Interview by Chris Zaldua.
Savvy house-heads might have noticed a couple of records on Kieran Hebden‘s (aka Four Tet‘s) label Text Records dropping on the sly — from an otherwise unknown artist called Taraval. The artist seemingly came out of nowhere, but listening to the records, whomever he (or she) was had done their homework: sharp, funky, and detailed, Taraval’s records ride the line between house and techno in the same way that Four Tet’s recent productions do.
As I recently discovered, Taraval lives right here in the Bay Area (which shouldn’t be terribly surprising given the project’s name — it took me awhile to connect those dots), and is the alias of one Ryan Smith, a Canadian musician who also happens to be a key member in a little band you may have heard of, called Caribou.
Taraval makes his As You Like It debut next Saturday, July 22, supporting the one and only Motor City Drum Ensemble at 1015 Folsom. He put together a podcast showcasing some of his current favorite sounds, plus a couple unreleased Taraval joints — listen in below and read on to find out more about what makes him tick.
Chris Zaldua: Tell me about where you’re from and how you ended up in the Bay Area — I know you’re from Canada, spent time in London, and have spent a couple of years in San Francisco. How’d you make it out here?
Ryan Smith: I grew up in a small town in Canada called Dundas, just outside Hamilton, Ontario. On the surface they’re quite unremarkable Canadian towns but the area somehow produces many unique musicians and artists like the Junior Boys, Jessy Lanza, Koushik (Stones Throw records), [editor’s note: Orphx, too!] and Dan Snaith of Caribou who was a childhood friend.
Just after college Dan invited me over to London, UK to play in Caribou (then Manitoba) where has was finishing university. I lived there for a decade playing in Caribou, which was life changing in countless ways, but most importantly it was where I met my wife Emma.
I first came to San Francisco on tour in 2003 and was completely intoxicated by the place, in the same way I think that has drawn in many people into the fog over the years. Emma and I ended up coming back many times, and it was always a dream to live to here. In 2013, just after we had truly found our groove in London, an opportunity came up with her work to bring us here and we made the leap. We absolutely love it here — and you’ll never get rid of us now.
CZ: And on that note, your production and DJ moniker is Taraval — an obvious reference for most of us San Franciscans… why Taraval? Any special significance for you?
RS: I was looking for a name that had a personal link to my own life, but was also hazy enough in meaning that most listeners could impute their own ideas onto it from the music. I remember driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in 2014 on the way to a surf session, feeling very optimistic about our new life here, and I saw the ‘Taraval’ street sign by Ocean Beach. It was both a literal and figurative sign! Most SF’ers know the reference but outside of here people don’t know what it is or even how to pronounce it.
CZ: Tell me about your musical background — some listeners might know that you’ve spent years working with Dan Snaith, better known as Caribou, working with his band. Have you been working with Dan since Caribou’s beginnings? Have you been drumming for a long time?
RS: I actually play guitar and keyboards in Caribou, thankfully for everyone’s ears other people are doing the drumming! I have been known to hop on a ride cymbal for a psychedelic percussion freakout from time to time, though.
I have my parents to thank for my musical life to a large degree. My dad played Farfisa organ in a 60’s garage rock band in Canada, and my mom still sings in choirs, performing all over the world. They had ‘normal’ jobs when I was growing up, but we had pianos and guitars around the house, and they encouraged my interest with lessons and equipment, alongside tolerating my playing awful solo classic rock guitar jams endlessly around the house when I was a teenager.
CZ: When did you develop Taraval as a project? Have you always experimented with electronic music?
RS: I’ve always been tinkering with my own music, but I didn’t really like anything I made until I set out to make club music inspired by all the forward thinking dance music I heard in places like Plastic People (RIP!), or The End in London, and listening to DJs like Four Tet, Dan, or the Hessle Audio crew. Kieran (Four Tet) and Dan had been playing a couple of my first tracks I made in 2012, and then Kieran wanted to release my first EP — which kicked me into gear to properly go for it as a solo artist.
It’s only in the last 5 years or so that I’ve taught myself all the ‘classic’ dance music production techniques — drum machines, sequencers, etc. Prior to that I knew Ableton inside out from helping to build the Caribou live set-up, which is a hybrid of live playing, electronics, and was always trying to come up with unique guitar sounds, which were more related to noise and synth sounds than ‘regular’ guitar sounds. I actually had a small modular synth before I knew how to program a standard 808 style drum beat or Juno pad sound — I came at it backwards, I guess.
CZ: On that note, tell me about your history with DJing and DJ culture. Has dance music always interested you? Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to delve deeper?
Hamilton was actually a big part of the 90’s house and techno scene, but I was mostly paying attention to other music at the time. People like Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva would come there from Windsor to play, and there was a label called Steel City Records which put out amazing early Detroit-style techno. I went to a few basement/warehouse parties in Hamilton around that time (where Jessy Lanza’s dad frequently did the sound!) but was unfortunately not ready to fully appreciate the music.
People around me at the time (like Jeremy and Matt from Junior Boys) had turntables and were learning to DJ, and some people from my highschool class even got themselves 303s and 808s and put out their own techno records — while some of the ‘older kids’ like Dave Foster and Himadri even made what is considered a bonafide techno classic.
At the time, thru the help of Koushik, I was getting into weirder underground music like Spiritualized and Stereolab — which were still more ‘rock’ but had electronic elements. I remember getting really into Plastikman’s Sheet One at the time, but more for the psychedelic stoner-y aspects of it, rather than how it related to the funk/disco side of house and techno music — which I wouldn’t fully appreciate until later as my tastes broadened.
I went to parties in Toronto in the early 2000’s, where the scene was thriving, and started learning more about the music. It wasn’t until I lived in London, though, that I really got inspired by club music. Kieran and Dan were getting into club-oriented sounds, and it would be hard not to be inspired by London’s music scene at the time: you could go see Theo Parrish or Ben UFO in Plastic People one night, a Lightning Bolt gig in a pub basement the next, followed up by an all-night Jamaican dub soundsystem clash in a community centre.
I remember coming back at the end of Caribou’s ‘Swim’ tour, and hearing Dan’s then-unreleased Daphni tunes being played in Plastic People (probably by Kieran), and it made me quite determined to participate in that world. I like the combination of the immediate audience feedback — and the desire for up-to-the-minute sounds from the dancers, and also that within the framework of making people dance, you can use quite unconventional musical and sonic techniques.
I began DJ’ing recently, as a way to present Taraval’s music in its natural habitat, and also to try something I’d never done before. I got invited over to Europe to play shortly after I started DJ’ing — which included playing in the new Saüle space in Berghain as my 6th ever DJ gig — I was terrified! Luckily lots of cool parties here like Lights Down Low, Bread, Sure Thing, and Run The Length of Your Wildness let me play at their parties as preparation.
CZ: Tell me about your AYLI podcast. It’s a wide-ranging mix, full of different styles and sounds. How did you put it together?
RS: I recorded it live, in my living room studio, with a CDJ set-up and some effects. I wanted it to be live and spontaneous, full of tracks I’m into at the moment, but also function as a whole thing together, like a tape of a live mix on a very weird radio station or a stoner mix tape. Complete with a few clunky mixing moments 🙂
CZ: What, in your opinion, separates a really good DJ set from an “OK” one?
RS: For me, I always want to be surprised and excited when I hear a DJ — to hear unexpected sounds coming out of nowhere. For the me the ideal set-up for a DJ is a totally dark room, with the DJ almost invisible to the crowd, with everyone just sunk into the music.
CZ: What’s some new music you’ve been enjoying lately — dance music or otherwise?
RS: I’ve got really into Orlando Voorn‘s productions lately. He’s been putting out amazing music since the 90’s, but he’s recently done an album with Juan Atkins called ‘Mind Merge’ — it’s as funky as you would expect from those two names, but also totally abstract.
On a non-electronic tip, I can recommend the album Tiare Avatea, by Anna Makiere, on Little Axe Records. It’s a teenage girl from the Cook Islands singing close harmony with subtly phasered and echo-y guitar from 1981.
CZ: What’s next for you and for Taraval? Any upcoming gigs or releases you’d like to share?
RS: I’m very excited about my new collaborative release, ‘Greenspan and Taraval,’ which I made with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys. We recorded it live in his studio in Hamilton over a weekend, and I think it sounds like nothing else out there at the moment.
That’s coming out on our own label Geej at the end of the month. I’m also excited about some other releases we’re working on at the moment: a virtuoso new-age guitar shredding record and a retrospective of some seminal Hamilton minimal techno from the 90’s!
There’s a new Taraval EP at the ready too, just trying to find the right home for it — you’ll hear a couple of tracks from that in the mix. I’m going over to play at the ‘Love Rave’ in Spain in September with Four Tet and Dan and the Hessle guys etc.
We’re on a extended break from Caribou while Dan makes some new music, so I’m hoping to make lots more Taraval tunes and play out, make some more music with Bathing, and surf like a true Nor-Cal vagrant.
CZ: Last but not least: a strange affliction overtakes you in which you’re only able to eat one last single good meal. All of your future nutritional intake must come from specially formulated Soylent pills. (Look, this is the Bay Area, so it’s not too far-fetched. Maybe.) What’s your last indulgence of a meal and why?
RS: Tacos, avocado, mango, super strong black coffee. I might go eat that meal now just in case. 🙂