Dichotomy on Nocturnal: We think more in tones than instruments

Dichotomy on Nocturnal: We think more in tones than instruments
Photo by Tricia Whitney

Some albums hypnotize in the truest sense of the word. Minneapolis duo, Dichotomy, made up of Alex Kauffman and Joe Laurin, negotiate this dreamy sea with their debut album, Nocturnal. The band has culled and assembled a selection of songs that shape an album so deep and smooth, the listener will sink slowly into it without realizing it.

Gimme Noise spoke with the duo to get the story behind how the project formed and what went into making Nocturnal before the release Wednesday evening at Honey.

How long have you two known each other? How did this project evolve?

Alex: The project evolved pretty slowly. We met as freshmen roommates in 2004 and began writing music together in 2006. We started out more "rock" with electric guitar and piano. We were really into improvisation at the beginning. We'd jam for hours every day. Joe would sometimes freestyle rap over my guitar riffs. We had Garageband on Joe's mac, where we learned how to sequence drums. We always thought we needed a drummer. We hadn't really bought into the whole "making beats" thing yet, so we kept feeling like our music was incomplete without other members. We were in the mindset where everything we recorded had to be re-produced live by a performer. We were trying to be a "rock band" in the traditional sense.

Joe: Around '08 or so, we formed a hip-hop group called Trick Shuffle with our friend JmaC. The three of us made the beats together with me and JmaC trading off rapping verses over the top. The project didn't last long, but was a really good learning experience. We learned a lot about producing music on our own, and how to record full-sounding music without a full band.

Eventually we realized we didn't need a drummer. We had reached the point where a single drum set couldn't produce all the sounds we wanted to make. Between sampling and MIDI instruments, there were so many incredible sounds that we could make that weren't possible by playing with just guitar, bass, and drums. Alex also started using the electric violin to make new sounds. The violin is really fun to work with, because it's like a synthesizer in its own right. We also realized that we were strongest as a duo. We jammed together for so long that it just became intuitive.

Alex: Then in 2010, I started playing electric guitar with Toussaint Morrison and The Blend. Joe and I still made beats and instrumentals on our own time. We put out a couple EPs during that time. A couple members of The Blend moved to California in late 2011, so we started focusing on Dichotomy full-time. I started booking shows and we got a good response from people. We were very patient with this project It seemed like the time was right because we now had live performance experience to go along with our production experience.

How did the fusion of electric and orchestral music come together?

Once we started to focus on instrumental music, we knew we needed to do more than just
write an 8-bar hip-hop beat and call it an instrumental piece. We needed our music to stand on its own to the point where people weren't sitting there wondering when the lyrics would come in. We want listeners to feel the drama and narrative of the music. We had a lot of beats that sounded good when they had verses over them, but were pretty boring by themselves. They kind of just stayed in one place. To create stand alone instrumental music, we needed to change our approach. Our idea was to approach our music in the same way that a classical composer would. Our music stopped being "beats without vocals" and become simply music.

We take the best bits from our favorite music and get them to play on the same playground. We love the bumping bass of hip-hop so we wanted that. We love strings and the stories they can tell with their melodies, so we wanted that on reserve too. We keep piano involved. We like electronic tones, so we incorporate that in the form of synths and electric violin. We like urgent, pounding drums. We have a soft spot for bluesy guitar. Sometimes we like to sample. We have pretty much any sound we want with the keyboard.

We try to think more in tones, rather than instruments. We find tones that work best for the song we are working on. If the tones for a given song are all synths, then we end up with a more electronic sounding track. If the tones are more organic and string-like, then it sounds more orchestral. If the tones are electric guitar, it's going to sound a little more like rock music. If it's got a little synth and bass here, a little electric violin there, then it's going to have more of a unique, hybrid sound.

That being said, our goal is not to force it. We don't sit down with the goal of creating a hodge-podge of different genres. We sit down with the goal of making music that we want to hear. Knowing how to play different genres allows us to get the sound we want.

Does the band name have anything to do with the sound?

It definitely does, but it wasn't really intentional. The longer we have been a band, the more accidental meanings we discover for our name. The original idea was that there were two of us.We both came from different musical backgrounds, yet here we are making music together. Then people starting asking us if it was a dichotomy between classical and modern or between violin and guitar or between strings and keyboard. And we were thinking all those ideas sound cooler than what we had in mind, so we might as well keep the name open-ended. If you notice a dichotomy in our sound, then you just invented another new meaning for the name. We like that.

When you started writing, was it a conscious decision to not have lyrics?

Not at first. It became a conscious decision when we realized that the two of us are at our best when we are both jamming on instruments. We always wanted that to be the centerpiece of our live show. We spent so much time not doing lyrics that we just started doing what we were good at. Not that we are opposed to doing tracks with vocals. We both love making hip-hop beats and working with vocalists. It's just that when we sit down and try to create the best music that we can, it usually ends up being instrumental.

How does writing work when you don't have lyrics? How do you get the concept and meaning of a song across to the listener?

That's a good question. To us it's more challenging, because we feel like we have to work harder to make it interesting. One thing that we had to get out of our heads was the idea that we make music without vocals. We have to just make music. We can't see it as something that's missing something. We were in the middle of a sort of classical "renaissance" when we started honing in on instrumentals. Listening to the way those classical masters did it, we became convinced that instrumental music can be as interesting as anything out there. Melodies tell stories. They take you on emotional paths. They can take you up a mountain or down a valley. There is lots of building. That was one idea that we kind of latched onto, the idea of constant building. We have a lot of tracks where each section is building towards another section. Everything is in the act of becoming. So even though there are no words, you are feeling an emotional narrative. You are feeling the piece moving forward with emotion. Each song has its own unique arc. We think of it almost as soundtrack music.

What are the benefits of working with just one other person when making musical decisions? What are the downfalls?

Two people is a good fit for us. We're small enough that our sound and musical vision stays pretty focused, but it's also an advantage to have two rather than one. It's good to have another person to keep you honest. If we both feel strongly about a track, then it's a winner. If only one of us digs it and the other isn't sure, then we need to go back to work and figure it out. It keeps us both in check. We are pretty unified in what we want to do, so that helps. We're both just really open to trying new things.

What's the plan with the new album? Are you looking to tour?

We'd love to tour, but we don't have one in the works yet. We want to keep playing shows and collaborating with people in the area. We just started working on a hip-hop mixtape with our own beats. Our goal is to get as much local talent on it as we can. We want to have different MCs on every track. Our focus right now is a lot of collaboration. We want to try some different things.

What can we expect to see at the album release show?

It'll be a great party of high energy beat music. Chris Neviator is DJing for the night with a nice
mix of hip-hop and electronic sounds. Our friends and MCs Q's Junction and Big Al are doing sets and both of these guys can rock a mic as well as anyone. We'll be playing afterwards with tunes from the new album, as well as some improvised jams. It should be a great time.

Dichotomy will release Nocturnal at Honey on Wednesday, January 16, 2013 with Q's Junction, Big Al, and DJ Neviator.
21+, $5, 9 pm

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