Hailing from Philadelphia, PA, James Webster goes by HCMJ, death’s dynamic shroud.wmv, Winter Sleep, and a few other aliases. He is part of the Ghost Diamond, a collective body of music, with close friend and music buddy Tech Honors. Together, Webster and Keith Rankin carefully crafted their 2015 I’ll Try Living Like This album which features bizarre loops and Japanese-speaking samples with a glorious touch of disorientation. Not only did FACT place the album on their year end list as 15th best album of 2015, it was uncontrollably applauded by a spectrum of die hard vaporwave listeners on the Internet. The dear love of amazing vaporwave music may have disappeared below surface but Webster’s multiple projects and fantastically creative tunes has brought vaporwave back in its place. (All photos by James Webster.)
Read more for the interview.
Deathy does the dog selfie.
Thank you for your time. So let’s start with the big questions.
Sushi is right where it needs to be, neither under or over.
Way overrated especially in the wake of a break up, it’s like “fuck off”
Donald Trump tweets?
Trump tweets are an assault on humanity.
While it has a whole gross underbelly of the packaging and commodification of interests and habits of its users, it is bringing us together in crazy powerful ways. Vaporwave wouldn’t exist without it. We wouldn’t be talking without it.
Probably overrated haha.
Now let’s go backwards. How did you get into vaporwave?
It’s kind of a funny story actually – before I knew what it was c. 2012, I was working on an album of original music under the name Winter Sleep. I was attempting to recreate the sound and compositional style of the Sega Saturn game “Nights Into Dreams.”
So when my buddy showed me vaporwave which included a track from the Nights soundtrack just slowed down, I was really pissed off. [laughs]. I was very resistant to the idea of sampling at first – and really proud to do everything from scratch. But I’ve always loved video game music placed out of the context of abhorrent ‘nerd culture’ – so eventually me and my musician friend decided to do vaporwave “only better,” bringing music theory and our personal taste into it.
The album of original music was re-released on Dream Catalogue last year. https://dreamcatalogue.bandcamp.com/album/dreams
And then death’s dynamic shroud.wmv really caught on and now everyone thinks of me as a vaporwave producer, which kinda sucks but it’s okay [laughs]. For the record death’s dynamic shroud.wmv is me, Tech Honors, and Keith Rankin – sometimes on our own or in various configurations.
What’s wrong with being labeled a vaporwave producer? How would you like to be known as?
Well there’s nothing “wrong” with it – I just spent years and years trying to position myself in the synth/experimental scene. vaporwave has a certain connotation, usually the cheap netart aesthetics and a misunderstanding of the 90’s and untalented producers who just slow down other people’s music etc.
We always joked that we weren’t vaporwave but actually “NUWRLD” – which was a joke about the over-classification and obsession of micro genres on the web.
Hmm yes the YouTube comments on vaporwave videos are definitely entertaining. Some say it’s just slowed down music that’s not of their own, not original.
That was my gut reaction too but I’m a very liberal person and try to maintain an open view of art. There’s soooo much that can be done with recontextualization.
The studio setup
How would you describe your own music with your personal taste sprinkled in? Do you hang onto the feeling when you’re creating music in the beginning stages or do you go head first and see what you can do?
To be honest, over the years I’ve sort of developed an “instinct” when writing music. When I was a guitarist/singer in a band, songs would start more with the chord progression. I’d improv a melody and lyrics would sort of drop into place. Now most of the stuff I do is electronic but the chord progression is the key to everything. I also love narratives so without specifically being like “ok, this is the story and this song is this part of the story,” I try to let albums sort of naturally develop from a starting point.
Are there songs that were influenced by memories? Any special or philosophical meanings to songs that you’ve made? Like everyone thinks one song is about feeling happy but the entire album has a different purpose.
Sometimes the music will just be a complete reflection of my current emotional state and I’ll realize I superimposed a superficial narrative after the fact, if that makes sense.
Music is all about compulsion and escapism for me. I love world building and the abstract nature of the form. I love how music can be so emotionally manipulative, even without lyrics.
Do you sing in your songs or are some samples? And do you speak Japanese? How did you get into the Japanese language?
Yeah I do sing for death’s dynamic shroud.wmv. It’s almost all sampled vocals. Me and my friend Tech who’s another 1/3rd of the group have actually sampled each other in our own tracks. But especially with my HCMJ project, I sing a lot. I speak only the very basics of Japanese. It’s sort of a built in part of the vaporwave aesthetic, but I’ve always been interested because of my youth spent digesting localized content from Japan.
I think I first sampled Japanese speech on my Iron Cities album. An interview with the composer of Animal Crossing’s music and a Final Fantasy commercial.
Currently I actually work for a Japanese American non-profit that oversees a 17th century style Japanese house and garden so it all came together in the end.
Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia, PA.
How is HCMJ’s style different from death’s dynamic shroud.wmv?
HCMJ is my main electronic outlet. I have a billion aliases I use.
Are you also Vaperror? Who are you not?
Haha I am not Vaperror. I have released stuff as HCMJ, Winter Sleep, Xepter Rose, and with my friend Tech as Rebecca Peake and death’s dynamic shroud.wmv. I think a lot of artists are anonymous to manufacture mystique.
That’s a lot of undertakings. Does Dream Catalogue do shows?
Not really. Since the scene is so Internet-based, everyone is scattered all over the world. A few years ago, there was all this talk about a vaporwave super show in an unfinished shopping mall, but of course, it all fell through.
What was the reason for its failure?
It was just a group of people who didn’t know what they were doing. Started a Kickstarter, took it down, got all these artists to agree to play then didn’t follow through. “Boogie at the hypermall” or something like that.
That boogie sounds like a bust. Is PA the birthplace of vw interest or has the largest community of vw artists?
No not at all. I think it’s just where the organizers were close to haha. There are a lot of vaporkids in CA, a lot on the East Coast, a lot in the Midwest – really scattered. VW really started on message boards and stuff online, decentralized and not a party of an actual physical “scene.”
Tell me about Dream Catalogue.
Dream Catalogue is great. They were one of the first labels, after Ailanthus, to put out death.wmv. I was really into the early Dream Catalogue stuff and actually made DERELICT MEGATOWER 4 hours long so HKE couldn’t turn it down [laughs].
Credit: NTS Radio Show.
Any releases coming up?
Actually my first HCMJ album since 2012 should be coming out very very soon. It’s extremely not-vaporwave, acoustic guitar tracks and weird guitar, and a lot of singing.
I’ve been trying to sound like Julee Cruise from Twin Peaks for years. It’s more like a reconnection with what I did before vaporwave – although I ended up cutting a lot of it up and using similar methods in a different context.
Twin peaks? Aren’t they teenagers, no?
No no not the band, from the show! It’s the best, gave me nightmares when I was little and now it’s coming back!
Which artists do you love and who should we look out for? And why?
Pretty much everything happening on the label Orange Milk has been killing it for the last few years. One of the owners Keith Rankin who releases as Giant Claw is a good friend of mine and we work together on death.wmv stuff. But even that aside, it’s just so well curated and they really take risks and give no-name artists a chance when they deserve it.
Last year, the Russian experimental pop artist NV really took my breath away. Her album Binasu completely blew my mind https://orangemilkrecords.bandcamp.com/album/binasu. The title track is so expertly crafted and by the end I’m in tears. Check out track 4, it absolutely wrecks me.
Binasu by NV.
It has so much crisp.
Yeah it is so tight, her vocals are so genuine. And the chords during that last bit where it goes cut time just like rips my guts out. I’m a sucker for those kind of chord movements – almost beatlesque.
Any last words?
I have a new HCMJ coming soon. the first death.wmv album シェンムーONLINE is getting a tape release in March.
I also do all the videos for death.wmv – I’m a bit of a 3D animator. I did a live stream show set to my 3D stuff on Facebook a bit back here https://www.facebook.com/liboxtram/videos/10154978908673109/ or here https://youtu.be/Q__lXDvhxo4?list=PLWpeMyLgd0KHKmBinKPlfzIVsdZWr4WV2
Live screenshot of Websters’ stream show set.