Cut Chemist on First Solo Album in 12 Years, Importance of His Father's Memory & More

Joseph Armario
Cut Chemist 

Lucas McFadden, or Cut Chemist as he’s known professionally, fell into the darkest time of his life. After serving a 30-day stint in jail for a DUI, he was met with a 1-2 deadly punch: both his uncle and his father passed away unexpectedly. It was a moment in his life which sent him careening further into blackness, and he was unsure if he’d ever be able to make music again.

It was 2010, and he was one-third the way through what would become Die Cut, his first solo record in 12 years, out March 2. In many ways, it has brought him back to the start.

“Once you make the art, that’s just one part of it when you have to present it to the public. You have to sell it. Today’s society, it’s not the same as when [2006’s] The Audience’s Listening came out,” he tells Billboard, reflecting how the new record, a rather frenetic and ambitious 15 songs, feels like he’s starting all over again.

He continues, “You could press up records, go on tour and that was cool. But now, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m about to find out. I’ve toured since that album, but it’s been with Jurassic 5 and DJ Shadow. I do weekend warrior stuff as a DJ. To do a solid touring schedule where it’s four or five shows a week and also campaigning an album, I haven’t done that since 2007.”

Die Cut not only reminds long-standing fans of his roots -- “I Got a Weapon” whisks by in classic Cut Chemist fashion -- but pushes his artistic capabilities into indie-rock and folk territory, as demonstrated on such standouts as psych-folk number “Plane Jane” and the urban-slathered “You Want It, I Got It.” In turning to long-time friend and collaborator Carlos Niño, he began to sift through the pieces of his life and get back on his feet.

“Life was so different. I had changed, too. I asked Carlos if he could help me start working again on the record. I played him the music that I had made on my own, and he suggested a bunch of live musicians,” he says. While he hooks into his 2006 debut, there remains a sense of wonder 12 years later; it's not an easy feat but one McFadden meets quite magnificently.

What results is a musically-adventurous album (recorded at Comp-ny) completely stacked with unbelievable talent, from Laura Darlington’s ethereal contributions on two songs (“Home” and “Home Away from Home”), Deantoni Parks’ stormy percussion skills throughout much of the whole album to revisitations of classic HYMNAL tunes. Not only was McFadden’s musical desires wholly satisfied, but he found a bit of himself again, too.

“We got the musicians together and got started doing band sessions, collaborative efforts with a community of artists. That’s exactly what I needed and what I was looking for to reinvigorate myself for this album.”

Billboard caught up with Cut Chemist to discuss how his father’s memory soaks onto the album Die Cut, the process of blending live and synthetic instrumentation and the album’s emotional thread lines.

How did these collaborations blossom?

The first session we did was with Deantoni. We did as much as we could fit in one day. We did six songs. He was somebody I’d already known that I wanted to work with from a Meshell Ndegeocello record that he played on. After the first song, I knew that he was the one, because first of all, for his incredible timing and beyond that, for his use of metric modulation and syncopation.

He’s a guy after my own heart. I try to do that stuff with sample-based music. So, to challenge myself, I wanted to have that interaction with a live drummer. Once all the drum tracks were established and how I could see it intertwining with the sample-based work that I had already put together, it wasn’t that hard to envision the rest.

I’ve worked with a lot of these musicians like Lonnie [Marshall] on bass, from Weapon of Choice. He’s pretty much an L.A. staple. I’ve seen him in so many clubs and gotten to know him. I knew that he would work out, just because we had broken ice over the years. Then, the new people, like Laura Darlington, who was part of the only session we did remotely. I’d never met. I wasn’t at the session. She recorded from her place and sent it over. I wasn’t sitting there guiding or directing her on what I wanted. She did it all on her own.

Then there was tune-yards. Thanks to Frosty over at DubLab, he gave us their email and asked them to come by the studio. This is probably around the same time Whokill came out. Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner did a whole day, and that was very experimental. It was just kind of like “come over and let’s play around.” I love creating music like that. You get to find out if you want to appropriate it and incorporate it into the track or if you just don’t touch it.

The session after that was MYKA 9 on vocals. We did a whole day with him where he went through rap after rap after rap. I would try and figure out which one I liked the most. That was hard. He is one of my favorite MCs. It was really scrolling through verses and going, “OK, that 16 bars is perfect, where do we put it into the song?” Then, we did a five minute thing with him and Deantoni together, which was pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted to hear in a rap song that uses a live drummer.

There was a lot of experimentation, but I did have a strict template of sample-based work that had already been established. When they came in, some things were very free, but some things were not. I needed both.

How was the process itself of using live instruments alongside synthetic ones?

What makes it so much longer is the process of editing. I like everything to have certain timing to it. So, if there are drums on top of drums, like a drum sample over a live drum beat, it’s not really my style to have where you can hear the layering of the two. It has to be so tight on top of each other that you can’t discern one from the other.

I had to divorce myself from that idea a little bit, just to keep the integrity of the live drums. Otherwise, what’s the point? If you are going to hire someone like Deantoni Parks, you’re gonna hear him and not something so chopped, you can’t hear his parts. I had to pick and choose the moments where I had to edit and where I didn’t edit. That was probably the hardest and most time consuming part of it.

What was the hardest track to finish?

“Rhythm Method,” absolutely. There was something about it where it just never quite sounded good enough. I wanted it to sound electronic, but I also wanted it to sound live and organic. The balance between those two worlds are so fragile in that song, it was very tough. I never seemed to be satisfied until the final round of mixes. I used different engineers through different phases. I did a mix, and then, I had my friend Benjamin Cherney do a couple passes. That was really good.

Then, you leave it alone and listen to it, and you’re like, “No, it’s not, it needs more.” Then, you take it to Andy Kravitz, and he puts his magic on it. I had so many engineers involved with this record it’s not even funny. They all play their part in each song. It’s not like I abandoned their mixes and started from scratch. Carlos told me it sounded like a neon forest, which I thought was a great picture of what that does sound like. It is organic, as far as being a forest, and electronic, as being neon. Without telling him, he made it into what it became.

On “Plane Jane,” you’re joined by Farmer Dave Scher on lap steep and Dexter Story on drums. It has such a distinctively country and western undercurrent. Was that the intention behind that one?

It’s my favorite song on the record for a few reasons. One, I’m playing my dad’s guitar, his Martin, which I grew up listening to him play. I inherited it, so a lot of him is in that song. The song lyrics were written by HYMNAL in 1993. I was going through some songs that we would do together for the next album, and I said, “Hey, how about that ‘Plane Jane’ song that you did back in the day?” I could really hear that guitar on it, kind of intimate approach.

HYMNAL is very into psych-folk, so I wanted to pay homage to that and to my dad. I wanted to write a song with him that kind of underlines our friendship for 30 years. We’ve known each other since we were 12. It says all that. There’s something very poignant about the song. It has folk roots from growing up with my dad and listening to albums like Bob Dylan’s. It’s all in there. I wanted it to sound like it was from Los Angeles. There’s a very California vibe to it.

Did you find your dad’s memory seeping into the rest of the record?

Absolutely. He was a huge fan of all kinds of music, including rap. MYKA 9 was our favorite MC. He always told me Bob Dylan was the first rapper when he’d play “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Back then, I didn’t really respond to any of that. When your folks play you stuff, you’re like whatever. The stuff with Dylan probably happened in my early 30s, as I wanted to get closer to my dad and really get into his influences. It’s a lot about me, too, and why I am the way I am and the patterns I fall into. I’m pretty much a chip off the old block. I would say anything that has a punk-rock edge to it. My dad was very into punk-rock. It’s the attitude and the sensitivity, too. It has a very unique blend of both.

The album really does pack a punch. There are strains of rock, folk and hip-hop all working together just below the surface.

Yeah, for “Plane Jane” in particular, you’ll hear a lot of the '93, indie-rock era. That always is an era for me that’s really special. I was in my 20s, and it was a very impressionable year. I was in college. I tend to romanticize about that part of my life -- as a lot of people do. I really enjoyed the music then.

For my last album, my main influences were Nirvana’s Unplugged album, [The White Stripes’] White Blood Cells and [Radiohead’s] OK Computer. That helped create The Audience’s Listening, which you’d never know that those were the records I was playing. For this one, it swings from proto-industrial cassette-culture sound to indie-rock and folk-rap. It’s then using the template of “Teenage Fanclub” featuring De La Soul kind of thing.

What role do the interludes play on this record, specifically?

I’m always a big interludes guy. Even on all the Jurassic 5 albums, the interludes help bridge the songs and connect them. They’re different stories in the same book. Because the songs are so different, they need to have some kind of set up, so people know we’re switching gears. You can’t just go from “Madman” into “You Want It, I Got It.” They do both live in the electronic, dark world; one is trying to be a electro-pop club song, and the other is just trying to be a soundtrack to a death in a dark alley. You have to be able to wash the experience off.

Even amidst the raw, fevered quality of “I Want It, You Got It,” it is a rather haunting moment.

Yeah, it’s airy, ambient. I didn’t plan for that. It just kind of happened. I listened to it after it was mastered and thought, “Oh, wow, there’s a lot of ghostly noises on this record.” It’s another HYMNAL song he wrote. We worked on it for quite a long time. That one might rival “Rhythm Method” as far as the most time consuming. This one took pretty damn long to get all the different voices together. This is the one with Erika Christensen and Lady Tigra from L’Trimm and even computer versions of everybody. It’s a thing.

Then you follow it up with “I Got a Weapon,” which rips off the skin a bit.

It’s the one song that’s kind of a “Cut Chemist” song. [Laughs] I’m giving my fans guitars, but where’s the Cut Chemist shit? It’s about honoring what I’ve done in the past and moving forward with something new. You get into “I wanna hear scratches and heavy beats.” This song brings it. It’s a classic template for me.

What has been the biggest lesson you take away from the creation of this album?

I feel like I had a vision to put out this record many, many years ago. I stuck to it. I’m glad I did, regardless of who responds to it and who doesn’t get it. This is 100 percent me. It’s autobiographical. This is every type of music I’m into. All the music that exists on this record, I collect myself. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride. I feel like you can hear me going through a tunnel and coming out on the other end. It’s very seldom that music can explain that to you.

Even if you don’t get exactly what’s going on, you do feel emotion. The people I’ve played it for, without telling them or explaining what inspired it, they feel emotion listening to it. They take away a certain heaviness and a certain lightness, which I’m really proud of. It’s one of my strong suits as a producer, particularly with sample-based music that I think convey my own emotions.

In talking about collecting music, and considering “Plane Jane” veers folk, do you listen to a lot of country music?

Who doesn’t love Hank Williams? Country music and where it blurs the lines between jump blues and rockabilly, there’s a certain sweet spot in that genre where it all comes together. I love that stuff, like mid- to late-'50s stuff. A lot of folk and Bob Dylan obviously comes from folk and blues. I don’t collect either of those genres proper, but I definitely do collect more ambiguous versions of those genres.

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