While that recent Fan Death Records interview that was floating around may have
appropriately assessed the DC indie-punk scene as lackluster / non-existent, there was
one glaring omission – that of the Future Times posse. True to the same spirit that spawned
Dischord Records, Future Times is a label formed by a group of DC-based friends determined
to produce, release and promote their own music and events, all with a signature style both
cool and recognizable. Arguably the most curious of Future Times soldiers is that of Protect-U,
the electronic duo of Mike Petillo and Aaron Leitko, taking cues from retro-futuristic funk,
new-age, house and disco, and sculpting those forms with a wiry, post-punk frame of mind.
They’re still pretty new, with only one 12″ and a compilation track to their name, but the
initial reports aren’t just intriguing hints of things to come – each of these three tracks is
precisely crafted and wildly blissful. East Coasters, keep an eye out for more live gigs in 2010;
everyone else, let’s hope for some more vinyl.
When did you first try your hand at making dance music? What prompted the attempt?
Mike: The shift from noisy guitar punk to what Aaron and I are working on now wasn’t
an overnight thing. We’ve both been playing music for many years, either in a band together
or doing solo material, some of which dabbled in chill ambient drone, mellow improv, etc.
Aaron: I think the ideas had been percolating for a while, even back when we were
still playing in our old bands. Arthur Russell records, Trax Records comps, and Rhythm & Sound
stuff had been getting heavy rotation.
It should be said that the D.C. music world felt really dark at the time (back in ’06/’07). A lot
of our friends had broken up their bands and moved away. More and more, people were doing
psych-noise and drone stuff. And, to be fair, Mike and I were in on it, too. Mike was doing this
Donald Miller-style noise guitar project under the name Plain Lace and I was doing Jim O’Rourke /
Fennesz-knockoff laptop composition.
But to me, at least, some of the shows were really unappealing. There was a lot of cool music,
but also a lot of bad vibes. This guy recorded himself cutting the tip off of his pinky finger and
then ran the tape through a delay pedal or something. Apparently it was going to come out on
12” (to my knowledge, it remains unreleased). For me, personally, that was a moment where I
started to think, “There really has to be another path.”
Mike: I first worked on making some dubby techno tracks with my friend Dan a few years back
in a project called Wealth. We played live a few times and worked out a couple of nice ideas,
but ultimately nothing really happened with that project. In 2008, after Wealth fizzled out,
Aaron and I got talking and decided to try working together. He had recently bought an MPC
and a 707, and so we just began tooling around and came up with some concepts. Nothing really
prompted it; we both probably subconsciously wanted to challenge ourselves and try out a new
musical set-up and work in new directions. We kept at it for a while and slowly found ourselves
with a bunch of slightly leftfield house tracks.
Interestingly enough when Protect-U first started I explicitly told Aaron that I didn’t want to
make “dance music.” I guess in my head I was thinking of traditional big room, club-friendly
tracks. In other words, shit that was approached from a pretty singular direction. I think we
both subscribe to that heavy–but possibly apocryphal–slogan attributed to the UK band This
Heat, “All possible processes. All channels open. 24 hours alert.”
Have your views on dance music changed since you started making it yourself?
Mike: Yes, but like a lot of people who listen to and make a fair amount of music, they’re changing
all the time. In checking out tracks my friends are working on or some old 12″ they just found
at the flea market, or in digging for records myself, I’m always coming across stuff that to me is
mindblowing in different ways. I guess all the subtleties that make certain songs stand out to
me get compiled in the back of my brain somewhere. When its time to work on Protect-U, these
ideas hopefully reveal themselves and get reconfigured in our own music. Dance music can be
formulaic and follow traditional structures, but I think Aaron and I are always on the lookout for
new ways to mess up some time-honored ideas instead of simply replicating them.
Do you think there is a psychedelic aspect to the music of Protect-U? Is that something you
have thought about?
Mike: Sure I have thought about it. Not sure what the implication of ‘psychedelic’ is for
everbody, but for me, music is very visual. When I am really jamming to a tune I like, say,
some Richard Schneider Jr. track, or some Laaraji, or Ace and the Sandman, or some Innergaze
[a new project featuring our friend Aurora Halal and Jason Letkiewicz, aka, Steve Summers, aka,
Rhythm Based Lovers, aka Sensual Beings], I am picturing some nice imagery in my mind. I hope
that Protect-U music appeals to people out there, and that they are able to use the music as
a guide. To reflect on something that is important to them, or to remember a special memory.
Often if someone has an intense thought, they’ll categorize it as a ‘psychedelic’ experience.
I feel that intensity is a goal, to some degree, in our sound, and in the sound of Future Times.
So if that is ‘psychedelic’ then yeah, fuck yeah.
Aaron: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, certainly in the sense that the music is repetitive and uses
a bunch of spacey synth sounds.
Also, the idea of creating music that’s conducive to an ecstatic state is really appealing to me.
That’s something I think a lot about while we’re working on tracks.
A few years back I was writing a kinda goofy newspaper column on D.C. churches, so I’d have
to go sit through these 5-hour long evangelical services every couple of Sundays. Music was a
big component in those. People would just get totally out of their heads–running around the
room, screaming, passing out in the isles. Once I saw a drummer get really carried away and
bash a giant chunk out of crash cymbal. Then this woman climbed on top of the drum set and
fainted. It was pretty wild.
Anyway, those services made a big impression on me. I think that kind of collective community
freak-out is a cool/important thing to aspire to. It certainly informed the way I though about
how our music was structured in a live setting – that songs should be sort of elastic and meld
into one another. I guess I’d like our music to be psychedelic in that sense – that it would inspire
bewilderment and mystical experiences and whatever. That said, I don’t think anybody has ever
passed out at a Protect-U show.
The short answer: I played “Double Rainbow” for my parents and they told me it sounded like
the Grateful Dead. So that’s something.
What reaction do you want out of a listener? Do you want them to dance?
Mike: This is something I am not sure I know how to answer. I would like as many people
as possible who hear our music to react to it in some way. Dancing is one of the most
enjoyable ways to react to music, certainly the most primeval and human of ways. But we
didn’t start the band with a lot of preconceived notions, and we don’t spend a whole lot of
time structuring our tunes to elicit specific responses. Of course its helpful to be versed
enough in the examples and history of classic disco, boogie, techno, house – common dance
forms that work on a dancefloor, in other words – to draw from them when its appropriate.
We try to just feel our way through the songs, and more often than not, if you have drum
machine sounds, synths, basslines, etc., you can do a lot of simple manipulations to make
something that people are going to feel like moving their body to.
Is your approach for creating a Protect-U song drastically different than if you were writing a
rock song in one of your previous bands?
Mike: Since we’re using different mediums and instrumentation that the process is obviously
going to be different.
Aaron: There are some similarities. One of us will take a piece of gear home, write a basic
idea, and then we’ll meet up and flesh the whole thing out together. But beyond that, it’s
pretty different. For one thing, because you’re programming sequencers, the music isn’t
something that you perfect in the same sense as you might rehearse a rock song. Instead,
you’re setting up and idea and adjusting it while it’s in motion.
Mike: It was extremely hard at first learning how to program and manipulate the sounds in
ways we wanted and maintain control over the track, especially in a live setting, which is
very important for us. By nature, its harder than guitars and drums which have a lot less
variables to contend with, or at least variables that we had ‘mastered’ in a way over the
years playing in our old bands.
Have you learned any important lessons about making music since starting Protect-U? Like, have
there been any specific mistakes you’ve made, or valuable advice received?
Mike: In writing our music and developing our tracks, we make mistakes constantly, just like
any musician. When we first started collaborating, I don’t think we realized that it’s desirable
to have parameters and constraints. With electronics sometimes you can feel like you have
too many avenues to explore and too many options and that can be intimidating. I think
ultimately the finished projects (recorded versions) speak for themselves. We’re happy with
our extremely modest ‘official’ output so far.
I think we’ve learned lessons about how we play in a live setting, just naturally by trial-and-error.
There have been a few bummer moments at shows with extreme technical difficulties, so
yeah, we’ve learned things about how to troubleshoot our gear in the moment and how to
isolate an issue, etc. We’ve attempted to start recording our shows so we can listen back
and try and fine-tune things and re-work things Monday morning quarterback style.
Aaron: It took a long time to arrive at a sound that we were confident in. Some of the first
practice recordings were pretty bad. Imagine William Orbit jamming with Wolf Eyes. Bad. But
those weren’t mistakes so much as just the gradual process of figuring out our sound.
Having to learn to write on machines was kind of liberating. The interface of a 707 doesn’t
really loan itself to verse-chorus-verse very well, at least not without a lot of tedium. The
way you write on the machines sort of pushes you toward this loop-based mentality. It
suggested a different way of structuring music than we were used to at first.
William Orbit jamming with Wolf Eyes sounds fantastic. I take it your earliest recordings were
Aaron: Ha. I’m not sure I’d call them raw. Confused, maybe. Early on the gear was sort of
unfamiliar to us, so we were just fumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what sounded
good. I was re-sampling the 707 sounds into the MPC through a bunch of footpedals and also
pulling weird samples off of Nonesuch Explorer records or whatever. At practice that stuff
would get combined with the drum machine samples that came with the MPC plus whatever
soft-synth sounds Mike had on his computer. We had spent time doing noise and improv
stuff, so I think that’s initially the angle we went at it from. But, yeah, it just sounded sort
Has the electronic music community been supportive of Protect-U?
Mike: Totally. AFP, my tight bud and partner in the Future Times label, as well as the rest
of the FT crew, has been encouraging from the start, and our friends from DC Justin Moyer
and Sean Peoples, among others, have done huge favors for us and let us borrow equipment,
assisted us with recording our record, and just helped spread the word in DC and beyond.
Obviously running Future Times has brought us into contact with tons of new people and DJs
from around the world that seem to enjoy the output of our small but prolific group of friends.
Aaron: Yeah, everybody has been really supportive and helpful. Back when we were tossing
around early versions of “Double Rainbow,” Mike and I were a little unsure of ourselves. Hearing
those guys say, “Yeah, this is cool,” really boosted our confidence.
What’s the best time you ever had at a club?
Mike: Future Times has had great parties over the past year so each one of those is super
fun to me, especially when Beautiful Swimmers, Andrew Morgan, or Steve Summers is playing.
The first Future Times party in DC at the end of ’08 was crazy because we all felt that we
had found a new niche in DC in which to work (and hearing a really special Rhythm Based Lovers
live set was also magical). I don’t go out to ‘the club’ all that often which means I sometimes
miss out on some happenings in DC, but whatever. I remember when Aaron and I toured
Europe in our old band we had lots of great shows followed by dance parties. We’d finish the
set, we’d stow our gear, and then jump off the stage and start dancing to “Blue Monday.”
That shit was the best and I remember at the time thinking that was the epitome of partying.
Playing a Protect-U set can sometimes be a little too stressful to always have a carefree
experience at a club, but our recent Philly show with Ron Trent was great.
You mentioned This Heat, they are a pretty great choice to have as a spiritual guide or whatever.
Is there any electronic artist whose aesthetic has really affected Protect-U? If not in sound,
but in mentality or approach?
Aaron: As far as sound goes, Wally Badarou, for sure. His solo album “Echoes” along with the
random records he was producing down at Compass Point Studios. I just liked how lush and
warm it sounded. Newworldaquarium, too.
Mike: Its encouraging to read the history of house / techno music in America as the story of
amateur musicians learning to use new, often popularly-discarded technology to attempt to
imitate Italo/German/Euro synth-driven disco and remodeling it into a whole new beast which
blew up in the club. Early Chicago house and Detroit techno sounds totally insane to me, and
I think its partially due to the fact that a lot of those artists were sincere in their desire to
make experimental (but still rooted in the social aspect of a dance club), personal music
without really giving a fuck about expectations. I think this approach especially resonates
Who is the first artist that comes to mind when I say “cosmic disco”?
Mike: Daniele Baldelli. I mean, he is pretty much synonymous with ‘cosmic’ of course, even
though he didn’t play all that much traditional ‘disco’ or stuff that was even considered club
music during his heyday. A true musical pioneer in my book, and one that makes me proud
to have Italian lineage.