The Mathematics of IDM: an interview with The Range

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The Range

On “Washingtons”, the closing track from Panasonic, James Hinton’s most recent EP as The Range, the clipped voice of rapper AZ spouts disjointed clauses about Five Percenters, Grants, Jacksons, and, naturally, the titular one-dollar banknote. The sample comes from the iconic Illmatic cut “Life’s a Bitch”, and accordingly carries its own significant history. But Hinton says he chose it in part because of its basic adaptability as a list of currency denominations. “It’s a re-ordering. Shifting his preferences, basically.”

Finding the right order to express deeper truths has been an important consideration for Hinton, who studied Physics at Brown University. His debut album for Donky Pitch, Nonfiction, was built on complex, intertwined syncopations and peppered with elements of UK jungle. But it also possessed an underlying sense of introversion; if not exactly looking in from outside the club, Nonfiction often seemed to be piping in from the edge of the crowd. “I came at jungle and breaks very much from an IDM perspective,” he explained to me, citing the importance of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher to his early explorations. “It was always very cerebral music to me.”

Since Nonfiction was released in October of last year, Hinton has been busy with touring and working on new material, often simultaneously. When I met up with him at the Rough Trade store in Brooklyn, he admitted to rolling out of bed at 2:00 pm, having worked until 4 a.m. every night that week. Though he describes himself as a natural night owl, dancing in clubs isn’t necessarily his preferred way to spend time. “I’ve learned to like going out, but I would never be out late if it wasn’t for playing shows.” It’s easy to see why he might be ambivalent about the lifestyle—at SXSW in March, Hinton played a grueling total of ten shows, and left with a bad case of sinusitis that nearly resulted in a burst eardrum.

Nevertheless, Hinton’s seize-the-moment attitude is intact: after our interview, and before his late show at Glasslands that night, Hinton planned to head over to the last of The XX’s Park Avenue Armory shows. When I saw him later that night, he was all smiles.

What’s the story behind the title of the EP, Panasonic?

When I finished with Nonfiction, I had this really abstract idea of where I wanted to go with my music, as far as the mix between original composition and using samples. But I had this one Panasonic tape from my birthday when I was like four years old. I’ve been meaning to get it digitized for a really long time but for whatever reason, I have a weird emotional hang-up where I’m not sure if I really want to see the footage. It’s one of the few source materials from when I was really young. Grandparents die and all that stuff, and I’m less close with my family than I was back then, and so it just brings up a lot of emotional things.

And so it’s a question: I’m very willing to go in and sample other people’s work, and really personal, private moments that I’m sure people never thought would be used that way, but I’m very reticent to confront my own source material. I used to sing a lot, on my own music, and really don’t do that anymore for similar reasons of hang-ups and anxiety. So it’s the beginning of that process of trying to investigate that.

I think a lot of people treat sampling as though it’s just this accepted thing and it’s fine, but it can be sort of invasive. I’m not sure if it’s germane for my music or not, but I was really focused on that when I was finishing the EP, so that’s why I called it Panasonic.

You also named one of the tracks “Sony”. Was that for similar reasons?

That’s just because I like this one pair of headphones.

I did notice that some of the samples were a little bit more recognizable on this EP. Was that a result of the same process?

I feel like I got to this very maximal, abstracted use of samples, and just for an EP I thought it would be interesting to give someone that “in,” something explicit to give someone a framework from which they can look at the rest of the music. So I was starting to think about that, as well as tying in this whole sampling question

It’s still very much a YouTube digging process, but whereas before it was bordering on an aesthetic-only choice, now it’s really considering where it’s coming from. So it’s just being slightly more selective in the sampling process

Have you had an experience where you’ve taken a sample from, for instance, someone’s video on YouTube and they’ve contacted you?

No, it’s never happened, but it started to be in my thought process right around the time when I started to tour around with Nonfiction. I just started to reverse the roles and think: would they want to be included in the music?

[Photo by Hector Perez]

In terms of this idea of giving people something that they recognize, to help them relate, this EP seems to have more of an explicit relationship to hip hop and R&B than Nonfiction.

Yea, absolutely. Certainly from a tempo point of view. There’s this thing where once you make your way into the 180 or 190 BPM range, you get hardcore stuff, but also the bottom tempo range for a lot of 90s hip hop. So, trying to get into that range and pushing some of the breaks up to that tempo is a big point. It was more of a tempo aspiration than anything. But then once you’re in there, you have all this hip hop motif to play with, the vocals, the aggression, and all of that.

What direction are you going in now in terms of tempo?

A lot of the things that I love are really contained within this 160 to 200 BPM region. With jungle, right around the late 170s it gets a little too quick. You can’t really notice a lot of the syncopation that you want to do. But I think there are some interesting treatments of breaks in that really high tempo that can really mesh well with R&B and hip hop, so I’m convinced that there’s a marrying of all of those. Right now it feels very foreign, but I think that tempo will definitely drive a lot of the decisions that I’m making on the next album.

Is that what you were emulating when you came up with the name The Range?

I’ve talked a lot about being from a mathematical background, and when you set a range of numbers, it’s all fine and well, but what happens when you approach the boundary?

In Statistics they talk a lot about that, and it’s an important question in a lot of real-world statistical data. When you get to that boundary, what happens? Is it a hard boundary? Is it soft?

On SoundCloud for example, it’s all about genre-mashing, and it’s fine, but I think there’s more to it. You have to really consider and think and be privy to all the nuances if you’re going to do it correctly.

I read that you started out as a drummer.

Yep, yep. I’ve been recording music since I was 13. The classic thing where you record the drums, and then switch over to the guitar, and put them all together on that little stupid mixing board. That’s definitely why I’m obsessed with tempo and rhythms. That’s how I’ve always thought about music, from a percussion-first point of view.

You have a tour coming up with Chvrches. How’d that get set up?

I messaged them on Twitter. I really liked “The Mother We Share” and “Gun”, it’s the best pop music, and I think it’s done super, super well. I just really thought it was a fit, and it turned out that they liked Nonfiction. I’m really excited to see what they do live.

Do you listen to pop music frequently?

I do, definitely. I was recently trying to find tracks for a mix I was doing and was just going through the Billboard 100s of ‘97, ‘98, ‘99 and trying to find the lineage. I’ve always listened to radio a lot.

What radio stations do you get growing up in Pennsylvania?

None. There’s an oldies station called The Hawk when I was really little, and they’d put on shows. I remember going to see the Steve Miller Band when I was like seven or something, and it was really good. Looking back there was literally nothing playing any hip hop at all. There wasn’t even a popular music station where I was from. You couldn’t pick it up.

My grandparents were on a farm, and I was probably driving 20 minutes from school, which is kind of far when you have to wind up a mountain to this open area and stuff. It’s only two and a half hours from New York, but in a way it couldn’t be further.

Are you currently working on material for a new album?

I have maybe seven tracks firmly done that would definitely be on the album if I had to choose today, and then another ten or thirteen skeletons. I want to keep working through the summer, hopefully get out something this year again.

You live in Providence, right? What’s that like?

So, so quiet. Basically, the downtown area is four square blocks, and then it rapidly goes into suburbs. But I love it. It’s a beautiful city. There are some clubs, but it’s mostly EDM- y stuff, like I’d never be able to play there if I wanted to, and there’s a couple of bars, and the shows are all really house parties. That’s where all the culture really is for me. In the house parties.

In Providence, I understand where I fit in, whereas here I’m not so sure that I really do. I’m a bit of a workaholic. I like to just be in my apartment and work as much as I can. In New York it’s harder to do because your friends come through, and you want to go see more things. I think Waka [Flocka Flame] came through Providence last Fall and that was the last thing I really wanted to see there. There’s no real reason for you to go out, so you can just do the work and get better.

Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?

No. The most important criterion for a perfectionist is that you can’t finish something. I definitely get to a point where it is done. I remember I had a friend that would just get to the point where he could never finish papers, projects, assignments, music, anything. Because it was never good enough. Once I saw that, it really hit home that I never wanted that to happen. I don’t accept something that’s bad, but I don’t punish myself like a lot of people would.

I put my first album out when I was 15, and I never really got the anxiety problem. I was just handing out CDs, the internet is obviously a different thing, but I guess I just never looked at it that way.

The Range's Panasonic EP is out now on Donky Pitch.

Tour dates:
11 Lupo's – Providence, RI *
21 Marquee Theatre – Tempe, AZ #
22 The Depot – Salt Lake City, UT #
24 Ogden Theatre – Denver, CO #
28 The Ritz – Raleigh, NC #
29 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – # SOLD OUT
30 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – # SOLD OUT
02 Terminal 5 – New York, NY – # SOLD OUT
03 Terminal 5 – New York, NY – # SOLD OUT
04 Terminal 5 – New York, NY – # SOLD OUT
24 Le Guess Who? – Utrecht, NL
29 Primavera Sound – Barcelona, ESP
19 Pitchfork Music Festival – Chicago, IL

* – Fred Falke
# – Chvrches