interview by Michael McCarthy
The Range is the moniker of choice of James Hinton, a super talented quote “electronic musician.” I use the quotes because when many people think of electronic musicians they tend to think of sterile music that lacks the human touch. This is where The Range’s music differs substantially. Rather than just putting out an instrumental album that simply shows off his programming skills, James went to the far reaches of Youtube and found talented singers, rappers and spoken word artists whose videos had but a small number of views and asked them if he could sample them on his new album. The result is his sophomore full-length, the recently released Potential. I didn’t think to ask him why he chose that title, but my guess would be that it’s because the album not only shows him working to his full potential but shows how these artists he samples have all this potential and nobody was noticing until he came along. Now they’re using that potential by appearing on the album. Interestingly, a filmmaker named Daniel Kaufman traveled the world and met with the artists on the album, resulting in the documentary Superimpose, which you should definitely watch below. Naturally, I had lots of questions about the documentary and the process behind Potential. I asked him some of our trademark random questions as well.
MM: First of all, where were you born and where do you presently reside?
JH: I was born in Morristown but was living in Pennsylvania. Kind of like north east Pennsylvania right on the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania and I live in Brooklyn now.
MM: Which was completed first, the Superimpose documentary or your new album Potential?
JH: The album. The album came first. I was working on a lot of the music but there was quite a bit of over-lap by completion. A few months after Superimpose then came the album.
MM: In the Superimpose film you reveal that you like to collaborate with people whose Youtube videos don’t have a large number of plays. Is there a maximum number of plays where if a person has over that amount then you won’t pick them?
JH: I had toyed around with that, but I think really what it comes down to is much less about the actual view count than the attention. I think I went for stuff that didn’t intend for itself to garner thousands and thousands of plays. Pretty much everything has less than 100 views. Maybe if you want a number like 10,000 is probably too much.
MM: Were the spoken word and vocals that you used simply extracted from the Youtube videos or did you have the people re-record their parts?
JH: They were all just sampled from the Youtube videos. I thought there was an interesting quality of the Youtube video itself, as opposed to if they were to re-record anything, that I wanted to keep intact for the album.
MM: The piece on Wired said that the people on screen have to be overly confident to win you over. Do you agree with that?
JH: Yeah, I think confidence for me I guess is a funny term because it’s my judgment of them being confident. Someone could be confident while they’re spilling an emotion that doesn’t necessarily in normal context be confident, but I like the idea that someone can be talking about something that’s difficult in their lives or [a] heartbreaker or what have you and still be willing to share that. That’s kind of what I was meaning in that Wired piece. Confidence of I don’t care what the world thinks, this is my story.
MM: Superimpose was written, directed and edited by Daniel Kaufman. How did you connect with him?
JH: He had done this piece with this artist called O.T. Genasis that had a song that was quite big around a year ago called “CoCo.” It was a really, kind of amazing rap song. He had done this piece that was 15 minutes long and I spent some time with him. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It was very much just him in his neighborhood telling stories about his life and it was shot beautifully. And I thought, OK, if this guy can manage this – and that’s like a major label video – if he was able to deliver that much art with that I think he can do a really amazing job with this and I think it came out really well. There was a lot of nuance and sensitivity.
MM: When Daniel went to the various places he went to so he could interview the people you sampled, did you go with him or did he go on his own?
JH: I like the idea both practically and almost for an artistic reason that he went on his own to maintain – because a lot of the filming was going on before the album had come out – kind of the separation. Like there’s the path that everything was mediated through the internet from people to the people that are on the album. Everywhere but New York he went by himself. But because I live in New York I was around. He met with Kai, who lives in New York, and is featured on the song “Florida,” separately from me. When the album came out, that’s when I met everyone after that.
MM: I was curious about that “Florida” track because Kai had done an Ariana Grande cover that you found on Youtube. Did she record an original song for you or did you just take her Ariana Grande cover and chop it up into a new song?
JH: I like the way that she delivered it. It was very, very different than the original song. I think the original Ariana Grande is up-tempo and very almost like bubblegum pop in the best way, right? That’s what it’s aiming for. Whereas Kai’s version in her Youtube is very emotionally driven and it’s clear to me, or it just felt clear to me, that she was kind of going through something and that song meant a lot to her. So then I was chopping up that song and unless people know where it’s from I don’t think anyone would connect that to Ariana Grande. It feels really, really different to me. So, that was the idea with that, just to chop it up and change the phrasing and use pretty much only the chorus to kind of give it a whole new life.
MM: Did you actually talk on the phone or Skype with any of the people you sampled or did you just E-mail them for their permission and then you went with it?
JH: Yeah, that was a fun part of it. First you have to try and find them. Everyone assumes on the internet it’s easy to get in touch with people but it was actually quite a difficult process. Kai was incredibly easy because she’s very active on Twitter, and so am I, and we kind of messaged back and forth and it was fast. Whereas with other people, [you’re] trying to find someone on Facebook – because their Youtube messages weren’t going through – and then through Facebook you could find their phone number and all that stuff. It was like being a bit of a detective. It was very different for every person that appeared on the album.
MM: Have you actually befriended any of the people you sampled?
JH: Yeah. Kai tries to show up in New York whenever she can and Ophqi & Superior Thought, they live in London – their song’s “Five Four” on the album – and I met with them recently and we’re trying to work on some new songs. It’s been kind of cool to meet people. I’m still only in contact with Damien, who’s on the last song on the album and lives in Kingston, on E-mail and Skype. But the people that appear in the documentary I’ve been in contact with, like Chris from London came and played a festival with me and did his song, actually, this summer, which was quite, quite cool. It’s been nice to get to know them.
MM: You talk about the loneliness in the videos by the people you sampled. Could you tell us what you mean about that?
JH: I guess I’m trying to get at that I think it’s a fundamentally lonely medium. Most of Youtube is – even people that are quite popular – it’s just literally them turning a camera on themselves, playing themselves and editing themselves and it’s really a solo kind of thing. For me, because it’s a similar process, unlike a lot of people that are in a band, I resonated with that. I think what drives me to continue to make music by myself is the same thing that drives people to make videos. Which is kind of an interesting thing. Maybe to some people it’s trivial but it’s something I find myself thinking a lot about. What [does] your medium that you choose to make your art in dictate about the emotional content and what you can make. And, for me, that was a tie between those two things. Because you’re meant to be by yourself you tend to make work that’s reflective or meditative on the state that you’re quite lonely and just by yourself. That was kind of what I meant by that concept.
MM: Most of the people who were in the documentary seem to come from poor communities. Were you surprised when you learned that?
JH: I was a little bit surprised. I think for me because I was focusing on the emotional content of everything that’s the first thing that I was thinking about. Zack, who lives in Hayes, London, is kind of a difficult region. But then I think there are also plenty of people like Lisa, for instance, just the other side as well, she’s a fine songwriter and doing well. So, I think, yes, that is true. But I’m interested in the idea that there are similar emotional ties between everyone that are not even connected to the state that people are living in. I think there’s a lot of humanity that gets translated when we’re talking about Youtube videos that have these smaller views. I think that’s something that transcends the people who are in tougher situations that are talking about the same things as the people who are not in such tough situations. I think that’s interesting. To see and connect with where people are coming from in real life to Youtube videos.
MM: Did you use sampled beats and sounds in the songs on Potential or is it just the vocals that were samples?
JH: Yeah, there’s certainly little bits and pieces. I also tend to sample my own material. Like if I’ve been working on a song I’ll kind of rough it up and sample the thing in a song that kind of has a similar quality. Sampling to me has always been interesting. It’s a major part of how I work. On Nonfiction, which was the prior album, that was pretty much a sampling record as well. So, there’s lots of stuff stuck in there as well. Potential is just the first one where I thought, oh, maybe there’s this macro idea of sampling in general that I can kind of comment on as well. That’s the only thing that separates it from my other work.
MM: Do you use a lot of loops when you’re sampling?
JH: Yeah. I think electronic music tends to lend itself to that being a huge part of it just because it’s so simple to create time that way. It’s very much a super important thing. There’s various ways you can do it. I think using audio in a loop is a very different process than using synthesizer looping and midi looping because the way you have to machine those two are different. Yeah, it’s an important thing. I think looping can be great but it can also be an easy way out lots of times. So, what I hope that the record translates is that anything that is looped is not just relying on some repetitive thing.
MM: What kind of software do you use for making the beats and tracking it?
JH: I use exclusively Logic. Logic Pro. I got it when I first got my computer to go to college and I happened to keep using it. I don’t think people traditionally make electronic music but I find it pretty malleable so I like it.
MM: What are the biggest ways that Potential differs from your first record?
JH: Musically, it’s not a departure but a step forward. Obviously, as we talked about before, Nonfiction, to me, meant the idea that I was able to [have] a defense in calling myself The Range in a lot of ways, being able to work in different genres but hopefully create something cohesive out of it. There’s not many electronic music records recently that exist as a record and can live in that space. I think I was successful in that attempt. And I think there’s a couple songs that paved the way for Potential. There’s a song called “Metal Swing” that has a Youtube vocal. There’s also a song called “Jamie” that has one as well. But I don’t think I’d put two and two together at the time that that was an interesting thing. So, for me, on the vocal side, and the sampling side, Potential is much more of a cohesive statement. And it has much more of a narrative. Nonfiction didn’t have any reason for being outside of being a musical project. But with this one I’m hoping, yes, it’s a musical thing, but it’s also trying to make some sort of statement about morality and that whole idea of fair. But musically I think there’s a lot of ideas. To me it’s much more of a composed album. Much more thought through compositionally, meaning kind of like I’m trying to consider each and every line separately. Yeah, I’m thinking of the next record now – how can I advance things? – to diagnose it as I speak with you. Yeah, hopefully, that’s something I’d like to continue. I like the idea of maintaining narratives and pushing myself musically and I like the idea that those two can be parallel, that they don’t have to interrupt each other, and I think they from Nonfiction to Potential they got a lot better [at] being parallel as well.
MM: I know you’re on tour with Phantogram – I’ll be seeing you on Friday – how is the tour going?
JH: It’s going really, really well, actually. Because I spend most of my time making music I think for a while I hadn’t really put a lot of time and attention into how to present it. I think I was really just trying to lay there and make sure there were interesting transitions to the material. This is the first tour for me where I’m really reconsidering, how can I better make a lot of these songs come to life live and be performative with them? Because of that the tour has gone much, much better than I even was expecting, I think. People are responding to adding percussion and having different pieces of material that weren’t necessarily there in past performances. Of course, Phantogram’s record is doing really, really well. It’s number 5 in the U.S, which is kind of crazy and shows there’s a fever pitch to them and I’m definitely benefiting from that. All and all, I’m feeling really, really excited and happy about how things are going.
MM: I saw a video on Pitchfork TV and you were either singing or lip synching to the vocals while performing live. Are you actually singing or lip synching?
JH: No, I’m singing. It’s a funny thing you ask. I don’t know when that started but I just started to sing along to the songs. It’s just become a thing where everything that has a vocal, I’m very much singing. It’s almost like an out of body experience when I start to do it. It seems to help connect people to the songs. A lot of them don’t even know that I’m playing my own music – especially on tours like this – so I think that’s another hint that I have more to do with it than they might think.
MM: Do you have a microphone on yourself when you do that or is that just for you that you’re singing?
JH: No, that’s just for me. I think it’s nice. I have a microphone to talk to people. I like to say hello and connect with people that way but I don’t have a microphone on myself [when singing].
MM: If you could resurrect any one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
JH: Glenn Gould, the pianist. Probably more of a random one for me recently. I’ve just been really appreciating his translations of a lot of classical music. He was unique in that. Maybe it’s just the fall, but I kind of go into that zone around now every year, so that’s as well.
MM: What was the last album that you bought?
JH: The last album I bought was an older record, an untitled record by Sigur Ros from like around 2004. I had owned it a while back but I never had purchased it on digital and I’ve just become obsessed with it again so I picked it up on iTunes. That was a pretty recent purchase.
MM: What do you think about the comeback of vinyl? Are you into vinyl at all?
JH: I am. Maybe it’s a simplistic reason but I think it’s the same reason that books are still around. People love the idea – maybe it’s because I’m out there and talking to people after the shows – it’s just something nice to take away with you. Is it the most functional thing in the world? Is it easy to play? No, it’s not. But it’s something that you can hold onto. I think fans like to have things in space and they like to be able to kind of assign things [to space] and that’s an important connection that people can have that doesn’t exist with streaming music. I’m very much in support of it. I think they can co-exist. And I think it makes sense like CDs are going away, USB sticks are never gonna be that much of a thing, so this dichotomy between streaming and vinyl is healthy to me. It feels similar to e-books and books. I like that.
MM: Who is your all-time favorite music producer?
JH: That is a tough one. Brian Wilson’s up there. He moves me for sure. But probably the closest to my heart would be like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher. Squarepusher would win in a close tie. The records they were making in the mid ’90’s were unique, given how complex they are and what they had to work with at the time. So, it just connects a lot of dots for me in my head that I’m really appreciative of and I respect those guys on a whole other level than most people.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money and what format was it?
JH: It’s a bit of an embarrassing one. I picked up the Batman Forever soundtrack with my own money having just watched it. That must have been, what, 1995? I think my mom had given me a 20 dollar bill and I was just able to buy it then and it was on CD.
MM: What’s the most awkward exchange you’ve ever had with a fellow musician?
JH: [Laughs] That’s an interesting question. I think it would definitely be… What festival was this where I think it was CHVRCHES before I went out on tour with them and I don’t think they knew who I was or what I was and I got assumed to be a stage hand because I always wear black and that was probably the look. Was it CHVRCHES? It was one of the bands I was supporting after Nonfiction came out and they assumed that I was a stage hand and I wasn’t, fortunately.
MM: If you could have one person alive today come to one of your shows, who would you want to come see you?
JH: Alive today? Interesting. I’m morbidly curious, I think that they would hate it, but Aphex Twin again, going back there, I’ve been kind of curious. He’s very reclusive so it would be a unique opportunity – I’m sure it would be a don’t meet your idols type of problem – but it would be an interesting one for me. I’d be interested to see his face when a couple of the tracks came out.
MM: Who’s the coolest musician you’ve ever met?
JH: That’s funny. Because it can be read the wrong way. A too cool for school type of thing as well. I mean, the Phantogram people are pretty up there just in terms of being L.A. classic cool people. That’s probably up there to me.
MM: Do you have any pets?
JH: No, I used to have three golden retrievers but my apartment’s too small. I don’t think I could have any. I want a dog but I couldn’t.
CATCH THE RANGE ON TOUR WITH PHANTOGRAM:
10-22 New York, NY – Hammerstein Ballroom
10-24 Philadelphia, PA – The Fillmore
10-25 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club SOLD OUT
10-26 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club SOLD OUT
10-28 Raleigh, NC – The Ritz
10-29 Charlotte, NC – The Fillmore
10-30 Knoxville, TN – The Mill and the Mine
10-31 Nashville, TN – Marathon Music Works
11-02 Atlanta, GA – Buckhead Theatre
11-03 New Orleans, LA – Joy Theater
11-04 Austin, TX – Sound On Sound Festival
11-05 Dallas, Texas – Bomb Factory
11-08 Paris, FR – Petit Bain
11-10 Amsterdam, NLD – Bitterzoet
11-11 Berlin, DEU – Lido
11-14 Brighton, UK – Patterns
11-16 London, UK – Heaven
11-17 Manchester, UK – The Deaf Institute SOLD OUT
11-18 Glasgow, UK – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
11-29 St Louis, MO – Peabody Opera House
11-30 Indianapolis, IN – Murat Theater
12-01 Chicago, IL – Aragon Ballroom
12-02 St Augustine, FL – St Augustine Amphitheater
12-03 Tampa, FL – Midflorida Credit Union Amphitheater
12-28 Busselton, AU – Southbound Festival
01-01 Sydney, AU – Field Day
01-03 Sydney, AU – Enmore Theatre
Special thanks to James for taking the time to chat with me and to Evan Taylor at Domino Recording Company for setting it up!