DJ Al Lover explores hypnotic realms using samples of psychedelic music
When one thinks of sample-based music, psychedelia isn’t the first thing that automatically comes to mind. But DJ, producer, podcaster and performer Al Lover, the stage name of Alex Gundlach, has been using samples in his wildly trippy exploration-minded music for years now. Lover grew up in Asheville and got his start making hip-hop while plugged into the skater scene.
“I used to rap, and then I started producing,” Lover said. Lover plays a show at Winston-Salem’s Monstercade on Dec. 28. “Having the punk influence, I started looking for bands to sample that were more in that vein.”
After Asheville, Lover lived in San Francisco for a time, where he met many up-and-coming artists in a psych-garage-revival scene that was burgeoning at the time. Going to shows as a fan, Lover would approach artists like Ty Segall or members of White Fence or Thee Oh Sees. Lover would ask these artists if they’d mind if he used pieces of their recordings as source material for his music.
“It was always ‘Yeah, please, sample our music,’” Lover said of how the contemporary artists responded to his requests. “Here, take the record for free. Do what you want with it.” Hip-hop artists turned sampling into an art form, taking snippets of old songs, pop hits, obscure nuggets, funk grooves, drum breaks, horn riffs, vocal hooks, grunts, guitar lines, untraceable oddities and most things imaginable. And repurposed the scraps as the groundwork for rapping and the scratchy percussive accents of turntablism. Creative producers would dig through record crates to unearth the unexpected tidbits for backing tracks. Samples of vintage psychedelic music weren’t unheard of, but they were probably much less common than classic soul, funk and rock. For whatever reason, sample-based artists tend to prefer exploring the sounds of the past to lifting pieces of contemporary music. Maybe it’s the same thing that drives many symphony orchestras to play music from the 18th and 19th centuries to music from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Lover’s approach to sampling might have more in common with German experimental artists like Kraftwerk, Cluster and Can than with American hip-hop innovators like A Tribe Called Quest or Wu-Tang Clan. Still, Lover’s work has been referential and allusive from the beginning. If the Beastie Boys were pointing their most obsessive fans to artists they sampled like Trouble Funk and Idris Muhammad, Lover’s music and iconography refer to a slightly different set of influences. His logo riffs on the classic of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. He’s made a recording that’s a combination tribute to German krautrockers, Neu! and New York electro-art-punks Suicide. Some of his song titles refer to like-minded provocateurs (and sometimes collaborators) such as Genesis P-Orridge and Brian Jonestown Massacre. In another gesture of homage, Lover tipped his hat to Captain Beefheart, a giant of psychedelic music, by making a song-by-song tribute to Beefheart’s first full-length record, “Safe As Milk.” Lover’s version is called “Safe As Milk Replica,” playing on another legendary Beefheart title. Lover’s tribute has plenty of twang, washes of overdrive and hazy drones. It’s psychedelic garage rock that’s stitched together from pre-existing fragments.
Some people view digital technology as the antithesis of traditional music making, but Lover has an insightful way of linking the music-making ways of the past and the present.
“I kind of see sampling as the weird digital-realm version of the oral tradition,” he said. “The songs were there for however long ago, but with every generation, they become augmented. It shifts and morphs and has its own flow.”
Lover’s projects might draw on aspects of dub, ambient, electronica and industrial music, but he views the psychedelic designation as the defining one.
“If you think about psychedelic music — it’s basically just experimentation,” Lover said.
Lover has 22 releases available on Bandcamp. At 36, Lover now lives in Austin, Texas, where he’s involved with the Levitation Festival, an annual psychedelic-music blowout. Lover has made remixes spotlighting artists featured at the festival, and his podcast, “Elevated Transmissions,” often dives into the currents of contemporary psychedelic music.
For his live sets, Lover mostly does musical exploration in real time on stage with a handful of sound-manipulating tools and gadgets.
“I’ll take loops of some of my already made tracks, and then I’ll just improvise on the fly,” Lover said. “Sometimes I’ll have some analog synths and drum machines on stage. Basically, I’ll have loops and effects, delays and echoes and filters, beat-repeat functions and internal loop functions and then I’ll just play around with it. I like the idea of repetition and where it can take people, trying to find that perfect place where it just locks with the mindset of the audience.”
Lover’s recordings sometimes bring to mind the dub experimentation of African Headcharge, with powerful hypnotic grooves and disjointed textures that get aggressively disassembled using effects, processing, and editing. The patterns might make you bob your head, or they might stop you dead in your tracks, transfixed and immobilized.
“It’s not dance music,” Lover said. “It’s music for going into a place of internal exploration.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Al Lover at Monstercade, 204 West Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem on Thursday, Dec. 28, with Yung Lungz.