Northwestern producer AJ Denhoff discusses his musical style and methods, as well as the growing community of producers on campus.
[nat sound AJ making a beat off the word Sound Source]
LUCIA BARNUM: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Lucia Barnum.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: And I am Missy Scavongelli. Meet Sound Source, a podcast on the music scene on and around the Northwestern campus. You may know AJ Denhoff like one of the guys who did the SoundCloud rap on Josh McKenzie a few years ago. But Weinberg’s senior isn’t just a SoundCloud rapper.
LUCIA BARNUM: It’s okay if you haven’t heard his other tracks – neither have we.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: So what is the rest of AJ’s music like?
[“CORVUS” starts to fade in]
LUCIA BARNUM: I’ll be honest, it’s all over the place. Sometimes it’s fun and it sounds like pop …
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Sometimes the mood is a little sadder.
LUCIA BARNUM: And sometimes it feels more like mellow jazz – perfect for your study playlist.
[“LENS KIT” plays]
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Even AJ can’t name his job. It is less about the public than about the friends it produces with and for. When we asked him what his musical style was, he replied that there was no genre to describe it. He just creates music that speaks to different people.
AJ DENHOFF: I never really found the love to do solo music. For me, I’ve always tried to help someone else tell their story.
LUCIA BARNUM: AJ says he started producing music in college. In high school he played in an orchestra and a jazz group, where he wrote and arranged extensively. But he didn’t want to go to college for music production.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: In fact, he’s a computer science student. He always knew that music wouldn’t be something he would pursue as a career. Instead, he makes music for fun, with no obligation.
AJ DENHOFF: It’s too much pressure. I think a big part of the reason I love what I do is because it’s done with no deadlines and no monetary incentive.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: For AJ, music production is not limited to creating rhythms. He says it’s almost like a form of therapy.
AJ DENHOFF: I think now I’m realizing for the first time that it’s something I should keep with me, because I think it feels good for my sanity when I’m stressed out about sitting down and doing something.
LUCIA BARNUM: If you check out AJ’s SoundCloud, you’ll see his top hits. But he showed us what it looks like on his end. We’ve seen dozens of private tracks that he and his closest friends have ever heard.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Sometimes they’re not even real songs. Some are collections of sounds that mean something only to AJ and no one else.
[PIANO BALLAD CLIP]
AJ DENHOFF: I personally found it very useful because if I face an emotion that I don’t know how to communicate I can just go and act like a weird little Ableton project and put a bunch of. And no one else has to figure it out. Or it’s just the thing I had to do to figure out that emotion is like, make a bunch of sounds and then keep tweaking them.
LUCIA BARNUM: AJ tried to explain to us how he makes his beats –
AJ DENHOFF: OK, I think you should do something about it.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI and LUCIA BARNUM [tape]: Oh, oh no… OK, OK.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: And it was just as fun and absolutely chaotic.
AJ DENHOFF: There are no bad ideas at the moment. It’s a bad idea, so it doesn’t matter.
LUCIA BARNUM: AJ uses music production software called Ableton. For us, buttons and levers were like a foreign language. Even AJ, who has used the program for years, is still learning new tips.
AJ DENHOFF: And again, by now, I will have friends who will say to me, “Hey, have you ever pressed that button? And I say to myself “No”. And they say, “Really, I love this button.” And I’m like, “I never even thought of pushing that button.”
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: By looking at it you can tell that it is really about trying new things. It plays with the dials, adds new bass levels, changes frequency, pitch, sound effects –
AJ DENHOFF: Alright, what if? What if we did – we just have to keep making it more ridiculous until it isn’t.
LUCIA BARNUM: – and honestly, he’s having fun with it.
AJ DENHOFF: It’s just a silly little sound, but you’re just kind of… But I appreciate it, so I’m going to continue.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: AJ’s music centers around the people he does it with. But when asked if there was a community at Northwestern for students interested in music production?
AJ DENHOFF: I haven’t found it yet, frankly. I think I’m trying to get there.
LUCIA BARNUM: It was easier before COVID-19, when he and his friends could host more live events. But with school in person again, they’re finally gaining momentum.
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: AJ is currently the bassist for Morning Dew, a student band that has performed around Evanston this term. As the restrictions loosen, he also hopes to do more things on a large scale and reintroduce the live music scene to subclasses who have never been able to experience it on their own.
LUCIA BARNUM: On campus, AJ is part of .WAV, a student organization he sees as the most promising community development platform for artists on campus. With .WAV, musicians can submit their information and be added to a group chat and Northwestern artist directory. He hopes they will organize events later this year. In the future, he wants the club to also be a space for new artists to learn the craft, as it’s not as intimidating as you might think.
AJ DENHOFF: Because people don’t think they can do a song. As if it was out of reach. It’s like, “Oh, you have to go into a recording studio and do this and that and make yourself discover and get a, like – But you can just do a song.”
[“DANCE WITH ME” plays]
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Missy Scavongelli.
LUCIA BARNUM: And I am Lucia Barnum. Thanks for listening to another episode of Sound Source. This episode was reported and produced by Missy Scavongelli and myself. The music for this episode was produced by AJ Denhoff, and some of it stars Medill senior Taj Smith..
MISSY SCAVONGELLI: The Daily Northwestern’s audio editor is Jordan Mangi, the digital editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas, and the editor is Isabelle Sarraf. Be sure to subscribe to Daily Northwestern podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.
E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]
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