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Friday, April 4, 2014

Influenced: Matt Gorski on the Timelessness of J Dilla's "Donuts"

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In Influenced, we talk to Milwaukee musicians about the artists that shaped and inspired them, both as performers and listeners.

If you’ve been paying attention at all to Milwaukee music for the last decade, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard something that Matt Gorski has been involved with. The multi-instrumentalist and producer is endlessly busy as a member of both Fable & the World Flat and Fresh Cut Collective, while serving as recording engineer for local acts as well. Gorski talked with us about one of his favorite albums, J Dilla’s 2006 sampler-centric masterpiece Donuts.

You’ve been playing in bands for over 10 years now, and in that time you’ve managed to progress quite a bit as a musician. How did you initially get interested in music, both playing it and just in general?

I was definitely brought up around music. At home there was music playing pretty much constantly, everything from The Beatles to CCR to The Gap Band. My dad played bass in a band and seeing him do that got me to start playing the drums around 7 or 8. I was into music in the sense that I had like Kris Kross and Vanilla Ice tapes and stuff, and I knew my parents’ music, but that was really the extent of it. What really got me into appreciating music and really wanting to create it was hearing Green Day’s Dookie and Weezer’s Blue Album. From that point on, I just wanted to play with as many people as possible and really develop as a musician, so I started playing in punk bands and ska bands and all kinds of other stuff. I started to get a little more serious about it around 2001 when The Meteah Strike formed. At that point we were getting more into the clean, guitar-based indie-rock that was around at the time, and over the four-or-so years that we were a band, we toured a bit and put out two EPs. Around ’05, I got really into this record by Common called Be. The production really grabbed me because it wasn’t like a modern rap record. It reminded me of classic Motown and Stax records. More than anything, it was very melodic which is what I loved about it. On the last tour that we did, we listened to that record pretty much constantly in the van. After the tour, our bass player quit, but Steve [Look], Bud [Averitt] and I kept playing together, and that eventually morphed into Fable & The World Flat. It was around that time that I started hearing about this record called Donuts by J Dilla.

What made you check out
Donuts?

I kept hearing about it a bunch from a lot of people, and I was familiar with some of the stuff he produced by The Pharcyde, but he also did stuff with Common, including a couple tracks on Be. I can’t remember who exactly now, but a friend had given it to me on a burned CD, and I turned it on and was immediately just like, “What is this?”

What about it grabbed you so quickly?

It was exactly what I wanted to hear at that time. It was like hearing the album that I wanted to somehow make myself. It felt familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time because it was like a Motown record but in these little one to two minute flashes. It wasn’t lacking in substance, because there was no filler and it just kept moving from one thing to the next. And it was very hooky and very pop.

I also liked that it didn’t have any rappers on it. Nothing against ’em, but sometimes I feel like having a vocalist on a track can really distract from it, especially if it’s a really good track. If it’s a really good track it’ll be able to stand on its own. It made it so much more musical by putting that emphasis on what would usually be just a backing track for an emcee.

Yeah. If you take DJ Shadow’s …Endtroducing, which has no guest vocalists, and compare it to a later record like The Outsider, which has a ton of guest vocalists…

Yeah, exactly. It’s just not necessary. Like, if I want to listen to a DJ Shadow record, I don’t need to hear a vocalist on it. There’ll be more than enough happening musically that’ll be interesting enough to hold my attention.

Did hearing Donuts play a role in moving away from the guitar-based songs you were writing with The Meteah Strike and into the more rhythm focused work that ended up becoming Fable & The World Flat?

Yeah, I think I stopped having the urge to hear guitar based music at that point. When we started writing the songs for that first Fable record, we didn’t want to focus around just guitar riffs. We had a Fender Rhodes electric piano that we used a bit during the Meteah Strike, and we started using that as more of a focus and wrote songs around that. And with being into the Motown records, we wanted to focus on the band as a whole in the songs by doing stabs and that kind of stuff.

That makes sense. To me, that first Fable record sounds like taking those newer influences like Donuts and filtering them through white-boy indie rock.

[Laughs] That’s a really accurate description, though! We were still into all that white boy indie rock for sure, but we were also really getting into the Common record that I mentioned earlier, plus a lot of trip hop like Portishead and Massive Attack and Tricky—just stuff that grooved and had more of a focus on rhythm. So we were trying to kind of do our take on those kinds of records.

You mentioned earlier that you consider Donuts to be a pop record?

I see it as a pop record in the same way that I look at Parliament/Funkadelic records as pop records. There’s hooks, you know? They’ll just vamp on the same part or talk shit or whatever, but it’s still a hook. That’s kind of how I feel about Donuts. All those old soul and funk tracks that weren’t really hits, he saw that potential in them. He trimmed the fat and gave you just the hook for like 45 seconds. That focus on just the hook, that’s what I think makes it a pop record.

It’s got all those Motown types of chords and progressions going on, but at the same time its really drum machine and sample heavy. I feel like if Motown had started up in the early 2000s, they’d be putting out records like Donuts.

What about Donuts makes it work so well?

It plays like a soundtrack, really. Part of that has to do with the fact that it’s largely instrumental, but its songs can be applied to so many different kinds of situations. That’s probably why I’ve always found it to be so relatable. You can take any song on there and apply it to at least like five different situations. I remember playing that record when I got up, when I ate lunch, in the car, when I slept… it just had this “anytime” kind of quality to it.

There are times when an artist creates something so good that their influences start to pay attention. Jeff Buckley’s Grace comes to mind. The same thing started happening to Dilla early on with Q-Tip and others really taking note of what he was doing, claiming that it was so different from everything else that was happening at the time. What do you think it is that made his productions so different?

I think a lot of stuff that was happening around then was, for a lack of a better term “club heavy.” I really wasn’t into the way those records sounded. Those…

Factory preset kind of sounds?

Yeah, exactly! Factory presets, that’s a thing I was actually talking about recently. A lot of records were sounding like straight up Akai MPC presets. Even now they still kinda do, and those are great and all, but you can do so much more with a sampler beyond whatever is given to you. I think Dilla’s work sounded different in contrast to a lot of that stuff that was really preset-y, in that he was actually using samplers to sample.

Questlove once described Dilla’s production style as being “drunken,” specifically in his approach to rhythms.

Yeah I can see that. That’s because he never quantized his beats, and it’s especially obvious on Donuts, throughout the whole record. To be honest, a lot of Donuts sounds slightly sloppy, but I think that’s also what makes it so appealing. Some of my favorite rock records are sloppy parts of The Blue Album and especially Pinkerton—there’s this slop to them that’s just perfect. If it didn’t have that sloppy quality, it wouldn’t be real. It would sound too fabricated.

With J Dilla passing away just a few days after the release of
Donuts, the possibility of follow up is out of the question. While it’s hard to know for sure, what do you think his future output would have sounded like?

If there’s someone that I could relate him to in my own personal opinion—specifically in determination and politics and how they progressed their sound all the time—I would relate him to Damon Albarn. Most people obviously know Damon for what he’s done with Blur, but he’s done stuff with Gorillaz, he’s done stuff on his own and he continues to do stuff that’s interesting and relevant. I think Dilla’s carreer would’ve taken a similar path. I can’t say that I’d be in love with everything that he would have done afterward, because there’s plenty of recent stuff from artists that I really liked six years ago that I’m not super into. I’d still be interested in hearing it, though, no matter what.

Is
Donuts still that “anytime” record for you, eight years later?

Definitely, I always go back to it. If I’m at a loss for something to listen to, or I need something to play in the background, it’s always there and it’s always great.

It’s pretty timeless, too.

Yeah, it’s definitely timeless. Obviously it’s going to personally remind me of a certain time of my life—which most records do—but I think it will remain timeless on a larger scale as well.