There are a number of unsettling things about Miami-born-and-raised musician Austin Paul’s recent dual EP on local label Space Tapes — the industrial-indebted Cricket and the ambient Above Below. While Cricket follows in the classic industrial template of wedding eerie vocal samples with propulsive, crunchy beats and production, Above Below adopts a more relaxed approach, including the sounds of crashing waves, crying seagulls, and droning that alternates between soothing and haunting.
But what’s most startling about Cricket/Above Below is that Paul’s voice is nowhere to be found.
It’s a surprising sonic turn for the artist, whose vocals and best-known sound — R&B-and-soul-influenced synth-pop that fused James Blake-esque vocals with Jai Paul-like productions — led to none other than Pharrell dubbing him “the future!” in the halcyon days of 2013.
Well, the future has gotten a little darker for all of us since then, and it shows in Paul’s production and Cricket/Above Below’s themes. The title track, “Cricket,” and its disturbing music video, debuting here at New Times, concern an android grappling with its newfound life in conversation with its creator. Likewise, “God Maniac,” which was released as an advance single and features an appropriately monstrous depiction of President Trump as its cover art, samples a 2014 interview with Stephen Fry in which the actor and comedian describes the Judeo-Christian God — if he exists — as a cruel, sadistic monster and tyrant. "Yes, the world is splendid, but it also includes insects that burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. How — why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable," Fry muses.
“I wanted to make something that was uncomfortable and made you feel itchy almost and sore and want to stretch,” Paul says of the EP’s sinister sounds and grim fixations. “What was peculiar to me and interesting [about Fry’s interview] is how scared he actually seemed... like, what if this dude is real? [laughs]
“Even though I don’t necessarily agree [with Fry], that theory of a god being a god, it’s like a shark being a shark. You’re not going to stop that shark from eating things. It’s a shark — it does what sharks do.”
The EP’s central theme of dark creations and the even darker figures who make them is best encapsulated in Cricket’s title track. Its refrain of “better, faster, smarter” references both electronic music’s long-running interest in the act of creation and artificial intelligence as well as Paul’s worries about the implications of such acts.
“For me, it's not only about AI, but it's hinting on the whole idea of how we were created by something, and then we're trying to re-create something better than ourselves, and what does that mean about us?” Paul says. “Are we the better version of our creator? It's just thoughts, you know; I don't necessarily believe that, but it's just interesting things to think about.”
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According to Paul, both EPs were recorded in a week in 2017 following a personal tragedy, accounting for their less-than-joyful mood. Inspired by the intensity and soundtracks of films such as The Thing and The Shining, Paul says he wanted his music to capture both films’ sense of tension and release, although he concedes the final product has “a lot more tension than release for sure.”
Even though Cricket/Above Below will no doubt take listeners familiar with Paul’s previous work by surprise, he believes these EPs keep with his experimental bent and willingness to try new things. It’s one of the reasons Paul relishes collaboration so much, having worked with model and singer Caroline Vreeland on her own music, in addition to releasing songs with the Berlin-based artist Lo and the 2017 joint EP with ascendant electronic producer Pham. In Paul’s mind, learning new techniques and experimenting with different sounds — no matter how disparate they may be — are intrinsic to the artistic process. These are the most rewarding parts of his career, even when the music is coming from a place of anguish.
"That's just how I work sometimes — a lot of information just rushes into my head at once, and it's trying to break out," he says with a laugh. "Experimenting is fun. There's nothing like the creative adrenaline that you get when these ideas are tapping and poking at you like, C'mon, create me, create me, let me out. Whatever the circumstance, that’s what makes it better.”