Cherushii's Gear in Her Own Words: Remembering the Late Electronic Music Producer

It was clear that Chelsea Faith Dolan was born to be a musician. She filled the air with music from her earliest days, writing songs by age six on a Casio keyboard her parents bought her in lieu of a piano.

This obsession with capturing the melodies and movements that sprung from her clever mind shaped her entire life. As a teenager, it brought her to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where she was classically trained. It drove her to start high school indie rock bands and record numerous four-track demos at home in California’s Bay Area.

This compulsion only grew deeper and more urgent after Chelsea attended her first rave in 2000. Seeing hundreds of dancers wigging out to slamming hard techno played by DJ Rush completely rearranged her notions of what music could be. Eschewing the traditional instruments, song structures, and lyrics she had grown up with offered endless possibilities and kick-started her career as an electronic musician.

Armed with hand-me-down analogue synthesizers and drum machines, as well as a colorful, flamboyant appearance, Chelsea was reborn as Cherushii in the early 2000s. Arriving on the scene just as laptop production was reshaping how electronic musicians performed live, she and her table full of glowing boxes seemed out of step with the times.

And instead of falling in line, Chelsea doubled down on gear and immersed herself in the history of American dance music made using machines like hers. She wrote her own entries in dance music history, inspired by the jacking rhythms of Chicago house, the florid melodies of classic Detroit techno, and the lush musicality running throughout American deep house.

It took nearly 10 years of writing and gigging across the U.S. and Europe before her music was officially released, arriving in 2013 via the 100% Silk record label. The Los Angeles-based imprint proved to be her home base, releasing her debut album, Memory of Water, and a steady stream of EPs and singles.

The wealth of music pouring out of Chelsea seemed to be inexhaustible. She kept her live performances dynamic and exciting for herself and her audiences by writing tunes in her few spare moments, many of which appeared only in these sets.

Chelsea’s mastery of her gear gave her both the ability and the confidence to push out ideas that would rock each city a different way. And where her insistence on using hardware was once seen as uncool, she proved to be ahead of her time as interest in analogue gear has seen a resurgence in the studio and in live performance.

Knowing her to be a maven of electronic music live performance, I consulted with Chelsea via email while researching a feature about the workhorse pieces of gear that allow electronic musicians to take their music on the road. Her answers arrived in my inbox during the afternoon on December 2nd.

A few hours later, she was preparing to perform at an underground art/venue space in Oakland, California called Ghost Ship when a massive fire broke out. The blaze consumed the warehouse, claiming her life and the lives of 35 others. Many talented, vibrant, beautiful people were taken before their time that night.

As you’ll read below, Chelsea poured her heart into her answers to my questions, driven to share her intimate knowledge of gear with anyone who might stand to benefit. It was just the kind of person she was – selfless, even to her own detriment.

Although short on personal details, what ended up being her last interview reveals a champion of electronic music whose dedication to the form should be inspirational to anyone who shares even a sliver of her feelings for it.

Tell me about three pieces of gear that are essential to your live sets and what makes them so crucial.

The most key piece of gear in my current rig is my Elektron Octatrack. I've used it for the past two years as the brain of my live setup. I’d been looking for a compact and powerful sequencer to replace my unwieldy Yamaha RS7000 – a beloved piece of gear that still gets a lot of use in my studio but was holding me back in live sets.

Cherushii Performing Live

The Octatrack has proven to be more than just a practical choice – it's opened up new possibilities for me as a live performer, too. The Octatrack has a lot of naysayers because of its level of complexity, but the tradeoff for learning a complex machine is that you can do a lot more in your live performances.

It's not an instant gratification machine, though. Like most Elektron gear, learning to play it is an ongoing journey that you definitely won't complete in the first few months. But its ability to sequence both audio and MIDI makes it a great machine for live sets, and you can't beat its compact size for travel.

My second crucial piece of gear is my Access Virus TI, which is a digital multitimbral polyphonic synth that comes in a nice compact desktop module. It doesn't get a lot of love from purists because it's unfashionably digital, but I'll leave it to the cool guys to lug their bulky vintage gear on the plane if they want to!

The Virus can do the work of multiple synths, and you get a lot of power considering its modest size. I route multiple MIDI channels from my Octatrack to the Virus, which is usually playing two (but sometimes up to five or six) parts simultaneously. It has multiple audio outputs, so I can wire the channels separately on my mixer. This allows me to manipulate each part on its own as if they are individual synths. I was able to cut down the size of my live rig by a couple synths just by using this one.

I should also mention that the Virus sounds amazing! It's incredibly versatile, and you can create so many different styles of patches. Like the Octatrack, it's a complex machine, but you are rewarded if you put the time into it.

The third thing on my list isn't a piece of gear so much as the peripherals that come in handy when gigging: cable ties, a flashlight, a power splitter, a set of long 1/4" to RCA cables in case you have to wire into a DJ mixer with an unprepared sound engineer, an extra IEC power cable, an extension cord, etc.

Live Acid Jam from Cherushii's Studio

When I gig locally, I always bring my own folding table in case there's no room for me in the DJ booth. In my early days performing, I remember setting up on all kinds of inadequate surfaces, as well as tables that were too low for me and caused my back to ache after an hour or two of hunching over them. My own table has adjustable legs, making it tall enough for me to play at without getting "live P.A. back."

Even if you talked to the promoter, the sound engineer, and the venue beforehand, always be prepared for them to be unprepared for you. I try to be as much of a self-contained unit as possible.

When selecting gear for live gigs and touring, what qualities are most sought after?

After hauling various machines around to gigs for 12 years, I have become increasingly focused on pieces that can do the most while taking up the least amount of space. This doesn't mean I'm a tiny gear fetishist, though. Actually, I think gear can become less practical when it's too small for you to easily play with your hands.

I'm not really into the mini faders on the Roland JP-08 for example, or the tiny knobs of the Korg Volcas. There has to be the the right ratio of size and weight to what you can do with it. That's why I love the Octatrack – it's a deep and powerful machine that is small enough to throw in your shoulder bag, and it's fun to play with your hands.

Cherushii Performing Live

I don't bring anything with keys out to gigs anymore because big synths are just too heavy and bulky. I also like to chose pieces of gear that I can easily bring abroad without having power issues. The ability to switch voltages is so helpful in terms of international touring.

When I lived in Germany, I had to power my American-bought gear using a clunky power transformer that weighed about 15lbs. When you can only bring 50lbs of gear in each suitcase on a plane, those extra pounds matter!

These days, I'm not interested in gear that is only 120V (the voltage used in the USA) because I don't want to carry a heavy transformer with me around Europe or have to track one down at each gig.

Many modern machines auto-switch between 110~240 (like my Elektron pieces, for example), and I only need to use a European power supply with them to get them powered in Europe. There are also a lot of battery or USB-powered machines these days, which are great for international travel.

What's more important: functionality or durability? How do you balance the two?

Ultimately, durability is more important because if your gear can't handle the rigors of travel, it won't be much use to you on the road. Not to say I haven't played on broken gear before – I've done it quite a bit, unfortunately. But something not working the way it should is another variable you have to throw into the mix.

Carrying your fragile, vintage pieces on the road with you isn't very practical if you want to use working gear when you perform. Choosing gear because of its durability and size may seem limiting, but I don't find this to hold me back for several reasons.

.. isn't creativity and resourcefulness in regards to gear part of the original spirit of techno? The early pioneers of House, Techno, and so many forms of electronic music used what they had available to them to create incredible sounds."

First of all, we’re going through an incredible synth renaissance right now, where so many new options are appearing all the time – many of which are compact, portable, and durable.

Secondly, isn't creativity and resourcefulness in regards to gear part of the original spirit of techno? The early pioneers of House, Techno, and so many forms of electronic music used what they had available to them to create incredible sounds. The 303 was considered a piece of junk in the ‘80s – think of the creativity with which it was used by House pioneers who had limited access to higher-end tools.

Perhaps you may need to choose a practical synth for touring that isn’t your #1 top favorite superstar synth, but if you channel the resourcefulness of your own inner pioneer, you may be surprised how creative you can be with it.

What do you recommend for keeping gear safe on tour?

I've heard a lot of people suggest always flying with your gear as a carry-on. But if your setup is the size and weight of mine, that is not an option. And on crowded flights or on smaller planes, you’ll often be forced to check your carry-on at the gate anyway.

So my advice is to always be prepared to check your gear, even if you’re plan is to carry it on. I do this using hard-shell suitcases – never soft ones. Pack your gear as tightly together as you can so that that there is minimal jostling inside the case. I wrap my gear in large-size bubble wrap, and secure it using the straps inside my suitcase.

Though I’ve never had anything break in a serious way, lost knobs and bent faders are common, so I recommend finding ways to protect those. For my two Elektron boxes, I use protective plastic lids that are made specifically for these machines and cushioned carrying cases, which you can either carry on your shoulder, or pack inside a larger suitcase. Taking a little extra care when you pack will save you the trouble of replacing knobs later.

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