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Self-Directed Shoegaze: Maps’ James Chapman Takes a DIY Approach for Gauzy, Dancefloor-Ready Pop

November 1, 2009
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0.maps“Chameleon,” from the Maps album Turning the Mind, begins with flittering synths and syrupy layers of Roland Juno-G melodies, a common feature of James Chapman’s airy, escapist music. But the words sung by Chapman—those of Marsha M. Linehan, a professor and proponent of a cognitive therapy system called Mindfulness— are about embracing, not ignoring reality. The album’s title came from a book about the practice, which helped him cope with a “spot of trouble with certain mental states.”

That self-reliant slant could be a metaphor for the Northhampton producer’s current style, which takes his well-regarded bedroom-production aesthetic and adds a layer of polish. While his previous work earned comparisons to Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine, as well as a Mercury Music Prize nomination (for debut We Can Create), he’s lately stepped away from shoegazer bands and more toward techno, blending ribbons of synthesizers (and no guitars) with driving rhythms.

“To be honest, I lost touch with the whole band thing,” he says. “I wanted to make an upbeat album, though some of it is quite dark. This album is more to the point where the first one was more abstract, especially lyrically.”

Tim Holmes, half of the ever-shifting Death in Vegas duo and a producer for acts like the Chemical Brothers, was an important collaborator on Turning the Mind [Mute], helping to streamline Chapman’s original bedroom demos with old analog gear in his Contino Rooms studio. Chapman isn’t one for unnecessary gear or self-aggrandizement; when he works at home in Northampton, he uses a Yamaha SU10 sampler and records his work to a Yamaha AW16G 16-track hard-disk recorder, as he has for most of his career. He freely admits he loves his Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 drum machine because the operators on the helpline were quite useful and professional.

“I have an OCD way of doing things, and I’m not going to change,” he says. “If you get into music, start with something like a microKorg and just find your own path. Don’t be worried if it’s not what everyone else is doing.”

Many of the synthesizer melodies on the album were created on the Roland Juno-G and the Yamaha RM1x sequence remixer, with a few extra layers originating on Holmes’ old analog gear, such as the Korg MS-20 and Roland SH-101. The signature Maps sound involves detuning synths, introducing an extreme right and left pan, and raising and lowering the pitch, respectively. It’s a simple way to get a dark, eerie sound that’s not out-oftune or clashing, according to Chapman, which was accessible with his limited setup. Bass lines get the same technique, along with a bit of tremolo to give an extra psychedelic feeling.

The driving “Everything is Shattering,” a “wave of euphoric-ness,” contains one such massive synth line set off by 12 layered tracks of vocals recorded with a radio-mic effect on an SM57 microphone. While Holmes spent hours cutting and comping layers of Chapman’s vocals, they went with the original demo takes because they had a vibe that wasn’t captured in the studio. Chapman thought he hit on something and simply couldn’t stop going back and adding extra harmonies.

“I wanted a song like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ [by Joy Division], which is impossible to do since it’s one of the greatest songs of all time,” says Chapman. “By the end, it had turned into a Beach Boys fest. So we got Joy Division meets the Beach Boys, with a bit of [Norwegian band] a-ha as well.”

The aggressive percussion on the track was the result of heavy compression at Holmes studio via a TLA Stereo Valve compressor and Empirical Labs Distressor EL-8M Mono Compressor. The vintage gear imparted a tight, crispy crunch. Another song, “Love Will Come,” added Roland TR-909 beats for an extra-dry thump and used the Machinedrum to stretch and tweak bass-drum beats into something more melodic.

Chapman prefers deep cymbal sounds, a preference inspired by the Chemical Brother’s “Dig Your Own Hole.” He often detunes cymbals and adds decay to add lots of depth and give it a fat sound. Snare patterns get additional clave or clap sounds slightly ahead of the snare hit, which results in a satisfying thwack that sounds like a group of claps or claves.

While Chapman had to forfeit his status as purely a bedroom producer after his demo tracks were mixed on Logic in the studio of a seasoned pro, Chapman prefers the shopworn sounds of standby gear like his Yamaha AW16G (“That’s how Maps’ sound is made,” he says).

“Don’t be pressured into the crap about buying the newest, greatest piece of equipment,” he says. “If you find something in the dumpster, take it home, and if you like the sound it makes, make it your instrument.”

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