After his neck-breaking set at Electric Forest, I sat down with dubstep legend Funtcase. The U.K.-born producer and DJ has been in the dubstep scene since it’s underground inception. Funtcase rocks a ghastly graffiti mask and takes his crowd through a psychotic rage with nasty basses and electrifying energy. Learn more about how he got to where he is by reading our conversation below.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Vic: Hey, I’m here with James, a.k.a. Funtcase. So you’re from the U.K. correct?
F: Yeah, South U.K.
Vic: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got your start?
F: I’m from a little town called Bournemouth, it’s not really well-known by anyone, unless you’ve been on holiday there. It’s a nice really tiny beach town. I’ve lived there my whole life, I never moved away.
Vic: Still living there?
F: Yeah, all my friends and family are there, so it’s just home, you know? I could be moving to Chicago or New York or L.A. for my job, but I always felt like if I were to do a big tour, it wouldn’t feel like home. I feel like I’d be on a big holiday.
Home is when I smell the sh***y air in London, and the rain is going on. I get home to Bournemouth and see all the old people, and I’m like “ahhh, yes!”
Vic: So when and where did you start playing gigs?
F: It’s weird, cuz my whole teenage years, when I first discovered that I liked music over anything, my mom bought me my first drum kit when I was 14. I was playing drums for fun, at school, and I was in a band till I was 16. I had long hair and all of that.
Vic: What type of band?
F: Death metal bands, some thrash, and some hardcore bands. I was never into drum and bass or any electronic music. I was always like “Metal for life! I will never like anything else!” I was young.
My mom was a DJ, she DJ’s drum and bass, so I used to always hear it. There was one track I heard where I went “woah, this is actually kinda cool!” I heard that track and I had to find out what it was. Eventually I grew into a love for drum and bass and electronic music.
Vic: I actually see a lot of common ground between hardcore, metal, all the heavy genres of “rock”, and heavy electronic music, like dubstep, drum and bass, grime. That style is very similar in my mind, because it’s just about letting the rage out. Do you want to comment on that?
F: Yeah I agree. I mean, head-banging is kind of a new thing, but it definitely coincides with the mosh pit, which has been around for a few years now. It definitely has the same “vibe,” head-banging, fast-speed, all of that.
Vic: So I wanted to know what plugins are in your production arsenal. What helps give you your sound.
F: My main go-to plugins, cuz I use Cubase, are FabFilter for compression and EQing, and Waves for reverbs and delays. If someone says “put a delay on that”, boom! I go straight to Waves. I also use either Massive or Serum (synths) for my basses. I don’t use Serum as much as everyone else.
Vic: Really? I would think your basses were made in Serum.
F: No, mostly Massive. Any of my new sounds are a combination of the two. I’ve always just been comfortable in Massive, because I know what I’m doing. Serum, I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet. And that’s why a lot of my sounds are quite similar, they’re not the same. The same vibe, but not exactly the same, cuz I know what I want, and I have a general sound that I want people to recognize.
That’s the thing, everyone gets so shocked when I say that I use Massive. Everyone thinks that all the sounds in Massive have been done. I go “No, I use Massive.”
Vic: So can you tell me a little about your aesthetic on stage? How did your act evolve, and how did it get to how your show is presented now?
F: It’s weird, I was thinking about this the other day. When I started I was just doing head-nodding, making sure I’d do perfect mixes and double drops. Then it became a less about the mixing, and more about the entertainment. And that was just a natural evolution, that wasn’t me trying to keep up with EDM. That was me just actually doing that.
I realized that no one cared about the double drops anymore, they just care about a good drop in general. People don’t care, they just wanna go to a show and have a good time, and enjoy the music, rather than go “ooh that double drop was perfect!” The culture is less about the DJ and more about the entertainment now. So I naturally just followed that, I never ever tried to aim for that, but it always just happened.
I remember I used to just head nod when I was on stage, and trying to do those perfect mixes. But then for some reason, I just got more and more crazy over the years. I started jumping, and then I was doing this gun-finger sh*t, and then the claws happened. That wasn’t even from the beginning, it just happened mid-way through.
Vic: Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I got, I see Funtcase as having very “psycho” vibes.
F: F: It’s more “punked-up.” I mean there’s a certain psycho element to it. For pictures and whatnot, I try to be this mysterious, dark character.
Vic: What I see when I see you on stage is like a villain from a monster movie, you know? Like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger.
F: Yeah, you could associate the way I act, cuz I beat my chest on stage, say all this sh*t like “AWW F*CKIN’ HELL!” I treat that stage like I’m the f*cking god! And that really inspired the whole act. It’s almost like I’m summoning lightning.
Vic: I definitely love seeing you act out the bass with your hand movements and expressions.
F: Yeah, it’s weird, cuz I don’t know where that came from. I just did it. It’s almost like I’m orchestrating. You get conductors doing these movements [to the band], and I’m doing the same thing.
Vic: So let’s talk about the mask. How’d that come to be? Did you always wear it?
F: Nah, I was doing drum and bass for like 7 years before Funtcase, and I never had a mask. And then I got booked for my first Funtcase show in the second room of a club in my own hometown. I played to 5 of my friends and one random person, in the tiniest room on a table with the worst sound system. I was a bit nervous, cuz it was my first dubstep set.
A day before that show, I was booked for a festival to do graffiti (I was a graffiti artist as well), and it was a dress-up thing. So I was in a full costume, with the same mask I use now. [The next day] I thought I took everything out, but I left my mask in the bag. So when I pulled out my CD case, my friend saw the mask and said “ohhh! Wear that!” So I put it on and played, and it became a thing. It was such a sh*tty, low-budget suit, I don’t think people even knew what it was. But yeah, it was my friend’s fault.
Vic: Well I gotta say, I love the aesthetic. It really fits the music, and it portrays everything you’re doing on stage.
F: I’m glad I’ve got a mask! You always see perfect-looking artists, which appeals to people. I don’t have a face of music. Like, Calvin Harris is a good-looking muscly dude, Diplo is a good-looking muscly dude. Then you’ve got Valentino Khan, who’s got this redneck, handlebars mustache. You’ve got Borgore with this good-looking, but aggressive vibe. Everyone has their look, and then there’s me. I’m just some young, grey-head dude, haha! I don’t look like what my music portrays, so I’m thankful I have the mask. If I didn’t, what the f*ck would I look like? I’d have to put a hood up and die on stage!
Vic: So talk a little about how you got to the point where you can do this for a living.
F: I came in when dubstep was still completely unknown, but was starting to turn heads a bit. July 2009 was my first release called Gorilla Flex, and that was really off-key dubstep, but it did really well in the dubstep scene. Dubstep was so underground at that point.
It was when my good friend Chrissy Chris, who had a station on BBC Radio One, was playing a festival with an MC. And he started his set with my tune as the intro, and the crowd went f*cking apesh*t, they went nuts! It got two rewinds.
Vic: Rewinds? They played it back?
F: Yeah, we do rewinds in England; it’s our culture. It’s huge in England. If a drop is that good, and the crowd goes crazy, we rewind it and play it again, and the crowd loves it. You can’t do it in America, though! People are like “what the f*ck are you doing?! Why are you stopping the music?”
But yeah, from that point on, people were like “Yo! What is this music?” It was very energetic dubstep, which was really new in that scene. All the dubstep at that time was either really minimal, or it didn’t have that energy. The energy we have in dubstep now is so upbeat, and it was not always like that. It was slower, it was 140 [BPM] and everything was more about a powerful sub. At the beginning, it was all about sub, even the drums. And that’s the thing, it was about the power of the sub, rather than the energy of the tune.
That’s when I came in and brought my DnB sound into dubstep, and that’s what turned peoples’ heads. It was the moment when us energetic guys came into the scene. Dubstep was just the new thing in England, and I was lucky enough to be in the perfect moment in the scene to come up in the U.K.
Vic: So did this happen in London, somewhere else in the U.K.?
F: Dude, this was all over the place. My schedule in 2010 was beyond crazy! I think I did seven shows in one week. One show Thursday, two shows Friday, two shows Saturday, another show Sunday and another show Monday.
Vic: Wow! How’d you even pull that off?
F: Well this was in the U.K. It’s not like the States. You can get anywhere in 2-3 hours.
Vic: I mean in terms of energy, I wouldn’t even be able to hit play haha!
F: I wasn’t doing what I do now. I was head-nodding and just DJing, it wasn’t so crazy. If I do that now, I would be dead after two shows.
Vic: How do you compare the U.K. scene to the American scene today?
F: It’s hard to describe the U.K. The best way to think of it is they take it for granted. It’s like they don’t care about the superstar lifestyle, they don’t go crazy for DJs. They don’t ask for pictures that much. Compared to here [the States], it’s completely different. In the U.K. everyone is very chill, they go enjoy the music, and then they go home. No one head bangs, they just dance to themselves, and just enjoy it. They don’t cheer when a drop is good. And then they go home. It’s good, it’s all about the music and vibe. There’s no like “YO! Can I get a picture?? You’re the greatest!!”
In America, everyone considers DJs like these gods. People dedicate their lives to DJs.
Vic: You mentioned earlier that you kind of like that though. Becoming a god.
F: Oh yeah! I am so unbelievable grateful for America. The scene died so much in the U.K. and Europe. If there was no America, I’d probably be out of a job right now. There would be no Funtcase. If America did not exist, dubstep would’ve died in Europe, I would probably stop doing dubstep.
Vic: What scene do you think is dominating England right now?
F: House has been a thing lately, but I think dubstep is coming back. I played my first show in London, at a commercial club, it was 500 people, me and Doctor P. And the club was f*cking grand! Absolutely packed, and it was great. It was underground as f*ck, the ceiling was low, it was hot as f*ck, there was steam everywhere, people going mad. So dubstep is coming back, thank god!
Vic: I’m sure some weird sh*t goes down at your shows.
F: **Chuckles** Yeah!
Vic: Give me a story that pops into your head. Weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in the crowd.
F: I mean this is not really weird. I saw a guy in Holland in a wheelchair, and people were lifting him up; he was crowd-surfing in his wheelchair! The weirdest thing that’s happened to me was actually when I was 19 in a band. A girl threw ramen noodles at my head, and it turns out she won a competition and got a life-time supply of these noodles. I had said on Myspace (I think it was in those days) that I love Ramen noodles, so she threw some at me. So I was like, thanks!
Vic: Well that was a great conversation, any last words you have for WNUR or our listeners?
F: Just want to say thank you to everyone, I love everyone so much. Thank you for keeping me in this job!
This past weekend I got to meet the up and coming talent known as Big Wild after his booming set at Electric Forest. We chatted and conversed over his craft, how he creates the signature Big Wild sound, and what it means for him to play on stage. Big Wild is a part of Odesza’s Foreign Family Collective, and has shared the stage with the likes of Odesza and future-funk legend Griz. Jackson is currently working on new material that he hopes to have out soon. Be on the lookout! Read on for a full transcript of our conversation.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Vic: I’m here with Jackson, a.k.a. Big Wild. So tell me a little bit about where you’re from, how you got your base and your start.
BW: I’m from Massachusetts, and I started producing when I was about 13. I’m 26 now, so half my life has been about making music.
Vic: All electronic music?
BW: I actually started making hip-hop. I wanted to copy what I was hearing on the radio. I used to sell instrumentals throughout high school, that was my first little business. It was when I got into college when I started to pivot more towards electronic music, it was what was inspiring me at the time.
Vic: Where’d you go to college?
BW: I went to school in Boston, Northeastern.
Vic: Very cool! Lots of people making music around there. So did you play a lot of gigs in college, around Northeastern?
BW: I actually didn’t. I never played any shows growing up. I was always the kid behind the computer, making music, and that’s what I love to do. It wasn’t until I started meeting with an agent, who heard my music through Odesza, and getting shows that way. That’s when I realized that I needed to start improving this part of my career.
Vic: So you produced first, then started playing live.
BW: Totally, for like a while too. That’s how I first discovered and learned everything about music, through producing on the computer.
Vic: So I know you use keys and drums while playing on stage. I’m guessing you started playing instruments before you made electronic music.
BW: Well the only instrument I played before I made beats was trumpet. I played that for like 6 or 7 years.
Vic: Ok, jazz band?
BW: Yes, jazz band at school. I enjoyed trumpet, but I think one of the main reasons I ended up producing was because I felt like trumpet was kind of limiting. I had this one instrument and I could play one note at a time; and here I have this computer software where I can literally make an entire song, environment, or whatever just out of my head. It was so interesting to me, and it was kind of along the way that I started to learn keys as I produced. It wasn’t really until I started playing live that I picked up the drums. I was late in the game, I’m not a trained drummer or keyboardist, it’s just something I learned along the way.
Vic: Well you definitely have rhythm!
BW: I always wanted a drum set when I was a kid, but my parents said it was too loud. I feel like I have a natural sense of rhythm, and that definitely helps me with learning drums.
Vic: So this goes along with playing live. Some artists are known to play the same set at every show. What do you do to keep your sets fresh, new and exciting?
BW: I tap into whatever is inspiring me at the moment, and figure out how to put that in my sets. I ask “how can I draw more emotion out of this part? How can make this part feel more like a moment? How can I make this build a little more intense?” People sometime really want that drop to hit. A set, how I view it at least, is just tension and release, and there’s a million ways to do that. But as long as you have that formula in mind, you just have to play around with it, have fun.
It also helps to go around these festivals and hear what everyone else is doing. A large part of what I do, making it individually to me, is noting what I like and what I don’t from others, just listening. So it’s keeping it true to myself, not trying to hop on a trend. I just put myself into the show, by playing instruments, and make it feel like my music. It’s really just me.
Vic: So I actually found out about you through your remix of Griz’s For the Love. I actually play that on my radio show all the time, great track! How do you feel about taking a song and gaining exposure through a remix?
BW: I think it’s really cool, and I’ve done a couple remixes where I’ve ended up on tour with the artists I’ve remixed. That happened with Odesza and Griz. It was a really cool gateway into getting to know their fans, and what they’re into. It’s a test for me too, where it’s my own sound, but it’s also something their fanbase would like too.
Vic: Well you definitely flip the songs on their heads.
BW: Yeah! I flip it a lot. That’s what I find fun. It’s all about a challenge, I like a challenge.
I haven’t been doing as many remixes lately, because I’ve been focusing on my own music. But there’s something awesome about remixing and adding your own flavor to something that’s already out there.
Vic: So switching gears a little, what are your most used production plugins? What’s something every Big Wild song uses.
BW: Hmm, I like to use Arturia synths, they remodel a lot of vintage synthesizers, like Moogs, Prophet, and Jupiter. I like to use a lot of models of old synths from the 70’s and 80’s. I just love the sound, and integrating them with more modern sounds. I’m really big on bridging old and new, because I think they both have something really cool to offer. I really like Soundtoys as well.
Vic: I love those plugins too! What is the vocal manipulator called?
BW: Little AlterBoy! Yeah! I use this trick with AlterBoy where I put it on a piano track, and set the plugin to hard tuner, and it acts like an auto-tuner. It adds this chorusing effect, and makes your piano sound super distorted and old. It’s nice to throw a plugin used for vocals on a piano and see what happens, you know? Don’t look at a plugin as only being used for that one thing, because a lot of awesome sounds are made by breaking out of the box.
Vic: So if you weren’t making a living off of your music, what do you think you would be doing with your time?
BW: It’s tough to say, because I’ve been wanting to do music for so long, but I think I’d want to be doing something along the lines of environmental protection. Working to protect national parks from becoming privatized. I’d want to do something to help climate change, that’s something I really care about.
Vic: Did you study music in college?
BW: I studied music business, but I did a lot of music classes. I quickly found out that music business didn’t really interest me that much. I did a lot more traditional music classes, like training your ear. I tried to learn jazz piano and I was just experimenting with things.
I knew music on a very technical level, and I wanted to learn how people had been making music for hundreds of years.
Vic: So what’s the weirdest (or coolest) thing you’ve seen in one of your crowds?
BW: One time when I was on stage at Okechobee Music Fest, it was the first year they did it. I was on the beach stage, and it was the very first day. I don’t think the festival expected as many people to come as did, so my crowd was HUGE. So far back for a tiny little stage. There was no security at all, and people were climbing on stage, dancing, doing whatever they wanted. It got really rowdy.
So I was doing something on the drums, and I turn around to trigger something on my controller and I see this person out of the corner of my eye just standing very close to me. I was immediately like, “woah!” I had no idea he was there. You could tell he was on something, but he had a big smile on his face and put his arms out. So I hugged him and we had a little moment on stage, and then he peacefully walked off the stage.
Vic: Haha! That could have turned out a lot worst than it did.
BW: It could have, but it was a cool moment because there are plenty of instances where people get knocked out by security, and it was cool to see something happen where that wasn’t needed. It was just like “alright, you wanna hug me? Let’s hug. We’re cool!” It was a very peaceful way to do it.
Vic: So I didn’t see you have a computer or CDJs on stage, so I was really curious as to how you control your music on stage.
BW: I use Ableton, but I try and keep the computer out of sight. It’s on the side of my riser, just on a table. I have it there in case something goes wrong, but I don’t really look at it. I have an Ableton Push controller, and that’s what I trigger all my clips from.
Vic: That’s honestly a great way to do it. I was convinced you were playing without a laptop. I was trying to figure out how you were triggering everything, and I knew you had a controller, but it still made me wonder how you were pulling it off. It’s very cool since you don’t have a screen in front of you.
BW: That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do, I don’t like things to be between me and the crowd. A computer just really feels like a barrier for me. So try to put everything to the side, and I try and make my setup really open. There’s no table, it’s just me and my instruments.
Vic: Anything else you want to say?
BW: I’m working on new music. I’m singing a lot, and writing lyrics. I don’t know if it’s an album yet, but I’m making a bunch of demos and seeing where it goes.
Vic: What type of style should we expect?
BW: It’s similar in style to what I already do, but at the same time a bit of an evolution of my sound. I’m creating music that integrates vocals and makes you dance too. It’s not just instrumental. I’m really excited about it and it’s what is really inspiring me right now.
At Bonnaroo Music Festival 2017, we had the opportunity to speak with Spoken Word musician, activist, and teacher Malcolm London. Malcolm, a Chicago native, pushes to improve the education system and combat social divides that exist within the city. By the age of 20 he already participated in a TED talk, and he continues to raise awareness about the many issues that exist within the overarching educational and social system, as well as work to eradicate these problems. On a personal note, my interaction with Malcolm was one of the most insightful artists interviews I’ve been fortunate to take part in. His passion, demeanor, and the goals he makes, which extend far beyond himself, motivate others to take part in his efforts. Our interview is below:
Marc: So starting off, I was wondering if you could speak up about where you’re from, and how that’s influenced you as both an activist and an artist. Coming from the Chicago area.
Malcolm: Ya man, I’m from Chicago, the west side of it, and born and raised in the Austin neighborhood. I grew up there, and I often say I got my education on the bus from there. You know in a city like Chicago it’s uniquely segregated, to put it in a nice way. So, ya man I think most young people in the city, folks I’ve grown up with, if you live in a city like Chicago you either become defeated by how it exists, or you become extremely fortified in trying to overcome.
Marc: So proactive? I guess speaking from that I was thinking about the fact that it seems like a city of neighborhoods.
Malcolm: Ya, which is its beauty and its fault.
Marc: I was wondering, what tensions do you think within the education system at large are especially problematic?
Malcolm: At large, I think where we get our education, even beyond the complexities of race and gender and class. Even the idea that a classroom still looks the same way that it’s looked since the early 1900s, and it’s 2017. We have a computer in our pockets. So you don’t learn in school how to define yourself, or to love yourself, or even taxes for that matter. I feel like we get it wrong with education and the biggest thing is, what does it mean? Does it mean that we’re coming to this space to be better human beings, or are we coming to this space to be obedient taxpayers? Or obedient in whatever sense of the word. I think at large that’s the first mistake, that we have folks who control the educational system, and the curriculum, and the classrooms who don’t give a sh** about the people inside them.
Marc: And it just compounds. So I’d read that you had given a TED talk, when you were 20, which is very impressive. I’m 22 so I’m like, oh man, setting the bar [some good laughs], and it was spoken word. Can you talk a little bit about the motivation behind it and how that happened, as well as what you discussed?
Malcolm: Ya, I talked about generally what we are talking about. The education journey, in a four minute Snapchat, a snapshot poem. It was kind of crazy how that happened. I had written the poem, called high school training grounds, interrogating what really is education, particularly in Chicago. Where there is segregation, there is class, and by happenstance it was invited to be a TED talk. Since then I think, my motivation behind that poem is really just telling my own narrative. and I think as an artist and as a poet, especially in Chicago, which is home of Louder Than A Bomb a poetry festival that happens every year. The need and necessary work of telling stories is important, especially in the city of Chicago, where silos exist. So it’s like, how do we come together and show each other, each other, and also interrogate each other with love and critique each other with love? If you can’t have honest conversations you can’t start the dialogue. I think poetry does that, hopefully, and also music.
Marc: Speaking of poetry, I know you were the winner of 2011 Louder Than A Bomb, and now you do a lot with the poetry community at large. Can you talk about how you went from working within [the competition] to teaching within it?
Malcolm: So that’s a big shoutout to Kevin Coval, who runs that space. It was kind of seamless, and now at 24 I still consult and visit classrooms, and talk to young people at juvenile detention centers, etcetera. It’s a beautiful space.
Marc: That’s awesome. So this question has a little bit of a different context, but how do you think your failures have changed your perspective. Would you be comfortable discussing them and how they’ve helped you grow, and how you’ve worked through the trials and tribulations of growing up in that system, as well as being an artist and spoken word author?
Malcolm: Ya, I think failure is the best thing that we can learn from. Tangibly, statistically, I graduated with a 1.9 GPA, I graduated with two arrests under my belt before I became an activist. I think, that particular lens is indicative of, like, I always say living in a city like Chicago, there’s a me in every jail cell and every graveyard. This just means that every young person is f**ing amazing, but because of the existing statistics that exists, they won’t make it or be alive. But I think, by failure we learn from our mistakes, and how to not do the same sh**. So I think, for me, the biggest thing is being able to have a community of people who can also hold you accountable to the things you want to do, and hold you accountable to your potential. I think that’s also what we should do, for politicians and people in power, is hold them accountable for what they say, and be hopeful I guess.
Marc: Absolutely, and I was wondering if part of that was the result of being frustrated by your education, because you saw this system at large. Was it like “why do I even try”?
Malcolm: Ya ya, absolutely, any kid or student feels like that. Like what is the purpose of this? You know, I can tell you every person feels that way. Go to most American high schools right now, and you tell me a young person loves his environment? Unless they go to [private or independent] school or something. It’s hard to find that space. I think that’s less on the young person and more on the system in place. Teachers have it hard, there is a bureaucracy of leadership, and all of that effects.
Marc: What do you think would be a key factor, for anyone across racial lines anywhere in Chicago, to create some impactful change or help become a positive force within the system, and support what you advocate for?
Malcolm: I’m a proponent of, [chuckle] maybe I’m a cynic and a pessimist, but there are so many problems. So many complex, very, very, hard problems that I do not have all the answers to. But I will say that, if you hear anybody who figures out a way to solve a problem, a solution, by all means tell more people. I think that, you make a mistake by believing there needs to be new ideas. We put people on the moon, we can figure out how to solve racism and sexism, we just need more people involved to do it. It’s not necessarily more ideas, so get more involved. We live in a mass information age, so follow up. Love yourself, figure out what that looks like. There are so many different solutions, which is a beautiful part of humanity.
Marc: And with exactly what you were talking about, your message, it sounded like you started with Spoken Word. What’s it been like, while similar, transitioning to being a musician? How do you utilize your previous artistry and bring it into this new context. Do you think that has really helped to project your message to a lot of people?
Malcolm: I think it’s just a different platform. The fun part is as a creative person, figuring out how to make music and learning about bars and measures, which I wish I had in school. But it’s fun, honestly it’s fun, and that’s the direction I want to go right now. It’s honestly just, I’m the same person just doing a different thing. So, you know, all of my experiences influence that, and it’ll make for a unique listening experience. Just having fun with it.
Marc: Ya definitely. Alright I have a couple more questions. So I was wondering, you have this album that just came out?
Malcolm: Ya Opia, it came out in October of 2016. Ya, we’re here at Bonnaroo.
Marc: It’s about to go down, and I was wondering there were quite a few people that helped out on the album. You’ve got Donnie Trumpet, Niko, started off with Kids These Days. Then you had Vic, Chance.
Malcolm: Ya Chance definitely heard the tape but he’s not on it. But he’s here at the festival, so we’re about to link up.
Marc: Ya so it seems like there’s a big Chicago movement to try and generate this positivity.
Malcolm: No absolutely, I mean we all come from the same space. I continually try to respect and love Chance for keeping that energy. He’s the most famous guy in the country right now, and still we have that open mike. So I appreciate that. But ya Opia came out, and we’re here at Bonnaroo. I went on tour not too long ago, and the tour was great. Ya man, wherever whenever, this is great.
Marc: Hell ya, and what does the album name mean for you?
Malcolm: Ya so Opia, I’m a word nerd I found it. It’s like a lost word, but it means the intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel both invasive and vulnerable. So I was like, you know, I don’t want to make the best rap bravado tape, I just want to make something honest. So when people listen to my project, they feel like they’re looking me in the eyes. That’s what I hope to accomplish.
Marc: So you’re bringing something to light that may be uncomfortable and invasive for others.
Malcolm: Ya, you gotta open your eyes.
Marc: So my last question, is there anything that you would like to project to both our listeners and our readers for our editorial? For University students who have the potential to really push and be activists.
Malcolm: Absolutely, especially those that are newer to Chicago. I love Northwestern, I love its campus, and I love the students. Ya man, I think, go to Chicago is the first, literally to those students. There are so many things and misconceptions about Chicago, and about its people, and if you take that lesson with you everywhere in the world, and you’ll begin to learn things. Look out for how the city is growing, and hopefully be apart of that, is my personal advice. Other then that I mean ya man, my name’s Malcolm London, try to remember that. Hit me up. I love talking to people, I love building with folks!
This past memorial day weekend, the WNUR Media Team scurried over to Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, IL. The festival itself was Neverland; a tent city of over 20,000, buried in the forest and along park grounds. Stages featured music across genres, including jam bands, techno, and powwow. Over the course of three days, festival goers developed a rich informal economy and community dynamic. The weekend was filled with craftspeople, many of whom sold, traded, or bartered their wares. Beyond these informal creatives, the stage acts were equally captivating.
Our team had the privilege of interviewing the lead singer, Bassel, of Bassel and the Supernaturals. Bassel, a first generation Syrian American, engages and raises awareness for the Syrian refugee crisis. As an activist, spokesperson, and artist, Bassel plays an important role in creating a dialogue about the problems facing Syrians, both within and outside of the states. This interview provides a lens for his message, which is also highlighted in the band’s 2017 album, Elements. The group gave an outstanding performance at SCAMP, and successfully conveyed their mission. The ensemble directly contributes to The Karam Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing a better future for Syria. Donations are accepted here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Marc: Alright great! So first can you tell us a little about yourself and your band. Where are you guys from?
Bassel: Yes, we’re Bassel and the Supernaturals. I’m Bassel Almadani, and we’re based in Chicago. We’re a 7 piece neo-soul funk ensemble. I’m first generation Syrian American, and we are all some really funky dudes, and we’re at Summer Camp today.
Marc: Thats awesome. How did you meet the members of your band, and are they also Syrian American?
Bassel: They are not Syrian American, but a lot of them are connected to this issue in some way or another. We met through the music scene. I went to Chicago 7 years ago as a songwriter, and been in Chicago performing, getting out there, touring, meeting artists pretty consistently… and met my drummer through Loyola music scene. I met my guitarist through the DePaul scene, and that sort of expanded and I met a lot of musicians between both those schools and my whole funk network just kind of rapidly expanded from there.
Marc: That’s great, so the collegiate scene had a pretty large impact in meeting different artists, and getting out there, at least in Chicago?
Bassel: From the get go, from the get go forsure. And then as I started playing out more often, I really became apart of the soul funk family in Chicago, which is very closely knit. Whether it’s band mates that play in other soul and funk projects, or we all work with each other and sort of become a big collaborative network.
Marc: That’s awesome, and you mentioned there’s a full length album that was recently released in 2017 called Elements? Can you describe your process and some of the trials and tribulations of creating the album, the nature of it, how has it been?
Bassel: We released the album in February, so earlier this year, and it’s full length is Elements, and it was over 2 years in the making. It started tracking in february of 2015. There’s a lot of layers to it, there’s a lot of musicians involved, well beyond our rhythm section, we had a full piece horn section, auxillary percussion, backup vocals, strings, and woodwinds. We really went in and added a lot of textures on to this album. Then earlier this, I guess last year, a little over a year ago, our bassist on the album passed away, like really unexpectedly. He was from the DePaul music scene and was an unbelievably funky dude. And that just kinda put a pause on things as we recalibrated, and we really dug in, and made sure this album sounded as good as it could possibly be, to do diligence to his amazing talent. So we finally released the album in february, and did a pre-order campaign behind the album; donated 3,000 dollars to the Karam Foundation for humanitarian aid in Syria. So ya we had this whole crowd funding campaign going on in December, and we did the donation and then essentially released the album in february, and then hit the road in march. We did a handful of tour dates, we went to South By Southwest, and it’s just been really picking up speed since then.
Marc: So it sounds like the album has been very politically impactful, actually receiving help from donations for the Syrian refugee crisis, and sonically it sounds very interesting. What do you think the message of the album has really been about in general? Contextually what do you talk about within it, motivations of it?
Bassel: Ya well the concept of Elements, there’s a literal component to it, where there’s references to Water and Fire and Earth and the all connect to stories that also relate to these elements. But what brings it all together is that natural order of the world and being above and beyond something that is within our control. Which I believe is a fundamental learning, as it relates to Syria. There are some things that we cannot control related to this, but we have to adapt, and we can’t ignore this crisis that is happening in our backyard, that has been affecting my family members. Even though it does seem beyond anything that one person can have a huge impact on, we have to adapt and we have to stay noisey around this issue and stay connected to this, in a deep way. So ya it definitely relates to Syria in that way, but it also above and beyond that, the circumstance with our Bassist, or just all the obstacles that we’ve experienced in the making of this record.
Marc: You said NOISEY, and actually, I heard you were premiered on NOISEY as well as VICE, and a number of other news outlets. So I’m wondering what is the role that the news and media, and Universities as well, from what it sounds like, what roles have they played in the dissemination of your message?
Bassel: Well last year in particular it played a much bigger role. One thing I didn’t mention after the album was released and we went to South by Southwest, the showcase that we were involved with at South by Southwest was called Contraband, and it featured artists from the countries targeted by the immigration ban. So we represented Syria as part of that showcase. So that led to a lot of national press. We had writers following us for a few days, Al Jazeera… they were coming out of the woodwork, which was really beautiful to see. I’ve been out there talking about Syria for over 6 years because I’m very personally connected to this issue, and I think a lot of people were nervous to get near it, or didn’t want to get political. Even though all these innocent people are dragged into the middle of this issue, and the way that their lives have all been affected, it felt like this political issue that people didn’t want to get near. So it took a lot of connecting with people, getting to know people, and creating collaborations from a trusting place. Not coming in with some message of how people should think. So I think once the election came, and that issue came home, and we had the refugee ban that came to place, I think people felt a need, an urgency, to become connected to this issue, and to make a positive impact. So I think at that point is when something like this showcase at South by Southwest opened up for us as this opportunity, to have this voice on a national platform, and to know that people are hearing and caring about it. So that was, that was really beautiful, and I feel like, particularly since the election, finding people who are more connected to this issue, more student organizations that are seeking us out for performances or speakers, or Q and A engagements, cultural centers and churches, a lot of people that feel like they’ve been sitting around too long and need to act now.
Marc: Yes, that actually leads me perfectly to my last question. Obviously we are a student, University, and community funded radio station. What is the best way for listeners, and people just generalized, to move forward and make an impact on this problem, this crisis? What do you think is the most direct way?
Bassel: I think more than anything, finding a way to stay connected, through experiences like this. I don’t know if, have you guys met a Syrian person before? I always like to ask that…
(Our Media Team shook our heads no)
Bassel: Yes, so I think a lot of times people that I’ve talked to haven’t met a Syrian person, so it feels like an issue that’s super far away. Now when you hear about things in the news, or you hear about a charity organization, you can make a personal connection to that, and it’s a very significant impact. So I think just staying connected to it, and you know being able to personalize that, is a really important step. Engage and go to festivals, you know whatever it is. But above and beyond that there are some amazing organizations in the US that are doing fantastic work, and some right in our backyard. There’s one close to Chicago, in Evanston, called Karam foundation. That’s where we’ve donated a lot of the proceeds from our pre-order and we’re working to consistently donate proceeds from our merchandise, it goes to Karam foundation. Their whole mission centers around building a better future for Syria by empowering children and families, getting them back into schools, providing them with care, transportation to get them to these schools, helping them get back on their feet so they can steer their own futures.
Marc: So it’s a very direct, tangible way to impact.
Bassel: Yes, and there are others, there’s a few other organizations right here in the US. There’s the Syrian American Medical Society, Syrian American Council, and then there’s a lot of others that are doing amazing work, whether it’s for refugees in the states, for refugees right on the border between Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, or refugees inside of syria, that are doing policy work and advocacy. I think just identifying the way that you want to help and seeking out the organizations that are doing that work to really compound the effectiveness of the work they’re doing.
Marc: Ya, we’re all excited to one, see your show at 4 PM, and two, hopefully help spread your message.
Bassel: Thank you brotha, hope it doesn’t stay too muddy!
Earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of the NU administrative team and Weinberg Senior Andrew Kaplowitz, Cuban rap duo Obsesíon was able to make it to Northwestern’s campus on a travel visa. The group discussed the nature of their work at a WNUR Streetbeat weekly meeting.
The student DJs learned firsthand about the impact that the group’s socially conscious hip-hop has had in their native country, as well as the trials and tribulations of their endeavors. Alexey, one half of the urban duo, sat after the presentation and indulged us with a personal interview.
Alexey: My name is Alexey or “el tipo este” [that guy over there]. I am a part of the hip hop group Obsesión. My partner is Magia. We are from Cuba, “cubanisimo” [we are very Cuban]. In June, we will complete our twenty-first year as a group – something that makes us very proud. More so than the videos or special productions, just being together for so long is what’s most important.
Our group was created as a result of the hip hop from the late-80s and 90s. At the same time, we have learned a lot from underground libraries, from books where we could read about things that weren’t necessarily taught in school. Also, from the people – those that are in the know or who were there.
Our biggest influences, are the rapper, from Puerto Rico, Vico C who broke the “taboo” that if you do salsa, you had to sing in Spanish and if you do rap, it had to be in English. He started to break out and many people in Cuba started to realized – “I am going to do this because this guy did it.”
And there are the classics: RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy.
Marc: Can you speak a little more about these underground libraries?
Alexey: Yeah sure, it’s simple… It’s strange, it’s strange. I started to become interested in the history of my country starting from a book like, for example, the autobiography of Malcolm X.
People say “Why do you have to read an American book to understand Cuba?” And it’s because I felt similarities with my history, and similarities that don’t exist in our schooling system, it’s a good system, but there are many information gaps. You have to search for that outside information.
I feel the black children in Cuba grow up with low self esteem or feel marginalized because there aren’t, the history they learn, the patterns to follow or people to look up to – there aren’t many. And the media doesn’t help any either. There, they offer information like in the telenovelas — the soap operas in Cuba are what people see the most, they’re classic — black people don’t have roles or if they do they’re playing infamous roles or slaves — which is part of the history, yes, but look, we have done so much otherwise.
I have a daughter, she’s three years old, and we say there needs to be an equilibrium between what she learns in school and this. I have a responsibility for her self esteem and to support her situation.
There are many people, academics and intellectuals that have demonstrated an interest in hip hop. But you see, academic discourses exist at a very high, conceptual level, that in Cuba is very far away from what is happening in reality. So the hip hop movement does a lot to bring together those ideas and we learn from their point of view as well. This type of interaction has benefited us both.
Marc: what is the difference between an artist in Cuba vs, for example, if you were in a capitalist country…?
Alexey: Well, I think I can speak more of the similarities than the differences. In the sense that, if you lose passion, you’re out. You have to have a mindset of sacrifice – if you think that ‘tomorrow I am going to triumph’, then you have to put in the effort to do so. It’s a career that requires more constant effort than any other.
I think that you have to have a greater purpose. Say someone does it with the dream of being successful, in other careers, you can do that, but with this, you have to have it in your head that hip hop is not a genre if you want to be in magazines, or be mentioned a lot, this level of success is in other sectors.
In both places, sacrifice is sacrifice. You have to be focused in what you want to be and make it happen. This is why I can talk more about the similarities. The differences are contextual, but in the end, passion applies no matter what.
Marc: What has been the most impactful thing you feel you’ve done through your music?
Alexey: Show the people, we are beautiful the way we are. That we have a very beautiful history. We have a marvelous culture. That you don’t have to fit into any model the standards teach us. That is you want to express yourself a certain way or shout then that is good because that is who we are. We have to be proud for how we are.
We have a song called “Los Pelos” [the hairs]. It talks about how our hair is pretty the way it is. Cuban women would straighten their hair or change it to be pretty. And this song came out, and many people, many women started wearing their hair natural, “super afro” and this made me very proud.
Marc: Do you have a message you’d like to bring to the States and to your listeners here?
Alexey: Be careful with the media. It’s horrible. Including, be careful with things that called themselves modernization or civilization, and new technology – because that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in being human.
I’ve heard the words here a lot, acceptance and tolerance, I think, what is more valuable is respect. I don’t hope that you accept me for entering this place, “I can tolerate you”, I think that it is more valuable to respect me, you have to respect me, in the same way I have to respect you.
Respect implies many things, a level of thought that allows you to see diversity as a goal. In this way, I will be a person, when I have your respect.
I’m glad you’ve asked me these questions, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Normally people ask me things like “What is rap to you” but not as many questions that make me look within and ask myself serious questions.
Marc: Do you want to give a shout out to other Cuban artists, with a positive message like yourselves?
Alexey: Ooh, with positive messages…. La Reina y La Real, El Padrino, [old school artists]. It’s great because there are many artists taking off that are great. El Lagarto, he’s very good. El Mesiga – lots of good people. There you have it.
Maxime Usdin and Marc Chicoine of WNUR Streetbeat had the pleasure of chatting with Ben Swardlick and Eric Luttrell, the San Francisco duo behind The M Machine! They discussed their beginnings, joining the label OWSLA, and the release of the new album GLARE. Check the interview out here!
Silke Eberhard is a Berlin-based Alto Saxophonist, clarinetist and composer. Her work simultaneously explores both tradition and progression through projects of original composition and study. Her most recent album, recorded with the I Am Three trio, reimagines the work of Charles Mingus in a bass-less, sax-trumpet-drums trio setting. Eberhard is in Chicago for the second annual Exposure music series at Elastic Arts in Logan Square. The series aims to bring a internationally recognized improvisor, like Eberhard, into the Chicago music scene for a series of workshops, rehearsals and performances. Silke and Paul Giallorenzo of Elastic Arts were kind enough to stop by the “J-Word” this week to talk about the series and the music. Hear the full interview below:
Brock: Thank you so much for coming in, thank you so much for playing, I wanted to start out with asking you about your relationship with Chicago, and the musicians who you will be playing with the next few evenings. How did that collaboration between these Chicago musicians begin?
Silke: The first time I came to Chicago, I think it was 2013, was for the Umbrella Festival and I played in a quartet with Mike Reed, Jason Adasiewicz and Jason Roebke. That was my first real encounter with the musicians, but of course I always looked at Chicago scene and really enjoyed what they do and felt a very strong connection. So I’m really happy to be here now and have that relationship flourishing.
Leo: I’m interested even, if you could talk more about Berlin. Because the city also has such a flourishing experimental music/improvisation scene, of a different nature artistically and stylistically than Chicago. So I’m wondering, for someone like you who is back and forth in conversation with both scenes, what do you see as interesting qualities that bring you to Chicago or why do you think people from Chicago want to go to Berlin?
Silke: This is not an easy question, I have the feeling there are some people in Berlin who like to play jazz, but also improvised music. Of course some people like to separate and do only one thing, but there is a large pool of people who like to do both, and I can see the same thing in Chicago. People play improvised music, but it is also very rooted in jazz, none of us are afraid to swing also!
Brock: Swinging is always good haha, who, if anyone, were you influenced by when you first started playing, either the clarinet or the saxophone? I find it very interesting that you have some records which fall on the much more free-improv side of the spectrum, and also records like the I Am Three record focused on what would be considered more traditional in the jazz canon.
Silke: I started on clarinet when I was a child, playing Bavarian folk music, so it was a long way to get to jazz from there. I don’t know, I love all those old jazz recordings and I want to dive into them and study them. I also like to play tunes, not only my own, but also those of other people and especially my heroes. It was always my goal to rearrange them, not to make a copy, but to make my own out of the tune, and in turn that process has influenced my own music writing.
Brock: It’s interesting you started with the Bavarian folk, because in a way, jazz is an American folk tradition. And in a way, that to approach the music from the tunes and a rearranging concept is a more folk approach to the genre. In particular, on the Mingus record, what drew you to play those Mingus tunes in a trio setting, and what were the challenges you faced adapting those orchestrations to a small ensemble?
Silke: Nikolaus Neuser, the trumpet player, had the idea to do a jam session and play some Mingus tunes wondering how they would sound without bass and piano? We discovered “ah yes,” because those melodies, even the chords are so strong, that everyone in the group could always hear them and play off of them. So we said let’s do this and play the skeletons of the compositions. We don’t think so much about “I am playing my solo now” we really try to do a collective thing all of the time. Every one of us knows all of the voices, mostly the bass notes and the melodies, so we can constantly exchange and switch parts throughout.
Brock: I think you can definitely hear that, especially if you are a big Mingus fan like myself, how each of you are able to bring in these recognizable parts of the tunes at various moments in the songs. So these references are constantly popping up, that if you’ve heard the tunes before, you are probably hearing anyway.
Leo: So you played a short solo set last night, and then you have trio and quartet on Thursday and octet on Friday. You’re covering the the range of ensemble sizes, growing as the week goes on. Was that the plan, or even more broadly, how are approaching the different groups?
Silke: The octet will rehearse, and I have written and brought some music specifically for that group. The smaller groups will be improvised.
Leo: From your experience as an improvisor, what’s the difference between playing in those different groups and playing solo as well? How does your mindset change as a performer, especially with some of these musicians you have never played with before?
Silke: Of course, I’ve played with Fred Longberg-Holm once and with Mike Reed several times, but the set ups are so new, and for instance I’ve never played with Dave Rempis and I’m looking forward to meeting my saxophone colleague. But, you know what, I don’t know what will happen and that’s cool.
We are now happy to be joined by Paul Giallorenzo from Elastic Arts, what is the Exposure series?
Paul: This is actually the second annual iteration of the series. Last year we had Tony Malaby, a great saxophone player from New York. He was in town and we had a similar arrangement of a workshop, rehearsals and two performances. We made this an annual program at least partially to kind of do something a little bigger and more special than our usual programming, which consists of about 3-5 concerts or arts events per week. That works out to about 200 performances or events every year, so we wanted to try to put something together that was a little different, a little higher profile and maybe more special than the usual local-centric weekly programming. The idea for Exposure came about with the intention of bringing someone both significant in stature musically and professionally from outside of Chicago, to come here, not only to give audiences a chance to see and hear them, but also to give local musicians an opportunity to work with this person. In that we are trying to facilitate communication about different types of practicing, different modes of rehearsing, composing and improvising, so there can be a mutual exchange of ideas and influences. Last year was very successful and this year has also been really great so far and we are looking forward to the concerts.
Leo: Thank you so much for putting together this great event, and thank you to Silke for both traveling across the Atlantic and making your way up to Evanston.
Silke: Thank you for having us.
Look out for Silke’s new record out on Intakt records in June featuring her trio and a collection of original compositions.
Guitarist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Kurt Rosenwinkel is among the most celebrated jazz musicians in the music’s contemporary era. It is not hard to find fragments of his distinctive melodic vocabulary and songwriting – they permeate the slick modern jazz coming from a younger generation of artists in Los Angeles and New York City (people like Kamasi Washington, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Julian Lage). Kurt has performed and recorded in various configurations: with his Standards Trio, Quartet, Quintet, the Portuguese big band OJM, and has also appeared on over 70 albums as a sideman. His March 10th, 2017 release Caipi (Sunnyside) features Rosenwinkel on guitar, bass, piano, drums, synths, and vocals and the guest work of Pedro Martins, Mark Turner, Amanda Brecker, and Eric Clapton, among others. You can catch Kurt and the Caipi band during their run at the Jazz Showcase from Thursday, March 30th to Sunday, April 2nd.
L: This project is your total brainchild. You’ve been working on it for years and it goes in a slightly different direction stylistically. What musical or life experiences inspired Caipi?
K: I guess around about ten years ago, the first couple songs came out and just kind of came through me. I didn’t really feel like I wrote anything. I saw these songs and noticed that they had some Brazillian aspect to them, and I thought, ‘oh that’s interesting, I wonder where that’s coming from.” I was in Brazil a few times, had some great times there, and I loved the music of Milton Nascimento. I think when you have a very important time in your life and there’s music that goes along with it, it becomes part of the fabric of your memory. As an artist, when songs come out and are an expression of feelings or memories that you’ve had, the music that’s part of those memories comes out in a way as well. My best guess as to where this music came from is memories of love or lost love and different aspects of life wrapped up in a lot of different music that are part of me. And this came out as Caipi.
I started to realize that all these songs were related. I would just record them in my studio as the years went by. During the year, a lot of travelling and touring. When I’m home, if I can get into a creative space in my studio, then I’ll work on these things that come through, you know, through the years. And these songs were one genre within my musical world that I kept working on, and they eventually became this album
L: I’m wondering if you could speak to the sonics of this record. There are real clear “Kurt” elements that come through but on the other hand it sounds very different from any other of your albums. Were there particular sonic inspirations from Brazil that you drew on while making this album?
K: There are also a lot of rock influences on this album. I’ve always loved rock music and British rock. And obviously there’s my jazz and personal composing style, and that language goes into it. But one of the things that was important for the album was the mixing that we did in London with a great producer and friend of mine named Paul Stacey. He is an incredible producer and guitarist. He’s produced the Black Crowes and was working with Oasis – he’s deep in the British rock scene and his musical tastes are wide ranging, as all of ours are. So part of the sound of Caipi are his sonics. And we were able to mix the album with a good amount of time, which was necessary to get it to sound like that.
B: What was your experience of playing the instruments and parts separately, of overdubbing and elongating the approach to recording and making a record?
K: I did it all on my own, in my studio in Berlin. And then I did a couple overdub sessions in New York with Mark Turner and Amanda and Pedro. I’ve always worked on music track-by-track, since the early eighties. I’ve always been doing that, as well as recording live in the studio with a band. Working on this music it was really a matter of enjoying the process, thinking of what the music needed and imagining it in my mind, and then doing it. I have a bass lying around, so I’ll record some bass. I’ll record some piano. Just doing everything that I can, and then the things that I can’t do I would call different people. To play french horn or violin or saxophone or acoustic bass.
L: Historically, the “live” aspect is such a vital and defining part of making jazz records, and the emphasis is on capturing the interaction between musicians in real time. How did this more insular style of making a record affect your creative process in terms of composing and performing the parts, and then translating the project into a live setting?
K: Yeah, there’s a lot in there. Jazz has so much to do with the interaction moment-to-moment and the chemistry of the band. I certainly would do that if I were making a jazz record. This is something different in the sense that it’s music that is formulated in my imagination and I know exactly how it should be. So my only job is to manifest it. In that sense, I can take care of each moment in the music to make it exactly how I hear it in my head. Yeah, it’s different. But the way that I hear things, it does sound like a group playing because that’s the way it sounds in my head. If I’m playing all the parts then I know how each moment of the music feels. So if I reacted on the drums to a certain moment then at that same moment I can react on the bass or guitar. Then the music has the feeling of that moment in all these parts and they are all together.
It was interesting to bring [Caipi] to a live situation, and I wondered if it might be difficult. I made a record in 2002 called Heartcore, and this was also an album that I did everything by myself at home. And when I formed a band to play that it was very difficult. But this time around, it was a very magical and karmic transformation from the recording process and that very solitary existence of making it. It translated into this group of people, we all came together in Berlin and it was kind of instant magic – chemistry between everyone in the band. From that moment on Caipi has lived in the real world, which is fascinating for me. It’s such an incredible feeling to play this music live and to hear it and play it for people because this has all just been lived in my semi-private world for the past ten years. It’s incredible to me how easy it was to translate it into a live thing. The band that I have is amazing; we’re on the road and having a great time doing our world tour. It feels very karmic.
L: The Caipi band features Pedro Martins on guitar & voice, Olivia Trummer on piano & voice, Frederico Heliodoro on bass & voice, Antonio Loureiro on percussions & voice, and Bill Campbell on drums. Can you talk about these musicians and why you chose them to help you transform Caipi into a live setting?
K: Well Olivia is from Berlin. We met in the Berlin music scene, at jam sessions. I played on her record and she’s a fantastic pianist and also a vocalist, so when I thought about the piano chair I thought about her. Bill Campbell is a drummer who I met through pianist Barney McAll. When I heard him playing it was love at first snare (laughs). I didn’t actually play with him until I flew him to Berlin and we all starting playing together and it was perfect. I just knew he would be perfect for Caipi because he has this groove, this feel and pocket that fits exactly what the sound is, it’s very unique.
Pedro Martins I met when I was president of a jury at the Montreux Jazz Festival. They have a guitar competition there. Two years ago, Pedro was one of the contestants and he was amazing. He won hands down and what he won was a mentorship. We got to know each other over this five-day period and after that we became very good friends. I already had the mixing date set when I met him but I just asked him to do a whole bunch of stuff at the very last minute for Caipi. And he kept hitting it out of the park. Everything I asked him to do he came back with the most amazing stuff.
Another thing that he won through the competition was a recording sponsored by the Montreux Academy. I produced this recording session and it was there that I met Frederico and Antonio. All three of those musicians are from Brazil, from different cities. When I wanted to put the band together I immediately thought of them because they are so fantastic.
Standing central amidst his musical collaborators of over fifteen years, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon bobs and weaves like a boxer in the ring. His fluid virtuosity and effortless command over the instrument shine through in flurries of melody and quick, rhythmic jabs. This past weekend, Zenon brought his longtime quartet, featuring Luis Perdomo on Piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Henry Cole on drums, to the Jazz Showcase in support of their newest release, Típico (2017). The album is an homage to the comradery that this group has developed over the course of almost two decades working together. Zenon, who prefers a conceptual and researched approach to writing music, constructed pieces to accentuate the strengths of each band member, and his measured style yielded exceptional results.
Zenon’s quartet represents modern jazz in its most thorough and refined form. There are no music stands, elaborate cues, or momentary hesitations. There is quiet confidence and trust in every beat, but there is also slight rigidity to the music, and that lack of uncertainty and risk-taking prevented me from becoming fully enveloped in its performance on Thursday evening. Even so, Cole’s shrouded swing feel and talent for bridging rhythm and melody on the drum set, Glawischnig’s firmness and ability to find and fill the music’s open crevices, and Perdomo’s virtuosic and blues–inflected modern jazz harmony synthesize the perfect backdrop for Zenon’s unique musical vision.
The night’s most special moment came during a duet performance between Zenon and Perdomo. The two played a beautiful, wistful introduction to “Las Ramas,” bringing the room to a complete standstill. I was particularly struck by the way the two interwove melodic fragments and seemingly merged into a single performer. The jazz world would surely benefit from a duo recording from these two.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Miguel and pick his brain about Típico, the value of longtime musical collaborations, and his approach to composition and role in jazz education.
We are now very happy to welcome the wonderful saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Miguel Zenon to the “J Word.”
L: Miguel – welcome to the show.
M: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on this morning.
L: So, this quartet you are playing with at the Jazz Showcase, the same group on your new record Típico, are some of your longest musical collaborators. You four have been playing together for over fifteen years. I’m wondering how the musical vernacular of the group has changed throughout that time period?
M: Well we started playing in 1999 or 2000, and at first we were getting together basically to try out things I had written and, you know, just in a casual jam session format kind of thing. Eventually we got enough tunes that we decided to get some gigs and then eventually put some of that music on record. So, at the beginning it was more about getting together with friends and people who’s playing styles I liked, and trying this music out, eventually, once we started making records and touring it became more about us getting used to the idea of being a band. By that I mean, getting used to interacting together and learning about each other in terms of their musical personalities and focusing on music that would bring that to the forefront. In a lot of ways this new record is a showcase for that attention and learning, but a lot of the music I’ve written through the years, having been playing with these people for so long, also comes from that perspective.
L: Yeah, so this record Típico is a tribute to many of the things you’ve been talking about, being in a band with people you are friends with and that you actually like. I’m interested to hear your approach to writing the music, as it pertained to bringing out the strength of different members of the band?
M: In terms of thinking about the strengths of the different players in the band, I definitely felt from the get-go was looking to write music for specific personalities. Especially when thinking about the idea of rhythm and what that means, and a specific way of feeling rhythm. I was trying to find musicians who were like-minded, who would have a deep understanding with the music of Latin America, who could already feel that rhythmic sense intuitively, so that when we dove into that zone, I didn’t really have to explain things for them. Of course, I’m also thinking about their individual personalities and the things they bring to the plane. After playing for so long, I’ve gotten an idea of what each of them can do comfortably, and with the band being in some sense a vehicle for my own compositions, I’m trying to use them as the platform for that, but also give them space to be who they are. I think for me that is the key about this all. When I started writing music, I never really thought about it from the perspective of having my own band or anything, it was more that I just needed a platform to try out some ideas. Eventually when I found that platform, it made sense to keep that the same and compose music on that constant platform.
B: I think you can definitely hear that on this record, and how that platform allows the music to speak. Listening I was struck by the compositions, the complexity of the compositions, but also the space allowed for each individual performer. I wanted to ask what you would say the process behind a Miguel Zenon record entails? I’ve noticed listening to your discography over the years that each one seems to explore a different topic or a different style or theme. It seems like there is an aspect of research that goes into many of records, could you speak to that?
M: Speaking about the records themselves and the way I approach the thematic material on each record, I do think about them as independent projects. A lot of them, especially the ones where I’ve delved more deeply into a musical idea or theme, like some of the music from Puerto Rico etc. they have been sort of like research projects. I’ve gone deep into one theme and explored that and ran out certain elements that I then used to write music. Típico was a little different because I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it on a grander conceptual scheme, I was thinking about going back to focusing on the sound of the quartet and music for us. When we make records usually the process is pretty similar, it always starts with the four of us building the foundation for the music itself, and playing the music a lot in rehearsal and live before going into the studio. We like to make sure the music is flowing well before we press record and that was certainly the case for this record, we laid down the whole thing in maybe like a day and a half. And then we take it on tour, and usually at some point on the road we will start writing new things and starting the cycle again.
M: For a while now, ever since Alma Adentro, I’ve been looking for a unique look that identifies our recordings and I’ve kind of fallen in love with this vintage photography that deals with the idea of Puerto Rico. For this recording specifically, I was looking for something that was musical, connected to Puerto Rico, and connected to an older, more folkloric idea of what music is. This picture jumped out at me because it had all those qualities, but also it had four individuals in the picture, connecting to the quartet. Reflecting on what típico means to me, growing up in Puerto Rico, usually when someone says típico or musica típica, they are referring to something that you can identify to a very specific group of people or musicians. In this case I was thinking about the music as being something that I identified with, so when I say típico, I’m thinking about music connected to us, the quartet. And the cover to me exemplifies that.
B: Another track on the record “Academia,” referring to school and perhaps your own experience as an educator, you’re at the NEC correct?
M: Yeah, I’m a teacher at the New England Conservatory. I’ve been teaching there for about five years now and one of the things that I really like about the program is that it’s very loose and wide open in terms of how you put the curriculums together for the students. I mostly teach private lessons, and because it’s not exclusively focused on saxophonists, I have to come up with a specific curriculum for each student. A lot of the time I end up coming up with specific exercises, or short compositional ideas for them to work through during the semester. Many times those ideas find their way into my other compositions, fitting them together using the same creative process. And so “Academia” kind of built on that, using some the compositional ideas from time with my students and writing them into a composition.
L: That track in particular speaks to the previous two things you were saying. You are interested in tradition, whether jazz or Puerto Rican, but your music is also very modern sounding and forward looking. And maybe this is also because you spend so much time around young students, but I’m wondering how you think about balancing that interest in tradition and doing something really new and modern at the same time?
M: That has sort of always been the kind of balance I have been looking for. As I get older and interact with younger musicians, I’m realizing how much of a difference there is between my generation going to school 20 years ago and the generation I am interacting with now. The interests are different, the approach is different, their approach to what a jazz musician should be is totally different. So it’s interesting for me to see that and try to react to that in a way. At the same time, I’ve always been very clear about what that means to me and what the importance of that balance means to me. Ever since I got into this music, first off coming from Puerto Rico and not growing up with jazz, I realized early on this music wasn’t a native or first language to me. With any kind of music I learned it was the same, going to the roots, studying it almost from an academic point of view. That process helped me to realize that anything I could become would have to be tied very deeply to tradition. As I have studied the musicians I admire, I’ve realized they all went through a very similar process as well; they connected with a specific musician that came before them and used that connection and study as inspiration to develop their own identity. I’ve sort of made this my mantra ever since then – we need to know what came before us in order to be able to develop into a well-rounded personality.
B: Certainly. One last note we would like to touch on, if you would like to talk about it, the Caravan Cultural, bringing jazz back to Puerto Rico. Can you explain what that organization does and how it has shaped your music making as well?
M: Caravana Cultural is a project I started six years ago in Puerto Rico. The idea behind it is that we organize a series of free jazz concerts in rural areas that don’t have that much cultural activity, or stuff coming from the outside. Part of it is trying to widen the audience of jazz in my country, but also the grander purpose is to use culture and cultural activity as an investment towards everything going on there and to paint a picture that music is an important thing in society that should be available to everyone. So what we do is put together a concert focusing on a specific historical musician. I put together a band and bring it down there, and we usually organize a group of students from the community to play with us at the end of the evening. That is really the most special part of the event, as the music becomes a real connection with the community. We also do pre-concert talks, making it an educational thing touching on jazz history and improvisation. We also started giving out a small scholarship to one of the musicians playing to help them buy musical equipment. Overall this started as a small one-time thing, and now we’ve done about twelve concerts. It’s definitely been the most rewarding thing I’ve done with music and I’m trying to keep it going for as long as I can.