Crudely marked by pink-white scars, 38-year-old Tony Baker’s hands serve as a mangled road map to the eight years he spent in the depths of heroin addiction. Damage from shooting up caused his hands to swell to twice their normal size, with the middle finger of his left hand bent permanently at almost a right angle. Doctors urged him to amputate, but Tony opted for a series of surgeries instead, hoping that he would once again be able to practice what saved him: music.
But music was not Tony’s sole savior. His wife, Kat – once his partner in drug-related crime – became his partner in sobriety and encouraged Tony to pursue music. Now, he is the guitarist and Kat the vocalist in Chicago band Broken Robots, along with bass player Martin Ontiveros. In October, the trio released their debut album, Home Is Not A Place, on the same day Tony and Kat were married. Having spent most of their adult lives searching for an escape through drugs, they instead found one through music and each other.
The Chicago natives first met in April 2015, when Tony was panhandling on Lake Street off of I-355 in Itasca and Kat would give him change and cigarettes. Both at an all-time low, they turned to heroin out of hopelessness. Their first arrest followed soon after.
At this point, in May 2016, Tony had fallen in love with Kat. He knew that he had to change, so he refused probation and went to prison, forcing himself to get clean. With Kat still on probation, the two stopped talking out of fear that their relationship was toxic. But six months later, when Kat heard that Tony had been released, she checked herself into Haymarket Center – a treatment facility in the West Loop – on her 25th birthday. Tony followed suit to solidify his sobriety, and the two were reunited.
“The scariest thing about it was that we were afraid that once we got clean, we would have nothing in common,” Kat said.
The treatment center organized a talent show. Tony and Kat both participated, reigniting their musical affinity. Tony had been playing and engineering music since 16, and Kat started writing songs at the same age.
“We realized that we both had a passion for music, and it was something that we could get high off of in a different way,” Kat said.
After treatment, the pair moved to Rogers Park and built their own studio. In December 2017, Broken Robots was born. With Tony composing music and Kat writing lyrics, they began recording Home Is Not A Place. Following its release on Oct.1, Broken Robots have played several small shows around the city and are already working on their second album. The pair works at Lou Malnati’s to support themselves, but have also been able to earn revenue of off Broken Robots, having already sold out of physical CDs. Although they don’t confine themselves to a single genre, they describe their sound as a mix of indie pop, rock, and hip hop.
Tony and Kat’s experiences with drug addiction are heavily reflected in the album’s subject matter. Perhaps the most potent example of this is the penultimate track on their album, “Money off the Trip,” a conceptual song from the perspective of a drug dealer as well as a customer. Marvin, who recently joined Broken Robots and is also a former addict, said this honesty was what drew him to the band.
“They’d tell me stories, and in the beginning I was like, ‘Did that really happen?’ and then I’d hear it in the songs,” Marvin said. “Every song is something that they’ve experienced.”
Both Tony and Kat agree that sharing their story is the primary goal of Broken Robots. “Our imagery is not the prettiest stuff, but I need people to know how real it is,” Tony said. “If we were pretty it wouldn’t work.”
Ultimately, Broken Robots has provided the community and motivation for Tony, Kat, and Marvin to overcome addiction. Now, they want to end its stigma and help others through music.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about addiction, but I think that having a sense of community and purpose is really what it’s all about,” Kat said.
Though the scarring on his hands will forever remain, Tony has found internal healing through music – and most importantly, something to look forward to.
“We may look like somewhat of a motley crew,” Tony said. “But we’re all about love and hope, hope, hope.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: Tell us about how The Ophelia’s came to be.
Spencer Peppet: We started in high school, so my senior year. I guess we’re all the same year except Micaela, she’s a year younger. And I was putting together this benefit concert kind of deal, and so I had been playing in bands before that and it was all kind of male-dominated and I was getting really sick of getting told exactly what to play by some dude who thought because he knew who Galaxie 500 were that he was better than me. I was like, okay, Guided By Voices t-shirt, like I’m done.
ES: That hits hard.
SP: It’s too real; it’s too much. And the thing is, everyone knows what I’m talking about. When I say Guided By Voices t-shirt, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There was a lot of that. And I had been playing in bands and I had done my own project before that but it was just, I was playing ukulele so it doesn’t really count, you know what I mean? Because I was like “Oh, I haven’t played an instrument before!” The guitar, at the time, seemed too daunting and now I know it was just because I’ve been told forever, “You can’t just pick up the guitar and start playing it. Men do that, women don’t do that.” So I was like okay, I guess I’ll play the ukulele. And then eventually, I was like I’m sick of this, I want to play the guitar. And so I picked up an electric because it was easier to play than an acoustic and I was like, “Oh, wow I can be loud! I really like that.” So I was putting on this benefit concert, and I realized that I didn’t want to play by myself so I reached out to a couple of my friends. One of my friends was playing cello and had never played bass before. And I was like, “Hey, do you wanna play music?” And she was like, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to try bass.” So we kind of picked up our instruments at the same time. And our drummer is just amazing and has been playing since she was like six or whatever, and our violinist is the same way and studied classically. I just got lucky, they said yes and we played a show, and I was like “Ooo! You guys are really good! Do you want to keep playing?” and they said yes and here we are.
ES: Did you all go to different colleges? How did you keep the band together during that time?
SP: Yeah, we all went to different schools, studying completely different things so our schedules are kind of at odds with each other. But to be honest, we really didn’t play very much in college just because I was in New York, Micaela was in Chicago for a bit and then moved back to Ohio, Andrea was in Columbus, and she studied abroad in Chile a couple of times which was super cool. She’s doing really cool linguistics work, it’s amazing, you should ask her about her thesis. So like, we’re all over the place and we ended up just getting lucky that we could play shows whenever we were in town on breaks. We recorded this album, and then it came out and we toured in the summer. It sucks, because you want to be doing more, and you see all these bands who are grinding every weekend, playing shows, really putting the work in. Being able to do that only for short periods of time is like “Oh, please let us do more!” We’re on tour for a month right now, and that’s the longest tour we’ve ever done.
ES: What are your songwriting influences?
SP: One of the things I really like about the four of us specifically is that we don’t have the same influences. Personally, Joanna Newsom is my top person forever, I think she’s basically a prophet. She’s amazing, all of her stuff is just like unbelievable. I listen to a lot of The Microphones, Mount Eerie, Fiona Apple. There’s so many, I could make playlists on playlists on playlists. We saw Andrew Bird last night and Andrea loves him and so does Grace. We love Esperanza Spalding. I always blank when I get asked this just because there’s so much from very different people. Micaela loves Paramore more than anything in the world. Just early jazz stuff, punk music, Fugazi, orchestral stuff, Max Richter. Kind of drawing from eight thousand different places and then trying to not make it sound like one thing; trying to make it sound like we’ve been inspired by all of those things.
ES: People have labeled your sound as soft punk, baroque rock, art rock, moth music, atmospheric… How do you respond to that and where do you think your sound fits in?
SP: Genres are stupid. Anything can be anything. Labels are meaningless because now you can say you’re anything and people just kind of have to take your word for it. We put moth music, nature punk, Marxist rock, as tags on our Bandcamp because it’s like whatever, who cares. But I don’t know, to say like “Oh yeah, we play indie rock,” it’s like yeah, we do at its core, I guess, but also that kind of doesn’t take into account the 8,000 influences that I tried to explain. This is getting into Spotify algorithms and shit, but like I feel like genres now are just so people can pitch themselves to different Spotify playlists. Like are you going to be on the indie rock playlist, are you going to be on the bedroom pop playlist, are you going to be on the R&B playlist, are you going to be on the Country Music On A Summer Night in Indiana playlist… I feel like that’s the main reason why people are doing genres that they might not otherwise be because it’s easier and it helps you get listeners. I mean, we market ourselves at indie rock, I don’t know if we really are. Maybe we are. I can’t tell! I just sing things.
ES: Your Spotify bio mentions that you were all the “token girl” in respective bands before forming The Ophelias. What does being in an all-girl band mean to you? What do you think needs to be done to get away from this “token girl” mentality?
SP: Playing in a band with all women has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me, hardcore, full stop. I think it allows a sense of musical and emotional freedom that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. I do think that the whole female-fronted as genre thing kind of just needs to stop. Being a woman in a band is more than just being a woman in a band. On one hand, I’m glad that there’s finally space being made for women and non-binary people in music, but I’m also like are you going to only allow a specific set of women and non-binary people who fit into the acceptable, manufacturable, consumable versions of those things to succeed? What kind of standards are there for women? How much higher are they? I think getting rid of token girls is a great idea. I think it’s not going to happen for a long time because there’s a sense of risk when women get signed to labels. There’s a lot of misallocation of resources, there’s a lot of women who get stuck making quote bedroom pop forever because no labels are willing to take a risk on someone who sounds different than what women are told that they’re allowed to sound like in twangy indie rock: guitar solo, lead lines, *boom, boom boom chhh* and the one bass line. As long as you’re doing exactly what they think you’re going to do, then you can be successful as a woman in music. But if you’re not, you have to work much harder.
ES: You released your album Almost last year. What was the recording process like?
SP: This was a long process. We recorded the basic tracks for the album in 2016, so we did all the basic tracks, it took us like three or four days because our friend recorded it at this studio that has since been shut down. Rest in peace Ultrasuede, you did such good for so many people. We love you. But we recorded it there, our friend got free studio time because he was interning there, so he engineered it for us and we were going to work with him and then things got kind of complicated so we ended up shelving it for a little bit and not really thinking about it. We were like, how are we going to make this record, like how is this going to come out of the woodwork and become an album. We played a show with WHY? in Cincinnati and the head of Joyful Noise came to that show and we were like “Hi,” and then a couple months later they were like, “Let’s do this,” and we were like, “Fuck, okay!” So then we decided that Yoni [from WHY?] was going to produce it, so those tracks kind of got dug back up because we had them and they were ready to be twisted knobs on. We had all of those, and then kind of just jumped immediately into the mixing process. I did a couple of things as a solo act while I was in college because I was still writing music, and I released something summer of 2017, which feels so far away right now. I put out a solo EP called Moon Like Sour Candy, and I sent the title track to Yoni and he was like, “Oh, we have to put this on the album.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I flew into Cincinnati and we did it in one day and then I flew back and continued to do school. I wasn’t there for a lot of the mixing. Grace was our assistant producer, so she sat in for everything and was the voice for the band since we were all over the place. She did amazing work. Some of the really cool effects and things were her idea, and they would try things and send it to us and we would listen to it, we would call them, we would have Facetime sessions – so much technology went into it. And so we worked with Yoni and he would go far one way and we would pull him back the other way, and we would go one way and he would temper us with this other thing, and finally we ended up with Almost and we released it and it got put out into the world.
ES: Going off of that, how has it been signing with Joyful Noise and joining the ranks of Kishi Bashi, Good Fuck, Ohmme, Surfer Blood, etc.?
SP: Oh, man. They’re so cool. They were one of my favorite labels in high school. I remember sitting and listening to a Joan of Arc record and being like, “Ugh, it’s so good, I love Joyful Noise, they have so many good bands!” And flash forward to three years later… If I had told my 18 year old self like, “Hey, you’re going to sign to one of your favorite labels,” she would have been like, “Shut the fuck up, no. Go away.” They’re some of the kindest people that I’ve ever met. They’re lovely. I have only good things to say about them. I think they do a really good job of having so much diverse music on their label, and they do a great job making it into cool pieces of art with all the vinyl stuff that they do. Big fan. I love them. They’re so cool!
ES: What’s next for The Ophelias?
SP: We’re doing this, we’re going to be back in Cincinnati in mid-April I think, and then a bunch of stuff. I’m doing some composing for film scores, so I’m doing two of those, one for a short one for a future. Andrea has to finish her thesis and then she’s graduating. Grace is actually currently in San Francisco doing a co-op, so we have a sub-bassist who is amazing, I love them so much. And so Grace is finishing that, she’s still in school, Micaela’s still in school, and honestly we’re just gonna keep touring and we’re gonna make another album. I’m ready. You know a lot of those songs are from 2016 so I’m sitting on a backlog. Let’s bring the backlog to the front.
ES: Anything else you’d like the people to know?
SP: College radio is one of the coolest things in the world. I love it and I think that it’s A) an underutilized resource, and B) something that if you’re not in college yet I highly recommend looking into. Underrepresented and educational programming, forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: How did you all get your start?
Blaze Bateh (drums): Well we started when we were kids, the three of us started playing in 7th grade, and we just never really stopped. We had different names over the years, and then finally this happened. But we got here on a plane yesterday.
ES: What was the first name of your band?
BB: I don’t remember. I think we actually did an interview in high school where we said our goal was to get a CD in a CD store.
Reid Bateh (vocals): Still working on that.
ES: Did you always play noise?
BB: It was a little different.
RB: We were kids into pop punk, so we started with that and then it slowly became what it is now. It’s hard to say, it’s just kind of been a progression.
BB: Because you always start out playing covers of bands you like and making songs similar to that. We were super into Blink-182.
William Brookshire (bass): So early on we did some of that and started writing imitation songs to figure out what we actually wanted to sound like.
ES: You moved from Georgia to Brooklyn. What has this done for your music sonically?
BB: I feel like we sound more southern now than when we actually lived in the South. I don’t know what it has actually done, I know it’s made us manage our time better because you have to work a lot more in New York.
RB: Yeah, it’s definitely helped to make us more focused.
BB: Yeah, so we like block out time to work on things specifically, whereas in Georgia you could kind of just hang around and things can come into fruition over time.
RB: I do feel like it enforced a little bit of growth, just because you have to because you’re always working on it.
ES: Reid & Blaze are brothers. How has this affected the dynamic of the band?
RB: Well, it makes it a lot easier for sure.
BB: William might as well be a brother. We’ve known him since first grade. He lived seven minutes from our house.
RB: It makes it to where any sort of disagreement is really not that big of a deal.
WB: We’ve heard stories of bands firing their guitar players at SXSW this year, and that’s just laughable to us. There will never be a disagreement where one of us gets fired.
RB: There’s a lot of communication and understanding.
BB: We all have a lot of devotion to it and an equal amount of creativity involved. Our voices are all heard at the same volume.
ES: I actually saw you guys play in September opening for IDLES. How was it touring with them? Any weird stories from tour?
BB: We first played with them in New York, we got asked to open for them, and then after the show they were like “We love you guys, you should come on tour with us.” And we thought it was cool, but we didn’t think they were actually serious until we got an email.
RB: They’re just like, the best people. That tour was one of the best we’ve had.
BB: They’re the nicest dudes. It’s genuine, too.
ES: On Shadow on Everything, the vocals are much more prominent and it follows a more narrative structure than previous records. What sparked this change?
RB: Well I think we started doing that with the last record, but for us, what we thought was bringing the vocals up really high, was not. But we’re so used to burying them in noise. We used to think that vocals should be kind of like an instrument, you know. But I think the more we messed with that, the more we were missing a humanness. We wanted there to be a human personality that’s talking to you and it ended up working really well for this record because the lyrics are so narrative and so important for the whole concept of the record.
ES: Can you talk about the concept itself?
RB: I’m a writer; I write a lot. I’ve been working on this novel for like six years. So when it came time to write this record, I was kind of still in a novel mindset so I wanted to write it as if it was a novel with different chapters. So it’s just about this town out West, based loosely on a few real places and a lot of real people. It’s just their stories and what it’s like to leave your hometown and how hard it is to stay away. There’s also a lot of dark undercurrents and things like that, but that’s the basic idea of it.
ES: Was this inspired by leaving Georgia?
RB: I would say some of it is, the idea of your hometown following you as a shadow. That’s true, but I didn’t really have trouble leaving it as some people do. Especially in New York, we’ll have a lot of friends move there – and it’s the place that just doesn’t want you to be there. It wants you out. So we’ve seen a lot of people move there and they’ll be gone in a few months, a year max. And it just feels like you’re alway getting pulled away. But for us it was easy, we had a good time. Moving together helped a lot.
ES: What’s next for Bambara?
BB: We’re writing the new record right now; that’s pretty much what we’re spending all of our time on. And we’re going on tour with this band Daughters, a small Northeastern tour.
ES: In your opinion, what does it take to make a good noise album in 2019?
BB: I mean for me, I always want to feel like I’m in a place when I’m listening to something.
RB: Yeah, atmosphere. Not necessarily a geographic location but if when you listen to a record and feel like you’re inside of it. An atmosphere, I think that’s very important.
BB: That’s what I like when I listen. So whatever you’re doing to achieve that, that’s cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: Tell me how Her’s started. Did you guys always want to be musicians, respectively?
Audun Laading: For me, I came to music a bit late. Me and my family have always listened to music a lot together, like we share a lot of music within the family, so I’ve always been really passionate but I didn’t start playing seriously until I was like 15. Because before that I played like the trombone which sucked, then I played the violin which was not my favorite either, let’s say. I’m sure it’s great for people – different people, different tastes – but yeah, it wasn’t doing it for me. So I picked up the bass at 15 and felt at home straight away, blew all my money on it and enjoyed it ever since, basically. And like, getting into music from there was just a matter of doing something I liked and then sharing it with people and then more and more people were taking an interest in it, and suddenly you’re in Austin.
Stephen Fitzpatrick: My entire family are basically very musical, so I was kind of born into it I guess. They’re all bass players as well, so it was kind of natural that I’d end up doing it. I started off playing drums when I was like 10, and then always played a little bit of guitar and started taking it seriously when I was 15.
AL: We met in university, we somehow had the exact same schedules lined up, so we’d always meet in university the night before we were meant to be doing hand-ins, panicking and stuff, so I think that made for good bonding.
ES: What’s the story behind the name?
AL: Happened pretty organically, yeah. So, we were bonding over late homework and everything. We were both in a couple bands, in the rhythm section, and we were making this arty film one night, made a little YouTube clip and spent all night, up until 5 am editing it and we smashed it up on YouTube to show all our mates. And we had to make a choice right there and then because you need an email for a YouTube channel, and so it kind of happened out of that. We always didn’t want to overthink the band name, and have a sense of mystery.
ES: Your music is incredibly nostalgic to me. Do you draw inspiration from bands of the past?
SF: We’re definitely into a lot of music from the 50s onwards, I guess. Every decade. And I think we try to incorporate that into every song and kind of link each song with a specific decade in a way, but we try to not make it too obvious at the same time.
AL: I think it’s like a little salad of things we like, chopping up different things and tossing them in.
ES: Your music is often referred to as “dream pop” or “bedroom pop.” How do you see yourselves fitting into this genre? Would you say it’s an accurate label?
SF: I think we’re definitely somewhere in there, but not strictly at the same time.
AL: I guess for me there’s a pretty big difference between dream pop and bedroom pop. They’re always linked nowadays, but dream pop is very glossy and bedroom pop is very unglossy. I guess we try to not be too glossy, but I think we’re pretty glossy. Shiny at least; sparkly. Yeah, dream-poppy but not too bedroom-y.
ES: How has it been coming up in the U.S. as opposed to England/Europe? Any major differences so far?
SF: It’s actually the third time. We came to South By in 2017 and in November we did four gigs in the U.S. and now we’re on a big tour plus South By. It’s our first real U.S. tour.
AL: The crowds are very different. Touring in Europe, every country has got its own personality and every city as well, but coming here there’s also a general change that happens. People seem to be very enthusiastic, for example playing around the UK, no disrespect but people are very rowdy and chatty, while coming here people are quite attentive and are here for actually the show.
SF: It’s a lot easier to eat on the road here as well, like you can just get Mexican in gas stations which is really nice. It’s nice not having to eat greasy pastries all the time.
ES: Any favorite on-the-road restaurants?
SF: Sheetz was pretty good, and WaWa. We went to Taco Ranch this morning, that was pretty good.
ES: What message or feeling do you hope listeners can get from your music?
SF: We always say that the band’s kind of like an escape, so like whether it’s zoning out to dreamy love songs or entering some kind of fantasy world…
AL: I don’t think we’ve got any authority to tell anybody about anything.
SF: Haven’t read enough books.
AL: Yeah no, we’re not learned enough.
ES: What’s next for Her’s? New album, touring, chilling?
SF: Basically everything you just said.
AL: Doing that chill is definitely going to be a priority once we get back from this tour. I think the label is pretty eager for some demos, they’re pretty cool about it though there’s no stress. We’ve definitely been coasting on the album for a little while now, and it’s definitely coming to the point where we’re quite excited to be demo-ing again. We visited Paul Cherry’s place when we were over in Chicago, and we were playing the Empty Bottle which is like right around the corner from his house, so we got to listen to some of his demos and it was reinvigorating, it was like a lime-lemonade of inspiration.
ES: Is there anything you want to add?
SF: Hope everyone’s having a very good South By!
AL: Stay hydrated forever. Drink water.
SF: I’m sorry to everyone who saw us at South By because I can’t sing at the minute but, what can you do?
AL: You just sound a bit more soulful, it’s fine.
ES: You’ve got that rasp.
SF: The baritone is extra baritone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: How’s SXSW been so far?
Shane Blanchard: South By is definitely crazy. Austin is beautiful; I didn’t have a chance to really check out the city last time I was here but it’s a beautiful city. We played on a boat on Lady Bird Lake, which was really cool. I’m just getting tired, but I’ll power through.
ES: What was the genesis of Bane’s World? How and when did you start making music?
SB: My friend asked me to start playing guitar in his band and I had always played guitar, I never took it super seriously, but he came to me and he was like “Hey, I’m recording all this music by myself and playing all the instruments,” and I was like “Woah, that’s really fucking cool.” I played in his band for a while and then I eventually got my own recording stuff and I just started making music and posting it on SoundCloud and it took off. I kept doing it, and basically was just doing it for myself, and then people started to take interest in it. And I would just do solo shows, or if I had people who could play with me I would do that.
ES: Did it start out as a solo thing and then you slowly brought people on for live shows?
SB: Yeah, basically. I still wanna try to keep the recording thing as only me, but I don’t think that’s what it’s going to be. Just because I’m a control freak, I guess you could say. Not actually, but it’s really nice to have complete control over what you want to hear and not have to compromise with other people. But I’m playing with an amazing group of guys. They’re really inspiring me every time I play with them, so I think I’m going to work with them on some stuff and see what happens.
ES: Does the name have anything to do with Wayne’s World; please I must know?
SB: Oh, man. People ask me this all the time and I feel like they always get upset, but I haven’t seen that movie since I was probably like eight, and nothing really sticks out to me about it. But my nickname in high school was Bane (combination of Shane and Blanchard) and I was like oh, Bane’s World, that kind of sounds sick. I don’t really know why I decided to do that, I mean I guess I obviously knew it was like Bane’s World, Wayne’s World, but I’m not like a giant fan of the movie.
ES: I’d call you one of the pioneers of the current “bedroom pop” genre. What inspired you to start making music this way?
SB: Wow, really? I guess bedroom pop is just people who make music in their rooms or in their garages. It has to do with the lo-fi quality and the chorus pedals and stuff like that, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Mac Demarco and Homeshake, and my parents always put me onto great music. My dad loves the blues and my mom loves The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen, so it’s just a melting pot of everything they showed me and what I was able to do. It wasn’t very forced, I don’t think. Whenever I sat down to make something, I would want to make something beautiful. That’s how I would get there, you know. That’s what I think is beautiful, at least.
ES: Okay, you really blew up last year. How did you react to that?
SB: Like, the Tyler the Creator stuff? I remember I woke up one morning to like being tagged on his Instagram, and so many people were just like “Oh my god, Shane. Oh my god. Look at this.” And I woke up like “Woah!!!” It’s so surreal. It’s like, not real. You wake up and it’s a blessing, you know, that somebody will back you. I feel like my fans are really loyal and really are there to support me and they’re really cool.
ES: Did you get to hang out with Tyler at Flog Gnaw?
SB: I talked to Tyler a few times. Never really hung out with him, although I would love to pick his brain. But I haven’t gotten to. It’s been small steps and then some really big steps and then smaller ones. It’s like riding the rollercoaster up; someday it’ll go down.
ES: You’re playing Coachella this year and played Flog Gnaw in November. What are the pros and cons for you of playing big festivals like these?
SB: I really do prefer intimate shows, actually. The cons of like Coachella or Flog Gnaw, is like if you’re not the headliner – I mean you get a really nice trailer and a nice place to relax – but getting in is a pain in the ass and the security will treat you like shit unless you’re the top of the top. And it’s just like, I don’t really do good with festivals, it kind of overwhelms me and makes me really tired. But yeah, I like intimate stuff. I like stuff where people are there to see you, because that’s when I give my best shows. The energy is way better.
ES: Your live performance was very powerful, definitely different than what I expected from the low-key vibe of your recorded tracks. How have you gone about translating bedroom-made tracks to the stage?
SB: Well, I have to credit the band itself, because we’ll sit down and be like “Oh, this is what we can do,” and everybody has an input. I want their skill to reflect in what we end up doing, and the guys I’m playing with are really incredible so we have a really solid set nowadays. I don’t restrict them from doing anything, because I think that I have very malleable music, like the songs can be put into any kind of style. So if we want to do it country Western style we can do that, or if we want to do super jazzy, we’ll do super jazzy.
ES: You haven’t released new solo music since 2016. Is it coming? When can we expect it?
SB: You bet there is. I’ve been recording ever since then. I haven’t stopped recording, it’s just I want this to be my pièce de résistance, you know, I want it to be the best. When I was making Drowsy, I had made a good 25 or 30 songs and I just picked those ones off my SoundCloud and put them on a compilation thing, but I want this to be 12 or so songs that are the best stuff that I’ve made. But I’m not posting it, I’m keeping it all for myself and then when I’m done I can just pick the songs and then save the other things for later. But yeah, something’s coming hopefully this year.
ES: Are you taking a different approach at all?
SB: Kind of. It’s a lot more keyboards. It’s a lot cleaner-sounding. I’m trying to figure out my vocals a little bit differently, trying to do more vocal runs, more of a singer kind of thing. Still recording it in my garage.
ES: In your opinion, what is the future of “bedroom pop”? Does this label annoy or frustrate you at all?
SB: It doesn’t annoy me, but I’m not a huge fan of having to tell people what my genre is anyways, because people just like to categorize things.
ES: I also feel like bedroom pop is genre-less.
SB: Yeah, because pop is just popular music, and it can be anything. It doesn’t frustrate me but I think that it’s just going to get better. The quality’s going to get better. It won’t be bedroom pop anymore because the quality is getting so good and everyone can do it, and that’s going to be what the music industry is.
ES: What is your biggest dream within the industry? Are you trying to take this as far as you can, or do you have other aspirations?
SB: I want to make other people happy with my music and make myself happy with my music and keep supporting myself. I want to buy my mom a big house, buy myself a big house, and have a bunch of animals running around. You know, I just want to be happy, that’s the end goal and I just want to keep doing it forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: What was the genesis of Del Water Gap?
Holden Jaffe: I went to a sporty high school and I was bad at sports, so I decided to make a record. I spent some time converting a storage closet there into a recording studio and ended up making my first record there. At the time, I was listening to a lot of indie artists that were solo artists but they had project names like St. Vincent and Bon Iver, so I decided to hide behind a project name myself and what I came up with was Del Water Gap. I ended up putting out that music and moving to New York for school, where a few people convinced me to actually pursue it and play some shows, and the rest is history.
ES: What made you want to hide behind a project name?
HJ: I don’t know, fear? I also think that having a project name does allow a little more freedom creatively to sort of make that project publicly what you want it to be. It was a band for a number of years which was helpful for me. I really thrived being in a group, it just allowed me to lean on people and be creative with people in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do if it was just myself.
ES: But now it’s back to just you?
HJ: Yeah, so the last couple of years the people I was working with moved on to do other things. I’m still doing it, so it’s just me now, but it’s been good.
ES: How do you go about writing music and recording the songs as a solo project? Do you play the instruments or do you have a full band?
HJ: It’s a mixture. I’m surrounded by a really good community in New York City, a lot of really talented people. So effectively, I make demos and then I get some of my friends to help come make the record.
ES: Are you playing with a full band here?
HJ: No, I did one duo show with me and my guitar player, and then I’m doing a solo show tomorrow.
ES: Was your inspiration for the name the Delaware Water Gap? Why? What is its significance to you?
HJ: I was in a band, a sort of noise rock band based in Morristown, New Jersey and so I was going there a lot on weekends to rehearse, and it was by the Del Water Gap. I saw the name floating around and I liked the way it looked, so I added it to my growing list of band names and it just ended up being the best one. And yeah, I think it’s aged decently. It’s hard to Google but I still like it and think it suits me.
ES: 2017’s EP is titled with a phone number. Is that an actual number? What is the significance behind titling it that?
HJ: Yeah, it’s a sort of drug dealer burner phone, like a flip phone that’s on my desk in my bedroom.
ES: Do you get a lot of calls?
HJ: I get a lot of calls, yeah. I used to pick up and I used to text back but it just got to be too much. And then it got really weird, I got some really stoned people on Spotify. But yeah it’s cool, it was sort of a project to experiment in access. I had this moment when I was trying to name the EP and I lost my iPhone and I realized that I didn’t know anyone’s phone numbers, and I think that’s something that we’ve lost in the age of having cellphones. I feel like there’s sort of this intimate piece in knowing someone’s phone number, and I realized I only knew my parents’ house phone. My girlfriend at the time, I didn’t know her number, and I didn’t know my parents’ cell numbers or any of my best friends’ numbers. It sort of felt like a nostalgic move and a way to give people direct access to me and yeah, it’s been really interesting.
ES: Your new single, “Chastain,” begins with the lyrics “Man, I just wanna live a day as a blonde/I’ll look like Jessica Chastain.” How did this lyric come to be? Also isn’t she a redhead?
HJ: Well, it’s a joke. The whole song is kind of tongue-in-cheek because I think the character of the song is like a bummy guy who just hangs out in his house. My mom is a brunette, but she dyed her hair blonde a few years ago and she always makes jokes about how, you know, “blondes have more fun.” I was thinking about that and this character wanting to be a blonde, but not being with it enough in pop culture to know that Jessica Chastain isn’t a blonde and sort of being confused and grasping at straws to contextualize this for himself. It was a good way to establish his personality.
ES: Do you often have characters in your songs or do you mostly write from your perspective?
HJ: No, I don’t often. I’ve written a lot about myself and my feelings, and a lot of it has been pretty romantic-based and nostalgia-based, and more recently I’ve been challenging myself to write more; to write narrative songs that aren’t necessarily about my life. This was the first song of that new era of writing. I’m new to it.
ES: “High Tops” is a beautiful and heartbreaking song. I first discovered it on my Spotify Discover Weekly and it became a staple song in my playlists for at least a few months. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind that song?
HJ: I had a very short relationship with someone who kind of came in and out of my life at a very vulnerable time. I wrote that song really quickly, it was sort of a “for me” song, like I wasn’t really planning on sharing it with anyone because it felt very personal. But then I brought it to my friend Michael to try to finish it and he really pushed me to put it out myself. For years, for months, I was scared to play it live because I say this person’s name in the song and so it was very personal. But yeah, it’s come to really have some legs and I’m really proud of it. It represents a memorable time in my life and so it’s special for me.
ES: It has over 2 million streams on Spotify. Did you have any idea/feeling it would get so big? Has that changed anything for you?
HJ: It happened really slowly, that song finding a place, and pretty organically. I think there’s two parts of being a music creator – one is you make music for yourself, and the other part is you make music to connect with people or you make music to have a career and make money. And this was the first time that second thing was really shown to me, like a lot of people really reaching out to me and having personal anecdotes about this song. It made the project feel like it wasn’t just about me anymore which was really nice. You know, I think imposter syndrome is a big part of this type of career. If you’re not super busy all the time you can start feeling like this is your journal or your diary, and you’re sort of just making noise to make it. And I think that song was part of a transition into me actually feeling like there’s more people involved.
ES: A new album is coming soon from Del Water Gap. What can fans expect from it? How will it be similar/different to past projects?
HJ: I think that it’s pretty similar vibe-wise but I think the record sounds better and I think the writing is a bit more mature. I think it’s my best work; I’m the most proud of it. It’s the first time I’m putting out a record where no one can tell me it’s bad, like I just won’t believe them if they tell me it’s bad. I really, really like it and I’m really proud of it. I think what’s similar is just the narrative voice and the arc. I think it’s still me as a writer. I think it’s a little more minimal than my old shit; I think it takes a little bit more confidence to be more minimal. I think in the past, I really leaned on having a thousand things going on to kind of distract people from myself.
ES: What message do you hope to send with your music, in regards to yourself and those who listen?
HJ: That’s a good question. I think for me, a lot of what I get out of writing is what a lot of people seem to get from spirituality or meditation practice. For me, it’s about dedication to the process. I really feel like I’m serving this thing that can serve me, so I try to write a lot and try to improve as a writer, and sort of being available and being open to that and willing to receive it and work on it allows the message or inspiration to be secondary. I feel like a lot of the time it’s more conformed by what’s going on at the time, what I’m listening to, what I’m reading, and that changes all the time, and the relationships I’m in or not in and the people I’m spending my time with. So I think that’s more passive, the first part of that question. The second part being the message I want other people to get from it – I think I want it to be up to them because I feel strongly as a creator that once you put something out into the world you give it away, and I think it’s not as much up to you anymore. Obviously, I want people to find comfort in it or love in it or fall in love to it or around it, and I think that’s the case for a lot of creators, but I think the minute details of that is up to whomever is consuming it.
It was announced this morning that Midwinter – an event that Pitchfork has been hinting at for the past few weeks – will take place on February 15-17, 2019 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The event is in collaboration with the Institute, and will feature three nights of art and music at various locations within the museum. Musical artists performing at the festival include Slowdive, Kamasi Washington, Oneohtrix Point Never, DJ Koze, Mount Eerie, Yves Tumor, serpentwithfeet, JPEGMAFIA and Joey Purp, among many others. Ambient installations throughout the museum will be put on by Nico Muhly, Julia Holter, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and others. View the rest of the lineup below.
Tickets go on sale Friday, Nov. 16 at 10 a.m. CST here. A $50 base ticket allows access to the museum, ambient installations, and Pitchfork Radio broadcasts. However, most of the musical performances require an add-on ticket, ranging from $15-30, which will need to be selected during the checkout process. These add-on performances will be held in specific places inside the museum: Griffin Court and Rubloff Auditorium will serve as main stages, with The Stock Exchange and Fullerton Hall as side stages. A full schedule of artists and locations can also be found on the Midwinter website.
Ben Howard’s show at the Riviera Theatre seemed to bring music fans from just about every walk of life: 30-something guys with man buns, women in their mid-20s sporting bohemian dresses, dads with their daughters, and young couples who were all too in love.
It was an impressive turnout, with a line that wrapped around the next block and a packed crowd. Although I was surprised at the amount of people, it makes sense given that this is Howard’s first full-length U.S. tour since 2015 following the release of his second album, I Forget Where We Were. This summer brought Howard’s third LP, Noonday Dream, and his current tour. Known for his reclusive ways and tendency to avoid the spotlight, the crowd was buzzing with anticipation for the night’s events.
Opening the show was Wye Oak, a three-piece band from Baltimore. Their sound was a mix of multiple genres; indie, noise rock, and country influences were all apparent. With instrumentation similar to Howard, they seemed to appease the audience. Although their songs began to get a bit repetitive, they really hit their stride with a cover of Kate Bush’s “Deeper Understanding.” Lead singer Jenn Wasner noted Bush as one of her heroes – and indeed, the song seemed more fitting to her voice than some of her own compositions did.
Once Ben Howard stepped onstage, the environment of the theatre shifted. His 8-piece band, including an orchestral section, was divided by four poles with lights attached to them. Throughout this performance, the lights moved up and down, creating an ocean-like effect. Visuals were displayed on a backdrop; first of a desert surface, and then a holographic display of Howard in real time. The stage production was absolutely beautiful, and there he was in the middle of it all, sitting on a bench with his guitar.
Starting with “A Boat to an Island on the Wall,” Howard played almost straight through six songs off of his new album, pausing only to switch out guitars. He acknowledged the audience shyly, if at all, only looking up a few times. This added a fragility to his performance that nearly made one hold their breath for fear of interrupting his concentration. Howard’s gravelly, yearning voice echoed around the theatre as he strummed his guitar with ease, almost as if it was an extension of himself. He is well known for his “pick and go” strumming technique, which incorporates intricate picking and percussion. Needless to say, watching him play in person was absolutely fascinating.
Although he is only 31, Howard seemed to carry with him a wisdom rarely seen in today’s performers. The whole experience carried a solemn, almost existential weight, accentuated by the lights and visuals. At one point, he even turned away from the audience, playing solely for himself. His set consisted almost exclusively of his new album, which signaled to me a desire to separate himself from his past work, particularly his first release Every Kingdom. Those catchy riffs and love-filled lyrics were nowhere to be found in his set, which is sure to have disappointed more than a few fans. However, he played “Small Things” and the titular track from I Forget Where We Were, which resulted in a chorus of voices and phones in the air. Thunderous applause was rewarded with an encore, during which his two new singles were played along with “I Forget Where We Were.”
Though not what I expected it to be, there is no way I could be dissatisfied with Howard’s performance. It left me thoughtful and perplexed, and the accompanying visuals made me understand his new album in an entirely different way. It was apparent that performing is not something Howard enjoys – he seems to be purely in it for the music and the catharsis that it brings him. I found this to be extremely refreshing, and although it may be viewed as selfish by some, it brought an element of wisdom and delicacy to the night that is often lacking in present-day concert culture.