Sound Advice

Dubstep DJ/producer Figure discusses his idealistic views on producing and releasing music

Figure, 2 RIP, Sean 2:16 9 p.m. Friday, March 8 House of Blues 308 Euclid Ave. • 216-523-2583 Tickets: $17 ADV, $20 DOS

When people see the name “Figure” (the stage name of Indiana-based 27-year old producer Josh Gard) on a track, they know it’s time to buckle up. More often than not, Gard’s sound is on the heavier side of the spectrum and features pounding drums, rough synths and remarkable oscillation. Having produced electronic music for about six years, he boasts a distinct discography.

Some of his popular productions are based on themes of old-era horror and sci-fi movies, and he even samples sounds from those movies in tracks such as “Boogie Man,” “Super Mega Death Ray” and “Jack the Ripper.” His repertoire of remixes is vast, including everyone from NWA and Kanye West to Marilyn Manson and The Misfits. He’s even put his own dubstep touch on the soft and soulful acoustic sound of Citizen Cope. His large catalog of productions is impressive- and those are just the songs he chose to release.

When it comes to his own expectations of quality, Gard holds himself to a very high standard, and at times opts not to release his finished productions that other producers would deem “ready to go.” A recent glimpse into his mentality of quality is when he mentioned to his fans that he didn’t want to release another drumstep-style song unless he felt it surpassed the quality of “Must Destroy” and “Dominate” (two earlier productions of his that he considers top-tier) combined.

“I have a number of completed tracks that I feel are just b-side quality,” he critiques. “Just because it’s finished doesn’t mean it has to leave my hard drive.”

Not only is Gard the type that is always shooting for the stars, he’s constantly working at it too, stating that he’d feel like a slacker if he went even one month without releasing something new. Being as disciplined as he is, Gard has trouble wrapping his head around producers who choose to rest on their laurels for several months in between releases.

“It’s crazy to me how some big-name producers can take so much time without releasing anything new and still be able to headline festivals and stuff,” he says. “At a certain point, it’s almost as if you owe it to your fans to release something new.”

Gard’s choice to always have his nose to the grindstone is why he also chooses to base himself in rural Indiana- which he endearingly describes as “the middle of nowhere”- as opposed to one of the big cities. Consider his choice akin to a monk living within the solitary atmosphere of a temple’s walls; Gard knows that his choice of residence greatly helps with his productivity, because it’s where he’s most comfortable, and because there’s nothing else to do.

“I think city life is hectic, and if I lived in the city, I’d probably be seeing one of my friends almost every day,” he explains. “Out here, there’s nothing to distract me. There’s literally nothing to do at night; I can go shop, eat food, and that’s it. I just want to be in a creative zone at all times.”

People often believe that hard workers are primarily working hard for the money. That’s certainly not the reason why Gard works as hard as he does on his music, because he offers the majority of his music for free. Personally, Gard’s belief of offering his music for free stems from one simple purpose: getting his music to the people as quickly as possible.

“The people come before the industry,” he says. “I just want the people to have the music, and this is the easiest way to give it to them.” And his generosity hasn’t thwarted his sales. When some of his most popular songs like “Must Destroy” and “The Brink” were released on Beatport months after being released for free, they still managed to climb up high in the dubstep charts.

Gard thinks other producers should do the same, and argues that this method will be beneficial. Gard understands full and well the power of the internet, and points out that once you put your music in the internet’s hands, it can travel great distances and reach anyone you could imagine- music industry people included. “Labels are paying attention to sites like Soundcloud and stuff. There are dream labels that are signing people solely off of that. You can end up getting booked for shows and festivals if you have one huge Soundcloud hit.”

He profoundly quips that in order to become a household name, you first have to get your name into the homes of the listeners. But he knows that you can’t only release music for free and acknowledges that in order to have a music career, you must also play the industry’s game from time to time.

“Every once in a while, something has to go on Beatport, and it has to chart. I don’t care for it, but sometimes you have to prove yourself on the court,” he remarks.

This wouldn’t be the first time he has rolled his eyes at the way things are; Gard has voiced his gripes with the music world numerous times — and since most musicians don’t want to put their opinion in front of their career, it’s refreshing to hear a genuine opinion. There’s no doubt about America’s music culture becoming more ingrained in Electronic Dance Music- with EDM festivals sprouting up all over the place, and aspiring musicians becoming “bedroom producers” instead of starting rock bands in their garage. This ever-growing popularity of EDM comes with a price though, and Gard identifies the consequences that peeve him.

As the popularity grows with a music genre, more and more music venues try to get as many artists in that genre to perform, due to there being such a high demand for that type of music. And there have been a number of cases where veteran DJs (like DJ Shadow) have been booked at high-end clubs due to their popularity and following before the EDM boom, but have been kicked off the decks early due to them not playing what the high-paying customers want to hear. These kinds of club politics frustrate Gard.

“I would see DJ Shadow play anywhere; it’s not his fault he got kicked off,” he comments. “He’s an artist who’s so embedded in his own style. The last thing he would do is cater to the bottle service customers.” Many DJs other than Shadow have experienced the same misfortune, and Gard concludes that unless the clubs are ready to host DJs that are aiming to show their own genuine artform, they’d be better off booking Paris Hilton and porn-star DJs who will only play the hits and appeal to the trends.

Gard also shakes his head at another case of live performance politics: volume control. Today’s music culture abides by the mantra of “louder is better.” Because of this, Gard reveals that there are many times where headlining acts demand to be the loudest of the night, resulting in the opening acts being turned down.

“When the headlining DJ is louder, he’s already on the road to victory when it comes to who had the best set,” he admits. “I think the music and the art should shine for itself, and it shouldn’t be based on who was the loudest. For example, when you see showcases at WMC and SXSW, everyone’s playing on the same sound system at the same volume.”

Gard also believes the music and the art should shine for itself when it comes to DJs and their image, rather than DJs propping their popularity upon “larger-than-life, douchey rock-star” gimmicks. “I mean, everyone needs marketability, but I feel that if you make good music that has longevity, they don’t need gimmicks and shallow stuff like that,” he expresses.

But the most pressing issue for him is one that could very well lead to bursting the Electronic Dance Music bubble: the issue of originality. With the exponential growth of EDM and the consequential influx of people trying their hand at making it as a DJ/Producer, originality is becoming more and more diluted. Gard speculates that the issue lies in itself.

“If people only come up on this music, then that’s how they’re gonna sound. And there’s a format that producers can go by, and it works because it fits the trend,” he says. Gard isn’t the only person who sees this issue; it’s threatening to the genre and its subculture. The terrifying result of the giant wave of amateur producers building their songs with one format may be a near-literal landfill of EDM songs with cookie-cutter characteristics and inbred inspiration.

“It’s pretty obvious when a producer is trying to sound like Skrillex,” says Gard. “Those are the people who just want downloads. There’s no longevity in that.” Gard forecasts that when the hype is over, many of those aspiring producers will suffer from it, but he also says that it’s understandable why people have a tough time drawing inspiration from dubstep without sounding like a copycat. “It hasn’t been around for that long,” he says. “It’s not like rock ’n’ roll, where there are decades of that to get inspiration from.” But Gard sees the solution as simple: musicians just need venture outside of that musical bubble.

“If you know music, and listen to different types, there’s no reason to produce a song that sounds like a ‘Top Ten’ artist,” he says.

You might assume Gard’s musical upbringing and inspiration would be that of metal, punk or any other type of music that’s considerably abrasive. But you’d be wrong. The majority of Gard’s music influence is invested in old-school and underground hip-hop and turntablism. Gard’s taste in hip-hop revolves around artists like Mix Master Mike, Alias, Six 2, Aesop Rock, and he’s captivated by what he describes as “angry, white-boy, nerdy, apocalyptic hip-hop that was made in a basement.” And his first music endeavors were sampling old funk and blues and making hip-hop instrumentals when he was a teenager. It wasn’t until he was exposed to heavy-hitting drum ’n’ bass music, and electronica producers like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers that he started to produce electronic music. He still produces hip-hop instrumentals today (though is a bit low-key about it) and he still goes back to the musicians he looked up to when growing up for inspiration, mentioning that one of his biggest inspirations to this day is DJ Q-Bert and D-Styles’s Wave Twisters, which came out more than 10 years ago.

“When I go back to the artists that I looked up to growing up, that’s what still influences me to this day. I listen to that music again and get new influence from it.”
The many ideals that Gard holds in the realm of music aren’t impossible to accomplish, and they all stem from one basic root: fuel your music career with your genuine passion. Gard’s description of himself as “a kind, southern-Joe type” may be what attributes to his optimism, but all of his beliefs in the music world- from releasing free music, to live DJing, to originality in productions- is all built upon the unshakeable foundation of his passion for the music. To him, the music should be made and exist as an end in itself- not in order to appeal to the trends like copycat producer/DJs aim to do in order to sell some copies on Beatport. A music career based on genuine passion is not concerned with success; but it will succeed. Gard’s life as Figure is proof of that.

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