Varsity Star

Varsity Star

Ahead of the release of his latest mini-LP, we caught up with Brooklyn’s Varsity Star to talk about his music and inspirations.

Varsity Star - Interview with MinimalMag

Hi Varsity Star, thanks for joining us at Minimal Mag – how are you doing?

Good, thanks. I’m just finishing up home brewing some beer – haven’t tried doing it in a long time but finally got my girlfriend on board so I’m hoping we can stick with it for a while. Fermentation is so cool to me – the idea that time is an ingredient in food. I definitely got into the bread thing during the pandemic along with everyone else, and I’m still at it. I just can’t get enough of that yeast I guess.

When you show up at a nightclub or event, what elements make it particularly enjoyable and fun for you to play at?

This is something I’ve been trying to figure out with this music for a while. Obviously, a good sound system helps but so much of it is really about the people listening and the vibe of the night. I’ve played a couple of nights where it’s mostly DJs, and it doesn’t really translate well, because I don’t fade between tracks and stay in that 110-130bpm range the whole night. I think my favourite gig I played was a few years ago at this more bandy venue in Brooklyn called Friends and Lovers. It was kind of more of the vibe of going to see a band play a full show, and I felt like I could actually talk between some of the songs and have more of a range to it. I don’t have any issue with four-on-the-floor nights, and that stuff can be super fun to get into, but it’s definitely not really where I’m coming from with all of my music. I think in general electronic music live tends to get pretty uncanny – you never know if you’re showing up for a DJ set with some videos projected behind the person or if it’s going to be something actually “live” in the old fashioned sense. I think James Blake really has this kind of thing figured out though.

You are a Jazz musician as well as an electronic producer, how much does your classical jazz background inform your productions?

Hopefully not too much. It’s interesting you say “classical jazz” – it makes a lot of sense in a way. For me there’s so much I love about that music itself, and the stuff I grew up listening to and emulating on bass. But there’s so much about the modern community around it that I just don’t relate to at all, especially the drift toward the classical music approach to it, and there being so much worship of the old ways. I grew up playing bass and hanging with drummers a lot, and so to me, so much of what jazz is about is really the time and the feel, and that’s something I hope shows up in my tracks. It’s funny because the horn players kind of come and go, but at the end of the song, the bass player and the drummer are the ones still there. Maybe the piano player feels like he’s part of it, but it’s not quite the same. The sound of the bass and the way you choose to play it, plus all the same kinds of choices for the drummer, really define so much of what a band sounds like in that kind of music. And I think it’s similar for this stuff, even if you’re doing synth drums that are exactly on the grid. There are perfectly quantized things that feel so good to dance to and also sloppy live stuff that’s supposed to have “swing” that just feels awful. To me, the whole precision vs. slop thing isn’t as much about picking an ideology as just picking an ingredient for a track. Every set of sounds kind of has a way it wants to be played.

You are based in New York and across the pond in the UK you have an album coming out with Small Pond Records, tell us about that.

Yeah, it’s funny – for this kind of music there’s definitely more of a scene in Europe, and also historically in the UK. I don’t know exactly why that is – I think it has something to do with there being lower drinking ages over there and more of a youth culture around dance music. But yeah, I was a big fan of Inwards’ stuff when I came across it a few years ago – it sort of felt like a kindred soul to me in that it was making this really song-y music using just synths and samples. Anyway, I hit up Inwards asking if he was looking for any remixes, and then the timing worked out and I did one for his track ’19TET’. His label liked it so we talked about doing a record together after that and here we are. The funny thing was I had never done any remixes before, so I sort of lucked out that it turned out well. So I’m happy that the whole enterprise is over there in the UK – I think it allows me to flesh out a bit of my fantasy of being European.

Pipes - Varsity Star - Premiere

Who and what are the artists and albums that have inspired you most as a musician and producer?

After kind of a long life of listening, too many to list but I can talk about some that I’ve been into lately just to narrow it down. I think Vegyn’s stuff is just incredible – he did this new record for John Glacier on his label and the drums are just so great. But he also has these awesome soft synth sounds and a really great sense for chords and everything. I’ve also been listening to Machine Girl lately – his shit is totally insane. He has these great drum and bass chops and this this whole kind of screaming punk thing – I’ve just never heard anything even remotely like it. I feel like a lot of noisy things like that tend to kind of be all vibe but for me his stuff is just anchored by the beats; they’re so danceable and feel so good. Another one is Tlim Shug – I think he’s actually in New York also although I’ve never met him or anything. He used to do kind of straight up lofi stuff but has been branching out more lately. He’s just got this perfect feel and everything has the right amount of slop. It’s a good example of that feel thing I was talking about earlier – the bass range things distort the right way but also the things all hit in just the right places time-wise, and it just has this great bounce to it. voyd is another producer who really has a great feel like that – he actually did a remix for one of the tracks on my record that’s great.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I tend to pick certain things and get pretty into them, kind of manically sometimes. I was reading a decent amount about architecture lately although I’ve kind of put it down for the time being (it’s a hard thing to follow up because you can’t just show up at people’s houses and demand to see how they look [especially now]). But some consistent ones have been a lot of eating and drinking and video games. I’m really not a gamer, I’m not good at any games really but my friends and I have been playing CSGO lately. We’re all terrible but since we do these private matches it tends to get really competitive. A few people have rage-quit the server so far so it’s going well I think.

How has live been for you over the past year and a half with the turmoil we’ve all seen? Have you been in New York throughout the Covid pandemic and associated lockdowns?

Yeah I’ve been in Brooklyn the whole time, save for maybe a couple weekend trips here and there. The beginning of it was obviously really scary, especially in the city. It went so quickly from “I think I read about this new disease in The Times” to “holy shit we’re all going to die”. I’ve never seen the streets that empty, even during Sandy I don’t think. Obviously it was a bummer for me in terms of trying to book shows or things like that – I had a record come out March 2020 – but I can’t really complain. I didn’t lose my job, get evicted, or work at a hospital or anything, so I’m just happy to have come out of it unscathed in any serious way. For me it was a productive time to just dig further into making tracks – fortunately I have a pretty solid home studio setup so I really got to know my monitors and just get super in the zone with making tracks. It definitely has me rethinking some of my homebody tendencies though – I’ve been saying yes to more lately because you really never know when the next crazy thing could be.

What else would you like to share with us?

What else would you like to share with us?I’d just mention some stuff around the first music video on the record, for ‘Summer’. It was my first time getting visuals done by another artist and it really came out a lot better than I could have hoped for. I really avoid trusting other people with my work – I mostly do my own visuals and don’t hire a mix engineer. I’m probably a little control obsessed, but there’s just something to work that is wholly from one person – even if it’s not perfect, it’s always more distilled than things built by committee. The artist was Manav C137 – another guy from the UK and a real badass graphics guy. I think the work can be emotional without showing actual scenes of people, and I think Manav just did such a perfect job with that idea – putting the nostalgic sound into visual form. I think it came out pretty well.

Varsity Star - Summer

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