An Interview with Giant Claw

Keith Rankin is a renaissance man of sorts. He writes and edits for music website Tiny Mixtapes. With his friend Seth Graham, Keith co-runs Orange Milk Records, a label focusing on experimental electronic music (and, I should add, Rankin designs most of the cover art for Orange Milk’s releases). And finally, under the name Giant Claw, Keith makes his own electronic music. When we factor all of the above in with basic human needs like food consumption and human interaction, I’m not sure when or if Keith Rankin sleeps. 

Sleep is overrated.

I thought that I first encountered Rankin’s music a year ago, when Pitchfork’s now defunct Altered Zones blog collective tossed a bit of ink Rankin’s way and posted one of his songs. I was pretty excited as I listened to the track and read that Rankin was from Dayton, Ohio. 

I’m from Dayton, Ohio.

Of course I was excited—here was a kid from my hometown making good, getting some props from Pitchfork’s extended universe by raising a joyous, keyboard-driven ruckus. As it happens, Dayton isn’t a very big place, and the first time I really encountered Rankin’s music was probably eight or nine years ago when he was in a band named Yakuza Heart Attack. I saw that band play a number of times. So, for the sake of precision: I first encountered Rankin’s music almost a decade ago; I first encountered Giant Claw a year ago. 

When I listened to Giant Claw for the first time—I’m pretty sure the song was “I Know I’m Like a Ghost,” off of his Midnight Murder cassette—I was enamored. There was a lot to like about the song. The piece builds on a number of vintage synthesizer textures and subtle electronic noise while layering anxious arpeggios and gloomy melodic turns that give the song a sense of being haunted as its title suggests. Taken as a whole, Midnight Murder is an icy, eerie series of textures, melodies, and drones that sound strangely out of time—contemporary, perhaps even futuristic, but in a way that is reliant on music technologies that aren’t as exciting and new as they were thirty or forty years ago but somehow sound more foreign for having aged. In essence, while the textures and sounds with which Rankin is working speak to past ideas of a brave new future that never was, what is truly exciting and new, here, are the compositions themselves. 

Now, with Mutant Glamour, Giant Claw’s most recent LP, released in late August, the textures and arrangements maintain those retro-futurist sensibilities, but the compositions push through to something wild and raw. There are moments that will certainly sound vaguely familiar to anyone who grew up in the seventies or eighties—the video game chug of album opener, “Brain On Cream,” the elegant, Wendy Carlos-esque keyboard melodies that anchor “Glitter Logic,” and the eighties, sci-fi soundtrack washes-of-sound running through “Trapped in the Mirror,”—but we recognize these sounds and textures distantly, from deep within the cracks in our pop culture consciousness through which they once slipped. 
When Keith and I sat down and chatted recently via AIM, we talked about how and why artists are beginning to explore these vintage textures again and why this is exciting. We also talked about his composing process, as well as Mutant Glamour’s dark themes and wild exuberance, among other things. The transcript of our interview is below:

The Fiddleback: So, let’s start with some basics. How long have you been making music as Giant Claw?

Giant Claw: Since 2010. I used to play under my own name, but I switched when I started focusing more on improvisation and editing. Basically, I started using editing as the main tool for composition, whereas before I was very much into making up tight little compositions, almost mimicking classical music.

The Fiddleback: Was there a particular reason for your shift in approach?

Giant Claw: I think it was just an urge to move forward. I still love structured composition in music, but after you’ve learned your writing technique, and refined it to a degree, it can box you in. It can be amazing to hit the reset button on your whole process. But that’s also a scary thing to do. I was lucky to have nothing to lose. No one really gave a shit about my music, so I was able to say, “Sure, I might as well completely fuck with how I do things.”

The Fiddleback: So, this move towards editing and improvisation, how is this reflected in the act of writing songs? Do you improvise for a bit then pull pieces together, layering as you go?

Giant Claw: I guess it varies. In a sense, editing and improvisation are forms of composing. I’ll make up an idea spontaneously then whittle it down or bulk it up until it’s at a good spot. The difference between the traditional perceptions of composing, and improvising and editing is how these processes use technology. Instead of composing through a process that involves plugging away at a piano, you’re working with a computer program, a piece of software. That technology has become the new instrument of choice. Where kids used to have to learn guitar or drums, now they learn Pro Tools or Logic. A lot of the time I will improvise for 30 minutes then edit out the parts I like, piece them together, overdub a little, and build the piece in that way. I’ve talked to several other artists who work like that too. I think Norm Chambers from Panabrite said that his process is similar. Other times, I’ll have a clearer idea of what I want the finished piece to be. The important distinction to make is that I try not to write something and sit on it for a few days or weeks. I like the instantaneousness of recording something in its moment of inception.

The Fiddleback: That immediacy certainly comes through in your recorded output. I’m listening to your latest album, Mutant Glamour, right now, and I’m struck by the album’s sense of excitement. Much of my experience with this style of music has been through artists like Onohetrix Point Never and Emeralds. And, while I love both of those artists, they tend to navelgaze a bit. Giant Claw’s music has a different tone. It’s more joyful, and optimistic, perhaps? Or maybe it would be more accurate to say your sound is more excited and exuberant. Is this something that grows out of your process, and your emphasis on “the moment of inception,” or is it more of an aesthetic decision on your part?

Giant Claw: Thanks. And yeah, a few people have pointed that out before. I’m not sure I can articulate where that optimism comes from, besides my own personality. Some people are turned off by how spastic my music is. I love Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never, but in some ways the only common factor is just that a synthesizer is being used. Daniel from OPN has definitely ventured into new territories. I think most artists that are using vintage gear are figuring out that all the equipment in the world isn’t going to make them better artists. Well, actually it might, a bit. But I’m not sure if it will fundamentally change who they are as musicians. If you’re musical voice is strong enough it’s going to come through whether you’re playing a Moog, ukulele, or wood blocks.

The Fiddleback: I am definitely guilty of associating artists in this genre by the textures they use—I’m a bit of a rookie, here. But why is it, do you think, that we’re seeing this resurgence in these vintage musical textures? I’ve started thinking about music that draws on these newage-y, synth textures as retro-futurist in nature—that is, they sound like a past generations’ concept of what “the future” and its music might sound like. Does anything like this inform your aesthetic? If not, what drew you to these synthesizer-heavy textures?

Giant Claw: Part of the resurgence in this gear or just the overall aesthetic, I think, is that it never quite stretched its legs out the first time around. The 20th century was so fucking insane, in all areas, but in music there was obviously such an explosion of technology butting up against drastic changes in modes of thought—there were so many ideas all over the place. If you think about when Switched on Bach came out in the 60s, shortly after the height of the Beatles popularity and the beginnings of free jazz, all that—those sounds needed more time to gestate and develop. Also, old synthesizers were very expensive. I don’t think they were accessible to young people who, in the 70s, all got shitty guitars and started punk bands because that was the easiest route to expression. Now kids are doing that with electronics, which is very exciting to me. It’s all about ease of use, and as technology keeps marching forward, I think it will keep changing how people approach making music, and what kind of sounds we’re hearing.
I guess that sounds a bit obvious, though.

…there is glamour, mutation, sex, that kind of trash culture, and how those things can be beautiful or glamorous in their own right.

The Fiddleback: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it from a material perspective—it does seem obvious, now, but obvious in a way that is easy to overlook. So much of synth-based music has been critically derided or ignored for so long that I’ve assumed that artists are consciously trying to reclaim the genre/sound/aesthetic. I never stopped to consider the practical implications involved.

Giant Claw: I’m a pretty firm believer in the interconnectedness of technology, culture, music—all of those things. I don’t think any single discipline can be viewed in its own vacuum, and I think advances in technology support cultural trends. Also, kids just want to bang out music, and when you’re young you are looking for the easiest route to get there. I’ve even been considering getting an iPhone so I can use some of the music apps on there, because it seems like they simplify the process. I don’t mean to discount what you were getting at as far as people being obsessed with retro aesthetics. That’s definitely part of the culture too, and a big part of that is still at play.

The Fiddleback: While I’m really excited by this line of inquiry, I want to get back to talking about your new album and the label you co-run before we run out of time. So, Mutant Glamor, your new album, feels a bit bigger, fuller, and maybe a bit more chaotic than some of your previous output—is this something you intended to do from the beginning?

Giant Claw: Musically, I wanted to make kind of a mutant, electronic jazz album. I don’t think I accomplished that fully. There are a lot of more traditional aspects to the album, and a lot of my old processes still at work. But I think having some atonal saxophone on there, and layering in some more chaotic electronic noise were ways to tie the music to the more abstract thematic ideas I had in mind for the record—there is glamour, mutation, sex, that kind of trash culture, and how those things can be beautiful or glamorous in their own right. Mutant Glamour is probably the first thing I’ve done that was shaped so fully by non-musical ideas.

The Fiddleback: That makes sense—at times (I’m thinking of “LA Christ” specifically) there is almost a neo-Noir sound running through the music. It has a bit of a dark and sleazy vibe. It works well.

Giant Claw: Definitely. I think our culture is pretty sleazy overall, but if you turn on the TV, it’s like a big deal for everyone trying to cover it up, trying to gloss over the fact that everyone can be a disgusting piece of shit as a human. Media, in general, is working constantly to try to portray a fake image or narrative to people, even when everyone knows it. Like, when Louis CK talks about how he’s offended by the phrase “The N word,” and how when people on the nightly news say “The N word,” they’re just putting that word “Nigger” in your mind, they’re making you take on the responsibility of saying the word.

The Fiddleback: So the album is a response to artifice and popular culture’s penchant to try to cover up how shitty our culture can be?

Giant Claw: Basically what I’m getting at is how our culture tries so hard to support a false narrative, specifically in the media. I guess that in itself isn’t too interesting, because I think everyone recognizes it. But we also base other things in our life off of a fictional narrative, like relationships, education, work, perceptions of money and class. I think the linear narrative form (as in, a novel, film, or story) has come to shape how we think and live our lives, to the point where our basic mode of operation is a linear goal oriented one, trying to meet fabricated check points, or trying to meet certain ideals. In the music world this is seen in album ratings, rankings, year-end lists, compilations. So much music coverage revolves around fitting an album, artist, or movement into a clean narrative, and as a result I think artists have been trying to adhere to these narratives as well. I guess this is a bit of a silly rant, but it ties into the record, in that I was trying to be conscious of when I was doing something because I had seen or heard it done that way before. I was trying to be conscious of when I was following a preset narrative and when I was out of my comfort zone entirely. It was just a fun internal exercise I hadn’t used before while making music.

The Fiddleback: This comes through on the record, both in its sense of discomfort and its interest in artifice—there is a sense of chaos and anxiety throughout these songs. The song titles carry some of the weight as well. “Brain on Cream,” “Mutants in the Bedroom,” “Trapped in the Mirror”—there’s this sort of abject world view pervading the album.

Giant Claw: Definitely, although I can admit that the thematic and musical relation is still pretty abstract. I just had a certain feeling that was self imposed as I was recording. I hoped it would come through, but it wasn’t like “Now I’m going to sit down and score the part where The Wizard casts his nemesis into the pit of despair.”

The Fiddleback: I want to get in one or two questions about your label before we wrap things up, here. You co-founded Orange Milk a couple of years ago—what was the impetus?

Giant Claw: I was trying to articulate this for another interview, and all I could come up with was that me and Seth, who runs the label with me, wanted to be a part of the underground scene that was really starting to take form. There was also a desire to have a decent platform for our own music. I think the position of curator bears some amount of responsibility in our culture, which keeps expanding and being stuffed with so much data. Also, I like the idea of trying to make a body of releases like I would a mixtape, picking up little treasures that resonate with you and trying to present them in a creative way. The art is very important as well, having a sense of visual unity between releases. I feel that’s how you build trust with people.

The Fiddeback: From what I’ve heard, and the album art I’ve seen from your label, that curatorial impulse definitely comes through. What releases do you guys have coming up that you’re particularly excited about?

Giant Claw: Aside from my Giant Claw LP, I’m really excited about upcoming releases from Foodman, LAFIDKI, Homeowner, and a few others. We have three really awesome tapes that just came out from Teamm Jordann, Pajjama, and HCMJ. You might be familiar with Pajjama, the guy in it, Eirik, runs the chiptune label Pause. And he’s done a few soundtracks for some indie games. We have such a packed release schedule. After this year we’ll probably settle down and try to decide if we should keep the constant flow of tapes coming or focus more on LPs, which are more of a risk, but also have the potential for bigger reward.

The Fiddleback: Okay, I’ve got one last question before we run out of time. It’s a bit strange, but I’ve been dying to know—is Giant Claw named after the terrible/awesome film The Giant Claw?

Giant Claw: I actually can’t remember. I used to always scour the internet for interesting names, and a lot of the time I would write down old sci-fi movie titles, like All Monsters Attack, or whatever. So Giant Claw could have come from one of those lists, which I’ve since lost. I just wanted a name that was slightly ridiculous. Like, you hear GIANT CLAW, and then, oh, it’s just a shitty white dude playing a keyboard? Damn. The idea of even having an artist alias in itself is a bit absurd. Like, what if Mozart had adopted the name “SPEED RIDER.” It’s a bit ridiculous.

The Fiddleback: It is definitely absurd, but fun at the same time. Let’s face, it, I’d probably have given Mozart more of a chance at a younger age if he went by SPEED RIDER. I probably would have been disappointed when I heard his music, but it would have seemed pretty badass for a second.

Giant Claw: Well, Giant Claw was for all my potential teenage fans.

Giant Claw: If you’ve got time, check this photo of Mars out

The Fiddleback: That’s fucking awesome.

Giant Claw: Yeah, nuts!

Find out more about Giant Claw and Orange Milk Records at their Bandcamp page.