WKDU Feature: Kevin Garrett

— Interview by Ryan Stone

 

You may not have heard of him yet but you probably will soon.

Kevin Garrett, a singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist from Pittsburgh by way of Brooklyn, has had quite an impressive few years, from getting cosigns from Sam Smith & Katy Perry to songwriting and producing for Beyoncé – and all off the strength of one EP and handful of singles.

Just last month (February), Garrett dropped his awaited sophomore project, another EP entitled “False Hope.” To support the album, Garrett embarked on his first headlining tour with openers A R I Z O N A.

Before his sold-out show at World Cafe Live on Friday, March 3rd, I had the opportunity to speak with the budding “odd soul” artist to see how his new music is coming along and much more.

R: First of all, congrats on the tour – the False Hope Tour – and also, the EP [“False Hope”]. How’s the reception been for that so far?

K: The tour has been pretty cool, I think almost all the dates have sold out, which is awesome. And I think at the shows you can kind of tell how many people have listened to the EP or not. It’s been pretty much every night, the songs that have only been out for a month now today (March 3rd), everyone’s been singing along, which is pretty cool. Online [the “False Hope” EP] seems to be received pretty well. I think a lot of people are just kind of excited for me to do anything at all in terms of new music, so while it’s not an album, at least it’s another small body of work that I’m super happy about.

R: Speaking of which, you’ve mentioned it in other interviews over the years and you’ve got the new EP everyone loves, but I wanted to know the status on your full-length LP because I know you’ve been working on it for a few years.

K: Yeah, the full-length album is kind of this elusive, mythical beast. But I’ve definitely been writing it for forever, for 25 years. I’ve had the concept for it for about four or five years now. I guess I’m just kind of continuing to build sort of what I’ve grown organically on the road. I want to make sure the album has enough space to breathe, because there’s so many huge releases and everything that are happening and I just want to be creative about it. Whether I’m independent still or whether I end up partnering with a label, either way I want to make sure the album has the right point of release.

R: So you’ve been working on it all this time, were the songs on the two EPs meant to be the album and they just kind of worked together [on their own] or were they specifically meant for the EPs?

K: No, “Mellow Drama,” it was the first EP and it was supposed to be a longer project. It was originally supposed to be a 10- or 11-song album. I never really had the intention of putting an EP out first, I was always an album person. Then I linked up with some management and was placed on a timer based around tours and stuff and needed to get music out. So I decided to truncate it so I can still tell the story I wanted to tell, but hold some stuff back and keep writing it in the meantime. It’s kind of strange [that] I ended up touring an EP for almost two years and that was great [*knocks on wood*], but I don’t know if I want to do that again for this EP. I think with the album itself, this second EP is a showcase of growth stylistically; showing people where I’m refining myself lyrically [and] production-wise. I guess for the album it’ll be a lot more of the same, still going to be probably sad, but we’ll see what happens.

R: Yeah I was going to ask you about that, you kind of answered another question I had. I’ve seen that you like to do comedy, you’re a fan of comedy, like, you’ll do little jokes in between your songs, but you think you’re going to stick with the more self-reflective style of songwriting in your music?

K: I think that when it comes to making those songs, I’m just trying to be honest about my experiences. I watched some interview the other day with Father John Misty and he was talking about authenticity [for music] is kind of synonymous with the word ‘empathy’ because you’re trying to connect with people and the more people that connect with you, the more authentic you seem in their eyes. It’s like if 10 people come to the show and only four of them relate to your music, then it’s kind of like, well, what are we doing? But if all 10 of them relate, then it’s like ‘aw yeah!’ But at the root of all, I’m trying to make a song or make an album that I can listen to and evaluate my experiences, and you can listen to it and you can connect in some way that makes you think about whatever’s going on with you in your own way. With the comedy aspect of everything, the experiences that I write about already happened, so more often than not, I’m not writing about something…or I’m not performing that song as the experience is happening to me, I should say that. When I’m writing it, maybe I am, but by the time I’m performing it, by the time I put it out, the moment’s already kind of passed on me at that point. So I’m just like, ‘let’s have fun with [it].’ Because if I’m going to sing about some completely sad stuff for an hour and a half, then I might as well try and lighten the mood.

R: When you’re making these songs, you’ve said that you’ve recorded a lot of these in your bedroom to start – or have they been fully done in your bedroom?

K: Well I write everything alone. With, I think, the exception of “Little Bit of You,” everything was created in my bedroom. “Little Bit of You” was done in a session, but then I worked a little production in my room with the other producer, Chris Loco. The three producers that I worked with on the [“False Hope”] EP were all in the UK, so we’re all going off Facetime and stuff, just emailing sessions to each other. Otherwise it was all conceived in my little spot. It’s kind of cool because I didn’t really have a big time on the first EP and I scaled down even more for the second one. It wasn’t by design, it was just the way it happened and being unsigned has an influence on that. It’s just the way it worked, I guess.

R: I don’t know how it was on the “False Hope” EP, but I know on the “Mellow Drama” EP, you worked a lot with Joe LaPorta and Ryan Gilligan. How did you link up with them, was that through Roc Nation or did you have a relationship with them?

K: No, a lot of the people I’ve connected with on that end have been through myself, not through Roc Nation. I was connected to Joe through Ryan, I believe, and then Ryan I knew from Pittsburgh actually because he went to Duquesne [University]. We had some mutual friends, actually someone who worked on the production-end of the first EP knew Ryan [and] we all knew each other from the same New York circles. Ryan Gilligan has this way about mixing where it’s so much more than mixing, like he breathes new life into the project when he puts his ears on it. He’s my first choice for anything that I want to release ever. And Joe, obviously, I keep going back to him because he always knocks it out of the park. It’s like, there’s a couple different ways to master: just make it louder or make it tastefully louder, and Joe can do both, but he does the latter a lot better for people. So I like both of those guys a lot.

R: Yeah, I mean, I was looking at their credits, they got some crazy people up there. Good friends to have!Image result for kevin garrett

K: Yeah they have some crazy credits, they work really hard.

R: You went to NYU for Music Technology and you have done some production on your own. Do you intend to do more production or do you think you think you’re going to stick more with songwriting?

K: Well I’m very involved in all my stuff, songs like “Pulling Me Under” and “Stranglehold”… “Stranglehold” went through about five different versions of production style before it got to the one we landed on. I remember making the demo for “Stranglehold,” which is the version that ended up coming out; just over the past two years being in my space, being in my headphones even just programming stuff out, like drum wise or finding sounds on the synths that I’ve gotten over the years, it’s been a learning experience. But school wasn’t where I learned production by any means. It was more of, like, a fundamental engineering class. We took like electronics courses and there was a lot more time learning how to solder things than how to record. But it was good, it definitely eliminated some middle man. In terms of creativity I definitely want to be the recording artist, but I don’t think that necessarily means I have to sacrifice production or anything. I think I can still be involved in that respect. There are a few artists that are doing that, like James Blake and Frank Ocean even who are very selective with who they work with and know what they want their sound to be, like, experimenting and stuff. It just comes down really more to doing rather than definition of your job title.

R: So then when you’re making your music, what is your set up looking like?

K: I use Pro Tools. I trained myself on Pro Tools, but I also really like Logic for MIDI. I don’t use that much MIDI, though, to be honest so I stay in Pro Tools for the most part. It’s just a little easier for me to edit audio in [Pro Tools]. I like a lot of analog gear: Moog, I use a sub-phatty for a lot of bass sounds, and then Dave Smith Sequential Circuits stuff, like the Prophet 6. We also use a Juno 106 a lot. I have a couple other DSIs (Dave Smith Instruments) and then, honestly, if I can’t get to a studio to record real piano, if I doctor it up enough, I like the Korg SV1 that I use on-stage. I’ll just plug it into my audio interface; I use the Apollo Universal Audio stuff for plugins and everything. It’s crazy what technology does these days. In terms of MIDI, there’s only a few things that I really go back to a lot: a lot of Native [Instruments] stuff and some of the Komplete sounds and then Soundtoys, it’s the best.

R: That made me think, I saw [in] an interview you were saying that sometimes you don’t like to start in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), because then you end up making beats. I was wondering if you ever dabbled in that because I know you said you’re also a fan of hip-hop, so I was wondering if you’ve ever tried to go [for] a beat style.

K: Yeah, I love hip-hop. “Pulling Me Under” off the “False Hope” EP started as a beat and also “A Heart Like Yours” actually did start as a beat, too, where I just kind of made a loop and then once I liked the loop enough, then I started building it out more. With “A Heart Like Yours,” I wrote the whole song musically before I ever had any lyrics. “Pulling Me Under” has that sort of groove that you can kind of loop any 8- or 16-bar phrase and get the point across, so it was pretty easy to write that one through. When I have more time with my gear, with my computer, I spend more time making “beats,” just creating in Pro Tools. But there’s still something about just being at a piano or being with your guitar and writing something just like that because the possibilities are a lot more endless. I think that’s what I was trying to get at because I have so much respect for producers that can go in and roll out, like, 20 beats in a session and sample things instantaneously. But at the end of the day, you just have a bunch of beats, there’s still no song. So I would rather, more often than not, write a song on guitar that’s like ‘oh, this is a strong song’ and then it can be produced in different ways. There’s pros and cons with both of them, I think, because if you write a good song then it’s like ‘OK, well how are we going to produce it if there’s so many ways to produce it?’ Like “Stranglehold,” it went through five or six different versions. Then when you have beats, now we just need the song and it’s the hardest part.

R: When you write your songs, I know you said that you do music mostly first and then the lyrics. Are you notating these or are you just putting chords together, like how does that song process work?

K: I’m not really transcribing anything. I kind of have a sense because of school and my musical background what I’m playing. If I don’t record it into Pro Tools, like a demo or something, then I’ll just throw the ideas into my phone or if it’s so good that I just know I’m going to remember it, I just will finish it or know that I’ll come back to it in a second and it’ll still be there. Usually – I don’t know what it is, like what in my brain that connects the two, but if I handwrite the lyrics on a legal pad or whatever, that’s when I lock in the music and the lyrics simultaneously on one instrument. I noticed I’ll come across a notepad filled with songs that I’ve written and I’ll look at them and just read the words and start to remember what I was playing, wImage result for kevin garretthich is kind of promising for the old noggin!

[*Mutual laughter*]

R: Yeah, yeah.

K: I try to a lot more lately to be a little more proactive about remembering or taking into account different ideas because even in the middle of the night if I’m sleeping and something comes to me in my dreams or something, I don’t remember. I’ve probably forgotten so many cool things because I’m too lazy to wake up and sing it before I go back to sleep. That actually happened to me the other day now that I’m thinking about it. It was, like, a melody that I had come up with and I told myself, ‘alright, I’m just going to sing it into my phone’ and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was like “shit!” I totally forgot.

R: [*Laughs*] Now what about violin? You were pretty much trained on the violin and you played a little bit of violin on the Noble Hunter project. Are you planning on putting violin back into your music at any point?

K: I did, yeah. I played violin when I was four or five. I forget, it was so long ago. Noble Hunter was my old band from college and there was an EP re-release of some of the songs off the album where I worked with some guys in the band to [reharmonize] everything with strings and I played violin on that. It was really fun. I think my music now is a little more geared towards pop/R&B production… I have so many opportunities, like bucket-list moments of being at a piano and just having a cello accompanying me singing something. So [I’m] just kind of waiting for the right moment I guess to bring strings back in.

R: I actually didn’t know that Noble Hunter was a thing until I was digging through [some interviews], but I came across that and saw that you played the violin and listening back to your work I didn’t hear it, so I was curious.

K: Yeah, it was in this project called “Noble Hunter: Reimagined.” It was just five of the songs off the Noble Hunter album – it’s only on Bandcamp, I think – and I remember it was the same year that the album came out, in 2012. I went to the bass player like, ‘I want to do this where we can just put strings on everything, more acoustic, less percussion and stuff.’ Then he’s like ‘cool, let’s do it’ and it sounded great, it sounded really cool. That was around the same time when The Lone Bellow was happening and NPR was having a field day because all the music that was popping was that sort of folk vibe. I think that’s coming back maybe in the next few years, but I don’t know. Right now, at least what I’m proud to create and what I’m really into is more along the lines of electro-soul. But again, like I said, if I’m playing by myself, a cello makesImage result for kevin garrett photos everything better so hopefully we can make that happen.

R: Yeah, I mean Kanye did it so…

K: Yeah right? [*Laughs*]

R: Are you still in touch with the members of Noble Hunter? Do you work with them at all?

K: Yeah, we all kind of went our separate ways once we left school and everybody wanted to do different things. Noble Hunter, it started out as a – it didn’t have a name for the longest time, it was just the Kevin Garrett Band because I had all these songs written and I knew I didn’t want to do it myself so I wanted to give it a name and use [it] like a vessel for my music. By the time that album ran its course playing the same gigs and doing a couple little regional tours, I ended up being the frontman being the sole writer and also being the manager of this band. And you could kind of tell that it was just a lot to account for, so much more than just making music. I think that wasn’t really anything that caused any problems, but I just started writing this new direction with songs like “Coloring” and “Come Up Short” and “Pushing Away.” We had already stopped playing shows, so I was like ‘alright, well I’m going to do this.’ Everybody’s been super supportive. I think we all kind of knew [the break-up] was coming, so it wasn’t any bad break-up or anything it was just like, yeah, college.

R: Between then and the two projects you’ve been working on – you also have a few loosies/singles up on SoundCloud – do you have a whole computer full of old or unreleased Kevin Garrett songs that may or may not see the light of day?

K: Yeah, I remember there was a semester I took of songwriting, “Songwriters Forum” – you can’t teach to anybody, but some people think you can so they make these classes in school and I took one, just to kind of see why everyone else wanted to take it and I learned very quickly why. It’s because I think the majority of students thought you could teach songwriting and they could be better songwriters because of it and that wasn’t the case, it was more of a showcase. And I remember I made a catalogue after that semester because the teacher asked me to make it and I was just racking my brain of all the songs I made and all the different projects I had in my head. I think ahead a lot and I think hard too much to a fault and it was cool to compartmentalize everything that I had in my brain. So I have this banjo project [I was] working on, I have this “Noble Hunter LP 2” project that [I was] working on – there’s still a second Noble Hunter album, it’s still in a folder on my computer, we just didn’t get to it. It’s recorded, it’s mixed. And then my first EP at the time and then “Mellow Drama” the album and everything else and the [full-length] album that, at that point, I’m starting to conceptualize. I don’t even know where that is anymore. I think the better question is ‘where are all the legal pads full of lyrics?’

R: A shoebox full.

K: Yeah, there’s a shoebox under my bed, yeah.

R: That’s classic. I also saw that you were a big fan of Sam Cooke. You also mentioned Shania Twain.

K: Shania Twain, oh my goodness! Don’t even get me started!

R: I was the biggest fan of Shania Twain when I was a kid. I had all the cassettes and I used to blast them.

K: Yeah, man, exactly! You know you’re a fan when you say you have the cassettes, too, because that’s legit. Like there’s some younger people who are like, ‘oh my god, I have all her CDs.’ She wasn’t making CDs when she was hip, those were cassette tapes.

[*Mutual Laughter*]

R: Do you like “Come On Over” Shania or more “Up” Shania?

K: Oh, wow. There’s a tweet that I had, I forget, I think it was ‘97/’98 or maybe it was ‘98/’99, but whenever “From This Moment On” came out. Now listen, I have so much respect for Beyoncé, “Love On Top” is a crazy song and it takes key change to a whole next level, but “From This Moment On” had a key change that was unbelievable. It had strings and everything and she’s singing and dressed and doing this thing…that was special. That was like…mm…that song, oh my goodness. She just got recognized at the Billboard, last year, Women in Music Awards. Long time coming, but yeah, she’s great.

R: Yeah I just wanted to throw that out there because I’m a mutual fan. Now in today’s day and age, everybody’s making music on the Internet and that’s how they’re getting there. Do you want to speak to the fact that you’ve been selling out shows – tonight (March 3rd) is even sold out – and, you know, performing? You’ve been doing this for the past, what, two-and-a-half years you’ve been on tour essentially? Can you speak to the success of building your fan base and everything on tour as opposed to the Internet?

K: I think it’s very old-school, right, to hit the road and expect something good to happen? I think I’m super lucky with the support looks that I’ve gotten. Looking back, James Vincent McMorrow has this built-in fan base everywhere he goes, he can sell out any room he wants with no radio play at all. He’s just now getting radio play on certain alternative stations, which is great for him. Then X Ambassadors, I went on their tour just as their one song was going really viral off the car [commercial]. Less than a year after touring with them, they have a song that’s [in] the Hot 100 with “Unsteady.” Then Alessia Cara, same thing, like “Here” was obviously a viral success and was already going on radio when it hit number one on pop radio when we were on tour. But then, right after that tour, she really kicked off and had the craziest year. I think that the looks that I’ve gotten in terms of opening has given me the opportunity – I like to joke about it – to steal everybody’s fans, but James Vincent McMorrow put it really honestly, he’s like ‘if you make good music, then the fans that come to shows, they come to shows because they want to see good music played live, and you can do these same rooms probably on your own after a few more tours.’ It’s kind of proven his point, like I played Lincoln Hall with X Ambassadors and I played Music Hall Williamsburg with X Ambassadors, and it’s the first of three just about a year ago and now I’m coming back and we sold it out. It’s crazy to think about that and, not for nothing, but Ryan Adams is in the basement [of World Cafe Live] tonight…I’m freaking out a little bit.

R: [*Laughs*] I did not know that.

K: Yeah, I got really lucky with the opening looks that I got and then Spotify has been very helpful and other streamers have been very helpful in their support and that’s how we consume music. We don’t buy CDs anymore, we don’t buy records as much. There’s still the novelty experience of getting vinyl and that’s obviously on an uptick, which is really refreshing. Record Store Day is cool and all that, but [*knocks on wood*], fortunately, live music has been something that I’ve been very lucky to benefit from and merch has been something that has been pretty cool, you know, I mean I’m wearing my own damn stuff. I work with the same designer on everything. We try to be really creative with lyrics and what we want to plug and what would be good for someone to just buy in a store anyway. Without really having a label, without having that sort of team to develop that in my career yet and no real marketing plan, it’s been cool to see people just coming for the songs. This isn’t a big production, obviously. It’s not anything with big lights or smoke and mirrors or DJ or whatever. And I’m certainly not crushing it on the charts or anything – maybe one day – but it’s cool to see. I didn’t expect any of the shows to sell out to be honest.Image result for kevin garrett

R: Quite a few of them have, right?

K: Yeah, I think almost all of them, like 19 out of 22 or something.

R: Wow that’s crazy, congratulations.

K: Thanks, man.

R: So then the last thing I want to ask then because you kind of touched on it, with CDs and vinyl, things like that, do you think you’re going to save that for the [full-length]? Because you did have CDs of the last EP, but [the “False Hope” EP] you don’t have right now [on CD]. Do you think you’re going to do that with the full-length album or are you sticking with the Chance the Rapper digital-only-type deal?

K: No, I don’t think it was by design, we just didn’t have enough time. The EP dropped on the third [of February] and I was already on tour and I wanted to make CDs, but the cool thing about the way I tour is that this is the first time I’ve brought a front-of-house and also tour manager, Ethan. Up until that point, I was always doing my own stuff. But even with [Ethan], there’s still, like, a million jobs that I’m a part of and just trying to stay healthy and everything and [making CDs] just wasn’t something that made it to the top of the list. I just announced some dates with Mumford & Sons and they were actually coming back to BB&T Pavilion, I think on the 25th of May or something, so we might have CDs by then. My dream goal is if I do a third EP to treat it like The Weeknd’s “Trilogy” thing and just put together as one big vinyl or some project. That’s super, way thinking down the road, it’s just my vision speaking for itself. But I’m happy with the way things have turned out with the tour and the project and the way it was created super on my own is something that I’m proud of, especially [with] the way I feel about everything right now.

R: Yeah, and the songwriting for Beyoncé and cosigns by Katy Perry and Sam Smith, it’s been a huge few years for you.

K: Yeah, Katy Perry I was at SXSW when that happened and her friend, I think, had seen me at South-By that year and I guess sent some music her way and Katy tweeted it out. It’s kind of funny because it was just like a random bike covered in snow on the tweet and then just a link to the song and everyone’s like, ‘who the hell is this?’ And then Sam tweeted about when I was in a parking lot in Des Moines, Iowa throwing a frisbee with my two guys in my band. Because, like I said, up until this tour, any other tour that I’ve been on, it’s just been me and the two other people in my band. I had to take a seat out to fit the drums in the Toyota Highlander – very DIY. Those people playing those songs and giving me that kind of support has been really cool. Those people that high up, knowing that they’re still just honest music fans is refreshing, especially someone like Beyoncé who is in her own league of legends.

You can check out Kevin’s EP “False Hope” below:

*This interview has been modified and edited from its original version for clarity.

The Black Experience on WKDU, Part 3: The John Minnis Big Bone Band

By Esmail Hamidi

Well, a lot of times things happen to you, and the only thing you can say about it is, “what can you do?”

So this blog entry is a big one for me. This blog entry covers the tape that started this whole project.

mnmn

The John Minnis Big Bone Band was a 21-piece ensemble headquartered in North Philadelphia. They were headed up by its namesake, John Minnis, the trombone player and vocalist. Among their ranks were some of the finest studio and touring musicians of Philadelphia, many still active today. And guess what radio station interviewed them in 1977?

Back in the winter, I found this tape in a dusty box with many, many others. Some of my findings on the Black Experience programs in the ’70s have been covered in Part 1 and Part 2. But this one is definitely among the crown jewels of KDU. The music they play from the band’s then-newly-released album, Classic-I Live, is top-notch. The tape’s in perfect shape. The interview…is pretty funny, to be honest. The hostess and musicians cover lots of info, with plenty of the goofy awkwardness endemic to college radio. Based on the remark that John Minnis’ birthday, May 22nd, was a Sunday coming up, I can (pretty confidently?) date the interview to Spring 1977. We might be dealing with some unreliable narrators here:  given that the record is supposed to have been released in 1979 (and how everyone on the tape seems to be feelin’ some kind of way), this date seems unlikely, but who knows.

I’ve probably listened to this interview fifty times. There was a period in the winter where I would listen to it on the way to class every morning. And while its 35 minutes are jam-packed with, well, jams, I knew I needed to track the full record down. According to the interview, if I was around in 1977, I could have picked it up at any of ten record stores – the long-defunct 3rd St. Jazz and King James Record Shop among them.

Trying to find the record: I put out feelers to all my record-collecting friends, with no luck. Apparently it was reissued in Japan in the mid-1990s, but a friend’s travels in Japan failed to yield anything other than directions to the “big band” sections of numerous record stores. Blast.  I ended up finding a copy online, and paying a stupid amount of money. But I got it. Score.

john_minnis-big_bone_band-3

The record itself has some great rough edges. The decidedly mid-fi production value of the live cuts leaves some flubbed notes out to dry. But – after all – this is a big band! The idea of 21 musicians (count ’em – 21!) churning out grooves like this live on stage is positively electrifying. I cite the extended percussion workout of “What Can You Do” (evident at the 11:30 mark in the interview) as a prime example. They just keep going. And the studio cuts are genuine rare classics. There are covers of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye tunes in there  (WHAT?!?) – someone’s bound to sample this one of these days. If you ever see this record while digging, grab it….

PS: This record was also mastered by Frank Virtue – a mentor of Gamble & Huff, and a prolific human fountain of Philadelphia independent music. And, as it weregarage rock…..

PPS: This May 22nd, 2016 is also a Sunday, as it were. If you’re reading this – happy birthday, John.

 

 

Interview: Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It.

intoit

One of our new DJs, James Friszell, caught up with Evan after Into It. Over It.’s recent show with TWIABP, The Sidekicks, and Pinegrove at the TLA last month.


James: What are your favorite record stores and venues in Philly?

Evan: I used to work at Long in the Tooth, which is at 21st and Sansom. That’s one of my favorite record stores in the world. I actually really like Repo, I just went there before here. I just played at creep earlier today, so I was there already. As far as venues, I really liked going to shows, I didn’t do it a lot, but I really liked going to shows at the North Star Bar. I feel like the North Star Bar sounds really good. I love the First Unitarian Church. I probably saw every one of my favorite bands ever play in that room, and also bands that you would never see play in a room that size ever again. Like I saw Explosions in the Sky in there, and Arcade Fire in there, and like f*cking Sigur Ros in there. But also got to see like Dillinger Four in there and Orchid, and Reiner Maria, or f*cking Braid and Getup Kids. Any one of those bands I’ve seen play in that room, I used to go there all the time. Now, I love Union Transfer, although that didn’t exist until really around the time I moved. And I mean I have a soft spot for the TLA and the Trocadero, because I saw so many shows there, that were like, my first shows ever. Philly is a great city. It’s got a really good music scene, now especially, more than ever, and yeah, I’m really fortunate to be a part of it.

J: What prompted you to go into the woods to write?

E: A big part of it was that Josh and I had never really made a record before. We’d never written before, so he’s been in the band for a couple of years, but we hadn’t written any new material together. We kind of started writing in Chicago, but we hadn’t really learned how to communicate creatively yet, and that’s a big process. That takes a while, you know, to really find your groove and find your comfort level, find the language that really creates the best material. So we’d worked on some stuff in Chicago, and it was cool, but it didn’t really feel fluid yet. We were trying to figure out a way that we could maybe find our focus, find our rhythm, and feel more comfortable. We were just spit-balling ideas about how we could write, or block off time- get the best use of our time, and the idea of going to a cabin was what came up. So we agreed that that was a really good idea. It was something that we wanted to do anyway, like that’s awesome, make a retreat out of writing which is really fortunate, and so we played a show in Vermont, in Burlington, and we fell in love with it. Like this would be the place to do it. We love the city, we love the landscape, we love the people here, everyone was really friendly. We got to the end of the night. We were settling the show, and the promoter of the show asked what we thought of Vermont. We told him that we were like, “Man we want to write a record here, this is great”. And he told us that day he had just closed on the property to have a place where bands could work on music, and so it just seemed really serendipitous, perfect timing, and we were the first band to use the space. It was great. We didn’t want to leave. It was over and we still wanted to stay, which is creeping because going into it we were kind of like “man, are we going to lose our minds”. It wasn’t like The Shining at all, it was really really cool.

J: When you were writing this, in the woods, did you feel like there was a different atmosphere about writing?

E: Yeah, it was full, panoramic windows in the cabin. So we’re looking outside, and there’s a blizzard, and it’s overlooking a lake, and a mountain, and there’s no houses for two miles. You see chimneys in the distance. So, it’s this beautiful panoramic scene, and we’re writing in the middle of it, but it was so cold outside, like negative 20 or negative 30 degrees, that we didn’t really want to interact with it. But being able to work and write and have this scenery next to us happening, made the whole experience much more pleasant and kept our mood at a pretty even keel. We were very relaxed- it was a very serene environment. It was great. People were like, “Oh yeah a cabin” and they think it’s like this dark, dreary, and it’s not. It was like one of those places on a B&B website and you look, and you’re like “who finds that place to stay in”. It was a place like that, a really really nice place.

J: That’s incredible that you got the chance to use that.

E: Oh yeah. It was a good portion of the recording budget to go and write the record there, but it was worth it, because I think it really helped us write better songs.

J: You used a different producer for this album, right?

E: John Vanderslice, yeah.

J: When you were writing, did you know you were going to be recording it analog?

E: No, I had a list of choices of people who I wanted to make a record with, and John wasn’t even on the list. He wasn’t even on my radar really. I was a fan of his music and a fan of his, but like I hadn’t thought about him. We had asked a couple people, the people who were on the list, about doing the record and nobody could do it, or the budget wasn’t enough. There were different reasons why it couldn’t work out, but multiple people on my list had, independently of each other, referred me to John. So after hearing like three or four people tell me to go to John I was like, “Man I gotta call this guy”. I called John and immediately we super got along, immediately knew what we were going for, knew what our sound was like, really liked the demos, you know? He was excited to work on it, like he wanted to work on it. And then at the end of the call I had figured out, I was like, “John’s the guy, I can’t wait”. He gets to the end of the call and he’s like, “Oh yeah, were making it to tape, you don’t have a choice. If you want to do a record, it has to be to tape”. And so I was like, “Uhhhhhhhhhh, I gotta call you back”. I had to talk to Josh and the people in the camp and be like, “is this a bad idea”. But I wanted to hire him. He was the right guy. I’m glad it all worked out. He assured us that we’d feel comfortable and that we wouldn’t even notice that it was being made to tape, and he was right. He was absolutely right. We never even noticed. It was just as comfortable as working on a computer.

J: Was that your first time going all analog?

E: Not my first time in a band, but my first time with Into It. Over It. Their/They’re/There had done it, but we just played live. That’s just us doing a performance.

J: Is production something you want to start taking more seriously?

E: It’s something I’ve always wanted to take more seriously. I’d much rather be making records than going on the road, that’s my favorite thing to do as far as being a musician. Making records, then writing, then touring, and then practicing. I feel like those are the four big things you would do if you were in a band. But yeah, making records is absolutely my favorite thing- I’d love to be doing that more than anything, but I understand that there are certain things that you have to do, not “have to do”, but should do to further the status of the things you’re working on. Like for Into It. Over It., Into It. Over It. should go on tour. And I love going on tour. The hour that we spend playing on stage is the most fun I have in my entire life. But as far as creative satisfaction- to me records are what outlives the person. When I’m dead and gone no one is going to remember the show, they’re going to remember the album. Or they will remember the show, but those memories fade with time. Whereas with the album you can continue to put on and enjoy- new people can still find that. So for me that’s the most important part of the process because that’s the part that will outlive everything.

J: How do you look at Standards now that you’re done with it?

E: It’s the best record I’ve ever done.

J: Really?

E: Without any hesitation, without any second guessing, it is the most fully formed, well performed, honest representation of Into It. Over It. that exists. They’re my favorite songs. The process was the most fun. The making of the record was the most fun. I listen to it, it doesn’t feel juvenile. It doesn’t feel rushed. My memories attached to it are all really positive. And I just think the song writing is better. I know people have a youthful attachment to Proper. When I listen to those songs it sounds phony to me sometimes. Like I love those songs, but that’s me at 25, and to me it sounds like me at 25. And to me, the songs don’t hold up in the same way that even Intersections holds up, or even f*ckin’ most of 52 weeks holds up, I think, a little bit better than Proper. And the Proper recording process wasn’t very fun. We had like 14 days, it was very fast. I was out of my mind, so much of it was thrown together at the last minute. When it comes to something that I feel very proud of, and when it’s over and said and done I can feel like “this is what I wanted to be doing and where it should be”, that’s this record. You’re asking that question like you don’t think it’s the best one.

J: I absolutely think this is your best record. *laughs* I was trying to hold back bias.

E: Good. *Chuckles warmly* If I was making records and I didn’t think the newest one was the best one, or I didn’t feel like I was making the forwards progress to continue to do things that not only make me happier as a musician, but also are me growing as a musician then I would quit. There’s no reason to keep going if I can’t at least expand in some way. Like it wouldn’t be a step backwards for me to go back to making a record on a computer, but there would have to be in the process that would further me as a player, or expand on a sonic palette that I haven’t explored yet. There’d have to be a change. It’s funny with Into It. Over It. because none of the records sound the same, but I think there’s something that kind of ties all of them together. So people that are fans of the music that I write can find something in every album that they really like, but they’re not going to get the same record twice. The reason why is because I already did that. You don’t want to hear me make the same thing again. If I made the same thing again you’d be like “well this just sounds like the last record”. Every single record has been received initially with a level of “huh”, like a tilt of the head a little bit. At first it’s like “oh I don’t get it”. Then 2 years later when everyone has had time to sit with it, that’s when everyone is like, “oh, yeaaaaah”. I put Intersections out and everyone is like, “DOESN’T SOUND LIKE PROPER”, and then I put this record out and it’s like, “DOESN’T SOUND LIKE INTERSECTIONS”, and I’m just like, “…what”. And I mean, the next one’s not going to sound like Standards- there’ll be elements of it, just like there are slight elements of every record in every record. It’ll sound like something totally new. For me that’s how I’m satisfied creatively- keep pushing myself and keep pushing people around me.

J: Do you think you want to start writing with a full band?

E: I think I’m ready to start bringing more and more people into the fold. That was a big learning experience with this record, allowing John a lot of control. I had never been able to do that before. I wasn’t able to give Ed the control that I think he should’ve had. I wasn’t able to give Brian Deck the kind of control that I feel like he should’ve had. Brian tried to talk me down on a lot of scenarios and I was like, “NO! NO-NO-NO-NO-NO”, and I was, you know, being a baby about it. But this time I kind of let John take the wheel 90% of the time and it really hit off. I’m beginning to trust other people with this a lot more, and I’m having a lot more fun bouncing ideas off of other people a lot more. That confidence I think is going to play into adding other people into the writing process in the future.

INTERVIEW: Pell – Soulful Rapper Talks New Album

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photo by Nolan Feldpausch

– Ryan Stone – Pell Interview 2/9/16

In the frigid hours before a flurry of snow would settle once again on the city, New Orleans rapper Pell stood in a small circle of his fellow tour folk in the dimly lit main area of The Barbary in Northern Liberties. The rapper would be on stage at 8 p.m. — later than expected due to delays at the venue. Nevertheless, Pell was cool, calm, and collected. After a brief introduction and my hints of praise (as I am a fan of the man’s work), we took a seat in the far corner of the venue by the merchandise table to discuss the rapper’s music. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about his new album, Limbo, which released in the fourth quarter of last year. Slightly pressed for time, I asked Pell some bigger questions to gain more knowledge about the man behind the music before he had to break before the show to eat and rest. Below is our conversation, and I encourage you to check out Pell’s music at pellyeah.com after reading. Pell is on tour until the end of March. Tour dates and locations can be found here. He will then hit the stage at both Hangout Music Fest and Firefly Music Festival. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Sitting Down with LVL UP

lvl up
Greg, Mike, Dave, and Nick of LVL UP

By Nick Manna

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in February, and Dave Benton is returning my call. “We were actually having a little heart-to-heart”, he tells me. They’re ready to talk now. It’s been about a year and a half since the release of LVL UP’s last LP, Hoodwink’d – among 2014’s best – and they’re preparing their next.  “We’re gonna start recording tomorrow, actually,” drummer Greg Rutkin explains. “We’ve been practicing [the songs]”

LVL UP’s previous efforts have been split evenly among their three songwriters, bassist Nick Corbo, and guitarists Mike Caridi and Dave Benton. “We’re recording like one extra song from Nick and one extra song from Mike,” Greg says regarding the forthcoming album. Each songwriter is unique, and despite the rotating lead vocalists, LVL UP’s releases are cohesive and complete. “We are still writing songs in the same way, in that the three of us are writing songs separately, and everyone’s style is changing a little bit,” Dave says. “We’ve got some droney, darker songs, and some poppy songs similar to what was on the last record. Not crazy different, but a little bit, I guess”.

Nearly two years between album releases can seem like a long time for an up-and-coming band, but the New York quartet has been keeping busy. They’ve been touring and also put out a 7”, simply titled “Three Songs”, last summer. The songs were surprisingly solid for an off-cycle release, but those tracks aren’t going away.  “I think Blur and Closing Door are gonna be on [the new record]. We revamped those a bit. We’re happier with the way they sound now, so we’re just redoing them,” Mike says. “Honestly, both were like demos that we got down while we writing them. Blur is just me and Nick – it wasn’t even fully developed, and now we feel like it is. Same with Closing Door.”

Dave and Mike run Double Double Whammy, a record label that has been and remains LVL UP’s home. They have also released the breakout records of bands like Mitski, Frankie Cosmos, and Eskimeaux. “We already have 2016 planned. Somewhere between 8-10 LPs we’re putting out. Some old stuff, a couple reissues, new stuff from artists we’ve put out in the past, a few new bands. Got some more punk-leaning bands, more electronic-leaning bands. Trying to expand while staying within our….” Mike trails off, looking for the right word. “General aesthetic,” Dave adds. “We’re still working with our friends and people we trust”.

They have some more planned for LVL UP this year as well – running a label has its benefits. “[We’re] gonna reissue Space Brothers with demos and B-sides on vinyl, so it’ll be like a 28-song LP or something like that. We’ll release it around the same time the new record comes out”, Mike continues. “Hoping for a fall release, but nothing is set. It depends how recording goes this month.”

LVL UP is headlining a 5-show East Coast tour at the end of the month. “We’re definitely playing some new songs, probably a bunch, because now we know how to play them. We’ve been playing 3 or 4. We’ll probably play 5 or 6 of them.” WKDU is set to present LVL UP at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia on February 28th with a handpicked lineup of Free Cake for Every Creature, Marge, and The Guests. “We’re very excited about it. We love playing the Church,” Dave says. “Free Cake’s got a new record coming out on DDW, and we always love to play with them. The Guests are friends from college, and we just like Marge.”  Greg adds that his other band Cende just played with The Guests, “and they were f-cking amazing”. Tickets are on sale now.

Extras:

Dave and Mike lead their own excellent projects, Trace Mountains and The Glow, respectively.  Nick drums in Crying and Normal Person, while Greg plays in Cende, Slight, and Normal Person.

The favorite bands that LVL UP has toured with include Saintseneca, Ought, Big Ups, Ovlov, Upset, Disco Doom, and the Sidekicks.

Interview: John Lydon

John Lydon

By: Nick Stropko

John Lydon is crass. At this point in his 40ish-year-old career, he’s developed a reputation for being unfriendly to press. And politicians. And, well, a lot of people. He tends to offend wherever he goes. He even made it a point to belch loudly during the middle of my interview (“practicing my jazz chords,” as he described it to me, the host of a jazz radio show, for christsakes).

This off-putting demeanor, however, belies an undeniable intelligence. Controversial positions he has long and ardently held, ranging from his omnivorous taste in music to many of his political and social beliefs, are now commonplace, while Sex Pistols’ sneer and Public Image Ltd.’s post-punk discord have long been held as prescient, influential, or both.

So where does this leave Lydon in today’s music landscape? Per John, “I’m quite happy here on the outskirts, doing what I want, and not getting dragged into cliques or categories anymore…And I think these last two albums we’ve put out are probably the best music in my entire career.” Yes, it’s easy to roll your eyes at any musician pushing 60 who claims to be putting out their best work–or really anything short of an outright cash grab (notable exceptions: Gira, Michael, and Bowie, David). And sure, some of his opinions fit quite comfortably within an irrelevant, crotchety old man archetype (rejection of technology, disinterest in any contemporary music). But given his track record, I’m willing to hear him out. The rigors of age and his smoking habit have seemingly done nothing to extinguish that singular, shrill voice that set the world on fire in ‘76, and he seems as pissed off as ever. Not to mention, the new record really isn’t half bad.

Public Image Ltd. is on tour through November. Dates are here. An excerpt from my interview with John is after the break–if it somehow isn’t long enough for you, click here for the full transcript.

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