Like off-kilter, warped electro? Then you'll almost certainly appreciate the work of Hymns, Jacob Cusumano, a Melbourne-based DJ-producer whose "Water Acid" track featured in our top tracks of 2017. It's been a breakout 12 months for the rising Australian.
Cusumano, 27, become involved in electronic music during his teenage years, inspired by the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Boards Of Canada, and by 2014 he had purchased a Korg Volca Beats intent on experimentation. Having learned the ropes via blogs, magazines, and online videos, Cusumano began to develop a warped electro aesthetic, symbolized by 2017's "Eight Eight Six Eight,” out that year on P!L but produced many months earlier. "Practically speaking, the sounds and sequences I was attracted to using worked best in electro," Cusumano explains. "I also felt excited by there being more wriggle room than in house or techno, and I became conscious that my main tool, Renoise, was really rather suited to it."
Releases since then have come steadily, though he only has one solo EP despite various artist appearances. Waves Of Nothing, a four-track release, landed mid-Summer of 2017 and was praised by those who caught wind of it. Gigs, as a result, have started to pick up, both in Melbourne, where he works part-time at a university and runs the Cool Room parties, and beyond. More material is also promised, with talk of some high profile electro-focused labels swooning of Cusumano's sound. In light of this, and eager to learn more, XLR8R reached out to Cusumano for a detailed, in-depth, and honest interview about his journey to date and plans for the future.
To support this interview, Hymns has kindly offered up unreleased cut "Confidence in Quiet" for download. Grab it now via the WeTransfer button at the bottom of the article.
2017 turned out to be a breakthrough year for you, with various artist appearances and a debut EP on Salt Mines. How do you reflect on the past 12 months or so?
Looking back upon 2017 is a positive exercise. I started to feel comfortable with self-identifying as a musician for the first time, and since I probably played close to 30 shows, I'm glad that I’ve been able to mature and refine my practice a lot as a DJ.
At the start of the year, I obviously hoped to release some records and play shows a bit more, but I didn't expect it to be quite as full as it was. Early in the year, I agreed to appear on some releases when I genuinely didn't have much on the horizon, but due to the nature of releasing records and the inbuilt delays and setbacks, a lot of music came out in a flurry. This ended up being a positive thing though, and late 2017 turned into a time where I could reset some goals and focus on some new objectives.
“Water Acid” made it into our best tracks of the year, and earned you much acclaim. When did you make it?
Like almost all of the music I made in that era, "Water Acid" first existed as a half-finished, fairly lacklustre four-to-the-floor track that I started in mid-2016, and it stayed like that for five or six months at least. I probably played it in a set once or twice but it was fairly evident that it wasn’t a keeper. From memory, I returned to it in early 2017, deleted everything aside from the chords and possibly a portion of the acid line, and took it in a new, better, direction. I’d love to be able to set aside weeks at a time to focus on nothing but music, but realistically due to circumstances, a lot of the music I’ve completed so far has been made in this stop-start kind of way.
Did you instantly know it was good when you completed it?
I remember showing it with excitement to my label, so I was obviously happy with how it turned out. It's a really simple song, but I knew that the subtle details I included while producing it probably made it one of the most complete pieces of music that I'd finished to that point. Reading comments on obscure Youtube dance music videos is an entertaining occasional hobby of mine, so to see some cheesy, happy comments underneath “Water Acid” on various platforms has been a real treat.
Of course, you first appeared in 2016 with "Route Acid” on Salt Mines’ V/A compilation. How did the release come about? Did you send out demos?
I actually remember the fine details quite specifically. I saw a Boiler Room debut for DJ Phlowgod's "summer" in October 2015 on Soundcloud and eventually saw that the label, Salt Mines, was based in Melbourne, my hometown. I'd noticed that the label heads, Rudolf C and Shedbug, were artists I'd seen on lineups around Melbourne, and already followed on social media—so I wrote in my diary a note to remind myself to congratulate them on the release. In the end, before I got a chance to do that, Rudolf messaged me out of the blue on Soundcloud asking if I wanted to contribute to their next VA, which I jumped at. I was lucky enough that I didn't need to get on that demo-sending-grind in the early days.
Brilliant. Had you been producing for a long time at this point, or did you have to produce the track especially for the release?
“Route Acid” was possibly the first track that I’d fully finished, and I’d actually tucked it away before Rudolf got in touch. I showed it to him as an example of the type of stuff I had been working on, but I planned on writing something new for the label and didn’t initially submit the track for release. A while later we all realised that it was a logical fit for the VA, fitting snugly between the other three tracks they’d curated.
So, if “Route Acid” was the first track you’d finished, what were you uploading to your Soundcloud?
I was possibly impatient and overeager, so I was uploading sketches, ideas, half-finished things and loops with really simple arrangements, as well as a DJ mix or two. All things that I liked, but I just wanted to get stuff up there on my page as soon as I’d made it.
Come to think of it, there’s something quite pure and unclouded about the way that artists use Soundcloud before they’ve released any music or become involved with any labels. They upload all of their best stuff, that they’re most proud of, hoping for it to be heard and discovered. Once an artist is a bit more established, the equation changes and all of a sudden the best music is reserved for label ears only, withheld from public feeds, and this quite funny formula emerges where the music that does make it onto SoundCloud has to be bad enough that you wouldn’t reserve it for a proper release, but still good and representative enough to upload publically—pretty funny, really, and I’ve definitely caught myself using SoundCloud like that since I started releasing music more formally.
How did Rudolf C become familiar with your work?
Just a classic Soundcloud trawl, I think! We’re really tight friends now so I think we’re both glad he reached out.
How old were you at this point, when he found you?
And then when did the next few releases come about—before your EP this year?
I think next up was "Map 7" on LKR Records, followed by "Giant 90s Analord Rephlex Based Love Affair" on Momentary Records. Both labels are run by friends from Melbourne, and both tracks were older, kind of standalone pieces in terms of style, that I’d already uploaded to Soundcloud in full—so it made sense, and I was really happy, to release them in VA format.
Looking further back, what are your earliest memories of electronic music? Did you instantly feel a connection when you heard it?
Ha, I've spent some time recently tracing these exact memories, so this is a great question. Yes, I absolutely felt a connection to electronic music from early childhood. My Dad was into Michael Jackson in a big way, and also owned a lot of tapes from ‘80s bands that I can now identify as using a lot of synthesisers, vocoders, and drum machines. I'm absolutely certain that early childhood music lays important foundations deep within the brain, and I'm doubly sure that this helped me have an instant connection to electronic music once I started getting back into it as a teenager. I can think of some examples, even now, of synthesiser sounds that I heard as a tiny kid that have been locked away somewhere deep in my head ever since. The opening pulse width-ey stabs in The Human League's "Don't You Want Me," the chords in Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me," and finally and most importantly, Madonna's album Ray of Light, which came out when I was eight years old. It’s full of eerie pads, littered with breakbeat grooves and fills, and transparently emotional basslines. Co-produced with William Orbit, it's absolutely in my top few most influential albums, and I still listen to it a few times a year. Not many other albums can coax me into a deep state of emotional trance like that album. I highly recommend listening to "Drowned Girl/Substitute for Love" and "Frozen." Actually, I might try and work these into my next mix!
"...I did have that quintessential teenage disdain for mainstream media, so I was constantly on the search for quaint, alternative or lesser-known music that could offer me more emotional scope than what I was hearing on the radio."
And how did your interests in electronic music develop from there, through your teenage years?
As a teenager around 10 or 11 years ago, I didn't have the internet at home, or a mobile phone with data, but I did have that quintessential teenage disdain for mainstream media, so I was constantly on the search for quaint, alternative, or lesser-known music that could offer me more emotional scope than what I was hearing on the radio. A friend from the school bus, who was at that point entrenched in various torrenting and forum spaces, would trade music on hard-drives with me. We started with UK indie music, but before long had moved on to artists like Boards of Canada, which turned to Aphex Twin, which turned to Autechre, which turned to Drexciya. I cannot stress how important this was, to be receiving gigabytes upon gigabytes of electronic music for me to throw myself into, at a time when I didn't have the internet for connectivity or research. Obviously, this music was like nothing I'd heard before, maybe aside from some Radiohead stuff, and my teenage brain grasped onto electronic music very, very firmly.
It’s interesting that you had such a connection with it. What do you think it was about the music that appealed to you?
I have memories of enjoying how challenging it was rhythmically, and subsequently a certain sense of pride about how the more effort I put in, the more I seemed to be able to find to latch on to. I was also quite into science fiction, and I think there’s a fairly obvious connection there. I think there’s something about the futurism of music from Aphex and Autechre that widened my worldview, too.
To engage in some imperfect self-psychoanalysis, I think I treated electronic music in similar ways to how some kids latch onto, say, heavy metal. I started to form my identity in relation to music.
Growing up in Melbourne, were there others who shared your enthusiasm for this electronic music at that time, or did you feel like an outsider?
As a 15/16-year-old listening to IDM, it was probably natural to be feeling like an outsider. That was the whole point though—relishing listening to something away from the mainstream. I have specific memories of watching and enjoying the confused reactions that my friends and family would have when I played them μ-Ziq or some of Aphex Twin's higher bpm stuff. I got my first job around the same time, and going to music stores and spending every cent of my paychecks on electronic music was a crucial part of my identity at the time.
When did you begin experimenting with music production? What gear were you using and how did you learn the basics?
It’s hard to remember exactly when—but the first bit of gear I ever bought was a Korg Volca Beats, and since they were released in 2013-ish, I guess I started thinking about production in earnest around early 2014. I learned the basics through extensive trial and error, by talking with friends with similar levels of skill, by reading some basic articles in places like Attack Magazine, and by leaving ridiculous notes around my desk with sentences ripped from articles like "EQ or filter out undesirable frequencies" and "Experiment with delay times to find a sweet spot," long before those kinds of things had become entrenched in my brain.
Did your early demos sound anything like what you produce today?
I don’t think so. They were okay at times but limited in scope due to how skilled I was at the time (not very). I still have the project files saved on a hard drive, and I've returned to them once or twice to have a laugh about some things, like my rudimentary (non-existent) application of EQing for one. I’m pretty sure those old tunes would break speakers. But really, I didn't even have monitor speakers back then, so it wasn't so much about the results as it was about the desire to keep trying and keep learning. I was also clueless enough back then to be trying to make acid house without Roland drum samples or a bass synth, so...not exactly where I'm at today. But that curiosity, enthusiasm, and willingness to experiment and learn through trial and error was obviously very important, even if I didn't have many skills.
"I also think that there’s a trap in thinking that music producers always need to be prodigies, whereby the music just comes to them, effortlessly, as if they are the conduit of a message from a Ouija board or something. But really, just as much music can be the result of concerted listening, the gradual maturing of tastes that result, and of hundreds of hours of practice."
Do you think you were just trying to replicate the music you were listening to or were you just trying to make music?
I think I would have liked to be able to replicate the music that I was listening to at the time, especially since I would be judging myself against it as a marker of improvement. But, as a beginner, I didn’t really have the tools or enough knowledge to replicate other music. It was more about learning from what the experts were doing to get results, taking notes and so on.
I must have bought a thousand tracks since I started producing, and over years I feel as if they coalesce into an ensemble in the back of the mind, informing the little micro-decisions that are made in the studio, and providing little touchpoints for the brain to return to when choosing what sound to add next. An artist is really able to nail down their personal sound and style once they combine this with maturity and growth outside of music, I think.
I also think that there’s a trap in thinking that music producers always need to be prodigies, whereby the music just comes to them, effortlessly, as if they are the conduit of a message from a Ouija board or something. But really, just as much music can be the result of concerted listening, the gradual maturing of tastes that result, and of hundreds of hours of practice.
It’s an interesting point. So you’ve listened to records and really absorbed sounds, tips, and tricks out from them—but did you consciously study techniques and practices?
As I mentioned above, a little, mainly just the basics. But I find that I drive myself to distraction once I start getting deep into heavily technical forums or articles. Imagine reading a 4000-word piece about the subtleties of compression that refers to various plugins and outboard gear that you will never be able to afford, that you might only understand 60% of, and then think about what that does for your confidence. It makes me stressed about needing to spend heaps of money on new gear, which I can’t. It makes me self-conscious about the music I’ve already released, and it takes me away from what is most important: feeling the drive to sit down at my desk and make some tunes.
Obviously, I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent, and compression (for example) is important to know about. But those guys in forums debating the merits of different compressors don’t have me, my workflow, and my productivity in mind. I just think combining a small element of study combined with a larger amount of "learning by doing" is working for me.
Have you always had an idea of how you wanted your music to sound?
No, it's been changing/evolving fairly constantly since I started producing. As I mature as a person, I basically expect my tastes to mature alongside, and with that comes a new kind of ideas and intent. I wouldn't like to be static; I always want to be progressing in sound through my releases.
When did your sound begin shifting to the off-kilter electro of today? Why do you feel you began to gravitate this way?
Probably near the end of 2016 I’d say, around the time I wrote “Eight Eight Six Eight,” (which came out on P!L much later in 2017). Practically speaking, the sounds and sequences I was attracted to using worked best in electro, and since I was in a way returning to the style of music that first got me into electronic music, it felt like a very natural progression. I also felt excited by there being more wriggle room than in house or techno, and I became conscious that my main tool, Renoise, was really rather suited to it. More importantly, though, I felt like I was coming up with enough new ideas within the framework that I could contribute to a little corner of the genre.
Are you musically trained?
I’m not. I didn’t play an instrument as a kid and my grip on music theory is still quite nascent. I think I've been able to compensate for this over the past couple of years by relying on my taste and my particular workflow, where jamming out keys live is not altogether crucial to where a track ends up when it's complete. I don't use a DAW that has a piano roll to drag around notes, so while chord charts are my friend, being able to backspace and use trial and error is crucial. In saying that, I want to spend more time on musical training, I think it will become more and more important for my progress, and I'd also like to collaborate and jam with friends in the future—an improved musical literacy is basically essential in that setting.
"In a beloved group chat that I'm in with a few other producers, we actually have a jocular but very specific code word that we send through to each other when we've just finished a track. The code basically requests that anyone who is online drop what they're doing and listen to it ASAP for feedback and validation. "
Can you recall a moment when you felt confident in your productions?
I'm not sure I've reached that level yet; there's still so much to learn, so much room for refinement to my workflow, so much equipment that is financially out of reach (for example, right now my audio interface is broken and I can't really afford to replace it), and so many techniques to perfect, so I think I’m still working toward an outward confidence in my music.
I've certainly felt content and comfortable with music that I've released, particularly my first EP Waves of Nothing, but I think that whole EP contains more a sense pride in being able to represent a mood and a concept as it appeared in my head than an overall sense of confidence in the production itself. I still heavily rely on external feedback to feel confident in my work, so a special thank you to the close friends whom I regularly share my music with. In a beloved group chat that I'm in with a few other producers, we actually have a jocular but very specific code word that we send through to each other when we've just finished a track. The code basically requests that anyone who is online drop what they're doing and listen to it ASAP for feedback and validation. I'm not sure if it's healthy or not, but I think we all still feed off the hype and good vibes that come through sharing a track that might end up being something good.
You say you had a confidence in Waves of Nothing because you could “represent a mood and a concept as it appeared in my head.” Is this the case with most of your productions, and how clear is this image?
Earlier on, a lot of music came out as a result of sitting down with not much planned out in my head, which can be a wonderful way to work. Lately, and since Waves of Nothing was released, I’ve been working more with specific labels and concepts in mind, which brings a new set of challenges (namely living up to the ideas in my head), but also I feel that working within parameters helps keep the music focused. I wouldn’t say overall that I know exactly how I want a track to sound before I start it, as so many things that pop up in the production process affect and alter that image—but keeping a desired mood or direction in mind has become increasingly common for me.
You can hear techno and electro in your music, but it also bears a resemblance to sound art and composition. To what extent is dance music an influence?
Well, fundamentally, I want my music to be played on dancefloors. But while I love listening to and playing techno and electro, I don't find making straight up tracks to be wholly engrossing, both from a production perspective and a little more philosophically, too. As I find my feet and continue to figure out what sonic space I work best in, I think it will be increasingly important for me to occupy a different, difficult or interesting space in the genre. I feel it's the least I can do, coming into a scene where a lot of the core principles of dance music have been so thoroughly fleshed out by the artists that have come before. At the moment, I'm trying to live up to this by incorporating elements from more experimental sources or, like is my current focus, trying to think about ways to expand upon the small bits of common ground between say, Dutch style electro and modern broken techno coming from the UK. Hopefully, this will come through on some of my upcoming material.
Yes, the electro sound has been done before. It’s not always easy to find a unique voice. This is something you’re very conscious of?
Absolutely. I don’t want to suggest that all of my music is some groundbreaking venture. But thinking about how you occupy space both as an artist and as a person is important!
"...I enjoy using a program that not many people use, especially in my circles, since I always felt that it was important for me to be doing something different, as the process is as important as the output."
What do you use to produce your stuff—analog gear, soft synths, or a mix of both?
A mix. I'm not a purist in either direction, I'm just after things that I feel a connection to. I currently have reduced my studio setup down to a Korg Minilogue and Monologue, a Roland JP-8000, a midi keyboard and a small handful of soft synths.
The pride and joy of it all though is Renoise, the DAW for me. It's relatively obscure, made by a tiny group of engineers, who have day jobs outside of music, I think. It's quirky, limited in ways compared to Ableton or Logic, but it's also incredibly powerful once you get past the learning curve. I enjoy using a program that not many people use, especially in my circles, since I always felt that it was important for me to be doing something different, as the process is as important as the output.
I have absolutely no issues with more conventional DAWs, I've just literally never felt the drive to migrate over to them. I've enjoyed not being able to easily Google/Youtube the answer to whatever problem I'm facing in Renoise, as it's led to a meaningful learning curve and a lot of successful experimentation and trial and error. It just feels important to me and my music, somehow.
What’s your typical way of recording?
It changes from day to day but generally speaking the order that things happen in are as follows: first, listening to some music to get in the mood. Second, making a rudimentary beat with samples to get a bit of a sound palette happening, followed by trying for a lead or bass sound, settling on something, then re-visiting the beat to make it gel rhythmically with whatever synth lines I've just written. Next, adding variation to the drums, basslines. Then giving it a bit of an initial mix along the way, so I know what other frequencies I've got space for. Then once I have the track sitting at about seventy percent done, I enjoy taking a break and trying to forget how the shell of the track sounds, so that I can be more objective about where it's heading. I've settled on doing my drums in-the-box within Renoise for now. The effects processing and automation, plus sampling and breakbeat chopping capabilities are a huge strength of Renoise, so I'm basically working with it, and my, strengths.
What state of mind do you get into when you make music?
Some days involve procrastination and frustration with incremental gains, but sometimes, maybe one in every five times I try to make music, it can get very trance-like. Time completely loses meaning, and six or seven hours might pass before I wake up, realise that I've been sitting with terrible posture, have forgotten to eat anything and haven't drunk any water. It's a trance-like state of concentration that totally can't be forced or replicated, but when it happens it feels special, and in no other part of my life does this kind of thing happen.
Do you do music full-time nowadays or do you study/work on the side?
Well, I’m currently finding my feet in a new arrangement. I've dropped down from full-time to part-time work, specifically to give myself more time during the week to work on music. I'd wanted to do this for quite some time, but it really only became viable once I started to make some small income from performing. Working full-time and trying to make music was quite difficult, too. Being physically tired and mentally drained after a nine-five wasn't exactly conducive to inspiring sessions in the studio, and would result in me putting more pressure on myself to finish things in the one or two hours every few days I could spend on music, which in turn led to me burning out. Five or six hours per week wasn't enough to really give music a go; I felt like I needed to be making sacrifices or compromises in order to keep up with the sheer amount of music and new producers that pop up every month. So here I am.
Cool. So you’ve made the decision that you want to pursue music full-time. Has it always been the case? Are your parents supportive?
I think that I’m willing to see where music will go, but to be able to find that out I needed to be able to invest more time into it. This is all so recent, too, and being a musician wasn’t really a goal of mine until the last couple of years. My family and I are going through a fairly rough time together at the moment with some health issues, so it’s been really lovely to know that they can see how driven and happy I am in terms of music.
What is it that you do part-time?
I work an administration job at a university alongside a great set of colleagues. It’s fast paced and hectic at times, but we keep each other sane.
You co-run Melbourne parties Cool Room. What role has this played in your musical career?
A truly invaluable role. My first gigs were the ones where my friends and I booked ourselves at Cool Room, after we started the night in early 2015. I learned a lot about song choices and mixing, being thrown straight into playing to heaving, full nightclubs in my very first gigs. We were so lucky Cool Room took off from the start, and since it was my first foray into the clubbing scene in Melbourne, it meant I had a positive, hopeful mindset about everything to do with music and clubbing. Being associated with a now long-running, well-respected club night earned me a lot of legitimacy. Further, running Cool Room meant month in, month out, spending sometimes 12 hours in a club in a night. You can hear so much good music in that time, you learn so much about artist relations, good promotion, relationship building. Plus, I haven't even mentioned yet the total privilege of being able to book world-class acts and see them up close. Proximity is inspiring. We've recently booked Steffi, Avalon Emerson, Lena Willikens, LA-4A, K-HAND just to name a few. I've learned heaps about DJing from each of their sets, no doubt.
And how often are you DJing nowadays? I suppose that has picked up off the back of production.
I’m DJing two or three times a month, roughly. At the moment it’s a number I’m quite content with as I balance production, my day job and obviously tending to relationships, family and friends. Too many late nights a month stress me out!
How did you learn to mix, and how long have you been doing it for? How do you find it?
Some friends and I bought a set of CDJ-350s in 2015. We practised every Wednesday night for at least a year, sharing a meal and teaching each other how to mix. I adored that, and I still adore DJing. It’s a thrill and a passion. I’ve increasingly set high standards on myself, and as a result I can still play "bad sets" where I emerge wishing I’d done things differently and feeling a little crestfallen, but I generally put several days of preparation into sets now, so I’m working to be as versatile and considered as I can be.
What do you enjoy doing away from music?
God, dance music has become a fairly pervasive and omnipresent part of my life, now that I think about it, there's not much time for much else! I enjoy eating and cooking immensely. Sharing meals and having positive restaurant experiences with my partner makes me cry happy tears. I play billiards with my grandfather and drink wine with my grandmother once a week. I am obsessed with test cricket. I drink too much coffee with a close-knit group of friends. I’m trying to read more again and spend more time offline.
What’s coming up?
I'm going to move away from appearing on VAs as a general rule in 2018, as I'm increasingly keen on presenting a full set of tracks as a cohesive whole. As such, I'm working on an electro EP at the moment that I hope to finish shortly. At some point, I hope to plan out a follow-up release for Salt Mines, plus a more experimental thing for Cry Baby Records, and finally, I'm working concurrently on a set of breakbeat driven tracks that lean more toward house than electro and techno. Probably too ambitious to think that I’ll be able to get it all done in 2018, but I'm enjoying the challenge.