Starbucks, Sunlight, and the Hierarchies of Cool: A Conversation with Teen Daze

Photo Credit: Teen Daze

I’ve never been much of a shuffle guy, Jamison tells me. I’m not surprised. Jamison, better known as Teen Daze, is a Canadian recording artist who first garnered widespread attention in 2010 with a multitude of swirling, atmospheric compositions and remixes that he posted to his tumblr account. He released All of Us, Together, which he calls his “first real LP,” in 2012, and has since kept up a steady and yet widely varying stream of releases. Alternately nostalgic and hopeful, upbeat and melancholy, forceful and reserved, his musical repertoire spans everything from synth-laden dance beats to droning, ambient instrumentals.

Despite the seemingly erratic nature of his repertoire, there is a definite intentionality to Teen Daze’s work. He does not randomly flit between genres and moods like an iPod on shuffle; rather, each of his albums and EPs represents a cohesive thought, a vivid depiction of his life at the time of the recording. Across the board, his pieces share a captivating and deeply heartfelt quality; it is all too easy to close your eyes and get lost in his sprawling sonic worlds.

I caught up with Teen Daze in June a few days after his set as Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn. Those who follow his Bandcamp page are likely to know that he is a passionate student of philosophy, so after spending some time discussing our favorite pastimes (he’s an avid tennis player and has a crushing addiction to Reddit) and TV shows (he loves Friday Night Lights and calls his knowledge of The Office “savant-like”), I cut right to the big questions.

In 2008 you spent seven weeks in the Swiss alps studying philosophy. Is there any sort of philosophy or general theme that you try to portray in your music?

The general thing that I’ve always wanted to get across with the project is this idea of community, of music bringing people together. Even though the sound and the concepts change from record to record, from wintery and cold and nature themed to more electronic and synth based, it’s always about sort of getting over yourself and not being so concerned with hierarchies of cool and those things. They’re all so useless in the end. It’s like when people go to shows and they’re too afraid to dance – it doesn’t matter! We’re all in this thing together and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Listen: “Treten” (All of Us, Together)

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Has your career as a musician and a performer changed the way that you experience music when you go to concerts and festivals?

Yeah, I think so. It can be tough because a lot of times I find myself thinking about things that I wish I wasn’t thinking about, like technical aspects of shows. So if I go to a show and something sounds weird, it’s hard for me to get over that.

I also get stuck in the mindset of a performer. Like, a couple nights ago I saw Alex G in Vancouver, and the amount of people I bumped into who were not there to listen to him felt really bizarre to me. I kept thinking about how tough it would be to play your set to a whole bunch of people who are basically just there to hang out and drink beer. That’s the sort of stuff that I feel like happens to me more often than not now; it’s rare that I can go to a show and it can just be a show. I really relish those moments now when they do happen.

As a one man band, you have the ability to write, record, and produce every aspect of each of your songs. When you play live, how do you navigate that transition from your ability to control everything in the studio, to being one guy on a stage?

It’s definitely been a big learning curve. When I first started I had no idea what it was gonna sound like live, and the first year of shows was really shaky. Now what I’ll usually do is cut up each individual sound or loop in a song, throw it into an Ableton file, and then on stage totally build it back up, bring in loops and take out loops, and do all the effects live. It might mean more work while I’m onstage, but it’s also that much more gratifying. That way, the audience sees it as like, “oh, he’s not just pressing play in iTunes.”

You want people to feel like they’re seeing a real performance.

Yeah. That’s actually something I struggled with a lot in the beginning, and part of it was just the fact that I was coming from a totally different world of music. I’ve been writing songs and playing in live bands for a long time, so I really felt that drive to perform my songs rather than just DJ them.

Another part of it was that in certain parts of the continent, both America and Canada, it took people a while to get used to electronic music shows. Early on, crowds seemed really thrown off by the fact that there was no guitar, no drums, no real band on stage. It felt like I had to convince people that I was actually doing something up there. But now that electronic music is getting more popular, it’s becoming a part of people’s vocabulary. They understand that even though there’s no band on stage and no physical instruments, there’s still a performance going on, and that still takes skill.

I’ve noticed that almost all of your albums are available on vinyl. Do you prefer listening to music that way? If not, is there any specific reason you decided to sell vinyl copies of all your records?

If I’m on my computer browsing the internet or if I’m going for a walk or something then I’ll listen to my iPod, but the music always feels sort of secondary. When I want to really listen to something intentionally, then I’ll listen to a record. I love the experience of hearing a whole album start to finish, and I hope that people experience my music that way. Each of my albums has some sort of overarching concept or theme to it; I don’t think I’ve made one album that’s just been a bunch of random songs thrown together. I want people to listen, like verb: listen, not just passively sort of have it. I want people to have an engaging experience with the music, and vinyl works so well for that, because it’s a labor of love. You have to physically put the record on the turntable and drop the needle. You’re not gonna be listening to it when you’re on the bus.

Do you feel that there is a perfect environment for you in terms of music making, like a certain place or time of day that's most conducive to your creativity?

Environment is a huge thing for me, but it’s been difficult for me to find stability in that world. I made my first record in 2010, and I’ve lived in 6 or 7 different places since then and been creating in all of those places. One that really sticks out is the room I made A Silent Planet in. It was just a beautiful space, you know, out in the country, mountains everywhere. It was super easy to be inspired there.

Listen: “Surface” (A Silent Planet)

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Right now I’m creating everything at my new house, and there’s something special about this place too because it’s the first place that my wife and I have lived together. There’s a very homey sense to the idea of recording here. Actually, when it came time to start working on the new record, we talked about moving somewhere new, and one of the places we considered was Brooklyn. But I realized that the thought of trying to write a record in New York City just seemed impossible. I’m so inspired by the nature that exists all around us in British Columbia, and as much as it would be great to live in Brooklyn, I know I would be more distracted than I am here.

It’s interesting that you said that because I get this definite feeling when I listen to your music that it’s inspired by natural environments. Which is sort of funny because it’s electronic music and therefore very much based in computers and technology, but it seems to be inspired by being out in nature.

Totally, yeah. The sonics of the records are hybrids of electronic and organic sounding instruments. That’s just my life, finding a balance between electronics and the natural world. I love working with electronic music, and I also love the beauty of nature. Listening to the music, especially with House on the Mountain and Glacier, you can hear the balance between those two worlds, and that’s very much a reflection of my experience; it’s almost subliminal for me.

Listen: “Autumnal” (Glacier)

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It seems like the electronic side of your music was more present in your earlier stuff, and that recently you’ve gravitated towards more real instruments. What sparked that change?

Well, I’ve been making music on a computer for a really long time now, and so if I have a melody in my head, I can super quickly get it down into a computer song. I think I just got in a rut of doing music like that. It became so easy for me that along the way I feel like I almost forgot that there’s nothing wrong with using live sounds. It’s not like I can’t play real instruments – I’ve been playing the guitar and drums for longer than I’ve been making beats on the computer, that’s for sure – so I sort of challenged myself to get out of that rut, to stop relying so much on point and click music. And in doing that, I found this really nice hybrid of having some electronic sounds in there and also bringing in, like, literally any sound I could take a recording of in my house.

Any sound?

Yeah, pretty much. Here’s a good example. There’s a Starbucks close to the house where I made The House on the Mountain, and I remember one time I had gone there to get an ice coffee. I came back to the house, and I was drinking this ice coffee, and I was like like, “oh, sample the ice in the cup, that’s a good idea.” And so I just hit the cup a couple of times, recorded the sound, and was like, “okay, I’ll use that in the next song.”

Listen: “Hidden” (House on the Mountain)

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In general, do you start each song with a clear idea of what it will sound like when it’s done? Or do you often get taken in a new direction while you’re making the song?

Usually I have a very clear idea of how I want the song to sound before I record anything. But every once in a while, I’ll start working on something and it will go in a totally different direction. It’s like those authors you hear about who start writing a book with a specific plan, and realize halfway through that the characters have started doing things the author didn’t expect. Songs can go that way too. The other day I was working on a song and I brought in this sample, and in my head I was like, “I’m gonna build a song around this.” I ended up using the sample for like, 8 bars, and a whole other song just came out of it. It’s really crazy how that can happen.

What’s your music making process like? Do you have specific techniques for getting inspired, or anything like that?

I like to be very structured when it comes to making music. I’ve had friends ask me if I ever write music under the influence of anything. Normally the only influences are like, coffee and sunlight.

I’ll wake up in the morning, have coffee, and usually start working on something by like 9:30-10. I’ll work until the afternoon and then make sure that the house is clean and all the dishes are done and everything. So it’s a very domestic creative experience, like home recording in the truest sense. Part of the reason is just that I have a wife who works a 9-5 type job, so that means that in the evenings we want to spend time together. If she comes home and I’m at my computer nerding out or working on a track or something, she’s like, “why didn’t you do that during the day when I wasn’t around?” And I’m like, “oh yeah, that totally makes sense.”

Maybe that’s really square to have it be so structured and not very artsy or whatever, but that’s the balance that I’ve struck, and it works for me. I still write a ton of music, and I’m recording all the time. That’s just my life.

Thanks so much for speaking with me. I don’t want to take up too much of your time, so I’ll rap it up. One last question - what can the rest of your fans and I expect from you down the road?

Well I have a new record finished that I’ve written like 18 songs for. So far it’s not an electronic record, in my opinion. There are still synths on it, but it’s way more song based; it’s not quite as droney or ambient as the older stuff. There are more guitars, and it’s a little more psychedelic and full band sounding. There are some far ranging influences, everything from Caribou to Pink Floyd. I was writing these songs and I kept thinking that they sounded like 60s psych songs, but with synths in them. The record is gonna be recorded completely analog as well, so it’ll have a very different feel to it than anything I’ve done before. I’m really excited about it.

Wow, that sounds great. Any idea when it’ll be released?

I’m gonna record it this fall, and then it will probably take about three or four months to mix and master it and get it manufactured and all that. So it should come out in the winter or spring of 2015. Early next year.

For more on Teen Daze, check out his website and his facebook page.

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