John Zobele, aka chris†††, dives deep on Deep Dark Trench | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

John Zobele, aka chris†††, dives deep on Deep Dark Trench

Word's aren't always needed to tell a story.

Vaporwave — the electronic music subgenre and aesthetic movement born of internet communities —may have peaked in the early 2010s, but in 2019, John Zobele is making his living from it. The 25-year-old Pittsburgh-via-New Jersey resident runs Business Casual, a self-proclaimed “internet music label,” out of his apartment in Oakland, where he also makes music under the moniker chris††† (pronounced “Christ”).

“It was mostly vaporwave music when it started off,” Zobele says of Business Casual, “and at that point, it was a right place right time sort of thing ... I started that label in spring of 2013, and by the summer of 2013 one of the big three labels had closed down (Fortune 500). So we just sort of filled the space and it cemented us as a mainstay, for a while.”

Since then, Business Casual has put out over 200 releases, many of which are pressed to cassette and/or vinyl. That’s an impressive discography for any label, let alone one that’s independently run out of an 80 square-foot office. Zobele has a weekly schedule in which a new project is uploaded to Business Casual's Bandcamp account every Friday at noon. Two weeks ago, an album sold out of its initial run of 200 vinyl records in less than 24 hours.

“I’ve tried to diversify over the past few years from being mainly vaporwave in the early days, to being more of a broader electronic sort of thing,” says Zobele. “A little bit of ambient, a little bit of IDM, a little bit of poppy stuff. Just to sort of keep it relevant outside of just the vaporwave community.”

Yet, he’s still making vaporwave himself. In Sept. 2018, Zobele put out his sixth chris††† album, Deep Dark Trench, a concept record about 9/11 and the way our nation has reckoned with the tragedy. It’s organized into three acts: the event itself, the aftermath up until the present day, and the future when millennials are tasked with teaching their kids about the event. He managed to tell this story without writing a single lyric or producing any beats. Zobele's music is 99 percent sample-based, constructed from found sound he digs up in old YouTube videos and other people’s music, which he then reconstructed into his own.

There’s one piece of audio on the record from the day of 9/11, which purposely leaves many of its themes up to interpretation. Zobele explained that he initially used more audio from 9/11 broadcasts, but decided to remove them after visiting the Memorial Museum.

“I almost didn’t finish this album after going there because I was thinking, 'what am I doing?' I was gonna sample more of day-of, or actual things from the time period. Like actual footage but I couldn’t bring myself to do that after going there and I took out a couple things because of that," he says. "I had to self-censor myself because I remember it, but I don’t remember it like my parents and my neighbors remembered it. In that moment I was sort of beside myself about it.”

Read the full Q&A with Zobele below.

How did you land on the name chris†††?
I want to say there was some long, philosophical reason but it was just a cool name. I started off in like 2012-2013 using codes and stuff. I was into witch house before I was into vaporwave, and everyone was using the triangles, the crosses, so I thought I’d go off that instead of going with the Japanese characters that a lot of other artists were using at the time.

When did you first start making music?
2009, back in middle school. I was just dicking around on FL Studio, some pirated copy I got from Limewire or something. Eventually, I paid for it ... I started off making really, really bad, like, EDM sort of stuff. I was into house music a lot when I was younger, and I still am. But I was trying to make stuff like that. Once I started using samples because I had run out of presets to try out, I was like alright let’s try samples. Well, it’s been a slippery slope ever since.

Chris††† started in 2012. What defined that new artistic period?
I had a few other monikers before that. I remember hearing an album by Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica, and when I heard that album I was like, I don’t know what this is, but I like this. And I sort of ended up falling down this rabbit hole, finding Macintosh Plus, all of [these] other bigger names at the time.

When did you start doing labels?
I started doing labels in 2010 when I was dropped from another online label, and out of spite, I made my own label. And that didn’t go well, so I made a new one. That one really didn’t go well, so I started another one, and that one is still going on today.

What did you do differently with this third one, Business Casual?
It was mostly vaporwave music when it started off, and at that point, it was right place right time sort of thing. There was maybe two or three big labels, and then we come on the scene. And the reason why I come on the scene is because I was gonna to sign to one label, and they never got back to me. I’m thinking, like, “fuck you” I’m gonna make my own label. I do a lot of things out of spite.

So a lot of it is digital only or does it all get a physical press?
Four out of five get a physical release, I’d say. Recently what I’ve been doing is I’ve been having two tapes, a record, and one digital. So you have a tape, a vinyl, a digital, a tape. So that you have one week of a breather in between. Granted, I don’t know how long I’m gonna keep that up. [Records are] really expensive, whereas tapes are really cheap. So I’ll probably do that every other month.

So are you finding these artists on your own scouring the internet? Or do you get a lot of submissions?
I get about maybe 20 submissions a week. Like, demos a week. Granted, I might work with one of them. You know, there’s a lot of junk.

I started this back in 2013. And I thought the bubble would’ve popped by now—but it hasn’t. And I’m starting to think maybe it won’t pop, but it’s gotta pop at some point. I’m always on my toes when it comes to that. I do freelance video work on the side and graphics so I just have to make sure I keep up with that. So god forbid it does crash, I can have something to fall back on.

I have an idea of what Deep Dark Trench is about, but how would you explain the concept of the album?
I’m kind of interested, what do you think it’s about?

Well, from what I’ve read on some of the comments on Bandcamp, clearly it has something to do with 9/11. Kind of the whole cultural healing process, the whole way we processed that event from then until now? But I know there are probably some more layers to it.
I structured the album into three acts. First act being the event itself. It’s really hard to talk about a subject like that and be reverent about it.

I only used one sample in the entire album, and it’s in the very end of the last track, that is actually from the day of. And it’s from before the actual events take place. But the rest of the album, at least in the first act, I tried to get the feeling. The sort of dread, the sort of chaos that would’ve happened on that day.

The second act is 2001 to now. That sort of healing process or the way I’ve put it in the album, trying to get over it and trying to forget it. And by the end of the second act it’s the dilemma of, do we forget and try to get past it or do we wallow in it?

And the third act is years later, our generation telling our kids, “forget it.” Basically, it’s a look at the future and it’s not a bright future. Shit going on now, shit that is happening in America, changes in the culture and all that sort of stuff. Eventually leads to our downfall and at the very end of it, something like 9/11 is bound to happen again and rock us back to that point. It’s less of a happy ending.

So why did you want to make an album about this?
I don’t know, it sort of came to me one day. I was working on my last two albums. The last one I did was like a time capsule of my time online between 2007 and 2017. So it was a bunch of memes, YouTube clips, stuff like that. Just a complete off-the-walls sort of thing. And the one before that ... my father died in 2006 and it was an album based around that and eventually getting over the fact that you sort of grow up a little bit ... I wanted to do an album that wasn’t necessarily about me. I wanted to do an album about something bigger.

What was it like to make an album with a coherent theme, a very serious and complex theme, without any real lyrics, in the traditional sense?
For me, a lot of samples come from my personal experience. I used to be online on YouTube all the time, so I have folders, of folders, of folders of old YouTube videos that are long forgotten. And also there’s this website called YouTube randomizer. And it just gives you a random YouTube video. Sometimes it’s some sort of computer generated thing, but sometimes it’s this weird, out there thing and there’s so many interesting things to find when you start digging.

There’s a sample on the second track with Tay Zonday talking about TF2, and it starts overlapping ... and the way it works in the album is it’s like a TV channel, then there’s another TV channel, and they’re all covering the same thing. It’s finding the feeling behind the sample. Sometimes lyrics—like Snow Patrol's, “Chasing Cars.” “If I just lay here.” Someone’s under the rubble, just trying to survive.

Is Deep Dark Trench a political album, or do you consider it a medium for a more nuanced look on how we interact with politics?
I would say it’s a political album. I would say it’s got different meanings to different people depending on your experiences or depending on where you stand with certain things ... Because some people are going to look at it and see nothing—and that’s fine. They could see it as a crap, faux-art-house sort of album thing. And that’s fine, it’s not an album for everybody and I get it. There was a time when I was making it when I was thinking, is this even good? But it speaks to some people, and it [spoke] to me [while] working on it.

Going with its end theme of “When is this going to happen again?” I thought it was eerie looking back, that Deep Dark Trench came out a month and a half before the shooting in Squirrel Hill. Do you have any thoughts about that, or have you thought about this record and its process when that event occurred?
I don’t see this as a coincidence because that stuff happens everyday, and that’s also part of the ending where it’s like, thoughts and prayers you know. And we’re at this point right now where it’s like, it happens and it’s gone. Sure, if I’m in Squirrel Hill I’ll see signs but outside of Squirrel Hill, I don’t see anything, hear anything. It’s like, it happened here and at this point, no one else cares. It’s like the Las Vegas shooting—the biggest mass shooting on record. And I haven’t heard a peep. These sort of things happen, and since 9/11 I think we’ve gotten to this point where it’s commonplace, we’ve gotten over the “Oh my god it happened!” And the next day it’s like “Oh ... it happened.” And the third day it’s like, “We’re still on this?”

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