Chase DeMaster and Austin Smith Are Changing the Way Houston Sounds

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Somehow I managed to get a hold of Chase DeMaster for a couple hours amid the hectic recording/rehearsing schedule of his many projects. Between the chill electronic dance of Children of Pop, the crunchy '90s throwback guitars of Get a Life, and the Paul Simon-esque soft rock rhythms of Deep Cuts, Chase has work cut out. All that would be enough, one would think, but that doesn’t even get to the purpose here.

I sat down with Chase under the pretense that we’d be talking about his mysterious electronic duo with Josiah Gabriel called Kult Dizney; this weekend's Day for Night Festival will be only their third official show. What ended up was a freewheeling two-hour conversation that hit on topics as diverse as our freezing outdoor table (“This feeling of cold, let’s just let it take over, man”), Stanley Kubrick (“2001 [A Space Odyssey], it’s very rare, very beautiful”), and karmic reciprocity (“What you put in you get back — I like to believe that”).

Somewhere between those diversions we managed to get to the meat of it.

Chase on Songwriting
According to Chase, it all starts with a notepad. A notepad, maybe some coffee, and a seat on the porch in the morning to ruminate over a chord progression, or a melody, or even just a word. “How it sounds, the feel and the groove of it, try to let it spin out an idea if there’s any juice to squeeze out of it,” he says.

Once an idea is started, it either goes to the computer for one of his electronic-based projects (such as Children of Pop or Kult Dizney) or to guitar or piano, where it could become the basis of a Deep Cuts or Get a Life track. In fact, the formation of Get a Life after Children of Pop’s success was largely because he “didn’t want to not be able to put out some of this music [he] was making.” All this might seem like a dizzying pace, as you’re unlikely to go a month without encountering new material from Chase these days. “Sometimes it comes quick, and sometimes it takes like 100 hours.”

But Chase doesn’t mind too much when it gets difficult. After noting that a particular digital audio software makes it too easy to sound good, he jokes, “I’ve gotta have my shoes tied together and my hands behind my back.” Not content with his already prolific stable of mastered instruments, Chase mentions wanting to learn more. “The cool thing about saxophone is I don’t know the system. I don’t want to know the system,” he says. “What’ll happen is I wanna learn my own system.”

Chase on Kult Dizney
Chase’s initial interaction with Noah Clough (also known as electronic music producer Josiah Gabriel) is a meet-cute worthy of the zaniest romantic comedies. Noah was trying to sell beats on Bandcamp to rappers and producers for $50 a track (which would include rights to the song), which Chase came across and found very funny. “I thought he was doing a bit being jaded, like ‘No one’s gonna buy this. 50 bucks.’”
Naturally, Chase contacted him to buy his songs for recreational listening. But when Noah heard this, “he lit up: ‘You wanna buy all of them? Are you serious?’ And then we had this total confusion.”

A series of wacky miscommunications and serendipitous encounters later, and now they make up the duo Kult Dizney. Thus far, every setlist they've created has been painstakingly crafted for each of their performances. Of their third set, this Sunday at Day for Night, Chase says “this time around we are pretty confident that what we’re gonna do will be an album.”

Chase on Day for Night
So what does their third set/possible first album look like? The way Chase tells, it’s being approached on the macro level. “We started with with 35 minutes, and have been zooming in.” Instead of focusing on a song-by-song basis, their new material will have more in common with a symphony in terms of scope.
As for specific sounds to look out for, on top of Noah’s signature minimalist bass grooves and Chase’s lush pop songwriting, we can expect to hear a “dystopian siren sound as a stepping stone throughout the set.” If that kind of thing reminds of a science fiction fascist government, it’s supposed to: “It’s a lens that’s a little bit more bummed out about where we are.”

“I think we’re like a hybrid of DJ and performance,” Chase says of what space Kult Dizney occupies. “We’re going to squish stuff and wiggle and push buttons and keys and stuff— that’s what we do— but we’re also relying on the computer.” Squishes and wiggles may seem a reductive way to state what is actually intensely labored over. “We’re super picky in like every sound, every rhythm, every tone, timbre, and texture... is heavily designed. Um, honestly it takes too long.”

The next day met with and talked to a guy who has chosen to call himself a jerk and identified with everything he said. Austin Smith, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter for JERK, speaks in analogies and metaphors to get his points across. He cross-references philosophy and psychology textbooks, disco, Harry Potter, and Peter Gabriel with equal weight. For as annoyed as he can get with people sometimes, his strong relationship with music allows him an outlet. Turns out there’s a lot to learn from a person over three hours of coffee and music talk.

Austin on Being a Jerk
“I like that you didn’t come up. Cause I hate meeting new people.” Naturally the first thing I needed to bring up was that I caught his EP release show, and naturally we’re both happy I didn’t introduce myself that night. Austin revealed to me that the name JERK is more than an eye-catching, memorable word — It’s a framing device and paradigm for the entire project: “Writing the songs towards that focus, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing it to myself anymore. It feels like there’s a catharsis and there’s an end to it.” It’s with this point of view that Austin can take what used to be internal struggles, like sharing food (as in the very funny JERK song “Want Some”); people’s cats (“I am emotionally allergic”); or the in-your-face consumerism of the Galleria mall (“It’s like the Olympics of advertising”) and put them to constructive use.

On the genesis of the JERK brand, Austin admits, “I had this rough year of just kind of looking back into myself as opposed to trying to find other people to blame for things.” Ideas from that year came became the first five songs for the new project that would end up being an EP. “Now my disdain for other people, because it has a utility now, it’s sharpened. And I’m like ‘You know what else I don’t like?...’” To Austin, it’s obvious that the potential in this idea is limitless: “Somewhere, all the time, someone’s ruining something.”

Austin on Working with Limitations
“I wanted to make disco music,” Austin told me. “I listened to a shitload of ABBA.” If the ties to cheesy finger-pointing dance music aren’t immediately obvious, try listening to it slowed down. With a DJ app on his phone, Austin shows me a version of Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” he has ratcheted down by about 20 BPM. Suddenly the synth chords take on a more sinister tone, and the groove of the song is more, for lack of a better term, neck-bob-y. He laughs when we get to the chorus and I say, “Oh, this is JERK.”

What’s more obvious upon listening to the self-titled EP is that JERK has a very specific and consistent sound. Rather than come across as lack of imagination, it tracks as very deliberate restraint. The way Austin puts it is: “I want a hamburger, but I can’t use meat or like, grain.” Although possibly antithetical to the lush orchestrations of traditional disco, this approach works surprisingly well. The almost minimalist nature of the arrangements allow for a huge amount of space to be filled in by movement of the the audience. “The dancing part is their interaction with the music,” he says. “I like to try to pull people into a groove by omitting things on my end.”

Of course there's always a temptation to fill in the space created by this less-is-more philosophy. “Every time I get excited about an idea, I wanna throw all the other good ideas I’ve ever had onto it,” Austin confessed. “But it dissipates the goodness of the one idea.” Letting good ideas stand on their own is crucial to the music. For instance, the wall of sound arrangements and harmonies of Phil Spector were brought up as a comparison; “I love harmony, and… I still do, but I want to implement it in a way that is more thoughtful to the instrumentation.” Listening to the sparse harmonies on standout track “Robert Palmer” confirms that this idea is more than just talk.

Austin on JERK the Band
Up until recently, and including the latest release, JERK has mainly been a solo outlet for Austin’s various musings on jerkhood. With the addition of Black Kite singer-songwriter Vicki Lynn on synth and Deep Cuts drummer Zach Alderman, they have quickly become a remarkably tight trio. On bringing others into the fold of the JERK lifestyle, Austin says, “What I like is to not live inside my own creativity too much, cause it’s limited.” Even more than relying on their music abilities, Austin relies believes “the most important thing was being able to hang with them.” It takes a long time and a good relationship to lock step as a group the way they have.

Look out for Kult Dizney on Day For Night's Yellow Stage at 3 p.m. Sunday, December 18; and later for JERK on the same stage at 9:50 p.m.

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