Mr Bill: Mastering Ableton, The US Scene, & Run-ins With The Party Police

Just about all passionate electronic music fans have, at one stage or another, had a go at Ableton Live.

It was probably a frustrating first hour on a friend’s computer, the multi-faceted interface glaring back at you with its puzzling panels of hieroglyphics. 

You might have thrown in the towel saying “Yeh, I’ll probably just stick to mixing”. And hey, that’s sweet, it sure isn’t for everyone. But maybe you pushed through, getting your own version of the software and, in the process, starting an endless voyage into the world of production. 

In your first week, you were probably trying to figure out some seemingly simple process, but you just couldn’t get the damn thing right. The logical step was to punch the task into YouTube… something like “Making psytrance on Ableton.” 

And there he was. You clicked the tutorial link and your frustration was instantly soothed as a calm voice slurred “higooddaymrbillhereagain”. This guy was chill, straight to the point and above all, he was a motherfucking genius!

Bill James Day aka Mr Bill is a producer, DJ and educator hailing from NSW, but currently based in Denver, Colorado. He’s best known for lathering generous helpings of glitch over whatever he does. In fact, he’s been surfing the cutting edge of glitch-hop for a while now and many consider him to be a pioneer in the genre.    

Mr Bill is a truly fascinating individual, so we thought it only fair to disrupt his sunny afternoon to ask him about his life and times and what keeps him producing such innovative beats.

Bill, how are you going, enjoying your afternoon?

Hey man, yeah I’m going good thanks. It’s a warm one.

Your career’s been pretty extraordinary and there’s a lot to cover, let’s start from the top. How’d you get into music and when did you make the step to production?

I would call it the normal way of getting into music. I guess it’s different for everyone, but I got into it through playing guitar and doing the whole band thing. Generally, metal bands. Then one day my friend took me to a psytrance party in Wollongong when I was 17 or 18 and I took some mind-altering substances and I was like, “Holy shit electronic music is amazing!”, and then I made the switch. 

It wasn’t like a hard switch, I was still doing metal and stuff, but I was also dabbling in electronic and gradually made the switch. I then went to SAE and got better at audio engineering and that kind of stuff. I spent a lot of time in front of the computer fucking around with it.

Tell us a bit more about your first doof, the one that started it all. 

It was a beach party near Wollongong, I can’t remember the name or the crew. I have a feeling it was the same people that put on Erisian Fields years later. It was pretty small with no real headliners or anything, and was just you know maybe 10 or 12 DJs and they were just locals or people from the scene. They were just playing for fun. There was like 200 people but it gave me a good taste of the scene, and from there I started going to more regular doofs and then I got into warehouse parties which used to be a thing in Sydney.

They still are, they’ve just had a bit of a tough time lately with police.

Dude! I was in the middle of a few of those raves back in the day, where I’d be in the middle of a warehouse, tripping balls, listening to breakcore and then a whole line of like SWAT with plastic shields would burst in and start pushing everyone up against the walls.

Shit! What did you even do in a situation like that? 

Hahaha, it’s fucking crazy dude. They’re just there to scare you and get you out of there really, so they just say, “Everybody leave and shut up!”. Actually one day I was driving away from one of those things and I backed into a cop car and the cop was standing right beside it. They were so preoccupied with what was happening in the warehouse that they let me go!

That’s nuts, well I’m glad you got away. How do outdoor parties in the US compare to back home? Is there a similar scene?

Nah man it’s not even close to similar. In Australia, doofs are kinda janky and thrown together. Often if you’re a performing artist it’s normally pretty hard to find the person you need to find to get your tent, or your money, whatever you need to find. In America, it’s set up for the most part on these American business-centric-minded models where they have receptionists at every party where you go to get your shit and they have drivers that come and pick you up from the airport all the time. 

They have specific people you go to see for your hospitality and your accommodation and like all that kind of stuff. It’s generally more professional because there’s a lot more money in the scene here you know, so they can pay a different person an hourly rate to be there on-site doing all that shit. In Australia, there’s not really enough money to make it worth anyone’s time, so it’s all kind of thrown together. But people still want to party so they make it happen with what they have. But it’s not happening at that higher level.

In America, because there’s so much money in the scene and the rewards are higher, and so many people over here are making music as well so it’s more competitive here too.

From an Australian perspective, you think of Dragon Dreaming and the bigger Rainbow festival-y things, but even they don’t make that much of a profit and they kind of struggle. Is that kind of scale more normal in the states?

Yeah man, like 20,000 person festivals like Rainbow, I mean it’s not normal, but they’re the one festival that plays that kinda weirder music in Australia. That’s basically Rainbow, right? Whereas in the states there’s at least 20 or 30 festivals that size – maybe even more. maybe even 50 a year that happen that are that size.

You’ve got stuff like EDC, Burning Man, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Camp Disco, all of these are massive.

Jumping back to your early career, you said you undertook lessons at SAE in Sydney. How did formal education influence your progress? Did you rate it and would you recommend it to producers thinking about getting serious?

I think I would have gotten there anyway, but I do think it really rounded off my knowledge. Also, I think SAE is better for learning how to use mixing desks and set up PAs and how to record drum kits, how to do acoustics in a room, mastering and a bunch of shit like that. More audio theory stuff. 

You get good experience in studios, but really if you just wanna learn how to make beats on a computer, I would suggest, if you’re in Sydney, Live School, which is a really good school run by a mate of mine called Adam Maggs. Flume used to teach there and I used to teach there for a while… it’s a really good place if you want to learn about electronic music.

But if you’re interested in knowing more than electronic music, knowing a bit more about audio in general, then I would suggest going somewhere like Sydney University or SAE.

When you went down the route of knowing you wanted to get serious with music, how did you go about it? Did you try and focus on learning to DJ playing live shows, or was it more about getting EPs finished and getting your production tight and sending it out to labels…? Or was it both?

Honestly, for me it was always just about getting music finished and I never really cared that much about DJing even though I still was playing shows. But the way I played my shows for a really long time was not really DJing it was kind of just like lining all of my tracks up in a linear timeline and hit play and let them just play. And then I would justify it in my brain by being like, “Oh well I’ve made all the tracks so I’m just showing them to people you know.”

Or I would do really basic live stuff with loops and Ableton and generally every time I would do that I would fuck it all up and live it would sound like shit. So it wasn’t until honestly until the last couple of years in America where I really learned how to DJ. People here take DJing more seriously. It’s receptive and truly engaging here, you’re just not at all going to compete if you’re not up with all that’s going on around you.

Do you use the decks more in your live shows or do you still use an Ableton setup?

I still use Ableton but I DJ out of Ableton. I have this pretty convoluted clip set up where I have tonnes and tonnes of clips and the set is quite open-ended as to which way it can go. So I colour code all of my clips and then I name them all with a numbering system with a program called Mixed In Key and then I have them all laid out in a big grid and I can go through them in all different ways and create weird… I don’t know. Generally, I can make a set pretty engaging for myself and also engaging enough for the audience. It’s really active DJing is what I would call it.

Mixed In Key is interesting, it goes through your stuff and finds what is in the right key and colour codes it based on what you’re playing at the time? Is that right?

Yeah, exactly. So you run all of your tracks through it and it renumbers them and figures out the tempo and everything and then [indistinguishable] all the files. And that way you can [indistinguishable] make educated decisions on [indistinguishable].

I think putting together a set, [indistinguishable] put it the best way. He basically said it’s like being a librarian when you’re putting together the set and then when you’re actually playing the set, that is when you can try and get creative with it, and the directions of each track you play.

In America, when you say people put more into DJing, is it a lot more creative than what you’ve seen here?

Oh yeah dude, people in Australia are so fucking lazy with how they play their sets, at least in the psytrance scene for sure. Like psytrance DJs in my opinion, this might be shitty to say haha, [indistinguishable] I know because I come from that scene, but every time I go back to Australia and watch someone play they’re really not doing a whole lot . Whereas whenever I see someone in the bass music scene in America it’s fucking crazy, they’re doing a tonne.

It’s just a lot more active?

Yeah, exactly.

You’ve become a pretty big name in the Ableton educator world. How did that start out and when did you realise it was something you wanted to do? 

I really liked watching Tom Cosm’s tutorials and started making some of my own. I realised I really enjoyed teaching a lot and just kept doing it and sharing tricks I’d discovered. That somehow snowballed into what it is now with the website and such.

Does it help a lot to supplement your income?

Yeah it definitely helps supplement my income when I’m not touring. I‘m eternally grateful for that and everyone who contributes to allowing me to have more choice in what I do with my time.

Were there major things that pulled you over to America? Was it just to open up career opportunities or was there a certain segue that you had?

Honestly it was pretty much because bass and glitch was a little bit more popular over here. There wasn’t a lot for me to do in Australia. I was able to do like six shows a year in Australia and they were never really super high paying and they were never really that big or anything. Whereas in America, you can easily do 50 shows a year. Not that I do that many, I do like 20-30 shows a year, but yeah generally it pays more, there’s bigger crowds, its more fun, the people here are more into it.

Why Denver of all places?

Well I’d travelled in America before moving here and I just felt that Denver was the city that I vibed with most. The other main options would be New York and Los Angeles, but they’re so expensive and they’re also so heavily populated, I didn’t really enjoy them that much. I don’t really enjoy being in Sydney either. I like Sydney more than LA but I think that’s because I’m familiar with it. The familiarity makes me like it. Being in really populated places kind of freaks me out a bit and I figured I’d come to a city that’s more chill. Denver is really beautiful you know. I live like 35 minutes outside of Denver, I live 15 minutes out of a place called Boulder, it’s like really mountainous and it’s really dry here. There’s tonnes of dry mountains here which is really awesome. There’s not many people here, I mean Boulder is a million people and I live fifteen minutes out of it and that’s not bigger than half a million people here. It’s really quieter and more chill, and cheaper. I am in a studio making music so I can be anywhere in the world.

Didn’t they just decriminalising mushrooms over there?

Yeah so they didn’t legalise mushrooms, they decriminalised mushrooms. It’s sort of like if you get caught with them I don’t think you go to jail at this point.

Have you had much of a chance to… suss that out yet? 

You mean have I walked up to a cop with a bunch of mushrooms… no I haven’t tried that yet haha.  Weed is legal here though but I don’t smoke weed.

It seems like lot of things are opening up over there, like it’s getting slightly more progressive. Is Colorado is a pretty progressive place?

But yeah I would say Colorado is like the leading place in America for progressive thinking, maybe next to California, but even still, California seems to be taking longer than Colorado and Washington to get shit done for some reason. Maybe because their state was run by an ex-bodybuilder. From what I understand he was a pretty good governor.

Oh yeah, Arnie! He’s a Republican isn’t he? He seems like a pretty nice guy from what I’ve seen.

Whatever he is, he’s insanely driven to be Mr Olympics, then he became an actor and then a fucking Governor. It’s just an insane drive to get shit done.

You’ve done a fair bit of collaboration, from Electrocado with Ryanosaurus then you’ve done a recent one with DeadMaus. What have been some highlights from these collaborations and do you tend to learn a lot from seeing other people work?

Yeah that’s one of the main reasons I actually like collaboration, it’s not just from the end product it’s mainly from the learning that I get from the other person, that’s what I like about it he most. The collab with DeadMaus was awesome, obviously all the collabs I did with Ryan are cool. But the one I did with AU5 I feel like was maybe the most educational because we were in the studio together for the the whole time we made all those tracks. He’s just an insanely smart dude and he’s really good at production.

Do you have any tricks you recommend people check out?

I recommend checking out AU5’s Youtube tutorials, he’s got some really cool tricks on there. He’s just a really innovative producer, he’ll find ways to do stuff with Serum on there that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of and stuff like that.

For instance, he has a tutorial on his YouTube channel about how to use the external instrument device and beat into Serum effects on a grid so you can… what do you do… you turn the distortion on a-symmetrical and you draw this weird transverse curve shape and you basically control the mix level with an envelope trigger and it turns it into midi-trigger side-chaining just with Serum effects. That’s pretty crazy.

Who’s someone you’d love to collab with?

I’d love to collaborate with some of the IDM legends, like Plaid, Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, Squarepusher, The Flashbulb, Boxcutter, Wisp, Amon Tobin. Or someone SUPER poppy, like Katy Perry, or Ellie Goulding or something. I feel like either end of the spectrum would be really interesting and an awesome learning experience.

Collaboration aside do you think it’s important that producers develop their own workflows and practises?

Dude, yeah totally. The thing is, at this point everyone has all the same tools, everyone has Ableton, everyone has a Push, everyone has Serum, everyone has Massive. There’s literally nothing more important that figuring out how to use the tools in your own way, because if you don’t you’re just going to sound exactly the same as 90% of people.

So it’s the methods you use that are going to help you to express yourself in a different way and create something unique?

Totally, and I think that if you sound like everybody else, it’s going to be really easy for a promoter and a listener to go elsewhere to get what you do. You want to make it that you’re the gatekeeper of the thing that you do so that people have to come to you for it.

Is that an angle that you pursue yourself? You’ve made stuff in a few different genres over the years, did you kind of wake up and be like, “I wanna do glitchy- dubstep today”, or is it more of a natural flow in finding your sound?

My mentality with music has always been like I want to make the coolest thing that I can make, whatever I think is the most interesting thing or whatever I think sounds the coolest is what I wanna make. I never really thought too heavily about genres, and then recently what I’ve been doing is taking genres – stuff that’s popular and stuff that I like that’s popular – and trying to fuse it stuff that I think is really awesome in general and try to make like a hybrid of the two ideas I guess. 

I really dig your last single Feeble, it had a lot more energy and was more breaksy than the more IDM Apophenia from last year, but both releases still have the same kinda glitchy glue that makes you sound like you. It doesn’t matter what exact genre you’re playing through. How should producers go about finding their own glue that makes them sound uniquely them?

I think it’s just a product of process really, I think if you just find your own process that is a unique process and you find how you sort your sounds, how you edit things, how you do your mix-downs and all your stuff. If you have specific ways of how you do that stuff that are unique to you then I think you’ll eventually end up sounding unique.

I think if your whole process of sound design is using Serum presets and then your whole process of mixdown is just using some basic EQ presets, and some basic levelling presets, and some basic OTT presets (I don’t think OTT has presets), if your process is just using other shit then it’s probably pretty likely that someone else is doing that as well, and it won’t really sound like you anymore. You’re both going to sound like each other and you’re both going to sound like the people who designed those sounds.

In a typical day of producing, do you ever feel uninspired? What do you do to push through it?

So I actually don’t think inspiration exists. I don’t think un-inspiration exists either. I think it’s all just discipline really and if you just go into the studio and make yourself write then something will come out eventually. Some people don’t have the drive to do that on days if they don’t want to.

I was recently working on a film and there were days that I didn’t want to go into the studio to work on the film, but I did it anyway because it’s just what the job was. And I feel like, writing an album, because you’re your own boss, it’s very easy to say “Oh I don’t feel like doing it today.” I think it’s a discipline issue with a lot of people and it’s a discipline issue with me for sure. I could probably be working on music for more hours of the day for sure. 

How often do you generally spend in the studio each day?

I try to get in at least four hours a day, and when I say that I mean like three to four focused hours where I’m not looking at social media or do anything else, I’m just working on a piece of music. I can usually get that most days that I’m home but some days I won’t make it to the studio but I’ll end up doing some other thing like emails or some other shit that’s kinda still related to the whole career thing.

When you say three to four hours, is that in the ‘flow zone’?

For me it takes like 30 to 40 minutes to get into that ‘flow zone’ and then it would be another two to three hours of being in that zone.

Are there any rituals you use? Do you light a candle or something to help you zone in when you’re feeling off on a day?

For me not really. I just go into the studio. I drink some coffee, open some shit on Ableton and just fucking around and see what happens. I will say though that sometimes when I say that I do three solid hours in the studio, it won’t always necessarily be music. When I say I do three or four hours a day, sometimes that might just be like organising samples or sometimes it might be just working on cleaning up project files or moving shit around on my computer so that when I am going in to do a work day I can be more efficient. 

Besides Ableton and a laptop, what other tools are super-essential for your production?

That’s more or less it really, besides a giant arsenal of VSTs that I use. I have a modular synth but it’s not essential. Good speakers for sure in a good room is essential, or some great headphones like Audeze LCD-Xs.

What are a few plugins and soft synths that you use every day? Do you think these are necessary to have or is Ableton getting better to the point where it can just about cover it all?

Some of the main ones I use are Serum, Zebra, Phase Plant, Uhbik, Texture, Erosion, Pro L-2, Pro Q-2. Ableton is totally able to cover all of these, I just like using slightly different tools to achieve the same thing sometimes so I don’t sound exactly the same as everyone else.

Not to sound rude, but would you/do you ever use anything other than Ableton?

I actually gave Bitwig a shot recently and really loved it! I’m so invested in Ableton currently, just because I have so many projects on-the-go in there right now, but I definitely plan to go back to Bitwig here and there for certain projects.

What are you listening to if you’re not listening to electronic music?

Usually metal or jazz, but arguably metal is mostly electronic music these days.

Who are some artists or what are some songs that are inspiring you at the moment?

I just started a label called Billegal Beats and basically they are the guys who are inspiring me. I’ve been really loving the stuff I’ve been releasing and I’d say between our Bandcamp and our weekly updated Spotify Playlist which is curated by a new artist from the label each week, that covers most of the things that inspire me at the moment.

Where would you love to play? 

I’d love to play in Japan, South America (Argentina or Brazil) or perhaps somewhere in Europe – all are markets I’ve never touched & would definitely be interested in. 

And finally, what’s next on the horizon for Mr Bill?

Next… erm, more music, shows, tutes, tweets, etc. All the normal shit!

Thanks so much for your time Bill, that was awesome!

No worries man, my pleasure!

If you haven’t heard of Mr Bill, you can start by giving him a follow on Facebook.

For lessons, head on over to Mr Bill’s Tunes and be sure to check out Bill’s new label Billegal Beats on Bandcamp.

This article was written by Luka Osborne.

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