The Machine Stops Meets Woulg: Interview with Greg Debicki

Festival season is in full swing, and just around the corner is the five-day psytrance and techno extravaganza known as Eclipse Festival. It takes place this year in Sainte-Thérèse-de-la-Gatineau, where all will be surrounded by beautiful scenery, but most of all, by beautiful music. I had the opportunity to talk to Montreal-based composer and new media artist Woulg last week about his music and his perception of the psychedelic scene. Initially I told him the interview was going to be twenty minutes long and we ended up talking for almost an entire hour. Here is the full interview, I hope that reading it is as much of a pleasure as it was to conduct it.

Thinkbox: This is CJLO 1690 AM and we have here with us in our studio a fellow Canadian, Montrealer, and technological wizard. Please welcome to the CJLO studios and to The Machine Stops – Woulg. Hi!

Woulg: Hi.

Thinkbox: How are you doing?

Woulg: Good, how are you?

Thinkbox: I'm doing good, thank you. So first of all, tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Woulg: My name is Greg Debicki and I make music under the name Woulg. I'm really interested in glitch in my music but also in performance. And I've been making music under the name Woulg for 8 or 9 years now, and I moved to Montreal about three years ago. And since then I've played kind of all over Europe, in Colombia, Vancouver last year for the international symposium of electronic arts and I've taught lectures at NYU and Berkeley College of Music at their masters campus in Valencia. And I'm just playing some festivals this summer – kind of these more free..hippy festivals this summer, and I'm getting excited about that.

Thinkbox: Yeah, that's actually crazy impressive. And in addition to the universities you've taught at, I know that you also have a music studio yourself where you also do private lessons. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Woulg: That's true, it was initially lessons in person and lessons via Skype, and now it kind of turned in to just lessons via Skype. And when I started I kind of thought it was going to be like a medium amount of fun, but it's really really exciting and really stimulating and inspiring. I've got students kind of from all over – from all ranges. I have some students that were Berkeley alumni, some students in Australia some students from China. The Chinese students use like a VPN to do these kinds of lessons, and it's crazy because everyone has a different perspective on music and honestly I feel like I found all these kind of... it's kind of been this really amazing way to of gathering these kind of kindred spirits, you know, other musicians that happen to have a very similar approach or similar ideas about making music as I do. I feel like I learn the same or maybe more from my students than they learn from me. 

Thinkbox: Oh man, that's so crazy. Like, when I read about it I figured it was just maybe more people from here, from Canada. But to have students from all around the world that's such a crazy different perspective because there must be, I assume, some element to it that – where you see different inputs as coming in from each country.

Woulg: Yeah. It's weird though. You certainly have a little bit of the cultural side playing in to the way people think about and make music. But as far as making really weird glitch music, that part sort of takes a back burner, and what is more apparent in the way that they make music is their musical training. I have a couple of students that have more of a jazz training, or more of a classical training, and some students like who are not formally trained and so they come at it from a kind of like electronic music perspective of hacking things together. That plays a lot more of a part than I think the cultural aspect. Although there is sometimes those funny almost like language barriers.

Thinkbox: And in terms of people who are coming from the electronic music side of things uniquely, how do you think that people who are like that have affected music in general? Do you think its become a more open thing? 

Woulg: Yeah. I think it's really interesting. I went to go see a talk by Brian Eno when he was in Calgary a long time ago. One of the things – I think this is from that talk, I don't know, my memory's not that great - one of the things I think was in that talk was he was talking about how making electronic music allows you to come at making music with more of a sort of graphical approach. It's like a visual approach to making music. It informs your musical decisions in a way, and I suppose that composers have had that forever with writing down their scores on paper. You see it sometimes with some students that they're really really in to colour-coordinating their Ableton tracks. And they have like really nice gradients of like, "this track is this," and they're super tight about naming all the tracks nicely and everything and that plays a part in how they organize their music and how their music comes out and how they sound. And I think that really, yeah, it has a huge effect on how music is made and how it sounds.

Thinkbox: Definitely. I know a lot of people who are producers who when they learn how to produce music, they kind of just go at it when they have let's say FL Studio or Ableton or what have you and they just kind of mess around with it until they find their style and until something works. What do you think are the pros and cons of that approach?

Woulg: That's a really good question. I've actually been thinking about that so much lately. It's funny that you ask that. Okay, so the other approach, to lay it out I guess, to define the terms, I feel like the other approach is seeking out YouTube lessons or tutorials or whatever, or coming for lessons from somebody else or an academic kind of approach to it. And then versus kind of just hacking at the software and seeing what comes out. There's definitely, I definitely learned more from just picking up the software and hacking at it and just trying to find different ways of doing stuff. There's definitely a lot of interesting things that come out of that. And I think part of that is that you find ways of using the software that maybe weren't the intended uses. My favourite example of this is my friend Alex. She makes music under the name of Lost Creatures. She's brilliant, like a really really brilliant musician. And I remember when she just started using Ableton... she was making this really really tight minimal techno – like really clean minimal techno – but she was making it like she didn't know about the grid. Like she didn't understand about how the grid worked and everything. So she was making like 128 bpm super-tight minimal techno. Super quantized sounding. Completely off the grid when the grid was set to like, 140 or something! But it sounded so cool. She would come to me for advice sometimes, and I would always say to her, "Don't take my advice like, whatever you're doing is working and it's working so well." And you can see now she's kind of blowing up in the city, and she just went to Calgary to play at Sled Island. And that's sort of the magic of just figuring out your own way. Part of the cons of that, is that you're in a way more prone to sort of imposter syndrome, and there are some things for example that are really easy, but it takes a long time to figure out. Like, I don't know if I have any examples offhand of this; there's often that sense of, "I want to learn how to do this thing" and then you hack at it, hack at it, hack at it, and you cant figure it out, and then you look out a YouTube tutorial and it takes you five minutes to actually learn how to do it. Yeah, there's pros and cons.

Thinkbox: And a little bit about your projects. The one I've hearing the most about online is definitely Ring Buffer, which I understand was toured pretty extensively here and a little bit in Europe. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how it worked, because when I read about it, it just totally blew my mind, because I didn't understand any of what I was reading, I was like, "That's amazing, but – what?" And I watched a video and it made a little bit more sense, but at the same time, I was still like, "Okay, I need elaboration on this" because this is just so crazy and so much bigger than I can imagine.

Woulg: I'm really glad to hear that. Thank you. The basic idea was to play a little bit with data bending and to sort of do a full circle of data bending. I don't know if you've ever done that thing where you use Google Translate to translate from one language (to another). So say you'd go English to French, French to Spanish, Spanish to Polish and Polish to English and you see it like a game of telephone.

Thinkbox: And it come out something totally different?

Woulg: Yeah! So that was maybe one of the inspirations of the project, but not really the main focus of it. So what I did is I started with... I was messing around with some 3D modelling software. I was using Maya, and I started just writing python scripts for procedurally messing with generating weird shapes. I wasn't really trying; I'm not a good 3D modeller, I don't do 3D stuff. I like messing around with it, but I'm in no way good at it. Part of the fun of it was just sort of hacking at it like we were talking about before and just trying to make some weird shapes. And then what I would do is I would pick different angles to look at the shapes from and then just take screenshots or render images of like... different angles of then shape. And then I would pass those through a program to data-bend them in to sound. I was using photo sounder, which is an open source option, I think... Oh, actually I don't remember. And then I was also using harmer in FL Studio. It's an additive synth and you can just drop images in to where you would usually put a sample, and it just turns that in to sound, and then you have a little more control over it. So I was doing that and then playing with trying to add different audio effects to the sound to give it different shapes and textures visually. Because what I would do then is I would play that back through a spectrograph, so what a spectrograph shows is the time in the x-axis, frequency is in the other axis, and you have another aspect of power or volume being sort of in the z-axis

Thinkbox: Sort of in the middle part?

Woulg: Kind of with the brightness...

Thinkbox: Yeah!

Woulg: Yeah, so that's how you're able to re-create these images back out of the sound. So when they turn in to sound and you read the spectrograph, you can see the images back in the spectrograph.

Thinkbox: This is like blowing my mind right now.

Woulg: So that was kind of the idea, to make like the full circle. Certainly the whole show wasn't made entirely out of sounds that I made that way. Because once you start messing around with those sounds you realize that they're actually pretty annoying. But they are really interesting. Like, I'm sure you've heard the famous example: Aphex Twin did a thing like that a long time ago where he put an image of himself or him and his cat, or something in one of his songs or something.

Thinkbox: Oh yeah!

Woulg: I don't remember what it was, but same process. Of turning the image into sound and the image is visible in the sound you can read in the spectrograph. So that's what I would as part of the live show. Part of the visuals was just showing the spectrograph just kind of scrolling downwards. There were other parts to the show as well. Basically, the show was about data bending in general and the visuals were sort of showing the sound in a really strange 1-1 relationship. Like, they were just audio-reactive visuals in a way that was supposed to just show one aspect of the sound. More just like lights and less visuals. Less like a video or a T.V. that were looking at and just like some flashing lights.

Thinkbox: Yeah. Wow, that's so crazy. As someone who's worked with spectrographs before because I'm studying linguistics and we have to do it. I have so many ideas right now that I'm just kind of blown away.

Woulg: I just got this, and I'm in no way involved with Isotope at all, but I just got their RX Suite and it can do some of the coolest shit I have seen in a long time. And like just screwing with audio, it has a d-reverb so it can analyze what the reverb is in the space and try to take it away. And it can do really weird things like spectral repair. So if you had a recording of us in this room and something fell off a chair or something, you can go in to the recording and try to pull that aspect out. I'M LIKE OBSESSED with this right now. Just trying to mess with stuff like that, and sometimes it leaves like... ghosts of the sound. Like when you pull out. Say you drop something at the same time as someone is talking then you pull out the sound of the thing dropping. It's so hard to actually do that in a really precise way. I think the software is really good at what it does, but if you do it wrong, if you use it wrong, which is what I'm all about, just using stuff wrong. It leaves these really interesting little traces, these weird like.... sound gremlins.

Thinkbox: There's so much you could do with that. It's so exciting. Back to a little bit about your releases. I know that you've released on a bunch of different labels including Enig'matik records, and they are now defunct. Do you know what happened there?

Woulg: I do, kind of. So Jake Rose was running that label and I think? I mean, I don't want to speak for him because obviously there was probably a lot of different reasons, but my feeling towards it was sort of like, that dude worked so hard to make that label what it was and he really put in everything that he had. He was tireless and he worked so hard at bringing new artists to the light and trying to get any sort of traction anywhere that he could. He built up the artists on that label in a really incredible way and he really supported us and did a lot of amazing stuff. And I think part of what happened was that he wasn't seeing the kind of returns that he was looking for maybe, and then eventually he bought a house somewhere that was further in the wilderness of Australia and he was just like, "I can't even get reliable internet out here so fuck it," or something like that. I don't know exactly what happened but he was just kind of like, " I'm done with this."

Thinkbox: So he just kind of retreated in to the woods a little bit?

Woulg: A little bit, I think. I don't know. I've talked to a couple of other people from the label over the years, and I think nobody really knows exactly what happened. But yeah, that dude did a really good job for a really long time. He's a really amazing guy.

Thinkbox: Yeah, I definitely mourn the loss of that. I'm sad. That label was really something. Speaking of labels, actually where I found your music was Ektoplazm.

Woulg: Oh, really?

Thinkbox: Yeah, I was desperately searching for Canadian content because CRTC Canadian content requirements, and I was just looking for anything and then I found the regional kind of part of the website and I just download, download, download, download. But your music isn't really the typical psychedelic fare that a lot of people are used to seeing, so personally – do you consider yourself to be a psychedelic music producer?

Woulg: You know, I've been thinking about that a fair bit lately, too. Because, as you know, I just played at Fractalfest, and I guess they did this sort of experiment this year of putting me in sort of a headlining spot, which was surprising to me as well because I'm not super keyed in to that scene. Mind you, I'm not super keyed in to any electronic music scene because most of what I listen to is sad folk music and like talk radio stuff. I mean, I don't know a whole lot about the psychedelic electronic music scene, but it seems to be where a fair bit of my fans come from and I was really blown away at Fractalfest at how open the audience was, because I'm really used to playing these gigs where... I mean... I think I'm a little bit jaded from playing so many gigs in Calgary. I used to play this monthly show at this bar called Quincy's, and we would play and it was the three of us who were the three breakcore guys in Calgary. We had this monthly show and nobody really came except for our friends sometimes and then sometimes even our friends would get scared away. And I'm sort of used to that reception and like playing a lot of shows. I think one of the best receptions, well okay, not counting a couple of other ones. Like not counting Soundasaurus, for example. But the best reception I think that I got in Alberta was maybe this show that I played in Edmonton at this place called the Rudehouse. 

Thinkbox: That's an interesting name...

Woulg: Yeah! It was kind of like this basement of this weird house and they threw a lot of cool shows there. Anyway, they got me to come up and I played my first couple of songs without looking up because I was really nervous that they weren't going to be into it because the guy before me was playing really smooth funky house. Well, maybe not exactly that, but something like that. And so I was really nervous and then I started playing, and I didn't look up and then I looked up and the whole front row was staring at me with their mouths open and there was a silent moment in the music, and this one person whispered – and I could hear them because it happened to be the quiet part – he whispered, "How is he doing that?" and I was kind of like, "Oh! Okay so I guess it's going okay." I was kind of hoping they would dance, but they just stood there the whole time and they loved it, I guess. So, I don't know. It was weird, but that's kind of what I'm used to. That, and or people coming up. I played this one show where somebody tried to steal my jacket. I played another show where somebody like came up and was like, "Is this your fucking track?" I was like, "Yeah." He's like, "Sounds like a train wreck. This sucks. I'm out of here," and I was like "Why did you tell me that?" So that's kind of what I'm used to, and playing at Fractalfest they were just like, "Give us the weird stuff – give us the weirdest thing you got." I'm like, "a-a-are you sure? I'm scared." So I'm slowly getting used to more receptive audiences and the fact that my music has come along a fair bit; my live sets as well. So, I'm kind of excited about that. I don't know if you saw that video that Varatharajan put out. He made this little video about me and my music. I think my main idea for a really long time has been like, what I'd really like to do is to start people off where they're sort of comfortable and then take them along through this journey that ends with them dancing to stuff that they didn't think they would want to or be able to dance to beforehand. One of the examples that I always think of as kind of a key example of this is: Did you ever listen to The Wall by Pink Floyd?

Thinkbox: Yes.

Woulg: So you know it starts with this 'brangy-brangy' guitar music that anybody is like, "Oh yeah, okay."

Thinkbox: Yeah, it's really accessible, not mediocre, but in the middle. Kind of, everyone can do it.

Woulg: Exactly, yeah. And at the end it gets to The Trial, which is probably the weirdest track I have ever heard in my life. This weird clown-theatre music that like... yeah. So, I love that. I love that that whole journey takes place. And when you start with the little guitar music you're like, "Oh, okay," and then when you get to The Trial you're like, "I understand why I'm here," and you're totally there with them. So that's what I'd like to do with my live shows. I think that that's kind of my goal. To have it start with like an umm-tss umm-tss sort of thing, and then take people all the way to where they're dancing to stuff where they're like, "I don't even know where the beat is. What are we doing?"

Thinkbox: But it works anyways. Somehow my body is doing stuff and that's fine.

Woulg: Yeah, exactly. That's always been kind of my goal. I don't know why I got there. Oh right, psychedelic music. Yeah, so I feel like people who are into psychedelic music – It is another angle that makes sense with coming to where I've come from. It's not exactly where I come from, but I feel like my introduction into electronic music was really weird anyways. So I think it's nice to have some people from that psychedelic crowd, and some people who are a little more high art or whatever, and then some people who are more in to, like, the low art side of Electronic Music. There's so many elements of all of those things that I really like, and the idea really is to put them all together.

Thinkbox: Yeah, I remember I was going through Ektoplazm and I saw this one comment on the album that you have up there, and it was another producer and they were saying that "Oh, I used to HATE this EP, but now I've listened to it and come around." So it's not only growing as a producer or somebody who makes music, but people also growing to appreciate music in that sense.

Woulg: Yeah, it could be.

Thinkbox: And speaking of psychedelic music... While we're still on the topic, how was it working with Encanti for Empathy Switch?

Woulg: I love that guy. So Encanti is like... It's kind of a crazy story. So I was following him on MySpace a long time ago. And he had this one track that was... I can't remember what it was called, "My Heart Explodes in Darkness" or something like that. Some crazy name. Which was this amazing, like such a brilliant track. That started with this kind of psy-psytrance kind of groove and then just descended into the darkest, weirdest gabber track. And it's an amazing song, and that whole album is really, really interesting. So, I was a really big fan of that. And it was funny actually, I found that track right when my parents first bought these clutch home stereo speakers. My dad bought them on this crazy sale and then he was like, "Oh actually, I don't like these" and I was like "I fuckin' like them. I'll take them!" I can't remember how old I was. Anyways, I was following Encanti for a really long time and I really liked his music and then after MySpace sort of faded away and then SoundCloud became a thing and then lots of stuff happened and I kind of forgot about that. And then he added me on SoundCloud and he was like "Yeah, I'm a really big fan of your stuff," and I was like "Woah!"

Thinkbox: That's full circle right there.

Woulg: Yeah, and then we just ended up chatting. He's the one that brought me over because he teaches at Berkeley in Valencia. I believe that he was teaching at Berkeley in Boston before that I think. Yeah, the dude's just a super super brain. Like, he's so smart and his sound is so crazy. It's a real pleasure working with him. He's a really good guy.

Thinkbox: Yeah, just from listening to his music, it's crazy, crazy stuff. The first time I heard his music just blew my mind. Really mind blowing, absolutely. I wanted to ask you about this quote I heard once, because I was reading about your stuff and I found that this might be interesting to you. I don't remember who said this, but I heard that this quote that said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture," and the person was referring to the fact that it was impossible and kind of useless. Which had me personally offended, because what I do is I sit in a room too early in the morning every week and talk about music. And so, for someone like you who uses movement and the creation of space of key elements of your performances, how do you feel about that?

Woulg: I love that quote, actually. But I feel like it refers to something really specific. I feel like talking about music is... Okay, let me say this. I feel like listening to music is it's own art form – It's its own thing and creative process. I went to this talk with Tim Hecker awhile ago and he said this great thing where he... I don't know if I remember this exactly – again, not the greatest memory, but here we go. So Tim Hecker was saying this thing that, first he makes a bunch of music and then he takes a little break from it, and the he goes back and listens to everything. This is like stage two where he listens, curates, and names all the tracks and that really makes a lot of sense to me. When you observe or are the audience of art. When you're listening to music or going to a gallery or whatever, you have your own sort of creative things that you impose on to the work. And yeah, that's its own thing that needs to be valued. When you go and you look – okay, let's talk about music still. When you listen to an album for example, there's different things that you think are happening and they're not necessarily what is actually happening technically or what is actually happening lyrically, for example. I had this crappy MP3 player for awhile and I could never get the order of the songs to be in the right order. But what it made happen was that I would listen to these albums over and over again and I would hear a narrative happening in the lyrics that felt to me like the intended narrative.

Thinkbox: But it was never in the right order.

Woulg: No, it was never in the right order. And so really when you – or if I went to go look it up I would find that the story of the album or the idea of the album was completely different from what I had come up with. And even without taking it to that extreme, everybody has their own sort of experience of what a different piece of music gives them, or the way that they understand it. And I think that that's really, really valid and really important. And so I think in a way that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. But if you're gonna be dancing about architecture, that's pretty cool, and so people should do that. We need that still. We totally need people to talk about music and we need people to dance about architecture. Like, where are all the architecture dancers? Come on!

Thinkbox: And lastly, what kind of set can we expect at Eclipse?

Woulg: I don't wanna give away too much. I think it's gonna be, uhhh... It's going to be weird. That's what you should expect; that it will be weird and glitchy. Yeah, it's gonna be weird and glitchy. That's what you can expect.

Thinkbox: Well, thank you so much for coming in and talking to me!


--Woulg plays the Lunar stage this weekend at Eclipse Festival 2016: Circle of Light. The festival runs from July 28th to August 1st in Gatineau, Quebec.