OAKLAND — After five years in Los Angeles, Dexter Tortoriello was ready to get out. The songwriter, musician and producer, best known for the ambient electronica project Houses, had realized that the city had sapped his creativity and pulled him away from living life, even as he reached his most commercially successful levels.
More than five years had passed since Tortoriello released a Houses record. At first, he moved in a more electronic direction with a side project called Dawn Golden, which got the attention of Diplo, who signed him to his label, Mad Decent. A 2014 album led to some touring, and then he was further pulled in the direction of co-witing and producing for artists like Ryan Hemsworth, What So Not, Martin Garrix, Kali Uchis and Lil Yachty.
“I hit a stride with the song-writing community in L.A. There were a lot of those kids who started asking me to do sessions, and I got pretty distracted in that world,” said Tortoriello, sitting in the cafeteria at the Fox Theater in March, where he would open for English dance band Jungle later that night.[Diplo] “was sort of pipelining a lot of things to people on the label. It was a very fun sort of social experiment for me, like, diving into serious songwriting camps and having no idea what to do. I did it for a couple years and really got burnt out … I kind of just had to figure out what I wanted to be doing, and what I wanted it to sound like.”
Last September, Tortoriello, who now lives outside Joshua Tree National Park, released his first Houses EP since 2013’s A Quiet Darkness. Led by hit streaming single “Fast Talk,” the EP was a seemingly easy return to form. To get to that point, Tortoriello gave up Dawn Golden, which was always supposed to be a temporary diversion, as well as his producing, co-writing and remixing partnerships.
He’s got a couple of neighbors to one side of his home in the desert, but to the other is the region’s endless panorama of windmills. Tortoriello said he was happy to settle down, which has allowed him to choose between several vibes and avenues for the future of Houses.
Escape from L.A.
Before, he would be doing as many as five songwriting sessions each week.
“If you’re writing that many songs for other people, you’re probably giving away your best work,” he said. “It’s hard to be writing for yourself and separating, like, ‘This is a good song that I want for me, and this is a good song that I want to give you.’ It all gets kind of muddy for me, at least. I’m of the mindset that to write good songs you kind of have to be, like, living, to some extent, a life to write about and experience the things that you write.”
When all he had was the music, he couldn’t find the inspiration to actually write songs. He had looked into buying a house in L.A., but realized that that only the rich in the city could afford a home with enough personal space to not be surrounded by outside influences.
“In L.A., I would get confronted with so much input every time I left my house that I had no say over. It was great for five years, but at a certain point, I wanted to be able to shut it all off and I couldn’t, and I got freaked out,” he said. “I don’t think it’s healthy for that many young people to be in the same place. I think when you leave your house, you have to consider who you’re confronting, and it’s really an army of your peers who are fairly judgmental. … I didn’t feel like I’d gotten slighted or burned in any way. I felt pretty good about where I was at. It felt like a good time to leave at that point.
“So me and [partner and collaborator] Megan [Messina] gunned it out to the desert, and now it’s very quiet.”
Drugstore Heaven was a progressive evolution for Houses and Dexter Tortoriello, who grew up loving punk and hardcore rock in Chicago. To him, the link between sludge metal and doom bands like Neurosis, who influenced Dawn Golden, is completely logical.
He said hardcore music influenced seeped out more than ever on the new EP. He started with punk bands before turning in a more metal direction with the likes of Leftover Crack and Choking Victim. Then he discovered Slayer, and into electronic acts like Atari Teenage Riot—“and they even do a song with Slayer.”
“Drum and bass music with metal guitars made a lot of sense to me for a long time,” he said. “I eventually got into loud ambient music, stuff like Stars of the Lid; those early Sigur Ros records were amazing, too. I feel like it was just people turning their guitars up really loud, and all of a sudden I heard My Bloody Valentine and realized you could do that and make something pretty beautiful at the same time.
“There’s been a downward slope into Houses from there.”
Field recording and ambient noise continue to be a significant part of Tortoriello’s creation process. For Houses’ debut record, he and Messina lived in Hawaii at the time and ended up incorporating outdoor ambience and field recordings from the islands. They didn’t have professional microphones or studio space, so they’d record outside, capturing birdsong. For A Quiet Darkness, the duo recorded in abandoned homes.
Rather than using these sounds to add texture to existing songs, these recordings inspire the songs at the outset. Tortoriello would carry around a recorder which he would use to capture inspiring moments. Usually, those moments weren’t lyrics or melodies, but places. When he would need ideas for a song, he would listen to his recordings, which he likened to zen gardening.
“In lieu of being able to actually sit down and start making some music, I just wanted to remember what was happening at the moment, and I pulled my recorder out. I wound up with hours and hours and hours of audio that was just raw,” he said. “I would just listen to hours of almost silence and stuff like that and just cut out the interesting parts and sort of categorize them. It’s like a span of dates of field recordings. I would just bank it and that would be a whole album that I’d work with.”
Finding the right ambient noise is just as crucial to Houses. On his previous Houses LP, Tortoriello recorded “impulse responses for a convolution reverb.” What that means is he made noise in confined spaces and recorded it. He then used software to remove the noise being made, and was left with the sound made by the vibration of the room, which could be applied to any song he wants. Think of it as an aural photo filter.
“I was doing that all over the place, and it’s cool, because when I would find a hallway I’d like, I clapped and could steal it, and when I went home, two months later I could pull things out and put it back in the room,” he said. “You can then throw it on the guitar, and it sounds like you’re in the cafeteria at the Fox Theater.
“For me, that’s a huge thing because there’s only so many ways you can tune a drum set and tighten it up,” he said. Half the work is [tuning it to] the room you’re playing it in.”
Tortoriello wrote dozens of songs before selecting the four that comprise Drugstore Heaven. That’s not unusual for the artist, who acknowledged he writes “hundreds of bad songs for every good one.”
Much of the EP looks back on his high school years, which he felt he could suddenly interpret and understand for the first time after he had turned 30. The breakbeat-based “Years” and “Left Alone” were inspired by his love of music back then—bands like The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers.
“You can convince yourself the stuff you liked when you were a kid was cheesy for a while, but now I’m back to thinking I was a genius as a kid and was listening to all the best music,” he said.
“Years” is a literal retelling of his exit from L.A. after becoming inundated with the stress of advertising and other outside influences. It was the first song he wrote after realizing the direction he wanted to pursue.
“I was in my own head about feeling I wasted my youth simultaneously with feeling like it maybe occupied too much of my life,” he said. “The repercussions of it are reaching into my adult life too much.”
“Pink Honey” is a synth-led love song about returning to a true love. And “Fast Talk,” which began to take off on streaming services in January, is somber nostalgic look back at confusing young adulthood. It’s an ode grappling with the loss of friends who passed away, friends who went to jail for drug crimes, and trying to make sense of times gone by. The song features Messina on backing vocals.
Tortoriello had been remaking mixtapes from high school at the time, which transported him to the very moment in his youth where several things shook up his world. This spurred a realization.
“I could actually say something about this time in my life where I was previously too confused about it,” he said. “I realized there’s a bunch of ways of looking at it: You can accept your past as being a big, ugly thing that you can’t look at. Or you can face it head-on and take it for what it is and realize it’s what makes you, you, and … different from everybody else.”
Dexter Tortoriello has put a stop to all of his extracurricular creative work outside Houses, including all work producing, co-writing and remixing other artists. Usually, at this point of an album cycle, he’d be itching to switch to something else. But instead, he’s looking forward to finishing the next Houses LP.
“I stopped talking to almost everyone in L.A.,” he said. “It got too much, and a lot of the relationships were really work-heavy, anyway. I realized I had been neglecting a lot of relationships I had with my actual friends and loved ones in favor of these weird professional L.A. relationships. … You can make great art and great songs with everyone, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to waste my whole life with people who won’t show up when you need them.”