ABOVE: AARON DAVID ROSS. PHOTO BY LILI PEPER
What happens when you mix clip art with stock music? Two words: Chunky Monkey, the second solo LP by New York-based ADR, or Aaron David Ross. Ross, half the duo (along with Matthew Arkell) behind Gatekeeper, puts the apocalyptic sounds on hold for a lifestyle-driven adventure (out tomorrow on Hippos in Tanks and fearlessly led by the album’s cover-art mascot, a Mesoamerican clip-art monkey) that navigates the YouTube binges and tab-hoarding fusion of trip-hop and acid jazz. We spoke with Ross about e-cigarettes, astrology, and how the album came to be.
KELLEY HOFFMAN: Where are you right now—at your house?
AARON DAVID ROSS: Yeah. I’m in my backyard in New York. I leave for Milan tomorrow.
HOFFMAN: What are you doing in Milan?
ROSS: I’m doing a performance with—do you know the artist Lorenzo Senni?
HOFFMAN: I don’t think so.
ROSS: He’s this Italian guy that makes cool synth music. He was asked by Nike to curate for their Nike design week and Nike stadium events. He’s bringing me and a few other people out to perform a daylong, improvised soundtrack for the environment Nike created. I’m actually really excited. I have no idea what to expect, but I think it’ll be really cool.
HOFFMAN: Do you have your Milan look figured out yet? For your performance?
ROSS: You know, I haven’t given it much thought. Usually when I pack, I bring only the most silly and extreme articles of clothing—that’s what I like to throw in the suitcase. Matthew [Arkell]’s always wearing like, a white T-shirt, and I always have a ridiculous, far too colorful, weirdly cut… so I haven’t figured it out exactly, but I will.
HOFFMAN: I remember you tweeted that your look was “lifeguard with a secret.” But then I saw a “might grow a ponytail and get my massage therapist’s license,” so I wonder what’s going on in the ADR world.
ROSS: When I write a tweet describing my look, it takes a lot of time, I craft it—on the spot, it’s going to be a little hard. I’m definitely really inspired by e-cigarette culture, and I think that my style is being, maybe for the worst, informed by guys doing music reviews on YouTube, because they’re all wearing like, a lot of button-ups with flames coming up the bottom, and tribal-sleeve tats, big tattoo shirts, and dragon-splatter baseball caps. A little bit St. Mark’s, a little bit Euro. That’s kind of where I’m at right now. That, and my jazz teacher always has a weird [influential] undercurrent.
HOFFMAN: How does e-cigarette culture influence you?
ROSS: I don’t know what music to vape to actually sounds like—but I think it’s pretty close to Chunky Monkey. It’s such a new phenomenon, and I’m going deeper and deeper by the day into this subculture of people who are into e-cigarettes, so I don’t know if there’s really an established sound, per se. But, you know, I spend a good part of every day researching… I’ll have a bunch of tabs open and some will be of old YouTubes of some music I’m into and others will be like weird reviews of some new atomizer that came out; so I’m cross-browsing between these things. It’s not even [something] that I spend a lot of time and energy on my own resources to maintain, because you have to if you want to take it seriously, and so because of that I think it influences my character and the record. We were trying to make Chunky Monkey e-liquid, we were going to try to make a flavor, and I think we still might. That’s a plan.
HOFFMAN: I know you’re an Aries. Do you feel like it’s lucky to release an album close to your birthday?
ROSS: It also seems like Chunky is an Aries. That’s something that I liked about it when about when I put it together in my head. I started thinking about this album as relating to the character on the cover, so a lot of that monkey character. So he’s an Aries too, him and I are like astrological brethren, we can sort of have the same arc to our respective years. I think the clichéd characteristics of an Aries works to that effect too. Particularly in the way the music sounds too.
HOFFMAN: Aries are supposed to be very carefree and fun, but also strong leaders. I can see that in the record. Where did the picture for the monkey come from?
ROSS: That was clip art. I was searching through these Mesoamerican clip art archives for whatever reason to find some inspiration. Matthew had just come up with the title Chunky Monkey so I was looking specifically just for monkeys to find anything that would match that ridiculous title, and yeah, there’s just this whole Mesoamerican monkey clip art and that was just the one that stood out, because of how androgynous it was. In terms of its attitude, it has this playfulness but also this weird, a bit off and scary expression on its face. And he has this belly, so maybe she’s fat or pregnant. So there’s all this ambiguity in these simple lines. I just couldn’t stop staring at it and I started sending it around to people, and everyone has responded to it really strongly. People either really connect with the image or not understand and then have it become totally justified based on the title. It has this weird three-part thing, the music, the album title, and that image, and I think they all kind of need each other to click. But yeah, that image is total stock, and I couldn’t disturb it at all, I had to leave it black on white.
HOFFMAN: What’s the story behind the title?
ROSS: Matthew came up with the name, and it was when we were talking about ideas for a title and he just blurted that out, and it really resonated with me, not because of the ice cream flavor, which unfortunately it is literally referencing, but also it somehow embodied this kind of Trader Joe’s, fair-trade, Euro kind of feeling. It has just funny, 2000s, middle-class liberal feeling to it that it seems to conjure up. I just picture crates with weird maps on them with a bunch of fair-trade logos that are really overly designed. It’s really explicitly a mural in a Starbucks or what I imagine it as.
HOFFMAN: It’s very Peet’s Coffee.
ROSS: The logo for the Peet’s coffee logo is everything. It’s like a weird unexplored cultural movement from the 2000s that’s still going hard. The college I went to in Chicago, Columbia College, also had that same aesthetic. You know like, chartreuse, weird orange, kind of millennial, very liberal millennial. It’s an aspect of culture which I don’t feel is like explored particularly very often because it’s kind of disdainful. But that’s definitely something I’m trying to hit on with the sound.
HOFFMAN: So this is your second solo album. How did it come to be?
ROSS: I got really into this hole in the Internet of trip hop and acid jazz and the weird bridge there. They’re always grouped together. They don’t seem like they have a whole lot in common, but certain artists will often be tagged. From there I found my own weird world that was informed by that stuff. It was a lot of input at first, just like digging through archives an on Last.fm looking through similar artists and stuff like that. And then I started making all these songs. I started sketching stuff out.
I always had a weird connection to jazz music, since I was a student. This highly intellectualized form that was just really fun for me to explore cerebrally. But I’ve always been really attracted to really cheesy jazz, the kind of jazz that jazz musicians hate. The MIDI jazz movement in the ’80s. Keyboard sounds and these really tricked-out jazz harmonies and rhythms. My own past experience filtered with newfound excitement, partnered with trip hop and lounge and all that kind of stuff that I was discovering.
I was finding all these loop libraries, like sample-pack loop libraries of all these different styles. I was looking at jazz loop construction kits. It’s just really nicely recorded, really poorly composed jazz songs for each instrument. So I would be able to isolate some goofy bass line from some royalty-free jazz composition that somebody had made. And so I took a lot of inspiration from these weird loop kits where I would just find, re-contextualize maybe one, two sounds, that’s why the album has lot of wideness to it. There was a lot of repurposing stock, royalty-free loops and construction kit sounds for my own purposes. And I was actually in Los Angeles and I was playing some of these sketches for [Hippos in Tanks’] Barron Machat and James Ferraro and they were both really excited about it. And thought they were really cool and had the idea to put it out.
HOFFMAN: How does it feel to be working outside the sound of Gatekeeper?
ROSS: I really like it. Gatekeeper, to me, is a really fun project because it’s such a controlled universe; it’s very unique to what kind of sounds and style and moods that we can pull together. So to work outside of that aim is really fun and freeing for the same reasons it’s really fun to work in this controlled environment. Just the difference in that process. It’s really fun to bend [or] strip all of those self-imposed guidelines and work on something totally random.
HOFFMAN: I noticed you’ve also been tweeting a lot of saxophone references.
ROSS: Sax puns. That was coming from—actually, I’m looking to play some of these songs live. I’m been rehearsing with a bass player and a drummer, and we’ve been thinking about how to reinterpret these songs live. And we’ve been really trying to find a saxophone player. We’ve rehearsed with a few that maybe sound great and the personality doesn’t work out, or the other way around, so we haven’t found a sax player yet. But those tweets are me hoping that by tweeting about a saxophone player, the universe will deliver me a saxophonist. I don’t know if it works that way.
HOFFMAN: I think so. What about a trumpet player?
ROSS: Trumpet would be cool, but I like sax because there’s an instrument called an ewi, and it’s kind of been forgotten about. But it’s really popular in these jazz bands from the ’80s I was talking about, like these synth bands, but it’s a MIDI controller that is played like a saxophone. So it looks like a sax, you control velocity with your breath, so it’s very expressive; it can play any sound. So I can have a saxophone player playing these melodies but any type of sound I want—I can put a trumpet sound on there, I can put a guitar sound on there. I want to find a saxophone player so I have that kind of flexibility. So I’m looking to find a saxophone player so he can double on ewi. But I will settle for any horn or wind player that is feeling the vibe and would like to be part of it.