An Interview With SELA, Vallejo's Best, Weirdest, and Only Ambient/Footwork Producer

Listening to Vallejo producer SELA is akin to wandering through a bleary, dew-laden field at dawn, accidentally falling down a rabbit hole, and then getting sucked up by a rainbow tornado before drifting slowly back down to earth and laying on a patch of soft grass as rain falls lightly on your face.

In other words, the 22-year-old producer has a knack for manipulating melodies and distorting sounds. His songs veer left when you think they’re going right and there’s no shortage of surprises (or water-based samples). Some tracks are toasty from the warm ambient synth pads he uses, while others are shiver-inducing and sound like water dripping from a faucet. An avid creator, he’s released almost 20 projects on BandCamp and remixed everyone from Mariah Carey and Hawthorne Heights to Next and Trina.

[jump] SELA’s middle school years were spent perusing the web searching for music. He discovered sounds from all over the world from breezy and spacious Brazilian bossa nova, to LA’s inventive beat scene, to, maybe most importantly, the perspective shifting sound of Chicago’s footwork music. Years later, while the world discovered footwork through the work of DJ Rashad, SELA put out a series of compilations (called CRACK) of little known and looked over footwork producers that he found on various music hosting platforms.

The series sparked some Internet controversy over questions of cultural appropriation and authenticity (and SELA ended up removing them from Bandcamp). But after talking to SELA on a park bench across from his apartment in Vallejo, it’s clear that SELA is no cultural imperialist. He’s simply a lover of music who wants to shine a light on music that inspired him, as well as create some of the best left-field, experimental electronic music out today. We talked about his love of footwork and ambient music, his production process, his hometown of Vallejo, and his recently started label, Ghost Reporter.

SELA plays at 9 p.m. at Shadow Lounge in Oakland. Free. More info here

How would you describe the music you make?
That’s a question that I’ve been asked for a while, like since the beginning, and I don’t know. That’s not a good answer, but I wouldn’t describe it as any specific genre or something like that. I just make things based on what I’m feeling or what’s going on, and even if I’m not trying to, those themes just come out in the music. That’s why there’ll be a bunch of genres in one album.

When you sit down to make a track, are you trying to make the track reflective of your personal life?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I’ll just be doing something and hear a song somewhere, and it’ll remind me of something or it’ll be a song I haven’t heard in a while, and I’ll sample that. There’s just like themes that’ll come out that I won’t realize until I listen to it later. It’s definitely like not intentional.
When you’re making a track, do you have a go-to template? Or are you messing around until it forms into a track?
Yeah, I don’t open a project and set it to this BPM and try to make a “this” kind of track. I just have a sample and I do whatever I think sounds good.

Have you always had that mindset when producing? Just, I’m going to sit down and whatever comes out comes out?
Yeah. I think it’s like that saying, “If you do something for like ten-thousand hours, then you can master it.”

What are you using to make tracks?
FL Studio (Fruity Loops)

Really? Because Fruity Loops is kind of known for having a grid function that makes beats kind of rigid, and when I think of your music, I think of a kind of amorphous flowing wave.
Yeah, I mean I start off without a tempo or BPM and just kind of go from there.

Growing up, did you listen to a lot of your parent’s music?
My dad listens to a lot of jazz and shit like that. So growing up I did hear a lot of jazz and a lot of soul stuff, and I’m not going to be like that didn’t affect me at all, but it wasn’t something I ever thought about. It was still about me being young and liking shit and not liking other shit. But that did open me up to a lot of jazz fusion. I’ll give credit where credit is due for that, but a lot of music when I was young, being at the peak time of the Internet and just having accessible shit like Napster, I was never on things like that. But with Blogspots and shit like that from when I was in middle school, I had access to a lot of music, so whatever looked interesting I’d listen to. Song BMG also use to send out CDs to everyone’s houses, and they’d keep sending you CDs, even if you didn’t subscribe. We’d get a lot of those, so I’d just listen to a bunch of random CDs when I was younger.

Yeah, we were the first generation that really grew up with the Internet and all that music from every time and place was accessible to us.
Yeah, it’s really something else.
What were you and your friends listening to?
Everything. All the genres. Whatever sounded good. What was popular at the time was like R&B shit, and I liked a lot of R&B, and a lot of rap. When I was in middle school, I was into indie shit, but then I listened to rap, like old-school hip hop and instrumental hip hop, then I got into more hardcore shit, then I got into metalcore, and then straight deathcore, and like grindcore. Then I went through all the Wu-Tang albums and a lot of [J] Dilla when it was on Adult Swim and like Nujabes, just hella beats, FlyLo [Flying Lotus], all that L.A. shit. Then like, jazz fusion, bossa [nova] shit, a lot of Brazilian music, then a lot of Japanese jazz fusion. Just a lot of stuff.

Then how’d you get into footwork? Do you see your music as being influenced by footwork, even when the tempos aren’t present?
Not really. Like I was saying, I never set out to make a specific type of thing. Like, that footwork album that came out at the beginning of last year called BARS, that’s the only time I really tried to make “a thing” a certain type of way.

When I listen to your music, and not even on that project, but on the other stuff, I hear the aesthetics of how footwork producers sample. That’s probably a bad way to put it. I guess a better question would be, did footwork influence you?
Yeah, it influenced me, definitely. I was influenced by footwork when I first heard it. I heard ghetto-house growing up, but I never knew what it was. I was always into house, even when I was a kid, but more so like French house. I heard Daft Punk my whole life, but I didn’t know who it was until I was like 14. But anyway, I heard DJ Assault somewhere, like those more silly songs about ass and titties, but I never knew who it was. Then one night in like 2010 or 2011, I was on YouTube at like 2 AM and I heard DJ Diamond’s “Pop the Trunk” and I was like, “What is this song? This song is so crazy.” Like I literally was like ‘What am I hearing?’ I don’t know when I really took the plunge into footwork, but I remember it was really DJ Diamond and DJ Elmoe who I really loved, it wasn’t even DJ Rashad. DJ Elmoe is hella slept on. So yeah, it is a big influence, but I don’t think about it every time I open a project or try to make a song.

After the BARS and CRACK series, did you consciously stop doing footwork?
It’s on that level kind of. It was just really fucking disappointing, as far as putting people onto footwork tracks. But as far as my own stuff, nah I’ve got other albums of that kind of stuff coming out.

But even in your stuff without drums, the way that you use samples and play with time and space, it’s still definitely sounds influenced by footwork.
I wouldn’t say that. When I look at some of my albums, like Plastic or Inevitable, it’s really fucking ambient to the point where I don’t even know what I’d describe it as. But I’ve been damn near trying to get away from footwork, like I’ve been trying to make more beats and hip-hop-based stuff. Even like the EP First, that’s just really left field to me. I do see what you’re saying though in terms of how that stuff is broken up throughout a loop because it’s not really set to time, so I guess some of it is like footwork. When I started making music, there were three big artists who influenced me: Ariel Pink, Coyote Cleanup, and Knxwledge. People don’t realize it, but Knxwledge was like the first to do those off-time drum loops. Those three really affected me at a root level.
Did you listen to a lot of ambient music too?
Now I do, but growing up I didn’t. I mean, I listened to jazz where there’d be a nice synth or something, but real ambient, like a field recording or a texture or just rain or long passages of speaking, no, not really.

Ambient music seems like a more adult thing when you’re just tired of hearing constructed music or something.
A lot of people our age [early 20’s] think of it as boring, or like, “Making me fall asleep,” but I’m not like this. I’m like, this shit is cool.

Are you listening to dudes like Brian Eno, or is it more like textures?
Nah, just samples and synths with no real beat. It’s a lot of lo-fi shit that’s made into a texture and loop-based. Vaporwave and ambient have merged in the last few years, and it sounds fucking good.

You’re kind of mysterious on social media.
That’s just me not caring about the game that is social media. It’s all just lame to me, that’s why I don’t post or follow people back or do all that kind of thing, but if somebody reaches out I’ll try to respond to them.

And not having your face on the Internet, that’s gotta be a conscious effort, right?
Yeah, people think it’s like an aesthetic thing, but not really. I think having your image plastered up, just leave it to those fuckin rappers or people that need to be in the spotlight to support their art. If you’re doing something and really trying to convey something through the music, it should be about the music. Why do I need a cool music video? Or a cool poster? Or whatever cool thing to look at to get you into it? That’s my thing. Do you really have to see what I look like? Does it really fucking matter?

How do you promote your music without using social media?

People know when my shit comes out. Most of my releases on Bandcamp, you can name your price, and get it for free, but I’m that asshole who you have to put your email address in, so when I release something new you’ll get an email about it. And I know a lot of producers fuck with me. It all kind of just works out. It’s spreading around and me not having that much blog coverage is a rare thing, and I’ve very fuckin thankful for it.
Can you talk about the label you’re starting, Ghost Reporter?
That’s like an extension of me recommending music to people. My idea for the label would be just like putting out something special, things that I think need to be released, artists who I’m like, “Why has no one at least put out your tape?” A lot of my favorite music of 2014 or 2015 was just some dude on Bandcamp with like 200 followers on SoundCloud, and it’s just like the best fucking album ever, and I’m just like, “Dude, people need to hear this.” And it’s not like I can really put these people on, but I want to try. That’s the point of the label.

Are any of these artists coming from Vallejo?
Nah, there’s no one really out here right now.

Except for E-40.
There’s like, Nef the Pharaoh, but like nothing else. It’s kind of desolate and kind of random. I’m sure there’s some rappers out here, but when you look up the Vallejo tag on Bandcamp, it’s like just me, and like three or four other people. But I like being out here. Vallejo is weird, and there’s nothing to do, but it’s like 20 minutes away from all that stuff. I’m down with it.

You said you were coming out with new music soon?
Yeah, and just trying to have more vinyl out this year and an EP and the label stuff. I want to play more shows. Everything from now until this summer, I just want to push it and go to LA or New York. I gotta get out of the Bay because musically I feel like I can do more someplace else. Hella talent comes out of the Bay and then just hits a wall, and I don’t want to be a part of that.

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