TORONTO, ON* – Thursday night, we swung down to Adelaide Hall, one of Toronto’s newer music venues, for a Red Bull Sound Select night. Situated cozily between a more established bar and a newer country saloon on the edge of the Financial District, it’s a bit of a misfit. But Adelaide Hall is a much-needed central entertainment space for the city, according to both Alt Altman (Digits) and patrons queued outside before the show who had RSVP’d for the $3 cover fee.
With local acts Digits and DIANA opening for Baltimore wacko boy, Dan Deacon, they certainly got their money’s worth. We stuck around to witness Altman’s performance (which included very well-rehearsed renditions of notable singles “Love Is Only Affection”, “Lost Dream”, “Because It’s Wrong”, and “Street Violence”) and later spoke with him about his upcoming EP and mini-tour with St. Vincent. Here’s what he had to say about Canadian, Scandinavian, and hip-hop music. Altman also revealed that Get Through, the album he’s been working on forever (or so it seems), is now in its final stages of production.
How long has Digits been around as Digits?
I started writing songs in 2008, just before I left The Ghost Is Dancing. In between, I was in another band called Europe in Colour – our stuff was half electro-pop, half indie-rock – and then that band broke up. Out of the ashes came Digits; actually, half of the first Digits album was meant to be a Europe in Colour EP.
So Europe in Colour was a kind of like a transition between The Ghost Is Dancing and Digits, from indie rock to a more electronic sound?
Out of curiosity, what came first: the writing stint at Silent Shout or Digits?
Digits came first.
Tell me about Silent Shout. How did it come about?
Silent Shout is a Canadian electro-pop blog and concert series. We run it mostly in Toronto, but we do shows in Montreal as well. Andrew, who’s now a good friend of mine, ran a series called SynthFest back then, which hosted the first Digits show. I kept going to his shows and helping out, and then I came up with a concert series called Silent Shout. Andrew was the perfect partner for it, and that’s the “origin story.”
How long ago was this?
Four years ago, just after Digits started.
Two days ago, you announced a new EP, due June 10th. From the sounds of lead single, “When You Look Inside”, The Day You Fight Back will carry a slightly different tone from previous material. What gives?
I’ve a lot of songs that I’d been writing that were kind of different from the traditional really dark, really cold Digits stuff. This EP is a bit of a departure from that, a chance for me to try a few different things – there’s acoustic guitar on a few of the songs, which I’ve stayed away from in the past – and uh, see what people think. I don’t know. Maybe people won’t like it, but it’s my chance to get this material out.
Are you thinking of exploring and moving in this direction?
I’m always writing in different styles, but the core of Digits has a certain sound that I want to stick to for main releases. This EP will be an unusual release, after which I’ll probably return to what I was doing before. I have an album planned that I’ve written and am working on.
What’s your relationship with Annie Clark (St. Vincent)? Do you know each other, or was the upcoming tour the work of your management?
I don’t know her at all, and I’m sure she doesn’t know me at all! Her manager probably heard me and approved the idea of having me open for her. I’ve never met her or seen her live; obviously, I’m a big admirer of her music. The first show’s in London, June 19th.
I hear you were in Europe several years ago. How do you find touring in contrast to playing in Toronto, now that the city’s your home base?
When I was in Europe I was playing solo, so it was different live setup. I would tour by train and plane; here it’s all driving. Touring life is a lot easier in Europe – it takes no time at all to get from one place to another.
Was your bandmate in there (during the set) just live, or is he on the recordings as well?
Dan is just live, although I trust him a lot. I ask him for advice and feedback during my recording process all the time. He was part of the reason I came back. Before when I was solo, I was operating a laptop on stage, which I felt diminished the experience and limited my ability to connect with the audience.
What about music in Europe vs. music in Toronto?
I can’t speak for all of Europe. I spent time in only a handful of cities and in some, the indie scene isn’t very vibrant at all. In Paris, for example, I found very little at the grassroots level, but in Berlin and London, there’s a lot more going on in terms of local music, in London especially.
Berlin felt like a congregation of people from other places, like myself, so it felt a little less community-oriented, but I didn’t speak German so that may have excluded my from some things at the underground level. But yeah, I saw indie music being made everywhere, like I saw great indie bands play in Istanbul.
Did you ever swing up to Scandinavia? Your sound’s very akin to some of the neat electro coming out of there.
I’m very influenced by Swedish and Norwegian artists who have an understated approach to electronic music. But I’ve only played in Oslo, which was an incredible experience in itself.
Would you care to name some of those influences?
Well, I try to take influence from all kinds of music. Pure songwriters, like folk or country singers are really admirable, or psychedelic music. From the electronic genre, Caribou’s a hero. I think he’s probably one of the best artists in Canadian history.
Canada’s got some good stuff.
Yeah. Also [listing more influences], Junior Boys, Roksopp, Robyn, Diamond Rings, and even though he’s not electronic, Owen Pallett.
[Noting that these artists are all within the last decade,] what did you listen to growing up?
Oh, I was a classic rock… Beatles guy, Nirvana guy. And then I hit a prog-rock phase in my teenage years where I listened to nothing but Yes and King Crimson.
On that note, where did you grow up and what’s the best spot in that locale?
I grew up in Toronto – North York to be exact. Back then, we’d go to Earl’s Bay Park and have bonfires if we weren’t going to come all the way downtown to the city.
What’s your go-to setup these days?
We’ve built up a bit. When I performed solo, a lot more of the set was pre-recorded out of necessity, but now it’s mostly just the drums. Everything else is us.
Everything else is live?
Yeah, we’ve got two hardware synths and two synths controlled by computers and I make use of looping, so I can concentrate on singing when I’m not playing.
Is there anything you’d add if you had more room or whatnot?
Um, I’ve always wanted to a drum pad. I thought it’d be fun to play some fills or something, if there was an opportunity to. I’m always daydreaming about fun stuff we could do.
Do you have a background as a percussionist, then?
No, haha. No, I don’t. I’ve had two lessons, but playing a single drum than playing a whole kit.
Your dream collaboration?
Hmm. Caribou certainly comes to mind.
What about a rapper?
Sure, why not. I rap on a couple songs myself, “Death and Desire” and “What You Got”. But, it’s like, Pet Shop Boys style, so more like softly-speaking or something; that’s what my style lends itself to, but I’d be happy to produce for anyone. I’m not up on hip hop, but my obvious favorites are Kanye, Kendrick… those guys are willing to really experiment.
Anything on that label is pretty solid. So, what’s ahead besides the show dates and the EP?
That album – it’s called Get Through – should hopefully be out by the end of this year. It’s basically recorded, but there’s still mixing to be done. I’m working on a couple of music videos, which might also determine when the album will be released.
There’s a studio a block away that I’m working at with Roger Leavens, who was part of the last DIANA record. We’re not really sure what our material might wind up as, but it could be another album down the road.
*This summer, The B-Side reports from locations worldwide including Berlin, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto.