David Sugalski, a Philadelphia native with a business degree from the University of Colorado, has carved out a respectable career for himself in dance music. Better known in EDM circles as the Polish Ambassador, Sugalski is creating music that reflects his life while constantly evolving as an artist and finding new and engaging ways to connect with listeners. We spoke with the producer about his creative process.
Westword: Let's talk about quantum physics... just kidding. To start things off, let's talk about, in a nutshell, you going University of Colorado and what's happened between then and now. Big nutshell.
The Polish Ambassador: The path for me to get to music was a bit longer than most. I started learning about composition when I was in school, but I didn't go to school for it. It was just sort of a hobby I did once I got home from all my boring business classes. It was my outlet to compose electronic music, or learn to compose... I was really bad back then.
I was never taught by my family, or peers, or by teachers that I could make a living as an artist. I had this sort of one-track mind to get my business degree, and I was studying to be in the sort of business side of real estate. I took a job in that field back in my hometown of suburban Philiadelphia. That's where I'm from. I took a job in that field, and it was very clear from the onset that it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. I think it took about three or four months to get fired from that job. It wasn't a good match.
So, very quickly I realized that in the working world I would either become very miserable in progressing down this field that I absolutely hate, or I can figure something out and start taking some risks and see if I can get into a job that's a little bit more fulfilling. From there, I decided that since I was really interested in music and really interested in audio in general, I thought, "What's a more general way to get into the music field?" My thinking, which is not really right looking back, at the time was to become an audio engineer, so I could work with musicians and have time in the studio to compose my own music.
Totally. That makes sense to me.
It makes sense. What ended up happening to me was that I got into the post-production field -- the audio post-production field -- and I moved out to Chicago. Since I was in college, I was studying business, so I was learning the ins and outs of basic production and that whole world. It was pretty easy for me to get a job out there. I ended up working in a few post-production offices. It was the most mundane, boring crap.
I was archiving "Oprah" spots, and running around for these clients who were paying $500 an hour to bring in that really famous voice over guy who is from all the movie trailers in the late '90s. He'd be brought into the studio because he was in so high demand that he made so much money, it's ridiculous. It was a lot of grunt work. I was getting lunch for people, so I was sort of a glorified intern.
After doing that for a while, I was like "Screw this," and I ended up getting fired from that job as well. That's sort of a pattern. I don't think I've ever not been fired from a job. I have a bad attitude working for other people, I suppose. Ultimately it led me to work for myself, which is a good thing.
When you were doing these jobs, and you knew you weren't enjoying it, you strike me as the kind of a guy who maintains the attitude of hope: You were working in audio, which is not exactly what you pictured yourself doing, so what was going on in your mind when you were there? Was it "I know what I want to do, and this is what I have to do," or "I know what I want to do, so fuck doing this?"
It was hope, like you said. But like most people, I have a breaking point. Once I see that the reality is a bit more clear about what is happening, then I hit my breaking point, and then my attitude goes from hopeful and optimistic to what did I get myself into? How can get myself out? On a subconscious level, I'm thinking how can I get myself out of this without having confrontation and saying to the person "I don't like what I'm doing."
I have my own personal issues with confrontation. My attitude just tanks. An employer doesn't want that kind of person on staff, so I got axed. One thing I should say is that while I'm doing these jobs I don't like, in the background, I'm really refining my musical skills. All these jobs that I'm doing, there is a dislike that is the motivation to go home and do what I really like.
When was all of this going on time-wise?
I graduated University of Colorado in 2003, so the timeline for that was that following summer, then onto Chicago in early 2004, and then I stayed there for two to three years. That was where I put out Diplomatic Immunity, my first album, which I made in my bedroom. I wasn't even playing shows. Back in 2006, there were DJs and stuff and people playing CDJs and stuff, but the whole Ableton and live performance for electronic music was just getting started.
There were some people doing it, and they were at the forefront of things, but it wasn't really a flushed out system where it was super exciting to perform your electronic music. Back then, a lot of people were doing it, and still do today, with CDJs and just basic DJ mixing one track to another. For me, as an artist, I couldn't bring myself to do that. I didn't want to just stand in front of people and push buttons.
I feel like there are two sides to that: On one hand, there is artistic integrity where you want to present the best music that you can, and then on the other hand, there is the side of keeping it interesting in performance in the creation.
I want to keep it interesting for myself. I want to give the audience something that they are stoked about and where they can piece together what I am playing. They can't see what I am doing on my computer, so they have to be good listeners to really know what is going on.
The other side of it is that the audience is only as engaged as you are. If you are up there really, really excited about what you are playing and creating, the audience feeds off that, and you can feed off that. It's sort of that feedback loop where you are getting excitement and giving it back. It evolves into this storm of frenzied excitement.
For lack of a better way of saying this, in looking at how far EDM as come -- some say it peaked, and others are starting to pull out like Skream and FeedMe -- do you think that it has done that because of the "button-pushers" and the people almost taking advantage of the scene?
There will always be people like Skream, who was basically at the front of the dubstep movement. Although he is a young guy, he has seen a lot come and go. I think for the people who are at the front, it's easy for them to get jaded and disenchanted by the scene because they were there from the beginning, helping it grow into what they thought it could be. It maybe takes a veer in a different direction, and maybe he feels like it was his baby at some point, and now it's grown into something he's not crazy about anymore. I understand that.
One thing that I'm noticing, that is happening a lot, is that there is a lack... no... I don't want to say lack because for every lack there is someone doing something amazing. In nature, there are two sides of nature: One side involves making something as easy as possible, and the other side is like, "Wow, how can I become more and more fascinated about this, and geek out more and more on creating this art that people have never seen?" It depends on which route you go.
One thing I am noticing on the end of people getting bored is that there are all these software companies that are creating packages that are freaking awesome, and interesting. However, so many people have access to them that I can pick them out. I can go out to a composer's show and be like "Oh wow! I've heard that last ten dubstep DJs use that sample of patch." While it's interesting, it gets boring real quick if you hear five to six different people using the same patch in their albums. It's kind of wack.
Is it like clip-art for music?
It's pretty much exactly like clip-art. It's like the musical version of that. It's something that is really cool, and people are making cool stuff, but so many people can get their hands on it. How many times do you go out a music scene and hear a song and feel like you've heard the same song over and over, even though it's not the same song, it has the same presets and synthesizers. I have my own prejudices against that kind of music, and I don't really want to get into that. There is room for creativity. It comes down to if you want to be fascinated and move things forward, or do you want to get lazy and pay for plug-ins?
With that said, when you are able to recognize that, you are able to avoid it. With your new album, as well as your previous work, how are you keeping the creativity exciting with yourself, while at the same time while maintaining your integrity?
That's a great question. How do I do that? Huh. I think that I spend a lot of time -- [laughing] I don't know how this will come off -- I spend a lot of time working introspectively where I am not working at the computer. My partner Ayla wakes up every morning, and she writes down her dreams in a dream journal. What I do when I wake up is rest for twenty minutes. I feel into myself and think about what feelings are coming through this body today based on my experiences yesterday and the day before with the interactions with everyone.
For me, I want to know how to capture what I am feeling in this life, in this body, and how can I filter those experiences into music. For me, there is a piece of time that I allocate towards that which helps assemble things on the philosophical side. On the technological side, what I am gravitating towards right now is collaboration with real musicians. I want to use what I have learned in the processing and synthesis world. I want to merge that with real musicianship.
From a tech standpoint, there are all these plug-ins out there that allow that, but there are ways to process these sounds deeper. You can process them one of ten million ways to create this unique sound. So, digging deep underneath the surface of all these really expensive instruments, and going well beyond the presets, is how I want to develop a signature sound. It's like any art form. All the tools are there, and the canvasses, so what colors can you create if you work hard enough at it?
Jumping back to talking about introspective for you, because the music make is sort of a reflection of your interactions with people, would you say that the albums that you put out are milestones and mile-markers for your life at that time?
Absolutely. As I get older, I'm becoming more and more tuned to have my creation process be like that. It's always been like that, but as I get older I get more and more conscious of that. With Diplomatic Immunity, I wasn't as aware of that as I am now.
Is it safe to assume that when you listen to your first tracks and albums, they are more exploratory and curious sounding to you because that is where you were in life? In the same light, is your recent work something you see as being finely tuned because you are that much more consciously aware of yourself now?
You could listen to that music, and it has this synth-pop element that actually resonates with a lot of different people, but it's not as refined, and it doesn't have this deep signature. It doesn't have that thing where people can connect to it and think, "I see what this person was going through." It's sort of feelings that get crossed over. Whereas now you can sort of connect to it more.
Do you think being in touch with yourself in that way has allowed you to break down walls, and at the same time, open new creative doors to incorporating the visual elements? I understand that you are bringing in more visual creations with Liminus. Is that the result, or natural order, of you connecting with your music to the point where you say, "I would like to add this visual element that I want to be in control of?"
The music that is coming out now is so refined, and I am so stoked on the feedback I have been getting from people that it's blowing my mind. I'm getting twenty Facebook messages a day that aren't the typical messages that I used to get. Ones I get now are talking about how the music is impacting them, and I think it's really interesting.
Music is a powerful tool, so I think about what I want to put out into the world that can make people more aware of themselves, their environment. As a musician you are this curator of these unconscious messages that you can put into people's mind frame. The visual accompaniment of that is that we are a very visual-consuming society, so having visuals that go with the music is basically going to drive home the point even more. It's also more beautiful.
There are so many amazing things that Liminus and I are working on. The way I compose my music is that I break down all the tracks down to the bass-lines, the synth-lines, the drum-lines, the vocal-lines, and all the percussion lines into separate tracks. What I am going to start doing is feeding them to Liminus so he can start mimicking just the bass-line is doing, or the drum-line.
There will be these five different elements that he can work. That is the big thing we are geeking out on right now. It's coming to fruition and it's looking really cool. The visual side of things is something we are very excited about because it expands the artistic realm of getting involved with people, and hopefully allowing them to sink into something deeper within themselves.
Is there anything you'd like to say about being able to headline Sonic Bloom this year? I remember in 2010 when you played the Otherside. It seems like things have come a long way since then.
Oh wow! So much has changed musically since then. It's crazy to think that we played the [Otherside] of Cervantes, and the last time I played there, we sold out the Ballroom.
What stuck out to me from that show was a remix of Mos Def's "Mathematics," and I don't know why, but it really stuck out to me. Just wanted to say that. With that said, is there anything you'd like to say in preview of Sonic Bloom?
Thanks! This is my first year playing Sonic Bloom, and I talked to [Scott Morrill] about playing there the last two years, and I was supposed to play last year and the year before, but early bookings came in and they conflicted with Sonic Bloom. Last year, I actually got booked at the Bluebird Theater while Sonic Bloom was happening, but I was booked like five months in advance. It's been a long time coming.
This project that is happening now, it seems like there are other cities that are growing fast, but Denver, and Colorado, in general, is the most receptive crowd to what we are putting out right now. To have one of the headlining spots at a festival, especially a Colorado festival, is pretty exciting. We are just grateful and excited just to be a part of that energy in Colorado. There are a couple of other things that might be interesting. I just started my new record label with artists that I am really excited about working with, and hopefully touring with in the fall.
Being on your own label, does this mean you are funding that? The tours? The albums? The releases? I'm not as familiar with how that works for independent DJs and producers. If you don't have the backing of a massive label, what is the process for how all of that works?
The modern day label, mainly the smaller and independent ones, or at least what our vision is, it's a bit different. The vision for ours is that the music will be available for "name your price." An artist that I am really stoked about can now be pumped out through my checkpoints at name your price, but the other thing is that the whole reason this label thing came about is not to make money.
My team is already doing pretty well with TPA, and it's growing and that's great, but the label is more about being able to tour with the people we want to tour with and bringing our family with us on the road. So, often we go on the road and are paired up with great musicians, but for whatever reason, it's not the perfect fit. When you go out on these two- three-month tours, you want to be with people you are stoked to be with. You want to be with your brothers and sisters. That's the main reason this came up.
As far as the financial piece, advances don't really happen anymore in the music industry. It's more about helping them get the word out. I can't kick anyone $10,000 for a music video because I know it won't come back to me. It's more that the only way we can make money is through touring and doing the live shows. With the label, it's about wanting to get these artists a bigger following, so they can make money, and so they can ultimately go on tour and support themselves. The traditional record label model is a 50-50 split. There are different ways to break it down, but when it comes to royalties and all that -- if we get a song placed for them in a commercial -- we get split it.
Do you think that will cycle around, though? A lot of people, for the most part, are searching for songs immediately. Do you think that model will evolve, or how will it?
On the name your price model?
Yes. It used to be that if you wanted music, you buy the album, and if you don't, then you don't get it. Now, anywhere with wi-fi and a smart phone can give you access to all music out there. I'm curious to know what direction you see it going?
I think that it's going into giving...that's a really tough question... but where it is now, and the way we are looking at it, feels very forward thinking to the point where it's like, "here, have what we have." We are basically saying that we have something, and it's up to you if you want to give back to us, and if not, we are totally cool with that. I don't know how much further it can go beyond that. We are already at this place where it's free. If you want to donate, you can. We don't care if you don't.
Having that mindset, and expanding on it, maybe to do that, you need to create more tools for people to give. My partner was telling me about this thing where -- she's a folk musician -- there is this site where you can record demos, post them, and get a reaction on if you should move forward with the project.
People can energetically say, through their dollar, yes or no. You upload a song that is a demo, but maybe people will see with the right instrumentation that it will be a great song, and they can donate a dollar, or more. It's coming up with the tools to expand the idea that supporting artists doesn't make you feel like you have to give a bunch of money. Some people have a problem with that, and most don't.