Our Starry Universe is a new Brooklyn-based record label. Launched in the last month, with two 12s released in quick succession. The first by A Separate Reality came recommended by Eivissenc Willie Graff. Hardway Brother Sean Johnston play-listed the other, the work of Birds Of Pandaemonium. One a modern balearic beat. One a definite funky alternative. “The Birds” hiding behind the pseudonyms, Millennium Culkin and Hazy James, kindly offered to provide a bit of background.
Where are you from?
Hazy James: I was born in Inverness, Scotland and grew up between there…well a town called Nairn near Inverness, the Southern US and United Arab Emirates.
Millennium Culkin: Long Island
Where are you based?
MC: We live in Brooklyn, Baby!
What are your musical backgrounds?
HJ: I started with Psalms, Scottish traditional songs and sea shantys around my grandmother’s piano then eventually moved to learning guitar which I’ve played poorly for about 23 years or so. I started DJing around the same time and kinda dabbled with synths and drum machines. A lot of trial and error haha.
MC: I started out as a guitar player heavily into country rock, disco – Nile Rodgers, and jazz – Pat Metheny. Through jazz arranging I taught myself keys – I am like an adequate pianist but an incredible Rhodes player (smiles)
What were the first clubs / parties that you went to?
HJ: I worked at Santos Party House and helped promote some of the early parties – all super fun. My fav being Special Disco Version – James Murphy & Pat Mahoney’s night – this was in my mid-20s. Before, growing up in the Middle East we’d throw our own parties. Then more in NYC…Bunker, Resolute. I care more about whose playing than the party though. My absolute favorite was seeing Robag Wruhme at some warehouse…probably a Resolute party…a furniture warehouse, and at some point he dropped this great…I think Motown edit…a Motown vocal over a super minimal beat and the vibe was just incredible. I wish I remembered more specifically, but the feeling was unforgettable.
MC: My first nightclub experiences were in jazz clubs which I would frequent as a teenager… I’m dating myself here but my first proper dance nightclub experience would have to be back in 92 I was regularly going to the “Acid Jazz” party at Giant Step when it was on Jane Street.
SANTOS PARTY HOUSE
What music / DJs were you listening to?
HJ: Oh man…not enough space to list. Hearing DJ Harvey’s Essential Mix in like ’98 was pretty impactful for me. He mixed so many different styles and vibes together in a way I didn’t think was possible or that you could even do as a DJ – if that makes sense. Before then I think I compartmentalized genres in my head and that mix tore everything apart and music was just music after that. No rules, just whatever felt right.
MC: In the early 90s, everything was musically up for grabs. We listened to anything and everything. I was heavily into reggae, jazz and soul – and 80s alternative rock but that fell off as the 90s progressed for me – which opened up into me being really into early Mo Wax / Massive Attack. The early days of Drum and Bass were also getting a large amount of attention. Moving Shadow, Metalheadz. I still have all those records. I was into “Head-y” music and jazzy music so I would have to say Weatherall and Gilles Peterson were my DJ inspirations. I was majorly in love with Fila Brazillia because it sort of hit all my buttons at once.
Where were your first gigs and what sort of music were you playing?
HJ: Haha my first gigs were in high school throwing parties in Abu Dhabi and we’d play like a mix of terrible house / techno and some stuff that I think still holds up now and I still play. Big Love by Pete Heller was an early favorite that I still love.
MC: I think my first real proper DJ gig was at a rave that the Roam Recordings people threw in ’93 – It was a proper all-night rave in a warehouse and at 3AM I came out and played 45 minutes of like Brazilian batucada samba drum tracks. I think five people in the crowd thoroughly enjoyed it.
How did you meet?
HJ: The very first time I met Tim was at the Maritime Hotel, his band 33Hz was playing on New Years Eve. I hadn’t moved up yet but would that following summer. My brother and I were just like…who is this cool dude in the sunglasses and bought him a shot or drink then went our separate ways. Through friends we reconnected and here we are.
MC: That is indeed how we met.
When did you start making music?
HJ: We talked a lot about music before we made music together. I was in a garage rock band and asked Tim to remix one of our songs. Then he joined the band and we produced a record that remained unfinished after the band broke up. Then we just kept making music…and here we are!
MC: Haha there are a few songs on that record that may be revived as Birds songs. I was the keyboardist in 33Hz. I`ve had a few projects over the years – Apeanaut, Sunrise Hwy – with Amy Douglas, and I recently made a record with Nick Chacona as A Separate Reality also on Our Starry Universe. I`m currently also working on producing solo material for Amy Douglas – including the Never Saw It Coming single which came out on DFA a few years back as well as a few other secret projects coming to the imprint that we started together ‘Ladyballs’.
How does the music making collaboration work? Who does what? What kit do you currently have? Are either of you “classically” trained?
HJ: I try to write a few verses and a hook on acoustic guitar, now in open tunings. Then I’ll play some of these sketches to Tim and we find ones we like. Then the production, arrangement, deconstruction, etc begins.
MC: Lots of deconstruction. All the basic parts of Days were laid down in 24 hours and then mulled over for months.
We have many synthesizers, guitars and guitar pedals that we run them through. We are punky audiophiles. We want the music to be wabi sabi, immediate and stir emotions but also sound fucking amazing. This one was mixed by Daniel Schlett over at Strange Weather in Brooklyn who`s worked with many cool bands like TEEN, Amen Dunes and the War On Drugs. I usually mix all my own stuff in the studio, but I felt this one needed to be broken out on a big board with 5 tape delays running at once. It was also mastered by grammy winner Alex DeTurk who is mastering all the Our Starry Universe stuff. I am in no way classically trained. I think I got a D in music theory in college. But I taught myself Jazz Theory and my day job is a composer at a television network so take that, classical training!
The press releases calls your sound “dream pop” and cites Echo & The Bunnymen. I can also hear Will Sargent in the guitar arcs – plus some rockabilly riffing. I can also hear a bit of Bowie-esque glam, and I`d have said the track is more “gothic” than “dream” pop. More Bauhaus than AR Kane. Am I way off the mark?
HJ: The Bunnymen and Bowie are definitely massive parts of my musical life. Ha, also I have been listening to that Numero Group Rockabilly comp recently – nice ear haha. I think you are spot on with goth-y vibes. I’ve always liked the romantic or hopeful lyric vibe that can accompany goth. The light / dark juxtaposition.
MC: We are both guitar players but James takes the honors on this one. I am playing the Mellotron along with his solo which was an inspired duet. It’s def gothic… at one point we were calling it Optimistic Shoegaze and I had suggested Astral Gaze.
Could you give me three records that have influenced the sound of Birds Of Pandaemonium and Days Go By?
HJ: Lyrically, I like romantic sentiment whether it’s love of life based or nostalgia…I think Depeche Mode’s Songs Of Faith And Devotion, for me, influences that a lot. The attitude of Crocodiles’ Sleep Forever…and probably Bowie’s Low.
MC: Talk Talk`s The Colour Of Spring album was definitely one. Primal Scream`s Higher Than The Sun. More recently, Richard Norris’ Time And Space Machine Remixes of the first Jagwar Ma album was definitely a touchstone as well.
How did you hook up with the rest of Our Starry Universe – Chad (Snyder) and Tommy (Castro)?
HJ: We were party ships passing in the late night scene for a decade and then our compasses suddenly aligned.
MC: I`ve known Chad since we were kids. We had bands together and started DJing around the same time. We started Dither Down Records which was around for like a decade. Ten years ago I met Tommy and we became fast friends and he has always been there to listen to a track I am working on. We came up together with Our Starry Universe as a successor to Dither Down – a home for all the cosmic, psychedelic and Balearic-y tracks that we and others in our scene have been brewing.
Is Bryan Mette also a friend of yours?
HJ: I don’t know him personally but his remixes bang!
MC: I met Bryan through Justin Strauss. Whatever/Whatever have done many remixes for us at Dither Down and Bryan was a natural choice for this material. As soon as I heard the first rough sketch I was already blown away by the remix.
Is there a strong / tight Brooklyn dance music scene?
HJ: Ya, I think so – it’s easy to get jaded about it I think but whether you are into really commercial dance music or really underground dance music, this city has it. The history is super rich and I’m always psyched to be in the presence of such dope people.
MC: Yes, of course. Despite the vast splinterings, dance music will always prevail and flourish in NYC. We have some of the best clubs in the world and a constant influx of new emerging talent. The underground is still relevant and the big clubs still get the legends and current stalwarts.
Does the scene revolve around particular clubs / parties, clothes or record stores?
HJ: Well….things open, things close, things shift – to be honest, I don’t go out as much anymore but I still love DJing every once and a while. The Lot Radio is super awesome and I like playing at Pony Boy here – the crowd is always there to get it and it’s a sweaty fun party every time.
PONYBOY by Pedro Lara
MC: I second the Lot. My favorite nighttime thing right now is Cool Runnings every Tuesday at Wei’s in Williamsburg. It’s a Chinese restaurant. Tommy Castro is the resident and every Tuesday he brings amazing DJs in to play until 4 in the AM and all the musicians, producers and DJ in the scene mingle and eat Chow Mei Fun. Also, Air A Danser is a great party for people in the scene to gather – it’s a beautiful balearic listening experience, with friends in the sun.
Before the lockdown I was working on a series of pieces focused on listening / audiophile bars and cafes – do either of you go to Public Records?
HJ: Ugh, I had been meaning to since it opened and then COVID happened. I’m into the concept so much but at the same time – some of the most fun and best sets I’ve had were on the worst systems imaginable so I do just love a good time and crew above anything else.
MC: I love the audiophile thing. Yeah I have been to great parties with shitty sound but nothing compares to a great sound system. Right before I had my daughter, we converted the studio space I shared with a few other producers into this speakeasy… 4 Giant Klipsch Towers with Macintosh amplifiers. We had my baby bachelor party there – just listening to records for hours and hours. And I heard records that night that I`d heard a thousand times before just straight up blow my mind. I remember 2 standouts were actually The Blondie Rapture 12″ and The Stones Miss You 12″ – I had never really “heard” those songs until that night. So I am def a believer in good sound.
Do you still DJ? Before the lockdown did you hold any residencies?
HJ: I was DJing pretty regularly at Pony Boy, Soho Grand before COVID, among some others. Le Bain is always a good time, nice staff.
MC: The last time out for me before COVID was doing the Blisspop Disco Festival in DC with Amy Douglas last year.
LE BAIN by Emmanuel Dunand
Do / will Birds Of Pandaemonium perform live?
HJ: YES. Can’t fucking wait.
MC: It will be a spectacle.
How has the lockdown impacted what your lives? What is the situation like in New York right now? Are restrictions being lifted? Are COVID cases still on the increase? Since the Black Lives Matter protests began its been very hard – from the outside – to readily access what’s going on in The States.
HJ: We are living through a very difficult time. More than anything it’s taught me to treasure time spent with loved ones, to become more politically active and roll my sleeves up to help on a local level here and outside the state. It’s an important time to listen, to think about how we can permanently end divisive culture and to mobilize for lasting, meaningful change.
MC: We end the video for the song with a quote from Neem Karoli Baba – “Don’t you see that it’s all perfect?” And for a minute I was like how can you say that with the pandemic. And then when we finished the video it was like when the uprising began. And I was like who am I to quote this? Is this privilege or a spiritual bypass of some sort? But I think in order to fight for a better tomorrow, you have to believe that humanity is inherently good and a better way is possible. It’s perfect exactly the way it is. It’s just not being administered right. In some ways, I don’t think there could be any change in America or the World without this pain we are all going through. And that’s a good thing.
Birds Of Pandaemonium`s Days Go By is out now, on Our Starry Universe.