Who In the World is ATTLAS?
He's not Deadmau5, but he can make a Rihanna song sound like Boards of Canada.
In 2013, I ended up at this weird magazine launch party in Los Angeles with Jeff Hartford, better known now as ATTLAS, the electronic music world's new wonder boy who until recently had people thinking he was actually Deadmau5 releasing music under a new alias. We immediately hit it off geeking out over our shared love of Taylor Swift and how we had to hide that from “serious” music people all the time. Speaking a mile a second, he enthusiastically told me about how he was listening to Swift as much as the new Sleep Research Facility project, a recording of wind sounds from the South Pole placed over ten minute long drones. Since that night, he has signed with Deadmau5's record label mau5trap and released a handful of songs online that have rabid fans calling him the next great electronic producer. On June 6, he'll appear in public for the first time opening for Deadmau5 at Verboten in Brooklyn for their Governor's Ball after party, and fans are speculating widely about what he'll look like, whether he'll show his face, and whether it will actually be Joel Zimmerman who walks out onto the stage in his place. Spoiler alert! None of that will happen, because ATTLAS is definitely Jeff Hartford, Jeff Hartford is a real person (who doesn't want his photo taken).
The possibility of any of this seemed a million miles away when we were in L.A. Eventually he told me about his new daily life since moving from Toronto to Santa Monica, where he was interning for the film score composer Trevor Morris. Work in the studio was going great, but he was finding himself a little isolated in the evenings and ended up writing lots of music on his own. I gave him a lift home in my rental car, where he threw on some of the songs he'd been writing, and suddenly that unlikely combination of Taylor Swift and “wind meets drone” made complete sense. Each track had a distinct, memorable melody that rose out of layers of awesomely crafted synth tones, dark beats, glitchy leads, and even straight up noise. We ended up driving around for three hours listening to his songs and blasting everything from the latest Jon Hopkins album to “Drinking in L.A.” by Bran Van 3000. Despite being a private guy, Hartford has a lot to say when he's really into something, and it was obvious that this was a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about music. He returned to Toronto a few months later for a visa to keep working in L.A., and while there, he doubled down on songwriting and e-mailed one of his best tracks to Mau5trap. They were floored and signed him.
A series of his songs and remixes started trickling onto the internet late last year, starting with a remix of his label boss's "Aural Psynapse," and culminating in the six-song Siren EP, his first in a trilogy of EPs soundtracking a femme fatale story. Along the way, he also took apart and recast Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" as a melancholy, Boards of Canada-like dirge, and put together a haunting piano cover of Aphex Twin's "Make a Baby." It's all over the map, showing that Jeff Hartford has his sights set way beyond fist-in-the-air EDM festival anthems, and may be standing at the beginning of a long career of pushing the envelope of electronic music production and crossing genre boundaries. This was obvious when we got together a couple weeks ago in his basement studio in the Toronto suburbs to talk about everything that's happened since that car ride in L.A. when I first heard his music. The place is littered with instruments—several electric and acoustic guitars, a banjo, a mandolin, a bass, and a keyboard—and his computer and a pile of gear. Lately, he's been recording two-hour DJ sets every night to practice for his first show, and I walk in while he's noodling with a super bass-y dark house track. He lets it go in the background while we sit down and talk.
Holy crap, how many different instruments do you play?
Jeff Hartford: [Laughs] A lot I guess! I was fortunate to be able to grow up around a lot of musical instruments. My first paying gig was playing trumpet in a jazz club on Sunday nights. My introduction to playing music was an old piano we found tucked away in the unfinished basement of a Michigan house my family was moving to. I bought a used bass guitar in grade school because it was the only way I would be allowed in a band and a banjo off a bartender in Edmonton. I fell in love with guitars shortly thereafter—one of the deepest rabbit holes of expenses and time!
Do you find yourself moving between instruments when you write?
I write most, if not all, of my music first on a piano. It's the only instrument I own where I can play ten different notes at once. It gives me the best chance to explore melody, arrangement, and harmonies without gaps of silence while I search for or create a synth patch. It's the first instrument I played, and it has become the cornerstone of all my creativity. In searching for melodies and arrangements for my songs, I'll often play guitar or other instruments atop the recorded piano version of the track. It's a more organic way of writing and working for me and keeps me thinking about the pieces in new ways. Locking in on a melody on a guitar may translate differently when I write it in as a synth line, for instance. The timbre and texture of the notes, not just the melody and arrangement, can greatly influence an emotional reading or interpretation.
ATTLAS press photo
Did studying composition for film affect the way you write music now?
Everything I've ever done and experienced plays a role in my creative output, so yeah, definitely. Writing for film means having a narrative, character, geography, and time in mind. You have a visual component that supports the music, and the music supports the visual. In shifting to music without a screen and characters dictating an emotional context, the music is then scoring the listeners morning commutes, nights out, studying, cooking.
Think of music as a ribbon running by. It has to be experienced as a duration of time. It has to be experienced against the last note, and it informs your opinion of the next one. Think of the "Kuleshov Effect"; you're shown an image of an expressionless man, then a bowl of soup. The interpretation is that he is hungry, the look on his face is hunger. The same image of the blank face is shown, but this time a cut-away to a coffin. The viewer, the audience and the mind interprets his face now to be one pained with sadness. The same effects have to be extended towards musical ideas if you want those deep and connected emotional resonances. My mix for Pete Tong's Evolution show and my mini overture for the Siren EP were ways of achieving this. If I give the listener rain and a wistful romantic narrative before April, does that inform the listen differently if I had given them a thunderstorm and a pre-battle speech from an army general?
So is the Siren EP meant to tell a story? A lot of people online have pointed out its cinematic feel.
I won't give it all away, but I will say I greatly value being able to release an EP like Siren. "Luna" won't come out as a single, and a track like "April" would come across as trying to achieve too much without the support of the other tracks. By being able to release works outside of the single-cycle, I hope that listeners have a chance to sink into the waters of the story. There's an ebb and flow of these tracks, with moments for emotion and moments for energy. There's real character development and an arc that resolves itself in the final tranquil moments of "Luna."
Let's address the elephant in the room. Were you surprised when people kept thinking you were Deadmau5? And was it flattering or just weird?
You know, I can understand why the rumours began in the first place and why they took hold. I'm extremely private by nature. I've never had much of an online presence. No one on mau5trap, my management, or myself began, supported, nor commented on the rumour. It was an organic, ground-up rumour that made sense to a lot of people. Even Deadmau5 tweeting that he himself is not ATTLAS was not enough. And it makes sense, in a way. In a time when all our lives are online, how can you prove someone exists if you can't find their social media history.
What's interesting is that while the Deadmau5 influence is undeniable, I know an even bigger influence for you is Boards of Canada. What is it that you like about them so much?
Boards of Canada has a wonderful balance of patience, integrity, and aura. I feel like those qualities are instrumental for success not just within music, but in all things. So I guess they speak to something bigger, in my mind.
Who are some other influences that people haven't really spotted? I know you listen to tons of music, so it's funny to think people would just hear Deadmau5 in your stuff.
A lot of jazz. A lot of orchestral music—I listen to a lot of Wagner. A lot of piano, a lot of ambient, a lot of darker and deeper techno, and a lot of pop. I can't rule out a genre or an artist without listening and trying to appreciate their music in context. There's a home, a time, a mood for everything. Mark Knopfler is my favourite guitarist, maybe his patience in his solos bleeds over to the way I approach melody and space in a track. Bill Evans is my favourite pianist, and his delicate but confident way of using the instrument has definitely informed the way I balance my piano touch.
And you can't ever rule out pop. Outside of massive marketing budgets and brand support, people won't listen to music they don't enjoy in some way. The Max Martins of the world know a hook, they know melody, and they know how to make extremely tight arrangement decisions. There's something to learn from every nook and cranny in the music world. Amon Tobin samples chair squeaks for his granular synthesis. Geoff Emerick stuffed sweaters into the bass drum when recording The Beatles. I also listen to a lot of Wendy Carlos. Go listen to her piece “Rocky Mountains” from Kubrick's The Shining and you'll hear a lot of the way I approach the smeary synth sounds I love.
So you definitely know your way around the studio, but you still haven't played a live show to date. How are you getting ready? Is the whole approach different?
You've gotta walk before you run. I love good DJ sets, I love good live sets. Whether your tour means throwing the best party the club has seen, or taking your audience on a journey through instruments, sounds, and moments, it's really about who's there to share a night with you. I'm extremely fortunate to have that opportunity. I want each time to be catered to the location, environment, and audience. I'll approach set outdoors during the sunset differently from an AM club slot. I have new edits, unreleased music, keyboards, samples and energies that I craft specific to each show. Wouldn't it be a thrill to curate a set you've always wanted to attend? That's a thrill I can experience now, and nothing could make me happier as a musician and a fan.
You can't find Greg Bouchard on an ATTLAS either. — @gregorybouchard