The past year has seen a meteoric rise for Robert DeLong.
The young Los Angeles-based producer had a hit with his manic, percussion-heavy track ‘Global Concepts’, and followed it up with an acclaimed debut album, Just Movement. The album takes in an array of styles, sounds and textures, from house to moombahton, all of them held together by DeLong’s signature raggedy vocals. Delong is in great demand right now, travelling the world with his high-energy live show, in which he pounds the drums while manipulating his vast collection of gear. We caught him in a rare moment of quiet, on a trip to a bowling alley with friends.
Los Angeles itself is building a reputation as a centre for dance and electronic music. The laid-back atmosphere and the ready availability of cheap warehouse rehearsal spaces make the city an enticing prospect for young musicians – DeLong himself relocated there soon after high school. “Everybody comes through here, so there are always a lot of shows,” he says of the city. “A lot of new DJs come out of here. There’s music of every different genre. I’m not really super involved in the scene, but there’s a lot of cool stuff under the surface here, a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily expect out of Los Angeles.”
DeLong grew up playing the drums, and even studied them in college for a while, before making the switch to electronic music. Rhythm is central to his music, but these days he has a vast collection of gear with a variety of gadgets and gizmos he’s transformed into MIDI interfaces. His bag of tricks includes hacked gamepads and joysticks and even a Wii controller, manipulated so that they make music when he mashes the buttons. “I started messing around with that stuff a while back,” he says. “This was well before I started making music or thinking about an album. I just did it for fun.”
The young DeLong found out how to hack gear on the internet, and initially saw it as a challenge. “I just played with it, and over time, I started doing a bit of performing here and there, and the music grew into what it is,” he says. While he wasn’t a huge gaming nerd growing up – a little Tony Hawk was the most that he got into – he had enough gear laying around that an obsession was born. “I started with an old gamepad of mine,” he says, “and I ordered a USB joystick from online, and then that was pretty much it. I started messing around with a few different types of software to convert it to MIDI before finally finding one that I liked.”
Electronic gear can be pretty fragile – old video game equipment especially so. DeLong is well aware of this, and with all the travelling he’s been doing in recent times, he needs to take good care of his collection. “We travel with backups for almost everything that I use,” he says. “The thing that is the scariest is the computers. I travel with my laptop clutched really close to my chest all the time, just in case! It’s terrifying flying, and watching the airport people tossing the bags around.” Just how many times has this happened recently? A lot, Delong says. “I counted six airports in six days last week,” he says. “It’s good though, it’s a lot of fun.”
DeLong comes from an indie rock background – he played in an indie rock band called The Denouement while in college – and while he inhabits the world of electronic music these days, he continues to put song writing first. “I think more often than not, my songs will start with a chord progression or a sound or a beat,” he says. “I’ll make a beat on the computer and then work around that. There are quite a few songs on the album, like ‘Few Years Make’ that start on guitar or piano, but I always bring them back to the electronic thing. I spend a lot of time working that way,” he says. “I look at it as training. It really is totally random – you never know why one thing works or why it doesn’t.”
In the past, DeLong has cited bands like Death Cab For Cutie and side-project The Postal Service among his biggest influences, and it’s easy to hear the echoes of both in his music. I ask who else inspires him from a song writing perspective, and he pauses for a minute. “I listen to a lot of Paul Simon and Talking Heads and David Bowie,” he says. “I really love their music, and I’d say there are a lot of ways that it influences me.” He also goes clubbing a lot for inspiration.“I always try to go out if I’m in a city and something cool is happening,” he says, “although by the look of me, it’s funny to imagine me doing it.”
DeLong will soon be in Australia to play Splendour in the Grass, and I ask what we can expect from those shows. “Well, I have a drum set, a bunch of MIDI gear and gamepads,” he says. “It’s kind of an exciting electro dance party – it’s very high energy. The show is very physically demanding for me – it’s a really good workout. I can’t even describe the adrenaline I get from doing it, though. I just hope people have as much fun as I do.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Robert DeLong plays The Standard on Wednesday July 24 then Splendour in the Grass.