DYLAN LESKO: With a mixture of stolen and augmented audio clips and some “spoken word stuff” Stefan Colton and his friend Noah Miller create both an avant-garde word poetry Vaporwave album and a slice-of- life soundscape of their hometown, New York City, and prove that anyone with a computer and a vision can share their musical ideas and make something that people enjoy. From the moment Stefan shadily attempted to slip a flash drive under the door of my single I was pulled into their world, both laughing at the audio bits and getting to know Stefan, Noah, their friends, and their families. Even if lost in the various Easter-eggs and references only gained by living with the artists in their hometown, one can’t help but be absorbed into the world that they made in Audacity on an old MacBook.
I’m here with Stefan, a sophomore engineer in Berkeley College. Tell me Stefan, why the fuck did you make this album?
STEFAN COLTON: That is definitely the big question. Can’t say I 100 percent know the answer to it, but yeah. I started working on this first semester senior year of high school, which I’ll say was maybe a slightly stressed time, you know, and I don’t know, I just felt a big urge to sort of work on something that wasn’t just for the immediate future, that was something I could have for the rest of my life. Work on something that didn’t have any immediate value. Just you know, some sort of creative outlet. So you know, me and my friend Noah, who had a nice sort of musical feedback with, was sending stuff to, this and that, I proposed like, hey, let’s start working on something. And we just had like a Google Doc, which every night at like 4 a.m. or whenever we’d both be on it. Adding stuff, talking about it, and pretty soon we got a mic and started recording stuff. A lot of the stuff we recorded we didn’t use, some we did, and then we just kept on getting second winds of “oh let’s do this this and this,” and before we knew it was had 37 minutes of recorded material.
DL: That’s very cool. So when did you meet Noah, was that your senior year of high school?
SC: Noah I met, he actually, I knew him earlier on. I think it was Latin tutoring, I was a grade below him and I was just gooning around in latin tutoring and he saw me and was just like “ugh.” But then you know we were on teams together, we were on math team, robotics team, we became very good friends, had a good board game thing going on for many years, and yeah. He’s at Columbia, he’s a junior studying physics and mathematics.
DL: What does the album title mean, Troubled Emissions?
SC: We thought of this pretty early, before we even knew what the album would be like. The ideas behind Troubled Emissions is that we just have stuff that’s, you know, little slip ups that people really like don’t want to get out, you know, little Freudian slips, stuff that you know, carries a little more meaning than intended, all these little blips and bloops of life. And that’s a big focus of the album in terms of soundscapes, just recording, street noises, conversations, sample which we sort of torture and try and get stuff out of.
DL: As I mentioned before, people don’t have to get all the references or the origins of the audio clips to enjoy the album. I know I was pretty lost on some of them, but I had some questions about specific points in the album that interested me.
In “1999,” I’ll play a clip of this—
[Clip of “1999”]
It starts with Noah talking about these children’s books about assault. It’s No-No the Little Seal, didn’t read that one, but I’m sure we’ve all read or watched one of those short videos that’s like “stranger danger” or stuff like that. But I kind of got lost after the introduction, you start talking about the JFK assassination and slavery and the third dimension. What were you going for with this?
SC: Yeah, I mean, this track is really just a bunch a sort of statements, where the beginning and end sort of relate to each other, you know like I was in the JFK assassination section of my local blockbuster, maybe that makes some sense but it’s also a little bit weird and surreal, and all sort of nostalgic. And so the children’s book thing just sort of fit in very naturally with that, because children’s books on these sensitive subjects, you know puberty, sexual assault, this and that, they all sort of use these like metaphors, and you get these weird juxtapositions. And we’re not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing, you know, you got to do that, you know, but we did sort of use that aesthetic and the sort of nostalgic aspect of you know, books that you remember reading 15 years ago, and we thought that worked well with all these weird sort of statements which we clamor together.
DL: Kind of like word poetry on top of like a piano ballad in the background?
DL: How did you adjust the music aspect, was it the same?
SC: There’s a good story for that one. We were messing around on a piano, and they had all these like, weird demo tapes. Like you press a button and it’s like do-do-do, and we messed around with all of these, and we found that this one, it actually worked very well. Just us just jamming over it, and we’d spend a few hours just trying to fit, seeing what we could fit, making new lines, rearranging them. And then we were pretty pleased.
DL: And then you get to “A Call for Life,” which, I’ll play a sample of this. And on this one you hear like the classic Stefan-style Jew’s harp. On this I was wondering if you or Noah had any musical background, or if this was coming from a raw kind of place.
SC: I don’t think we can really say we have much of a musical background. We’re really just two guys—our musical background is liking music. But I do play the Jew’s harp, that is something. I can make it make sounds I want it to make. So I was very insistent like we gotta put the Jew’s harp on a track, and “Call for Life” is one of the first tracks we did, and then re-did like two years later. The synth, we actually had to do that with a piano ourselves, there’s no piano instant setting. And then we had other stuff, I think we had a Tibetan bowl, which we were using. We had this weird sound that came from a broken kazoo, that we actually, we liked the sound a lot but then we forgot what it even was, and then we were like wait, that was from a kazoo. It was just some weird thing that I don’t think we could recreate if we tried.
DL: You both identify as just music-loving people, and we get to the song “Eno and Forever.” which, it has, a nice little subtle word-poetry kind of thing, and you mention Brian Eno.
SC: Yeah I think Eno just gets special mention because he has like a two-syllable name, which worked pretty well for this song. Yeah, the biggest influence is definitely Nicholas Collins, who’s a sort of experimental musician, makes lots of tape music, spoken word stuff, all this weird, you know, manipulates all these instruments with this weird electronics to create these crazy sounds. The big album that’s an influence is he made this album, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night which is four tracks of like, this experimental, broken electric guitars, and then it’s a fifth track, which is half the album, it’s like a 25 minute track. We did a series of three songs which all end with “so it made sense to me,” the final one being a sample from this documentary on whales, so there we sort of implemented that all in our own album pretty closely. But his general, the whole spoken word thing just blew our minds. And we both listened to it, like 100 times or whatever, so Nicholas Collins is the biggest one, and then just Vaporwave in general. When we started making this, the Vaporwave, we had a phase, you know. This group Why? And their album Alopecia also made a big influence, which was not spoken word but and all these really memorable lines, like “I only played chess once in my life and I lost,” just stuff like that. And then of course you know Eno, who’s done a lot, has done plenty of ambient spoken word stuff.
DL: If we move on to the longest song of your album, “Struggle,” which I also think was one of my favorites, because it’s kind of a story, but there’s not much spoken word, but it’s a lot of clips, audio clips of interviews. So it’s the longest at five minutes, and I was just interested about the origins of some of the sounds, like where’d you get the Vaporwave track from, what are the interviews.
SC: Yeah. So this is five minutes, so that’s you know, like a seventh of the album. Most tracks are less than a minute, which is a real pain in ordering them. So, the first sample is an interview with Stefan Burnette. Same spelling as my name but different pronunciation, I believe. And under that I think we have Animal Crossing music, and then the other big part is we have Noam Chomsky with this KMART music that was used in 1989 in KMART malls everywhere. And it’s this really sort of groovy, like the whole thing is sort of Vaporwave-y vibe, Noam Chomsky is talking about U.S. imperialism, blah blah blah under like do-do-do-do-di-do-do, you know. And then we finish with something Noah recorded, with him just walking on the street. Which initially i didn’t like because I thought it was too indie, but then we ended up cutting out the parts that were most like abrasive to listen to, and what we were left with we thought was pretty cool.
DL: “The Ganzfield Experiment,” I’d say this is my favorite story-type song on the album, it’s about you and Noah at math camp? Was Noah there too, or was it just you?
SC: No, it was just me.
DL: Okay, just you at math camp. So, is it a true story?
SC: Yeah, you know, weird stuff happens at math camp. I have to say. The one caveat is, upon complete reflection, I think it’s more realistic that someone would just be too nervous, too embarrassed to admit that they had to go pee or something, and maybe a janitor walked in. Though someone did walk around, and we all did deny that it was us. That part is true. But even it is that someone had to go pee thing, I still think that’s pretty interesting. That’s still a troubled emission.
DL: For sure. On to “Junked Up,” I’ll play a little sample from that.
[Clip of “Junked Up”]
SC: This was one of the earliest ones we made. This one we went in thinking we were really going to make a Vaporwave track, and it is the most Vaporwave-y track we made. Next to the “Dragon Tales” track. Um, yeah. But you can see that, like, within the course of making the track, we ended up reverting to this more spoken word thing at the end at the end, of the shake well.
DL: Was it an audio sample, or…?
SC: No, we actually were shaking something.
DL: That’s just so like, visceral. Like before Noah starts talking you’re just hearing like grunts and these noises, and your imagination just kinda gets carried away, like what is this?
SC: We thought it was ambiguous enough shaking noise, you know. That’s what we were looking for.
DL: When you get to the climax of the album, near the end, where you have, sandwiched in between the two title tracks, it’s “Troubled Emissions” part one and part two, and they’re both audio clips of you and Noah hanging out with your friends and family. This is the part of the album that I like to call “slice of life,” you and Noah and New York City. Because there I really feel like I’m getting to know you and your friends.
SC: Yeah, “Troubled Emissions” part one and two are definitely like the core of the album. There’s no debate that the both of us agreed that they needed to be near the end. Yeah, “Troubled Emissions” part one is a recording of us just hanging out, we just played a game, and it’s the sort of conversation which is very true to the troubled emissions theme, in that you know it’s a conversation, but it has its awkward moments, and all these stutters, hiccups, people saying a little more than they meant to, this and that. But it’s also very, you know, there’s a lot of life in it. There are funny moments, you can sense that there’s friendship in this and that. And then Troubled Emissions part two, we secretly recorded Noah’s dad for a while, and then he starts interrogating us, and initially we had 15, 20 minutes of this, and we cut it down to just the few most memorable sequences of the dialogue.
DL: That one I especially like just because I feel like it sums up the entire album. I’ll play a little sample of this that I thought was the best part.
[Clip of Troubled Emissions, Part II]
SC: As soon as we started thinking about order, and how to order like 30 different tracks, we very quickly anchored this one. Especially once we did some edits, to make it end in the dialogue you just played, because at the end of the day, you know, what are we doing? I mean I totally don’t claim to know. I think it’s sort of a warm note to end on, it’s a funny moment to end on. And I think it sort of sends the message that you know we’re not, we don’t have any pretensions here.
DL: So, this album you say has gone through many iterations. When you gave it to me, you told me there were some disagreements about the order. And at one point there was even a song about Harambe that you scratched.
SC: Oh yeah, yeah.
DL: When can you call a project like this done? I mean because you say you’re making more and just finished a new song that you made.
SC: Yeah. So, we’re gonna try, we’re gonna put it on Bandcamp. I think you guys can post a link or something, and that’s gonna be like 95 percent done. I think, you know, we sort of rushed it for this interview, but I think we want to take some time to really get a banger album cover. And I think we might change the order, but I think we’re basically done with all the tracks. But yeah, I mean, I think we’ll, as far as we know, in 10 years, we may get another idea of something we want to make. Maybe there’ll be like, I keep joking that maybe there’ll be like a 2030 remastered version, but that’s not really a joke I think we might actually do that. Yeah. You mentioned the Harambe track, yeah that, because that meme just died quicker and in a more tortured way that we could have ever possibly hoped, it became clear to us very soon that we could not use it. It was, however, used for our Harambe game, a friend made. And that game got like 100,000 plays. So actually, it’ll probably end up being our most listened-to song, the one which we did not want to use.
DL: Nice. I just wanted to ask: what does music mean to you?
SC: Well for me I always think of music as being more similar to reading a book than you know, the arts or movies. Because like in a book, you sort of have a lot of room. To you know, how you imagine it, how you interpret it, it’s not all there for you like in a movie. And it’s not just a static thing, it’s something you’re taking in a stream of information. And we didn’t know we were going to end up making a spoken word thing when we started, I think we thought we were going to make a vapor wave thing when we started. But I do think that conception we had did shape our album, it turned out that it ended up being mostly spoken word. I’ve got some other philosophical notes; we had a thought that it’s better to try and fail to be good than succeed at being bad.
DL: Do you think you failed?
SC: [laughs] Yes, I failed at succeeding.
DL: Well, we’ll leave that to the audience to decide. Hopefully that Bandcamp link is up, and yeah, give it a listen. It’s a good one.
SC: Thank you.