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    Interviews: Nils Frahm’s Piano Is Bigger Than Yours

    Nils Frahm: "Some" (via SoundCloud)

    Pianist Nils Frahm’s latest album is called Solo, and while he indeed played all of it himself, the record is also a collaboration of sorts. Solo is the result of the 32-year-old German musician’s first meeting with instrument-maker David Klavins, who invited Frahm to play a 12-foot-tall upright piano he built in the late 1980s called the M370. Over the course of four days in January 2014, Frahm improvised on the massive instrument, recording nine hours of material that he later whittled down into a striking eight-song, 43-minute album. Speaking over the phone from his home in Berlin, Frahm calls it “the most inspiring piano recording session I’ve ever done.”

    That experience led to further collaboration between the pair. After Frahm told Klavins about his idea for a lightweight piano—which “would sound like a guitar or a harp”—Klavins built him one, and called it the Una Corda. “This is how I started really truly believing in David,” Frahm says. “He’s not simply dreaming and talking, but doing things. So I said to him, ‘What is your biggest dream?’” Klavins described a fantasy 15-foot piano called the M450 (for which the M370 was a prototype).

    Nils Frahm: "Wall" (via SoundCloud)

    On March 29, a day Frahm declared to be “Piano Day”, he released Solo for free digitally, seeking donations to help build the M450 (some proceeds from sales of physical copies will be used as well). “I thought, ‘Now’s the chance to show the world how great even just the prototype sounds,’” he says. “And then we can dream about what the M450 would sound like.”

    “Dream” is a word that Frahm uses often. Across his vast discography—which has grown to 11 solo records in a decade, alongside numerous collaborations—his music has taken on a dream-like quality, too. His patient, image-conjuring tones flirt with minimalism, but also use melodies and moods that are cinematic. Until recently, he shied away from actually making film music, wary of submitting his work to the whims of executives, but last year a project arrived that he couldn’t turn down: a German movie called Victoria, which was filmed in one continuous sequence. “It was fascinating to work on a movie with no edits,” he says. “The movie just flows and flows, so you have to keep the music flowing.”

    Considering the busy stream of activity coming from Frahm lately, it’s not surprising that he was up to the task.

    Pitchfork: Why did you call the album Solo?

    Nils Frahm: It’s partly my way of being humorous, since all my records have been solo. But this is what I always wanted to do as a pianist, it’s the sound and atmosphere I wanted to get out of a piano. If I had to stop playing piano tomorrow, I would keep smiling because I achieved this. I wanted to call it Solo as a way to show I’m proud of it. It’s the most personal album I’ve made.

    Nils Frahm: "Hammers" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Your music can often sound somber, but it seems humor is important to you.

    NF: I would be doomed if I didn’t invent humor in my life. When I was young, I had all these punk and performance-art bands, dressed in costumes and painting the room and getting kicked out by police. Now when I perform I still feel the stage is more than just where you put your instruments. It’s where you can do whatever you feel like. Andy Kaufman is a big inspiration for me. The music works by itself, but you can change the perception of it by the way you dress, the way you move, the things you say, the things you don’t say. And when you realize that everything is staged, then nothing is staged. There’s a kind of liberation to that.

    Pitchfork: Your music now is pretty far from punk. Is genre something you think about when making music?

    NF: I don’t know where genre really comes from. I grew up with parents who were artists, and I was always interested in what music they were listening to and open to all kinds of genres. So it’s nice to see that whole families come to my concerts. I like having an element in my music that is inclusive rather than exclusive, without being pop for the sake of it. It’s not important to me how many people listen to it—it’s more wonderful that it brings people who wouldn’t usually meet into the same room.

    “When you realize that everything is staged, then nothing is staged.”

    Pitchfork: When David Klavins invited you to play his M370, did you consider writing songs for the session rather than improvising?

    NF: It seemed wrong to write songs on a normal piano and bring them to an exceptional piano and think that they would work. I thought it would be a good challenge to be guided by the resonance of the previous note before I played the next one. But the notes sounded so wonderful that it felt weird to play the next note—because I was still enjoying the ambiance of the previous one. I thought I would need to play pretty loud and fast on an instrument this big, but the opposite was the case. The quieter and slower I played, the more the instrument’s qualities could shine through.

    Pitchfork: Was it challenging to choose what to use on the album?

    NF: I feel like my strong side is not being technically perfect at the piano, but at curating my own work. It’s not painful for me. I don’t feel sad when I have to leave things out, put them in the safe, and not have them in public. I realize many artists feel sad about this process, but for me that’s the most exciting part: By losing the weaker moments you make the strong moments stronger.

    Nils Frahm: "Said and Done" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: This summer, you will play a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of the UK concert series the Proms, which has never before featured a non-classical artist in its over 100 years of existence. Is that exciting for you?

    NF: It feels like a big challenge because it is a classical venue, and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I certainly will do something that’s unusual for the context, and not everybody will love it, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity. It’s a big opportunity to win people over—and a big opportunity to fail. That’s exactly why it’s exciting.


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  • 04/27/15--11:10: Guest Lists: Tinashe
  • Guest Lists: Tinashe

    Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with R&B singer/songwriter/producer Tinashe, who recently followed up her debut album Aquarius with a new mixtape called Amethyst. She talked to us on the phone from the beach in Dubai.


    My Morning Routine

    Wake up, check my text messages, check my Instagram, check my Twitter, get up, brush my teeth, take a shower, call my mom. I don't really eat in the morning. I wake and bake every now and then when I'm not in Dubai—if you smoke weed here, you get, like, the death penalty.

    First Record I Bought for Myself

    Britney’s ... Baby One More Time. No shame. I was 6. I still listen to old Britney and have those same nostalgic feelings for everything she put out when I was a kid. I'm all about her first three albums.

    Biggest Pet Peeve

    When somebody texts you and you respond right away... and then they don't text back. It’s like, you hit me up. And also when I do radio interviews and all they ask me about is which rappers I want to date. I don't want to date any rapper, thanks.

    Hidden Talent

    I'm a black belt in Taekwondo. I've never had to unleash my fury on someone, but I definitely could.

    Favorite Song Ever

    "She's Out of My Life" by Michael Jackson

    Easiest Money I’ve Ever Made

    Going to a club and not doing anything and getting paid for it.

    Favorite Comedian

    Chris Rock

    Favorite Holiday

    Definitely Christmas. But I love Halloween too. 

    Last Halloween Costume

    I was North West! [laughs] My best friend was Kim Kardashian, and I walked around with a binky the whole night.

    Favorite TV Show

    Recently I've gotten into “Girls”—I watched the first three seasons. I like people who don't take themselves too seriously.

    Favorite Drink

    The only things I really drink are water and red wine.

    Last Great Concert I Saw

    TV on the Radio

    Strangest Display of Affection From a Fan

    This guy wrote me a thick handwritten book about how my music changed his life and got him over cancer. I was like, “Whoa, that’s kinda heavy.”

    What I’m Reading Right Now

    Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill. It was written in the 1930s, but it’s got really good advice that’s relevant to today.

    Last Great Movie I Saw

    Blue Jasmine, the Woody Allen movie

    Favorite Record Store

    I'm from L.A. so probably Amoeba on Cahuenga and Sunset.

    Favorite Actor and Actress

    I love Rachel McAdams and Leonardo DiCaprio.

    Favorite YouTube Tutorial

    The stuff that has been the most helpful for me are the tutorials on Pro Tools or Final Cut, because I'm a self-taught producer, mixer, and video editor. YouTube tutorials changed my life.

    Dream Collaboration

    André 3000. I’m just gonna keep putting it out there until it happens—someday he's going to hear it.

    Best Thing I’ve Done All Year 

    Traveling to places I've never been before. I’ve been to Dubai four times in the last six months, and every time I'm out here, it’s so humbling and surreal just to think about what my life has become. If I told myself two years ago that I would be here on the beach drinking wine, I would have been so thrilled.

    Last Bad Movie I Saw

    After Earth, the M. Night Shyamalan movie with Will and Jaden Smith. That movie sucked.

    Best Birthday I Ever Had

    My 21st, of course! I'm really lame and don't have a lot of friends so I went to Vegas with my parents. We gambled, drank, went to the club. [laughs] I have the coolest parents ever.

    Favorite Party Game

    Taboo. Me and my mom are unstoppable—we have a psychic connection, so we always dominate.

    Favorite Game Show

    I really feel like if I went on “Family Feud” I would win.

    Biggest Regret

    Not making more true friends before I became famous, because it’s really hard to make friends now.

    Favorite New Song

    "Know Yourself" by Drake

    Favorite Day of the Week

    Monday is when my whole record label is in the office, so I can call them and ask them every question and complain and do all the things that I do as an artist. I hate weekends because no one is in the office and I always want to talk to someone. I'm like, "Everyone, back to work!"

    Era of History I’d Most Like to Live In

    It kind of sucked to be black in the past. [laughs] I would say the ‘70s but, you know, they'd probably look at me funny. Can I say the future?

    Go-To Selfie Pose

    I use the left arm because my dimple is on the left side. You’ve gotta smile and show a little cleavage—then my likes go all the way up. There's a formula to it. Sometimes it annoys me because I'll take a picture of some really dope scenery of some place and I'll get a fifth of the likes that I'll get when I post a selfie.

    Favorite Social Media Outlet

    Instagram. I was a fan of Twitter, but Instagram is more fun because you can get your point across without having to do or say much of anything. I'm also getting into Snapchat because it’s more laid back like you don't need to think about what you post when you post it.

    My Karaoke Jam 

    Oh hell yeah: “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)". It’s got that rap verse!

    Animal I’d Most Like to Be

    A dolphin. They’re really smart, they can talk to each other, and they can swim around the whole world. They're the coolest animals ever, and I hear they’re the only other mammals that has sex for pleasure, so that’s awesome.

    My Dream Vacation

    I really want to go to Zimbabwe because that's where my dad is from.

    Favorite Cereal

    Cheerios, plain. No sugar. 

    Favorite Website

    Tumblr

    Favorite New Artist

    Rae Sremmurd

    Favorite Video Game

    Grand Theft Auto V. I've beaten it like four times, but its still fun.

    Favorite Music Video

    Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”

    Bad Habit

    Smoking weed. As a singer, it’s clearly not the smartest thing, but I love it.

    Preferred Marijuana Strain

    I like Blue Dream. It’s a sativa so it'll keep you up—it won't knock you out.

    Worst Nightmare

    Sitting at home for two months with nothing to do. Free time is the worst.


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  • 04/28/15--11:10: Electric Fling: Acid Redux
  • Electric Fling: Acid Redux

    Electric Fling is a column that explores the world of dance music. 


    A1 “Accumulated Acid” 

    One night in 1987, on the South Side of Chicago, Earl “Spanky” Smith, Herbert Jackson, and Nathaniel “DJ Pierre” Jones drunkenly fucked around with a $40 Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer until they stumbled upon a new frequency. That undulating squelch underpinned the 12 brain-eating minutes of a track that originally bore the title “In Your Mind”. Then, once Chicago DJ Ron Hardy started driving parties insane with it, it acquired the title “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track”. And when Marshall Jefferson produced a finished version of the song, it simply became Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”.

    From there, the sound of acid engulfed Chicago and then spread across the Atlantic, helping to fuel the ecstatic Madchester scene and Britain’s Second Summer of Love. But in the UK, the turbid churn of acid turned into the soundtrack for smiley faces. As Michaelangelo Matos writes in The Underground Is Massive, his new history on the evolution of electronic dance music in the U.S. and EU: “People wearing smiley T-shirts and smiley shoelaces and blowing smiley whistles while coming up on smiley pills [would] still be buzzing when the club shut down, partying outside, defying police trying to shoo them home, boogying to squad-car sirens while chanting: Aciiieeed! Aciiieeed! In seven months, acid house had blown wide open.”

    But the style’s originators lamented its spread, as well as its newly euphoric connotations. Spanky told The Wire: “It was never our intention for it to be linked to drugs… we thought of acid rock because it had the same sort of changing frequencies.” Meanwhile, Jefferson lamented to David Toop in Ocean of Sound: “You don’t have to use the same machine all the time… I hate that machine with a passion now. Everybody’s using it wrong. The way they’re doing it now, it’s not capturing any moods.”

    Dungeon Acid: "Physical" (via SoundCloud)

    Now, several artists are tackling that telltale 303 from new angles while staying true to the style’s initial intent. There’s acid to be tasted on the latest Tornado Wallace single, “Kangaroo Ground”, and in the productions of Dungeon Acid. Meanwhile, skulking under the house and techno thumps of Gavin Russom’s recent Mantle of Stars 12” is a permutation of that same gnarly bassline. And one of the toughest albums I’ve heard this year comes from revivalists Paranoid London, who get maximum effect out of that old acid template.

    Paranoid London: Album Sampler (via SoundCloud)

    For all of its global spread though, acid never really ventured westward. (While California was taken with whinnying high frequencies, they were most often the g-funk variety.) But in the early aughts, California-born Johannes Auvinen began exploring the sound of the 303 under the name Tin Man, offering up a decidedly warmer, if more austere, strain of acid. In 2011, Tin Man released his first single on Oliver Bristow’s Los Angeles label Absurd Recordings under a new sub-imprint called Acid Test. That Tin Man single, “Nonneo”, reimagined acid in a new way. 

    Since then, the label and its hand-stenciled releases have inspired the likes of Italian techno maestro Donato Dozzy and French deep house producer Pépé Bradock to conjure new moods on the 303. And Acid Test has also released remixes from the likes of John Tejada, the Idjut Boys, and Marcellus Pittman, each artist twisting the instrument into new configurations. Last year, the label ventured beyond 12”s to release two strong full-lengths from Tin Man and Achterbahn D'Amour. And now they’ve released a new album by an artist named Trickfinger.

    A2 “Trickfinger”

    Trickfinger: "After Below" (via SoundCloud)

    Trickfinger is none other than John Frusciante, who has about a dozen solo albums to his credit that range from lo-fi experimental noise to synth-pop, instrumental rock to spastic breakcore. But of course, he’s internationally renowned for his fretwork as the former guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He started with the group as an 18-year-old whiz, and when Blood Sugar Sex Magik broke them on a massive scale, the success, pressure, and scrutiny quickly got to him, and he left the band at the pinnacle of their success. He returned to the fold for 1999’s Californication and took part in two more multi-platinum releases before quitting for good in 2009.

    Frusciante’s submersion into a heroin habit in the mid-‘90s is legendary, and when we meet out on Venice Beach one night, I can just make out the scar tissue along his forearms. “Originally, I wanted to just bring these big pillows, and we could just sit on the beach and look out at the waves,” he tells me as introduction, sporting chunky black glasses and a lopsided bowl cut. “But then I thought that might be kinda weird.” Instead, he suggests fish tacos.

    In person, Frusciante is intense, detailed, and scattered all at once. He never once utters the name of his world-famous band by name, calls his heroin habit a “sabbatical,” and is as quick to cite Beethoven as he is to cite Squarepusher. As our talk goes on, his nervous energy ratchets up in intensity. It’s only when we go outside nearly two hours later—where he quickly fires up a cigarette—that he says it was the longest he has gone without a smoke.

    B1 “My Dinner with Frusciante”

    It’s not wholly uncommon for rock icons to dabble in electronics, but seeing Frusciante resolutely abandoning the guitar and diving full on into sequencers and synths is a peculiar thing: Who willingly moves from master to apprentice? And while his solo work has shown flashes of Depeche Mode pop sensibilities and Aphex Twin-type mischievousness, Trickfinger is a stripped-down set of eight classic-sounding acid tracks; those expecting the haywire sounds of Frusciante’s previous albums might be startled to hear something so streamlined. While he looks up to the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre, and his friend and collaborator Aaron Funk of Venetian Snares, Frusciante’s tracks aren’t nearly as freewheeling and unwieldy as those of his influences.

    “When I stopped doing drugs at the end of the ‘90s, all of a sudden I became obsessed with synth pop,” he says. “And by the time I rejoined the band in ‘98, I just wanted to hear drum machines and synthesizers.”

    As life in the band continued, Frusciante delved deeper into electronics on the side, tinkering on keyboards, 303s, 606s, and 202s. He began adding keyboards to his live guitar setup, and you can hear some of these news sounds slowly infiltrate his own sound. When the 2006 Chili Peppers track “Dani California” came on the radio while driving down the highway en route to Venice Beach that night, Frusciante’s solo flaring to life at song’s end, I could hear the influence of Jimi Hendrix—but as chopped up and reconfigured by J Dilla. During dinner, Frusciante tells me he’s abandoned the guitar. “Sampling is my favorite way to make music now,” he says.

    But as he dove deeper in the world of electronic music, the big revelation was Richard D. James’ Analord series. “When that came out I realized this is better than rock music, that it was the Sgt. Pepper’s for today,” he says. “The whole time I'd been in the band, I would've rather been spending all my time making electronic music.” He enthuses about the return of Aphex Twin and the producer’s recent Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 EP. “I hope that one day it's inexpensive enough to where we have robot electronic orchestras that are controlled by the mind of a composer,” he says.

    As part of his new musical education, Frusciante eventually started taking inspiration from early Chicago acid. “I heard that Chicago stuff and it's like when you see an early John Waters or a Robert Downey Sr. movie and you go, ‘Oh, OK!,’” he says, adding that when he first heard DJ Pierre, he finally connected acid house back to the punk of his teenage years: “Both punk and acid take the pressure off you as a musician and make you realize you can just express yourself.”

    In some way, Frusciante’s Trickfinger album is where rock initially inspiring acid comes full circle. Discussing the roots of acid and those earliest manipulations of the 303—of Phuture and closet metalhead Marshall Jefferson emulating the likes of Hendrix and Black Sabbath’s acid rock—Frusciante perceives the parallel. “Acid is what Jimi Hendrix brought to guitar, where the sound is changing the whole time, using his wah-wah pedal and fucking with the mixing board,” he says. “It’s just like a guy on the 303 when he's turning the knobs. I want the sound to be constantly changing. That’s when it makes sense to me.”


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    Situation Critical: Scharpling and Wurster

    Situation Critical presents artists with various life situations—some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre—to find out what music they would turn to under those specific circumstances. This time, we spoke with comedy duo Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, who just released a box set highlighting choice bits from their long-running radio program "The Best Show" appropriately called The Best of the Best Show. "The Best Show" airs online every Tuesday night and is available via podcast as well.


    You're in the car with your grandmother...

    Jon Wurster: I'd put on Kiss’ "Room Service" because the first thought that always comes up when I think of my grandmother is her walking into my bedroom when I was 11 and seeing my giant Kiss poster and saying, "That's hot!" [laughs] She was trying to talk to me on my level and be kind of hip.

    Tom Scharpling: I remember listening to "After the Lovin" by Engelbert Humperdinck with my grandparents. It's old-people music, but then suddenly you realize what "after the lovin" means and how gross it is that you're listening to this song with your grandparents. What are the circumstances of a guy saying, "So I sing you this tune after the lovin"? Is that in a hotel room?

    JW: A back alley? 

    TS: He’s getting dressed as he sings it. [laughs] It’s so gross! I think he's crying in that song, something like, "As I wipe the tears from your eyes." Like, what happened in that room?!


    A meteor is about to destroy the entire planet...

    TS: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's version of "Jump" from a 2014 show in Dallas, with Tom Morello on guest guitar. When they opened the show, they actually brought a basketball on stage and did a jump-ball, then they did "Jump". I could not believe it. People say Bob Dylan’s so weird, but Bruce is the weird one—he's doing it in front of 70,000 people every time.


    You're playing music for your child for the first time...

    JW: It would have to be something really cool to shape his future, right?

    TS: This is a big one. It's gotta stand alone as a statement, because if you play him Dead Kennedys, that only makes sense built off a knowledge of punk; Big Star is only important if you already know the Beatles. So I would probably go all the way with "You Painted Your Teeth" by Jandek. Then you’re just all in. You're teaching your kid about recording backwards in your mud room and then putting records out with no discernible packaging—just keeping things a complete question mark.

    JW: I’d pick Captain Beefheart’s "Dachau Blues" off Trout Mask Replica. I mean, this kid has to be ready for first grade—he's gotta be head and shoulders above everybody else, in terms of musical knowledge.


    It's 4 a.m. and you can't fall asleep...

    JW: I would probably pick "Frantic Disembowelment" by Cannibal Corpse.

    TS: I would probably not pick "Frantic Disembowelment" by Cannibal Corpse. I would listen to something that I didn’t have a personal connection to, something old-timey like "Winchester Cathedral". But then I would listen to the Tony Randall version of that song and think: "Tony Randall... ‘Odd Couple’... There's a new ‘Odd Couple’ on CBS… Should I put together a spec script?" And then I would be up at 9 a.m. writing spec scripts for the new "Odd Couple" where they're arguing over who gets to use the Groupon.


    You're at a karaoke bar...

    JW: The song I was singing when I broke a karaoke mic in half about 10 years ago was AC/DC’s "Back In Black". I was really going for it and I looked over at my then-girlfriend, who was absolutely mortified and annoyed, but I just had to power through it. I don't know what I did to break the mic but I handed it back to the guy who was running the show, and he was so mad. But I just thought it showed how fucking rockin’ I am.

    TS: My favorite karaoke song is "Walkin' on the Sun" by Smash Mouth. It's just the next extension of the American Songbook. And it’s one of the few songs where, when I hear it, I'm pretty sure I'm technically a better singer than the actual person singing it.


    You are refused entry from a restaurant after the host tells you that you don't meet the dress code...

    TS: "Holiday Road" by Lindsey Buckingham, because you can really make an exit to that song. And then the restaurant people would be like, "Maybe we made the wrong call, that guy seemed like he was fun."

    JW: I'd play the very end of Prince and the Revolution’s "Little Red Corvette" and do that dance that they all did and just saunter out of the restaurant.

    TS: [Revolution keyboardist] Doctor Fink did the dance—though I think having that surgical mask on all the time worked against him in the long run. 

    JW: It’s hard to do anything else with that other than join Clinic

    TS: Yeah. I met the guys from Clinic with their masks off and… I kind of wish I didn't meet them with their masks off. They’re really nice British guys, but with the masks off it took all the mystery out of it. And that's also why I never want to meet any of the guys from Slipknot.


    You just drank five cups of coffee in quick succession...

    JW: I would put the Descendents’ "All" on repeat a thousand times because the song is one second long.

    TS: I'd probably listen to some Henry Rollins-related coffee song, like Black Flag’s "Black Coffee", or maybe listen to one of his spoken word things like "Black Coffee Blues". His love of coffee will help me ride the crash out.


    You are a professional wrestler making your way to the ring...

    JW: I'd probably go with "She's So European" by Kiss, because it's their toughest song. (You have to put a link to this song because then you will find out it's their least tough song.)


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    Interviews: I’m Drowning But I’m OK: The Revelations of Torres’ Mackenzie Scott

    Torres: "Cowboy Guilt" (via SoundCloud)

    Mackenzie Scott is open and honest and forthcoming, and she will tell you anything you ask her. Or at least, she'll do her best. When I meet her at a coffee shop next to her Bushwick, Brooklyn apartment, the Georgia native is frank about sensitive topics like her evolving feelings about the Baptist Church she grew up in and how she was adopted by her birth mother’s Bible study teacher. These sorts of personal experiences inform the music she records as Torres—music that she guards with a watchful eye. “I’m more protective of my songs than of my own privacy,” she admits.

    For Scott, privacy is power—and the 24-year-old is fascinated by the relationship between disclosure and strength. “I start to write once I've been made to feel powerless in some way; I like to subvert that and have the last word,” she says. She’s only become more skilled at handling that tricky artistic negotiation since her 2013 self-titled debut album. On “Honey”, the breakout track from Torres, she sang, “Honey, while you were ashing in your coffee/I was thinking about telling you/ What you’ve done to me.” But on her dark, stirring second LP, Sprinter, she definitively crosses the line from “thinking of telling” to “telling,” and the record booms with newfound ferocity: One eerie ballad even has her assuming the voice of God.

    Torres: "New Skin" (via SoundCloud)

    Scott spent a few years cycling through a shifting lineup of musicians to arrive at the thick, trembling sound that hangs like smoke on Sprinter. The players on the album include Adrian Utley of Portishead, and Ian Olliver and Rob Ellis of PJ Harvey’s former band, and their viscous sonic approach is a perfect match for Scott’s tremendous voice.

    That voice—the sound of poorly contained things exploding, full of expert glottal hitches and capable of constricting or yawning open in the space of a note—is still the central character in Scott’s music. It’s an instrument capable of swallowing up huge, unmanageable emotions: hatred, passion, spirituality, passion. But to Scott, it’s also a fallible vessel. “My physical voice can give out, but my writer's voice has been the only aspect of my little world that I can control,” she says. “That’s my source of power.”

    Pitchfork: What would you say you're most afraid of right now?

    Mackenzie Scott: Losing loved ones to death.

    Pitchfork: Do you think about that a lot?

    MS: Yeah, it pretty much consumes me.

    Pitchfork: Is there an external cause for those thoughts?

    MS: Surprisingly no. I’ve lost both of my grandfathers, but nobody closer than that. For some reason I just feel as though I was predisposed to some sense of loss from childhood—my nightmares were about losing my parents to a car accident or a fire. I've become more acutely aware, as I age, that I have less time in my own body and with the people that I love.

    Pitchfork: "The Exchange" references losing a whole basement’s worth of precious memorabilia; it feels related to “Moon & Back”, from your first album, which was about a mother giving up her baby for adoption.

    MS: “The Exchange” is the story of my adoptive mother—I was adopted at birth, and she was adopted as well. “Moon & Back” was written from the perspective of my birth mother. I met her once; I believe I was 8. When I graduated from high school, my mom gave me a journal that my biological mother had written while she was pregnant with me. It was a tiny little spiral notebook. I read that and went to college and wrote “Moon & Back”. It was basically my perspective of her perspective when she wrote that journal.

    Pitchfork: Did your adoptive mother know your birth mother before you were adopted?

    MS: Yeah, my mom was leading a Bible study, and my birth mother attended and hand-selected her to be my adoptive mother; she actually approached her and told her that she wanted her to be the mother of her child—me. “The Exchange” is really everything that I’ve tried to articulate to the people that I love but have never been able to, for whatever reason. My crippling fear of mortality; my intense, intense love of life; my fear of losing my parents and seeing people that I love get old. That was my own way of saying that I’m drowning but I’m OK. But I’m drowning. [laughs]

    Pitchfork: This record is quite dark, and many songs express deeply ambivalent feelings about the people and ideas within them. On opener “Strange Hellos”, for example, you sing, “Heather, I dreamt that I forgave/ But that only comes in waves/ I hate you all the same.” Is Heather an actual person in your life?

    MS: Well, the person that I wrote that song about represents the full spectrum of human emotion, and how we're capable of loving and hating someone at the same time. While writing that song, I was reading Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, and he writes about getting your true loves and your true hates onto the paper. Up until that point, I felt a lot of hate, and I wanted to channel that into my songwriting, but I felt like maybe I shouldn't go that far as to say that I hated something or someone. But that book made me feel pretty fearless in a way that I hadn't felt before, at least in my songwriting.

    Pitchfork: Are there other songs on the album that explore hate? 

    MS: I feel like the record is about that love/hate spectrum. “Sprinter" is definitely about my love and appreciation for my upbringing, but also my desire to run away. I was raised in the Baptist Church in Georgia. My parents are very sweet, churchgoing people. They’re content in that; I wasn’t.

    “The church I was involved in growing up was so concerned with getting new people in through their doors that they alienated the people like me, who needed it and were there for the right reasons.”

    Pitchfork: What are your feelings about your religious faith now?

    MS: I consider myself to be a person of faith, but my relationship to God and spirituality is more mysterious than it ever was before. I’m a Christ-following mystic. I haven't abandoned my faith, but the perspective that I once held is limited. On this album, I wanted to speak about hypocrisy in the church, but also in my own life.

    Pitchfork: What are the best memories and lessons you associate with growing up Baptist?

    MS: I love the tradition. I have nothing but sweet memories of driving to church with my parents on Sundays and going to the same restaurant afterward. There's a nostalgia connected to that—the hymns, the community. I mean, I had friends at church, I was a Youth Group kid; it was something to do. And I love singing and worship. I just don't like the way that the megachurch does it—it started very small and became too big and exclusive in the strangest way. The church I was involved in growing up was so concerned with getting new people in through their doors that they alienated the people like me, who needed it and were there for the right reasons. They were concerned with numbers and monetary gain. The age-old story.

    Pitchfork: There is a remarkable lyric on “Son, You Are No Island”: “Son, you are no chasm/ Your void holds no mystique to be unearthed.” Who, or what, is that about?

    MS: That's my attempt at being omnipotent but still wounded—my attempt at being the voice of God. I was betrayed by someone I cared deeply about and it provoked me in a strange way. My instinct was to be punishing rather than wounding, so that I was in the position of power. So I wanted to make the voice of God sound as androgynous and as punishing as possible—but somehow, strangely comforting.


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    Rising: Fetty Wap: Too Many Hooks

    Fetty Wap: "Trap Queen" (via SoundCloud)

    Fetty Wap does not have 14 kids—and he has no idea why someone would write that on his Wikipedia page, either. “That’s a lot of kids,” the 24-year-old deadpans when asked about the bogus factoid, before clarifying that he has two children, a newborn daughter and a 4-year-old boy. “My son has been my number one supporter since I started,” he says with pride. After a few years of mixtape toiling, the artist born Willie Maxwell has reached the type of fame where Internet randos feel compelled to just make up shit about him.

    It’s all because of “Trap Queen”, his ode to love and drugs and money, which currently sits at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The track highlights his devilishly melodic singing voice, a warbling, lightning-shocked instrument seemingly descended from Rick James that sounds right at home on the radio following the success of fellow off-kilter hook man iLoveMakonnen. Though he’s received enthusiastic cosigns from Kanye and Rihanna, the native of New Jersey’s crime-strewn city of Paterson isn’t in it for the bright lights. “I don't do this to be famous—I do this so the people around me can live better, and I can live better with them,” he says. “A lot of people don't make it from where I’m from; when you got certain dreams, it's just something you see on TV.

    K Camp: "1Hunnid" [ft. Fetty Wap] (via SoundCloud)

    So when TV beckons for this artist, it’s not just a publicity opportunity as much as an unlikely fantasy realized. When I show up to Fetty’s hotel room in West Hollywood on a Saturday morning, he’s running late for a rehearsal for the MTV Movie Awards, where he’s set to perform “Trap Queen” with emo survivors Fall Out Boy. As he cashes a blunt outside an SUV (the driver won’t let him smoke inside), Fetty flaunts a star’s charisma dressed in a denim jacket, capris, “double nickel” Jordan 10’s, and a fedora with a bandana wrapped around the band. Instead of deflecting attention to his missing eye—he suffered from glaucoma as a young teenager and lost his left eye to the congenital disorder—his sockets are lined with tattoos. "If they gonna stare, I'm gonna give them something to look at,” he says. After Fetty piles into the car, he starts swiveling in his seat, clearly excited about the MTV gig—despite the fact that he's not quite sure who Fall Out Boy are. (On the awards show, Fetty generally manages to rise above the stunt collaboration, even while doing an air guitar move next to Pete Wentz. He’s scheduled to make more TV dreams come true with an appearance on “The Tonight Show” May 5.)

    Fetty Wap: "Show You" (via SoundCloud)

    At the moment, much of Fetty’s output can be heard on his constantly updated SoundCloud, which also includes tracks from his Remy Boyz crew. Following his recent signing with 300 Entertainment, the power-playing imprint co-founded by hip-hop icon Lyor Cohen, he’s working on a full-length album with the likes of Ty Dolla $ign, Atlanta rapper Rich the Kid, and Migos’ Quavo. Anticipation is high—a recent 15-second video of Fetty singing along with an effervescent new track called “Jug” has racked up over 600,000 views on YouTube—but he’s not psyched out. “It was either music or nothing—and we wasn't settling,” he says. “There's nobody like me.”

    Pitchfork: How did “Trap Queen” come about?

    Fetty Wap: I was rapping it at first, not singing it. Then I was like, “I wanna do something different.” So I just went in there, closed my eyes, and started singing. I freestyled the song. Seriously. I didn't stop until the beat stopped. And we put it out just like that. The next song, I tried it again. Whatever I hear, I just try it, and it just comes out. I go for how I feel at the moment. When the beat comes on and I can instantly say the words to it without having to think about it, I know that it is something I need to do.

    Then we pushed that song crazy on Instagram, Twitter, all day. We did it for two, three months straight—pushing it, pushing it, pushing it, pushing it, like a machine! It was really genuine work. We did it ourselves.

    Remy Boyz: "How We Do Thangs" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: When did you lose your eye? How old were you?

    FW: I can't remember how old I was exactly, but I know I had my second surgery when I was 12. I had to get the bones restructured because I was getting older and it was growing bigger. I was actually supposed to go again when I was 20 but by that time I just didn't care about that shit no more. I was still wearing the prosthesis, but then one day I was like, “I don't wanna wear this shit.” It used to hurt my eyes.

    Now, people don't look at me how they used to look at me. Now they see the guy who sings "Trap Queen". Like, "Oh, that's Fetty Wap. You mad cool, bro."

    Bankhead: "Party Girl" [ft. Fetty Wap] (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Do you feel like you're still adjusting to doing this as a career?

    FW: No. We all know this is what we gonna do. We ain't going back to being regular. I'm a rookie in this shit, but I’m learning quick.

    Pitchfork: "Trap Queen" recently passed Taylor Swift as the #1 most searched for song on Shazam. Does that feel surreal?

    FW: Well, I didn't pass her bank account.

    Pitchfork: I don't think anyone can pass her bank account.

    FW: I don't even plan on trying to. I don't feel surreal. I just feel blessed to see my name right there with these artists that have been out for a long time.


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    Show No Mercy: Every Noise at Once: The Obsessive Art of Prurient's Dominick Fernow

    Dominick Fernow has been releasing music as Prurient for almost 20 years; when I last interviewed him for Show No Mercy nearly a decade ago, he was already a scene veteran with a number of monikers and guises. Since that time, he’s branched out from a pure-noise approach, and the past few years have seen Fernow getting deeper into electronic music. The one-time Cold Cave member’s interest in electronics can be traced back as far as 2006’s brilliant Pleasure Ground, and more recently he’s released collections of dance music as Vatican Shadow on the respected UK imprint Modern Love, home to Andy Stott and Demdike Stare. He’s also folded more of that influence into Prurient, most clearly on 2013’s underrated Through the Window, but also on the eclectic 2011 efforts, Bermuda Drain and Time's Arrow.

    Fernow’s discography is long and knotty—I’d venture to say there are more than 150 releases of some size or another with his name on it—so it feels disingenuous or stupid to call any single release his best. But his new sprawling, 90-minute collection Frozen Niagara Falls, which we’re premiering below, made me seriously consider the superlative. It’s a record that ties together Fernow’s past and points toward something new. There are meditative moments followed by industrial implosions. Moments that will make you want to dance within stretches that will make you want to smash your head against a wall. More than a few spots may induce chills or even tears. It is pained and also ecstatically romantic; cinematic and very personal. It feels like a document of his transition from a shirtless teenager in a basement armed with nothing but microphones, an amplifier, and his voice, to the more recent guy in a custom leather jacket standing behind a mixer in a packed venue. The thing is, though, even in 2015, when Fernow is grown up and better dressed, you can expect him to be shirtless and screaming by the end of his performances—and that bloody-knuckle physicality is on display all over the new record, too.

    Pitchfork: You mix acoustic and electronic instruments on Frozen Niagara Falls—how did you arrive at the album’s sound?

    Dominick Fernow: The original idea was to make a 100% acoustically-generated album in that every sound source would be acoustic, whether it was an acoustic guitar or any percussive sounds that could be generated from rocks, stones, metals, field recordings, fire. I had this grandiose vision of doing this all at really high volumes in a barn in rural Pennsylvania. When I first started, all I had was a 12-string guitar and literally a bucket of rocks—and I might add that it took some real time to gather rocks in New York City.

    I always like to work with a restriction; placing restrictions on yourself is oftentimes a way to break through into some unfamiliar territory. And with noise, it's important to keep trying to step outside of whatever feels natural and comfortable to you. But in this instance, that all went to shit. The more we tried to restrict ourselves, the more we kept wanting to add things. At first it was only acoustic instruments. And then it was like, "OK, this really sounds like shit, we're gonna add effects." Then we were like, "What is the point of having acoustic instrumentation if we're just trying to make it sound electronic?" So we started adding electronics.

    The irony of it was the more I wanted to make it difficult, the more we went back to familiar territory. And a lot of the record is about accepting that nostalgic drive. Like: How do you make a record after you've been doing it for so long? At some point you're in danger of becoming a parody of yourself. It’s a strange thing when you start arriving at a point where you're dealing with your own history, whether you want to or not.

    "At the end of the day all we really want is another person. It’s very truly rare that people ever really want to be alone."

    Pitchfork: You were living in L.A. for a while and then you came back to New York, and a lot of old-school noise and underground metal folks from the city contribute to this record. Did your return to NYC inspire the album’s approach?

    DF: Absolutely. It's a New York record—but I had to leave New York in order to really make it. Having lived in L.A. and then traveling in Europe for about six months on tour, it really did call the idea of home into question, like, What does it mean to know a place? Having spent that much time in Europe, it completely shattered and challenged all of my perceptions about it. I grew to hate things I loved and vice versa. So much of it was about displacement in a mental sense: What does it mean to be taken away from a place?

    When I came back to New York I found myself almost exactly where I started, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It felt like home in the sense that it was familiar, though everything else about it had changed. So even though I spent time in New York, what does that even mean when all of these things I used to know are gone? The danger of nostalgia is that you forget everything that was bad about the reality of a place. So it was a return to New York, but I was also confronted with the reality that my past is gone.

    The title itself, Frozen Niagara Falls, is indicative of this impotent inversion of something that has so much violence and power. It's an inversion of nature, so it's representative of identity that's been destroyed or the essence of something that's been removed—and anyone who’s been to Niagara Falls has been drawn to the magnetism, curiosity, and wonder of what it would be like to jump in. In that sense, the album is more about acceptance rather than a return home. It's accepting who you are, even if that means it's always going to change. It’s this chaotic idea of the identity of something being destroyed but, within that destruction, it becomes clearer what the thing is in itself. So it's about destroying the romanticization of what I used to think about New York—and, in a strange way, that's what makes it feel like home.

    Pitchfork: Maybe I'm in the minority, but I find that Prurient songs themselves often have a romanticness in that they’re about a relationship with another person, whether it's one of domination or lust. How much are you in a sense writing love songs?

    DF: 100%. It makes such a good subject because it's so personal and intimate yet it's utterly generic and common. If you read the love poems of Rumi now, they're exactly applicable to anybody who is in any phase of a relationship. They're timeless. At the end of the day all we really want is just another person. It’s very truly rare that people ever really want to be alone.

    And it's so incredible that we don’t get to choose that part of our identity; beyond even sexuality, I don't think you choose to fall in love with someone. You just do or you don't. And that influences what I do so much, because it's not about love or sex in itself, but rather about everything that's around it and that fatalism, that inevitability. It’s just something that's out of your control and you're forced to deal with it. What drives me to make love songs involves mixing that lack of choice and vulnerability with this sound that might be considered aggressive to some people. The fact that it doesn't add up or make sense is why it's worth pursuing.

    "Fantasy is a more powerful way of talking about real life. If you try to say something like it’s your fucking diary, who's gonna read that?"

    Pitchfork: There’s a lot of delicate lyrics about relationships with harsh noises engulfing them on this album. There are also lyrics about wanting to crush a lover’s thorax.

    DF: Art should raise questions and not provide answers. In that sense, there has to be enough there for you to even care to ask a question. But I'm not bothered if people don't understand what I'm talking about, as long as they understand that I'm trying to talk about something. It's so uncool to try to tackle sexuality, but it's amazing to me that there isn't more to discuss because it's such an integral part of everyone's life. If you're trying to battle something where you have no choice in the matter, it's a futile experience.

    I remember watching some shrieking and screaming "extreme" bands in the '90s in Providence and saying to my friend, "God, it's so amazing that, at some point, the scream goes past the point of aggression and into hysteria." And he was like, "Yeah, a scream is a call for help." And that forever changed the way I thought about metal or hardcore or noise or anything. Every time I heard a scream I thought, "This is somebody who needs help" rather than as an act of aggression or power. For me, making those kind of inversions are essential if you're going to try to engage anyone.

    Pitchfork: One thing I find interesting about Prurient is that it can be more approachable than a lot of noise because it's so personalized. With this record, especially, your girlfriend took the cover photo, you edited some of the lyrics with your mother—it feels like a family affair. There's a vulnerability there. 

    DF: It feels more honest to me. Whether people will like it or not, these are real topics that affect people, and that's what makes the background of the sound have any sort potential value. Within music, there’s been so much said about the idea of "persona," and how it’s somehow connected to identity—how music is a projection of the someone you want to be. But in this case, it's kind of the opposite. It’s the deflation of the idea of worshipping anything. It's the inversion of a power figure—worshipping somebody who’s weak. In a sense, it’s coming from a Christian idea; taking that religious context and reformatting it into the spectrum of sexuality and love. There is a line on the album—"I promise I’ll only fuck prostitutes"—and a friend of mine was like, "I’ve definitely had that conversation."

    Let me put it this way: I think fantasy is a more powerful way of talking about real life. If you try to say something like it’s your fucking diary, who's gonna read that? You need exaggeration and fantasy in order for other people to feel comfortable in talking about your life, that's the way you try to connect with people. At least in terms of performing, the idea is not to drive people away. I want to share something. A lot of people kind of fall back on this defense like, "I don't care, I don't give a fuck." But I do care, I do give a fuck, that's why I'm here trying to share it with you. Given the context of Prurient, that is ultimately the motivation. The idea is to try to connect—even though it’s within a self-centered, masturbatory kind of world.

    The whole thing is flawed, even the performance itself. From the time you go onstage, there's an expectation and a hierarchy between you and the audience. You're on the stage, but they still have the power to determine what they want to give you back. You can't choose. You’re like, "I have to fulfill this idea that something's going to happen," so the whole thing is fake and staged at its core. One of the challenges is trying to overcome all of the artificiality of presenting something in the public, whether it’s putting out a record or doing a show or even writing—any act of making something public. The challenge is to try to somehow make that feel real even though the entire mechanism is fake. But if you get too real you push people away. You need the fantasy element.

    We've lost the ability to appreciate this form of drama where it’s somewhere in-between fiction and documentary, these exaggerations of something that's real. When you can get into that and read between the lines, it’s like poetry. It’s also about how it looks on the page. So rather than going all one direction or another, this grey area has the possibility to actually be more communicative, even though it’s full of lies.

    Pitchfork: As far as treading the line between diary and fiction: There are some elaborate song titles on the record, then there’s one that’s just called "Greenpoint", after the Brooklyn neighborhood, and the lyrics seem specific. It has details of someone wanting a friend to scatter his mother’s ashes, and lines like: "The East River isn’t romantic anymore, you know/ That’s where the suicides go." What is that song about?

    DF: It’s funny how people talk about the last couple of New York winters as being particularly harsh; but my first winter in the city seemed like the worst one ever. I can't exactly remember what year it was, but I remember it being intensely cold and windy in a way that I've never felt before.

    The story [in the song] is true, and the lyrics are about events that took place over a 15-year period. When I first came to New York, before I had an apartment, I was staying with a friend who lived [in Greenpoint], so that was my introduction to actually sleeping in New York City. Greenpoint was like an industrial area at that point. No one ever went there, and it always felt separated from the city, even in the physical sense that it’s more hilly and the streets are not laid out in a grid. It made me feel claustrophobic. 

    I lost so many friends in New York during those times to different circumstances: overdoses or just legitimate old-school, hard-boiled suicide. With this story, something clicked in my mind where this guy I lived with was one of the first friends I knew who had lost their parents, and it became this ghost story. He represented civility to me—he took me in and had a job. Then, over the years, he got really involved in drugs and would reappear and disappear. I would hear stories. It’s too much: Basically, the dude said he was going to kill himself for a long time.

    Then I was contacted later on by a mutual friend, who revealed to me that he was trying to find this guy because he had left the remains of his mother's ashes in his apartment and the mutual friend was so desperate to be free of them but he didn't know what to do. The guy said he always wanted to scatter his mother’s ashes in the East River, and it made sense in my mind all of the sudden that this fantasy of jumping off the bridge was actually an attempt to reunite and reconnect with his mother. I felt very haunted by that.

    If we're talking about romance, there’s the romanticization of suicide versus the reality of it. If you've ever lost anyone to suicide you know it's a very ugly thing to go through for a survivor. And with this idea of New York and being an artist here and the self destruction that it can represent—it’s such a dysfunctional place. It’s always said that New York is a work in progress, that it’s incomplete. But it’s a place of loss, when you think about it. There's so much change, and that's connected to loss rather than development. That's what this song is about. The idea of this guy and romanticizing the city and coming there, even though I was in fucking Greenpoint.


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    Articles: From Teklife to the Next Life

    The following story will appear in the forthcoming sixth issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review—subscribe to the magazine here.


    Teklife: Boiler Room Mix [2013] (via SoundCloud)

    The basement of DJ Spinn’s childhood home—the house where his mom still lives in Markham, Illinois—isn’t just his lifelong studio. It’s a living museum of footwork, juke, and ghetto house history. Its wood-panelled walls are decked in posters, faded from smoke but still intact, from parties stretching back nearly two decades. His favorite hangs near the staircase: it’s from 1997, his first time playing Chicago’s legendary Bud Billiken parade, the annual late-summer celebration where house music blasts through the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Somewhere upstairs, his mom has stored archives of videos from his grade school musicals and clarinet performances.

    Along with DJ Rashad, DJ Tre, DJ Manny, and Gant-Man, Spinn is one of the original members of Ghettoteknitianz, the ever-expanding footwork crew that would ultimately rebrand as Teklife in 2010 before proceeding to take over the worldwide dance underground. Every available space in Spinn’s basement studio is crammed with a vast array of mixers, MPCs, samplers, dusty 4-tracks—gear that was shared among the crew for years until they could afford their own. It’s all here, in this inconspicuous basement in the south suburb of Markham. The only thing missing is Rashad.

    A couple minutes down the Dixie Highway is Markham Roller Rink, where 10-year-old Spinn, born Morris Harper, learned how to dance and first encountered Rashad Harden, then 11 and already DJing at the rink and on WKKC’s precocious Saturday morning ghetto house showcase, “The Young People’s Network”. “Man, everybody used to be at Markham Roller Rink, that was the spot,” says Spinn, now 34. “Every Saturday they had the disco, and that’s where pretty much all my friends met up.”

    For decades Chicago was a premiere city for urban rollerskating culture: There were rinks all over the southside, and a signature style—“JB,” named for the James Brown remixes that often provided the soundtrack—characterized by super-technical footwork routines. Years later, Spinn, Rashad, and Tre would hunt for home-recorded tapes, circulating from rink to rink: Fitness Factory on 87th, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center on 76th, Glenwood Roller Rink near 195th. “We’d go to every roller rink around town, trying to soak up culture. Oh, they footworking like this over here. That was the club before the club,” Spinn recalls. Some have long since shuttered; Markham, one of the country’s first black-owned rinks, got bought out and renovated by the city in 2012. “There’s not the interest that there used to be,” says Tre. “Times have definitely changed.”

    Change has been a constant for the Teklife family in the last handful of years, and for Spinn especially. He’s rarely in the same place for too long these days. He and Rashad embarked with cautious optimism on their first tour abroad in early 2011, around the time of Planet Mu’s Bangs & Works Vol. 1 compilation, which served as footwork’s international debut. They were Teklife’s evangelists, and they were going to make you a believer.

    “It was back to baby steps—back to when we first started playing and people was like, What the fuck is this shit?” Spinn laughs. They had their ways: an arsenal of what they called “grease” tracks—guaranteed party pleasers and familiar four-on-the-floor patterns—sandwiched around the raw shit. But it turned out Europe liked the raw shit, the tracks, the stuff these guys were making in each other’s basements to bring to Battle Groundz every Sunday. The uninitiated rarely knew how to dance to it—first-time footwork attempts could sometimes be reminiscent of that cybergoth dance party YouTube video—but they could feel it. Tre had no idea anyone outside of the country knew his music until Rashad reported back from Paris and Belgium: People were shouting his name.

    DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn at Brooklyn's 285 Kent on New Year's Eve, 2013. Photo by Erez Avissar.


    Spinn and Rashad were soon touring around the world throughout spring and fall, then part of summer, a little winter. Spinn learned from Rashad’s mistakes regarding British immigration: “If you ever need to get into England, just say you’re going to a wedding,” he says, laughing. “I’m cool now, I got a work visa, but back then I had a whole script.” Spinn has stories on stories: he and Rashad, tearing through Europe, Asia, South America, preaching the word of Chicago and having a blast. They were sketching a blueprint for the rest of Teklife to follow, cobbling together a diehard global fanbase—making it up as they went along, but having each other’s backs. 

    Spinn cracks up remembering their first trip to Kiev, where some kids in the street had clearly never seen a black person before and where, after a successful show, he challenged Rashad to a drinking contest. “I wake up and Rashad is splashing me with this little bucket and throws me some pants. Bro, ya got drunk and pissed your pants on the floor! I said, Whaaat! He said, Bro, we got pictures. But beyond that—you gotta know I love your pussy ass, ‘cause I went and walked in motherfucking 100 degrees to get your ass a pair of pants! And if you don’t know nothing about Kiev, it’s hills—fuck San Francisco, like mountain hills! That’s when I found out whiskey is my demon liquor, and I ain’t never got that drunk again—well, OK, I got that drunk at South by Southwest last year.” Tre nods knowingly: “That was like The Hangover all over again.”

    DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn in Austin, Texas during SXSW in March 2014. Photo by Erez Avissar.


    But back home, reality set in, always. It was never just about Spinn or Rashad. From day one, the good of the crew at large has trumped any individual measures of success: If they were going to get on, they were going to get on together. You don’t have to look much further than the tracklist of Double Cup, Rashad’s 2013 magnum opus, an album that redefined footwork to the masses as something limitless, nuanced, unprecedentedly smooth. Listed boldly, not in the fine print but as featured artists, are Earl, Taye, Manny, DJ Phil, and Teklife’s Bay Area constituent, Taso; Spinn is featured on eight of the record’s 14 tracks. It was Rashad’s album, but it was everybody’s album—it was a Teklife album.

    Some of Teklife’s members are separated in age by more than 10 years. DJ Earl, who started producing at 12 and joined the crew in 2008, is 24 now; Taye, the youngest, is 20. For them, Teklife’s first generation served as big brothers as much as collaborators. Earl and Taye were welcomed into the crew with open arms, from the time they were wide-eyed admirers who’d come to see their icons turn Battle Groundz out every Sunday, watching Rashad run back tracks over and over again at the behest of the dancers. Rashad’s first words to both of them, they recall with a laugh: “How long you been making tracks, bro?” He was the guy who’d made tracks that had changed their perspective on music, and his faith in them gave them confidence in themselves. That sense of mentorship has accompanied the music for as long as Teklife’s existed. On “R House”, a 2011 collaboration between Rashad and Manny, a sample from a 1987 house track, Rhythm Controll’s “My House”, gets flipped to a defiant plural possessive: This is OUR house!“It’s family first—period,” says Spinn emphatically. “You gotta find somebody like you to be like you if you want it to carry on.”

    Rashad’s absence carves out a tangible space in Earl’s basement studio, the Double Cup vinyl looming quietly over his computer monitor. Less than two years ago, Rashad was hopping down the stairs on one leg after a serious car accident that forced him to cancel his European fall tour, so he, Earl, and Taye could record “Bombaklot”, their contribution to the Hyperdub 10.1 compilation. You can hear Rashad in little mannerisms shared naturally among the crew: the specific way he’d say “bro,” or the regular invocation of his mantra, “no lacking.” “Sometimes at shows, I just hear his voice in my head, like, Ay dog, you better kill!” says Earl. His voice is still there in vocal samples on tracks spanning decades; the crew preserved troves of his unreleased tracks across their hard drives, flash drives, and mixtapes.

    But on April 26, 2014, Rashad was found unresponsive in an apartment on Chicago’s westside, and he died from what was later ruled a drug overdose. After having been denied entry into Canada the night before, he was supposed to meet Spinn in Detroit; they were playing a show with Taye and ghettotech legend DJ Godfather, who had helped Rashad and Spinn coin the “Ghettoteknitianz” moniker a decade prior. Rashad didn’t show up in Detroit that day. The crew would never see him again.

    Nobody is exactly sure how to talk about Teklife without Rashad, because that was never supposed to happen.

    Spinn had seen Rashad at Markham Roller Rink for a few years, but their official introduction wasn’t until Spinn’s first day of his freshman year at Thornwood High School. They bonded over the boombox in their homeroom class, the resident music dudes. Spinn showed Rashad—already a pretty established DJ for a kid not yet old enough to drive—some mixes he’d made from meticulously blending specific sections of other people’s mixtapes together with a setup he’d concocted from his mom’s entertainment system. When Rashad revealed he had turntables at his house, Spinn’s world truly came to life. He laughs remembering his first time visiting Rashad’s place, his mind blown by the two-channel mixer and drum machine, before finding out Rashad was grounded when his dad came home early and Rashad tried to hide behind the refrigerator.

    The pair held dance practice on a daily basis, and Rashad showed Spinn how to use turntables and make beats. Everyone was broke; if you had gear, you shared it with your friends. Tre brought around his MPC for years until Spinn could afford his own; DJ Malcolm had a bunch of MIDI keyboards; they’d ditch school to come through and mess with them. “We ain’t know what we was doing,” says Spinn. “We just knew that if we could say bitch and muthafucka and put it in keys—oh, it was over! We was having fun, we just wanted to be young and do something.”

    Rashad and Spinn in Monterrey, Mexico in March 2014. Photo by Erez Avissar.


    They idolized ghetto house heroes DJ Milton and DJ Deeon, guys who were throwing parties in the projects, where Rashad, Spinn, and Tre, three dudes from the suburbs, stuck out like sore thumbs. They joined the prestigious House-O-Matics dance crew, a name shouted out constantly in ghetto house tracks throughout the ‘90s and beyond, and were introduced to DJ Clent and RP Boo, who—along with Traxman—comprise footwork’s holy trinity. Boo played them some tracks he’d been working on that left their heads spinning. Rashad and Spinn started testing out their own tracks, but only when they were sure they were cold enough. The dancers apprised the DJs about what made them go off, which informed the tracks—a cycle that sped the evolution of the sound. Rashad and Spinn DJed now-legendary parties at the Elks Lodge on 51st and Prairie thrown by the Gangster Disciples, though all gangs were welcome. As long as no one broke the peace, no one got their ass beat. “We always had these stupid little hurdles: Oh, you not from the city, you from the ’burbs, I’m from 79th, you from Markham, you know, the same stuff that go on today. But these were the proving grounds—there wasn’t no MySpace, you actually had to go to these places to make your name.”

    DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad: Track Factory Juke/Footwork Mix [2004] (via SoundCloud)

    Making a name: The concept is central to so much of Chicago music history, especially music that comes from the city’s consistently broken south and west sides. If there’s a persistent fallacy about the city, it’s that there is a unified Chicago identity its residents can claim en masse. But Chicago is fractured, geographically, socioeconomically, spiritually. In many ways, it’s a city disowned from its own realities: It’s white kids who’ve never had a reason to venture farther south on the Red Line than Sox–35th giddily hollering “Chiraq!” And if Chicago doesn’t give a fuck about you, it doesn’t pretend to. It produces brilliance, but doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it. If you want to do something special, you will have to do it yourself with whatever is at your disposal. Even a coveted Kanye co-sign is hardly a guarantee. There’s an air of cool resignation here: This is how things are, this is how they will always be. Success here puts a target on your back; when you get some money, you move on to greener coasts. So it goes.

    Even today, some parts of the city are functionally invisible to others. It’s been that way for the better part of a century, since the Great Migration established Chicago’s black and immigrant working class and multiplied the city’s black population fivefold. The Chicago Housing Authority grew increasingly restrictive, squeezing the majority of its new black citizens into an overcrowded stretch of slums along State between 18th and 39th known as the Black Belt. Chicago blues emerged as a voice of overworked, underpaid black creatives tired of being relegated less and less space. “I’m gonna tell you what the blues is: When you ain’t got no money, you got the blues,” Howlin’ Wolf said to preface a 1966 performance of “How Many More Years”. Decades later, the 1979 Comiskey Park Disco Demolition Night made it clear that the city’s loudest and most visible demographic didn’t have room for music that wasn’t straight, white, rock ‘n roll; that same year, the Warehouse—where house music was in its nascence—made room.

    Ghetto house was a shout from the country’s most extreme public housing redevelopment project, constructed by the CHA when it was convenient and then torn down when it wasn’t; maybe the city wanted to pretend like its less-inviting neighborhoods didn’t exist, but tracks like Parris Mitchell’s 1995 anthem “Ghetto Shout Out!!” wrote these places back into Chicago’s history. And yet, there’s a sense of dissociation that doesn’t seem to go away. There are stretches of Chicago full of people who have, in all likelihood, never heard a footwork track in their life, completely cut off from the genius coming out of their own city.

    Footwork as a culture rests on that foundation, and in all its complexities, it reflects the sometimes contradictory nature of its hometown. It’s technical but resourceful, reality-grounded but avant-garde, community-oriented yet competitive, globally scalable but Chicago to the core. It’s a positive legacy left by a city that never did shit for you, but remains a part of you all the same.

    “I’m Chicago all day because this is my life. It’s the place that made me,” says Spinn. “That’s always been important to us: namesake. To leave your mark. That’s just the school we come from, the old school. People nowadays, they’ll skirmish their name up just to get a dollar. Nah, man—I ain’t about to compromise my integrity and how I feel on the inside about myself for nothing. Ain’t nothing like respect.” In the case of Teklife, that legacy is a mark that could not have been made alone.

    By 2013, Teklife’s presence was solidly established in Chicago and was extending exponentially worldwide. Rashad and Spinn were touring half the year, returning with a redoubled seriousness each time. Earl, Taye, Tre, Manny, and the rest of the quickly expanding crew were starting to get national and international bookings themselves, armed with flash drives full of straight heat lent from Rashad with love. New to the roster, Taso invited Rashad and Spinn to San Francisco to track out for the winter. They began working on the batch of tracks that would ultimately lead to Double Cup in a window-filled studio overlooking the Bay, all the way out to Oakland—and the tracks were magical.

    “We was smoking so much fucking weed, getting all fucked up,” Spinn says, laughing. “I felt like I was floating on a cloud—looking out the window, feeling like we was flying! And it was just like, This the direction right here.” Their signature triplet patterns (established well before EDM-trap made them trendy) were countered with a half-time, West Coast–inspired pace. “It was versatility, showing all the different angles of footwork and the influences they picked up over the years from traveling,” says Earl. “And it was a statement that footwork is not what the media was making it out to be—hardcore, or unproduced, or over-produced, or whatever. It was dope producers from Chicago pushing this culture, and this was just one way to do it.”

    Double Cup was a game-changer. It was footwork like the world had never heard it before: an album in the truest sense, in a genre that had often felt too ephemeral for the format. It was footwork you could wash dishes to, footwork you could make-out to, footwork that could charm the most conservative of ears. It thrashed and bucked: I don’t give a fuck about you, I don’t give a fuck about myself, a Juice sample spat on “I Don’t Give a Fuck”, hi-hats spraying like gunfire. It swooned: On “Let U No”, a breathless Floetry sample felt lightheaded and swirling like a drunken first kiss. Mostly, it soared.

    The album cover was no coincidence: a jet’s-eye view of Chicago’s golden-orange, sodium vapor–lit grid—the broken city blurring together, for the moment, into a glowing, triumphant composite. And though this music was unmistakably Chicago, it invited the world to join, with a generousness the city rarely shows its own people. To hear the flushed, syrupy Rhodes stabs of “Feelin” blasting out of sweaty Brooklyn warehouses was its own triumph: snobby East Coast hipsters losing their collective shit to the sounds of a black Midwestern avant-garde that had long gone uncelebrated but kept going anyway. It was a win for a city in serious need of a win, and for a dude who more than deserved it.

    Two-thousand fourteen was going to be Teklife’s year—not just for its primary ambassadors Rashad and Spinn, but for the entire crew. They destroyed SXSW, playing more than 20 shows. “We were just toasting to success,” says Tre. “We had a ball, and I knew everything was going to be huge from that point forward. I would just think of the days when we would be in Spinn’s house for hours, up all night just making tracks—all that work is starting to pay off.”

    Earl and Taye were both in the midst of prolific streaks, establishing themselves as promising voices of Teklife’s second generation. Spinn and Manny went back out to the West Coast. Rashad was bouncing around, touring Japan in January, coming home for a day or two, heading off to South America. Still, he was in constant contact with the rest of the crew. Tre remembers Rashad Skyping him for hours from Brazil, talking about how they were finally in the positions for their sons to be set. “When he got back, he was super tired, you could just hear it in his voice,” says Spinn. “I was like, Bro, I think you should get some sleep, and he was like, Nah man, I’m good, I got shit to do. We had a little bit of time before we went on tour together, and I ain’t think nothing of anything, it was all good.”

    Rashad couldn’t get into Canada, so Spinn went on ahead. They planned to meet in Detroit for the next day’s show. Spinn didn’t know Rashad was heading back to Chicago first; their last conversation was about customs. The next day Spinn took a train from Toronto to Detroit, anticipating that he’d meet Rashad there; his phone didn’t work in Canada. Boylan, another Teklife member and a science teacher at Rashad and Spinn’s old high school, finally got through. Spinn knew it was going to be about Rashad. “He got on FaceTime and told me what he thought was going on, and I’m on the train trying not to freak out and cuss him out. What are you telling me, bro? Where is Rashad right now?You telling me what you think is going on, but until I know somebody seen him and can tell me this is what this is…”

    Earl was at home, having woken up with a strange feeling. Then he got the call. “I couldn’t even think straight,” he remembers. “I called Spinn, and he was in transit to go meet Taye. And then Taye called me like, Bro, please don’t tell me this is real. And that was one of the most painful moments of my life.”

    In Detroit, the promoters were planning to cancel the show, but Spinn declined. He didn’t want to sit in his hotel room in silence, he wanted to play some fucking tracks. “Looking at Taye in his eyes, the young dude, how he was looking—I know he needed this too,” he says. “I couldn’t fucking digest it at the time. Because I didn’t get to see him. And I never got to see him again.” Rashad’s family opted not to have a funeral.

    That night went… well, it’s hard to say. Taye’s voice shrinks to barely a whisper revisiting it. They got through the show. If the crowd hadn’t known about Rashad when they got there, they knew when they left. DJ Godfather picked them up afterward and they talked for a while. “It was a lot of love in Detroit,” Spinn recalls. “Everybody was feeling this shit. And through the somberness of it all, I was smiling on the inside a little bit.” But everything had changed.

    Spinn in his basement studio in the Chicago suburbs. Photo by David Sampson.


    For a while, nobody made tracks. It wasn’t even an option. “Everything I ever learned from Rashad hit me at the same time,” says Earl. “You hit the studio and gather your thoughts, and I sat down and I was so overtaken, I couldn’t even remember how to make tracks. I’m serious. I sat down and was like, How do I do this without Rashad?” Spinn couldn’t think about it either: “Fuck that shit, I didn’t know what to make a track about after that. You know, we get fucked up and we have a good time and we give you an instruction book to have a fuckin’ great time.”

    Rashad’s autopsy results were inconclusive for months. Ultimately, the cause of death was ruled an accidental overdose, with the toxicology reports citing heroin, cocaine, and alprazolam (Xanax) intoxication. Spinn maintains that it wasn’t until shortly before Rashad’s death that anyone had much of an idea that he was using hard drugs. “Things started adding up,” says Spinn. “Behavior. Being real sleepy. Never coming ‘round—or how he was being a little different when he did, a little weird.” For months, Spinn wrote it off because of all the touring and late nights and gigs; he was fatigued and near exhaustion himself. But now he realizes that he was just too close to see it: “I was with him every single day.”

    News of Rashad’s death rocked Chicago and beyond, in every city that had ever been blessed with a DJ set from the Teklife ambassador. Anyone tangentially involved in dance music had a Rashad story. The night after his death, I heard “I’m Gone”, a highlight off his 2011 album Just a Taste, ring out across an unusually somber Bushwick club, with its heartbroken Gil Scott-Heron sample: “I left three days ago, but no one seems to know I’m gone.”

    DJ Rashad: "I'm Gone" (via SoundCloud)

    Tributes sprang up across the world: a Boiler Room homage in London with sets from his close friends and collaborators at Hyperdub, heartfelt written remembrances from DJs and music lovers worldwide, endless memorial mixes. But Rashad’s death was felt nowhere sharper than in Chicago: His loss was the city’s loss. April had been ushered in cruelly with the death of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house, a true pioneer who’d remained active in Chicago’s dance music scene for more than 30 years. Losing Frankie meant losing one of the most essential parts of Chicago’s cultural history. But losing Rashad, somehow, cut deeper. Even with all he’d achieved, it was painfully obvious we’d only gotten a glimpse of his brilliance.

    Months later, out in California with Taso, Spinn heard a song playing on CVS’ speakers and immediately knew it was Rashad talking to him. It was a sample he’d never placed before, from an old Rashad track called “Burn That Bitch”. He went back to the studio and flipped the same sample as a tribute. The track would eventually become Spinn’s contribution to Next Life, the Teklife compilation-cum-memorial released in late 2014 on Hyperdub, the proceeds of which go to Rashad’s son Chad. Spinn and Earl had a talk—“a very real talk,” Earl recalls. “And he said, You know what Rashad would say if he was here: Man, what y’all sad for? Keep making the music, no lacking, just keep going and make sure Teklife is where it needs to be. It’s the message that he’s instilled in all of us, and because he’s not here, we want to be that spirit.” For the first time in Spinn’s adult life, he was making music without Rashad as his other half.

    Rashad and Spinn in Monterrey, Mexico in March 2014. Photo by Erez Avissar.


    Less than three months later, almost like a condolence from the universe, Spinn became a dad. His girl asked him to choose a name. “I remember having this little disagreement with Rashad before he passed—mostly I had to question him about some drug shit—and he opened up to me about some shit that I didn’t know about,” says Spinn. “He asked me: After this shit, man, am I still the godfather of your son? And I’m like, What? Bro, shut the fuck up, that’s a dumb-ass question. After he passed, that moment kept playing back in my head. And that’s the moment I knew.”

    Rashad Harper was born on July 14, 2014. Chad, who just turned 10, adores him. “Man, he couldn’t wait to meet my son, that shit was adorable,” Spinn smiles. “They got to be friends one day, that’s just inevitable. They got an age difference, but shit, that’s the little homie.” Spinn still needs to drop off Chad’s birthday gift, since he’s been out of town for so long. “All he wanna do is make music, so I gotta go get him this drum machine from Gant. He’s got Rashad’s old drum machine.” Chad is now the same age Rashad was when he started to DJ.

    DJ Spinn. Photo by David Sampson.


    Life has gone on because it’s had to. Earl and Taye traveled to Seoul this winter, following the trail Rashad and Spinn blazed—they can’t get enough of footwork in Asia, dancing and all. They’re both in grind mode, prepping for their respective debut albums. Tre’s putting the finishing touches on his next EP, The Underdog, along with a split EP with Earl. A Teklife-produced rap album—Live From Yo Momma’s House, in collaboration with Treated Crew’s Mic Terror—is in the works for later this year. They’re working out how to more thoroughly incorporate footwork dancing into their live shows, something Rashad had been advocating for a while.

    Their work ethic has been keen for years, but their mindset is sharper now that both Teklife’s legacy and Rashad’s rest with them. They all still feel his presence: “When I make music, I do it as if he was sitting here listening,” says Taye. “I do it with everything he taught me. He lives with us.” Rashad’s influence on Teklife’s second generation isn’t just musical; his example helped shape Earl and Taye into the driven, positive, and deeply loyal adults they have become. “My life would not be the same without him,” says Earl. “Rashad always put everybody before him. He was for everybody. As long as you were positive and living to your fullest potential, he was willing to help you out. We want to be that spirit that carries on his message.”

    Spinn doesn’t really like talking about DJ Spinn, singular. “Oh, I’m DJ Spinn, and this the DJ Spinn show—nah, I don’t really even like to say my name that much, it’s weird,” he admits. “You know who I am—it’s a Teklife show.” But he is now Teklife’s most prominent ambassador, a spotlight he is learning to stand in without his lifelong foil beside him. His first official solo release since Rashad passed, an EP called Off That Loud—which includes a track featuring Rashad and Danny Brown—will be released on Hyperdub this summer, along with a collaborative release with Canadian artist Jessy Lanza; his debut full-length on Hyperdub is due out later in the year. The snippets he previews, filling every wood-paneled corner of his mom’s basement, are transcendent. There’s live instrumentation from Spinn’s cousin, drifting organically before coalescing into an impossibly detailed beat. Another track features breathtaking vocals from house-pop singer Kiesza that sounds like a visitation from Aaliyah’s ghost; it’s 160 BPM but barely registers as footwork at all until, suddenly, it hits you. The album is the next chapter in Teklife’s history.

    Spinn bears the weight of Rashad’s absence with almost startling grace. He is generous with his memories of his best friend and almost always punctuates them with laughter and deep-drawling Rashad impressions. In these memories the two often blur together into one person, picking up where the other left off; when Rashad would fall asleep at the MPC—as he did regularly—Spinn would keep working ahead. People don’t really do groups anymore, Spinn notes, especially not in Chicago. “People break up and carry on, fight over stupid shit,” he notes. “Rashad was the most loyal person I knew. He was real. You might not like everything he did—we argued, that was me and him! I needed that rough-edged cat around me. He was never out here to betray nobody. He was always a real friend, even to people that weren’t real friends to him. He was loyal, and generous like a motherfucker. He was a part of my whole life.”


    This story will appear in the forthcoming sixth issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review—subscribe to the magazine here.


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    Paper Trail: Definition of Real: Scarface's <i>Diary of a Madman</i>

    Paper Trail features interviews with authors of notable modern music books.


    In the first three pages of Scarface’s new memoir, Diary of a Madman, a young Brad Jordan downs an entire bottle of his mother’s heart medication. "If you'd asked me then, I would have told you straight up: I was ready to go," he writes. He also recalls slashing his wrists with a box cutter, and leveling a loaded gun at his head. These grim recollections won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows the lyrics to the rapper’s 1991 track that gives this book its namesake: “Ain’t no use in trying/ We might as well face it, we were all born dying.” But seeing it all laid out on the page is stark and chastening. In the end, he chooses life, albeit just barely: "If you really want to go, dying is the easy part," he muses at the close of the first chapter. "It's the living that's hard. That shit takes a lifetime. And it will test you every step of the way."

    Coauthored by hip-hop writer Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, Diary of a Madman tells Scarface’s life story in the hard, blunt-spoken language of his verses. There is lots to chew on here, with details ranging from his earliest musical memories (the band he most wanted to be in was KISS, and his first album was Boston's 1976 debut), to his days running drugs and joining the Geto Boys ("We didn't know each other outside of music and there wasn't any trust in the group, so we all brought our guns" on tour, he writes), to his storied solo career. He makes abundantly clear the degree to which one hustle ran into the other, especially in the early days: "The Geto Boys had a hit album in stores, and I was still running back and forth out of town filling up five or six crack houses,” he remembers.

    There are walk-ons and cameos from all the costars in Jordan’s life: 2Pac pops up in his paranoid Death Row prime to record his verse on Scarface's biggest solo hit, "Smile", shortly before getting shot; rap mogul Lyor Cohen swings through, a deus ex machina with a big checkbook looking to liberate Scarface from contract woes with the Houston label Rap-A-Lot. But the only consistent presence in the book—the only character that feels real—is Scarface himself, a problem he diagnoses poignantly late in the book: “I'm only just now coming out of my shell and learning to deal with people,” the 44-year-old reflects. “I'm only just now learning to be a normal person."

    When he picks up the phone to talk to me about the book, though, he is cheerful and gregarious. He’s on his way to the mechanic to get his tires replaced. “I slid out and turned my car around in a full circle on the freeway,” he explains, before clarifying, “I didn’t mean to do it.”

    Pitchfork: What motivated you to write this book?

    Scarface: I never really wanted to write a book in the first place. Never intended to do such. I feel like I wasted a lot of my life, so I didn't feel like it was worthy of a book. Benjamin and I fought like brothers putting this together. I mean, that book dug into my life, man. I wouldn't dare talk to anybody about my life at this level.

    Pitchfork: You say you think people sleep on your role as a producer in nearly every album you’ve been involved in. What do you think is your best-produced project?

    S: My first album, Mr. Scarface Is Back, because I did it by myself. I did a lot of the Geto Boys shit, too, but that one was my baby.

    Pitchfork: Since you are such a producer who pays attention to other people's shit, too, what are a few records that stand out to you from the past couple years?

    S: Let's take a look at what the Arctic Monkeys did, let's look at the Coldplay album—not [Ghost Stories], the one before it, [Mylo Xyloto]. That was a huge album! I love the way that album was put together. Shit, I'm trying to think of some fucking classic bodies of work. I mean, let's look at Kendrick Lamar's shit. And Schoolboy Q's shit.

    Pitchfork: You also cite Lou Reed and Elton John/Bernie Taupin as your songwriting heroes. What's a song by each of those artists that you admire and why?

    S: [sings] "I'm waiting for my man/ 26 dollars in my hand." I love the Velvet Underground, bro. You know what really made me fall in love with Lou Reed, though? His story. He said he didn't know how to play guitar—somebody taught him some chords and he turned those chords into songs. “Sweet Jane” is my favorite song by Lou Reed the writer, at least the Velvet Underground Lou Reed. That shit blows me away. That is the epitome of songwriting. I didn't name Billy Joel, but I think he's a fucking brilliant writer, too: "If that's movin' up, then I'm movin' out."

    For Elton John and Bernie Taupin, it's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road": "Where the dogs of society howl/ You can't hide me in your penthouse!/ I'm going back to my plough/ Back to the howling old owls in the woods." I love those kind of words. [sings] "I'm not a present for your friends to open/ This boy's too young to be singing the blues!" It's fucking so goddamn brilliant, man! Come on, dawg!

    Pitchfork: I could literally listen to you quote lyrics from Elton John songs all day.

    S: [laughs] “I can see those red taillights heading for Spain/ I can see Daniel waving goodbye." How brilliant is that? I tap into the part of lyricism that means the writer was not scared to go there. If you say something so fucking profound and made it look so fucking easy, I fuck with you. Look at that Nas song that he did backwards, [“Rewind”]. He rapped a fucking song backwards, man. I love him like my birth brother, but I hate that! I will never ever in life be able to do that. To me, Nas is the best fucking rapper ever. It may have took him a fucking career to write that song, but he did it so effortlessly.

    Pitchfork: One of the themes in the book is your ambivalence about James Prince, the founder of Rap-A-Lot Records—about what he gave you, as well as what he cost you. On the one hand, you clearly admired him, but at the same time, there are these really brutal moments, like when you realize you're not getting paid properly by Rap-A-Lot. You spend a lot of time unpacking those feelings. Was that therapeutic?

    S: I would say it was more painful than therapeutic, because the role that he played in my life was that of an idol, my big brother. That was who I most wanted to pattern my life behind. That was someone that I looked up to, someone that I continue to look up to, to the present day. But at the same time, when I look at it, I’m like, “Fuck, man, I sold 12 million records by myself, with no fucking help.” However the contract read, I don't give a fuck, he should have said, “If you sold 12 million records on my label, I gotta make sure you straight regardless.” That’s how it should be. Because I would have done that to him if it were the other way around.

    Pitchfork: And you never got that payday from Rap-A-Lot, did you? 

    S: Nah. But Def Jam paid the fuck out of me.

    Pitchfork: You talk a lot about your regrets on the business side; the music business is mostly discussed in terms of what it took away. 

    S: It took away my life! It took away my time with my family, my kids. It took away my relationships. There are a lot of regrets. That'll weigh heavy on you.

    Pitchfork: The entire last chapter of the book is about your life as a parent, and now a grandparent. Since you weren't able to be there with your own kids, what's it been like to go through all this again now?

    S: I still have a busy life, but I get a chance to talk to my grandkids; I get a chance to see my grandkids. I guarantee you I'm gonna be a way better grandfather than I was a father. And the beautiful part about this is my children don't hold it against me. I have a daughter that's 22, and we never really got a chance in the beginning, we never saw eye-to-eye. But now that we live together, she knows her dad and she's a lot more understanding and loving toward me. Girls are really resentful to their fathers when they don't get a chance to spend time with them, but now that my daughter knows everything I say damn near will come true or damn near is what it is, she loves me for that, she respects me for it, and I feel the same way with her.


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    Articles: The Charmed (and Charming) Life of Shamir Bailey

    Shamir: "I Know It's a Good Thing" (via SoundCloud)

    It’s drizzling in Las Vegas and Shamir Bailey is feeling a little beat, so he suggests we go to a crepe place in Tivoli Village that he thinks of as a second home. The Village, a $700-million shopping complex built against the wind of the country’s deepest recession in 70 years, is exactly what I think of when I think of Vegas: perfect cobblestone streets, stone fountains basking in neon light, old-world elegance on big nightclub pills.

    “They know me here,” Shamir says, opening the door. This turns out to be true: As soon as we walk in, he is rushed for hugs by two people, including the restaurant’s owner, a tough Bulgarian woman named Agnes, who Shamir is friendly enough with to know where she keeps her pack of Capris and bum one without having to ask.

    The restaurant has that airplane-hangar look, with exposed ductwork and polished concrete floors and a hollow in the back where a jazz band plays for ambience. Agnes has a new root beer for Shamir to try and presents it to him like a sommelier. Shamir, a 20-year-old domestic whose idea of a good time is knitting and listening to records, twists the cap off and sips. He approves.

    I idle and grin while they discuss the prospect of throwing a party for Ratchet, Shamir’s debut album. A party here would be poetry for Shamir, who used to sit where the jazz band is now with an acoustic guitar in hand, strumming his lonely little ballads and dreaming of country music stardom. It’s also where he later played the drum machine with his toes in a project that him and his friend Christina called Anorexia, which Shamir says caught on because people thought it was novel to see two black kids doing a punk thing. The crepe place is his woodshed, his proving ground, the garden of his creative youth. It’s where he came up.

    We sit down to order: the Provence for me, the Mexican for him. Shamir wears skinny blue pants and an oversized sweatshirt with the words “SOUTH BARK” written under a row of dogs—an outfit that requires spirit to wear and brio to pull off. His high-school class voted him Best Dressed and Most Likely to Appear on the Cover of Vogue Magazine, which hasn’t happened yet, though he has made it to Vogue.com, and people really do seem to like the way Shamir dresses.

    As for high school, Shamir didn’t like it, which he feels guilty about, because nothing verifiably bad happened: no bullying, no ostracism, no being shoved into the locker. If anything, his complaint is that people liked him, albeit in a reductive, petlike way. “It was always ‘Shamir With the Guitar’ or ‘Shamir With the Hair,’” he says—a quirky sprite who dances through life and leaves a spray of emoji diamonds in his wake. “I wanted to be a rebel so badly,” he adds, then sighs and moves on.

    Ratchet is being released by the English label XL, which is no small deal. Vampire Weekend is signed there, as is FKA twigs and a whole host of other progressive, upmarket artists who blur the line between what people think of as indie and what they think of as mainstream. Sitting across the table from Shamir, I’m struck by his face: doe eyes, pretty features, a neat pile of dreadlocks, and a bullring that ties it all together like a dining-table centerpiece. It’s a big, sellable face—the kind of face that seems to express an idea. A year and a half ago, you would have to go to the fitting room at a Clark County Dress for Less to see it. Now it’s two stories tall in Times Square.

    And then there’s the matter of his voice, a high, fluttery sound halfway between a woman and a man’s imitation of a woman. Of course, Shamir isn’t an imitation of anything, which has given him trouble before. He tells me about the choir teacher who insisted his singing was all an act—it was too implausible, too unnatural to be natural. After dinner, we stand under the awning with one of Agnes’ Capris, and I tell him about how I remember my dad sitting in an armchair with his legs crossed, a glass of wine in one hand and a long, thin Capri in the other, pink rose on its filter, saying that it took a real man to smoke a woman’s cigarette. Shamir laughs, but both of us know that my dad’s cigarette is a matter of choice, and Shamir’s voice isn’t.

    Walking to the car, we pass a small playground where a girl is rocking back and forth on some kind of spring-loaded metal horse. Skeletons of condos rise above the park in the moonlight. The idea of looking out of an apartment window to see so many children and shoppers seems potentially disorienting; a home inside of a park inside of a store. Shamir tells me he’d like to move here someday.

    We drive home in the dark. Shamir doesn’t live in Las Vegas proper, but in North Las Vegas, an afterthought of residential subdivisions and light-industrial zoning that peters out into the foothills north of town. He grew up around here, and though he has seen the lights of New York and Los Angeles, he has no inclination to leave. At a bend in the road, he points out a patch of darkness that he says is a pig farm. 

    “So there are just pigs running around?” I ask.

    “No,” he says. “The pigs are somewhere inside. But there are goats. Cats sometimes, too.”

    Like any young artist entering the public eye, Shamir is in the strange position of having his natural state marketed as though it were a construct. That face, that voice, that fast-acting Shamirness. He jokes about photographers telling him to relax and be himself, as though his personality was a magic trick he occasionally brought out at parties. "If I were really being myself," he says, "I'd just curl up in the corner and knit."

    But image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering; fluidity is his natural state. Playing country music one year and rangy dance-pop the next isn’t a sign of artistic weakness, but of liberation, of punk.

    Attitudes like this leave him open to no small amount of projection: post-gender Shamir, post-genre Shamir, avatar for a hundred causes, evidence for a hundred arguments. He talks about the pointlessness of boxes, of man and woman, black and white, but in his case, I sense it’s less of an academic stance than a reflex. His voice is his voice no matter what he does. Calling Shamir post-gender is like calling a bald man post-hair. 

    He tells me about a time when an executive asked him who his image consultant was. Puzzled, Shamir looked at him and said, “Me.”


    Nick Sylvester, who produced Ratchet and also works as Shamir’s manager, describes him as a “pure thing,” savvy and smart, but delicate, too. “I’m here partly to be a Virgil character of sorts,” the 32-year-old Sylvester says, a reference to the Roman poet who guided Dante through purgatory and hell. “To make sure that element of him doesn’t change, that he doesn’t come out too different after.” (Sylvester used to write about music, including for Pitchfork, though he hasn't contributed to the site regularly since Shamir was about 10 years old.)

    Sylvester met Shamir about a year and a half or so ago, after Shamir messaged him about a record by the noise-rock band Yvette, which Sylvester had released on his label, Godmode. Shamir was in North Las Vegas, Sylvester in Brooklyn. That someone in Nevada had heard of a record pressed in an edition of 250 was a circumstance that the Internet—a place that groups people by tendency over geography—was designed to facilitate.

    Shamir sent some demos. At the time, he was making what he considered “electronic goth-pop” that sounded more like a rough version of house music. Sylvester asked if he’d ever heard of house before. He hadn't, only EDM. Sylvester offered to record Shamir, who had just graduated from high school. In an effort to make the situation sound on-the-level, Sylvester offered to call Shamir’s mom, but Shamir assured him it’d be fine because Sylvester is a Cancer and Shamir’s a Scorpio and Cancers take care of Scorpios. (Shamir also told me that it’s good that my favorite color is yellow because I’m definitely a yellow; he’s hunter green.)

    Before talking to Sylvester, Shamir had contemplated a move to Arkansas to start a career in elderly care. Instead he went to New York and ended up with a song called “If It Wasn’t True”, which was the spark that lit the wick. 

    Shamir: "If It Wasn't True" (via SoundCloud)

    Ratchet was recorded in a small studio under a former glove factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn recently repurposed as condominium apartments. It is a varied, colorful album whose songs move beyond Shamir’s scrappy early recordings into the kind of theatrical electro/pop hybrid often associated with artists like Marina and the Diamonds, who shouts Shamir out in a radio interview during my visit, making Shamir almost physically jump up and down. Shamir likes the second half of the album better, but only because he’s a “comedown type of person.” 

    Shamir lived in Brooklyn while working on the album. He enjoyed the experience but missed the routine of home, and went so far as to take an internship with XL because he thought it would give his week a little bit of structure and look good on his resume. He went in on Tuesdays and Fridays. The other interns were puzzled to learn that he already had a record deal.


    It’s Friday night on the Las Vegas Strip, where it seems like it’s always Friday night, and Delores, who works behind the counter of my blocky, Mediterranean hotel, is feeling good. Her shift is almost over and her son turns 8 tomorrow. Everyone who’s part of the hotel gauntlet—the doorman, the busboys, the woman who gives me my maps and my coupon for a free premium margarita at Fiesta Jim’s, and of course Delores—is exceptionally friendly, probably because they rightly see themselves as the threshold between regular life and whatever it is people come to Las Vegas for. She asks why I’m here. I tell her work.

    “What kind of work?”

    “I’m writing about a musician from North Las Vegas named Shamir.”

    “Sha-what?” she asks.

    “Shamir.”

    Delores hasn’t heard of him, but I tell her she might someday. 

    I decide to drive around The Strip, which is as dazzling and phony as I would have expected. Neon light arcs randomly into the sky and even the palm trees seem wired for sound, pumping out music of triumph and opulence that ricochets off the hollows of the neoclassical pavilions and through the Doric arches, a brassy American rebuke of legacy and good taste sandwiching various unrelated pasts into a perpetual present without hierarchy or caste—a place where everyone is wealthy and time doesn’t exist. 

    Shamir doesn’t come down here much. His mom works in property management and his aunt works at a hotel, so he understands the tourist’s dream and the local’s hustle. Mostly, though, he likes to stay home with his needles and his yarn and play records. Like this Vivian Girls live one he got recently. He loves it, and is shocked but happy that I haven’t paid more mind to them—shocked because Shamir is 20 and talks about his favorite music like it was oxygen, happy because now I have something to look forward to.

    On Saturday morning we drive through the Mojave to Los Angeles, where Shamir is shooting a video for a song called “Call It Off”. It is a beautiful, monotonous trip: mountains, yucca, yucca, mountains; about four hours and three turns; the kind of trip that gives a fertile mind time to bloom. Shamir has been to a few cities in Nevada outside Las Vegas but not many, which makes sense because there aren’t many to go to. 

    I ask him about childhood and adolescence, that stretch between then and now. His mom had him when she was 19, and like a lot of kids born to young parents, Shamir seems preternaturally graceful in social situations, the kind of person used to having people around. “I remember little parties at our house,” he says, “being 7 years old and having conversations with adults.” It’s easy to picture him there, leaning against a couch with his arms folded, nodding sagely as someone tells him their problems. Strain past the hair and nose ring and wild-patterned shirts and you can see his old soul.

    As a kid, Shamir belonged to the Nation of Islam, the black Muslim group that Malcolm X joined from prison when he was still Malcolm Little. “My grandma has a picture of Louis Farrakhan playing violin in her house,” he says, referencing the longtime Nation of Islam leader. (I had no idea that Farrakhan played the violin, and later learn that he also made several calypso records under the name “The Charmer,” including one called “Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t?” about an Army private named George Jorgensen who went to Copenhagen in 1950 and famously came back as Christine, a name she took in tribute to her doctor, Christian Hamburger.)

    Shamir fell out with the Nation when he was around 12, in part because he didn’t like what he felt were the separatist, exclusionary aspects of it, which he describes as “low-key racist.” He still prays occasionally, and when he does, he prays to Allah, but the term has a loose, almost non-denominational broadness for him—something like the universe, the stars, the way of things. We talk about Eric Garner and Michael Brown, about the seemingly intractable problem of how black and white people get along in America, or don’t. It’s a tragically complicated subject that no two men in a Ford Fiesta could possibly get to the bottom of, which Shamir knows and acknowledges. The thing that makes him sigh in despair, though, is that people will come to be controlled by their anger; that anger is what white wants black to be.

    Shamir: "Lived and Died Alone" (Lindi Ortega Cover) (via SoundCloud)

    A boy who people mistake for a girl, a black kid who sometimes finds himself rewarded by a white world, Shamir seems to naturally reject category as just another barrier to personal freedom. At a rest stop, I notice his Brad Paisley T-shirt and remember his previous attempts at country music. When I ask why he stopped playing it, he gestures to himself and says, “Nobody knew what to do with me.”


    At the video shoot, people move fast, things get done slowly, and everyone seems to carry a walkie-talkie. I sit in a dressing room with Shamir and a couple of stylists, who are chitchatting with him about music and hair. Part of the conceit of the video is that Shamir is going to turn into a puppet of himself. The puppet was made by the Jim Henson Company, and though the outsized signifiers of Shamir’s appearance are there, the details don’t match. For one, the dreadlocks are too long— “ridiculously long,” Shamir says—so one of the stylists, a cheerful red-headed woman named Becca, is giving the puppet a haircut, which is the first time I have ever seen a puppet get a haircut in my life.

    More puppet trouble: Its piercing has a captive bead ring, one of those little balls that sits on the ring’s lowest point, but Shamir’s doesn’t. Someone is dispatched to a store to buy one. (“Much ado about nose ring,” I write in my notebook, and am later disappointed that the headline has been taken.) Eventually, a man in cropped cargo pants and complicated sneakers reveals that he has not one but two nipple rings, and can probably get the balls off of one of them. Shamir is OK with that. It is a miniature eureka. They hug.

    I think about what Shamir said about being in high school, about Shamir With the Hair and Shamir With the Guitar. It wasn’t that he wanted people to recognize the latent hardship or angst burning inside him (Shamir is stoic about hardship and angst) but that he wanted people to understand that his life wasn’t an act; that he wasn’t a doll or a plaything. I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.

    We go into the next room and Shamir prepares for his close-up. It’s then, through the lens of the camera, that I reckon how magnetic and immediate his presence is—what Andy Warhol described as “screen beauty.” In the car, he just seemed like a guy. Behind the camera, he’s a planet.

    Everyone breaks for lunch. Afterward, Shamir passes time with a pink acoustic guitar as they set up the next shot. He plays me “Birthday Song” by the indie-pop miniaturist Frankie Cosmos, and a cover of Joyce Manor’s “Christmas Card” that he recorded on his Instagram account. They are beautiful, simple little songs; catchy and immediate but also thoughtful, serene. Watching Shamir sit in the dressing-room chair, strumming his pink guitar, it occurs to me that music is a prayer he says to himself in passing moments between other obligations—a means of keeping himself company, despite being surrounded by people.

    Shamir: "I'll Never Be Able to Love" (via SoundCloud)

    A few songs in, I notice that he’s playing a left-handed guitar, but the strings are tuned the way they would be on a right-handed one. He says that his first guitar was a righty, but he didn't know that, so he just taught himself to play the way it felt best, which turned out to be upside-down. 

    It reminds me of the story about the first time Shamir Bailey cooked. He was 9 years old, 10 maybe. His aunt was sick and his mom was sleeping after a night shift. Shamir wanted breakfast, so he walked to the fridge and pulled out some eggs and put them in a hot pan. He made them for his mom and his siblings, too, and has cooked for them countless times since. How he knew what to do with the eggs is beyond him. "I was always the tallest kid in my class," he guesses, as though all it took to cook was being able to reach the stove.


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    Profiles: Love Is Strange: The Multitudes of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Multi-Love" (via SoundCloud)

    Before we eat, Ruban Nielson’s son, Moe, leads us in a blessing. “For trees so tall and skies so blue, for friends and food we thank you,” he sings, in angelic unison with his younger sister, Iris. It’s Moe’s sixth birthday, an occasion for which he’s requested only French fries from a drive-in near the family’s home just outside Portland, Oregon. To round out his dinner, his parents picked up cheeseburgers and cookies as well. “Six,” Nielson says, marveling at his son as he disassembles his food, layer by greasy layer. “I can’t believe it. I remember when I could hold you in my hand. Isn’t that crazy?”

    Moe giggles. This disarmingly clear March day is spent as a family, with Nielson—the 35-year-old voice and mind behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra—helping his wife, Jenny, carefully piece together Moe’s gift, a small geodesic dome. As they watch it take shape in the backyard, the kids chase each other in the grass and hang from a tire swing sueded in moss. Iris picks dandelions and Moe sings to himself while banging on parts that have yet to be raised. It's a scene and moment that Nielson—profoundly groggy in an oversized black sweatshirt and rumpled black pants—might normally miss.

    “Ever since we’ve been together, he’s stayed up weird hours—dinner is more like Ruban’s lunch or breakfast,” says Jenny. “Usually it’s fine, but sometimes it’s hard if you want to do something with these guys,” she adds, running her hand through Iris’ brown hair. Yesterday, after working through the night in his home studio, Nielson woke up at five in the evening, long after the kids returned home from school. Today, he made it out of bed around noon. “They think I sit in my basement and play guitar all night by myself for a living,” he says of his kids. “But I’ve been more normal since finishing the album.”

    While Multi-Love, UMO’s third full-length, marks a thrilling departure from the bedroom psychedelia that has earned Nielson an unexpected following, it’s also an album whose backstory speaks to the manner in which he views his art, his life, and the connection between the two—a leap of faith and a leap forward. It teems with lush synths and futurist textures, hallucinogenic funk and R&B, but emotionally and lyrically, Nielson needed a light. “I wanted my kids to be an influence again,” he says. “The way Moe made me feel—that optimism of having a kid—was a big part of my first record, but the next album was impacted by the guilt of wondering if I was going to be a good dad in the long-term. I needed something outside of myself.”

    That something came, but in a surprising and complex form. After touring behind his first two albums for nearly three years, Nielson arranged to take a year off, so that he could write, record, and spend more time at home with his family. But as work on Multi-Love began in earnest last year, Nielson and his wife found themselves reconsidering the outlines of their relationship. As we eat and laugh at their tiny wooden dinner table, I’m sitting in a seat that, up until very recently, was occupied by someone else, someone whose absence is palpable and whose influence can be felt throughout the record she helped shape. “It’s not that this song is about her,” Nielson sings in the album’s hypnotic title cut. “Most songs are about her.”

    Id never heard of polyamory before and I wasnt interested in the idea of it,” Nielson tells me after dinner, during a long walk through his neighborhood. “I just wanted to pretend that no one had ever thought of it before, to stumble into it blindly.” He scratches nervously at his chest, over a tattoo of an open eye etched between his collarbones.I feel like Im gonna spend the rest of my life trying to live last year down. It was such a beautiful time.

    In February 2013, while exploring Tokyo on a day off from touring, Nielson wandered into a club full of expats. From across the room, he remembers spotting a strange, singularly beautiful woman in her 20s and then awkwardly and inexplicably waving to her the moment they made eye contact. (To honor Nielson’s request to protect her privacy, we’ll call her Laura.) After introducing themselves and sharing what felt like an immediate connection, the two exchanged contact information in hopes of keeping in touch. Laura came to see UMO play a show in Melbourne, Australia later that year, and, because she brought a woman to the show that night—one she referred to as her partner—Nielson felt that his relationship with her was purely platonic, that their rapport wouldn’t make Jenny feel uncomfortable or threatened. He continued to correspond with Laura online for months after he returned home to his family.

    But after taking repeated notice of their blossoming friendship, Jenny asked her husband to have Laura send along a selfie. “Wow,” she told him when it arrived. “Let me talk to her.” Nielson introduced them. Before long, Jenny and Laura started corresponding on their own—online at first, and later, through handwritten and increasingly intimate letters. It was at this point that Nielson began to worry. “They had turned into love letters,” he says. “[Jenny] told me that I could read them if I wanted to, but I didn’t and I still don’t. It’s kind of terrifying to think that she was being intimate with another person. I didn’t get angry or upset. I just thought, ‘Oh, what have I done?’”

    At the time, while the rest of the family slept upstairs, Nielson threw himself into his work in an effort to keep his mind occupied. But then Jenny approached him with a plan: Laura was going to come to stay with them for a while, and the five of them would try living together.

    “I had two thoughts,” Nielson says, revisiting that moment. “The first was, ‘Holy shit, I I’m fucked. I’m no match for this girl.’” His second: “‘This is fate. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. If this is the end of my marriage, then this will be the album that documents it. There are a million ways for this to go wrong for my life—but there’s no way for this to go wrong for me artistically, as long as I keep my eyes open and I’m brave.”

    On May 1 of last year, Laura arrived, along with summer. Nielson says what followed was like “a crazy awesome dream.” The three of them bonded almost immediately, and the kids, whose response was always a major concern, took to Laura just as quickly. “‘Let’s do this forever, this is the ultimate state of being,’” he remembers thinking, that first week they were all together. “We let our defenses down,” he says now. “The complications kicked in later.”

    The morning after Moe’s birthday dinner, I find Nielson hard at work, bouncing in an office chair in his basement, massaging a keyboard that’s tethered to his laptop. Empty bottles of Diet Dr Pepper fill a number of cubed shelves behind him. Walled in by old tape machines and guitars, Nielson is working on a remix of a song by his younger brother, Kody, whose original track is playing on a continuous loop. One after the other, Nielson adds various flourishes with instruments pulled from all corners of the room.

    The Nielsons bought this home three years ago, after living briefly in a nearby yurt—a portable, one-room, high-ceilinged tent—with the midwife who helped Jenny birth Iris. They had originally come to Portland without a plan, except to start over. When Moe was born six years ago in a converted barn on Jenny’s family farm in New Zealand, Nielson was playing guitar in the Mint Chicks, a well-regarded but dysfunctional punk band he founded in 2001.

    Nielson grew up in Auckland. His parents met in Los Angeles while touring behind John Rowles, a lounge singer beloved in New Zealand during the ‘70s. Nielson’s mother is a native Hawaiian, a gifted singer, pianist, and hula champion from Oahu. His father, a New Zealander, is a renowned horn player who exposed his two sons to the jazz of Miles Davis at an early age. To be half-Polynesian in New Zealand, Nielson says, is “to be the kid a shop owner will follow around. It’s like you’re walking into every situation at a negative 10, and you’ve got to work really hard to get to zero.”

    Nielson faced just as much heartache at home. As a teenager, he began to experience crippling bouts of insomnia, the combined result—he thought—of his father’s long-running addiction to alcohol and heroin, and the fallout from his parents’ separation. Nielson would lie awake most nights, only to sleep through school the next day. But as part of his attempt to get clean and make amends, Nielson’s father supported his son in two pivotal ways: He helped him gain entrance to New Zealand’s most prestigious art school, Elam, by gathering recommendations from sympathetic teachers, and he bought him his first guitar. It was at Elam that Nielson, a painter, would meet Jenny, a sculptor. They moved in together within a few months of their first date. Playing music, which Nielson had long resisted, became a way of making use of all those sleepless nights.

    With Kody as their frontman and Nielson as their de facto manager and guitarist, the Mint Chicks quickly gained renown in New Zealand, going on to release a handful of records. But as tensions rose between the brothers, the elder Nielson became more attuned to his new responsibilities as a father. A visit to an uncle in Portland inspired a more permanent move to the United States. And then a funny thing happened.

    Upon landing in Oregon with his new family, Nielson—who had given up on the idea of playing music professionally—found work as an illustrator. But in his free time, he began to write songs, just for fun. Having worn out most of his record collection, he wanted to make the sort of odd and obscure psych-rock album that he couldn’t find. With just a cheap tape recorder, a guitar, and a single microphone, he recorded one song a night with no intention of releasing anything. “Breakbeats? Guitar solos? Weird voices? No one is going to think is cool at all or want to release it, so it doesn’t matter,” he says of his mindset at the time. “It was my own private thing—I kept it a secret.”

    But in hopes of connecting online with other similarly specific songwriters, he decided to post his songs pseudonymously to a Bandcamp page. Not long thereafter, “Ffunny Ffrends”—a breezy, Zappa-like love song about two friends of his from high school—found its way to a growing number of mp3 blogs, and then, to his office. “Where did you get this song?” Nielson asked a coworker in disbelief, after the sound had wafted across the room. “‘Oh, my friend at Nylon magazine sent it to me,’” he remembers the guy saying. “‘Just some band that’s blowing up right now.’” Nielson says he had recorded the song just six days earlier.

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Ffunny Ffrends"

    Within weeks, A&R reps at some of the world’s most influential independent record labels—including Domino, Matador, and XL—began to enthusiastically email the address attached to his Bandcamp account, asking to hear more. Nielson, convinced it was all an elaborate prank, had to decide whether or not he wanted to take another chance on music. “I’d given up the dream,” he says. “Jenny encouraged me to try again.”

    A year later, in the summer of 2011, Fat Possum released UMO’s self-titled debut, which featured Nielson’s songs exactly as he originally recorded them. He formed a live band with friends from Portland and hit the road. Endless stretches of touring across the United States and Europe eventually gave way to the sort of rampant drug use he became wary of as a kid. He grew depressed and disillusioned, unable to keep it together when he came home. In 2013, he released II, an album of pensive, guitar-driven soul music that provided frequently troubling glimpses of his mental state. (That album’s opening line: “Isolation can put a gun in your hand.”) He was trying to build a body of work for his family, but he was behaving just as erratically as his father had before him. If he was going to make another album, it was going to surpass what he thought he was capable of making, if only for his family.

    After dark, Nielson and I walk a half mile in light rain to Shari’s, a chain restaurant on the edge of a strip mall near the freeway. Small families of geese waddle around the parking lot, jumping in and out of a narrow pond outside. Laura struggles with the same inverted sleep cycles that he does, and most nights last year, when she was upstairs wrestling with her own photo and video work, she would inevitably creep down to the basement to see him at three or four in the morning. “Shari’s?” she’d ask, and off they’d go.

    Tonight, the restaurant is full of boisterous families and quiet elderly couples squeaking into vinyl booths. It was here that Nielson first confided in Kody about Jenny’s letters to Laura, and asked him for advice about his marriage—if not his impulse to write about its death. Nielson remembers his brother’s response: “‘Farming the experience for lyrical content is a very Ruban thing to do—you would do something crazy like that.’” When Nielson opened up to a good friend from home about what was about to unfold, his reaction was one of envy: “‘That’s rad, man. Maybe you can go to bed with both of them.’” But Nielson bristled at that. “I wish I was you right now,” he told his friend. “I wish I wasn’t in this emotionally terrifying situation.” 

    After those first few weeks together last May, the relationship between Jenny, Laura, and Nielson began to show signs of strain. As a relative newcomer, Laura couldn’t help but feel excluded when faced with the history and understanding that Nielson and his wife had developed over more than a decade together. But some mornings, Jenny would wake up to the sound of her husband and Laura on the couch, laughing and binge-watching a television show that they started without her. Talking about his own insecurities, Nielson says, “They would discuss something feminist, and I would just sit there, like, ‘Well, I think men are shit, too, but I’m the man in the room.’” For days, he would sulk around the house while Jenny and Laura carried on, toiling in the basement rather than confronting them both with his feelings. “Think about the two most serious relationships in your life so far, and then experiencing them simultaneously,” he tells me. “It makes you wonder: How much can a human being deal with emotionally? How well-adjusted are you?”

    Photo by Leah Nash


    All of it made its way into the music, just as he had planned. In August, Laura’s tourist visa expired and she was forced to leave the States until she could obtain another. For six weeks, Nielson and his wife pined for Laura as she worked on a project in the Peruvian rainforest, while also trying to carry on with their lives. It’s a conflict that plays out in the interstellar disco of “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, as Nielson buries himself in his work once again. “Drink chicha in the jungle/ That sounds great,” he sings, in a feline falsetto. “I’m kinda busy, could you call back again?/ I’m sure you’ll come back/ Till then I can’t keep checking my phone.”

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Can't Keep Checking My Phone" (via SoundCloud)

    When Laura returned in September, unannounced, Nielson was committed to the idea of continuing the relationship. They all took trips together and celebrated Halloween with the kids. They told their neighbors and close friends in Portland, a few of which reacted unfavorably, out of fear. When Jenny shared the news with her family back in New Zealand, her mother was upset with Ruban in particular. “She was just done with me,” he says, of his mother-in-law, “she’d had enough.” His own father, though, was unfazed by his new living arrangement, and came to visit twice. To help his son, he recorded all of Multi-Love’s horn parts, including those on “Necessary Evil”, an unspeakably melodic highlight in which Nielson lays himself bare, presumably to his wife: “I don’t get what you see in me… Lovin’ me could be your fatal flaw.”

    Through Laura, and the prism of their relationship, Nielson became more aware of himself and the strange cosmic ties he shares with Jenny. “I used to always wonder, ‘Why is she with me?’” he says, as he sips a cup of black tea. “I’m such a selfish person. I’m fun and caring but I’m not very responsible. I’m not a proper man. But then I started to understand: She chose me because being with me is an adventure, because I want to be swallowed up by life. She wanted to not know where her life was going, and I’m the best person for her to be with in that way. That’s why we did this.”

    Shortly after last Christmas, as Laura’s visa expired again, her attempts to renew it were denied and she was forced to leave once more—this time indefinitely. By then, Nielson was already adding finishing touches to the album and preparing to have it mastered. But days before he was due to turn it over to his label, Jagjaguwar, he still didn’t have a cover he was happy with. Laura emailed him an image she’d shot of his basement studio one night, altered to reflect the pink light that Nielson swears he needs to be his most creative. “It was perfect,” he says.

    His label was puzzled, and suggested that it didn’t accurately communicate how vibrant the music was. “But the fact was, no photographer would have had access to that particular moment,” Nielson says. “It was as if she just walked into that dark basement, just like she did every night, to find me writing songs about her and Jenny and the world and the conversations that we were having.”

    When the kids ask about Laura now, Nielson and Jenny tell them that she was forced to leave. “It just got suspended in no man’s land,” Nielson says of the relationship. “It’s brutal. The reason why she’s not here is out of our control, but we’re trying not to be maudlin about it. It’s hard to say that you’re sad because there are only two people in love now instead of three. But we were all in love. It was a real thing. It worked.I’m more alive now because of it.”

    As we return to his house just before midnight, Nielson's stoop is dusted in fluorescent chalk: While we were gone, Moe scribbled his name from the sidewalk to the doorstep. Inside, no one but Nippy, the family ferret, is awake. In a matter of hours, a gang of 6-year-olds is set to arrive for Moe’s birthday party and Iris has helped her mother decorate the gold-painted walls of the dining room with a banner. Before he leaves for New York in two days for some co-writing—since II's release, Nielson has been called on to play and write with the likes of Frank Ocean, Kimbra, and Toro Y Moi's Chaz Bundick—he’s planning to spend the rest of the night finishing his brother's remix.

    We sit down at the dining table with two glasses of water, and he rubs his eyes as Nippy hops past us and into the kitchen. There are no photos of her on the refrigerator or in the living room, but upstairs Laura's work station is kept just as she left it. I ask Nielson how he'd describe the ideal outcome for his family going forward. "The five us of living on a beach somewhere, hanging out and just going fishing," he says, with a surprised laugh. "Just some ridiculous scenario that's never going to happen. But the ideal version of it is not that interesting for me as an artist."

    At the end of the year, Nielson says he and his family will probably move to Hawaii. He's been enjoying more frequent contact with his mother, with whom he’s bonded over a renewed interest in Hawaiian culture and identity. Jenny has always wanted to go, and Iris is learning hula. "She’s getting pretty good,” he says. The plan, insofar as there is one, is to make the next UMO album there, to let the place wash over him and his work.

    “I’ve got a lot of family there and there’s a lot of trouble and history,” he says. “I know I’m going to go and it’s going to be heavy, heavy, heavy—and I’ve got to be emotionally prepared.” When he told his dad about the plan, he responded with skepticism: “You’d get bored. You couldn’t handle it. You’d get rock fever sitting out there, disconnected from everything.”

    Nielson laughs to himself, quietly. “That might be good—going crazy, stuck on a rock,” he says. “Maybe that would do something interesting to me.”


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    Rising: Sicko Mobb’s Never-Ending Party

    Sicko Mobb: "Kool Aid" (via SoundCloud)

    "Oh man, this gonna be turnt in the summer!" Lil Ceno gleefully predicts, overlooking the expanse of Maggie Daley Park, a newly-renovated stretch of Chicago’s downtown lakefront replete with climbing walls, playgrounds, and a skating path. He and Lil Trav—better known as Sicko Mobb, the dread-headed duo who emerged from Chicago’s bop movement as one of the city’s most distinctive new voices—have never been down here before, but they’re already envisioning its potential for future lituations, animatedly pointing at various landmarks. "Look at the ocean!" Ceno jokes, gesturing towards Lake Michigan. Trav shakes his head, laughing: "Your dumb ass…" The two are on a constant mission to turn every moment into a party, and so far, their track record is spotless.

    Ceno, 21, and Trav, 20, have been friends for as long as they can remember. "You might as well say we brothers," says Ceno, born Maurice Larry. Raised in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, the two didn’t come to music until their teens. Trav, aka Delon Sneed, was more invested in sports and doing acrobatics with esteemed local performance team The Jesse White Tumblers, while Ceno says, "The only thing I knew how to do was play basketball and talk to girls." Originally the name of their neighborhood crew, the Sicko Mobb mantle took to new prominence when their first few songs—"Young Heavy", "Fiesta", and "Hoes Be Goin'"—became instant local favorites in 2013. The pair rose in tandem with the emerging bop scene, a style of giddy, hyper-melodic rap/singing coupled with its own dance style; but while most of bop’s early hitmakers have struggled to sustain attention past the initial thrill, Sicko Mobb have only grown sharper. They soon inked a publishing deal with Norwegian pop production team Stargate's ATV label before dropping their first mixtape, and then signed an official deal with Polo Grounds/RCA—home of the A$AP Mob—not long after.

    Sicko Mobb: "Fiesta (Remix)" [ft. A$AP Ferg]

    With their recent sophomore mixtape, Super Saiyan Vol. 2 (named for Trav and Ceno’s favorite cartoon, "Dragon Ball Z", its bold anime imagery the perfect visual complement for their superflat sound), Sicko put some polish on their trademark turnt sound. It’s still unmistakably them, but with a new aptitude for glossy pop songwriting—though Trav and Ceno aren’t too interested in that "p" word. "I still don’t hear no pop sound!" says Trav. "When you say ‘pop’ I hear, like, Hannah Montana." "For some reason, it just sounds so positive and bright and happy to people," Ceno adds. Whatever you call it, it’s working: The duo have yet another mixtape, Mula, set to drop before the end of the month, along with a forthcoming major-label EP and album later this year. 

    After we leave the park, Ceno and Trav head to a packed show in Wicker Park, where they perform "Flexin in My Robbins", an unreleased track that’s already become a cult favorite. I’m usually the dork that stands around bobbing my head respectfully at shows, but when the song comes on I lose my entire shit, jumping up and down, screaming every word. Thus is the Sicko effect.

    Pitchfork: You guys immediately established your own sound from the first three songs you ever made. Was bop already a thing at that point?

    Lil Ceno: Yeah, bop been out since like 2010, but people ain’t take heed until we started putting [bop dancers] in our videos—then it started taking off. [Dancer] Kemo was bopping to other people’s songs, but when we came out with our music, it just turned it up. This type of music go right with the bopping moves, because they like the fast beats. We performed at little neighborhood shows, we did kid’s birthday parties and shit.

    Pitchfork: You make ideal bopping music, but do you consider yourselves bop artists?

    LC: No, we’re in a different lane from a lot of people. And even though we got the drilling in there, we ain’t really no drill artists either! We on some other shit. We ain’t trying to sound like nobody.

    Sicko Mobb: "Own Lane" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: On Super Saiyan Vol. 2, it seems like you’ve smoothed out your sound a little bit.

    Lil Trav: It’s medium-pace now—people can actually hear what we saying now, because it’s not as fast. We still got our melodies though, and we still mess with Auto-Tune. But I don’t like no slow-ass music; I ain’t no damn Usher. We just like turnt up music!

    LC: It could really be the slowest beat, but it’s just how we ride the beat—any song we make is gonna be turnt up our own way. It’s really the flows that we be coming up with. That shit just come to our heads instantly. When we hear a beat that we like, we’re bopping our heads and the chorus gonna be written in like three minutes, and the verse is gonna be done in like 15. But everybody in Chicago wanna try to rap like us now. Even drill artists use Auto-Tune now!

    LT: At first, everybody was like, "Nah, I ain’t on that T-Pain shit." But people love melody now.

    Sicko Mobb: "Major League" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: OK, so, it’s not bop, it’s not pop, it’s not drill: What is Sicko Mobb music?

    LT: It’s club music. Party music.

    LC: This is what our music is about: having fun, stunting, getting money, spending the money on expensive clothes. Shit, that’s the life we always wanted to live coming up!

    Pitchfork: What’s the best thing you’ve gotten to do since Sicko Mobb glo’d up?

    LC: [laughs] A threesome. No, but we got to do a lot of big stuff—South by Southwest this year, and Chance [the Rapper] brought us out to do "Hoes Be Goin'". And clothes. A lot of fucking clothes.

    Pitchfork: Where would you recommend someone eat if it was their first time in Chicago?

    LC: Outback Steakhouse.

    LT: That’s known everywhere! On some Chicago shit: Uncle Remus.

    LC: Oh yeah! It’s like a battle in Chicago: Out West people be eating Uncle Remus, and out South people eat Harold’s. Uncle Remus is better though.


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    Electric Fling: Sun Ra's Free Space

    Electric Fling is a column that explores the world of dance music. 


    A1 "The Overseer"

    Sun Ra sits between Horus and Anubis, their golden headpieces gleaming in the back of the hooptie ride as they cruise downtown Oakland. It’s 1972 and the interplanetary messenger Ra takes in the terrestrial scene. "The people have no music that is in coordination with their spirits. Because of this, they're out of tune with the universe," he utters. "Since they don’t have money, they don’t have anything. If the planet takes hold of an alter destiny, there’s hope for all of us. But otherwise the death sentence upon this planet still stands. Everyone must die."

    It’s a scene from Sun Ra’s 1974 blaxploitation sci-fi film, Space Is the Place. And like a comet or some other incandescent heavenly body moving on its own elliptical trajectory, it intermittently returns to view. Out of print since a 2004 DVD (which itself updated a 1993 VHS), this shoestring-budget astral projection recently resurfaced via Harte Recordings’ deluxe DVD/CD/book edition. Last month, the film was the centerpiece in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Afrofuturism on Film series (along with Blade, The Brother From Another Planet and a film featuring George Clinton’s floating head).

    In his 1994 essay, "Black to the Future", cultural critic Mark Dery first proposed the concept of Afrofuturism, a way of regarding the African Diaspora through the lens of technoculture and science fiction, envisioning a slightly less dystopic and disenfranchised future for people of color. But its roots predate the tag, and can be found in the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, in 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer's dub fan Maelcum, in the music of Clinton's Mothership-steering Parliament/Funkadelic, in the perfect beats of Afrika Bambaataa and in the hieroglyphics of Rammellzee. These works all look to outer space to explain terrestrial existence.

    Looming over all these Afrofuturistic visionaries is Sun Ra, the Alabama-born pianist who embraced prototype synthesizers and the ancient iconography of Egypt, who announced "I am an alien" a good half-century before Lil Wayne. As Kodwo Eshun put it in his crucial book More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction: "To listen to Ra is to be dragged into another sonar system, an omniverse of overlapping sonar systems which abduct you from Trad audio reality. By becoming alien himself, Ra turns you alien." While marginalized within the jazz world, Ra's influence transmitted beyond the limits of spacetime. Eshun continues: "After the Arkestra come the audiovehicles of the 70s: The Upsetters’ Black Ark, Creation Rebel’s Starship Africa, Parliament’s Mothership… on the sleeve of Herbie Hancock’s '74 Thrust. The Futurist builds conceptual soundcrafts, new arks for exploring unheard soundworlds. Whoever controls the synthesizer controls the sound of the future, by evoking the alien."

    So while these newly-released editions of Space Is the Place offer introductions from the likes of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Sun Ra’s synthesizer control transcends indie rock guitar players. Indeed, Sun Ra’s spirit vibrates strongest in the electronic music underground. You can hear him in Detroiters like Rick Wilhite and Mike Huckaby (who did a series of Sun Ra edits), in the funky, ankh-y instrumentals of L.A.’s Ras G and Antipop Consortium member High Priest’s HPrizm project. Last year, King Britt paid tribute to the man with the Fhloston Paradigm Live Transmission Mix, which he called "a displaced re-interpretation of Ra’s Space Is the Place." Thoth from Space Is the Place adorns the cover of Black Zone Myth Chant’s spaced-out new album Mane Thecel Phares. And next month, the two-disc Soul Jazz Records set Sounds of the Universe: Art + Sound 2012-15 will feature some of the heaviest Afrofuturistic producers out there: Hieroglyphic Being, Ras G, Aybee, DJ Stingray and more. Ra’s prophetic sound of the alter-destiny is among us.

    A2 "The Seer of Cosmic Visions"

    "Sun Ra taught me that there are no boundaries and no limitations. His music wasn’t about making sense: it was just about receiving these transmissions, this knowledge. It was a shock to the system at first."

    Jamal Moss is chatting with me on Skype from his hotel room in L.A. Moss makes music primarily as Hieroglyphic Being. That Ra's music and myth courses through his brusque and beauteous productions is evident not just in his name, but in Moss' copious output. Since 2004, there's been a slew of releases (I count 33 albums on Discogs), some on hand stamped 12"s, others as CD-Rs, almost all of them in quickly vanishing editions. They veer from drilling, drum heavy techno to acid rendered by a malfunctioning satellite burning up in the atmosphere. Many tracks name-check Sun Ra overtly, as on albums like The Sun Man Speaks and Strange Strings.

    Last year, Planet Mu released The Seer of Cosmic Visions, a crucial compilation culled from Moss' massive back catalog and credited to Hieroglyphic Being and the Configurative or Modular Me Trio. For neophytes, it’s an excellent portal into Hieroglyphic Being’s soundworld: there’s the gurgling acid lines of "The Human Experience", the flickering white noise of "How Wet Is Ur Box", the distorted thump of "Letters From the Edge", and the astral techno of "Space Is the Place". 

    "I wasn’t going with the grain or against the grain, I was just doing my own thing," he said of his creative process, putting out the music himself instead of waiting for an outsider to deem it worthy of release. "I was doing it for my own self-fulfillment. It was more therapeutic. I'm not waiting for somebody else to make something happen; you gotta make it happen for yourself."

    Hieroglyphic Being and the Configurative or Modular Me Trio: "Space Is the Place" (via SoundCloud)

    At a young age, Moss was adopted by relatives who put him onto older jazz and earlier musical forms. "The people I grew up with were deep into esoteric ways of thinking, they was into new thought," Moss said. "They was into higher abstract ways of processing certain things in the world around them through books and literature, through music, through art, through religion, and that affected me a certain way." So while it’s easy to listen to Hieroglyphic Being and hear the parallels to Sun Ra’s sound, he says that the connection goes much deeper for him: "Sun Ra speaks about experiences either transcendental or metaphysical or cosmic and there are pieces that I can take from it and then translate it when I'm ready to create my own way of explaining the universe around me."

    B1 "East Oakland Space Program"

    When the tech bubble burst at the end of the 20th century, Bay Area web designer Armon Bazile was almost relieved. "When the Web 1.0 space collapsed, I was really burnt out and on the verge of a nervous breakdown," he said. "Music was something that was healing for me. I did not quite know where it would take me, but it gave me a chance to heal and recreate myself."

    Via early message boards, Bazile connected with Chicago deep house legend Ron Trent and soon saw his first single (twisting his initials into the moniker Aybee) released on Trent’s Prescription Records imprint. It was followed later by an EP put out by another underground house hero, Jus-Ed. And in 2001, Bazile began his own label, Deepblak.

    "The Punk/DIY ethos that lives within us all is the greatest creative spark we have," he said of starting his own label and having complete control over the music. "The artist must have some freedom, and be connected to the music from conception to implementation. DIY is very important for me, though there are days where I feel like the ‘underground’ is merely a waiting room for people who just have not had the opportunities to sell their soul yet."

    It was on another message board, one dedicated to early jungle/drum’n’bass legends 4 Hero, that Bazile connected with Eric Douglas Porter—an electronic producer who had just relocated to Oakland from Atlanta and went by the name of Afrikan Sciences. "When I heard his music, I was never the same," Bazile said. "I felt like a man stranded on a planet, and then all of a sudden you find someone else there. It just affirmed so much I felt inside." Via Deepblak, Bazile released a slew of music, sometimes deep house, sometimes broken beat-inspired, other times—as on his collab with Afrikan Sciences on last year’s Sketches of Space—closer to "future jazz."

    AYBEE and Afrikan Sciences: "K-Fetisch 01 (Kosmo Bahn)" (via SoundCloud)

    After over a decade of operating the label out of Oakland, Bazile decided to relocate to Berlin. He finds Berlin and Europe more receptive to his sounds and full of new challenges, "a larger creative canvas." He recently made his own silent film and soundtrack, The Gift, with cinematography by photographer Marie Staggat, which had its world premiere earlier this week in Washington D.C. as part of Forward Fest. Working with visuals has a political component for Bazile. "With a smartphone in your hand you become media, you can shoot HD film, create the soundtrack, and broadcast it worldwide," he said. "We are very empowered."

    B2 "The Image Sound"

    A pork pie hat atop his head, Eric Porter is digging at the record shop A1 in Manhattan’s East Village, pulling out an old Loose Ends 12'' and a few other selections. Just outside the door is one of winter’s last blizzards, but Porter seems unfazed by the weather. New York City is Porter’s home, but he grew up in the Deep South and spent over a decade in the Bay Area before returning to the Bronx two winters ago.

    As we make our way through the snow towards a ramen spot in Alphabet City, Porter talks about his musical upbringing, growing up on jazz like Les McCann and Cannonball Adderley before falling hard for hip-hop: Marley Marl, Public Enemy, Ultramagnetic MC's. DJing hip-hop was his first endeavor, but as the '90s went along and the form narrowed into "formulaic subject matter," as he put it, he broadened his horizons.

    "I started hearing all of these different movements in music that coexisted and were touching on some of the same elements," he said. "It all started to make sense." He points to the sounds coming out of West London in the late '90s, as well as the sounds of "Doctor Who" he had grown up with. "My love for science fiction and electronics went with envisioning myself as this mad scientist," he continued, "trying to translate all of these influences and also pinpoint it directly back to the source, the motherland, the first instrument: the drum."

    The drums as programmed on Afrikan Sciences’ deft album Circuitous (released at the end of last year on the experimental PAN imprint) refuse to ever settle into a steady pattern. If anything, they are as slippery as the sidewalks outside, Porter’s programming constantly shifting, tumbling, finding new patterns. Sometimes they move towards the swing of jazz ("Evolved in Twists"), other times they hearken back to broken beat ("Group Home Reality") and on the title track, they are crisp and tight.

    Afrikan Sciences: "The Image" (via SoundCloud)

    The steadiest beat comes on "The Image" as swirling organ, thumb piano and cosmic synths weave about. At its peak, a voice enters with a mantra: "Music is the image/ Is the music/ Is the image/ The sound image/ The image sound." It’s a recording of saxophonist Marshall Allen, the bandleader of Sun Ra’s Arkestra since Ra left the terrestrial plane in 1993, reciting one of Sun Ra’s poems. "With music you have the ability to cover so many different subject matters, but usually it tends to stay in the realm of love songs or party music," Porter said. "But you can go much deeper with this music: you can get spiritual, you can expand and get transcendental."


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    Profiles: Jamie xx: Taking Shelter in Loud Places

    Jamie xx: "Far Nearer" (via SoundCloud)

    "It's a bit grimy, but it feels like a little spaceship," says Jamie Smith, ushering me into his studio in a nondescript building in Shoreditch, London. The cozy, white-walled room is decked out with just enough vintage gear to spark the imagination. On his desk, along with an oversized bottle of ketchup and a liquor bottle with an inch of something honey-colored left in it, is a poky Roland TR-66 Rhythm Arranger; with its its wooden case and rec-room color scheme, it looks like an old home organ’s little brother. A single stubbed-out cigarette butt sits in an otherwise empty glass tumbler. It is one of the tidiest studios I've ever set foot in.

    Smith flips the power switch on an Oberheim Eight Voice synthesizer from the late '70s, the crown jewel of his setup, and it comes trembling to life. When he turns the volume up, it really does feel like we’re sitting directly inside a booster rocket. The bass vibrations make my nose itch. This is unexpected, if only because the music that Smith makes with his band, the xx, is notable largely for its exceptional hush.

    Even his own music as Jamie xx could hardly be described as loud—never mind that the first single from In Colour, his debut solo album, is called "Loud Places". The song is typical of his work: elegiac, languid, pneumatic as memory foam. While it is deeply informed by both the history of UK dance music and the experience of dancing itself, Smith’s music is also abstracted in a way that suggests he’s trying to recreate a specific moment on the dance floor the morning after a long night out. His tracks are marked by those hours in between, which soak up doubt just like the acoustic padding in his studio absorbs the blows of his kick drums. 

    It is my third day with the 26-year-old musician, and he is dressed exactly the same as he has every day so far, in a black T-shirt, black pants, and black skate sneakers. He is polite but not terribly forthcoming; at most of our meetings, I haven't been able to tell if he's uncomfortable in front of a stranger, bored, or just worn out. (The cliché of English reserve turns out to be very real with Smith: "We don't express emotions to each other very often," he tells me, talking about his family.) But I also suspect Smith’s reticence has more to do with an intensely interior focus—as the world prattles on, he seems to be editing audio in his head. With the studio monitors blasting, though, he’s suddenly at ease.

    He pulls up an iTunes playlist full of songs with names like "Fuxx", "Fuxx2", "Deep Deep Deep 4"—the telltale tossed-off nomenclature of works-in-progress in the digital age—and clicks on one called "French Press Girl". It will be part of the score for a ballet based on author Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes that is set to premiere at the Manchester International Festival this summer. It begins with stately string pads; high overhead, a wordless falsetto wavers. "That's the first time I've ever sung on a track and it's been audible," he says. A succession of panning plucked notes makes it feels like the air between the speakers is strung with tiny fibers—a cat's cradle made of sound.

    The track lasts 15 minutes; Smith still needs to come up with another hour's worth of material for the piece. "I've never made so much music in my life as I am now," he says. "It's good, but I can't keep going like this."

    Photo by Noah Kalina


    Smith has been going like this for a while now: not only touring heavily with the xx but also enjoying his own increasingly high-profile career as a producer and DJ. This year alone, he's already spun in Australia, Japan, Iceland, and the States. In Colour is the culmination of a solo career that has progressed in fits and starts since 2009, when he remixed Florence and the Machine's UK hit "You've Got the Love". Since then, he's put out a handful of singles; remixed Adele, Radiohead, and Four Tet; and collaborated with the late Gil Scott-Heron on the album-length remix project We're New Here. Meanwhile, the xx are at work on their third album: When I meet up with Smith in March, they're finishing their first week of sessions at a 160-year-old church-turned-recording-studio.

    Radiohead: "Bloom (Jamie xx Rework Part 3)" (via SoundCloud)

    We listen to a lot of music that afternoon, some of it unfinished, some never to be released officially. Over a four-to-the-floor beat punctuated by shrieks, FKA twigs' voice—repurposed from an unused session—zigzags through the room like a deflating balloon. He plays a sort of chopped-and-screwed doo-wop miniature featuring tremolo so severe it's as though the notes are trying to pull themselves apart at a molecular level. "So in love, are we two/ And we don't know what to do," goes the chorus, slow and narcotic, thick as a tongue swollen from crying. It's the most desolate thing I've ever heard from Smith.

    Before I can even ask him about it, he volunteers, "I made that on the night I broke up with my girlfriend of three years." He grins slightly, seemingly pleased by my reaction to both the song and his forthrightness.

    The only thing he plays that’s related to the new album is an alternate take of "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)", which revolves around a sample of the ‘70s R&B group the Persuasions. On In Colour, Atlanta eccentric Young Thug and dancehall howler Popcaan trade verses on the track, chirping and whistling over Smith's trademark Technicolor chimes. The song seems like an outlier at first, but after a few listens, it starts to feel like one of the album's cornerstones. That big, fat, generous morsel of R&B goes to the heart of the way Smith treats his inspirations, and Popcaan's voice makes good on the subtle Caribbean vibe of so many Jamie xx records, with their omnipresent steel drums, exploding with overtones. 

    He discovered steel pans while recording the first xx album, and, on tour in the U.S., he ended up buying a child-size version of instrument, which he describes in rapturous terms. "You can make it sound quite melancholy," he says. "But at the same time, it reminds me of paradise.”

    If the xx's music is governed by the tension between darkness and light—an opposition made plain in the black-and-white color scheme of their records—then Smith's solo music is tugged between gray and full-color, between austerity and opulence.

    It all comes to a head on In Colour, a polychrome riot of his varied influences. Shouting jungle MCs, dulcet doo-wop harmonies, trance arpeggios, snippets of crowd noise, and rough-hewn breakbeats all get thrown into Smith's mid-tempo rock tumbler. Despite the presence of his bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim on three songs, it's a far, far cry from the xx's methodically plucked basslines and under-the-covers whisper; it replaces the loneliness of an empty street at night with the joyous din of a carnival procession. At the same time, though, an air of restraint hangs over its sinewy harps; if this is a parade, it's one that could dissolve into a puff of smoke at any moment.

    The video for "Loud Places" makes good on that tension between shadow and spectrum; it climaxes with an explosion of brilliantly colored confetti, backlit and swirling like the inside of a kaleidoscope. The clip doubles as world's most elegant skate video, as Smith and Madley Croft roll through London's penumbral streets and carve slow-motion circles in a half-pipe.

    When Smith was 16, he took a weeklong skate trip with his school buddies to Paris, where they saw sample wiz RJD2 performing on an MPC; Smith was instantly captivated and ended up getting one of his own from his parents for his 17th birthday. ("I still don't know how to use it," he says, laughing.) Mainly, though, skating served as Smith's gateway to London.

    "Because I was a skater, I got to know every street in the city really well," he says. "I just fell in love with it." And then, at 20, just when his peers were moving out of their parents' homes and getting to know the city as adults for the first time, the xx blew up, and Smith spent much of the next few years on the road. One way he dealt with homesickness was to immerse himself in the sounds of his hometown—like breakbeat hardcore, jungle, grime, and the pirate-radio chatter that gives In Colour’s widescreen opener "Gosh" its jolt of peak-Friday energy. "Listening to music that reminded me of home was a good way to feel happy about feeling sad," he says.

    Smith was born around the dawn of the CD era, on October 28, 1988, but his parents kept a couple of boxes' worth of soul records around the house. "There was this live recording of a Stax concert, and the Otis Redding songs would just kill me,” Smith recalls. "I really like that memory, just sitting by the hi-fi and listening to all those records—and the smell as well! I still go there, and it's the same smell."

    At the age of 10, he asked his parents for a pair of turntables. "I didn't even know what DJing was,” he admits, “I just wanted them because it seemed satisfying." The way he stresses the word "wanted," it's as if his bright-eyed young self has come to life all over again. "I begged and begged," he continues, "and my uncle gave me his old turntables. It was one hi-fi and one old Stereo Lab turntable, and a rusty mixer. I was really chuffed. I kept that for five years—that's where I learned to mix." 

    In this, Smith was luckier than most 10-year-olds: His uncle was a radio DJ who started out on a pirate station and then landed a job up north with Kiss FM, which specialized in hip-hop, R&B, and dance music. Smith visited him at work a few times; once, his uncle tried to egg him into speaking on air. Smith recalls, "I was just like—" his voice shrivels, but his horror is clear. "I never imagined I would be able to do that. That memory is quite scary to me."

    “There’s too much weed smoking in hip-hop—I can't do it. I'm not very good with weed.”


    —Jamie xx

    Even now, his ambiguous relationship with the spotlight remains. In 2011, Drake sampled Smith’s remix of Gil Scott-Heron's "I'll Take Care of You" for his Top 10 hit "Take Care", and the two musicians ended up meeting up after one of the Toronto rapper’s London concerts. 

    "We hung out, went back to the studio, played each other music, smoked weed," says Smith, adding, "There’s too much weed smoking in hip-hop—I can't do it. I'm not very good with weed. I always dread going into the studio." Still, he says Drake was “very chilled—he's a good guy." Smith periodically sends the rapper music, too—a few sketches of his own stuff, but mostly other people’s—serving as Drake's hookup for London club culture.

    It's no secret that, as boundaries between the underground and the mainstream erode, there are more opportunities than ever for DIY types to find themselves with lucrative co-write credits on Top 10 recordings. It's not hard to imagine that Smith could have much more of that if he wanted it, but it seems pretty clear that he doesn't.

    A few years ago, he was one of a number of producers and songwriters that Alicia Keys assembled for a songwriting camp at Jamaica's resort-like Geejam Studios. "All of these producers came, and we had our little huts with a little studio, and we stayed for a week," he recalls. "And then she'd just, like, beckon us, and we'd go into the big studio." There, Keys and her team were waiting—engineers, managers, someone blocking out chords on the piano.

    "I'm glad I did it, just for the experience,” he continues. “John Legend was there, but I didn't meet him—he was in another hut somewhere.” Still, he says, "It was just the exact opposite way of how I've ever worked, or how I wanted to work."

    Photo by Noah Kalina


    A couple of days before visiting his studio, I’m standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Smith beneath a massive pipe organ at an electronic music show inside St John-at-Hackney Church. The crowd is boisterous, but Smith remains stone-faced as he stares at the stage. Between songs, instead of clapping, he thumps his chest with his right hand while he grips his beer with his left, making no appreciable sound. The next day, as he tucks into a plate of eggs in a cozy café in Shoreditch, he tells me what he had been so fixated on: the stained-glass window behind the stage. Smith wants to put on his own performance at the church, and when he does, he wants to light the rose window from the outside, washing the room in color.

    At lunch, he's dressed head-to-toe in black, as usual, but his arms are bare, even though it's only 50 degrees outside. It makes him seem younger, like he hasn't quite outgrown an adolescent aversion to outerwear. He has the slightly stooped posture of someone who grew more quickly than his classmates; his hair is exquisitely, effortlessly tousled, and his face is clean-shaven, with a hint of razor-burn on his neck. But he seems in relatively good shape, and spirits, given that his night ended at a Dalston bar where, instead of closing at the legally appointed hour, they simply roll down the shutters and play disco until morning. "I can't believe it hasn't shut down," he marvels.

    The endangered state of London's nightlife is very much on Smith's mind. In January, the beloved nightclub Plastic People closed down after more than 20 years. Plastic People was famous for many things—its crystalline sound, for one, but, more specifically, the foundational dubstep night FWD and wide-ranging DJ sets from residents like Floating Points, Four Tet, and Theo Parrish, that didn't so much bend the limits of genres as demolish the concept altogether. Smith cut his teeth there, becoming a regular around 2008. His current flat is a five-minute walk from the now-closed club's location. "It's actually one of the main reasons I moved there," he says with the kind of gravity generally reserved for protestations of religious faith.

    It was at Plastic People that he met Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, whose eclectic sensibilities and loosely woven polyrhythms are clear antecedents to Smith's own music. “That was it,” Smith recalls, “I was getting obsessed with vinyl, and he was willing to talk about records with me." It was the beginning of a fruitful friendship: Hebden collaborated with Smith on In Colour's "Seesaw", and the two recently combined forces for a two-hour back-to-back set for BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix series.

    Jamie xx and Four Tet: Essential Mix (via SoundCloud)

    "The only people I DJ back-to-back with regularly are Dan Snaith [Caribou], Sam Floating Points, and Jamie," Hebden, who is around 10 years older than Smith, tells me. Like Smith and the rest of the xx, Hebden also attended the Elliott School, a public high school that has, whether by luck or design, turned out an unusual amount of left-field electronic musicians, including Four Tet, members of Hot Chip, and Burial.

    According to Hebden, Smith belongs to a lineage of London music-makers for whom versatility is key: "We all grew up in a situation where it was normal to both play in a guitar band and listen to dance music in clubs." He adds, "We all come from a school of thought where Plastic People is the best club is the world, and we all had epiphanies there when DJs made bold moves and played records in a different context and it sounded better than music had ever sounded in your life."

    Photo by Noah Kalina


    Back in Smith’s studio, he pulls up an unreleased collaboration with Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch. "It's hard, because I'm not a lyrics guy, and she usually writes with somebody who's also writing lyrics,” he admits. “She had this process where she was on the floor with bits of paper, writing and putting them together. I just didn't know what to do, so I was messing with vocals. It was fun to work with her, though—her voice is just amazing."

    The song is slow and sad—a dirge set to a 4/4 beat, basically, with Welch's wraithlike vocals twined into trembling braids. It's rough around the edges, and the multi-tracking occasionally makes her voice seem out of tune with itself. As the song draws to a close, a piercing, ring-modulated frequency sweeps upwards, tying it all off in a barbed-wire bow. Even in this sketch-like shape, there's a darker undercurrent at work beneath the melancholy sweetness. The sour tunings are unsettling, and at the end, the volume still turned way up, it's almost physically painful. It is nowhere near as nice as Smith’s music often seems on the surface, I tell him.

    "I like that," he says. "I feel like in general, as a person, I can express myself a bit better now, and I don't have to be nice just to be nice. I always used to be, just because I was young and nervous. But now I'm a little bit more confident. I can be myself a bit more."


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  • 05/21/15--13:00: 5-10-15-20: Mac McCaughan
  • 5-10-15-20: Mac McCaughan

    Mac McCaughan: "Lost Again" (via SoundCloud)

    5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. In this edition, we spoke with 47-year-old Superchunk frontman and Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan, whose new solo album, Non-Believers, is out now.

    The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.

    I was born in '67 and I listened to my dad’s records growing up. He didn’t have a huge collection—it would fit in your stereo cabinet—but he had good records. I remember listening to Exile on Main St. by the Rolling Stones and Talking Book by Stevie Wonder the most. The Exile sleeve was so fascinating to me then: There's so much information, and it’s clearly adult information, so as a kid you're like, "Whoa, look at these freaky pictures and lyrics! And there's bad words."

    We also had a Super 8 projector and would listen to records while watching silent cartoons like "Heckle and Jeckle" and Donald Duck. My dad figured out that certain songs went really well with certain cartoons, so "Tumbling Dice" always went with this one called "Clock Cleaners", because they would sync up at certain times.

    My parents don't have a turntable anymore, so my brother and I divided up their records, and I still have that copy of Exile. It’s still one of my favorites. I've probably listened to it more than any other record.

    The Beach BoysLove You

    This was '77, and my sister and I would listen to Beach BoysEndless Summer all the time with tennis rackets, pretending to play guitar. Since we knew that album frontwards and backwards, my parents were like, "Let's just get the new Beach Boys album," which was Love You. And it's a totally weird record! It’s one of the 8-tracks we got from the Columbia Record & Tape Club, and since 8-tracks just loop over and over, we would put that on during a car trip and listen to it endlessly. At some point, Back in Black got stuck in our 8-track player—literally. You couldn't take it out.

    New OrderPower, Corruption and Lies

    In '81 we moved to North Carolina and suddenly had access to college radio. At this point, cassettes are in play, and I had a Walkman. I had a subscription to Rolling Stone, and I remember reading a review of Power, Corruption and Lies and thinking that it sounded like something I might like. But then I got it and was like, "This is not what I thought it was gonna be." I thought it would be more punky, maybe just from the album’s name. But I kept listening. It was the weirdest record I had ever bought at the time, and there was something about it that was compelling, and I knew that it was considered cool. It’s kind of dark and angry in some ways, and the guitar playing sounds very human compared to the drum machines and everything. Now it’s one of my top five records of all time. 

    That same year I saw U2, who played the first date of their War Tour in Chapel Hill at the local football stadium. The lineup was this band called the Producers—do you remember "She Sheila"—and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, and Todd Rundgren, who had a hit with "Bang the Drum All Day" at the time, and U2. People were fanatical about U2 already. There was definitely a "I'm seeing this band for the first time" feeling to that show. 

    Simultaneously, while U2 and Talking Heads were on MTV, [North Carolina bands] Let's Active and Corrosion of Conformity were putting out their first records. I realized that I could stand in line and get tickets to see Talking Heads, or I could go to a free hardcore show and see local punk rock bands.

    Public EnemyIt Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

    Nineteen eighty-seven was an insane year for music. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back both came out when I was 20. So did the ReplacementsPleased to Meet Me, Sonic Youth's Sister, Dinosaur Jr.’s You're Living All Over Me, Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Prince’s Sign o' the Times—it's just so crazy. I worked at a pizza place during the second half of '87, in Chapel Hill, and we would just wear out albums like Sign o' the Times and Tunnel of Love. But if I had to pick one, it’s Takes a Nation of Millions, because there's so much happening on that record, it's so dense. You could go so far into it or you could just let it hit you.

    We'd have dance parties in the basement of the house I lived in in Chapel Hill, and you could put that record on and people would just go nuts for an hour. Or you could sit down and listen to it for an hour and try to decipher everything that was going on in those layers. One of the things that’s cool about the first couple of Run-D.M.C. records and LL Cool J’s Radio is the minimalism, but with Nation of Millions everything is happening at once. It’s this crazy exponential leap.

    American Music ClubMercury

    In '92, it became a bit harder to separate records I was just into from records I associate with Merge. We had started the label, but [Superchunk] were on still on Matador at that point. We would come to New York, do a show, and then stop by the Matador offices to get a tape of Slanted and Enchanted or Exile in Guyville before they came out and listen to them in the van. 

    Though it feels very close to our scene now, one record that sounded nothing like ours, or our band, at the time was American Music Club's Mercury. And it stuck out to me for that reason. It seemed much more adult and very produced, in a good way, compared to the records we were making in three days or whatever. It sounded like they made a real album. It still feels very ambitious to me, like it’s from another world.

    McCoy Tyner: Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane

    At this point, I was listening to a lot of jazz. I was not a huge OK Computer guy, and it seemed like that record was taking the world over in '97. There's also something about being in a rock band and being surrounded by rock music all the time that totally puts your brain in a different space—there's something so appealing about sitting in the tour van and having a Cecil Taylor record on instead of a rock record. There is a song on [Superchunk’s] Indoor Living, which came out that year, called "Song for Marion Brown" [after the jazz saxophonist].

    Even though it's so massive, I always had The Penguin Guide to Jazz in the tour van, and there were so many great record stores in every town we were going to, so I had a checklist in my mind of things I was looking for, and I picked up a lot. There was this record called Blues for Coltrane, which was a tribute to Coltrane by McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, and others, and that was one of the first jazz record I bought that I was really into. It was a gateway for me. That was when I became my dad, essentially. [laughs]

    Orchestra BaobabSpecialist in All Styles

    In 2002, [Senegalese band] Orchestra Baobab came out with a record called Specialist in All Styles and I got to go see them live. It was one of those things where you realize, "Oh, this isn't just a band that came out in the '70s and disappeared—they're all still going, and they're all still amazing." It's guitars, drums, and bass, but it's operating on this other place. Even if I'm like, "Oh, I'm going to try and play some music like that on a guitar," I can't do it. There's something about what they're doing that's unique, something they've been working on for 40 years, and it's completely impossible to recreate. It's not just about listening to the music because you're also spending the whole time asking yourself: "How are they doing that?"

    Dirty ProjectorsRise Above

    I played a Portastatic show in Minneapolis on a freezing cold night with Dirty Projectors and I was so blown away by what they were doing with the vocal arrangements, plus Dave's crazy guitar playing—I was instantly a fan. At one point he was introducing a song with a story, and I was like, "It sounds like he's introducing ‘Police Story’ by Black Flag." But then what they played was so clearly not that song. Except it was? Kind of? It was a similar feeling I got from listening to Orchestra Baobab, where you’re listening to the music and enjoying it on one level and then there’s this other level, where you’re also just wondering, "How are they doing it?" When [Dirty Projectors’ Black Flag quasi-cover album] Rise Above came out, I was psyched to be able to sit down with what they were doing and listen as much as I wanted.

    TanlinesMixed Emotions

    This album is like crack for me in the sense that it's got all the elements of pop music that I like and reminds me of some of my favorite records from 30 years ago—but it's not a rehash. The whole thing has an effortless, but not tossed-off, feel to it. 


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    Interviews: Accidental Pop: A Conversation With Destroyer's Dan Bejar

    Destroyer: "Dream Lover" (via SoundCloud)

    After eight albums of labyrinthine art rock under the name Destroyer, Dan Bejar experienced an unlikely breakthrough four years ago with Kaputt. The record untangled Destroyer’s knotted delivery and arrangements while retaining the project’s cryptic mystique, and all the spoils of modern semi-success followed: late-night TV appearances, trippy music videos, bigtime summer festival slots. Many artists would be thrilled with such a reception. But, in ways big and small, Dan Bejar is not like many artists. When I ask him if he took some time over the last few years to bask in the long-deserved attention, he deadpans, “It became clear pretty quickly that there wasn't too much to bask in.” For Bejar, who originally found his artistic voice under the sway of ‘90s anti-materialists like Pavement and Guided By Voices, acceptance could only be met with healthy skepticism and disgust. So instead of reveling in the boom, he had another plan: “I was just trying to lie low and make sure that the world at large forgot Kaputt ever happened.”

    That strategy extends to Destroyer’s forthcoming 10th long player, Poison Season, which once again blows up the idea of what a Destroyer record should sound like while sounding like nothing but a Destroyer record. (Kaputt II it is not.) The album’s 13 tracks switch between—and oftentimes combine—two distinct styles: chamber-music balladry and vamping, jazzed-up ‘70s rock. “It’s like a strange mashup of 20th century classical and, like, Destroyer at the Sands,” offers the 42-year-old Bejar, citing Frank Sinatra’s classic 1966 live album. “I was never sure if it would make any sense as music—and I'm still not really sure it does—but it was something I wanted to do, and it's what’s closest to my heart right now.”

    But whether Bejar is backed by his longtime band doing their best “Young Americans” impersonation, or a haunting string quintet, the songs on Poison Season star people who find themselves poignantly adrift amidst the world’s woes. He describes an eerie new song called “Forces From Above”, which involves the hell of concentration camps, as “Destroyer 101—the harrowing, terrible state of the world in flames in the background while some minor romantic drama plays out in the foreground and seems all the more insignificant because of the circumstances around it.”

    Two-part mini-epic “Bangkok”, a song that Bejar considers especially important, is mostly sung from the point of a view of a depraved character named Sunny who’s looking back on his life and seeking a moment of grace. It begins as a weepy Broadway-ready plea, all wistful pianos and strings, before a Van Morrison groove saunters in and Bejar switches his perspective to one of the main character’s incredulous compatriots, who repeats: “Hey, what’s got into Sunny?” It’s sad, funny, creepy—a tale of redemption that also questions the legitimacy of redemption through art. “I like songs where there’s a balancing act between noble sentiments and lost causes,” says Bejar.

    Talking over the phone, the singer can seem like a downer. After he bemoans the “unlivable” state of his increasingly expensive hometown of Vancouver, I try to make a plea for the city’s natural beauty. “When you catch Vancouver on a sunny day, it's pretty nice,” he concedes, “if that's the kind of shit you're into.” At the same time, he’s also willing to laugh at his own portentousness. It all makes him come off like a Real Artist who knows that Real Artists can often sound like Insufferable Windbags. He’s making serious music that happens to be very enjoyable while hoping that there are other people out there who are willing to think and feel and listen along with him. But even if there aren’t, that’s OK too. “I'm not gonna come to a grinding halt if, all of a sudden, people aren't writing about a Destroyer record,” he says. “Whether people show up or not, I'm just gonna keep doing it.”


    Pitchfork: The song “Times Square” shows up on Poison Season as a full-band rocker and a dour, string-laden lament. Why did you decide to include both versions?

    Dan Bejar: That song is emblematic of the two approaches I took for this album. I initially had a very austere vision of that song, but once I got the band together, I tried to describe it to them and, off-the-cuff, I was like, “Well, it could also be this basic ‘70s rock number in a ‘Young Americans’ or Springsteen style.” So we just banged it out, and it felt good. I stared at both versions for a long time, and they both went on because I had multiple meanings I wanted to get out; even though the words and melodies are the same, the two songs mean two very different things. These days, though, my feelings are mostly keeping with the glamorous, super-downer version.

    Pitchfork: That’s funny because I feel like most people who listen to the album will come away humming the brighter, ‘70s-rock version.

    DB: I guess so; it's a pretty solid beat. And it's a straight-ahead song in a lot of ways. But that's why it couldn't just be that version of the song on the record. I really despise pop music these days, so I can't have people walking away humming songs. I'm totally about drawing lines in the sand: We’ve done this postmodern shrugging of the shoulders for a while now, and it hasn't really worked out, so if I make pop music at this point, it's by accident.

    Pitchfork: It actually seems somewhat radical to reject that postmodern idea of liking all types of music now.

    DB: Yeah, and I don't want to take a bunch of heat for that! And I don't think it really counts if I feel that way because it's too natural for some dude in his 40s who's putting out album number 10 to lament that everyone likes everything. If I was in my 20s, I would just be like, “Whatever, you're an old crank who likes Van Morrison.”

    But I can't be alone in rejecting that idea; it does seem like a played-out way of being. It's a way more complicated argument than I'm going to ever give it credit for, but surely some people are getting sick of basking in production moves and pop craft and producer culture. I hardly like any of it, though I'm sure that there are merits to lots of it. But my gaze needs to meet other things, and I can't be thinking about that shit.

    Pitchfork: So you’re not listening to Taylor Swift in your downtime.

    DB: Not too much. But, because I have a young daughter who's in school now, I had this sneaking suspicion that Taylor Swift might be the dominant cultural theme of her generation and that I should listen to a song by her because I had never heard one. This was a couple of months ago. So I checked it out, and it gave me the willies. It wasn’t a reactionary thing. It was more from just hearing these hack nu-country melodies with dumb lyrics and some very advanced Pro-Tools production techniques that could dazzle certain music critics. I’m familiar with the fact that people who I count as intelligent are really into this woman's records, and I don't want to make this about Taylor Swift. I just generally have a more elemental take on things and I can't hold up Taylor Swift as being either a figure of light or a figure of darkness because I feel like it brings down my poem to a level that’s too mundane. [laughs] So instead of being flabbergasted or outraged or dismissive, I really just want to pretend that those things don’t exist. Maybe I've always done a little bit of that, but I'm really steering into it now.

    Pitchfork: Do you ever worry about being out-of-touch?

    DB: I'm pretty confident I'll come off as out-of-touch no matter what I am listening to, so it’s not a concern. At this point, desperately trying to absorb and assimilate everything would make me seem more pathetic. I try to listen to new music and still get off on people writing and singing songs that move me. I really liked the new Jessica Pratt record, for instance. And when that happens, it’s a feeling I recognize from 30 years ago. The hunt is still on. I'm probably not as active as I used to be, but it’s still something I think about.

    “Compared to Kaputt, the songs on this record feel darker—not in a teenage-goth way, but in a way that’s less ready for Internet radio.”

    Pitchfork: While they’re not necessarily modern-sounding, there are a few songs on Poison Season that are among the poppiest Destroyer songs you’ve ever made.

    DB: Yeah, I know. I apologize for those songs; those songs are aberrations. They were just live recordings, for the most part. We went to the studio and pounded them out, and I didn't have it in me to go against the grain of what we naturally sound like. We only played “Dream Lover” twice before we did the version that you hear on the record, so the band barely knew it. But we had enough musical time clocked that things happened really easily—and if they didn't, they got thrown out right away, which is my favorite way of working. For that song, we tore down the drum hut and opened up the doors in the studio and just played it really loud. It's almost incorrect-sounding because we surprised the engineers. It's a brash sound, but still dark and murky vocally. It turned out in a way that wasn't expected—originally I thought it would be way more laidback and old-timey—and that's why it went on the album.

    But I intentionally left off the two songs that everyone told me were the catchiest, not because I didn't want people to like the record or because I don't want people to think I write pop songs, but because they broke the mood in a way that wasn't cool. They seemed distracting. I think Poison Season is a pretty dour record from beginning to end—there's not much to really bob your head to. Compared to Kaputt, the songs on this record feel darker to me, not in a teenage-goth way, but in a way that’s less ready for Internet radio.

    Destroyer: "Kaputt"

    With Kaputt, I was just like, “OK, let's try and make a pop record and go for a very cohesive sound. And I'll make sure that if I'm feeling it too much with my vocals I'll do another take where I sound emptier. And I'll put on a suit for the promotional photo and put together a big band.” I mean, as far as 21st century rollouts go, it's not going to be something they teach a masterclass about. And it's not like I sat down and wrote songs with that in mind—only toward the end did I start seeing how we could present it in a certain way and it wouldn't feel forced or shitty. But it's funny because it kind of worked. In the end, though, I couldn't sustain my interest in that. It felt right and natural at the time, but it's not where things are going with me. Kaputt just happened to line up with a certain zeitgeist or vibe that seemed to click with 2011, but that's something that will only happen to me once. There were a few situations I ended up in after Kaputt came out that just seemed wrong.

    Pitchfork: Like what? 

    DB: I remember being at Coachella and thinking, “What the fuck am I doing here?” That's just one obvious one. But I didn't have to play Coachella. No one forced me. That was a choice and that's me just dabbling in this certain careerist version of myself. It fucking exists! I don’t regret it, though, and I’m really proud of Kaputt. But it became clear to me very quickly that there are a few places where I have no business being—and that I wasn't going to be returning to those places again, whether out of my own volition or because I would not be invited back. Maybe I'm totally wrong. But I feel like I'm right.


    Pitchfork: Given your tangled relationship with the idea of pop music, I wonder if a song like “Dream Lover”—which has this blown-out Springsteen feel—is poking fun at people who like Bruce Springsteen.

    DB: Well, I don't like to think of songs as toying with people, or doing clever things, or relating to society, because it gets too depressing for me. My songs all just have to be striving for the light. [laughs] All I know is when I'm writing, I’m trying to get to the heart of something. And then when I’m singing, I’m trying even harder to get at the heart of something. Not to toot my own horn, but I think I’m really starting to find myself as a singer now. This is the first record that I've ever done that comes close to my idea of myself as a singer. I’m finally getting to this point where I can inhabit a song in a way that seems emotional but still recognizable to me and to my idea of what melodiousness can be. I used to revel in abandoning melody, and then on Kaputt it was just like, “Focus on the notes, sing the notes, be the notes.” Finally, with this record, I've gotten to a place that's more than either of those things.

    That said, I don't really like Bruce Springsteen—but I can accept defeat if someone says [“Dream Lover”] sounds like Wild and Innocent... or whatever album that "Rosalita" song is on. That's just a matter of taste, though, because if I like “Young Americans” and don't like Springsteen, my whole thing is shit really. Over the last 11 years or so, I’ve mostly just listened to Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. What speaks to me in Van Morrison’s music is that it's real—there’s basically a religious need in his music, and his approach doesn't stray from that. Also, I like the fact that jazz exercises a dubious influence on him, as I hope it exercises a dubious influence on me, too.

    Pitchfork: There are several allusions to religious ideas and figures throughout Poison Season, which made me curious about your own religious background.

    DB: My mom's Jewish and my dad was Spanish and raised Catholic, and together they raised us as nothing at all. So it's just a style of writing that I am attracted to. It's moving to me because involves a struggle and very noble futility—divine futility. It could also be a really hack songwriter path for me to follow after listening to Christian-era Dylan or Christian-era Van Morrison. But that version of a struggle for meaning is pretty front and center to what someone like Leonard Cohen does, too, even if it's all from the place of a fallen man and ideas of redemption.

    Pitchfork: Those songwriters were often living out their beliefs, but it sounds like you’re approaching religion from more of an arm’s length.

    DB: I can’t live it, but I don’t think you have to live it to have it be something that it sparks you to open your mouth. You can’t really write anything in the shadow of death without that struggle rearing its head, right? If you address death or decay, you’re bound to hit it.

    I would keep any kind of doctrine at arm's length, as opposed to any kind of furious mystical writing, which I would not keep at arm's length and would generously embrace. There's a big difference. In the end, the mystic tradition is way more typical with those singers; when they actually went to bat for one of these religions, it just came off as hokey and something they would cast off quite quickly, like what Bob Dylan did in the early ‘80s. But what stayed behind is this mystic resonance to the songs, which is still there, stronger than ever, right now.

    Pitchfork: These people you’re talking about all have been making albums for many decades with ups and downs along the way. You have been making records for about 20 years now and have yet to start sucking. That’s pretty rare.

    DB: I feel like the time-release poison could still be inside of me; I'm ready to completely lose sight of all that is good. [laughs] Being from North America, the proper backdrop for me to age gracefully as a singer/songwriter/poet type generally entails me embracing some form of Americana or roots or folk music. And while I listen to tons of that stuff, I don't gravitate toward it when I make music. I always end up doing these things that half sound like pop music to people; I can tell you as much as I can that it's not pop music, but I don't know if that counts.

    It really is rare for singer/songwriters to not end up shitty, but with rock bands it's just impossible. There's something about rock where if you're going for it in your 40s, you're doing something that's either different than what you were doing in your 20s or you're aping your younger self, and that's definitely not blowing people away. But at the same time, not to defend my own age group, but pop culture is ageist. If you're a singer or a dancer or an actor and you get to your 40s, you're fucked—and 99% of me thinks it serves people right for getting into showbiz in the first place, so I don't want to plead their case. [laughs] But some small part of me thinks that it must be possible to address concerns that aren't specific to teenagers in music and have it be good. It can't be this impossible feat that it currently feels like. There must be some other force at work.


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  • 05/27/15--10:25: Rising: Nao: Imperfect Soul
  • Rising: Nao: Imperfect Soul

    Nao: "Apple Cherry" (via SoundCloud)

    Ever since she was small, Nao has grappled with the idea of perfection. Growing up with her mum and siblings in a busy house in East London, she thought everyone had an idealized nuclear family—mum, dad, 2.4 kids—except her. Then, while studying vocal jazz at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama, she would rise at 5 a.m. to practice because she felt like she was constantly trying to catch up to other students with more experience. “I wanted to almost be perfect,” she says.

    But once she realized that the stuffy conservatory environment was knocking the creativity out of her, her views on flawlessness began to change. After earning her degree, she spent four years teaching South London school kids how to sing—arranging songs by Frank Ocean for their after-class choir—and taking backing vocalist gigs with the likes of Pulp. Then, about 18 months ago, the 26-year-old started writing her own material.

    The songs found on her pair of EPs thus far, last year’s So Good and the recent February 15, dissolve the notion of perfection until it becomes something fluid and beautiful. “Perfect is overrated,” she decides on a track called “Golden” as a taut bassline and syncopated handclaps churn and sputter behind her—it’s a modern, spontaneous sound she refers to as “wonky funk.”

    “I was thinking about the word ‘perfect’ for such a long time and how it’s so strange and subjective,” she says, sitting in her favorite London café one morning. “I’m going to the gym and exercising to get a particular body but I don’t know whose body; ‘perfect’ is something that we’re all supposed to strive for, but I don’t actually know what it is.”

    Perhaps calling back to her jazz studies, Nao utilized improvisation to come up with the melodies and lyrics on her EPs. “I’m more exploring the sound of what I’m doing rather than the stories of how some person broke my heart,” she says. But rekindling her intuitive relationship with music provides its own kind of love song: “You’re making my voice reach places that it’s never been,” she sings on “Adore You”.

    Nao: "Adore You" (via SoundCloud)

    Writing about personal situations still unnerves Nao, who requested for her full name not to be included in this article and whose artwork so far has featured images of her arms holding elegant, angular poses rather than her face. But if she seems a little shy (she forgets to drink any of her tea during our 45-minute interview), her vision is uncompromising. Labels beckoned as soon as she started posting songs online last year, but she decided to remain in control of her masters and direction by starting her own company, Little Tokyo Recordings.

    Nao: "Inhale Exhale" (via SoundCloud)

    She’s also chosen her collaborators carefully: several of her songs were produced by her old friend John Calvert, while A.K. Paul—brother of the enigmatic Jai Paul—produced So Good’s title track, and AlunaGeorge’s George Reid collaborated on “Golden”. Looking ahead, Nao recorded a song with Disclosure for their new record and she has also worked with electro-pop act Jam City, but she’s keen that such names don’t become the whole story.

    “It’s not about the names; it’s about the right songs,” she says of her forthcoming LP. Though her manager thinks she has enough material to release a record now, Nao wants to spend the summer writing to see what she can come up with. First, though, she’s off to India for two weeks: no phone, no emails, no writing, “just to be still for a bit”—just as February 15 is starting to take off. As she sings on that EP: “Break the rules until I’m making them.”

    Pitchfork: What was the first music you fell in love with?

    Nao: I was brought up in a big family, and our home was always filled with music. My brothers listened to lots of jungle and garage. My sister loved R&B. I really liked Prince, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone—singers who wore their hearts on their sleeves. I don’t think my mum really got it. She’s from the Caribbean and she listened to Sam Cooke and stuff that was a bit lighter, but I was always into these dark, sort of painful songs. She would be like, “Why are you listening to this music?” That, in turn, got me listening to jazz: John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

    Pitchfork: When did you start singing yourself?

    N: I’ve been singing since I was 14 and I’ve always played piano, but it was only a year and a half ago that I decided to be the voice of my own project. As a teenager, I used to go to a [singing] workshop every Thursday night, just a group of us and a teacher. Through that, we started to do performances at local festivals or the town hall, and I was like, “Oh, this is quite fun.”

    Pitchfork: When you started writing your own music, did you know how you wanted it to sound?

    N: No. If I did, I would’ve started writing a lot sooner. Every time I would write, a different influence would come out, and the only cohesive things were my voice and my writing style. But the more you write, the more you form your sound—whether you know it or not.

    Nao: "So Good" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: How did you end up working with A.K. Paul on “So Good”?

    N: Last year, when I started writing some early demos, he heard them and wanted to do a session with me, which was really exciting. I’m a massive fan of Jai Paul and I knew that A.K. Paul was instrumental to that. We made the song in just one day. We had really good chemistry.

    “I don’t want to wear costumes on stage or be this other person in my photos. I just want to be myself.”

    Pitchfork: The way you’ve put yourself across thus far almost feels old-fashioned—not much press, barely any photos, a few gigs. How do you want to present yourself going forward?

    N: I’ve thought about it a lot. I realized that we go through school trying to fit in, and then we spend our adult life trying to be different. So I just want to be myself. I don’t want to wear costumes on stage or be this other person in my photos. I don’t even really like being in photos—I’m not comfortable, so I tend to use my hands to distort the shot. I love dancing, so a lot of my outfits are like playsuits, something I can relax in. I don’t like posting loads of Instagrams and all that stuff. I’m just giving everyone what’s really me, which might just come across as me holding back.

    Nao: "Zillionaire" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Your lyrics are often about love, but there’s a distance between wanting something to happen and it actually happening. Is there a particular relationship behind these songs?

    N: For me, it’s about the melody first, before the lyrics, so I’ll sing and certain words will come out, and then I’ll go back and sculpt the words into something. I don’t usually write with an intention in mind. A song like “Apple Cherry”comes from that moment of improvisation. It’s just how the song makes me feel.

    Though I do have a song called “It’s You”, which is personal. With that track, I remember thinking, “Do I really want to put that on my EP and wear my heart on my sleeve?” Putting out your true story and letting someone in 100% is quite scary. But I might do that more so on the album.

    Pitchfork: Whose career do you look at and think, “I’d like to be there one day”?

    N: I love Frank Ocean’s first album, and I really love James Blake—he seems to have built his own world, his own following. And the same with Little Dragon, who I went on tour with last year. They don’t need to get radio play or anything because they have audiences who always come to the shows. It keeps growing and it’s very organic. I really respect that.


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    Photo Galleries: Festival for the Future: FORM Arcosanti

    Taking place within a breathtaking urban laboratory in Arizona's high desert and curated by pop experimentalists Hundred Waters, last weekend's FORM Arcosanti festival featured acts such as How to Dress Well, Julianna Barwick, the Antlers, Pharmakon, Skrillex, M. Geddes Gengras, and more. Photographer Tonje Thilesen was there to capture portraits of the performers and the surreal environment.


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    Rising: Lakker: Techno Storytellers

    Lakker: "Three Songs" (via SoundCloud)

    In what now looks like a pretty strange move, soon after the release of their debut album in 2007, Dublin duo Lakker took a four-year hiatus. "The two of us were a pair of jokers, basically," admits Dara Smith. "We put the album out and then just fucked off around the world."

    "It was needed," adds Lakker’s other half, Ian McDonnell, of the break. In the first phase of their musical partnership, Lakker were, by their own admission, a little all over the map. On that first record, Ruido, the longtime friends drew from their music studies, from their experiences raving, and from record collections heavy on metal and home-listening electronica; the result was a bracing and brain-scrambling sound full of scraped white noise, atonal filaments, and car-crash percussion. It could be beautiful, in a terrifying way, but it often pulled in every direction at once.

    So when it came to deciding whether they would continue the project after their worldly adventures, they vowed to increase their focus, going so far as to write a manifesto outlining their revamped goals. "We want to use found sound, we want to have emotion," says Smith, ticking off items from their list of guidelines. "We want to tell stories."

    Lakker: "Mountain Divide" (via SoundCloud)

    Since their return, in 2011, Lakker have become expert storytellers. They still wear their influences on their sleeves—techno, breakbeats, 20th century avant-garde electronic music, industrial, ambient—but the music now gels in ways that it didn’t before. They have since released a string of EPs for twilight-loving techno labels like Blueprint and Stroboscopic Artefacts; last year, they signed to the storied R&S Records, put out a pair of sensually severe EPs, and moved to Berlin, where they wrote and recorded their recent second album, Tundra, in the course of about two months.

    The result is an album that is both more diverse yet more coherent than any of their previous work, yoking together music-box footwork, jewel-toned IDM, new-school trip-hop, and industrial-strength techno/bass-music hybrids. There are echoes of Seefeel and Aphex Twin and the Haxan Cloak; the pounding toms, at least in places, wouldn't sound out of place in one of Mad Max: Fury Road's battle scenes, but there are also choral melodies of an almost liturgical bent. For all its occasionally shuddering volume, the album is better suited for headphones than anything they've done before.

    As high-tech as their approach can be, Lakker insist upon the importance of balancing sound design with spontaneity and heart. "It's very easy to go down the science-y route and be like, 'But you don't understand how this sound was processed—it took me four days!'” says Smith. “But then you listen back to it, and it's just boring as shit."

    Part of Tundra’s affective power comes from the duo's use of field recordings, which thread the music with a kind of supercharged resonance. The tolling bells in "Pylon", for example, came from a church near McDonnell's apartment in Berlin's Schöneberg neighborhood. "It's not even a very hi-fi recording—it's just off my phone," he says. "But it gives the track an extra dimension, an organic quality."

    Lakker: "Pylon" (via SoundCloud)

    "The shittier the recording," the better, adds Smith. "We have so many recordings just like that, off our phones—we'll pitch it down and notice loads of hidden layers we couldn't hear in the normal version."

    That concept of revealing something that's hidden in plain sight goes to the heart of Lakker. Tundra might seem like a title best suited for grey-scale techno, but, like the duo's music, what might at first seem like a riot of shadows opens up to yield a world of light and energy. "I suppose when you think of the tundra, you think of epic wide landscapes," says Smith, "but if you just zoom in and focus on little things within these bleak spaces, the place is actually full of life and color."

    Pitchfork: I was struck by all the color in the video for "Three Songs". I tend to think of Lakker's music as fairly dark, but seeing that opened up another way of hearing it.

    Dara Smith: Meshuggah are this super heavy Swedish metal band, but they describe their music in color, and I always found that really interesting because we've always seen our music in color as well. It's a funny thing that's happened to us since we've come to Berlin, as well: Everyone here wears black all the time and everything is dark and urban and edgy, and it gets a little boring after a while.

    Ian McDonnell: When I saw the video, I was like, “That is not how I would have thought of the video.” But it made me hear the track in a different way.

    Pitchfork: What were some of the finer points of that manifesto you wrote when you decided to keep the project going after the first record?

    DS: Our stuff had become hugely cut up, and it was a bit wanky maybe. So we wanted to be more mature about it, learn when to let a good groove do its thing. I remember Ian putting on Burial at that time and just being like, "Wow, that's amazing." Not a huge amount happens in that music. It was a bit of a slap in the face too, because we were throwing loads of ideas into our tracks, but then you just realize, "Let's just get one good idea and work that out."

    IM: It comes with age. When you're younger you want to be crazy and try to prove yourself more. I remember a review of one of our old gigs that said we were a "more complex but less interesting Squarepusher." And it really stung because it was true!

    DS: How dare he… [adopts mock-crestfallen tone] be exactly right.

    IM: I went back through the mixes for Ruido and I realized the amount of amazing samples and sounds that you can't actually hear in the final mix because there's so much going on. It's like, “That one little loop is a good track in itself—what the hell were we doing with all the rest of that stuff?”

    Lakker: "Oktavist" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Sound design seems really integral to your music, and it's often hard to tell where a given sound might have come from.

    IM: Since we've known each other, Dara has always been recording sounds and samples on the hard drive.

    DS: It's great, because after a while, when you start to build up your own library, you can't help but have your own sound because they're all your sounds. We obviously use synthesizers and some classic drum machines, but it just naturally helps you develop your own sound.


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    Festival Report: Primavera Sound 2015

    Check out a photo gallery from this year's Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, Spain and read some of Mark Richardson and Jeremy Gordon’s notes on sets by Patti Smith, Mac DeMarco, Run the Jewels, and more. (Note: Pitchfork curated a stage at Primavera this year and the festival provided some accommodations.)

    Patti Smith's Horses Is Still Vital

    Complete-album shows almost always sound better in theory than in practice. Knowing exactly what’s coming next drains the performance of tension, and the guiding principle of these gigs often just boils down to: “Hey, remember this?” But at Primavera, Patti Smith and her band played her 1975 album Horses like it had a great deal to say about the world at precisely this moment. And they were right.

    Patti Smith in general, and Horses in particular, serves as a kind of bridge: between musical eras, between genders and identities, between art-rock grandeur and garage rock simplicity, between the literary world and the musical one. Throughout the festival, you could see her music’s influence extending in different ways, from the slinky sexuality of Perfume Genius—who stalked the stage with pure lust before sitting down at a piano and singing heart-wrenching ballads of loneliness and death—to Torres, who performed alone with just her guitar and a voice that could raise the dead. For all three acts, desire is the life force, the animating energy of the music that all other concerns flow out out of.

    “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” is one of the great opening lines in the history of album rock, and it works very well to open a show, too. A good chunk of Horses is about gradual builds and climaxes and breakdowns, and Smith inhabited every twist and turn with a hyper-engaged intensity. She was clearly enjoying playing this old music to tens of thousands of people, a large number of whom were some years younger than her children and were screaming along to every word.

    As the band zeroed in on the chord changes to garage rock sacred text “Land of a Thousand Dances”, Smith moved between her stream-of-consciousness poetry and lines like “You got to do the Watusi!” She knows how brilliant and evocative her own words are, but she also knows that they can never reach people in the same way as a screamed command to do the Mashed Potato; dumb lyrics written for teenagers can have an untouchable brilliance, and Smith reclaims frat rock for the art kids.

    Her voice has lost none of its power, and if anything her band has gained it. Road dogs with a half-century of performance behind them, Lenny Kaye and his cohorts know exactly how to support their leader’s every whim, and they also know exactly who everyone is looking at. Smith’s presence is commanding. She allowed herself many smiles during this set and was overwhelmed by the response, sometimes to the point of tears, but in mid-flight she was scrunching up her face and spitting out words and imploring the audience to take the world back from the people in power and turn it into something better. These are very ‘60s ideas, but Smith is ‘60s to her very core—Dylan, the Stones, and Jim Morrison come up all the time. But she embodies the best of that era and has never given up on the idea of the artist as an instigator of revolution. 

    The spare “Elegie” is Horses' closer, and Smith noted that it was originally written to commemorate the death of Jimi Hendrix, but she now offered it to everyone who had lost someone they loved (which is eventually just everyone). She paused to recite the names of some of those people in her life, starting with the individual Ramones. When she got to Fred “Sonic” Smith, her late husband and founding member of the MC5, her voice cracked and she had trouble continuing, but Kaye nudged her forward. The encore of “Rock N Roll Nigger” was chaotic and found Smith strapping on a guitar and trying to make it howl with feedback before eventually pulling off the strings one-by-one. The song itself is an established part of her canon, but it is, for this writer, pretty hard to hear in the present day. But even that tone deafness demonstrated the power of her belief in music and performance as the place where, to borrow a line from “Gloria”, anything’s allowed. —Mark Richardson

    Primavera’s Rap Problem

    I don't want to front like I know everything about what's prominent in European culture after a week, but it seemed telling that one of the continent’s most beloved festivals booked exactly two rap acts this year. One of those was Tyler, the Creator, whose genre isn't rap so much as "Wolf Gang"; the other was Run the Jewels, who muted their reliably political stage act for the more universal mission statement of, "We're super dope." (Or, as Killer Mike put it: "We are the best motherfucking rap group in the world.") They both garnered massive responses, which should be a hint to whoever is booking Primavera next year. Run the Jewels could've looped the Zack de la Rocha bit from "Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)” for a half hour and still maintained riot level energy.

    Meanwhile, Tyler's set was less anarchic than it was a few years ago, when Odd Future trashed the stage. Here, he was vivacious if not professional, having settled into a groove even as his recent projects have garnered less acclaim than releases from brothers-in-arms Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt. Prankster sideman Jasper helped him lead the crowd in permutations of "golf wang" chants. (One excited young woman began humping her friend's back as he attempted to kneel and make a phone call, all while chanting “FUCK THAT, GOLF WANG”—a true bond.) —Jeremy Gordon


    The Ballad of Julian Casablancas’ Red Mullet

    The Strokes are too young to be part of the reunion-core wave that began about a decade ago, when bands like the Pixies, Pavement, and Dinosaur Jr. returned to claim the booking fees they had been denied during their youth. But they certainly play like they're only in it for the money, standing as far apart from each other as possible and interacting at a minimum while tearing through a perfunctory set of the greatest hits. There was polite applause for more recent cuts, like inauspicious set opener "Macchu Picchu" (whose reggae-lite grooves I will never forgive), but the loudest reactions were for songs at least a decade old: "Last Nite", "Someday", "Hard to Explain", "Reptilia". They had a chance to play "12:51" at precisely 12:51 but inexplicably decided not to. Dudes! Does Steph Curry pass the ball when he's got an open shot? (I would also like to point out that Julian Casablancas now sports a mullet that is dyed red.) 

    Reunion-core doesn't have to be such a dire business. Sleater-Kinney and the Replacements certainly approached their tasks with more glee. Carrie Brownstein drew huge cheers when she sprawled on the stage without missing a note; Paul Westerberg still pretends to fuck up his lyrics, as if to live up to the band's drunken legend, and it's mostly endearing. The Replacements entered to "Surfin' Bird" and dropped a partial cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back"—it's clear they see themselves in the great American musical tradition, which includes giving it all you've got and having fun while you're at it. Maybe the Strokes will figure that part out by Primavera 2025. —JG


    Mac DeMarco Is the Dad Bod of Music

    It's clear that, for Mac DeMarco and his band, playing music is as easy as breathing and, unlike the Strokes, they appear to genuinely enjoy each other's company. They love to drop jokey covers in their sets—at Pitchfork Festival a few years ago they did Limp Bizkit, and here, it was Coldplay's "Yellow". (I did scowl at that, though, since DeMarco hasn't even begun to walk a mile along the beach in Chris Martin's shoes, but the people around me seemed to find it funny.) At one point, they faked like they were going to introduce Anthony Kiedis and brought out a lookalike who could've been a member of their crew, or just some guy they met. (Mac: "Mr. Dani California himself!") Like dad bod, it's also easy to be annoyed by their apparent lack of effort, but what you might see as pompous entitlement I took as slacker endearment. —JG

    When Quiet Speaks Volumes—and When It’s Just Too Quiet

    Let us remember Tobias Jesso Jr., casualty of the indefatigable loudness wars. He will be dearly missed. His set, in which he switched between unaccompanied piano and acoustic guitar, was smothered by the stages around him, even as he attempted to power through. Even so, he was in good enough spirits to banter with some fans who waited by the backstage area for at least an hour before he came out. Truly, a man of the people.

    Save for a few drunken loons shouting out for Heineken, Antony and the Johnsons didn't suffer the same fate. They were placed at one of the main stages, which meant there were no aural distractions to be heard during their set, which was backed by a beautifully strange film of Japanese Noh dancers. Antony was accompanied by a full orchestra; her voice, immaculately maintained and spiritually buoyant, echoed through the festival without a single blemish. I felt like I was attending church, and at several points, was moved to tears. They dropped a version of the 2008 Hercules and Love Affair collaboration "Blind" that replaced all the percussion with delicate string stabs, which sounded big despite the tenderness of the music. It made me wonder how much bigger Antony will sound when her Hudson Mohawke-produced album comes out later this year. —JG


    Sunn O)))’s Ultimate Brown Note

    The first chord Sunn O))) played lasted about as long as an early Beatles album, but their set was never less than mesmerizing. The theater of their presentation—druid robes, huge stacks of amplifiers, back-lighting that made it seem like they were playing in a cave located below a crumbling castle—scales up to basically any size. So while an average Sunn O))) gig might be for a few hundred people, here they resonated for a quarter mile in every direction. It didn’t hurt that the set was punishingly loud. For many minutes at a time nothing really happened, but it made tiny gestures like a raised guitar or a swig out of a bottle of wine seem to carry great significance. —MR

    Hey Hey, My My

    Nowadays, if you're a straight-up indie rock band and you're not falling over your feet to explain how much you love Nicki Minaj, you very well may be stigmatized as a bit of a square. But that memo hasn't been passed around at Primavera, where, apart from the dance-heavy stages, rock dominated the bill. At proud Canadian guitar quartet Viet Cong's set, no one in the crowd cared about the recent controversy over their half-assed name—one member of the band was even confident enough to gesture to another stage and ask the crowd, "What's playing over there? Is it as good as what's about to happen?" If you're going to play dinosaur music, you might as well swagger. —JG


    To Love (and Hate) Ariel Pink

    Richardson’s Law of Lo-Fi Performance: The more reverb an artist uses, the greater the chance that they will run into sound problems. Early on in Ariel Pink’s set, the singer spent a couple of songs repeatedly returning to his pedals and flashing exasperated looks to the side of stage. It’s a poor workman that blames his tools, of course, and Pink has never made it easy to root for him. But after one or two songs that were pretty much a clangy mess, he and his band locked in, and the crowd, one of the biggest at the Pitchfork stage all weekend, went bananas. Though he cultivates an aloof aura and you never really know what he’s thinking up there, once the show was rolling, he hit every note. The closing “Picture Me Gone” was an epic singalong. —MR


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