Bubblin' Up Week 2013: Kid Smpl
- Words: Glenn Jackson
- Photo: Tim Willis
There is something about the moniker of 22-year-old producer Joey Butler (a.k.a. Kid Smpl) that's a bit misleading. Had it been 10 years ago perhaps, it would not have been so surprising to run into a "Kid Simple" spitting bars in a freestyle cypher. More recently, one wouldn't be surprised to find a vowelless "Kdsmpl" making the rounds of the chillwave and bliss-hop blogosphere. But Kid Simpl, the budding Seattle-based producer, has only the scarcest relation to those genres, having quietly built a following over the past two years with a sound that marries lonely post-dubstep, lethargic R&B, and glacial new age into an aesthetic hybrid that has begun to be referred to—in certain circles—as "night bus," a reference to the mixture of contemplation, solitude, and exhaustion one is likely to feel on lengthy late-night bus rides. The tag may seem silly, but for Kid Smpl's music, the feeling definitely fits.
"That's just the mood I've found myself to be good at creating," says Butler about his music's tendency towards solitary and somber atmospheres. "If I tried to sit down to make something that was super happy or upbeat, it just wouldn't work, really." As he tells it, this was not something Butler simply discovered overnight. Growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, he moved from playing guitar and bass in punk and hardcore bands to messing around with hip-hop beats. In the beginning of his college years, he began crafting dubstep, only to eventually move on from the genre when he saw it turning into a "different scene" than what had initially drawn him to the sound.
According to Butler, the original production experiments that would become Kid Smpl started a little over two years ago, the goal being to simply make music that he liked without a particular concept or genre in mind. "There's an obvious Burial influence in [my music], and I think there are definitely references to hip-hop, dubstep, and all the music that I like," he explains. "But really, I think it's just me trying to make something that sounds cool, that's all it comes down to." After intially floating a few tunes onto the internet and putting together a couple of mixes for independent blogs, Butler caught the attention of Car Crash Set, a Seattle-based imprint known for incubating budding production talents. Kid Smpl officially debuted on the label with the Ghostsuit EP, a five-track effort rich with melody and euphoric haze, and complemented by the sparse skip and rich sub-bass of post-dubstep landscapes. While the reverb-washed echoes of pitched vocals and the understated skitter of pot-and-pan percussion heard at its surface made much of Ghostsuit an obvious nod to the flagbearers of the post-whatever sound, the EP more importantly hinted at Butler's talent for creating grand synthscapes and distinct atmospheres. In particular, the beatless—and brief—"Healer" made this case best, combining the slight trickle of raindrops with swelling chords and a far-off melody which landed the track somewhere between the isolation of an ambient Burial and the uplifting nostalgia of a M83-style interlude.
True to his name, Kid Smpl's production approach seems very uncomplicated. "I like a lack of distractions," says Butler about his almost entirely computer-based set-up, "Most of the time, it's just my laptop [running Logic] and headphones." While these basic tools seem to lend themselves to creating music anytime, anywhere, the producer says he prefers to work when he can at home, mostly putting together his tracks late at night and into the early morning, at times turning to samples for his initial inspiration. "I always thought it was interesting to take music and put it in a different context," Butler explains of his fondness for sampling. "It's a good way to get a foundation for a track, it gets things started really quickly."
In 2012, Kid Smpl outgrew the post-dubstep reference points that marked his initial output, first offering a glimpse into his potential with the Escape Pod EP before unveiling a gorgeous debut full-length, Skylight, last November—the result of three months of dedicated work. "I was writing [the record] towards what was the end of college for me," tells Butler, "and I just worked on it when I could. I had most of the music written after about two months, but it was really important for me to get the tracklist right [in order to] have the album flow together, so there were a lot of minor changes that I did to make it [work as] one piece." Developing further the dense soundscapes and blanketed ambience heard in his previous outings, Kid Smpl's debut album—which appeared, along with the Escape Pod EP, on the fledging Hush Hush imprint helmed by KEXP DJ Alex Ruder—was unwavering in its dedication to slow builds and sparse drum programming. Songs like "Nearing" and "But I Don't" were somehow massive despite their restrained nature, while mostly drumless compositions such as "I Think It's Gone" and the closing "Left There" accounted for the album's more subdued and atmospheric offerings.
Skylight made for a particularly cohesive debut into the long-player format, with each song's meditative chords and sustained basslines spanning a wide stereo spectrum while a handful of kicks, hats, snares, and FXs appeared scattered amongst the layers of pads in an ever-so-slightly skittering fashion. Left over from his earlier Kid Smpl experiments were the echoes of chopped-and-pitched vocals, only now they were usually rendered into a syrupy lull and pushed deeper into the background, drowned out by baths of time-based processing and generous filtering.
What glues the record together is the tangible mood which appears throughout, the uncertain mixture of isolation and reflection that has been so far characterized by the fitting description "night bus." Although he's quick to point out that the term predates his own music, Butler welcomes the tag, "What's interesting about 'night bus' is that it's more of an aesthetic or a vibe than an [actual] genre," he says, "and I like that because it feels less restrictive to me." Avoiding these genre and stylistic restrictions has likely contributed to the accelerated pace at which Butler's Kid Smpl project has evolved, and with two volumes of Skylight remixes planned and a new original track set to appear on a forthcoming compilation for the Friends of Friends label, 2013 is likely to see Butler continue paving his own path through emotive and expansive electronic music.
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