Dusty Brown goes beyond the zeroes and ones
The Sacramento-based electronic producer-musician explains his analog approach
When local electronic producer Dusty Brown released the This City is Killing Me EP in 2010, he received several positive reviews—and numerous downloads in return. His biggest boost in sales, however, arrived in 2013, when soon-to-be YouTube sensation Karen X. Cheng used some of his music to accompany her time lapse video “Girl Learns to Dance in a Year.”
The clip went viral and currently boasts more than five million views to date.
Those extra sales were a boon. The money helped Brown replace some of his old instruments, no minor feat since he creates music in a personal studio filled with instruments—all of which he uses until they don’t work any longer.
Gear is meant to be used, not enshrined, Brown says. “I don’t treat my stuff like museum pieces. My stuff is old, everything is always breaking.”
It’s a matter of efficiency, the father of five adds. “I work a lot. That’s why I had to make this studio. I can come out here and not be a dad for two hours.”
Brown’s computer, of course, is his go-to instrument for beat production, but when an idea strikes to add a guitar line, a synth part, a piano—or even sample his own children singing—he can.
As music software continues to become more intuitive, Brown says he feels pressure to keep one foot in the realm of live instrumentation. As such, he gives himself a series of self-imposed rules and restrictions to keep creative.
This involves stripping away some of digital music’s overused crutches. “I’m always trying to take the computer out of electronic music,” Brown says. “The computer makes so many things easy, down to recording and performing. You don’t have to be good at doing anything.”
The degree to which Brown melds live, organic instruments with electronics can seem staggering to someone who is used to cutting and slicing beats on his or her laptop. For starters, Brown generally plays all synth and guitar parts live, and then crafts loops out of them. Sometimes he takes computer-programmed beats, and runs them through an old spring reverb amp to give them a subtle, analog character.
“You layer things into it and the listener never hears it, but it’s just something that’s there that makes it a little different and unique,” Brown says.
Brown has been making electronic music since the late ’90s. His biggest influences include trip-hop acts such as Portishead and old school ’90s rap mainstays such as Wu-Tang Clan.
His creative goal, he says, is to marry the lower-tech sounds of these artists with the deep bass of the current EDM sound along with the moody, often melancholy—even angry—tone of ’90s trip-hop. Making beats then was difficult, he says. In those early days, Brown didn’t make loops, but instead started and stopped each beat himself.
By the early 2000s, he was an active part of the Sacramento electronic music scene. That’s when he met Scott Hansen, then new to electronic music, and now well-known as frontman for the electronic group Tycho. The pair became good friends, and Brown showed Hansen a few tricks about performing live.
Later, Brown’s sister Jessica Brown and his cousin Zac Brown joined him and, for a short while, the trio played under the “Dusty Brown” moniker. His sister sang lead vocals while Zac played guitar. This lineup has since dissolved, with Brown now solo again. He says he likes it that way.
“I feel like I put on a good show by myself,” he says. “I like to be off the cuff.”
On or off the stage, Brown says there’s something creatively appealing about producing instrumental tracks. His tunes are jam-packed with emotions, but Brown says he prefers to express his feelings through the music—not words.
“Songs are a place where you get to be immature. It’s like the only place where it’s appropriate to be super in touch with your feelings even if they’re inappropriate,” Brown says.
“It’s all about finding that anger. On stage I have no problem acting like a 9-year-old, as long as it stays up there.”