An Interview with Geoff Makousky of OBCT
When trying to describe the electropunk-industrial-metal of OBCT, I can’t but be reminded of the old expression, “Everything but the kitchen sink.” With layer upon layer of drums, guitars, keyboards and vocals I get the feeling that the proverbial “kitchen sink” must be in the mix somewhere. I recently had the chance to chat it up with lead-OBCTer Geoff Makousky about all things happening in the land of The Obese.
Todd: Starting out, how did OBCT come to be?
Geoff Makousky: OBCT was my way of moving beyond the confines of ‘rock and roll’. For many years I spearheaded a go-nowhere rock act and I got really tired of force feeding my studio creations to musicians who – try as they might – couldn’t really give me what I was looking for. I tired of the genre on whole and was ready for a new project that wasn’t confined, so I decided to stop worrying about playing live and focus on the studio work, the programming, the songwriting and production that I had become proficient with over the years.
My friend Mike and I were the first members and we quickly began working with Booty, who I had been musically entangled with since we were kids banging out punk rock tunes in an unheated barn. We all contributed beats and samples and I did most, if not all, the structure work. Quickly it became obvious that Mike was more interested in his other pursuits, his offerings to the project were sub-par so we cut ties and continued on as a tandem.
Booty was deep into sound collage, found sound, sampling and mashing media together in twisted new ways. We would begin to write our songs in a fractured, backwards style, we’d match beats with samples and I would try and build a middle-ground to tie the two together. The results were our early ‘plunderphonic’ hip-hop tracks, which were sample heavy, drum and bass driven songs with coy little hooks with an emphasis on our dual vocal delivery. We had an amazing time in the studio, matching old records with new beats and seemingly always finding a way to tie together some of the most ridiculously divergent material we could find. Booty and I began to play out live as a brave little duo, bringing a table full of turntables and samplers to rock clubs around towns and bending people’s ears with our odd, but infectious creations.
“The Apology” by: OBCT
In 2006, we culminated the experience by putting out “You Create Industrial Waste” which featured several prominent acts from the Twin Cities Electropunk community and from there things began to solidify. We met our drummer Mike Johnson that summer and his work ethic brought out the best in us. Both Boot and I were unemployed so we had tons of time to spend working on our music together and by the end of 2006 we had put together a damn fine record and – at last – had a stage show as well.
Over the next few years we transformed into a larger, more capable musical beast as we layered uniquely talented players over the existing exoskeleton of the OBCT-core. The results were undeniable on stage and in a way we had come full circle, we’d found a way to bring the project to life in a way we’d always hoped for.
Todd: How would you describe your music?
GM: Our music is extremely passionate, from the tactics we take in creating it, to the lyrics and the performance we’re pouring everything we have into it and I think that shows in the final product. The sound has changed over the years, but the level of intensity has stayed very high. I try and balance chaos and order within our songs, any given track might have 10-20 different drum sounds, an underbelly of synths and sequences stacked upon each other before we even record a single hand-played part so our sound is very thick, dynamic and can get very loud. We aim to make music that you can discover new things in with each listen.
Todd: You mentioned you like to fill your tracks with layer upon layer of synths, sounds and drum machines. How do you create a “sonic space” for everything? Any engineering tricks? Have you had any formal training?
GM: Hahaha, yes it’s five pounds of shit for a three pound bag equation! Well, you can’t just cram all the stuff together and expect it to sound right. I follow my own production roadmap to achieve the best sonic space that I have learned over the many years of humping things together “plunderphonic” style. I do have some formal audio training, I spent 2 semesters in an Audio Engineering course that gave me a real solid base of skills, but for the most part my tactics have come about through my experiences. Anytime your pounding sounds together you have to have an idea what you want, if your just stacking crap together you just get whatever you get, but our/my way of doing things almost always has a goal in mind, or a sound in mind and I twist everyone’s offering to best fit that vision.
When it comes to beats we have three layers: 1. The acoustic drums (which sit high in the mix), 2. The sequence drums (which bolster the acoustic drums), and 3. The noise/distortion/fuzz beats which Booty creates (breakbeats, backbeats and sonic extras). When we record that stuff I tell Booty not to edit himself, just fly off the handle give me as much sound as I can deal with and when I get what I am looking for I cut him off and make him start again. Then it’s a matter of splicing, matching and creating the ‘sonic pockets’ for these elements to call home. We’ll often edit a noise take down by listening through it, all the while I will create splice points as I go, taking mental notes as to the parts that jive the best. Then I will cut all the fat, trim it down to the core goodness and then go about fitting it in with a riff or beat.
Our overall mix structure is a bit of a different beast and much more complicated than pairing and splicing oddball beats. We’re aiming for a dynamic sound where everything has its place and all the elements work with each other for the best final outcome. It’s a matter of making sure each element is panned properly, has an EQ setting that brings out its dominant quality and doesn’t interfere with something else in the mix. It’s not always easy, but it has been done with a modest amount of success as you can hear in many of our recent works.
OBCT expects a lot from our listener at times, the ability to hear a rain drop in a thunderstorm so to speak, some people get it, most don’t – I create our music for the upper percentile who expect a rich tapestry of electronic rock to unfold before them one after the next after another…
Todd: With so much going on, how do songs come together and how do the band members contribute to each track? Do you “guide” them in coming up with parts or do they get free reign?
GM: I am the main songwriter in the group, but everyone has free reign to explore things they’d like to add to the song. Usually I will put together a skeleton mix of a song idea, with some scratch vocals, and the basic layout intact and I offer it up for interpretation. That, or we’ll work up an old song that Boot and I already know and it will inevitable change in drastic ways. Having some direction is a must and I try and have the hook ready and a solid direction to travel with some loose tablature or sprawled notes for the keyboards so they know where to start and we take that and run with it.
I have a good idea as to what the guys could do in their own parts and I try and write to their strengths and I do write for them specifically from time to time. I try to balance my own input as a songwriter with the need for creative balance between myself and Booty as well as the rest of the group. The guys always come up with really cool counter-balance ideas to the things I’ve written and often times I find that a good contrast to my ideas usually make both stand out!
“Rampage When You Die” by: OBCT
Boot and I write a lot of the lyrics together, we have contrasting styles that work really well together and he often times has a great way to shake up an idea of mine and really add depth to the idea.
Aeryn (keyboards) usually takes a quick look at the notes I’ve made for him and takes a few minutes to figure out how he will execute his end of things and knocks it out with haste. The dude is an absolute machine and can often times be ready on a song after a couple of quick run throughs at practice. What I love about Aeryn is his ferocity and his talented ear, he’ll often fill a hole I didn’t even hear and when it all comes together he sounds simply amazing. He’ll mirror different vocal lines, working with different parts of the harmony to really drive home a hook, but he is also very good at what I call ‘rolling thunder’ where he can take a few notes and cook up a sick hand-played arpeggio and just run with it.
Mikey (drums) takes a bit of a longer approach but he gets the same sort of brilliant results. Mikey is a physical guy and he needs to work out the mechanics of a beat, figure out how he needs to execute and then he spends the time practicing to get things perfect. He adds to my existing ideas and works in the fills and the accents far better than anyone could ever program anything. The work ethic involved in what Mikey brings to the table is massive and we wouldn’t even be close to the band we are today without his hours and hours of dedication.
Dave (guitar) joined the band a year ago and has just begun to work with electric guitar. It was important to me to find someone for guitar who was going to grow into the part and be a very original player with fresh ideas. Dave’s background is in classical, which is an element I’d love to implement into our music as well as a fervent fan of Symphonic Black Metal so his style adds to the bombast like few others. Dave spends half his time trying to wrap his head around the rhythm guitars that I write for him and the other half working up lead guitars, so he has a balance to achieve and he’s been working very hard at it with some great results.
I value my band mates above all else as they bring great perspective to our music and they always bring their best to the table. When you can surround yourself with special individuals who each bring something different and special to the mix you can move from being a guy with a lot of good ideas to being a guy with a lot of great finished work. We are mutually beneficial to each other and that is what makes a band great, all for one, one for all!
Todd: Along with OBCT, you’ve also been a part of a few other Twin Cities-based bands. How you get involved with these other bands and what did you learn/gain from these experiences?
GM: Yes, before OBCT took off I was sort of a “hired gun” working with a few other local bands so I could expand my skills as a musician, but also to get out and meet new people and go new places. I joined UCKF [Ed note: Uber Cool Kung Fu] in 2004 as drummer/back-up signer and I also did a bunch of production work for them. It was a fun time, the band was taking off and adding live drums just gave them even more fuel for the fire. We formed a pretty tight bond and I really enjoyed the time I spent in that band, and we still work together to this day in one capacity or another.
I learned a lot from my various liaisons outside OBCT, some of that were lessons learned the hard way, but I’d like to think that I used that experience to bolster our band.
Todd: I know you’ve produced some other acts around town including The Eighth. How do you get yourself into the “producer” mindset and how do you differentiate the role of being a producer vs. musician in the band?
GM: What it comes down to is either focusing on yourself or focusing outwardly. The biggest difference is that producing is a job with numerous duties to accomplish while being a musician is a talent and it’s all about expressing yourself. Being a producer means you encompass the whole project, take everything into consideration and make all the tough decisions about a project. When you produce for someone you are really an extension of their mindset and expectations and you have to strive to get more and better from the artist.
Anytime I hear a song that I am going to produce I think about what I could bring to it, be it adding to the structure, re-working the sound palette or just tweaking the existing work. With most of the projects I’ve worked on I have also held a role in the band as well, so it’s a balance between producing my input and fitting it with the rest of the song. Once it’s all laid down it’s all about crafting a great song and working things together to get the best result.
As a musician it’s all about looking inward, being honest with yourself and doing what feels natural. Being a musician there’s little to no editing, you get to be yourself and not worry about all the things involved, you just create. For me it’s a very different feeling on the whole, I stop listening to what everyone else is doing and I focus on what I am doing. Many times as we rehearse I try and block out what is going on around me and really focus on what I am performing. As a musician you get to be selfish, single-minded and you get to express yourself in a way otherwise impossible, as a producer you pretty much do the opposite.
Todd: How “hands-on” are you with the artists you work?
GM: Quite a bit. I immerse myself into the work and I bring a lot to the table creatively. I try and become the project; think like they think, listen like they listen and most importantly communicate in a way that we all can understand. When you enter my studio we become entities working towards a common goal and it’s with that sort of creative solidarity that the best work is done. Finding a final solution that works for everyone can be an uphill climb so I first aim to get what I am looking for and then make sure it fits with the vision of the rest of the project.
Todd: What do you think you bring to a band’s sound?
GM: Magnification. Solidification of concept and sound. I look at a project in the long-view and create elements and structure that bolster and strengthen the positives and decrease and reduce the negatives. I try and create a context for the project to exist in, where if the existing music is the body I create the bed for that body to lie on, in extreme comfort.
Todd: Can you clue us in on any projects you’ve been working on?
GM: No, never. We are very tight lipped at Pophorse Records damn it! We execute at least a spy per week at the studio. I don’t know who keeps sending them, but it’s starting to get annoying. Pretty soon my flower beds wont have any room for flowers… it’ll all be spy corpses. Truth be told I am working on the new OBCT (obviously) as well as a couple other pet projects. I might have one or two other releases beyond the OBCT work this year and who knows what the future might hold!?
Todd: What was the idea behind releasing “Total Control” a couple years after “Nothing Beats Total Control” which already contained quite a few of the same songs?
GM: If you listen to them side by side the differences will be obvious. We released Nothing Beats Total Control in 2007 right as we made some big changes in the band, our sound was changing and those songs changed with it. As we came together as a group, playing live, spending sessions together in the studio certain songs from that record began to stand out. After a year of playing these tracks live what we were doing on stage was so different than what was on the record that we decided to go into full studio production on the best 8 songs. We got a drum engineer to record drums; we tracked all new keyboard lines and re-worked the grand majority of the lyrics. From there I decided to make it a 3-pronged approach, we’d have these 8 new studio masters (which we had mastered by Nic Heidt of MSRP), 8 remixes as well as several stripped down acoustic versions of the songs. The idea was to showcase the different angles of the band, first our live, loud rock sound, then our industrial roots and finally an unveiled, raw and real look at us without all the tracks and tricks. It’s meant to be a real listening experience and a look at the band from a variety of angles with great songs that we had become comfortable with. There’s something for everyone on TOTAL CONTROL and it took us the better part of a year and a half to create. After countless man-hours of hard labor we had something we could really be proud of and stand behind.
Todd: Finally, what’s next for OBCT?
GM: We’ve got a ton of new songs; we have easily 30 songs currently in production as we’ve not stopped writing this entire time! My plan is to begin releasing singles in early 2010 via our Pophorse Records label. We’ll have a bunch of shows lined-up and we’ll just keep on doing what we have been doing! The Obese will thunder on!
Editor’s Note: Todd Millenacker performs in the local electronic band Avenpitch and writes about the TC Electropunk music scene in Minnesota. He can be contacted at avenpitch[at]avenpitch[dot]com.