opens Friday, February 5th. For more details check out www.grace-gallery.com.
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