On Sunday, February 17th Atlanta-based indie rock eccentrics Deerhunter headlined a predictably cacophonous set at Lincoln Hall.
Opening for them was local post-rock/ noise outfit, Facts. They were just OK. Perfectly serviceable, gritty experimental rock that wasn’t melodic enough to really hook the audience, nor abrasive enough to command their attention by force. The band mainly served as a showcase for the appropriately tatted drummer, who was positioned front and center and whose rhythms were the focal point for most of their songs. He was the only member of the band who seemed to have any life in him, pounding out complicated but repetitive rhythms and bestowing some intense looks upon the audience while the bassist plodded away and the singer occasionally mumbled something into the microphone. If their delivery had matched the intensity of the sound they were going for, I think they could have have been captivating; instead, they mainly served as exceptionally noisy background noise.
After about half an hour of Facts, and an elaborate sound check, Deerhunter came on, opening with a soaring wall of sound that morphed into their introverted hit “Agoraphobia.” Deerhunter has historically had two modes; the distorted, rawer sounds of their early ambient-dabbling album Cryptograms and the frenetic, lo-fi Monomania, and their layered, cleaner dream pop of Halcyon Digest and Fading Frontier.
Much of their newest album, Why Hasn’t Everything Disappeared? is in the latter camp, albeit notable sonic detours; however their live show successfully bridged the two settings, and relatively tame studio cuts, with polished production like “No One’s Sleeping” appeared drenched in fuzz. Through extensive pedalboards, the band members are experts on making their instruments not sound like what they are (even the bassist had 5 pedals!), which made for a night of diverse sounds.
The band, for the most part, plowed through the setlist, occasionally stopping to switch off instruments. Finally, during the encore (which Deerhunter preemptively assured us was coming but encouraged us to be surprised about anyway), lead singer Bradford Cox addressed the audience and told us to welcome thirteen-year-old bassist Asher, a family friend of Cox’s, to fill in on the song “Cryptograms.” He held his own on the fast-paced bass part, passing it back to the band’s bassist for the closing track, one of my personal favorites, “Monomania.”
As I’d seen him do on Deerhunter’s fabled live performance on the Tonight Show, after the first minute, Cox exited the stage, dazedly ambling into the audience, his path quickly cleared by the stage attendants while the band played through the song’s extended outro. There came a point 6+ minutes in where everyone (audience members, crew, and other band members) seemed tired of Bradford’s act, but he stayed committed to the bit, generating guitar on amp feedback for a solid minute after everyone had left the stage. A fitting ending to an enjoyably off-kilter set.
With the stellar combination of opener Michael Seyer and Men I Trust, Subterranean was able to sell out the venue and deliver an unforgettable night of euphonious melodies.
As Michael Seyer breezed onto the stage, a wave of tranquility swept across the audience, allowing the once anxiously anticipating audience to be put at ease. Accompanied by six other musicians, including a saxophonist, Seyer was able to fill the space with mellow, well-rounded sounds that radiated to the audience like a warm light. Similarly, with Seyer and his fellow musicians’ comfy and cozy attire, the atmosphere was only further set as a warm and inviting space.
It must be said that Seyer is not the type of musician to ease up or be carried away during live performances. It seems that he has reached a level of such talent that he is able to focus on multiple aspects of his music at once, while still interacting with the audience. To his right, Seyer managed to control the pitch of his voice using some sort of sound system, as well as accompany the keyboardist with mellow intermittent notes. Furthermore, Seyer mesmerized the audience with velvet-like notes on his sparkly teal electric guitar, which illuminated the room when shone on by the opalescent background lights.
While Michael Seyer delivered a solid performance, the energy from the audience for Men I Trust was unparalleled. Lead singer Emmanuelle Proulx was left in utter awe at the energy Chicago demonstrated, leaving her to wait quite some time to even introduce the band. With Emma on voice and guitar, Dragos on keyboard, Mathieu on drums, and Alexis on bass, the band as a whole embodied the notion of the chill vibes Canadians are said to radiate.
As soon as the band took over the stage, warm, bright lights illuminated the room and the audience condensed. Soft, mellow notes melted into the walls and Proulx’s wispy voice flowed like honey. The nature of Men I Trust became clear very quickly; the band has so much raw talent that sound modifiers are nearly deemed unnecessary. Everything was beautifully in tune and the light and airy tone of the band lifted the mood of the audience. Moreover, the band was able to express to the audience the smallest change in dynamics and pitch with the lightest touch. During the last few songs, blue light accompanied their darker, more heavy-hitting numbers, and it was as if the doe-eyed audience was put in a trance of utter realization. As the performance ended, the audience was slow to exit, for everyone needed at least one minute to process the pure talent that had been before them only minutes previous.
As an audience member of live concerts, I am especially particular when it comes to performativity. The concerts I most enjoy are those in which the artists appear well-practiced, yet comfortable enough on stage to have fun and allow their confidence to show throughout their set.
Beirut met all the marks last Friday at the Riv. Besides being incredibly well adept at their individual instruments, the members all seemed nonchalant and unhurried, qualities that I value greatly when reviewing concerts. I also came to realize that while Beirut uses a variety of effects/midi beats in their music, nothing was pre recorded or programmed, everything was played 100% live. This was tasked mainly to frontman Zach Cordon (who manned not only trumpet, ukulele, and vocals, but also an almost organ-like keyboard and synth board), with assistance from Aaron Arntz on electric keyboard and a classic upright piano. Cordon and Arntz were accompanied by the full band: Nick Petree on drums, Paul Collins on bass, Kyle Resnick on trumpet and harmony, and Ben Lanz on trombone and harmony. It’s no surprise that Beirut is so proficient on stage, they have been performing live as a group for over a decade, since their first show in New York in 2006.
Miami born Helado Negro opened the show with tracks from their soon to be released album (drop date is March 8th if I remember correctly). Their simple bedroom pop sound wasn’t really my thing, but they’re worth a listen – I would recommend their 2017 NPR Tiny Desk concert, in which frontman Robert Lange is joined by saxophone, synth/keys, drums, and bass.
Beirut worked their way through an hour and a half set that included mainly songs off of their newest album, Gallipoli (2019), but that was also sprinkled with older tracks, like Postcards From Italy off their first full album Gulag Orkestar (2006). The chilling harmonies, uplifting horns, and silky smooth voice of Condon were coordinated beautifully with a stunning lightshow (if the Riviera light techs are reading this, I love you) that fit the energy of Beirut’s music perfectly. The set was punctuated by breaks from Beirut’s typical discography with an experimental synth-y instrumental block, as well as an improv section in which the horn players and Condon took turns soloing over a polka-y background.
Beirut’s music is motif heavy, but this only contributed to the overall experience of the show, it felt for a second like I was encapsulated in a Riviera-shaped bubble of pretty lights and indie/folk/world music. Thank you Beirut!
Current Joys brought all the sad boys (and girls) out of the woodwork Tuesday night for their show at Lincoln Hall.
Chicago locals Pool Holograph opened the show as the crowd filed in, surprising me with their new wave-esque sound and ethereal vocal distortions. Think The Jesus and Mary Chain, but instead of dressing all goth they just look like normal guys. I found myself really enjoying their set, nodding along to catchy riffs and dreamy accents. What’s more, I actually found myself listening to them on Spotify the next day – a rare achievement for an opening band.
The second opener, Gap Girls, still rode the new wave vibe but in quite a different way. The solo project of Jacob Rubeck, who plays guitar for Surf Curse (Nick Rattigan of Current Joys’ more upbeat project), the entire delivery was a desperate grab for 80s nostalgia. Sporting a jean jacket, one fingerless leather glove, and a quasi-mullet, Rubeck dramatically delivered seemingly INXS-inspired ballads to the guide of synth-heavy backing tracks. It was a little much for me. At the end of one song, he even raised his fist into the air à la Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. Despite his look, I didn’t find his music that interesting either – it was a lot of repetitive lyrics, and the synths kinda sounded like drowning in a swimming pool at a house party in 1983.
The four-piece outfit that is Current Joys started off in quite an emotional spot with “Become the Warm Jets,” something I did not expect. Rattigan stayed true to his signature wriggly-worm dancing and gravel-y crooning, making everyone’s hearts grow a few sizes too big for their bodies. But we were soon ripped out of that feeling as the first drum beats of “Desire” rang out and suddenly the crowd was ready to mosh to their deaths. The show seemed to constantly swing between two extremes, providing a cathartic experience for all no matter if they were sad, angry, or a mix of both. Other highlights of the set included “Neon Hell,” “New Flesh,” and “Kids.” Before beginning the latter, Rattigan explained that his family was at this show, which seemed to make him a bit nervous. Soon enough, the set slowed back down with “In A Year of 13 Moons” and “A Different Age,” leading the band to play a few new tracks as well. They featured Rattigan’s transparent songwriting, and he led the crowd in a sing along so that they could participate even though they had never heard it before. After the mosh-inducing “My Motorcycle,” the band exited the stage, leaving Rattigan to end the show with a heartbreakingly-honest new song detailing the end of a relationship.
Throughout the show, it was proven to me that no matter the pace of the song, watching Rattigan perform is a truly immersive and personal experience. He can truly do both – and he does it so, so well.
What do aliens, potatoes, and elbows all have in common? They’re all intertwined in Adrianne Lenker’s first song of her set Wednesday night at Lincoln Hall, “Spud Infinity” — a track not released on any album of hers.
Perhaps better known as the lead vocalist of band Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker produced yet another solo album Abyss Kiss in late 2018 alongside opener Luke Temple.
Stepping through the doors of Lincoln Hall, I could read the aura of the room immediately. Everyone could have traded their Carhartt beanies and turtlenecks under their T-shirts and would have left with the exact same outfits. Opener Luke Temple reinforced this very vibe. Up on stage with only his guitar and his dad-hat, he jammed like a quasi-hipster dad might. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised whether he was 25 or 55 years old. So Luke, if you’re reading this, would you be so kind as to DM me your age?
He played a few mellow lullaby songs that all managed to sound the same, with a few upbeat songs thrown into the mix. All in all, it was pretty low-energy, and the lack of movement from the crowd underlined just that.
Although Adrianne Lenker was also a solo performer with just her acoustic guitar and a ceramic mug, her performance was anything but boring — her engagement with the audience was personable and intimate in the most charming of ways.
At one point during “Spud Infinity,” a loose strand of hair swept over her mouth. She nonchalantly stopped, moved it away, giggled, and continued right where she left off. The beauty of her solo performance was her jurisdiction over what happened on that stage.
Between the songs “Hours Were the Birds” — a cheery tune from her first solo album back in 2014 interjected with playful zoom, zoom, zooms — and “Cut My Hair,” she shared a dream she had the other night starring a little girl with big scissors who chopped a good chunk of hair off of Adrianne’s head. Then she went on a little tangent about how you really can’t rush the hair growing process. The way she simply shared this monologue was obviously her thinking and connecting thoughts out loud and into a microphone, speaking slowly and a bit stuttery. It was so pure and childish in the sweetest sense.
I was scared to cough, it was so quiet and peaceful, with only her fragile voice and her fingers picking on the guitar. In fact, I don’t think she strummed a single chord until the very last song of the night.
She then invited Luke Temple back on stage and they performed the majority of their collaborative Abyss Kiss.
Her acoustic guitar and his rounded electric guitar filled the hall with warmth as the crowd reflected the duo’s own bobbing heads and swaying bodies.
I’d say a good third of the concert was just them re-tuning their guitars before every new song, but honestly, that sounded like a lovely little tune in and of itself.
After their final song together, Womb, Luke left the stage and Adrianne continued. There was a collective sigh of relief from the audience as she began to pluck the melody of her next tune mixed with her gentle humming.
She announced she had one song left, but after a suggestion for her to play Kerina from someone in the crowd, she added that to her setlist to finish the night. Again, another illustration of her interaction with us, bringing a collaborative energy to the room.
With her missing tooth gaping as she spoke of all of us together “on this speck of dust, feeling and wheeling and dealing,” Adrianne made the hall feel like a living room filled with friends sharing stories and following the whims of conversation.
With a twirl into the back curtain, she left me feeling warm and lighthearted as I exited Lincoln Hall that night.
Many who know New York-based electronic duo The Knocks think of them in terms of their collaborators. Such is life for most groups in the EDM scene. The collaborations are certainly impressive; their sophomore album New York Narcotic featured the likes of Foster the People, Method Man and Big Boi. But B-Roc and J-Patt have come a long way since their days of getting noise complaints from their New York neighbors. Their unassisted song “Shades” appeared in a recent Hyundai Sonata commercial, showing that they might just be able to hold their own without the high-profile features.
Fiery bassist Blu DeTiger kicked things off at Concord Hall for this Valentine’s Day show. Her stage presence was indisputable, as she sported an electric blue jumpsuit and a bass of the same color. She delivered some funky bass riffs on top of oldies like Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and an intriguing mashup of Ginuwine’s “Pony” and Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.” To close, she played an unreleased original song called “Mad Love” where she took on lead vocal duties in addition to bass-playing. Blu proved that, while she’s still just a 20-year-old student at NYU, she’s already an Ace of Bass.
Dutch artist Young & Sick followed, meshing traditionally indie vocals and guitar sounds with EDM production on the choruses. He did not put much effort into annunciating the lyrics, but it became clear that the set was more vibe-driven anyway. During the verses of his first song “No Good,” his guitar playing gave off an outer-space mood. He pivoted on “Bitter End” to more of the slicing sound you might hear on a Tame Impala record. On “Jet Black Heart,” his higher notes meshed cleanly with the danceable production, reminiscent of Years & Years. I look forward to seeing if Young & Sick has a full-length project in store for 2019, as I imagine it will feature further genre-bending.
Even if you went to this concert with earplugs and a blindfold, it would be difficult to not sense where the Knocks were from. The set oozed New York, whether it was their glittery Knocks jackets in the style of the New York Knicks logo, the two huge inflatable pigeons on either side of the stage wearing gold chains and sunglasses or J-Patt’s declaration that “this is already our best show of the tour, deadass.” Perhaps no tour has stayed truer to its name than the New York Narcotic tour.
You could tell that the Knocks were ecstatic to be in Chicago as they praised the Concord crowd on multiple occasions. Throughout their set, they gave more stage time to their lesser-known openers, as Blu DeTiger played bass on numerous tracks and Young & Sick joined them to sing on “Wizard of Bushwick.”
Yet having two openers may have been the set’s Achilles heel, as the enthusiasm of the audience waned as the night progressed. Expecting the energy to stay consistent over nearly four total hours of EDM was an ambitious ask for the predominantly middle-aged hipster crowd. Save for a select few drunkenly busting moves on the balcony, the crowd lost its pep for the better part of the back half of the set. It didn’t help matters that tracks like “Tied to You” and “Classic” lingered for longer than they should have.
The popular closer “Ride or Die,” reengaged the crowd, who at this point must have been getting antsy to sing along to something. To the surprise of many, J-Patt stripped down the first verse and showed off his vocal chops, accompanying himself on a grand piano. This capped off a night where J-Patt wore many hats, whether it was spinning the turntables, rapping, playing the role of motivator or showing off his instrument prowess.
I knew that The Knocks were going to bring some disco heat with their DJing. But this performance reflected the kind of growth that characterized New York Narcotic – the album had eight unassisted tracks in comparison to just three on their previous album 55. I hope The Knocks continue to explore their vocal talent. Some J-Patt acoustic covers would also be welcome for their next project, but maybe that’s too much to ask…
Blu DeTiger – In My Head
Young & Sick – Jet Black Heart
The Knocks – Brazilian Soul
THE KNOCKS SETLIST
I walked into Space at 8:15. Doors were at Eight, and the openers had already taken the stage and were bathing the growing crowd in a slew of trance-inducing ambient post-punk rock. The Chicago-based three-piece call themselves Luggage, and as I write this article, they have just north of 500 likes on their Facebook page. Their sound was a bit rough around the edges and their stage presence felt somewhat reserved and calculated, but overall, they played well together and effectively warmed the crowd up for the main attraction.
One of Luggage’s Michaels (2/3) took his chance to fangirl, saying, “You’re about to see Gang of Four… we’re about to see Gang of Four… and you can see how much we rip them off.”
This closing comment garnered a few chuckles from the mostly older crowd, who had now filled every nook and cranny in the small venue, not leaving much room to shuffle around and take photos. Everyone seemed surprised to see me and asked if I knew the band through my dad. I got a few comments on my 35mm film camera, and the nostalgia it induced– back when the songs we were all waiting to hear were fresh on the airwaves.
After mulling about long enough for the piss drunk leatherjacketguy in front of me to drop two consecutive cocktails (9:18pm, in human time), some grips and the sound guy initiated a sequence of choreographed flashlight flashes—a language of their own. And I, a traveler in their domain! We took the cue to part, and through came the band, led by Andy Gill, the current lineup’s only original member.
Gill absolutely destroyed a Fender Squier. He slung it over his head and smashed it on stage, kicked it around a bit, and then pretended to piss on it. It was plugged in, by the way, so anyone who wasn’t 100% at attention before was now.
Gill picked the guitar up and, without stopping to retune, proceeded to plow through “Anthrax” to start the show. (Side note: At the end of the night, I saw the guitar on sale at the merch table—signed— for $120. A steal.) When the song was finished, Gill proclaimed, “Hey, I recognize like 20% of you!”
Clearly the Gang has established and maintained a strong and loyal fan base.
Overall the show was good. The newer members of the band were somewhat showy, to say the least. They seemed to be seeking out the cameras in the crowd, and I got a few dreamy eye-contact shots. My heart set aflutter!
Some of the older, “more hardcore” fans in the crowd around me complained that the new guys oversang. I thought the music was fine, but the stage presence admittedly felt aggressively arrogant, if somewhat forced.
The set list for the night included “Anthrax”, “Natural’s Not in It”, “Damaged Goods”, “At Home, He’s a Tourist”, “Ether”, “Paralysed”, and “I Love a Man in a Uniform”— Among other hits.
The show was enjoyable. Though it felt like a “best of” tour, the music was great. I’ll have to tell my dad.
I absolutely love Rainbow Kitten Surprise.
Their music has been a significant component of every Spotify playlist I’ve made, possibly ever, my friends and I have spent many a car ride singing “Fever Pitch,” I admire their unique sound and am uncontainably proud of their success. “Cocaine Jesus” came across my shuffle as I was writing this.
Which is why I’m having trouble writing this review, because their performance at the Riv lacked something for me. It felt a little…off.
Granted, there were technical issues with one of the microphones before the show could even get started, forcing them to take the stage 30 minutes late. This surely contributed to a sense of antsiness among the crowd, yet when they did appear, they did so with full-energy and a whole-hearted explanation of their tardiness, thanking the crowd for sticking around.
The first two songs, “Matchbox” and “Freefall” were great, yet by the end of the first ten minutes I started to feel weird about what I was seeing. Their performance seemed to lack something genuine. Frontman Sem Melo and guitarist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller (the two founding members) frequently broke into what I assume were supposed to be heartfelt, tender moments between the two, but they seemed so choreographed I couldn’t buy it. Their performance was somehow child-like, with unnecessarily dramatic moments: like they were trying to synthesize emotions that they weren’t really feeling. Maybe it was a lack of comfort being in front of an audience, but I felt as though I wasn’t really seeing the people that make up RKS, I was watching characters try to act like what they thought the audience expected from them. And unfortunately, this unnatural performance made the set seem repetitive, almost like watching bad theatre. I hate to say it, but I found myself checking the set list to see how many songs we had left.
There is good news though! Their music was still incredible, with chilling harmonies from Keller and bassist Charlie Holt, an absolutely lovely acoustic “First Class,” mesmerizing lightwork, and a sincere “thank you” from Melo to the entire production crew, all the way down to the people working the merch table. The encore was super fun, with “Fever Pitch” and an rejuvenating “Run” to finish in which guitarist Ethan Goodpaster used a beer bottle as a slide while hovering over the audience at barrier.
In the end, I still enjoy Rainbow Kitten Surprise. I’m not going to stop keeping their discography on a lifelong repeat. And I look forward to seeing them continue to grow as musicians and become more comfortable in their live performances, enough to let their true, authentic selves show.
Cory Wong doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Through dynamic visuals, goofy stage antics, and explosive funk music, the producer and guitarist is effortlessly captivating, despite the vast majority of his music being void of words.
He ran on stage at Lincoln Hall like a starting quarterback coming out of the locker room before erupting into the NFL Sports Intro with drummer Petar Janjic, bassist Kevin McIntire, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay, and legendary brass ensemble the Hornheads.
The band, all sporting pizza-themed black jumpsuits, immediately grabbed the audience’s attention and then moved into some live favorites and cuts from Wong’s two studio records.
Wong weaves comedy bits and pre-recorded skits throughout his setlist, telling jokes that are so bad they’re funny and shamelessly plugging his merchandise in between songs. At the beginning of the show, he insisted the crowd let “all that tough guy stuff right out the back” and promoted audience unity (even between Android and iPhone users).
The way the band seamlessly slid from one song to the next made the show feel less like a concert and more like a fluid entertainment experience, complete with special guests like Antwaun Stanley contributing vocals on “Pleasin’” via internet broadcast. Stanley, despite not being physically present, dominated the room with smooth R&B vocal runs.
“Welcome 2 Minneapolis” was a highlight of the show, complete with an entire bit about peanut butter being brought into an American venue in 2019. “I don’t know how they do it in New Zealand…” Wong joked as Kiwi opener Emily Browning dangled a jar of Skippy over the crowd from the balcony.
Wong, a self-proclaimed “Millennial Ambassador to Smooth Jazz” whipped out the silky, flute-driven “Cameron” and paid homage to smooth jazz veteran Dave Koz, with whom Wong has collaborated. Wong also taught the crowd how to count in a 25/8, a time signature common in Janjic’s native Serbia but almost never heard in American music.
Wong and Co. played with such cohesion and feel that even when it seemed like Wong was drifting off-script, everything soon snapped into place, making it apparent that the show was tightly rehearsed.
The solo-filled “Encore E Jam” showcased each member’s incredible musicality while songs like “Jax” relied more on fast repetition and groove. The show reached almost two hours but never once lulled.
Wong not only bends genres but also entertainment formats, delivering a multimedia show filled with humor, education and of course hard-hitting, hip-shaking funk tunes. Long-term fans and unfamiliar newcomers alike are guaranteed to enjoy being a part of Wong’s endlessly fun experience.
As the Minneapolis-born producer and Vulfpeck guitarist closes his North American winter tour and prepares to make his way to Europe, bringing gags and groove along the way, WNUR had the chance to speak to Wong about touring, technology and the future of funk.
As a guitarist who doesn’t sing at his shows, how do you manage to keep the show so entertaining and the crowd so engaged?
Well it is definitely the number one riddle that I am trying to solve as an instrumental band leader. I have a lot of shticks that I create and bits that I use to divert the attention in different ways. It’s not just like, “Hey look at me shredding on the guitar for 90 minutes,” because that gets old to me. I like to showcase the other guys in the band but also bring in a nice element of humor and lightheartedness to the thing. The way that I set up the show in the beginning is just having some fun, zany, different things happening, and then also amongst hopefully what people think is some dope music. Bringing a multimedia element to it is fun and helps a lot with having guests up on the projector or video content that people can watch while the sounds are happening. And bringing special guests up as well.
You had Antwaun Stanley up on the screen during the show, and you’ve also said in previous interviews that a lot of your musical ideas exist on your phone in the form of voice memos. What are some of the pros and cons of the prevalence of technology in the musical process nowadays? Has technology ever failed you in a major way?
Technology only ever fails when it fails me. And what I mean by that is like, “Why is my computer all of a sudden frozen? It’s worked every show this entire year.” We did a show in Boston and live-streamed it. What happened? The computer froze the second we got on stage. And I’m the only one who knows how to fix it, so I had to give the drummer a solo for three minutes while I reboot my computer and got all the programs back up and running. And it was fine, but that’s the only time technology has failed me. There are a lot of pros and cons. I never rely solely on technology, so it doesn’t fail me very often. I use only its pros, which are things like, “Wow, at any time, I can pull this device out of my pocket and record the idea that I have in my head and be certain that I don’t forget it later.” If somebody in Japan is like, “Hey man, how do you play that guitar part on ‘Starks and Ewing’?” or whatever song, I can just say, “Oh, well here’s a quick video of me doing it. That’s how.” And I can just send it over. It’s incredible that technology is able to grant us those opportunities. Also, I can tune my guitar by putting my phone in front of it, and it’ll tell me whether I’m in tune or not. That’s pretty cool. I’ll sometimes do songwriting or production sessions with people on the other side of the world through Skype or FaceTime. That’s pretty incredible. The other plus side is the relationships and the community that it builds. I met a bunch of people in the guitar community through Instagram or Facebook. It helped me to meet my friend Ariel Posen. I just put out a video of us hanging in a studio together and playing. I met Emily Browning through the internet, and then we met in person at a house party and stayed in touch through the internet. When it came time for me to pick an opener for my tour, I just thought, “Oh! Emily would be great!” And sure enough, I could send her a message all the way to New Zealand, and she could just say, “Yeah, I’m in,” and fly over and do it.
During the show, you briefly touched on the millennial computer generation of music-makers. Where do you fall on that line of traditionalists who don’t think a computer should serve any purpose in music production and new-era DJs who don’t use any real instruments, producing solely from their laptops?
I don’t mind the computer era of music that much. I think it’s important that you can fall back on something. Can you show me something that shows that you have musical ability? Great. I think the best use of it is for when it helps you express your art. For me, when I’m making demos, I’ll put a loop together, but I’ll build the loop and I’ll program it myself to the groove that I want and make it feel how I want, and I’ll play instruments on top of it. So I don’t mind using computer instruments—I do on all my records, and I think it’s great! There’s ways to use it artistically, but then there’s also people who don’t get how to do music or write music or play any instrument, and that’s kinda lame.
Gonna switch gears a little bit. Who came up with the peanut butter bit?
[Laughs] That was me, I just dragged Emily along with me. I just said, “We should have somebody in the crowd with peanut butter,” and she was the only one of our crew who wasn’t on stage, so naturally she drew the short straw. She’s down, so that was nice. She thought it was genuinely funny, so that helped.
What’s your favorite song to play live and why?
Wow, that’s a hard one. On this tour, I love playing my tune “’91 Maxima” the most because I got to fire off my inflatable air men. A lot of guitar players get excited about guitar pedals they press. The most exciting pedal for me to press all night is the one that turns Larry and Jerry on. And yes, that’s their names.
The stage looked like a car dealership.
Do you notice significant differences in terms of stage dynamics or even crowd dynamics when playing solo, with Vulfpeck, Fearless Flyers or any other projects that you’ve been involved with?
Fortunately, they’re all pretty similar crowds. The main difference is how big is the crowd. The second difference is whether Antwaun Stanley is on stage. [Laughs] For whatever reason, when he’s on stage, the place is just hype. And he is such an insane, hype guy. It’s incredible. So with Vulfpeck, obviously the scale to which the crowds are is so much larger than what I’m doing with my solo thing, but that’s fine. And my solo thing will continue to grow, and that’s great. But the crowds are very similar.
How was working with Nate Smith?
That was a dream to play with him and to continue to play with him because I think he’s the best drummer in the world right now. He has all the chops that you could want and all the groove that you could want, and he knows how to artfully and musically use those skills. A lot of guys have a ton of chops, but not a ton of groove. Or they have a ton of groove, but not a lot of chops. It’s fun to play with a guy like that who’s just got all of it but knows when to harness it and when to let it loose.
As an aspiring guitarist growing up in Minneapolis who looked up to Prince, what was it like getting to work with Michael Bland, Sonny Thompson and the Hornheads?
Those guys I’ve worked with for years because I cut my teeth and grew up playing in Minneapolis, so from early on, I was playing with those guys and learning from them. Now having them view me as one of their peers is pretty fun and exciting. But my first times playing with Michael and Sonny, I got pulverized and tenderized through his school. I went to college, but I feel like my formal training was from Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson. That’s where I really honed in the musicality stuff.
So do you think a certain level of intensity is necessary when playing with new people? Or is there a balance, and where do you fall on that spectrum?
I think there’s a balance. It depends on what the future holds, what the relationship could potentially be with that person. But also, how much does that person care? If everybody is playing for keeps, then yeah, there’s a certain level of intensity, and that’s great. I’m a high-energy, high-intensity person in general, so I think I will draw that out of people who can bring it. But I think also I can use it to bring the energy of something up if it’s lagging. I like having a good amount of intensity, but an appropriate amount.
Tell me about “the hang.” Can somebody achieve it, or are you born with it?
Some people are born with it. Your natural schmoozers in life are born with “the hang,” you know? “The hang” is basically just all the off-stage. Some guys have all the on-stage musical stuff together but their “hang” is terrible. So what happens is they get hired for one tour and they don’t get asked back. Even though they’re the best one for the job, if their “hang” sucks, they’re out. I’ve seen that happen dozens of times. “The hang” is all about your interpersonal stuff off-stage and your professionalism. It’s more just how you are as a person. I had a keyboard player sub with me once, and literally 10 minutes after we got off stage at a festival, he was like, “Yo, I need you to pay me right now.” Like wait what?! We just got off stage, give me a freakin’ second. The guy was great, but I’m just not gonna hire him again. Bad “hang.” Do this guy’s feet stink and every time we get in the van, he takes his shoes off? You’re losing some “hang” points there.
You cite Pat Metheny and John Scofield as major influences. As jazz seems to be having some sort of rebirth, especially in the context of hip-hop music, do you see funk ever coming back in a major way or will it remain this niche genre that artists like yourself continue to spearhead?
Groove is groove. Groove-based music will always be around. How people decide to express that sometimes is more funk, sometimes R&B. You can throw a funk guitar part on a hip-hop song and all of a sudden it just is funky. You’ve got guys like Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake and Emily King playing funk. There’s all kinds of people doing it on different scales. Even like Niall Horan from One Direction has some kinda funk tunes on his solo record. I think it’s fun to see it’s coming back more in the pop culture.
You’ve cited Rivers Cuomo as an influence for how you organize your unfinished projects. So, are you team Blue Album or team Pinkerton?
I’m team Blue Album all the way, 100 percent. I like Pinkerton, but Blue Album is it for me. That might be my favorite album of all time. Definitely in my top three.
What’s your guilty pleasure music? Or is all music guilt-free?
I think all music is guilt-free as long as the message of it is fine. I’m fine listening to “basic music” and feeling great about it. I love Katy Perry’s PRISM record. I think it’s a brilliant freakin’ pop record. Anybody who has something negative to say about me because I like a Katy Perry record—screw them. I don’t care, it’s good pop music. And I can get down with a Cecil Taylor avant-garde solo piano jazz record. A lot of my friends who are into pop music would be like, “How can you stand listening to that?” Fine. Whatever.
Speaking of pop, you’ve referred to Continuum as one of your favorite pop records. Have you ever gotten the chance to meet or play with John Mayer?
I have not yet. We have a bunch of mutual friends. We have a bunch of times that we intended to connect, but it has not worked out yet. Hopefully that will happen very soon [laughs].
How do you name an instrumental song?
That is the hardest part about music for me. It comes from all over the place, but it is the hardest thing for me to do. It will take me less time to write, record, produce and mix an instrumental song than it will for me to name it. Although I’ve got a buddy who’s got the gift of naming things. He’s got a certain type of synesthesia where he’ll hear things and visualize them. It helps him name things. I’ve thought about putting him on retainer and having him just name things in my life.
Your song “Upstream” is available as downloadable content for Rock Band II. Did you ever play Rock Band or Guitar Hero?
I did, and I was never as good at it as the real guitar.
Interesting. Did you play guitar before playing the games?
Yeah, because I started playing guitar in sixth grade, and I think the games came out when I was in high school. So I figured, if I wanna play “Symphony of Destruction,” I’m gonna figure out how to play it on the real guitar.
When did you figure out you were a Strat guy? Did you start off on one and never stray or was it a discovery process?
Day one. I was a Strat guy from day one. My dad convinced me. He was like, “So, you wanna play the guitar? Let’s look at all the guitar gods. Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn. What do they all play? Stratocaster.”
If you could work with any artist dead or alive, who would it be?
You’re pretty popular in Peru. Are there any noticeable differences between performing in South America versus playing in the States?
I have not been there for a while, but the audiences in South America are generally more attentive audiences to musical nuance. The way that some other cultures respond to musical nuance is very different than in the United States. In the United States, I know what gets the crowd to go wild: the loud, the fast, the high, the super exciting. In Europe and in South America, that stuff gets them excited, but also, they’ll respond the same way to a very musically nuanced thing.
What’s the most useful touring tip that you’ve learned while on the road?
You never need as many clothes as you think you do. You’ll find a way to do laundry. Also, you gotta eat clean. It’ll help you feel better and healthier. Life will be easier for you if your body is working properly.
Where do you think you’d be without music?
I would probably be doing something in architecture. We had a really good drafting program at my high school, and by 10th grade I basically finished the whole program. So I got a job with an architect as a drafter drawing all the blueprints and everything. I did all the residential projects.
Do you have any upcoming plans besides touring?
Fearless Flyers just finished recording a new record. Super stoked about that. It’s gonna be insane. The album turned out great. I am almost halfway done with a new Cory Wong record. I’m going to Europe next week to do some touring. Fortunately, the entire tour is sold out, so that’s gonna be fun. Vulfpeck is doing a Red Rocks show that’s sold out. Madison Square Garden with Vulfpeck and the Fearless Flyers, which is gonna be insane. I’m excited to see what this year brings.
Describing Ólafur Arnalds as “slightly Nordic” during his performance at Thalia Hall earlier this month would be an understatement. This characterization stems less so from his favoring a certain Viking aesthetic or a strong preference for death metal (although he did start out as a hardcore drummer and composed music for Heaven Shall Burn), but rather because of his incredibly humble and soft-spoken demeanor on stage. Every couple of songs he would pause for a moment to stand up from his piano and tell the crowd an anecdote or crack a joke or two. During one of these breaks, for example, he asked the audience to hum a tone in unison, which he then recorded “for possible later usage – if it’s good enough.”
Despite Arnalds doing all the talking and a good bit of the playing too, the 32-year-old is not alone on his world tour: while starting his first piece solo on the piano with the spotlight centered on him, after a few minutes additional spots reveal the string quartet and later on the percussionist that support him on his journey to sold-out concert halls throughout North America and Europe.
Arnalds’ music, a mix of ambient, neoclassical, and occasionally also electronica, is striking because of its fluidity – every song flows into the next as if they are part of one giant piece, only interrupted by the musicians’ occasional pauses and Arnalds’ conversation bits. While most of his compositions are rather short, he always finds something to add to them on stage, explaining how, despite only having played eleven distinct songs, the show filled a good hour and a half. The best example is “unfold” from his 2018 album re:member, which measures only four minutes in the original, but stretches itself into a kind of mini-pathétique of about twice the length on stage.
Without a doubt, there also is a good portion of experimentation in Arnalds’ music. Aside from frequently shifting between his grand piano and two synthesizers, he incorporates plenty of electronic beats into his compositions, and showcased his newest piece of musical pioneering: his so-called Stratus Pianos feature two upright pianos which are connected to Arnalds’ grand piano, and which produce a randomly generated note whenever he plays one himself to create new and unexpected harmonies. Aside from his creative endeavors, Arnalds’ also gives some of his touring band members a chance to shine, such as nestling a performance of his solo violin work “3326” between his other pieces.
One of the last songs of the set, “nyepi,” is a piece which warranted some additional introduction before being presented. It was written during one of Arnalds’ many trips to Indonesia, which he is captivated by and traveled to repeatedly due to a self-proclaimed “fascination for island life.” On the eponymous New Year’s holiday, which is particularly pronounced in Bali, all traffic is stopped, nobody is supposed to leave their houses, and no festive or noisy activities are allowed to take places, which is why it’s also called the “Day of Silence.” To put it in the words of Arnalds’ himself, it is “one day a year in which we give the Earth time to regenerate for the 364 days when we are treating it like shit.” It is out of this self-reflective root that the minimalist piano piece springs, seemingly providing the motto for the entire event through its theme of quiet introspection.
After frenetic cheers and a whole-audience standing ovation, Arnalds’ gives in to play a final encore piece: “Lag Fyrir Ömmu” literally translates to “Song for Grandmother,” and is just that – an ode to the woman who used her baking skills to rouse in her grandson the love for classical music in general and Chopin in particular that underlies his entire canon, so much even that he dedicated an entire collaboration album to covering the latter’s works. He plays the piece on one of the two upright pianos towards the far side of the stage, his back facing the audience. Every note is filled with so much passion and pathos that one is afraid each will be the last. After he is done, Arnalds’ leaves as he entered – in silence.