WMC 2010: Q&A With King Britt, Playing His Album Release Party at Electric Pickle Tonight

Photo by Pier Nicola D'Amico
King Britt has never been an easy talent to pin down. The main common thread, perhaps, throughout the career of the easy-going Philadelphia artist is one of experimenting. In every genre he tackles, he's always been a little out in left field. That's been true from his beginning as the DJ for the jazz-hip-hop hybrid act Digable Planets, through his robust house career, on to his latest forays into live electronic improvisation.

It's perhaps the house heads who most fiercely embraced him at first over the last decade, and King has given them plenty to get warm and fuzzy about. His signature sound is soulful and funky, chock-full of collaborations with new and exciting vocalists, but it never devolves into hippie-ish crunchiness. There's always enough of a tech-y bite to send you straight to the dance floor rather than the spa.

At the same time, recent years have seen another side of King, with experiments like 2006's The Nova Dream Sequence, an outer-space techno adventure that ran through any number of cutting-edge gadgets, including even a hacked Gameboy Advance. It's the side you'll hear more of from King these days, who, along with his fiance, the vocalist Rucyl Mills, is lately all about Saturn Never Sleeps. It's a monthly live improvisation night he throws in Philadelphia, fusing avant-garde electronic music with jazz and visual art. It's also a label, a blog, and generally an umbrella brand for any number of next-level projects.

But before he floats completely into orbit, King's got a last hurrah with straight-up dance music. Enter Intricate Beauty, his new artist album for Nervous Records, which he celebrates tonight at Electric Pickle. It's his final traditional dance album -- although he'll never stop DJing it, he says -- and it's a sexy, classy epilogue. You can listen to the lead single, "Now," um, now, to get a feel. It's a sunny track featuring vocals from Astrid Suryanto, which bubbles slowly into a melting puddle of soul.

Crossfade caught up with him recently to chat Saturn Never Sleeps, Intricate Beauty, and the wonders of Ableton Live. Check out all of King's WMC appearance details, as well as the full Q&A, below. 

At the Intricate Beauty WMC event, with vocalists Astrid Suryanto and Rucyl, and DJs Vikter Duplaix, Dego (2000Black), Rich Medina, and Lumin. 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 24. Electric Pickle, 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Tickets cost $15; age 21 and up. 305-456-5613;

At the Pacha NYC presents: Nervous All Nite party, with Oscar G., Behrouz, Chus & Ceballos, and others. Party goes from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. the next day, Thursday, March 25. Parkwest, 30 NE 11th St., Miami. Tickets cost $30 in advance from; age 21 and up. 305-350-7444;

A the One Night Only party, with Adultnapper, Bad Boy Bill, Josh Wink, Steve Bug, and others. Party goes from 10 p.m. to 12 p.m. the next day, Friday, March 26. The Ice Palace, 71 NW 14th St. and 59 NW 14th St., Miami. Tickets cost $45 in advance from; age 21 and up. 917-723-9381;

At the Sundae Pex pool party, with Hector Romero, Rich Medina, and others. 12 to 9 p.m. Saturday, March 27. The South Seas Hotel, 1751 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $15 in advance from 305-538-1141;

Crossfade: So tell me about Saturn Never Sleeps, which you brought to Miami recently for Art Basel. It's an event, and a blog, and a label, and what else?

King Britt: Saturn Never Sleeps is a brand, basically, that we've kind of fallen into. What happened was, we were asked to curate a Sun-Ra tribute back last year in July, for a Sun-Ra exhibit that came to Philadelphia at the ICA. We put together an electronic improvisational band to kind of pay tribute to him, but in a non-traditional jazz way. We took micro-edits of all his recordings and reconstructed them live, using improvisation.

When you say "we," you mean you and your fiance?

Me and my fiance curated it, but it was me, her, Damon Bennett on keys, Tim Motzur on guitar, and Jason Senk on visuals that night. Then we thought, "Wow, this is awesome, we should do it more often." Then we got a call from the World Finance Center in New York to do the same thing over there, the same show. So we decided we needed to do the same thing every month, and bring in our favorite electronic musicians and combine them with jazz musicians. 

So we started a monthly in Philly at the Painted Bride Art Center. We've brought a lot of people from the L.A. scene, and mixed them with a lot of jazz musicians, like Ben Neill, who plays MIDI trumpet, and different musicians from Philly as well.  

Our other thing is, we showcase a lot of visual artists, as far as video. So we've had Peter Kirn from Create Digital Music, and Vade, who is well known in that scene. So we really love to have the kind of visuals improved as well, and that's such a fantastic addition to the live show.  

So now, we're going to Istanbul the week after next, and then Berlin, and it's just becoming a kind of big thing. Then my fiance does the blog, which is kind of expressing, this is what we love that's out in the world, in electronic music and kind of experimental performance art sort of stuff.

The label is going to showcase all of the music that we are starting to do, and the acts we are signing that are more on the experimental front. The first act is the Soul Litchfield album that's coming out in June. We also did a sampler that's available for free on the Saturn site, and we did a project called Ramon Tejada -- a collaborative effort that sounds like Aphex Twin, or Autechre. So it's all things we love that are very electronic, or are kind of left of center, which is my new focus.  

How does the live collaboration work? What do you all start with -- is any of it rehearsed?

Each time it's different. We never rehearse, it's always improvisational. We start with a click track, and we just create from scratch right there. Now, I'm starting to bring different created loops that I do at home, and use them as the foundation for different songs, using those elements. I have maybe over 1000 elements that I use at any given time, using Ableton Live, using the ATC-40, Kaosilator, and a few other toys.  

Are you still using that modded Gameboy Advance? What other gear are you using?

Yeah, once in a while. It's hacked with different software, including Glitch DS, which is amazing, as far as making electronic IDM experimental beats. (Laughs). 

Rucyl, she uses different pedals, the Kaossilator, a Kaoss pad, all kinds of things for her vocals. And then the different musicians, they bring their magic to the table. So like, in Istanbul, we're using musicians from there that we haven't even met, but we've met via the Internet. So it's going to be very exciting to go to these different cities, and it really becomes a cultural exchange that we're excited about. But, you know, we're not doing any of this in Miami for conference.

So while you're still doing all this experimental stuff, are you still DJing house as much? 

I still DJ every weekend, I'm in San Francisco now while I speak to you, and I played an amazing party last night called PST, so I still love, and always buy dance music, and I'll always DJ it. But as far as producing dance music and that sort of thing, I'm still going to do it, but in a different way. It'll just be more experimental. I'm really starting to get into more left field dance music, not so much four on the floor. So the album that's out now, it's kind of my last hurrah as far as traditional dance music. If you're familiar with the Nova Dream Sequence and the more techno stuff, that's where I'm going, and of course, Saturn Never Sleeps is going to be the home for that.  

So you just did an album for Nervous Records, and you've said it's your last traditional dance music album. Did you know it was going to be your last while you were making it?
I just kind of decided that after it was done. It's not that I didn't have a great time making it, it was fantastic. But I do all types of different music. I just produced two songs for King Sunny Ade, and I'm working with Bedouin Soundclash and producing their new album. I'm always looking for the next kind of boundary-pushing challenge for myself, and I just don't feel challenged anymore with the way dance music that I'm known for has been going. I just decided, okay, I'm just really going to go head on into an experimental world.  

If you've been doing all this experimental stuff, when and why did you write this material?

It's funny, I was working on a project with my good friend, and we had some demos that I was shopping around. I sent some to Mike, the owner of Nervous, and Mike was like, "We should do a King Britt dance mix CD." And I was like, "Well you know what, if we're gonna do that, I'd rather do an original album and then mix it, which is more challenging for me." I've always used Ableton Live, but I really really took it full-on last year. I just wanted to have a project where I could really, really learn what Ableton Live's capabilities were.  

What did you use before?

Before that, I used Logic for like 15 years. I used Ableton, but not in the capacity that I use it now. But Live 8 had just come out when I was starting on this album, and it's one of the best programs I've ever used. Creatively, it's a whole different process and method in making music, and I thought this was a good project to kind of learn the software inside and out. 

Are you still planning to release the live pack with all the elements of the tracks?

Yeah, it's probably not going to be until the end of the summer or so. I want the album to come out and breathe and have a life of its own, and then maybe have the live pack come out, where people can have fun with the live parts of the album and put their own perspective on them. I think in the next 10 years, a lot of people aren't going to want to just buy the record, they're going to want to buy the parts, and then make the album the way they want to hear it. I think that's going to be the new frontier, especially in DJ culture. Instead of, "Send me the track, I want just the song," it's going to be, "I want all the parts, and then I can do my own edit."

What about Ableton is so much better for your creative process?

It's more intuitive. It allowed me to pull out a lot of my old synths that I haven't used in years, because I can play everything into it live, I don't need to use midi so much. I can just play everything, and I'm able to manipulate it the way I want, in time. The whole idea of Ableton Live is to put audio in kind of a way where you can put things in time quickly without having to time stretch or go through the process of getting it into the same BPM. Now, you just put in 100, for example, and it saves you like hours of time, so it allows me to create quicker. You can create loops quickly and efficiently.  

That's probably the simplest, most glowing summary I've heard of that software - I hope they sponsor you now!

(Laughs). It's funny, when they first, first started, I got approached to be sponsored by them, and they definitely sent me all the new software, updates and everything, but I was so into Logic. Sometimes you're afraid of new things. When things work, I don't like to change, I like to keep the process the same. But in the past two years I needed to shed the old ways of doing things, because it got a little boring. When Live 8 came out, I was just like, "Whoa, this is the next level." I think it was a way to change everything, how I DJ, every aspect of what I do.

So what kind of music are you going to play out at conference, especially your album release party?

I'm going to play house, leaning more a little towards the techy side of things, which is beautiful, because the lineup is perfect. We've got Dego (2000Black) who's playing his very futuristic soul stuff, and Rich Medina, who's of course more Afrobeat and percussion-based, and Vikter Duplaix, playing his deep house, and myself, I can branch out into the techy stuff. Next year, it's definitely going to be a whole different ballgame! (Laughs).

Have you had any backlash from the house heads, or do you find that your fans are embracing your changes? 

It's funny, because I've been so diverse since I started, from doing my hip-hop stuff, to doing my acid jazz stuff, and whatever, people who are into a King Britt project, whatever it is, they seem to embrace it. Those who don't want to, they don't have to, you know? If they like one of my other albums, but don't like my new one, then maybe they'll like the next one. I don't focus on that, because as soon as you start to think that way, that's when you start to criticize your own music taste and your own music, and the art suffers, and you start to cater towards the crowd instead of satisfying your own passion, and going for what your inner voice says. 

You have another date coming up in May. Will you still be playing behind the album, or are you going to get more experimetnal

It's still behind the album, but definitely moving gradually, spoonfeeding the more experimental stuff. So I'll be playing some dubstep, some more techno stuff like The Nova Dream Sequence, and maybe some of the Saturn Never Sleeps stuff. By the fall, I should be doing more and more experimental stuff in my set. 

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo