Meet one-man band, musical maximalist, Robert DeLong. He spoke with us about his beginnings playing drums in punk bands and church, how he hacked into electronic music with reappropriated Nintendo controllers, and what he discovered upon throwing the Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1 into the hand-built madness that is his solo stage show.
Artiphon: What was your household like growing up?
Robert DeLong: My dad was a drummer and so I started on drums. My mom plinked around on piano and sang. But really, I took to music almost immediately. I remember writing songs on piano all the time, they were mostly pretty derivative. I wrote a Michael Jackson song when I was three. It was great. It's called "Walking on the Moon."
A: You wrote your own Michael Jackson song?
RD: Well, I just copied a Michael Jackson song. But in my mind I was being original. So yeah. From my dad, I listened to a lot of jazz fusion and prog rock like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Yes. From my mom I listened to Kenny G and Enya. But I think Enya is actually what got me into atmospheric and electronic ambient stuff in a weird, backwards way. The first concert I ever went to was Pat Metheny with my dad when I was in fourth grade.
A: When was your first time performing in front of other people?
RD: I grew up quite religious so I was playing at church all the time, and actually that was amazing because it got me playing drums in front of a few hundred people every Sunday. It was a built-in audience. They couldn't leave.
A: You didn't have to sell tickets.
RD: Somebody was selling something, but I wasn't getting any of it.
A: And you played in bands?
RD: Yeah, I played in a lot of bands. Growing up in junior high and high school I played in a bunch of pop-punk bands that were mediocre at best. But I was always working on music on my own and recording stuff. It was probably around junior year of high school I started getting into electronic music, and that led to getting into electronic production. I guess it all started with listening to Boards of Canada and that stuff.
But when I went to college I studied music, played in jazz band, did music lessons, and played in probably eight or nine bands. They were everything from indie rock to folk music to blues rock and everything in between.
A: And then you start doing this one man band thing. Can you color in that journey, and tell us more about your game controllers?
RD: I was in college and I was poor so I started using things I had laying around to do electronic performances. I had gamepads to play Tony Hawk on my computer, for example. I started learning how people had hacked them and that's how got into electronic performances. It was a niche and kind of kitschy thing I would do at a coffee shop every couple years.
For my live performance I use what’s essentially a Nintendo 64 controller to play samples. I have a Wii remote I shake around and glitch out my voice. I use a joystick to pitch around my vocals and also just to control synths in weird ways. Then I have just a myriad of other reappropriated MIDI controllers.
I'm a controllerist and I'm also a maximalist. I like to have as much stuff as possible and make it difficult for my stage techs.
A: You don't have a MIDI tattoo, right?
RD: You know, I might have a MIDI tattoo. This is how much I love MIDI.
A: Let’s talk about your process for this piece you just played.
RD: The most intriguing part of the INSTRUMENT 1 is that there are so many modes that do so many different things. Being able to play a chord and then slide around, that’s something special I'd never encountered before. I approached it like a guitar but controlled it in crazy ways like a synth.
I wanted to be able to utilize all the different aspects of the controller, so I set up all these instances where I could send program changes that would switch to the preset I designed for each sound.
The first sound I use is a software instrument called Diva. I'm using the Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1 in a fretless guitar mode so that I can slide a chord or individual notes around. Then I have this nice synth sound and I use the Tilt function to control the filter cutoff. It makes it just super expressive and interesting.
Then the next sound is some drum samples that I'm using in the drum mode. I was surprised and impressed at how nice and responsive the whole thing is. It picks it up really well and I was able to get in there and play it MPC-style.
Each time I go to a different instrument it’s sending program changes via a Max for Live patch that I made. That’s how I’m arming and disarming the tracks when I change patches.
The next sound I'm using is this nice bell sample that I made with a sampler. I'm literally just strumming it as chords. I made a loop out of that.
That's one of the nicest things about the INSTRUMENT 1. I'm not much of a guitarist but I do play enough that it felt very natural playing it on the Artiphon. It felt like I was just chunking through some chord changes but it was so cool that I could do that with a completely different sound than a guitar.
A: What surprised you most about using the INSTRUMENT 1?
RD: I think what surprised me most about using the INSTRUMENT 1 was just the range of possibilities. Everything from playing chords, to playing a solo lead, to drum and pad playing. And I was really impressed with how accurate and reactive everything was. You just barely slide up on one of those strings when you have pitch bend on and it really registers quite precisely, which was super cool.
That sort of precision is something that I'm always looking for in instruments and it's hard to find sometimes, especially with MIDI instruments.
A: What about dream collaborations?
RD: Goodness. Yeah, dream collaborations for me kind of run the gamut. Flume is a gamechanger, I'm a big fan of that guy. As far as modern songwriting, Phoebe Bridgers is one of my favorite artists right now. She's amazing. I grew up listening to The Chemical Brothers; that'd be amazing to collaborate with them. Brian Eno, he's my number one. There you go.
A: What gets you riled up or really happy or really ticked off?
RD: I do a lot of different genres. I pull from alternative rock, electronic dance music, ambient music, singer/songwriter music... just because those are the things I've been interested in and I've been exposed to and are part of my lexicon.
That's something that’s hard to categorize on a Spotify playlist. That’s something I've had issues with in the past where it's like: Is this guy going to play a rave or is he going to play Coachella or is he going to play with some rock bands? I'd like to believe I could do all of them and it'll translate, because I think the audiences are capable of holding all these disparate ideas in their heads now. But the music industry is... I think they could do more to try and keep up with that.
I've noticed a lot over my seven years of doing this. What excites me is just that so many people are doing so many interesting things in so many genres that I've never heard. People are using electronic instruments in new and exciting ways that I haven't even thought of. That's what I'm looking forward to: what is some 17-year-old going to be doing in five years that's just going to blow my mind.