James Hinton has been making mellifluous electronic music since he first discovered Baltimore rapper Rye Rye while studying physics at Brown University. Before that, the artist now known as The Range was making guitar-laden post-rock. But when he realized the openness of the Baltimore Club sound, with its singular breaks and hypnotic vocal samples, he thought: “I might have a place here.” Electronic music remained a side project for Hinton over the next few years, during which he DJ’d parties, finished school, worked in a lab, and taught introductory music at Brown, while simultaneously releasing his debut project The Big Dip. But after dropping Nonfiction in 2013 to widespread critical acclaim (Pitchfork rated the album Best New Music, describing it as a “meticulous record filled with […] bass that stretches like taffy, and synth blips that twinkle like itsy bitsy stars”), Hinton became The Range full-time.
The Range has since moved from Providence to New York and released his Panasonic EP. He signed to Domino Records (which represents indie-superstars Animal Collective, Hot Chip, and Blood Orange), and recorded his album, Potential, which releases today. The album is accompanied by a documentary called Superimpose, which recently premiered at SXSW and tells the stories of the artists he sampled, who are “sourced from the darkest corners of YouTube.” In sampling “unpolished” artists found by tinkering with the site’s filters and algorithms, The Range hopes to pose questions about what he calls “YouTube as today’s record store,” as well as break away from the fame-obsessed “Justin Bieber narrative” that has defined YouTube over the past decade. I caught Hinton on the phone just a few days before Potential’s official release. The album opens with the powerful YouTube sample: “Right now, I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it,” signifying the 27-year-old’s full-fledged dive into music. Read our conversation, edited for brevity, below.
ANNA DORN: I love the sample that opens the album [Potential]: “Right now, I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it.” Can you tell me why you chose to open the album this way?
THE RANGE: Yeah! That one is obviously very important and frames the album. I was on tour, and during it would I would try to work before each show and to have something to play, and almost as a challenge. This song was one of those and it was immediately special to me because I had just figured out I was gonna be signing to Domino. It was a big leap for me. And it was just kind of a statement of what I was feeling at the time. At a certain point you kind of have to take the leap and give it a go. And in life you don’t get a do-over; and you can only plan so much. And that sample kind of says that really beautifully: “Right now I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it.” I think it just really frames the record. That was the moment where I started to see the overarching theme of the album. Before it was pretty cloudy, and that song totally clued me in about what the rest of the record would be about. And that was the reason why I called the album Potential.
Has music been your primary way to make a living?
Pretty much right after I graduated with a degree in physics [from Brown University], I worked in the lab for a bit. But pretty quickly I decided I wanted to just do music. So I taught for a little bit. I taught introductory music at Brown for a bit. And then once Nonfiction came out, it was pretty much music full-time.
I know Nicolas Jaar went to Brown as well. I’m into his stuff. Were you all friends?
Yeah, we were friends. I think if I was doing the math right, he was two years below me. But we got to know each other pretty well. And then we just kept in touch, because I’m really good friends with Dave Harrington from Darkside. So we’re in the same group. But [Nicolas] is an amazingly helpful person. He’s always willing to talk about songs. And when you’re at the end of a project, he just kind of has this magic ear for what songs are the ones, you know?
Do you go to a lot of shows [in New York]?
I try to. When I first moved here, that was right after 285 Kent had closed down and right before Glasslands finished, and a lot of the music and friends I had were still kind of in that scene, so it still feels like it’s shaking out. Obviously like Baby’s All Right has a lot of good shows, and Trans-Pecos is really starting to have a bunch, and Palisades and Bossa Nova. So there’s plenty of stuff to do. And I try to get out and see as much as I can. But usually it’s like you have a friend playing, and you get an option to kind of hang with them and see what they’re up to. That’s my favorite part.
What are you listening to now?
Right when I moved here, it was so in the heat of that New York techno bloom that was happening. Like Arora Halal and Bossa Nova and all the White Material guys. It feels now like it’s switching a little bit. I’m really good friends with Lee Bannon, I think he’s interesting. I guess he’s going by Dedekind cut now. He makes a lot of interesting stuff. And I’m sure he’ll have a new alias by tomorrow anyway. He’s making amazing stuff and whenever [I] meet up with him, it feels like he’s totally switched genres. It’s kind of inspiring because so often when people get a hold of the pony that’s working, they kind of stick with it usually. And he’s so willing to throw stuff away. Whether it’s drum and bass now, and totally beatless stuff tomorrow, and then back to hip hop. It’s really inspiring. I’m also friends with the kids that run the label Astro Nautico. They put out my first release called The Big Dip in 2011. They’re doing a totally different thing with this guy Photay, which is much more open-ended and jazz-based. So it’s kind of all over the map. It’s really, really fun. I guess in Providence, there’s a lot of techno that goes on. And it’s been that way for quite some time. So it’s fun in New York to hop to one neighborhood and catch something totally different.
I want to ask you about your sample-finding process, because I’ve read a bunch of interesting interviews recently about you using algorithms—forgive me, I’m really bad with computers.
No, it’s totally cool. Me too.
But yeah, I read about using algorithms to find things that might be hidden on YouTube. Can you explain that process a little more to me?
Yeah. It definitely starts with 4—sometimes 5 when I’m getting really desperate—core sets of search terms. That starts you in a place. It’s in YouTube’s best interests, and Google as well—the whole idea is to show the most popular stuff first. So that’s on average what most people feel is important. So it’s actively aimed against finding the videos I wanted to find with like 35 views or something. But I think in that process, those search terms certainly help. Then using the search engine against itself and start way at the very backend as much as possible. And then you’re just sort of looking at the play count and see if it’s up my alley. I definitely have a predilection for a single person in a room that looks like it’s pretty grainy footage that isn’t very well lit. I just want the opposite of anything that could be polished. But it’s so involved. Probably around 200 hours of actual sitting down and watching. Because there’s only so much the filtering can do. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the filtering and search aspect of YouTube really really well. I’m not yet an expert, but I have some suggestions to help me.
“[WITH THE VIDEOS ON YOUTUBE THAT I SAMPLE], I JUST WANT THE OPPOSITE OF ANYTHING THAT COULD BE POLISHED.”
I read [in your Pitchfork interview] that you want to break away from the “Justin Bieber narrative,” and I guess that’s what you were saying about looking for unpolished, which is sort of the opposite of what YouTube is for.
In some ways, though, I think what I’m finding has been there first. I’m sure you can remember the really earliest days when YouTube was just little comedy videos and people posting home videos, and just using it as a way to share pictures of their grandkids. In a large sense, it really used to be person-to-person or family-to-family. It wasn’t this like a mass-content thing. So it’s funny now ten years down the line, everyone’s idea of what YouTube is about is like a Major Lazer video, or Justin Bieber having a billion views. It was interesting now to pull back and be like “no, no, no, no,” there is such a healthy thing going on under the radar. But so much of what people talk about is, “Have you seen this viral video?” type of thing. So it’s been fun to talk about how that original thread of what people used it for never really went away. It’s just as strong as ever, if not stronger.
I also read that you want the people you’re sampling to seem like “good people IRL.” How do you know whether they’re good people and why is it important to you?
You really don’t know because you only see really 3-4 minutes of someone’s life. But by the end, maybe I feel like I developed some sort of sixth sense detect. I think a lot of it I think is the lyrical content. Even on songs like “Five Four.” That’s an angry, frustrated tone—lyrically, and from a timbral perspective. But at the same time it seems to be coming from a place of earnestness. I don’t have much tolerance for people being annoying or stuck up or idiots in real life. And I think that sort of translated into the music I wanted to make, and therefore the people had to fit the same qualifications at least as much as possible.
For example there was this one guy—often what will cue my ear into something is a turn of a phrase, because I can just loop it. This one guy said “can’t keep your balance” really interestingly. But the rest of the video was just horrible, he was just like a horrible misogynist. Like, terrible, terrible, terrible. So you have to throw it away, you know? So it’s been fun then to actually start to meet the people and pretty much entirely be confirmed that I agree with what they stand for, and be even more steadfast in supporting them. Because they are such great people. They have amazing drive. Really pleasant, and really pollyanna in a good way about how they feel about life, you know? It’s been cool to meet them in real life as well.
So your instincts have proven correct?
Yeah, which is probably surprising I guess.
Can you tell me about your documentary Superimpose, which features these people you’ve sampled?
Yeah! I think the documentary was definitely coming from the same place [as Potential.] Like I spent hours and hours and hours preparing to loop what is just one section of someone’s life. I remember during Nonfiction, songs like “Metal Swing” and “Jamie,” thinking these people are a huge part of my record but I know nothing about them. But the documentary was like, okay, once and for all, let’s go out and actually meet the people and see what they’re like and just get some exposition. But it has become interesting.
We just streamed it for the first time at SXSW. It was interesting because you watch it in a vacuum for so long, then to actually sit down with a group of people who haven’t seen it, I think there’s a larger narrative that comes through about maybe why people find themselves on YouTube. Or persist, despite the fact that they aren’t trying to be Justin Bieber—they’re not trying to be bloggers, they just wanna get their music out there. I’m just as guilty as anyone, when you don’t get confirmation, the temptation to quickly delete it is heavy. And I think the temptation is just as strong, if not stronger, when you put a video out online that doesn’t get maybe more than 7 or 8 views. I remember that distinctly with music, when you don’t get that confirmation, or a number that ultimately doesn’t really matter in the end, it becomes difficult to believe in yourself. It’s interesting to watch those qualities that allow people to persist. It’s not something that I meant to come out, I meant it to be more exposition. But it’s cool that it’s going down that lane.
And you were happy with its reception at SXSW?
Yeah, the conversation was really good. I think it would be really easy to paint this whole record with a really simple, like, “This is a kid that just samples YouTube.” Period. It’s been really interesting to hear the nuanced questions afterwards. And have people ask about what the process was like to meet them, and be as open and curious as I was. It’s just been really, really good.
“IT’S INTERESTING TO WATCH THOSE QUALITIES THAT ALLOW PEOPLE TO PERSIST.”
I was drawn to a quote of yours I read: “With both art and science, any goal you reach will lead to another three or four things to look for next. With this new record, I’ve advanced a lot of the themes that were on my first album, but I only have more questions now.” I was hoping you could speak a little bit more about that, and tell me what lingering questions you have after finishing Potential.
It took me a while to come to that way of thinking about music, because it’s so easy, especially with electronic music, which is really genre-driven, it’s very easy if you go out at all to just let that switch-up drive your music. It’s sort of inevitable in a lot of ways. But it was cool in Nonfiction to sort of be starting to get more theoretical. At the time I was interested in “YouTube as today’s record store.” That’s where people are going now to sample. And at the time, I think I was satisfied with that. And having finished it and touring, there were a lot of open questions about the differences between traditional sampling and what YouTube is—because I was increasingly convinced that it was kind of radically different. Like you’re dealing with real people; it’s not a record company, it’s not a band. And it’s not someone that consented to hundreds of people listening to their music. It’s just something they wanted to upload and get out there, and that inspired a whole different way to think about it. So a lot of the questions I had and the reasons I wanted to pursue Potential had to do with finishing Nonfiction and wanting to continue the conversation.
So finishing Potential now, it’s more of an open-ended question… There were one or two videos I really wanted to use on the record are songs that still exist but the person deleted. And I’m getting interested in the idea now—it’s still early days, and these things don’t tend to be revealed until later, but—I’m interested in that idea where, yes, YouTube is a library, but it’s a library that’s open to deletion. It’s not a true archive in that sense. And once you can delete, I think that has ramifications for maybe memory and memory storage. And I see maybe some role for my music as trying to encapsulate something at risk for being deleted. And like, preservation or something? I don’t know, it’s still very loosey-goosey in my head.
That’s really interesting.
Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking now. And then also videos that are incredibly bad quality. There were a few I couldn’t use because there was so much noise, and there were lots of pops and clicks. And I’m wondering if there are ways where I can really process and challenge myself in that sense to do right by samples with something that might otherwise be lost because it’s not a high enough sample rate or something like that.
Cool. Have you already started working on your next project?
I have about 75 songs, it’s not great.
Oh wow! So how many hours do you spend a day making music?
Well, I’m really busy right now. And when I’m busy and have an album coming up, I try to write a song in like 2 hours before I have to get on a flight or something. But on a normal day, I try to work from about 8pm to 4am, loosely. I just try to be really regimented about it. I spend a lot of time at the computer.
Do you have any sort of routine you follow when you’re working?
I do. I guess with this process, I had to force myself to really investigate YouTube. So I started to get into a routine where I’d eat dinner at around 7:30 or 8:00, which is a little earlier than I normally would. And then begin naturally searching YouTube. Because I think if you try to force yourself to start at 100% attention it can be kind of difficult. I wanted to have a more natural thing. I found that if I started with a more relaxed atmosphere, I’d look longer and find more enjoyment in it. Hopefully you find something right away that you’re interested in when you’re starting new work. Sometimes it would be like an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five, and you wouldn’t have gotten anything. Then once you find something, you try to get the idea that inspired you out that night. I remember the very end of “Florida” came at 4:30 in the morning, like a really ecstatic moment where I had been working for ages and ages. And it finally came together then. There’s a sort of magic time around then when I think your brain is on a different level.
I feel like your sound from Nonfiction to Potential has gotten more jubilant—do you find that to be the case?
Yeah! I definitely have always had a predilection for the minor key, musically. In Nonfiction, almost every song is in minor. In Potential, I think I was trying to shift a lot of the heaviness to the lyrical side. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but a lot of the lyrical material is really tough, or like difficult to deal with. Like if you really sit with the idea of, “Right now I don’t have a backup plan if I don’t make it,” or “I’m falling out of love with you” [Ed. note: Both samples used in Potential]. That’s some really heavy, dark stuff, stated really plainly. They don’t give any lyrical optimism. So I felt like it was then on me to tilt the balance to hopefulness on the musical side, and that explains why there’s been a bit of a tilt to the major keys. Like I think “Retune” is one of the first songs I ever wrote explicitly in major key in a very long time—which is good.
I also loved Panasonic EP, can you tell me about making that?
Yeah, I think that was really important for me because it as a lot of the bridgework between Nonfiction and Potential. At the bare minimum, I think that was really the first time I was starting to think about “what does it mean to sample?” I called it Panasonic because I had all these childhood tapes from when I was younger—Panasonic VHS tapes—that for some reason I had never gotten digitized. And they have a lot of important family stuff. I was wondering why I was willing to involve these other people from YouTube in my life, and I had like this weird closure with my own self. Not that I would ever sample that material for my music, but I remember being struck by that. There was a weird onus I was placing on other people instead of testing myself.
“I WAS WONDERING WHY I WAS WILLING TO INVOLVE THESE OTHER PEOPLE FROM YOUTUBE INTO MY LIFE, AND I HAD LIKE THIS WEIRD CLOSURE WITH MY OWN SELF.”
Whether that comes off musically or not, that’s definitely where my head was at, and I think a lot of Panasonic is interestingly in the middle. It’s very maximalist musically, especially like “Two” and “Tricky Pose” and “Ed Reed Jersey” by the end. They really fill out the section, but I think they’re more guided. With Nonfiction, there is a lot of percussiveness just for the sake of being percussive, whereas Panasonic and even more on Potential, everything is really meditated over and thought through. And I think [Panasonic] was an interesting step along the road there.
“Ed Reed Jersey” is one of my favorite songs. I love it.
It’s still one of the best songs live. I try to play it as much as I can. It just amps you up the whole way through.
That reminds me—do you envision your music to be listened to in a certain place or in a certain way?
That’s a good question. I think at the end of the day, the default of the way that I make it kind of gets me, and I think the most natural way is on headphones because of the detail; because of the way I composed it as a single person in a room just making music as a solo person. You’re going to end up performing well for people taking solo walks with headphones. And I take a lot of walks with headphones to get out of the studio and check the music in that context. So that has always made a lot of sense to me. What’s important is that it does work in the club as well. Like you said, there is a jubilance on this record so that it becomes important that multiple people can listen at the same time. And it’s been fun to be able to occupy both spaces. I think a lot of electronic music people listen to mixes by themselves, but it can also work at the club. I like the idea that my music could work in both spaces equally.
I read in Paper that you were inspired by Rye Rye and that era of Mad Decent. That made me happy because I was all about that. Do you still listen to that stuff, or was it just a period in time?
It’s still important, because that was the first time I was making electronic music. Before, I was like, recording all the parts of post-rock stuff. Guitar and drum-heavy things. And then that was the first time where I was like, “Oh, I have a place here.” All the harmonic stuff that I like to do, I can fit that into this world because Baltimore club is so open. Rye Rye was just her vocal and the break. It’s so open. I had so much interest in being able to push myself into that space. And I was DJing house parties and Baltimore club is so much fun in that context; I loved it. And now I still have a huge library of it. Like there’s this one mixtape of like random, random songs by Rod Lee that are really good. I still play that all the time. Rod Lee is the big Baltimore club king. And Miss Tony from way back in the day. Really good stuff. But it’s been weird because now a lot of people experience the thick break that you and I think of as Baltimore club, they think of as Jersey club. It’s a totally different thing, but I think there’s a whole generation of kids that has no idea what the original was. It’s interesting.
Do you think this type of highly specific regionalism still exists in electronic music?
It’s funny. I think a lot of the regionalism has shifted into pockets of the Internet. Every once and a while, you’ll come across something on SoundCloud where you can tell it’s a group of friends that are making this totally mad stuff and it’s pretty clear they only hang out with each other and don’t really listen to anything else. That’s location-based stuff, but it’s on like a micro-level now.
I guess the most recent one would be the Footwork scene in Chicago, which had been like gestating for ages and ages and ages. But the instant that it breaks, you fall in love with it so quickly and incorporate a lot of the ideas into your own music. It goes wide-screen really, really quickly. Which I think is a really wonderful thing, but it makes the only way you can gestate something on a really small, specific level. And it’s never going to quite go away, because people still live in cities and a lot of people will just hang in New York, or just hang in Baltimore, or just hang in Providence. And that will tend to manufacture different scenes. And now, it’s like these little micro-Internet climates that pop up every once in a while.
Potential is out today on Domino. Download it here.
The Range just announced his nationwide tour in May with Rome Fortune. Check it here.