Villin was a short-lived music blog that ran from March to June, 2014, dedicated to music from Nashville, TN.
“Penicillin Baby, Taking it Slow”
“It was a big blessing in disguise.” Early in 2012, six songs that had been recorded for Penicillin Baby‘s debut LP were mistakenly deleted. Someone got ahead of themselves at the studio and in an attempt to clear up some hard drive space, wiped the session without double-checking to make sure it’d been backed up. “I guarantee you, if we would have released those songs,” says singer Jon Tyler Conant, “they wouldn’t have had an impact like the other ones did, and they wouldn’t have sounded as good either.” Discussing the album in his home studio, distance and time have lent the incident a bit of humor. Laughing a little, he continues, “Bands probably shouldn’t just go record a record right after playing one show, and think it’s gonna be great. I know that now: You gotta play songs quite a bit before they’re perfect.”
Chalking it up to fate, the group took its misfortune in stride and embraced a slower pace in finding its sound. In July of 2012 Penicillin Baby released the Jams: Volume I EP, which was followed by a split cassette release with Megajoos in October, Volume II in December, and Volume III the following March. All told, a dozen tracks were recorded over the four compact releases, each of which helped the band take baby steps musically while Conant honed his technique behind the board at his home studio (which he only began assembling components for after the group’s first album went missing). The process worked as something of a continuation of the slow-growth model of playing and recording that Conant first picked up in grade school, growing up in Oklahoma.
“My family’s super musical,” he says, going all the way back to his first interactions with music. “My dad’s a pastor. I come from a very Christian family, and my family was the church band. So, everybody in my family plays an instrument: I always had a piano, a drum set, a guitar at the house, from the time I was born.” Laughing at the obvious, he adds, “Pretty much, my dad taught me to play instruments so he could put me to work in the church band.” No matter the reason for his introduction, music stuck with him and as Conant grew his music continued to develop. “When I was in high school I played in four church bands. I was traveling, playing somewhere every night. I was just learning how to learn songs really fast, learning how to work with people, you know? It’s good practice. Once I got out of high school I started tinkering with my own recording, making my own music outside of church, obviously, and that’s when I kind of decided I was going to come out here. I really like this recording thing, I like this music thing, and Nashville seemed like the best option.”
Starting in 2006, Conant began recording and releasing music online, slowly developing his direction as he grew into himself. “Favorite Face was actually a name for a project I had when I was still in Oklahoma that never played shows, I just made music at my house and put it up on Myspace.” This experimentation continued for the next three years. “Really, I was doing a lot of partying and drugs during that time. I was like 18, 19, didn’t give a fuck about anything, you know? So, I did a lot of that and a lot of learning how to record, learning how to write songs. It’s definitely a process. It pretty much took me three years to be like, ‘OK, I think I’m good enough at this to where I need to move somewhere else to try it.’” In 2009 he landed in Murfreesboro where he began attending school at MTSU.
The musical web that developed once Conant arrived in Tennessee was tightly knit, with a core group of friends weaving in and out of each other’s bands for the next few years. It was just as well that fate intervened and wiped the first Penicillin Baby album from the record, because up until last year the group had yet to find a firm lineup. When the band first formed in 2011 it included Conant and drummer Anuj Pandeya, who had both been playing together in Magic Veteran, along with guitarist Charlie Davis and bassist Zack Bowden, who had been playing together in the Dirty Truth. After Bowden left the band he was followed by Brennan Walsh, later of Deep Machine and Thief, who now plays in Shy Guy. After a brief stint in the group, Walsh was replaced by Taylor Lowrance, who Conant first connected with when they played together in Electric Teeth. (Lowrance also plays in Shy Guy, whose debut album, Dreams was produced by Conant.) By 2013 things had gotten rocky with Pandeya and he was replaced by Wesley Mitchell (who remains one-half of Megajoos). Says Conant, “I was talking to a mutual friend and I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we might be looking for a new drummer soon, I’m not sure.’ And somehow it got back to Wes and [he] texted me and was like, ‘Hey, are you guys looking for a drummer?’ And I was like, ‘Not really, but if you’re wanting to be the drummer then: Yes, we are looking for a new drummer.’”
As Mitchell says, he first sat in at “the official ‘signing celebration’ show with Jeffery Drag Records. I was pretty stoked and also terrified. It technically was my first time playing both as a ‘signed’ artist and with Penicillin Baby. Kind of killed two birds with one stone.” “I had noticed them for a year or so,” adds Jeffery Drag founder and Bad Cop frontman Adam Moult, “and after I watched ‘em live a few times, my entire band got really into them. We were even jamming their songs at practice, so I reached out to Jon about August 2013, and that’s when this all began.” Before the end of the year the label gathered the Jams EPs into a single collection for iTunes and Spotify, and as turnover leveled off the group began to receive some positive press, including nods from Pepsi’s Pulse blog (calling Penicillin Baby one of the “Top 5 Nashville Bands Right Now“) and KCRW (where they were included as one of the “Hottest Bands Breaking Out Of Nashville in 2013“).
Earlier this year Jeffery Drag released the single and music video for “Private School Kids,” which was produced by Lincoln Parish (formerly of Cage the Elephant) and mastered by Bad Cop’s Kevin “Danger” Kilpatrick. Most recently the same team helped produced “Not Getting Any Younger,” which Jeffery Drag released in April as a 7″ single. (The accompanying music video recently premiered on PureVolume.) This month they will begin to record their proper full-length debut at Conant’s studio, with “Danger” helping produce, eyeing an October release date, which will coincide with an anticipated outing to New York where they’ll play CMJ. “I honestly see the band blowing up,” continues Moult, “becoming a DIIV or a Beach Fossils.” A Daytrotter session was just released, and in addition to recording, the band will tour to continue expanding their reach beyond Nashville’s city limits. What happens next — who knows. But after a few years of lessons learned, wisely, they’re in no rush getting there.
(Originally published June 2, 2014)
“Just Let Go”
In “Just Let Go,” the most raw and emotionally satisfying track from Sturgill Simpson‘s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, the singer looks within before turning his gaze outward and graduating to a feeling of wholeness. “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego / It ain’t ever done me no good no how / Gonna break through and blast off to the Bardo / In them flowers of light far away from the here and now.” While perhaps not a literal gesture toward intergalactic exploration, the song — and much of the album — paints Sturgill a veteran of the “overview effect” (a term used to describe a phenomenon experienced by astronauts who gain a “profound understanding of the interconnection of all life” after viewing Earth from the fresh perspective that outer space provides). “Just Let Go” continues, “But am I dreaming or am I dying / Either way I don’t mind at all / It feels so good you just can’t help but crying / You have to let go so the soul can fall.”
On the day Metamodern Sounds was released, Sturgill and his band played an in-store at Grimey’s. Before the set, he was sitting behind the building with his bandmates. We’d spoken on the phone a couple weeks prior, and I wanted to say hello, but I made my introduction by interrupting a conversation he was having with guitarist Laur Joamets. I felt like an asshole. He’s only five years older than me, but part of me looks up to him. We’ve both beaten ourselves up pretty bad, and I can identify with many of the conclusions he’s beginning to draw for himself. Not because that’s where I’m at, entirely, but because that’s where I feel I’m heading. I chalk the nervousness up to being a nervous person, but building him up in my head didn’t help my case. Sturgill was gracious.
I asked him if he was overwhelmed. He made reference to his incoming Twitter feed. It’s a lot to take in. I mumbled something about seeing that he’d reached #23 on the iTunes album charts. He replied, asking what that really meant for him. Good question. What it meant was that, at that moment, he was marginally more popular than Sarah McLachlan, though whatever jumbled version of the joke I said flopped before it even left my lips. On the surface, the ranking meant people were listening. Some were probably even getting his message, and that has to count for something. In its first week the album reached #59 on the Billboard 200, and #11 on the Billboard Country chart. Again, that has to count for something. But what it means, I don’t really know.
The I’s here aren’t meant to make this about me, but the more the album sinks in, the more it feels like it is about me. It’s about us all. We all have our own versions of a “15 year psychobabble existentialistic dilemma.” Some take longer. Some never materialize. It’s hard to let go of personal failures and instances that could have been handled better, just as it’s hard to let go of hoping that anyone else still remembers any of the successes or victories along the way. We all have our issues. Moving on isn’t always as easy as physically moving forward. Letting go is tough. Yet here we are.
In an email earlier this week for another article, Daniel Pujol wrote, “I think making something outside myself that explains a thought, argument, or idea to me helps me get a touchstone. A consolidated reference point. Like learning a new word. I can move on from the thought after externalizing it.” That’s what this album feels like, or at least what reacting to the album in public through online comment feels like. It’s a terrible pattern we’re in, reminiscing about a moment that’s barely finished happening. Consider me guilty. But in listening to the music and trying to make sense of it all, I feel like I’m better off for having experienced it. Up 300,000 feet and now safely back down, having seen it all from a new point of view. It’s a lesson I’m learning far too late in life, but: even when you don’t have anything to give, give your gratitude. All I can do now is just say thanks.
(Originally published May 23, 2014)
“The old me and the new me are in a fist fight!” As howled in PUJOL‘s “Manufactured Crisis Control,” the lyrics help paint an obvious scene of conflict, revealing an individual struggling for an objective view while commentating on an overbearing I against I scenario. While the new album, KLUDGE, “idiosyncratically captures life as it exists in our weird almost future world of flying robots, cancer from food, cell phone wire taps, metadata, $7.25ish minimum wage and $15.50 an hour endless choice buffets,” it more precisely feels like a challenge of self, an attempt to see through the ego and beyond the shell of pollution that now masks whatever may or may not be left inside. “I never know who I am at the moment,” relays guitarist and singer Daniel Pujol via email. “Maybe out of shear stubbornness. Or because I just don’t know. Or because I’ve hit some weird point where I just don’t care anymore.” There’s a tipping point somewhere along the road of self-discovery when — in the battle for separation between the old and new — looking within loses its novelty and a post-introspective future begins to take hold. This is where KLUDGE begins.
“Culturally, we’re encouraged right now to manicure our own identity,” Pujol tells the Nashville Scene, “to value our own identity, to maybe fetishize our own identity, and to try to present this manicured identity like it’s real.” Whether in active battle with it or not, right now we are all in the middle of a war with our surroundings, at once attempting to defend the inner while simultaneously allowing external elements to dictate who we project ourselves as. As Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti recently commented, “Capitalism needs to be constantly producing identities for peoples if the system is to survive.” The lines of who’s on whose side seem as blurred now as they’ve ever been. We are not ultimately our feelings, our songs, or our blog posts, but at the same time, when trying to figure out what is inside, our actions and expressions of self unveil themselves as mere reflections of the bits and pieces of identity that have been sold to us as indicators of uniqueness.
“Years ago,” continues Pujol, “I started noticing a lot of opportunities to grab things from culture, whether brands, viewpoints, associations, and use them to articulate a cohesive identity, and then exercise that identity cohesively in public. I felt like it was encouraged, and I began to wonder who benefits and why. Everybody wants you to be an individual to sell you stuff? A passive individualism? ‘It doesn’t matter I make $7.25 an hour because I can wear whatever I want to work!’ As an artist, that bothered me for a while because I debated whether I was just making media content and not art. That the whole apparatus launders everything created into content.”
At times KLUDGE reflects this perverted feedback loop, with its lyrics attempting to interject understanding into confusion. Despite leaning on an autobiographical tone, Pujol is vocal that the album isn’t as much a self-analysis as a purposeful narration, identifying the struggles of a character abandoning or killing off their past self. “That character wants more than perfecting who they were yesterday,” he says. “The crudest way to put it is watching a narcissistic [person] break up with themselves. He’s been encouraged by the world to decorate himself for other people who decorate themselves for him/her, and he/she just wants more than whatever he/she wants all the time based off what they liked yesterday forever.” The symbolism of recording the album in a suicide prevention center was, Pujol says, “pure poetic coincidence.”
“Obviously,” he continues, “it’s not that hopeless or one dimensional, but I figured if I made a record directly addressing ‘identity as commodity’ I could deal with that dilemma constructively. By trying to take it apart in song. The sticker on KLUDGE says ‘100% Pure Content.’ I think it’s funny. I think I just make things and move on.” What’s next might simply be looking forward for lack of a better option. Where any of this leaves us: who knows. But at least we’re all confused, together. “Whatever lesson I learned through making KLUDGE is where I am now, but I don’t know where that is.”
(Originally published May 22, 2014)
“The Metamodern Gospel of Sturgill Simpson”
Does Sturgill Simpson ever consider giving up? “Every fucking day,” he said over the phone, speaking to the internal doubt that haunts his professional direction, emphasizing how the well being of his soon-to-be expanding family rests on his success as a musician. It’s a conflict that breathes through Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and one that he’s already succumb to, when he first walked away from his craft, opting instead for the security of a position with Union Pacific in Utah. “I’ll do this as long as I can,” he continued. “But if there comes a point where I feel like my family is suffering, or I’m putting my own needs in front of that, I’m done. I gotta walk away, and I’ll know that I tried and I can feel good about it.”
With a theme of discovery at its core, the record relates Simpson’s attempts at balancing family, purpose, and self. At its boldest it’s a battle cry to dismantle and shed the veneer of ego. At the very least it shows a man learning to get out of his own way. On first glance just a wink to Ray Charles’ 1962 masterpiece, the album’s title does well to frame this struggle within the context of creative outlet. In their 2010 “Notes on metamodernism” essay, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker defined the abstract term as “[a sensibility] that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.” Here exists a man in the middle of cosmic opposites, their conflicting polarities causing an existential crisis, only further inflated by a self-made dilemma of duty. This is space in which Metamodern Sounds exists.
An invisible force has been tugging at Simpson since forever. Moved to honor the sacrifices made for him by his family, he joined the Navy at age 19, leaving behind his Eastern Kentucky home for Tokyo’s neon glow. He chose not to follow in the footsteps of his father (an undercover narcotics officer) when returning to America however. Instead, a creative drive took over and he formed Sunday Valley in 2004, releasing an EP with the twang-infused rock group before aspiration once again clashed with circumstance, leaving him bound for Salt Lake City.
The railroad job wasn’t bad, but the long hours, weighed further by the added stress of a managerial promotion, pushed Simpson near collapse. A few years into the work and he’d had enough. As the story goes, his wife dusted him off and injected a little sense into him, directing him back toward music so as to keep him from driving them both crazy. Still riding the swinging pendulum between security and satisfaction, the couple sold much of what they owned, packed their car, and headed east, where a retooled Sunday Valley would be reborn.
The band released To the Wind and on to Heaven in 2011, received critically as a “totally bullshitless record” that’s “as good-hearted as it is raucous.” The new songs and renewed sense of direction led the band to Nashville, where it didn’t take long to find a little shine. By October, Sunday Valley was named “Best New Outlaw Band” by the Nashville Scene, with writer Edd Hurt praising the group’s “super-boogie style suggestive of The MC5 with a Bluegrass State-size case of the blues.” Time and change remaining constant however, the new year found another swing in direction. “Out of respect and honor for Billy, Gerald, & Eddie and the sacrifices we all have made for this thing over the years,” wrote Simpson in an early 2012 Facebook post, “I could never under any circumstances feel good about continuing my musical journey under the Sunday Valley name.” Previously billed as John Sturgill Simpson, the singer shortened his name and welcomed the future. “New band, new sound, new album coming very soon,” he continued. “[A]s they say, the next chapter is always better, that’s why we turn the page.”
It wasn’t long before the newly christened Sturgill Simpson and the High Top Mountain Boys was trimmed to just the frontman’s name; the group would instead use the secondary tag — a nod to “the final resting place of many past generations of [Simpson's] family” — as the title of their next album. “When I did the High Top Mountain record I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to make another record after that,” continued Simpson over the phone. “So I wanted to make a very traditional hard-country album that not only I could feel good about, but my family could hear and be proud of.” Oscillating between the past and the future, last June’s release carried a purposeful “neo-traditional country sound,” with producer Dave Cobb recruiting steel guitarist Robby Turner and Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins to help shape its form. The music again illustrated a swelling dualism within the songwriter though, Simpson’s lyrics and sound exposing a man attempting to understand who he’s yet to become by living in the past. The album might best be viewed as a relic of transition.
“I always felt like I left a piece of my soul there,” Simpson told Kentucky.com last year, reflecting on his time in Japan after returning there to shoot the music video for “Railroad of Sin.” Much of the album, and the High Top period, feels in retrospect like Simpson going back over a trail of breadcrumbs, reclaiming bits of his soul that had been scattered over time. Album opener (and Sunday Valley holdout) “Life Aint Fair and the World is Mean,” for example, revisits the “turn the page” comment in a lampoon of the music industry. “It’s about life, how I came to Nashville with a very naïve perspective and some very quick, hard lessons learned,” he continued. “Without being too specific, it’s my own personal reminder of what I don’t want to do.” As the writing progressed for his next album, Simpson began to develop a keener sense for who he no longer was as a songwriter. “Honestly,” he commented this past March, speaking to WFPK, “I just kinda woke up and felt like I couldn’t write any more songs about broken hearts and drinking.”
“[High Top Mountain] gave me the realization that I had the freedom to write about whatever-the-fuck I wanted to,” he continued in our conversation, speaking to the thematic evolution of Metamodern Sounds. “There’s all these other things I’m interested in, and personal experiences that I’ve never really incorporated into music.” This isn’t to say that he completely abandoned High Top‘s themes with the release, however: “Life of Sin,” for example, goes deep in illuminating past transgressions (“Every morning when I rise I look in the mirror and despise / The sight of everything and all that I’ve become / The level of my medicating some might find intimidating / But that’s alright ’cause it don’t bother me none”). But unlike his last album, the subject matter here appears a springboard for higher-minded thinking, and flirtations with such themes translate as an exorcism of the past: purposeful molting to welcome evolution. With Metamodern Sounds Simpson isn’t moving beyond “broken hearts and drinking” simply for the sake of doing so, or to spit on country music tropes or position his music against contemporaries, but only because that’s just not where he is anymore.
While citing classics from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as inspiration, musically, the bulk of Metamodern Sounds lives in a similar space as its predecessor — though it sounds at times even more traditional than High Top, and its detours are unquestionably more ambitious. “I fully anticipated on being the acid-country guy,” he said, presumably speaking to the twisting psychedelia of “It Ain’t All Flowers.” Once again produced by Dave Cobb, the album was recorded live-to-tape in just four days. Simpson continued, “I feel like I’ve sort of cleared my throat and gotten my sound down.” The result is a record as appealing to Williamsburg as it is Lake Wobegon, modern sounding and full of risks while familiar and sentimental at the same time. Much of the credit for the album’s range and consistency belongs to the band, comprised of Simpson’s longtime bassist Kevin Black, drummer Miles Miller, and Estonian guitarist Laur “Little Joe” Joamets. “I wanted to make a record for people that don’t know that it’s possible to like country,” added Simpson. “It’s all really just soul music at the end of the day.”
The album’s opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” is further evidence of metamorphosis, finding the singer attempting to confront and abandon his past self by using psychedelics as exploratory vehicles, employed to break down “the self-defense mechanisms that we all don’t even realize we create for ourselves.” (“I don’t do drugs anymore,” he mentioned later in our conversation. “I would love to know what the album sounds like on drugs, but I probably never will.”) This led him to “look for other things that could change the direction of [his] life” – a sort of literary rabbit hole that he followed, digesting Rick Strassman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the process. “Everybody’s going to get hung up on all the other shit that went into it,” he continued. “But all it was was really like this 15 year psychobabble existentialistic dilemma that led me to writing a record about love that sounds like I’m trippin’ my balls off. But you don’t really need drugs to get there, you know?”
In a Facebook post last week thanking fans, Simpson took a moment to exhale: “It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life.” People wanting a piece of you is a consequence of having something to offer though. Perhaps demonstrative of this (or just evidence of a great publicist), Simpson is currently in high demand: Metamodern Sounds premiered on NPR, Simpson recently performed on BBC2’s Later… with Jools Holland, and he has a Late Show With David Letterman appearance on the books for July. Despite aiming beyond mainstream country, there’s something to be said for the commercial appeal of a thoughtful masculine figure, preaching love and referencing literary influences over a sonically traditional bed of distinctly American music. (As Bill Hicks once mocked, there’s big money in “that anti-marketing dollar,” which might be funny here if authenticity hadn’t become so profitable.) At the very least Metamodern Sounds should resonate with recent country music converts introduced to the genre through Kacey Musgraves’ casual rebellion, now looking beyond her gateway songs in search of a more profound high. Regardless, a successful career appears imminent. Simpson’s motivations, however, remains fuzzy.
As “Notes on metamodernism” concludes, “the ‘destiny’ of the metamodern wo/man [is] to pursue a horizon that is forever receding.” It’s hardly a stretch to re-frame Simpson’s career to this point through such a lens. While few of us know what we’re truly searching for beyond “happiness” or “love,” we’re all looking for the same thing. We all grapple with direction, meaning, and purpose, and so does Simpson, which is why he’s the first person to clarify that he doesn’t pretend to have any answers. That doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to provoke something within us as he discovers more about himself though. As his recent Station Inn set wound down, the singer looked at the floor for a moment and spoke halfway under his breath before playing the show out, “Thank you very much. Don’t give up hope.” Few words carry such weight, but what do they actually mean? Hope for what? Hope that our decisions to breathe as artists don’t prevent us from feeding and housing our families? Hope that we’re able to find a way to make it through another day without hitting the self-destruct button of chemical escapism? Maybe just hope that tomorrow is going to be alright. If Metamodern Sounds says anything, it’s that no matter what exists beyond the horizon, we should never stop trying to reach it.
(Originally published May 14, 2014)
Sturgill Simpson – Live at the Station Inn
Sturgill Simpson on Life as a Psychedelic Experience
Sturgill Simpson on the Story Behind “You Can Have The Crown”
Sturgill Simpson on Fitting In & Finding His Sound
Sturgill Simpson on Building a Record Label
Sturgill Simpson on Moving to and Making it in Nashville
“A Whole New You”
William Tyler‘s Lost Colony isn’t quite a rebirth, but for being only three tracks deep there’s a surprisingly bold message that breathes through the release. “Tailor made for epic, exploratory road trips,” the EP is led by a pair of the guitarist’s catalog songs — now revisited with the support of a band — and closed by a “Kraut country” rendition of Michael Rother’s “Karussell.” Musically, the rounded-out lineup of players on the album follows Tyler’s 2012 Nashville’s Dead single, which stepped away from the solo-focused Behold the Spirit to deliver a full-bellied rock sound. However, now aided by drummer Jamin Orrall (JEFF the Brotherhood), pedal steel guitarist Luke Schneider (Natural Child, Lylas), and bassist Reece Lazarus, the newly revamped songs don’t try to rewrite the past so much as they build upon it.
Its title stemming from an inside joke about consciousness, album opener “Whole New Dude” is a renewal of “Man of Oran,” a sprawling Paper Hats piece from 2009’s Deseret Canyon. Not unlike with the EP’s second cut, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” which was originally issued on last year’s Impossible Truth, the expanded lineup helps fill out the song without abandoning the intricacies of the original. The fan in me wants to strike back at Pitchfork’s Winston Cook-Wilson, who criticizes the latter track in his review, writing “the [new] arrangement transforms the character of the song entirely, but it also doesn’t add anything to it.” Though, sharp as the position might seem, it’s not entirely off the mark. It just misses the point of the exercise, which might be to appreciate the subtle changes in approach when rebuilding something familiar from the ground up with a different set of tools. This music is about craft.
Replicating yesterday’s work delivers consistency, though it doesn’t necessarily lead to personal growth. As Tyler told me in an interview a few years ago, “I think anytime I find myself settling into a pattern of consistency I start panicking. So while, yes, there is a certain framework of tools and methods that you need in order to be able to do linear things like touring or even recording an album, the musicians/writers/humans I most admire are the ones who refuse predictability.” In this sense, the two reworked tracks seem to represent a challenge to his own predictability (a theme amplified by “Karussell,” which Tyler said was released to “explicitly do something that made everyone realize I was a fan of that kind of music“). But when playing The Stone Fox recently he closed the set with a performance of the Clean’s “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” uncharacteristically stepping up to his microphone and adding vocals to the song while strumming along with a pick. It feels like something different is going on here.
Lost Colony might not be anything more than a temporary creative pivot, or it could lead to a whole new direction from the much beloved guitarist. Either way, it’s hard to draw any conclusions from 27 minutes of music. Regardless of intention, the songs do seem to represent something altogether different though. In revisiting the comforts of yesterday’s creations with an ever-maturing perspective, Lost Colony stands as a rather distinct plot point on Tyler’s evolutionary timeline. The EP demonstrates an ability to confront complacency with a refreshed sense of curiosity. Cliché notwithstanding, spring lends itself as a perfect time for this sort of personal change. And here we are, deep into the season, with a collection of songs that signifies how personal reinvention can begin with each new day.
(Originally published May 13, 2014)
“Into the Wild”
“I’ve been back and forth between Cleveland and Nashville a lot in the past five years,” writes Christopher Wild, emailing en route to Nashville from L.A., returning from a trip to the Mojave Desert. “Both cities feel a bit like home,” he continues, “but also a bit less than a place that I feel like I can say I live.” Wild’s eponymous debut reflects this sort of renegade spirit as filtered through classic rock influences, with the resulting 11 tracks falling well in line with a sound that migrated to Nashville through the likes of Jack White and the Black Keys. But Christopher Wild is hardly a blues-rock replica — it’s an amplified statement, making good on the prodigious claims that the guitarist’s been leveled with ever since he was a teenager.
“A lot of the songs that are on the record are ones that I’d written in high school and college days,” adds Wild (born Christopher Volante), dating some of the tracks back around the time of one of his first musical achievements, through his band the Sharp Edges in 2009. That year, in front of a panel of judges led by then-Vice President of Exhibitions and Curatorial Affairs of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jim Henke, the group won Live Nation’s Tri-C Rock-Off, a high school battle-of-the-bands style event held at Cleveland’s House of Blues. “Chris Volante showed his virtuosity by ripping a slasher guitar and a melodic keyboard to complement his pure metal tenor,” wrote Cleveland.com’s Chuck Yarborough of the performance. “At such a young age they had more talent than a lot of people in the industry,” reflects Wild, looking back on his time in the trio. “And they were really fun guys to play shows with.”
In 2012 he was hand-picked for Belmont’s annual Best of the Best showcase, yet despite these sort of recurring music industry affirmations, Wild approached his self-released debut as a very personal matter, recording all the instruments and vocals himself. Relying on analog all the way, he began tracking the album at his parents’ house in Cleveland last August, while he finished the vocals at RCA Studio B the following month in Nashville. At this stage fellow Cleveland-to-Nashville transplant, Tommy Wiggins, stepped in, simultaneously mixing and mastering the recording live to tape. “When Chris played me the first roughs for what would become this album,” Wiggins recently posted to Facebook, “I got the exact same feeling that I did when I was 19 and heard Led Zep’s first record for the first time. Electricity and hair standing up on my arms.”
If looking to pinpoint influences, Led Zeppelin is heavily in the mix among the set of yesteryear rock homages. You might also hear The Stripes in Wild’s Lennon epitaph “The Day,” Jeff Beck through the propulsive blues of “Strawberry Lips,” or Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, and Big Star elsewhere in the LP’s other nine cuts. But in “Home,” Wild’s record collection, personal style, and perceived place in this world all seem to collide. “I don’t know where I’m going,” wails the singer, “All I know is I don’t have a home.” Christopher Wild’s debut is ripe with familiarity, and it validates the acclaim he’s received since his youth, but more importantly the music’s helping him find his place in this world: It doesn’t really matter where Chris Volante lives because, as Christopher Wild suggests, through his music he will always have a home.
(Originally published May 8, 2014)
“D’ark Was the Night”
The roots of D’ark wind through Nashville, back to Portland, and all the way to Maui, where six years ago the band Copperfox was conceived between partners Lisa Garcia and Rory Mohon. Their 2011 debut, From The Den, ended up running four tracks deep, revolving around a sound that Garcia calls “moody alt-country.” While those first songs transition fairly seamlessly into their sophomore release, the change and growth between the records was immense: Garcia and Mohon uprooted themselves “from the wonderful city that is Portland in search of a bigger music town,” eventually landing in Nashville, and expanding their lineup to include Andrew Bottini and Stephanie Kincheloe. What emerged from this period was last year’s Roads Traveled EP.
Copperfox played their first Nashville gig at Twin Kegs last summer, leading to a meeting with producer Caleb Laven, who was impressed by the set. Reflecting on the encounter over email, Laven says “[the band] really stuck out to me as a sound that could have an impact not only around the Nashville scene, but on a much larger scale.” “He told us we sounded like a David Lynch film,” adds Mohon via email. “I knew we were going to be friends after that.”
The framework of the first two D’ark tracks were recorded on Mohon’s iPad before Garcia added vocals and the songs were sent along to Laven for mixing. “Fangs and Paws” is slowly propelled by Garcia’s smokey howls while “Fast as Lightning” fades guitar echoes over vintage-sounding electronics. Both tracks bear a predictably dark sound, each following a traditional structure that Mohon describes as a reaction to synth-wave music he was listening to. “The people writing this type of music weren’t pushing it far enough,” he says. “A song would typically consist of a beat that rarely changed and a fixed chord structure and it would drone on for five and a half minutes. I liked it but would get bored and wanted there to be choruses and a bridge, like pop music would have.”
No matter the impetus of the music, both agree that Garcia’s vocals lend the songs their identity. “There’s this sort of beautifully haunting thing about the melodies she writes that really gets to me at times,” says Laven. “I also have Lisa to thank,” adds Mohon. “It was her voice that brought these songs to the next level and made me determined to do something greater with this project than to just pass it around amongst my friends.”
(Originally published May 5, 2014)
“Her parents gave her the best of things, but they never gave her the best of them.” Taken from his 2013 TEDx presentation, this potent line speaks to Rashad Rayford’s flare for provocative commentary, a quality which has earned him his place as one of the key voices among Nashville’s spoken word community (in addition to a handful of NIMA honors). A poet mentor with Southern Word for the past six years, Rayford has held a prominent role in serving the organization’s mission to provide “creative solutions for youth to build literacy and presentation skills, reconnect to their education and to their lives, and act as leaders in the improvement of their communities.” “He’s a great role model,” says Southern Word Executive Director Benjamin Smith, speaking via phone to Rayford’s impact. “He’s one of our key mentors.” He’s also an emcee.
Since 2005 Rayford has issued well over a dozen releases under his Rashad ThaPoet moniker, adding an impressive musical output to his already-heavy creative workload. His latest, Less is More, stands as something of an abbreviated mixtape, with its seven tracks using soul and jazz-inspired beats from Oddisee, No I.D., Rashad Thompson, Trent Taylor, and Caveman the Wise to underscore the EP’s nonlinear storytelling. Thematically, the music finds Rayford searching for clarity in his relationships, certainly with others but primarily with himself. “Swear I ain’t preachin’,” he relates in the EP’s closing track, “this is just mirror talk.”
The set’s lone lyrical collaboration comes from Fyütch, whose wit and charm are abundant on “Wicked.” At its most basic the song’s a conversation between friends, each relating memories of near misses and romantic could-have-beens. “In middle school I used to memorize Shakespeare sonnets and couldn’t wait to get married,” relates Fyütch via email. “So I have a ton of stories of being in the ‘friend zone’, or just hilarious attempts to spit game to a girl that got me laughed at or talked about behind my back.” “But then again,” he continues, playfully painting himself equal parts victim and hero, “I always got the last laugh lookin’ all sexy on stage.”
In spoken word, being “on” suggests an aim for the profound: a lyrical exploration blending self-discovery with purposeful social observations. Add to this a self-imposed drive to exist as a positive role model in the community, and being “on” can quickly become exhausting. Less is More exists as a complementary piece to this mindspace, revealing itself as a brief detour, existing so Rashad ThaPoet can flex his creativity while giving Rashad Rayford a break from having to be “on” all the time.
(Originally published April 28, 2014)
“Wrinkles and All”
“I’m troubled by the industry convention that would require me to summarize my creative process in a dozen ‘fully baked’ songs,” explains Lizzy Ross, speaking to the “guts” of her still-expanding Naked in My Living Room release. “As if an album were a thesis to defend or a product with a warranty to uphold.” At the time of this article’s publication, Living Room is five songs deep, each track a single-take performance, capturing a “creative growth spurt” as it continues to unfold. “Most of all, it disturbs me when the need to present a perfect finished product gets in the way of continued creative expression, growth, and risk-taking,” she continues. “When the wrinkles are spared, they’re often my favorite part of a song.”
Born in Annapolis, Maryland (“perhaps the place where music goes to die”), Ross later relocated to Chapel Hill to study at the University of North Carolina. There she joined the short-lived “twangy indie rock band” Lafcadio in 2008, before forming the Lizzy Ross Band the following year. In 2010 she released a solo acoustic album called Traces, before hitting full stride with the group’s debut, Read Me Out Loud, in 2011. That year (and in 2012) Ross was nominated for “Best Rock Female” at the Carolina Music Awards, winning the honor the first time through. “They’re wonderful and fantastic,” she said of her bandmates last September, on the eve of both the break-up of the group and her departure from the state. “[T]his is definitely a band of people who are good to the core.” This past November she moved to Nashville.
“I released my most recent album over two years ago [and] at this point,” says Ross, “I’m feeling I’ve quite outgrown it.” With Living Room she hasn’t abandoned her band’s “country, blues, soul, and jazz-inflected Americana” sound, she’s just taken a filter off, letting the music of the moment flow from within and through her “electric rig” and RC-300 loop pedal. “I love the immediacy of a live performance,” she says. “I love the wholeness of a single take recording.”
They might only appear a series of rugged demos, but the weekly sessions do show the singer finding her footing, both in her new surroundings and once again as a solo artist. Whether compared to past solo recordings from a few months ago, or a few years ago, they exhibit an edge that seems to be getting sharper with time. There’s a comfort Ross seems to find in this evolution.
“Once a week, I come to terms with the disparity between how I sound and how I wish I sounded,” she says. “I find things to love about the way I play a song in that particular moment in time. I give a song my undivided attention and energy, we grow into each other, and I show the world our best collaboration of the moment.”
(Originally published April 25, 2014)
“A Place to Call Home”
The accompanying notes for Tri Angles’ MUSIC CITY release are sparse, relating the music to “this traveller’s current headspace,” an EP “filled with twilight psychedelic jams.” But that doesn’t mean the songs aren’t meant to represent something more. Self-described as an intersection between drum and bass and trip hop, the three tracks serve as a platform for wordless storytelling, a form of creating that the producer says “plays into the way we understand our experiences subconsciously.”
Born just outside of L.A., David Angles’ parents moved to China when he was a year old. He spent his next 18 years traveling Asia. “Such a very different life,” he says. “Come 2008 or so,” he continues, “I end up at Belmont, of all places. I started writing a lot of electronic music, albeit terrible, and slowly worked my way to an understanding of how music works.”
He dropped out of school in 2010 and began embodying the “wandering artist” label he uses to describe Tri Angles. “I’ve been on that road ever since. I’ve been homeless so many times now. So many buses. I’ve spent time in so many cities traveling, meeting new people and expanding myself.” He continued to pursue music as he explored the country, “A cosmic tumbleweed, letting myself be pulled wherever I thought I needed to be, following a feeling.”
Seven years ago Angles adopted the SMILETRON moniker and quickly became absorbed in a niche community, incorporating 8-bit sounds into the creation of chiptune music. The ChipWIN Blog would call him “one of the most beloved and prolific artists in chipmusic,” but 20-plus releases into his journey, he found himself at a creative crossroads. “Mainly I felt like SMILETRON was a finished story,” he said in an interview last December. “I wanted to start a new journey, but in a completely different direction while still retaining everything I had learned and accomplished on the last one.”
This creative closure coincided with a return to a familiar setting. “I guess that was just about a year ago that I ended up back here,” Angles says of his return to Nashville. “I’ve been hiding out ever since, writing music and getting by.” After bookending SMILETRON with a performance at the chiptune-focused BRKFest, Angles further shifted his sound away from the genre with Tri Angles’ FARSIGHT release this past February. Octal Blog called it “a drum and bass epic.”
Speaking with The Waveform Generators last year, Angles explained that one of the best ways he’s found to explore the nature of the universe is through “creating fantastic sounds.” In this sense, Tri Angles provides him an avenue to share his stories without having to draw any hard conclusions around what he’s experienced. The sounds merely represent a step into the unknown. And with MUSIC CITY there’s a sense that — at least for now — Angles feels at home with himself, his music, and his urge to explore. “Over time I’ve developed a very… surreal attachment to the city. For someone with no home, this is the closest thing I’ve got. I’ll undoubtedly wander away sometimes, but I always come back.”
(Originally published April 24, 2014)
“Super Dank III”
“My last three tapes I put out were made for smoking […] filled with bong sounds and things. The tracks are all 10-15 minutes long and made to be extra blunted.” While looking out for herbal connoisseurs with his last few productions, JOTA ESE’s Super Dank III isn’t strictly for the smokers. “Despite the name,” he says, “the videos and samples don’t have that much to do with smoking.”
As JOTA explains, most of the project “was done very late at night after I get off work, so it reflects a late night vibe.” The resulting mix drifts in and out of frictionless samples and instrumentals, all of which serves as a relaxed soundtrack for the accompanying Super Dank III video (which repurposes arctic exploration footage documenting Jacques Cousteau and the crew of The Calypso).
“This is a more classic style tape,” JOTA continues, which isn’t to say that the music stands on its own, separate from the series’ first two mixes. “I had help from the same people who helped with the beats and videos for parts one and two.” One of the big differences, he says, is that the new release was produced as a continuous recording before being broken down into the album’s 14 tracks. “Super Dank III was one track but I cut it up,” says JOTA. “So some echoes and things carry over to the next track, which I really really like.”
(Originally published April 21, 2014)
“Shake and Bake”
“I know this is somewhat cliché, but I still enjoy smoking to a lot of original dub reggae and original ska records. Those records have always had an impact on me musically.” KDSML’s five-track Nug Life EP is hardly a throwback to the days of King Tubby and Super Ape, but it does reflect the same stripped-down aesthetic of those early influences. “I tried not to over complicate,” he continues, “giving the sounds and the tracks more room to breathe.”
Released via Future Everything, Nug Life bears little smokiness to its sound despite the EP’s obvious theme: “Bong Hit” opens to an “energetic but still laid back feel” that characterizes the entire recording; “High Flier” is a washed out daydream of ethereal samples; “Now-A-Daze” is boosted by crisp pitched-down horn stomps; “The Reefer” warps woodwinds over a deep wobble; and “Gangsta” provides a bass-heavy close to the set.
KDSML promises more music later this year including “a couple of 100BPM joints,” but don’t expect him to trail off too far into the woods. “I am planning on putting out a lot more of my productions,” he says. “But all of the new material stays true to the general style I started developing on Nug Life.”
(Originally published April 20, 2014)
“Turtles All the Way Down”
Much has been made of the unorthodox lyrical themes that run throughout Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds of Country Music. “It’s a very psychedelic country record about the human experience and love,” explained the singer to WFPK recently. While “love” hardly seems like absurd subject matter, we are talking about country music here, where women being “accepted” somehow counts as an application of progressive ideals. Then again, in the album’s lead single, “Turtles All the Way Down,” the pursuit of love does include the discovery of “reptile aliens made of light” who “cut you open” and “pull out all your pain,” so maybe there’s something to the unconventional label, after all.
Not unlike how the word “god” has been co-opted by religion though, using the word “love” as a placeholder for fleeting human emotion merely stands as a pornographic reduction of its limitless dynamic. Strip the word of its superficial associations and you’ll begin to understand what the music is about: that “love” is all there really is.
Utilizing psychedelics in the pursuit of understanding, “Turtles” follows the singer as he’s faced with Jesus, The Devil, and Buddha, who shows him “a glowing light within.” “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there, far beyond this place,” he sings. Musically, the track is about as traditional country-sounding a song as you’ll ever hear, which makes it all the more enchanting when Simpson recalls seeing the spirit of the universe in the eyes of his best friend or questions why dimethyltryptamine is a Schedule I drug (despite literally being present in each and every one of us… and our lawns).
“Honestly,” continued Simpson to WFPK, “I just kinda woke up and felt like I couldn’t write any more songs about broken hearts and drinking [...] People are going to make a lot more out of it than it is.” Despite the astronomical divide between honky tonk clichés and infinite recursion, this modest sincerity rings true through to the end of the song, where a heartwarming glaze of cosmic echo bleeds over a lyrical resolve to abandon fear in favor of love’s everlasting nature. “Don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes, fairy tales, blood and wine, it’s turtles all the way down the line.”
(Originally published April 17, 2014)
“Super Duper Fly”
“There was just a lot of noise to sort through,” says Josh Hawkins, speaking to the time he spent living in New York City. “I think the best thing about Nashville is the country music overload. I’m not a country music fan, but in New York it was hard to meet people who were really doing interesting electronic music because everyone was doing electronic music.” The producer, who records as Super Duper, has an interesting perspective that almost welcomes the artistic whitewashing of his hometown that many others hold in contempt. “When I moved back to Nashville it was so refreshing to find just a handful of electronic acts starting to bubble up, and they all stand out here,” he continues. “The city’s stereotype filters out a lot of the noise and makes it easier to meet and collaborate with other truly talented artists.”
Growing up in Nashville, Hawkins moved to New York to work at a music house after he graduated from MTSU. Returning home a little over a year ago, he says the city now “feels like a perfect fit.” Despite feeling at home, he hasn’t felt entirely secure with his music, especially his new release, Diamonds & Doubt. “I’ve been finished with this album for almost a year, so I was getting worried that the songs wouldn’t be relevant with people anymore.” An unlikely blessing came when Diplo hand-picked a remix of “Diamond” for a recent episode of his BBC Radio 1 show. “It was such a huge boost! Having that kind of support gave me a lot of reassurance that not just fans, but also artists, would really dig these songs.”
Having previously drawn influence from electronic acts the likes of M83 and Air, Hawkins has likened the sound of his last EP to TNGHT, though he says he’s focused his direction since then. “That album was a lot of experimenting and I had no real concepts in mind. With Diamonds & Doubt I tried to simplify my use of sounds [to] give each song more personality to stand on its own.” Simplified doesn’t mean simplistic though, as is evidenced by XLR8R’s description of “Circus Bird,” which transitions “a low-pitched brass loop that resembles baleful laughter” into “wonky, decaying synths.”
“With this new release I’m trying to mold trap foundations with a lot more emphasis on electronic sounds.” Beyond the music, Hawkins is trying something else new in releasing the set physically… on cassette. “It’s been fun to tell people the album will be released on tape because I always get a positive reaction, even if I’m talking to my grandparents. Everyone likes tapes! It’s also really nice to have a tangible piece of music for my songs to live on. Vinyl is great, but cassettes definitely speak more to my generation.”
(Originally published April 16, 2014)
“Matters of Chance”
“People will always compare you to someone who came before you, especially if you’re black and you rap.” After Chancellor Warhol released Japanese Lunchbox in 2010 it wasn’t uncommon for the fashion-minded MC to be compared to Kanye West. The limitations of my own pool of references left me using a “like Kanye” stamp myself, and whether good or bad, that first impression has stuck. Even now I hear moments (such as the vocoder use on “Nothing”) that sound like Kanye on Warhol’s new album, Paris is Burning.
When asked whether such comparisons are careless or complimentary, the MC expresses frustration about being lumped in with other artists, almost by default. “For example, [I] had somebody comment that my ‘Au Revoir’ video looks like ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ by Kanye,” he says via email. “So now no black man who raps can shoot a video in the desert because Kanye already did that? My video is completely different.” For as open-minded as I consider myself to be, to say race has done nothing to encourage the comparison in my mind is probably wrong. But connecting a straight line between style and skin color in a conversation about creative parallels disregards the sort of artistic touchstones that have repeatedly arisen throughout Chancellor Warhol’s work, be it songs that lead one person to hear something “like Kanye,” or visuals that remind another of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” You can’t avoid your influences.
Drawing similarities between artists is one way to elaborate on the make-up of their work, using reference points to help articulate a personal reaction to their style. While saying one MC sounds like another is hardly a criminal offense, sometimes doing so unfairly limits the scope of their creativity. Does it actually mean anything to say someone channels “the confidence and emotional resonance of Drake,” for example? “On one hand it’s flattery,” Warhol adds, speaking to these sort of sweeping parallels. “On the other, it’s lazy because I’m my growing as an artist and I have my own brand and story.”
Chancellor Warhol is an artist born out of skateboarding culture who bears a Salvador Dali tattoo and recites lyrics about Lamborghinis and Sun Tzu (in the same song, no less), which is only to say that his brand and story are very much his own. But, as Itoro Udoko wrote for Nashville Cream after hearing Paris is Burning last year, “Everyone’s referencing Basquiat and Picasso in their lyrics these days.” Just not everyone in Nashville, which might help explain the MC’s view of himself in relation to his local contemporaries.
“I feel like I’m the ambassador of hip-hop here,” he told Red Bull Sound Select last year. And on a commercial level, Warhol isn’t wrong. How many other rappers from Nashville are premiering their music videos on VIBE or receiving placement on ESPN or HBO? Which other rappers from Nashville have signed deals with prestigious agencies such as SONGS Publishing and William Morris Endeavor? Exactly zero.
If graded within a vacuum, removed from all of this secondary conversation, Paris is Burning is a good album. In “Nothing” Chance says, “You know the last name, I’m kinda good at painting pictures,” and with vocal and production contributions from Make Up and Vanity Set, William Wolf, Cherub, Boss of Nova, Matt Villz, BASECAMP, Chase Akers, BoyGenius, Matt Dragstrem, Ed Pryor, and Joshua Crosby, each of the album’s fresh and stylish tracks help back those words up. And regardless of whether the Casey Culver-directed video for “Au Revoir” takes cues from “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” it is an undeniably glamorous backdrop for Juhi‘s bold hook and Chance’s sincere lyrical reflection on a financially desperate childhood. This sort of beauty permeates the album, but if caught up on ambitious personal claims (“if Michel Gondry could do a movie in the ’60s, [Paris is Burning] would be the soundtrack“) it’s easy to overlook the aspects of the release that are worth celebrating.
When asked if he feels his self-assuredness is ever misread as pretense, Chance replied, “I’m just trying to be the best artist I can be. If anyone misunderstands that, they’re looking into it too hard.” Paris is Burning is an impressive album and the point here isn’t to cast shade for the sake of doing so or re-contextualize quotes to deter from an otherwise proud piece of music. With that in mind, maybe I am looking into it a little too hard. Then again, music self-described as “Stanley Kubrick rap” might not deserve a free pass for simply sounding good: It doesn’t need to be beyond compare, but it should at least take some risks.
(Originally published April 10, 2014)
“The Sentimental Ghosts of a Hundred Sketches”
As Jensen Sportag, Austin Wilkinson and Elvis Craig have been called an “enigmatic art-pop duo” who, depending on the source, represent “a hipster take on 80s winebar muzak” or “a taste from the romance-filled elevators of the future.” As Wilkinson recently relayed to The Fader though, “The sound of Jensen Sportag is ever-evolving and devolving.” “Our motivations,” he continued, “are still simply the unique and purely joyful emotion we feel when we make a beautiful sound, and then to layer that sound with another.” While they’ve remained true to that focus with the duo’s new single, “One Lane Lovers,” the track also bears an encouraging message of progression.
Accompanying “One Lane Lovers” is a sense of intangible positivity — a feeling that Wilkinson elaborated on via email as the duo returned to Nashville following a performance at the Lapsus Festival in Barcelona. “The music of ‘One Lane Lovers’/‘Let The Queen Bee The Boss’ is symbolic for us because it’s something personal about leaving the sentimental ghosts of a hundred sketches and demos and old unreleased songs to the past and propelling forward toward the ideas and experiences of our future.” “In that analogy,” he continues, “the event of upheaval is the recent release of our album Stealth of Days,” the duo’s 2013 LP, which SPIN’s called “a kaleidoscope dreamscape with an extra-heavy layer of Vaseline smeared across the lens.”
While “One Lane Lovers” is dense in its magnetic pop-funk, Wilkinson speaks to a deeper lyrical thread that runs beneath the track’s surface. “In the same way we can get used to very unhealthy conditions we can adapt rapidly to new realities,” he says. “The song has a sort of propulsion surging out of darkness tone to it and since our music is more reflective than nostalgic, both the difficult and promising are at peace in the same thought.” This emerging paradigm becomes a reality with each new morning and every step forward, and despite appearing to be sonically focused on the rearview the song represents a fresh start that begs repeating, if only to help further escape the phantoms of our past.
(Originally published April 9, 2014)
“Day Old Bred”
“Everyone’s in it to make music, not to make money.” There’s nothing new about musicians giving their work away for free, forfeiting track or album sales to encourage future gains. Free downloads hypothetically attract more fans to listen, encouraging increased attention and exposure, and potentially leading to performance income or merch sales. The formula isn’t groundbreaking, neither is it complete when encapsulating what Day Old Records is all about though. Here, Victor French — who records and releases downtempo electronic music for the label as Caveman the Wise — is referencing something greater than an art versus commerce debate: He’s talking about community.
Day Old might not place a premium on download sales, but to wring out an already dried up cliché by saying the indie label is “all about the music” also overlooks the creativity and friendships that have sprung from its existence. John Stout, who creates lo-fi beats and videos as JOTA ESE, could be considered one of the label’s founders, though he’d be the first to say it doesn’t matter who founded Day Old Records; he just happened to be part of a group of friends that adopted the name nearly a decade ago in Macomb, Illinois. As for releasing their music for free, Stout adds, “I think money would just fuck it all up.”
While dozens of “crew” member names are listed on Day Old’s website, beyond the aliases, in-jokes, and long-retired projects, only 10 (“or so”) artists currently contribute to the label. One key name from that list is Stout’s high school friend Montrell Daniels, known to the Day Old family as Off the Rail Trell. “My buddy got a huge roll of these stickers from a Casey’s General Store,” says Stout of the donut labels Daniels came home with one day. “We all skateboarded, so we just involved everything we did under ‘Day Old’. The stickers kind of determined the name.” Stickers and skateboarding aside, the most influential phase of the Day Old timeline came once Stout began attending Western Illinois University, when a dream encouraged him to create a D.I.Y. performance space. From there the Day Old Basement was born.
After getting approval to take over his dad’s basement for use as a venue, Stout received help from friends in a band called the Deadbees to prep the spot for events. The first show took place in August of 2007, and for a few years the Day Old Basement would see a heavy stream of local, national, and even international bands pass through. “We had a professional P.A. system,” he continues. “We built a stage out of pallets and plywood. Almost every weekend we would do some shows.” Already having gained popularity as one of the only places for students to experience live music outside of bars, the donut stickers were given away to attendees who then spread them all over Macomb, which only created more local buzz about the venue.
During these years Stout played bass in Ass Factory 7, the Dope Boy Allstars, and a jazz combo with French on saxophone, but eventually groups grew apart, students graduated, and the Day Old Basement came to an end. It wasn’t until 2011 that Stout (who’d moved to Nashville) and French (who was then attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale) would find their paths crossing again. “I was just making random-ass ambient shit,” says French, looking back on his first attempts at creating electronic music. Searching for new sounds online he came across a familiar name who was now releasing through Day Old as JOTA ESE, which then influenced a turn in his own direction. “There is a sound I was not really familiar with, and it was someone I knew from Western. That’s something I can do,” he says, speaking to the sense of inspiration that followed. “I know this guy.” Day Old Records became further entrenched in Nashville when French relocated to the city last July.
While still releasing lo-fi guitar music from the Deadbees and slightly-blunted hip hop from Off the Rail Trell, Day Old has grown exceedingly focused on loop-heavy, beat-based audio and video since Stout and French reconvened. Digital albums have followed from (inter)national artists including Dogbee Offla, nappychan, and lerabot, in addition to numerous releases from both Caveman the Wise and JOTA ESE, including JOTA’s collaborative release with Truth Clipsy and Super Dank II, which prompted the Nashville Scene to dub him the city’s “Best Experimental Hip-Hop Producer” in 2012.
JOTA’s Super Dank II was also released as a VHS beat tape that year, patching together found footage, inspired by the video collages of Human Manwich (who collaborated with JOTA on “Human Ese” in 2013). Other videos have been produced by Kenneth Anger, Terry Larkin, and Lucas Young, who connected with Day Old online before creating visuals for a couple Caveman the Wise tracks. “Dude hit me up and he was like, ‘Look, I like your songs’,” says French of their online introduction. “I had a two minute-song called ‘Malice’ and [he asked] ‘Mind if I make some videos for your songs?’ and I was like ‘Hell yeah – go for it!’”
As Day Old’s foundation has become further rooted in Nashville, the duo have started to meet and work with different groups of electronic musicians within the city. “It’s been good because, y’know, most of the other beat-makers are like, ‘Oh, we thought we were the only ones’,” says French. “[Like] two alien civilizations, really, making contact.” “We’re definitely the weirder arm,” Stout adds, referencing their place in the scene compared to producers including Strooly, Treekeeper, Robin Carnage, and KDSML, who work under the Full Circle Presents banner. “Our goals are much more different, [but it’s] been good to work with them.” Another Nashville act that recently connected with Day Old is Gay Vibes, the solo project of director Seth Graves.
“The general public’s response was pretty non existent,” says Graves of Gay Vibes’ 10 track audio-collage called My Baby’s Got Worms which he self-released last November. Dissatisfied with the positive-but-passing reception, he began looking for outlets to help expand the reach of his next release. “Day Old was my first choice.” “We get artists that hit up Day Old Records all the time,” says French, “[but] there’s definitely got to be a certain kind of feel to it.” The vibe of Gay Vibes’ submission hit its mark, and the five song Karate All Day EP dropped under the Day Old banner this past February. “I love what those guys are doing and it was very validating on my end that they let me be a part of it,” adds Graves. “Their approval inspired me to make a great piece of music that is in turn pushing my art forward.”
Forward, here, is the motion for all… For Caveman the Wise, the future looks to deliver an evil doers-themed EP series called Villains, which he also plans to develop into a live show which will incorporate use of his prized possession, a Selmer Paris Reference 54 saxophone named Zoey. For JOTA ESE, it means following his friend in experimenting with beats and live instrumentation, and releasing the Super Dank III tape, which he hopes to have ready by 4/20. And for Day Old Records, French says that forward means staying true to their philosophy while trying to help elevate the electronic music scene in a city that’s known for anything but. “The beat scene in Nashville doesn’t stand a chance unless we’re unified.” It’s never just all about the music, but to Day Old Records the only thing more important might be the people.
(Originally published March 30, 2013)
Additional video: Caveman the Wise – Live at the Wilburn St. Tavern