Credit: Brian Vu

Credit: Brian Vu

By Laurent Fintoni

Michael Volpe is standing on a rooftop bench, his clean-shaven head covered by a grey hoodie, hands deep in its pockets, the Manhattan skyline unfolding behind him under a moody grey sky. It’s a fitting pose for a quiet kid from New Jersey with the world at his fingertips.

Ten years ago at 19, Volpe was just another would-be bedroom producer. Today, standing on the roof of The End, a recording studio at the western edge of Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, Volpe still carries himself with the same casual, unassuming air he did then, despite having become an in-demand name with credits on releases by some of the most hyped artists of recent years.

From emailing laptop beats to rappers across the country to commanding world-class recording studios, Volpe’s journey under the name Clams Casino has been remarkable.

The specifics of Volpe’s career to date are textbook for his generation—digital production, social networking hook ups, early internet acclaim—with one exception: his vaporous beats, somewhere between the catatonic vibe of a weed coma and the fuzzy headspace of an online binge, stood out from the rest. They became sonic anchors for Bay Area astronaut Lil B and New York renaissance man A$AP Rocky.

And it wasn’t just rap fans who wanted more. Beat scene kids and electronic music cognoscenti were also hooked, sans raps, thrusting the hopeful beat maker into another creative arena, one where he was the artist. “That was an accident,” Volpe says. What he always wanted was to “be behind the scenes,” working in a diligent manner towards whatever vision someone else might have.

In the early 2010s, Volpe parlayed his online kudos into increasing studio work, balancing demands for Clams Casino beats on their own with productions for FKA Twigs, The Weeknd, A$AP Mob and more. During this process he signed to Columbia and decided to put together an official debut album following three self-released instrumental mixtapes.

“I went in blind,” he explains, sitting in the control room of The End, a modded MTA 980 console behind him, vintage equipment and hardbound comic books all around. “I didn’t know what the album would sound like until last July when it was nearly finished. I just followed the music.”

32 Levels is an ambitious work, standing in contrast to the modest demeanor of its creator. Written while Volpe continued to produce for others, it’s the first true taste of Clams Casino as both artist and producer. The End is one of three studios where Volpe created the album, and we’re here to take the album apart and discuss how this New Jersey kid with a casual cool leveled his way up the music industry.

 

 


“Level 1”

“The drums for this were recorded here. I lined up some beats and played along to them in the live room. Those recordings are spread throughout the album.”

The approach to sampling on 32 Levels is the first major departure from Volpe’s earlier work, which was built on scavenging voices and other samples from digital files. This time around, he created his own sample library during visits to recording studios.

“I wanted to start the album where I’d left off, so the vocal sample is from a CD of traditional Polynesian songs. It’s the way I used to work and I wanted it to sound a little familiar [to ease people in].”

And then there’s Lil B’s voice, recorded during a three-day session in Los Angeles. It was Volpe’s collaborations with the Bay Area rapper that first put him on the map and Volpe wanted him to be “a big part of the album.”

“This is really setting the mood for people who haven’t heard from me in a while.”


“Be Somebody” ft. Lil B and A$AP Rocky

Most of the collaborations on 32 Levels happened through the process of working on other people’s projects, and “this is where it all comes together.”

“The vocals in the back are by Mikky Ekko, a minute and a half clip of whatever he felt like. I chopped and treated it like a sample. The drums are from my iPad and the panning you hear on them came through messing around with a rack-mount, multi-effects unit at home. It wasn’t on purpose but I kept it. The last layer is my buddy Sterling Fox, he’s doing the low voice.”

First intended for Rocky’s second album, the pair went back and forth over who would use the song. The Harlem rapper recorded a final take in L.A. and handed it in after 32 Levels had already been mastered. With only one and half verses on there, Volpe decided to bring in Lil B and, in the process, achieve another personal milestone.

“They haven’t worked together yet, and there’s no better place for it than on my album. I had to make it happen.”

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Credit: Brian Vu


“All Nite” ft. Vince Staples

Recorded at The Ship studio in L.A., “All Nite” bears similarities to “Norf Norf,” a highlight from Vince Staples’ Def Jam debut album produced by Volpe. That’s because the former was recorded first, in November 2014, and Staples liked it so much he asked for more.

“I made the beat on a little drum machine at The Ship, a Boss Dr. Groove [DR–202]. Ran it through guitar pedals and layered it with other elements. Some of the effects are from a Kaoss Pad and the bass is from a Critter & Guitari synth.”

The various hardware used on the album is another progression for Volpe, who first made beats using a Yamaha SU–200 sampler, a Roland digital recorder, and some cumbersome zip drives before discovering Sony ACID Pro, which he uses to this day. “I don’t have the patience to learn new software,” he says. Together with the sample library he created, this approach lends the album a satisfying cohesiveness.

“I wanted to do something I’d never done but also balance it with what I know. It’s progressing in a way that lets me understand what I do better. I never forced myself to think too hard about what I was doing because that never comes out well. It was a case of experimenting and keeping what works.”

 

 


“Witness” ft. Lil B and Keyboard Kid

Alongside Volpe, Seattle’s Keyboard Kid is another producer who shaped the sound of Lil B in the late 2000s. After nearly ten years, the three collaborated together for the first time.

“Keyboard Kid was in town for one night while we were in the studio. I told him to just do his thing, recorded the output and chopped that up. It’s a cool balance of what we both do—he works more with MIDI in FruityLoops and me with samples. The song started from the main melody, which he plays. After he left B recorded his vocals and then I fleshed the song out and built it up by myself over another couple days. It’s just a fun, spontaneous song.”

When Volpe flew Lil B down to The Ship, it was the first time the pair sat down and talked since they first began working together over the internet nearly eight years before. They’d done shows in the past but interactions were limited. “The first day was like, ‘Holy shit,’” Volpe recalls with a laugh. “It was a weird ass experience but we got a lot done.”

 

 


“Skull”

“Vince was supposed to write to this but he never recorded it. In the end I chose to use it as an interlude. It felt good as a transition, the album needed it.”

At this point, 32 Levels shifts towards “a whole different vibe” and a new cluster of songs. “It feels like the album is going deeper,” Volpe remarks. “‘Skull’ has a lot of the same elements as ‘Ghost In A Kiss.’ I was trying to choose between either of the versions and in the end I decided to use both.”


“32 Levels” ft. Lil B and Joe Newman

One of the biggest struggles Volpe faced with 32 Levels was sequencing the songs. Earlier projects, composed of pre-existing music, had been easier to present. This time, he had brand new work reflecting different aspects of a growing craft and sensibilities.

“The first time I sat down to sequence the album, I got really scared. It wasn’t working and I thought I’d wasted all this time. I was trying to go back and forth between rap and singing. I told myself, ‘It’ll work, I’m tying it together with production.’ But it sounded a mess.”

The solution was to create a storytelling arc “with a beginning, middle, and end,” moving from rap to more traditional songwriting and a pop feel before descending back to a hazier vibe. “32 Levels” is an extension of the album’s move into its middle part, combining the raps of Lil B with improvisations from alt-J’s Joe Newman.

“Joe sings the hook and background vocals. I was working in the Strongroom studios in London, summer of 2014. Tom, Alt-J’s drummer, reached out to do something as he’s a fan. The whole band turned up and I recorded Joe playing acoustic guitar and singing. No lyrics, just a vibe. It’s heavily effected to make it feel like a sample. The keyboard is from a Roland Jupiter they had. I recorded a lot of samples there too, running around playing with their synths and weird keyboards.”

“32 Levels” is the most global song on the album, with drums recorded in NYC, an original demo and lyrics written with Lil B in L.A., and additional vocals and keys captured in London.


“Thanks To You” ft. Sam Dew

“All the synth sounds on this are from an old Prophet keyboard in The Ship, and the drums are from my iPad app ran through a Philosopher’s Tone pedal I always use when I’m at The End. A little compression and distortion to make the drums sound dirty real fast.”

Back in 2011, Volpe had expressed interest in working with singers based on the belief his washed-out, melodic instrumentals could be a fit for more than rappers. One of these turned out to be Sam Dew, a Chicago-based singer and songwriter with credits for Wale, Usher, and Skrillex.

“I never consciously thought about [working with singers]. The album is almost half rap and half singing, but not on purpose. I wanted to explore what I could do besides hip-hop.”

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Credit: Brian Vu


“Back To You” ft. Kelly Zutrau

Kelly Zutrau, lead singer of the alt-pop band Wet, was introduced to Volpe through his A&R. Also signed to Columbia, she lent her songwriting and singing talent to a demo originally recorded during the sessions for FKA Twigs’ debut.

“The piano was Kelly’s idea, she wanted something to bring the chord changes out. She wrote a few demos over a rough instrumental—no real lyrics, just some backing and melodies. She then asked me to choose from different verses and choruses, where it could go. We recorded the final version together here, including the piano. The drums are from The End sessions and the guitar is a sample I found online.”


“Into The Fire” ft. Mikky Ekko

For the past few years, Volpe has been working closely with Louisiana-born, Nashville-based Mikky Ekko, whose music has appeared on a number of TV shows and who featured on Rihanna’s “Stay.” “Into The Fire” was first commissioned in 2013 by their publishing company for a movie soundtrack.

“We recorded it before I signed to Columbia and before I even knew I’d be making an album. In the end it didn’t make the movie but I knew I didn’t want to waste it. This and the Twigs demo got me thinking of doing my own album. It clicked at some point in my head: I’m the one who connects all these songs and that became the catalyst for the project.”

Following the original recording, Ekko returned to Nashville and did the bulk of the production with his band there before Volpe finished the song in NYC.

“I took Mikky’s voice singing one note and played it on keys in the back. On the instrumental you can hear his breathing being chopped up. When I got his version back I knew it needed to be tweaked to fit the album better. We could have made it cleaner but I wanted to make sure there was a certain atmosphere to it that creates a balance with the live element Mikky brought.”


“A Breath Away” ft. Kelela

“I started this song at The Ship. I used their drums and the main synth is a Juno run through reverb and distortion pedals.”

The writing process for this song involved Kelela and Sam Dew, who offered to record some ideas after Volpe played him the demo. “He wrote a new chorus melody with her words,” Volpe recalls. “And she took that and built on it. They were bouncing off each other at a distance with me in the middle. It was a really interesting process.”

Despite this enthusiastic input, Volpe was unable to finish the song so he brought in MP Williams, a young producer he respects, to help complete his vision.

“MP played the bridge and other elements, he’s good at that. And then Illangelo, another producer and mixing engineer, added some production too. The vibe was always there but it took me eight months to get it where it needed to be. I wasn’t sure it would make the album.”

 

 


“Ghost In A Kiss” ft. Sam Herring

Before the album ends, Future Islands’ Sam T. Herring delivers one of its most visceral and fascinating performances.

“I first sent Sam a Future Islands-like instrumental I’d written with Mikky but then I couldn’t make it fit the rest of the album. I brought MP in again and we rebuilt the song from scratch around Sam’s voice. At that point Sam decided to re-record his vocals to make them fit better but he got stuck too.

“It took about a year on and off, both of us going through the same creative blocks. It’s a hard song to take in at first, it’s shocking but it wasn’t intentional. I wanted to drag it out, give it a cinematic vibe that goes to different places. It’s not singing or rapping, something in between, and I wanted artists to have more freedom on my album to do things they can’t on their own.”

The “biggest cliché” about producer albums is to load them with guests. With nine different vocalists on 12 tracks, 32 Levels can seem like that at first. But Volpe says it wasn’t intentional and therefore feels more natural than if an A&R had hammered in a list of guests to amplify sales and appeal.

“I feel good about it,” he admits. “I don’t really fit in any obvious producer template. I do whatever feels natural and it ends up a mix of different styles of production.”

 

 


“Blast”

“This was inspired by Illangelo. Tom Elmhurst mixed the album but Illangelo mixed the vocals because it’s not something I’m comfortable with. I played Illangelo what I had in mind to end the album and he said, “you can’t do that.” It was too spacey and he felt it would be a let down. Instead he suggested an anthem, something that sounds like me.”

Following the advice, Volpe wrote “Blast” overnight by rummaging through unused beats for drums and vocals. The result is a typical Clams Casino instrumental, a cavernous and spacious production that thunders into your eardrums. “Once I put this in I knew it was the end,” Volpe says proudly.


And because it wouldn’t be a Clams Casino album without the instrumentals, 32 Levels will come with both versions across all formats. “It’s a different experience,” Volpe says of the beats. “They have a life of their own.”

While the album shows a producer open to growth, the instrumentals offer a more detailed insight into the sonic specificities of Volpe’s scavenging sound. It’s also a tip of the hat to his origins, back when he used to give his fans free music. An appropriate touch for a debut nearly ten years in the making.

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Credit: Brian Vu