Jordan Bortner (aka Null Object) and Phong Tran on the Art of Remixing

What makes a good remix? We’ve all heard remixed versions of original songs that feel more like a repackaging than a well-crafted new perspective. But there’s potential for a remix to provide a new angle for understanding, or a means to dive deeper into a song’s original intentions.

Goldfeather, a Brooklyn-based indie-folk-rock band, are using remixes as a means to further explore the songs on their 2019 record, Water Damaged Valentines. In February, they released Valentino Pier EP, a mini-EP that featured two remixes: one of “Valentino Pier” and one of “Alone Again.” I talked to the artists who crafted the new versions of the original songs, Jordan Bortner (aka Null Object) and Phong Tran, to learn more about their creative processes and philosophies.

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Jordan Bortner (aka Null Object)

Jordan Bortner is a Seoul-based new media artist and composer. He works across a variety of different formats — from visual projections to digital artwork, videos, and music — using different aliases to compartmentalize his many simultaneous projects. For the Valentino Pier EP, he created a remix of Goldfeather’s poignant “Valentino Pier” under his Null Object moniker. We conducted our Q&A over email, discussing how Bortner created his lo-fi, brooding remix. 

The Road to Sound: How did you get involved with Goldfeather?

Jordan Bortner: I’ve known Sarah as a friend for a few years, but I first collaborated with her musically when I was working on my debut EP as Null Object. She provided vocals for a track of mine called “Fleet Report,” and it was a pleasure working with her and Mike Tierney in the studio.

RtS: Why did you choose to remix “Valentino Pier”?

Bortner: I really loved the lydian melody and melancholy vocals, and the song as a whole really seemed to lend itself well to my personal style, with its simple but infectious harmonic progressions and themes of inner conflict. The vocoded vocals seemed like a perfect fit, and the lonely sound of the piano and the grittiness of the violin were a great match for my lo-fi aesthetic.

RtS: What was your goal when creating the remix?

Bortner: My goal was to use my own lo-fi sound to complement the darker mood of the song. For me, it was hard to keep it brief. I wanted to give the listener a sense of brooding while they listened to it, and hopefully tell a story with a feeling of fulfillment at the end.

RtS: How did you create the remix? What tools did you use?

Bortner: In the beginning, I listened to remixes of tracks with vocals by my favorite lo-fi house artists. Once I got started, things seemed to flow naturally. I really liked the more understated parts of the track, like the piano, and the violin layers that got lost in the wall of sound. I created the track with Ableton Live 10. I also used an edited-down sample at the beginning of the track from a VHS tape in my collection.

RtS: What is your broader philosophy behind creating a remix?

Bortner: I believe making a remix is about taking the parts of a track that have an interesting timbre to you, and elaborating on that in your own unique style while keeping the spirit of the original track.

 

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Phong Tran. Photo by Phoebe Bognár.

Phong Tran is a Brooklyn-based composer, electronic musician, and visual artist. He works as a solo artist, sound engineer, and with violinist and composer Darian Thomas in a collaborative duo named MEDIAQUEER. For the Valentino Pier EP, he created a remix of Goldfeather’s “Alone Again.” We met at Bushwick Public House, just before New York City shut down due to COVID-19, where we discussed his vaporwave inspirations and broader philosophy behind creating remixes.

The Road to Sound: You recently did a remix of “Alone Again.” How did you choose that song to remix? Or were you assigned to it? 

Phong Tran: I’m pretty sure I was assigned to it, but it was also, at the time, the song I resonated with the most anyways. I feel like since 2015 I’ve been in the sad, lonely, but bright and happy space — the very Porches vibe of “we’re depressed but we’re still going to party.” 

RtS: When you’re coming at a remix, what are you trying to accomplish?

Tran: I’ve been on a big eccojams kick for a minute. I worked on a whole album of vaporwave remixes with Andrew Noseworthy; it’s just sitting in our Google drives because we don’t have sample clearances. It’s fun little projects that we did and we can’t show anyone. But that’s a lot of my inspiration, or how I approach remixes. Slow it down, re-pitch it, load it with reverb, and find the nugget of what this thing actually is and explore that. 

With “Alone Again,” the “golden ratio section” is this solo section that actually gets much more weird and noisy within the original song. I decided to develop that one minute section into a whole remix — this is what this piece actually is to me. Even with the breakup song that I do during my live set, it’s very much that same idea in a different way. I’m really into this one line by Drake, so I’m going to play with it. That’s the only discernible part from that song that you hear. 

RtS: So with sampling, you’re trying to find yourself in the music that you’re finding inspiration in.

Tran: Yeah, so much of the creativity as a performer comes from what you’re curating and what you choose to present. For me, because my technical proficiency as a performer isn’t in an instrument, it’s in electronics and production, I like isolating tiny fragments and moments in different songs I listen to and then expanding them. I can’t take 100% credit for this, it’s fully an idea I got from listening to a Oneohtrix Point Never interview where he’s talking about his process when he made Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. This is my take on that idea. 

RtS: Could you talk a little more about what techniques you’re using when you take that section of “Alone Again” and expand it?

Tran: My process the entire way through was taking the fully mixed track already and placing it through my synth system. The big tool is the morphagene, which is a modular, sample synth. I re-pitched it in the morphagene, tooled it around, and then I put it all back into Ableton. I used just the a capella for the voice and put some bit crushing production on it and then pitch-shifted to really bring it down into an androgynous vocal range. And then loaded it up with reverb and just played with the frequency of it all. By the end I wanted to have a really weird chorus that felt like this person is alone, but they’re alone with everyone. We’re all collectively alone together in a very weird, distorted, anti-chorus way.

RtS: That’s also very much a play off of what Goldfeather is trying to do there with echoing. So when you’re writing on your own, do you also use these techniques and instrumentation, or are you using other techniques and instrumentation?

Tran: I’m kind of using whatever is available at the time. If I have other instruments to use, absolutely I’m going to use them. But then it’s also nice sometimes to just keep it to this isolated thing, and that seems really compelling to me. In the working process for this, I tried a lot of things before I got to the point where I realized it literally just needs to be this very simple thing. I was trying to think if I could add in my minilogue sounds and layer in more drums or something, but I realized that was just too much. I needed to pare down, simplify, and just stick to this one thing. I’ve been watching a lot of food shows, and it feels very much like Japanese cuisine to just bring out the raw ingredients. You don’t need to add a whole lot. 

RtS: Because you work a lot in production and remixing, how do you feel melding your artistic ideologies with other artists even if they are really different?

Tran: For me, it comes down to distilling what your original material is and what that is trying to say. Or at least, isolating parts of it that are the parts that resonate with me. They wouldn’t have asked me to remix it if they weren’t into my own voice already, so what do I have to say about this idea and how can I use what they’ve already said to expand out onto it? You have to put your own ways in there, somewhere, otherwise what’s the point? 

I think that’s the thing that bothers me about so many remixes, too. I’m not a fan of most remixes I hear, because I feel like most of the time it’s just a different version of the song, and that’s all that’s really there. But the potential for a remix is so much bigger, where you, as a person remixing, can add your different perspective on this similar subject. If you listen to the two versions of “Alone Again,” they’re wildly different even though it’s the same material. I haven’t added in too many other instruments or layers, but I’ve recontextualized what that raw material is. 

RtS: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Tran: I’d like to go back to the second to last question about using other instruments and materials. While I was thinking about that question, it brought to mind a discussion I had with other artists about music for yourself versus music you present and put out there. I do a lot of remixing and sampling, and some of that began as I was working with Andrew on our little vaporwave breakup album remix project that will never see the light of day because he can’t get the sample clearances. But even that project still felt really valuable to me. It became this album of artifacts that are a private collection that I don’t know if we can actually share, but it’s still a part of a process. 

There’s a time and place for music you’re doing just to satisfy your own needs, and sometimes you don’t have to share it and that’s totally fine, or you can privately share it in meaningful ways. Not everything has to be a big release. That’s a practice that kind of gets lost in music making now. Everything you do has to be made for the world to see. Not every scarf-maker has to put their work on Etsy, to be bought. They can knit their friend a scarf and that’s it. I feel like more people should do that with music, especially now, because no one’s getting paid for anything anymore. 

Do the thing not because it’s a thing that you can capitalize on, but because it feeds you in a very internal way. You read a piece of music, you listen to a piece of music and then as a performer you can replicate it and replay it. Then, it’s going to the next step of asking how you’ll internalize what you’ve just heard? And then, how do you express your own ideas on that? To me, that’s what a successful remix is. 

 

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