The New Big In Japan: Interview with Keith Rocka
The golden dragon which hovers above Chinatown’s main drag is casting shadow-helixes across the deserted asphalt. Its carnelian eye is extra sparkly tonight, reflecting the haloed streetlights, clarified by an all-day rain that eventually gave way to this unusually clear, crisp Los Angeles night. As I make my way to Sun Mun Way, into the alley, and upstairs to the Quon Brothers Jazz Club, I notice the gutter is oddly bereft of trash, and I marvel over the lack of Chinatown’s normally malodorous charm. If only it rained every day in L.A..
Inside the red and black cavern which tonight houses Dataage, the L.A. club known for booking only electronic bands, it’s packed. And slightly…steamy. I head straight to the bar and order two vodka tonics. One down, one to go. It’s a happy scene I make my way through, hipster/art star ratio 3:4, a nice turnout for Sea Otter’s performance at Dataage’s two year anniversary show. I find Keith Rocka-cum-Otter sweetly buzzing on some secret scotch procured from another of the night’s performers, the inimitably named Yoko Solo. Keith hugs me hello and we almost fall down. Sway! Note to self: Next time bring own flask of secret scotch.
Sea Otter hits the stage and it’s shoulder to shoulder, packed, and, whoa!, almost everybody’s smiling. Albeit standing stock still, but grinning from ear to ear. Are we at a show or what? (This is the conundrum of the electronic band-age…) With a crimson band slashed across his eyes and possibly the largest red pompom I’ve ever seen adorning his head, Keith Otter shreds the light fantastic on some contraption coined the Otter TTS bought on eBay, raps and wails into the mic, and makes out with Sea Otter’s newest band member, an inflatable dugong. When my favorite song plays, I pogo. And at last, I’m not alone. The show ends with a crescendo of harmoniously programmed bedlam and an explosion of Sea Otter souvenirs. As the kids clamor for upholstered otter-heads and ultrasuede bits of sea foam, simultaneously trying not to spill their drinks on their Ed Hardy tees and Trina Turk handbags, Sea Otter modestly exits stage left. They have left the building.
Zoey Mondt: I loved your recent show at Dataage’s two year anniversary show in Chinatown. In my opinion, it was more akin to performance art than dj’ing. How do you incorporate the performance aspect with what you’re doing with noise? While creating tracks, are you also visualizing the coinciding action? Or is there no distinction? And, what is the meaning of action?
DJ Keith Rocka: Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. Well, yeah––I agree that what I do is more akin to performance art than dj’ing. When I make Sea Otter’s songs, I definitely have ideas of how I want to present them. And that’s where the visual/performance element comes in. I think I’ve seen so many djs and electronic music acts where the audience doesn’t know if they should watch or dance or what. I think from the start of Sea Otter I’ve always wanted there to be some sort of focus so that people could watch something, and if they want to dance later that’s fine too. Sea Otter is totally for the people. Totally. And I guess I would say that the meaning of action is "the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim." Or at least that’s what the dictionary widget on my desktop tells me.
Mondt: Can you describe what your creative process is usually like?
Rocka: Well, no. I mean I don’t really have a "creative process" per se. I usually just make things when I feel up to it, and that usually entails a little planning, a little doing, a lot of listening to or re-reading or looking at, and then maybe a little re-doing. I’m always making things in my head, but forget what they are later on when I try to put them down in whatever way. So I spend most of my creative time trying to copy things I did earlier in my mind.
Mondt: You know how they say a copy never equals the original? How successful is the translation from your head to the four-track (or whatever)? Does the finished product ever resemble the first, perfect version in your head?
Rocka: The good thing about copying something from your head is that there really isn’t anything (concrete) to compare it to. That’s to say, the finished product always "resembles" the original version. And honestly, by the time it’s finished, I’ve pretty much forgotten what I’ve based it on.
Mondt: I know you hate Bjork, but are you like Bjork’s deaf character in Dancer in the Dark discerning clever beats within the muffled cacophony of daily life everywhere you go?
Rocka: I’ve never seen that movie (and for the record, I don’t "hate" Bjork––just the whole Bjork "thing" which generally means that you can’t tell people that you don’t like Bjork’s music and such without getting reamed out.)
Mondt: Sort of like how I get reamed out when I wear my “I totally hate jazz” t-shirt.
Rocka: I think I’m less deaf than I have extra sensitive hearing, like a cat or dog or something. That’s to say things don’t really sound muffled, which is at times very annoying. So I suppose I take little chunks of all the noise and piece it together into something I like listening to.
Mondt: Did you know that cats can actually "hear" with their feet? They sense vibrations with their toe pads. It’s interesting because how you describe hearing isolated bits and pieces within the cacophony, and how that can be annoying or distracting, is exactly how the deaf chick in Dancer in the Dark reacts to noise. Do you actually create bass lines or a melody in this way? What equipment are you using to make your sounds?
Rocka: I didn’t know that about cats. That’s pretty crazy. Is that why they freak out if you touch their feet pads? Is it like yelling in their ear? As for my bass lines and melodies––I think they come to me from hearing tones and rhythms in everyday things. I guess it’s almost more like a ringing in my ear that has patterns and different tones. Or something. Usually when I’m in the car bass lines pop into my head, and then I hum them to myself so I can try to remember them later. One time I recorded it as a voice memo on my cell phone. When I listened to it later it sounded pretty retarded though. And as far as equipment goes, I basically use my Mac for everything. I have a special box called an Omega (made by Lexicon) that acts basically as an input device for live instruments and mics, and I use that for the "real" instruments and vocals. All other instruments are ones that I made in Garageband (the Apple program) and play with a midi controller keyboard. That’s about all. It’s very low tech.
Mondt: You’re also a painter, sculptor, and dj. Tell me what that’s about and the evolution of the type of music you’re making now.
Rocka: It’s all the same to me I think. I think that I have the same intent when I make a song or do a drawing, and that’s to make permanent these fleeting ideas that are in my head. I guess in all cases it’s about making something tangible out of something vague and mysterious.
Mondt: To cure his writer’s block, Rachmaninoff worked with a hypnotherapist who gave him the following autosuggestive mantra with which Rachmaninoff credits the completion of his second piano concerto: "You will begin to write your concerto ….You will work with great facility ….The concerto will be of excellent quality …." In creating something out of nothing, what is your mantra?
Rocka: Rachmaninoff is the guy that wrote the song that they used in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" to open the door to the chocolate room right? Right before Gene Wilder started singing the "World of Pure Imagination" song? Anyways… Generally I get lines from rap songs stuck in my head, and repeat those. So sometimes they are extremely motivational (like from Gang Starr’s "I’m the Man" – "you know the program/I’m the motherfuckin’ man") and sometimes meaningless (like from E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go" – "Ghost ride the whip!/ ghost ride the whip!"). Either way, they get me in a certain frame of mind to work on stuff, and more importantly, finish it.
Mondt: A friend and I were watching "American Idol" a few weeks back and one of the contestants was introduced as "Mikki Fuckin Roxstar of MySpace fame!" We were like wha-wha-what? My theory is MySpace is the new Japan, as in "They’re huge in Japan!" Do you listen to stuff on MySpace? Does it influence you? If you were starting out now, would you do anything differently?
Rocka: Yes I do, but not enough. That only has to do with my laziness though, and not the quality of what’s out there. I don’t know if music so much influences me as inspires me. Which I guess is similar, but different. And I don’t think I’d do anything differently with Sea Otter, on MySpace or otherwise.
Mondt: Can you explain the MySpace phenomenon, specifically its confluence of bedroom bands?
Rocka: For me, it’s a great veil. I mean my page is pretty anonymous, which is why I liked MySpace in the first place. It gave me a place to air some things I’d been working on, without the attachment in a way. That helped me out a lot because I could make music, post it, see if people liked or didn’t like it, and keep going with it in whatever direction. I think for a lot of bands it’s simply more of a promotional tool, which it has definitely become more for me of late. But the nice thing about it is that there can be all of these "bedroom bands" who are just at home with a computer recording stuff and essentially sharing it with the world.
Mondt: Anonymity can be a good thing…and a bad thing in the art world, I guess. In the spirit of Andy Warhol’s famous comment "It’s all good art" I like that any kid with a laptop and some ideas in Iowa now has a forum to share, as well as gain some worldly influences. What sort of filter do you use to find the "good stuff" on MySpace? I’ve been exploring lately, any advice on where to discover a hot thread through the network?
Rocka: I disagree about anonymity being a bad thing in the art world. I think I prefer anonymous art to work that’s attached to a person (or persona) because it generally seems like it’s coming from a much more pure place. Relating that to the MySpace thing, the way I find good music is by the images and words that people use to reflect their music, and how genuine and interesting it all seems. I think when you see a band that’s on there trying to be the next "big thing", or the guy that’s on there thinking he’s the next Paul Oakenfold, it usually sucks compared to some girl in Australia who’s in her room recording stuff for her friends.
Mondt: What do you think about the legal situation of appropriated copyrighted loops and riffs?
Rocka: I love when people can use someone else’s music creatively. I think that having to clear samples (which is common practice now) is generally a good idea. Or at least a much better one than some judge deciding after the fact if a copyright was violated or not.
Mondt: You reside in LA, how do you like living there and how does living in Los Angeles influence your work? Versus other places you’ve lived? What is the electronic music scene in LA like? Is anything happening?
Rocka: L.A. has made me stay home and make my own music because I have a hard time finding things I like. It’s not an easy place to just go out and hear good music and have fun, in my opinion. Other places I’ve lived (Montréal, New York, Baltimore) were just easier for me to find fun things to do, so I’d spend more time out and less time making my own stuff. I think that’s why I was dj’ing when I lived in those places as well – so I could go out, have fun, and still feel creative. Dj’ing in L.A. is like a whole other animal at this point. Dj’s don’t mix records, they just play records (or cds), and being a dj is an ego thing more here than in lots of other places, I think because of the L.A. rock star/movie star mentality. Anyways, not to sound too bitter or anything, but the best thing about L.A. for my music for me has been that I’m generally annoyed and angry by what goes on here most of the time! Hooray!
Mondt: Anger and sadness fuel my creativity too. With Bush in the White House these last eight years, one would think I’d have written Finnegans Wake by now. What annoying aspects of L.A. push you to make stuff? And how?
Rocka: Yeah, why haven’t you written the next Finnegans Wake by now? You should have written the next Finnegans Wake trilogy! I guess the most annoying aspect of L.A. to me is the way people drive. You spend so much time in your car living here, and that’s where you deal with people most of the time. The things that really piss me off are people who never use their turn signals, people who pull over to the right to turn left or make a u-turn, people who stop before they change lanes, people who drive without insurance, people who hit and run, people who have fast cars and drive slow, people who don’t understand that on any highway or freeway in the rest of the country the left lane is for passing and driving faster than the rest of traffic, and on and on… I think all those things remind me of just how selfish and inconsiderate people can be, and I hate that. Arrghhh. So I think that all fuels my creativity by making me want to spend way less time out driving, and more time at home making things.
Mondt: I think I’m guilty of all the driving transgressions which irritate/inspire you, but in reverse. Slow car, pedal to the metal. Never think twice (or look) before a lane-change. Wishful lack of insurance (fuck you, Ralph Nader!). Anyway. Where did you come up with the name Sea Otter?
Rocka: When I was about 6, I went to sleep-away camp. It was the first time I was away from home on my own. Well, sometime while I was there, a care package came for one of the other kids. It was this stuffed animal sea otter, which was on his back with an actual clamshell on his chest. It was weird ‘cause it looked exactly like my favorite stuffed animal that I had at home. So anyway, camp finishes, and my parents come to pick me up. My mom saw this other kid with the otter and realized that there had been a big mix up. The care package was supposed to be for me. It was my otter, and my mom had sent it. The counselor had given it to the wrong kid. My mom talked to his parents, and the otter was returned to me. I think the other kid was pretty sad though. So that’s that. Sea Otter.
Sea Otter is on Myspace at http://www.myspace.com/seaotter