Chicago Reader Interview: An Ocean Of Samples
In the mid-90’s, when it came time to leave his native Evanston in pursuit of higher education, Zachary Mastoon bounced from Columbia College, where he took some film courses, to Oakton Community College, where he studied liberal arts, to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he studied music for a little more than a semester. Not until the fall of 1997, when he enrolled at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, was he able to address all of his interests, designing a curriculum that encompassed “music, creative writing, painting, reading and writing, the humanities. I really focused on making things,” he says. Now 24, Mastoon’s largely focused on music, but his aesthetic and methodology are still soup-to-nuts. Over the past couple years, under the name Caural, he’s constructed a series of outstanding records entirely from samples, drawing in bits of funk, hip-hop, jazz, gamelan music, rock, punk, industrial, and anything else that strays into earshot.
Mastoon’s uncle gave him a drum set for his third birthday, but by age six, infatuated with “heavy metal rock stars” on MTV, he’d picked up guitar, and spent most of the next decade taking private lessons and jamming with friends from school. By 12, inspired by the likes of King Crimson and Primus, he’d started his first band, Transmission, with reedist Stuart Bogie- now a member of the Brooklyn Afrobeat band Antibalas- and bassist Eric Perney, who plays on Tom Waits’ new album Alice. Mastoon continued with the group until his junior year of high school, when the other members all left for college. He hooked up with another group of schoolmates, a funk-rock band called Shag, which for the next five years gigged during holes in the members’ college schedules. In 1997 they became the de facto backing band for Evanston rapper Diverse (aka Kenny Jenkins), whose forthcoming single for the local Chocolate Industries label is a collaboration with Brooklyn rapper-actor Mos Def, but never released a recording of their own.
In the spring of 1999, frustrated with the collaborative process, Mastoon bought his first sampler, a Yamaha SU-700. “I wanted to be in control of every single minute of music,” he says. “I wanted to be able to do things that nobody could do live, like stop time and sculpt each moment. I wanted to extract myself [from Shag] and make something completely different.” He threw himself into this new project (last year the New York indie Toshoklabs released a collection of early tracks as Initial Experiments in 3-D) and with the help of his mother came up with the name Caural, pronounced like coral. “It’s something that feeds off of other things but that gives them life at the same time; a symbiotic relationship, which is how I see sampling. It’s me taking all these tiny little organisms or sounds and putting them into a new casing and recontextualizing them and giving them a different sort of life. I don’t see it as plagiarism or stripping it away from something in a negative way, but as a rebirth, or a different way of looking at things.””
The two records he’s released on Chocolate Industries over the past year- 2001’s four-song EP Paint and the recent album Stars on My Ceiling- find him coming into his own. He’s a regular presence at the Evanston and Wilmette Public Libraries, where he frequently checks out ten randomly-selected CDs at a time and spends the day listening for potential raw material. He also draws from years of home recordings made with his various bands- in fact, “Inbetweene Thoughts,” the first song on Paint, is a radical remix of an early Shag tune. Elsewhere, the instrumental music meticulously layers loose, funky breakbeats, alternately tight and spacious bass lines, and a kaliedoscopic array of melodic and coloristic details, including jazzy keyboards, assorted guitar licks, hand claps, vinyl surface noise, dramatic timpani rolls, plucked piano strings, and spacey synthesizer. His approach might sound similar to DJ Shadow’s, but the results aren’t. Where Shadow crafts cinematic, slow-building sample symphonies, Caural goes for tighter constructions that can almost qualify as pop songs.
Caural is currently working on new material; the EP due out in November features a guest spot by Diverse and a remix by hot Warp Records producer Prefuse 73, and for his next album he hopes to incorporate several MCs and singers. “I want to start melding worlds, the one I came from- live instruments and improvisation- and the world I’ve been living in for the past couple of years, which is complete control. I want there to be more mistakes in the music and I want it to breathe more,” he says.
Caural will DJ, spinning records and mixing in samples, on Thursday, August 15, at Smart Bar as part of the Wobblyhead Sound System (he has a split single coming out on the Milwaukee-based Wobblyhead label in the fall); Def Harmonic and the Turing Test also perform.
- Peter Margasak