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It's All About How You Freak It: A Conversation with Pursuit Grooves

Vanese Smith talks about rapping over 12" instrumentals, gender and caverns of reverb.

by Brendan Arnott
Jun 19 2014, 8:57pm

Pursuit Grooves orders a green tea, and the bartender of the West End spot we meet at on a Friday night seems perplexed. "I'm not sure I know how to make it, all we serve here is booze," he says, and I laugh, thinking it's a joke. Ten minutes later, I look over and see him standing next to a kettle, throwing his hands up in frustration and swearing out loud.

Some things are beyond some people. The same can be said for Vanese Smith's music. Despite a decade of prolific productions, globetrotting DJ sessions and international acclaim, Smith's twisted house permutations may fly right over the heads of some listeners.

Admittedly, she's done some weird shit. On SlowPitch's "Organic Seed," she raps out an ingredient list of organic foods with a viscous-as-tar drawl; Daft Punk's "Teachers" meets an organic food co-op. On her remix of PlanningtoRock's "Misogyny Drop Dead" she warps Jam Rostron's demon chirp of "TUT UTUTUTUTTUUTUT TUTUT" into something you might hear in Berghain's Darkroom or the seventh level of hell, and her 2014-released Modern Day Minerals cassette may just be the first concept album about rock formations.

But take some time to acclimatize yourself to Pursuit Grooves' styles (and there are many— from twitchy, woozy bass frequencies to silky night-time house cuts, from improvisatory funk to swagger infused hip-hop free styling to whispered monologues over spinal-column) and perhaps it's more obvious that Smith feels more at home in the underground. Her last few years have seen a voluminous outpouring of source material remixing The Knife, dropping an LP on Pinch's UK Tectonic label that's sure to cause cochlear leakage. But when we meet, Smith is running an hour late, and laments how immersed she can get in the studio, to the extent of losing track of the day of the week. "I'm not going out all the time—I'm at home trying to create, so I'm pretty free to work on music or whatever else my creative head has going on at the moment," she tells me. Her schedule has currently opened up more time for personal projects, as she experiences a short break from teaching music at Toronto's Off Centre DJ school.

"Off Centre is awesome, it's a really cozy environment, and they teach the foundations, starting with vinyl", Smith acknowledges, assuring me that the burst of popularity the school has experienced isn't directly tied to EDM. "It's really a mixture. There have been kids as young as nine in there recently, and people in their forties and fifties, from all backgrounds."

For this writer, teaching the history of dance music has always meant teaching the history of political struggle; from Marlena Shaw's condemnation of Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project in "Woman of the Ghetto" to the queer hedonism imagined in Arthur Russel and Larry Levan's disco, hip-hop's angry response to systemic poverty and racism. "Are those political and social elements part of how you teach?" I ask her. "Or is music separate from political history?"

"I've kind of made a point to focus on mainly instrumental music most of my career" Smith replies. "I'll do vocals occasionally, but I do have a history of incorporating different types of social messages into tracks, even if it's just what I'm titling things—if they're instrumental, a title's the most you can do. So even back to where I had a mix tape entitled Sustainable Movements for a New Age—I purposefully put it out on Earth day, and all its content was related to the environment. On my full length on Tectonic, Frantically Hopeful, there were a few tracks with vocals and rhymes and it was all referencing consumerism and technology. So yeah, I do have a habit... not all of the time, but when I feel like it, incorporating those themes or anything else that might be on my mind."

Smith offers a concession though: "I don't feel that music always has to be political. There are times for dancing, there is time for fun, and there is time for just meditating. But at the same time, music can be really powerful when it's harnessed the right way. And it definitely isn't used the way that it was used twenty or forty years ago."

Photo credit: Lander Larranaga

Smith has seen music transform over time, getting hooked at a young age. "The entire time I was writing as a teen, I was making my own music. Like everyone else, I'd rhyme over 12" instrumentals when those existed—I started playing piano as a kid just because it was in my grandmother's house, and I had a keyboard that had drum sounds, and that really just started the progression of me deciding that I could compose my own beats."

Showing some career savvy from a young age, Smith was wary of sticking to one type of music, knowing how the industry tends to slot people into certain limited categories. "I knew that I really enjoyed making different styles and genres of music" she explains, "and I knew that if I just focused on being an MC, that'd really pigeonhole me, especially being a hip-hop artist. As much as I love hip-hop and as huge as it's been in my foundation, I didn't want that to be the only thing."

Combined with other Maryland influences—R&B, hip-hop and funk radio stations, as well as fuzzy Baltimore house music transmissions that Smith tuned into in her teens, the Pursuit Grooves sound started taking shape. Growing up producing in a pre-Fruity Loops world, I'm curious if access was a barrier for Smith. "I started making music before digital was even an issue. I started making music between fourteen and sixteen years old, so most of the tools I was using was hardware, synthesizers, analogue four tracks, so I came into it way before many of the digital programs werearound. We barely got computers for word processing purposes back then, so for me it was all synthesizers, hardware, records, sampling and composing—chopping records… back in the day, that was it. That's what you had to work with."

Similarly resourceful when it comes to releasing music on her own What Rules label, Smith prefers to work outside the constraints and timelines of larger labels. "I don't like to wait" she admits. "I like to be in control, and if it's something I'm feeling good about and I want to share it, that's my avenue for putting it out."

It's an approach that gets noticed—most recently when Swedish electronic duo, The Knife, reached out to get Smith's touch on a remix of masculinity-skewing "A Tooth For An Eye." Smith now refers to Olof and Karin as "distant extended family," and recently closed out their Toronto set, which resembled more of a gender-bending group karaoke performance than a traditional concert. Shaking the Habitual is The Knife's most pointedly political album yet, furious about gender inequality, and Smith's Tooth for an Eye remix package was one of the few times I'd seen an all female cast of remixers, a rarity even in 2014. The release was followed by another all-female package on Sound Warrior Recordings, causing me to wonder if Smith has any thoughts on gender in dance music these days.

"No… I mean, that's another thing with instrumental music" she begins. "You may not know who's behind it, that's even more so why I wanted to back off from any type of vocalizing. As soon as I do that, someone will immediately slot me into a category. I always wanted producing to be at the forefront." She tells me. "Gender does come into play sometimes when you look at lineups for festivals and you don't see any women, or just very few… that's when it becomes a bit irritating, a bit irksome, that's when those things become a bit more noticeable to me, when things aren't very diverse."

"It's not like they don't exist!" Smith continues. "There are female producers, there are female DJs, but we're still the minority—it is what it is, there are a lot of industries where it's a bit lopsided. But it's very nice when we support each other and go out of our way to make sure we're represented in some way."

But moving beyond politics, Smith's singular focus seems locked on production. "I don't like to repeat myself" she admits of her constant hop between vocalist, producer and visual artist roles, "so there's always a good chance that the project after the one before is going to be different… it keeps me really interested and creative that way. It's been like that all my life. I went to a performing arts school since I was eight years old, it's a blessing and a curse" she sighs.

With all the variation happening between productions, I'm curious about how Pursuit Grooves tracks are pieced together—whether they come with a geographic location, emotion or image in mind?

"It's usually pretty simplistic" Smith replies. "It's me saying 'is this track going to be upbeat or downbeat?' Really, it's that simple. I might throw a word in there like 'dark' as well actually—is this a slow, moody, dark, reverb-filled, cavey type of track? Or is this an upbeat, outdoor kind of piece? I'll let those thoughts dictate the vibe. You can listen to a mix from me that's chill and experimental, or totally upbeat all the way through. There's a mix for everything—a mix for sleeping, a mix for jogging, a mix for creating. Once it really consistently stays warm, I'm sure a certain vibe will be coming out of me. In the wintertime, I was probably creating more dark moody type shit," she laughs, conceding that Toronto's desolate winters bring out a certain nihilism. 

Up next for Pursuit Grooves? Her label's latest release comes from Toronto's dark and dubby SlowPitch, and she just finished a "composition challenge" where fans rearrange fifteen pre-provided samples into endless variations, ranging from ambient excursions to one or two pieces that sound like a factory assembling AK47s. For Smith, every project seems to circle back to the endless possibilities of sonic experimentation. "I endlessly enjoy finding different sounds, chopping them up and playing with them—a hip-hop aesthetic which plays into a ton of different electronic music" she explains. "House as well, the warmth of electronic records is important too… It's all about how you freak it and try to make it your own."

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