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Interview: Quantic on his new album Magnetica and his return to electronic music

Few producers have a more varied resume than Will Holland, aka Quantic. Starting with straight-ahead break beat-laden dance music of the English variety, he’s moved through soul, jazz and funk before delving headlong into Latin music, particularly focusing on Colombia, where he’s lived for over six years. With Mario Galeano, he formed Ondatropica, a band that brought together multiple generations of Colombian musicians for a record that brilliantly synthesized and transformed more than a half century of Colombian popular music. Afropop’s Sam Backer interviewed Will before the release of Magnetica, his latest album.  

Sam Backer: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. I really appreciate it.

Quantic: You’re very welcome.

How long have you been working on the new record?

So, I’ve been working on this record probably about two years, I’d say. It started off when I was living in Cali [Santiago de Cali in western Colombia]. I also lived in Bogota  when I was working on the record, and it consumed me on various trips to Brazil and to England. And then more was recorded in Los Angeles and New York. On my travels and tours, it’s followed me, and I’ve been working on it. So, it’s kind of been a long process.

So you recorded it all over? 

The basis of it was recorded in Colombia, but elements were recorded in the States. I mean, there’s also a lot of people recording remotely as well. So, some recordings were made in Portugal, some recordings were made with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson in Los Angeles  where I wasn’t present.

And is that different from how you’ve recorded previous albums?

In the last couple of records with like Combo Barbaro and Flowering Inferno, I tried to do things more centered in a single geographical location–recording in a room, in a studio, and kind of the product of that record being from just one place and just one style. And that was what it was about when I was living in Cali. And then with this record, I guess I wanted to branch out and do some different stuff all over. So there’s some Ethiopian music there. There’s some Angolan music, Brazilian. And that’s obviously hard to do in one place.

 It’s coming out under just the Quantic name, right?

Yes, that’s right.

And it’s the first record you’ve done like that since 2006, right? 

Yes. Well, the last Quantic record I made was way back then, and I think I kind of got into—I really kind of went on a crusade for live music, and working a lot more with a more traditional studio setting, with tape machines. Trying to get back into the analog thing. And especially in Colombia, I had the opportunity to really work with a lot of musicians, because of the level of musicianship there, and because, you know, economically as well, it was easy to employ musicians and have like 10, 11, 12 people on a song.

And then, getting back to traveling again and getting back into club shows, as I have been over the last few years, it’s been more about stripping it down and having a bit more of an electronic kind of sound again, which I hadn’t done for a while. But still there’s obviously a lot of live elements, but it’s generally more of an electronic sound.

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Yeah, it’s really interesting, because I’m a really big fan of the Ondatropica album…

Thank you!

Yeah, no problem! It was really fantastic. I saw you guys at Lincoln Center.

Ah, of course, that was a great show! That was fun. The Ondatropica thing–I’ve learned so much from that experience, and I’ve learned a lot from playing with those old fellas. It’s a very educational sort of process for everyone–for them and for us. And especially for us younger guys, being around those heavy guys. They really know their sound, and they’ve really developed their own sort of flavor. And I started to create my own sound, right, like you start to develop a sound yourself, and sometimes when, you know, you’re not sure of it. I think with this record I was just trying to get back to that sound, and celebrate what I feel like I’ve become known for, and try and get that into a single record.

And, I guess, the Ondatropica thing was more of a photographic record in a sense. It was recorded in a studio, and it was about capturing the essence of the room, whereas in this, you’re creating an ambience in the record which is engineered, right? ‘Cause it’s kind of like a beats-programmed record, so it’s slightly different.

Do you think you’ve been able to translate what you’ve learned doing these more live records, and take it into this return to your electronic roots?

 I think so. I’ve definitely learned a lot about harmony and about rearrangement, I feel that those are the things that I’ve definitely come out of Ondatropica with. I think I feel stronger about how songs should be arranged now, how they should have harmonic integrity. Whereas before I think I was just like kind of looping stuff up till it sounded right. And now I’m like “Well, you know this sounds a bit monotonous, and, well, this bit, you know, I want to vary it.” And it’s been more now about trying to get a rich sound, whereas before I think, with the electronic thing, it was more about a loop-orientated thing.

Often I find, when there’s an attempt made at making a beatsy version of Latin music or Afro music, a lot of the time it’s sort of this mash-up culture thing. It’s generally a more low-quality sound, and there’s combinations made at the expense of sound quality. So with this it was also about really trying to  keep the sound and the integrity of the song, and not just a mash-up or an awkward combination of beats with live music, you know?

I think that Magnetica does a really good job, actually, of splitting the difference between those. And that’s one of the things I definitely heard. It definitely stands apart from the “We’re going to take Colombian music, but we’re gonna put heavy beats underneath it” type stuff that we hear a lot of in the world of the Internet. And I’m wondering how you got that sound, how you brought those live elements in and merged them with that kind of electronic structure around them.

A lot of it started just as kind of live stuff. Some of it started as beat ideas, that I then recorded live stuff on that or that I’d work on it with musicians. But most of it started with just the actual musical idea,  maybe not so rhythmic, but just the harmony. They all have a different evolution to be honest. Some of them, were very much processed with Nidia the singer, because it’s sort of a discipline of pacifico music, from the Pacific coast [of Colombia] and kind of needed to fit into a certain format. And then other stuff’s a bit more free and I kind of had a free range, and had some late-night studio sessions and just worked out how I wanted it to sound, really.

With the beats and live thing–more and more now, it’s easier to combine the two. Not like before when it was more about looping. Technology has moved on a lot, and now you can really expand and explore and exploit different riffs… The boundary between live and the computer is really breaking down, and it’s becoming very synthesized. But it’s still–it’s an awkward arc, right? The computer is still an awkward kind of thing,  so you have to spend a lot of time massaging songs together and getting the timing fluid. Because I really like the power of electronic music in clubs, when you hear that kick and you hear that bass line–there’s nothing quite like that sort of pure, sonic frequency. But, at the same time, you can give it some soul and syncopation and get rid of monotony… It’s sometimes tricky!

In the past, you’ve said that the boundary between electronic music and live music has become increasingly thin. Do you think this is more true with, say, Latin music, especially cumbia, which is for the dance floor to begin with?

Yeah. I mean, the thing is that cumbia in Colombia is so different to cumbia outside of Colombia. You know, it became kind of an electronic dance music outside of Colombia, but in Colombia it’s still very much a live thing. But it is very easy. Cumbia lends itself very well to electronic music and the two do not have any problems getting on together. But I think it’s difficult, because now there are so many mash-ups and beats. When you approach cumbia, when you approach tropical styles,  there are so many cliches, and it’s quite tricky sometimes to kind of find an original sound.

Yeah. And that’s something you haven’t really had to deal with before. I think most of that’s happened while you were–I don’t want to say “away making live music”–but while you were focusing more on live music.

Yeah, definitely. I think so. I think things really changed since I started making music on a tiny little Yamaha sampler that you could get to play four samples at the same time–that was what I did with my first 45–and then my first few records were made with Fruity Loops, which is quite a rudimentary program for the PC. And then I eventually got into making stuff with Logic and beats with Logic, but then I stopped. I’ve done a few remixes, but I’ve just been concentrating on trying to become a better musician and a better arranger and learn about music as it is conducted in a live sense.

You mentioned remixes. I know that from reading past interviews, you were exposed to a lot of this Latin American music through records.  I think it’s really interesting that instead of just remixing those records, you ended up moving to Colombia and actually working with artists who made them. Could talk a little bit about why you decided to do that? 

I’d been through sampling quite a lot in the ’90s and early 2000s,  and I think I almost reached a point where I felt frustrated.. Say you were sampling a rhythm track or a beat or something. You would want to go somewhere else, but the sample wouldn’t allow it, right? You were kind of using this static kind of sample of some other era, some other ilk,  and you were manipulating it to suit your needs, so it was kind of this hip-hop beat sort of mentality. But then I would be like “Oh, yeah, but I wanted to change it up to this, or I want to go this way”, and I wouldn’t be able to manipulate it or find a way of doing it.

And I soon realized that  it was actually far more interesting to… you know, a lot of these guys that we idolize through vinyl and through the recordings were still around. Especially in Colombia you go, “Wow, we can obsess over this Fuentes [Discos Fuentes, a major Colombian label] record that was recorded in 1972, and it’s this type of sound,” and that’s valid. But at the same time, I felt, I have the ability, like, Fuentes Records is still there, the guy, Michi Sarmientio, who played that track is still around. What’s wrong in just kind of going “Hey, it’s been a while, but let’s get these guys back to that sound and see what we can do?” And that, for me, feels more rewarding.

I do find it’s important to reach out–the generational thing is always really important. Like me, when I was making beats when I was 15, 16, there were a lot of people in their mid-20s, 30s who really helped me. They really were quite tender, they took me under their wing and they showed me how to make music or how to do this or how to–even the business side, you know? How to do remixes and charge people or this and that. And I kind of got an understanding. And that continues, I think. I still learn things from older people.

And those younger guys coming in, it’s good to support them, and, by doing that–they have a new sound and a real different thing and you learn it. So, for me, that was an experience in Colombia, because it was like meeting people in their 60s, 70s who had been in the industry since they were, you know, 15, 16, like Alfredo Linares, who I worked with a lot in Cali. He recorded his first record when he was 12, right? So you’re working with people here that have this amazing experience.

But just getting back to the sound thing and the ability to contact people… I think something happened to me in Colombia where I felt it was easier to approach people. Maybe it’s because I was outside of my native country, or the adventurism of the scenario, but I felt it was easier to approach people and invite them in to see you and work with them. And that’s stuck now, and I’m still doing it.

On the new record, you’ve got a mix of collaborators. And some of them you’ve worked with before, right? Like, you said, Michi Sarmiento.

Yeah.  Michi is the sax player in Ondatropica, and he’s a serious artist in his own right. He’s been recording salsa and cumbia since the ’60s.

There are also some people who are different, right? How did you end up working with Shinehead?

 Yeah, so the collaboration with Shinehead came about through a couple of close friends in Los Angeles. We started hanging out, and my friend was always saying to me, “Hey, Shinehead was by my house the other day. We had a mic set up, and we had 45s and some Guinness, and he was just doing his thing, and it sounded amazing. You know, you really should work with him.” And I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” I knew his old material, but I didn’t know what he was up to. We orchestrated a meet-up and we just hung out. I mean, it’s kind of a crazy level of talent that he has. He’s very creative, as far as improvisation goes. Very consistent, very interesting ideas. Everything he does, it’s like, “Oh my God, I wish I had a recorder, I wish I had a recorder.” And then, we ended up going to the studio. That was about a year and a half, maybe two years, ago now. I’ve just been kind of working on these tracks slowly. So, we got into the studio and eventually laid down some vocal ideas, and I went to Colombia and recorded some more horns and stuff and eventually got it finished.


 Another thing that’s interesting is that there’s some English folk, or folk elements, on the record.

The folk elements… I mean I’ve kind of touched on that in past albums. Mishaps Happening, you know, there’s some banjo in there. My father passed away before I moved to Colombia, and he was a banjo player and obsessed with music from the south of the United States. He was an avid banjo collector, and actually, the family and extended family ended up with pretty much a banjo each when he passed away. So I just kind of ended up with this banjo. It’s something that was very dear to me, because I always remember my father playing it, and playing it to us when I was a kid.

So I had this banjo in Colombia, and it was kind of just sitting there. I moved houses a couple of times and I was just taking it in its case from house to house. And I was like, “You know, I haven’t really made use of this like I should. I have a banjo, I should make use of it.” And I felt like my dad would’ve wanted me to record it. So, I ended up just recording on two tracks. On the Alice track “You Will Return” and also on “Painting Silhouettes.”

But, it was interesting to come back to that kind of sound, because I did grow up with that kind of sound. My mom was a folk singer, and she was very much into that kind of folk, the renaissance folk that was going on in the ’60s and ’70s. And it was interesting to come back to that, especially because it was something I was born and raised on and wasn’t that keen on as a kid, I guess.

Yeah, those are beautiful songs. I love how the squeal of the fingers is in time.

[Laughs] The squeal of the what? Of the strings?

You know when you change positions?

 Oh, right. Yeah yeah. There’s a lot of that. Yeah, there’s a lot of that noise. I guess that’s another sound, like a guitar. I bought this guitar in Los Angeles a while back. I just have a lot of instruments, they’re kind of important to me. You know, you take them with you, and they kind of accompany you. And my guitar was very good to me. And, it was good to record it. It’s like a very small little guitar, and it has this squeaking sound every time you play it, but it kind of works.

 It sounds great. One of the things I think is interesting about the album is that everything is in time, like you would hear on an electronic record, but you get some of that… you can feel the warmth in the playing, like the trumpet on “Sol Clap.”

 Yeah, I was trying to get people to play. The soul thing is really important. You know, there’s a temptation, especially with the click and metronome and the way things have to be kind of augmented with electronic music. Everything has to fit into sort of a regimen in order to function within the architecture of the way you record electronic music. So, you have to give it a little bit of slack, right? Cut it some slack. Like, have some attitude notes, and something that’s maybe a little bit ugly, but gives it a little bit more soul, you know.

Yeah, totally. It comes through really well.

Cool, that’s good.

Is there going to be another Ondatropica record, you think?

Yeah, I think so. Me and Mario really want to do it, and the band are really up for it, they really want to do it. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road, 40 dates last year together. It’s a solid unit. And I think there’s every desire to record a new record. Soundway want us to do it. We want to do it.

The start of this year and the summer’s been about me and Mario having a little bit of a break, and putting a lot into the Quantic thing and the Frente Cumbiero thing, which sort of took a back seat, you know, just for us to concentrate on Ondatropica, but we’ll definitely get back to it, I reckon.

 Cool. So I assume you’re going back on the road in support of this record?

Yeah. There’s a tour coming about in June for the U.S.

Will you be touring with anyone else?

Yeah, I’ll be touring with the Quantic band. So, it’ll be a band set-up type of thing. Playing tracks from the album and then also older tracks. One thing I realized getting back into the electronic thing is that there’s an immense amount of Quantic music from the last few years that people like and want to hear, and it would be nice to revisit some of those songs. There’s over 13 or 14 records to choose songs from, so it’s kind of crazy trying to put together a set, but I think it will be fun just to revisit some of those old songs and then play some new material.

So you’re going to play the songs on the new album live?

Yes. We’re going to play them live, but also with Ableton and have a big electronic element and visual element to the show and do something that bridges the two. We’ll definitely have live elements. We’ll have percussion and singers and things like that. But also, have strong synthesizers on the road with me,to get that kind of strong kind of studio sound as well.

Are there any other projects  that you’re looking forward to besides Ondatropica and this? 

You know what, normally I have so many things running at the same time. Especially when I’m in Cali, I spend a lot of time doing several things at the same time. This time I’m just really trying to concentrate on one record and do it the best I can, because I normally spread myself very thin, and maybe at the expense of moving on too fast and kind of not applying myself. Maybe just with my own discipline, you know, just being a little bit more focused this time, trying to really do it right. But I do see an Ondatropica record coming soon… At the moment, I think at least until the summer, I’ll be putting everything into this project.

Quantic’s Magnetica is out on True Thoughts as both a CD and an LP. You can purchase them here. 

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