Erika and the Octopus
It sounds like a children's fairy tale in Detroit techno. It is.
The Octopus is a midi sequencer which Detroit-based DJ, composer, and electronic musician Erika holds close to her heart (and her live sets). It looks spacey with a round LED-lit board, looking a bit like a Lite-Brite. Even though genoQs discontinued the Octopus after it shut down in 2011, Erika is probably “the only person with an Octopus as a hand luggage.” It's an on-tour essential which she can compose with even without the aid of a laptop.
Raised in a household of science and music, while other girls were playing with Barbie dolls, Erika was fiddling with old computers, building her own machines and running a BBS (bulletin board system) from her bedroom before high school. The co-creator of the Interdimensional Transmissions—which reps artists like Sal P, Derek Plaslaiko, Alpha 606 and BMG, her collaborator from Ectomorph—her recent debut album Hexagon Cloud is a return to science and music.
Take her video for "North Hex," for example. Every tone of the song is sent to a different machine, including numerous computers, a WWII submarine oscilloscope and video synths, captured live with real-time modulations and—gasp—in one take.
The music video for "North Hex" by Erika is simple, yet complex.
The album is named after the storm cloud at the North Pole of the planet Saturn, her tunes are spaced out and ethereal, cold at times, warm in others. Erika breaks through all those "shee-jay" clichés: she's all about the music. It isn’t about presentation, her display of sexuality or outfits, frills and fluff. She is just damn good at working the gear, being inventive and letting her brain speak through the speakers. We spoke to Erika from her Detroit studio about getting tech, starting with sequencers, and her beloved Octopus.
Noisey: How did you start working with the Octopus? Is it integral to your music making?
Erika: I was at a point where I was very interested in a hardware sequencer, I was doing all my sequencing on the machines themselves, or sometimes with MIDI out of the computer, but nothing was really coming together for me. I stalked the Octopus online for quite some time before actually buying it, and when it arrived it quickly became the center of my gear setup, but it was far too precious to move, with its handsome wood sides, so it was only really useful for studio material. A couple years later, they made a short run of them built into a carrying case, so I replaced mine and have since used it in collaborations to make tracks for my album and to create my live PA.
How did you feel when you learned it was going to be discontinued?
I’m sure I can manage to get it fixed if I need to. And they open sourced the OS so if I wanted it to do something badly enough, I could change it.
Why do you feel as though you’re the only person with an Octopus in your hand luggage? Is it considered obsolete?
Oh, it's just not very practical, kind of heavy for having such an uncomfortable handle.
You grew up in a science and music household. Is it true you grew up surrounded by discarded computers, building your own machines and running a BBS from your bedroom before you went to high school?
By the time I was 11, I was getting into the BBS scene, and part of this was certainly building and upgrading PCs. Hardware was getting faster, bigger, more colorful all the time, so I became quite comfortable with the insides of machines. I ran a board for a few years, and probably stopped running it around 10th grade, when I started getting way more into music and my focus shifted away from doors and "elite warez" and into the real world.
How minimal do you keep your live rigs and studio rigs? What’s the difference?
The live rig is super focused, with the Octopus controlling a drum machine, some small desktop synth modules, and effects. What I can use is limited to what I can safely pack into my flight case. The full studio is more complex, adding a couple of layers on top of the live rig, an instrument layer with my vintage synths and drum machines, and also a control layer that integrates the Octopus with keys, CV, and other forms of synch and sequencing.
How do you set up for improvisational arrangements?
It’s part of how I write music. I create collections of sequences and patches that work well together, and organize them in the sequencer so that I can easily find, modify and switch between them.
Do you compose without the aid of a computer? If so, how does that work in working with a sequencer?
The sequencer is where it starts, and the computer is where it ends up. Once I put together parts on the Octopus and conceive of a track, it is brought to the main studio, where we use the computer for recording, production, and detailed arrangements.
How do you move songs from studio to live? Does the gear change much?
It depends on the origins of the track. Some tracks are composed mostly on portable gear, so there's not much to change… but if I used a synth or drums that can't travel, I have to do it differently for performance, maybe by transposing from one drum machine to another, or replacing synth parts that don't work with new parts. Some songs don't work in the live setting at all, and some are written solely for live… they definitely evolve over time.
What do you have upcoming next? Touring, an album or both?
Both! I am touring, playing a handful of live PAs around America in November, and taking it to Europe in December. We are releasing a second set of remixes from my Hexagon Cloud LP this fall on Interdimensional Transmissions, to be followed by an EP of new material gathered from my live shows.
Nadja is on Twitter - @NadjaSayej.