Jam City on making psych rock with Lil Yachty

Art by Tyler Farmer.

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Lil Yachty’s polarizing psych rock foray Let’s Start Here features contributions from plenty of famous musicians (Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Magdalena Bay, Nick Hakim, Alex G), but the name that really caught my eye was Jam City. A rising star of London’s electronic music label Nite Slugs in the early 2010s, Jam City (née Jack Latham) made an indelible mark on that decade’s club music, first with his debut album Classical Curves in 2012 and again as an executive producer on Kelela’s pioneering 2017 album Take Me Apart.

Since then, he’s produced pop music for Troye Sivan and Joji, as well as releasing 2020’s incidentally-trippy (“that wasn’t the intention”) Pillowland, which feels like playing virtual reality Candy Land on a malfunctioning Oculus. Early on Let’s Start Here, Lil Yachty remixes that album’s “Cruel Joke” into “the ride-” featuring Teezo Touchdown. “The original concept for ‘Cruel Joke’ was ‘narcotic,’” Latham explains. “Yachty’s record is so much more psychoactive/buzzed and all the better for it.”

Jam City’s production also appears on “sAY SOMETHINg” and album standout “pRETTy,” featuring singer-songwriter Fousheé. “[It’s wild] that he’s doing a slowed down version of the Detroit flow on ‘pRETTy,’ where the bars are intentionally ahead of the beat,” says Latham. “He’s done the same thing on Michigan Boy Boat, but ‘pRETTy’ takes that in a whole new direction.”

When No Bells caught up with Jam City in early February, he had just returned home after two weeks in the studio with an unnamed artist. He isn’t on the new Kelela record (“She has a vision for it and I’m excited to listen as a fan”) but he has been working on new Jam City music. We talked about his first beat for Lil Yachty, his not-so-psychedelic approach to Pillowland, producing for Olivia Rodrigo and maturing as a creative.

Vivian Medithi: So just to kick things off, how did you and Lil Yachty first meet?

Jam City: I actually produced a beat for him on the album that came before this, Lil Boat 3.5, called “Asshole” with Oliver Tree. The way that happened was my buddy, Jeremiah [Raisen, AKA] Sad Pony, who I’ve known for years and met when we were working on the Kelela record six or seven years ago. I sent him beats, he sent me stuff, and he became close to Yachty. He was just like, “Send me stuff,” and one of those ended up on [Lil Boat 3.5]. And then he said, “He’s going in this different direction, send me stuff.” I think some of the ones that I was doing were the first ones in this direction of [a] psychedelic album. So they became sort of the palette for what the rest of the record was in some ways. I really have to thank Jeremiah for that, so shoutout him.

When you were sending stuff over, did they say, “Here are the big touchpoints, here’s what we’re aiming for,” or was it more, “Hey, we liked your stuff on Pillowland, can you send us more stuff in that vein?”

I put together a folder of stuff that I’d been working on and then at the last minute I was just like, “You know what? Let me just put on some instrumentals from Pillowland,” because it’s in the same world, it’s kind of psychedelic, it’s kind of mid-tempo. And so I put a few from Pillowland in that first batch and they were the ones that went on. “pRETTy” was one of the last ones which was written more to spec, where it was like, “He’s looking for this kind of vibe.” And I wrote that one to brief almost and sent it in, and he got it in immediately.

There’s a couple of others that didn’t make the record, but they’re kind of cool as well, I’ve got them somewhere in my inbox. But yeah, it wasn’t so much, “We’re looking for this vibe,” or that, I just felt like “Hold on… The records they’re looking for I already have.” They were part of my solo projects, but I’m all for repurposing stuff and giving it to someone else and seeing what they do with it.

Jam City’s 2020 album Pillowland.

Speaking on that specific idea of people taking your ideas to different places, Pillowland kind of functions as genre pastiche, and in some of your interviews talking about that album, one thing that really struck me was you saying that the most important thing when you want to remake a genre from the past is first, you have to do it the way they did it, and then you can go and play with it in terms of adding your own flair. How would you compare and contrast your approach with Yachty’s approach?

Well first off, it’s not so much a pastiche for me, but it’s certainly not [an] authentic recreation like “I want this record to sound like it was made back in the 70s.” It’s just taking that as a starting point that you can then mold into your own thing and I think there was something kind of—and this word is so overused—there is something psychedelic about what Yachty did with the project, that maybe was a bit more latent in Pillowland. Pillowland wasn’t really meant to be trippy in that way. It sounds [like] it, but that wasn’t the intention necessarily. I wanted to make something that was a little darker and not too flowery if that makes sense. Not too trippy but maybe disorientating and dark in some way.

But then I think those instrumentals in the hands of Yachty and other producers suddenly became way more colorful. I can only really describe it as that. And I think that’s just the tone of his voice and, you know, the production methods, and there’s something so fun about him [that’s] always been so fun about him and his music and that’s what people really connect to, is that he’s such a character, you know? He has such wonderful charisma. That is something that I could never embody as a vocalist, or rather I have my own priorities as a vocalist in terms of songwriting. But when he gets on it, he just takes it to this completely different world. It’s just him. It’s just Lil Yachty and it just felt so right.

Jumping off that, I’d love to talk about “the ride-” and the way that retools and reworks “Cruel Joke.” Were you heavily involved in that, or was that something where you sent it off into the ether and it came back in this new form?

I mean, it’s exactly the same as “Cruel Joke” pretty much, apart from the drums, it has new drums on it. And it’s restructured, especially the B-section where Teezo [Touchdown] comes in. But more or less the main riff was all the same, the kind of the drop where the harpsichord comes in was the same, but it’s just totally different to how I write and I love that. The joy of collaboration is that you get something back that just takes it to another level that you didn’t expect.

When I listen back to Pillowland, especially a song like “Climb Back Down,” that’s a vocal take where, to my ears at least, it really gels with early Yachty stuff off Lil Boat, like “Out Late.” How do you feel his voice interacts with your instrumentals versus how your own voice interacts with your instrumentals? Especially on “sAY SOMETHINg” and “pRETTy,” where his vibrato is literally as much part of the instrumental as it is part of the vocal take.

I love backing vocals. With other artists, it’s one thing that I really have become quite passionate about in recent years. And layering and harmonies, and call and response parts. What I often do in the studio is get vocalists to just record singular notes and then make a pad out of that and having that fill out the space of the instrumental. It’s just so much more natural sounding and organic sounding and interesting sounding than just putting any old synth in there or guitar or whatever.

So I’m a huge fan of filling that space with the artist’s own vocals and them becoming part of the track, and on “pRETTy,” he did that just so beautifully. What I sent to them originally is pretty sparse. It’s just a keyboard playing two chords, a little guitar riff, and the drums and bassline, but the version of “pRETTy” that was released sounds huge, it really does. It sounds so dreamy and heavenly and it’s all those beautiful, vocal layers, and the little high ones, it sounds like this chorus of angels, it’s really quite celestial. And it’s all his voice.

That’s the approach I really try to take in the studio as well with other artists is just using their voice as an instrument as much as possible beyond just the lead line. It always yields interesting results because it’s so unique. No one else sounds like Yachty, no one else sounds like whoever else it is. It’s a one-of-a-kind instrument that everyone has and it’s a limited-edition synthesizer of only one and that’s to be used and exploited to the fullest.

When you’re talking about using people’s voices as an instrument, are there specific songs you’ve worked on that come to mind when we’re talking about this?

There’s a couple of things. [The music I’ve been working on recently], I’m kind of going back to my [dance music] roots a little bit, but such a huge part of that was building up and using other people’s vocals, not just to chop up and resample but just using them as textures. The last couple of months I’ve become really obsessed with the Bee Gees and listening to their vocal harmonies and just how many vocals there are on each of those songs and it’s something I’ve been trying to [do more] in my production work and on my own end with other people. Because it’s their personality, it’s an instrumental texture that you can use that is again, just so unique and fills the spaces so beautifully. You don’t have to think, “Is this the right tone?” because it’s already there. And I love the feeling of one person’s voice interacting with themselves, like maybe you’ll just double a line or you’ll add a harmony to a line, suddenly it’ll feel like that’s a different emotional character within the song itself, it feels like there’s different, you could call it voices in their head or something like that. But it just adds a level of depth and complexity to the actual meaning of the song and it just sounds great.

Jam City co-produced Olivia Rodrigo’s “jealousy, jealousywith Dan Nigro.

It’s funny actually that you bring up this idea of layered vocals, because going back and listening to [your production work], on the Olivia Rodrigo album on “jealousy, jealousy,” her vocals there are doubled, tripled up and that really resonated with me in terms of what was happening on “pRETTy” and “sAY SOMETHINg” with regards to the artist’s vocal as an instrument and the way that has not just a sonic effect, but a thematic effect in terms of what they’re trying to do or say.

In pop production, which is what I’ve done with most of my career for the last five years, I’ve learned that there’s nothing more important than the song, whatever context it is, no matter who you’re working with, whether it’s a rapper or a folk singer or an indie singer or whatever. The song is number one and the words of the song are number one and the vocal performance is number one. It’s not about having the most amazing vocal talent or about doing vocal gymnastics, but it’s about how the artists and the things that they’re saying inhabit that musical world. It’s increasingly more interesting and more complex and deep than any kind of musical production like, “Oh, I’m just gonna use this drum machine,” or “I’m gonna use this sample from a Prophet instead of a Juno.” I love those things, but what’s more important than that is the artist and how the thing that they’re saying sits over the music. I’ve become really quite obsessed with the voice and vocals and trying to extract the truth out of someone’s vocal performance and the music itself. It’s confusing and it’s complicated and I’m not a vocal engineer either, it’s just something that I respond to on an emotional level and can’t get out of my head.

Would you say that you prefer working on music that’s further out of your wheelhouse or stuff that feels like “Jam City goes pop?” Like “No Fun” by Joji really sounds like a song that could live on a Jam City album versus say, some of your stuff with Troye Sivan, which feels a lot more in that pop realm full stop.

I’ve been obsessed with music my whole life and I’ve been through various phases of listening to this kind of music and that kind of music. And, you know, there’s challenges of course, all types, there’s a challenge involved in every project but I’ve never really felt out of my depth genre-wise because I’ve always got a reference for something and there’s nothing that I can’t connect to. My real passions are probably R&B music and a certain vintage of pop music — and electronic music as well. But I’ve never felt like “this isn’t really what I do.” There’s certain types of things I’m not interested in of course, but more often than not, there’s a way in somewhere. I always want to be learning too. Like, I would love to make a straight-up [rock album]. I would love to produce a rock band, guitar, bass and drums three-piece.

The older I get and the more I work with other artists in the pop world, if you will, it’s important to keep cultivating your own sense of the thing that you’re really passionate about above other things. And for me, there’s only two or three songs I feel I want to write in my life and my career, and the older I get, the less I care about the other ambitions. It’s just zeroing into those two or three songs, and I’m gonna be doing that for the rest of my life. I’m gonna keep trying to write those three songs and I’m gonna get closer, and then I’m gonna fail, and I’m gonna get closer again, and then I’m gonna fail. It’s not to say I’m becoming close-minded altogether to the opportunities, because like I said, I love challenges and I love working on all different types of things.

But over the last four years, there is an expectation with pop music of commerciality, which is, you know, that’s the world we’re in, that’s the game and I’m down to play it, but the more I work in that world, the other side of myself, the side of myself that is deep inside and really has an emotional connection to a certain type of song, a certain type of sets of sounds and certain production aesthetic, I kind of narrow more and more into that. 

That’s really beautiful. Especially for people who are creatives, of all stripes, especially when you have that creative impulse very young, regardless of how broad the music or whatever you engage with artistically is, you have these pretty strong ideas. “This genre is this,” “this genre is that,” “I like this,” “I don’t like that.” Then as you get older, your palate expands, you’re trying more stuff. But when you create and you’re producing something, even as your intake is widening, you’re getting a better sense of fine-tuning [towards] that thing that made you want to be creative in the first place.

You put it better than I could which is that you expand as you get older, you get better at what you do. You expand, but you also contract and you want your experience to expand, you want your skills to expand, you want your abilities and your imagination to expand. But your passion naturally contracts and narrows into this focus.

That becomes even moreso for me when this kind of becomes a day job for me. A lot of the ways that I’ve earned money and kept myself afloat over the last few years have been working on projects that I had no idea that I’d ever find myself on, and I love it. And I’m learning stuff and I’m working with incredible people, but then that little side to me that I’ve neglected in order to focus on a bigger project intensifies and grows. It’s almost like you’ve got to repress it, because you got to do other stuff, but the more you repress it, the more intense it becomes. That’s nice in a way because I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do both things and the more [things I do], the more my personal vision intensifies.