Sodajerker presents… Chromeo
Sodajerker are back again, and this time they’ve invited the Canadian duo Chromeo to talk about the secrets of songwriting
anadian electro-funk/disco duo Chromeo are comprised of David Macklovitch (Dave 1) and Patrick Gemayel (P-Thugg). P and D met during the mid 90s at Montreal’s Collège Stanislas and began producing hip-hop together. However it wasn’t until Canadian DJ Tiga asked Dave to work on a project, for his Turbo label, that Chromeo came into existence. Releasing their debut album She’s In Control in February 2004, the duo took influence from a series of 70s and 80s artists, including Hall & Oates and female R&B act Klymaxx. Their debut record included the singles Needy Girl and You’re So Gangsta and saw the pair’s music played in clubs across the globe.
She’s In Control was followed by 2007’s Fancy Footwork and 2010’s Business Casual, their first record to make the US Billboard Top 100. After a gap of four years they returned this May with their most successful record yet. White Women made it into the the UK Top 50 and US Top 20, as well making it to No 6 on the Canadian album charts.
Sodajerker caught up with Dave 1 and P-Thugg to talk to them about their songwriting, White Women and the pre-internet days when if you wanted to learn about an unknown instrument it involved a hell of a lot of searching, and even if you did find out what the instrument was, you had to then build it yourself, rather than buy it on eBay.
In the past you’ve collaborated on the writing mostly at a distance. Did that change on White Women?
Dave 1: “Previously lot of our writing would be done in our separate quarters and then we’d get together.
P-Thugg: “For this record that changed. I moved to New York two years ago and we started working every day, like a regular job; not sending songs via MP3 but working together. Working like this we wrote so many songs, three times as many as we would have ever needed for a single album.”
Did you have any ideas in place or did you start from scratch?
P: “We’re always thinking about songs, even when we’re on tour, so both of us had a backlog of songs that had been marinating in our heads for a year or so”.
Come Alive is a great calling card for White Women. Do you recall how you started writing that song?
P: “I remember I had a couple of chord ideas and progressions and Dave heard them first. I always get into the studio early and he arrived to hear me working on the ideas and asked what the song was.
D: “He’s got a very bad memory! P had a pretty complete flushed out demo, there wasn’t just guitars, there were drums too and it was really fast—100 BPM—with a very yacht rock, Michael McDonald feel with the chords. I then came in and started singing over it and we played around with it and had a pre-chorus, with some jazzier chords in there. So we demoed it then came up with the chorus, but it was still very fast.
“Then I was in a deli and heard My Number by Foals – which shows that our songwriting is a process that is informed by everything around us, not just 70s and 80s records – and said that we could slow down the song like that, get it to that pocket, and it would sound more modern. That’s when we re-cut it using the same chords, canning the jazzy pre-chorus and just keeping the same chorus throughout. We took it the Oliver guys – who co-produced some of the record – and demoed it. That’s when we tracked Toro y Moi’s vocals and that’s when it became the song that you know.”
“Our songwriting is a process that’s informed by everything around us, not just 70s and 80s records”
You’re both interested in collecting old funk records. Would you say that you studied them in terms of the sound, or were you interested in the songs and the songwriting teams behind them as well?
P: “Absolutely. Just reading every bit of credit over and over again to see what was used. Even just looking at record covers and collecting vinyl you could learn a lot; style wise, the aesthetics of an artist, how they dressed etc. You could even tell a lot about what they used for technology, because they’d usually have their synths displayed on their records. Sometimes they would list the synths they use, which was really fun for us.”
In terms of your background, you got together as teenagers and then forged foundations on your hip-hop roots, but were either of your parent’s musical?
Both: “Far from it.”
D: “We got together as teenagers, in between Jamiroquai and Warren G. What we had to learn from was west coast hip hop and Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest. We would go to the record store and buy the music put out by Acid Jazz Records: Corduroy, Grey Boy, Incognito, Brand New Heavies. Those were the gateway drugs to us discovering old funk and once we had enough knowledge of those records, we would go to the vintage record shops and just buy any record with an afro on the cover. At the end of the day though we’ve always just been about collecting records, because even when we were into hip-hop and it was all about samples – Weather Report, Bob James, David Axelrod – and at some point we just decided to get back into our 80s funk roots. That’s how Chromeo started.”
Did you fall into your roles right away, with P on synth and Dave on guitar and lead vocals?
D: “No, I didn’t know I was going to sing. Needy Girl was the first song I ever sang on a microphone.”
P: “He pulled the Barry White. He was singing on demos for other singers and then all of a sudden, I A&R’d his magical voice and he started singing. I told him Needy Girl was his gig and that he had to sing on it.”
So would one of you focuses more on the chords and one more on the melody?
P: “Dave is stronger in melodies and I’m stronger in harmony.”
D: “I write everything orally, by singing into my phone. So I can’t quite hear the chord, because I can only sing one note at a time.”
P: “My job is to dissect chords and make them living. Dave’s very strong at melodies.”
D: “I’m more the concepts guy and P is more the deep harmony guy and those rules went even deeper on the new record, because P got a lot more advanced in synths. P’s also very good at funk grooves. For instance a song like Over Your Shoulder, that was drawn from P’s demo. I’m more into concepts and layering and arranging melodies. Usually the arrangements are a little more me, but we do everything together. I always need P as my co-pilot and P needs me as his filter, because he has so many ideas and I’ll tell him ‘go this way’ or ‘go that way.’”
Do you still use the vintage version of Cakewalk and the Pentium 2 PC?
D: “Absolutely… Cakewalk 97 forever!”
You have good reasons for using that software though?
P: “Technically no, sentimentally yes.”
D: “Our demos are all done with hardware, because it’s so fast to write in that medium.”
P: “It’s good to work in constructive constraints. That’s how we do everything.”
You make up all your own patterns and don’t really use loops or pre-settings?
D: “We’re from the hip-hop school. So it’s all about programming your own drums and P is such a purist that he always wants to have his own patches, he’ll never use a pre-set patch.”
P: “If we use a pre-set patch it’s for nostalgia, a wink, a reference on purpose.”
D: “We wanted to modernise the production on our new record though, so we did some sidechaining and some drum loops over the programmed drums that we’d done. We’re not against anything anymore; we had an approach and we wanted to modernise it. But our hearts are always going to be with analogue gear. A song like Old 45s – which we didn’t write most of – is mostly produced on software, but we can make it sound analogue. Our hearts are always going to be with analogue and it’s always going to be our trademark.”
The talkbox is prominent on some of your songs, like Night By Night. How did you discover that instrument and how do you decide when you’re going to use it on a song?
P: “It was when Dave and I were in high school, collecting records and discovering funk music together and the day that we discovered Zap, More Bounce To The Ounce and everything that Roger Troutman touched in his life. I was completely overtaken by the talkbox, I needed to learn, I needed to know how to do it; I wanted to have that sound. Back then there wasn’t really any internet – you couldn’t just buy it on eBay – and I had to find it myself. I’d ask people ‘what is this sound and how do you do it?’
“It took me quite a bit of time to figure out what it was and that it was called the talkbox. By the time I figured out what it was I couldn’t find one, because back then it hadn’t come back in fashion yet, it was just a toy from the 70s or 80s. A friend of mine had a do it yourself guitar pedal project that he gave to me for my 16th birthday and I took that and used it to build my first talkbox. It went through many versions, but I finally cracked it and started practising when I was 16.”
“I was completely overtaken by the talkbox; I wanted to have that sound”
Did you ever have any doubts about using so many of these 80s, electronic funk influences and whether that would be an acceptable direction?
D: “We knew it was unacceptable right from the start. People were sceptical but we kept at it until other bands started to do it and then it became an acceptable mainstream reference. The idea though was always to take those references and blend them with other ideas, to create a truly modern product.”
Does that mean there’s songwriting areas that you’re yet to move into?
D: “For sure. Just the idea of writing a bigger song or a bigger chorus, is something that only really came to us on this record. We’re still new to this and are learning in front of everyone’s eyes. I remember lying in my bed and thinking ‘I should go falsetto on a chorus because it’ll make it sound bigger’, whereas most people would just know that. It’s always great to do something that focuses on the craft.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker, who now have over 50 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright and many more. To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 45-minute interview with Chromeo – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.