On Tour with Sensory Percussion: Sunhouse Founder Tlacael Esparza Shares Tales from his Recent Shows with Darkside
A photo of Tlacael on stage at a Darkside show

Tlacael Esparza is the co-founder of Sunhouse and the creator of Sensory Percussion. The last few years, he's been busy leading a team of software developers and fulfilling the responsibilities of the founder of a tech company. Before this became his full-time job, though, he was a touring drummer for various Brooklyn-based indie, electronic, and experimental bands. It was during this time that he first crossed paths with electronic musicians Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington. Fast forward to 2022: Sunhouse is getting ready to launch the EVANS Hybrid Sensory Percussion Sound System and Nico and Dave are getting ready to tour as Darkside. They reach out to Tlacael to join the band for two Los Angeles shows in the summer of 2022, followed by an album recording session and a European tour in the summer of 2023 as a permanent member of the band.

You recently became the official third member of the band Darkside. Can you take us through your history with Dave and Nico, and how that came to be?

Well, Dave and I went to school together briefly and played a little bit together, then years later we ran into each other again and reconnected. I played in a lot of bands with him and at some point, he was touring with Nico playing Nico's music. I joined them for a tour around 2012 and we went to Japan and Turkey and Germany. This was before Sensory Percussion existed, but I was kind of working on it on the side. I remember starting to build a prototype on the train out there and the idea was percolating.

At some point, I started focusing on Sensory Percussion and we did the Kickstarter and I really started building it, so I wasn't playing as much. That must have been 2015 or so. When we had the first working version of it, I did a small tour with Nico in Mexico and that was the first time that I ever really used Sensory with a band. They were 3D-printed sensors, and the software wasn't finished, but they were pretty big shows in Mexico. And it really pushed a lot of development because I had to get it working and there were certain things I needed because they're part of his music. I remember at the time, you could pitch-shift a sample, but smoothing wasn't in there. I wanted the pitch to kind of swing up and down like rubber band, so I remember adding that feature at that point specifically to achieve that effect.

After those first shows in 2015, I kept focusing on Sensory and playing here and there. Darkside made this album 'Spiral,' but didn't get to tour it because of the pandemic. So then last summer, they called me to see if I could do these LA shows, which were big festivals. And that was basically asking me to join the band. It was scary because Darkside was always a duo and I had never played that music; it was a very separate project from the ones I'd been involved in. I also had barely played any drums in the previous three years. But they just rented this huge rehearsal space so we could play every single day and develop something. It was a pretty amazing experience because bands usually don't get that much time to rehearse. We had time to make the band a trio and then that culminated in the two Primavera Sound Los Angeles shows. I was just building Sensory presets and we were learning songs and jamming a lot and figuring out how to play this music together.

A live studio album featuring Tlacael on drums/Sensory Percussion

Was Live at Spiral House recorded during that period?

Yeah. For that album, Dave assembled different pieces from our studio sessions and jams and put it into a record. There's a lot of Sensory Percussion on that record. On "Dream (Interlude)," there's a Percussive loop thing that Nico's doing, but all the other percussion is Sensory. Actually, all the songs have Sensory on them to some degree, but some of them are a little more out front than others.

How has this experience affected your approach to further developing Sensory Percussion?

Touring with and actually using Sensory is kind an engine for a lot of things that I want to do with the software. A lot of features that are currently in Sensory Percussion 2 weren't built yet when I started rehearsing for these shows. A lot of the pitch and melody control stuff, as well structural arrangement features, came from ideas I had when I was actually using it. And that's part of why I think other people at Sunhouse were okay with me doing this. I think it's important. I was getting a little distant from the product, but using it every day now, I have some very direct motivation for doing certain things with it. I have a lot of ideas that were maybe already in our plans, but it makes it real when it's actually being used to rehearse and to write music.

When someone releases an album that uses Sensory Percussion, it's often hard to tell how much of what you're hearing is coming from Sensory Percussion versus the actual drums themselves, or maybe a synth or something. How do you make those decisions in the band, delegating what should be a synth sample on your kick drum versus played by an actual synth, for example?

Well, I have kind of a bucket of sounds that I can use throughout the show. There's some songs where there are specific sounds from the record that I use. And then I have a bunch of kits that I use different versions of on various songs that are more widely applicable. Like the dole from the Pitchy Perc kit, I use that a lot with added distortion and some other effects.

The point of Sensory Percussion initially was to create something that I had been wanting to use, but eventually the company became the point itself. I always wanted to come back to using it, and this opportunity with Darkside was the perfect answer.

And then I have a very soloistic tonal kit that's pitched to work with a couple different songs. There are a lot of songs with transitions that stay in the same key. So I know we're in this key and I can optionally throw tones on as a kind of extra texture or it'll be re-pitched for a different set of songs. I built kits that way because there are a lot of improvisational transitions between songs.

There's one spot in the show where I take a bit of a Sensory Percussion solo and throw in some tonal stuff. One time, they left the stage during that part, which was a little dramatic. That's an agreed-upon spot where it's in the key of the song we're coming out of. But then there's another song where the driving idea behind it was to not use the click track, so I'm playing the bass part with my kick drum. It has a very different feel without a click and you hear a bunch of the samples from the record, but I'm launching them. It gives it kind of a human feeling in that moment where it breathes a lot.

Darkside playing live in Los Angeles
Tlacael using Sensory Percussion with Darkside in Los Angeles

Diving right into headlining big festivals after not playing at all for three years is quite a jump. What was your practice routine like? Did it take a while to get your chops back?

Well, it was actually more like five or six years since I had really played shows regularly. Starting Sunhouse after grad school was when that dropped off pretty precipitously, probably around 2016 or 2017. I stopped playing gigs and was pretty out of shape. And I kind of felt like I wasn't much of a drummer anymore.

It's funny because the point of Sunhouse at the beginning was to create something that I could use with the bands I was playing with. And then the company became the point itself after a while. I always wanted to come back to playing and using it, but I didn't know how or when that would happen. This opportunity with Darkside the perfect answer to that; it was really a great way to come back to playing drums.

And luckily, for the Darkside shows, we had a month and a half of rehearsals, where I was able to get things working again, but it was a pretty tough at the beginning since I was so out of shape. The rehearsals were eight hours a day, five days a week and on the weekends I would go to the drums and just do some rudiments and work on Sensory kits. There was enough playing every day where by the end of it, I felt close to back in shape. Now I feel like I'm staying in shape just by playing two-hour shows almost every night. But yeah that rehearsal time was so necessary, and it's a luxury most bands don't usually get.

Darkside's full set from their 2022 show at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Does it feel like it's come full circle, developing V2 while playing with the same people that you were playing with when you were developing V1?

It does, but the context is very different, the music is very different. It's perfect in a lot of ways because Nico is running Ableton and using a lot of synths, Dave's in the guitar world, and it's essentially improvised music to a click track, which is really an interesting approach and I think Sensory slots in really nicely.

It's also on a scale where Sensory can sound really good because they're huge stages and we have a really amazing sound guy. Sensory is mixed in with the drums and everything else and it sounds huge. It's very different than setting up at a 200 capacity Brooklyn venue with a little PA, and the acoustic drums are unmic'd, and you hit the snare, and the triggered sounds are coming out from somewhere else.

It's really amazing to work that way and the music itself is very exciting. It's music that I've always really loved, aside from being friends with them. I listen to their music a lot. It was always a special project that I wished I could play drums in, but it was their thing. So it was pretty amazing to be invited in and the live shows are very different now from what they were before. There's drums right in the middle of it and we can improvise and a two-hour set every single night, which is pretty cool.

A photo from behind the drumset showing drums with sensors attached
Tlacael's tour setup: V2 sensors on 5 drums, 3 of them acoustic, 2 of them mesh heads.

In terms of the software itself, are there things that you're using with V2 that you wouldn't have been able to do with V1?

Yeah, definitely the sequencing stuff. There's one song where there's no click and I'm controlling the bassline. It's sequenced in a way where I'm using things inside of a sequencer object that didn't exist in V1; I would have had to have multiple sets to do the same thing. So it's a sequence with a bunch of different elements and six sections. For each of the six sections of the song, a different combination of elements is active. I'm using the matrix to choose which sounds are going into which section, with some sounds from an earlier section coming back later.

But for the most part, the big difference is in the workflow. Nico originally sent me a bunch of samples. I grabbed them, threw in to a sequencer and randomized them. And then we built kits during rehearsal, which was a lot faster to do than in V1. Same with combining kits. I made a dubby floor tom thing with distortion on this one song. Then I could just drag that element into this other song because I wanted to combine it. So being able to move sounds around so easily was not something you could do in V1, and combining kits as was not possible at all. So that's a big one.

I'd put a bunch of instruments together, group them, and then create a send to the delay and control that send in some way. To do that in V1, you'd have to have a controller assigned to each send on each channel for each drum. The workflow is just completely different now.

Any particular highlights from tour? Favorite cities or shows?

The Primavera Sound shows were really fun. Unfortunately, the Madrid show got cancelled, but Barcelona and Porto in particular were both really fun. They were from 2:00-4:00 AM. But the audience was really ready to go and really good. It's kind of fun playing on a stage that big and open-air. The sound is huge. During soundcheck, I got to hear what it sounds like out front. It's gigantic and to know that you're pushing that much sound is really cool. But yeah, they've all been great honestly!

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