Interview by Parisa Eshrati
On his latest full length LP, This Must Be the Place, Detroit producer Apollo Brown proves that background music doesn't have to fall flat. Through melody-driven beats and introspective instrumentals, Apollo Brown creates a deeply thoughtful soundtrack for a subsconscious music experience to guide listeners through their everyday life. In the latest installment of our Mello Music interview series, we caught up with Apollo to discuss the idea of passive listening, beat production techniques, monster truck rallies, and more.
With your newest album, This Must Be the Place, you don’t shy away from describing it as “background music”. To start off our interview, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on subconscious listening. What do you feel are the benefits of inactive vs. active music listening experiences?
It's interesting, because I think generally if you were to go up to an artist and describe their music as background music, they would take offense to it. But I think that background music can be some of the greatest music, you know? Like you said, it plays with your subconscious and it gives you emotions that you didn't even know you could experience at that point in time. You could be just cleaning your house and it can take you to a whole different mental plane. It's like having a score for a movie. You are the movie, your actions are the plot, and then you have the music behind you that's providing the soundtrack.
When you're watching a movie, the score controls the emotions. It tells you how to feel at that moment. That's how I view the music, especially with this latest album. I tell people to put it on, let it play, and go about your business. Just go about your day and do whatever you're doing. Let the music drive your mood. Whether you're working on your car, having a long road trip, or vacuuming...well, I guess you can't really hear music when you're vacuuming [laughs]...but you know, cleaning your house or doing whatever. You don't need to focus on it consciously. You don't need to sit and listen to it with intent. So yeah, background music is a term that I'm very cool with. I encourage the word and the connotations that come with it, that’s all fine with me. A lot of people make music to deliberately feed a message or focus on a certain set of words, but that’s not what this particular album is about. I’m okay with this music being a backdrop.
There’s a lot of background music out there, especially now that people are inundated with super generic, algorithmic lo-fi beats playlists online. Talk to us more about what that term means to you, and the difference between background music made with intention vs. all the soulless beats out there.
For me, it all comes down to feeling. Everything I produce, even if it's for someone else, all comes down to feeling. If the sound doesn't move me or take me places when I'm listening to it, I'm going to turn it off or delete it. I try to make music that either you can remember something to or forget something to, you know what I'm saying? Maybe you'll remember the amazing memories that you had with your parents who are no longer with you, or maybe you'll momentarily forget the trauma that you've experienced in your life...whatever it is, music should take you places. When you mention how that other music is soulless, I think of sounds and words that mean nothing. It’s just blips with no rhyme or reason. There's no goal, no end point, it's just something that's there. I think background music should still make people feel something, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously. That's important to me. Music has to have feeling.
What helped guide this process to focus on the overall feeling rather than getting caught up in the technical aspect of the sound? What kind of memories were you experiencing at the time of making this album that motivated those feelings?
A lot of what drives the feeling for me is melody. When you mentioned soulless music before, I think a lot of music these days is not melody-driven, and that's the soul that's missing. Everything I do is pretty much melody-driven, but that's more relating to the technical aspect of making the beat. The majority of this album was created throughout the pandemic. It was a time when we were alone. We were just with our immediate families. We were all isolated, and that experience drove certain feelings and emotions on this album. It's funny, because as a producer, I've been trained to be that way...isolating is kind of what we do! We go down in the basement, shut the door, and we're alone. The rest of the family isn't used to that though, you know? My kids and my wife obviously want to go out and socialize with their friends, so it was definitely different than any other time in our lives.
There wasn't really a specific memory or instance that happened in my life that resulted in these beats. I just wanted to take the overall experience and in turn, give people something to look forward to listening to on the other side. Even though...man, are we even on the other side? [laughs] I guess in some places we are, but I definitely wanted to create something for people to throw on and enjoy.
Rather than crate digging and sampling for this record, you solicited compositions from ten sound designers for you to chop and flip. Tell us more about this process and the designers you worked with. Did you give them a theme or prompt? What are the main differences for you to produce when you’ve been given a sound rather than seeking one out?’
Sound design is actually new to me. It's something that I never really got into until a couple albums ago. I'm a traditional sampler producer, so for this album, I wanted to try something different. I enlisted a large group of amazing sound designers and instrumentalists that each have an incredible catalog of material. I've worked with a few of them before, like Motif Alumni and Soul Surplus on the Raheem DeVaughn and Sally albums.
I'm really enjoying this process though. I'm used to taking vinyl, dropping the needle, and finding a sample on something that was arranged and produced back in the '70s. Working with newer compositions is very different. Chopping it up is the same, but the sound quality is different. I'm used to using really bad sound quality...really itchy, scratchy-sounding old vinyl quality. The sound quality on these new samples, on the other hand, is super clean. In fact, I actually had to dirty up a lot of the beats because I'm really not into the super clean kind of sound. I muddied it up just a little bit with some filters to make it more comfortable. Overall though, it's a way of producing that I've definitely adopted and won't shy away from in the future.
According to the liner notes, the song “Kite Strings” is about being so mentally and spiritually comfortable with life, that you could sit on the edge of a cliff and fly a kite. The track is very carefree and airy, but also has that very grounding element. What helps you feel grounded in music, and ultimately in your life?
My family. Period.
The description you said is also the description for the album title, This Must Be The Place. When I say "place", I'm not talking about a specific place like a city. I'm talking more about a mentality. It's about finding a content place in your life. Personally, I'm at a place in my life where I have everything that I've always wanted. I have a beautiful family. I have support from everyone around me. I have the house and the cars I've always wanted. I have the career that I've always dreamed of. I wake up in the morning, I go down to my studio and make beats. I couldn't ask for a better situation. Even if I had a traditional nine-to-five, I'd come home and make beats, but now I get to do this for a living and fully enjoy it. They say that if you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life and I'm finding that to be true.
It's funny, you know, Alchemist said something recently about not being in the "industry" anymore. I totally agree with that. I don't think I'm in the industry anymore either. I don't really see myself that way. I don't go to industry events, I don't hang out with a lot of industry people, and sure I contribute to the industry every now and again...but I pull back so that I can go be with my family first and foremost. I'm a dad and a husband before I'm a producer. Through it all though, family is what makes me content. Family is what keeps me grounded.
You’ve talked about this record being a continuation of your 2011 LP, Clouds. Aside from the literal continuation of you making another instrumental album, how do you feel like This Must Be the Place carries and continues on Clouds thematically? What’s the tying thread between the two?
I'd say it's a little more removed from Clouds than a direct continuation. It just kind of gives you the same kind of vibes. The Thirty-Eight LP, which was another instrumental album I put out back in 2014, had a dirtier, back-alley kind of movie score feel. Clouds, however, was along the lines of giving you manufactured thoughts and emotions. I was creating a feeling with each track, but also proving that I could make music like that. I came from the beat battle circuit where I was making nothing but super hard, super big sounding beats that were full of crowd pleasers. I didn't know if people thought I could sit down and actually make album tracks or music that can suit the soul. The new album doesn't have that same drive of needing to prove myself, but it does carry on the same sort of vibes while also holding its own.
There’s an undoubted mood of melancholy on the album, and I’d be curious to hear more about your reflections on this mood. I’ve heard you mention this as an “environmental melancholy”, similar to the cloudiness of Detroit. Did that particular theme carry through on this record?
You know, it's funny, I saw someone online call me the King of Melancholy, and I wasn't sure how to take that. Is that a good or bad thing? I don't want people to think I'm like...the depressed downer guy! [laughs] I don't want people to be sad when they hear my music.
Right, 'cause it's also very hopeful.
Well, that's the thing too. I want the music to be inspiring and hopeful without being corny-happy. I don't want to make like...you know, sitting on the porch in the summertime, sipping-on-tea-and-smelling-flowers-type of music. There's nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I come from. I do want to make music that touches you and makes you feel introspective. I like melancholy because it's somber, and more than anything, it's relatable. I think that's what's most important. You know what it's like? When you've been out in the cold snow and your hands are frost-bitten, they say to never run your hands under hot water, you have to run it under cold water instead. I realize this analogy probably doesn't make sense here in Arizona [laughs]...but that's also what it's like with the music. If you're not feeling happy, I'm not gonna make you feel better with crazily happy music. You have to gradually feel better. The music will give you melancholy, the feeling soaks in, and then gradually you get happier. It's a hard thing to explain, and sometimes I really fight with the word melancholy, but overall I'm just glad people are listening.
In a 2018 interview, you discussed using Cool Edit Pro 2000 on Windows XP. Are you still using similar technology?
It’s actually two separate programs - there's Cool Edit 2000 and then there's Cool Edit Pro. Cool Edit 2000 came out in '97. It's a bare bones program that was literally made for radio stations. It's just some manipulation software for cutting commercials, voiceovers, seven second delays, stuff like that. I got a hold of it and started making beats with it, even though it wasn't originally made for that. Adobe bought it out and turned it into an actual production software eventually, and then Cool Edit Pro came out shortly after that. I still use 2000, but I'm not really used to multi-track programs. There's people who have been using an MPC since 1987 because that's what they know, and in the same way, I've been sticking with this technology because I've been using it for 25+ years. It's getting harder because it's an obsolete program and certain operation systems or hardware won't pair with it.
I really appreciate that, though. It shows that growth and evolution doesn’t come from technical upgrades or anything material like that.
Yeah, not at all. It's funny because I call myself a revolver, not an evolver. I mean, we all naturally evolve, and the whole point of being an artist is to come up with new and creative material. But I evolve around the music itself. That's actually why I came up with the album title Thirty-Eight, because that’s a type of revolver. I was considering calling it Revolver, but we all know the Beatles have an amazing album with that name and I didn't want to go there [laughs]. So yeah, I'm not reinventing the wheel, I'm just keeping the music that I love going. That comes full circle too. There's fans that want that kind of music. Not everybody is about the newest sound or newest technology, some of us want something that's a little bit more nostalgic.
Absolutely. To end this interview off a very serious note...if you had to describe yourself as any Monster Jam monster truck, which one would it be and why?
Easy - Grave Digger. I go to Monster Jam every year with my family, we love it. Bigfoot retired too early, in my opinion, but thankfully Grave Digger is still around. There's like seven of eight of them that all travel the country, but I'd go with the Anderson Family Grave Digger without a doubt. I mean...come on, who wouldn't want to be Grave Digger?!