Not to get all Dos Equis guy on you, but, we don’t do band interviews often; when we do, we like to feature bands that are newer on the scene that we think are making music that’s somehow distinct + awesome. The debut full-length from Brooklyn-based Erin Hoagg (AKA Rare DM), Vanta Black, definitely hits those marks. Brooding with layered vintage synths but made more human with Hoagg’s personal lyrics, the album is a perfect aesthetic marriage of the digital and the organic for us.
We took a little time to talk with Hoagg about her album, her approach to writing, terrible boyfriends, and the mysterious namesake of the album, which you can listen to in full below; buy it via iTunes or your favorite independent record store.
Photo + album cover by Lissy Elle Laricchia.
raven + crow: First off, thanks for talking with us—we really dig your album. This being your first, I’m assuming it’s been a long time coming. Have you been writing/recording + performing as Rare DM for long?
Erin Hoagg: Thanks so much for asking me to do this interview!! I am excited to talk with you. Very happy you like Vanta Black.
I used to call my project Errmine, which is what I named my soundcloud in high school, and about 3 years ago but it didn’t feel like it properly described my project—I had grown so much musically since then, and my sound has really evolved. I changed it to Rare DM when I released my first single off the album (Almost a Year) and really feel like I’ve done the right move there. I have been playing shows for about 4 years now and writing music for this project for about 5 years, though I have been making up songs since elementary school.
Yeah, totally makes sense to rebrand yourself in that since when you’re moving into a whole new set of audiences. So, I don’t like to play the comparison game with bands or pigeonhole music too too much, but how do you describe Rare DM when people ask?
I usually start by saying I make music with analog gear and play live with all hardware. Then the question gets more tedious if they wanna know “who” I think I sound like. I’m not trying to sound like anyone so it’s a funny question. It’s much easier when people are familiar with electronic music. I got asked that question recently and the convo went a little like: “Well do you know The Knife?” “No.” “Early Grimes?” “No.” “…Ladytron?” “No.” “Molly Nilsson?” “Geneva Jacuzzi?” “No.” “Ok…Kraftwerk?” “Kind of.” I just kinda hit dead ends on all the electronic references I thought they might know and then just said “Ok, well I make music with drum machines and vintage synths and I’m told I sing like a crooner.”
I’d say that works. Since you brought it up (and I was already curious) what are using in terms of synths and other hardware for the songs on the album? It has a very distinct sound.
Why thank you!! Distinct is a fine word.
Synth wise you are hearing a lot of Juno 60—whenever there is an ARP, it’s my Juno. When you hear that dusty sounding vibraphone or a ‘human voice’ that’s my Casio CZ 5000, which I found on the street in SoHo. Drum-wise I am using a Elektron Machinedrum and some rare little vintage drum machines. Think Quiet has some toy keyboard on it—I wrote that song on a Yamaha I bought for $5 in a junk store. I used Logic to record the album (I’ve switched to Ableton since—much better), though it was mixed in Ableton by Patrick Canaday. It’s annoying if you don’t use the same DAW ( digital audio workstation) as your engineer because you can’t just give them the project file, you have to bounce everything separate and make sure you line it up perfect. Super happy to be using Ableton now, for a variety of reasons and definitely to not deal with that anymore.
Oh, man, thanks of the detailed break-down—I’ve been thinking about getting a Korg MS-20 for a bit now and I feel like this has given me a lot more to think on. Also, I totally miss the great, random things you can find just being thrown out on the streets of NYC. You get NONE of that here in LA.
I read that you one-take improvised some of the lyrics on the album—true?
Sometimes I write lyrics beforehand, though a lot of the time I’ll make a synthline/bassline and/or drum beat etc and loop it and sing on top of it. If I’m feeling really fucked up or inspired I either hit something special or maybe it’s complete chaos and I throw it away or frankenstein it. The song “Softboy” for example was made that way—looped synth line, two takes of Machinedrum, then I riffed the whole song and never changed it; that’s why it’s a little meandering at times. I didn’t change any of the pacing or put multiple takes together. That is one vocal take I didn’t touch. Same for “Best”, and most of “Wholehearted”. I think my lyrics are very raw and sad in all of the songs and I was thinking about my romantic situation and disappointments. The changes in pace of the improvised Machinedrum take(s) affected the riffed vocals because I played off of them, same goes for whatever synth is involved. I try to give variety in my vocal takes and really dig into my pain, sometimes it ends up being a good song without me changing anything, or it feels like I shouldn’t because I wouldn’t want to make it less “real” and “honest”.
I honestly never would have know if I hadn’t read that—impressive. As you alluded to, I know many of the songs that make up the album were sparked by a pretty big break-up—do you feel like there really is a significant connection between experiencing pain or misfortune and the creative spirit, the whole tortured artist trope? Or maybe it’s more about experiencing significant moments, positive or negative?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently—when I was happy in that relationship I was in a way singing less / writing fewer lyrics, though having so much fun composing/jamming/writing more industrial and techno things. It sucks to think I have to be miserable to write good lyrics. If that were true I would have to be perpetually unhappy to write anything good, which isn’t ideal. I have written a lot of things while very sad, within a relationship or not, and this might be silly but I have definitely had my own sad songs make me feel better. If I’m really sad and I wanna feel less alone, I guess listening to my own take on my sadness can help me think. To further answer your question though, passionate moments positive or negative definitely make for great music. Much more so than boredom or apathy I think. I wrote a song recently that I would actually call “happy” which is something pretty much none of Vanta Black is. I play it live and I have a lot of friends saying it’s my best song, which makes me feel good. I am interested in writing songs that aren’t all sad or angry. I love darkness, dissonance, and somber sounding things though I like the contrast of writing lyrics with a dark instrumental that can still be happy. I haven’t done as many of them but I’ve got a few. Working on more.
Cool to hear. I feel like some of my favorite music is some combination of somewhat sad or melancholy music or lyrics with totally upbeat lyrics or music, respectively.
Not to get too personal, but reading your essay on “Jade” my main takeaway was ’This guy sounds like such a jerk’. But then without that relationship, maybe a lot of the record wouldn’t exist; or at least, wouldn’t exist as it does. Are y’all still in touch at all?
First, thank you for reading!! I tried to be light-hearted with the essay but I guess it’s mostly just sad. My friend made me laugh because he texted me “you lose your phone, get locked out of your house, and fall off your bike independently of him being a doof” and that made me smile. Thought I should share that.
To answer your question, no. He was wildly important and I am too heartbroken. I loved him so much. I had more fun with him than anyone else, he made me laugh more than anyone, he liked all the same music as me, we had amazing chemistry. He wasn’t good at making me feel safe though, and he was inconsistent. Absolutely atrocious at communicating in general; especially when he was far away.
If you want me to get personal—we broke up and I wrote all these songs, then he came back, ‘ready to be serious’ or something after the “Jade” time period. We were back and phenomenal for about a year and a half. Then, guess what—he got a temporary job in Amsterdam with that friend of his. FML right?? He literally met my entire extended family in July RIGHT before he left for that job and everyone loved him, we were better then ever, then he goes to Amsterdam AGAIN and disappears. He gets back and starts being all flighty and weird. He moved in with me when he got back from Europe and then lost his shit out of absolutely nowhere after about 2.5 months saying he “loves me but needs to be alone” so I’m kinda in that FOOL ME ONCE SHAME ON YOU, FOOL ME TWICE SHAME ON ME zone. He can’t bounce back from that again. Besides my friends would kill me. Also I have no interest in being friends with someone who has hurt me so bad.
Eesh. Yeah, sound uno good. On to better things. Speaking of, I love that you titled your album Vanta Black—that stuff fascinates me. Why do you feel like this darkest stuff on earth is a good analog for your debut?
Thank you!! I love it too. The darkest manmade pigment seemed appropriate for my darkest hours. I haven’t been as mad and/or sad before as I was when recording this album. Maybe it seems melodramatic, though most of my music does come from dark times, and most music I listen to isn’t happy-sounding either. I don’t really like Major keys. I definitely don’t write with them often. Vanta Black is neat both as a tangible thing (the pictures of the pigment are really really cool) and as a word visually. It is a beautiful combination of words. I like everything about it and, to be honest, when I was changing my project name I was considering calling myself Vanta Black. Rare DM ended up being more fitting, though Vanta Black still had a place in my heart, and I knew it would be something. Also when Lissy and I took the photo that ended up being the album cover, it really solidified my decision. That was definitely the mood of the album.
Have you ever seen the namesake in real life? I haven’t but I feel like the images you can see online can’t possible do it justice, right?
I have not had the pleasure of seeing any of Anish Kapoor’s works with the pigment in person (his studio has the exclusive license for it’s artistic use) though I have seen lots of imitation pigments that aren’t quite as insanely dark. They are still very cool though, and I look forward to seeing Vantablack S-VIS (the paint) in person someday.
I know you’re based in our old home of Brooklyn—what’s the indie electronic scene there like these days?
It’s definitely very active, especially the DJ scene—it’s easier to find great electronic shows that are CDJ-based at places like Bossa Nova Civic Club or Mood Ring, although live electronic acts do play there too. It’s really cool when that happens, and I’ve been to many other great live shows at house parties and places like The Glove. I have some great friends that are synth nerds and super tech-y and it’s really fun to have people come over, or go to their studios and jam. I love talking gear. Secret Project Robot is about to shut down, though there are a lot of great electronic musicians that play there. In a way NYC seems pretty indie rock heavy, though you can find your electronic peers if you know where to look and go to the right shows. Also buying gear is a great way to meet other electronic musicians—especially at Control or on craigslist!!
Any favorite venues to play? I fear most of the ones we loved before we left in 2014 have since shut down.
Yes—RIP 285 and Glasslands and DBA!!
Pouring out a 40 as we speak.
As for places I have played; Elsewhere has an amazing sound-system/lighting and they are very professional. Same for Mercury Lounge and Rough Trade. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing Market Hotel or Baby’s All Right yet, though everyone who works there is great and I’m looking forward to it someday. The Glove is a favorite, and Trevorshaus, where I am playing on May 11th is a great DIY venue. You’ll have to ask me the address outside of this interview if you want to go though. 😉
Noted. I also read that play your shows fully live, right?
Yes!! I play with Octotrack, Machinedrum, drum triggers and noise synth. Along with my vocals.
That’s awesome. Any time I see a largely electronic band that’s doing something more than singing to pre-recorded track, I’m into it. So is that just you or are you building out a band for shows? And what’s technically involved in doing everything without so much pre-recorded? Sounds excitingly overwhelming.
Just me!! Not currently building a band. Some day it would be cool to have a live drummer or something, though I want my project to stay a solo project. You just have to be good at midi syncing your gear and uploading your samples correctly. It’s not that hard once you get the hang of it. There is a learning curve to the Octotrack, though you totally fall in love with it after you get past the initial headache.
Can you tell us about any little-know local bands we should keep an eye on?
Look out for Hot.throb, Hara Kiri, Longer, Ray Rose.
Thanks and will do. Do you have any fun album release plans of next month?
Yes I am playing May 11th at Trevorshaus with Umru (PC music), my best friend from Montreal, Margo, Gooddroid, and Stress. It’s going to be very fun.
Think you’ll hit the West Coast to support it?
Yes definitely!! I want to play Part Time Punks in LA ASAP, and want to play San Fransisco soon!! I am working on it.
We’ll definitely keep a look out. Thanks again of taking the time to talk and congratulations on an excellent debut.
Thank you!! Great talking to you raven + crow.