The Driftless boss talks about becoming a father, his new EP 'New Origin,' and the state of indie labels.
As a founder of Software Recording Co. alongside Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin, Joel Ford has had a hand in ushering many of the last decade's most boundary pushing electronic records into existence. They put out early releases by club ambience master Huerco S. and pop contortionist Autre Ne Veut, meanwhile developing their production chops together as synth-pop duo Games (later Ford & Lopatin) and separately.
While Lopatin has since become one of the underground scene's most celebrated figures, and Software announced its hiatus earlier this year, Ford continues to be quietly prolific. In addition to crafting cinematic synth bangers and intimate futuristic pop under his Airbird moniker, he recently became a new father and spends his time co-running Driftless Recordings with LA producer Patrick McDermott. He's set to release a new EP next week, No Origin, his first solo material since 2013's Trust EP.
Today THUMP's premiering "Streamer," which layers dazed out synths and tribal beats into a bustling techno jam. In the accompanying video game created by New Jersey video artist Ghostdad—which can be played here—you navigate a 3D avatar of Ford using arrow keys through a surreal landscape, complete with psychedelic mountains and endless glow stick logs.
We caught up with the producer and musician to talk about juggling family life and music, how sampling inspired the new record, and the continued importance of left-field labels in the 21st century.
THUMP: To start, tell us a little about the concept behind the video game for "Streamer."
Joel Ford: It's this rad, borderline cheeky, virtual environment. Ghostdad took a 3D picture of me sitting down and turned that into a caricature of me sitting cross-legged in this river flying forwards or backwards, depending on how you control it. The multicoloured, almost glow stick logs from the No Origin album art are sort of floating around changing colours.
When you're a new dad running a label and producing other artists, how do you budget time for your own music?
I feel like it's amazing what I can still accomplish, given all the things I'm trying to do with producing, running a label, and mixing records. So it's all about keeping those hustles I have going on, and balancing that out with trying to be an awesome dad and have an awesome family. I really don't believe in giving up your passions when you start a family.
I do understand that you have to prioritize certain things and de-prioritize others, but if I was to give any musician trying to start a family advice, I believe staying passionate about your life is so important in terms of the example you're setting for your children. My time here in New York does have an end date, but I'm still trying to work out a way I can be tapped into the energy of the city, but live somewhere more quiet.
Do you play your own records for your son, and if so, does he like them?
There hasn't really been a scenario where I play him new tracks. When I'm home the way I listen to music is either when I'm cooking and listening to jazz radio, or playing vinyl while I'm hanging out with him. I almost never listen to my own music when I'm not in the studio. He's recently started getting into some ambient stuff and has been stoked on some old Wings records. I think he's hooked on the whole Paul McCartney thing, which is mostly my fault. He really loves watching the records spin and loves to touch them when they spin around, so I let him and he gets excited!
Does the prospect of him sharing the same passion for music production when he grows up excite you?
Yeah, I think exposing kids to instruments at a young age is amazing. Beau is so tiny and has no idea of what's going on in the world outside of his own little space, but even he can clunk around on the keyboard and have fun with it. In terms of down the line it's up to him. I grew up in a home where my parents were musicians, but they never forced music on me, it was more encouraged. Their parents came from the more classical music background, where you're expected to lock yourself in your room and practice nonstop. I feel like that'd be a great way to create some sort of technical virtuosity, but I don't think it's a way to inspire someone to synthesize new cultural ideas.
How did these new changes in your personal life influence New Origin? What elements of your production would you say have changed from the Ford & Lopatin era?
It definitely feels refreshing. Aside from the Airbird & Napolian release last year, I haven't worked on my own solo music in a while. I became re-inspired to make new Airbird music by getting back into sampling, sort of where the Games stuff started. Back then Dan and I were working entirely hardware-only, so there were tons of keyboards and I was sequencing on my MPC. I didn't even own a laptop until 2011 after we started Software.
When we signed with them, we got caught up in trying not to make illegal music, because at that point we were more concerned with being careerist musicians. Now I just want to be passionate about my interaction with creating new sounds, so I've been inspired with just going wild with finding a bunch of stuff on the internet. Initially I was gonna create a record that was more 80s and 90s action movie samples, but I kind of wanted to release a short record first, which is how No Origin came about. Some of the samples are obvious, but there's been so many that I've kind of lost track, I just wanted to get into that headspace.
After leaving Software to start Driftless in 2013, how did your views change towards releasing music and the structure of labels?
Moving onto Driftless was just about me taking control of my music business and feeling confident enough to go out on my own. I met Patrick just before leaving Software and we instantly became the best of friends. The whole thing was born out of a need for a true, unevaded outlet for all the stuff I was working on.
In the beginning we built a studio in Pat's apartment and I was there every day working on that first Ejecta record. It felt really organic and still feels that way, but these days with Pat in LA and everything we have going, the Driftless output kind of ebbs and flows. I feel like we're a lot more confident and comfortable than ever before about putting out the music we really want to put out.
How important is the existence of more left-field electronic music imprints today? Is the concept of traditional labels archaic at this point?
I think these labels are still super important for collectives of friends and collaborators who get together and release music. I've always loved my friends who run labels like Sacred Bones and RVNG Intl. that have super focused, highly curated releases.
With the bigger label stuff, I think it really depends on the context. When Britney Spears wants to do a record, you need to have those 20 writers in a room, and put tons of money into production and all that. I think that'll always have some relevance because there's still a need for that mechanical process of industry execs shitting out a product for people's entertainment. Often I'm entertained by that too, so I'm totally not hating on it.
Whether it be a major or top-tier indie label, there's been a democratization of music consumption on the internet. I think it's great that someone in the middle of shithouse Alaska could make a record, put it on the internet, and have people hear it instantly. When Games started, Dan and I made a slowed down funk mix, put it on SoundCloud, and it was on Pitchfork the next day. That was the spark that formalized my drive to make music, because I realized I could just put stuff out and people would pay attention, which didn't exist 10 to 15 years ago. When you make undeniable music, it's going to get you places at some level no matter what.