By Jon Mueller   Published May 16, 2003 at 5:26 AM

Since the '90s, James Warchol -- who has been in Milwaukee bands for 20 years now -- has been exploring different methods of songwriting through various means of instrumentation.

As a guitarist in his band, Sometime Sweet Susan, foundations were laid which eventually expanded into his broader style of writing evident in his current project, Loam. Using the computer as an instrument has opened new doors for songwriting in general, and Warchol has carved a niche as someone who uses the device to connect melody and rhythm in new and refreshing ways.

Read on to learn more about how he approaches electronic music, and how Milwaukee plays a role in his work.

OMC: How did you begin working as Loam?

JW: As my band, Sometime Sweet Susan, was winding down, I started working on more experimental material on my own. SSS had explored some experimental territory, but not to the extent that some of the band really wanted to. So really, in 1995-'96, I started searching out old gear -- keyboards, sequencers and such, and just started messing around, trying to figure out what sounded good and what didn't. It took awhile, and many unfinished tracks, to really feel confident about what I was doing. I'd always liked electronic music a lot, even going back to early house music and before, like Kraftwerk and some early techno-pop stuff. But I had always considered myself a guitarist first, so part of what I had to work through was using different tools to create music.

OMC: What does the moniker mean?

JW: It is a type of soil. Dirt! I was scrambling to think of a name since I had two tracks that were going to be on the early Topscore compilation, "Gain Structure." My wife Beth was a geography major, and she came up with the name.

OMC: What is your view of electronic music in Milwaukee? How do you think the reception for it is here based on other larger cities?

JW: I think it is surprisingly healthy in Milwaukee. You've got Topscore, Crouton (the author's label), Zod, Wobblyhead, etc. ... all have stuff distributed by Forced Exposure and Bent Crayon. Plus you have guys like Casino vs Japan, which is a pretty recognizable name to people who follow electronic music. I think for a city as diverse as Milwaukee is, and considering its size compared to Chicago, people who go see music here are pretty receptive to electronic music in a live setting. I think something like Absorb (at Redroom) helps expose people to it more as well. Plus, clubs like Redroom, Onopa, The Commons and The Social are receptive to hosting such events. Though every once in awhile, I'll still get somebody who needs to come up to me at my laptop, as I'm playing, to ask me if I'm playing solitaire. Just like being in a band and some jerk yells "Free Bird!"

OMC: Describe your approach to making music.

JW: I usually start with an idea, probably a looped sample, and I try to build upon it. It varies if it is a rhythmic loop or a textured loop. Everything I do is sample based now, whether it is me sampling myself or me taking a recorded piece and manipulating it. I'll build a song using several tracks, adding layers and effects as needed. I try to structure them in such a way so that they will be able to be recreated live.

I try to play with the tonality of my samples as well. Sometimes added certain effects will create a whole different tonal range. Otherwise, adjusting the actual sound quality will create some drastic results as well.

Most of what I do, as I create a song, has a element of chance to it. Sometimes patterns reveal themselves as I crop loops layered over each other. I also like to leave some loops a little loose sometimes, so that they create an offsetting undercurrent that may not be perceived immediately by the listener.

OMC: How has this approach changed over the years, and how do you see it progressing?

JW: When I started doing Loam, it was all hardware. The first album was done entirely with my Akai MPC 2000XL sampler, a Roland drum machine, a borrowed ATC-1 synth that I sampled the hell out of, and other assorted hardware. The new album was all laptop and software.

My sampling approach varies. I'll record audio with my minidisc recorder, then into my laptop. Source sounds vary track to track. "We Have Negative" has a bunch of sampled guitar that I played. "L@dy n my Life" is constructed entirely from samples of Michael Jackson's "The Lady In My Life." I sampled my dog, Lucky, chewing a Kong toy, and used that on the album. For my first Stasisfield release, "meditations (on ashKroft)," I recorded the audio of John Ashcroft's horrible, tuneless patriotic dirge "Let The Eagles Soar," then chopped, sliced and hacked the audio into unrecognizable little bits. I like to think I did him a favor.

I like working this way, and imagine I'll continue like this for awhile. I do like setting some restrictions for myself as I work on certain tracks. For the Topscore Range series, I wanted each track to be 1:11 exactly, and I only used one software program -- GIRL. I have some ideas for new tracks that may have similar approaches as well. Some of my new stuff has been on the more minimal side, and my most recent Stasisfield release, "Double Live Bonzo," has a political angle to it as well.

OMC: How do yourlive performancesdiffer from when you work on a recording project?

JW: I play my tracks live. The sounds are already established for each track, but the arrangement is manipulated live, and effects are triggered and adjusted on the fly. When I'm recording, I can lock in any adjustments or effects sweeps into the arrangement so I don't have to play them each time. I'll do all that manually when I play live.


OMC: What types of software do you use, and how do you see those as both creative and restrictive?

JW: I have a Powerbook, and I use Ableton's LIVE and GIRL almost exclusively. I do use Peak for sound editing, and Reason for sound creation, but LIVE and GIRL are the main two right now. Both are sequencers that are sample based, but each one has distinctive qualities. They both are versatile, powerful and easy to adjust while playing live.

OMC: A very tired question, but seemingly disputed by some-- Is the computer an instrument?

JW: Absolutely! If sound can be generated and manipulated by a human that is using it, then yes, it is an instrument.

OMC: Tell us about your new CD, "Terra Obscura" and how it is similar or different to your first full-length release as Loam.

JW: The equipment used was completely different, but the tonal approach is similar. I think the new album may be a bit richer sounding. I also wanted to alternate between long and short tracks on the new album. The long tracks were all done in LIVE and the short ones were done in GIRL. There are more guitar samples on this one as well. I think they both fit together style-wise, but I hope "Terra Obscura" shows a step forward for me. I think it is a bit more adventurous. My goal with each release is to not fall into any predictable patterns. We'll see if I accomplish that or not!

OMC: Any upcoming shows or other news?

JW: May 17, at the Redroom, part of Absorb and June 20, at Onopa with Miles Tillman, Mr. Projectile and Adam Johnson.

"Terra Obscura" is out on Top Score on May 13.