San Francisco-based producer/artist Tsutro (aka Jacob Montague) has shared ‘Angkor’ —the lead single from his self-titled debut LP (out Feb. 10, 2017 via Position Music). Montague’s music has appeared on TV shows like America’s Got Talent, X Factor, One Tree Hill & more, and in film trailers for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Afternoon Delight and Love is Strange. With his indie-folk project Branches, he has also shared bills with Mutemath, DEVO, Joseph, Twin Forks & more.
The new Tsutro album—mastered by Dale Becker (Beyonce, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis) and drawing from a diverse collection of sounds including pop, worldbeat, future garage, ambient & downtempo—sounds at first like one band backing a new guest vocalist on each of its 10 songs. But in reality, Montague hasn’t even met most of the singers, let alone recorded with them. “With most of the tracks,” he explains, “I took a phrase or two from an existing song, then built all new music around it.”
Despite the collage-like approach, Montague is hesitant to call any of the songs remixes—which makes perfect sense considering Tsutro’s unified arrangements. As much as the album relies on minimalist electronic textures, there’s an unquestionably organic connection between the instrumentation and the carefully curated vocal stems. On ‘In My Head,’ you can picture guest vocalist Sunday Lane surrounded by aquatic drums and bursts of neon synths as she remembers an ex-lover. Never mind that this recording scenario never happened. Montague just makes it seem like it did.
Picking the right vocalist for each track was crucial, as Montague was going for an aesthetic much different from the average electropop record. Shortly before writing the album, he was inspired by a trip to Cambodia. “There was this little band I walked by that was playing traditional Cambodian music,” he says. “Then you’re walking past clubs and bars, and you’re hearing blaring Western pop music. This juxtaposition definitely influenced my subconscious for this project.”
The contrast is most apparent on the aptly titled ‘Angkor.’ After a few moments, hollow barrel drums and what Montague describes as “bowed violin-type instruments” give way to twinkling guitars and the deadpan harmonies of Ohio indie rockers the Welshly Arms. As the chorus approaches, the Cambodian folk vibe asserts itself once more, blurring the line between the traditional and the contemporary. This dichotomy continues one song later on “In Between,” a large portion of its beat reminiscent of a Khmer xylophone, an instrument whose sound—or some approximation of it—becomes a running musical theme throughout the album. Yet at the same time, “In Between” is also driven by the vocals of modern pop songstress Steff Koeppen of Steff and The Articles. “Her voice fit perfectly into this track I’d already been messing around with,” says Montague. “It’s pure and precise with just the right amount of pop-leaning that the song needed.”
Although Cambodia remains the dominant geographical presence on Tsutro, it isn’t the only location to have inspired the record. The name of both the album and the project is a play on the Sutro Baths, a former saltwater swimming complex near Land’s End in San Francisco. Once billed as the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, the pristine baths closed in 1966. Soon after, a fire left them in ruins. But there is still beauty there. “Now the ocean rises up to it, and you have to just stop and experience it,” Montague reflects. “The rigid geometry of the baths contrasts the cliff and the ocean in a really unique balance.”
Even if Tsutro didn’t have a San Francisco landmark as its namesake, the influence of the Bay Area would still be undeniable, for it’s here that Montague built a reputation with the indie-folk band Branches and also as a solo artist whose work has been featured in film and TV.
While the chromatic soundscapes of Tsutro are a far cry from the folksiness of Montague’s earlier work, some more rustic elements do manage to creep in. Most notably, ‘Tanoak’ samples his 2014 song ‘Looking.’ To match the tone of the rest of the album, however, he slowed down the beat to a more trance-like tempo, then reversed and pitch-manipulated collaborator Zack Patterson’s trombone. The result is a song that melds the past with the present; the organic with the synthetic. Like the rest of Montague’s work as Tsutro, it’s a time-traveling, globe-trekking jaunt that’s as much about where he’s been as where he’s going.