When I first heard Keith Rankin’s Giant Claw project last year, I was hooked right away. There is something about the frenetic energy that his music splatters out of the speakers. Rankin is constantly refining his vision and each new incarnation offers up a new nugget. His music is fun and brash. In my world, he’d be soundtracking every party on the planet. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Rankin is a tripe-threat. Not only does he keep cranking out one killer Giant Claw release after another, his artwork keeps finding new levels to boss around. His style is distinct and instantly recognizable. Add in his involvement with running the increasingly great Orange Milk label and there was a lot for Keith & I to talk about. I have a feeling 2012 is going to permanently etch his place on the map.
First off – give me a little background on how you first got involved with making/playing music. What was it that first made you think “Oh man, I’ve got to do this!”?
It was mostly being exposed to music in general. I’m trying to go back in my memory. I can dig up certain moments of discovery, like how people know exactly where they were on 9/11 — a lot of the memories involve me frantically standing up as I was hearing things, cause I couldn’t believe what was happening. The middle section of 21st Century Schizoid Man, where it’s a mess of insane psychedelic jazz, was pretty earth shattering. Also in John Coltrane’s “Alabama” from Live at Birdland, almost two minutes in where he holds that long G note, then resolves it on C#, that pretty much made me fall in love with that kind of dissonance. Or the end of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”, the drum fill right before it returns to the main riff. You know, when you’re young everything is a huge revelation. Everything I heard blew my mind, it seems funny now, but being a kid and thinking “What IS music? Why have these combinations of sound been made?” That’s what attracted me. Art and music seemed so close emotionally but conceptually elusive at the same time, like it was a forgotten language whose roots were still hidden somewhere in our genes.
The first project of yours I’ve been aware of is Giant Claw. Was there anything that came before that? What was the impetus to start Giant Claw and is there any special story behind the name?
I’ve been in a synth-prog band called Yakuza Heart Attack for about 7 years off and on, and have been making albums by myself for almost as long as I can remember. You know how people say that your first artistic endeavors should be left on the cutting room floor? I’m probably lucky that my early records were never officially released, though a few are still floating around the internet. I was focused on the excitement of being able to record, still in that pure discovery phase. I switched to Giant Claw when I realized that people out there might actually be interested in hearing what I was making. I was also confident enough in myself by that point to accurately translate a vision into sound. And I thought the name Giant Claw was kind of funny and pretentious… or dramatic.
I love aesthetics, and the idea of trying to create something that excites a fleeting and almost transparent sense of greatness inside yourself is irresistible. That’s to say, even the most shit on musician out there probably has an internal sense of worth, or some sort of standard that they’re trying to achieve. It rarely happens, but striving to meet or surpass your internal standards is a powerful force for me. Creating music is like extracting a segment of your ego — for a while it’s hard to see it objectively, but with time you can look back on your own work and try to catch something tangible of yourself in there. I like that, it’s revealing. The reflection is never what you think, there are parts of you in there, I think, but also a wide spectrum of other social and cultural garbage that kind of obliterates the idea of ego — you wonder to what extent the music was really yours to begin with.
What are some of the other projects you are currently involved in?
Most excitingly, I’m making music for a Moroccan children’s cartoon. It’s their first original animated show that wasn’t exported from an existing network, like Dora the Explorer or Spongebob. It’s a small production involving only 4 or 5 people, including my friend Steve Emmons who does the animation. The show hasn’t aired yet, but I’ll put some sample music online. I’ve been considering releasing some of the tracks under Giant Claw, maybe to give the few listeners I have a bit of a shock. There’s a lot of bittersweet lite-jazz involved. It’s a thrill to make such unabashedly cute music.
I can’t remember if I heard Giant Claw first or saw some of your artwork first, but the two are so closely linked in my mind in that they represent a different side of a similar idea. Do you have any kind of ‘formal’ training when it comes to visual art?
My formal art training involved sitting in front of the TV drawing the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters and characters from the Hobbit animated movie as a kid. Things like that. Actually, Lord of the Rings was hugely influential on my education. I’ve got an old drawing folder with hundreds and hundreds of Tolkien characters — that completist attitude about drawing obscure Elves and shit is funny now that I think of it. I just drew all the time, eventually creating my own miniature fantasy worlds. I think the music and art are so closely linked because they came from the same well of imagination. The idea of escaping social reality is a big element of American life to me, so as a child that escape might have been part of coming to terms with my own mind and thought process. Like, you are in this physical world, but also have another world inside your head, and how deep you go in is up to you. That realization, that creativity had few limits, was a big deal.
All of your art I’ve seen has been from LP or tape covers – do you design/create images w/ the specific mindset that they’ll be used as cover art for something later? Or do you just come up with stuff and whatever happens with it down the road, so be it? I guess, basically, what is your process like?
Because I do most of the covers for Orange Milk releases now, my free art time is usually spent working on someone’s specific album cover. For example, the work I did for the Sean McCann and Ashley Paul LPs was done as I was listening to the records, so the goal was to make something within an established visual style while letting the album’s themes shine through. It’s actually a fun challenge, even though each time I start a new art project I feel completely lost and unsure of my ability to deliver something cool.
I wish there was a documentary series recording the musician and artist’s process — just a camera hovering over their shoulder the whole time. Like Bob Ross with abstract music or collage art. We always get insight into the pre or post world of a project, but the actual creative process is hard to define and still a bit mysterious, to the point where sometimes I’m not even sure how I get things done myself.
How did the Moroccan cartoon thing come about? That’s really amazing – congratulations! Have you always wanted to compose music for something visual, be it a cartoon or a film or whatever? I can really imagine endless possibilities for this.
The creators, who are from Morocco, were living in Chicago and had been trying to get the show made for a while. I got the job through Steve, who was on a list of potential animators in the area. I think the fact that we were willing to work for really cheap was appealing. But eitherway, for a while I was spending my time making free form synth music, prog rock, and cartoon music back to back, it was great. This whole process has made me really come to terms with the fact that I would go crazy sticking to one style or genre. And yeah, I’ve always wanted to make film music. Especially in movies, the score is such an intense force, sometimes to shocking degrees, it’s the conscience and pulse of the work. It might sound ridiculous coming from a small underground tape artist, but I want to do it all. I want to score films, or make pop records and become Coldplay, then at the height of popularity release a glitchy harsh noise album, or something. The idea of thinking big is so appealing, and we’re lucky to be living in a time when you can do big things with little means. Honestly, thinking about it makes me excited, like you said, there are endless possibilities.
Besides the music for the cartoon, what else are you working on right now?
I just sent out my next record, titled Mutant Glamour, to be mastered for vinyl. That album was a big undertaking for me and a lot of energy went in, so in a way I’m having fun working on a variety of projects now that that’s finished.
I’m currently wrapping up a Giant Claw split with Curt, aka Black Unicorn, from Rubber City Noise. We sketched out a sci-fi story about a black cloud threatening to destroy colonized life on Mars, and then set music to it. I’m also working on a more minimal jazz and proto-techno inspired record, really trying to throw a wrench in my usual, comfortable recording setup. I put a track from that up on soundcloud not long ago. What else… I also have a metal album with two friends from Dayton that’s nearing completion. It started as a homage to Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth, but then we slowly started adding more triumphant, almost 80s hair metal overdubs. And Yakuza Heart Attack is just beginning a new record which I’m extremely excited about.
I guess I’m falling into the tape scene cliche of releasing a million albums a year. I love and hate aspects of that constant stream. It produces a lot of lazy, tossed off work I think, but the idea of minimal third party interference between an artist’s music and their audience has been great. Some people just work quickly. I always wondered what took bands so long between records… imagine if Radiohead or whoever put out 3 records a year? I’d love it. It gets complicated when so much other business is involved in your music. But as our consumption speeds up, so does the production side, I guess.
What is the Giant Claw live show like compared to your recordings? Do you make a conscious effort, when you’re working on/recording new stuff, to make sure it’s something you can translate live?
I’m not thinking about a live setting at all when I record. A lot of similar artists have said this before, but those two worlds are completely separate to me. I know Oneohtrix Point Never took shit over his live set, partially because it didn’t mirror his records, but I find that ridiculous — it’s such a rockism to judge an artist based on how their recorded work is reproduced in front of an audience. Having said that, if I wasn’t into my live show I wouldn’t play live. My recorded work is usually sculpted, a lot of the time I’ll start with an improvisation and then overdub and tweak until it slowly takes on an intricate structure. Live, I link two synths together and improvise around a rough compositional framework that I’ve prepared ahead of time. It’s obviously a lot more minimal, but the same seed of an idea is there. I’ve released a few tapes that were recorded mostly live, so I would say listen to something like Mortal Earth/Morbid Earth to get a sense of that setup.
Favorite part… The feeling of relief and satisfaction a few minutes after you finish, maybe? I’ve been playing live for so long, but I still get a bit nervous leading up to a show. I love meeting new friends and musicians through shows. After you’ve finished with school, and especially if you didn’t do college, it can be very difficult to connect with new people, there aren’t as many casual social outlets, so I really like having a venue and that common ground to come together under. The part I don’t like is when a venue or musician treats a show too much like a cold business endeavor. Or purely as an outlet to advance their career. This happens way more at bars and rock venues, where there’s a jaded and cynical attitude hanging in the air, everyone is there to stress over who is playing when, who gets what cut, how many people showed up, and all that.
When did you and Seth first start Orange Milk and why did you want to start a label?
The idea of curating releases and having everything unified under an artistic vision was our original idea. That seems fairly common. I think we started in 2010, shortly after Seth put out a tape of mine on his previous label Quilt. We also wanted that outlet to release our own material and maybe reissue some smaller tapes on LP that we thought were overlooked. The self titled Ga’an tape from 2009 was the first LP I wanted to put out, as well as Caboladies’ Crowded Out Memory… I thought those album’s deserved a wider audience. Of course, neither ended up happening, but they got us thinking of ways to start building a semi-respectable label from the ground up.
What’s the best record you’ve heard so far this year?
The record I’ve listened to the most is Intercourses by Man Made Hill, which Orange Milk is releasing… so that might be cheating. Have you heard him, though? It has the whole hazy pop vibe going for it, but it’s so compositionally sound and interesting, and really bizarre at times. He described his own music in an interview as existential disco, which is good.
But if I was to list a record I’m not involved in, I’d honestly have to say the new Grimes. I had a pretty strong reaction to it, probably because I kind of despised the material I heard from her last year. It seemed so frail and empty, but maybe I need to revisit, because the new one fucking kills it. The beats are really loud and forceful, but her voice and melodies add such a strong emotional pull when they rub up against that electronic power… it’s awesome. I want to write her a fan letter. Or what are the chances that she’ll read this?
If we’re talking non-2012 music, I can’t stop listening to Andy Clark’s Synthesis 2 album. I would kill to re-issue that on LP with some crazy psychedelic art.
Any closing comments?
I guess I’ve spewed out enough already. Thanks for the questions!