Exploring The Electronic World Of ‘Set Of Constraints’ With Animalweapon

[Cover photo credit to Alina Patel]

Electronic artist Animalweapon is releasing new album Set of Constraints on April 15th, 2022, via Polychromatic Records, and you might also catch him this week headlining at Bull City Summit in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as at an album release show on April 14th. The singles “Set of Constraints”, “Deserve”, and “Summer’s Over” are currently out, giving a pretty full introduction to the album, and “Deserve” even has a mood-evoking Raleigh-set video that takes in Patrick Cortes’, aka Animalweapon’s favorite night spot.

On Set of Constraints, Cortes builds sonic soundscapes with lyrics that encourage exploration and interpretation and while several of the songs on the album hint at themes of working on oneself and undertaking personal journeys, there’s also a wider mood of existing in uncertain states during uncertain times. With his previous album, Tyrannosaurus, Cortes had taken a very intentional, perhaps overly driven approach, one that he released in favor of allowing songs to develop more organically for the new album. The result was a more intuitive creative direction, and the album itself came about a little unexpectedly for Cortes. I spoke with him about finding himself in this new territory, the relationship between his musical composition and lyric writing, and the interrelationships between some of the songs from Set of Constraints.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that this album was a little bit accidental in terms of its scope and depth based on your original plans.

Patrick Cortes: Yes, after making Tyrannosaurus, I decided that I was not going to do an album next. I wanted to pace myself, so I thought I’d do an EP, then another album after that. I was definitely not going to do two albums back to back, and yet we are here.

HMS: It sounds like not having that intention was actually helpful to you, creatively.

PC: It kind of took the pressure off. That’s the thing I had learned from Tyrannosaurus, was not to kick my own ass and set my expectations too high. Certainly, with some of the songs on Tyrannosaurus I applied too much pressure to myself, thinking, “This has to be the best shit I’ve ever written, or I’ve failed miserably.” It made it not fun to do music anymore. I was laser-focused on details that didn’t really need to be that way. This one was so much more laid back by comparison.

HMS: I know that it can be like that even if you’re proud of the music, taking too much of a personal toll. One way to avoid that might be moving into thinking of songs as singles.

PC: That’s something I’ve legitimately thought about and that’s why I set out to do an EP in the first place, to minimize the amount to which I would beat myself up. I don’t like the singles format anywhere near as much as a body of work, though. I do sometimes do one-off singles, but I like something cohesive, by and large. Most things that I put out are going to wind up being part of a larger body of work.

HMS: I find the EP and LP formats really interesting since I like looking at the interrelationships of songs, whether that’s been intentional or not. Sometimes songs produced in a similar way in the same time period will have those connections.

PC: I found that a lot when working on this album. “Summer’s Over” was meant to be a stand-alone track and I wound up accidentally writing a bunch of stuff that it fit in with. So it made it onto the album, and there are actually going to be two versions of it on the album. The final track on the album will be a stripped-down version of it, with just the piano, myself, and my friend MJ, who sings on the title track, too. We then have a gorgeous, swelling, string arrangement. It’s super-cinematic and sucks you in. I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever worked on, honestly.

HMS: In other types of music, a singer-songwriter had the option of doing an acoustic version of their songs, but you don’t really have that option working in electronica, so it makes sense that you’d create an alternate version.

PC: It’s rare that I have a song where that would work, and I felt I had to jump at the chance with “Summer’s Over” because it was already piano-driven.

HMS: Does working with non-traditional song structures and with so many layers make it difficult to decide when one of your songs is finished?

PC: It’s interesting because it can go all over the place. For a lot of the songs on Tyrannosaurus, I had a really strict roadmap, including the title track.  I had that one in my mind for years and years and generally knew where it was going. Almost all of those songs had instrumentals done before the lyrics were written. I knew where stuff would go but it’s sometimes hard to figure out what the words will be.

With “Fourth Quarter”, that one probably took two years to write because I knew it was one of the best instrumentals I had done and the lyrics needed to match that, so I psyched myself out. Fortunately, I didn’t psych myself out at all on this record. Everything about this album felt different.

HMS: How much should we think of the themes on Set of Constraints as being unified or overarching? I know that “Deserve” takes in the idea of working on oneself or being in a certain headspace.

PC: I think it’s a general thing, thematically, but it’s not the whole record, and it’s not as explicit anywhere else than on “Deserve”. I wrote at least half of it when I was starting to put in a lot of work on myself, but I don’t know if that is thematically what the record is. I want to leave that open, but also leave a lot of room for interpretation with my lyrics. The record is definitely not a self-help book, and it’s not coming from a place of, “I’ve already gotten here. Here’s what you need to do.” [Laughs] It’s more about needing to step it up.

HMS: [Laughs] Songs that don’t leave room for interpretation feel like lazy songwriting.

PC: Songs that are heavy-handed are not well written.

HMS: This works on an aesthetic level, too, because the kind of music you create wouldn’t go well with super-explicit lyrics.

PC: No, it wouldn’t.

HMS: Did “Deserve” come about music-first, before lyrics?

PC: Yes, and that one came together super quickly. From the time I started working on it, till the time we finished shooting the video for it was three and a half weeks. It started with a happy accident, screwing around with some sounds, and I landed on a sound experimenting. Right away, I knew I had to use it for something. I don’t remember the lyrics being difficult either. I was stuck a little on the second verse, but I was sitting outside at a bar with one of my good friends, and I ran over that instrumental with scratch vocals on AirPods with him. He helped me punch up a line or two, then I went home and did it right away.

HMS: I feel like even though the song is moving through a moody space, it had a sense of direction or resolution to it.

PC: I don’t know intentional it was, but by the time I was done with it, I was aware that it might sound like a super fucking depressing song, but it was not that at all. That was a bit of a concern when releasing it that people might think it is a bleak track. If you listen to the lyrics, by the end of it, there’s definitely a resolution there. The lyrics are where the resolution is, not the music.

HMS: I know that the video takes in a lot of places that are near and dear to you in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the lighting, color, and night mood really work.

PC: Video stuff is never my wheelhouse, but I have vague ideas about it, usually. With this one, I asked, “What if we just treat this like a mood piece instead of a full-on music video?” There are themes of isolation, like when I’m in the bar with other people, but still look lonely. There are very few other people in the shots when I’m walking around Raleigh. I did want to show some Raleigh love, so it starts in my favorite bar, which is a place that I started going to a lot during the time of this album. I’m kind of like “Norm” there. They know my favorite drink. I get a Daquiri with half Mezcal, half Rum. One of the bartenders was already my friend before I started going there. That had to be in the video, and I wanted to give that bar a healthy chunk of time.

HMS: It’s funny but true that the best way to show someone’s headspace is to show the place where they go to get out of their headspace. By the way, I noticed that you have some shows coming up.

PC: I’m super-excited about being one of the headliners at Bull City Summit, which is basically Durham trying to launch their own SXSW. There’s a music festival, but there’s also an arts component, with conferences and panels. We’re trying to replicate things with our own spin, and this will be the first year. I’m happy to be headlining and I’m going to do my best. The music stuff is spread out across four stages with plenty of music to go around for everybody.

HMS: That’s awesome news and I hope that event gets off to a roaring start. Is there anything you’d like to share about the development of the song, “Check Engine Light”?

PC: That one was the first song, aside from “Summer’s Over”, and is actually stuck in my head at the moment. That doesn’t happen very often. I started working on it when I realized I was going to be working on a record. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, lyrically, and though I didn’t do it intentionally, I do feel like it sets up what comes later on the record. The line about, “This car is breaking down…” could be easily applied to a person and could cue up the songs on the record which are about that kind of thing.

It was another song that came about from messing around with cool sounds. There’s a chimey thing on there that I actually sampled from one of my friend’s toddlers banging around on a musical bowl with a wooden mallet. She had posted a video of him banging on one of those online and I asked for a high-quality version of the video. I chopped out one good hit, added reverb, and put it in the song.

HMS: Do you often sample “found sounds” out in the world for your music? Some more academically inclined musicians go out looking for sounds in the world to create soundscape.

PC: Oh god, I love it. And I do it more and more as I get better at doing it. There’s a lot of it on this record. It’s always by accident, though. I am not as proactive about it and don’t look for this stuff. I just suddenly hear something cool and know that I have to get it right away. Ideally, I’d like to record that stuff on a handheld recorder, but in a pinch, I use my iPhone.

There’s some stuff like that on the title track, “Set of Constraints”. I went to my friend’s studio while she was painting, and she had a big ceramic pot with a plant in it. I accidentally bumped my beer bottle against it, and it made this perfect sound. All I had on me was my iPhone, but I had her strike it a few times with a pen, and I had made an instrument out of it. I put that sample into Logic and tuned it in to play it like an instrument.

HMS: That’s incredible. I had actually wondered if that sound on “Set of Constraints” was a bottle, so I was close. The rhythm on “Check Engine Light” is actually a little more extroverted and energetic, so I think it does a good job of getting energy moving through the collection.

PC: I think my intention was to ramp things up a little bit at the beginning, and it comes back down after that track, moving into something really quiet. I almost always know when I’m writing an opening track, and it very much felt like that with “Check Engine Light”.

HMS: Does “Set of Constraints” hold more weight for you, conceptually, because it’s the title track? Or is it just a phrase that really worked well?

PC: It’s kind of both. I don’t want to give too much away, but the title did have a very deliberate meaning. I don’t think you have to have an EP or LP title that comes from a title track, or even from a line in one of the songs. But it just wound up, as I was writing it, being something I could loop back in as the title of the EP.

HMS: There’s a kind of no-man’s-land or in-between feeling to a lot of the tracks on this album, and that one really has it strongly. It does kind of work to reinforce those things as the title track, particularly in terms of sound.

PC: I think so. Thematically, I’m not sure how it relates to the three or four songs on the album that are about working on yourself, but at the same time, it does seem to wrap all of that up in a bow, at least sonically. Just like I usually know when I’m writing an opening track, I usually know when I’m writing a closing track, too.

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