Musician, talk box aficionado, songwriter and producer Walter Howard—a.k.a Hazmat Live (Charlie Wilson, Four Tops, Amp Fiddler, Soul Clap)—talks electronic improv, producing live techno/house and how he remixes classic songs, taking them to another sonic dimension.
By David Ampong, Waves Audio
Where does the name Hazmat come from?
The name Hazmat comes from a place where I feel the music I make is hazardous material that disrupts mainstream complacency. I don’t believe in cookie-cutter labels or staying in my lane. I want to push boundaries and create other worlds. The moniker “Hazmat Live” gives me the mask to operate with.
Being from Detroit “Motor City,” birthplace of Techno and Motown—not to mention all the other revolutions in gospel, funk, jazz and deep house that were created in this beautiful city—I’ve been blessed to operate in all of these genres and it has helped me cultivate a truly unique sound. The influence Detroit has on the world is clear and present. I’m very blessed to be a part of the music fabric of Detroit. It’s very important that I represent my tribe.
What plugins do you use during the creative process in the studio?
I’m a big fan of the Bass Fingers. When I first heard this VST, it blew my mind! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—The fatness, fret noise, the string rattle, etc.—It all just matched up for me. It fits into all my bass production needs and is very easy to use.
I also can’t live without the Abbey Road Collection (in particular, Abbey Road Vinyl and the J37 Tape). It blows my mind how warm and textural you can get with the whole suite. Renaissance Vox is a standard in my audio chain; paired with the H-Delay, you can’t lose. The Element Virtual Analog Synth is one of the only software synths I like to use. It has a very raw and analog feel, plus the sequencer saves the day for me. Really great tools for my creative process.
How do you produce and perform live techno & house? How do you define ‘Electronic Improv’?
Well, my current tour rig is a light one, but very powerful! I have the Roland TR8-S, MC-707 and a JD-Xi in conjunction with an Akai MPC Live. I have an external clock that I send to a MIDI hub which controls the whole rig. And depending on the space and what type of performance I’m doing, I might bring the talk box out with me as well.
Playing live house/techno for me is a lot like the post-bop, free jazz-era. I’m a jazz musician by trade and “electric improv” is simply me applying the rules of jazz to a dance floor. I might change the drum groove completely or remix the bass line by adding and subtracting notes. I might jump on a synth lead and create a haunting melody and loop, then create an entirely different track altogether. There is something about playing with instruments that gives me a different sense of spontaneity.
I choose to create 90% of the stuff I do from scratch, simply because I want the dance floor and listeners to feel me in that moment. Ultimately, I want people to experience the hard work and musicality I put into each set. Producing the music at home only gets you so far; it’s the live energy of the people that helps spark new ideas and elevates the listener or dance floor to another level. My goal is to represent who I am though house/techno and as a Detroit musician. My hope is to inspire more musicians to create house and techno and give the words “live set” their proper crown.
You recently did a remix cover of Sade’s classic song: ‘No Ordinary Love’. How did you make it unordinary?
Sade’s music has always intrigued me! I love every groove and for some reason, I feel a tropical breeze on my face when I listen to their music. For eight minutes I didn’t want you to be on the dance floor; I wanted you to be floating above it. I wanted people to be transported into a colorful sonic dimension where they can feel wind on their faces, as if they were flying above a beautiful skyline.
I’m a huge synth nerd and I wanted to create all my textures with the vintage gear and drum machines I have in my collection. I feel this truly gave me a way to bare my soul and to have an endless palette to paint with. The groove of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” is super-sexy, and I wanted to honor one of the dopest bass lines ever by just keeping it the same and building electronic vibes around it. Hopefully I did right by it and the world dances with my interpretation of this beautiful song.
The mix on this track is very fat and I can’t take any credit for that. Grammy-award winning engineer Khaliq Glover (a.k.a Khaliq-O-Vision) put his stamp on this tune and made it pop. I will say that I’m a budding mix engineer and that I have a lot to learn about the sonic realm. Waves plugins have totally given me great tools for finding my sound. But I like to pass off the mixing aspects to the sonic artist or mix engineer to do their thing and bring it all to life.
Vocoders and talk boxes are nothing new, but what is it about them that can make something sound new again?
The talk box can turn heads instantly! It’s a tool I use to be expressive vocally and to capture the listener’s curiosity. It can bring new life to a dated piece and add an undeniable spin to the right tune. I used it on my remake of “No Ordinary Love” and also to enhance my remake of “Music & Wine” in 2018. I thought the talk box would be a great application for this classic jam. I tried very hard to layer the parts and give the song a soulful delivery.
Some people still have no idea what a talk box is, but they have heard it their whole lives. The talk box involves many hours of intense trial and error, ear training, practicing scales and learning how to sing with a tube in your mouth! It truly is an art form and a 10,000-hour project. My goal is to bring more awareness to an already global music martial art. Talk boxers like Byron ‘Mr. Talkbox’ Chambers have made huge strides in keeping the talk box in the mainstream radio and modern music. We are on the sonic battlefield, preserving the art and legacy of Mr. Roger Troutman, the king of talk box. Hopefully more people will help us keep this art form a part of the future and reclaim its rightful place as the leader of voice modulation.
Want more? Get tips and tricks for producing and mixing electronic music here.
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