Santangelo’s Brave New AdWorld | Complex

In AdWorld, everything is collapsing, or seems to be. You shred sounds, howl, mix words. We have seen different institutions co-opt or pay lip service to various solidarity movements to shut them down. How does music connect to the world you see around you?
I think there are two movements going on right now, perpendicular to each other: a post-Gamer Gate, where you get this crazy talk as a test of belonging to the community, and a post- Trayvon Martin – a liberal arts college revival. The resistance engendered by the latter enabled most middle-class blacks and people of color to materialize their position in the world. Monetize it. And reverse the power dynamic in a way that I don’t think anyone at the time was thinking about in the long term.

For context, when I was at Ithaca College, I was involved in protests, on the bullhorn, constantly organizing, leading the charge against campus police. Back then it was so real, until you realize months later that pictures of us were taken and they show up on the school website, and then you remember why you you get enrolled in school, because of those pictures on the website, and you start to realize that rage has been exploited by a larger institution to profit and expand its audience and fan base or constituency. In the meantime, I pay to be there, even with scholarships. They always ask me for money.

On AdWorld, you have lines like “I feel like a cyborg, why lord”, and you have lines about sex and love. How did your relationships influence the album?
I have a big inferiority complex in many ways when it comes to relationships. There’s a lack of confidence on my part, but a lot of that also comes from not having money, not being able to eat or having to work all the time. Losing that time is on top of not understanding how to navigate a certain situation, or simply not having as much time to build trust with someone. Being with someone of the same sex, luckily for a lot of people, it’s fine now, but I’ve still been through a lot of homophobic bullshit and I have an ingrained shame in me because of the way I was raised in a super religious family. Not seeing long-standing relationships in my family, not seeing people get married, watching my dad go to jail or my aunt and uncles get killed. All those ways a system impacts our personal lives. It connects that way.

You put everything you had to create AdWorld, both the album and the virtual experience, with sparkly charms that unlock a character creator. You took world-building literally. When it sold, what crossed your mind?
I’m afraid of losing the money. I got really neurotic and I separated everything into different places, and I budgeted everything, calculated what I would need for rent and food for the year and took that out so I didn’t touch the rest. I want to feel good and have fun but there is so much work to do. I haven’t had time to buy a car, which would be nice now that I’m in LA, but the car market is fucked, the housing market is fucked.

I have never felt safe before, since I was a child. Since my parents split up and my dad went to jail, I’ve pretty much been living paycheck to paycheck ever since, either with my mum or myself, and now that I have saving money feels good, but I know it can be easily lost.

I have friends who are struggling right now whether it’s with gambling… A lot of my friends were struggling with their gambling. It’s scary because there are so many amazing ways for you to waste it all and to lose everything extremely quickly. The world is made for me to fall into one of these holes, and I’m so scared that when I try to dodge three of them, I’ll fall into another backwards. My mom helped me, but there’s no one in my family I can really talk to about working with that kind of money.

What did it take to reach this point of being ready for release?
I ate once a day. Borrowing money from friends, usually to pay back other friends I had borrowed money from. Couch surfing for months. Couldn’t afford a flight back to New York from Los Angeles so stayed here. I just knew I had to go all the way.

The album itself feels like a sprint on asphalt crumbling at times, just at breakneck pace – and drifting through an underworld at others. Sometimes you will go from slow blocking to racing car mode out of nowhere. Are there bits of AdWorld that you can point to and think, “How the hell did we pull this off?”
Journalistic focus aside, sequencing was what I really wanted to do well. Everything I’ve done before had a consistent sound, but it’s not the same. It feels good to play an active role in the production. My first album, I didn’t produce anything, and the producer was saying a line that meant the world to me sucked, and it wasn’t in my hands so it was going to be scrapped. Sometimes you have to listen to those comments. Sometimes you know you have something special, and if someone else doesn’t like it, it’s not for them.

I want to re-record some things. Doing the album during the peak of COVID, with no resources, there’s room to get cleaner takes, but you can’t over-edit yourself either. The circumstances are printed in this WAV file. “Through The Wire” wouldn’t be as good if Kanye’s jaw was intact. I’m also proud because I know my voice on this album is mine. Sometimes on songs from A Jaded Attempt at Something Iconic I feel like I’m cosplaying when I listen to that, even though I still like a lot of those songs. “Like Flies” from this album still stands out. I played it on the piano and sang it live, cover to cover.

The more you listen, the more those little details stand out. This goes a long way with sequencing. Even single people.

[Co-producer] Quiet Luke and I buried so many sound bites in there. Probably 50 clips or samples or terrain elements that we have kept. Website chimes, notifications, sirens, WWII alarms, fashion show gaffes. I wanted it to sound like the end of the world, just cascading. We tried to think of different times in history where people were probably thinking, “This is it.” We also had fun playing with things. We fried the drum beat on “Bliss”. The voice sample is from Discord during the Wall Street betting craze. It was like the digital equivalent of trading floor sounds. Frank calls it a demonic prison, the mind of the internet is scary. It was thousands of voices, shouting, uttering insults.

Working on the Quiet Luke album, 21st century blue, you and he would spend long hours rummaging through archives, going to libraries, trying to put together a language for this body of work. It seemed like an incredibly dedicated research process.
That’s really how we work. We’ll send countless screenshots of things to each other and kind of build this reference library together in real time. But it’s not a song or a work of art, it’s a plastic cup on the side of the road that’s crumpled up in some way, or an American Express logo at an airport. Then you reverse engineer and ask, “Okay, what is this airport branding referring to? What was their inspiration? Alec [Quiet Luke] loves history and it is helpful in anchoring what we are doing today with what has happened before. We’re really going to invent our own vernacular during the album making process. Like “neo-feudalism”. Sometimes we see something and just say “quarrel,” and it sticks in both of our brains.

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