Dem Hunger’s music is pretty hard to categorise. Chopped up, fucked about and mangled samples laid over dischordant feedback, Bollywood soundtracks, 8-bit, played on a tape that sounds like it’s been left on a car dashboard to melt in the sun for too long. It’s not for the faint hearted…and yet I love it. That said, I was a little concerned about meeting, his twitter stream is an outlet for his alter ego Susie Sahara who rants in block capitals and reads like a care in the community casualty. But Louis Johnstone in the flesh is disarming and very talkative. Over a bitterly cold evening sat outside The Dove on Broadway market and countless belgian beers, I got to grips with the man and his hunger.
What were your early musical influences?
The Ghostbusters soundtrack, bought for me by dad on vinyl. Then he bought the ‘Final Countdown’. He and I used to dance together round the house to it.
Did you like his taste in music?
I did, yeah. I hadn’t worked it out at that point, I was still listening to what was in the charts, like most kids do. Basically, he was into Jimmy Hendrix and he suggested I learn to play guitar. This was when I was about 11 and I started to take lessons. From there I used to make my own songs up and got really into Green Day, I was a Green Day maniac, this was in 94/95, and then I got into pop punk and it went from there, all the West Coast, like NoFX and used to play in punk bands.
How was your guitar playing?
I was pretty much self taught, power chords. I can still play although I haven’t played for a long time. I got into Fugazi, Minutemen, I was a massive Descendents fan. Then I progressed to Black eyes, on the cusp of 2000, post hardcore, then Godspeed you Black Emperor, Mogwai, and then Ghostface, Madlib etc. I had a jazz phase too. Coltrane obviously. I discovered that Coltrane did this collaboration with Rashid Ali, a two piece, Coltrane on tenor, and Rashid Ali on drums around 66/7, really pushing the genre. I felt I had to play saxophone. Started making up fucking weird shit, playing gigs on my own, with an instrument I couldn’t play. I’d have a tape deck with loops and I’d play sax over it.
I looked on Discogs today and it said that you also go by Saxophones, Wanda’s group and Tigerpiss.
There’s Motherships and The Hers as well. Tigerpiss was me fucking about with a glockenspiel and a snare drum basically. Motherships was my singer/songwriter stuff. I like to sing. I’d say I’m in the Tom Waits/Scott Walker school of singing. The deep voice helps. If you sing with a deep voice, everyone thinks you’re genuine. Then I really got into the DIY ethic, Calvin Johnston, that lo-fi vibe. I bought a four track, started writing songs on guitar.
So how did Dem Hunger come about and what inspired the name?
I was doing some artwork, merging two images together, focusing on the symmetry. I made about 8 pictures, and for every one, I was going to write a song. It was a starting point for a project. I can’t just launch into something, it has to be based on a concept. I’ll wake up one day and set myself a month to work on something.
But in terms of the name Dem Hunger itself, I get obsessed with certain words. I had a ‘milk’ stage, just the word, not the drink itself. It was originally going to be Dem Culture, because I really liked the way the word culture looked, and sounded. Then I got into the word hunger. Simple as that really. it’s like a piece of art that you like the way it looks. For me, it was the same thing with words.
So words are quite important to you? It’s one of the things I noticed that got my attention and inspired me was the titles of your tracks on your Caveman Smack LP, for example.
It’s all so thought out. I’ve always been good at writing ‘soundbites’, as opposed to creating a story. That’s all it is. It’s enjoyable.
Did you want there to be a relationship between the song titles and the music?
The idea with Cavemen Smack was I wanted it to sound like if cavemen had different technology at the time, and the idea progressed from there, if they had had the tools, what would come from that. If I had the guts, I would have just let it be completely slapdash, a completely horrible audible experience.
There isn’t a face to your music as such, was this a conscious decision? Do you hide behind your various alter egos? Your twitter and facebook personas for example are these fictitious characters you create.
It’s why I ummed and ahed a little about being photographed for the work:ethic interview.
Can you tell us a bit more about the writing and creative process, the software and equipment you use etc.
In terms of the way I make my music, I don’t sequence anything. I might record something one day and come back to it later. It’s all really archaic. I’ve got an old MPD, I wanted an MPC but I couldn’t afford one. It was the last thing my ex-girlfriend ever bought me. A demo version of Fruity Loops, which I use to convert the MPD, and then I have a Polderbits sound recorder, which I use to convert vinyl to MP3. You can use it for internal and external sound, and I’ve used that and had the same programme for 11 years. I always expect mistakes and I like it, there were loads incorporated into Caveman Smack. I’m trying to teach myself not to hold back. I used to set myself a 4 hour window, and make myself produce. Lately I might work for an hour and get 10 seconds worth of material I’ll use. I wish I had a reel to reel and cut tapes, but it’s all about time and money. If I gave myself free reign I wouldn’t be able to do anything, it’s by limiting myself that I do it. Hence giving myself a story or concept to guide me.
I got into trouble recently, Hyperdub wanted me to do something for them, but I made up a story that I was doing a split with Burial. I woke up one day before work and had an email from the Hyperdub guy and he said he’d had about 1000 emails, because everyone’s waiting for new Burial material after a 2 year wait, and I didn’t think it would snowball like that because I tweeted it. After a telling off he still said if I wanted to submit material I could. Hyperdub want me to do a full length but I’m not ready for that, it scares the shit out of me, because i know they’re going to criticise me for it not being good enough, or pay me advance to make something, as opposed to me make it and getting a return from the sale of the records, which I’m more comfortable with.
Have you played out live? How have live performances been received?
I probably won’t ever play live with Dem Hunger. I’m not as confident as I was when I was 19/20. I over think it.
But if you were to play out would it be a DJ set as opposed to live?
I’d want to do something that people probably wouldn’t like. I like doing my own thing. It fucks off the audience. I’ve played live in the past, sax, tape deck. I played at the Old Blue Last. The guy from Fuck Buttons, prior to being in the band used to put on shows. I played with Lucky dragons on one occasion too. He really liked my music, regardless of what I wanted to do live. I’d just turn up with whatever I felt like on the day. That was fun, it was when I had the guts to do it. I didn’t give a fuck back then. But you get to that stage when people are expecting something of me as Dem Hunger, and it plays on my mind. When I used to play shows, I used to challenge myself. I would give myself a challenge or a limitation, such as for a certain show, I might just allow myself a bass guitar and a kick drum. Or just sing with a loop pedal, or use old soul songs.
Tell me a little bit about your artwork.
It sounds like a cliche but it was just like a need, the idea of spending my time after work or after school creating something. I drink a lot on my own, instead of going out with friends…the best nights I’ve had have been drinking on my own. I don’t ever get bored in my own company. It was relaxing, time to myself, and a sense of achievement, even if no one else gets it. Everything I put out, I want 100% artistic control over, I’m pretty rigid like that. I’m a bit of a control freak in that respect. With Caveman Smack I had total artistic control, except for the colour of the tape. With the Wanda Group on New New Age cassettes I chose the layout etc. I made up the fake women in the band, it lists four members, but obviously it’s just me, to suggest the idea of a 60s soul group.
A bit like Throbbing Gristle, the cover and title they chose for their 20 Jazz Funk Greats LP, the idea that you don’t know what you’re going to get. I might buy something in a record shop purely on the strength of the cover, I like the idea of the cover being the opposite of the music.
What’s your view on the resurgence of cassette as a viable format?
I think it’s good because it’s cheap to produce. It’s an interesting package. It’s a way of getting loads of it out there. I’s a nice format, it’s soft, it’s warm, it’s pretty hard to break.
Do you think your day job positively or adversely affects your music?
Work gives you structure. I come home and I know that I have a limited amount of time to make music, say a 3 or 4 hour window. The best thing is not to have internet. It’s the bane of my life. I like the idea of staying at home and being on benefits, and making lots of music, but the reality is that I wouldn’t end up making anything.
What’s lined up for this year?
In terms of what I’m meant to do, it’s a split Dem Hunger/Svetlana release. There’s another group I’m working on, and by that I mean me, called The Cleaners, that will be an extension of Wanda Group. Oneotrixpointnever has started a new label called Mexican Summer and perhaps I’ll work with them, and NNA tapes wants to put out The Cleaners thing. They’re going to send me all the tapes they’ve released over the last year, and I’ll make a remix tape based on that material.
Check out his latest split with Cuppcave on Vlek records
You can buy his full length LP ‘Caveman Smack’ from excellent LA based Leaving Records
EXCLUSIVE TRACK : Wanda Group – woman woman woman woman : download
Marianne Hobb’s Radio 1 Dem Hunger mix : download
All Artwork by Demhunger, made especially for this interview