Cobblestone Jazz’s long, winding path comes full circle with the release of their new album ‘The Modern Deep Left Quartet’. Formerly a trio featuring Mathew Jonson, Tyger Dhula and Danuel Tate, the group took on a fourth member this time around: Colin de la Plante, aka the Mole, a long-term member of the Cobblestone extended entourage.
The fact that the new album is the band’s most focused effort yet has a lot to do with that extra set of hands. All four musicians grew up together in Victoria, British Columbia, and they’ve been playing together since the mid ’90s; spend time in their collective presence, and you get the sense that they’re like a family. They swap in-jokes, finish each other’s sentences, and generally seem to exist on a plane apart. (It’s never off-putting, though: these dudes are as friendly and as welcoming as it gets.)
It only makes sense that when they play together, that almost psychic sensibility would result in some incredibly intuitive music.
A quick history lesson: The four musicians recorded one EP together, as the Modern Deep Left Quartet, in 2005; it was only after Colin moved to Montreal that the remaining trio renamed itself Cobblestone Jazz and kicked off its rocket-like ascent. But the four have continued to perform together as MDLQ on occasion, and with Mathew and Colin now based in Berlin, they deemed the timing right for rejoining forces.
Which brings us back to their album, appropriately (if confusingly) titled ‘The Modern Deep Left Quartet’. It’s a lush, nuanced affair with a real-time feel; more subdued than the last album, it moves away from the peaktime anthems that put them on the map, and eases into grooves that develop organically.
That’s not to say that there’s not some serious funk here, of course.
They recorded it in Mathew and Colin’s Berlin studio, which is truly a sight to behold: a horseshoe-shaped array of vintage synthesizers and drum machines, anchored at one end by a Rhodes piano, and with a massive mixing desk at the center. (Tyger and Danuel still live in B.C., but they travel to Berlin frequently to tour and record.) Its arrangement is the culmination of many years spent refining their process, and it’s designed with one purpose in mind: to allow the group to write, perform, and record as spontaneously as possible.
I met up with Mathew and Colin to ask them about the making of the record, the dynamics of the group, and the logic behind the lineup change. The conversation eventually evolved into an impromptu jam session, as the two restless musicians started fiddling with beats and sequences, and Mathew generously gave me some quality time with his modular setup. (Why can’t all interviews be this fun?)
So this is where the magic happens. What’s your recording process like?
Mathew: The way that we work, we do one track at a time, because of the nature of [the technical setup]. You can’t save anything. The odd time, there’ll be an idea, like for ‘Cro-Magnon Man’, which was something Dan and Colin did on their own, and we’ll rework that. But for the most part we all come in together and write something fresh right there. It usually takes about a day for each track.
Sometimes all of us will just grab an instrument. Dan will be on Rhodes and vocoder and everybody starts playing, we can all write things on the fly really easily. Then once we have something good, we do a lot of fine-tuning, a lot of compression, to get it sitting right on the desk. Then we just hit record and mix it live. When we’re mixing it, we’ll hit record and start doing the mix on the board, then Dan will do his solo and his vocoder right on the stereo track, and that’s the cut. If he doesn’t like his solo, we’ll re-do it.
I wanted to ask how you handle the sequencing and arranging…
Colin: We’ll talk about it and then just go. We’re yelling at each other while it’s happening, like, “Now’s the change, change now! Mute the snares!”
M: Whatever happens in the mix, we’re all feeling what happens next. So Dan’ll take a big part and do a Rhodes solo or something, and once he’s done, that’s what tells us that the bridge comes in or the new bass line. We don’t have anything that’s sequenced saying that from bar 33 to 65, this has to be done… We just do it as we go. We can get a feel for what should come next as the mix is happening, which lends to a really human feel.
Do you have a master sync?
M: Sometimes it’s the MPC1000, and sometimes it’s the computer as the master clock, and that’ll run out to all the drum machines. But the drum machines all sequence themselves. The 101 sequences itself most of the time. All these synths we’ll record into the MPC or the computer, get a couple of loops going. When we do it on the computer, maybe we spend a little time editing notes. Then just get it all going, and it’s all laid out on the board, separately, and we do the mix.
When you perform live, are you starting from scratch every time, or are you working more with pre-recorded material?
M: It’s a bit different. With Cobblestone, in the past, we had all the tracks laid out in the computer, all separated, so sometimes we might drop a bassline from one track and then just jam the rest. With Modern Deep, it’s generally nothing planned, get up on stage, see who’s gonna start, someone write something fast, and off we go, everyone’s producing live on stage. It’s actually cool because now that we’re playing more with Modern Deep Left Quartet—we didn’t have a lot of shows before, but recently we have—it’s giving us more of an extreme practice. Because when we play with the four of us, it allows more ease in writing. With three people, always trying to write something new, it’s easy to get stale if someone doesn’t come up with something. But with four there’s so much space. One of us can be standing back, listening, coming up with ideas. Now Cobblestone is getting a lot better. Our last show we played one “song” and the rest would be more spontaneous—I’ve got a little looper I’m playing now, so I can write a bassline, throw it into the looper, then I can go into the headphones and write the next bassline while that’s playing, or the new part. Dan’s always live, he’s just going. It’s making Cobblestone Jazz stronger by having the freedom we do when we play Modern Deep Left Quartet.
C: It’s more and more practice.
M: And it’s practice under less stress.
Is it hard to remind yourselves to sit out and leave some space in the music?
C: We’re pretty good at it.
M: We are now.
C: There were a few shows where we were rushed. We had short timeslots and we were all trying to get our ideas in there, and it’s too much, but now we’re asking for really long sets. For Club Transmediale we had something like seven hours. And the night before we had the whole night at Robert Johnson. The more we play, the less you crowd each other, and the more we can hear spaces that need something or doesn’t…
M: That’s what comes from playing together for so many years. When we first started it was very crowded….
How long have you been playing together?
C: That’s when I was living in Victoria, and I’ve been gone since ‘98, when I moved to Montreal.
M: So we started in ‘95, ‘96. That’s when I graduated. It’s been about 15 years.
C: It’s easy now to know when Dan’s taking a pause. I know Dan’s phrasing. It’s not hard to say, here’s a spot to fill. But that comes from years of playing together.
M: When we started it was a mess. In the beginning – it’s pretty funny, it’s just what you’re allowed to do when you’re in a small club in your hometown, and all your friends are there, and you can get away with murder. These guys all had more experience on stage than I did. I was just starting to play live and I had no idea what I was doing. Every time we played, the hi-hats were raging over the top, and the 101 was way too loud…
C: How about when you’d get bored? Every show, without fail, Mat would get bored, suddenly there’d be massive distortion, the tempo would change and everything would get f**king crazy… [laughter all around] That was pretty much every time.
M: Yeah, I’d start getting bored and then it’d be like…
C: Matmandu! It was a trip to Matmandu.
M: But now, now that we have all this experience… It’s kind of like a sign of getting to be more of a mature musician. The worst thing about a band that’s improvising on stage is that, if they haven’t played a lot together, or maybe they’ve invited somebody in, everybody wants a piece. So a conga player will be playing nonstop for 1.5 hours, you know, without taking a break for more than two beats. That doesn’t happen with us any more. We’re all quite happy to sit back and lay out. Because of the nature of Colin’s music, a lot of it’s quite full, we’ll go in a round. When it feels like there should be a big change, to give everyone a breath, sometimes Colin will start playing and me and Pat [Tyger] and Dan will all have a drink and party on stage. And actually we all do that. The shows we play, if it’s a longer show, there are times where it’s only me playing, or only Dan playing or only Patty. We do really give each other the space.
You used to use turntables onstage…
C: Yep, yep, yep, there’s one turntable up there still.
Do you generally know in advance which records you’ll use?
C: No, I just take the records and hope. Just take a stack, a stack of whatever’s in at the moment….
M: They’re not ever techno or house records, all the stuff he’s bringing is old disco or soul.
C: Movie soundtracks…
M: Sample-based. It’s things to use as sample material.
C: Same as I’ve been doing for ages. Yeah, it works well with Modern Deep, for sure! It’s an element that’s missing.
I remember you did that a few Muteks ago, I think you played live, then Cobblestone, then you joined them onstage on turntables and laptop.
C: Yeah, right! At Metropolis. That was the first time I had the Buchla.
Wow, you had a Buchla?
C: Yeah, that was nuts.
M: At the last Mutek, last year, he had the Buchla on stage too.
C: Yeah, a buddy of mine lent me his Buchla. F**king crazy. I can’t believe he let me take it on stage.
How is it to operate?
C: It’s crazy. It’s like a spaceship.
M: It’s really like a spaceship.
C: It is like a spaceship. Colored lights, flashing… It’s great. It’s a lot of fun. The first one was really good. The new one, he’s swapped out some modules, changed it a bit, but it’s fine. It’s totally psychedelic. It’s really, really weird. There’s lots of weird things going on. Modules called, like, “The Source of Uncertainty”. Yeah. He’s a weirdo. He makes weird things, Buchla. Definitely strange. Very cool.
The new record feels different for you guys. It feels really restrained, controlled. There’s not so much of the bigger, anthemic riffs…
M: It is quite different. A lot of the tracks, when we made them, we thought, it doesn’t really sound like us. It was the first time we seriously worked together, all four of us. And we’ve all been doing so much music on our own, it feels a lot better [to work together]. It feels like we’re not trying so hard, we’re just making nice music, and not really trying to think that we have to do something, we’re just having fun and making nice music.
C: Even in the track selection there was something conscious about picking it to be smooth. Like ‘Traffic Jam’ didn’t make the cut, because it was too–
M: …uptempo, rocking, something you put on a single for big rooms or whatever.
M: ‘Fiesta’ is on there, which is the B-side of ‘Traffic Jam’.
Is it a different version?
C: It’s just shorter.
M: It’s got a bit of an edit. But we felt like that one should be on the album, it fits the feeling.
C: It’s the same sessions too, the same generation.
M: That last record [the ‘Traffic Jam’ EP] was also made with Colin, even though we hadn’t announced yet that Colin was gonna be a part of Cobblestone.
C: I don’t think we’d figured it out yet!
M: It’s cool because the whole album is all from this studio and it’s all of us, all together. It’s different, a new thing in a way. It’s new but old.
But more refined….
M: And the studio’s different too. I’ve never had a studio like this before, it feels more professional. And in the past we’ve been jammed into a room like half this size.
C: That second CD [a CD of bonus cuts, eventually scrapped from the ‘TMDLQ’ release] was done almost all on cardboard boxes. You know, no furniture, just headphones and cardboard boxes.
M: Yeah, we did that before I had this studio.
When you were working from home in Pankow?
M: Yeah, because I couldn’t find a studio forever, and I didn’t have any furniture, so all the gear was on top of all the moving boxes.
It must have been expensive to ship!
M: You know, because I have super elite status with Air Canada, I’m allowed to bring four bags at a time, and they’re all allowed to be overweight. I made like three or four different trips back to Canada when I knew I was moving here. I’m really surprised that customs didn’t hit me. They made me open it a few times, and I just said that this is what I tour with. I told them it was my tour rig. But the board is new, I got that here. Pretty much just the board and the Rhodes are from here, everything else I brought. The speakers I couldn’t bring on the plane. They cost me almost 1000 dollars to ship. When I got them, I was like, this is the end, I don’t need anything bigger… but I still want more.
C: I still want more! Never have enough.
M: A lot of electronic musicians don’t like these because of the AR-2 tweeters in them, because they’re extremely fast and a lot of people complain that they tire your ears quicker, but I turned my tweeters down just a hair, and I don’t get sore ears…
C: I work quiet a lot too. A professor at my old school hated them too, but he was a classical f**k. He was prejudiced.
M: For me, I like them because they’re very flat, and they are very precise, so they really make you work. But it is difficult to get into the feeling sometimes, because you have to really make it work to feel it. I want to put a regular pair of stage monitors in here, just to start the jam off and not worry about precision, and then move onto these once you’ve got the feeling. But if you can make it sound good on those things, it sounds f**king great everywhere. Also with this room–
These acoustic panels.
M: It’s all [acoustic] baffling—these guys [gestures at a set of vertically standing panels] are bass traps in the back. It’s actually the guy who designed the Berlin Philharmonic acoustics that built them all for me. They’re weird. I don’t understand them really.
C: I think they’re rockwall.
M: They work, anyways.
C: They sure do. Boy. This one got a dent in it the other day…
M: I saw that.
C: Probably someone leaning in with the power cable or something.
Do you have a lot of late nights here?
M: We’ve had a couple of days that turn into nights that turn back into days…
C: [laughs maniacally]
M: …into nights. It’s crazy. It’s easy to lose track of time. It’s nice, too, with the couch and everything out there, you know, you just go out there, hang out, if you need to chill out or whatever. I sleep here a lot. We both sleep here.
C: Yeah. It works. Works just fine, works just fine. It’s not bad in winter. In summer it’s really hot.
With the other guys in Canada, how often are you playing?
M: Every second month we do a tour. We’ll usually do 12 days, four shows and five days in the studio. Usually that means every two months we can write a new EP, because we can pop off two tracks in that time. It’s surprising, because with those guys traveling, being on tour and everything, the fact that we can work the way we do is nice. But we work really quick. There’s four of us, so the time where, if you’re a solo artist, you get tired and want to take a break, two people can take a break and let the other two work on the bassline or the drums or whatever.
And you’re not finicky, you’re not microediting everything you do…
M: If we did that, put little things on everything, maybe it’d be better…
C: I mean, we do, but we just do it on the first pass.
M: A lot of the time, we get to a place where we’re happy, and there’s not a lot of fancy changes like that.
C: Four pairs of hands!
M: Four pairs of hands, all working on a mix while it’s going, you can deal with all kinds of changes and all that kind of stuff.
C: You kind of abandon a certain level of control when you’re working with other people, too. You have to, you have to trust. And let go. You can’t micromanage. There’s nobody who’s worse to work with than someone that’s leaning over your shoulder. That’s the worst.
M: We actually don’t do that at all.
C: Not at all, right? We trust, you trust!
M: We’ll listen to it afterwards and be like, ok…
C: And we’re honest and critical of each other, like you’re too loud, or this or that or whatever. Usually, we’re pretty good now, actually.
C: It only takes one person to veto a whole thing, too. Like, I don’t like this, it sucks.
M: Usually the whole band is like, ok, you’re probably right.
C: But it’s a faith thing, for sure. It’s funny. Do you think it’s confusing that I’m in the band in the studio, but not onstage?
A little bit, but not in a dealbreaking way.
C: I don’t think so either. Not at all! It’s good. That was the only concern with this switch.
For you guys or K7?
C: I think for us.
M: It was more for us, K7 has no problem with it.
C: It’s not rocket science. Yeah. It’s cool.