Some musicians are out there for the fame. Some are out there for the money. And then there are some that love to create music in an extraordinary curious way. These artists are out there for the music. One of them is Jason Van Pelt, better known as Sophrosyne. Being curious and brave enough to let the results happen, being able to refine soundscapes and effect bits and pieces and merge them into unusual groovy electro tunes, this multitalent from New Orleans explores and blends sounds in a very playful yet effective way to create a new genre of electro in the process.
I had the chance to talk to Jason about his musical background, how he developed his craft, about his influences as a musician and the hardware he works with.
kms/ Where did this curiosity with electro music originate? What was the defining moment for you to become a producer/musician?
Sophrosyne/ I think I always had an interest in electronic music, though it took me a while to make the connection that I was gravitating to it. I was a kid in the 80s when MTV first hit and I always tended to like the new wave bands I’d catch like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran or even Peter Gabriel.
A defining moment for me came pretty early, when I was maybe 12, and my older brother borrowed a few cassettes from a friend. He popped Public Image Limited’s “Cassette” (It was named for whatever format you bought it in) into the car stereo and it clicked with me immediately. It wasn’t really about electronic music, it was “underground music” — punk, post-punk, new wave, rap, industrial, electronic. Stuff my skater friends and I all listened to. The Cure’s b-sides from Standing On A Beach had an enormous impact on me. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard and is still one of my favorite albums. So many of those counter-culture bands were using drum machines and synthesizers in their albums, and those sounds always stood out to me and became something I identified with.
Another defining moment for me was when I got my first instrument, a Boss DR-5 by Roland. I had played piano a bit as a kid and had a guitar as a teenager, but neither really clicked. During my first year of college a friend loaned me his Alesis drum machine and that felt right to me. The DR-5 expanded on the drum machine concept and was more of a digital 4-track, with percussion and three instrument tracks. What it did for me was finally gave me a way to get all of the music that I constantly heard in my head out into the world. Not that it was any good, but at least it wasn’t trapped.
kms/ Tell us about your projects at the moment.
Sophrosyne/ My focus at the moment is mostly on trying to finish things, which has a lot to do with how Parades came about. One thing I know about myself is that I could go on and on making things, creating things. That’s the easy part, I think. It took a concerted effort to mix and master the album, then write about it, which was no easy task, then create all of the promotional materials, research colleges radio stations in the US, find specific DJs and points of contact, solicit reviews, setup social media… SO much work.
To answer the question, my hope is to be able to finally devote the same amount of attention to my artwork. I think a lot of the same principles apply in terms of marketing my artwork — promoting on social, networking, building up a following, etc. The biggest difference with music, though, is that when you release an album you’re extremely time-boxed in terms of how quickly you need to move. Radio wants to play new releases, reviewers want albums to be no more than say 3 months old.
All of that being said, against my better judgement I’ve picked up a few new pieces of music gear recently, so there goes my focus!
kms/ What is Jason, the artist, all about? What is your motivation and drive?
Sophrosyne/ There are two central themes in my music and my art – shared nostalgia and expanding modes of thought. The idea of shared nostalgia is essentially that, to some extent, we’ve all grown up in the same world at relatively the same time, and we can connect with each other through our shared remembrances of times past. And just like when I heard those Standing On A Beach b-sides for the first time, my hope is that someone listening to Sophrosyne will think “I’ve never heard anything quite like this before. I haven’t heard it done quite that way.”
It sounds like a battle against homogeny but I think the greater motivation is just for people to realize that there are very different ways that others think and interpret the world. If I can bring you inside of that with my music, or show you how a portrait might be convincing with a limited color palette and just a few lines, then hopefully I can get you to ask the question “how did that work?” or “where did that sound even come from?”
kms/ What are your main influence sources?
Sophrosyne/ My influences are pretty all over the place, and I think often make no sense in the context of my music. I’ve mentioned The Cure, who have been my favorite band since I first heard them in the mid eighties. Meat Beat Manifesto and The Meters often get lumped together in my mind, as I’ve studied both of them pretty heavily for percussion and basslines. I’m sure there aren’t many people who would correlate those two bands at all! There is a band called ISAN that I would say have played an outsized roll — they are two guys who do very gentle, melodic electronic music. It’s very organic and contains undertones of 80s post-punk buried in there that you only really hear if you recognize the melodic approach.
The biggest outlier influence apparent in Sophrosyne albums, though, is this marching / brass band sound that I kinda stumbled on quite a few years back. It wasn’t even intentional, but when I first started working on my song Lafaye from an older album, I ran the percussion through a delay — which is not something I often do — and it created this effect that reminded me of marching bands from Mardi Gras parades, with their heavy bass drums, rolling snares and melodic toms. So I kinda leaned into that and started studying drum lines, tuba players, trumpets and trombones, and I let that sound that I grew up with in New Orleans come out in my music.
kms/ How is your artist name connected with the music you do?
Sophrosyne/ Sophrosyne is a word that I came across during a time in my 20’s that I was reading a fair amount of philosophy. I wanted to choose a name for my music that I could identify with. Sophrosyne is a Greek term meaning moderation; harmony through balance. I think I’ve always mispronounced it, but when I saw it I read “soph-ro-seen” and that’s what stuck. It’s a term that describes my approach to life well, but also I think gives me something to continue to strive for and represent.
kms/ Describe your hard/software setup, the record and mixing process for songs you create.
Sophrosyne/ My hardware is a mix of midi machines – a few older pieces that I’ve had for many years, of which the DR-5 is still very central, along with some older Korg Electribes. I picked up a few of the Roland boutique synths, which recreate famous old analog synthesizers, starting with the SE-02 and JP-08. The SE-02 makes some great brass sounds, and is also capable of getting extremely gritty and aggressive. The JP-08 has these softer, deeper pad sounds that I love. You can hear these two machines battling / complementing each other in my song Muses, where the same melody is run though both instruments… with large amounts of knob tweaking and cross-fading between them. I’ve also recently picked up a few Korg Volcas, which I consider somewhat “single-use” synths and drum machines. I always through were a little too limiting, but I think I’ve found a few that might work for me, if I can figure out how to mix them into my sound.
My typical process is to always start with a drum beat that sets the tone and pace for the track, usually followed by a bassline as a foundation for whatever melody is to come. Everything is played / improvised on a midi keyboard and fed into Ableton Live. Most of the time I’m recording as midi and doing whatever editing and clean-up I need to do, then playing that back through my hardware. As I play the midi back, I can focus more on knob turning and adding character as I record a second time into Ableton as audio. Everything goes though my hardware, though — no samples, no software synths. I want to hear the warmth I get out of the sound passing through wires and my mixer.
Samples were always out-of-bounds for me. I thought, “If I want that sound, I should study the source then create my own take on it.” I did bend those rules for the Parades album a bit, which I felt might have made people think more of the album was sampled than it really was. But for me, the sample that leads off “After Nyx Is Over” is about providing context for where my sound comes from more than anything else. The track starts off with crowd noise from a parade captured on my phone, and you can hear as a marching band starts to play a beat and comes in with some horns. But when the drop comes and the song kicks in, it’s all original material. There’s a bit of the crowd sample in the background for continuity, but that’s about it. The only other exception where I did use a sample is the interlude, “Hey hey hey hey,” which is another field recording that I tweaked and edited. I battled over whether to even include it, but I really love it and I think it’s perfectly placed in the album, so I left it in.
Something I have been focusing on is using less literal loops, opting to play a part repeatedly instead, allowing for slight timing variations and melodic exploration to slip in there. So I’ll have a 32 measure clip instead of a 4 measure loop that repeats 8 times. Both accomplish the same goal. A lot of what makes it into my songs is the result of late-night sessions improving over a rhythm, chopped up and arranged into something that I hope is coherent and compelling.
kms/ One of your signature style elements seems to be the usage of destructive effects on tracks. Is there a special reason or is it just coincidence?
Sophrosyne/ I think the destructive elements are an example of a larger interest in things that are unconventional. The song “D’etat” from Parades, which I think is one you’re referring to,was inspired by Low’s album Double Negative which made a pretty strong impression on me. After you’ve gotten absorbed into the sound they distort and degrade it to the point where it feels like the world has deteriorated around you. It’s a really interesting approach, I think, to playing with sound and pushing the boundary of “what is a song?” that I wanted to explore.
I usually skirt convention in more subtle ways, particularly with my drum patterns. A great example would be the beat from an older Sophrosyne song, “The Cave of Montesinos,” which has a relatively simple sounding kick, snare, hi-hat pattern. But It’s a long loop and the timing of the cymbals and kick drums change in subtle ways throughout, making it harder to follow and anticipate, almost impossible to tap along to. So much of music, especially electronic music, is about repetition, which creates expectations. If I can defy those expectations, in my mind that makes for a more interesting experience as a listener.
kms/ What’s your experience with music platforms like Soundcloud, Reverbnation, Spotify and so on? Would you say its a good way to get heard out there in the void?
Sophrosyne/ I’ve been on Soundcloud for a long time, but I wouldn’t say that I “use” it. I never promoted my music there or used it for music discovery. I’m on Bandcamp, where my mp3s can be downloaded for free. I recently starting using Distrokid — primarily to get on Spotify, but I probably just think of Spotify as “the place to be” because it’s where I stream music personally. Distrokid certainly makes it easy to get on most platforms, but there is a lot more to working on a release that I had to learn.
I’m not on a label. Parades was self-released, as was the previous album, Literate Nola. I don’t really know if I’d fit into the label system, so to speak, because I’m not a performing artist. I’ve never had any interest in playing live. Which puts me at a disadvantage, in a way, in terms of growing an audience. But, I’ve never really had any allusions about making money from my music. I’d love for people to hear it, and naturally any validation is nice. It makes it challenging, to be honest, to figure out what your goal is for your music if it’s not somehow tied to selling it or making a living off of it. Is the goal to reach a certain number of followers or plays? How do you quantify the value of your creative output if not by how much you earn from it?
One thing I would suggest to anyone considering self-releasing an album is, if you want to promote it, you have to give yourself plenty of time. There is a lot of research that goes into finding indy radio stations, music reviewers, publications, creating press materials, building or updating your website and your social media… all of this stuff that comes after the album is made.
The last thing I’ll add here is that Instagram wound up playing a sizable roll in promoting Parades and starting to build a community. Getting involved in a community is probably a better way to say it, because it was already there. I did wind up spending a pretty decent bit of money promoting the album and there were certainly some returns on that, especially during Mardi Gras (carnival) here in New Orleans. The thing about social media, though, is that most of the time people are on social to be on social, not to link out to other apps or websites, so trying to convert people over to your album on Spotify is tough. I also don’t find that a lot of musicians are promoting their own albums on the platform so much as using IG as a performance space of sorts. All in all I think, as an independent, I’m still figuring out how to grow a following or increase awareness.
At the end of the day, I put my music on Spotify so that I could stream it myself. Anyone else who hears it or reaches out is all bonus material!
kms/ Are you generally doing collaborations?
Sophrosyne/ I have a few long-term friends that I work with every so often. Mostly it’s been me asking them to record guitar or synth parts, just to give me something different to work with. I think we all tend to be somewhat controlling of our own sounds, probably me most of all. They’ve had a hard time trying to get me to jam with them, going back to that point about not being much of a performer. But a big part of me picking up a couple Korg Volca machines is to give me something I feel more comfortable jamming on that doesn’t require much commitment. Sounds terrible, I’m sure!
kms/ You just released ‘Parades’. What does the future hold for you? Any plans for upcoming projects yet?
Sophrosyne/ I honestly thought when I finished Parades that it might be a while before I touched music again. But as much as I keep telling myself I have painting to do, I keep going back to music. So we’ll see. Maybe I’ll take a looser approach to just playing music for a while without worrying about recording and arranging. But I’m also really eager to hear what all of my gear sounds like together. A lot of what it comes down to for me is having a dedicated creative space where I can just walk up and pick up a brush or turn on a mixer and just start. Setting up and breaking down is a creativity killer! So we’ll see what comes, but I don’t expect to take a long hiatus.