Artist Brin Levinson came to Portland in 2001 and has spent years since cutting his teeth in the art world. His work has been showcased in Tall Trees of Portland, the online art journal Empty Kingdom, and OPB’s art beat to name a few, not that these distinctions matter when it comes to art, but there you have it.
What are some of the small pleasures that you encounter as a painter?
There are a lot of small pleasures. One that I think a lot of people don’t know about, but I discovered when I started painting, is that it makes you see everything differently in a completely literal way. You start to see colors everywhere and everything is enhanced because you’ve trained your eyes to see subtleties. Sometimes shadows glow with color more than places in the light and it’s amazing because you never noticed before. The way ordinary things look can actually be fascinating. It feels like you’ve been let in on a secret pleasure that most people don’t know about.
What is your creative or daily routine like?
I’m not a morning person, I start the day slowly and start working usually around noon. My peak energy is in the early evening so I usually work best later in the day and often into the night. I take a lot of breaks and go outside but never really stop “working” for too long. Sometimes I hit a wall with the painting and end up spending most of the day looking at pictures and thinking which is actually a big part of the work. You can cover a lot of ground trying ideas out in your head.
How and when did you first realize that painting was what you were going to do to pay the bills?
For me it was a gradual process that took many years. I worked a lot of day jobs and did some illustration work on the side at first. Eventually I decided to see if I could get by working on art and illustration alone if I did it every day like a job. I also did some woodworking on the side and it all worked out. Over the years, my career has gotten better and I can focus more on my art without random distractions and side work for paying the bills.
What was your relationship with nature while growing up and how has that influenced your work as a painter?
I was a total nature boy, kind of like a monkey. I grew up in the country and went into the woods all the time. I used to want to live in the trees but eventually society won me over and now I live in town. I can only take it in small doses though, I’m not a big city person, I prefer a small or medium sized city. Since I’ve been assimilated into the collective, I think I miss my deeper connection to nature and that may be something that comes out in my art.
Where do you go when you need to feel reinvigorated?
The shower. That’s pretty much why I live in a house. I also find that being in beautiful places is inspiring so I like to find new areas I haven’t seen before. The mountains are great but so are little towns and neighborhoods. Even a new viewpoint is an exciting find. I think most of all the sun is what makes us feel alive so if it’s sunny, I get in it. That’s what summer is for.
How do you know when a painting is finished?
Usually they’re never finished but they’re close enough. If nothing bothers me compositionally, it means it’s almost there. If something is off balance or distracts from the visual flow, I have to fix it. I’ve gone back and finished older pieces that felt unfinished; sometimes it takes a while before you can see what needs to happen.
Is there a goal for your paintings? Do you have a message or are the paintings themselves the messages?
The main concepts in my work came about pretty quickly after I started painting urban landscapes about ten years ago. My original intent was to paint imagery that was familiar but not necessarily recognizable to create a nostalgic feeling. I’ve tried to keep that dreamlike quality in my work while also embracing more obvious ideas that have been woven into my imagery. I love hearing what people see because it’s not always obvious what’s going on and everyone has their own take on it.
words: ben ramsey pics: brittini maderos
For more check out Poppycock Magazine in print at Reading Frenzy on Mississippi Ave.
How did you get connected with Portland’s Fluff and Gravy to lead to this EP and LP?
This fall I got in touch with F&G out of the blue. I was familiar with some of the other artists they work with, Anna Tivel, etc. I sent them a link just saying to let me know what they think. I got an email back the next day from John (Shepski). He let me know that they had kinda spent their capital for the year, had a full roster, but wanted to see what we could work out, and so we did.
Is that a lot of what the industry for an independent artist is, sending links in emails? The modern day cold call or demo mailer?
Believe me, as an independent artist I have sent a bazillion of those emails and never get a response.
Talk to me a bit about the collaborative process for you versus the solo project. What does that bring out, pros and cons?
To be honest, I’ve never really been one to create on my own. I know there are those artists out there that produce, play all the instruments, record, write all alone, but I’ve never been one of those artists. One of my biggest supporters has been my husband, Sebastian.
Since we met in LA, a long time ago, he has always produced my albums for me. He often has played in my band, and there are a lot of other artists in Portland and beyond.
For me, collaboration is exciting. It just brings inspiration to the process. I think it was harder for me early on in my career and I started out playing songs in your own bedroom, and it is hard to share that creative process early on. It’s hard because you really want to let people know what you like, what you sound like, who you are right out of the gate. Having made a number of albums now, I am not hung up on that anymore. Now I am looking forward to collaborating wonder, “Hmm, what can you or you bring to the table?”
Clearly you’re a passionate, opinionated person with a clear view that comes through in your music. What do you concern yourself with more, your message being creatively what you wanted or listeners being touched by it?
You’re always evolving and taking information in from the world. You take it in and process it and filter it back out, expressing it, and my expression is music. My hope is to convey something to people. Certainly, I realize that every person’s relationship with music is very personal. Some people will take different things from it and that is fine. For a long time, I was concerned about being didactic. I’ve always been interested and passionate about politics and a perspective on the world, but it took some time, like a winding road, to deciding that it would come to the forefront. There’s always a hope that someone will hear the song that doesn’t agree with me and get something out of it, but I recognize that for the majority of the people who get something out of my music I am singing to the choir. That’s ok, because I think the choir needs to hear it, too. I think that is part of what was so powerful about Occupy Wall Street for me was that suddenly I heard people were saying all these things that I was thinking or saying to my husband in private. I think that if you’re able to do that in song, even for people who agree with you, you can give people solace, excitement, and some connection in the universe.
For more from our interview with Catherine, check out issue 06 of Poppycock Magazine currently on the shelves at the one and only Reading Frenzy on N Mississippi Ave.
With their unique dreamy pop sound, it’s no wonder Portland-based band, Radiation City, has won accolades from leading publications like TIME, Rolling Stone, NPR and Nylon Magazine. Willamette Week dubbed them “Best new Band” in 2012 – an impressive feat, considering how vast the Portland music scene is. Fans refer to them as “Rad City”, which is the perfect double entendre to describe the dynamic indie group. Their most recent album, Animals in the Median, features complex layers of synthesizers, haunting harmonies, midi percussions, and clean riffs – which culminates in a charming “doo-wop” sound that can be described as both forward-thinking, yet nostalgic.
Interview Conducted by Zara Zhi
Are you working on a follow-up album to “Animals in the Median”? Can you tell us about any new projects you guys are working on?
This record, yet to be named, is somewhat of a departure from Animals in the Median. As we’ve grown as musicians, producers, songwriters, and people, we’ve begun to understand our strengths and weaknesses more acutely. We feel that our pop sensibilities are a strength and have decided to bring them into focus on this record. Of course, we can’t get away from the strange and sublime, but we’ve found the crossroads between succinct song craft and our usual unpredictable approach. We’ve also gotten some flack in the past for burying the vocals, which honestly is a common mistake among young bands. In some cases, heavily processed vocals can be used to great effect (aesthetically it works for garage rock records, et al) but we don’t think it works for us.
As we finish mixing that record we’ve also been keeping our hands from becoming idle. We’ve worked on other groups’ records in various capacities; Chris Marshall, Pearls, the Saxophones, Jackson Boone and Jurassica are a few groups you probably haven’t heard of, but hopefully will soon; The Decemberists, Jim James, and STRFKR are a few you probably do know. Randy [Bemrose] has also been working on a solo record for ever and that should be coming out this year too.
What inspirations do you use when you create an album?
Lizzy Ellison: Initially we don’t think about “the creation of an album” per se. Songs are developed individually, and then compiled when the time comes to make one. What inspires the first glimpse of a song can be anything from cleaning my room, to baking bread, to walking around in nice weather. It’s when I’m not thinking about the music that it comes. Once I’ve caught myself ruminating on an idea for long enough, I’ll record the melody on my phone. If that stands the test of time, it will then turn into a song that still may or may not be on the next record. It could be on one we make 6 years from now.
Randy Bemrose: I like using instruments that pull my playing one way or another. A snare that’s tuned extra tight, or a sock hat stand with a lot of give. I like habits that pull my energy level around, like sleep deprivation or eating extremely healthy. I like vices that pull my brain in weird directions: coffee, cigarettes, weed, etc…
Cameron Spies: I draw inspiration from the pop music lexicon pretty regularly – whether it’s a particularly unique groove (Motown pretty much wrote that book), or an arrangement device like a classic string orchestral gesture (Henry Mancini, Gil Evans, et al). But a lot of my inspiration is more subconscious: a melody will creep into my head while we are in the van on tour, or a chord change or lyric will emerge out of the ether. My memory sucks, so I have to record everything immediately, or it will just as easily slip back into that same ether.
What is your song-writing process?
Each person will bring in song skeletons that they believe are a good fit, and then we will retreat somewhere outside of the city to focus on our ideas and build upon the songs. Sometimes our demoed versions will be the final versions of the tracking. In the case of the first two records, we saw them all the way through the mixing process. On Animals, we worked with a super pro mixer named Sonny DiPerri. He did an amazing job and has become a good friend, and even accommodated a lot of our stubborn ideas, even if they weren’t always the best. In recent sessions we’ve really tried to make our process less tedious and more about the core of the song. Adding layers can be fun and somewhat rewarding, but you can layer forever and never finish a song or completely lose sight of what was the initial intention, which is the most important part. Addition by subtraction has always been our motto, but it can be difficult to actually practice that restraint with so many good ideas to sort through.
Will Rad City be playing at any festivals this summer?
We have some show and tour announcements coming up that will take us away for a few months, but I don’t think any festivals are on the list. The system within the booking world is very dependent on having a record to market. At the moment we aren’t entirely sure as to when this next one will come out. There is so much pre-planning involved with the release of a record that this may even be a fall release.
What are Rad City’s hopes and dreams for the future?
I [Lizzy Ellison] think I can speak for the group as a whole. We without a doubt see music as an outlet for our creativity and only hope to share that with other people who enjoy what we do. It’s not for everyone and that’s fine. We will continue to make interesting records that are pleasing to us and fulfill our desire to make art. Hopefully we’ll be visiting other parts of the world in the coming year as well as collaborating with other artist communities.
Do you guys feel Portland is a good city for independent musicians?
Lizzy Ellison: It may not be for everyone, although everyone likes to think so. Portland at the moment is built on the idea that you can realize any ambition. For artists, that is the only thing you want to hear. This gives artists the power to become as successful as they want in this city, because success to a lot of artists isn’t measured with money. For people just starting out, that can be terrifying, and ultimately the reason they leave. We didn’t have any connections when we first started out, and it’s been a difficult time getting to where we are, but throughout all of it, the city has been very supportive. I don’t think it would have survived the way it did in any other city.
Randy Bemrose: No, it’s no good for that. Its summers are a dark crystal, beautiful and cracked. Its winters, a villainous skeksis, draining your will to create. Everybody comes here in the spirit of a gelfling, dream-fasting with the first winged beauty they come across. They’ve got this shard of an idea that somehow feels so important. The stars are aligning, it’s all happening! Soon enough they realize they are paddling like everybody else; simple, kindhearted, and soon to be relieved of their essence. Succinctly, it will rob you of the best in you and leave an empty potato skin. Do not move here under any circumstance short of severe pregnancy.
Cameron Spies: Yes and no.
If you guys could do a collaboration with any artist(s), who would it be?
Lizzy Ellison: At the top of my list is Air. They are my go-to artist when I’m by myself and I never tire of their music.
Randy Bemrose: I’d love to engineer on Mark Ronson’s next production credit, or produce Tobias Jesso Jr’s next, next record.
Cameron Spies:Yoni Wolf has been a huge inspiration for me. I’d like to make a weird record with him.
What was the hardest part of your musical journey? What was the best part?
Lizzy Ellison: The hardest part has been keeping our heads clear on what our goals are. It’s easy to get sucked into the popularity contest. Are we gonna be on “so-n-so”? Does that determine our success? Are we doing the right thing? Falling into that rabbit hole is dangerous, and ultimately not why we do this anyway. The best part is figuring that out and realizing that we love what we do, no matter what the struggles are. It doesn’t matter what some publication thinks of what we make. We know we are making a lot of people happy and that’s the best gift in the world.
Randy Bemrose: Being a prescient, if impatient man, I have the hardest time with the hurry-up-and-wait nature of this business. That waiting is worst for me. The best part is the long stoned drive through a clear rural night with just the right album on, and nobody has said a word for hours so maybe you’re the only one awake and the wind is in your hair – still damp and salty from the show and the sea you swam in today.
PK: Let’s jump right in and get a little background. When did you begin creating your own music? Not necessarily professionally, but when did you begin creating?
Ali: When I was pretty young. I did my first show when I was eight. I did some of my stuff, but a lot of other people’s stuff. I started writing little passages and things then. When I was 13 I made my first song. It was my first entirely original song.
PK: Was there a moment for you that spelled out this profession as the one for you? Was it a struck by lightning kind of moment or a series of things that occurred for you to discover that hip-hop was for you?
Ali: When I was seven, my brother and I lived in a cul-de-sac. It was all duplexes, low-income area. There were these two brothers that lived at the end of our street that were a few years older than us. We looked up to them. They were beat boys, they were break dancers, and there was hip-hop around their house all the time. We just fell in love with it.
I remember I bought my first rap tape. It was a compilation album called, Kings of Rap. I memorized everything on that. It was very big for me. I remember Houdini in particular. I really liked them because they had themes to all of their songs. They all had a topic, and they all really stuck to that topic. They had one about love, one about friends, and one about people who talk too much. That was a big thing for me.
I would have to say that there is one big moment for me. When I was 13, I met KRS-One. I saw him speak at Michigan State University and then during the Q&A part I asked him to sign a book he had published. He brought me on stage, talked to me, and asked me questions. Between the lecture and meeting him, it was life changing for me.
PK: What was the title of that book? I’ve talked to a few other rappers and KRS-One has a book they all refer to.
Ali: He has a few. The one that I’m talking about was Stop the Violence. He and a writer, Nelson George, did it together. It was part of the stop the violence movement he was part of. He had a song called, “Self-destruction” which was part of that movement.
PK: There is a lot of you in your songs. You talk about having been broke, homeless, and sleeping on friends’ couches. Now, according to a single like “Fresh Air,” you’re sleeping on the couch with Conan and own your own home. Is this success surreal for you? Are you the “luckiest son of a bitch that ever lived,” or are there still boxes left unchecked for you professionally?
Ali: There is a lot left to be desired. I’m not lavish. There are times when I’m not even comfortable. I have enough money to live when I’m active, but I don’t have enough money socked away to just be when I’m not, and I take a break when it comes to my family’s finances. There is still a lot to do. The biggest problem I have is when I take too long between albums. I basically end up with a year when I hardly have any income. That is one of the things I want to work on, being more productive. That way, there aren’t these yearlong gaps between projects. I need to manage my money a lot better. I feel like for me to be sustainable, what I am doing needs to be bigger. My fan base needs to be bigger. I need to be more successful before I can say, “This is fine. I can ride this out for the rest of my life.” I’m not 100% comfortable. I’m not 100% stable. There are still long periods of time when my family doesn’t have insurance. I still have big tax bills; I struggle to pay my taxes.
It’s still tough, but I am still extremely grateful that I don’t have to work a job and that I do own my home and that kind of stuff, but there is still a lot to be desired there.
PK: You’ve got a long and growing discography. Starting with a single like “Rain Water” from the Rhymesayers sampler and albums likes Shadows on the Sun and now your next album. When you do decide it’s time to put something out? Is it the financial need to put something out? Is it fans screaming for more stuff? Do you just wait until the content piles up and you just need to put one out? How do you determine it’s time for another project?
Ali: I would like to get to the point where I am always creating and always have a body of work that’s ready to go. Normally, I just say that it’s time to make a new album. I normally put one out and tour it until I can’t tour it anymore, and then I say, “OK, I guess I need a new one so I can go and start the tour cycle again.”
So, I put an album out and tour it for a year. It would be good to tour it for a year and then come back and make the next one, but I’ve been touring them for two years. I come home and take a year or so making the next one. For this one [Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color], it’s been three years. Between Shadows on the Sun and The Undisputed Truth, it was four or five years. It was quite a long time.
PK: You’ve come from difficulty in your life. From being on your own at 17, married young, being broke, how did you stick with this and persevere? What did, or do you, turn to or tell yourself to keep going through self-doubt and difficulty?
Ali: For this [album] I put myself in a certain place. Working with Jake One, he lives in Seattle, so I would go out there. I would go out there for a weekend, or a week, and eventually I got an apartment out there to stay for months. Being there just put me in a space where I was here to make music and that’s it. So make music. Normally, I would start to make something and if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t finish it. I would feel depressed, just down, feeling blue about it. I would have to wait for inspiration to hit me again and I would have to flesh out an idea. If that came together then that would be great. In this scenario, I was in a situation where I couldn’t wait to write the perfect song, I just had to write songs. Because of that, I wrote 14 songs that I really love and I’m really proud of. In between those times [in Seattle] I was also writing songs. With this album, there wasn’t that time when I was stagnant and not doing anything.
“Writer’s Block” is a perfect example of that. My friend, Slug [of Atmosphere], told me, “You need to just create. If you have writer’s block, then write a song about writer’s block.” I put myself in a space where I just forced myself to work through it.
PK: Going back in your history, with songs like “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” “Tightrope,” and even songs like “Walking Away” and “Puppy Love,” do you ever cringe and want to pull back from writing a song or including certain content. You ever cringe and think, “That’s gonna piss somebody off?”
Ali: Yeah. Sometimes you talk about your relationship with somebody and that relationship deteriorates, and that becomes a sore point. There were a couple of things on this one [the next album] where my wife was like, “Hey, I don’t know if you should really be comfortable saying that.” There were a couple of things I went back and changed. There is stuff in this album that is going to be problematic for people. I just know that. Sometimes relationships come to an end in life, and they don’t always end well. I know that on this album there is one song in particular that I’m going to catch hell over.
PK: Those are the personal relationships. With some of your tracks, to return to a track like “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” as a Muslim speaking out against the U.S. government, are you ever afraid of the wrath of the Patriot Act coming down on you? Ever feared prosecution from officials or big brother spying on you because of some of the content in your songs?
Ali: Yeah, it already has. Right around the time that “Uncle Sam Goddamn” hit the first million views [on YouTube] the Department of Homeland Security stepped in and froze the Rhymesayers bank account and seized some of my money. I was forced to register with them and give them all of my information so that they can track me and the people who work with me. I’ve had some difficulty traveling to other countries; particularly the Middle East. It just takes longer for my paperwork to go through. It’s still approved, and I’m able to go, but I have to apply earlier for visas and things like that.
That is a reality I face.
PK: Does that outrage you? I can only imagine for myself, but that might piss me off. Do you have any anger, or is this just something that comes with the territory? Something you knew might happen.
Ali: It’s a reality. Even when I made that song, this is the reality I was talking about. Even the people who speak up for justice are challenging and a problem for people in power. You get silenced and all sorts of other things can happen.
I didn’t choose to be in this struggle. The way that I was raised just put it in me. I can’t not think about it. It is just so paramount to who I am that it is not an option for me to say nothing. More and more I am getting to the point where I am doing something, but at the very least I have to say something.
It is just necessary. I have a wall of heroes, the people who inspire me, and they were all persecuted for standing up for what was right. A lot were killed. A lot were put in jail. A lot were blacklisted and ostracized. They were pushed out and rejected. That’s just the reality of it.
I just try to be smarter and more effective. Make these sacrifices more worth it.
PK: As you’re going along making your albums, you grow as a person, and so does your sound. I use Atmosphere as the example of artists that have changed from their first album to their latest, and there can be backlash from OG fans when they do something different. From your first album to this next one, are you ever afraid of alienating old fans with a different sounds or tone? Do you think about fan service like that?
Ali: I think you can’t do that. You see that old dude trying to keep up with the kids, and trying to still act like he did when he was young. It’s more sad to see a grown-up trying to be a kid than it is to see a grown-up who doesn’t have the same friends as he did when he was a kid. I’d rather be that grown-up that outgrew his friends than be the grown-up who stops himself from growing so that he can still hang out with his drinking buddies from when he was a kid.
I haven’t lost any of my passion. If anything, I am more passionate. I think I got better at what I do. The main thing that I lost was that my world was so small and I was so angry and frustrated back in that time. There are people whose world is small, and they’re frustrated, and it speaks to them more. I think what I am saying to them now is that the world is bigger. It’s a bigger place and I’ve had a chance to see it, and I am inviting you to see the bigger world for what it is.
I’m not going to go back to that. I’m not going to go back and un-know what I know now so that I can relate to that better. That would be a huge mistake. The choices are quit, grow, or force yourself to be Pinocchio. I’m still going to grow.
I know what you’re saying about Atmosphere. I hear it, but you can still go to an Atmosphere show and they’ll perform those songs. Slug is still the guy that made that. I’m still the guy that made this. Another thing is that I don’t reject any of the music that I made before. Neither one of us do that. How many times do you go see a band and they just want to play their new album? That’s cool, it’s good, but we want to hear everything.
PK: Speaking of doing stuff from the new album, from the cover art that I’ve seen, you are kneeling for prayer on the American flag. You’re already on a list, so what is the statement you’re making? If we can judge a book by it’s cover, what is this saying about what people are in for listening to Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color?
Ali: It’s multilayered. The first is that it is a literal depiction of what the title of the album is. We’re in this condition in America that this country is not what it’s supposed to be. The principles that people have been believing in, fighting for, dying for, are really under attack. The idea that all human beings are equal and endowed with certain right; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; freedom, justice, equality; that we’re a sovereign nation, that we’re not an empire, that we’re a democracy where the people rule; are dying. I’m not saying that they’re dead, but they’re down for the count.
We’re in a situation now where we’re in a permanent war economy. It depends on us always being in a war. We have unjust wars around the world. We have drones that have something like 2,000 innocent people. People are losing their homes. Banks are literally robbing people of their homes. Largely, politicians aren’t standing up for them, some are, but most of the politics are controlled by powerful corporations. Our country is not what our country was supposed to be on paper and in our hearts. Nobody, if they really look in their heart, can tell us that this is what America really is; we’ve lost that idea.
For a lot of people it never existed. For people of color, and for the most vulnerable of people, that reality has never existed. Except for the mainstream popular culture, it never existed. So, the idea is that I saw the flag on the ground. The flag being a symbol of what America stands for, and I saw it on the ground and I kneeled down and prayed for it. That’s the most obvious and literal depiction of it. I do still have hope. I do still have faith.
There is also a challenge in there. The idea is that we are in this position because we’ve been separated. The people, the common people, have been divided based on identity. We are defined by one aspect of our identity. So, if somebody is gay, then that’s who they are. Never mind the fact that they’re a dad, a college graduate, or disabled. Human beings have so many layers, but our society picks what part of you you’re going to be identified by: Your religion, your sexual orientation, your class, your race, what language you speak, what country you were born in. So, there’s this idea that somehow being a Muslim and American are at odds with each other. That Muslims and Americans are somehow enemies. I’m challenging that. I’m an American, that’s my flag, and I’m a Muslim. It’s challenging either to Muslims who say that’s the flag of the people who are trying to kill us around the world, or to Americans saying those are the people who are trying to kill us. I’m saying I am an American and I am a Muslim, and I’m not conflicted by that. If you’re conflicted by that, then you need to check yourself. You need to figure out what’s wrong inside you that’s making that hard for you.
It’s also a statement that that’s where the solution lies. It lies in us seeing our identities connected as opposed to at odds with each other. I think that’s the biggest part of the statement, that we need to see our identities as bonding tools and not as war tools.
PK: I love that. We have the old adage that it’s our differences that connect us more than divide us. We’re in a melting pot and it’s boiling over, yet no one seems to be trying to put out the fires stoking the mess we’re in.
Ali: It’s also that what I am doing there is reverent, caring, loving, sensitive, and gentle. I’m not dancing on the flag. I’m not wiping my ass with it. I’m kneeling on it praying, which is the most intimate and sacred thing to me as a Muslim. If that’s offensive to people, we need to think about why they’re so sensitive. There’s the problem. The problem is not that I am doing this to offend, it’s why is it so offensive? What ideas and beliefs do we have to have about ourselves and the rest of the world which makes that [picture] such a challenging and sensitive thing.
There’s flags on everything all over the place. When doing this, I’ve looked into and studied the codes and the ethics of the flag. Why is it that it can’t touch the ground? The flag isn’t allowed to touch anything beneath it. Flags are supposed to be taken down and folded very specifically at night. The flag is supposed to come down if it rains. The flag is not supposed to be used in advertising or to be part of someone’s clothing unless it is approved like Boy Scouts or police. A flag T-shirt, hat, do-rag, are not complying with those ordinances either. So, what is it about those things that makes them ok? “Oh, we know what they mean and that shows pride and patriotism. Why are you doing this Muslim prayer on this flag? That’s our enemy’s thing.” Well, then the problem is choosing that [praying on the flag] to be offended by.
PK: Well, now we’re getting in to the heart of the album. You’ve worked with Ant in your past works, but you worked with Jake One on this album. What came out of the collaboration or what did Jake One bring to this album that was significantly different from your work with Ant? Anything about this album that could not have been done without Jake One on the project?
Ali: The main thing was the process. When I write with Ant, it is very collaborative. The words are collaborative, and the music is collaborative. I write the words sitting in his house and he hears them. I’m writing things based on conversations that we have which are intimate and personal. He’s keeping track of what’s being said and how it’s being said, which is great. I made some very important music that means so much to me that I couldn’t have made with anyone else. When I work with Jake, he’s not in the room when I’m writing the song. He hears it after I’m done making a demo version of it. He’s not paying attention what I’m saying at all. He’s just thinking is the flow right, is the vibe right. Until we get ready to put a song on an album and work on it over and over again, he doesn’t hear them all the way through. A lot of those songs, he couldn’t tell you what they were about until I said that it was going to be on the album.
I don’t know if I could have made a political album with Ant. He wouldn’t want to hear that. He just doesn’t view the world like that. That’s a part of who I am and that would have taken a lot of convincing for me to do that with Ant. Whereas Jake is just not paying attention and I can literally go wherever I want with it.
Also, I got to be a lot more hands-on with things. Ant just handles so much of it. I can leave so much of it with him in terms of arranging things. So, I was forced to exercise new muscles [on this album] and all of that led me to create in different ways and say different things.
Jake is really big on the flow. He’s telling me that, “You can’t keep using the same style on these songs. You already did that flow, you’ve got to switch it up.” He doesn’t care what I’m saying. It’s more about the cadence, the delivery, the style, and the flow.
PK: I saw a short YouTube video where you were talking about the title of the album. You had originally set out with a title of Mourning in America, but decided to change that and add Dreaming in Color. Was this an organic thing that came out of the process or did you specifically go out of your way to bring some light to the darkness of the idea of mourning a country?
Ali: I think it’s both parts. I think they are separate but they need to be connected. I started out having a terrible year. Everything was bleak, so I was gonna make and album titled Mourning in America about how bad it is. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being depressed and that being the album you should make. So, I was going to make this terrible, dark, hard album about being depressed and it was going to be loud and angry. Then I made my Haj, my pilgrimage to Mecca. I started working in the community, and got involved in the Occupy movement. I started working with kids and my family a lot. I got more connected spiritually. I started doing a lot of the work I’d always wanted to do, and it started to show me the other side that got me over that hump. I was able to say that, “Yes, there are great things going on out here.” What we should be doing is not just telling people how terrible it is, though that is important, that witness is important. Cornel West said that, “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” People, when they’re suffering, are rendered invisible. So, allowing that voice to be heard is very important, but there is the other side where you need to invite people to the good possibilities that I’m seeing and witnessing.
PK: You said you could never make a political album with Ant. Would you categorize this upcoming album as a political one?
Ali: I would say it is more social. It’s not political. I’m not saying you should vote for this and not vote for that. The focus is more on activism than it is on politics, but yes it is both social and political. There is plenty of personal stuff on there, but the personal stuff is where our politics should come from. We should be saying that this is what’s going on in my life, and it’s made me care about this [or that], but I would say the theme is social and political.
PK: Speaking of social and political, would you like to speak about the Occupy Homes movement you’re involved and active in for which you were recently arrested? Why is this so close to your heart that you’d be willing to be arrested?
Ali: Yeah. It is just such a clear, symbolic, and real picture of what’s going on and what the solution is. Obviously, our whole financial crisis was created by banks, and the number one area was in homes. Banks decided that the way they were going to make money over this most recent period was to steal equity out of peoples’ homes and shifting that wealth to themselves. They already have an evil system with compound interest on mortgages, but it’s really become intensified in the last ten years. There have been several different stages, but the current stage is that they’ve made all these bad loans, sold them, bet against them, and then got bailed out because of them. So, now there’s all these bad loans out here that people can’t maintain and the way [banks] make money at the tail end of this is foreclosing on all of these homes, keeping the years of payments they got from people, and then reselling those same homes.
They’re using fraudulent practices, they’re rushing the process along, and they’re using local police and sheriffs to evict people from their homes. What happened in Minneapolis, an African-American woman in north Minneapolis went to the Occupy movement and asked for their help. So, they occupied her house. They kept the police from evicting her and basically bought time to put pressure on the banks and the local authorities. Basically, the district attorney postponed the eviction so they could investigate this situation and US Bank ended up renegotiating to keep her in her house. These are people who want to make their payments, want to stay in their houses, and the banks aren’t accepting their payments.
The thing that endeared me to it, what touched me so much, was that for the first time I am seeing white, middle-class people from the suburbs who are in this situation, too. Housing crises and predatory lending has been going on in the black and brown communities for years, and if we had stopped it when it was just a black and brown problem, then it wouldn’t have become this nationwide epidemic, but it did. So, white people, middle-aged people, people who never thought they’d be going through this, are in this experience now and they have a reason to see themselves as being in the same boat and being connected to these black and brown families. So, I am seeing these suburban, middle-class, white professionals putting their bodies and their police records on the line for black and brown people to help protect their homes. I had to get in on that. I had to support that.
The thing is, they’re successful. We have what we call the Minnesota Five, which is five different families who’ve won their houses after bringing focus on their cases. These are people who would have been homeless on the street. They’ve got different ages, backgrounds, races, neighborhoods, and the community has been coming together to support them. It’s been incredible.
We’re going to keep going. First of all, there will be a moratorium on evictions. Even if people are in foreclosure, the police should not be summoned to throw these people out. Then, eventually there will be some reform in how banks need to deal with homeowners.
PK: You’re hitting the road soon. What’s the show gonna be like? Who are you touring with? Also, I have to ask out of my personal curiosity, are you going with a DJ or are you going to channel some live band work like back on the Hip-Hop Live tour you did years ago with everything from guitars to a horn section?
Ali: Actually, I’m glad you brought the Hip-Hop Live tour up. Me and one of the managers for that band stayed in touch for years. When my DJ, BK One, retired from the road, me and that guy started working on putting my band together. That will be the configuration with this tour. I’ll have that horn section and the full, live band thing.
The main support [for this tour] is Homeboy Sandman. He’s probably my favorite lyricist out there now. He’s out of New York and he’s on Stones Throw Records. It’s a label that feels a little like a sister label to us [Rhymesayers] in a way. They do stuff we don’t do, and we do stuff they don’t do, but there is a lot of overlap there. It’s a label run by music lovers, collectors, and enthusiasts which is exactly what Rhymesayers is too. Homeboy Sandman will be on the whole tour.
For most of the tour, the openers will be a group out of Colorado called The ReMINDers. They’re a husband and wife team that gets compared to the Fugees. He’s compared to Mos Def a lot. He’s originally from Africa. She’s originally from New York and she gets compared to Lauren Hill a lot. They are really big on the Muslim hip-hop circuit. Basically, for that kind of circuit, they are everybody’s favorite group, but they’re able to speak to a broader audience. Their music is like mine. We’re Muslim, and we talk about the way feel, live, and see thing, but it’s not Muslim music per say. They are dear friends of mine, so I’m really glad to have them on the tour, too.
Brother Ali will be touring starting August 11th through the end of October in the U.S. and Canada. Go to www.rhymesayers.com for more information on tour dates/tickets, his upcoming album (releasing Sept. 18th), and everyone else on the label.
I appreciate a good movement as much as the next guy. I love a grassroots swell and a freshly formed band wagon with enough room for even the most armchair of supports and fair weather of fans to hop aboard before the central transfer to the next “big thing.” Give me a bunch of halfcocked concepts and a catchy jingle and I’ll kick back and watch that rickety bucket run itself all the way in to oblivion, joining it’s trendy forefathers in the meme stream graveyard. Couple this with my overt and unabashed distaste for political circus performing and the attention grabbing, politically incorrect if not unapologetic sound bite machines in the Republican parties screaming “fire” in a meat locker, and you’ve got the makings for one of the greatest shows on Earth outside of a back alley snuff film peep show at 50 cents a minute. Unfortunately, the TEA Party, an epitome that gets me literally (No, I did not mean literally) harder than Georgia Pine, is still rolling on down the road despite itself, and again finds itself parked out on street corners and in front of government buildings screaming for…something, anything, if not everything and still nothing.
The Tea Party started in late 2009, but really burst on to the scene in 2010 with Tax Day protests outside anything resembling a government building, including one unfortunate misunderstanding that led 150 people to protest the unfair taxation in this country in front of a Denny’s in Topeka, KS. After some real movement in the pubic eye, and the appearance of the pseudo-homely, folksy tundra wisdom of one near vice president turned reality star, Sarah Palin, the party began to gain political ground. Whatever ground they have been able to grab in the political arenas has been helped as much as it’s been hampered by the very party itself and it’s elected officials and unfortunate choice in public mouthpieces.
It’s all in the campaigning they do as a “party.” If you go to the Tea Party Patriots website, one faction of the now fractured party, you find some of their ideals and what they stand for. Their slogan, or mantra, or whatever you might call it, is as follows:
“A community committed to standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect our country and the Constitution upon which we were founded!”
The exclamation point is theirs, not mine. So they are united, they are committed to the Constitution, and they are excited. Ok, maybe they aren’t Tebow excited, but they are pumped enough to outline their mission statement with an implied pounding of fists on desks invented for the purpose of this punchline.
What I have also gathered from my direct contact with these people, is that they are basically Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh fanboys and girls that would give Glenn Beck a blowjob behind the aforementioned Denny’s if given half a chance. They are fairly fundamentalist, Christian, founding father/log cabin Republican racists, homophobes, and fairly hateful of liberals. Compromise is not an option. If politics was war, these people would happily exercise their God-given right to refuse quarter to liberal soldiers in a second. They think the US is their home, and liberals can fuck off and die. So…I guess they are open to compromise and fresh ideas then? Shoulder to shoulder, I gather, is with like-minded, old white people who are afraid of everything that doesn’t attend their local Evangelical church potluck with casserole in hand every third Sunday after sermon.
Now, before you go thinking that this is just some unsubstantiated claim form some liberal in every derogatory sense of the word, I implore you to shut up and read. This is a library, and you need not be muttering to yourself like an idiot in the stacks. If you’re reading this in a Starbucks, though, then go ahead and laugh you pretentious Berkley trust fund baby because you’re not my demographic either. Grab your summer scarf and your Birkenstocks and walk around the Hashbury with an unearned sense of belonging.
This is some Kung Fu grip G.I. Joe action figure stuff. Facts are included. Fifty-nine percent of all Tea Partiers are male. Only twenty-three percent are under 45, while nearly thirty percent are over 65. Eighty-nine percent are white. Ninety-five percent are either Republican or Independent, while seventy-three percent describe themselves as conservative. Eighty-three percent are either Protestant or Catholic, but oddly (and not surprisingly enough) only thirty-eight percent attend weekly church services. Oh, and fifty-eight percent of them are armed. It’s a passing point, but I felt that with all that other white Christian BS, I needed to complete the cliché trifecta with a reference to being well armed…for protection. Riiiiiiggghhht, “protection.”
I often get a laugh from how non-Tea Party Republicans talk about this fractured faction of exceptionally right leaning Suzie and Stan Homemakers. It’s like they are talking about an alcoholic brother or a cousin that hasn’t been right after getting kicked by that mule two summers back. They’ve got some great ideas. They have a lot of passion, something we need more of in the Republican party today. They are fired up. They are just decent, hard-working Americans that think this country is on the wrong path. (side note: Why is it that I always feel like I’m being inherently insulted when this is said? These Republicans are decent and hard-working? What about me? Do I maybe think we need to be on a different path as a country? Well, I guess I don’t get any love because I’m liberal and am not inclined to put a Hitler mustache on a picture of Obama and fill in the white spaced with poorly spelled, vague statements about taxes and cap and trade. OK, got that out. Let’s continue.)
I always like to think of the Tea Party as a person. Whenever I can, I like to personify nouns and ideas. I’m able to better get a handle on a problem if it’s got a face. When I think of the Tea Party, I see a sweet old Grandmother. You know, the kind of woman who is beloved on the neighborhood block. She is at every social gathering, and is never in short supply of fresh lemonade and cookies. The kind of woman who every kid in the neighborhood calls Grandma. Her husband passed long ago, her kids all moved away. She has a cute, meandering story for every occasion from when she was a child. Nothing gets her down, and a smile is always just hook and loop away as she knits on her porch in the summer evenings. Then you talk to her after a couple of Manhattans and she lets slip the N-word with a venomous spit and a scowl when you bring up the Johnsons one street over and you realize she’s a racist old bat who reminds you suddenly more of the wench from Hansel and Gretel even though the unassuming smile is back and she’s knitting away as if nothing was amiss.
You can package it any way you want, but hate is hate. It can be screaming on a city street holding a sign splashed with heinous references to the most evil men that our President apparently is just one missing razor away from resembling, or it can be hidden under a hand-made afghan in a rocking chair in a small, midwest town and it’s all the same. The Tea Party may have itself a Michelle Bachmann, a Sarah Palin, and some national recognition as a perfect opportunity in April to rail against the “obamination” this country has become, but it will never be anything but b-roll during televised debates on MSNBC and FOX. Same video, different adjectives.
I do have to give credit where credit is due, though. They are still around. They have people, followers, an out dated website (a political party “must have” in 2012), and a PR team that can spin anything in to a crisis and an all-out attack on the nation’s values and Constitution. I just don’t think that people of this angry and closed-minded position will ever understand that this is a diverse nation.
I know that from the inside of a local Tea Party community organization meeting it may look like a very united if not pasty, homogenized country, but unfortunately this is a place so damned diverse you need a genealogist with a Geiger counter to figure out what most of us are made of. I’ve met these people, tried to make sense of their signs, and I’ve looked in to their faces, and there is little there that I can understand.
I get it, some of the angst and frustration, I feel it for them and Republicans after all–Oh hell, for shitty Democrats, too–but the further division of this country and the resistance to possibility and development of new ideas since the good old days of the late 1700’s is a little obtuse and fearful for my liking. Thanks, but I’ll let necessity be my mother, and with change comes the necessity to adapt or die. That’s not me talking, that’s science. Then again, nearly ninety percent of you are religious…so that’s probably falling on ears deaf to anything that’s not from scripture. So, protest on my nostalgic homophobes and middle class anarchists. The Republican party might be a bit embarrassed of you in public since that mule kicked you and you aren’t acting right in front of people, but in private they love you, because your crazy Christian fear-votes count just as much as anyone’s that hasn’t lost a couple of marbles.
Teddy Faley takes a few minutes to talk with me about his process, the up and downs of the fickle music industry, and why his horses look like chickens.
We here at Poppycock have crazy respect for Teddy Faley. We chose him as an inspiring story who also turned out to be a kindred spirit. Project: Poppyc**k is much like the experiments he talks about here. All this has been a leap of faith, of sorts, though the day jobs still keep us in beer and cigarettes. We love his drive, his creativity, and most of all we love his “weird rap.” I was stoked to have a chance to speak with him. As with everything we try to do here–the stuff that actually matters–you can see this is about music, but as with many messages worth listening to there is a little more here than the surface stuff. Check out our long interview with Teddy Faley that was just too damned short. (you can click on just about anything in this post and it will link you somewhere)
PP: So, let’s get a little Teddy Faley background. You’ve been making music as a hobby as far back as ’99. In 2005 you made the leap to full-time artist. What were you doing during your hobby stage and what told you to make the leap to full-time?
Teddy Faley: To be completely honest about that, I lost my job in 2005, which caused me to go full-time. Since then, I have realized that the music business is quite fickle and still have a day job. I didn’t for quite a while, but now I do. I just want to put that out there if you’re under a different impression.
A lot of it was that I had lost my job. I loved my job to death. I always felt that if I get to work in the field I work in, and make music, it doesn’t matter how much money I will make. I will still do that job because I enjoy it. I was let go in 2005. I had a good amount of money saved up. I have always been of the opinion that everyone that paved the way in terms of indie music have hit a point where they had to just make a jump. It was a leap of faith, and that’s what put them in the position for me to find them and support them. I didn’t really have a plan. I knew people who didn’t have a set plan. [They knew] it could work out, but most likely won’t. For them to have any chance for it to work out, they would have to go in blind. So that’s what I did. I’d been in a good place at that time where I was meeting a lot of folks from NY and West Virginia that were getting me a lot of out-of-state shows. Apple Juice was coming out right about that time and I just wanted to see how long I could ride it.
PP: Who in your life has been your biggest cheerleader? Did you get anyone saying, “You are crazy, Teddy. Get a real job.” Or has much of your motivation come from within?
TF: It was definitely mixed, but I think it always will be. To this day, I will run into people I haven’t see in years and they ask, “How’s the music biz treating you,” which is just about the most condescending sentence you can say to somebody. Seriously though, prior to me ever getting any kind of notoriety or recognition about it, my being a musician, and especially a rapper, was just about the most unlikely thing that would ever occur on the planet. Ever; by my own admission. There were tons of people who thought it was the silliest thing in the world, myself included. That was part of my motivation at first, to see if I could do the most impossible thing ever. It was something I grew up loving to death and I wanted to do it.
It’s kinda cliché, but everyone who didn’t think I could do it did fuel the fire, too. On the flip side, anyone that gave me any words of encouragement mattered tenfold more than just simple compliments. For instance, when I met Mike Brown from Brake Fast Records, a man I respected, and when he said he respected me meant the world to me. In later years I had friends around me that said that, too. It’s kinda cool to have people around you that drink the Kool-Aid as well.
PP: What is the process of creating for you? What comes first, the lyric or the beat? Do you scribble on the nearest thing or are you audio recording, keep a notebook on you? Sit down or write on the run?
TF: I have used, at one time or another, every single thing you just named. There is definitely no set way for me to do anything. I will go through periods of doing things a certain way. Every single song on Apple Juice was written to a beat that wasn’t on the EP. With the Dropouts record, I would get like nine beats from Joe, pick one that inspired me at the time, I would record lyrics to that, send it back to him, and then back to me, ad infinitum. It really goes either way. Right now I am in a place where I will record a sample, write lyrics just to the sample, and then record a beat around the sample and the vocals after that.
PP: In your lyrics, there seems to be some very personal and raw topics. How do you feel about letting so much of yourself in to your music? Is it tough to perform some songs that might tear at a fresh wound or bring up old memories?
TF: To tell you the God’s honest truth, I haven’t really thought about that until recently. No, but that’s really never been my issue. In the past, there was a song about my mom that I used to perform with a guitar and a keyboard and there was no beat, so I was kinda doing it a cappella. That was tough to do, but I’ve never been worried about getting too emotional on stage. Cats dig it. I never really though in those terms.
It’s just a natural way that I write and that is kinda what makes whoever likes my little ditties enjoy them in the first place, because they can relate to something, I guess. There are also a whole bunch of metaphors in there, too. So there are people out there who will listen to the most personal song and think it’s about a pair of socks.
There is a safety net [in metaphors]. You don’t have to answer for certain things when you say certain things. Also, when I was learning how to write that was a very natural way for me to write. When I just say something, it’s kinda whack. There’s safety in the abstract, if that makes sense. For instance, if you draw something confusing for somebody, there’s a chance they’ll be fooled and think it’s really dope. If instead I say, “Look at this horse that I drew,” and it’s a horse, but it looks like a chicken, you’re gonna say, “That is the worst fuckin’ chicken I have ever seen in my life.” That’s how I learned to write. It took me a very long time to do anything that wasn’t terrible. Part of it was learning how to say things in what I thought was an interesting way.
PP: Is something ever finished to you? Or do you just have to walk away eventually? I always imagine that the Mona Lisa could have stood to have a few more brush strokes, but at some point you have to walk away. What is your relationship with your music?
TF: No, I’ve never had that “There ya go” moment, washing my hands of it. When I am working on my material, producing the beat and making the song myself, I sit on it forever. I will agonize over an extra snare drum on a 30-second bar. I have hit points where that’s way too much, but for the most part I think it helps. When I am doing something for someone else, like the Dropouts project, I really try to keep my hands behind my back because I don’t want to screw with a collaborative project too much.
Then again, some songs don’t call for a bunch of micromanaging. If it’s just simple kicks and snares and a sample, people don’t want to hear my Goddamned voice stuttering all over the place, being down pitched ever four bars, because it’s a simple fucking song. Sometimes you just rap, make it sound good, and make the beat nice and tight, and there you go. Others songs sound better if they jump all over the place. It depends on the song.
PP: The advent of technology over the last ten years, has made it easier for a guy like you to connect with fans, but it has also made it harder to separate yourself from the cacophony, do you think this has been good or bad for the indie rapper?
TF: That’s something I am still trying to figure out, how to separate myself from everyone else. Just to say to the point, I might be in the minority here, but I say it is for the best. Period. No matter what. I am in a position where I would never have been heard if it wasn’t for everything that happened. Whether it be music piracy or the ease of home recording, I would have never even started recording myself. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Especially nowadays, when I don’t have any new material out, it’s not like I’m pulling in fucking bunch of dough, but the amount of money I have made, and still do make, I am extremely thankful for. Even if everyone was forced to pay for my shit, I wouldn’t have had any money whatsoever if there wasn’t music piracy.
As for separating yourself, I think that happens naturally if you connect with the right people in a networking sense and get your name heard in the right circles. You have to stay on top of it, too. Being a musician is one of the few careers where you can set out to do one thing, but you have to do things that are completely different from that. Like if I wanted to open a hot dog stand. I have the stand, the meat, the buns, the place I want to set up, and then when I’m about to do all that some guy comes up and tells me I have to make a ship in a bottle first. You know what I mean? To make music I have to be a personable person in the internet, Twitter, and on Facebook all the time. As far as I’m concerned, that has nothing to do with making music, but if you don’t do that then you’re fucking shit out of luck and nobody’s gonna know who you are if you’re not putting yourself out there.
I don’t want to sound like I am bitching, though. The me of two years ago would slap the shit out of the me of today for even having the gall to complain about having to do that stuff. But I am the me from today, so to be honest, it becomes tedious to tell you the truth. You need to force yourself to take little break and give yourself some kind of schedule.
PP: Your music isn’t often a “club banger,” do you think that precludes the average listener from connecting with you more than it connects with the population that’s looking for something to really listen to?
TF: Without a doubt. There are certainly people out there who won’t listen to my shit because it’s weird rap, to use terms that have been thrown my way before. It’s a double-edged sword. For every ten people who won’t dig it, there are people who do seek out more experimental shit. Even though you have that happening, there is a market for my kind of thing. It was a market I was in during my early 20’s, and still am to this day. I am also on the other side of it though. I love me some Mobb Deep, old Jay-Z, and Nas.
I do like making the other kinds of tracks as well. The track “Drinks On The House” with Oz. I love that jam. I am doing a record right now with Tom Delay which consists mostly of that sound. It’s got a more mid to early 90’s vibe to it.
PP: You started The Rape with Cubbiebear back in ’08, right? How did that partnership come about?
TF: I really should make up a better tale than this to tell, but as stupid as it is, he just hit me up on MySpace. He just sent me a message that he was from the other side of Baltimore. I would get that all the time, because every single person in the world is a rapper, but he was the first person who I checked out, and not only was his music not terrible, but it was really good. He came over to my place about two weeks after that and we did a song that nobody will ever, ever hear, but that’s how we met. I was at Brake Fast Records at the time. They are the only people that made my music legitimate at the time. They are the reason I got what recognition or notoriety I had, or have, at the time. So it became clear that my type of shit was vibing with Cubbie’s more easily than with Brake Fast, and so I left Brake Fast and me and Cubbie started The Rape up.
First and foremost, The Rape was a collective of people. The Rape was first meant to signify a show that we were doing. The way shows worked back then, there was basically one promoter back then, in Baltimore, and if you’re a rapper and you want to do a show, you go to that dude. He would give you a certain set of tickets to sell. Based on how many tickets you sell, you’ll get a better show next time; opening for larger acts and so forth. So Cubbie and I are learning this independent of one another. After a few shows you start acquiring money. After a few more shows, you start to see that you’re really pulling in a ton of people for these shows and you’re no longer getting what you’re worth, essentially.
This was a big issue for me at the time in the city when I met up with Cubbie. We kind of put our heads together and had the idea to just rent out a venue instead of getting a show through a promoter to open for a larger act. So, we put our money together and straight up rented the venue out and then kept the money that we made off the tickets. 100% of the money minus overhead. That was The Rape, us doing that, because we were essentially sick of being raped for so long. It was us getting to rape them guys for a bit, I guess. That worked out very well for a very long time.
PP: Is there any timeframe for either your next album or Cubbiebear’s?
TF: I don’t want to speak for Cubbie, but I imagine that it can’t be too far off. My next album is very much in progress. I’m in the cycle right now where I am gonna flip out if I’m not careful. There are people out there checking for me, you know what I mean? So, I start to get a little desperate. Then I get sad, I weep, I bang my fists. Then I get inspired, I weep, and I bang my fists. There’s at least a couple months of fury and then I will spit a record out. I am in the middle of that now. I have a few songs done, and I have a lot of songs in the works. If I had to guess, I would say that my EP in about five months off or so, if I had to guess.
PP: And quickly, I see that at your bandcamp site, your albums are free; all of them. What was the decision behind that? People steal it so give it away for free, or what was the idea there that you give away all three of your albums at no cost, like how I acquired them?
It started with me not thinking people would pay for it to begin with. I am not very confident in the marketability of my shit to begin with. It started with me saying, “Nobody’s gonna pay for this shit anyway.” It changed as time moved on, as I proved myself wrong. I addressed it with Apple Juice, but it all started with My Rough Mixes Are Better Than Yours, which was initially a free giveaway through aboveGround Magazine, so I wasn’t gonna charge for something that I was giving away for free. The initial plan with Apple Juice was to sell hard copies and then give out free downloads. To be frank, before Apple Juice I had a little [notoriety], but nothing on the level for me to think that people would go buy it. It is what gave me the name that would call for people to buy my shit. It would have been silly for me to think to charge for that.
My initial plan was to bother every person on the internet to listen to my shit, and then sugar on top was that you could just have this for free. In addition to that, I did put it up on iTunes, Rhapsody, and everywhere else so if people want to pay for it, they can. Not a lot of people do, but I get those checks and that is people going out of their way to make sure I get a little money for it, too. So, it was a conscious decision, but it was based in a flaky, “Fuck it. Let’s just do it,” kind of deal. My record I am working on with Tom Delay is the first record distributed by someone else, where every single copy will be sold. I get to see how that works out, and then wedge that in to the way I do things. The record is called, Bread and Circuses. There is no timeline for that, but it will be out after my EP, for sure.
Thanks to Teddy for taking the time to speak with us. Click on the Apple Juice album cover above for a link to download ALL three of his albums for free. Seriously. Or feel free to pay for them at iTunes and et al. You will not regret listening to his music and you can’t even gimme the excuse that it’s anything but free if you wanna try it out. Download Apple Juice and you’ll be hooked. Then, I command you to spread this shit around like Herpes on a senior citizen cruise. Do it.
Dessa Darling of DOOMTREE talks No Kings, Stage Fright, and That Being Famous is Worth at Least Five-hundred Bucks
Wes: Listening to the new album, No Kings, I hear reference to the ten-year mark. Is that the decided mark for the collective being together?
Dessa: Well, yes, but DOOMTREE came out of a lot of really long friendships, so marking when the collective starts is always a 12-24 month discrepancy between us. The core of DOOMTREE started about ten years ago, and it grew to it’s current roster as it is now from there.
Wes: When you all set out so long ago, did DOOMTREE as a collective have any specific goals in mind, or was it more of a haze and the idea of seeing how far you can push this envelope?
POS: I think that is more true to it. I know some of us came in to it like we just wanted to make music. Like, when I was 14 I wanted a van because I knew I was going to want to be out touring. I don’t even think that right now there is a goal. It’s more, “ Can we do this? Can we keep doing this?”
Dessa: To some extent you have some friends with dreams about living as artists. It starts just becoming a vehicle for that. DOOMTREE was a business and an entity that we built to help us reach those personal ambitions. There aren’t exactly a lot of major label reps coming to shows in Minneapolis, so you start to do that for yourself in this market instead of waiting to be discovered. I think the dudes started DOOMTREE as a way of getting stuff done and building the support that we needed to make music well and distribute it effectively.
Wes: What’s the feeling that you got making this album? When I listen to some of it, I get the impression that there is a bit of swagger and even a slight chip on your shoulders. The Grand Experiment, Bolt Cutters, No Way, I get the impression it is a bit more assertive, aggressive. Is there some of that in this intentionally or does it just come out?
Dessa: I think that is part of it. I also think that kind of message can be expanded to talk about finding your own way in to not just the independent rap game, but as a way in your personal relationships, how you make a living, and how you decide to spend your money and your time. It’s about charting your own course and making up your own mind and resisting some of the hierarchical that want you to conform to a pre-written game plan. I think No Kings is about living your life independently. I guess that relates to rapping to, but we’ve got some pretty non-traditional lifestyles amongst us and it takes you a while to embrace that brand of independent thinking. This album was about that mode of thought and mode of conducting yourself.
(unfortunately we lost POS on the line, but Dessa posted up and took it from here)
Wes: After scraping for fans and venues and sales for so long, DOOMTREE is pretty well established as a group and independent artists. Do you feel a bit freer or less anxious knowing this foundation of fans will support and rep the group, coming out to your shows?
Dessa: I think it would be really tough to land in a totally secure place in the music business. It’s naturally turbulent. The industry changes, the taste changes, so if you have a desire to be a part of it, you have to develop a stomach for the turbulence. Ultimately, you need to find some satisfaction in just making music you believe in. It’s the only factor you can control, the music you make, but you can’t ever control how that music is received. For me it took a while to get used to the idea that you’re not secure now and you might never be secure. Just don’t spend all the money you make, because you might not make any more, and then you’ve got to learn to extract all the satisfaction that you can from the music you make.
Wes: With so many individuals coming together with such different sounds, how does the collaborative process for an album like No Kings come together?
Dessa: It is a pretty organic process that emerges through the record making journey for us. On this record, Cecil Otter, Lazerbeak, Paper Tiger, and POS collaborated on the production with Cecil Otter really taking a leadership role. They made the beats together, and for a week the emcees went together to a cabin in the woods and sequestered ourselves with the beats and played them on repeat on the house speakers for hours until we had a concept that we could all get in to. Everyone pieced together their verses or would work collaboratively on a chorus until the song was done. It’s not a matter of each member of the band having to sign off on whether we all like each track. If you’re dissatisfied then you voice that satisfaction and you make little tweaks.
This album was a bit more cohesive because each member was able to decide their own level of involvement in the album. We were really worried about making the best songs we could instead of making sure everybody has the same amount of verses on every song, which can very easily homogenize and dilute a good record. We didn’t worry about equal representation. We just worried about making the best songs that we could.
Wes: Has it is always been this easy to make an album, with this organic process in the past, or was this album a little easier to make than others in the past?
Dessa: I have to say that this one was easier. Writing collaboratively has been a real grind for DOOMTREE in the past. It’s just hard. It’s like trying to ride a bike with four other people; I’m sure it can be done, but it’s really tough to get this thing pointed in the right direction and moving steadily. For this record we tried to find different methods of working together to reexamine the processes we were using to collaborate. Locking ourselves in a cabin was a totally different way of working things out. In the past, you’d make a beat, or a lyrics, and email it to somebody else. Maybe they’d write a chorus or maybe they’d forget all about it. Months would go by of this piece meal, halting progress. Where, with this record, we had a very definite deadline. We started it and released it within nine months. We knew that what didn’t happen at that cabin, didn’t get done. There was no internet access and no reliable phone coverage. You didn’t have any distractions. You were really forced to stay at the grindstone. If I weren’t sequestered in that cabin, I might be tempted to say, “I’m not getting anything done today. I’m gonna go work on something else.” Because I couldn’t do anything else, we got the bulk of the writing done for the record.
Wes: I’m sitting here imaging a Shining moment. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Dessa: Booze helps. (laughs) We’d wake up and make breakfast, and then we’d turn on beats and loop them for hours, bang out our verses, have lunch, bang out some more verses, and by the time night fell, we’d usually set up a mic in a closet and we’d demo everything we’d written that day to make sure we’d captured it. We can decide who’s verse should come first. Then we’d wake up and do the same thing again.
Wes: Are these albums still started in a closet? I’m a fan of yours on Facebook, and I see references to closets and mics, is that still where things start or is the work getting done in the studio.
Dessa: We do most of our recording with Joe Mabbott at the Hideaway Studio. He works on a lot of the great music that comes out of Minnesota. I don’t like recording my lyrics in studio, so I record all of my lyrics in my closet.
Wes: With everything made, written, created for No Kings, are there any lyrics, or beats that went the way of the Dodo? I know you guys have never done it, but is there anything lying around for a B-sides type of release?
Dessa: It was Darwinian in the sense that a particular lyric or particular beat wasn’t best adapted for this project. There are a couple beats that didn’t make the record that I wanna try to rap on. There were a couple of Paper Tiger beats that I thought were awesome. They maybe didn’t fit the aesthetic that was gelling for No Kings, but it wasn’t a decision of quality as much as it was about consistency.
Wes: For you as an artist, is a track ever done? Are you ever really satisfied with a song or is it a matter of having to just walk away and stop tweaking? If you tweak forever then you’ll never release anything.
Dessa: Yeah, I think it can be tough to call a track “done” sometimes, because I tend to tweak and re-tweak the tiniest detail. Other times I think “this track is pretty damn close to what I hoped it would do,” but not I need to go and think up a new world to fill because I don’t want to achieve the same objective twice. The mountain summit does sometimes jump away from you every time you’re getting close, you never quite reach it, but other times you are proud of that one, sit there for five minutes, and then try to write the next one.
Wes: Is there still the nerves when you release an album like this, either as a solo or collaborative project?
Dessa: I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I still get stage fright. I still get weird and anxious before I got to record. I can be headed to my closet to record and think of a million reason to put it off. Man, I should really…dust. I can invent reasons not to do it, because the idea of a song, an album, or a performance, is perfect right up until the moment I try to execute it. No execution can match the perfection of an idea. I am human. I am limited and flawed. I only have so much range in my voice, only so much breath, I only have so much energy. The idea in my head, I never hit a flat note in my head. I’m never off beat in my head.
Wes: Is DOOMTREE a working model for supporting fellow artists through collaboration? You kind of bucked the trend by being a bunch of individual artists that came together, unlike the bands that start together and then break off to explore a solo career.
Dessa: Yeah, when I joined DOOMTREE, a lot of business friends of mine would tell me how unsustainable this was, but it kept unsustaining itself. I think we’ve got a lot of years ahead of us. A lot of that comes from flexibility. We’re willing to change what being in DOOMTREE means. Maybe it doesn’t mean we need to put out an album every two years. Maybe we just put one out when we have a good album. Maybe we don’t have to have cameos on all of each others stuff. Maybe it just means each of us helps support the work of the others. When I put out my record, Lazerbeak was enormously involved. When SIMS put out his record, I wrote the press releases, and Paper Tiger did the one-sheets. I think being in DOOMTREE is about believing in each other’s work and sharing resources and skills, and that’s really all it has to be. We’re preparing for a new Lazerbeak record, and he and I are going to go drink beers tonight and put all his press materials together.
Wes: Getting to the meat of it, what can fans expect from a full crew stage show when they come out to see you on tour starting in January?
Dessa: I think there are moments where each of us in a DOOMTREE set gets to express our styles. You’ll see Cecil Otter take the stage, and you’ll see him do something like Rebel Yellow, and it is unmistakably Cecil Otter. Generally, the set for this tour will be really collaborative. It’s not like anything else in my life to be up on stage with DOOMTREE. It’s athletic, it’s unflagging, and we’ll do more than two hours of music in all likelihood, and by the end of it all of us have sweat through our T-shirts and you can see the tenderness between us. We look like friends. There will be moments of absolute abandon. One of us will take a stray elbow because we are jumping so hard. Mike Mictlan will be getting passed over head by hand. It’s a great dynamic range and you can tell that we are people that are doing this that love the hell out of each other.
Wes: Looking back on where you started and where you are now, can you put your finger on any moment where you kinda stepped back and went, “wow, this is real”?
Dessa: There was one moment with SIMS on tour. We were traveling in a van with all of our gear, it was all of us or at least most of us, and SIMS got a call from VISA, because he owed them money. He gets out of the van to handle the call. He was pacing around, talking and talking and talking. We’re all waiting so we can get back in the van so we can go. He gets back in the van and says he told these people that as soon as he gets back from tour I got you, but there is no amount of conversation that we can have that will allow me to pay you before I get back from this tour. So, the VISA people are asking, ok, what kind of tour is it, when do you get back, when can we expect to get paid? SIMS says it’s a musical tour and the guy on the other end says, “Wait, is this SIMS from DOOMTREE?” And I remember SIMS’ VISA bill was cut in half by the end of the conversation. The guy asked, “Are you on tour with Dessa? Are you on tour with Stef?” and we all said hi on the phone and I just remember that SIMS’ 50% discount on his credit card seemed like the height of fame to me. Like, this is just as good as it gets. It was just the first time where it really seemed to matter in someone’s life. I was so excited for SIMS that he didn’t have to pay a big bill, and I was so excited by the idea that someone in a far away call center knew who we were, and even that he cared if we were going to put out another record. It’s not really a celebrity moment, but that one really sticks out in my head.
Wes: So I have to ask, what is on the horizon from the members of DOOMTREE that we can look forward to in the coming year?
Dessa: Yes. I just listened to Stef’s (POS) new album…it is brave and bold and amazing. You are going to be able to hear, I think, a preview of that, some of the songs, at the LA show. Cecil Otter is working on a project, a solo disc, and that is called Porcelain Revolver. Lazerbeak is also going to have a new record coming out in the third week of January called Lava Bangers, so that will actually be on the merch table by the LA show, too.
Thanks to Dessa for taking the time to talk with us. For more information on No Kings, tour dates, DOOMTREE, Dessa, or anyone else in the collective, just visit doomtree.net for all the info worth having.