Smile Politely

Fake Friend on identity and embracing limitations

Back in February, we very briefly wrote about Fake Friend. Spencer Walters has remained relatively quiet about his project since then, despite the initial buzz of the first release. Much like in February, no one really knew much about the project — short of the basic information about the project belonging to Walters. This was also the first time he had been involved with the C-U music scene as a musician.

This Friday, Fake Friend will be performing at Blips N Chitz alongside gobbinjr, Metaphysics, and n. m. garcia. I was thrilled to interview Walters ahead of the show, as the opportunity to dive in and learn more about both the project and the musician behind it was too good to pass up.

SP: Even before talking about the music itself — from looking at how it’s presented on Bandcamp, there’s a feeling of anonymity or distancing yourself from the music. Can you talk a little bit about the reasoning behind that?

Walters: In high school, I was in pop punk bands, and there was this system that you’d follow: you put together these songs, and they’re kind of like other songs that other people are making, and you put them on Myspace — back when Myspace was a thing. Then you’d add a bunch of people, and they’d find your music. The whole thing was like a selling-yourself competition. It was fun for a while, but at some point, I realized I didn’t really like any of it. I didn’t like the music as much, or having that relationship with it. So, I stopped doing that altogether, and now I just use music as this thing that I do when I have time, or am in a weird headspace. I’ll show it to my friends and put it online, but I don’t really try to make anything of it more than what it is, if that makes sense.

I don’t really want to go out there like “everyone in the world, please listen to my music!” There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but to me, it makes me feel so strange. There’s so many people making music, and I don’t want to be someone else that’s annoying, and trying to force people to listen to my music. I just put it on there, and if people ask about making music, I’ll show it to them, but I’m not going show it to people unsolicited.

We’re in a weird state of the world right now, and I feel weird as a white guy pushing my music about my thoughts on other people. There’s other voices that I think should be heard first.

SP: Moogfest did that this year too, featuring POC, trans, and femme musicians almost exclusively.

Walters: The music gear world especially feels like it’s very masculine and testosterone-driven; some pedal names are like “the Demolisher” and shit like that. So it’s awesome to hear Moog is doing something like that.

SP: Do you feel like by distancing yourself from it, it’s easier to not promote as much?

Walters: I don’t really feel distant from it. Do you mean like in terms of my face not being on things or something like that?

SP: I guess you sort of answered that with talking about not promoting yourself. But even looking at things like the hexagram track titles for the second album, or release dates for everything being in 2037…

Walters: Honestly those are just things I think are funny!

SP: To me, it felt like detachment, but not in a bad way. But that misinterpretation is bound to happen when someone else is looking at your work without knowing the full context.

Walters: Using that release date, I actually felt like I was attaching myself to it more. Expressing freedom is something that’s really important. Not “freedom” in the American sense, but more in he existential sense that we all limit each other’s freedom, and the healthy ways to express personal agency. Maybe that’s getting a little too abstract, but making the release 2037 was funny to me, because why would Bandcamp allow you to do that? I was trying to figure out the latest date they allow you to set, and was originally going to make it 3000-something, but the latest is 2037.

Sometimes I’ll get caught in YouTube holes, and it’s always mindblowing how much music there is out there. I’ll listen to something and be really surprised it came out in the 80s or the 90s, or even things coming out now. Music, to me, has become this atemporal, anachronistic thing. Joe Meek’s “I Hear A New World” came out in the 50s, but the way it’s recorded sounds like it couldn’t have come out in that time.

But ultimately, it’s a way to aesthetically present music in a way that I really like. I like that millions of Unicode characters exist, even though in English we only use 26 characters. Symbols can convey a lot in almost every direction, but words can only convey a lot in a smaller range of directions. I like when you can look at something and have a feeling that’s completely your own. So the title of the first album can be anyone’s title.

SP: Allowing people to project their own definitions without outright telling them, kind of like my interpreting this as something to do with anonymity.

Walters: That’s kind of how it works out in every case. In some ways, I do want to stay a bit anonymous with this.

SP: In addition to how the music is presented visually, there’s a really consistent sonic characteristic throughout everything as well. A lot of grit and grain is present in all the songs, especially going from the first release to the second. Considering how electronic music relies so heavily on things sounding clean and polished, what was the driving force behind going in the complete opposite direction?

Walters: There’s a few reasons that keep popping up in my head, kind of like a ferris wheel. I’ve always liked things that sounded a little bit gritty, and I’ve always liked being able to hear the equipment behind the music. When things are really clean, you’re still hearing the equipment, but you’re hearing equipment that sounds really clean. You can hear, over time, how recording quality has changed. In the ‘30s, there was one microphone in the room picking up everyone. Then in the ‘50s, there was tube equipment, solid state in the ‘60s. Everything started going digital in the ‘80s and ‘90s, all the way through today. But now we’re in this weird time where everyone thinks “man, I really like when everything sounded dirty.” It kind of goes back to music being atemporal, how things can sound dirty now in a way that sounds like it’s from 2018, even though it’s on equipment from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I was also really into making lo-fi house music, like DJ Seinfeld and Ross From Friends. When I started doing that, it was exciting to find other people into making music that sounded like it was recorded to tape. There’s something really crazy about hearing something like a voice getting louder & equipment responding to that by distorting. It’s almost like a person punching a wall with their voice or something. And even when equipment is really clean, that emotion will still come through. But I really like feeling like the equipment is pushing back against the person.

SP: It’s funny how that kind of thing is eventually re-embraced. When everyone jumped ship in the ‘80s from analog to digital synthesizers, it brought the price of many really notable ones down significantly. And now they’re being rebuilt & re-released with the flaws that initially made people get away from them.

Walters: It’s crazy. I had a friend that had a Juno 60 that he’d gotten for about $500 in the mid-2000s, because there was no demand for them at the time. And now they’re going for something like $2000.

SP: What kind of equipment are you using to get some of these sounds?

Walters: At a certain point, I decided I wanted to go “legit” with my music things, so I actually bought a copy of Ableton Live. It’s really nice to actually own it; now when it checks for automatic updates, I don’t have a panic attack about getting caught pirating. I also really like DX7 sounds, because it’s the keyboard sound of the ‘80s. I’m not using that, but I did land on this free plugin called Dexed that does a similar thing. Coming up with sounds on that is so hard, and it was hard in the ‘80s with the DX7 too. So I think everyone just stuck with the default piano sound, which is what I’m doing too. All the leads are on the Tal-U-No LX, which is an emulator of the Juno 60. Bass sounds are coming from Dexed too; I found a few different presets I really like.

Making house music is interesting, because there’s not really a need for a cohesive sound. You can just mess around with a synthesizer and make a six-minute-long track, as long as it doesn’t get boring. But I was trying to make things sound cohesive, and it’s a really difficult decision to make. With something like a guitar, I don’t really have to think about how I’m going to shape the sound, because the guitar will always sound like a guitar. But with synthesizers, even though each synthesizer has its own sound, it can also have a million other sounds, so choosing something to stick with is difficult. It’s kind of why I gravitated towards the DX7 and the Juno; they’re very much “classics,” but they also sound really nice together. So I just use those for everything. If I can imagine a live band for this, it’d be something like a drummer, a bassist playing a real bass, a DX7, and a Juno. 

SP: What about that lo-fi quality? Are you bouncing everything to tape & bringing it back, or is it all still done in plugins?

Walters: It’s all still in the plugins world. I have a gratuitous use of the Toneboosters Reelbus plugin, which I really like because it’s not trying to emulate the really high-end Studer 2” tape machines. Most plugins try to do that, which is fine, but ends up still sounding very clean. Reelbus adds a lot more grit, and that’s really nice. It’s emulating a lot of older TEAC tape machines, which weren’t really the best available.

I would program all the drums and put them through the Reelbus. Then, once I recorded two more tracks, I would take a fourth track and record the first three to that one, emulating bouncing one a 4-track cassette recorder. And then I would put in another Reelbus plugin on that, so it was emulating recording it twice.

SP: That’s such a fascinating way to approach it, because it’s almost crossing over from “I’m emulating this other thing” to “I’m working with all the same limitations and workflow of the original, but in a completely different space.”

Walters: I’m a little pedantic about things sometimes. Sometimes it’s really nice to work with the limitations of the original. For that reason, all the high frequencies on the drums and vocals are a little dampened. I’ll throw like 10 Reelbuses on there sometimes, just to see what it sounds like. And it’s interesting, because it doesn’t add more distortion, just more tape characteristic.

SP: Especially in the context of Ableton Live, it’s interesting to talk about limitations. That’s a program that’s made with having as many options as possible available. Does forcing yourself to take this completely different approach change how the songs themselves are constructed?

Walters: In some ways, yeah. I always set limitations when I start making something, just to see how the limitations end up working out. With songwriting, I usually limit myself to just using the electric piano. I also try playing the electric piano all the way through for each song, instead of cutting together different takes for verses and choruses. That adds a sense of continuity, and experiencing that continuity is really important for recording. I don’t do that for every instrument, though. With something like the Juno, I’m writing those parts as I’m piecing them together. And with vocals, I’ll usually do only one; if I do more than that, I’m singing to sing well instead of singing a song, which is a different thing altogether.

SP: You’ll be playing these songs in a live setting soon. Is this the first time they’re being played live?

Walters: This is actually the second time. The first time was for a student group called Amnesty, which has this event every year called Jamnesty. I played there, but in a very different way. I used a Launchpad, and cued up samples, but didn’t really play any keyboards. There were a few leads played on a keyboard, but for the most part it was launching samples. I felt really distant from that, and it felt really weird having everything cued up on a Launchpad. It felt really weird, so this time will be more keyboard. This is the first time I’m playing like this, so it really does feel like the first time.

SP: Does playing like this feel like you’re breaking that anonymity?

Walters: In some ways. Playing any kind of show is breaking anonymity in some way, I think.

SP: This approach seems more personal.

Walters: Definitely. You can definitely hear the songs and lyrics a lot more in this way. It’s going to be a drum loop in the background with keyboards over it, so a much more stripped-down performance. I think of it as when a rock band does a stripped-down performance, and the lead singer will go up and play acoustic guitar and sing. I’m taking that same approach, since there’s a lot less going on.

SP: Is your latest release, the song “idk,” intended as a standalone, or will it end up a part of a bigger release?

Walters: I’m trying to figure that out. There’s some songs I’m bouncing around, and I think it’d be really cool to put out ten songs in a cohesive album. I’m hoping to do it, and I hope it’s not just its own thing. If not a full album, then definitely an EP or something like that. There’s a lot of notes in my phone about how to arrange songs, and old songs I forgot about that I think could work if lyrics were added. But then there’s the thought of “will this fit, or am I just recycling old stuff.” But we’ll see. Once I find the time to write more, I’ll do it.

Fake Friend will be performing this Saturday at Blips N Chitz, alongside gobbinjr, Metaphysics, and n. m. garcia. The show starts at 8, with a $5-$7 suggested donation.

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