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Feature: Desert Dwellers [Interview]

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Desert Dwellers is the convergence of music producers Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe, who honed their individual crafts in the mystical deserts of California and New Mexico, long before electronic music reached mainstream. Amani and Treavor combine the raw sounds of the natural world, wrapped in dance-floor and chill-out productions; blending deep bass, earthy percussion, etheric voices, and cross-cultural instrumentation into a sonic incense for the mind and body. Desert Dwellers’ unique global sounds are a bridge between worlds, and their label Desert Trax has become a platform to spotlight similar alchemical artists. Now on cusp of their fourth studio album ‘Breath’ we had a chance to catch up with them in this exclusive interview. Enjoy!

Hi Guys, thanks for joining us, how are you today, where in the world are you and what are you up to this week?

We just brought our Breath Tour to Santa Fe this past weekend, where Desert Dwellers was originally born in 2001. We always enjoy coming back to New Mexico to eat the amazing food, see our long time friends, and play music at the legendary Meow Wolf Art venue, which is a maze of alien landscapes and interactive Burning Man-esque scenes inside of a huge warehouse.

Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you discover electronic music and what led you down the path of wanting to be producers and DJs?

We both discovered electronic music in the early 90s at urban warehouses, and were independently inspired to start throwing our own “raves” in the deserts. Treavor was growing up in California and started the Moontribe Collective with some close friends in the Mojave desert, and Amani was in the high deserts of New Mexico throwing parties under the collective groups Sublime and then Cosmic Kidz It’s through these events that our paths eventually crossed in 1998 and the rest is history as they say. Producing and playing electronic music came hand in hand with doing these events through the 90s.

What music from your youth had the biggest effect on where you are today? Are there certain tracks or albums which profoundly influenced you?

Amani grew up listening to reggae, dub, world music, hip hop, and jazz. Treavor grew up listening to everything from metal to psychedelic rock to hip hop and much more. We both shared an interest in music that was alternative and psychedelic, and we had various bands in these different styles of music in the late 80s and early 90s, before electronic music really took hold for us. You can hear how these early influences in music carried over to what kind of electronic music we gravitated towards as well.

How has growing up in California and New Mexico shaped the music you make and your career path so to speak?

For Amani, growing up in New Mexico offered many wide open spaces in the desert and diverse cultural heritages that definitely shaped his creative path. For Treavor growing up in Los Angeles in the 80s when gangs and violence ruled the streets, music was what saved him from these things and eventually led him to the desert to start Moontribe.

How did you meet and eventually start collaborating? How was the Desert Dwellers project born into the world?

In 1998 Amani had just finished music school in NM and went to his first Moontribe event in California, the five year anniversary gathering. The two of us actually met right away as fate would have it, and Treavor was gifted Amani’s CD called ‘Biodiversity’ which peaked Treavor’s interest enough to start traveling out to New Mexico on a very regular basis to work in the studio and play shows for Cosmic Kidz. At first we were producing uptempo tribal tech-house and progressive tracks under the moniker ‘Amani vs Teapot’ and a few years into that collaboration we wanted to write some downtempo as well as a side project, and the name ‘Desert Dwellers’ was a natural fit given that we were living a nomadic life between the deserts of New Mexico, California, and Burning man. That side project ended up taking over and we dropped our other project name.

A successful partnership is generally based around balance and compromise; how do you manage these things within the Desert Dwellers dynamic?

Although in many ways we are complete opposites, we understand that together we have a broader scope of reality, and we are more well rounded and diverse. We actually tend to agree about a lot of things which is nice, but we are also very open to each others different perspectives because we have seen over time that each of us just doesn’t see all of reality or know everything, and its important to stay open minded and communicate well together.

Do you have different roles in the production process? And if so elaborate please.

Honestly, we both can wear all the hats in the production process, so it just depends on the track and what is needed. we have usually always worked in our own studios (living in different places) and just send projects back and forth. So we each work on a track for a bit and when we feel like the other person might have an important piece to offer we send it back.

Your new album ‘Breath’ was recently released on Black Swan Sounds, you must be quite excited. Tell us how it began to take shape? Was there an initial goal of writing an album from the beginning or did this happen organically in a way?

There was definitely a clear vision early on for Breath, which was to complete the fourth offering in our series of Elemental releases (Waves, Flames, and Roots being the first three). So we wanted to focus on the voice, and started to record folk songs from antiquity in as many different languages as we could with our main singer Meagan Chandler. From there we flushed out the studio sessions based around these initial songs, often recording wind instruments to accompany the vocals. Early on in the vision of the album we were thinking about making a pure ambient album, but that shifted a couple songs in as we really wanted to explore the emerging downtempo-house genre, but we still have two pure ambient songs as bookends to the album. We also wanted the album to have as much of an organic feel as possible and we ended up recording 19 different musicians on it!

Why did Black Swan Sounds feel like the right home for the album as opposed to your own label or elsewhere?

We have been working with Black Swan Sounds since 2005, and they released the first 3 DownTemple Dub elemental albums (among others), so it was a natural fit for us to work with them for this album as well. We intentionally wanted to produce an album that appeals to the many diverse types of DD fans that we have, from psychedelic festival attendees, to more yoga inspired ecstatic dancers.

It’s a compelling listen and also quite seductive, there’s a nomadic quality to it which is definitely ideal for multiple plays and the album’s timeless sensibility is undeniable. Tell us about the inspiration behind this album and why it was important for you to express your thoughts, ideas and feelings in this way.

We have always had the intention of combining the sounds of the ancient worlds with the sounds of modern, and to pay homage to where we have come from sonically while also paving the way for where we are headed. That has been our ethos that weaves our catalog together. We are at a point in our career where we wanted to do something very original, bold, and timeless; an album that captures the listeners awareness no matter what age group they are and takes them on a profound and prophetic journey. Something that unifies and bridges worlds; something that feels familiar and new at the same time; something that really stands the test of time in this vast and quickly changing sonic landscape we are a part of.

You worked with many musicians and vocalists over the creative process. How difficult was it finding the right artists to collaborate with to bring your ideas to life?

There are many talented artists on this album we have worked with on past albums and have known for 15-20 years. Artists like Meagan Chandler and Ricardin form a foundation for our “sound” at this point. In addition we are constantly touring and traveling and always meet so many amazing artists at just the right time to add to the mix. It’s an organic process that flows naturally as we flow through tour life.

How did you end up with the final track selection and how did you go about cutting stuff out? There must be a point where it becomes quite difficult letting go of certain pieces?

We actually didn’t have to cut any tracks out on this album. That being said, there’s a good chunk of raw tracking we recorded that didn’t get flushed out into songs, material that will become sonic inspiration for future projects. In fact, a couple of the initial vocal ideas on Breath were left over studio sessions from the earlier Roots album that we have been sitting on for a while and waiting for the right moment to develop.

How difficult was it deciding on the flow from a listener’s perspective?

We are both long time DJs as well as producers, so we just follow our natural instincts and what feels right to us in terms of flow. We definitely wanted the album to be a cohesive journey and to weave a story for the listener from start to finish through the ten tracks.

Given that this isn’t a club album did the majority of the tracks begin around a musical idea rather than something beats or groove oriented? Or is the process the same for you regardless?

The tracks mostly all started around the initial songs recorded by the vocalists. We had them record to a click track and a drone; and then the beats, grooves, and accompanying musical ideas all came after that. This isn’t how we always work, but definitely how we wanted to do this album. This way everything we were adding was accompanying and supporting these initial songs.

There’s a very exotic or organic feel to the album, from a compositional perspective but also design wise. What are your go to tools in the studio and what featured heavily on this album?

This album is almost entirely all studio tracking of live elements, and that’s why it has such an original and organic quality to it. On other projects we have leaned more into electronic tools and synthesis, and we will continue to do so with future projects. We both just upgraded our two studios with many amazing hardware synths. But on this album Breath we went deep into the natural sounds of vocalists and instrumentalists. Some of our go to tools are the vast NI Kontakt libraries, Waves suite, Universal Audio plug ins, Serum, Diva, Arturia synths, and effects like Movement, Tantra and Manipulator. For this album we had a lot of fun adding many subtle layers of vocals with those last three effects mentioned and blending them together underneath the lead vocal, which gives a lot of added texture and depth.

How much of an effect do other genres of music outside of the electronic realm have on your own productions? And in particular the album.

Our inspiration comes from many styles of music outside electronic, and everything we listen to affects our creative process. For this album we wanted to capture some authentic passages of various world music lineages. We have also been very inspired by the slower house tunes that also heavily rely on very musical passages as the foundations of their tracks.

I would guess the writing of the album was a long process, now that it’s done and out what are your thoughts reflecting back on the process?

It took us three years to complete this album, and a lot of that time was needed because we were on the road and traveling around the world constantly, which has it’s pros and cons in terms of the creative process. We definitely see how taking several months off of touring to just focus on the album would bring it to light a lot quicker, but at the same time the journey of time and place adds depth to the creative process in terms of who we are meeting and recording along the way, and what inspires us. Taking time off from touring is hard to do these days because of the state of the music industry!! We wish that could be an option.

How would you feel about these tracks being remixed? And are there plans for this?

Remixing these tracks has always been an intention for this album, and part of the reason why we focused more on organic studio content and material that we know remixers will love to work with. We are going to ask top notch producers to remix these tracks, and work on two styles of remixes; one for psychedelic bass and one for house.

Do you think the digital era changed the way we perceive artist albums? Do they still carry the weight they once did or should? Is this something that perhaps depends on who (record label) is releasing it as well?

It definitely changed the way people collect and play music no doubt, and artist albums are often lost in a sea of random streams and individual tracks collected into folders and new playlists. This digital era helps us find new music easier in terms of “similar artists” so both have their pros and cons. We are also living in an age where people consume music quicker and have a shorter attention span, so you see a lot of artists releasing EPs with 3-5 tracks more often. We are a fan of both EPs and of full artist albums that have a deeper concept and journey. In a way the vinyl resurgence is bringing back the artist concept album and forcing listeners to play the album as intended from start to finish the way the artist made it.

I think for a lot of artists music allows you to write a sketch of your own personal universe in a way; your travels, life experiences etc. Is this something which is true in Desert Dwellers? Where does inspiration come from?

Between meeting new musicians on the road, to carrying a portable field recorder and always capturing the sounds of nature around us as we travel to far flung parts of the world, we are always keen to weave the sounds we hear around us. When we listen back to these tracks on this album we can remember the time and place each of these sounds entered our reality and who played them, or what kind of natural biosphere we were in. So it’s very much a sketch of our travels, all woven together into a unified tapestry of sound.

Talk to us about your label Desert Trax, what is the vision you have for it?

We have built the label around the ethos of “Music Beyond Borders” which has given us a lot of leeway in terms of not having to fit inside a particular genre. We both love so many genres of music and really don’t like being in a box, in terms of our own productions, our DJ sets, and also what we choose to put out on our label.

What advice would have for an artist hoping to sign their music to Desert Trax?

Be original and tell your own story. We like innovators and not imitators. That being said, the music needs to hit a certain feeling inside us where just both go, “yep this works for me.” It’s a subjective thing especially when genre is not a deciding factor for us. Its more about feeling, and the quality of the production.

Is there a movie you would have loved to have produced the soundtrack for? And if so why?

Baraka or Samsara. They are some of the most beautiful offerings of cinematography ever made, and the epic journey around the world is so inspiring to us as sound makers. We are good friends with Michael Stearns from Santa Fe who scored those two films and we consider him a very lucky guy!

Where can fans hear you in the coming months, what does the festival season hold for you and is there an album tour?

We have two nights at Red Rocks opening for Shpongle coming up on May 3rd and 4th, and Lightening in a Bottle Festival in California a week after that. We are also coming to San Fran, San Diego, Austin, and many other stops in the US, and heading over to the UK and Turkey in June. You can see more options at : http://desertdwellers.org/tour

‘Breath’ is out now on Black Swan Sounds, you can purchase the release here: https://bit.ly/2L49aMH

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