Catch up with San Francisco's PillowTalk

Words by: Marcus Barnes
Posted: 14/11/12 10:20

PillowTalkPillowTalk are a group who I've been into since they really arrived on the scene last year. Of course, as one might expect, they've been working in the music world for quite some time, dreaming of making it to where they are now but never quite knowing how to do it. Thankfully, they did make it and they've broken through with tracks like The Comeback and Soft – now travelling the world with their impressive live show, the trio continue to work on their music, with an album project now fully underway. In this special two-part interview I speak to two-thirds of the group, Sammy D and Ryan Williams, to get an in-depth look into the inner workings of PillowTalk... enjoy!

So, to kick off – you guys lived in Berlin over the summer. Were you recording there or just using it as your base?
As our base. I mean we did some recording but it was fortunate because we rented a really sweet loft work space but when we got there we were told that it was only for fine art and sculpture. It wasn’t for music, you couldn’t really be loud but it was cool - it had a vocal booth... well, it wasn’t really, but it felt like one so we made it in to a vocal booth. We did record some vocals but we couldn’t be loud and it’s no fun making music in headphones as far as I’m concerned. We ended up going to Renate Lounge quite a bit and worked over in Aquarius [Heaven] studios. We worked up some stuff but we didn’t really do as much as we wanted to.

So did you get to see a lot of Europe then?
Yeah well we saw most of it I think but there were a few countries we didn’t make it to we didn’t make it to Italy and Turkey but I think we did just about everything else.

I guess you must have had loads of good times but was there anywhere you thought, 'Wow I really like this place'?
The Garden Festival was amazing, that was off the hook because it was just like paradise. The water was incredible, so clear. A friend of ours had a yacht for the weekend so we could take that out every day and go island hopping. The show itself was really perfect, and the crowd. That was a really big highlight also playing fabric for the first time that was a highlight for sure as well.

So in terms of inspirations and things that are fuelling your musical output, would you say that your trip to Europe has got you geared up and ready to get into the album?
Yeah I think it's definitely helped, it’s cool to see where music is at over there and what people are digging but I try to not let it influence me too much because we're influenced by other stuff. That’s one of the reasons why we're recording in Portland because it has a really fantastic indie rock scene - some of my favourite bands lived here, like Spoon and The Shins and bands like that.

So can you talk me through a little bit about how you guys first decided to take the path you've taken?
We’ve all grown up in the same scene together so we’ve all had influences on each other. We were all DJs doing parties, there’s a tight knit community of musicians in San Francisco that always talked about forming bands or making music and never did. I think what really brought us together was Ryan had a grand piano in his kitchen and by the end of the night or in the morning we would all end up going to jam on that and that inspired us to be really serious about making music.

We would record stuff on our iPhones like melodies and then I ended up moving into this house in San Francisco that had music studios on the second floor and it had a garden apartment and I found out that one of the studios were for rent so we picked one up and moved a bunch of gear in there and just started writing.

As for Derrick [Tone Of Arc] we’ve been friends for like 10 to 12 years, we’ve watched each other grow up in San Francisco in the music scene and we’ve had him on some tracks...

I’ve been following your stuff for a while now and the track that really caught me recently was ‘Your Feelin’ with dOP. That blew me away. It’s such a good track, how did it come about?
I was in Berlin last summer and I was good friends with dOP because I did a party in San Francisco called Kontrol, which was one of the premier techno parties in North America. That’s also how we were able to come out of the gate strong because of a lot of the relationships I made running Kontrol and booking people and hosting DJs from all over the world and meeting everyone in the industry that way.

So I knew dOP from booking them and when I went to Berlin I called Clement right away and he had a studio at Renate Lounge - Ryan and I went over there and were just hanging out and we started messing around in the studio and that came about. It was kind of based around one of our girlfriends being upset that we’re never around and always working [Laughs]. There’s some truth behind most of the words you know, there’s something going on.

I guess they’ve got to come from somewhere, they can't be completely abstract.
I can see how something abstract could be cool but we always write about experiences that we’re going through and a lot of our stuff is based on love and relationships or whatever and it's cool to do that for a while but The Outcast - the lyrics for that are more like a protest, like a call to arms kind of song, which I want to get more involved with I think.

Do you want to try and get some messages across in your music?
Yeah kind of... I was caught up with the whole Occupy movement from afar, just outside looking in and I was frustrated about how the media was treating them and so I wrote lyrics about the powers-that-be versus the little man.

It was so easy for them to demonise everyone that was involved.
Yeah and it was just super frustrating because there’s a lot of good people that were part of that movement and they would just bunch em up and make them all look crazy.

So are you working on stuff that’s moving away from love songs?
Well not necessarily wholly but we have some really killer ideas for the album and we're really trying not to follow any trends and trying to sound different you know. We have a strong rock and indie rock and classic rock background influence and along with soul music and northern soul and that type of music. As far as dance music, we all grew up going to raves and clubbing and all that... We're trying to make memorable, structured songs that are more timeless I guess.

Sammy DI’m sure you can pull it off man. So you want to try to work in a way that’s not too contrived I guess?
Yeah we definitely have ideas. I mean we like so many different genres of music but we try to bring them all together in some kookie sort of way to make it work on the dance floor and I’m into the idea of giving something to someone that’s more inspired by club music to make a remix of something that we did, to remix a song to make it more dancey or clubby.

We can make club tracks but I don’t think that our hearts are into making big club music and I saw a lot of that this summer in Berlin, a lot of young kids and that’s what the whole EDM scene is in America, a lot of young kinds with teenage angst aggressively going big and we’re all pretty old... I mean I’m 38; Mikey and Ryan are in their early thirties - we're mellowing out as we get older and I think our music tends to show that too.

So when do you start getting to work on the album?
I think the 1st December is our first day in the studio and we have most of the rough ideas outlined and I’m really excited. Also were open to being creative on the spot too, so we can come up with some new stuff if we want. Because we want to have some options and some extra music so we can go through stuff and structure the album according to what we think will be the best way to listen to it. It's good to have options!

Did you ever have a time when you thought it might not happen?
The thing is I’ve always DJ'd and managed to hold that down and make money from doing that. I think I had a really hard year after watching everyone from Dirty Bird explode - that was my crew, those were my people and felt like I got left behind and I’ll be honest it hurt quite a bit. Kontrol was a different type of thing, throwing parties and making music is completely different and I think that the key that what happened to us was building these relationships through Kontrol, with the younger generation too. Seth Troxler as a really big influence to how we got started

Man, that guy has inspired and helped a lot of people.
Yeah, we’ve had him out to play a couple of times and we got on really well and he was actually at a after party I was DJing at and really liked the stuff I was playing and he booked me to play at the Detroit music festival and this was two or three years before we started PillowTalk. So he always kind of believed in me and knew I was serious about music and when it was time to put out our first track he put it out on his new label and that was all based on the relationship we had formed through Kontrol. That’s why I tell young people coming up it’s not easy but there’s ways of doing it if you do it right and properly and there’s other ways of trying to do it as well but I mean it’s taken me like 18 years. It doesn’t happen over night but it can happen if your heart's in it and you have a sickness for the music and you're crazy about it, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

Ryan WilliamsRyan Williams
Ryan is the melody maker in PillowTalk, helping to create their catchy hooks and infectious grooves. I caught up with Ryan a few days after I'd spoken to Sammy and this is his perspective on their recent goings-on...

So Ryan, you're you the song-writing member of the group?
I mean, we all write different things. I focus more on the melodies, I wrote Soft and Far From Home and stuff like that a long time ago actually, and we utilized them for songs for this, for dance music. We all play our different parts. I mean, Sammy with his vocal ability, Mikey with his computer and skills, I just bring the melody and the keys and stuff too.

What’s your background then? Have you always worked doing melodies and that kind of thing?
Yeah I’ve always tooled around with it throughout my life, here and there. I’ve always just had fun with it doing bedroom recordings. I’ve never gone really far with it at all. It’s just been more of it too since 2006 or 2007 when I came back to San Francisco from New York. I met all these people and started getting really into the electronic scene more and more and it kind of just escalated from there. I started writing songs again.

I mean, I was writing songs a long time ago in late ’99 and 2000. With those childish songs I used to call myself Kid Head, but it started maturing. I got a grand piano in my place, I could wake up to that every day and just start formulating these songs and stuff. And then Sammy came along.

My brother would have these parties above his house, we had a loft where I had the bottom flat and he had the top one, and when DJs were in town we would bring them back to our place and it kind of became the spot in San Francisco to come to throw an after-party.

We’d be upstairs playing music all day, all night long, we’d get some inspiration and then run downstairs to my kitchen and formulate it out on the piano. And in the beginning it was just me and Sammy thinking about this idea and trying to make it something. Then Mikey came along.

Sammy and I weren’t too good with computers and we really needed someone to kind of drive the engine behind this idea, and that’s definitely where Mikey came along, and then PillowTalk started pretty much from there.

What’s the deal with the album then? I spoke to Sammy about it a bit but what’s your take on it and how things are working out for you guys?
We were just talking about it too actually. There’s been a lot of talk about it and once someone starts talking about it in magazines and stuff it kind of gets in the air. We definitely don’t want to rush it, as far as the album is concerned, we’re taking our time with this one. We’re still working on it.

We’ve got tracks and things that we’re not going to show to anyone, secrets here and there. It’s been hard to get a handle on it and just sit down and write this album because we’re still trying to catch up. I mean touring and all of this is totally new to all of us. It’s taken a lot for us to do this and write music at the same time. We’re getting as much as we can done, but we’re trying to keep up with the pace. We’ve decided to take a full month off in December, and we’re going to move to Portland where our friend has this great studio that we’re just going to live in.

PillowTalkIt’s quite unusual in electronic music to have a group like you guys that do what you do. It’s something that I think should be done a lot more because a DJ is all well and good, but in the end a lot of people like to hear stuff played live, they like to hear human voices because programmed electronic beats get a bit boring after a while.
I think that’s been the consensus in a lot of cases too. It’s really nice to hear. Actually, when we first started PillowTalk we didn’t think about our live act at all, we were just happy making music. We got picked up by Visionquest, by Seth, but we hadn’t thought about it, and right after we got picked up everyone was saying, ‘You have to do this live, it’s going to be amazing live’. So we quickly learned how to do it live, and believe me the first few months were pretty hard, we were all over the place, but I think it’s a great direction for this type of music.

Yeah. I was just talking with someone yesterday actually about how electronic music as we know it is still really young. It’s only been around for about three decades really, and it’s still evolving, growing and changing into other avenues that people haven’t really explored yet. I think what you’re doing is great and hopefully it will inspire some other people as well.
We hope so too. That’s our plan.

So how did you end up getting involved with the electronic side of things? I take it before you were doing more guitar-based stuff?
Yeah I mean, I still love the whole indie rock scene, that’s where I come from for sure. But I really love having a different background, me and Sammy both of us, our genres spread everywhere, even to country. We listen to it at home often, like I just put my iPod on random and listen to all of it while I’m working or something. I love it. But yeah, I had an indie rock background before this. I guess it was the people in San Francisco that really got me into this now.

I got back from New York and my brother met all these people, the Sunset Crew and other big cats that were doing big things in San Francisco for decades, like house and the underground scene, they’d really been running it. I kind of just fell in with them, they’re really amazing people, before the music. We became really good friends and then, little by little, the music started growing on me and I started liking all these other artists that were infusing the music that I love into electronic music. And at the same time it’s becoming bigger anyway, like in pop, electronic music is getting into everything. It’s warming and fusing and all these indie rock bands that I love too, they’re crossing over and things like that. It almost became like a natural thing going on into this type of music - it’s evolution and is the way that music is going anyways.

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