The Musical Realms of The Range
“We're settling into this thing where like, I think people are really appreciating slightly weirder music, but at a much broader scale”
Emerging in the early 2010s, at the tail end of the initial dubstep explosion where producers seemed to fall into more easily defined categories, James Hinton AKA The Range wasn’t one to be pigeonholed, with his club-ready, bass-heavy music drawing on everything from UK Garage and breakbeat to downtempo and house, culminating in his 2011 debut album The Big Dip.
Over the last 11 years, across a string of EPs and three full-lengths, Hinton has honed his craft and his sound, with the results heard on his stunning fourth album, Mercury. From outdoor rave vibes to claustrophobic IDM, from Grime to hip hop inspired beats, Mercury sees The Range at his diverse, unrestrained best, while maintaining a cohesion and consistent sound across the record’s eleven tracks, including continuing his trend for sampling vocals from unknown youtube and instagram uploads.
With Mercury dropping Friday, June 8 via Domino before taking his live show on the road around the US (and hopefully abroad!), we jumped on the line with Hinton to discuss names, physics, sampling, not letting a live show dictate a record and more!
I remember first coming across your music nearly a decade ago, with 2013’s Seneca EP - this probably says more about me and my comprehension skills, but I remember initially being confused thinking “The Range” was the name of the EP and your artist name was Seneca, so I’m curious about where the name “The Range” comes from?
Yeah, no, that'd be interesting, because then I'd be like a 2000 year old philosopher, it'd be a very different, different story *laughs*.
I started it, at the time, I feel like this would have been in - I had the idea in 2010. And obviously the project started in 2011, but it just felt like everyone was so in their zone in terms of their genre, like you either made Baltimore club or you made trance or you made house music and I just couldn't justify it like, it's just not how my brain works, to be stuck. And so I love the idea of like, the ranges and the mathematical range, like as in all these things are valid. And I have a much wider kind of swath to work. And it's worked out brilliantly, because now I can, like, make whatever I want for the rest of my life, and it's not going to be unusual.
And this might be looking for more subtext, but “The Range”, from an audio point of view, I think of dynamic range as well?
Well, that was also like, the same reason you know like Mercury has multiple meanings, potential to have multiple meanings, and I love the idea of The Range also having multiple meanings, like I wanted to nod at math, but also like, yes, audio. It's very lame, because I don't need to go much further than that, but there's something about a single word or a single concept that can be construed many different ways. It's just - it's powerful to me. And I love that idea of a listener - like this exact conversation is the reason that I like The Range as a name, because it opens your eyes, like, I wouldn't have thought that.
Well let’s move on to the title of the new record you just mentioned - Mercury - cos I was wondering if there’s a psychological test regarding words and what you think first, like I think of the element not the planet, so yeah, tell us a bit more about the title of your new album?
Yeah, no, you're making my day because this is exactly what I was hoping to have happen that you're emphasizing things differently. It's all very equal to me, the only thing that I'm not super psyched on is like “Mercury in Retrograde” and that kind of connotation. But for me, Mercury was very powerful, the concept of the planet being so close to the sun, that it's burned out and ultimately going to be consumed.
I was definitely feeling that way during the album where I was just like, I felt like I had kind of like, swam too close to the sun in terms of my process, and just kind of felt like a little like, I don't know, like I had just taken a wrong path being in Vermont or something like that. And so that idea of like the planet wanting to be so close to the sun and the action that they kind of burned out.
And then all the other meetings like, you know, from Mad Hatter's disease to the actual element mercury. The idea of like Mercury, the God, that kind of like the drawn to the underworld kind of thing. And I just liked the idea that it can be all those things simultaneously, which I’m nodding to on the record cover.
And I don’t want to segue to talking about the record cover and videos just yet but will ask in a moment. You mentioned maybe taking the wrong path and I wanted to ask about paths you have taken including a degree in physics - does that tie into the whole Mercury thing at all, like do you think your degree has impacted you as an artist? This coming from someone who dropped out of a genetics/molecular biology degree *laughs*
I think it's always given me kind of an out. I know there has been a historical thing like music and math kind of work well together like Godel, Escher, Bach kind of thing, that’s been proven. But for me, it was always like, because they're even handed, I always had an outlet where, you know, if I was frustrated with physics, I could go into my music. And that was a very happy place.
And if I was struggling with my music, I had kind of like the structure and order of physics, specifically like cosmology and like really thinking about the universe to kind of like, put things in perspective. But I think, yeah, I don't think it was any explicit tie, like the way that your brain works, but I just know that it's a very powerful thing.
And it gives me kind of this hierarchy about how the world works, and helps keep me in perspective. And I do think about music, like, in terms of process in terms of like, structure and a way that, you know, maybe some people that are more theory or thinking oriented don't don't quite think the same way, maybe, but yeah, I don't know.
Now all I’m thinking is you and like Floating Points with his science background doing a collab and some experiments *laughs*
Yeah get Caribou together and yeah, we got it, you’d have one hell of a physics department *laughs*
And funnily enough, another kind of broad segue, you mentioned Dan Snaith AKA Caribou… your record Mercury is your first one in six years, and a lot has changed stylistically over the last six years, eight years, ten years. And I look at people like Caribou and Four Tet, who, kind of over the last decade “went housey”. We started off talking about not being pigeonholed and whatnot, I’m curious what changes you’ve witnessed since your last record and if this has had any influence on you?
Yeah, I think all of us as we listen to music, like you, you just have this natural kind of narrative of the types of music that you're interested in. It does seem like yeah, club music and kind of like weirder club music, you know, Overmono and Bicep as well as Four Tet and just, it's all having kind of a really broader moment than let's say, like, in 2014, when I was writing Potential, like, everyone was so excited about the Calvin Harris's of the world and like this really, really high end where there was, it seemed like there was no ceiling to to electronic music for the first time.
And then now we're settling into this thing where like, I think people are really appreciating slightly weirder music, but at a much broader scale. But for sure, I'm definitely feeling like a broken clock, where all of a sudden breakbeats, and kind of that world are very exciting again, and I definitely was kind of drawing on that. Listening as well as like, you know, UK Garage and like Grime. That kind of feeling again, of being in a warehouse feels very German, all of a sudden, in a way that it didn't even six years ago.
Full circle sorta vibes! So your music has always got this sort of emotional weight to it, lots of epic sounds, and I couldn’t help but feel like Mercury was kind of nodding back to some of the stuff from the early 2010s but with a modern twist, like less restrictions or something?
Yeah, yeah, I think you're dead right. I mean, I think I just, I can't help but just be like a vessel for the stuff that I really like, and things like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher are kind of always at the basement of the house, just kind of waiting to come out in some new vector.
And so you're dead right, where all of a sudden, I feel like very even handed as well as having like my production, I think I've gotten quite a bit stronger and have a lot more facility in doing whatever I want. I feel completely free for the first time on this album to go in any vector that I decide to do, yeah.
Has much changed recently with your production techniques?
Yeah, I think I think a lot in terms of, I got obsessed with mixing in 2017. That's partly why I took so long, I just got very, very deep into that process and tried to understand so I have a ton more facility and understanding of frequencies and the kind of structure of things. And just really, I went all the way to the bottom to kind of rebuild the process back up.
I think now I'm kind of all the way back at like maybe a structured naivete in terms of like, I know how to do everything but I'm choosing to like, let's say before mixing just focus on songwriting. If that makes any sense. Like I now know enough where I know what belongs at what point in the process and that's been a big change for me because it was very intuitive before.
Yeah for sure, I guess that almost sounds like the more traditional “band approach” where you write, you record and THEN you mix, as opposed to the like “mixing as you go” with producing electronic music?
Yeah, no, totally, totally, like Nonfiction, for instance, first broader record as The Range with Donkey Pitch [label], it was like, all those sessions were just the things I wrote in and we just printed it and went to mastering. I just had no idea that there was any split. And I think now I understand I was obsessed with the idea that I could write something and then be done with it, and it's out in the world in an afternoon.
And now I understand why it's so important to really, there's just certain things in mixing that you don't want to do in songwriting, you don't want to try to fix in each part of the process. And so now I have a pretty stringent architecture about what goes where. Because it's important, it's important because it's just different parts of your brain that are working at each part.
Totally, I’m sitting here going like, there’s a reason when I try to produce music I have the dreaded “eight bar loop syndrome”, right? It’s like, you’re stuck on “oh, the snare’s shit” rather than actually finishing the arrangement *laughs*
It just didn’t pass to your brain, right? You can’t think about snares when you’re supposed to be thinking about, like, a melody, right?
Absolutely. What about live sets these days, what’s going on with The Range’s live show and how’s the new record translating live?
This is a bit different, I grew up kind of as a jazz drummer, and I think, for the first time, especially being in Vermont I actually have a drum kit here and have brought that into the live set. Whereas before, it was very much just trying to translate the record with electronics, now I'm kind of exploding things out playing the drum breaks, playing a little guitar, playing the keys, like very much a one man show kind of like hopping from station to station.
So it's been much more exciting for me, because I feel like I can kind of show in a very explicit way like, you know, expanding a certain section and shining a light, whereas the record tends to just be this singular, you know, the song is the song whereas now I can kind of direct people's attention in a way and, and show my chops. And I'm enjoying it, it feels like it's very, it's much more real to people that are fans of the record to watch me play it as opposed to just kind of push buttons.
Were you thinking about that when you were writing the album at all, were you like “how am I going to pull this off live”?
I think it was - I just don't like the idea that I would be forcing something just for a single show onto a document that's going to last a very long time. So it's very much like, do what's right for the record, first and foremost, and then find a way to kind of highlight or make more exciting a part of the live show just because, I don't know, I think there's also like, there's something magic about a drum break itself, as opposed to me like playing it. It's just very different, and you get a lot of the historicity, you know, the same way with the vocal samples versus me like singing them or something.
Vocal samples - let’s go there. You're known for pulling vocal samples from anywhere, not just other recorded music - youtube, instagram, periscope etc - why do you find yourself using these sorts of “found samples” over say, your own recorded vocals or something?
Yeah, interesting. I think the power of samples versus studio vocals, there's just something like Ricercar, a wonderful example of one where it was recorded in like a really tall hospital, you know, like in the hospital on the 15th floor, you go all the way down in the same stairwell. So it had this insane, weird reverb that you would never choose to do. And I think that's my favorite part is like, you get these things that if you were to go fresh in the studio, you just wouldn't choose to do it for better or for worse, right?
It's almost like this hashing or this weird thing, and it forces me to do different things on the other side, and I think it makes my music unique. There were like - Cantor was a good example where there was originally a vocal sample, and then we re sang it in the studio and tried to kind of mimic it. But I think ultimately, it's neither better nor worse, it's just different than if you were to have and so I just like, I also liked the encapsulation for me, like, that makes me remember the moment that I discovered that thing. And it's very special to me, as opposed to I think, you know, for instance, me doing like 20 takes in the studio, like I would just want to be done with it and be done.
For sure - what about vocals in general then, when does a The Range composition call for vocals?
Yeah, it's funny, like I worked out during this record, it's very much exactly 50/50 of like a song that the vocal came first and I was like writing to it versus having a piece of music and then the vocal come so in the latter case. It's kind of like, I know when it's over overly composed when I've added too much melody, that it's now time to find the vocal because you just need the space for it. Otherwise, it's not going to work. And I think… I don't know like there's just something it's not really an arranged song to me until there is that kind of sample, just because it gives that kind of sandpaper feeling to my songs.
Sandpaper is such a great way to put it! I want to get back to the artwork and videos now - very Dali-esque, getting some Fantastic Planet sort of vibes here, so tell us what’s going on?
Yeah, it was kind of a miracle like I had a dream one night about this idea of like a hall of objects. I knew that I wanted to call the album Mercury, and I knew that I had all these kinds of meanings and it kind of all clicked for me. I liked the idea of just being very explicit about, like, here's this world, you’re welcome to come walk in this space, and kind of exist in this thing. So we hadn't thought about how best to do that, like at first thinking about photography, like literally going in and recording or taking a photo of like, the element mercury and Mercury, the planet. And then we had an interesting conversation with this woman Essy May and her art partner Stevie Gee, and they had this great idea to do it in an illustrative style.
I had an idea of the I don't know, if you like the old pulp paperbacks like J.G. Ballard and those kinds of things where they would do a one off piece, that was totally the inspiration for me at least. Essy has her Instagram as a great example, like she's just very much in this world of like, science fiction. And so she had the idea and then once we saw how cool it was, the cover, we're just like, we just want to live in this world, and we hatched the plan to do the whole album basically as the series of videos that are in this world with Urethane being like the canonical actual music video of everything. And I don't know, it's just like, I guess because I'm also quite colorblind and so it's fun for me to live in that space because it's just so far away from what I would choose to do.
So that means there’s gonna eventually be a visual accompaniment for each track on the album?
Yeah! Like especially, I’m not sure if everyone is clocking but they’re starting to work in Dolby Atmos for everything, and so we made this version of the album in that format and you’ll be able to basically watch the whole album in a theater.
Oh wild, that sounds so dope and what a different experience from say your live shows - I know you’ve got a launch party for Mercury happening in Brooklyn and some other US dates, what else is coming up for the rest of the year?
Yeah, well, there's a festival called Portola festival in San Francisco and I'm going to attempt to, to jump on a couple of support runs into that. And then hopefully hit - I’d love to hit Laneway, at some point, or maybe one of the sideshows to get back down to Aus. That's a rough idea like, hopefully fingers crossed, January.
Fingers crossed indeed, hopefully see you down here soon and in the meantime we’ll be enjoying Mercury - thanks for the chat, James!
Thanks so much for taking the time, I appreciate you.