Art Imitates Life During The Making of “Departures”

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Ill.gates travelled the world for 5 months seeking inspiration and the results can be heard in his epic 16 track “Departures” album

The album, “Departures,” is in my opinion, ill.gates’ best work to date. I wanted to learn more about how he created such a diverse and sonically fascinating album and he shared his amazing journey with me in this candid interview.

Tell us about when you first started working on the songs for the Departures album and when did you decide on the “Departures” concept?

Departures is the second in a series of travel themed albums I’ve been working on, the first being 2017’s Terminally iLL and the third one being ‘The Arrival.’ I wrote a lot of the material for Terminally iLL and Departures while vagabonding around the world with my wife. We subletted our place in San Francisco, packed one checked bag each, and just FUCKED OFF into the wild blue yonder for five months. It was one of the best experiences of my life, real bucket list shit.

We went to Jamaica, Cuba, Costa Rica, Canada, Hawaii, Australia, Singapore and Bali and stayed in AirBnb places or with friends. I had a bluetooth speaker, my mic, and a couple midi controllers and just channeled all that inspiration into making music for months. It was so liberating. I took a step out of my life, my self, my studio… all of my normal ways of doing things and really went exploring both inside and out. I still have a ton of unreleased tracks from that time. It was just magic, especially Cuba.

It very quickly became apparent that a: I was writing way more music than I could put out on one album, and b: that it was all WILDLY different. I remember putting it all up on this white board in a little house we had rented in Kingston, Jamaica and thinking: “Wow! I cant believe this came out of me. This is way more than just one album!” So at that point the most logical thing was to take the more “commercially viable” + vocal sounding stuff and put it onto Terminally iLL, and then take all of the left field misfit tracks and turn them into Departures.

Dylan (ill.gates) in his happy place

Which song took the most effort and time to finish and which song was created and finished the fastest?

The one that took the most effort by FAR was “Wasteland Warrior.” KJ Sawka and I had originally started that a few years ago during my first ever live stream. EVERYTHING technical went horribly wrong and it was a real nightmare, but we came up with so much good stuff that I knew we had to finish it. I always try to get inspired by doing SOMETHING new on every track, and on Wasteland Warrior it was incorporating mode changes, going from minor to major and back. This proved to be really difficult to implement properly, and made it feel like we wrote five tracks worth of stuff. Getting that all to fit together naturally meant rewriting the track entirely about four or five times. I’m really glad we stuck it out tho! It’s one of my favourite ill.Gates tracks.

The fastest one by FAR was ‘Keepsies‘. This tune came about in the week that I hit upon the idea of workflow timers. I was in Jamaica and had forgotten my precious kitchen timer so I was walking around the city trying to find a replacement. None of the sketchy Jamaica stores had kitchen timers and the clerks were all rolling their eyes at me… then this one lady said “Why don’t you just use your phone like everyone else?” and I really felt like a dumbass. So I went and checked out phone timer apps and found the Seconds Pro Interval Timer app that athletes use for training and then adapted it for music workflows. It was a MASSIVE breakthrough! I started making five or six beats a day every day and my skills just EXPLODED. I couldn’t contain my excitement and had to share it with the Dojo members right away. Keepsies was the result of a workflow timer I did while in a lesson with a student. 30 minutes! I love it and play it all the time.

Why do you think some songs take so long to finish while others come out quickly.  Is there a methodology that you can define to finish songs fast or is it more of an abstract undefinable phenomenon?  For example, what were the set of circumstances when you finished the tracks quickly and what were the set of circumstances for the songs that took a long time to finish?

As much as I love the workflow timer thing, it really is a training exercise primarily. Every song is different. Every song has its own quirks and needs and you can’t really apply the same recipe every time and get different results. The recipes are a great way to learn, they can help you to get fast, and if you’re ever in some kind of output quota situation (such as doing commercial work) they are essential BUT if you’re working on an artist album and really trying to challenge yourself to the very limits of your abilities you’re going to have to stray off of the beaten path and risk getting lost along the way. That said: the real magic happens outside of your comfort zone, and if you view producing itself as a rewarding activity you’re never REALLY wasting time in the studio.

Which song are you the most proud of on the “Departures” album and why?

Krakatoa! I fucking LOVE that song. it makes me feel like there is some kind of crazy ritual going on, it’s scary and magical and psychedelic all at once. it’s definitely my favorite.

Do you listen back to the album now and still hear things that you would change or do you just “let it be” once an album has been released?

There’s always stuff I’d change or whatever, but that’s just life. Any creative project takes as long as you let it. You can keep reworking one track until you’re on your deathbed but that’s no way to live. At some point you just have to move on.

When deciding which songs to put on the album did you consult with anybody or do you make that determination 100% yourself with no input from the outside world?

I always run things by my wife, and by Dov from Muti Music. They’re both consummate music snobs and I really trust their input.

Are there any songs that were on the long list for the album, but didn’t make the final cut?  If yes, why didn’t they make the final cut and will we ever hear these songs?

TONS! I have a bunch more tracks that have a distinctly dystopian/cyberpunk vibe that are going to be on The Arrival. That record is on some AI takeover shit. I can’t wait!

ill.gates and KJ Sawka

Can you tell us about your collaborative experiences during the making of Departures?  How does the creation process differ when you are collaborating vs. when you write a song completely by yourself.  Do you have a preference and why do you prefer one over the other?

I do my best work when collaborating, even when it’s with students or non-musicians. There is something about having another person in the studio, or even streaming that really brings out the best in me. Maybe it’s years of being a performer but i love the added pressure and then I REALLY love having someone to be excited with when I have a breakthrough.

Every new song is a learning experience with new sets of obstacles to overcome.  What were some of the most memorable obstacles that you overcame during the making of the album and your top 5 lessons learned?

– Doing workflow timers every day while writing an album is one of the best things you can do. Not only will you tune your setup and hone your skills but you will likely accidentally make awesome tracks and want to release them.

– You don’t make your best work by trying to make music that will be popular. Departures was WAY better received than Terminally iLL and I think it’s because of how weird and authentically ME it sounds.

– When producing in the developing world you need to have backup bluetooth speakers because it is REALLY hard to replace them when they break.

– Don’t wear your subpac at the airport or it’ll really freak out airport security.

– When vagabonding you really need to think carefully about your immediate neighborhood. We ended up in a pretty scary part of Kingston at one point and had to move because the neighborhood toughs decided I was a homosexual and threatened to set me on fire. It was terrifying.

When you create new songs do you produce your song structures based on how someone might include them in a DJ set? What percentage of the time do you scrap potential ideas because you know they won’t work in a live setting?

Usually yes. My live sets are my bread and butter so it’s always a concern. If I’m just making a one off track I’ll often bin it if I can’t picture people losing their minds at a music festival or whatever. BUT when you’re working on an album your goal should be to take people on a journey, and that requires a diversity of destinations. Some of my favorite tracks on Departures are the downtempo tunes at the end.

What can we expect next from ill.gates?

There’s a really epic music video for Krakatoa in the works, and then I have a bunch of Ai/robot themed stuff that i’m really into. The Arrival is going to be EPIC!

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

I want to express my undying love and gratitude to my fans and supporters. I don’t get to live my dream without you believing in me and supporting me so sincerely, from the bottom of my heart: thank you! I’ll never take you for granted EVER.