Prison Garde Is Body Centric Hardware Music With a Hip-Hop History
"I'm not defensive about my music, my output as an artist speaks for itself."
Photo by Ango.
"I've been involved in two or three major genres that are very different from each other," says Vaughn Robert Squire, who currently produces and performs under his live P.A. identity, Prison Garde. "But to me, all the music that I've ever made, it all comes from the same place. I follow music, I love music, that's it." Vaughn Robert Squire's personal music inventory probably exceeds your local record store. After 20 years, 5 monikers, and innumerable original releases, remixes, labels, and bylines, Squire is so far from finished with music it's almost intimidating.
The Nova Scotian, turned Montrealer, turned Torontonian put an aggressive foot in the door in the mid-90s, with his hip-hop identity Sixtoo. Though it's considerably his most celebrated repertoire of music—with releases on then radical labels Ninja Tune, Anticon, and Bully Records—he admits that Sixtoo was fueled in part by youthful naivety and angst-y rebelliousness. "There was such a strong level of cross-cultural dialogue and experimentation happening in rap music at that time," he says. "But rap music changed a lot. When that politically-driven, artsy movement in rap music changed, I got disinterested and moved on."
"I can't make records that sound like fucking Yung Thug, " he laughs, "it's just not who I am as a person."
Despite his subsequent waterfall of other titles—C.L. S.C.A.R.R, Speakerbruiser Rob, the celebrated Canadian duo, Megasoid, with Hadji Bakara of Wolf Parade, his Red Bull Music Academy spin-off trio, Nouveau Palais, with Lunice and Ango, and Prison Garde—there are common recurring threads. His productions are entrenched in simplicity; he adheres to a less-is-more philosophy. As a self-proclaimed hardware nerd, Squire wants the fundamentals to shine. "I'm not defensive about my music. All the music I listen to is, in some way, directly inspired by black, American music. I've been influenced or sampling music from that spectrum for years," he says. "My output as an artist speaks for itself."
Nowadays, as Prison Garde, he almost exclusively collaborates with Ango, a Toronto-based singer and producer. "Part of these changes comes from the influence that stands next to me as well," he says, "not just what I'm listening to. I think maturation as a musician plays a part as well."
Listing off his voluminous library of contributions to the Canadian rap, hip-hop, and electronic music scene—as was just attempted—barely does Squire justice. Though he's acquired a trade as a barber along the way and dabbles in graphic design and film projects on the side, music is and always will be his lifeblood. "My motivation in music is just to be involved in the conversation," he says. "I'm a lifer, I'm never going to not do music. I'll always make the music that I want to be involved in, for the conversation I want to contribute to."
THUMP: You once said that at some point, you would put your whole discography under your given name. Instead, you're coming up with new musical identities, why is that?
Robert Squire: At some point, I probably should do that [laughs]. I started releasing records in about 1996 or 1997, so with that 20-year anniversary coming up, maybe at that point I'll think about doing a retrospective sort of thing. It's tough because it's scattered all over the place. I'm not sure if it's even a possibility at this point to track down, let alone release, that much stuff.
Why do you constantly reinvent your sound and identity?
I think if you're going to be an artist, then you have to live in the time that you're allotted. I've dedicated a lot of time to change. Unfortunately, I don't think people necessarily want to hear Anticon sounding hip-hop records anymore or, for that matter, the kind of club records sound from two years ago. I think being a part of the dialogue of whatever kind music is modern is a relevant, smart way to contribute to music. When you think about a person's output, somebody who's making the same record over and over or doing the same project over and over, I don't feel like they have very much longevity. They certainly will outlive their relevance. Somebody will say, 'Oh, five years ago you were making this Kayne West sounding rap record, how does it relate to your gospel house records with Prison Garde?' But I listen to both, so those things influence me equally.
Why do you think the Turbo Crunk and Bridge Burner parties were so successful? Did throwing them in Montreal play a certain role?
A lot of the modern rap music you hear today kind of stems from a very specific point in time, a time a lot of my friends and I were involved in. These parties in Montreal were some of it. When we were doing Turbo Crunk, I was in Megasoid, and we were trying to franchise it as a party, but things didn't go off the same way in Toronto as it did in Montreal. Yet there were things in Toronto that couldn't cross over to Montreal. That's the beautiful thing about cities. You take influence from the city you live in and contribute to the places you're immediately surrounded by and put it back into the music you make and other places you go.
When I look back at it, maybe we were a little bit ahead of the curve with that kind of thing. Some of us got accolades from it, but most of us were just there for the party. It was just a great party.
You describe Prison Garde as "body centric hardware music." What do you mean by that?
It's shit that works in the club. It's stuff people want to dance to it, but it's not hype. It's not Beatport house music [laughs], it's made with a very minimal kit. There's a drum machine, there's a PolyTune, there's a mono-synth, and there's a sampler. It's really stripped down.
There's an element of simplicity to a lot of Prison Garde. Not plainness by any means, but it feels uncluttered.
It's not overproduced by any stretch of the imagination. My production setup allows the writing to breathe without choking it, but I don't think it's a conscious thing. I think it's more financial. I would have all the gear if I could afford all the gear, but I'm living as a very blue-collar worker these days. When I make records, I pick the five pieces that I need and I'll work on that gear for a year. When I'm sick of it, I'll slip out a piece and work on another record. I could do it all on software and have it go the symphonic end, but I don't really need anything more than that for my music.
You're a gear-head, basically.
Yeah, I'm a straight up gear nerd. I like bringing gear to the club and playing it, that's the most fun part for me. But gear doesn't mean shit, you know? [laughs]. It's cool, but as somebody who has bought an 808 because I thought I could make the same drums as, whoever, none of that shit works. You get the things and you put your own spin on it, that's what it is.
There's a sprinkling of different aspects of different genres in your music—right now, it's primarily gospel. Where do these influences derive from?
It's from making 15 years worth of sample-based music. When I was making Sixtoo records, I was singularly obsessed with drums and sampling drums. Because of that, my knowledge of music is super wide. Then I started getting into more 1980s R&B, the end of the disco era, and into modern soul. I had always loved those records, but they weren't the records I was sampling, they were just the records that influenced what I was doing. The direct sampling didn't come until Prison Garde.
What about your upcoming 12 inch is reflective of or new to Prison Garde?
It's gospel-influenced house stuff. It's in line with the last couple records that I put out, but I feel like it's a little more mature and that the quality of the recording is a lot higher than anything else I've done as Prison Garde. I recorded it at the Phi Centre in Montreal—it's a beautiful cultural center in the Old Port. Ango and I locked ourselves in there and did a live record on an SSL in a big room... so it sounds good. It's coming out in a couple weeks on Tensnake's label, True Romance. I'm also sitting on an album. I think moving here to Toronto has been really healthy for it, but I've also been doing a lot of live PA stuff in Montreal, so I came here with a lot of music already finished. I'm sitting on a surplus of what I think is good stuff right now.
Prison Garde's new 12 inch untitled EP will come out this month on True Romance.