SATURDAY, RED STAGE, 3:20
If the fact that Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler named Digable Planets after reading through works by Jorge Luis Borges doesn’t convince you to see them at Red Stage on Saturday afternoon, I don’t know what will. After releasing just two albums since 1993 and disbanding in 1994, the Planets are back together after a quarter of a century hiatus for a momentous summer tour. The Brooklyn-based jazz/hip-hop trio (who certainly deserve all of the overtly sensational hype they can possibly amass) are especially relevant this year, as their tracks typically carry politically-charged messages such as a celebration of black power on “Jettin’” and a woman’s right to choose on “La Femme Fetal.” There’s a good chance that this will be Digable Planet’s last tour as Butler has since dedicated most of his musical energy towards his new project, Shabazz Palaces, so be sure to catch this integral part of hip-hop history before they’re just that.
WNUR and Pitchfork have at least two things in common. We’re longstanding media outlets based in Chicago, and we’re both regularly accused of being pretentious music snobs (a decade later, we still hear you, Jason Bolicki). The partial validity of this criticism (depending on your perspective) is beside the point: the fact remains that our organizations have earned this reputation by exposing and booking artists who typically aren’t being heard elsewhere in the Chicagoland area. Of course, we have our occasional qualms with Pitchfork’s reviews like anyone else–and I’m sure they’d have a thing or two to say about our programming. But when it comes to Chicago music festivals, Pitchfork is leagues beyond any other in supporting musicians who align with WNUR’s mission and have seen regular airplay on our station across the genre-spectrum (though Big Ears still takes the cake on a national level). This year, we’re embracing that commonality more than ever.
Does this mean we’ll start celebrating and/or playing Carly Rae Jepsen on our station? No, but we will give you a rundown on the artists we’re most excited to see at the festival in two weeks, and why we think they deserve the shine. Keep an eye on our website in the days leading up to Pitchfork as we give individual, in-depth assessments of some of this year’s performers (and listen to WNUR this week for your final chance to win passes to #P4Kfest).
Kamasi Washington seems an almost-obligatory place to start this preview; this guy has been everywhere in the past year. First, he was part of the studio band that performed on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Then, his aptly-named, three-hour debut album The Epic dropped on Brainfeeder in May 2015, earning an 8.6 and “Best New Music” classification on Pitchfork. All of this was preceded by a lengthy career touring and collaborating with established artists like Lamar and Snoop Dogg–but his momentum has only snowballed in the past six months. Some of our staff first got a taste of his (or should I say, his group’s) live performance at Big Ears in April. I caught them again at an overpriced-though-worth-it 2AM after-show in New Orleans post-Jazz Fest, so this set will be my third time around.
This collection of musicians is comprised of childhood friends from the LA area (as you’ll learn during their performance, unless they change things up; there was a fair amount of repetition in the banter and format of the performances I’ve seen). It quickly becomes evident that their performances are more about the group than they are about Washington himself–the collective spent a year dedicating all their time to recording and playing on each other’s projects, and the group mentality that results is palpable. The buzz is credited to Washington because his album was the first to be released (and likely also, of course, because of his involvement in TPAB), but they’re still sitting on the rest of the musicians’ projects. That knowledge puts things in perspective: though he’s undoubtedly talented, Washington’s live saxophone-playing isn’t really what makes the show something special. The dynamic between the musicians is paramount, and the key lies in Washington’s recognition and mediation of that. He’s generous with sharing the spotlight on the stage, and he exudes a warmth and calm in his demeanor that structures the entire experience–and makes it into a just that, a genuine experience. He brings out his dad (who turns out to be pretty killin’ on the flute and clarinet) for the better half of the performance, which proves both endearing and impressive while adding to the familial vibe. Add in two (yes, two) exceptional drummers and a funky keytarist and you’ve got something undoubtedly unique. Keep an eye on the bassist, Miles Mosley, who manipulates an upright in ways you’ve likely never seen (or even considered). And in the meantime, give a listen to “Re Run Home” and “Final Thought.”
Chicago has a history of sending its emerging musical stars overseas to spread the word–and sound–of its modern musical creations. Since the city’s best-known homegrown dance music, house, traveled with Chicago DJs to London and beyond in the mid-1980s, the Windy City hasn’t stopped shuttling iconic sound-prophets across the globe. And with great success–today’s house legends continue to populate the most highly regarded underground dance havens with unmistakably unique styles (for example, Gramaphone Records owner, WNUR Streetbeat DJ, and Queen! resident Michael Serafini still graces Berlin’s Berghain on a semi-regular basis). A more current example lies in Teklife, Chicago’s premiere and pioneering footwork crew, whose fast-paced, dance-oriented creation has caught like wildfire in Japan and beyond.
Both the city’s historic and contemporary liaisons journey abroad while the sounds they bring (and the artists themselves) are still under-the-radar, carrying their budding (and often, yet-unheard on a large-scale level) genres to various locations where they take root and materialize into multitudes of sub-genres and stylistic variations that regularly end up vastly different than the original style (see: Chicago house compared to EDM). Chicago’s original pioneers often remain underground stars once the genres gain popularity (like Serafini, and even the late Frankie Knuckles), leaving commercial success to disciples across the globe.
You might, then, call this a city of tastemakers. It’s only fitting that some of Chicago’s brightest emerging stars are found on this year’s Outlook Music Festival lineup in Croatia–a festival devoted to various underground bass musics. We love local artists and we love the underground here at WNUR, so we’re giving you a read on Chicago artists on this 2016 lineup far from home.
DJ Spinn. This booking is perhaps the least surprising, given Spinn is the oldest living member of Teklife and most widely recognized as its current OG (rest in peace DJ Rashad, his childhood friend and best-known co-pioneer of the genre who passed in April 2014). But his presence on the lineup speaks to the growing notoriety of footwork across the globe, and a nod to one of the artists who started it all. The Chicago genre has been picked up by labels like Planet Mu and Hyperdub since its inception–also included in the lineup is UK-based Kode9, the founder of Hyperdub and a friend to many Chicagoans, Teklife and otherwise. Spinn’s anthemic, chord-driven “All My Teklife” can be found on last year’s Hyperdub 10.1. He’s also featured on eight of fourteen tracks on Rashad’s critically acclaimed Double Cup (2013), including two of my favorites, “She A Go” and “Feelin.”
DJ Taye. The youngest member of Teklife’s inner circle, Taye wouldn’t be my first guess to be one of footwork’s young guns invited to Croatia (I might have assumed DJ Earl), but his booking makes a lot of sense. He’s released less music overall than other members of the crew, but what he’s put out has made a significant splash. Of particular interest–and fitting Outlook’s bill–are his collaborations with barcelona-based Zora Jones (who I’m surprised not to see on the lineup, now that I think about it). Their Fractal Fantasy collaboration, “Neutrino,” pairs gritty, hard-hitting percussion, massive horns (it sounds like Jones’ partner, Sinjin Hawke, may have had a hand in that signature sound) and spaced-out synth progressions with suitably mind-boggling, rendered-object visuals. Taye generally represents a spacier footwork sound with higher frequency melodies, a characteristic that gives his style some distinction among the multitudes of releases from the crew. Check out 2014’s TEK x TAR Vol. 3, or 2015’s Break It Down, his debut release on Hyperdub.
Mick Jenkins. This is the most unexpected Chicago artist on the lineup, in my opinion. Jenkins isn’t not established, but he’s no Chance the Rapper or Kanye in terms of mainstream popularity (at least at this point). His presence suits the somewhat rap-heavy lineup, though a majority of the other Outlook MCs hail from the UK and other non-US locations and are associated with grime instrumentals. Jenkins first gained attention with his album The Waters. His deep, distinctive voice is reminiscent of Tyler the Creator, but his flow couldn’t be more different (see his latest release, “Sunkissed,” featuring TheMIND). His acclaim has grown with his most recent release, Waves. Jenkins’ performance at Outlook will round out a two-month European tour; he’s making the rounds like Chicago pioneers before him.
Who might we add to the ranks? Given the festival’s mission, the Chicago artists included are interesting and deserving of their bookings–but they’re centralized around one end of the “underground bass sound” spectrum. If we’re talking somewhat-established yet emerging Chicago artists making forward-thinking bass music, and we want something different, Jeremiah Meece certainly fits the bill. And of course, there are plenty of house DJs and producers to choose from here as well. Time will tell what next year brings, but in the meantime–anyone trying to take a trip to Croatia?
Morimoto, a Chicago-based musician and producer, visited WNUR to record an Airplay set! Check out this in-studio performance of his song “Layup.”
WNUR Media Team reported on Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CIMMFest) this spring! Watch this little recap to see what we saw.
Meet Philip Brett: a 31-year-old Irishman who has made a name for himself as one of the most prominent promoters of Korean indie music. As a founder and editor-in-chief of Angle Magazine, Brett has transformed the small website into an artistic collective responsible for hosting music festivals and connecting bands together. Find out how Brett stumbled upon the marginalized music scene and why he prefers K-indie to the faceless industry of K-pop.
Q. Where are you from, and how did you end up in Korea?
A. I’m from Ireland, from a town called Galway. I guess it’s one of the cultural hubs of Ireland. It’s got a pretty bustling music scene, so I grew up surrounded by all of that. I came to Ulsan about four years ago. I originally just came here to teach English, and then just fell into the underground music scene in the South. Through that experience, I got to know the bands and the artists, and we started Angle to try to support them.
Q. So how did you decide to get involved in the Korean indie music scene?
A. It started because I lived around Ulsan, which is a pretty industrial city, and there wasn’t a huge amount happening here in terms of culture. So after one year of living here, I started traveling around different cities like Busan and Daegu, where I found shows and got to talk to the musicians after their gigs. Getting to know the people was as important as getting to know the music. It was then that I found out something existed here. I think that’s the biggest problem — when any foreigners come to Korea initially, they’re aware of K-pop, but anything outside of that is a mystery. And even to the people living here as well, a lot of people aren’t aware of the indie music scenes. Because of my own experience with the music scene in my hometown, I could see the ways to help the scene grow more.
Q. So how did Angle Magazine come about?
A. It started in September 2013. It was only three of us when we started out — myself, a guy from Seattle called Joshua Hanlin, and one Korean friend. We did all the interviews, editing, translations, and we got everything together and put it online. From there, we just kind of tried to keep it rolling. Part of the initial [coverage] was isolated in Ulsan. If someone creative was here, they wouldn’t have somewhere to go and perform and show their work, so we wanted to give that space. We all wanted to have that space where people could say, “Hey, if I make this and put it on that site, then people can see it.” That was one of the initial ideas. The idea behind it constantly grew without us really planning to do that. It just kind of evolved naturally to involve Busan and Daegu in our first issue, and over the next few years it’s grown to cover the full southern part of the country. People have come and gone; everyone who works in the magazine does so on a voluntary basis — we all have other jobs, full time jobs, and some people with two or three other jobs. But everyone does it to support what’s happening around us. Even when we put on a show, we all go to it because they’re the artists that we want to see perform, so it is its own reward in that way.
Q. How did you come up with the name “Angle Magazine”?
A: I guess you can say that we wanted to give a new angle, a new perspective, of what is happening down here. The general viewpoint has been, “Oh, there is nothing happening outside of Seoul.” But Angle takes a different look at it from this side.
Q. What’s the indie music scene like in the southern parts of Korea?
A: I think the indie scene all over the country is pretty big, more so than the people involved in the scene itself might realize because it’s so divided. There’s a serious lack of connection between the cities. Now there’s a stronger connection, let’s say, between Daegu and Busan. A lot of bands in Busan will play together with a lot of bands in Daegu, but might not know about the other bands [in the other cities]. And that’s the same in Seoul and around the rest of the country. Each scene is isolated within itself. I guess the most important thing to hop in right now is to really bring them all together: having bands traveling around, playing with different people, and going to different cities to play for the audiences there. I think that is the biggest thing that is lacking in the scene here. Not the talent, because the talent and the music are there, but the commitment to go out and play somewhere else. From my own experience of looking at shows, there are a lot of bands who don’t understand the idea behind DIY tour. When they hear a tour, they think of nice hotels, they have to be paid for and looked after, rather than the DIY where you just go and play a show. Maybe five people show up and you sleep on someone’s floor, but you go, you get your music out there and you create those connections.
Q. So I guess media outlets like Angle Magazine is part of what helps bridge those gaps between these areas?
A: I hope so. For example, we host an art festival called Big Day South and we hosted it for the third year in a row. The first year, we held it in Daegu just as a one-day festival. And it’s not just music — we had live performances of dance, poetry, live art, music and various things. Last year, we brought it to Ulsan as a three-day festival that incorporated theater performance, poetries, performance artists, and live graffiti paintings out on the street. We had three days of constant creativity. One of the things I noticed from that experience was that one of the bands and one of the poets who performed ended up collaborating later, working together on one piece. So when we bring in people who don’t normally perform together and have them in the same setting where they can interact and get to know each other, hopefully it leads to more collaboration and cooperation in the future. That would be the goal behind our live shows.
Q. How would you define indie music? What differentiates indie music from K-pop?
A: Musically, very little. It’s more to do with your ethos: the concept behind it. I view indie as independent. Not necessarily a genre, but a style or a way of doing things. I would say K-pop productions will only perform shows on a huge stage for a lot of money, whereas an indie act — whether it is hip-hop, rock or punk — will go and play anywhere because it is what they want to do. They want to be out there and they want to perform.
Q. What draws you to the indie music scene?
A: It’s real. It comes from them. It’s something that they create. K-pop has nothing for me because it’s faceless. It’s faceless in that all of their performers get so much cosmetic surgery, or other stylings, and everyone looks the same. So it is essentially faceless. There is nothing there that is recognizable for me. The music is lifted straight from the pop structure that was created by international pop songwriters and producers like Max Martin. They took the exact same structure right down to what kind of eyeliners they should wear and so on. When they perform, you know it’s 100% manufactured and nothing is going to surprise you. Nothing is going make you just stop what you are doing and pay attention. But I can go to an [indie] show, and maybe it’s a band that I’ve seen a hundred times before, and I can still have that moment where all the conversations just stop and people just have a connection. There is something real there. It makes me sound very absurd, but I can’t think of a simpler way to explain it right now.
One other thing I loved was — when I was still getting to know some bands like Say Sue Me. I absolutely love their music. They are in the Electric Muse label. They released their EP in 2014 and an album last year. We interviewed them first at the start of 2014 and they played for so many shows for us. Part of why I love them so much is not just because of their music, but because of the people as well. The fact that you can go to a show to see a band with a great live show, and then afterwards you can just walk up to them, talk and get drunk together, it creates a much different vibe. Now that I think about it, a lot of the bands that I listen to are the ones who I’ve gotten drunk with before. You get such a stronger connection to the music when you have that personal connection as well.
Q. What’s the next step for Angle Magazine?
A: We’ve gone in a lot of different directions. We’ve created the online magazine that has been going on for more than two years now, but we’ve also held festivals. We’ve also arranged art exhibitions, released a charity Christmas album and collaborated with some artists to make t-shirts. They are screen-printed t-shirts featuring an artist’s design, and when we sell the shirts, the profits go to the artist. So we’ve continued to make more ways to support the scene, not just as an online site, but by actively being involved in the community. I think the overall goal is less of just maintaining a magazine and more of trying to build a community, trying to bring people together, trying to connect both the foreign and Korean scenes, and trying to connect the cities together. We are just trying to continue to create new ways to support indie bands and help them develop as they get their names out there.
If you want to learn more about Angle Magazine,
check out their website: http://anglekorea.org/
and follow them on their social medias:
The Tonic Room is completely packed tonight. It’s a Saturday so that’s not surprising for a bar on the edge of downtown Chicago, but it is a special night. For months the WNUR multimedia crew and I had been following Highness, a five-piece, all-female band and collective. Everything has culminated to the release show for their second EP The Highness Collective. Or THC, a nod to what, presumably, drives the creative process behind their music.
The venue is standing room only with people spilling through the front doors into the Chicago cold. Tonight, a variety of artists join Highness onstage: Akenya, with her raw and rhythmic single ‘Disappear’, Via Rosa and her delicate song “Beautiful Stranger”,and DJs Gemini Jones and Nosidam. It is nearly midnight when Highness dons the stage. Ora, the guitarist, lights a stick of incense. Redd, the drummer, lights a joint. And the crowd, showered in hot and hazy red stage lights, is ready.
The collective met at Columbia College and began as a band of nine before narrowing it down to the golden five: There’s vocalist Loona Dae with round steampunk-like frames, and an air of mysterious wonder; vocalist and producer Gem Tree, or Madam Tree if you like; vocalist, keyboardist and producer Schenay Mosley, guitarist Ora, and the ever-cool drummer, Redd. Onstage together, Highness embodies a regality that is all at once performative and organic. Although they’ve been in the scene for a while now, it was only until recently with their first mixtape Young Taboo, and the newly released THC, that the collective has gained more attention. Their sound, which they describe as ‘omnisoul’ rides the line of rock, jazz and soul.
A couple weeks before the release show, Highness hosted an early LP listening party at Pilsen’s eclectic DIY art space, The DOJO. For those unfamiliar, it is a small apartment converted into a makeshift art gallery and performance space. It is a place that harbors a sort of alternative spiritual energy. Feathers, bones and fake birds cover the walls of the main room and next door, Highness music videos play from a projector in a mirror-covered room. In the midst of it all, Highness sits nestled atop embroidered pillows and Redd holds a blunt languidly between her fingers. They play the album for us, and speak on the themes they explored in the music.
Elevation is a staple in their lexicon. It is what they want their music to do, their listeners to feel, and also their state of mind to be in when they’re creating. It is late and eyelids are low. Nonetheless they have a clear sense of their collective identity, purpose and music. “We are all individuals that come together to make greatness,” Gem Tree says. And much of the greatness they are searching for is self revelational. In the song “Because 789” Gem Tree spits first to a bubbly and bouncy disco beat: Finally I confess/I loved myself and I won’t forget/You’re a gem, wear it on your chest/Introduce your mind, your views, your use. Gem explains, “On this track I was basically saying you can choose to deal with the problems or you can choose to say you’re alive. And you’re alive.” When Schenay hops on later, she talks about finding deliverance. “Holding onto negativity and just finally letting it go. Of course, you’re not positive all the time, happy all the time, you’re human.” There is a duality to life. But there’s also harm in keeping negativity festering inside your soul.
Duality also makes an appearance in “Pearl,” the opener for the tape. Loona’s vocals, half-submerged in the rolling beat, have her wishing for ascension: I just wanna get you/Roll it up tight/I just wanna get you/Let your fears fly away/I just wanna get you higher, higher. It is an exploration of the physicality of getting high, but also the spirituality of becoming heightened. “Culturally speaking, people get involved with [weed] because it heightens your senses, and it heightens your awareness, and it heightens your community,” Loona says. The theme of collectiveness, sharing, and community serves as the mission for their music. In individual self revelation the community also benefits and gains new perspective.
Towards the end of their set at The Tonic Room, they perform “Your Highness,” a jazzy, liquid song that acts as an introduction to each member of the band. And in the moments where they chant “Your highness” during the chorus and the audience repeats it back to them, there materializes a circle of self-empowerment and peer empowerment. In a way, the regality of Highness is also about celebrating the regality and power in ourselves and the rest of the community.
My first encounter with The Highness Collective was when I missed one of their performances.
After a late night of music with my friends, I hadn’t thought much about our early exit from The DOJO, a thriving DIY gallery and venue, to catch the train back to Evanston.
The next day my Facebook newsfeed was flourishing with compliments to the many Chicago-based musicians who were involved that night. But I noticed a particular influx of admiration for a specific band that I hadn’t witnessed:
“BOW DOWN TO HIGHNESS,” read one post, accompanied by similar praises on the event page.
I was curious. I needed to know what I missed and, most importantly, who I was supposed to be bowing down to. But one SoundCloud binge later, I was sold. From beyond the screen, Highness managed to pull out my soul, elevate it, shoot it back through my body and send my fingers into a frenzied email to their manager.
At WNUR it is our mission to provide a platform for underrepresented music. That’s been the goal of this student group far before I clumsily signed my name on their clipboard at the freshman activities fair.
But through my newfound position as Media Team Coordinator, I’ve realized my potential to further enact this mission. And likewise, through my lifelong position as a woman of color, I’ve realized my potential to ensure that WNUR is inclusive to art from a variety of identities and backgrounds.
I am honored that the women of Highness have given us the privilege of attending and documenting their shows and stories for almost four months. I am also happy to have made them the subject of the first mini-documentary published under WNUR’s name.
This project could not have been completed without the cooperation of the band and the drive and enthusiasm of the WNUR Media Team. There have been struggles, but I owe my gratitude to the media team members who have been on the project since day one and to the new members who came to the rescue later in the game. These last few months have been filled with concert lights, freezing train platforms, misplaced lens caps and naps in the backs of Ubers, but they’ve also been unlike anything I’ve experienced.
I thank Highness for making me fall in love with their music. But to be more specific, I thank Loona for her restful aura, Ora for her laughter, Red for her very essence, Schenay for her radiance and Gem Tree for her glowing grace. I also thank their manager, Aaron, for allowing us to connect with the band.
I hope to continue meeting artists and creating documentaries in the future. My hope is that this project will: Perpetuate a tradition within the station to document the stories of artists in intimate and creative ways, and further connect WNUR with members of Chicago’s underground music community.
Ellis Paul is an American singer-songwriter and folk musician. Born in Aroostook County, Maine, Paul is a key figure in what has become known as the Boston school of songwriting, a literate, provocative and urbanely romantic folk-pop style that helped ignite the folk revival of the 1990s. His pop music songs have appeared in movies and on television, bridging the gap between the modern folk sound and the populist traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Paul came to perform at Evanston S.P.A.C.E. on February 28 and WNUR was there to cover it.
As a self-diagnosed folk music addict, I was pretty stoked that a staple in the industry for more than 20 years, Ellis Paul, was coming to Chicagoland. Over his lengthy career, if Paul has perfected one thing, it’s the art of engaging his audience. He did everything from mock Donald Trump while tuning his guitar for a new song to give us a detailed account of his obsession with “The Walking Dead.”
“I’m going to play two sets tonight, but I need to get home before ‘The Walking Dead’ starts at nine,” he said to kick off his show, as he started strumming the opening chords for “Ain’t No Jesus.” It wasn’t just his banter that kept the audience engaged during the rainy Sunday evening show, upbeat jams like “3,000 Miles” also did the trick to get everyone tapping their toes and clapping along. Paul even broke out a harmonica for his catchy love song, “Rose Tattoo.” (But is it even a folk concert without a harmonica?? I think not.)
Paul is a four-piece band wrapped into one: He expertly mimics the sound of a drum set with his guitar while simultaneously creating enticing chord progressions, he sings and blows his harmonica at the same time. “I’d like to introduce the band. They’re really impossible to work with,” he joked before breaking into one of his most popular songs, “The World Ain’t Slowing Down.”
My favorite song was one he claimed to have written on the drive to Evanston from his previous night’s show in Columbus, evidenced by the book he showed us that he had scrawled the lyrics onto and tentatively titled “You Ain’t From These Parts.” Indeed, I can confirm that he had been furiously writing in aforementioned book when I went backstage to interview him before the show.
“It sounds like a folk song right? Well it’s still green. It’s gonna be a rap song by the end,” Paul teased from the piano bench as he played generic-sounding intro chords. But it ended up being anything but ordinary. It was hilarious, poking fun at all the crazy town names found around America and the unusual connotations that come with them.
Midway through Paul’s first set, WNUR photographer Steve Seong leaned over to me and said, “He really seems like he enjoys what he does.” That is what summed up his show for me more than anything: enjoyment. Not only did Paul enjoy himself on stage, but the audience obviously enjoyed it too. And what more can you ask for from a musician, really?
WNUR: How did you get into the music industry in the first place? You grew up on a potato farm and you wanted to be a social worker, right?
Ellis Paul: Yeah, I mean I didn’t really want to be- I was an English major and it just kind of happened by default. I was playing open mic nights and that’s where I got my start I guess.
Where did you get your inspiration for your song writing?
Paul: Well you know I listened to people’s stories. I feel like everybody’s got some nugget story that kind of defines who they are in the big picture. It might be a chance meeting with somebody or an accident or maybe they won the lottery. This one little nugget story can encapsulate someone and that’s what has me interested in songwriting, because all of my songs are about people.
Do you use your own personal stories too or do you prefer to focus on other people?
Paul: Yeah. If I’m writing about other people, it’s going to be tainted by my own experiences. It’s like if Van Gogh is painting a field of sunflowers, it’s still a field of sunflowers but we see his personality in the painting even though there’s no person in the painting. There’s no way to escape our fingerprint even when you’re writing outside of yourself and your experiences.
Do you have any musical inspirations?
Paul: Like heroes? Well, you know there was an era of music between the mid- to late-sixties up until the mid-seventies where there were a lot of sing-songwriters. Jim Croche, early Billy Joel, Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. There was sort of a heyday of folk rock when it was the hippest music. It’s not that way anymore. It’s not like hip-hop or R&B. Not that it’s nonexistent… There was a time when folk music was predominantly in the pop world and heard everyday. That era is what I liked most.
How has that change in popular music culture influenced your work, if at all?
Paul: Well, you know, I keep an eye out for what’s happening, and I listen to people’s music. I bought the Adele record; I bought the Taylor Swift record. And anytime I hear something I like, I try to follow up and see what’s happening. I try to keep up with what stuff I like and try to get inspired. That includes people who aren’t in the popular vein of music, struggling songwriters who are living out of the back of their cars and travelling around the country. Those people are sometimes just as talented as the people on the pop charts. I try to keep an eye out for anybody.
You’ve been in the industry for a while. Do you have something that you consider to be the highlight of your career? What has been your favorite moment so far?
Paul: Tonight is going to be my favorite moment. [laughs] At least that’s what you hope! I don’t really have one; I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I got to go into and write music to a Woody Guthrie lyric, like my music was put to his words. That was a really big highlight. But any night when all cylinders are firing and the audience is completely captivated, it’s a highlight. And I’ve got lots and lots of those.
You’ve written a couple of books, too…
Paul: I’ve written two children’s books and I’ve got one that’s for adults. It’s kind of a sci-fi.
What was that writing process like? Was it similar to your writing process?
Paul: Well the language is kind of the same. It’s really just me spilling my guts on something. It’s not that the medium is that different, but it is drier. When you put music to words, it’s like techicolor, not just black and white. Music is a little more emotional than books, but books are great. I love writing in any medium really.
What’s next for you?
Paul: I just started writing songs for my next project. It might be a year away. It’s going to take a while to get 20 songs, and then we pick the best of the 20. So it’s definitely going to happen, but likely not until the end of the year.
It’s that time of year again! Phoneathon programming hit airwaves this Friday (the 26th). WNUR is a non-commercial, student-run radio station that’s kept alive through listener donations from our annual Phoneathon Drive. Still confused about what Phoneathon is?
Fear no more, because the WNUR Media Team sat down with DJs to talk about the importance of this event and to give our listeners a look at the faces behind your favorite music programming.
Here’s a moment of complete honesty: I hate change. I get sad when I return from a few months away at college to find that my parents have painted one wall in my childhood home a different color. But let me tell you, in the case of Hey Marseilles, change has been nothing but good.
With the Feb. 5 release of their third full album, the self-titled “Hey Marseilles,” the once folksy band has exposed its fans to a whole new side of its persona. A side that lead singer Matt Bishop says has a “shiny kind of aesthetic.”
What changed? The group brought in a producer, Anthony Kilhoffer, who has won four Grammies for his work, among which are producing Yeezy’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and John Legend’s “Get Lifted.”
Don’t get me wrong though, Hey Marseilles has kept their essence. Their unique use of the cello, played by the talented Sam Anderson, was what initially attracted me to their sound. And they have seamlessly incorporated just as many string solos into tracks from their new album as they did in 2013 when I first encountered their music.
Hey Marseilles’ Jan. 29 concert at Lincoln Hall blended their two styles just as faultlessly as their album did. Because their album hadn’t dropped yet at the time of the show, there were moments when the crowd wasn’t able to sing along to all of the lyrics. Nonetheless, the crowd’s enthusiasm was palpable whenever an old favorite was played, most notably when they began “Rio,” and Anderson tossed a maraca into the crowd.
The woman directly in front of me caught it- not that I’m salty about that or anything. But it was still a great time for us non-maraca-players, which can be attested to by the woman who grabbed my hand and forced me to do a twirl as we belted the lyrics, “Love is a hazard in lower Manhattan/You cannot escape, and mustn’t be saddened/By men who abandon your eyes for another’s/There are always Brazilian boys to discover.”
The band played several new tracks such as “Perfect Okay,” their catchy opener, “Crooked Lines” and “West Coast,” their latest single. All of the songs seemed well received, but they always brought it back to the beginning, closing out their encore with “To Travels and Trunks,” a favorite from their first album.
Despite my hesitance to embrace change, especially Hey Marseilles’ newfound lack of an accordion, I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson from their speedy stylistic transition. While switching things up to find their identity was ultimately a great decision, sometimes it’s okay to take comfort in the familiar, and it’s always okay to embrace both.
WNUR: From listening to your latest single, it feels like you guys are going in a completely different direction now.
Bishop: We used to be more folksy, but I don’t even play acoustic guitar anymore. We’re working with a producer for the first time; Anthony Kilhoffer is his name. He primarily works in R&B and hip-hop and is based out of L.A., but he’s actually from Chicago. He definitely comes from a pop music world, and this is the first time we’ve had that kind of influence. [Our music] is a little bit more focused now.
Why did you decide to work with a producer?
Bishop: We’ve been a band for nine years and it’s the same core five of us. With the songwriting process, it can feel like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, you know? On our first couple of albums, we have a couple of songs that are six minutes long, and they have all this layered instrumentation. We really wanted to challenge ourselves by doing the “less is more” kind of formula. So that was the basic idea. Having a producer allows us to have one person make final decisions instead of having five people arguing.
You guys have been together so long. Don’t you get sick of each other?
Bishop: It’s kind of like a family. I grew up with four siblings, so that’s what it reminds me of. You see the best parts and the worst parts of everyone, and you learn to accommodate that.
You guys are based out of Seattle, and it seems like a lot of your lyrics have references to the West Coast…Are you homesick? What is it?
Bishop: Yeah, we’re not very creative…it’s mostly just when we’re writing songs, and we look up and see what’s around. I really need to stop using the words mountain and ocean and gray and city. But there’s also part of that that’s intentional. That’s the experience that we come.
What do you want people to take away from your music?
Bishop: I just want them to like it. [laughs] When you’re an independent musician, you just want to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, but you also want the people you respect, the musicians and music critics, to find something challenging and unique about your music. So I think that if we challenge people to hear it and go, “Huh. I want to hear that again,” then we’ve done our job.
What’s been your favorite part of touring?
Bishop: We are on the road a lot. I’ve ruined a lot of relationships that way, which then I turn into songs. [laughs] But it’s definitely hard being on the road so much. Our favorite part is probably just meeting people…. Every time we go to a different city, we have people that we hang out with who are genuinely nice consumers of music and it’s really fun to make those connections.
What was it like recording with NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert?
Bishop: It was the best. I’m a big “All Songs Considered” fan. Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson and all of those guys are kind of heroes in my mind. That was really cool
and definitely a highlight of our career so far.
Your new album, “Hey Marseilles,” [came] out February 5th. What should we expect from that? [Is it] more toward the style of your previous albums or your recent singles?
Bishop: The singles that we’ve released are pretty representative of the album as a whole… It’s a bit more produced and has more a shiny kind of aesthetic. They’re shorter songs with more electronic beats and less accordion.
How do you feel about having evolved so much stylistically?
Bishop: I love it. I mean I’m a singer/songwriter… So for me, the beauty of a well-written song is in its simplicity. I think our songs are still nuanced and complicated, but they’re not as overthought.
What’s your song writing process like?
Bishop: For this record, everybody wrote songs on their own time. It used to be that other people would write the music and then I’d write the lyrics and melodies on top of it. This time we each have three or four songs on the record and we came together to make sure they all sound aesthetically similar. But it brought diversity to the experience. I got tired of writing about, like I said, mountains and gray and oceans. Hearing what other people are writing about and having them engage in the entire process brought out some hidden talent and has been good for us all.
What do you expect for the future of Hey Marseilles?
Bishop: When you’re an independent musician, this record is kind of make or break. So hopefully, it’ll do well and we’ll make more following this same trajectory. It’s hard to know. We tend to make records every two or three years, so we’ll see if we’re still making music in that time frame. Right now, we’re focusing on this album and it feels fresh for us and for all of our fans. It’s hard to look past that.