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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

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In Music

Manual Controller is the nom-de-synth of Paul Schwarzkopf.

In Music

Manual Controller Paul Schwarzkopf at the manual controls.

Manual Controller caresses "Salutations" out of '90s synth set-up


Though "Salutations" is the first CD by Milwaukee-based electronic musician Manual Controller – whose family calls him Paul Schwarzkopf – Schwarzkopf isn't new to the scene.

He says the record, "has been a dream of mine since I was 8," and his road to making it began with him behind the drum kit, making more traditional music with groups like Mokpoi, Calumet and Turpentine.

Holing himself up in his attic – which he says is frigid in winter and super-heated in summer – Schwarzkopf set to work on his electronic debut. But, thanks to his background, we might have expected he'd work in some live drums, guitar and other more traditional instrumentation.

"Salutations" – released over the summer – is, consequently, a varied mix of sounds and moods, that is heavily rooted in the hardware of 20 years ago. Schwarzkopf eschewed samples and built the disc's nine tracks from 1990s-era gear.

We asked him about Manual Controller, about making "Salutations" and more when we got the chance to hit him with some questions recently...

OnMilwaukee.com: I'm interested to know first-off how you came to make electronic music; what's your background.

Paul Schwarzkopf: I remember being truly "introduced" to electronic music, when my brother brought home a copy of Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy" EP. I remember we stood there and listened to the song "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball," which as the name suggests consists of these drum samples, which are sequenced and delayed so that they sound like they are being bounced like a ball. It was an audio-ligious experience. After I dug into Aphex Twin, I began this quest to find other electronic music, which exuded a similar quality, combining standard western composition with electronics.

I had been playing drums in rock bands for 10 years, and every single one of the groups I was in eventually disintegrated, so I said "what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks, I'll write my own stuff." Little did I realize that one has to know how to play a pitched instrument to write music. So I started taking piano lessons and tried to figure out how to use a synthesizer, a drum machine, and how to actually produce something that doesn't completely destroy people's ears.

OMC: The record was made with all-1990s vintage gear. What attracts you to those? And what do those allow you to do that other gear wouldn't?

PS: I got really lucky when my brother, DJ Alcoholic, decided to no longer make his own "My Satanic Bass Drum Will Shatter Your Face" style music, he gave me a bunch of his gear, which he accumulated during the rave era of the '90s. I'm too poor and un-knowledgeable to use analog equipment from the 1970s, the '80s stuff makes me feel like I am in a crappy mall, and the new stuff is expensive, so I picked up a bunch of other pieces second-hand that had a similar flavor, and they all just happened to be from the same decade. It eventually became kind of a weird obsession trying to have all my stuff be from the warm-and-fuzzy era of Bill Clinton.

What I like about digital-analog gear from the '90s is that it has MIDI so you can use it in a modern studio, but it still contains a sort of raw, immediacy about to it. A lot of the pieces I use were built as instant dance-machines, so it's fun to twist and tweak the hell out of them, so that the last thing you would want to do is dance.

OMC: You also augment with guitars and drums and other instruments, too, don't you?

PS: Synth-driven music as the name suggests, I think, can start to sound synthetic after a while. So, I tried to supplement the tracks with at least touches of "real" instruments, when an idea struck me. I had a friend play some saxophone and two of the songs on there were done as part of a guitar-player friend of mine's master-thesis in Liberal Arts. We approached them extremely liberally – pun intended! – and just recorded things the moment they popped in our head, overdubbing synths and drums in a wild frenzy.

One of my favorite parts on the album is me playing two notes on a busted-up, missing strings Fender Stratocaster, which I found in my attic, in which I had to turn the tuning pegs as I played to prevent it from going out of tune. I also enjoyed taking my voice and running it through a Vocoder, followed by as many distortion pedals as I could find.

OMC: I noticed the line on the booklet that said no samples were used in making the record. What compelled you to point that out to listeners?

PS: This was and is me being a snob. The current state of electronic music seems to be primarily composed, recorded, produced on a computer, generally using samples – at least drum samples. I personally find a lot of it to be rather stale, and lacking in "growl." So, I wanted to make an entire album that was produced, sequenced and tracked live with 100 percent hardware. I mixed it on a computer, but tried to use as much outboard processing as my limited skills would allow.

I didn't want the album to have a sheen or a gloss, or an ambient/spaced out feel, which modern technology is real good at doing. I wanted it to sound like it was recorded in a swelteringly sweaty or frigidly, bitter unfinished space, which it was.

OMC: Tell us a bit about your life outside of music. What do you do for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper and why, as the record's press release notes, do you smell like lavender – do you moonlight at Laura Ashley?

PS: It's sad but for the past couple of years, I haven't really done anything outside of music. With every available moment, I locked myself in my attic and tried to finish this damn thing. As for myself consistently smelling like lavender, I think that goes without saying, "Before you dress, Caress."

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