Wednesday, January 24, 2007

DISCO D: 1980-2007

Rest In Peace...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


“Have you heard the band Hellogoodbye yet? A friend just gave me the CD, and I can’t tell if it’s wonderful or really terrible. But I just love it. The single sounds like Eiffel 65 with robo-Cher vocals and everything. The best part is that it’s completely unashamed. They’re my favorite band right now.”

Jake Spears, lead singer and songwriter for New York disco-pop sensations Scissor Sisters is on a break from filming the video for “Land of a Thousand Words,” the second single off their hotly anticipated sophomore album, appropriately titled Ta-Dah. His unabashed enthusiasm for the goofy Southern California power pop combo HelloGoodbye (fresh from the dubious notoriety of being featured on MTV’s The Real World: Austin) and their spastic song “Touchdown Turnaround” is endearing. It’s also an apt metaphor for the Scissor Sisters themselves.

For more than 30 years, we’ve heard countless bands shamelessly pay tribute to rock icons of the ’70s like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. The Scissor Sisters defiantly flaunt inspirations from the flipside of that decade’s other biggest acts, like Abba, the Bee Gees and Elton John. Insanely catchy choruses, throbbing, beat-heavy production, and gleefully flamboyant imagery have served the Scissor Sisters well.

First shaking the scene with their inspired dance-floor rework of Pink Floyd classic “Comfortably Numb” (lauded by none less than Floyd’s own David Gilmour and Roger Waters), they went on to sell more than 300,000 copies of their eponymous debut album in America to an impressively panoramic fan base.

“TV really helped us out here in America,” Shears admits. “We played Saturday Night Live, and sold a bunch of albums to cool people in their twenties. But then we did Regis and Kelly, and suddenly soccer moms were getting into us, too. Still, there were certain big shows that simply refused to have us on, for whatever reason. I won’t name any names, but I will say that there are people in power positions here that won’t give us the same chances that we had in the UK.”

In the UK, that same debut album exploded, going on to become the best-selling album of 2004. The band’s first show on British soil was opening for Duran Duran at the massive Wembley Arena. Elton John became one of their biggest cheerleaders, and soon they were sweeping the top honors at the 2005 Brit Awards (think the English Grammys) and opening shows for U2.

“The UK is just more open to art. It’s a part of everyday living,” theorizes singer Ana Matronic, who saunters into the conversation for some relief of “having so many hands in my face all day” during the day’s video shoot. “I feel like our success over there was based on so many people seeing us live and loving it. It’s in concert that we really make sense. To them, we’re like a return to a certain era of glamour. And they love a good pop tune.”

With such success, of course, comes the pressure and heightened expectations to maintain the upward trajectory. There are plenty of acts that made a big splash with their debuts, only to buckle under the stress of the second album. Such anxieties were hardly lost on Spears.

“It’s a very scary thing, making a record following something as successful as the first album. You can’t help but always compare,” he’s quick to admit. “Suddenly, there’s so much at stake. I have passion for performing and making music; I love it and it’s my livelihood. The thought of that ever being taken away is really horrifying, and it’s a sensation that sort of stayed with me. It took us a year to write this record, which is a really long time. And that’s for no lack of working. We were in the studio every day.”

When that period of “songwriting frustration” threatened to overwhelm Spears, the antidote came in the form of a lucid dream starring… Paul McCartney?

“I have really vivid dreams, and I always take note of them. I had this dream one night about (McCartney), where we had a conversation about songwriting that was something of an epiphany. I wrote down what he’d said to me as soon as I woke up. I was really inspired, and we wrote the song that day,” he explains of the high-energy dance track they named after the former Beatle. “It’s about inspiration, and the telepathic power between a creative person and whoever’s on the other end receiving it. There’s a kind of telepathic relation that happens when you read a book or listen to a song. It’s a long chain that never stops.”

McCartney’s advice seems to have paid off. Ta-Dah is a fleshed-out realization of their debut’s promise, rife with upbeat rug burners and more introspective, melancholy moments. It’s hard to deny the instant appeal of tunes like first single “Don’t Feel Like Dancin’,” a hook-laden stomp of piano-powered mega-pop co-written with none less than Elton John himself.

“Deep down in our hearts, we wanted to make a great pop song together,” says Spears of working with John. “When we got it, we knew it. But it took us a while to get there. It wasn’t like we just banged it out. We really had to work at it.”

“Elton is one of those special people,” adds Matronic. “Music just pours through him. Working with someone like him was crazy and amazing, but everything that’s happened to this band so far as been crazy and amazing, so we just went with it.”

“The album is about expectations, what we expect out of life, and never taking those things or the people around you for granted,” Spears muses when asked about the new album’s deeper meanings. “There was a lot of love on the record, but there was a lot of death around us, too. My sweet aunt Hilda and my best friend in the whole world both died while we were recording, and one of (guitarist) Del’s best friends died, too. It was a pretty heavy period for us. You give up big parts of your life to do this, but you do it anyway because it’s so fulfilling. That’s kind of where the title comes from, saying ‘this is it.’ It’s very kind of depressing, but really beautiful at the same time. I think those tragic moments are very integral to music.

“I love this record, but I’m not satisfied by it,” he says finally. “But I’m never satisfied. I wasn’t satisfied with the first album. I always thought it was a partial piece of crap. I’m a really harsh critic, but I think you’ve gotta be if you’re doing this and want to make something that people think is great. I gave my all to it, but I plan on making better records in the future. To me, Ta-Dah sounds like a record by a band that’s got a future.”

(Originally published as a cover story for BPM Magazine, Winter 2006)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Deerhoof, Hella & Busdriver at El Rey Theatre, Wednesday, January 24

If you still need to scrape away those last stubborn, sticky bits of oh-six, entertain your brain with this soul-scrubbing sonic three-for-all. San Francisco’s Deerhoof have ascended the indie food chain by adroitly pingponging between dreamy experimentalism and quirky but pleasant pop darts. Survey says they’ve created their most coherent (and accessible) set yet with the forthcoming Friend Opportunity, led by the horn-blasted “+ 81,” a smiley smashup of White Stripes, Sonic Youth and Cibo Matto. NorCal’s Hella redefine post-metal riffery with their latest fuzzy math-meets-Nintendo freak-out, There’s No 666 in Outer Space, and probably the best drummer you’ve ever seen live, Zach Hill. L.A.’s own polysyllabic bebop-hop word-worker Busdriver digs deep into his mental thesaurus to dilate the pupils of your mind with his lightning lyrical histrionics, pulling from his freshly minted collection of existential rhymes, Roadkill Overcoat.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 1/07)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


“Baltimore club was just a sound on the radio when I was growing up,” mumbles XXXChange (born Alex Upton), the production side of Baltimore's latest underground-gone-global sensation, Spank Rock. “I was more into a lot of hip-hop and anything out of the ordinary I could get my hands on.”

Originally a drummer who ended up in the New England Conservatory to study, XXXChange dropped out to make his way to New York City, where a chance run-in landed him a gig interning at the recording studio of DFA Records, home to such dance-centric indie acts as LCD Soundsystem and the Juan McClean.

“I didn't know that much about production at the time,” XXXChange continues sheepishly. “My experience with making music had only been on the computer, so when they asked me to clear the board my first day there, I didn't know what they were talking about. I did know how to play, so I was able to hang out and learn. It helped me get out of that strictly digital mindset and learn how to set up a microphone. A lot of people in my generation don't know how to do that. They can work Acid or Fruity Loops but are clueless when it comes to real engineering.”

When his internship at DFA didn't result in a full-time gig, he drifted through various odd jobs and toward making his own music with an older version of Pro Tools preloaded on a computer purchased from a former bandmate. It's the same $500 setup that he used to record Spank Rock's debut album, YoYoYoYoYo (Big Dada). Combining License to Ill-era Beastie Boys braggadocio with insistent, 130-plus bpm beats, the Spank Rock sound comes from a panoramic whirlwind of influences.

“Our stuff has a couple elements of club music, mixed with the weirder parts of post-punk rock and bits of people like Dizzee Rascal and that whole UK-garage scene,” XXXChange explains. “It's just us trying to fit all of our favorite music into something that's our own.”

When quizzed about his favorite gear, he's quick to hype Arturia software. “They make a clone of the old ARP 2600 that's great. It sounds really good, has a flexible sequencer, three oscillators and this whole weird matrix section. It's fun to use. It's on pretty much every track of the album.”

Already a few songs into the follow-up, XXXChange says to expect the same dirty Spank Rock energy with an added caveat. “The idea being the first album was to make rap music you can dance to. Now we want to do that with really tight song structures,” he muses. “We want to have bridges, choruses, that whole package. The next record will be a lot more structured in that way.”

(Originally published in Remix, 1/07)


Ten years ago, Daft Punk exploded out of France to conquer the world's dancefloor with its thrilling combination of Detroit techno, Chicago house and classic disco influences. The glare of the duo's success illuminated a burgeoning late-'90s electronic scene percolating across its home country, rich with artists such as Motorbass and Cassius. Today, it's a parallel situation as dynamic DJ duo Justice (Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay) leads a new sonic scene out of France, giving shine to its label Ed Banger Records and other French acts like Uffie and SebastiAn.

“It's really hard to say if there's something unique or special happening in France right now,” shrugs de Rosnay the afternoon after a wildly received show in Brooklyn for the 2006 edition of the CMJ conference. “We've only been together for three years, so this is all new to us.”

In those three years, Justice has earned a lofty reputation as remixer du jour with its big, abrasive bass blasts and crunchy, distorted rhythms. The remix of Simian's “We Are Your Friends” is a worldwide underground smash, made even more notorious when the video won the MTV Europe award for Best Video over perpetual sore loser Kanye West, who rushed the stage in protest. The duo's first proper single, “Waters of Nazareth,” is a grinding dance track powered by heavy-metal energy and decidedly religious overtones.

“I don't know how our music ended up sounding the way it does,” de Rosnay ponders. “We are not big fans of techno music. We're much more into pop music, really. But when we make tracks, what comes out sounds like the guys from Chic getting their asses kicked by Slayer. As for ‘Waters of Nazareth,’ the idea was to blend electronic music with Christian music, since both are powerful and made for the masses. We wanted it to be big like that.”

Currently putting the finishing touches on the group's debut album, expected by the middle of 2007 on Vice, de Rosnay says to expect “lots of disco, given the Justice touch.”

“We make dance music on computers because it's easier than struggling with a guitar,” he reasons. “We tried to do pop music, but it just didn't sound right on a computer. We have lots of drum machines and classic pieces like a Roland Juno-106, but everything is run through the computer. Most of our music is done on Cubase and GarageBand. Those programs work really well for us.”

(Originally published in Remix, 1/07)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

My Morning Jacket at the Wiltern, January 6

What’s the story, morning glory? Jam bands not only got cool while you weren’t paying attention, they got good — really good, in the case of Louisville sluggers My Morning Jacket. The truest missing link between Coachella and Bonnaroo, MMJ pile on the reverb for headphone fiends but never lose sight of the song, no matter how far afield their telepathically tight improvisation takes them. It’s no surprise that their last album, Okonokos, was a live one, bordering on the epic majesty they’re known for creating in the flesh. If Phish were the Grateful Dead, Part 2, MMJ are the actual evolution, Jerry’s revenge in the form of an outfit wise enough to take sonic mind expansion and genuine musicianship to that hallowed next level. These fellas are an honest band for scarily dishonest times. Reality — what a concept.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 1/07)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

LUPE FIASCO: Frequencies

(Disclaimer: This piece was written for Remix Magazine, which is for DJs/producers and appeals to the more technical side of music-making)

“To tell the truth, I wasn't going to use any big-name producers on this album,” admits burgeoning rapper and hip-hop phenomenon Lupe Fiasco from his home base of Chicago. However, Fiasco's long-awaited debut Food & Liquor (1st and 15th/Atlantic, 2006) features contributions from such production heavyweights as The Neptunes, Kanye West and Linkin Park/Fort Minor's Mike Shinoda. “All the bigwigs got involved in the last three weeks of recording,” Fiasco adds. “I didn't want the album to be one of those releases just using names to sell it. That concept has crippled so many records and artists in the last few years. I had another idea.”

The idea was to entrust most of the album to his in-house crew 1st and 15th Productions, led by budding beat-makers Prolyfic and Soundtrakk, long-time Chi-town associates Fiasco has been working with for years.

“Prolyfic's been there from the beginning; he'll always get to make a bulk of my music,” Fiasco lauds. “We picked up Soundtrakk about two years ago. He stepped in and blew everybody away. To me, those two together can compete with any name producers out there, and in certain instances, crush them.”

And Soundtrakk's happy to return the love. “It's great working with Lupe. He's a very creative dude,” Soundtrakk says. “I have a lot of respect for him as an artist and a lyricist. I put him up there with all my favorite rappers. I don't think anybody out there is fucking with him lyric-wise right now. He rides any beat perfectly and comes up with great concepts.”

Initially making beats for local Chicago rap group The Movement, Soundtrakk made his way up the ranks to become an apprentice for Windy City production legend No I.D., who also counts Kanye West among his past protégés.

“I heard a lot of amazing beats at his studio,” Soundtrakk says of No I.D. “It gave me a reality check. I realized that I had to step up my game. I started making beats in 2001 on a program called Acid Hip Hop by Sonic Foundry. Later on that year, I copped the [Akai] MPC2000XL and my Roland XV-3080 sound module. It's funny because once I got those two pieces of equipment, I fell off right away, and nobody was feeling me anymore. I had to build myself back up. I thought switching to an MPC and a keyboard would make my beats sound as good as The Neptunes and Timbaland. I didn't realize that there was much more to it.”

For Prolyfic, another fan of the MPC2000XL, using computer programs isn't even an option. “It's like the instant mashed potatoes of beat-making,” he says. “It's one thing to start out with what you can afford and then upgrade as you grind up some dough. But when you turn those downloaded programs into your formula to make it, then that's where I draw the line. Most of these guys don't even really understand what their programs are doing for them. Having to work hard to afford real equipment made me what I am today.”

For Fiasco, the fusion of Prolyfic and Soundtrakk's work makes for a great complement to his MC style. “Prolyfic's signature is the way he programs the drums, really technical,” Fiasco says. “His drum patterns are like a crazy rock drummer going off on a solo. He has kind of a space-age edge, being influenced by the Neptunes and Kanye West. Soundtrakk, on the other hand, is a more universal producer. He can sit down and make something like ‘Kick, Push’ [referencing the suave break-out single that big-ups his beloved skateboard culture] and then come up with a heavy, rugged track like ‘Real’ that's hard and rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I'm really happy with the album,” Fiasco continues. “I like to think it follows the formula of the first DMX album, where he didn't really use many known producers. He had Swizz Beatz, but even he was still growing off of DMX. You look at the credits and all of those amazing songs that made him a star, and they're produced by Lil' Rob, who to this day lots of people don't know. But he captured DMX's sound. To me, Soundtrakk and Prolyfic captured my sound. It's much more impressive to do it with fresh, unsung producers with a new story. Hopefully it'll help launch their careers, and in the future, they'll be ranked right up there next to The Neptunes and Kanye West.”