The lights dim, the intricate stars of Aragon Ballroom’s ceiling illuminate, and the eerie intro to “Blood” by DJ Caroline Cecil, better known by the name of “Whipped Cream,” begins. Her white hair is barely visible above the raised platform on the stage, but her music speaks for her.
Having only attended one other electronic music concert, I was skeptical. How good can one person turning knobs and pressing buttons really be? Where was the talent in that? Where were the instruments? I found my answer as I watched hallucinogenic images play on the large screen on stage and listened to the galloping beat of her song “Selfish.” A Buddha statue appears followed by a pulsing, blue iris and later a dark forest. Whipped Cream jumps across the stage, pumping her fist and shouting “Can you feel me!?” I can feel her alright. An unknown, female vocalist underscores the pulsing beat of “Selfish” in an unrelenting trap beat that shakes the dance floor. At the same time, the ethereal sounds of “Mirrors” lull the room into a trance-like state with a blend of bass, synth, and unusual sound effects that sound like the song title itself: reflective glass.
Unlike some of the later DJs on the lineup, Whipped Cream’s music mixes the heavy, thumping beats of typical trap music with a more unconventional and natural sound that creates a powerful and emotional duality while also energizing the crowd. Would Mozart be rolling in his grave? Most likely, but Whipped Cream, the first of four openers for Zed’s Dead, still brought the house down last Friday night.
On the other hand, the second opener, the DJ duo Barely Alive, validated all of my worst fears about the electronic genre.
“Is that…Marshmello?” I wondered as I watched an enormous white marshmallow-shaped head appear on the screen. One half of the DJ duo walked on stage wearing some sort of rectangle shaped mask that closely resembled another electronic music artist named Marshmello who wears a white marshmallow head. Lacking the energy and creativity of Whipped Cream, Barely Alive’s use of lights and the background screen fails to impress. The screen alternates between the group’s signature rectangle head and a cityscape backdrop, and the lights simply flash intermittently. The music subscribes to the dubstep stereotype: high-pitched screeching that grates the ears and focuses on a heavy bass and as much distortion as humanly possible. While the crowd continues to grow as the night’s headliner approaches, after half an hour of indistinguishable songs and a DJ that steals Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” by simply adding a bass drop, I noticed I wasn’t the only one that was checking my phone.
By the time the third opener, Sub Focus, took the stage, the real fun began. Midway through the first opener my camera died, and I had removed myself to lean against a pillar on the right side of the enormous, castle-like ballroom. I was almost certainly the only sober person there. Throughout the night, security removed three people to stand facing the wall for a pat down. One person walked outside in handcuffs, and I even watched EMTs wheel a stretcher down the side of the venue never to return.
“Yeah, that’s the EDM crowd. What did you expect?” My boyfriend texts me.
And Sub Focus, for the most part, is your typical EDM. Most of his songs are fast-paced, featuring synths and a distorted male voice. This all leads up to about three indistinguishable bass drops per song. Some unnamed hype man even appears on stage to sporadically shout “Jump!” into the microphone and wave his arms around. It’s club music at its finest.
After enduring a couple of formulaic DJs, some spilled beer by thousands of stumbling drunk fans, and some practically pornographic PDA, I finally got to witness the somewhat disappointing Zed’s Dead.
“Collapse” by Zed’s Dead from their 2014 album Somewhere Else has been one of my favorite electronic songs for years, and when the Canadian duo of Dylan Mamid and Zachary Rapp-Rovan raised their hands to the lily pad-soft intro of this song, I couldn’t help but smile and dance along.
“You’re so used to walking away, and I’m left here on my own.” I raised my voice along with the thousands of fans there at the venue, which felt like it had hit its capacity of 5,000 that night. The bass drop was coming, and everyone knew it.
“You’re gone. You’re gone. Gone. Gone. On. On. On.” The crowd tensed, and the familiar anticipation built as the couple next to me held each other close. I held my hand up. Here it comes.
And it did, but it wasn’t my song. It was just another mix. Just like most of the DJs before them, Zed’s Dead had decided to use clips from other artists to mix into their own music. The duo waved their arms around and dialed their knobs as blue lasers projected geometric shapes onto the back walls of the ballroom. I wasn’t disappointed at first. I knew that was how the story went. Entertainment came first.
Confetti burst out into the crowd as machines dispersed puffs of smoke. The couple next to me jumped on each other to make out as the crowd behind me thrusted their hips and waved their arms around. Blue, red, white, and yellow lights synchronized with the music as some scene from an anime that looked like Dragon Ball Z played on the stage screen. Anime, lights, geometric shapes, lasers, smoke, confetti, makeouts, glitter-covered torsos, balloons in the air: the sober me realized that the electronic music concert is not about the music, but rather the experience.
That night, Zed’s Dead chose to play far more of their heavy, bass thumping trap songs over their more tranquil, softer music. The chillstep of the album Northern Lights took a backseat to more dubstep singles like “Samurai” and “Magnets.” Under the smoky lights and the arching, galaxy ceiling that spanned half a football field, I remembered Whipped Cream’s tendency to stick to her songs in their entirety rather than rely on clips of pop songs for mixing. I remembered her originality and her unique sound that stood out from everyone else that night. She might have been the first opener, but she was the only DJ for whom I thought, “I’m definitely going to listen to her music when I get home.”
At the Riviera last Thursday, Courtney Barnett set up two poles between which every song in her set fell.
At the start of the show, she brings out some of her coldest and darkest material:“Hopefulessness” a track that carries a numbness and anger that glow like red-hot coals.
On the other end, in the encore, Barnett’s at her softest, with a soaring solo cover of Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” warmly lit by strings of twinkly lights.
Barnett, a master of the “straightforward” approach in both her lyrics and her arrangements, constructs her live show in a way that follows suit. On songs like “Small Talk” and “Are You Looking After Yourself?” she reveals herself to be an extremely able live soloist—something we’re not treated to on her studio albums—but generally speaking, she stays pretty close to the arrangements you’ll find on her records.
For the most part, Barnett’s clear-cut approach is most appealing, but a few times it’s to her detriment. When played live, “Depreston,” “Walkin’ On Eggshells,” and “Need A Little Time,” push ahead in a way where Barnett doesn’t give herself or her band enough time or room to dig in to the few ballads she has.
In a set that’s packed with impossibly witty, guitar-driven, up-tempo tracks, Barnett misses an opportunity to expand the already broad spectrum of tempos and emotions she’s set up for herself.
Closing out her several month long tour in support of her second studio album Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett has crafted an effective live show that is true—perhaps too true—to the straight-shooting spirit she’s become known for.
“If you’re fucking with Junglepussy, you know growing is all we do!” Shayna McHale, best known by her stage name Junglepussy, declared this past Saturday at Chop Shop in her first-ever headlining set in Chicago.
With her second studio album, JP3, out this past May, Brooklyn-born Junglepussy has been doing plenty of growing over the past three years – she’s been streamlining her sound and steadily expanding her following with the help of early advocates like Lil’ Kim and Erykah Badu.
After a brief but punchy opening set from Bay Area native Rayana Jay (with an appearance from local R&B up-and-comer Jean Deaux), Junglepussy slinked on to the Chop Shop stage, opening with “Ocean Floor,” a smooth, dance-worthy track off JP3.
“Make some noise if you don’t give a fuck – you ask for you what you want!” Junglepussy said after “Picky Bitch Checklist,” an explosive track from her debut mixtape and the second song in her hour-long show. Junglepussy quickly set the tone for the night and moved through her set at a blistering pace, pulling the crowd in with her charisma and her messages of self-love and not giving a fuck.
“Trader Joe,” which came towards the end of the night, was easily one of the highlights of the show and a great case study in Junglepussy’s appeal. “I think I like him more than I like Trader Joe’s / I’ll swallow kids if he start eatin’ vegetables,” she opens, her razor-sharp wit on full display, wrapped in a sleek, hook-laden package.
With the energy and confidence Junglepussy infuses into her music, it’s clear that she tries to transmit that to her fans. “I want you to leave this show just feeling and believing in your awesomeness,” she tells them, as if they weren’t going to leave feeling that way already.
Standing in the crowd of Concord Music Hall Saturday night, I was struck with a small wave of nostalgia – last November, I photographed Ethan Snoreck, better known as Whethan, during his sold out show there. Now, almost a year later, we were both back for his “Life of a Wallflower” tour. During the time that had passed, the 19-year-old electronic artist released a series of tracks with all-star featuring artists — just the day before, he’d released “Every Step That I Take” with Tom Morello and Portugal. The Man. Needless to say, the Chicago native is thriving.
And although I was soon knocked out of my nostalgia, literally, by one of the many gangs of rowdy, glammed up high schoolers (hey, it’s okay, we all see ourselves in them), I soon found myself rising to their levels of enthusiasm as the first opener, Win and Woo, took the stage. The Chicago-based duo has always held a happy place in my heart, and brought their usual clubby mix of future bass and pop. As bright and feel-good as always, they were the perfect start to a Saturday night.
Alexander Lewis, filling in for MadeinTYO, completely shifted the vibe with his set. Even the lights got darker when he took the stage with his heavier, more bass-oriented sound. His live trombone playing added even more dimension to his thick drops, and, while I’ve never exactly classified the instrument as edgy, Lewis made it cool.
When Whethan finally took the stage, I’ll admit I was surprised by how seamlessly his set aligned with both openers. In the past his set has been on the softer side, with lots of lyrics, pop melodies and punchy, top-heavy arrangements. But this time, he had grown up a little.
Breaking down just the music, an artistic voice was highly evident. Instead of playing genre ~bangers~ and popular originals, the set was more experimental. Whethan pulled from different subgenres and created a mix of future bass, trap, downtempo and even trance. It still was youthful and playful, but had a certain maturity about it. A huge moment was when he dropped Flume’s “Tennis Courts” remix, but then followed it up with crunchier and more innovative sounds.
At the same time, he added an insanely cool and innovative stage design that elevated the show to a real performance. Standing in the center with a tiny table setup, Whethan was surrounded by a triangle of mesh screens. Rainbow lasers accompanied visuals of flowers, cartoons and camcorder film that were projected on said screens. He became the man behind the curtain, visible only when he wanted to be.
Whethan has always held a special place in my heart, as his music held such a huge role in the development of my relationship with EDM. Seeing him behind those screens, really leaning into who he has become as an artist and a person, made me so incredibly proud. The literal manifestation of his “wallflower” tendencies and the contrast between his visibility and invisibility were so honest and vulnerable. It really made me think about how we tend to project identities onto ourselves and those around us, and about the isolation that comes with living behind those projections. The show was a great moment in Whethan’s rising career, and I was just so happy to be there.
Walking into Metro on Saturday night, I was surprised to find it emptier than usual. I had arrived two or three songs into the opener’s set—a band called Mutts, but more on that later—and had expected to walk into a sea of bodies. Just as I thought of how happy I was to not have to elbow through the crowd to get good shots of the band, a flood of people began filling every spare inch of space in the venue. I wondered if they had arrived together on some bus (a Scenicruiser, no doubt).
This was Mutts’ last show on tour with Murder by Death, they definitely played like it. Meaning they threw the hell down. They were a tight, bearded, and sweaty three-piece from Chicago, with one guy on drums, one on bass, and another playing keys and singing. They’re a self-labled American-rock band, with a sound somewhat similar to a Louis Armstrong/Tom Waits/Black Keys mashup, with flecks of Steely Dan and Zeppelin.
They played mostly dark, spooky songs with deep, mumbly vocals, jazzy bass lines, and epic, swelly keys. I got a Tim Burton, Nightmare Before Christmas vibe, which paired well with their active stage presence. The drummer was an animal, and the front-man was all over the place, belting out their songs and even standing on his keyboard for a hot second. After a successful set, they thanked MbD for having them on tour, and made way for the main attraction.
After a quick intermission and some shuffling around on stage, the members of Murder by Death were greeted by a very friendly crowd—they clearly have a huge Chicagoan following.
For the unfamiliar reader, Murder by Death is a five-piece indie band from Bloomington, dating back to the year 2000. They’ve released eight full-length studio albums, the most recent being The Other Shore—the inspiration for the hand-painted backdrop (complete with a galactic starscape made from multi-colored Christmas lights) and most of their merch.
Their sound was quite versatile, but with a consistent undercurrent of Johnny Cash. Imagine the Man in Black had fathered illegitimate kids with the band Horse Feathers, The Band Perry, Dropkick Murphys, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra… Murder by Death is the product of these love-children.
They opened the set with one of their biggest hits, “Alas,” employing a very “Devil Went Down to Georgia” sounding fiddle. As I made my way through the crowd, I saw a guy with a jean jacket sold by one of my favorite illustrators (Matt Bailey, London, UK — @baileyillustration on Instagram). Not really relevant to anything discussed here, but pretty rare and definitely very cool.
MbD’s front man, Adam Turla, introduced the next three songs thusly:
“This song’s about a guy who’s trying to kill a man and kills himself instead…”
“This song’s about a man who tries to kill everybody…”
“This song’s about terrible, terrible memories…”
This was a pretty cheeky intro for some seriously dark songs that the crowd (myself included) enjoyed thoroughly. The song about “terrible, terrible memories” was “Last Night on Earth”, another crowd favorite.
Next, they played “True Dark”, one of their most well-known recordings. Their live rendition was refreshingly different from the studio version; they played it with a bit of swing, with a haunting, gothic string section as Sarah Balliet sawed frantically at her cello. A splash of trumpet provided by multi-instrumentalist David Fountain provided a nice texture, rounding out the sound and nailing the somber country-rock vibe they presumably hoped to achieve.
Continuing with the somber theme, they banged out a beautiful iteration of their song “Lost River”. Turla, believably in character, stomped dramatically with his guitar slung behind his back as he sang the now-infamous lines, “I know a place where a body can hide.”
All in all, it was a relatively tame, well-organized show—the furthest anyone moved was to change instruments between songs. The set list was thoughtfully constructed, and the levels were perfectly mixed. The band had a predictably mind-blowing performance, proving to me and everyone else in attendance that they have well earned their reputation as Indie rock big-leaguers.
The Portland-based indie-pop-tronica-psych-rock band STRFKR had the stage to themselves Tuesday night at Lincoln Hall. Doors opened at 7, and the band didn’t come on until past 8:30, so I had plenty of time to take in their elaborate setup. The stage featured multiple guitars, synths, drum pads, and effects pedals intricately woven throughout cardboard cutouts of psychedelic stingrays floating eerily above foot-tall pine trees and the album art for their 2009 LP, Jupiter. A series of vertical LED panels displayed a dynamic, galactic landscape, emulating a space flight at warp speed.
The four band members took the stage in full drag, sporting silver wigs to match their patchwork and sequin lined dresses. The scene looked like a casting call for the role of Grandma in a Little Red Riding Hood stage adaptation with an N2O leak somewhere in the building. A projector stationed in the balcony projected trippy visuals over the entire set. Think Adventure Time imagery, but on acid—well, more acid. I’m sure some of you are familiar with the band Crumb…the art style was reminiscent of the album art from their Locket EP, with hand-drawn images and poppy, playful color schemes.
The band calmly thanked the crowd for supporting them throughout 10 years of bandhood and claimed to be expecting at least 10 more. As they began to play, the crowd seemed into it, but far less dancey than I had anticipated them to be given the upbeat, pulsing nature of the music. They roared for the big hits but only mumbled and shuffled along to some of the deeper cuts. This didn’t stop STRFKR from putting on a hell of a show, complete with lasers, a disco ball, and a confetti cannon.
The band took an intermission about halfway through the set, giving me time to check out the fully stocked merch table which was very organized and well-done—a delicacy in laidback, bar-style venues such as Lincoln Hall.
All in all, it was a great show. The set list spanned their entire musical career, opening with a track from their first album ever, Starfucker (2007), and by the end of the night they had dipped a toe into every official release in their discography. Some of the apparent crowd favorites included “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second,” “Golden Light,” and “Tape Machine.” The music was energetic, perfectly mixed, and just the right dose of nostalgia for a moody Tuesday night at the beginning of fall quarter.
The band played back-to-back nights at Lincoln Hall, but I was only in attendance for the first of the two shows. There is no doubt in my mind that they rocked it out to a packed house both nights, playing to new and old fans alike, spreading infectious love and all-around good vibes…generally doing what they do! STRFKR is clearly a monolithic name in their genre for a reason, and perhaps even a bucket list must-see. If you haven’t made it to one of their live shows yet, I would highly suggest that you do.
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.
Marketed as “summer’s last stand,” North Coast Music Festival was not only a celebration of the last rays of summer sun, but also of urban, tourist-free Chicago. From August 31 through September 2, Union Park was transformed into a lively stomping ground for downtown’s resident creatives and music lovers. Stages were filled with a good amount of local musicians, drawing crowds full of passionate listeners. Meanwhile, a curated lineup of artists created colorful installations with hip hop and street art themes.
But let’s not forget that nighttime performances were literal last stands against a never-ending mass of thunderclouds and pouring rain. Attendees missed out on two nights’ worth of heavy-hitting headlining acts. Despite an outstanding showing from those who did perform, the weekend’s exuberance took a heavy hit. However, a miraculous final day full of music brought both heat and proof of the city’s dedication to beating negativity with a good time.
Keep reading for my short notes on the sets I hung out at, and stay tuned for artist interview podcasts from Sonic Sanctuary’s Brennan White.
Iris Temple: My favorite of the day! The Chicago-based duo gave a gorgeous sunset performance, even though it was only seen by two rows of people. A romantic change of pace from the edgier acts. Picture perfect lighting on a small stage, and vibier synths and vocals.
Snails: The complete opposite of Iris Temple, which allowed me to get my trap fix for the weekend. Killer first half, but cut short by the storm. Lots of spirited steppers and aggressive head-bangers, which was to be expected.
Robert DeLong: A crazy person, in the absolute best way. He ran around onstage with a Wii remote, used to control three different electronic setups, followed by a bouncing head of platinum hair.
RL Grime: I saw him in May, before the release of his third album, NOVA, and was thrilled to hear the new set. It went above and beyond my expectations. Some drops fell a bit flat, but hearing the album live with an entire sea of people made up lost ground–and then some.
Cashmere Cat: Unconventional drops, glistening pops and quirky arrangements. A nice change of pace. He opted out of using visuals, adding emphasis on the music, and ended up being an impromptu headliner when gates once again closed early due to storms.
Maddy O’Neal: A female in electronic music! O’Neal’s chill beats and heavy, pared down bass lines were right on brand. Compare to artists like Manic Focus.
The Midnight: So sweet! So soulful! I sat down in the grass with some friends for this one, swaying and vibing out.
Mura Masa: Alex Crossan, the reserved, artistic Brit known as Mura Masa hung back with his instruments, playing everything perfectly and causing a storm of dancing bodies. Crossan was joined onstage by Fliss, who handled most of the vocals and provided a welcome contrast with her power and liveliness.
Jamiroquai: Returned to the city for the first time in over a decade, and frontman Jason Kay proclaimed he would pick up right where he left off. Such a confident and eccentric performer. Truly entertaining and classic.
Special mention for the silent disco, which provided a necessary break from main stages and was the most consistently packed area of the entire park. Featuring local DJs, it maintained an anything goes, basement concert vibe.
Although musician Ian Ruhala – better known as Hala – may be young, what he lacks in age he makes up for in experience. The 21-year-old has been playing and recording his own music from his bedroom since high school. His EP Young Alumni was released in 2015 after graduation and full-length Spoonfed soon followed, produced during his first semester of college. This summer, he recruited band members and embarked on a 16-date tour, co-headlining with fellow indie favorites BOYO.
I crossed paths with Hala at their last stop of tour in Cleveland, Ohio. The basement of a bowling alley called Mahall’s Twenty Lanes served perfectly as the venue, complimenting Hala’s vintage vibe. The specific corner of the basement in which they played was dubbed “The Locker Room,” presumably due to the row of old beige lockers placed behind the band.
Sporting a grey Tommy Hilfiger shirt and a shoulder fanny pack, Ruhala took a seat on one of the vintage bowling benches to discuss his sound, tour life, and balancing college with music.
Ruhala said of his music that although he gets lumped into the “bedroom pop” genre, he doesn’t like to restrict himself to just that.
“I don’t really know how I feel about that term [bedroom pop], but I do record in a bedroom,” Ruhala said. “I don’t know if it’s really poppy. It’s just like guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of recording at home, so lo-fi is sometimes attached – but I don’t know, I’m not purposefully trying to sound like shit.”
This tour being his longest and first time headlining in the U.S., Ruhala said that it has resulted in close friendships between the two bands – and surprisingly, a lot of nudity.
“Everybody gets naked, really,” Ruhala said. “We were in the car the other day and my guitarist was just playing his gameboy and then he felt the urge to get naked, so he stripped down.”
Other tour antics have included (sorta) trashing a hotel room.
“We kind of – not really – trashed a hotel room the other night, but we got really drunk and busted one of the beds,” Ruhala said. “It wasn’t like a Van Halen kind of trashing where things were actually destroyed; it was more like ‘sorry about this clean up that you gotta do.’”
However, Ruhala doesn’t always live such a lifestyle – he is also a college student, having graduated near the top of his high school class. A type A student in high school, he said that he has learned to relax in college and as a result, has been able to focus more on music.
“If you really wanna pursue music, in the moments that you have free you’ll find yourself gravitating toward your instrument and just playing it,” Ruhala said. “That could be at 2 a.m. after you study, it could be during the day, it could be playing a show. There’s always time.”
However, Ruhala said that instead of sitting down and trying to write a song, the songs tend to come to him.
“I’ll get a chord progression or I’ll have a sentence that could be a chorus line, and it kind of just happens. Usually it has to do with experiences and the song will find me. And sometimes you gotta do some weird stuff to find it,” Ruhala said. “You can’t write a song about heartbreak and not be heartbroken; you can’t write a song about drugs and alcohol without partaking in it. You don’t want to be a poser. And that’s what I’m big on, I just want to write songs that mean something to me and I don’t wanna write fluff, you know?”
Recording and production also play a large part in Ruhala’s creative process. Spoonfed was recorded entirely in an attic, which Ruhala said played an important role in the final product.
“I’ve done stuff in a studio with other bands, and I can just tell, when you bring an engineer in and pay them, most of the time they’re like ‘this isn’t my own stuff’ so they don’t really care,” Ruhala said. “I want to give [an album] the time that I think it deserves. I’m not too much of a studio wizard but I’m learning every time I do something, and I feel like if I’m happy with it, then that’s really all that matters.”
As the show approached, The Locker Room filled up with around 30 people. BOYO was on first, impressing the crowd with crisp guitar riffs and moody vocals from singer Robert Tilden. As they played, the band members of Hala placed themselves front and center, dancing wildly as a form of encouragement.
A few moments after BOYO’s set ended, Hala took over, and the members of BOYO replaced them in the crowd. Although suffering from a slight cold, Ruhala delivered great vocals and strummed his Epiphone Casino guitar with ease. Hala played six songs in total, contrasting “Problems” from his first EP with recent single “Keep on Loving” and of course, “What Is Love? Tell Me, Is It Easy?”. Midway through the set, Ruhala announced that his parents were in the crowd, having driven from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. This just added to the already present feeling that being at his show was like being welcomed into a tightly knit group of friends. It was just the right amount of laid-back and intimate, and one couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the faces of almost everyone as they watched Ian Ruhala and his friends play music.
As for what to expect from Hala’s future, there is another album in the works, hopefully to be released next summer. Ruhala said that it will be recorded with all new gear in a different bedroom, and he is looking to change his direction stylistically as well.
“I just want to genre-hop as much as I can. I want it to be the most confusing and incoherent string of songs, but I still want them to blend in some way,” Ruhala said. “I wrote a country song, a sludgy hip-hop song and then I’ve got some poppier songs and some guitar songs. So I just want it to be a mixed bag of pretty much everything because that’s what I’m listening to right now.”
And what exactly is Ruhala listening to right now? Twin Peaks, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, and Mason Ramsey (yep, the yodeling Walmart boy).
“I really appreciate [Mason Ramsey]. I don’t get why they’re recording him like they did on ‘Famous’ because if they were to record him in a way that was old school like he is, it would sound so cool,” Ruhala said. “I think probably when he’s like 20 and having a mental breakdown, he will make a fabulous record. And like, it will sound so sick.”
Well, if Ruhala’s prediction comes true and Ramsey does end up making that great record at 20, then I suppose they will have something in common.
From his verse in “LAND OF THE FREE” criticizing America’s current political climate by calling out the president, claiming “Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over,” to his collaboration with Jamaican Reggae artist Chronixx in “BABYLON,” in which the duo channels the pain of the murder of Freddie Grey and police brutality in America, rapping “Turn on to CNN, look at what I see again; It’s another black man, died at the white hand of justice,” Joey Bada$$ has established himself as an artist unafraid of representing the struggles in this country in his latest album ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$.
Joey’s use of his career and music as a platform to criticize America’s leadership and political trajectory rang clear in his performance at Concord Music Hall on May 23, during which Joey took a break to call Kanye out for his recent support of Trump. Taking moments like these to establish his own views and how they relate to his music is something that sets Joey Bada$$ apart from other rappers of his generation, and it’s part of why his fan base is so dedicated and passionate about his music, as made evident by his show in Chicago being sold out weeks before the performance.
Taking time out of his performance to pay tribute to his fans in the crowd who have been supporting his music career since his mixtape “1999” dropped in 2012, Joey emphasized his connection to longtime followers and his appreciation for the support they have shown him through the years. His gratitude was evident in his stellar performance, rapping mostly from his most recent album but also including much of his lesser known music like “95 Til Infinity” from his 2013 album Summer Knights. With a show filled with moments of connection with the audience and gratitude for his openers and DJ’s, Joey Bada$$ is an artist to look out for when it comes to using one’s status in the industry for constructive dialogue.