Growing up creatively in public helped Charli-XCX collaborating, PC Music producer umru to became a key figure in the sound of future pop - and now he's contemplating what comes next.
Comfort noise: the soft crackling you hear on the phone that settles in the silences between. It’s a blanket of intimate assurance, creating an illusion of connectivity where there is only distance; the sound of a shared pulse rather than the drone of a dead line. It’s this - more so than the brutalist pop he welds together and deconstructs, all metal, hard lines and sharp edges – that is the sound which has come to define 22-year-old producer umru Rothenberg’s career. While his roots trace back to Estonia and small town in New York State, he is native to a far more expansive, liminal world, forged together by bonds of DMs and .wav files.
As a product, definer and communicator of internet culture, under the name umru he would design a meteoric career in the image of a top-hit search result: engine-optimised and staggeringly connected, a keyword in the works of maximalist pop titans Charli XCX, 100 gecs and lil aaron. So, it’s the familiarity of this comfort noise, the title of his long-awaited second EP, that he is looking to recreate: the comforting thread that holds together the entire online subculture he calls home.
Rothenberg can draw a line between his life before and after an email appeared in his inbox with the subject line: ‘v nice’. He was 16 years old, still in high school, spending his time building unorthodox soundscapes that walked the terrain of nosebleed inducing EDM drops, yet without the conventional landmarks of verses and hooks. Uploading one of his earliest experiments, a Tommy Cash remix (“it was just really deconstructed, kind of loud”) to SoundCloud in the platform’s creative renaissance period, Rothenberg gave no thought to who would stumble upon it. When he saw this email was sent from PC Music godfather A.G. Cook, at first, he was convinced it was a prank.
He digs through his inbox until he reaches 2016 and pulls it up. “He said, ‘Came across your stuff today and think it’s great, especially into your Tommy Cash edit. Your whole sound works really well. Could be fun to work on something together if you’d be up for that? There are a few vocalists I want to send instrumentals to and think your stuff is different enough from mine to make it interesting.’”
Time went by without anything getting off the ground, but it was when Rothenberg finally met A.G. Cook at Charli XCX’s Number One Angel show in NYC by personal invitation (though he had to leave early because it was a school night), that he was then tasked with working on Charli’s upcoming mixtape Pop 2, which is now widely-held as one of the defining classics of contemporary pop music. Responsible for the sound design behind “I Got It”, through producing alongside A. G Cook, they built its teeth-chattering rhythm, gummy 808s and almost cyberpunk levels of industrial violence. It remains to be the blueprint for a strain of pop that the world is still gasping to catch up to.
But until now, Rothenberg was reluctant to even call himself a producer, despite the world defining him as such. “I mean, initially, it was completely not my choice,” he says. “I was given that role. I was working on Charli stuff before I had ever worked on almost any music with vocalists before. I had no experience.” He’s quick to undermine his reputation as a Charli XCX producer; at an incredibly young age, he was catapulted to the top of the game in the first round. “I didn’t come up with the song structure or write the music, I basically just did the sound design and helped flesh out the production. It wasn’t just me – it was both of us. But all of a sudden, I was defined as a producer who works with Charli XCX, and tonnes of people wanted to work with me because of that. Then, I actually had to learn what it meant to be a producer.”
The disorientation that came with sprinting to keep pace with your own reputation is something that Rothenberg is still acclimatising to. “It does sort of feel hard to live up to that peak, or whatever,” he shrugs. “Even though I had done very little then, in some ways I was more accomplished then than I have been ever since. I didn’t have any direction before that, either. I was just of just messing around, so it did give me a push to figure out something when I thought, ‘Oh, here’s all these people that believe in this, or think I can add value to a song, so there must be something for me to pursue.’ It took me a long time to even get to a point where I was working on anything else that was actually good enough for anyone to release – I did tonnes and tonnes of work with people that wasn’t very productive. To this day, it still feels like I’m not necessarily supposed to be doing this. I still feel like I’m catching up, you know?”
comfort noise, in many ways, represents a closing of the gap between Rothenberg’s reputation and his own feelings about his work. With his first EP, search result, released with PC Music in 2018, which boasted the brat-pop anthem “popular” featuring the vocals of 100 gecs’ Laura Les alongside appearances from Banoffee, Ravenna Golden and Lewis Grant, it was the first tentative realisation of what it meant to be umru. “Back then, I had no clue how to work with vocalists. That was quite literally my first attempt at doing so,” Rothenberg recalls. “But since that first release, I think I’ve kind of solidified myself as like, ‘Okay, I’m a producer now’. I come from making instrumental, EDM-structured music where the production is the main thing, and since then I’ve learned how to complement a vocal on a written song with production, rather than covering it up or distracting from it.”
Despite an age where producers are now decorated as artists in their own right, on comfort noise, he is consciously trying to subtract himself from the formula: merely there to set up the canvas for a vocalist’s splash of colour. “That was a change in my thinking,” Rothenberg shares. “I figured out that was the most satisfying application of what I knew how to do, or what I wanted to do. I’m not trying too hard to take over because I didn’t write the songs: they’re all collaborations, so they’re all listed with two or three primary artists, rather than a feature. Even if I’ve pulled them all into the same universe, I’m not trying too hard to own the songs. I still feel like my strong suit is contributing to someone’s song writing and performance.”
With a striking absence of umru as an ego on comfort noise, there were no grand designs to how it came about. In fact, most of its six tracks were recorded for the simple love of collaboration; making music without a goal in mind. But Rothenberg admits that he fell in love with the beat for “Heart 2”, knowing instantly that it would feature on the EP. It would go on to feature reincarnated pop icon and internet legend Rebecca Black and Rothenberg’s now-partner, the experimental pop futurist Petal Supply, who were brought together through working together on the track. “But with every other song, I wasn’t thinking about the project at all when we were making it. Every song was just made on the fly,” he shares. “And then, after the fact, when I looked back and decided what I wanted to put together, I just revamped some of the songs to fit. They all have this extremely lo-fi, compressed audio sound, like a call that’s losing connection. But I wasn’t trying to force each person to make the song relate to the theme specifically. If I was thinking, ‘This has to be on the umru project’ from start to finish, I’d probably never get anything done.”
While there is Cecile Believe, the diamond-standard vocalist behind many songs on SOPHIE’s seminal album Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides on one track, and PC Music associates Tony Velour and Hannah Diamond on another, there is also the infamous DIY pop experimentalist fraxiom and SoundCloud underground legend emoteji who all rub shoulders with the digicore scene, as well. Drawing on Rothenberg’s dizzying online connections and friendships, he becomes the central force bringing artists from the furthest extremities of pop scenes into the same orbit.
While all these artists, despite their differences, make sense in occupying the same world, Rothenberg has always been drawn to a little disruption. Besides Rebecca Black, another artist who had a kind of internet baptism-by-fire was 645AR, who found notoriety on TikTok as ‘the squeaking rapper’ due to his distinctive, high-pitched delivery. Appearing on heavyweight hit “check1” alongside Tommy Cash, he was the only person Rothenberg had deliberately sought out for the project: “Me and Tommy were just trying to think of who the craziest person would be to fit the song that we could find, and he was down. With both of them, just like Rebecca Black, they blew up and went viral and then were written off as a joke or a meme. But then they’ve proven to be really, really skilled at what they do and developed a core, dedicated fan base.”
Unlike many producers whose output is almost reflexive, Rothenberg likes to take his time. “I honestly do not have the output of most producers,” he admits. “I think I work really, really slowly. Most people just have tonnes and tonnes of ideas that are great and are never released, and anytime I make something good, I feel like it’s worth finishing. I rarely scrap ideas, so I just have fewer things laying around. I’ve tried to release every good thing I’ve made. I do a tonne of experimenting and messing around before figuring out something that works – everything takes a fair amount of time, to create the sonics. I feel like that’s the main unique quality of my work, right? It’s not the music writing necessarily, but the way it sounds.” This project was one of the first times Rothenberg was even in the same room as some of his collaborators, usually having the space to go to great pains alone with small details without an artist raising an eyebrow. “I was just so used to having a music community and friends online that I’d never met. It just felt kind of natural to me,” he says.
But what did not come quite so naturally was developing his own flavour; something that was instantly recognisable as umru. “I spent a long time trying to get everything to feel consistent with this project,” he says. “It doesn’t come as easily as people might expect. It took so long to complete because I felt there wasn’t enough to call it a project for such a long time. I’m much more self-critical when I’m releasing under my own name: there has to be this definitive sound that’s supposed to represent me, versus when I’m on a team of people producing someone else’s project. It’s so much easier to contribute and let it go.”
"I feel like a lot of my production has been super maximalist, but I’ve learned to take a more minimal approach because of Drain Gang.”
It can seem that Rothenberg’s music is rooted in the future, but in fact, for the titular final track, it comes from a place of nostalgia. He explains, “The track is just 100% made of vocals, heavily using harmoniser effects to make a chord progression out of a single note, which was a trope in experimental pop music for a period. Cashmere Cat, Kanye West and Bon Iver were all using that sound, and it’s one of my favourites. It’s very much not original to me, but I was trying to develop it into something that sounds somewhat unique and new. I’ve been trying to let go of that feeling like, ‘Oh, this is too close to something that’s already been done’, because I’ve definitely spent a lot of my time focusing on trying to do something that sounds new. But I think what I should be focusing on is just doing something I enjoy – because honestly, everything has already been done.”
Behind Rothenberg is a Bladee t-shirt: it’s a print of the Exeter album cover. A few nights before, he – just like every other experimental pop artist and disciple – had been to one of Drain Gang’s world tour dates. Even though stylistically he is at some remove from their glacial sound, producers Whitearmor and Gud have had an indelible effect on his approach to hybrid popular production. “I appreciate the melody and the imperfections,” he says. “I know it’s kind of a joke at this point, but Bladee maybe doesn’t have a good voice, yet it works so well. He writes such catchy melodies that are stuck in your head forever, even if they’re not tuned perfectly, or whatever. In a lot of ways, it’s anti-pop music, compared to the industry standard Max Martin pop music that has been produced to perfection. It’s a good reminder that it can be made in a completely opposite, freeform way, going against everything that would musically sound good and make it work.” Something Rothenberg particularly admires is the way those artists practise restraint. “I feel like a lot of my production has been super maximalist, but I’ve learned to take a more minimal approach because of them.”
When it comes to articulating Rothenberg’s sound, all too often he is categorised as hyperpop: a fast-food, playlist-friendly term for anything subversive and strangely catchy. For the communities of artists who are smudged into the same playlists as PC Music, despite not sharing much commonality in sound, featuring on the Spotify playlist proved to be something of a poisoned chalice. “It has legitimately helped a bunch of artist get heard,” explains Rothenberg, “but in the end, it promotes the term and the category above the artists themselves. While the discussion around the term ‘hyperpop’ is so well-known and done to death, a lot of the actual artists on the playlists still aren’t profiting off this being a moment.”
It can feel counterintuitive to ask an artist who is so fiercely experimental how they feel comfortable with their music being described, but for Rothenberg, the answer is pretty simple: pop music. “I’m trying to bring what I do to an audience,” he tells me. “I want to make songs that are accessible and likeable while using the kind of sound palettes and tools that I’m interested in using. But I’m not trying to make music for an underground audience necessarily, or an experimental audience. Pop music doesn’t mean a lot right now, - it’s so loosely defined, because the types of things that are going viral aren’t the industry-made, studio pop music: it’s random TikTok sounds and artists with no backing whatsoever who are charting. It makes it really exciting to figure out what pop music even is, so there’s more potential than ever for it to be redefined.”
More than anything, Rothenberg is excited for comfort noise to truly set his own bar for his capabilities as he comes into the peak of his powers. “There are a lot of people on it for only seven songs, but I think that’s the fun of it: being able to have a neatly packaged snapshot of my work for the past few years. It touches a lot of bases. It’s the best representation of how I envisioned by sound world to be.”