Darren Keen: Linear Production, Light On His Feet | Q&A

If you’re familiar with local electronic music, you’ve heard the name. Maybe as Show Is The Rainbow. Perhaps as Touch People. Maybe as Bad Speler.

Regardless of what moniker you’re familiar with or what project of his you heard, you know Darren Keen’s style and energy. Recently, the Nebraska ex-pat has been experimenting with the footwork style of music, which originated in the south side of Chicago. Keen released a footwork album titled He’s Not Real on Aug. 28th via Orange Milk Records. He’s Not Real is a first of its kind for Nebraska. Even with a pioneer of the genre remixing his tracks, Keen has pushed the style and even molded and approached it with his own flare and sprezzatura.

Keen makes a two-night return to Nebraska starting tomorrow in Lincoln, where he plays The Bourbon with labelmate Giant Claw (RSVP here). The two head to Omaha to play O’Leaver’s Sept. 13 (RSVP here). Hear Nebraska recently caught up with the producer for a chat about his new album, the local electronic scene, production secrets and a little bit of butt talk.

Juan Chaparro: Hey, how’s it going Darren?

Darren Keen: Good, just walking from my place right now towards Manhattan. Just so you know there might be a couple times a train goes by so if it gets loud that’s what’s going on.

JC: How’s New York?

DK: It’s good man, I’m loving it out here. Basically, I think if you wanna be a really busy anything out here, you can. If you wanna be a busy producer or DJ, you can. If you wanna be a busy waiter or artist or anything you know, you can find tons of work out here if you’re on top of your shit, so I’m really digging it for sure.

JC: Yeah I was watching something today actually where they were saying that New York is a place where you hit the ground running, constantly working non stop, it’s funny that you say that.

DK: Yeah I definitely feel like since I moved out here later in my life, there’s a little advantage. I think if I came out here in my younger twenties, I might have been pretty intimidated and I might have froze up a little bit. Now I have so much crazy respect for kids that just do that when they’re like 18 or 19 or just out of high school and they’re like “Fuck you I’m gonna go to New York!” I think that’s the coolest thing you can do now. When I think about how hard it was for me to get booked in Nebraska and then not having those problems out here, I know I’m doing the right thing. I miss Nebraska in a lot of ways but professionally and for my art, I feel good.

JC: You’re producing footwork, I feel that’s kind of unchartered territory for Omaha. It’s a very niche style of music.

DK: Yeah it’s different, it’s difficult. I think, really, any “beats” artist is going to have that struggle in Nebraska. Like Downtown James Brown is a good example. His beats, in my opinion, are perfect hip hop beats. He couldn’t make them any better, they’re fucking awesome. I’m not really seeing him getting booked to headline crazy instrumental hip hop type shows. He’s a total underutilized resource in this city. Definitely, you’re someone else. Your finger drumming work, your scratching work, those are really cool things and Nebraska just isn’t hip to them yet. It’s not criticism to Nebraska or anything it’s just those things, they’re not around, you know?

JC: I think it’s just a matter of time. With your EP Roland is My Co-Pilot, and now He’s Not Real, you’re now an artist from Omaha putting out footwork and I’m super stoked about that because Omaha hasn’t ever had that. I’m very excited about it. Hopefully in the future, you come back and there’s a more progressed scene. Slowly but surely.

DK: Yeah man, I really hope that’s the case too and if it’s not, I’m still going to keep coming back because I love playing in Nebraska. I’m never going to be like “Let’s not go to Nebraska, I’m going to the midwest but I’m not going to my home state.” I’ll keep playing and I’ll keep having fun. I’m sure there’s more people besides you and Keith (Rodgers) in Omaha producing beats right now on the level like that but I do know some dudes in Lincoln like that. I know this guys “Beheren One”.

JC: Yeah yeah, Austin! Super cool dude.

DK: Austin, yeah. Super cool. He just flew out to LA to go to Low End Theory Festival. He came to all my Nebraska shows. He likes “Beat” music and my music was the only thing going on those nights that were “Beat” oriented. He’s produced some cool shit. I think with you, Keith in Omaha, I can see how the Nebraska scene would start gravitating towards that. People are going to start wanting deeper and cooler sounds than they’re hearing. Footwork is really establishing itself as being that type of genre. It’s not going to be something you hear Diplo make, but that’s what’s going to make it cool in three to four years. We’ll see what happens.

JC: Before we get into that, I looked on the Hear Nebraska website to see if footwork had ever been explained at all and I didn’t see anything aside from a “resonant skidding percussion” description which was in reference to your Roland Is My Co Pilot EP. For any people that don’t know or aren’t familiar, how would you best explain footwork and what got you into it?

DK:  With me, I’ve done solo computer music for 12 years and never made anything that I would call electronic music or dance music because I hadn’t really heard any genres that I liked very much. I liked Jungle and Drum and Bass a little bit but it didn’t inspire me to start creating or anything. Footwork just sparked something in me. Where there was this deeper, complicated sound but it also had to do with the fact that I’m more into hip hop than I am “rave” music or “hippie” music. The thing about trap [music] that is that it’s definitely a post hip hop genre. It’s more like hip hop than any other form of music in my opinion. I liked that about it. It’s clubby, it’s electronic, it’s urban. I liked that and so I started fucking with that. The way I usually describe it to people is that it’s really fast skitty breakdancing music with a big hop hop sound. They use a lot of triplets.

JC: Let’s talk about He’s Not Real. What is the concept behind the album and name?

DK: The tape I did with the fitness crew was called Jehovah’s Wetness, and then the EP I did with Seclusiasis was called Roland Is My Co Pilot. So I kind of donned these religious themed music jokes. I wanted to do something that was kind of like that, possibly ending that. He’s Not Real is a really good statement of my atheism, but it’s also funny because there’s “Real”, “Keeping It Real”. If people want to be real they want to be hard. With my sample selection and the way I do it, I’m very deliberate. I don’t sample anything that says the “N” word. I don’t sample things talking about “beating up bitches” or “pussy.” I like a little bit of butt talk but in general, I don’t try to pretend I’m a super hard dude from the streets. I like to believe my samples and production are an honest reflection of personal politics. It’s kind of also a little dig at myself.

JC: As far as production on He’s Not Real, what gear went into play?

DK: Ableton Live 9. Just the vanilla one, not Suite. I use Maschine. I don’t know what version I have, I think it’s just Maschine One. I just have a really basic version of Maschine, too. If you’re in Ableton, there’s this thing called the External Instrument Device that I had never fucked with before but basically you can use it to control a piece of hardware or you can use it to control software that’s already in your computer. I’m using that external instrument plug in to control one instance of Maschine but route it into eight different channels so I can do these crazy, hyper programmed, really detail oriented things by intertwining Maschine and Ableton side by side.

JC: Yeah now that you say that I wanted to comment how there’s a lot of micro programing that I’m going crazy about on this record.

DK: It’s so fun. Maschine is really amazing in my opinion. It has super high quality drum sounds in it. It’s really helped me get my sound design to a place where I want it. My idea is to have not that many sounds playing simultaneously. I try to have it more linear. It’s all happening so fast that people don’t really notice that, it just sounds all congruent. The reason I want to do that is because I feel if I do that and master it really loud you’re going to have this really minimal sound where you’re just hearing a few things but they’re extremely loud and powerful. Having Maschine routed into Ableton the way I do, I’m really able to take one tiny kick drum and a sub bass but have it sound super massive.

JC: Footwork, in general, is a pretty busy sounding style of music, especially for someone that’s hearing it for the first time. Even when I heard it I was like “there’s a whole lot going on here.”

DK: It’s a combination of tuned processes, really. There’s a lot more to it but basically I write everything out in MIDI. My computer starts getting to a point where the CPU is going to 100% then I’ll bounce all that MIDI information into audio files, which saves on CPU, and then I basically do the whole thing over again. I just start editing the audio to where my computer is just a million degrees hot. Or it just dies. There’s always a point in a song to where I’m like “I can’t do anymore MIDI.” And then I go to audio and there’s still more editing after that.

DR: As far as studio set up, were you on the road a lot or more at home?

DK: Not too much. I started writing it in Omaha right before we moved, which was really extremely stressful because we were trying to save up money to move and then I quit my job to start writing music full time. Of course, my wife Lacey was extremely supportive but she was not really stoked about that because I was leaving her to pay all of our rent in Omaha and I hadn’t really saved up money for our move yet. I had some of those going away shows that went well, luckily. I did that though, because i wanted to come out here with some fire and have some shit ready. I didn’t know if I’d be able to get set up right away and start writing right away.

I started writing in my Omaha apartment with headphones, moved to New York, wrote a little bit more here and the whole thing was finished while I was in Germany. I was over there as a guest at this artist conservatory. I was having a weekend long workshop on sampling and people who appropriate art. I was doing a presentation with my friend Ted who’s an author from Omaha. He’s bad ass. So we were doing this thing, I took a bunch of World War I Era American music and did a DJ mix with, that mixing it with musicians from Nebraska, synced with all this video from the WWI era. It was really crazy. So I was there doing that and we got to stay in this castle for a week. Private bedrooms, it was super calming. It was way outside the city so there’s no “Lets go to the city and see a show.” There was nothing to do. I went to a music store, which was like an hour train ride away and I bought three hundred dollar headphones. To this day, they’re the nicest piece of studio equipment that I’ve ever bought. I was like “I’m going to mix this fucking album, for real.” I just finished writing it and mixed the whole thing in this castle, it was really dope.

JC: It’s definitely in it’s own lane. I was trying to wrap my head around it. It is footwork but like I said, it’s very detailed. Lots of programming. The second track, “Jelly Time”, really stood out to me.

DK: “Jelly Time” is the only one that’s not at 160bpm too. It’s at 142. It’s more of that Trappy – Grimey tempo. I like that. I think those triplets sound good at that speed. When I first started getting into bass music, Machinedrum was a big influence of mine. If you go and look at his album Rooms, none of it is at 160 bpm. Only “The Statue” is. Everything else on it is at 140-150bpm. It’s all dubstep, grime and trap tempo but everyone calls it footwork, everyone thinks of it as footwork. I think that’s a really cool thing, it makes him stand out. I didn’t know that until I wanted to DJ his stuff out and needed to understand the BPM of it.

JC: As far as your studio space at home, you know, wake up, roll out of bed, is there any kind of special set up in the Darren Keen studio?

DK: Not right now. I’m going to get going once we move. We live with a couple other room mates in this three bedroom spot. Our bedroom is so small. I tried to set up this keyboard stand with some rack gear but it’s so inconvenient to use because I’m constantly having to lean back and stand on my tip toes to get around. It’s so crammed that it really affects my desire to get up and use any of that stuff. Every single song that I’ve made as Darren Keen for bass music has been made 100% percent inside the computer and mixed on my headphones. I haven’t mixed on reference monitors in two years. I have them and I have them set up. Sometimes I’ll play a song at the very end to make sure it’s mixed well but I’m really excited because this December Lacy and I will move into our own spot and I’ll be able to set up my monitors, my compressors, get some more gear pumping in there, you know?

JC: Nice! If you did this album on your headphones, I couldn’t tell the difference.

DK: I think I’ve learned to mix a lot quieter, which took me a while to learn. It took me so long to figure out why that’s important. It’s like I’m writing but once it comes to do the final mixing, it’s gotta be a low volume or at least a reasonably low volume. It doesn’t really matter. In some way headphones are more perfect than studio monitors because sound is reaching your ear faster with less interference.

JC: As far as production goes, when I work on a track I try to learn something new with every track. Were there any new hurdles that you came across? Some new techniques?

DK: Yeah, in general, I feel like you’re always learning. You put it perfectly. A song is just you trying to figure out some new cool shit. You keep getting better with every song, you keep expanding your repertoire and your pallet. The main ones on this album had to do with stripping down the layers and allowing to layers to just be. I’m trying to be more confident in using less layers. I remember when I was doing shows as The Show is the Rainbow, I would have a kick drum which was really like four kick drums layered together to make a total kick drum sound. I always doubled or tripled my voice. I never had just one sound of my voice going. That sounds OK, but in the end it is kind of cluttering and confusing. It distorts your idea.

This album, a lot had to do with, “How do I just have one kick drum, and it’s a kick drum that has like the shortest release 808 sound? How do I take that and make it come out of the speakers and hit so fucking hard that in the club it’s going to push the air and everyone’s going to feel it in their chest?” A lot of this album was how about that. I feel like I have lots of layers of percussion going on in the background of my songs … but now I’m trying to make it so there’s less layers, just turned up louder. A lot of this had to do with taking away things that were getting in the way of what the cool shit in a song is and just letting the cool parts be there.

This whole Darren Keen thing that I’m doing now has been about trying to dissolve my ego, trying to be more humble and trying to produce in a more humble, egoless way, where I just let the song be the more important thing, not trying to show off my talent. Making sure that the shit sounds hot basically.

JC: Since moving to New York, you’re all over the place now with gigs and releases. Do you feel any pressure from being in the public eye more?

DK: No, I don’t feel that. It doesn’t register if I do. The only thing I’m conscious of now is how my name is represented. I’m playing in Springfield (Sept. 11). There’s a venue that has three stages like a complex. I found out a band called Black Pussy was playing upstairs. They got added well after I was booked. The venue made a flier “Upstairs, Black Pussy. Downstairs, Darren Keen.” I’m not cool with that. I’m not cool with being on a flier with a band named “Black Pussy”. That’s racist. I’m a hip hop producer and I live in Bed-Stuy. I live in an extremely black neighborhood, I’m not going to let my name be on a flier with a racist name like Black Pussy. I guess it forces me to be more straight up and honest with every aesthetic like that. Whether it’s a socio-political issue or it’s just good taste. With The Show is the Rainbow, that’s a funny band name. Maybe I didn’t feel that pressure because my name had “Rainbow” in it. I’ll probably pull my dick out during the show. But now I’m putting my name out on the line. This is me starting something closer to a career than what I’ve done. Maybe it does pressure me a little bit.

JC: Are there any upcoming shows that you’re looking forward to?

DK: The one in Omaha on the 13th with Channel Pressure and then the one at the Bourbon on the 10th. Both of those shows are with Giant Claw who put out my thing on Orange Milk. He’s doing the whole tour with me. He does not like touring. He does really well on tour. His live show is completely fucking cool. He doesn’t use a laptop. He uses drum machines and synthesizers. It’s very cool and very live. He doesn’t like playing live so it means a lot to me that he’s willing to go out with me for three weeks.