A Chat with Warren Hildebrand
WPTS Music Director Spencer Smith got a chance to chat with Warren Hildebrand who makes music under Foxes in Fiction. Warren also runs Orchid Tapes, a label he founded and has run out of his bedroom for nearly a decade, that has released music from the likes of Soccer Mommy, Emily Yacina, Alex G, Blithe Field and their own music as well.
WH: Hey how’s it going?
SS: Hey Warren, it’s good. How’s it going with you?
WH: I’m doing well, just hanging out at my place, cleaning up my room a little bit. I still have all this gear kinda laying all over the place from when I did the release show last weekend and I still haven’t really put everything back in its place, so I’m just trying to do that slowly. [laughs]
SS: Yeah, totally. Are you feeling better?
WH: Oh, yeah I am! I just had this really intense two or three day cold that just came on really strong out of nowhere. It was the kind of thing that felt like a full body assault and you just can’t get out from underneath it, some real bullshit.
SS: Did that interfere with the release shows at all or was it after that?
WH: It was the week after. So after everything was done, my body just decided to give it up… just “we’re done.”
SS: Better than it being like a week before, but I’m still sorry! Did the shows go well?
WH: The shows went really well, yeah! The one in Montreal was really sweet, it was in this big cathedral space that I’d seen pictures of, but I didn’t realize the grandeur of it until we actually got there. My family drove up from Toronto and all my friends who live in Montreal were there, so it was very sentimental. We played with a string section, which was really cool for the setting.
SS: Oh that’s awesome.
WH: Yeah, and we did the same kind of format in New York with a different string section. It was in this really cool venue that’s billed as an audiophile space, it has this insane sound system and it’s quadraphonic with all sorts of wild bells and whistles and shit. It was really good, that was kinda like “the big one,” and I thought it went really well, a lot of fun.
SS: Is that New York venue just for performances or do they do other things there?
WH: They do a bunch of stuff there, I think it’s more for DJs and electronic stuff. They have a room in the front where they do stuff like that too, and it’s like a bar and a restaurant. Then there’s the place where we played which is called the Sound Room, and that’s where they do more typical performance stuff. It’s this place called Public Records, it’s only been open for eight months. It’s really crazy, it looks like a Stanley Kubrick movie set or something.
SS: I’m looking at a picture right now, this is beautiful.
WH: I was trying to do all these shows in church spaces and there just wasn’t one available for New York. People who were helping promote it recommended that and it looked so crazy and unlike anything I had been in before, so I said yes.
SS: …and so Kubrickian.
WH: Right!? All the hallways are lined with long red lights, everything is really clean and angular-looking. It also had this weird threatening vibe to it, but like in a cool way [laughs].
SS: Was the goal to book just the release shows in churches or a string of shows in a similar setting?
WH: The idea was to do a string of shows, I was going to do one in Toronto, too, but it didn’t really pan out. I’m still trying to do one in LA, to get the bigger cities. It’s still kind of an ongoing project right now.
SS: What was the band set-up for these release shows?
WH: The lineup was the same for both shows. It was me doing electronics, guitar, keyboard and vocal stuff — I had this big rig of too much stuff, way too much to move around. Opposite of me was my friend, Emily Reo, and she was sorta doing the same thing, doing vocals, triggering samples and playing keys. Then, we had a small string section of a cello and violin. At least for the New York show, Emily Yacina sang a couple songs with us.
SS: Oh man, that sounds wonderful. Emily Yacina is also so great.
WH: Yeah, it was really good. Earlier this year, I put out this one-off single that she sings on, and we played that. She also does some of the three-part harmonies on some other songs. But, it was really cool, I had never really done anything above a two-person thing. Emily Reo and I used to play as a duo for a long time, but this was the first time for a consciously expanded version of that. It was fun though, not a sustainable thing for touring, but great for a couple release shows.
SS: You definitely deserve it!
WH: Thank you! I don’t feel like I deserve much, but you know maybe I deserve these two shows [laughs].
SS: You just put so much effort into the album, it’s nice to have a mini-party! Plus, everyone else gets a really beautiful show as well.
WH: It felt special, I definitely wanted to do something that matched the amount of effort I put into the album. I feel like I haven’t really worked this hard at anything before. Even for the strings stuff, I had to teach myself how to write for strings which I had never done before, and then also how to convert it into readable parts to send to strings players. So, it was a process of building and honing a bunch of skills I didn’t really have before, which felt good. It didn’t feel like this singular thing that was contained to this project, it was learning stuff I could use later on, too.
SS: Resumé builder!
WH: Resumé builder, exactly [laughing]. Just adding things onto the list.
SS: I know you have a background in ambient music that got you where you are today, but did you play any instruments growing up? Had you read sheet music before?
WH: No, I’ve never taken any music classes in school or anything. I’ve never had any kind of formal lessons, aside from a few months of guitar lessons when I was probably eleven or twelve. That’s when I started playing instruments, but it was kind of a weird thing because I kind of learned how to use recording software before I learned how to make music. So, I sort of reverse engineered my ability to make music from the essentials, like I already know how to do all this stuff, so I might as well learn how to make music. And the reason for that is that when I was much younger, I got really into flash animation and just making cartoons basically. I was really active on that website Newgrounds if you remember that.
SS: Yeah, I can see the logo in my head right now.
WH: Totally, very big early 2000s website for kids who are just fucking around with animation stuff. I bought my first microphone and started learning all this recording software so I could record spoken voice lines for these animations I was making. So it kinda laid the groundwork to start making very basic music after that.
SS: What was the animation stuff you were working on at that time like?
WH: It was silly, stuff that reflected really niche internet references and weird communities I was a part of online. Outside of context, like watching them now, they don’t make a lot of sense, so referential to those sort of microculture communities that existed in those areas online. I don’t really like to show them to anybody, because I was twelve or thirteen, it’s pretty embarrassing!
WH: Very crude, very unrefined [laughing]. It was a different time.
SS: In a similar way, that’s how all of the Orchid Tapes stuff started happening on MySpace, right?
WH: Yeah, exactly! It all came out of online communities, those spaces that were specifically catered towards meeting musicians and building these little networks of people you were a fan of. Then, that eventually led to becoming friends with them. That was really the genesis of Orchid Tapes, meeting all these people between 2008 and 2010, realizing there was this core group of people and that I was about to release the first things I was proud of. It just made sense to kind of establish this more official roof to go over everything.
It all came out of online communities, those spaces that were specifically catered towards meeting musicians and building these little networks of people you were a fan of.
SS: That totally makes sense. As a fan of a lot of the stuff affiliated with Orchid Tapes, it’s always heartwarming to see people sharing and collaborating, because it’s really just a network of friends.
WH: Yeah, completely. That’s really the foundation of it, just really wanting to help push this music that I really believed in by these people that I really loved; and being able to do a label gave me a big excuse to push myself further into the realm of visuals and graphic design. When I started the label I was in school for visual arts, so I saw it as an extension of the visual stuff I was doing, as opposed to starting a small business or whatever. It was always so purely centered around the creation and curation of artwork in a bunch of different forms.
SS: Did you put together the logo and the artwork for the compilations then?
WH: Yes, I designed the original logo, then me and my ex-boyfriend Brian, who used to run the label with me, designed the second version. Past that, everything else we did was in collaboration.
SS: That’s really cool. The aesthetic consistency of everything really makes getting into everything after listening to one tape so simple. Is running Orchid Tapes your “day job?”
WH: Orchid Tapes is my day job, yeah. Between my stuff as Foxes in Fiction, Orchid Tapes, then also doing mixing, mastering and audio work, those are collectively my day job.
SS: That’s so great you can do that. A lot of times you can be enjoying someone’s music and run into them working at a coffee shop or grocery store.
WH: Totally, and that is very much the norm. I am in a very lucky position to be involved in all of these things and to be making a baseline living wage. I feel like that is a pretty exceptional thing to be able to focus on this stuff and work from home. I think I do everything in my bedroom, it’s a bit of a madhouse over here [laughing].
SS: Do you have any pets?
WH: I do have a pet, I have a cat named Baba, and he’s a real freak. He’s very sociable, if I’m working here he’ll be content to be six or seven feet away from me, it’s very sweet.
SS: What does a typical day look like juggling these three jobs — Orchid Tapes, original music, and mixing/mastering work?
WH: I wake up here and make some breakfast and coffee. Typically, I try to get through a lot of email stuff and just get the administrative stuff out of the way first. Depending how long that takes me, usually around the middle of the day I’ll try to move onto stuff related to my music, mixing and mastering stuff, or packaging orders for Orchid Tapes. I try to stick by a pretty regular regimen with everything, but I’m also not the kind of person that needs to follow a fixed schedule everyday. Depending if I’m not burnt out, I’ll try to go for a run afterwards to destress from everything.
SS: So you’re basically running the entire operation out of your room?
WH: Yeah, for a long time it was me and Brian doing everything but it is essentially just me running the whole operation at this point, which is fine. I’ve found a way to make it work and if I just do a bit everyday and keep on top of it, it doesn’t get too overwhelming. Even in terms of like packaging things, I’ve been doing it for almost ten years now, so I kind of have all these engrained systems for how to make everything work as efficiently as it should. And it basically just comes from doing the same things over and over again, over a long period of time.
SS: How do you get most of the recordings you mix and master? Is it mostly your friends or random people on the internet?
WH: It’s about half and half, I actively solicit people to reach out if they want things done and I have a website set up specifically for that stuff. The other half is a lot of friends’ stuff or Orchid Tapes stuff; I’ve had a hand in mixing a bunch of things I’ve released and mastering probably almost 90% of it. I get a lot of young kids and strangers reaching out, a lot of people who have never had mastering done before, which is cool. Someone having their first experience getting that done, they get to see the potential of their music once it goes through that sort of finishing process.
SS: I’ve seen the website and it’s pretty amazing the albums you’ve been able to contribute to, like some of the stuff from Emily Yacina (Heart Sky) or Blithe Field (Face Always Toward the Sun).
WH: Thank you! Those are definitely two of my favorites I’ve gotten to work on.
SS: I was listening to “Milkshakes in the Rain” last night (by Blithe Field) right before I was falling asleep, just a wash of emotion.
WH: Incredible, incredible. That whole album album is just so good. I listened to it for the first time in a couple years just a few weeks ago and I forgot how hard that album hits. It’s just so goddamn good. He’s just so good, Spencer (Radcliffe) is amazing.
SS: Do you feel like there is a particular sound that comes out in the records you mix and master, that things consistently come out sounding a certain way?
WH: There’s definitely different places you can leave your own distinctive marks more than other places. In terms of mixing, I definitely have certain things I fall back on. I think if people are getting in touch for me to mix something, they usually are doing that because they hear something in my music, and they think “oh these things would be very complementary” or “this makes a lot of sense with what I’m doing.” In terms of mastering, there is still that sort of distinct, subjective element you can add to it, but it’s more you’re trying to hit this mark. You’re trying to get it to sound “correct,” instead of taking certain liberties with it. Mastering is more of a technical thing, and mixing is a place where you can go a little wild and express ideas and methods, and someone could say “oh, well that was done by Warren.”
SS: Totally! Are there cassettes for the new Foxes in Fiction record?
WH: There are not. I don’t want to say I forgot, but I think I was focusing so intently on the artwork and the packaging for the CDs and records, that I just didn’t think about it? Earlier this year, I made this run of cassette tapes with no tracklist on them, and I snuck a couple songs from Trillium Killer on them with some other stuff that was unreleased. So I think in a way that maybe fulfilled the cassette itch for me. I’m still thinking about making a run of fifty or something, it would be kind of a fun thing.
SS: Were you selling those tapes on tour?
WH: Yeah, they were a tour-only cassette. It was on the tour I did with Emily Reo earlier this year.
SS: You played in Pittsburgh on that tour, right?
WH: Yeah we played at [the Mr. Roboto Project]. I had only been to Pittsburgh a few times before that, but we had a good time.
SS: Did you by chance go to a place called Dobra Tea?
WH: No, we got there late so we didn’t get the chance to go to any local haunts, unfortunately. What’s up with that place?
SS: I figured I’d sneak in asking you because you send out the tea bags with tapes and stuff, it’s a collective of people who own seven tea houses around the country. Their menu is a pretty big book of just tea. It’s mystifying to go there, pretty zen. The tea equivalent of Orchid Tapes?
WH: Damn, I am going to remember that the next time I go through there, actually [laughing]. I love shit like that, there’s this place in the West Village in Manhattan that I really love called McNulty’s. It’s like 125 years old or something, one of the older, lasting places in that neighborhood and it really looks that way inside, too. They have like 200 varieties of teas in these big jars set on these tables inside and you just go around, smell them and buy them by the quarter-pound or half-pound. It’s one of my favorite spots in the city, I’m there all the time.
SS: This definitely sounds your speed then, if you’re into that.
WH: Next time I am in the city, I will definitely check that out.
SS: The new record was completely recorded at your house, right?
WH: Yeah, it was all recorded in my bedroom space here. There were some parts on a few tracks, like drums, that were recorded down the hallway in my former roommate Eric’s room. I can’t believe that we did this so often, but he had this drum set we would set up in this tiny-ass room he has. We would mic it very strategically and just track drums. Other than that, it was all done in here, including all the strings stuff.
SS: Are all the drums on the album recorded live, not drum machines?
WH: It’s like a mix. A lot of it is things I sampled from drum machines, old Casio keyboards that have drum loops and stuff, or things I found online. But a lot of it is layered with real drums that I either tracked live or recorded a single drum sound and sequenced it to give the illusion of it being a real drum kit. I’m not at all a drummer, it’s way easier for me to program those things. I’m way more proficient using Ableton in that way than I am actually keeping rhythm [laughs].
SS: That’s awesome! The drum tones definitely sound real, but it has that more 80s repetitiveness, in a very good way.
WH: Yeah, I didn’t want to disguise the fact that it was electronic drums or that they were sequenced that way. I’m not trying to throw in like wild fills or anything. Drums are weird, they’re the one place in my music I feel the most insecure about. I never had any experience with drums growing up and I think far more in terms of melody than I do in terms of coming up with interesting rhythms. I tried to be a little more deliberate with stuff on this album to make it not unpleasant to listen to [laughs].
SS: In my opinion, I don’t think anything you’ve done is unpleasant to listen to, either! Besides drums, was this recording process different compared to other projects for you? Were these songs that were around for awhile?
WH: They were around for awhile insofar as it took me that long to finish writing and recording them, none of them existed before I sat down and started recording all the parts. I don’t know, the process that I have for songwriting is somewhat far from a songwriting process. There’s no really sitting down at a guitar or a piano and writing a song, it’s far more how I imagine someone like Aphex Twin or more electronic producers make music. There will be a bunch of different parts that I build together and I will arrange them in Ableton and kinda digitally structure a song. I kind of define a song out of that, something that gives the illusion it was written instead of built out of these very isolated blocks. That’s really something I’m working on, but the process of really sussing out everything in Ableton Live is so intrinsic to my process that whenever they were done being written, they were done being recorded. I was kind of doing those things in tandem. The whole process for that took a little bit over two years and the songs were in different stages of completion that entire time. I think the song “Summer of the Gun” I started at the very beginning of 2017 and I finished mixing it on the train ride upstate to have the album mastered. So, it was literally up until the last minute I was working on it; which is so completely ill-advised, but really typifies the process that went into this album.
SS: That’s the point though, right? Getting lost in your art.
WH: Unhealthy obsession! [laughing] But sure, prior to that there was really nothing, a few sketches saved to different tape machines or looping pedals that kinda springboarded into more complete versions of songs. Everything was stream of consciousness and written as I went along.
SS: So, that’s way different than your first record, Swung from the Branches, which was recorded in a matter of weeks right?
WH: The first record was written and recorded in two to three months, it was a very quick process. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s more ambient music and these things that are single ideas for tracks. Even the other side of the album that is more of the pop song things, I didn’t really know much about writing or recording at that time, so it was really easy to rush through things and not get hung up on details. I also didn’t really know that anyone was ever gonna hear that stuff, so just the psychological aspect of worrying about it was just not there. So that obviously frees up a lot of mental energy to do things at a very different pace.
There’s no really sitting down at a guitar or a piano and writing a song, it’s far more how I imagine someone like Aphex Twin or more electronic producers make music.
SS: So for that, were you more just letting out energy in whatever way, with no real intent of showing anybody?
WH: Yeah it felt like much more of a personal exercise in recording, that I was making these sort of individual cells of music that were mostly for myself. It was this therapeutic exercise to coax myself through this very stressful, awful time that I was going through. I finished it and realized it was sort of the structure of an album… I didn’t even call it an album, I called it a mixtape because it was decidedly split between an A-side and B-side. I just sorta put it online afterwards, that was the first Orchid Tapes release and the thing that I built the label around initially. Just a very different set of thought processes, techniques, approaches and everything. I listen to that album now and I don’t really fully register it as being something that I made. It’s also ten years old at this point, so just the natural progression of time probably adds to that.
SS: It doesn’t feel ten years old, wow. That’s crazy, it probably feels much longer for you since you made it and all, too.
WH: Where do the years go? [laughing] In February, both that album and the label will be a solid ten years old, which is horrifying, but also kinda cool.
SS: You’re still around, though which is a good thing!
WH: I’m still here! [laughing]
SS: You said that Swung From the Branches went hand in hand with the birth of Orchid Tapes, did you do physicals when you initially put the album out?
WH: Yeah I did cassette tapes right away, just a small run of fifty or something. I was pretty active in a lot of online music communities at that point, and I had a lot of friends on them that I still have to this day. Those people were the beginning part of the dissemination of that album and it was kinda strange, and I got lucky that it took off a little bit. It reached some places I wasn’t ever really expecting it to. That was really the beginning of everything I did with music, nothing would have happened if that hadn’t happened with that record. I wouldn’t have met any of the musicians that I know, ended up moving to New York, or doing Orchid Tapes more intensely. It’s really all because of the cool stuff that happened with that record that really opened the door for anything afterwards.