Photos by Laura Austin
Should you ever need any, Classixx’s Michael David has some killer smooth jazz recommendations.
“There’s a song called ‘The Wave’ by Kirk Whalum, who’s a saxophone player,” David tells me on a late May afternoon. “‘One Wish’ by Hiroshima. ‘Rain Forest’ by Paul Hardcastle. That’ll sort of set you in the right direction.”
Even in the age of vaporwave and yacht rock’s resurgence, smooth jazz isn’t exactly a “cool” music genre. But LA DJ-producer duo Classixx—consisting of David and fellow multi-instrumentalist Tyler Blake—can fit all sorts of influences into their music, a point they expertly prove on their second full-length album, Faraway Reach. Primed for the BBQs and illegal warehouse parties of summer, it’s a sleek, sweet-hearted collection of dance anthems and slow jams that features a dizzying cast of collaborators (Passion Pit, Holy Ghost!, etc.). Four-to-the-floor kicks and Technicolor synth hooks abound, but there’s subtlety as well—“The Dissolve” finds the duo floating with Isles down a moonlit tributary of frequency-modulation synths and vaporous vocals. It’s their own take on the smooth sounds coming from the likes of Windham Hill Records.
“I know why jazz guys hate that stuff, for the most part,” David says, referring to the smooth jazz genre. “But I’m coming at it from a very different place.”
Originally childhood friends, David and Blake pursued respective careers as musicians before teaming up to form Classixx in 2007. Their start as go-to remixers quickly solidified their status in LA’s blossoming dance scene, culminating in the release of their first full-length output of original material with 2013's Hanging Gardens (released on local indie Innovative Leisure, which is also putting out their new effort June 3). Faraway Reach stretches ever higher into ethereal vibes while keeping feet firmly rooted on the dance floor. How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell stuns on “Just Let Go,” helping the duo fuse celestial R&B with thumping house. For “Whatever I Want,” warm liquid tones and swaying handclaps buoy Auto-Tuned crooner T-Pain as he celebrates the power of doing your thing.
T-Pain also stars in the song’s most excellent video, taking on the role of Morrissey in a shot-for-shot ode to The Smiths’ video for “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.” It’d be easy to succumb to retromania-induced collapse under the weight of these heaping influences, references, and collaborations. But Classixx harnesses it all with panache, forging something fresh and decidedly contemporary from the familiar.
I gave David a call at his home in LA to talk dance floor chemistry, the importance of making the past sound fresh, and why, exactly, he likes smooth jazz so much. (Btw, “Rain Forest” by Paul Hardcastle? Total jam.)
Noisey: When you guys were working on Faraway Reach, was there a lot of tinkering involved?
Michael David: I mean, basically. As we’ve gotten a little bit older, I really don’t like the idea of having a session with 100 different tracks on it. So what we end up doing is, like, really piling on and then spend a long time trying to distill the session into kind of just keeping the parts that are integral to the production of the song and not cluttering. So I think that sort of distillation process took a while, and we were kind of meticulous in that way. I don’t know if that comes across, but that’s sort of the most time-consuming portion because like, you know, we can just add and add and add, and I think the mark of an amateur producer is when things are sort of just sounding totally hectic. There isn’t a focal point in the song.
What I always think is cool about dance music is just that element of stripping things away and being content with letting the beat ride.
I totally agree. I mean, I think great dance music is formed around, you know, like a minimalist sort of ethic and approach, and I really like that about it. We weren’t raised on dance music, and I still do this day just am sort of in awe of producers that can create a great 12-minute song that works in a dance-floor setting that doesn’t tire and doesn’t sound too frenetic. There’s a wisdom to being able to create a track like that, and it’s just not something that I’m necessarily capable of.
Classixx spent several years just DJ-ing shows before playing your own music live. What were some of the major lessons you learned doing all those DJ sets?
One thing is patience. I get kind of nerdy, but I think part of it is you shouldn’t placate your listener, by trying to just make your track super dynamic because you think that everyone’s really ADD and that they need to hear sort of major, like, tone shifts all the time throughout the song. Part of it is learning how to build and create a narrative using only a few elements instead of a million. Part of it is trying to create some sort of human moments within the song, even though you’re often working with an electronic palette. Trying to insert some kind of humanity. A lot of it’s just about sort of creating your own sort of boundaries and limitations. And a lot of that stuff just comes with time, I think.
How did you guys set up this collaboration with T-Pain?
We had this instrumental song that was actually kind of created on a laptop, to be honest. Just sort of while we were in the middle of touring. We had this guest wish-list that we created in a Google Drive document and he was on that list, just because Tyler and I have been fans of his for a long time. But we didn’t really think that it was probably a viable option. Our manager Matt got in touch with his manager and sent him the instrumental, and you know apparently he liked it and then that was all we had heard for about a month. And then all of a sudden, the song with his vocal arrived in our inbox. [Laughs] That was how it came together.
Wow. That’s a very wonderful gift from T-Pain.
I have to say, he has been so cool to work with. He’s such a gentleman, and he’s such a sweet guy.
You guys collaborate with a lot of people on Faraway Reach. It’s a pretty star-studded cast.
It’s diverse. The thing that I’ve always been nervous about is, like, the idea of creating this collaborative record with the names that are so notable that it almost sort of drowns out any kind of cohesive thread throughout the record. And then you get this really disparate sounding record. Also, what happens is you get these records that have, like, a million super-stars on it. It becomes too big to fail, and then you’re like, "Well that was just a bunch of noise and I have no idea what the hell I just listened to."
It’s like an Avengers movie or something.
Dude, that’s exactly right. That’s what I was very hesitant to create. Even though there are a lot of features, we wanted to make sure that it was interesting and not just going for the biggest name that would return an e-mail, you know what I mean? We didn’t really reach out to anybody fully in the mainstream—not because we’re too cool, but because I didn’t want to make a record that sounded thirsty for features.
How do those feature collaborations normally work?
Well, Tyler and I will sit down and be like, “Who are we fans of?” And when we think of people to collaborate with, it’s never just a vocalist. we want to have somebody who is a songwriter, because I think there’s a lot of craft to writing songs and we like people who really have a solid perspective to collaborate with. So like for the How to Dress Well song — we had this instrumental and we were like, “We know [HTDW’s Tom Krell] a little bit, let’s send this to him and see what he thinks.” And so what we did is we created a really stripped-down version of the song, sent it to Tom, and he was into it, and then sent back a demo that we liked, and then we went back and forth and sort of finished the song that way.
Do you ever find it a challenge to make music that is referential to other sounds, styles, songs and artists of the past, but that at the same time, it doesn’t sound too obviously like, “80s club night on the Sunset Strip”?
I like when there’s nostalgia in music, but when something’s just straight up like throwback—from the title, the production, to the tone—that bums me out, personally. I know people do think that we have some retro sounds and we certainly are drawn to that stuff, but I don’t know, I think there are ways to avoid it. We use a lot of analog, old gear, and so that’s obviously going to make something sound a certain way. But at least on every song I like to use a technique that is totally modern. Or, like, use some rave-y software synthesizer and see what I can do to try to make it work within our palette. I do like to challenge our process that way, mostly because I find it interesting and I’m still really compelled by new equipment and music technology.
It’s interesting, because I also think there’s a lot of cool stuff to take from the past.
Oh, totally. I mean, all I do—or at least a large portion of my day—is just mining the past. I definitely listen to old records more than new ones. But I just think there’s nothing subversive about just straight-up mimicry, you know what I mean? I think you have to make something three-dimensional for it to be interesting today, instead of just sort of regurgitating somebody else’s ideas.
I was also gonna ask you about that song “The Dissolve.” What went into making that one?
There’s a smooth jazz station in LA called The Wave that I’ve always liked, and I’ve kind of always wanted to make a song that sits in the more palatable area of one of those sort of, like, uh, Paul Hardcastle, smooth-jazz-sounding songs.
So you’re into the smooth jazz? You can get down with the smooth jazz?
Absolu—[cuts himself off]...I mean, I like certain songs that would be considered smooth jazz. That’s not my favorite genre, but like, yeah. I could get down with quite a bit of that stuff. There’s quite a few selections that I really like.
What is it about smooth jazz? What’s the draw?
I like FM synths. I like chord voicings that are interesting, but right before they get, like—the tipping point right before you get into some of the more conventional jazz genres where it’s less about a pop sensibility and more about exploring boundaries. I think smooth jazz stays well within that. I like the restraint in that capacity, and I know why jazz guys hate that stuff for the most part. But I’m coming at it from a very different place. I like the sonic palette and I like some of the chord voicings and phrases. And I don’t like it just for the taboo. There’s plenty of that stuff that I really dislike. But I just think that there are a lot of guys that made cool stuff.
It’s funny… did you say taboo?
I think most people don’t have a positive opinion of smooth jazz.
Yeah. And that’s fair. That’s totally fair. I just wouldn’t write off any music genre entirely. I don’t really like drum ’n’ bass, for example, but there are some drum ’n’ bass songs that I can really get into. That kind of applies to every genre.
You can find Peter Holslin on the dance floor, and on Twitter.