If you follow major media outlets, electronic dance music is all the rage nowadays. It has all the makings of a major news story: money, fame, drugs and overblown egos. Up here in the Pacific Northwest though, we have our own spirit of electronic music spearheaded by the Dropping Gems collective/label/production company. Made up of 10 artists/groups spread from Portland to Seattle, DG is one of the foremost purveyors in forward thinking electronic music, not just in the Northwest, or on the West Coast, but across the globe. For those of you unacquainted to the DG sound, you can check out (and download) the impeccable Gem Drops and Gem Drops 2 compilations.
We were lucky enough to have a conversation with label head Aaron Meola and Seattle-based DJAO about a wide range of topics. We spoke on DG’s DIY ethos, electronic music as an innovating force, psychedelia and more. We learned that DG is a tight knit community of artists with an admirable, envelope pushing mindset regarding performance, community in music and friendship. Catch the whole interview after the jump. It’s well worth your time to dig into the minds of two of the most interesting figures in music.
First off, introduce Dropping Gems for us.
Aaron Meola: Dropping Gems is a collective/label/production company that started in Olympia, Washington, then we migrated south to Portland. Right now there are ten of us that are involved including Alex here [DJAO] and myself, Aaron.
What does a day in the life of a label head look like?
Aaron: Lately I’ve had to formalize what I do and put it into words and contexts, but basically it started as a way, I had a bunch of friends who were making music, but there was no organization behind it. No one was putting it out and people weren’t connected so I basically came in and connected the dots in a sense and gave the homies an outlet to put their music on. When it first started, we weren’t doing much production stuff in the sense of throwing shows, but that’s become a huge part of what it is. Right now, I spend a lot of time building line-ups, flying people in from all over the country, putting on shows and basically helping my friends put out music.
DJAO: The artists function as a collective, but there’s a more administrative, or top layer to everything that keeps everything cohesive and it’s basically Aaron. People pitch in where they can and everything is doing something slightly different, even in terms of medium. Some people are more oriented towards visuals. Timeboy does amazing visuals and also makes and performs music live. We had a showcase in Portland recently and he [Timeboy] did visuals for everyone and then had a set of his own at the end. Everyone is sort of working together and contributing their skills wherever they are. Aaron’s skill is keeping everyone together.
How has Dropping Gems evolved since its inception?
Aaron: Dropping Gems actually started as an interview blog. Rap Class and Gumar started it around 2008/2009 wanting to interview guys like Dam-Funk and James Pants. It was really loosely formatted and not the most polished, but that’s really what it was. Jessie, the homie Bone Rock, wanted to put out a CD and that was the first release we did. From there, we kind of turned it into a label. I took the reigns honestly. I’m kind of a doer, someone who just gets shit done. So we put out the Bone Rock CD and then a couple of other releases after that and it has just grown since then. I would say that the biggest thing that’s happened is probably the compilation, especially the first Gem Drops. Before that, we were just some friends doing something. Afterwards, people from all over the world started paying attention to what we were doing and we’ve just been running with it ever since.
Can you walk us through the timeline of a Dropping Gems release?
Aaron: Every release is very, very different, because every artist is very different and brings a different set of skills to the table. Some of us are very motivated, and those people are going to handle the mastering, the promotion and do everything themselves. Others in the crew will make the music, but need some finessing and someone in there to go through all of the tracks, going through the sequencing of the tracks and sort of sculpting it. I’m working right now with Brownbear where I’m sort of molding the shape of the release. The other thing is that I do a lot of press work. Natasha Kmeto, who I’m incredibly excited about musically, actually first hit me up to do press for her before she was part of a crew. Now she’s very much part of the crew. Everything gets and puts in something different out of it with their releases.
DJAO: I have an EP on Dropping Gems and that was basically a collection of tracks that I had been making over the course of a year. I put them all together and right at the beginning I thought I had a collection of tracks that would fit well together. Aaron and I had a dialogue process where we narrowed it down a little bit. I took those and once that was finalized, I did a bunch more production work unifying all of them, and then figured out who I wanted to do the art. At the time, we were using a particular guy to master all of our stuff [Twerk @ Audible Oddities] so I got it mastered through him. I wrote the copy for it next. I actually write a lot of the copy for Dropping Gems. Then I basically assembled all of those pieces and announced it through the label. Right now I’m working on an album and it’s more than half done, but it’s still in an early stage where I don’t know who’s going to master it yet and don’t have the artwork yet. All of those pieces will fall into place as I get closer to finishing it.
What goes into the compilation process, and how did you originally decide to start the Gem Drops series?
Aaron: I just kind of had the idea of doing a compilation. I threw our first big show where we flew people in. I had Mono/Poly and Yuck come up and play. That was a cancer benefit. We have a friend who was going through some cancer treatments at the time, which inspired that theme. With the compilation though, I was starting to formulate the ideas, but hadn’t really hit anyone up yet. But I had the idea to create a benefit compilation and decided to make it a benefit for the American Cancer Society, which enabled us to get tracks from people outside of our immediate circle. At the time I was very much reading XLR8R every day and up on the blog scene, not so much any more, but I was into what was fresh. There was a little bit of dialogue within the crew about who we should put up and what not, but most of it was me reaching out to people online. I assembled it and it turned out way better than I ever imagined. We raised a good amount of money for the American Cancer Society, but really what was valuable about it was that it got the crew recognition in a way that I think could have. The day that the first compilation came out I probably got 200 demos sent to me.
Some deride collectives/labels like Dropping Gems as just a “group of DJ’s”. What differentiates you from the crowd?
Aaron: I would say that we are heavily inspired by a lot of the crews out there like Friends of Friends, My Hollow Drum, Brainfeeder to some extent. I definitely think we take a lot of influence from that. I think at this point we’re doing our own thing with it, but especially around the time that the first Gem Drops came out, [those other crews] inspired us a lot. In terms of what differentiates us, I would say where we’re from in a lot of ways. Portland, the Northwest in general, Seattle, Olympia. Some of it is just a laidback, chill vibe. For a while we got clustered in with the LA beat scene sound, which I very much admire and respect, but at this point I kind of hope we’re doing something different. Maybe that comes across in the music or the shows we throw.
DJAO: In electronic music, a DJ is a very specific thing and none of us are really just straight DJ’s. I DJ and have a really idiosyncratic style, playing other people’s music mainly, but also make my own music too. We all do it in really different ways. Ghost Feet is probably the best example. It’s the two of them and Calvin is playing drums, triggering drums on pads and doing all sorts of stuff while Rachel is playing guitar live. They have this huge set up and they look more or less like a two person band. Pretty far from being DJ’s. Some of us are more laptop oriented than others, but we’re pretty diverse and we all make different kinds of music.
Aaron: We really are an eclectic group of people. Maybe there’s a common thread. One thing that really stands out in the music I listen to is texture and use of 3D space and I think that’s something that runs true with most of the artists. I’m not sure if Dropping Gems even has a sound per se. It’s just kind of a Northwest-y vibe, especially the three EP’s we put out last year.
Do you think that there is a “Northwest sound”?
DJAO: Field recordings of gravel you know. Water sounds. There have been times when we’ve all been into the same stuff at the same time. Chillwave was a thing for a second and a bunch of people were doing that sound, but it wasn’t because it was their sound, or the sound of South Carolina or wherever [as Washed Out played in the background]. That was just what was happening at that point.
Aaron: I do think that if someone sits down and listens to Dropping Gems music for the first time, they’ll see some common threads. There are a lot of lo fi techniques and texture and space like I was talking about and just kind of a mix of the analogue and digital. Not trying to be too digital. You’re not going to hear any womp womps or razor bass electro kind of shit. For the most part, I call it experimental electronic, which is really broad, but it’s kind of what it is.
DJAO: There’s also a pretty heavy psychedelic component across the board. Some people are more into it than others, but [the sound] is way closer to something psychedelic than something clean and poppy, or just straight party music. We pack out venues, but it’s rarely on a drunken rager tip. It’s rare that one of our shows turn into that… on purpose. It’ll happen definitely, but it’s not like our number one goal is to get everyone hammered.
Aaron: I like going to shows and just standing there, experiencing the music. I don’t really think of what I do as throwing parties per se. I don’t think anyone is trying to make party music, we’re all just trying to make interesting music.
How do you go about choosing artists to bring out to the Northwest?
Aaron: One common thread is not booking people through booking agencies. We definitely have a DIY ethos behind a lot of what we do. We’re at a level where some of the artists we’re bringing in are on booking agencies and I’m kind of notorious for stepping on toes at that end of things. For a while, a lot of us lived on the same block in Portland. We had two houses a block away from each other and we basically invited these artists that we were really into to come hang out with us for a week and play a couple shows. That was really powerful and we made real connections with people. More than anything with the people I try to bring are people that want to come be a part of our community for a few days. Not stay at a hotel room, have a bottle of Jameson chilling in the green room and all sorts of stuff like that. We try to find other people like us all over the US and further that are sort of on a similar tip.
What have been some of your best experiences with that process?
Aaron: The show is kind of the pinnacle of the experience, but for the crew, the experience is really just having these people come hang out. Mndsgn for instance. We flew him out from Jersey and he ended up staying at my house for a like month and we’re really good friends now. Groundislava was really fun. Devonwho is really good friend at this point, but we first hit him up about our very first show with Mono/Poly and Yuck and he’s probably been on 10 or 15 bills of ours since then. He’s one of my better friends at this point, so we’ve really built friendships out of it. As far as some of the more ridiculous shows we’ve done. Right after Decibel Festival last year, we did a show with Matthewdavid, Anenon, iTal tEK and surprise set with Machinedrum. I don’t know how we’re ever going to top that. The other thing that goes with the shows is that we’ve been doing it in relatively intimate venues. There’s a specific venue called Groove Suite in Portland that I really like working with and we’ve bounced around a little bit since we started doing shows, but we’re really trying to create an intimate environment where people can see off the beaten path musicians on huge sound systems.
DJAO: A lot of the artists that we bring out or book are people who are going to be big in a year. People who aren’t completely unknown, but that we found and really liked and saw potential in. I don’t want to talk big, but the way we do things is DIY for a reason. A lot of these artists aren’t to the point where the promoter circuits are going to put them on lineups, so we just make it happen. The people who know us come out to see something they don’t know and enjoy it.
Aaron: What’s cool is that, especially in Portland at this point, people trust the lineups that we bring. At this show we had on Thursday, more than half the people there probably didn’t even know HeRobust or Kone, they just know Dropping Gems is throwing the show. They know what we’re about and what we’re into. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that.
So who’s going to be big in a year? Who are we going to find on Dropping Gems lineups in the coming weeks or months?
Aaron: Honestly this dude HeRobust who we just had. I’m a big fan. He plays some pretty heavy sets on tour, but he can do some amazing chilled out downtempo stuff as well and I think he’s on the cusp of something. A prime example of what Alex [DJAO] was talking about is the Non Projects label and Anenon. We had them at Decibel Festival last year. I had a dialogue with them for a while and we were looking for the right kind of venue to bring them to and Decibel was absolutely phenomenon and perfect for it. Right after Decibel, Anenon was in RBMA [Red Bull Music Academy] and playing all over. He’s getting tons of props from XLR8R and Pitchfork and everything.
DJAO: He’s an amazing musician, top to bottom.
Aaron: The other thing is that most of us listen to all sorts of music. Around the time DG was forming, I was very much in this electronic bubble, but I everyone in the crew has opened their eyes to other stuff. I listen to a lot of drone and ambient stuff these days, but also pop music. Kind of mainstream electronic stuff. Not that it’s all my favorite necessarily, but I think it’s important to see the bigger picture of what’s out there and not have blinders on like I did for a year or two.
To see what people are listening to nowadays, and what the mass populace is enjoying and why?
Aaron: Totally! I think understanding that is the only way to get some of these underground producers to that other level if they are trying to get there.
Do you think that DG is always going to be a Northwest-specific label, or have you ever thought about bringing in artists from elsewhere?
Aaron: That’s a good question. There are a lot of ideas floating around. For a while, I was honestly thinking about leaving Portland. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Eventually maybe, Dropping Gems will become more of a label for people who aren’t part of the initial crew. This is still a dialogue we’re having amongst the crew, but I kind of see the Dropping Gems crew always being the crew and the Dropping Gems label, under the same name, being more of a label and more of a business. The crew shouldn’t be a business. That’s something we decided a while ago. At the same time, I’ve had higher aspirations for it all, so turning it into more of a label where we have the ability to put out music for other people is something that I’d like to be able to do that I think will probably happen.
What are some of your aspirations for DG?
Aaron: Doing vinyl/physical releases. Being able to put music out by producers that will sell. Not that it’s about selling music, but putting music by artists who have an audience. For a while with the whole vinyl thing for instance, I was really hesitant, because I was like, “we’re going to spend all this to get all these vinyl’s pressed and then we’re going to sit on them.” We don’t have distribution, we don’t anything like that. Now we’re at a point where there’s some brand recognition. If we put stuff out, we can get distribution and we can get the records made and get rid of them. That’s what we need to have happen to really do it.
The title of tomorrow’s event is “The Oscillating Human: Electronic Music As An Innovating Force For The Future”. How will DG be an innovating force for the future?
Aaron: I think the DIY label aspect is really the innovating force. There’s this whole proliferation of music technology that has greatly changed how music is made, how music is distributed, how people interact with music. It’s really about the internet. We’re at a point in history where things are changing. A couple of years ago, all we were hearing about was the decline of the record industry and all that, but I think the record industry is booming more than ever. It’s just a bunch of people like us in their bedrooms trying to make stuff happen. Hopefully in the next few years, those bedroom outfits will turn into house outfits where it’s still a DIY thing, but where people can make a living doing it.
DJAO: With that particular question, I have all sort of ideas. The tools to make music are just going to get simpler, more straightforward and more powerful all at the same time. It’s just going to keep happening. What it actually means to play a show, especially with electronic music, is going to continue to change a whole lot. People who don’t really seek out electronic music in live venues are kind of baffled by someone just playing an MPD with their laptop. Even if you are into electronic music and you see someone just triggering clips on a laptop in Ableton can be fascinating or completely mind numbing. I try and do things live. Some artists really take that to the next level. Mount Kimbie and James Blake are two really good examples. Ghost Feet for us are live as fuck. The tools that people have are going to get crazier and crazier, and I think it’s going to get more semantic. People are going to be using their bodies to demonstrate and perform music, 25-50 years from now. Obviously this isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but it’s commonplace now to see people do things the way they do them. The way people do things now is not at all how they were doing them seven years ago. If you stepped forward in time from back then, and went to a show today, I think it would be difficult to know what was going on. That’ll probably continue. I think it’s exciting.