Premiere: Birocratic’s Bedroom Beats Come of Age

Brandon Rowan

There is more to Replaced, the new EP from New Jersey producer Birocratic—aka Brandon Rowan—than meets the eye (and ear). Created during a period of transition for Rowan, as he divided his time between college in New York City and his family’s new home in the tiny vacation town of Cape May in South Jersey, the songs on Replaced mark a dynamic evolution in his approach to production and form a body of work that unfolds like a flower in time-lapse.

Rowan had a lucky break back in 2013, when his atmospheric Creative Commons-licensed tracks caught the attention of BuzzFeed’s video producers, who used them in clips like “Life Hacks Your Mom Wants You To Know” and “6 Foods You’re Eating Wrong” that racked up views in the millions. It’s easy to see why BuzzFeed chose Rowan’s songs—their insistent, tape-fuzz drums and jazzy chords made for the perfectly simplistic, yet unobtrusive underscoring for segments of banana-peeling shot against clinical white backgrounds.

But Replaced shows, undoubtedly, that Birocratic has moved far beyond mere viral-video accompaniment. Complex and evocative, Replaced tracks like “Slipout” freely intrude on listeners’ stable worlds, with fractal-like synths swirling around beats that demand attention. The tracks still center on Rowan’s signature jazz-inflected changes and enticing drum samples, but the microcosms of sound that percolate up from between and among them are daring, dreamlike and altogether a product of the journey Rowan took to create them.

We spoke to Birocratic about the history behind Replaced and the process, influences, and collaborators that brought these unique songs into the world.

Replaced has been in the works for a long time, with the earliest demos coming to life in 2013. Why is now finally the time to release it?

There are a couple of reasons, the most important being that I’m about to move away from the town that inspired the music. Three years ago the songs were super juvenile—I’d just started music school in New York City at the time, and I wasn’t that good at producing, but I had a million different ideas I wanted to get down. I had lots of time for that during the summer. I live with my family in a beach town called Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey, isolated from my friends and the whole college experience. So these tracks became my emotional companion that I could return to every year. Think of them like five pages from a journal I wrote while living in Cape May. It’s extremely personal music. And since I’m moving out of my home to pursue music full-time in NYC this winter, now’s the time to put it out. It’s my parting gift to this extremely formative chapter of my life.

What were your earliest musical influences, and how are those influences reflected in Replaced, if at all?

So I grew up listening to classic rock all the time (94.5 WTHK from Philly, anyone?). I usually took a liking to jazzier and more progressive bands—Steely Dan and YES, to this day, are two of my favorites. I’m still floored by their musicality and perfectionism. They made musical odysseys, unapologetically grand statements—there’s a deep sincerity there that I really try to channel into my own music. I think that grandiosity plays well with my hip-hop and electronic influences from high school and college. Now that I think about it, I guess the beauty of this EP is that I drew influence from the bands I used to be into before I started producing, and my most recent inspiration, in equal parts.

What was it like moving to Cape May after high school? From where did you move?

I grew up in a pretty bland tract of suburbia halfway between Philly and NYC in Jersey. Three days after I graduated from high school, I moved straight to Cape May with my family. We suddenly lived hours away from my friends, and I knew few people there outside of my family. I kind of had to start over. I’m relatively antisocial; I didn’t feel like making friends since I only stayed for the summer months before heading to NYU.

So as I returned for work each successive summer, I put all my time & energy into creating music and releasing it online, where my physical location didn’t matter. I mean, unless you want to play Jimmy Buffett covers at a beach bar six nights a week, or spin lowest-common-denominator top-40 to an empty bar (which I’ve done, and I’m glad it’s behind me), there’s no opportunity for artistic growth in this town. I wait tables for the cash so I have the freedom to make music on my own terms. So while I spent the first couple summers pretty frustrated about the isolation, I’m at peace with it now. I’m not exactly here by choice, being bound by post-college debt, but it’s the perfect place to hunker down and create. I’m confident I’m making the most of it.

On your mini-site dedicated to telling the story of this EP, you state that this is your first release created without the use of samples. Did you play all the instruments on it yourself? What was the first instrument you learned to play?

I started learning piano when I was four, but ironically, I didn’t play a majority of the Rhodes on this EP—that’s my friend Paul Sottile, who’s actually the pianist at the restaurant where I work. He has this quirky collection of old synths and keys up in Philly where he lives, so one night back in January we met up and took turns peppering in bits and pieces of the arrangement together. The songs were still babies back then, so he handled most of the foundational harmony with the Rhodes, and then I took it back home and edited it all. For example, the entire end section of “Layback” was made by sampling him noodling over the same three chords, pitching the samples all sorts of different directions, and basically developing the climactic section around the newly written structure. It’s full of close harmony and modal mixture, but that encapsulates my musical identity in a nutshell.

I played electric bass and some percussion, but other than that, everything else is programmed. When I was building up to the project, I finally got my hands on some incredible drum samples and just programmed the shit out of those parts. I always try to keep the drums as naturally arranged as possible, without repeating sections verbatim—that was a challenge. And the vocals came from samples of recordings I’d taken all throughout music school.

The whole idea was to make this a different process than before. I’m known for my old-school hip-hop beats, but those are all sampled from records. I’m over that. It feels like a lazy way of producing now. I need to keep challenging myself if I want to stay in love with what I do.

Your photography and design is polished, with an oceanside aura that suits your music. How have you intertwined your visual practice with your music?

Frankly, it all comes from the same place. I romanticize scenery and setting a lot, and when I find inspiration, it consumes me completely. I tend to approach life with a singular focus, so things either don’t affect me, or they change my entire worldview. For the past few years it’s been Cape May at the forefront of that, with the empty back sections of town symbolizing the loneliness I feel when I’m here. That’s all my photos are—you’d think Cape May was hideous if you only looked at my photography, because I avoid the town center like the plague. There’s no way I can forge an intimate and unique connection with a place that seemingly everyone already loves. I have to create my own path, even if it means hanging out with myself in an open field, listening to music, and feeling the immense weight of lonesomeness. I think that’s why I’m alive—to feel strongly, to be moved, to be stirred, and then to relish the cosmic beauty of that feeling.

The songs on Replaced merge analog and electric in appealingly anachronistic ways. Tape crackles and vintage analog tones evolve alongside hip-hop-inflected drums and synth lines. What era of music do you feel the most at home in?

It’s probably a cop-out, but I have to say it’s right now. When I have a blank Ableton session open in front of me, there’s a refreshing boundlessness to the possibilities that didn’t exist a decade ago. But that’s a double edged sword, because it presents the paradox of choice to us producers. There are infinite routes we can take, so when we do decide on a direction, it reveals our tastes & personalities. So to that end, all throughout Replaced you’ll hear jazz chords played on a vintage Rhodes (my friends know that’s how I start writing all my tunes—block chords on a Rhodes patch), and at the same time I’ve got auto-tuned vocals carrying the melody. And thinking of “Slipout,” the groove starts with this dirty Dilla-esque swing, but then it moves to a B section with rigid double-time—what is it, 2-step? I don’t even know what it is. It’s referential, sure—but in this creative climate I don’t have to pay any deliberate attention to genre conventions. You have solo producers out there whose styles are so specific, they’re like one-person genres by themselves: Flying Lotus and Knxwledge definitely come to mind. The bottom line is that wherever the inspiration comes from, I just love the music I’m making, and that’s what’s important to me.

What hardware and software did you use to create Replaced? Do you have any particular favorite plugins that define your sound?

It’s largely in-the-box, composed in Ableton, aside from having recorded Rhodes, electric bass, and some auxiliary percussion. I have a shitty Tascam cassette recorder I use to crunch things up at times. My favorite sound on the whole album is in “Dead Cat in the Parking Lot”—I had a pile of a hundred wooden tokens that I won for being a good employee at my work, and I basically just recorded myself rubbing my hand around in the pile on my bed. It lends this endless, cascading quality to the track. That’s basically the most self-indulgent-bedroom-producer thing you can do, but there’s something to be said for making your own sounds, because they help define your artistic identity.

That said, I don’t think there’s a particular sonic treatment that defines my EP—although I’m sure my fans and friends all have different feelings about that. The sounds are all over the place. I guess the way I approach my productions is to present whatever elements transparently, and focus more on composition and arrangement to deliver the personality.

How did BuzzFeed discover your music? What kind of opportunities did that lead to for you?

They found me under the Creative Commons tag on SoundCloud early in 2013, when they’d just founded their video department. They didn’t even reach out to me until they’d used my tracks in three of their videos, and by that point I was freaking out that I didn’t know what to do with the sudden fame. But once they finally got in touch, we worked out a really simple crediting deal where they could use my music for free as long as they linked to my Bandcamp. Then I guess word spread to a bunch of other creators on YouTube who also took a liking to my tunes. Honestly, getting that many eyes and ears on my art—literally almost a hundred million at this point—has been the primary driver for discovery in my career thus far. And it’s only because my music was in the right place at the right time.

The difference between the Replaced version of “Passage” and the 2014 version you include as a bonus track on the EP is striking. How did you transform the song into a work that you were proud of? What made you decide to include the demo on the EP?

Yeah, they’re definitely worlds apart. I desperately wanted to rework the old version, primarily because I needed to demonstrate to myself that I had been improving, and I felt that the original was sorely lacking in several areas. I’m also extremely hard on myself, so it was helpful to have the old version as a barometer: okay, this version is what you’re trying to improve upon. What didn’t you say last time that you want to this time? For one, the old mix had nowhere near the clarity and impact I thought the song deserved, so that’s where I started—I took every single component of the original and re-voiced or re-recorded it. Drum samples, bass, synths, everything. Once I brought in the real Rhodes, it gave the entire track a warmth and grit that begged for more elaboration. So once I finished and listened back, I decided to include the first version mostly to demonstrate that I’m not immune to insecurities about my own music. It’s humbling to put it out there—it’s a reminder to never stop making progress.

[ed note: The bonus tracks on Replaced, including “Wasted Morning” and the 2014 version of “Passage,” will only be available with purchase for one week after its initial release.]

As a beatmaker, and someone who makes predominately instrumental works, there’s always the question of collaboration and adding vocals to your tracks. Could we expect vocal features on future releases? If so, who would you see yourself working with?

100 percent, yes. This EP was such an intensely personal project that I desperately need to take a step back and work with other people again. I was inches from driving myself crazy during this process, but the music’s better for it, I think. That’s basically what the whole EP is about anyway.

So, in the relatively near future I’m hoping to lend my voice to some of my own tracks. I’m continually experimenting with new styles and genres, so there’s plenty of space to explore there. I’ve got some collaborations in the pipeline with Cafuné, two close friends of mine from NYU. And I secretly produce some pop music on the side, so if I feel like I want to share some of that, I just might.

Allegra Rosenberg

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