Prefuse 73 Breaks It Down

Though few self-respecting artists would admit to making music for the sole purpose of pleasing their fans, it’s certainly a rare musician who makes an album that he doesn’t expect will connect with his audience. From Neil Young dropping an electronic album in the middle of a series of folk and rock records or Lou Reed terrorizing his listeners with an album of guitar feedback, artists have made albums that seem designed to shake less resilient listeners off their bandwagons. A similar path has now been taken by Guillermo Scott Herren, also known as Prefuse 73, for his new full-length album Preparations (reviewed in ALARM #29 – read it here!). In addition to his usual dose of experimental glitch-hop, Herren crafted an album of avant-garde classical music to go alongside. He wasn’t just following his creative intuition—

he was making an album that could alienate his normally open-minded listeners. Some might even call it daring.

“Daring?” Herren asks incredulously. “No. Maybe dumb. Suicidal. It’s like jumping off a cliff. You don’t know what to expect. I think Warp [Records] are smart in the way that they’re marketing the record,” he continues, discussing his label’s decision to add the orchestral compositions as a fifteen-track bonus album, entitled Interregnums, that comes with the physical purchase of Preparations. “The beat-heads and the cats who are into Prefuse as Prefuse is can get this shit however they want, but if you really want the other disc, you can buy that too. Because I’m sure that there are lots of people who have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the other disc, and that’s fine.”
Pieced together over the span of a year and completed during time off from tours and various projects, Prefuse 73’s unusual double album breaks new creative ground for the man who almost singlehandedly reinvented instrumental hip hop. Herren took the genre by storm in 2003 with One Word Extinguisher, his sophomore full-length for Warp; the album’s stuttering samples and crackling electronics were unlike much else heard over hip-hop beats.

The last two Prefuse albums—Surrounded by Silence (2005) and Security Screenings (2006)—brought a variety of guest musicians and MCs that resulted in disjointed releases. Now four years since his breakthrough, he is returning to the insular, deeply personal heart of his craft.

“This is the sixth record, so I just wanted to do something other than ‘Prefuse is on his MPC again,’” he says, mentioning the beat-making equipment he has used to craft his idiosyncratic sound. “I left the sounds alone instead of editing, chopping, and sampling so much. I was more into arrangement and form and the construction instead of editing and splicing and deconstruction. It was sort of the opposite way around. I implemented more live playing on the beats instead of sampling. That’s why it gets really dense with live playing and live sounds. I just wanted to take that direction, because I never have before. I’ve always put a restriction on my level of live playing. But this time I went crazy and did it all.”
Doing it all included playing cello, piano, flutes, clarinets, and percussion for Interregnums, the orchestral material that laid the foundation for much of Preparations.

“Making the beat part—the actual beat side—was very natural, and it was exactly what I wanted as I was making it,” he says of Preparations. “The hard part came with side two. That was more of a challenge, like, ‘How am I going to do this without it being incredibly corny or over-the-top stupid?’ I didn’t want to hire other people to do it either. That was the hard part, doing things that I’m inexperienced in doing. That’s what made it fun and interesting for me.”

“It opened my mind up to a lot of stuff,” he admits. “I was listening to a lot of modern classical…a lot of movie soundtracks, just sitting there listening to how they were placed in movies. And then I went back and watched old movies to see how they were placed in those movies. I sort of went along with those guidelines. I wasn’t really following anything other than listening to too much [Ennio] Morricone or Italian soundtracks, just doing minimal versions of what I was hearing…just to see if I could pull it off.”

Put together, the two albums seem incompatible yet are made complementary by a similar textural depth and meditative spirit. They’re both layered with nuance and detail, they both are emotionally rich despite rarely mandating a mood, and they’re both meticulously arranged. Herren is creating an umbrella under which two kinds of listeners are bound to rub up against each other. Still, he doesn’t see himself as uniting the two traditions.

“I don’t really see them related in much of a way,” he explains. “Modern composers want to do things with electronic musicians, but I’m not involved in that scene so much. I just do my thing as I do it. You have people like Ryuichi Sakamoto, and he’ll work with someone like Alva Noto and do something electronic when you know he can write the most straightforward classical compositions. But he’ll go with someone like that and let them crush it to pieces. That’s another world than the one I exist in. I listen to it and appreciate it, but I don’t think with hip hop, particularly, there are any connections whatsoever. This is a very odd record in itself, and for them to go together is just what spilled out of my mind.”

The remaining question is whether Prefuse 73’s devoted fan base will prove resilient enough to embrace both Preparations and Interregnums. “In an ideal situation, each CD could be appreciated by the people that listen to that type of music,” Herren suggests. “I don’t really have expectations for anything that I release, because you never know how people are going to receive it. One thing one person says can set off a whole army of people. If one person says it’s bad, then a person who never listened to it might think it’s bad. That happens all the time,” he says solemnly. “That’s why I had to make a record like this blindly. I just have to keep going.”