Interview: Galcher Lustwerk on His Deep-House Meets Hip-Hop Production Style

[Photo via Asra Agency]

Galcher Lustwerk - Information

It's hard to say why the combination of hip-hop and house music never took off. Following the brief hip-house scene of the late '80s and early '90s the genres seemed to split completely, seldom to cross paths again. Despite this, many house producers are avowed hip-hop fans and many hip-hop producers certainly appreciate house production styles. Yet few of either have seriously attempted to combine their interests.

Galcher Lustwerk is a rare artist who sits astride hip-hop and house sounds with ease. The Cleveland-born, New York-based producer and vocalist first found and then made electronic music as a teenager before falling for hip-hop in college. When he combined the two, first publicly in 2013 on the "100% Galcher" mix for Blowing Up the Workshop, the results were gritty, lush, and entirely distinctive. Although he's continued to evolve over the course of four albums, the core of his sound—the smoky deep-house beats and laid-back, almost hypnotic vocal cadence—conjures a whole noirish world of its own.

Information, his fourth album and first for an outside label, arrived on Ghostly International last November. Curious to learn more, I reached out to Galcher to pick his brain about the refinements he brought to this latest LP, the setup behind his singular sound, and what underlies his songwriting process.

Galcher Lustwerk - "Cig Angel"

I feel like you get asked more often about your hip-hop influences than your dance music ones. Which artists got you into house and techno, and which ones influence the sounds you make today?

Electronic music for me was more inspirational at that moment when I started making music, because I was quite young and a lot of hip-hop music was out of my grasp at the time, being a sheltered kid in the Midwest. So I sought out other genres of music that I thought were cool. And a lot of times it was based on the artwork, so obviously I gravitated towards electronic music. I would read a lot of magazines and read about the artists or albums, then try to find and buy the CD somewhere. So that was my early way of trying to find music.

I would say the biggest influence for me is Underworld. I was really into the "electronica" stuff, so anything like the Chemical Brothers or Underworld, the Prodigy, Groove Armada. And then also more of the late-'90s Detroit techno stuff I was really into, like Carl Craig.

There's a sample CD I remember getting from Revolution Magazine and it had a DJ mix with a ton of classic Detroit techno and Chicago house tracks, so that's kinda where I heard about that stuff—just the classics that we all know now, like Larry Heard, Carl Craig. I heard Telex's "Moskow Diskow" and stuff like that. Just absorbing it through editorial stuff like magazines, and also going to CD stores and talking to the people there, they'd just recommend me stuff.

A lot of stuff I'd just have to ask for stuff without words [laughs] and they would know what to show me. Like I remember going in and the guy giving me a DJ Krush CD, and I'm like, "Alright, I'll check this out."

That's interesting. I was really curious how you got from your electronica influences to the slower, darker, lush stuff that you make now.

I would say a lot of it had to do with being exposed to indie rock later in my years, like in high school and college. I was a skateboarder and I just naturally hung out with other skateboarders and listened to indie rock, a lot of stuff on college radio. So I'm also inspired by those sounds as well.

I kinda wanted to take it to the forefront with this album by introducing the live drums and stuff. It's more of a nod to indie rock and '70s-style R&B, like Marvin Gaye, Brothers Johnson, with, like, a funky bass. And also the Flight Time productions, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the way they used the 808s and LinnDrums. I feel inspired to transform all those things into this fusion that represents my trippy state of mind, the more cerebral, psychedelic, drug-infused kind of feel into music.

Also, I have tinnitus and that started right when I started the Galcher project, so I was making it a point to not use harsh sounds or harsh compression.

Galcher Lustwerk. Photo via Ghostly.

I'm glad you brought up the live drums on Information, which I love—I think it's some of your best work as it relates to percussion. Were you actually recording live drums? And what inspired this refreshed percussion style?

So prior to this album I mostly took from the 808 drum and I used that as my constraint, as if I was a band and the drummer only had an 808. I wanted to take that to the next level and use the drums like a band. But to answer your first question, no, they are not recorded live, they are programmed.

That's awesome. You really hit that swing, which is really difficult for people to do when they're programming.

Yeah. I listened really hard to live drums and tried to keep the kit light, imagining that you only had two hands and two feet to play whatever you're playing. Those sort of things helped. And also, I would tap it out—I would actually play the hi-hat on the keyboard. So there's that human element in there. I'm not just clicking a step sequencer or anything like that, I'm really trying to nail that groove.

Also, my newly found interest was when the Sea & Cake dropped their last album, because they're one of my favorite bands. I really love the drummer, John McEntire, who is also the drummer for Tortoise. They're a big inspiration for me. His drumming is almost mechanical, like a drum machine—it's kind of the opposite with him. So it's kind of fun to try and mimic that feeling in a more dancey context.

Tell me a little bit about your production setup. What do you typically use when you're sitting down to write a Galcher Lustwerk song?

It's evolved a lot over the years. In the early years I had a big table with drum machines and synths all patched in to a patch-bay and MIDI-synced. I mainly used Ableton as a hub for everything. But as the years have gone on I have basically switched to only using Ableton, just being in-the-box. So probably 90% of Information is done in-the-box. When I have some time to set up my gear again—it's all over the place and I've sold pieces—if I'm in that zone, I'm able to then record with analog stuff. I still have a Dave Smith Tempest that I still use a lot.

I've also been trying out different sound modules, like the Yamaha I used for a while. And the Roland Sound Canvas is a new thing I've got, which is sort of a '90s sound module that has all the types of sounds you'd want and need, and you can hook it up to MIDI and plug and play. I'm less interested in sculpting sounds and more just about ergonomics, being able to have all the tools at hand to sketch down whatever you're thinking. When I buy new gear, that's what I'm thinking about: How fast can I make a track on this thing? Ableton kind of wins out, it's just the fastest for me. I've been using it since 2004 or something.

How do you record your vocals?

It's sort of the same philosophy. If I'm in my bedroom and making a track and I don't have a nice mic, I'll just record the vocals into the MacBook built-in microphone. And if it's good enough, then I'll take it. But if there's too much noise or if there's a weird harshness to it, I'll re-record it.

I used to use condenser mics, but now I use dynamic mics, so I have three or four different dynamic mics that I use. I think my favorite one has been the Electro-Voice N/D767a—it's a hypercardioid mic. It's similar to a Shure SM58, it looks just like it. The area that it captures is way more narrow. I have that plugged into one of these preamps that attach to the bottom of the microphone, it's an XLR adapter that goes between the mic and the cable, and it gives you better response—more headroom. So I'm able to get really close to the mic, not have it be too noisy, and have a clean signal, I've found, using dynamic mics. I'm kind of amassing a collection of them, like the Heil PR30.

Do you use any outboard gear to give your voice its signature cast?

Besides the mic preamp... and I've had different preamps over the years. At one point I ran the dynamic mic through a Golden Age mic pre, then ran that into a saturator box called the Looptrotter Emperor, which I don't have anymore. It almost gave it that parallel compression feel before it went to the DAW, so it made the transients a little less noticeable and made the vocal track more blocky, so I could chunk it in really easily.

I've messed around with TC Helicon vocal pedals, they make a delay one, a compressor one that generally enhances the vocals... They also make an Auto-Tune one that I've used from time to time. I'll throw the AutoTune on and sing it straight Auto-Tune, then use Auto-Tune to clean up anything else. A lot of times I keep it real simple with the chain in Ableton. I'll run a gate on it, then put a high-pass filter on it, EQ it, add parallel compression, and then maybe add a more heavy compression to it, then use a de-esser. That's basically it, with maybe a delay. That's pretty much my vocal chain.

Lush pads are one of your signature sounds. What are some of your favorite synthesizers for pads?

I tried so many different plugins and I've found that a lot of Arturia's plugins are really nice—they're kind of my favorite. Every single one of those will give you good pads, just kind of in different styles. But I don't really count on the pad to do that much work, I try to just find the right chords basically. I think chords are what give it the lushness, the specific chords you're using. Also, subtle things like delay, panning, and chorus, you can layer one pad with chorus and one without and it will give you a fuller sound. Also, making the pads quiet is a way to make them more lush. It's important to keep them just loud enough that you know they're there and not overpowering anything else.

I know that stream-of-consciousness, lyrical freestyling has been a big part of your writing style. To me, the vocals on Information feel more considered. Was this a turning point for your writing style or did you approach it in more or less the same way?

A lot of the songs start off as stream-of-consciousness and I go back in and punch-in different parts. So maybe there's a raw vocal track where I'm humming, trying to get the rhythm, trying to come up with some lines. Say there's a 10-minute or five-minute freestyle, I will go back in there, pull out the things that were good, and consolidate it into a more considered arrangement, in 16 bars or whatever. It's an editing process, along with a spontaneous bit.

Making the pads quiet is a way to make them more lush. It's important to keep them just loud enough that you know they're there and not overpowering anything else.

But I think capturing those spontaneous vocals is the most important part. I don't like to re-record too much. So a lot of the songs, like when I sat down with the MacBook built-in microphone, that's what it ended up being. I think "I See A Dime," there are a few vocal parts on there that were recorded on the MacBook. I also think "Speed" was recorded on my MacBook, too.

Who are your musical sounding boards?

I used to be more share-y with people, but now it kind of depends on the project. For this one I would send things to Ghostly, I would send them to Sam or Molly at Ghostly and see what they think. And they would just come back to me with their favorites, they wouldn't really comment on this in particular, that in particular. Then I know their favorites so I can riff off of that and fit more tracks that fit that vibe. That's more of an A&R-type situation.

I also send tracks to the White Material people, so that's Young Male, DJ Richard, Morgan Lewis, and Alvin Arronson. I'm cool with sending all those people stuff and getting feedback from them. Morgan's kind of my final say. With Information I sent him a rough draft of the record and there was one track at the end and he was like, "I like every track, but I don't like this one. I can't tell you why, but I don't like it." I'm like, "Alright, that's enough, bro, I'm taking it off." And it took it off. I think that was a good decision.

Also, when you're in the same room listening to something, you put yourself in their shoes. So it's kind of fun to play your tracks in front of somebody else and if you get nervous about it or you're anxious about something, it probably means you need to work on it. Or at least that's how I feel.

Galcher Lustwerk - "Thermonics"

What was it like working with an outside label, Ghostly International, for more or less the first time? Because everything else you've done has been self-released or put out by White Material.

I kind of loved it, because I didn't have to worry about all the logistical stuff, like vinyl, PR, marketing, all that stuff. I was able to have some backup there. That was definitely a plus. I had known those people on the label for a while, five or so years, so I kinda trusted them, more so than other labels that have hit me up. I knew they had my best interest in mind. Being able to work with a team on stuff, all the creative, all the video, it was super cool to know that everyone's getting paid. Everyone's doing what they love to do, so that's cool.

I've read that you've worked hard to make yourself more efficient, with the help of everything from website blockers to self-help books. How does that play out when you make music?

I think a lot of times I get the itch to make something and when there's a gulf in time between you getting the itch and actually getting set up, it kills the vibe a bit. So no matter where I am, I try to have my laptop and open up Ableton and get going.

I have a couple templates that already have the drums, already have the bass, has one synth, has one available track for vocals, already has a limiter on the master, so I don't have to worry about that. Things like that, where I know what the chain's gonna be, I'll make a template for it. And that makes it super easy, because I can be like, "I feel like making an ambient thing," I'll have an ambient template that I can open up and start putting my fingers on the keys immediately. A lot of times, I will just use the computer keyboard and just play stuff on that if I don't have a MIDI keyboard with me or anything.

I've been into using less plugins, less effects, less compression, less distortion, and I've found that makes things easier because you're really thinking about the musical aspects of the song, whether it's the notes or arrangement. It leaves some guesswork out of it. You know, I'm not going to worry about the low-end on the synth until I get the right synth line out of it.

I work in my bed a lot, so a lot of times I'll just wake up and open my laptop and start making something, or make something before I go to bed. I think the first time I realized this, I was listening to a Dopplereffekt interview on Red Bull Radio, and [Heinrich Muller] was talking about ergonomics. And when I understood it that way, it made perfect sense—just [having] everything available to translate your brain into music. Kind of like a one-to-one relationship, whatever you do with your hand, something happens with the sound. That helped me… not turn into a gear slut, basically [laughs]. Just keep it simple, use what I've already got. I've been trying to sell this Tempest for a while, but I guess no one wants it too much. They get a bad rep, but I really like it though, so I'm gonna keep using it.

Maybe after this interview you'll get some interest in it.

Yeah, maybe I'll just sell it on Reverb [laughs].

Unlike many artists making electronic music, you've released many more albums than you have singles. What is it about the long-playing experience that attracts you?

Well, I like listening to albums, and my favorite way of listening to music is just putting an album on and listening to it completely. I think it's just a nice chunk of time to be immersed into a world, whereas a single, you only have one or two tracks to make a point. With an album you have more leeway with that. Also, my output is kinda large. I make too many tracks to only put out singles. I will start and finish a track in less than an hour, so I just have to put albums, almost, because otherwise it would take forever to put stuff out.

I understand Matias Aguayo was a big inspiration for your own live performances. Can you briefly describe his setup and what about it you liked?

Well, nowadays he uses a more elaborate set-up with live drums and synth and what-have-you. But the few times I've seen him, like when he would come to New York for loft parties, all he did was DJ, and when one of his songs came on he did live vocals for it. I thought that was like the best of both worlds: you're able to have fun as a DJ, play stuff you're inspired by, and then also transform it into a live thing. And sometimes you can freestyle over somebody else's track. That was the first time I've seen it done, at least in the techno world.

Plenty of hip-hop DJs do stuff over tracks, but it's just like, "What's up, what's up! Turn it up! East Side, what's up? West Side, what's good? Raise your hands!" It's all like hype stuff and not actual performance. So I was able to see it was possible to use a mic and DJ at the same time. I've kind of worked on that, being able to mix in one headphone and leave the other open and do vocals on the track that's currently playing.

See Matias Aguayo pick up a mic around 49:25 of this DJ set.

Given that a lot of your vocals are very chill—you're not yelling at all, you're keeping things pretty even and quiet—how does that work out when you're playing live?

I think that's a challenge I've yet to fully address. It really depends on the booth and the acoustics in the booth, like whether the mic picks up loose signals. Usually the Shure SM58 works just fine, but sometimes if the monitors are pointed at the DJ a certain way, or if the subs are literally right below the turntables or something like that, a lot of times I can't talk that quietly. It's almost like, "Huh, am I going to do vocals tonight? Well, let's do soundcheck and see." And if it works then I will, if it doesn't then I'm not doing vocals.

That's been my solution now, I do them at random, but I would love to think of a foolproof way to do it. There are feedback pedals and stuff like that, but they haven't really worked that well in the DJ context. More to your point, though, I do want to keep my vocals kinda low, so I would prefer them to just be low. If people are hearing me talk, as long as they're hearing me the words don't matter so much. It's kind of just like an ambience.

You've also released a lot of music under the name Road Hog. Besides foregoing vocals, do you use a different gear configuration for this project?

I think a lot of the Road Hog songs sort of came out of me experimenting with outboard gear, so the Road Hog stuff is definitely more outboard gear focused. But I think that's just a coincidence. I think with Road Hog I'm less concerned with making a bumping club track, so I'm more thinking about the mood and the melody and the groove and speed of the track. Something that feels like it has forward momentum.

I don't choose in advance whether it's going to be a Road Hog or Galcher track, it just ends up being—not the throwaways, but just the stuff I don't see myself doing vocals on. Because I only have so many chances to perform as Galcher. I can make tracks really quickly but lyrics take me longer to… I'm really strict with the lyrics that I approve. I will record any goofy old thing, but I need to listen to it for a few months so I don't get tired of it. There are a lot of tracks that I try vocals on and the vocals just suck. But then there are a lot that just don't even need vocals, and those are easier to choose for Road Hog.

When I think of Road Hog, I think of my Waldorf Micro Q, because I used that pretty extensively throughout [the project]. I really love that… I sold it, though [laughs].

I was looking through the Road Hog Bandcamp page and one of the album descriptions said something to the effect of, "This is the last Road Hog release," even though a couple more came out. Do you see that project as being in the past now or is still ongoing?

Yeah, I see it as sort of in the past. I feel like it taps specifically into my nostalgia for the Midwest and this homesick feeling. Now I don't feel so nostalgic anymore. My world has shifted and I want to experiment in other ways. There's this recent record [under the artist name] The Fock, which is me kind of doing more techno stuff. I am still developing that idea. I want to call it, like, body horror techno, something that feels anxious, bodily, like Cronenberg movies or something. I don't know, I'm still working on it [laughs]. I think I'm going to focus on The Fock more these days than Road Hog.

With "Information" now out in the world, what are you eager to work on or towards next?

I want to just continue perfecting my process. I just want to quickly put down my work, because I think I've gotten to the point where I can manifest a lot of things that I want to manifest. It's no longer a technical issue anymore.

Oh, one other thing I wanted to mention that's changed for the better, is that I got this product Sonarworks Reference—it basically reads the frequencies of your room and adapts your master signal so that it's a more flat signal. That's cut out a lot of guesswork for me when I'm mixing tracks. So I feel more confident in my mixing abilities and I want to step up the quality level one more. I kind of see each album like Pokemon, and I'm evolving after each one, it's kind of like a level up mentality. So I just want to level up again [laughs].

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