Jonti on the importance of sharing experiences and his favourite production techniques
Sydney based multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, vocalist and all-round sonic sorcerer JONTI has recently reemerged into the limelight, showcasing his first solo material in five years.
Jonti demonstrated himself as a distinctive prodigy when he first entered the frenetic world of music as a young artist, creating intricate songs and compositions that were well ahead of their time. His first two albums, Twirligig (2011) and Sine & Moon (2012), illuminated his astounding abilities to listeners in all corners of the globe, and landed him collaborations with heavyweights such as BADBADNOTGOOD, GOTYE and WARPAINT, just to name a few!
Our own home-grown plunderphonic wizards THE AVALANCHES were also quick to appreciate Jonti’s enchanting production style and limitless musicality, recruiting his talents during the creation of their critically acclaimed Wildflower LP. This later lead to the infamous recreation of their first album Since I Left You, in addition to having him as a touring member for their live performances.
With an envy-inducing collection of production credits now under his belt and a fresh signing with Future Classic (in partnership with his existing pact with LA’s Stones Throw Records), Jonti has skyrocketed through 2017 and performed across Australia whilst putting the finishing touches on his long-awaited forthcoming album, Tokorats.
We were thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Jonti about his experiences and influences, and even got a bit nerdy over some of the more technical aspects of his idiosyncratic production.
You’re a bit of an elusive guys in a lot of ways, but your wide-ranging musical talents in both production and composition means that you’re always doing something, be it above or below the surface in the music scene. Can you shed some light on who JONTI is and what you do?
I guess I started when I put out the first album in 2011 and that was more “above the surface” as you said, and then doing a bunch of touring and living in LA and kind of just being part of that whole scene. Shortly after that I was recording the second album, so I took some space – it took quite a long time for it to come together, but I was doing other music projects as well to keep things rolling and also to expand my own repertoire. Most of that stuff was with The Avalanches and helping with their album, and then joining them with their live band. Initially, it was just putting on performances of their Since I Left You album and then later again during their live band, so I’d just been doing stuff in that world and other small music projects. Recently, I finished this album that I’ve been working on for a really long time and now is the time for “Phase 2” of getting out there – it should be pretty fun!
In March, we saw your return with your first single in a quite a long time following on from your first two albums, and then you’ve most recently performed at VOLUMES, VIVID LIVE and the RED BULL SOUND SELECT SHOWCASE, in addition to a bunch of awesome support shows with WARPAINT and D.D. DUMBO. You’ve since followed up with another two singles – one being really quite recent. Has this all been building up towards your next album release?
It was slowly building up because I knew I had been off the radar for quite a while, so I was just putting a foot forward wherever I could. I put out the first single just as something to get started and I felt like I just needed to do something to break [back out] and keep moving forward. So, yeah, since that I’ve just been doing shows. There’s been a lot of offers coming through and I knew I was going to be putting out an album sometime this year so it was all building towards that, and hopefully more shows! Now we have a band as well so we’re really trying to do as many shows as possible.
How did it feel getting back on stage after a while away?
Very nerve-racking. Actually, it was quite nice because before I always felt pretty self-conscious about my songs not really working live: they’re all pretty short and I didn’t really know how to try and stake them. Now I’ve finished the album and I was really excited to play these new songs that I already knew in the back of my mind that I was going to have to play live. They were fresher to me, so I had this excitement of playing new songs and it was just fun and trying stuff out. Initially it was nerve-racking preparing for it.
Yeah, the first couple of shows can be a bit apprehensive still, but then did you get back into it pretty quick?
Yeah, and also it seemed like a lot had changed since I was last on stage. Like, I remember when I was starting out I was very self-conscious of even having a laptop on stage, but it seems like that was much less of a concern this time. I felt more comfortable this time around and I had learnt a lot being on stage with The Avalanches and doing other stuff, and I just felt I was ready.
Did you find, a few years ago, that there was sort of a taboo with having a laptop on stage as part of the performance, which seems to be more of a regular thing now? Or do you just feel more comfortable including it as part of your own music?
I think when I was starting out there was a bit of a taboo, but that was mainly self-inflicted too. I always felt like I had to be recreating the songs live which I was trying to do for quite a while, and then with more experience it was learning the balance between live and not-live: just making sure that you can still do something the audience could get into it and I wasn’t trying to do too many things on stage and then getting nervous and messing up; and just finding ways to make it fun and interactive. Now I just want to let people dance if they want to and make that the most important thing.
It sounds as though you were almost your own worst critic in that sense – a bit too much pressure?!
[Laughs] Yeah, I think so. I was just really unsure how I was meant to do it. I never thought I’d be playing those songs live or the kind of music I was making, so I just really wasn’t sure how to go about it. There was a lot of trial and error.
It sounds like you have a good compromise now between playing live and not playing the things that would be fricking hard to imitate live – and have a bit more fun with it yourself too?
Totally! But now I have the band too and it’s been super fun. Now I can’t wait to do shows and I feel much more comfortable. It’s pretty much gone the other way: it’s much more comfortable and fun. Not that it wasn’t fun before, but I can let the other guys groove out for a while and just go into the corner with my synthesiser and zone out for a bit. You know, it feels like I’m part of a bigger thing instead of just being by myself, which is really cool.
So you don’t like the spotlight directly on you all the time?
[Laughs] Uh, well I can be very narcissistic! I love the spotlight but it’s definitely much easier to do it with other people and much better. It opens it up and eases everything, and also to have those more shared experiences – even if you have a bad show you can go through it with someone else. It’s kind of weird if you have a good show and you’re by yourself, you can only really congratulate yourself and it’s like, “Well done, Jonti,” but it doesn’t feel the same.
You’re quite a globetrotter as well: You’re originally from South Africa before relocating to Sydney before going onto Los Angeles and now back to Sydney again! You’re also pretty well versed with a lot of different types of instruments and I’ve heard you incorporate thumb pianos, for example, which are quite a traditional African instrument. Do you think that your travels and your upbringing have created a predisposition for you to want to incorporate unique instrumentation and sounds to create your own processing chains?
I feel like that kind of element came mostly from the South African upbringing. I just remember as a child there was a strong culture around handmade instruments and instruments made out of Coca-Cola bottles and stuff. It was really cool and I’d just try and collect as much stuff like that as I could in South Africa. Then, when I got into music production, it was just kind of amazing that you could put a microphone close to anything and whatever you could get sound out of, you could do things to. You can make it play any melody and it was just so much fun! So, I think a little bit of it was the South African upbringing, and then the playfulness of audio production that sparked that whole thing.
Do you think moving around the world has impacted your music as well in terms of what you felt like writing from being in different environments and cultures?
Well, I think seeing shows in all different cities and doing shows definitely makes you feel really small, in a good way. You’re kind of soaking up all these subconscious tidbits and mannerisms, and tastes and sights as well. Travelling is the best thing in the world and it’s like when you’re listening to all different types of music from around the world – it’s just feels very fun and it’s the same with travelling but in real life and you feel the real experience. I don’t entirely know how it fits in with my own music because I feel like my own music is very schizophrenic and just jumping to too many different things and then figuring out how to play it together… I am starting to feel like I need to challenge myself to make music that isn’t like that! That’s way hard for me, I think it’s just my attention span: it’s always a bit centred around trying to do all these different things.
And you’ve mentioned the The Avalanches a little bit already. Obviously you were touring with them, but you’ve also worked with some pretty big international artists including heavyweight guys like MARK RONSON, SANTIGOLD and PEANUT BUTTER WOLF! Have these collaborations had any impact the way you approach your music?
They all happened pretty differently and seemed to come out of certain events. I think at the end of the day it always seems strange going into a session, but then as soon as you get started, it becomes about the music and whatever preconceived notion you had about a person who might be really big just kind of goes away. When you’re talking about chords and music and things you love and you’re just jamming, it’s just like any friend you’ve grown up with. I always kind of realised that everyone’s just floating around of this orb of music and stuff we love. It kind of makes it easier; you can really write with anybody – it’s like recess! It’s like play time! I feel I always get reminded of that if I’m thinking it’s going to be nerve-racking but it’s not really.
They all happened different ways – Mark Ronson happened through a competition, and then recently I did a song with Steve Lacey through Twitter, and it was just jamming and we met up. Then there’s stuff on the album with Sampa the Great and I was just in my garage space when I recorded that album, it just happens in different ways.
So do you find it helped you refine ways that you work, or worry about it less and just go with that feels right at the time?
Yeah, definitely! I feel that it only really works at the time if the only intention is to just have fun and see what comes out of it. You can never have any real expectation – it could be met, but it can also go any way. When I was working with Hodgy, who does some stuff on this album, I sent him something expecting that he was going to rap on it but he ended up singing said he was doing this Barry White thing, and he did it and it sounded great! I think that’s the best part – you don’t really know what you’re going to get but it forces you to work with the flow opposed to when you’re working by yourself. I feel like I do things that I’ve never tried: I might usually go to the same chord or workflow but when you’re in a collaboration you’re forced to be in the moment and you’re reacting to things that someone else is doing. It comes out being more exciting and more spontaneous, and you take it where it’s meant to go.
Do you feel your musical philosophy has developed over time through working with different people in different ways?
Oh yeah, big time! I think when I started, I was very singular and thought that music making was a solo meditation thing where you go and you learn and you just do it by yourself. It really seemed to be like that, and there is that element to it for sure, but I think over time I’ve just really appreciated collaborating and getting other voices in, and finding that the songs were just coming out a bit more meaningful when they’re created with other people. When you’re sharing the song with someone, it made it way more rewarding, so I think I’ve definitely shifted over to trying to collaborate more and get other people in as much as possible, and then trying to mould that experience into what I’m trying to find on my own as well.
And that’s a good way to gain perspective as well.
Yeah. It’s weird to articulate, but I think just over the years… I got to the point where I was really stuck and when I started recording this album nothing really came for nearly two years. Then, as soon as I started jamming with other people and friends and collaborating a lot more, that is when it started to happen. I had something to bounce off of and it then it became a whole other thing. I think those were the main lessons.
So diving into the technical side of things a bit more then: You’ve made it known that you will make a whole arrangement based entirely on your own recorded samples instead of sampling existing sounds or phrases from other people. Can you tell us a bit about how you create your own loops and then how you stack them with things you’ve played on live instrumentation?
Yeah, sure! So the main program I use, in addition to Ableton like most people, is Digital Performer. In Digital Performer there is a looping section called ‘Polar’, so you can you can loop a section and then you can stack [instrumentation] and you’re able to mix in this looper and bounce it all down. It’s really kind of like a little looping playground; normally I’d do all the vocal stacks and all the harmonies and you can really get 60 layered harmonies in really quickly, and then you bounce it down and you can move on. It’s just really quick so a lot of the time I’ll do most of the stuff in this looper. You can build rhythm loops – similar to how you can build things on Ableton or on a MPC, but you can do it with live instruments! So you can have a kick and a snare and then you can actually play a real hi-hat and then loop that, and get other percussion and play that in. It’s seems to just be a real-time looping playground with a lot of experimentation: I feel like a lot of my tricks come from that, and so that’s probably one of the main processes.
That sounds really unique. I haven’t heard of people using something like that to that kind of extent, where you can suddenly stack 60 harmonies on top of each other… It seems, in a good way, to be a very elaborate way to get the best of both worlds by being able to digitise all of your sounds without having to be constrained to what’s in an instrument or sample library.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s really fun! And normally if you’re going to have like 60 vocals you’d have to create 60 individual tracks and it can be a big mess. You wouldn’t want to go that direction normally and I feel like it’s a way to do it without having to overload the system. When I did some stuff for Hodgy on his album, on a track called ‘Barbell’ that we did for example, it was a harmony and a kick and snare. It was cool because people thought it was a sample but it was just the looper! I feel Digital Performer is a very underrated program and it’s more marketing toward movie composers. It’s got heaps of really cool stuff that I think a lot of people would dig if they used it.
That’s very cool, thank you for sharing your trade secrets! We’d have no chance of replicating it anyway, but it’s nice to know more about how it’s done. And so a little more specifically with some of your instruments then: do you have any favourite pieces of kit that you find essential to writing? I’ve seen that you use Moog Opus 3 and a Roland SP-404 quite a bit both live and in your “playground”, and you’re even working with modular [synths] and making active changes when you play that end up being a really physical performance. It’s kind of ineffable to explain – I’ve seen videos of it and it looks really awesome.
Yeah, well I think that Moog Opus 3 is my favourite piece of kit that I own. I think I got back in 2005 and it was really cheap, like $500 on eBay, and I was into STEREOLAB at the time and that’s what they use, so it was my introduction to my world of Moogs and it really had an impact! It’s polyphonic and you can an unlimited amount of chords and it just never sounds bad – it’s come to a point where I’m trying to not use it on every track: it’s a bit limited, and that’s definitely my number one. Then I have a Moog Sonic 6 too which is a blue suitcase synth, it is in a little suitcase that you open up – I feel like those are like my children! I do most of my writing on those, but does change though. I feel like every song needs to have a different process or instrumentation. I use those SP Samplers a lot, the 303 and the 404, and a Telemark modular synth! I use that mostly on stage, but those are the main one: the Moogs, the SP samplers, the Digital Performer program and now Ableton.
That’s awesome! And in an interview with ADSR, you said that you don’t really use compression or EQ except through pedals or using a limiter on the master fader, which totally makes sense if you want to focus your time into your areas of strength – such as playing and creating all these layers. Do you send your finished tracks to an engineer for mixing or mastering to fine tune those things before you release a track, or do you omit this from your processing altogether?
Well, while I was doing that stuff [in that interview], I later learnt the value of EQ and compression afterwards [laughs]. I think that worked on that album – and I was still finding ways to do that – but on this album I was really trying to learn more of the EQ and compression. I think my last releases were very intensely lo-fi and I thought I should learn how to use other tools as well. So I had an engineer, Jack Prest, who came in and helped me mix it as we went along and was teaching me how to use it a lot more. He was pretty integral to this record and in trying to open up the sonic world. I wanted to expand on my other stuff and was also trying to rebuild the sound, so I was trying to do something I didn’t do before – which is a lot of EQ and compression! [Laughs] I know it sounds ridiculous because they’re such standard tools, so I’ve tried to mature a bit in the quality of the production and use it more this time around.
Mm, and it’s a bit easier to get to know it as well if you’re actually sitting down and doing it in a fun way with someone rather than try and learn it yourself or send it off to someone in a way that would cut you out from that process.
Totally! I knew what it was kind of doing, but I never got to a point where I knew if it was sounding good or bad or how to use the tools, or what it was doing to the sound. I knew you should try to cut out some of the low-end [frequencies] of a lot of stuff, but I could do it with one of the pedals so I would just do it on that. It was good to learn a bit more on how to actually do it, especially when you can see someone do it and the effects that it has. It kind of just blows your brain! He was just doing some EQ tricks: it was just the smallest changes but it would completely open up the sonic spectrum and change the whole mood of the song. So, that was cool to see how powerful little moves are with that stuff.
So jumping back to your two studios albums now, Twirligig and Sine & Moon, which were released back to back in 2011 and 2012 and received some inspiring accolades in all corners of the world. They were both completely sublime with heavy use of vibrant cosmic tones in a really dreamy sort of flow, although Sine & Moon sounded a lot more forward in the percussion and maybe bridged a bit more towards those hip-hop style of crisp beats as well. How do you feel they differed from each other, and can we expect this style and progression to continue with your new music…?
Well Sine & Moon, those tracks were actually made before Twiligig – maybe the year before I think. At that time I was like, “Yeah I’m going to make an album every month, they’re going to be really different” and I clearly went way off track with that one [laughs]. When I look back at it, I probably listened to Sine & Moon a bit more and was appreciating that… When I was making Twiligig, I was really into gnarly krautrock and psychedelic stuff and was trying to push these gnarly edges of crazy records that I’d been listening to and then when I was making Sine & Moon it was more about purity.
It’s in the title: a sine wave is supposed to be the most pure sound, so I was trying to come from more of a naïve perspective. It was definitely far from pure, but it seemed to come from a much more gentle place, and then Twiligig was supposed to be fun and crazy so I thought the sound of that album would be a bit more reckless fun. And then this one… I think this one is just a completely different thing where I was trying to take elements from both, it was more of a spiritual journey sounding kind of album. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s supposed to sound more like a movie and the sound is much more like something in real life. Instead of the samples, there’s probably more people and friends playing instruments, but then melding that into the world – I feel like the first two albums were like half hour animations, and this is more of a feature length…? That’s how I view it in my mind. The first two were more like sketches and this one is more like movie themes and trying to make it a bit more cinematic sonically at least.
And how long have you been working on this new stuff for?
Oh wow…. Even some of the songs were before the first two albums. I made the first draft of this album back in 2010 before the other albums came out and I was going to release it shortly afterwards, but then I kind of had a bit of a block and had to really rethink how to make music again. So, I took those songs that were written back then and around 2013 I started putting it together properly. Two of the songs even go back to 2008! It’s kind of a scary thought, but probably from 2013 until last year was probably the time it took to record this one so I’m pretty happy to get it out!
Wow! Well it sounds like you’ve been busy with a few other things as well, but I’m very excited to hear it. And we heard ‘Scrood’ back in March, we can hear some subtle expansions on the sound than in the first two albums, with a bit of a stronger focus on organic strings layers. ‘Rain’ came slightly after and shifted its focus back onto punchy percussion with some funky bass lines and fun arpeggiating riffs. And then ‘Sleeping and Falling’ was your most recent one that come out a couple of weeks ago, and that seems like a really strong amalgamation of both of these styles and reinforces your already very strong signature sound. Do you think your new music continues on this trajectory?
Yeah, those two songs, ‘Scrood’ and ‘Rain’, were recorded just shortly after the record and so they have some similarities, in the vocals and in the strings – I was using a lot more strings and live drums. I think the first single, ‘Sleeping and Falling’, is probably a good indication of the general sound of the album, but like I said, it’s pretty schizophrenic so it kind of jumps around to some straight hip-hop stuff and then into some disco.
Some of this newer also stuff feels a little more Avalanche-esque with more brushstrokes of nostalgia and having that dreamy tone, particularly on their Wildflower stuff. But, it still comes across and sounds like your music: you have the same soft synth foundations and song structures as your first two albums. Were you working in this direction before you were playing with them, or did that collaboration stem new ideas and tones into your own work?
I think the biggest influence, at least sonically – and this was before I was playing with them – we put together a performance of Since I left You and we had a 17-piece band and the sound of the band playing those songs was probably the most inspiring and what I was trying to recall and put together. Most of those musicians are the ones that play on the record too, and we have strings and drums and it’s just melding in with the samples and vocals, and the way it sounded live was the biggest sonic influence out of all of The Avalanches stuff. I think that was pretty inevitable because I was really in their world and was also really deconstructing Since I Left You at the time so there was definitely a lot of influence from that putting it together. Just the sound of that band really influenced the whole thing.
All these tracks have this wondrous big utopian character to them, we can sort of pick out where you might have influenced The Avalanches a little on Wildflower. You feel really bright and happy listening to them, be it in the vocals or piano riffs or lots of strings and being really dynamic in that way as well, but I’ve noticed that you’ll put something slightly off pitch or you’ll play a note that doesn’t sound perfect. Some people might find this aesthetic slightly unsettling and it stuck out at me as being different because we’re so used to hearing harmonies and melodies that progress in this a cookie-cutter kind of way that is almost stereotypical. But, then these tweaks really humanise it and make it different as well because there is a lot relying heavily on computer control and timing accuracies. Was this aesthetic something you did intentionally, or was something that came naturally to you in your songwriting?
I think I always really loved records that were pretty “off” and at the time I was into MALLARD and that kind of stuff, and it was really emphasised that drums wouldn’t be quantised and everything would be raw and unmixed. You could hear everything being played and it would be off grid, and I always loved music like that, and then also incorporating the link between that and things like The Velvet Underground and even John Frusciante records where you’d feel like you were there because there are these mistakes and it’s just done really quickly. I think I’ve always had some sort of affinity with it, I just loved those records and I was trying to do as much of that as possible. I also feel that when the notes can be dissonant, it’s a nice bit of spice to throw in these unexpected notes and then finding a balance so that it’s not off-putting. This time around I was trying to challenge myself and try to mix it up so it’s more on-grid, mainly in the vocals – I feel like that’s where human elements really come in. And all the performances with all different people playing – I never really edited anything too much, I just let it do what it needed to and then got it in the mix.
Have you got a release date for your new album?
Yeah! The album is called Tokorats and is out on November 3rd. Wow, actually that’s so soon! It weirds me out a little bit, it’s been nearly ten years and it’s out in three weeks!
That’s awesome! So have you got many shows planned around Tokorats’ release and looking ahead?
Yeah there will be two launch shows in Melbourne and Sydney and then I’m going up to Adelaide for the Here’s To Now Festival, and then Sydney’s Freedom Time Festival. I think we’re just trying to build on that and play as many shows as we can in the summer, so we’re still organising the details and all that.
Words by FREYA DINESEN
Image by Theo Jemison