An Interview With Commodity Creature
alter egos, deep utopian questions, uncharted hardcore bands
Today in The Molly Zone we have an interview with Commodity Creature!
Thumbnail photo by Taylor Ellison
I first interviewed Alex White, who performs music under the name Commodity Creature (as well as the name Mr. Suit - more on that in a bit) for The Alternative when I was launching the YouTube-based music talk show I host for them called Get Involved. Alex plays tuba, he plays saxophone, he programs music in Ableton, he writes..he puts the "disc" in "multidisciplinary artist"! Disc, like compact disc...like music...ah...hmmm....
For that video, we had a great chat about the experiments he was undertaking that turned the emanations from a standard tuba into a super-distorted heavy metal sound that could then be then programmed and manipulated within the software to anyone's heart's content. I had never heard anything like it and it was very pleasing to get a look under the hood of Alex's production process.
Following Commodity Creature on social media is a fantastically unpredictable experience. You never know if he will be performing improvised experimental jazz tuba in an ensemble at a Colorado music venue, promoting the release of a synth-y collage-y album called Music For Toilets, or posting shortform "Tuba Experiments" on Instagram that sound like a mixture of psychedelic whale sounds, extraterrestrial TED talks, and chaos bees. His approach to music and art is totally unique both on a creative and a technical level. No one is doing it like him! And if someone actually is, I'd like to be aware of it!
Alex was kind enough to zoom with me this past fall when this written interview publication experiment was still half baked, and I always appreciate when folks are down to clown without knowing exactly what the end result will be. So here's our chat!
MO: What have you been up to lately?
CC: I've been doing this project that I've just been calling Unknown Tuba Experiments. I'll usually record, like, three or five of them. When I sit down to do it, I'll go into Ableton and just kind of make effects racks. I'm trying to figure out what effects sound good on the tuba. Or I'll have an idea, like putting like 20 reverbs on the track just to sort of break all of the rules that you typically have for trying to get a good sound, just to see what happens. So it's really just kind of little science experiments that I'm doing.
When I did the 20 reverb thing, I put it on there and then there was no sound coming out, because it must have been so reverberant that it was like playing at the bottom of a canyon or something. So yeah, just trying to come up with different effects chains and trying to document it a little more rigorously. I've got this document just called Tuba Experiments that is free for everyone to look at. It's not the best documentation, but if you follow along, you can do it. One important takeaway from it, I think, is that you should just do random shit because that's one of the best ways to figure out cool things.
And so I've been working on that and I'm probably going to do a remix project of that, because earlier in the year I did this project called The 120 Days of Improv. I ended up only going 50 days because it was really draining to try to record it and then upload it and promote it all in one day, every day for 120 days. But I was basically trying to get into the habit of doing something every day and I accomplished that.
And part of that project was this character that I have, Mr. Suit, would do a remix of it every day. That was to try to get more into figuring out how to do electronic things with the tuba. So I ended up making two and a half hours worth of music that I can draw from where I was experimenting with different ways to make full tracks in Ableton with the tuba.
That helped with my process, but a problem that I'm running into now is I've got like, hundreds of projects backed up in my Ableton and I don't know how to present them to people and how to narrow down the good parts of them. There's definitely a lot of stuff that's just experiments gone wrong and weird things that happen. But I think that it's still worth it to present those to the world because it's fun for people who are really into it to deep dive into it.
MO: So you're working on these experiments. Do you ever feel limited by, I guess, the current ways that technology has to distribute music? Like in terms of an album on Bandcamp or Spotify, or a YouTube video - does that feel like it fits what you are working on? Or do you wish that there was a different way to experience this type of music?
CC: I think it works really well with what I'm doing. Oh, whoa.
[a funky sound emanates from his open Ableton program]
That sounded cool.
CC: Yeah, I think it works really well with what I'm doing. I use DistroKid as my way to get out my really serious projects that I polish up and everything. When I really put the time in to polish a project, it's nice to just distribute it like that and have it be on every single platform. And, like, I know Spotify is an evil company, but it helps with smaller artists. You get this Spotify For Artists profile, where you can upload canvases and stuff like that, so you can make it look like you're this really professional musician [laughing].
MO: It is kind of like...like a veneer of professionalization that kind of makes all music within it equal.
CC: Totally. I think that can definitely be a little intimidating sometimes though. You realize how many people are out there doing amazing things, and you kind of have to bury your head in the sand and just focus on what you're doing.
MO: I recently tweeted to ask for people's autumnal album recommendations. And I was just totally like humbled—there's so much music that people care about. Like, I think of myself as a music fan and I didn't know half of these artists. What the hell?
CC: I went to this Soul Glo show on Friday and I was chatting up the the guy next to me and he was super into hardcore music. And he was just telling me about all these artists and sort of expected me to know them, you know, because I was at this Soul Glo show. And I just had to, like, agree to every artist. Like oh yeah, those guys, you know, yeah, they're great [laughing].
MO: Right. People being like, have you heard of blah blah blah? And you're just like, "No, but I'm sure they exist. It'd be weird if you were lying to me!" So you're doing these experiments, and I did see some videos of you playing live in person as well. Is that something that you're keeping up with?
CC: Not so much recently, but I've been scouting locations, 'cause I'll see some are cool, and I'm like, Oh, it'd be cool to go stand in front of that and play some free music.
MO: Do you ever get, stage fright? Or like...street fright? It's just such a large instrument that I feel maybe you have no choice but to kind of own it when you're doing it.
CC: Yeah, totally. Especially when I'm just playing, like, free jazz. It's a double-whammy for strangers to walk by. You're like, Oh, my God, it's a tuba. And he's playing like this weird shit, like not playing any melodies or anything. It's crazy. Mostly when people approach me, they just want to be mean to me.
MO: Oh, god!
CC: That's something that happens not frequently, but more than people coming up and being like, "That was so sick."
MO: Someone showed me a video that was in New York and I think it was maybe a saxophone player? And this, like, little man walked up to him and was just screaming at him, being like, 'You don't deserve to be playing here.'
CC: I know the one you're talking about. I watched it. I was like, I'm getting triggered by this. I think art should be accessible and open to the public and to everyone. That's sort of part of the reason why I [play on the street] is just to try to introduce someone to something they might have never heard before.
MO: That kind of reminds me of what you were saying before, that you have a document with the tuba experiments accessible to everyone. Just the concept of having something be truly open source is very refreshing. Do you feel like there's a world in which everything, all information, is accessible and free to use? That's kind of a weird utopian question.
CC: Yeah, that's a pretty deep question. [laughing] There's a lot to consider there. Part of me idealistically thinks that it should be that way. Like, Spotify gives away all of like the world's recorded music, basically.
CC: Which is pretty incredible. But also, there seems to be something wrong with that in terms of artists not being able to make money from it.
MO: It's accessible, but like, within this specific profit bubble.
CC: Have you ever heard of the book by David Graeber, The Dawn of Everything? He wrote this book Debt: The First 5000 Years, and is sort of tied to the Occupy Wall Street movement. [The Dawn of Everything] is about how for pretty much our entire existence as humans, we've been communal, and the dawn of the industrial revolution is when things started sort of taking a turn. People say that capitalism is the natural state of things. But I think that the communal, and open source, is actually the natural state of things.
MO: What else can I ask you...what music are you listening to right now? And is it inspiring [your own music] in any particular way, or do you listen to music more to get outside of your own musical practice?
CC: I've been listening to a lot of jazz, and that's something that I've always been listening to, and I think that it is definitely part of my practice. Like, listening is like the number one thing that you should do as a jazz artist: listening to other music and just listening as a general principle in terms of when you're playing with other players too. I've been listening to this label, Jazz is Dead, and they've been putting out some really great stuff.
I'm trying to find [albums] that are historically important and listen to those. Like one is Smokin' at the Half Note. It's Wes Montgomery, who's a jazz guitar player, with the Wynton Kelly Trio. But I've also been listening to rap and punk and stuff. Radiohead and Aphex Twin, which are always in my rotation. I've been trying to get into, like, folk music more lately too, Americana type stuff.
MO: The only other question I have is, where did Mr. Suit come from?
CC: I don't even really remember. I was doing an album release party in 2019, I think. I was thinking it would look cool to have red and blue makeup all across my face and then go out at night in a suit. It was really a visual thing.
And then I just started posting the same picture over and over because I thought that that would be funny. There's something funny about doing the same thing over and over again. And then eventually I was like, well, I could try to embody sort of the hustle culture, like, toxic attitude. It's this dude, Mr. Suit, who's the weirdest possible person you could ever imagine seeing. And he's talking about being an alpha and giving tips for success and stuff like that. And then have him be a character that also like, really wants to be a DJ but just makes the weirdest music imaginable. So it's just kind of a way for me to express some of the weirder parts of my psyche, I guess.
MO: I love it. Would you call it an alter ego?
CC: Yeah, I think it would be an alter ego.
MO: I think that's healthy to have.
CC: Yeah, definitely. Some of the things that he says, there's some part of me that deep down believes it. That's part of the reason I gave them to him to say. He's like my other version of myself or whatever, you know?
Thanks for reading this newsletter! It is great to have you here. I will be publishing plenty more interviews, including some with some neat musicians that Alex recommended I talk to, but I'm also open to suggestions and DOWN TO CLOWN so hit me up with requests, whims and notions.