Martyn Pepperell talks to Dictaphone Blues’s Ed Castelow on Tinder, synths and redefining indie success.
Auckland singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and studio tinkerer Ed Castelow has been a regular fixture on stages around New Zealand and Australia since the mid-2000s, playing in bands like degrees.k, The Ruby Suns, The Brunettes, Anthonie Tonnon and The Conjurors, and his own Dictaphone Blues project.
Informed by a love of vintage songwriting that began as a bedroom project, over the last decade, Dictaphone Blues has allowed Ed to release three full-length albums, a smattering of EPs and singles, and share stages with the likes of the New Pornographers, Okkervil River, and Broken Social Scene.
The follow up to 2014’s album Mufti Day, Dictaphone Blues’ Elastic Meditation EP, released today, sees Ed and his collaborators taking the project in a new direction or two while reflecting on modern life through a throwback lens. In July, Ed is hitting the road with bandmates Barney Chunn, Matthias Jordan and Myles Allpress to play a series of shows in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Last night I jumped on the phone with Ed to get a sense of what’s been going on with him between projects, and where things are headed next. It wasn’t quite the conversation I expected.
The Spinoff: Elastic Meditation is your first project since Mufti Day in 2014. I noticed there are a lot of new wave and electro-boogie things going on in the background. How and why did you end up bringing those elements into your music?
Ed Castelow: I like The Eurythmics and I like a lot of 80s sounding music. I was trying to get this ’80s sounding drum thing going on, and I picked up this particular Yamaha keyboard. My girlfriend was doing a bit of nannying, and the parents of the kid she was looking after said, ‘Oh I have this old synth I’m going to get rid of. Your boyfriend is a musician, isn’t he? Does he want this?’ When I came across it, this Yamaha CS-5, which is a really simple mono synth, it was something different, and it informed the start of my writing process. I wanted to have more boogie, and thick danceable beats in my music. I just started twiddling the knobs and hoped something musical would come out. Often when you don’t know too much about a piece of equipment you stumble upon, it works really well.
Did you do any research into the Yamaha CS-5 before you got it?
Before I got it off them, I went online to see what it was. There is this great YouTube page, where this one guy does synth demos. He’ll do them on a green-screen, chop around the outside of the synth, so it is a blank colour, and noodle around on it for ten minutes, I watched a bunch of those. That’s kind of where I got the idea for the music video for ‘When Your Simulation Crossed Mine.’ I was thinking about living in a simulation. I had this old Halloween costume from when I dressed up as a computer. I thought I’ll use that again, and I’ll add these demo videos of synthesisers I fell in love with. What else would be funny? Sausages playing drums!
Aside from the Yamaha CS-5, what else were you playing around with that helped you take your music down the electro-boogie and new wave lanes? Did you use any drum machines?
I used live drums, cause I knew Dave Eringa who produced the EP would be able to achieve the sound I wanted. I wanted a big beat feel, and I wanted that fuzzy synth bass sound. I got this Fender Strat, and I’ve never really played a Fender Strat before. That has a funky tone to it when you use two of the pick-ups at once. It sounds like the Magnum P.I. soundtrack. I started really using that, and once I had the palette to work with, I put all the songs I was writing through that filter, and they had that synth-pop feel straight away. I still love chimey ’60s inspired power pop, but I felt I had really mined that territory over a couple of albums. I just wanted something that would come out of the PA thicker when we played live. Less was more. When we play those arrangements, everyone is doing a little less, but it goes a lot further.
Dave Eringa is an English record producer and engineer. He’s worked and played on albums by Manic Street Preachers, The Who, Kylie Minogue and Tom Jones. How did he end up producing your EP?
Dave came down here to do these production seminars called The New Zealand Music Producer Series for NZ on Air, Recorded Music New Zealand and APRA AMCOS. I read that he was coming down and was going to hang around for a couple of weeks afterwards looking for something to do. I got hold of his email, and I sent him a couple of songs from my last project Mufti Day as well as a couple of demos. I’ve approached professional people before and never heard back from them. I figured this was going to be more of the same, but he was anything but like that. He was keen to do it and really approachable.
We did some really long sessions on a couple of songs, then after he went back to the UK, I emailed him and asked him if he would mix the rest of the songs on my EP. He was keen, so I recorded them, sent him the files, and since he was in between projects at the time, he was able to fit it in. It was really scary, cause I had never sent sessions to someone on the internet before.
‘When Your Simulation Crossed Mine’ – what’s going on with that song? And beyond that, it seems like the rest of the EP has a bit of commentary on contemporary culture, in particular, what does and doesn’t happen online?
Sure! I’m a Tinder success story. I was on Tinder for about two months, and then I met my girlfriend. She was the first tinder date I ever went out on. I felt very fortuitous. That was quite interesting considering that for a lot of people, that really isn’t the case. As everybody probably does in this day and age, I often find myself going down these rabbit holes on YouTube, Reddit, or whatever else you use, these wormholes of information.
I’m very into, I don’t know whether I should call them conspiracy theories or not, but I started reading about the simulated reality theory, whether this world is real or not, etc. It made me think about how my girlfriend and I came across each other in this virtual world of Tinder that, and how glad I was that we did come about. How her simulation came across mine, and mine came across hers. I also got thinking about 80s video games and kill screens when the video game freezes.
Elastic Meditation might be your cyberpunk record? Max Headroom, William Gibson, Johnny Mnemonic, etc.
Yeah, dude. We’re on the slippery slope right now; we’re sliding into cyberspace, virtual reality and that sort of world.
You’ve been releasing music for about a decade now. You’re old enough to remember the days of print music media and getting videos on TV, but you’ve also made the transition into the world of streaming playlists, virality, and getting a buzz off Instagram stories. What’s it been like being a bridge generation musician?
I don’t know. I never really caught the first wave on the internet. It’s always been an uphill battle to retain or get new listeners. I’m literally just doing it because I love being creative. It’s not my full-time job. It’s not like I’m so busy with music. There are very few musicians in New Zealand who are super busy with music. A lot of it is a fucking illusion.
A simulation illusion, bro. I’m just glad that as far as indie music is concerned, I feel like I’ve clocked it or got a kill screen. I’ve got my little studio where I can go and make music whatever time of the day I want. I have my collection of toys. I work with my friends on music. We’re all going to end up at the Grey Lynn R.S.C. playing live as fifty-year-olds, and that would be success. I do have to remind myself of this sometimes. I just hope I can continue to make music on my time frame. I’m happy with where I am.
This July, Dictaphone Blues plays four shows around New Zealand in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, buy tickets here.
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