This Is a Hudson Mohawke Story
On the cusp of his release of 'Lantern,' we spent a night in New York with Kanye West's secret weapon. This is what happened.
Photo by Jason Bergman
The last time Ross Birchard saw Kanye West, someone called the fire department.
“‘All Day’ was done in my studio in London, and I was subsequently sent an eviction notice after we finished the song,” he tells me. We’re backstage before his recent New York City performance at Irving Plaza, and he can’t stop laughing as he explains what happened. “We just had a huge party to finish the song. My studio’s in the basement of the Netflix building. So we set the fire alarm off for the entire building and I had an invoice for like ten grand for calling the fire department and all this shit.”
He pauses. “And that’s the least of it. The rest of it I’m not going to get into.”
Even though it's Ross who’s telling me this story, this is actually Hudson Mohawke's story—the name of Ross’s work as a solo producer—or maybe we can even call him HudMo, which he’s lovingly called by fans and friends. At 29 years old, the lanky Scotsman has become one of the most influential producers and electronic artists in the world, working with artists such as Lil Wayne, Pusha T, Drake, Azealia Banks, John Legend, and, yes, Kanye West (on top of his contract with Warp, he’s currently signed to West’s G.O.O.D. Music label). Known for inventing the bombastic and punky sound of rap music over the last five years, Ross has established himself as a hit maker. Remember “Mercy”? Or even, hey, Yeezus? Welcome to Hudson Mohawke productions.
But let's rewind. Before this Scot turned Kanye into a deity by producing "I am a God" (and producing a 42-minute long rap song for Noisey last year) where did he come from? Raised in Glasgow, he started experimenting with turntables when he was a teenager. As he told Fader in a recent cover story, he'd sneak into clubs and study DJs, trying to learn how to perfect the craft. He began competing as a DJ under the name DJ Itchy, until he got sick of it and discovered the computer program Fruity Loops (which he still apparently uses today). He started crafting the sounds that eventually would make up what he's now known for—and a friend who worked at Warp brought his material to that label. They signed him, and he released his debut Butter in 2008. It was positively received, albeit quietly.
Ross’s work went to a new level when he recorded and released a joint EP in 2012 with Montreal DJ Lunice under a production duo named TNGHT. That tiny EP—literally, it was only five songs that lasted 15 minutes and 49 seconds—took the duo from the studio to headlining festivals. And like all forward thinking artists who get success, Ross immediately knew he needed to change directions if he wanted to stay relevant. That’s where Lantern, his new album out June 16 via Warp Records, comes in.
“People hearing this record probably aren’t familiar with my back catalog, and they’re probably just like, ‘Oh, that’s the guy from TNGHT.’ Which is what I’m trying to avoid,” he says. He doesn’t come across frustrated, just as someone who wants to continue to be more than what people expect. “Because, obviously, you spend fuckin’ ten years building your craft, and if you happen to have something like the TNGHT stuff—which was so much fun and I love doing that stuff—but I would hate to be known for only that stuff forever.”
He says that the duo had plenty of offers to do full-length albums, but if they were going to do that, they “were doomed to having brackets behind our names at every single show that said, ‘the guy from TNGHT.’” He mumbles a bit through his heavy Scottish accent. “I really don’t want to be in that situation.”
I bring up the comment he made to Pitchfork a few months ago about TNGHT launching a “parody” genre. He laughs. “A lot of people picked up on that. And I didn’t think it was that big of a statement. Once [TNGHT] became this sort of fist pumping music, it was like, this was not what we were aiming for in the first place. It’s not what we set out to achieve, and it certainly was not something we were going to pursue at the expense of solo careers that we’d been nurturing for years and years and years.”
Photo by Jason Bergman
It’s a moment like that in which you see Ross as a human being with goals and ideas of how to be bigger, versus this guy who just knows how to make a club fucking bang. He wants to challenge himself to be greater, be remembered, be something. He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by the thump thump thump of the party world. EDM culture has seemingly taught us that all you need is a laptop, some talent, and one track; it’s your ticket to everything. Ross seems to believe completely the opposite, and that’s what makes him Hudson Mohawke.
However, when I ask him if there is more TNGHT work on the way, without hesitation, he tells me, simply, “Yeah, absolutely. There will definitely be more TNGHT material.”
But enough about the past and what made Ross Birchard into Hudson Mohawke. This is about now, and that brings us to Lantern, which, if Ross’s goal is to make something unexpected, he’s delivered. The sweeping 14-track record (his second solo effort) is something truly of the moment, a booming fluorescent collection of sounds that, despite their glimmering nature, are dark at heart. The album, surprisingly, features zero rappers, instead employing singers—Miguel, Antony, Jhene Aiko, Ruckazoid, and Ifane—on a handful of tracks. "The first Hudson Mohawke record was the Tweet thing," he says, referring to his twist on Tweet's "Oops (Oh My) featuring Missy Elliott. "That was like an R&B song. So as far as people now being like, 'Yo, why aren’t there no rappers [on Lantern]?' It’s like, well, my first piece of vinyl was an R&B record, you know what I mean?" He laughs. "We only cut like 500 copies of that anyway."
Lantern is built from the ground up, not really relying to heavily on samples outside of the soulful lead single “Ryderz.” A good example of its style is “Portrait of Luci,” a cheerful instrumental track that puts a synth-line at the forefront, a song that you can imagine describing a new loved one—or a moment of nostalgia for something lost to the past.
“I fuckin’ made a bunch of rap albums,” he says with conviction. “And I’m currently making a bunch of rap albums for other people. But I didn’t want that to be something to be known for. I saw a back catalog of my stuff and that’s what it was. Not that it won’t happen in the future—I’d love to make a fuckin’ rap record at some point—but I felt like at this point it was important to, as I’m saying, for a lot of people who’ve only recently become aware of me, it’s important that I show a wider palette of what I am versus just a bunch of rap bangers and fuck and fuck.”
At this moment backstage, one of the members of Ross’s tour crew finds his way to the fridge. There are six beers in total. “We should have a proper fucking rider. This is less than I get when I DJ,” Ross jokes (the truth is that it’s yet to be stocked; later there will be more booze than we know how to drink). His crew guy offers me a beer. I accept. “Oh, shit, sorry. Now I feel like an asshole,” Ross says.
These types of casual moments happen throughout the night, which continually surprises me considering Ross—as Hudson Mohawke—has the reputation of being a closed off weirdo who doesn’t like to talk about anything to anyone ever. In reality though, he’s just a regular dude. After our interview, we’ll spend about ten minutes sitting on the couch, watching old Tim & Eric videos. Later, he’ll step outside to smoke a cigarette, asking me to join. I tell him that smoking that stuff will kill him. He tells me to fuck off. When we’re outside, the line for Irving Plaza reaches down the block, but no one seems to notice that they’re standing next to the man—dressed in all white—they’re here to see. He and I start talking about John C. Reilly and how underrated the movie Stepbrothers is. We note that Reilly's actually a surprisingly talented musician. I tell him I once interviewed him about his music career. Ross is impressed. “Nice guy?” Yep. Then it’s back to Tim & Eric.
“Did you hear that last Heidecker & Wood album?”
“Fuckin’ awesome, man. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, this is whatever, trying to spoof the 70s. But, fuck, those are just some great songs.”
A random bro wearing a hat walks up to us and interrupts. He overheard us talking about John C. Reilly earlier. He introduces himself—we’ll call him Steve, but I don’t remember his actual name—and Ross extends his hand. “I’m Ross.” The guy, again, despite wearing a wristband and asking to borrow a lighter, has absolutely no idea he’s talking to Hudson Mohawke. It’s kind of beautiful: This normal guy is such a mystery, even to his fans.
We head back inside, cracking jokes about various nerdy things. I ask him what he thinks about Young Thug’s takeover, hoping he might tell me they’re working on something together. “Young Thug? Oh, I love Young Thug,” he smiles. No dice.
HudMo at Irving Plaza in New York
Tonight is the debut of Ross’s live backing band, which features Two Door Cinema Club drummer Ben Thompson and keyboards from producer Redinho. Irving Plaza fits about a thousand people, and it’s already looking to be sold-out as opener Remy Banks readies to take the stage. (Ross is sure to note to me that he loves Remy’s work and hopes they do stuff in the future together.) What can we expect from a solo Hudson Mohawke performance that features a live band?
“I guess this one is kind of like a dry run, to make sure we don’t fuck anything up,” he says. They have plans to play a short tour before some big festivals back in Europe. “I’m sure we’ll fuck up at some point.”
If the group fucks up during the performance, it’s not evident. From the start of the show—which leads with the first and title track from Lantern, a scuzzy two-minute simmering intro that lacks all melody and sounds more like a wild animal calling at night through a vocoder—to the end of the hour and a half long set, the band brings a stirring amount of energy. Ross, now as Hudson Mohawke, stands behind a bunch of pillars that look like they’re from some sort of space station. Behind him, rows of lights shoot to the ceiling, rotating and changing colors with every beat on every song. It’s the type of room where you feel the sweat when you walk into the space.
Telling me about his live approach to Lantern, it’s maybe what excites Ross the most. “It doesn’t have to be done as a DJ set,” he says. “It’s fairly adaptable. I’m excited to have the live thing, because it’s something I haven’t really done on my own before, except standing in front of a laptop or some shit.”
Photo by Jason Bergman
Once again, Ross is challenging himself to not be what is expected of Hudson Mohawke. It makes sense that this guy is so attractive to an artist like Kanye West. He’s constantly frustrated by the boxes in which artists find themselves, and he’s always looking for ways to not be trapped. “I find it kind of annoying that you finish the record and then it takes fucking six months to get it out or some shit,” he says. “I’m fucking almost done with the next record. I know from experience of working with others that sometimes it—like, we finished Yeezus and it came out one week later.”
Hey, speaking of Yeezus, I ask Ross if he wants to tell me when the next Kanye record is coming out.
“No,” he laughs. “I do not want to tell you that.”
After the show, we’re outside the venue and he’s again smoking a cigarette. I again tell him that’s going to kill him. He again tells me to fuck off. I ask him if things feel weird, the more famous he's become. "It doesn’t really feel that different from when I was working the bar in Glasgow. There certainly are pinch yourself moments, but for the most part it’s not much fucking different. I think maybe other people can get a certain impression of me, or the wrong opinion of me because they’ve seen me do something with someone and they think I’m an asshole." We’re set to head to a bar in the East Village, maybe he’ll play a surprise guest DJ set. But he needs to run back to the hotel to “drop off these laptops.” For a moment, I wonder what he has on there. Probably some unreleased Kanye song featuring Young Thug, Pusha T, Vic Mensa, and Fetty Wap.
“I’ll text you later,” he says, and disappears again.
Eric Sundermann is Noisey's Managing Editor. Follow him on Twitter.
Jason Bergman is a photographer based in New York. Follow him on Instagram.