Saturday, June 24, 2006
Youth is not wasted on teen punks Be Your Own Pet
By SCOTT T. STERLING
Wednesday, June 21, 2006 - 3:01 pm
The No. 1 enemy to any teenager in the world is boredom. Kids will do anything to avoid the B word, from wanton sex to trading prescription pharmaceuticals to forming a rock band (for the luckier parents out there). And despite what Chuck Klosterman may say in the June issue of Esquire, teenagers are alive and well in 2006. Exhibit A: new teen-punk heroes Be Your Own Pet, who are the polar opposite of boring.
These bona fide adolescents (all under 20), who formed BYOP at the progressive Nashville School of the Arts in 2002, seek to incite a white-hot riot of teen fury, their songs rushing by in a cacophonous flash (many clock in at 90 seconds), with the band — Nathan Vasquez (bass, afro), Jonas Stein (guitar) and Jamin Orrall (drums) — playing so fast they seem to race each other to the next tune (think Bad Brains beating the crap out of the Ramones). Much like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to whom they’re most often compared, deep inside these seething whippets of nervy energy lies a real sense of tunefulness and song craft that belies their age, and apparent ADD. The band’s writing skills shine brightest on “October, First Account,” which could very easily play as BYOP’s “Maps” (to really beat the YYY comparison to death). Somewhere between Cat Power gone electric and the Blake Babies’ younger siblings, BYOP even have the audacity (and capability) to toss a disco-reggae break into the song like some sort of mutant Blondie 2.0 without breaking a sweat. In case you haven’t been paying attention, this lot can really play, which is not something one can say about many of their teen-punk contemporaries.
They’re also fronted by this year’s most reluctant indie sex symbol, Jemina Pearl, whose almost embarrassingly fine profile is an obvious point of contention (at one point in our interview she mentions the proliferation of “creepy older guys” at their shows). You’ll be hard pressed to find a photo of the band where she’s even looking up, unless you count their conspicuous presence on the latest cover of trendy fashion monthly Nylon.
“Yeah, we’re on the cover of that magazine,” Pearl deadpans about the splashy spread. “It’s cool, I don’t know. They dressed us up in all of these stupid-looking clothes. I look ridiculous, I think. All of us do, really. It doesn’t even look like us. Whatever.”
They’ve already got the U.K. eating out of their hands: When the band took the stage at a massive U.K. festival last summer and nerves forced Pearl to vomit into a towel, fans begged for it (ew). She obliged by throwing it into the crowd, watching incredulously as they fought over its rancid contents (double ew). They also melted what seemed like a million hearts at this year’s SXSW fest — the hysteria mostly generated from their MySpace page, which had only been set up six weeks prior. In sum, BYOP — who cribbed their moniker from a song by Infinity Cat band Art Circus — have quickly become a pop phenomenon of genuine note.
When I track down Pearl and the rest of the band, it’s over the phone from Detroit, on the much-heralded 6/6/06 — the same day their eponymous debut album on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! imprint hit American streets. Pearl is polite, but a young woman of few words. Or maybe I’m just boring.
“It’s no big deal,” she replies when asked if she’s seen the album on record-store shelves yet. “We were just down in Columbus, and a couple of stores had it out already. It was more exciting when it first came out in the U.K.,” she says nonchalantly — “but yeah, I’m excited that it’s out in America now too. It’s pretty cool.”
A far cry from the in-your-face exhibitionist that screams dogmatic teen slogans all over BYOP’s recordings (e.g., “I’m an independent motherfucker/And I’m here to take your money/I’m wicked rad/And I’m here to steal away your virginity” — “Bunk Trunk Skunk”) and whips audiences to hysteria at their notoriously short live shows. But she knows better. The members of BYOP were born into musical legacies. Pearl started singing in a church choir; her father is musician/artist Jimmy Abegg, while drummer Jamin’s father is noted songwriter Robert Ellis Orrall. These youngsters are wise in the ways of the industry, even one that’s heaped such hype on them it would be easy to crack (from profiles in Rolling Stone to a gushing review on Pitchfork).
Asked about her switch from the hymns to devil’s music, Pearl sneers, “Well, I’m not a Christian and don’t go to church, so it wouldn’t make sense for me to sing in a choir.” She adds, endearingly, “You don’t have to actually be good at singing to be in a rock band, you know?” But she can sing: Pearl’s clear vibrato and melodic fluency evoke a more operatic Debbie Harry.
“I love this band,” raves L.A. hipster guru Steve Aoki, an early BYOP fan. “Even at Coachella (this year), they only played a 15-minute set, sprayed shaving cream all over the place and jumped in the crowd. And it was just over. Awesome!”
“People don’t know us as well as they do overseas, so the shows aren’t, like, insane crazy,” Pearl surmises of their current American trek. “But having to win people over is part of the fun. We’re having a good time, and that’s all that really matters.”
You could say the medium is the message for these kids. Asked about the band’s manifesto, Pearl admits, “We’re not trying to put too much across. We’re just happy to be in a band, trying to have fun with it.” In other words, as young as BYOP may be, they’re aware of just how brilliant, beautiful and brief that time can be, and have chosen to honor it with loud, fast and vicious teen anthems. Sure beats the hell out of high school.
“We’ve gotten so many opportunities. So many bands don’t get the chance [to make records], which is unfortunate. But we’ve gotten that chance, so we’re trying to enjoy it.” She pauses, then adds, “Mostly, we’re just trying to find a way to buy beer.”
(Originally published in the LA Weekly, June 2006)
Posted by Scott at 3:22 PM
Monday, June 19, 2006
L.A.’s Murs just wants to be your favorite rapper. Is that so wrong?
BY SCOTT T. STERLING
First things first: Murs is better than your favorite rapper, and he knows it. While the glory continues to fall on overamplified rap clichés like The Game (whose microphone I’d just bet goes to 11), Murs is L.A.’s truest representative in America’s hip-hop congress. Blessed with a husky, authoritative flow, he’s still a couple years shy of 30, but his conversational raps bleed with a wry wisdom well beyond his years. (“. . . You say I’m backpack ’cause I don’t have a gat/Man, I just love life and I’m dealing with the facts/I’m young, I’m gifted, I’m beautiful, I’m black.”)
Second: Murs has much cooler shoes than you or your favorite rapper. On a sun-soaked afternoon outside Sky’s Tacos on Pico — in the heart of Murs’ beloved Mid-City streets — he’s sporting an extra-fresh pair of U.K. import Adidas kicks emblazoned with graphics from the ’80s sci-fi classic Tron. His hair explodes in a mass of thick dreadlocks, and it’s a rare moment when he’s not wearing an ear-to-ear grin. Murs is a genuine L.A. native who can reference Venice skate legends like Jay Adams as quickly as he’ll mention old-school rap heroes Mystic Journeymen. He first discovered hip-hop on KDAY AM — “I knew I wanted to rap [from the time] I bought the Fat Boys’ Crushin’ on cassette in 1987” — and his immense hometown pride is never far from the surface.
“When I was growing up smoking weed back in ’90, ’91, people called me ‘white boy’ and ‘stoner,’” he laughs, recalling his early years in Mid-City, an area roughly bordered by avenues Western, Fairfax, Olympic and Jefferson. “But after Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic came out, those same people started buying weed from me. But I’ve always been like that. I try to be cool with everybody. I’m not one of these rappers that need all of the attention. I grew up with a great mom that showed me love. I don’t need a diamond chain to feel special.”
Sipping on sweet lemonade and picking at a shrimp burrito, he’s contemplative about how much — and how little — hip-hop has changed in the 15 years since then.
“Platinum rappers aren’t talking about anything anymore. I was listening to Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album the other day, and there’s all kind of knowledge on there for the people. Jay-Z might say something on one bar in one song. That’s not enough,” he stresses. “That’s why my next album is going to be message driven. All black kids are hearing on the radio is to go get a car, get some rims and a gun. That’s not good.”
Originally coming to prominence as part of L.A.’s Living Legends rap crew, Murs saw his profile rise upon the release of 2004’s Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition (Definitive Jux). Bucking the trend of working with numerous producers, Murs made 3:16 alone with DJ 9th Wonder (of North Carolina collective Little Brother), who was already respected in the hip-hop underground for his use of deep-rooted classic soul tracks.
The pair is back at it with ’06’s Murray’s Revenge (Record Collection), thick with superior hip-hop narratives that find common ground between Ice Cube and El-P. 9th Wonder is still mining rare R&B (including ’70s lover man William Bell) to produce tunes that thump with a timelessness rare in current rap — something closer in feel to ’60s Motown. Murs sounds as relaxed talking about a day at the barbershop as he does riffing on female race issues, which he does eloquently on “Dark Skinned White Girls.” (“Now she likes the Smiths, the Cure/Really into Morrissey/Heavy on the rock never fooled with the Jodeci . . ./Rejected by the black not accepted by the white world/And this is dedicated to them dark-skinned white girls.”)
But with all of the accolades, he still feels like something’s missing. “I don’t have Murs fans,” he says matter-of-factly. “I have a lot of Atmosphere, Aesop Rock and Sage Francis fans that also like what I do. I’m respected, but it’s not like I’m their main guy. I’m not cool with that anymore.”
He’s keenly aware of the role race plays in hip-hop, as in life, but doesn’t sweat the irony of his place in a predominantly white indie scene.
“People like to get into that,” he says grimly. “Maybe you should ask Beck what it’s like to play to mostly white audiences while naming his album after Cholo slang,” he jokes, referencing Mr. Hanson’s Guero. “I just want to reach as many people as possible. I really do just want to be your favorite rapper!
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’m really good at performing,” he says, shrugging. “Mr. Lif might have a tighter technical show, but if the sound goes out, I can still rock the party. I can talk to the crowd and make them laugh. Nobody in rap is doing that, including people I admire, like Brother Ali.”
Still raw from a “shitty” tour in support of Murray’s Revenge that he cancelled in the middle (“I just lost interest,” he says), Murs is adamant that he’s hit a glass ceiling in the indie rap underground. And he’s prepared to drastically change his game to transcend the indie niche.
“People have always told me that the best way to sell records is to tour, which is a lie. Record companies don’t want to hear it, and a lot of people disagree with me, but until you hit the right market, you could tour until you’re blue in the face and it won’t make a difference.
“[Now] I’ll do Coachella and Rock the Bells, places where I can make some new fans. If I can win over a tent of 3,000 white people at Coachella, imagine what I could do in front of that many black people. I want to be respected as the best rapper in Los Angeles, period. Still, I’ll always be that strange kid with the weird hair that I was when I was 14 years old and riding Roller Blades past the crack spot.”
Murs isn’t just talking yang. He now shares management with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Tyrese Gibson, and gets props from L.A. power movers like Cypress Hill’s B-Real. To further prove his point, Murs is already working on the follow-up to the self-produced movie Walk Like a Man, a gritty drama about a young rapper trying to break into the rap game. He’s also planning his next album — which he terms “my definitive statement.” And he’s not concerned with indie cred now, if he ever was: “I want to do a song with Kid Rock [on my next album] so bad. He’s one of my favorite artists.” But Murs reserves his highest praise for perhaps the least likely of L.A. brethren. “I really want to work with [Black Eyed Peas leader] Will.i.am more than anybody,” he gushes. “He’s one of my idols. No one believes me, but that’s the realest dude in hip-hop. He grew up in the projects, and he’s still wearing the same thrift-store clothes that we was wearing back in 1991, freestyling outside of David Faustino’s club. He’s been L.A. hip-hop forever.
“I’ve seen him do so much, and I’m so proud of him,” Murs says warmly. “It’s because of artists like him that I can never give up.”
If that’s not California Love, nothing is.
(Originally posted in the LA Weekly, June 2006)
Posted by Scott at 6:42 PM
Monday, June 12, 2006
Surprise! Pigeon John uses hip-hop to charm and disarm with a classic style and miles of savior faire, infusing his black everyman lyricism with a particular potency and power. His forthcoming album Pigeon John and The Summertime Pool Party (Quannum) is loaded with confessional couplets that connect through brutal honesty: “I used to have a white girl/Now I got a white wife/Kinda gettin’ used to hearing, ‘brother, that ain’t right.’” Paired with poppy upbeats and whimsical melodies, PJ’s light-hearted look at harsh realities is akin to fellow LA rap iconoclasts the Pharcyde at their freshest. With sly samples like the Pixies’ alterna-classic “Hey” driving the nice guy anthem “Money Back Guarantee,” even indie bed-heads can wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care. Now doesn’t that feel nice?
(originally published in the LA Weekly, June 2006)
Posted by Scott at 4:43 PM
The U.K.’s notorious grime boy on his tour mate Lady Sov, doing crack with a pop star, and his cocky new LP
BY SCOTT T. STERLING
“Memories of Los Angeles? Um, let me think . . . ”
It takes Mike Skinner, the mastermind behind U.K. hip-hop act The Streets, a few beats to recall his own personal L.A. story. “It’s all pretty hazy, really. We did a really long press day once after being up all night, and I was able to do most of the interviews floating in the hotel pool. I really like the weather, but the people are a bit hard to work out sometimes.”
Yes, Skinner, wordsmith extraordinaire and the man who single-handedly elevated British hip-hop from punch-line status, is trading in easy clichés today. Which gives us license to trawl in a few of our own, like the one that says Brits can’t rap. Historically lousy with affected New York accents (and attitudes) — and lyrics about drive-bys and other subjects of which Brits know little, U.K. hip-hop has perpetually wallowed in a murky mire. That is, until the advent of Skinner’s band The Streets, which finally had the common sense to subscribe to hip-hop’s golden rule: Go with what you know. On his 2002 debut album Original Pirate Material (Vice), Skinner rapped in a thick cockney accent about what really happens during “the day in the life of a geezer,” which includes lots of weed and PlayStation and getting dissed by girls down the pub. His Ecstasy-enhanced emotions and chopped-sample beats appealed to indie kids and post-ravers equally, and the album was nominated for the vaunted Mercury Music Prize that year. With such a conspicuous launch, Skinner surged to become a bona fide pop star in his home country, while maintaining a respectable career stateside with ’04’s ambitious concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free. All the while, Skinner maintained credibility in the underground, shining early light on new artists like Kano, who sprang from the so-called grime scene that gave Skinner his first break.
But it’s his star status in the U.K. that fuels the almost painfully confessional third Streets opus, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice), where he describes in detail the benefits and pitfalls of public acclaim. As he shifts through a myriad of bombastic hip-hop beats (and the occasional emo ballad), Skinner proves that beyond lyrics, his ear for sticky pop melodies is what gives his songs their strength.
“The album’s about living the dream, and the dream comes from my childhood,” he says, describing the record’s blunt emotional honesty — and the pastel-colored lens through which it’s filtered. Living the dream includes looking the part: His new image is pure Crockett & Tubbs; he admits, “When I was a kid, I watched Miami Vice and had posters of Ferraris on my wall.” And that Rolls-Royce featured on the album cover? That’s his, too. “Being a pop star is better than winning the lottery, because you get more respected,” Skinner theorizes. “Plus you can get away with a lot more.”
In his case, he’s gotten away with everything from a financially debilitating gambling habit to copious drug consumption. First single “When You Wasn’t Famous” describes an evening he spent smoking crack and having sex with an unnamed British pop star, then watching her ply her milk-fed image the next day on U.K. kiddie music show CD:UK. British tabloids have had a field day with the song, with claims that it’s about either former S Club 7 singer Rachel Stevens or Cheryl Tweedy, vocalist for equally sugary pop group Girls Aloud.
“I will say that the person that the tune is about didn’t mind it at all,” is his only comment on the subject. In the same song, he laments the advent of camera phones, since they hinder his ability to “do a line in front of complete strangers."
“I’ve chilled out considerably on that stuff this time out,” he admits. “It’s harder touring without it in some ways, but it’s also easier, since there’s a lot less of that roller-coaster effect mentally. Things are a lot more stable.” When asked to name his current drug of choice, he replies without a moment’s hesitation: “Caffeine.”
Skinner’s also taken a softer approach to women these days, despite the acidic “War of the Sexes,” which was inspired by Neil Strauss’ notorious tome on “scoring,” The Game. “Leo, one of the guys in my band, swears by the Chris Rock idea that men are only as faithful as their opportunities. Guys are flawed in that way. The book went around the tour bus really quickly. I’d love to meet Neil, actually. Think you could hook that up?” he adds with a wry giggle.
Currently on tour with much-hyped Brit-rapper Lady Sovereign, Skinner’s unfazed by her status, instead playing the role of wise older brother to the young up-and-comer.
“She’s more about America right now, which I think is the key to her potential success,” Skinner muses. “It’s all about her breaking stateside. And as much as I like America, I’ve never based my situation on making it there. It’s most important that my music speaks to British youth,” he says. And it does: British kids still hold him in high regard, even as he rises far beyond his working-class origins. “Those are my people, man!”
(Originally published in the LA Weekly, June 2006. The photo was hijacked from British GQ - Cheers!)
Posted by Scott at 12:23 PM