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By his own admission, Herren is obsessive when it comes to his music. And given his nature, this concern for context is understandable.
"I am never really satisfied with the end result of anything that I do. But if I were, I wouldn't have that drive in me to keep reaching and doing new things," Herren says.
This dueling combination of perfectionism and exploration has served as a driving force behind all of Herren's work, from the global electronic music fusion of Savath + Savalas to the hip-hop approach of his work under the moniker Prefuse 73. As a producer, Herren is a gambler, shuffling a deck of seemingly disparate musical genres in a high-stakes game of po-mo poker. But that doesn't mean that he isn't careful and calculated. As experimental as his projects are, he never lets them become too tangential or too abstract. This discipline is evident on Surrounded by Silence. The album gathers contributions from all corners of the musical universe -- from the gully quarters of the Wu-Tang Clan to the lilting melodies of indie rockers The Books -- yet their presence never feels forced or out of place.
"I want to have a very open-minded form of hip-hop, but I also don't want to alienate anyone with anything that's too weird. I like all kinds of music, from the things that are more inclusive to the bugged-out stuff, and I wanted that all to be evident in my music without it sounding antagonistic or exclusive. My music lets people in that want to come in," Herren says.
Of course, meshing cultures comes naturally for Herren. Born in Miami and raised in Atlanta, Herren was the son of an Irish/Cubana mother and a Catalan father. Growing up, Herren's mother forced him to play a musical instrument. "She was trying to keep me out of trouble and keep me focused. And I played everything from piano to drums to guitar. I never really stuck with any one particular instrument. And looking back on it, I'm really grateful for that experience," he says.
This eclecticism served Herren well as he began to produce his own music as Prefuse 73. While his 2002 debut, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, was considered by many to be a revolution in the art of hip-hop sampling, Herren next adopted the alias Savath + Savalas in 2004 to record an instrumental album that fused his hip-hop background with his Spanish/Catalan roots.
"One of the reasons that I got so deep into Savath + Savalas was that I wanted to acknowledge that the history and dialect of that culture is a part of me. . . . But after that album, I wanted to do something interesting with collaborations. I had ideas about putting people in environments that they wouldn't normally be in," Herron says, referring to Surrounded by Silence.
Before recording Silence, Herren sat down and took stock of who he felt was making the most compelling music today, and he didn't let genre or cultural barriers stand in the way. The selections he made read like a who's who of modern music and are a perfect reflection of Herren's decidedly catholic taste. Any album that dares stick Wu-Tang's Masta Killah and Blonde Redhead vocalist Kazu on the same record has guts, to say the least. But audacity and creativity don't always equal compelling music. And Herren had two major concerns, the first being that people wouldn't take the collaborations at face value and would treat them like a joke, just another wink-wink moment from a generation of laptop ironists.
"I just read a review today that said the album lacked humor. But they obviously didn't get what I was trying to do. I make music out of sincerity and I don't want it to be ironic. I didn't want it to be like Handsome Boy Modeling School, where [the contributions] are done tongue-in-cheek. There aren't any cheap laughs [on Surrounded by Silence], and this isn't supposed to be funny," Herren insists.
The next concern for Herren was that the collaborations simply wouldn't mesh. After all, despite its eclecticism, Herron's previous work has always retained a sense of thematic and sonic cohesion. From Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, which explored the idea of vocal presence in the context of DJ Premier's chopped and clipped breakbeat aesthetic, to One Word Extinguisher, which shattered the notion that electronic and emotionally confessional music are somehow mutually exclusive, Herron's albums seem to coax out a clear, central thesis. By bringing in different contributors for each track, Herron ran the risk of simply losing the plot. So before finding himself tangled in a thick web of his musical heroes, Herren devised themes for all the songs so that he could more readily direct his guests while in the studio.
"It was really easy. I would provide a loose topic and they would try to mold their contribution that way. And I was pretty happy with what everyone turned in. It was pretty much exactly what I wanted," Herren says. But despite the best-laid plans of mice and men, there were some surprises along the way. Particularly shocking was the contribution of Tyondai Braxton, an avant-garde guitarist who specializes in projecting odd electronic elements atop chaotic layers of feedback and guitar noise. "Tyondai Braxton blew my mind. I was shocked and just blown away. I remember turning around, be like, 'What the fuck are you doing, man?'" Herron says.
Accordingly, an aura of wonderment is front and center on Surrounded by Silence. While genre-hopping producers have created the sound du jour, few seem to honestly engage with the music as thoroughly as Herren does. "For me, it's important to be able to express your culture, politics, or anything that really matters to you in music. It's a challenge, but I constantly strive to do that better." And though Herren may never be completely satisfied with his music, his listeners certainly are. They've elevated him to the top of the ever-expanding genre of genreless musicians, and the restless Herren can certainly take comfort in that.