Phillip Washington, better known to most as Cygnus, has been making waves in Dallas electronic music for over a decade. He made a name for himself with a series of victories at the infamous Laptop Deathmatch and strong showings at the national Laptop Battles in Seattle. Since his battle days, he has put out releases for international labels that have garnered attention from the likes of techno legend Dave Clarke, who has charted him multiple times in the past few years. He is often booked with DJs, but he is in fact not really a DJ. He plays live sets that are a combination of improv, composition and electro funkiness.
For this week's Mixtape, Cygnus performed a live set of all new material that was apparently written just for this Mixtape. He did this all in one night. For this week's Q&A we get a glimpse of the focused artistic mind of one of the true savants of Dallas electronic music.
How did you get started making electronic music? How long have you been at it?
The first electronic music I made was on my dad's computer in the early '90s. He had cakewalk for Windows 3.1, a JD800, some other old modules and I learned how to midi them all together and do sequences. I only did songs using the black keys though. Honestly most of the time I was trying to break the software, because you could hit record then play a bunch of notes. I was interested in filling the screen with as many midi events as possible and then hitting "quantize" and seeing what it would look and sound like. It was garbage.
When did you start doing it seriously then?
I did not start producing albums and taking things seriously until around 2004. My friend Jason let me borrow his SP-303 in 2002 and that was the first time I'd played with a sampler. I was like, "Do you mean to tell me I can record a fart, pitch it down and make it sound like a worse fart?" [Laughs]
What is in the mix you made for us this week?
I'd had a bunch of sounds I'd designed and a few sequences across several different sessions, wrote some new sequences on top of those and imported them into a session yesterday afternoon that became this set. I always write my best stuff "on the fly" without any effort; it's when I go in trying to do something that I produce garbage. If I put effort into making music it sounds like ass.
Is there some kind of theme that ties it together?
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This set is called called "Radical User Interface." I chose that name because the tracks make me think about pretty much that -- you know, when the barriers between skin, bone and machine disappear. I really like that. Ergonomics in music-making is so fucking crucial; it's just a very spiritually liberating thing for me. Machine romance. Arcade machines are a great example of how intuitive a music machine interface should be. You should be like "Aahhhhhhhhh" and things should happen right away without thinking or planning. Needs to be Zen.
What inspired you to focus on classic electro (not to be confused with electro house) in your production?
That distinction is very important . What people call "electro house" has nothing to do with real electro, which has its roots in Kraftwerk, Cybotron, Mantronix, Drexciya, DMX Krew, Model 500, et cetera. "Electro house" as I hear it doesn't have its roots in anything culturally rich or significant to me, and I have no idea what the title even means. I chose to focus on making electro because around 2005, Tom Knapp and Alex Peverett were really wanting to release some of my music on the now defunct label Icasea, and I'd sent Tom a folder of about 20 or 30 songs, and out of all of those he picked the ones that were electro. Together, those tracks in particular became an electro album that I didn't know I had written. It was awesome and we were like, "Yeah, let's release these." I just kept making electro after that because it's such an effortless thing for me to do and it's really fun and everyone's always telling me they like the stuff so I'm just like, "OK, whatever. Here you go! Some more weird songs for you!"
You get booked with DJs fairly often. What led you to stay with playing your original music over DJing?
Yo, real talk; I can't DJ for shit. I am so ass when it comes to mixing and selecting. And I don't think anyone is really into the music I'm into. I just like trying to make people dance with the drum machines and synths, because it's more of a total control type of situation. There are literally seven hundred billion DJs in Dallas but none of them really specialize in playing electro (exclusively) so maybe I can start doing that. I still am not really sure if Dallas really genuinely likes electro. I kinda don't want it to get popular again because then there will be absolutely no way of telling if anyone actually likes it or is being genuine.
What gear did you use to make this mix?
My new Macbook Air doesn't have a compatible slot for my audio interface so I had to use a Roland TR8 as a USB interface, and I had a Waldorf Blofeld running through the ins in the back of that. There are a bunch of software synths in there too, like that built-in analog plugin that you can buy for Ableton Live. I recorded and edited it all down in Ableton. No synth has consistently impressed me as much as the Waldorf Blofeld; it is such a thing of beauty. I think I need to buy another one. Problem with them is the operating system runs slower the more patches you have loaded, so if I have two then I can have all the patches I want and no slowdowns during sequencing or patch designing. I just realized how unintelligible that previous sentence would be to the average person.
What is your most memorable music experience of the past year?
Of 2014 my most memorable music experience was at the Beauty Bar, actually. Scottie Canfield and Luke Sardello were on the decks all night dropping the nastiest Chicago jack house shit. At the highest point of the night, at the absolute height of energy, Luke played "No UFO's" by Model 500. Had God blessed me with athletic capabilities I might have done actual backflips. I was like, "YES OH JESUS YES OH GOD THIS IS HAPPENING." I was jumping around like a cat wired to a car battery. Most fun I had in 2014 for damn sure. I was sore from dancing for like a week.
What labels have you released tracks for?
I've released music on the now defunct label Icasea, Central Processing Unit, Obsolete Future, Biosoft Records and soon to be Occult Research. They are all great people and I love them.
Do you have a favorite album that relates to the music you make?
Legofeet. When I listen to Legofeet it's like I get to enjoy the vibes of electro/hip-hop/experimental/IDM but you also get the stuff that isn't music, like Syd Mead illustrations, science fiction books, happiness, mindfulness, meditation, et cetera. The music is so aware.
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What gigs do you have coming up?
I have a gig on May 30; I don't know where it is though, I just have a text message from my friend who asked me to play the gig. I have no idea. I play a lot though, so it's not hard to miss me. I play at Crown & Harp usually several times a month.
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