Q-Burns Abstract Message
Feng Shui is an elegant new sonic union of hip-hop, funk, soul, ambiance, and house, the unmistakable brainchild of Michael Donaldson (aka Q-Burns Abstract Message), resident of Central Florida, Eighth Dimension label co-head, and obsessive studio tinkerer. His music has been a major contribution to today’s electronic music scene (with nearly 20 different singles, EP’s, and compilation tracks to his credit recorded on such labels as Mephisto, Sunburn, and Delancey Street) — he’s been touted as one of the “next big things” in URB Magazine. Feng Shui was recorded at the Eighth Dimension studio in downtown Orlando; two of the songs were partly recorded in Reykjavik with the band Gus Gus.
I know that feng shui is the Chinese art of purposeful arrangement and placement of furniture and space. This being the title of the new CD, do you find yourself being very meticulous when it comes to recording? Would you call yourself a perfectionist?
Yes and no. I’m kind of a sloppy perfectionist. I’m very concerned with how the end result sounds, but the process of getting to that is very haphazard and very improvisational. I kind of have the philosophy of just leaving your mind open to letting all sorts of extraneous influences come in; I really don’t go in with a set plan. I usually have a starting point and any little thing that pops into my head I go with, which makes it a kind of creative game, in a way.
Describe the production of your music. How do you create what is being heard on Feng Shui , for instance?
I’m kind of a believer in basically getting to know your equipment. You hear music by people who have a lot of toys that usually… sounds like those toys. But once you have your equipment for a while, you begin to know the ins and outs of it, and use it in ways that it wasn’t meant to be used — make it more personal. The equipment is just a sonic sampler, a Roland synthesizer (which I’ve actually had for about 15 or 16 years — I bought it when I was a teenager in Louisiana), a really good Mackie board, and except for the keyboard and effects boxes, that’s it.
Just listening to your music, I imagine that playing live concerts would be very difficult. What are the major differences — the advantages and disadvantages that face you — between your live playing and recording in the studio?
Well, my background’s live playing — I’ve been in probably five or six bands before I did this. But recording is totally different, because basically what I’m trying to do in the studio with the Q Burns thing is…create music for the head space, create a sound or an environment that you can live in. A live show — obviously — is a losing battle. You can control all of the circumstances in a recording that the person is going to be listening to (except for the speakers), but live, there are so many different elements that are working against you. So I can’t go at it with the attitude “Okay, I’m going to recreate my album.” I think that’s the downfall of a lot of live electronic music — I think a lot of people think they can do that. Unless you’re absolutely controlling the environment — the sound, the lights, the people — you can’t. So I try make the live shows a very fun interpretation of the songs by fusing the idea of DJ’ing with playing live.
My live show has no midi and no sequencer. What I do instead is use two CD players, a keyboard, a sampler, and a turntable. I use these new CD players that Pioneer makes which are basically samplers that you can put all of these sounds and elements on, then trigger parts of the samples with a pad. Behind this, you can play the backing track and you can control the tempo without affecting the pitch. At the same time, I’m dropping the lead elements in from the sampler, playing the keyboard lines, etc. It’s a pretty fun show, because the whole idea behind it is that I’m trying to… not parody, but do a sort of throwback to the one-man band thing — I’m running back and forth doing a million things at once. Now, I’m trying to make it even more improvisational, to where one section is a song created spontaneously, or to where I’m adding effects and echoes.
Your music covers a lot of ground — jazz, hip hop, funk, ambient — yet you have a unique sound. It contrasts with a lot of the heavy plodding of some of acid jazz, but it doesn’t have that sort of dark Illbient sound either. Your music is very light and positive — it’s refreshing…
Well, that’s actually what I’m trying to do — I’m really trying to create a positive, celebratory music. This comes inadvertently from the fact that probably my major influence creating Feng Shui — creating all of my records, for that matter — is funk. I look back to Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, etc., etc. The feeling that they get — not necessarily in their sound, their production, or their songs — but that feeling they achieve, is what I’m trying to recreate. People ask me “What do you call your music,” and I just say “Funk.” Though I appreciate the more dark side of the music, it’s just something I don’t feel personally…
What effect did growing up in Louisiana have on your music? Did you feel as if you were struggling against odds, or has this environment strengthened you artistically?
I have this strange belief that I came up with when I was in college — I was taking a lot of literary courses at that time — that art from the South is a very unique and incredible art. Some really crazy things have come from the South, and it’s very unique to anywhere else in the world. When you’re born in the South and you’re an intelligent, free-thinking person and you see everything around you, you start getting kind of twisted. In the South, there’s a lineage of really twisted art, from Flannery O’Connor to the Butthole Surfers. I went to college at a school in north Louisiana called Louisiana Tech, and it was pretty much the only school in Louisiana or even in Arkansas that had a really good art program, so all of these twisted individuals would congregate at this school — some amazing, brilliant artists, some of whom I still keep in touch with.
And the other thing about growing up in Louisiana is that there are so many different cultures and musics and influences. Louisiana is a little bit like — this is going to sound like a strange comparison — but it’s a little bit like England… in that culturally, you’ll go from city to city and there’ll be a different accent for each city or a different culture, and Louisiana’s like that. You can tell what region of Louisiana a person comes from by the way they talk. There are cities in southern Louisiana where no one speaks English, it’s all French — the newspaper, the language, etc. This kind of creates a hodgepodge environment of all sorts of different cultures. So I think growing up there, I got exposed to a lot of things. It also helped that I had a good friend of mine that was four years older than I was who went to Tulane and DJ’d at WTUL. He would come up every few weeks and visit his folks and I’d be there and he’d have all of this music he was discovering in New Orleans, turning me on to it.
It’s also my experience that people are a little bit more open to experimental music in small towns. When I play in New York, I’m usually playing to a bunch of people with their arms crossed, staring at me. But I did a gig recently in Richmond, Virginia, where people were just going crazy, yelling and screaming and jumping around.
It seems that recently there has been a resurgence of collaborations between DJs and other musicians, between DJ Olive and William Hooker, for instance. Have you considered doing some sort of collaboration like this?
Well, first of all, I really don’t consider myself a DJ — I’m a musician and producer first. That’s really important to me. I’m influenced by DJ’ing, basically, as opposed to being a DJ influenced by music. As far as collaborating, it’s hard to say, because the people who I really look up to I would be intimidated by… I like collaborating with friends — that’s really important to me. I can’t vibe off a stranger. I’m kind of tough to work with in the studio. I need to be with friends who understand my psychosis, and that’s how the Gus Gus thing came about, because they’re friends of mine.
And the future?
I think that the future of music, in a way, is just keeping your mind open and letting all sorts of different influences in, taking all these elements and fusing them together. I think everyone’s waiting for this electronic music explosion to happen — it’s not going to happen until it’s something beyond electronic music. Until it becomes…just music.