Downtime with Chris Howland

Chris Howland returns to MK837 this month for a third release: Drumpets. For this release, the tech house and electro house master teams up once again with his collaboration partner Leon Blaq. Chris recently took a moment out of his busy production schedule to talk to us about his musical influences and production process.

What was your first introduction to the club scene?

I honestly can’t remember the very first time I went to a club, but I can vividly remember my introduction to dance music. I was in high school and a DJ friend of mine gave me and a few buddies this mp3 disc full of trance. It had plenty of Ferry Corsten, Paul Van Dyk, Armin, BT, Dumonde, And Cosmic Gate. I was around 14 at that time and was listening mostly to rock and industrial music. But to hear such a new and exciting sound palette of these soaring melodic synthesizers and punchy electronic drums for the first changed my entire taste in music. I was hooked, instantly.

Why did you decide to start producing music and why do you still do it?

I got a little Casio keyboard for Christmas when I was like 10 years old, and shortly after that my family introduced our household to it’s first computer. It didn’t take me long to discover that I could use the computer to record the Casio. That was the real beginning for me. Give a kid a keyboard and a computer with a crap microphone and it’s amazing how much wonder, excitement, and fun can happen as a result. That’s why I still do this nearly 20 years later..simply because I still feel wonder, excitement, and fun when I sit with a computer, a keyboard, and a microphone.

Have you ever felt like just giving it all up?

Definitely. It can be discouraging to pour so much time and money into music and still feel like it’s not amounting to anything noteworthy. I really thought I was going to make a career of this for many years. I thought it was my purpose in life. My focus drifted towards these very lofty and adult sort of motivations to make music, and when my expectations seemed to be unmet, I felt like “Why bother to keep doing this?” I think that as I get older, my motives are coming full circle. I’m returning back to my original, childish reasons: “I do this because I love it, and if anyone else loves it then that’s awesome…but if they don’t, whatever. I still love it.”

You’re not a DJ, so do you find it harder to get your music out for people to hear?

I do! But Soundcloud is a truly beautiful thing, and so I try to just focus on bringing people there to hear whatever new stuff I’ve got up my sleeve and also my work that’s already been released. I’ve also recently tried to start submitting my songs to blogs, because I’ve learned that it’s super helpful to get even just a little bit of buzz.

What’s been your greatest challenge in producing music and what’s been your proudest moment?

My biggest challenge is my own criticism, which manifests most with the dreaded mix-down stage. The mix and master is so challenging for me honestly. I become so obsessive and get a little lost in that whole process. I have a blast with arranging and composing, but trying to be competitive with the level of sonic quality that is present in other commercially successful tracks is very intimidating and difficult for me. I’m so relieved when I can finally be finished with a track and never have to listen to it critically again.

As far as proudest moments, it’s hard to say. I think I feel most proud anytime I get validation from people I really respect musically. I love to get nice comments from casual listeners, but when a seasoned producer or label person gives me good feedback it feels really satisfying. Getting a release on Nervous felt awesome. Fedde Le grand played something of mine in his live-set once, that was super cool also. Recently the Shapeshifters gave me great feedback on a track I sent to them that they were considering to release on their label. The deal fell through unfortunately but I was amazed to have caught their attention.

Is there anything that you feel like you still haven’t quite gotten figured out as far as producing music?

I’m extremely critical of myself, so I’m trying to learn to trust my decisions and not second guess them too much. I’m very indecisive and obsessive over the choices I make within a track. I’m always wondering if there’s something different I can add. Always questioning if I’ve picked the right bass-line..if the snare can be snappier..if the kick is tight enough..if another melody is needed. So honestly I feel like every track of mine that ends up sounding good is almost lucky, because I still feel very much as though I’m just groping around trying to sound like I know what I’m doing!

What’s your go to piece of gear or plugin these days?

Decapitator from SoundToys is happening in almost every project that I have. It’s just an awesome way to give some saturated character to any given sound. I also love EchoBoy for insanely dense delays.

How do you and Leon Blaq meet and how did you start working together?

We found each other on the internet, of course. Haha. I’m in central Jersey and he’s in Queens, so I would take the bus up and visit his studio out there once or twice a week and just collaborate. His studio had so many toys I had never seen. I remember seeing his Virus TI and being like “yo, what is THAT?” With me coming from more of a trance/progressive/electro background and him having a house/techno/minimal background, it was a very interesting result when we worked together. He definitely helped expose me to a different side of dance music that I’ve grown to appreciate.

Who else would you like to collaborate with?

I’d love to work with more vocalists. I absolutely love finding a good voice to bring some of my lyrical ideas to life, it’s very exciting. I have two tracks coming out this year featuring some awesome worship/gospel vocalists that I’ve met through visiting different churches, and I’m pretty excited about those. But as far as specific artists I’d like to work with in the near future, Levi Whalen is on my list. I think he brings a lot to the table. He recently sent me a clip that had me like “yo, we could do some damage together.”

You’ve posted a lot about Nutella on Facebook of late. What’s up with that? What makes it so awesome?

It’s just such a versatile, rich, luxurious desert spread. You can put it on toast. You can put it on fruit. You can have it on crepes. You can make s’mores with it. Spoon + Nutella + Banana slice + whip cream. Try dat. You’re welcome.

Is there anything that you’re not telling us?

I have two joke music projects on the side with close friends. One is a hip-hop group whose 5 members are comprised of fictional ex-military snake characters. The other is a punk rock trio of skeleton characters. They’re joke projects, but make no mistake..the production quality and lyrical effort is no joke. We do work.