Back to the Future with Teeel: The new album, the new label and old movies by Casey Bowers
New Jersey synthwave artist/producer Teeel (aka Jim Smith) is tired and happy.
In less than a week, he’ll release his hotly anticipated follow up to last year’s buzz-laden breakout debut, Amulet. The home studio born product of classic horror film worship, italo inspiration, electro love – and let’s face it, a brilliant sense of musical depth and texture – 2011’s synthified mini masterpiece, Amulet garnered the attention of electronic music fans everywhere, influential radio stations (KEXP Song of The Day), countless blogs and zines (ahem) and anyone who heard good things when they first listened to Teeel.
On University Heights, Smith expands scope and scale with future insta-classic tracks, Crystal Lake, Deadites (oh, the lavish praise this banger deserves), Zoltan, and The Lucania, for starters. Clearer too. Those reverb-drenched vocals on Amulet are now both wrung out a little and a little bit bigger sounding.
It’s fitting that the cover art for University Heights (a painting by Hayden James Mitchell, Smith’s 1-year old nephew)
consists of a large and mostly opaque teal paint swipe with only small bursts of lighter shades and traces of white. After all, this is TEEEL, not Teeel and University Heights is a stronger and more dynamic record than Amulet. Which is saying a lot, but as Smith knows all too well, a lot can happen in a year.
Since its release, Teeel has played numerous shows in NY, Philly, Pittsburgh, and all points in-between and beyond, gaining even more fans and earning a reputation as a must-see artist. Now, after forming his own label, promoting Synthemesc artists Crozet, Shades, Soft Lighting, etc. and finalizing his South By Southwest spot, Smith talks about going bigger and darker on University Heights, becoming a zombie and becoming his own (label) boss.
DISCOSALT: Hey man, how’s it going?
TEEEL: Very good! I’m having a blast. Everyday.
D: A colossal load of wonderful things have happened in the last year. Amulet, The Remixes, compilations, a million live shows, Synthemesc and you became part owner of Jack Daniels, right?
T: Yup! It’s been quite the ride. I’ve met some great people this year, had the pleasure to share the stage with musicians that I truly love, I started my own label, Synthemesc and became an official Jack Daniel’s squire. As a squire I get an undisclosed amount of land. I’m an avid Jack collector so this is a true honor. Also, working in pharmaceutical advertising, being a married man and home-owner has kept me extremely busy. I didn’t really sleep much in 2011 and I don’t see how I can sleep now.
D: Ah, well that’s a shitload of proverbial awesomeness to hit the fan for a project just over a year old. Did you feel the same working on the first Teeel track as you did with past music projects or was there the sense this was completely different?
T: The first TEEEL album had very different influences. I was listening to a lot more chilled out electronic music like Air, Album Leaf, and Washed Out and really into all of the new wave and synthpop from the 80s. I was learning more about recording live instruments and vocals, getting really into synthesis and building the “TEEEL sound”. In the past couple years I’ve gotten really into the french electro stuff and newer indie pop music. This newer album has a lot more live instrument presence. As my gear collection grew larger this year, I did a lot more live-playing on the album and was able to bring new sounds to the table.
D: So, let’s talk about the new album. First, where did the title University Heights come from? is it a tribute to a long forgotten teen melodrama on CW?
T: I grew up in Hamilton NJ which is right between Princeton and Trenton. There is a neighborhood called “University Heights” where the majority of my friends and my wife grew up. I spent my entire high school and college years there and had some of the best times of my life. I wanted to really represent my younger years on this album. I was really into metal and drum and bass, lived on the edge, was an angry little dude and was a bit crazy at times. For the album artwork, I had my little 1year old nephew, Hayden do a painting for me. The artwork is a perfect representation and I couldn’t have done it better myself. I wanted this to be diverse, messy, and a bit out there. This album is definitely darker and more aggressive than “Amulet”, kind of like, the younger version of me. I feel like this is my synthpop band-in-a-garage album.
D: I love this album and a lot of people are going to love this album too, but it’s surprising.
Deadites, in particular is aces above anything off Amulet. Simply put – it fucking rocks!
Were you hesitant about making a leap like that or worried about what statement it might make?
T: Honestly, I have no idea how the world will see this album. It’s always a challenge writing a sophomore album. I really made this album for me and hopefully others can get down to it. The song “Zoltan” for instance is super “rock” sounding, almost deftones-ish and is nothing like “Triangle Waves”. Now that I’m playing out more, I wanted to create some exciting tracks. More in-your-face and punchy. I get mixed answers when I ask fans what their favorite TEEEL songs is. I think the people into the really chill stuff might be confused. Most of my fans like the harder songs off of Amulet like “Black Diamonds” and “Galilean Moons” so this should be right up their [alley].
D: Besides the bigger beats and darker vibe, the vocals at times are more aggressive on University Heights, do you think you attained a more confident and comfortable voice from playing live?
T: That was a personal goal for this album. I’m constantly learning new recording techniques. Again, I’m doing this in a bedroom. I didn’t want to keep things monotonous and really have some surprises in there. I plan on continuing to push my songs in different directions and try some different vocal approaches. I just don’t want to keep writing the same song over and over. I need to keep it exciting, even for me.
D: If given the opportunity to create a score or update an old one for one of your favorite horror films, what film would you choose to work on?
T: I’d love to get involved with movie scores and production. That could be a dream job. They are actually redoing Evil Dead next year. Even though I don’t agree with it, if I had the opportunity, I’d be honored to do the score.
D: I think your next promo video should feature Tony Danza as a crazed killer in a black Delorean. If Tony would work for scale, would you be up for it?
T: I saw Tony in Philly. I can’t really see him as a crazed killer though. haha. Personally, I’d want to be the crazed one driving around in a Delorean.
D: I think his niece is a Discosalt intern, so we may be able to set that up. Anyway, speaking of bosses, you’re a label boss now. What’s it like being the head of Synthemesc Recordings? How did that come about?
T: I’ve always wanted to have my own label. It’s more of an artist collection with musicians that have the same passion and inspiration as me. I was talking with some friends at work about how there are so many amazing artists out there that get no recognition and I just started something up. I bought the website name, registered as an LLC and with the state as a business, set up with a distributor and we’re off! It’s been awesome. I’ve been getting some amazing submissions. It’s nice to work with other artists. I’m helping out with branding, consultation, advice, distribution, promotion and more.
D: Other than Teeel, Synthemesc artists Crozet, Soft Lighting and Shades are being dug all over the blogosphere. If one of your artists blows up, will you sell out to Warner Bros. and buy a mansion on the hill?
T: I’m all about keeping the artists on my label happy. I try to avoid everything I hate about other labels. I make sure to keep it exciting with no pressure. I’m only here to help see their vision through. It’s all about having fun and getting the music out there. If the band or artist wanted to go mainstream, I’d be there to back them. We’re like a little family now. It’s awesome.
D: You’ve received many different requests to play live over the last year. What has been one of the weirdest ones?
T: Istanbul is probably the most unique place. I’ve been asked to come play all over the world. Unfortunately, with flight and everything, the cost can add up so I really need to set up multiple shows. Plus, I’d have to take off work and really plan it out. I hope to get over to some countries soon though. I love to travel and see the world. I dream of rocking out in another country and meet my amazing fans.
D: Can you share any details about your SXSW appearance?
T: I’m so honored to be performing this year. I’ve always wanted to go to sxsw. It’s extremely exciting and I’m beyond happy that I’m going to play. They are still working out all of the details but as of now I’m showcasing Wednesday the 14th at Buca Lounge. I’m pretty sure I’ll be playing with one of my favorite bands too but I don’t wanna say anything and jinx it. I’ll be there for the full week so I’m sure I’ll be doing more shows too.
D:You and Seth Haley (aka Com Truise) are friends and worked together for many years. In many ways, both your production styles and approaches are informed by the same musical DNA and opinions about music but are shades apart in both style and approach. Is it safe to say before Teeel and Com, you guys both inspired and competed with one another? Do you share works in progress or bounce ideas back and forth?
T: It’s never been a competition. In fact, we always encourage each other to go for opportunities and experiences. We support each other and still I get excited to hear new tunes from him. Even though we do have similar taste with order music, we tend to have completely different taste with the newer stuff out there. It’s actually pretty rare we are into the same contemporary artist. Sure, there are elements like synthesizers, big drums that we both draw inspiration from but I can assure you our iTunes playlists are quite different. We share works in progress. I luckily can say I have over a 100 songs from Seth on my HD. He’s taught me a lot about producing and we love nerding out on gear, music and movies. He’s my brother from another mother.
D: What current artist or band is most exciting to you right now?
T: I love everything on the Valerie label. I’m a huge fan of Tesla Boy, Anoraak, FM Attack and of course everything coming out of my label, Synthemesc.
D: Who would you want to work with in the indie world? Who would you be super psyched about producing?
T: I’d love to collab with a female vocalist. There are so many great artists out there. Maybe even doing a full album with all different vocalists could be really cool.
D: Okay, chill-wave is on the left. Dubstep is on the right. You’re a team captain choosing players for your dodge ball team. With only Skrillex and Washed Out left, who do you pick for your team?
T: Well, I like chill-wave more than dubstep but let’s be honest, I hate labeling music and dubstep and chillwave get the most blog love and hate out there. I think both artist are amazing at what they do, Skrillex just won some grammys which is helping put electronic music on the map so I’d pick him.
D: Hmm, interesting. What about tattooed fans? Seems like the Amulet cover design would make a really sweet tattoo, albeit crazy labor-intensive and super painful.
T: I haven’t seen any TEEEL tattoos out there. That would be kinda nuts. Maybe I’ll get one now. Haha.
D: What’s your social security number?
D: Before you go, any future projects, collaborations or causes you’d like to plug?
T: Definitely check out http://www.synthrecords.com/ and give some of my label friends some love. There is some amazing new stuff over there. Also, be sure to “like” my facebook page.http://www.facebook.com/teeelmusic I’m always giving away new tunes, remixes and updates on shows and more!
D: Thank you, Mr. Smith. You’ll find your precious time machine in Impound Lot B.
T: Shit. I’m outta plutonium too.