Sunshine Jones: "These Are Absolutely Inspirational Times for Electronic Music"
Just like rock 'n' roll, once used by the counterculture to liberate minds and stick it to The Man before selling out to MTV, electronic dance music was also once a music of spiritual liberation and transcendence. Then it became "EDM" and commercial Top 40 radio fodder.
This was back in the '90s rave era, when renegade parties gathered the grooving masses under motorway passes and in abandoned warehouses to experience collective musical elation.
Few acts epitomize the free spirit and PLUR philosophy of that era more than Dubtribe Sound System, the San Francisco production duo of Sunshine and Moonbeam Jones.
They spent the '90s and early 2000s touring the American rave circuit, releasing timeless, lyrical deep house gems on their Imperial Dub imprint, and branding their message of positivity on the hearts of a generation.
Dubtribe's breakup in 2005 (they would reunite in 2010) wasn't going to stop Sunshine Jones from keeping on keeping on, though. And he's been nothing if not prolific over the past decade, running his beloved Sunday Soul radio show, performing regularly, and producing some of the most gorgeous, nuanced vocal house tuneage out there (this past year alone has seen Sunshine drop two critically acclaimed long players.)
Crossfade caught up with Sunshine Jones ahead of a rare Miami appearance this Thursday alongside Tampa's Joint Custody for Analog, a new underground dance music party at Wynwood's TSL Lounge. Just as candid and illuminating as his song lyrics, he spoke to us about his decadeslong evolution as an artist, his new albums, and why these might just be the most inspirational times for EDM, haters be damned.
Crossfade: You've been going strong for over two decades as a producer. How do you feel your work and creative process have evolved throughout the years?
Sunshine Jones: Quite a bit, yes. In 1989, I was programming a drum machine and connecting wires to synthesizers and dragging a huge amount of equipment with me everywhere I went. Sequencing, sampling, programming sounds, patterns and then collecting them into songs was all done on a grid, without a computer. There's really something wonderful about rudimentary sequencing and synthesis. The limitations allow for creativity that sometimes having limitless options actually stifles.
My progress as an artist has covered all of the ground that technology has covered in the last 20 years. In 1989, no one had a cell phone; people were just throwing away their answering machines and getting voice-mail. There was no internet per se, and my first live performance set-up was a TR-909, an SH-101, a Juno 6, a Korg M1, and an Emax sampler. I had to load up the sampler during the set with floppy disks in order to play the next song or two. There were personal computers, but they were really still just glorified word processors and didn't sound very good for much beyond sequencing MIDI.
Today, anything goes. A Mac and some speakers is all you really need. The last ten years have really been more about access than anything else. Whereas when I started, a person had to read and study and learn and then scrounge around used music shops, pawn shops, and places where older electronic devices might be found. Now you don't really need a TB-303 to make the squelchy acid bass sound; you can just grab a plugin and knock yourself out.
There is an upside and a downside to that kind of immediacy. We learned in the late '90s, as it became more and more popular for DJs and producers to make their own records, that just because you can doesn't actually mean you should. The market flooded with people's first 12-inch singles, and eventually it brought a truly vital industry to its knees. I think the same thing is true for producing music. That said, electronic music is a wonderful avenue for almost anyone. Anything goes, and that remains true. I love that your take on the dance floor can be expressed by you with some simple software and the time it takes to express yourself. It's no longer mad-scientist nerdiness; now it's just open up Garage Band and go.
For myself, I had to learn a lot of lessons about how to say what I wanted to say. The rule that applied to others also applies to me: Just because I can say something doesn't mean I actually should. So once the fascination of technology begins to lose its luster, the question really becomes "What do I want to say?" and also "Who am I talking to?" I think from about 1999 forward, as an artist, I've taken a decidedly inward look.
I came into the world as an electronic musician looking outward, and part of a pretty loving but still furious movement of people gathering and dancing and creating a lot of things. My role felt in some ways like that of an editor. I openly discussed ideas, values, purpose, and sustainability with the audience. "We" were self-reflexive as a movement, but really I wasn't being asked to do that. At a certain point, feeling like I am a voice among voices within a movement was a beautiful feeling, but I wasn't reaching myself in a way that was growing. So from the Dubtribe album Baggage forward, I think the focus shifted to first ourselves, as Dubtribe, and then myself, as a solo artist.
In a lot of ways, I feel I am still using the same brushes and colors to express very similar ideas. But I'm coming from a really different place now than I was at the beginning, and even in the middle. I felt that telling people what they should do and connecting with how they feel was the only important thing in the early days. Today I am working hard on vulnerability and truth. I feel that it's just too much to ask for people to open their minds and their hearts and their mouths if I am not making every effort to do the same.
My solo work has been about rediscovering what I love about electronic music in the first place: 2005's Seven Tracks in Seven Days on King Street. Falling in love with music again: all of my work on Treehouse Muzique, 2004 to present, by reapproaching samples, cover versions, reedits, and concepts which haven't got anything to do with a traditional "dance floor." And then closing the circle and feeling healed and at peace: 2013's Bélle Âme Électronique on King Street. And having some fun and even becoming willing to look at my past and use things like heartbreak, sex, and disappointment as themes in more complex and collaborative music: 2013's Gas Masks & Crazy-Girls on Cosmic Disco. And it seems to me that it's playing from a place of peace and even self-love and is ultimately what I set out to do more globally in the first place. I feel more like myself, braver, and more present than I have ever felt before.
So how has the experience of working as a solo artist differed from when you collaborated with Moonbeam as Dubtribe?
It's a completely different thing. I never really wanted to work alone, which is a strange thing to say for an electronic musician. As a musician in the '80s, I was always assembling 12-piece bands and rehearsing endlessly, writing new material and then rehearsing that stuff. We rarely played and almost never recorded. The electronic process is so painterly by comparison. I can have a few things going at once and collaborate and then also have personal work in progress at the same time. It's much more about performance and recording than rehearsal or preparation.
The Dubtribe experience was definitely something with a running theme, and a reputation, something to live up to, and something to uphold and maintain. As a solo artist, I am so much freer. I really love being able to construct sets or tours based on a concept or a feeling and have the real responsibility be left on weather or not I am able to make myself vulnerable enough to really express what is on my mind, what's in my heart, or even what's bothering me or making me really happy right now in this moment. I also get to traverse a lot more 'round as a solo artist. I can undertake anything I want, from whichever direction feels right. I think as a solo producer and performer, I get a kind of freedom I never had in a band.
You've been exceptionally busy on the production front in the last couple of years, having released both Bélle Âme Électronique and Gas Masks & Crazy-Girls back to back. What can you tell us about these albums? What inspired them, and how did you approach the production process?
Bélle Âme Électronique was delivered about ten months earlier to King Street; they just took longer to release it. They did not correspond with me at all regarding the remixes or even rereleasing an album of the remixes. I'm pretty disappointed with them, actually, and I'm real glad my contract with them is done. Bélle Âme Électronique is a voyage. The process was one of love and warmth. I collaborated with a few people, but mostly it was about taking all that I've learned from Sunday Soul and my distant travels and bringing them home.
Gas Masks & Crazy-Girls is much more of a collaborative album; much of the record is handmade. The samples and loops come from floating glasses in my kitchen sink and my hands on a metal surface, etc. These were then filtered and expressed, and I played sub sequences and synthesizers over the top or along with them. This record is more about opening myself up to the past, my mistakes, my desires, sex, love, lust, and allowing myself to be human and heal. Layering, departing, experiencing, and then returning home.
Your music has always carried powerful positive messages touching on the spiritual and transcendental. What are your thoughts on how so much EDM today contains vapid, superficial lyrical content and messages? Do you think the role of electronic dance music should be to push messages of substance and expand people's consciousness?
I think these are absolutely inspirational times for electronic music. Chart-topping pop music sounds like Murk from the early '90s, and R&B is having a serious revolution. Paris has changed popular music as well, as given some of the coolest most underground heads opportunities to express themselves openly. The world is really our oyster. I love it. I think that it's really fun to go dancing and smile and laugh and remember a three-note progression or a few simple words on your way home or even the next morning.
Daft Punk just did a magnificent job of summarizing everything cool that's happened in the last five to ten years on their new album, and as light and airy and warm as it sounds, it's a reflection back at ourselves. It's a look into why we dance, why we stay up all night, why we are who we are. I think the mechanism itself has depth, and so it's about us and what we do, not so much (or at least not always) the responsibility of the producer to lay a heavy message down. I like to tell it like it is; sometimes I don't say anything. Sometimes I just whisper that I love you. It's more about what's going on in the room than what is expected of me. I am a provocateur, and so as long as there's a reaction of some kind, I'll probably push off that in the other direction.
So what can Miami expect during your gig at Analog on Thursday? Will you be doing it live?
Well, I've spent a little time in Miami in the last few years. I've played for Inbal [Lankry] of Young Hearts at the Electric Pickle and Retox [former club Blue] and a few other locations. I love the heads in Miami. I think they're really good people. You can expect me to come and help Matt [Dillon, of Joint Custody] launch his brand-new night with some classics and some new ideas and some recent work. Yes, my show right now is what I call a live/DJ set. I perform about half of my own material live; I sing and reedit the other half on the fly and play some house classics and some new music I really love as well.
I don't play all one kind of sound. I am really into demonstrating that it's really all house music, by definition -- anything you can syncopate and mix in belongs there, and it's a great idea and a good way to bring people together by expressing as wide a spectrum as you can, as feels right. I love house music, electronic music, soul music, disco, funk, jazz, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. The main thing is to come with your hearts and minds open, bring something to the conversation and let's get together and see what kind of a beautiful discussion we can have.
Sunshine Jones. With Joint Custody and Omar G. Presented by Analog. Thursday, July 13. TSL Lounge, 167 NW 23rd St., Miami. The party starts at 10 p.m. Call 786-479-2241, or visit TSLLounge.com.