In the Light With Pidgins: An Interview & Visual Album Premiere

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Mexico City’s Pidgins explores percussive landscapes. The duo of Milo Tamez and Aaron With fuses layered rhythms with a host of engaging sound worlds from voice and other instruments, creating a puzzle-like environment to dig into modern, often banal, trance-like states. Refrains of the Day, Volume 1 is enigmatic and beguiling. Tamez weaves a polyrhythmic fabric across sonic architecture in constant motion. Cadences shift, dropping to a near crawl in certain moments, jettisoning into the stars in others. Fourth world arrangements unfold at their own pace and the innumerable timbres coalesce into aural combinations I’ve never heard before. There is so much happening on this brilliant album that, at times, I’m overwhelmed by the beautiful spectacle of it all. 

A visual version of Refrains of the Day, Volume 1 is also out today. You can view it HERE, but many of the videos are also embedded below. The imagery heightens the overall listening experience, imbuing the aural realm with further tangible ideas to grab onto. 

Refrains of the Day, Volume 1 is out now and available HERE.

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.

Going back, what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

Milo: I was born into a music and arts family. Percussive sound has been the most powerful formative element for me. All my life I’ve been involved with rhythm and percussing; rhythm has been probably the earliest form of melodic generation even beyond the common musical tonal systems. Rhythm in African drumming has a harmonic uniqueness that invites you to sing and dance—I always loved that. The emotion within strong rhythm-oriented musics too, that’s how I got hooked on drumming.

Aaron: My parents were always singing—pop songs, folk songs, campfire songs. I think being around the joy of singing helped me normalize a kind vocal expression where it feels natural to for me sing throughout the day—sing to myself, sing to my dog, maybe even melodic flourishes within regular conversation here and there. That kind of natural musical expression within everyday language probably made it possible for me to do some of the kinds of singing I do in my work today—chanting in a way that feels like subconscious thought, using lots of different voices or vocal characters, and some occasional exaggerated theatrical bits.

Did you always want to be a musician or play music?

Milo- Yes, I’ve always been into music.

Aaron- I’ve always been making music on some level, but I took a winding path with a number of diversions where I’ve been more dedicated to other things. But I’m always drawn back into music.  

Moving ahead, tell me a bit about how you all met and how Pidgins came into existence.

Aaron: I’d admired Milo’s work for years. He has this rich and versatile practice—gorgeous timbral and extended techniques for atmospheric improvisation, but also a deep study of traditional African percussion, which informs his very rare and exceptional capacity for complex and evolving polyrhythmic logic. I always wanted to work with him, but I was just a big fan until he fortunately happened to attend a solo show I performed in Mexico City. 

Milo: We met in Mexico City and started improvising just for fun. Things began to develop in different directions until eventually the concept of “pidgins” emerged…

Aaron: …yeah at first, just the idea of percussive languages, and how we were conversing in these improvised patterns that were coming from different musical languages and forming a new one…

Milo: …and from those ideas, we began integrating the music with vocals—the chanted “mantras” or “refrains”. That’s when Pidgins became more established as a concrete project.

The “Refrains of the Day” seem to play a crucial role in your project. Could you explain the idea behind these oft-repeated phrases and how they are manipulated to help listeners better understand them?

Aaron: For my solo music, I’d been developing this idea of “prismatic chanting”, where I’d repeat the same phrase, gradually displacing or inverting its word order until the meaning shifted. Then in Pidgins, we were building these dense polyrhythmic layers that had a trance-like atmosphere, and most vernacular phrases I was trying initially felt wrong for that context. So I took it as an opportunity to think about contemporary trance states and began focusing the chants around professional managerial class jargon. 

Milo: At the beginning, we came with an idea of “mantra” as a “trance” type of thing, which gradually evolved into what we’re now calling “refrains”.

Aaron: Yeah, refrains better captured the way these terms can be parroted involuntarily. And together in the record, they became a sort of language instruction audiobook, where you can learn and practice the refrains of the day.

How do you approach the process of repeating, shifting, and inverting these expressions to achieve a deeper understanding, both musically and conceptually?

Milo: Rhythm is language, a universal one. Through the evolution of the rhythmical play and exploration that we were building, it became natural that this sort of wordplay emerged as an extension of the music we were developing.

Aaron: Our percussive language is similar to the chanting. We build patterns from rhythmic phrases that we gradually displace or invert. The chants unfold much more slowly but under the same logic. The repetition just offers the time and space to contemplate a phrase, and shifting the word order is like walking around the phrase to see it from every angle. These phrases benefit from that space. It helps evaluate them beyond our learned instant connotations. 

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It’s mentioned that Pidgins aims to interrogate contemporary trance states, including managerial class dogmas, self-help literature, and new-age therapies. Can you discuss the significance of these themes in your work?

Aaron: You think of a white-collar manager and the image is probably someone who is realist and rational. But I find them to have a lot in common with blissed out new agey therapy folks, in the way their language betrays a kind of blind faith in certain concepts. And those worlds intersect in self-help literature, which is a religion focused on increasing an individual’s productivity. If you’ve ever worked in a mildly culty white-collar environment, maybe you’ve heard phrases similar to the Pidgins refrains. Maybe you’ve found yourself saying expressions like these, even if they feel a bit weird or inauthentic coming out of your mouth. That to me feels like a form of trance. So placing this technocratic gibberish into a slow-burn, trance-like musical context, apart from being entertainingly ridiculous to me, also creates a nice opportunity to sit with this language and allow its hidden assumptions to gradually reveal themselves. These expressions often assume a shared belief in technological utopianism—if something is “Data Driven”, then it has to be right, right? But your data is probably garbage, and following even accurate data over values can lead you to horrific outcomes. Sometimes this kind of jargon even intentionally masks serious issues, like “Profit Shifting”, which is just accountants putting lipstick on extremely harmful, massive-scale tax evasion.

I’m so intrigued by the use of synthetic chant vocals with autotuned delays and comb filters on the record. How does this choice contribute to the themes or concepts explored in your music?

Aaron: I think of the different voices as individual characters. Many of them are fun for me to think of as sort of transhuman hybrid beings that are inextricably reliant on tech. They have a kind of anxious nostalgia for a natural world they haven’t experienced and can only imagine. The added synthetic layers help them project a cocky power, but as they speak their language, they sort of know something is wrong, and you can hear their human emotions buried under all the layers of tech-enhanced confidence. So yeah, just having some more fun with technological utopianism. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome in making this record?

Milo: This record is to me the natural result of entering a mode of search. The challenge was achieving self-expression within the creation of a language of its own. Creating a mélange of forms outside of any stylistic form of feeling. Playing and thinking the music. Another aspect worth mentioning is related to how much freedom I have and improvisation I do within this musical universe. I made a number of instrumentation decisions, creating unique instrumentation for each song…choices that took time for me to develop, for the betterment of the musical outcomes.

What surprised you the most?

Milo: Finding myself making those decisions within the music, and for the music.

There’s also this visual album – or visual version of the album – where did the idea to create this come from? And how does it expand on the themes and ideas explored on the record?

Aaron: The video album consists of stock video collages for each refrain. The refrains themselves have a sterility to them, but also they’re a form of magical thinking. And stock videos have a similar combination—they’re lifeless and awkward but also they’re unnervingly relaxing and often depict surreal magical futures. They’re like the collective advertorial subconscious…which is very insecure—it projects confidence despite its transparent emptiness. And there are very specific and strange images that repeat constantly in this dream world—robots collaborating with humans, flying data, people in VR headsets, etc. Taken together they provide a visual of the hollowness within hyperrational technological utopianism that the refrains are poking at.

The project is being released in two volumes. What can listeners expect in Volume 2, and how does it relate to the themes explored in Volume 1?

Aaron: It’s like an expansion pack. You can collect more refrains. But Volume 2 will have new instruments, vocal sounds, and pattern approaches. The new refrains might be darker—some of them pull from the strange languages of international finance and development. 

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.