December/January 2014

by Maddie McIntyre

Totems: Carving An Electronic Niche

by Maddie McIntyre

Totems: Carving An Electronic Niche

There are moments in life when what you are feeling transcends description, when you struggle to find words to adequately express the intimacy, depth and profoundness of the moment. Wellington-based bedroom producer and beat-maker Reuben Winter, aka Totems, decided to forgo words all together yet articulates himself with perfect clarity through the five tracks on his recently released ‘Yūgen’ EP. Maddie McIntyre sought to put words to the man and his music for NZM.

Taking his name from a ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ episode, Totems has been around since late 2009 – when Reuben Winter was only 15 years old. In the brief time since he has quickly risen to prominence in New Zealand’s flourishing underground electronic music scene gathering a large listenership, both nationally and overseas.

With headlining spots at festivals like Camp A Low Hum and Chronophonium over the last year, as well as opening for international acts like USA rapper Lil’ B and electronic producer TOKiMONSTA, Totems has proven himself to be a prolific and talented performer. His quirky and energetic live performances are a head-spinning conglomerate of hip hop, dubstep, trap, ambient sound and excessive air-horn that draw enthusiastic crowds and never fail to generate animalistic and, at times, disorienting dancing.

One might be taken aback, after experiencing the high-energy of Totems’ live shows, by the almost mellow and mature tone of his newest release, available now for free download on his Bandcamp. Composed in his bedroom using only a MacBook and the digital audio workstation Fruity Loops Studio, ‘Y gen’ is Totems’ most personal release to date. Despite having a distinctly darker and more emotional feel than his earlier releases, fans of the producer can be assured that it still manages to retain the playful weirdness of his live performances, as well as previous EPs ‘Bardo Thodol’ (June 2013) and ‘Island’ which arrived six months later.

‘Yūgen’, a Japanese term, has multiple interpretations including the literal translation of ‘yu’ and ‘gen’, meaning ‘cloudy impenetrability’, and is closely associated with the idea of profound grace. The name of the EP however, refers to the proverbial concept of an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and mysterious for words. For most, this might be a passing feeling, but for Reuben it’s a constant companion.

“I get that feeling a lot, realising that the universe is infinite and I’m so insignificant, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

If I was an NCEA English teacher I would say it serves as a metaphor for the sobering experience of growing up and entering the adult world. But as I am not, and as I’m assured this EP is anything but the product of sobriety, I recommend readers take a listen and interpret it for themselves.

“New Totems is much more about me and how I feel and see the world,” Reuben explains. “It’s not so much just a ‘beat’ anymore, with a couple of loops thrown in, which is what I used to do… it’s a lot more personal.”

The development of Reuben’s personal beat-making project has been an exciting and exploratory one, with multiple successful collaborations occurring along the way. His teaming-up with Wellington-based ambient electronic artist Flo Wilson, also known as Foxtrot, for the wildly successful Overcast single in 2012, is notable.

The evolution of his sound into that found on ‘Yūgen’, the closest thing to a concept album Totems has released yet, has been driven by the teenager’s personal growth over the past half-decade and his increased self-taught aptitude with music production software.

“When I started Totems it was really just me messing around, making a hip hop beat and putting in random samples. It was a learning process and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just listened to a lot of hip hop and tried to emulate that. It’s totally evolved since then.”

From a technical point of view, my music is a lot more complex now, a lot more layers, a lot more trippy sound effects.

Primarily self-managed, Reuben is grounded when it comes to his musical ambition. ‘Y gen’, it seems, is to be the last release we can expect from the young producer for the time being.

“I would love to make a living off my music, but it seems to me people lose sight of what is important once they get a bit successful.

“I’m taking a break for a while. I’m trying to move away from making music for the sake of making music… ‘Y gen’ was about me and how I feel at the moment… but sometimes I feel like I just have to release something for the sake of keeping a Totems’ profile alive online.”

Instead, he is choosing to focus on one of his many other musical projects.

“I’m going to focus on my band Caroles a lot more, moving back up to Auckland, and we are releasing a split EP with Perfect Hair Forever soon. I’m definitely not done with Totems yet, but just need some time away.

Despite that threatened recording hiatus, you’ll still be able to catch Reuben performing as Totems at a multitude of upcoming gigs including the Kerosene Comic Book Collective performance at the 2014 Chronophonium festival, being held in the Coromandel early January. His three EPs are all available for free from his Bandcamp.