Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe of Desert Dwellers discuss incorporating the natural world with electronic music
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Just after their set at the 10th annual Gem and Jam Festival in Tucson, I spoke with psy-duo Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe of Desert Dwellers. We discussed the influence of the desert in their music, creating a focus on the Earth's elements, manipulation of organic sounds, and more.
Earlier last year, you guys put out The Great Mystery which was the first album that you fully produced all the original tracks together. Even though you guys have been working together since 2001, do you think producing together in that way has created a new dynamic between you two?
Amani Friend: Yes, definitely. Ever since we started working together we’ve talked about creating an album this way, so it’s been a long time coming. The vision was to go through all the styles of music that we like. As you said, up until that point Treavor [Moontribe] and I had only been putting out singles and EPs, and it was really fun for us to have a whole concept album that could collabroate on.
Last year, Desert Dwellers embarked on a tour with Kalya Scintilla and Eve Olution that focused on sustainability by creating Earth altars in venues and more. What were some of the biggest takeaway points from that tour - whether it was about sustainability or playing music in new places?
Treavor Moontribe: I think the people really enjoyed the shows because they were able to participate in the event. Different people would come together to create those altars and those decorations at the show, and some of them were really incredible. It was great seeing people come together for a common goal like that, and overall I think people responded really well to having that kind of engaging experience.
A lot of your shows are intentionally outdoors and in nature. Is it harder for you to relay those messages about sustainability when you’re playing in bar venues, and if so how do you overcome those obstacles?
Amani: Certainly our music does work better in a festival setting or outside in the desert. I personally find that it’s really fun to bring those vibes into a setting that usually doesn't’ experience it. For that tour specifically, we were putting a lot of nature sounds into our set because it was the overall theme for that tour. It was really nice to bring those vibes into a bar which usually don’t hear those things. Same goes for Kalya Scintilla’s music - in a lot of ways it doesn’t work with the alcohol vibes, but it’s good to share that music where it’s needed most.
Treavor: Plus, playing outdoors is just always preferred because you don’t have a limit for the sound. When you play psychedelic music it has a lot of layers, and inside you lose those things because of the reverb and you’re counting on the place to have a good sound system. If the venue is really cool and they have nice lighting and all, I do enjoy being indoors. I’m okay with the club atmosphere once in awhile, though I wouldn’t want to do it every week. I’ve been DJing for many years so I’m used to it, but absolutely outdoors is preferred.
You guys always adapt your DJ sets depending on your current environment. Since we are in Tucson, I’m curious about what specific factors about the desert influence the mood or overall atmosphere of your set when you play out here?
Treavor: Well, here at Gem and Jam it’s almost hard to remember you’re in the desert because the venue is surrounded by so many industrial-like buildings. Even in Tucson in general, it can be hard because you have to find a plot of desert land without concrete covering it. Here, for me anyways, it’s a little difficult to remember I’m in the desert aside from the fact that it’s February and it’s 70 degrees at night and I’m wearing a short-sleeved shirt [laughs]. I think when we’re in a real desert environment in the middle of nowhere playing, then for sure it makes a huge difference. It makes a lot more sense in general because that’s where our music stems from.
Amani: Yeah, I guess I’d have to agree with Treavor because you don’t normally see strobe lights and vendors when you’re really out in the desert [laughs]. Tonight we mostly played new music with some classic tunes thrown in there because there are people from all over the country here for Gem and Jam, so that’s what mostly guided out set here.
In another interview, you were talking about your love for the desert because nomadic gypsies had been exchanging music with one another for eons. What do you think are some of the most important lessons of the desert’s rich music history to carry into the future?
Amani: I think a lot of these nomadic cultures were able to live in a sustainable place in harmony with their environment, and I think we’ve totally lost touch with that in this current culture. We need to learn how to move through the world without destroying it, so we look to these ancient cultures for wisdom for what we’re going through right now.
In the near future, you’ll be working on the next Downtemple Dub series called “Breath” based on the air element. When you’re creating a mix based on a element, how do you focus your shift to be on that one element so that it becomes pronounced in your music?
Amani: For this series, we’re working with our friend Meagan Chandler who is very well versed in many areas of traditional music. She’s been spending the past few months researching songs that are about breath, the wind, or air. We bring a lot of prep work and intention into the thought of what we’re trying to capture, and it just kind of flows through us in the collaborative process from there.
Treavor: I think in the last few years we’ve made a lot of music that’s more geared towards the festival scene and psychedelic energy and more dancefloor fun. The next album we want to do more pretty music, softer sounds...not really necessarily a dance floor album but something that’s more melodic and less chaotic. Obviously, when you’re dealing with wind it can get chaotic, so maybe there will be chaotic moments in there. It’ll be more of a chill vibe that we’re going towards.
Amani: We want to keep the integrity of the series. We won’t be going outside of our format, rather continue the journey of what that series has been so far. We want to collect some of those sounds that we found ten years ago and take it to a new level and mix it in with some pretty vibes.
Treavor: Some of the remixes we did over the last few years really fit into that vibe and gave us desire to do a whole album of that nature. We did a remix of AnTenNae and Kaya Project and those have been leaning more to the Downtemple Dub sounds. It’ll come out soon. It’ll be a more soft electronic and less psy-base or whatever people want to call it.
Amani: A lot of our friends appreciate that side of music that we create, so it’s nice to revisit that and give them something to enjoy.
Amani, I know you’re really into environmental field recordings. Do you feel that your music is based on the rhythms you find in nature, or do you find that it’s the other way around and that your background in music has helped you find the rhythm in nature?
Amani: Hm, I’ve studied two tangents in my life - the electronic world and the organic world. A lot of music that cultures first made were a way to interact with nature and their environment. To be able to go as you travel and really listen to what you’re experiencing in different environments and weave that into your own creative music, which is what we do, is what the intention of music is really about. So it’s a bit of both. I was studying these two tangents of electronic music in the late 90s during college, and I've always been fascinated with where the ancient and future threads meet, how they play off each other and how one influences the other.
I’ve noticed a lot of field samplings stay organic in your music as opposed to being manipulated into other sounds. Is this an intentional process to keep those recordings natural, or are there actually a lot of masked/manipulated sounds in your sets?
Amani: There is a lot of manipulation in the live sets. It is nice to hear those sounds in its original integrity and that vibration, and also as it journeys into a further arrangement of the song. They eventually get affected and tweaked in ways that make it more glitchy.
Treavor: There’s definitely a bit of both organic and manipulation in the music depending on the sample. Sometimes you get sounds like birds, and they’re really trippy already but it can take on a whole other form when you manipulate it to be something else. It’s really fun to synthesize nature sounds.
Amani: And it’s fun to mix different natural sounds into each other as well. I always like to have water samples throughout our mixes.
Treavor: Sometimes, you get a layer of crickets and frogs and you just want to let it go. Especially if you’re doing ambient or something, it’s nice to hear those things as they are. Sometimes you have to adjust it because those samples can be really loud frequencies and you don’t want to blast that onto people. Sometimes it makes sense to leave them, and sometimes it’s just fun to make them crazy.
What can we look forward to from you both throughout the rest of this year?
Treavor: Right now we’re working on a compilation for Sofa Beats, which is Iboga Record’s sub-label. Iboga is a really well known label out of Denmark and we recently signed a deal with FM Bookings and Sofa Beats for international bookings, and part of the deal was to make a compilation. It should be out before the summer. It features amazing tracks from some of our friends, i.e. AtTya, Kalya Scintilla, Wolf Tech. That’ll be a fun release to hold over until the next album. We’re finishing up a remix for Shpongle, and we have a Kaya Project remix in the works as well. So a lot of remixes and such for now, but we’re already thinking about our next full length album.
We also have a lot of international gigs coming up. We want to achieve the level of success internationally as we do in North America, and even more so, because in the international scene our music is more well-received out. Even though there are people out here that like tribal, psychedelic sounds, it’s not as big as other things going on right now. In the international scene it’s the biggest sound, whether it’s psy-trance, psychedelic techno, house, psychedelic downtempo or experiemental stuff like we make. When we play Boom Festival in Portugal we played for a massive amount of people and it was so well received...same with Rainbow Serpent Festival in Australia. So in 2016, we’d like to reach a good space at the international level.
We’re also working on a stage show which is an entirely new experience for us. We’ll do four of those before the summer: one at Serenity Gathering in SoCal, a show in Boulder, CO, and a show in Taos, New Mexico. Then we’ll do the full show at Lightning in a Bottle. There will be live singing, live violin, circus performances, aerial pieces, fire pieces that are all pre-planned and choreographed, Tammy Firefly and Anthony Ward are our featured performers. Meagan Chandler is our main singer for the show, and Hannah Thiem (HÄANA) will be doing violin and some singing as well at Serenity Gathering. We also had Carey Thompson create a small structure that goes in front of the table so we’re not just standing at a boring table. It has our logo in the middle with New Mexico zia behind it. It's really tribal and psychedelic looking with led lights and 3d visuals will be projected on it.
We’re hoping to tour that show in 2017 more steadily We hired video teams to cover all four shows, and we have a promo video out that has some performances, but it was just put together in days so it’s nowhere near as big of a production as what you’ll see this year. It definitely shows where we’re headed.
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Be sure to check out our other Gem and Jam artist interviews, our photo gallery, and pick up a copy of our 2nd zine which has Gem and Jam features, blogs, poems and more.