Little Castles

Seattle Weekly plays Jukebox Jury with Seattle techno producer and Orac Records head Randy Jones, aka Caro.

Born 35 years ago in Madison, Wis., Randy Jones is one of Seattle's premier dance-music figureheads, for his work as a producer and remixer, and for the label he runs. Under the name Caro, Jones has released several acclaimed 12-inches over the past half-decade, and last month dropped his first full CD, The Return of Caro, on his own Orac imprint, which has also put out exceptional records by Bruno Pronsato (Silver Cities) and Strategy ("Super Vamp"). Though techno at heart, Return's eight songs venture pretty far afield for straight-up club music, but you'd never mistake it for any other kind of record. Jones, who studied jazz piano in his late teens, layers on keyboards, string samples, and even vocals in ways that feel tentative at first but strengthen with repetition, particularly on "My Little Pony," a 12-inch club hit from late 2004, and the disc-ending "My Little Castle," which moves from a Latinesque feel to a full-on homage to early, "jacking" Chicago house. Jones sat for the Jukebox in early May at the SW offices.

Hercules: "7 Ways to Jack" (1987) from Chicago Trax (Trax)

Randy Jones: It's some Italo type of thing, or something derived from it. [vocal comes in] Oh, it's Hercules. This is an amazing track, one of my favorites.

Seattle Weekly: On the last track on The Return of Caro, "My Little Castle" . . . 

Jones: Yeah, there's a little jack interlude on there.

SW: I totally noticed that. When did you first hear this record?

Jones: I think it was actually after I started doing Caro stuff. I was interested in some Chicago house. I had heard some of the [Chicago label] Dance Mania stuff at that point, but I had never heard [this] track. There's a [12-inch] I did called "Città alla Notte," which is me singing in Italian, and it is almost an electro-disco kind of vibe—like, there were lyrics about walking in the street at night, like, you want to dance, but you have nobody to dance with. My friend David in San Francisco said, "Oh, you have to check out Hercules." It would have been right after "Città alla Notte" came out, 2000 or 2001.

SW: So you kind of came to Chicago house in a firsthand way or a secondhand way?

Jones: Well definitely not firsthand. I wasn't at [legendary Chicago house club] the Music Box in 1985. I started to get back into dance music through electro and then kind of found my way back to this stuff more recently. You know—we were dancing, but it was when we were dancing in Madison to some of the more out there DJs, they were into, you know, like [Detroit techno label] Plus 8 stuff and the more interesting acid strains of English house that is ripping off this stuff. But I hadn't really heard of the original Chicago stuff, even when I started doing dancing in Chicago a little bit. I wasn't to the point of identifying individual tracks then, I was kind of more caught up in the music and the scene, you know.

SW: Who were the big DJs at the time in Madison?

Jones: Nick Nice had a residency at the Cardinal Bar, which was the dance hangout for people at the University [of Wisconsin at Madison], and even though the university has 50,000 kids or something, it's like the U of M [Minnesota, in Minneapolis/St. Paul]. There were probably the 100 or 150 people who were really into what became [rave] music crammed into the Cardinal Bar every Saturday.

SW: Were you from Madison, or did you just go to college there?

Jones: I was from Madison. Actually, in '91 I just finished going to school in Minneapolis for a couple years and returned to Madison.

SW: I'm from Minneapolis. What were you studying?

Jones: I was studying art and computer science.

SW: When you're not doing music, do you work with computers?

Jones: I do some intersection of art and computer science, basically. It's visual music. It bleeds over into my job. I'm programming this thing called Jitter with [a] company in San Francisco that Kit Clayton works for, and also Safety Scissors.

SW: Were you already into dance music before college?

Jones: Yeah. I always liked the intersection of electronic stuff with beats. I remember one of the very first things that you could call dance music was Wendy Carlos' beats—that really stuck in my mind. It's called "Geodesic Dance," and it was some weird experiment because most of her music was classical, or classically derived and flowing in that tradition. This is more like a dance piece in 7/4 time or something. I remember just listening to it over and over because it had really weird, tortured analog sounds and pretty striking beats. That was when I was probably 10 or something. There were just a few records that really stuck out.

SW: Were you already thinking that you wanted to make music, or were you more of a fan at that time? Being 10, had you had any musical training?

Jones: Well, my mom was a belly dancer, so she would do Middle Eastern dance, and there'd be guys playing drums and stuff. So we had one of these Middle Eastern drums in the back of our house, and I was actually making tapes where I would play that, and then take this program I had written with a joystick. It was like an audio video game; you could control the tone that was playing in the loop by moving the joystick up or down. But I didn't think of it as making music, really. I didn't think that I was going to be putting records out someday.

Prince & the Revolution: "Kiss" (1986) from The Hits/The B-Sides (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.)

Jones: I was afraid that you were going to play me some Prince thing that I didn't know, because I am in no way a completist. I think there's probably some pretty loose stuff of his I haven't even heard. Tragic, but I mean the stuff I know is just the records I own. I think I heard—what's the new one? Musicology? I listened to that. You know, it was still really good, but something's missing.

SW: I know what you mean. He's kind of lost some of the hunger.

Jones: I think it's inevitable [to reach that] point in your career for any artist. Prince is such an amazing artist in so many ways, and it's yet another amazing quality that you'd have to have as an artist to reinvent yourself to the extent where you're still doing something as fresh 20 years into your career or keeping that hunger and that vitality.

SW: When did you start DJing? Did you play stuff like this?

Jones: I started DJing in earnest, really at Robotrash, the party we used to have at the Baltic Room, which basically took off contemporaneously with Orac Records. I mean, I played at house parties and things like that, and I would fill in for people a little bit. You know, you don't really start learning until you do it, you know, every week or something for a while.

SW: That coincided with the electroclash scene in New York a little bit.

Jones: Yeah. It was a fairly compressed movement in the way it quickly became so tragically commercialized. And I think we knew it was kind of obvious that that was going on, and we didn't want to hang Robotrash on that electroclash thing at all. I mean, most of the DJs were very seriously into techno. Techno was the foundation of just about everyone who showed up there. But some of the new music was really exciting, and it was a chance for us to bring our dance music out to people in a new context.

SW: The cover of your album reminds me of the back cover of Prince's second album, where he's also riding a horse.

Jones: Yeah, that's been pointed out to me. I wasn't thinking of it that way, but like so many things, it ends up being similar to something. Of course, there's no way that I could hold a candle to that photo.

SW: Well, you're not naked. . . . 

Jones: And it's not a fucking Pegasus. [laughs] How they even did that, I don't know.

SW: It looks like they did a lot of airbrushing. What inspired the cover that you did? It's funny; it's got kind of a great energy.

Jones: I had the horse before I had the title. I don't know, it just seemed intuitively right. It's a certain amount of hubris, right? You're on a horse. At the same time, it's down to earth, it's something organic—it's an organic kind of hubris. [laughs] And then my friend came up with the title. I was looking for a title really hard, and we even had the photo of the horse, and I was like, what do we call this?

[Orac has] always been into having people's faces on their records. Obviously, we're not alone in that respect. A lot of techno people have been putting that back for at least the last five years or so. But I mean, you grow up listening to records and there's a personality attached, right? Why should that be absent, especially in a music that seems to desperately need it?

Bill Evans: "Here's That Rainy Day" (1968) from Bill Evans Alone (Verve)

Jones: Is there going to be a vocal?

SW: None. No other instruments, actually.

Jones: I want to say it's Bill Evans, but it doesn't have that touch.

SW: It actually is Bill Evans.

Jones: Oh, OK. I was wrong. I love his chords. Maybe it's the boom box [we're listening to the songs on], where I'm not hearing [Evans'] touch, but yeah. What can you say about Bill Evans? He's just one of the most lyrical and yet harmonically adventurous players.

SW: On your album, the opening and last track for example, there's sort of hesitancy about the piano playing that reminded me of this.

Jones: Wow. Well, for me that's a stretch. . . . I mean, I know what you're saying. I took jazz piano for a while, definitely, and I'd like to think that some of that is reflected in the music, definitely in terms of playing back. I hear what you're saying, because I like a lot of elements in my dance stuff to be not on the grid.

SW: You don't play riffs, per se—it's not like Italodisco piano riffs, that kind of classic house-music style. It's much closer to what Evans did on Kind of Blue. When did you take jazz piano?

Jones: That's when I was going to college.

SW: Was it part of the curriculum, or was it a side thing?

Jones: It was a side thing. I was studying with Joan Wilde, who was just amazing—she's on the faculty at the UW, but she plays out at clubs a lot. Madison, actually—if you're going to be in the Midwest, it's one of the few bubbles of great culture, of stuff going on. [AACM member and multi-instrumentalist] Roscoe Mitchell is still there performing in town. [Former James Brown drummer] Clyde Stubblefield lives there, and there is an amazing little jazz scene in Madison.

SW: Did you ever travel outside of Madison much? Did you ever go to Milwaukee?

Jones: We used to go to Milwaukee on a fairly regular basis to go dancing, and then up to Chicago a little.

SW: Were you going dancing at the parties thrown by Drop Bass Network [the biggest rave promoters in the Midwest during the '90s]?

Jones: Yeah, the ones we'd go to would be in barns around Madison. [laughs]

SW: I remember those vividly. Those were some of the most outrageous parties imaginable. The thing I remember about all the Milwaukee kids, they would go right up to the speakers and bang their heads to the heaviest, fastest gabber techno around.

Jones: That's Milwaukee. But I don't want to give the impression—not that I would be embarrassed—that I was a really big raver, you know. I didn't do it all that much. I went to a couple parties out of town, and then we'd go to club nights, mostly in Milwaukee, once or twice in Chicago. And I was also playing in this band, trying to go to school. I was singing in a really bad band that was like, well, bad. It was called the Supermodels; it was Midwestern noise.

SW: Did you play in bands prior to college?

Jones: I was in a jazz band in high school. I don't think I was really in a band-band until in college. I was kind of playing around, but I wouldn't have really called it writing music. I mean, I was into synths and my dad was an electronics engineer, so I was always getting parts from Radio Shack and building things. I was definitely into them as machines and just as far as the sound quality that they would make, you know, fetishizing them and collecting them. I started trying to make music with a four-track and all of that, but finishing music is the hardest part—I mean, making a complete arrangement, a composition—so I would start making some cool sounds like a lot of people getting into electronic music. I didn't go much farther.

SW: A lot of the record strikes me, arrangementwise, as if you went through quite a few ideas for each song and sort of picked and chose which worked.

Jones: I would say that's true. I definitely threw away a lot of ideas.

SW: Do you save them for later?

Jones: Nah. There will be more ideas.

Safety Scissors vs. Kit Clayton: "21-14" (2002) from Ping-Pong (Carpark)

Jones: Is it Mouse on Mars? It's got some crazy, exotic, electronic . . . it's way cool, it's got this playfulness. It's too laid-back to be Mouse on Mars, but some of the sounds that were in there I'm still hearing as very much influenced by them. If you told me it was a Plastikman remix of IQU . . . but I don't think that's what it is.

SW: That's a pretty good guess. But that's not it.

Jones: Just because it's got a lightness and a playfulness and a competence that all of these guys have.

SW: What if I told you that a lot of the sounds were taken from a game?

Jones: You mean, samples of a video game?

SW: Not a video game—an analog game, a hand game.

Jones: Oh, is it that Kit Clayton and Safety Scissors Ping-Pong EP?

SW: Yes, the last track.

Jones: OK. I haven't listened to that recently.

SW: How did you meet those guys? How did you first encounter their music?

Jones: I think I really heard that stuff after I started getting into techno again after a certain hiatus. I came out here in '93 from Madison and was really not seeking out too much music, and then I started meeting friends who had similar interests, some of them being in techno music as well, or electronic music in general. So a lot of people had started listening to the stuff that had been coming out of San Francisco, since the early '90s down there, and the dance scene that all of these guys came out of. I started being more aware of it then. I first met Kit Clayton at some college in Portland, and he had come up to play with Sue [Cie, Clayton's former partner] and he had a 103 fever or something like that.

SW: What prompted you to come to Seattle?

Jones: I was avoiding a job, actually. A really good friend had hooked me up with a graphic design job in Austin after school. I was going to make decent money, just getting to design book covers or whatever. But I visited Austin and then I visited Vancouver and Seattle, and I manufactured some reason to come here instead.

SW: You also mentioned your hiatus between your sort of spurts of interest in techno. Was there any particular reason for that hiatus?

Jones: I just wasn't very artistically connected and for a while I was just trying to find work, and what I could do that would get me money was programming computers for a living. So I was really trying to get established, so after that I was actually in a group with Constantine, who I run Orac Records with, and Carol Farrell, who's played in the local noise scene for a long time, and we worked on music a lot, but it never really saw the light of day too much aside from some live performances we did. I guess there wasn't a hiatus, but I wasn't listening to dance music as much for a while—we were listening to more trip-hop and noise and all kinds of other things until I heard some more techno and dance stuff that excited me.

SW: What would you say the stuff that excited you was? It seems like for the last five years techno has been moving in kind of a laptoppy direction in a way, and it's been attracting people who were into IBM and down-tempo stuff before, too.

Jones: Well, I remember actually when the three of us that were in [former group] Star Polar met, one of the first times we got together, Aphex Twin's I Care Because You Do had just come out, and we were all familiar with Aphex. Listening to it together, we were thinking, it's really neat, there's a lot going on here, but it's kind of losing its way, even though it's still really cool. I think that just marks the end of a period of classic techno or something that we were into and needed a break from, before we got into more direct, electronic sounds again.

Jeff Samuel: "Double Yum" (2002) from 12-inch (Trapez)

Jones: [after about three minutes] I guess if I don't know it by now, I'm not going to. But I like it a lot. Why don't you tell me what it is so I can get this record?

SW: It's Jeff Samuel.

Jones: Oh, OK. I mean, that would have been one of my guesses, because his swing structure is very distinctive. I don't know if it's the way that this record is sounding on this [boom box] here, but it's sounding a little more organic to me than a lot of his productions.

SW: It's a few years old. Both he and you played the Decibel Festival last fall. Were you closely involved with putting that together?

Jones: I wasn't too involved, actually. We had an Orac night, and we got people at the demo sessions, and I did a presentation on Jitter as well.

SW: How did it go? I know they're planning on doing it again.

Jones: It was great; it was really special. Like anything that's in its first year, it had some hitches and organizational things that could have been done differently, but after some of the shows there were people standing around, and all these mobs of people, and all your friends from San Francisco, and all your friends that you haven't seen in ages from other parts of the country, and everybody's saying, "Wow, I can't believe we're finally doing this here in Seattle, it's great." That feeling is worth a lot of work.

SW: It seems like a really fertile time locally, musically all over and especially in techno. When you started making dance music, did it ever seem like it would become that way?

Jones: I think we started putting out records because of a certain critical mass of good music that our friends were sharing with each other at parties, but that was not getting put out, either because they simply weren't bothering, they didn't care that much about getting it put out, or because they hadn't found the interest. But I think it was the amount of people coming together [who] were doing fresh stuff that made us start Orac in the first place.

SW: I think Orac in particular has made Seattle look like it's got a serious scene to the rest of the world.

Jones: Well, I'm glad to hear that. I'd like to think we've helped. There's a very vital core of people who support the techno shows in the city. Locationally, people will come and people will go, but I mean, it's the same faces that you've seen at shows for the last five years that have largely kept it going. As person X or Y says, I better get off my ass and start making some shows happen now and do my part, the people who do that [do so] because it's fun as well. But I think in just the last year or two [the buzz] has really helped in this regard. We are starting to see more people at shows that we hadn't seen five years ago. So yes, there's objective evidence that it's starting to boom.

The Beach Boys: "Mama Says" (1967) from Wild Honey (Brother/Reprise)

Jones: That's amazing.

SW: You've mentioned Brian Wilson as an inspiration. I wanted to talk a little bit about nondance production and how it has or hasn't affected you as a producer.

Jones: Actually, it's weird—and in a way I've been regretting that I didn't do it again on the album or try and follow that path more—but there was a guest vocal I did on Bruno Pronsato's album, and I did this crazy four-part harmony breakdown on there. I didn't really try to pull off anything like that on the album because I wanted more of a consistent groove for most of these tunes. There's nothing that pleases the ear more than vocal harmonies like that, and techno music, a lot of it is about sonic hedonism, so I think that it's a natural action.

SW: When you were growing up and listening to music, were you aware of Brian Wilson? He tends to be a very early kind of a thing for people who are cognizant of producers.

Jones: I really don't think I was. It was actually my friend Carl that had the bootlegs of [the 1967 outtakes of] Smile that a lot of producers seem to have. And I thought, "Yeah, this is amazing." I liked the homemadeness of it more than anything, the removed quality of it.

SW: What did you think of [Wilson's finished 2004] Smile? Did you buy it when it came out?

Jones: I did, because I wanted to see what it sounded like and I wanted to sort of add another vote to the doubtless many votes rewarding the work in some way, with a purchase. Although I was perfectly happy with some of the more fragmentary versions I'd heard that had, I think, even some more, how would I put it . . . just more authentic sounding bits that weren't on the final.

Ricardo Villalobos: "Serpentin" (2004) from Thé au Harem d'Archimède (Perlon)

Jones: [after about a minute] I just want to make sure—this is Villalobos. At first I thought it could be something else, but then you can start to hear, it's just the kick at the beginning, there's a few records that start that way, but then you can start to hear the watery sound, so I know that it can't be anyone else.

SW: He seems like the guy to beat for a lot of producers right now. Most of the producers I've talked to are kind of in awe of him in a way.

Jones: Yeah, I think he's appeared on a lot of people's radar all of the sudden. It's got this amazing mood to it, this haze that hangs over pretty much every album, that's like a certain kind of drug experience that you're on.

SW: If you listen to Perlon's other records, like the Superlongevity compilations or Pantytec's Pony Slaystation (2002), they're insane—you can't get freakier than this or much more minimal without it just kind of turning to dust. But this outdoes them all in terms of minimalism—it's so sparse, he can't possibly strip it down anymore.

Jones: I agree. It's very patient, but communicates a lot of feeling, too. As far as people chasing him, I don't know; it's so personal that you can say this is a great record and I'd like to make a great record, too, but I don't know anyone who would say, "I'd like to make a record like this." I think this is more suited for German dance floors than the ones we have here. If for no other reason, it's good to dance to it at 4 or 5 a.m.

SW: After your senses have been completely deranged.

Jones: Everyone's done with their "Oh my God, we want to have a dance party" thing. Then there's room for something else to flow.

SW: Going back to "My Little Castle," it's very long, it's very layered, there are about eight separate movements—you could isolate those things and have them be themselves for a while, but they work together. It sounds like a kind of end-of-the-night thing.

Jones: Yeah, I was definitely influenced by this stuff on that track in particular. Mine's a different sound, obviously. I wanted to explore the space, as Christopher Walken would say.

Caro plays Lower Level, 1621 12th Ave., 206-322-3569, with Bruno Pronsato, Jerry Abstract, and Ted Dancin at 9 p.m. Fri., June 24. $7.

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