George Fitzgerald's Stellar Evolution
“In some ways it’s gotten more sophisticated without losing some of the personality”
Image Credit: Steve Gullic
Transitioning from an electronic producer known for the dancefloor destroying 12”s and EPs to crafting far less club inspired and far more musically oriented, pop-influenced music and full “artists albums” can be an extremely tricky transition, but someone who seems to have evolved into this completely naturally is British artist George Fitzgerald.
From his debut 12" in 2010 on legendary label Hotflush Recordings, Fitzgerald would have a prolific few years releasing anthem after anthem on the who’s who of influential underground dance labels like Aus Music, Hypercolour and his own ManMakeMusic imprint. A key milestone, his 2015 debut album Fading Love saw him heading in less straightforward club music directions, while still keeping the dance music DNA very much in his compositions and arrangements.
Fast forward to 2022 and Fitgerald has readied his third studio album, the cosmically genre blurring Stellar Drifting. Further refining his more pop-oriented electronic sound without “selling out” or losing integrity, Stellar Drifting is an engaging, emotional and experimental record with some very interesting inspirations and sound sources. Partially inspired by outer space, Fitzgerald utilised not only samples from NASA and other sources, but managed to convert images of outer space into sounds through the wonders of synthesis.
The record also furthers his working with some of the finest vocalists around, including Panda Bear, SOAK and London Grammar (who Fitzgerald worked with on their acclaimed album Californian Soil) all enriching the record through their vocal tones.
To find out all about the new record, as well as his live shows, approach to DJing in 2022, the album’s trippy artwork and visual themes, his journey as an artist and more, we jumped on the line with Fitzgerald.
I guess as a starting point given some of the themes and sounds on the album, were you ever obsessed with outer space as a child?
I can’t say that I was, I mean, only in like a very standard way of, you know, kind of liking Star Trek and Star Wars and being a sort of very cliche young boy, being into spaceships and sic-fi, stuff like that. But no, not massively - I didn’t like have a telescope or anything like that.
No long nights staring up at the stars?
So what happened then with some of the space themes and sounds of the record?
Well, I mean, first of all it is sort of like a theme in the record, but it kind of could have just as easily been like, the ocean, or the forest, or something like that. It’s kind of one of these things I think, like stargazing is one of these things that people do to like, get outside of themselves a little bit. It’s not really about like, loads of technical details or factual nuggets about space. It’s just kind of an interesting way to have made the record and fits the themes of it really well.
Let’s talk about actually making the record, and I guess without alienating anyone, in the most lay terms possible I’d love to hear about you taking telescopic imagery and turning it sounds through synthesis?
It’s really not as complicated as it sounds, like, basically, there are some programs which are really obtainable, like Max for Live patches for Albeton, or Serum. Most synthesizers have the most basic building block of a waveform, it’s the oscillator, and you kind of start from there. And usually in the most basic synthesizers, you have a set number of waveforms - sine tones, triangles, sawtooth. And you can kind of create your own, there are loads of different shapes that you can have that create different sounds. If you load JPEG files into these programs that I was talking about, they basically go off the most basic way of looking at it, off the kind of dark and the light pixels, and create a waveform, or wave table based off that, and you know, if you think about the light - it’d be like a really cliche photo of a planet, or a star, with that kind of dark space all around it, you’ve kind of got all the light, high points in the middle and the low points to the side, and you end up with something that’s actually a little bit like a triangle wave, with loads of interference on it.
And they sound really cool, and you can basically go right from there. I sampled quite a lot of audio from the NASA website and from loads of other sources from just random enthusiasts, youtube videos and things like this. But yeah, I use a lot of the images - not on all of the sounds, it’s just kind of threaded, about 20% of the sounds on most of the tracks have this DNA. And, to be honest, a lot of the time you do it, it took a lot of just fiddling around, it’s not necessarily something that I would have done if it wasn’t a panedmic on, because it just took a bit more time and it was something fun, it was like a different way of doing things.
Have you ever done other obscure sorta stuff like this, or like, setting production challenges, limiting yourself to spur creativity and all that?
No, I think it’s something that I’d wanted to do for ages, you know, have something that was a little bit more like a concept behind the way the sounds were being made. I mean, on my first album, called Fading Love, I had a very basic concept of nothing could be sampled. Like everything, not even like little drum samples - everything had to be synthesised from a real box in the studio.
So no VSTs either, like all analog gear we’re talking?
Yeah, I mean obviously software and some VST effects, but all of the original sources, the sounds on the first record were just out of machines that were standing in the studio, and it was a really nice way to approach it. So I’ve kind of done it before. And yeah, I find that just having an idea about how you’re going to work, there’s so much flexibility in the way all of the kit works now that you can kind of work in a million different ways. So sometimes figuring out a nice new way to work and then just doing that for a few months can be really productive.
What was it like when you first started using samples again after that record? Like obviously not saying samples are bad or cheating or anything.
No, no no, that was the thing, it kind of made me enjoy a bit of sampling again. So on the second record, there’s quite a lot of samples and it made me appreciate it. I wasn’t doing it because I thought sampling was cheating, or because it was rubbish, it was just kind of like, you know, it’d be really interesting to just cut that whole thing out for a record, and then who knows, like maybe in the future I’ll just make a record completely out of samples, like I wouldn’t be against that either. I just think you’ve got to try and switch up and to try new techniques, and I think the thing I tried to do, like guard against a bit is just like coming into the studio, loading up the same patches on the same synthesizers and just going through the motions, I think that becomes really stale, really quickly.
And then making the same sounding sort of music, I guess. So to change track a little bit, I want to ask about vocalists and, I guess we’ve talked about sampling and a lot of your earlier music had sampled vocals. Now you’re working with amazing vocalists, you know, like Panda Bear, so dope, so what was the transition like moving from samples to singers?
I think it’s quite a natural one, you know? Yeah, people quite often asked me about that, but you know, whether it's kind of been intentional to sort of go from sampling things to working with vocalists, and I think really, like, it was just a product of like, when I started off, I was like a kid with a laptop. And I didn't know any vocalists and I just had what I had in front of me, and you could download acapellas and you could sample things and you take what you can get your hands on like, it's like just a completely logical step, if you've been working with kind of sampled vocals to kind of want to want to work with a vocalist from scratch. You learn a lot of the skills of, you know, how vocals sit in music, and in some ways, you approach it in a slightly different way to somebody who's always been writing songs. But yeah, l I love vocals in my music, I feel like sometimes they're never really finished until there's a kind of a trace of a vocal sound in there. So just getting to work with someone like Panda Bear or SOAK or London Grammar, you just have like really, really distinctive tones to their vocals. It's just really easy and kind of makes the whole thing really fun.
I think you might have already answered this by saying you approach it differently to, you know, someone who’s always been writing songs - are you saying like the composition comes first and you’re like “oh, whose vocals would fill this frequency range?” sort of thing, or do you actually write for vocals?
I think what I found is that what you're working with samples, you're very much like the boss, you know, you're not dealing with like a living, breathing human being who's collaborating with you, and has their own opinions and everything, you know, it's like, you tend to sort of slot those vocals in and treat them as an instrument more than anything else. What I find with collaborating voters, is you really have to, like leave a space for them in the writing process. So like, I think it's never really worked out for me to sort of write an instrumental to like 90% of what I would write an instrumental track to, and then ask a vocalist to kind of see if they can sing over it. It's always too busy, and I suppose what I've learned is to sort of trust writing sketches or snapshots of ideas and sending them to vocalists and letting them into the process earlier than you would if you were just kind of picking a sample.
With the natural evolution of sampling to singers, is that at all similar to your journey as an artist from, you know, making club bangers to I guess “artist albums”, for lack of a better term?
You learn as you go along, like, I think no artist emerges fully formed. It’s all about kind of the journey from their early records to you know, where they end up and like, how far they go. And like, I was very much just like a kid with Ableton on his laptop at the beginning. And in some ways, I definitely am still that, but like, you learn as you go along. I think that in some ways it’s gotten more sophisticated without losing some of the personality. And one of the ways it kind of gets more sophisticated as you learn - I think most modern producers like me didn’t learn by playing in bands, a lot of us sat alone for months and years just pulling things off the internet, and one of the things that takes a while to learn is actually how to make your music work with other people’s. That’s probably the main thing for me over the last 10 years, it’s just the real input of other people. And actually, one of the things that takes a while to learn is actually how to make your music work with other people's. And that's one of the that's probably the main thing for me over the last kind of 10 years. It's just, it's just the input of other the like real input of other people.
Before we dive into your live show, I’m curious about DJing, and I guess kind of, where does DJing sit for you at this point of your career?
Hmmm. Well, I mean, I don’t want to sound like, negative about DJing, but it's definitely less important to me, on one level, less important to sort of like where I am as a musician, it's not less important to me, with how much I love DJing and how much I enjoy it still, when you know, in the right circumstances. And the fact that basically, you know, my gateway into all of this was from DJing. It was from buying records and listening, sitting at home listening to records and analysing them and whatever - that was my entry point. So DJing is always going to have this like, special place, but just in terms of like where it fits in with the music, it’s, you know, a bit less and less important just simply because I don't write music - I'm not thinking about the club anymore. Like there's obviously loads of traces of it in there, like some of it is dance music, but there aren't these like big DJ intros and outros, it's like, it's a lot more kind of like, harmonically and melodically dense than most things that you'd write and play.
I don't blame anyone for not like, playing my music all the time in clubs, I don't really write it for that setting anymore. So obviously it's a little bit trickier to DJ my stuff out for that reason, and so I really do prefer when it comes to playing my own music, I prefer my live shows, because then I get to actually kind of reimagine the tracks or present them in exactly the way I want. DJing has always been about playing other people's music for me. I know, DJing has become something else over the last, like 15, 20 years, and there's a lot of people who perform their music by just sort of standing on stage and playing it. And that's cool. That's fine, if that works for them. But for me, DJing was always like, the DJs off in the corner, and you can't see them. And they play wherever they want. And people dance. It's not been about DJs on stages, even though I've done a lot of that in my career, it’s like the reason I started to not enjoy it very much, and I was like “if I'm going to be up here, then I'd rather be playing live”.
Yeah, absolutely, feel that RE DJs in the corner and that! So let’s talk about the live show then - what’s in the live rig these days, and I guess, how are you reimagining the tracks live?
It’s been quite an interesting one to do because with a lot of the wave tables, you know, in the past, I've had this thing of like, “okay, I've got whatever synthesizers I've got in the studio”. And you know, some of them are like old things that you wouldn't take on tour. And it was very hard to like, exactly, replicate those on stage and take a synthesizer around that's reliable, you can play loads of different things and doesn't go out of tune when it's freezing and you've just come on stage. And actually, because I've been working more with digital wave tables, you know, from stars and things like that, I'm using kind of more digital in a sense on stage. So just from a technical point of view, like a lot of things, even just in the last three, four years, I've like moved on technologically and made it so much easier for me to kind of perform really, really well on stage. So there were kind of a lot of headaches on the last tour that just like aren't there anymore,which is really, really fun. Because you get to concentrate more on like, playing really well, rather than worrying whether something's gonna fuck up, you know?
For sure, and what about like, how the tracks are reimagined - how do they change from the studio versions?
I mean I’ve got a live drummer and you know, at the sort of biggest shows there’ll be a few more players on stage, there’s so many ways to do electronic sets. And I'm definitely not someone that's like, “if you're running it all from the computer, then it's not live”, like, I don't agree with that, really, I just think that like, you've got to do what suits the music. And, and I think you've got to give people something different to what is on the record, and you can do that in like, you can have live loads of live musicians on stage, or you can provide people like a sort of audio visual experience, and like, change the structure of the records and all that kind of stuff. And I'm somewhere in the middle there. Like I like playing on stage. I think it's fun. And I think it gives it something different.. So I've worked quite hard with various people on kind of like the visual world that this is going to inhabit. Yeah, so I'm really excited. It's gonna be a little bit different from the last time - I didn't manage to get the live show down under last time, hopefully we’re gonna get down there next year, but yeah, it’s like an evolution from the last live show.
And you know what, you preempted my classic cliche last question of will we get to see the live show down here *laughs*
100%, yeah. Like I won’t bore anyone with why it didn’t happen list time, but like, getting seven or eight people down under sometimes can be complicated, with all the gear and everything. But I kind of regret it and I’m not going to do that this time, I’m 100% gonna get down there. By hook or by crook, even if it’s just like me, me and my laptop and an AUX cable, a controller - I’m gonna perform this album down under some time.
Make it happen! Finally, I do just want you to expand on the visual element of the album a little bit more, you know the album cover and the music videos all have these trippy patterns and shapes.
That was done with a really old friend of mine, David Rudnick, who is, you know, amazing, just become like, a real kind of quite a famous graphic designer in the last sort of 10 years. I just sort of see his stuff being copied everywhere. Anyway, it’s like a real pleasure to work with David to be honest, we’ve done stuff for years together. The thinking behind it was like - I mean it’s kind of his concept, but I really didn’t want - you know the space thing is kind of in the background here, like I didn’t want people in spacesuits and aliens on the front cover, or you know, some sci-fi or some Dune type cover. We’d started talking about the record being about kind of transitions and middle points and things like that, some of the kind of, like, more complex themes that were going through my head.
And basically what it is, it's like they used to have these old tri-vision, they were called tri-vision billboards, which were these wide triangular sort of columns. And they would have the parts, they could have three adverts on them, basically, and they’d turn and he was always fascinated by the moment they turned and you get a bit of one picture and a bit of the other ones, and you see the main picture dissolving. So we basically took all of that and wrote a piece of software that you could put images into and sort of dictate how fast washes would be, when they would rotate, where they rotate, and just generate loads of art from that. So all of the images are actually just sort of, like high quality screenshots of this video tool. And so that video tool is kind of like a lot of the basis of the live show, as well. And like, you can feed anything into it and I'm kind of working on having actual, like, audience participation in that somewhere down the road , but it's like a very, very open ended thing.
Siiickk, I’m picturing like 20 foot LED screens and shit.
Yeah, yeah, hopefully we’ll get to that.
So cool. George, thanks so much for chatting dude and congrats on the record!
Amazing, thanks for taking the time.