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Deeply bewitched mashup album.
- Brasil: So in 2019 I released 2 albums called “Care” and “Crime Party”. They were both big, chaotic, extensively produced mashup albums, but Care felt like lightning in a bottle in a lot of ways and I struggled to follow it up in Crime Party. Care had a strong aesthetic and a clear progression through the tracklist. With Crime Party, I tried to just do “more of the same” and ended up with a weird, confused, messy thing that didn’t really know what it wanted to be. After I released Crime Party, I made a pact with myself: I wouldn’t round it off into a trilogy until I figured out a new, clear direction and central theme for the third album. This didn’t happen until several months later, when I listened to “Since I Left You” by The Avalanches.
That album is a wild ride, a continuous tapestry from start to finish. Everything transitions smoothly, layers of samples ebbing in and out, and it all has a strong mood and sense of place, too. It feels weirdly like a voyage on the high seas, reinforced by the cover and many of the sample choices. Writing about it now (midway through 2021) I think it’s my favorite album of all time.
So there was my big idea for Catastrophe: A midway point between a chaotic mashup album and an Avalanches album. Instead of the sea, I decided it would be themed around space (I didn’t know that The Avalanches would release a space-themed album later in 2020, which interestingly sounds very different from Catastrophe). We start on the planetary surface, blast off in a rocket, spend some time in orbit, and then splash back down.
Now that I finally had a good idea, I made Brasil. This track is about being firmly on the ground, but looking up into space. People transmit stuff up and back down from satellites, so the “scattered transmissions” theme runs throughout Brasil. The first thing that plays is a sound collage of obscure YouTube stream archives I found, and a sample of “Land” by Patricia Taxxon offers some appropriate beeping and background noise. All the other samples are implicitly drawn into the theme; we can imagine that they’re radio signals. Unlike The Avalanches, there are very recognizable and meme-y samples too. “Superbass” by Nicki Minaj, “Wet Hands” by C418 (from Minecraft), and “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies are in here! This is the tightrope Catastrophe tries to walk: between the atmospheric vibes and the goofy stuff that connects it to Care and Crime Party. Some tracks will tend more in one direction or the other.
- Steven Moffat is a Hack: Unlike basically any other album I’ve made, the tracks in Catastrophe were literally just made in order. The tracks were also grouped together into just 3 big project files total. This was a pain in a lot of ways (working with big files is annoying, and I had to trust that my vague plan of how to structure the album would work out), but offered one huge benefit: I could make really nice, smooth transitions between everything. So naturally this track was made after Brasil, though I actually thought of the idea for it back when I was working on Crime Party (but decided not to make it then because that album had enough weird short tracks).
I realized the sample (from the film score to the movie Brazil, building off the previous track) would fit in well with “I Am the Doctor”, the Eleventh Doctor’s theme from Doctor Who. The Eleventh Doctor is a character from Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, and I didn’t want to be misconstrued as endorsing his writing style in any way. So that’s why this track is called what it is. (I’m told that Chris Chibnall’s run, which is ongoing as of this writing, is even worse. I find this hard to believe but don’t want to confirm it myself.)
In the show, this theme would often play at the end of the episode, which meant that immediately after it finished the main theme of Doctor Who would play (for the credits). The first thing you hear in that main theme is a little FM “electronic scream” thing. So for the second half of the track, “I Am the Doctor” finishes and that electronic noise plays, but then I just start reversing it back and forth so the song never starts, as if the intro to “On Sight” by Kanye West went on forever. I wasn’t sure how to layer and develop it more at first, and ended up layering a Fennesz noise track over it. This moment is really really weird! It doesn’t really feel like the rest of the album. I think that’s just because it’s early in the tracklist, and thus was made before most of the rest of Catastrophe. The “sense of place” is still here though: we hear birds singing in the background in the first segment, which are cut off by the noise section, and then after the noise section we suddenly hear cars going by. So I guess this track is about going through a portal or something and ending up somewhere else on Earth.
- Mister King: Continuing The Avalanches theme, if “Brasil” is me trying to do “Since I Left You” (the song, not the album), this is me trying to do “Frankie Sinatra”. After this I got more confident, so most of the other tracks aren’t really direct analogues like this. There are still important differences though: once again, the main sample is far more recognizable than the Avalanches’: it’s “Die House” from Cuphead (yeah, recognizable if you’re a FUCKING NERD).
I think what’s cool about this track is that it has a full-fledged song structure that isn’t present in any of the samples. It’s constructed entirely from how the samples are placed. First we hear a snippet of the full version of “Die House”. But then, when the rap verse (from “Who Dat Boy” by Tyler, The Creator and A$AP Rocky) comes in, it switches to a snippet of the same section, but from the instrumental version of “Die House” instead. This process repeats with a different snippet, and then there’s one final chorus to close things off. It doesn’t sound like much when I lay it out like that, but constructing a new, conventional verse/chorus song structure out of samples was new to me.
There’s a campy, goofy swagger to this track, but in my mind we’re definitely still on Earth. There’s not much more to say, except that the sample of Wallace and Gromit music in the last chorus is one of my favorite moments on the album.
- The Planets or Peking: Let me tell you a secret: I didn’t actually decide Catastrophe was gonna be about space until this track. The samples of “Land” and various YouTubers in “Brasil” do introduce the space theme pretty well, but the latter is one of the few things I added later in production and the former was initially only there because I thought it sounded cool.
With this track, though, that all changed. I found this incredible shot of James Burke timing his speech perfectly with a rocket launch, and thought it was cool enough to make a space-themed track just to include it. The result (featuring a lovely vaporwave track by my friend WangleLine) sounded pretty enough that I suddenly realized this was what the album needed to be about. It’s weird to think that the theming of Catastrophe would be very different if I hadn’t watched that one video.
- Very Normal Human Cinema: A short clip from Zardoz, a very special movie that I just realized I haven’t seen all the way through. I should do that. Unlike previous “Very Normal Human” tracks, this sample is here not to make a statement but purely just to be funny. Though I guess it very loosely ties into the idea of ascending into something weird and different from our world.
- Trance Hacker: We’re really up in space now! I wanted this to capture that sense of a wild ride with lots of momentum. This track kinda speaks for itself, but it was lots of fun to put all the samples together. The memes are in full force here: apple bottom jeans is easy to spot, but did you notice the tiny snippets of the Macarena and Intergalactic?
As I said before, Catastrophe is divided into 3 project files. Because of this, there are 2 “seams” where we go from one file to the next. The first seam is the transition between Very Normal Human Cinema and this track. I did my best to make it feel natural by having the hit at the start of this track accentuate the previous one ending, plus “5D” by Death Grips is sampled in both tracks.
- Elmetric (by Cheryl Stelli): Some of my friends have made tons of mashup albums, but this hadn’t really happened yet when Care came out. Catastrophe was made a year later, though, and since I now had friends who made mashups I had the new opportunity to get some guest tracks! The first guest artist on the album, Cheryl, delivers a really fun dance track to keep up the momentum! I love everything about the energy here. This track also appears on “Eastern Skyline”, a compilation album of similar dance-y mashups she’s made. (The mixing in that version is a lot better, sorry for fucking it up here lol!)
One weird consequence of making the album in order is that guest tracks like this don’t start appearing until halfway through, because I wanted to make sure I had a good idea of what the album was gonna sound like before I started getting guests.
- Lithium Hydroxide: Something that distinguishes this album from its predecessors is a prevalence of atmospheric interludes. There’s a lot of scattered elements in this ambient piece, including: a NASA audio recording (I think from Apollo 13? It’s been awhile), the sound effect for using a Map Station in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and a twinkly sound that plays in Rainbow Road in Mario Kart DS. There’s also a scene from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where a weird little ambient music cue plays (I love how it fits with the main sample!) and a character remarks (in Japanese) that “the very air is filled with hate”. That main sample is “Home” by C418, by the way (it’s from one of his solo albums). The whole thing ends up having a decidedly ominous tone for it. Space is wondrous, but it’s also hostile and empty.
- Brospeed: Can you believe I almost cut this track for being unfitting? We are not in the darkest timeline. This is the most meme-y track on here, but coming off “Lithium Hydroxide” (possibly the least meme-y?) it made sense to have a counterbalance. I like to think this track keeps the listener from falling asleep, like the Surprise Symphony. The thing that really made me decide it fit was that second drop, which layers “We’re Finally Landing” over the silly dubstep and makes the mix sound full and huge again. A joke nobody got is that the previous track prominently samples a song called “Home” and then this track prominently samples a song by an artist called “HOME”.
- Spaceflower: Maybe my favorite interlude? I waffle between this and “The Planets or Peking”. I haven’t formally studied music theory so I don’t really have the vocabulary to communicate this well, but the chord progressions/key changes in the two main samples seem to match up in a special way beyond just picking a single key and matching stuff up. I think most samples wouldn’t actually fit in this track at all, basically. I even had to slice up “Space Junk Galaxy” (from Super Mario Galaxy) a little bit, because sometimes it plays a little variation of the melody that has a single note changed. This different note sounded very sour with the title track from The Avalanches’ “Wildflower” (the other main sample), so I had to skip over those phrases.
The outro from “Wildflower” sounds like a stereotypical ghost-y noise. So at the end of the track I layered in a voice clip I found very funny from a JRPG I haven’t played (I think one of the Ys games? I might be misremembering). I didn’t add the vibrato; it’s like that in the game too.
- Sky Blue Melody (by mothbeanie): The second guest track! I like that the intro is weirdly ominous before it shifts abruptly into something sillier. The outro turns ominous and sparse again, making it a nice, rare moment of restraint for this album. This track feels a little more down-to-earth, which I decided to keep going with the next track…
- Hey All: I was originally thinking of making this another ambient interlude, but “Sky Blue Melody”’s outro was enough. I decided to make this track feel like getting overwhelmed with transmissions from Earth (making “Sky Blue Melody” retroactively about that too). But Catastrophe still ultimately uses the vocabulary of a meme mashup album, so this is conveyed with a bunch of Scott the Woz videos layered over each other. The sense of overwhelming unpleasantness is here for a reason: you’ve been in space too long. It’s time to start heading back down.
- Eyye: The tension instantly releases: once you’re starting the descent, you’re in the right place again. This track is a long one, and I felt like I was really just in the zone here. A year removed from the production of this track, it’s hard to describe the thought process behind it? It’s a bunch of weird vibe-based stuff that I didn’t think tooo deeply about. But I put a lot of effort in to make sure it all fit together musically, and it’s all in service of a particular mood even if it’s hard to describe what that mood is.
Another thing about having friends who make mashups is that your friend group naturally develops a lot of weird injoke samples. “24 Hour Party People” by 2 Mello was one of those. I dunno why this sample was funny but it was.
At the end of the track, a spoken word sample from the movie Streetwise cements the theme of this part of the album.
- Fodder to Earth (by Frida Eva): To be honest, I was running out of ideas for ambient interludes, and I really wanted to get Frida on the album, so this worked out! The album structure is overall stricter here than it was earlier, so unlike the other two guest tracks I gave her a prompt: it had to be about “falling down to Earth”. I was expecting an interlude, but instead she delivered a full-fledged piece, and it’s gorgeous! The vibe is perfect, and the sample choices are great.
- Catastrophe: We’re finally back on Earth. The splash at the start here is meant to be like a rocket ship splashing down. At the end of “Fodder to Earth” there’s even a sample of people snapping photos at a shuttle splashdown (I actually made that as part of this track; the nature of seamless transitions means that some things are gonna bleed into each other). The “hey, the show’s starting!” is from Muppets Most Wanted, a movie I haven’t seen: I actually searched a movie script database because I really wanted a sample of someone saying “the show’s starting!” in here. The Adventure Time intro quickly reinforces the idea of being on Earth with all its wind sounds (and penguin noises), but it’s still fantastical enough to be special. Overall, the intro to this track is only 18 seconds, but I’m proud of how much “sense of place” stuff I was able to cram in there.
Then the actual music starts. I wanted this track to feel like a block party, and the main sample of “Hey Saturday Night” by The Coup is doing a lot of work here. I still have some serious misgivings about the mix here, though. I think the main issue is that most of the layered vocals are in basically the same register, plus I’m not sure that the drums can support all this stuff on their own (when “745 sticky” comes in, it fixes the latter but definitely not the former). Even while working on it I got very frustrated, because I just couldn’t get the track to sound as good as I wanted. I don’t wanna be too down on it though: I think the vibe is still great and there’s lots of fun ideas here. My favorite is the gag where the “Hey Saturday Night” hook is extended with “Saturday night, we in the spot” from “Uptown Funk”.
This track is very much a successor to “Golden” and “Gun 3” from Care and Crime Party, but it resembles the latter more in how it has a real B section in the middle. There’s a ton of samples of ultra-obscure YouTube videos I found on Random Filename TV here, and they add a more human element to what’s going on. This type of loose sound collage is a lot of fun; I first did it in “Upson Downs” from Maple Valley, but it’s more refined here, and I’m excited to do more of it on future projects. One thing I’m not a fan of here, though, is the 2Pac sample that kicks this segment off. The lyrics are very based, but I feel like he’s too intense for this bit. I’ve been thinking of doing remaster/”redux” versions of the CCC Trilogy, and if I do, Cheryl wants me to cut this verse entirely. I dunno about that, but at least it needs to be made quieter and less overwhelming.
Can you tell I have mixed feelings about this track? There’s a ton going on here. It’s very ambitious, and I can’t help but feel like my reach exceeded my grasp sometimes. Cheryl thinks this track is perfect (aside from the aforementioned 2Pac sample), and it seemed to be well received by other people who’ve heard it, so maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees here? It’s easy to focus on all the little things I felt I got wrong, and forget about the big stuff that makes the track memorable in the first place.
At least I feel straightforwardly good about the outro, which is one last ambient moment that ties the whole album together. The original Portuguese version of “Aquarela do Brasil” (the main sample in “Brasil”) plays as a callback, and finally the YouTube streamers from the very start of the album sign off to bring everything to a close.