48Volts

48 Volts: Starting a cooperative recording & rehearsal studio

In this 48 Volts, Soapbox gets interviewed! We've gotten a couple emails from people interested in trying to start cooperative music studios like ours.  Here are some of our answers to a few email questions we've received. We welcome folks asking questions and trying to learn from what we've done.

First of all, what challenges have you had in establishing your place of business and what have you learned from these challenges?

When we started Soapbox, we didn't have any prior business experience. Having spoken with friends who ran non-profits, they seemed to face many hurdles and we thought going the business route would be easier. Initially it seemed easier but we faced many unexpected challenges. Navigating local city politics, researching commercial law and ordinances, and understanding how commercial real estate works were all daunting challenges. Sometimes we wish there was a manual we could've followed, but we just try to learn as we go and not beat ourselves too much if we make a mistake. It seems like the only way to really learn is to stumble a lot and gain experience, and to try and focus on long term goals.

The other challenge we faced was staying motivated. Everything goes much, much slower than you want. Combined with the regular business challenges, it can feel like you are moving backwards sometimes.  What has helped us is recognizing when we are losing interest or motivation and trying to change our strategy so that we can move forward. One example of this is that we changed our model from an automated service model (online booking, hourly rehearsals, impersonal, few repeat clients, etc) to a much more personal and cooperative one (a few regular clients who we get to know well).  We realized it was more interesting and fun for us to foster closer relationships with a few people instead of trying to provide services for as many people as possible.  Additionally, this approach was more in line with our overall mission to create a supportive community of musicians. But we are still learning and face new challenges everyday.

What is expected from members?

Members are expected to be respectful of the space and other members. Basically things only work if we trust one another. We want members to feel comfortable communicating with one another, and we want them to feel like they have shared ownership and say in the space. This doesn't mean there are no conflicts, however. Conflicts are inevitable but hopefully by keeping lines of communication open many problems can be prevented. Monthly co-op meetings help with this.

Who maintains the resources? (gear, security, utilities, rent, facilities)

Soapbox manages repairs, rent and utilities, and a lot of shared gear. We keep the lights on. Members can also share their gear but they maintain it themselves. Not all gear is shared, however. There is sort of an ongoing discussion about what gear is shared and a constant negotiation of space.

Do you have a designated cleaning/maintenance crew or are members expected to clean up after each other?

No, members are expected to try and clean up after themselves. Soapbox will sometimes go the extra mile, however. We also try and organize a more intense "spring cleaning" type thing where all members meet up at once and we do a full cleaning.

How are costs split among members?

Costs are split equally among members via a flat monthly rent per band. This rent covers monthly utilities, maintenance, and Soapbox fees & expenses.

What resources are shared?

We try and share large items that take up space. PA system, drumkit, a few amps. Computer system and much of the recording equipment. It would be impractical / impossible to have two drumkits or two computer systems in place. But these shared resources can change depending on the members.

Would you say your location has helped you or maybe not hurt, but limited you? How? Why?

Both, probably. There are advantages to being off the beaten path (lower costs) as well as disadvantages (zero foot traffic). At first we thought it would be better to be in a foot traffic type area, but there is a huge downside to that which is that parking is more difficult. I think we are sort of in the middle of those two extremes - we are not really located near any commercial centers but we are close to where people live. Advertising the space can sometimes be difficult because of this, for some it seems close to them but for others they feel like we are in the boonies.

What would you say are the best selling points to your studio?

Community oriented cooperative, shared resource model. Trying to foster supportive and helpful relationships between members so that everyone can achieve their goals.

Finally do the organizers consider it a successful business venture? What would you define as success?

Yes. Our goal was to find a way to share resources in a sustainable and supportive way.  Success for us is to keep the doors open and maximize the usage of time and resources of the space. We want people to be in the space playing, rehearsing and recording music everyday. That is already happening and we just want to keep that going as we slowly improve.

48 Volts Interview with Al Scorch

 

Al Scorch has got some firebreathing fingers, and he's not afraid to use them.  There is something captivating, earnest and honest about the way he shreds his banjo, eyes squeezed tight, drenched in sweat, hollerin' with smoke rising from his banjo's backside. He plays every show like it is his last, and that fierce energy creates an undeniable spirit that his audience can feel as well as hear.

 

For many of our readers, Al Scorch needs no introduction. He's a mainstay of the Chicago music scene, playing shows all over town with his 11-piece backing band Country Soul Ensemble, and he recently returned from a solo tour in Europe in support of his upcoming debut LP, "Tired Ghostly Town," out in stores and online March 21st on Plan-It-X South Records. He also recently had one of his live recordings, "Dit Vois," featured on the DIY CHI Collective compilation.

 

I first heard about Al Scorch through mutual friends who referred to him as "Banjo Al". After seeing him play live, I got in touch with the humble banjo man to ask a few questions about his background and how he came to form his ensemble. You can listen and learn more about Al Scorch via his website and facebook page. He's also playing this Friday, March 2nd at Pancho's Township in Chicago with The Gunshy and Water Liars.

 

How did you first start playing music? What attracted you to the banjo? Do you remember what your first song was about?
 

My dad is a classical pianist, and showed me notes and chords when I was really young. He doesn't really drink or socialize and he unwinds by playing piano for like four hours after work everyday - he still does that. So I heard a lot of his playing, and he eventually started showing me the basics of music, first on piano and then guitar. When I was about 11 my older brother started writing songs and playing guitar and bass in bands so that stoked the fire of sibling rivalry. He's a poet-lawyer now. 

 

My mom played banjo so there was one around the house. I was drawn to it because there is no other instrument like it. Not in school or anywhere. I also grew up listening to Pete Seeger, Dolly Parton, and a lot of Irish music so I didn't really have a choice.

 

My first finished structured song was called "Rip Van Winkle's Van",  about not wanting to get out of bed to go to work and instead riding shotgun with Rip Van Winkle in his van stopping at pancake houses and stuff. Pretty silly but written well. That was on the first cassette tape I ever recorded back in 2004. Maybe that stuff will see the light of day some time.


What is "country soul" music?    
 
That's something that came from talking to folks about my music and putting two and two together. I play in a country vernacular most of the time and get really sweaty. We like to get people riled up and feeling emotions both dark and elated and I guess that's where that gospel-like soul feeling comes in. Also, country and soul both share the quality of being about everyday people living through the hardships and joys of everyday life. Write what you know, right? 
 
 
Who are the members of your ensemble and how did you meet them?
  
Cris Castellan in the most consistent member. He plays drums, washboard, and percussion. At a house show here in Chicago about 4 years ago, Cris was drumming with a different band and I was playing a solo set. He was feeling the music so much that he jumped behind the drums and started playing. Usually that doesn't work out, but that time it did and we've been playing every since. He's like my brother.
 
I've got a rotating crew of three bass players. Drew Sal and Oz Ascevedo here in Chicago were friends before we started playing music together. Paul Defiglia, my east coast guy out in New York, started playing with me and then we became friends, if that makes sense. Drew is from a punk backround, Oz came up playing free-jazz and metal, and Paul played in Langehorne Slim for years so everybody brings their own flavor to the rhythm section. 
 
Nicky Baltrushes, a Chicago fiddler, just emailed me and offered to play. We hit it off really well and she can really shred the bow. Like Nicky, other folks I simply know from around town like accordionist Rob Cruz who teaches up at the Old Town School and trumpet player Sam Johnson of the Mucca tribe.
 
I meet a lot of folks on the road from playing shows with their bands. Will Staler down in Bloomington, IN. is a great mandolin player and harmony singer that plays with me often. He plays in Landlord and Defiance, Ohio, two Bloomington punk bands.
 
Sean Geil is from an old-time band out of Cincinnati called the Tillers. He's a fantastic guitar player and harmony singer as well. 
 
Laura Carter is a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire from Athens, GA. She puts out some of my music on her Orange Twin label, plays in Elf Power and Nana Grizol and played with Neutral Milk Hotel when they were still around. She plays clarinet and trumpet with us. She's also kind of a mentor of mine. 
 
Most everybody rotates in and out for recording and live playing making for some surprises for the audience but also myself. Sometimes I don't know what the lineup will be until the day of the show.
 
Do you see yourself as extending a tradition or inventing a new one?
 
I would venture to say that I'm concious of various traditions and work within a few of them to express myself in a way relevant to the present state of the world. Obviously the banjo dictates a lot of those traditions, but songwriting can really put you anywhere. I don't really buy into that dress like a 1920s steam boat captain street urchin hepcat museum tour guide bullshit.
 
Do you have a favorite chord or time signature?
 
I could say I like all of them equally, or be high brow and say that "music is based on the relationship of intervals to each other and with out this one there couldn't be that one..." and prattle on.  Or I could just say that a blazing fast Romanian folk tune makes the hair on my neck stand up.
 
Have you ever considered using a loop station, computer, or electronics in your live performances?
 
I have. I got some ideas if anyone wants to teach me good looping technique.
 
How do you feel about the Chicago music scene?
 
I think it's lively and thriving. Tons of talented, creative bands live here and that draws other genuinely good groups and musicians from around the world. Some of the clubs here are the most charming rooms you can find in the country with great sound. The citizens appreciate live music and there's a handful of great DIY and art spaces that have kept it going for years under the radar (you know who you are and you've been doing an awesome job!)
 
What are you working on these days, music and otherwise?
 
Country Soul Ensemble and myself tracked an album from January to March of 2011 that's to be out soon. This Bike is A Pipebomb is releasing that on their label, Plan-It-X South. The record will be available in Chicago May 21, 2012 and at shows. I'll be taking it to Ireland and the Netherlands after that and return to tour the US more extensively in spring 2012. We've also got plans for a second record after that to keep it all rolling. Otherwise I work as a bicycle mechanic or events organizer or do construction to fill in the gaps. I try to keep it loose so I can leave when I have to.

 
Are there any Chicago musicians you'd like to shout out?

 

Lawrence Peters has helped us out quite a bit as well as Mark Messing. And of course all of the talented, wonderful people who choose to play with me year after year.

 

 

Video by Gonzo Chicago

"Tired Ghostly Town" Album art by Damara Kaminecki

Interviewer & Editor: Farsheed Hamidi-Toosi

 

48 Volts Interview with Dan Koentopp of Koentopp Guitars

 

Chicago is a city of makers, and instrument building is no exception. From Ludwig and Slingerland drums to Deagan vibraphones, from Specimen and Darnton & Hersh Fine Violins to Emperor cabinets & drums (and the list goes on and on) - many of the best luthiers and instrument makers hail from the windy city.

 

Luthiers are especially fascinating folks. A luthier is someone who builds or repairs string or lute instruments such as guitars and violins. They are professionals who have devoted countless hours of labor to develop their skills and trade, blessing their instruments with a devoted human touch that no assembly line can match. Bestowed upon their instruments is not just skilled labor, but hundreds of years of tradition, and an amazing attention to detail as each instrument is custom tailored for its future owner. While it is indeed very possible to mass produce excellent instruments, no one can argue that for truly exceptional instruments, the ones most coveted and most musical - all are made by hand by individual luthiers who have devoted their life to their craft.

 

I'm glad to have had the chance to interview the talented luthier Dan Koentopp of Koentopp Guitars who has opened up a physical location since we first interviewed him several months ago. The store is located at 4754 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL and is available by appointment Monday through Saturday. For more information and great pictures, visit his website or his Facebook page!

 

When and why did you build your first instrument? How did it sound?


I built my first guitar in 1998. I was so intrigued with the idea of constructing my own guitar - I was a freshman in high school and up to that point I had surrounded my life with playing guitar. Something in me wanted to take this journey with the guitar a little deeper. I was always into visual art - I grew up painting and drawing. I thought that it would be cool to assemble a guitar and paint it. I then thought, why just assemble a guitar and paint it when I can build the whole thing? I went to the library and borrowed a dozen books and read every one from start to finish. After reading and studying these books I was so excited about building guitars that I had no desire to paint them anymore. My father read the books when I wasn’t and he put in just as much work into that guitar as I did. It is a cool guitar and I still have it. It is a semi-hollow guitar with a set neck, like a 335. It was a complicated guitar for my first one but we planned the whole thing out. We even carved the top on it. Our experience as guitar makers was obvious in the end because the neck angle was not aggressive enough and the action was not very even. I need to re-plane the fingerboard and get that guitar back in business. My father passed away two days after we finished the guitar and I know he is with me as I build every guitar. He loved working on that guitar and he is one of the reasons why I keep going.

 

How did you learn this craft? Was it mostly trial and error, or were you an apprentice?

 

In the beginning I learned a lot from reading books. I observed all these different styles and traditions of building guitars and there were always similarities between them. It was interesting to see the same thing being done in multiple ways. Being around my father, I knew how to use tools and plan things out but nothing would teach me as much as working with violin maker Michael Darnton. I learned how to work with tools that I only saw in antique stores. I saw the beauty of working this way, but more importantly, I saw the efficiency. Working in the world of string instrument restoration and building showed me how to see things correctly. There are so many subtleties involved in violin and cello making. To work with these golden examples first hand and study them was paramount in my development as a guitar maker. I began to see what was wrong and what was right. This was more important than learning how to work with the tools. If what you're seeing is wrong, then it will be very difficult to create beauty from your hands.

 

You mention on your website that doing things by hand can sometimes be faster than a machine. How can this be?

 

Michael Darnton can carve a violin top and back faster than a computerized router and I am pretty sure he tested that out! :-) I can carve a guitar neck ready to be fit to the guitar in one and a half hours. If I set this up on my carving table, which I have done, I have to set up the machine, carve it out and then hand finish the rough machine marks, which in the end takes longer. When you work with hand tools you work from the largest tool to the smallest tool. An aggressive start and a delicate finish. When carving a neck, it is much more personal because your hands have been carving the entire thing. Makes sense when your hand is going to be the tool used to play it. A machine can’t make decisions like we can. Wood is organic so naturally every piece of wood is different and needs to be treated as such. A machine can not feel the changes in wood, the feel, the sound, as it is being worked. Our senses can observe all this changing. We use all our senses and make continuous decisions through the entire process.

 

Can you describe how you work to customize an instrument for someone? Is there an ongoing dialogue with your customers throughout the process or do they trust you with most of the details?

 

I like to build my guitars for specific people, which means I learn as much about the individual client as possible. I try and visualize an image in my head of what this person is after and what would most compliment their playing. Talking and getting to know a client is a great way to start the process. However, often times when people try and use words to describe sound they end up contradicting themselves or expressing opposing ideas. Actually hearing and watching somebody can tell you a lot. There is always an open dialog between my clients as I work on their instruments. It creates a strong connection between the customer and their instrument from the very beginning. I do make all the final decisions but my client and the idea of the final guitar is always in my head.

 

 

In an age of mass production and globalization, how does it feel to be a luthier? Do you feel that a mass produced product could ever match the quality of one built by a skilled craftsman?

 

I love being an artist. One of the hardest things is balancing art with the whole side of business. I try not to get stressed about the business but it is true that there needs to be just as much energy in the business side than as the art side, if not more. Music and the guitar are organic things. Mass production does yield nice instruments and the level of quality can be flawless. The efficiency of the guitars however has a much higher success rate from an individual maker. Mass production relies on the same process, over and over again, passed down a line of multiple craftsmen. These craftsmen may be very skilled and fast but since they are not present in the entire build they cannot make the same decisions and adjustments that a single maker can. Again, every piece of wood is different and needs to be treated in a unique way, especially when combined with an entire system of other wood components.

 

Why do you think this is the "golden age of guitar making"?

 

This is the golden period of guitar making because of the availability of free information. More and more individual guitar makers are popping up everywhere. Before this golden period, the guitar was made popular through mass production. The growth of individual makers is pushing the guitar further because people are forced to be unique. This pushes experimentation and the development of new ideas pushing the guitar to new heights.

 

What sort of relationship do you have to the instruments you build? Is there a personal connection, maybe a unique personification hidden in each piece? Do you ever have a hard time "letting go" of a piece?

 

I have a connection to all the guitars I make. It is a personal connection. I like building guitars one at a time because I can focus all my energy on one guitar. I am starting to work on multiple instruments now and overlapping my builds but that is really a business decision. If it were up to me I would definitely make one at a time. After working 90-100 or more hours on something you can’t help but feel a connection to it. At the end of the day, when the guitar is finished and going to its new owner, I know this is my occupation and I need to make a living at it. However, the best thing is watching someone else, especially a great artist, take the guitar to a place that only they can take it.

 

What do you think the secret sauce was in Stradivari's violin varnish?

 

The secret sauce to Strad’s violins and his varnish are five hundred years of age. There are so many opinions and far fetched ideas that have surfaced but the fact of the matter is that he used materials that were available to him at that particular time. He probably worked closely with other artists and painters and used the same common materials.

 

Do you enjoy playing guitars as much as making them?

 

I love playing the guitar. When I am stumped or reached a lull I always noodle around. I studied classical guitar performance, played in jazz bands and rock bands, and always loved it. Mastering the guitar is very hard and I am no where near that. Building guitars is a lot more natural to me and I am far better at it.

 

 

Are there any other instrument makers or craftsmen in Chicago you'd like to mention?

 

Only my mentor, Michael Darnton. He is a genius and an incredible teacher. His work stands alone. He makes some of the best violins in the world today. He is so efficient and has spent his life studying the Cremonese masters and it shows in everything he does. Even though I don’t work with Michael anymore, I continue to learn from him and I am so grateful for my experiences with him.

 

Any upcoming projects that you are working on or are excited about?

 

I just finished a guitar that is the focus of a documentary. We have been filming since September 2011 and we are not even finished. The guitar is complete and is one of the best instruments I have built so far. When the documentary is finished we are going to have a very big premier at a Chicago venue featuring Koentopp artists in concert and also featuring the special guitar. I am very excited for this and I hope that the documentary will reach a lot of people. I have not seen any other guitar documentaries that come close to the footage that these filmmakers have captured.

 

Photo credits: Paul Hamilton and Caleb Vinson.

Video credits: Paul Hamilton.

Interviewer & editor: Farsheed Hamidi-Toosi.

48 VOLTS: INTERVIEW WITH SEWING PATTERN

In this town of cold, dark and long winters, resignation and bitterness can sometimes begin to creep through the gaps in even our best armor. In the face of this assault, a little Sewing Pattern is the perfect defense. Sewing Pattern's Angie Ma radiates an unabashed enthusiasm for music, creation and giving that shines through at every performance. Whether playing keys for local band Canasta or taking center stage in Sewing Pattern, Angie Ma makes her audience feel right at home – like we are all close friends, each receiving a special gift. And we are. And what's more, the music is top notch. She took the time to talk to us about fashion, sexy swooning voices, Charlie's Angels, and her sketches. Catch Sewing Pattern next on 6/3/2011 at Schubas, opening for Danielle Ate The Sandwich.

 

 

 

Soapbox: How did you first get involved with playing music?

Sewing Pattern: I was forced into piano lessons at age 5 and for the first 3 months I didn't understand what on earth anyone was instructing me to do. When the notes on the page finally clicked with the sounds that were coming out, I was in love with piano lessons up until about age 13, when teenagers start to want different experiences! When I got to college, I started picking up guitar and piano lessons again, then jazz and composing, and became immersed as a music major.

 

Soapbox: You're a multi-instrumentalist. Do you gravitate towards any instrument in particular when you start writing?

SP: When I first started writing songs, I always wrote with the guitar, I think just because I figured it was easier to travel with. But as my knowledge of theory progressed, I moved to the piano. To me, it feels like all the notes are laid out so equally, so you have more of a chance to attempt playing something different and weird, outside of your comfort zone. On guitar, I always seem to gravitate towards chords and progressions I know have clicked together. I'm not as adventurous. And becoming stale in chord choices is the one of the bigger fears I have....

 

Soapbox: The songs on both your albums are thoughtfully scored for a larger ensemble – you mention Burt Bacharach and Motown as inspiration in the notes to your eponymous second album. What draws you in particular to those sounds?

SP: Those were always the songs that I loved hearing the most on the radio, and that I felt the most whilst listening. Those songs are so grand and emotional from all those strings and horns of the orchestral sphere, yet when they're juxtaposed with the heavy, reverbed drum beats (and tambourine and triangle!), plus the punchy bass lines and guitar of the modern era, and finally those sexy, swooning voices singing about teenage love, oh it makes me want to flip a table, it's all so exciting! It's the most euphoric feeling to listen endlessly with headphones on, trying to zoom in and out of those dense arrangements and take it all in.

 

Soapbox: Do you do all the arranging yourself?

SP: Yep, it was just me and Sibelius spending many nights together for a few months. For the first album about bicycles, note for note was written out for every instrument. For the second album, while everything was arranged, the drum and bass parts were more like looser guidelines as to what could be played. Therefore sometimes my drummer and bassist would play exactly what was written (like when my bassist took to the bass line that was written as a guide for "Boats Are For Friends") or, sometimes I would tell them to try ornamenting the arrangement more, and because they are scarily adept musicians, they would whip out sessions beyond my imaginative capabilities.

 

Soapbox: You performed as a trio last year at Heaven Gallery and then again recently at Old Town School of Folk Music as a much larger band. How do these performing experiences compare?

SP: It's definitely like getting to have icing on the cake, which is how I feel when there is anything larger than the trio of a rhythm section. That's where the whimsy of these songs can start to arise, and where I feel very blessed to be able to have a group of people that size come together to play -- because much harder than arranging notes is the task of arranging schedules and availability of people. But I will always just take the number of people available for a show and adjust the arrangements of each song. That's the beauty of songs, that they can come alive really with any amount of people present at a time, given a bit of creativity and preparation. However to be honest, once it's showtime, I can't hear a single thing that's being played by the band, I'm just worried about not messing the whole thing up on keys and vocals. But I do hope it's more delightful, comparatively, for the audience...!

 

Soapbox: You're providing music for Chicago fashion event Chez Mignon: A House of Pretty Things. Are you writing original music that's connected aesthetically to the event? If so, could you tell us about that process?

SP: Writing music for Chez Mignon was so much fun not only because it was for my friend Michelle Dimitris's [of Dollparts] event (she was the lead designer as well as the curator) but also because it was a character study of her fashion. Her workshop actually sits in the living room of our apartment, so I get to see her on a daily basis as well as witness her clothes being made. Her pieces are always so pretty and dainty (and never too flashy), but she has a hidden humor that comes out of her clothes and vintage collections as well, which contain a lot of 70's and 80's quirkiness. Therefore for the show, I wanted certain motifs and sections to be present: a sparse Chez Mignon theme that should hold curiosity and an old-time French feel within it; one section that should envelop modern, quirky style and french pop; one section that is full-out romantic and feminine (I aimed for Charlie's Angels); then pretty much light disco from there on out! The process was harder than I thought it was going to be, actually, because the parameters of runway music -- traditionally, that is -- are kind of strict and very necessary: It must be in 4/4 or 2/4 so that the models can walk. It should probably all sit at the same tempo as to not confuse the models in transit or the timing of the show. It should be upbeat, as a runway show should do its best to capture the liveliness of the clothes. And it shouldn't really embrace the dramatic highs and lows that a song or album can have, as it wouldn't be fair to give certain articles of clothing less of a chance for liveliness than others. All in all, it was such an honor to get to face such obstructions and write such fun music! I plan to record the piece (it's about 15 minutes long) and share it on my website this summer.

 

Soapbox: If there were one thing you could change about the state of music in Chicago, what would that be?

SP: I would change how competitive bands feel they need to be about their music. It's so beautiful that everyone is writing songs and hosting eventful nights for each other, and it makes me sad when it gets tainted by this race for more press, more bragging rights, more fans, and more success. It's a vicious cycle that rarely leads to any sustainable contentment, and I wish that everyone's expectations leveled out at being happy to make and share things with friends.

 

Soapbox: Do you have other creative outlets beyond Sewing Pattern?

SP: I very much enjoy cooking for my apartment and for my love; this last week, we made butternut squash risotto! I also get to play keyboard for the band Canasta, and have two gigs today: a festival at IIT as well as a brief musical interlude for 2nd City's "Late Live Show". I have been reading as much as I can lately, and am currently reading "Sabbath's Theatre" and the "The Illiad". I have also picked up the habit of sketching things and calling it "taking a picture".

 

Soapbox: What are you working on now? What can we expect next from Sewing Pattern?

SP: I have been looking forward to thinking about my next project for SO long! My next album is going to take a lot of time and research, so it won't be completed for 3 years, I imagine. But the plan is to make an album that goes along with a comic book of my creation. I'm still planning the topic of the project and don't want to say too much, but it's so exciting that I must read a lot of books and comics in order to prepare for it, as I've never really told a big story before! Songs are really more like vignettes, where you're never expected to delve that deep or conclude anything. This is a new skill that I'd like to learn much more about. In the meantime, however, I do have many other small recording projects I've been dying to make!

 

48 VOLTS: INTERVIEW WITH BILLIE HOWARD

 

 

Pianist/violinist/vocalist/composer/photographer/painter/blogger Billie Howard seems to be doing a bit of everything these days in Chicago. Her blog By Measure recently caught our attention with its in-depth interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses into the the work spaces of local musicians. Quirky questions and personalized "mix tapes" keep her interviews intimate; each is a unique and entertaining read. She graciously took the time to share with the Soapbox crew some of her own ideas about music, space and creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soapbox: Your blog By Measure takes a behind-the-scenes look at the places where musicians work. What compelled you to start it?

Billie Howard:  My dad always has photos of artists in their studios (Picasso, Richter, etc) up in his own work space, and I'm intrigued to see into their private world a little bit. I was thinking about how there are not many photos of musician's work spaces, so I decided to start documenting them on my own.

 

Soapbox: In the process of photographing and interviewing your subjects, has anything in particular surprised you? 

BH: Nothing has been that surprising so far. I feel badly sometimes when I can tell the person has been frantically tidying up before I arrive. I have a quote up in my office that reads: "a perfectly kept office is the sign of a misspent life." The point of the project is to see how musicians really work and I find the daily clutter all the more interesting.

 

Soapbox:  Do you have any thoughts on space and the creative process? In what ways do you think a space can encourage/discourage creativity? 

BH: The space I'm in when I'm practicing or writing music or rehearsing really affects me. If I'm in a tiny piano practice room with no windows, my attention can be very short. If I'm having band practice in a small, dingy, dark room, I can get really crabby with my bandmates. For me, open space, just the right lighting and general quiet are really helpful for focusing on both classical music or writing rock songs. 

 

Soapbox: Have the folks you request to interview always been happy to share? 

BH: Yes, everyone has been really enthusiastic about the project. I've only had one person not respond to my request. 

 

Soapbox: You are a professional musician yourself.  Have the behind-the-scenes peeks influenced your own musical workspace? 

BH: It's interesting to see how the spaces have many similarities, yet the musicians have different working styles. I'm trying to make my own space more efficient, less cluttered and more cozy. I like to put up small installations using lights and sparkly colors. 

 

Soapbox: Can you tell us about some of your musical projects? 

BH: I play in two bands: an aggressive, post-rock band called the Paver and a 1960's-influenced indie-pop band called Very Truly Yours. I play keyboards, electric violin and sing in both bands. I also play a lot of new music around Chicago and recently formed a piano trio (we're working on the Ravel piano trio right now). I'm working on starting a doom metal band, an electronic band and a no-wave band. I need more time!


http://www.facebook.com/ThePaverMusic
http://www.facebook.com/verytrulymusic
http://www.aperiodicchicago.com/

 

 

48 Volts: Interview with Mars Dynamo

MY DADDY IS A YAKUZA! by marsdynamo

 

Here's a story you've probably heard: just when your favorite loft space, underground venue, or party house is growing bigger and gaining a following - it gets shut down or the people who run it leave town. Such was the case with the Myour party house and the musician behind it, Mars Dynamo. I had first heard about Myour house last year from Limbs when he said they were throwing some pretty crazy parties and a while back when a party organized by Mars exploded in Wicker Park. It's too bad Mars recently moved to San Francisco because her honesty and earnestness and sheer energetic/magnetic force is exactly what is needed to combat the armadillo like skin of the Chicago music scene. Haters are gonna hate, but Mars doesn't give a fuck and pours out her love anyway, and that aggressive approach to unity against all odds is what we need in this town. Musically she is all over the place, but quoting from her Soundcloud: "Chicago based underground electronic princess. Grundgy dirty electro bubble gum pop indi rock twat core dance punk type of jam." Check out our super in-depth interview with Mars as she talks about growing up in China, gender politics, race, and the philosophy behind Myour house.

 

 

Soapbox: Where did you grow up? How did you first get involved with music and art?

Mars Dynamo: I grew up in Dalian, China, eventually moved to the east coast with just my mom and dad, and then moved to Chicago for college. I was fortunate enough to have a crazy “Asian Tiger” mom, who exposed me to all types of art and sports when I was a child. My free time was taken up by ballet classes, piano classes, english courses, ping pong, physics study classes, drawing and painting classes. My mom was very dedicated in the sense that she wanted me to be exposed to the world. I appreciate that aspect of the upbringing, but of course I dropped everything when we moved to the U.S. because my dad was getting his Ph.D. at the time, so we weren’t in a financial position to get me lessons. I always had an artistic streak, I had always won random awards and had a genuine interest in noise making when I was a child. I knew I had a lot of talent, because music and art came easy to me, and I enjoyed it while the other kids in the class were forced to be there and didn't apply themselves as readily. My parents wanted me to go to Harvard, but I chose to go to art school. I got accepted in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and during college I was able to actually explore the fields I was interested in. Artists are extremely important in any society because they provide a critique of what’s going on. I always thought it was important to immerse myself in art and music, to get a greater sense of what’s going on in the world.

 

Soapbox: Can you talk a little bit about MYOUR house? What was the philosophy behind that space, what were its goals?

MD: The Myour house was our underground all ages venue dedicated to new music and the unity of people. The idea was simple enough in the beginning - we just wanted a space to perform whatever, whenever, and throw dope ass dance parties that people would remember. It was an awesome 4000 sq ft event space where we lived and partied. Our upstairs, which was the office/bedroom/VIP room, had a jacuzzi right in the middle of it. Our downstairs had no walls, it was all open space and the basement was sectioned off for smoking and all kinds of debaucheries. The space was right between the tech college and the crack head corner, on the verge of the ghetto where the cops didn't even care! We threw fundraisers for artists and for the southside community arts center, tried out bizarre live performances, and tested new style designs for our flyers. It was like a test ground for all things creative for the first three months. There was one time where a kid from the suburbs somehow picked up one of our flyers an came to one of our Myour parties, and he came up to me to say, "I've never seen a gay person before, I just met my first gay person, and who the fuck cares ‘cause we're all getting drunk together tonight on the dance floor!" I love that. I have always loved the idea of connecting people, overcoming adversities, and trying to understand people with different backgrounds. Chicago is a unique city. We are incredibly ethnic and cultural, yet completely segregated. I have made the point to check out every scene, because I was curious about people in general. I hung out with hispanic kids, african american kids, asian kids, and white kids, and watched how they speak about each other. There is always some stupid beef that is completely illogical. Despite all having similar backgrounds the Puerto Ricans hate the Mexicans, or vice-versa, or the Mexicans can't stand the Blacks in their neighborhood, the Asians are annoyed with the Italians and so on. At one point or another, our parents or grandparents were immigrants in this country, we all really go through some of the same turmoil and scrutiny. It's completely ludicrous to me that we are segregated. The ethnic community really has a lot more in common with each other than a suburban Caucasian kid who's lucky enough to have wealthy parents to give them a stellar education and enough funds to travel the world before the age 17. Know what I mean? Point is, one of my life goals and vision is to show people that they can mingle and have an awesome time even if they think they can't get along with one another. It is also incredibly rewarding once someone shares their culture, food, music, and cultural nuances.

 

Soapbox: What is your creative process when working on a new project?

MD: Any artist that tells you that you can just punch out creative work everyday is probably lying. Art is a reflection of life. I need to live life before I make art about it. I remember back in art school, one of my professors came into the class all pissed - this amazing Japanese guy who's a film teacher, and he's literally spitting in our faces, because he's mad at the fact that our project was about being in art school. I'll never forget, he's like "if you are making shit about art school, then you don't know shit about life, so go and live a little and then get back to me and stop wasting your parent’s money." I have to be in the right reflective mind set to create and work on a new project. With music, most of my work is made while acclimating myself with the program. This is probably why “Made on Mars”, my first album, sounds like it's coming from eight different studios, besides the fact that it has literally jumped through 4 different studios. I will share this really great trick with you guys, and it's benefited me throughout all of my creative processes. I go into the studio, open up a program like Cubase, Logic Pro, or FL studios, and I will start about 5-10 different sketches. I will write about ten seconds of a song, and just spit out whatever I feel like at the moment. Then the next day I will go back to listening to it, and pick out the three that I will work on. I have extreme A.D.D. and a strange fear of finishing things, so I like to fluctuate between these different projects until a week later I've made three songs miraculously. The rest of the sketches I just keep in a folder, and I’ll never know when I'll need them again.

 

Soapbox: How do you prefer to engage people with your work and why? Shows, gallery, recordings, other?

MD: I used to play shows often during my time at the Myour House. Honestly I just want to make a ton of work, release it on the different avenues online and whatever happens happens. I know this is where record labels can jump in and give me a marketing push - I really hate spending time marketing. It is the most mind numbing and unimaginative way an artist can spend his or her time on yet extremely important. There are marketing geniuses out there for that, and I've done my fair share, but it really cuts into my time in the development of my art. I agree with what Jay-Z said - the live show has to be more exciting than the flash of the artist. The artist has to deliver live as much as she or he does in the photos and whatever flash they got going. I'm working on amping my live show, that means doing something really theatrical and outrageous but genuine. I am still trying to find that group of special people who are willing to do that, the type who just love the theatrics of it all and who can get lost in it. I don't think coordinated dancing is really necessary. In fact, it's extremely goofy and corny. There is no good reason why an artist must prance about the stage like a moron to get some attention. For one of my songs, BFGF, couples get on stage while I'm doing my set and they rip each other's clothes off and make out. It’s important that they are madly in love with each other because then it's genuine and every ounce of genuine emotion will be picked up by the viewer. I think I'll have better luck out in San Francisco because people here seem to have a freer vibe.

 

Soapbox: Do you think nostalgia is a curse or a blessing?

MD: Nostalgia is a blessing. I am nostalgic all the time, because I like to remember the good stuff and that’s what made me. The bad stuff gets filed back but really there’s no good reason or need to remember any of it.

 

Soapbox: How do you feel about the Chicago music scene?

MD: I love the Chicago music scene. I think it's got a very masculine energy to it. It fits the setting because of all the concrete and metal we see. All the sounds are hard hitting and grand. Actually my song Grand City is completely about the Chicago vibe, as a single person living in this giant death winter city. A lot of fans have told me that it captures Chicago perfectly; it refers to the lonely people in the scene who are really just trying to find love. The people behind the music are interesting. I think there are two types of artists, the ones who create, and support the creative community, and the ones who do it purely for the ego of it all. I see a lot of that in the dance corner, but having been there myself, I'll admit it is completely miserable. An artist's sole purpose is to communicate an idea or feeling, or comment on some type of existence to the world. When egos get involved, it makes people hold back on the communication because they are so worried how others might see them. Chicago is the type of city that could use a bit more unity. In New York everyone works with everyone, no biggie, not too much fuss. Chicago is clique oriented. I've seen many of the artists badmouth each other, but in the end also work together, simply because it really is the only way to survive. You can't get anywhere if you are divided, and I wish more people understood that.

 

Soapbox: How do race and gender politics affect artistic communities?

MD: Race and gender not only affects artistic communities, it affects all communities in society. America as a country is not progressive enough yet. The fact that women are paid less than men is ridiculous to me, and when the economic downturn happened women were the first ones to get laid off from wall street. You can name countless examples like that. The fact that Hillary Clinton running for office sparked massive bar fights is obscene to me. I mean, sure Obama was more likable, but I found that during the election people were polarized by Hillary Clinton unlike the other democratic candidates. It was either “I hate her, she’s the devil,” or “I think she’s going to ruin our country.” As a member of the arts community, I have personally witnessed a lot of inequality, but I know it's getting better everyday. I know a piece of art work will be perceived differently by the masses if it is made by a man versus a woman. I wanted to release my visual work under a very androgynous name back in college so people would be unbiased when viewing it. When I released work under just my real name the work gravitated towards an offensive and aggressive style because I wanted to see the reactions from people, and it was never good, because it was so unexpected. It proved my point though, so I got what I needed out of these art experiments. When I punched out my album, I used to show other male producers my music, and the first thing that came out of their mouths were "who made the beats for this, who composed the background music?" - assuming that I had nothing to do with the production of it besides singing on top of it. Then I tell them that it's me, I did everything, and they get stupidly surprised like "Oh, I thought you were just the singer." I get this constantly. If I never got asked, I would probably never be sensitive to it. Bottom line, a female can do everything a male can do, it's whether she chooses to do it or not. Our society doesn't expect a woman to geek out over software or hardware or develop an in depth hobby for electronics, so I think as a result, many of them stay away from it. I have photographer girlfriends who don't want to touch Photoshop, which is ridiculous - how can you not know Photoshop if you are a photographer in 2011? I just knew from an early age that learning and discovering was what kept me sane and happy. I needed to have my own revelations.

 

Soapbox: What's the origin of original thought?

MD: My active ovaries. I have no idea. It comes from learning new shit.

 

Soapbox: Any upcoming projects you are working on?

MD: Yeah, I am supposed to be releasing my second album. It's done and pressed to go, but I have not gotten around to it. It's a collection of songs made with other amazing producers, such as Benn Jordan, DJ Limbs, Quelle Christopher, Kahil El'Zabar, and other people. I wanted to see how I'd work with other artists and mingle my energy with theirs. It's been a really interesting ride. I am also working on a electro dance punk project called “Kids in Suits” with Quelle Christopher, he just makes the dopest sounding beats.

 

Soapbox: Anybody you'd like to shoutout in Chicago?

MD: Everyone who’s ever been to the Myour House! I LOVE LOVE LOVE YOU! Jessica Arch(i)e Pappalardo, Ricardo Martinez, thanks for getting arrested for me. LOL XOXOXO.

48 Volts: DJ Limbs Interview

Victor Carreon, aka DJ Limbs is probably the hardest working DJ in Chicago. He's got a consistent stream of regular gigs all over town, is always up for even the smallest side gigs, and even organizes charitable fundraising gigs to help others. When he isn't playing out, he's staying in and working on tracks, researching or building the next piece of gear in his arsenal.  His day job is working on sound design - it seems that every aspect of his life involves soundwaves. He recently won the Vocalo remix contest and is a regular contributor to IPMM. You can find him posting about pizza and music on his personal site, djlimbs.com.

 

I first met Limbs when he got involved (and later ran) UC Hiphop down in Urbana-Champaign. We caught up with him between gigs for a quick interview.

 

 

Soapbox: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

 

DJ Limbs: First it was whatever my older sisters were listening to, which was a lot of new wave, RnB, 80s boy bands and other pop acts. I got into Michael Jackson at an early age and listened to all his albums. While I was living in Switzerland I watched a lot of MTV, and the European Top 40 usually had really dope house joints.

 

Soapbox: How did you learn how to DJ?

 

DJ Limbs: Copying videos, internet and a lot of practice. There weren't any other DJs to build with in my early years. I benefited a lot when I got to college and got to work closely with some really talented folks.

 

Soapbox: What is your creative and/or technical process when approaching a remix? 


DJ Limbs: When an opportunity comes up, I usually have a few beats in the works already so I might go back to pick and choose elements from works in progress and see how they fit. If nothing's sounding right, I'll make something new. I pretty much hack at it until something I like comes out. Having an acapella to build around helps speed up the process.

 

Soapbox: How do you stay on top of all the fast changing technology out there?

 

DJ Limbs: I follow the CreateDigitalMusic and SoundOnSound blogs and lurk the forums for the software I use - Ableton and Native Instrument plugs for the most part. I also read Future Music, Computer Music Magazine and MusicTech when I'm in a bookstore. I like music tech, but for the most part I'm really just looking for something that fits my ideal vision of a music making workflow. Still haven't found it!

 

Soapbox: DJing vs production vs sound design. What's the difference?


DJ Limbs: I think it's how much I zoom into things. In DJing, I'm zoomed out the most, thinking about the vibe of a large space over a long period of time. I build the vibe with full songs or looped grooves. DJing is also a performance where I'm interacting directly with an audience, so I think about the visual presentation as well as aural. In production I'm zoomed in a bit more. I get to build tracks by layering smaller elements of music like drum loops, sample snippets and melody lines. I focus on how to create and develop a mood and idea in a shorter period of time. I also sometimes think about how to sequence the track so I can use it when DJing. I feel the most stuck to a rhythmic grid in production. In sound design I'm zoomed into the waveforms of the noises we hear. Sometimes I'll build elements for music, sometimes they'll just be bizarre sounds. I think about timbre, volume, length, frequency spectrum and what images/emotions sounds evoke. It's easy to get lost in sound design.

 

Soapbox: What advice would you give to DJs just starting out?

 

DJ Limbs: Figure out why you really want to DJ. Learn your history. Research gear. Peep your local scene and seek out peers for advice but don't go overboard on the networking. Mentors are good, but not always necessary to grow. If you practice to the point that your vision is blurry, you're on the right track to some technical illness! Listen to as much music as you can but build your collection slowly and try to pick only the tracks you really love. Get a Soundcloud. Follow labels, your favorite artists and stores/distributors more than blogs.

 

Soapbox: What sort of music are you listening to now?

 

DJ Limbs: UK funky and grime beats that have elements of Juke, RnB and cool sounds. Electronic dance stuff coming out of South America and other parts of the world. I'm always digging into world, soul, reggae and psychedelic breaks from the past. The future-head nodding stuff ala FlyLo and fam still comes up in my playlists. I keep my ear out for the new indie dance/pop stuff for gigs I do, and I like some of that stuff too. Deep house. Hiphop of course, but more 80s-early 2000s than the most recent stuff except for a few MCs. I've been digging into the section of post-punk that has a real dancey almost disco/almost break drums + stripped down bassline/guitar riffs and mad fun + energetic vocals.

 

Soapbox: What's the future of music sound like?

DJ Limbs: In the mainstream, probably louder and more offensive with elements jacked from the 90s. In electronic stuff, I think the sounds and rhythms will continue getting more organic. 150 BPMs might be a bit more of the norm in dance music. More genres will cross pollinate. The breaks and 808s will still be there!

 

Soapbox: Thoughts on the Chicago music scene? What would you like to see happen? 

 

DJ Limbs: There's a lot of talent in Chicago and a lot of pockets of different scenes. I'd like to see myself get more involved and see them intertwine more.

 

Soapbox: Any shout outs?

 

DJ Limbs: Shouts to the 217 homes I'm still building with, Cage and Aquarium, People's DJs Collective, IPaintMyMind, BKC, Cutz on Cuts crew, Push folks, Round House Kicks, Murdertronics and Turbulence Productions.

 

48 Volts: Interview with Dustin Wong

About two months ago I had the good fortune of catching Baltimore's own Dustin Wong at the Hideout. His minimalist setup consisted of just a guitar with a loop pedal and a few fx pedals.   Now, loop pedals can be notoriously unforgiving evil beasts for a few reasons: one, it's very hard to get long multi-layered sequences tight and natural sounding, and two, it is very hard to know when to stop layering, when to create space and simply enjoy the nooks and crannies of the loop. Despite these challenges, Dustin made it all look effortless.

 

Dustin Wong and his minimalist setup.

Each layer would interlock perfectly and create interesting polyrhythms, and the timing always felt right. Just when things were building to a precarousily dense climax - BOOM! - he cleared the slate and started a fresh line, forging a new path and beckoning the listener to follow. The fluidity of his performance was impressive and the melodic variation and emotional content stayed elevated throughout the night. Dustin talked to us a bit about his background and creative process, his experiences playing solo vs playing in a band, as well as his most recent album, Infinite Love.

SOAPBOX: How did you first get involved with music?

 

Dustin Wong: I started playing guitar when I was 15. I attended this international school while I was living in Japan, it was called the Christian Academy in Japan. There were a lot of American kids, their families being missionaries - it was a very conservative Christian community in the middle of Tokyo, which was kind of bizarre. You know you'd have these weird things like every Wednesday you'd have chapel and hear somebody talk about their faith and I guess it was all starting to feel really crazy when I was about 15. I started listening to punk and formed a band with friends - it was a terrible band... That's how I got started.  

 

SOAPBOX: Did your band have a name?


DW: [laughs] Yeah, but I'm kind of embarrassed to say it.  

 

SOAPBOX: [laughs] I understand. How long ago was that?


DW: I'm 28 now so...13 years ago?

 

SOAPBOX: When you were learning guitar did you get a lot of formal instruction? Or are you self-taught?


DW: No I didn't take any guitar lessons. But you know, some of my dad's friends would come over and show me a few chords, how to play an E or an A or something, and then I'd play those chords for weeks. And then I started figuring it out on my own - it all started with shapes. It was helpful for me just because I was more visual. I'd try to think, "Well, what does a square sound like, versus a rectangle? What does a triangle shape sound like on the fretboard of the guitar?" It started out very chaotic, like I'd put chopsticks in between the strings to see how that sounded. But as I got older and played more, it all started to click more.

 

SOAPBOX: It's interesting that you are self taught, and started off playing in a punk band...how did you get to doing more intricate polyrhythms, stuff that really reminds me of a lot of minimalist composers like Steve Reich?  

 

DW: Yea, I was getting introduced to those types of artists when I was in college. As I started writing music with other people, we were definitely trying to push ourselves in understanding music. Before Ecstatic Sunshine I was in another guitar duo with a friend, and you know it would take us months to write one song, just because we didn't understand how music worked. It was all based on what we felt was right. I learned a lot from that, just listening back and understanding the actual construction of how music works.  

 

SOAPBOX: In terms of the compositional and performance process, how does it feel to do a more solo project vs playing with bands?

 

DW: In the band setting, with my experiences writing music with other people, the song structures would have a rare repeat of musical ideas. We'd start with one idea, go to another, go to another, it was never an A-B-A-B pattern or structure. So all music made with bands, it was a very horizontal direction where the song would start and go somewhere. With solo music it's all about loops so certain ideas are constantly repeating and I'm layering ideas on top so that the musical direction is vertical versus horizontal.  

 

SOAPBOX: Can you describe your live setup? Is that sort of how you came about doing looping, the limitations of performing as a solo person live or was it the other way around?  

 

DW: It's all the same tools I've used with Ponytail, it's the same pedals - tuner, octave pedal, distortion, delay, looper, envelope filter and another delay. It's just that the approach has changed. It was something I would do privately at home where I would loop things and layer things on top, and it was more of a therapy thing. With Ponytail it was more about how many sounds I could play in succession.  

 

SOAPBOX: How do you feel about your relationship between the performer and the audience?  

 

DW: It seems like people like to sit down when I play solo versus Ponytail where people will be standing. There is definitely an introspection playing by myself just because it feels like I'm bringing a part of my home to a show, so I'm just kind of in my own space wherever I play. I feel with Ponytail it was more bare and open, almost like a sacrifice, and playing solo feels more like an offering.  

 

SOAPBOX: I know you have a film background too...

 

DW: Yeah, I studied film out in California.

 

SOAPBOX: Is film or video something you've thought about incorporating in your live shows?  

 

DW: I've thought about it. I don't know - um - it might not be like a regular thing where I'd have a video with me every show, but maybe a special show where I make a more of an installation where I have multiple projectors.

 

[tape recorder cuts off]

 

Sadly, the tape recorder cut off here.  I talked with Dustin a bit more about the music scene in Baltimore and his positive experiences being there, as well as the meaning and inspirations behind his latest record, Infinite Love. A concept album, Infinite Love features a "brother" and "sister" version of the same piece.  The siblings start and end in the same place but take independent journeys in the middle, allowing the listener to choose their experience. The name is inspired by a psychedelic vision and the music is intertwined with so much symbolism that it almost has a literary quality. To top it off, each version is bundled with a visual accompaniment on DVD. Infinite Love is available now through Thrill Jockey records. We hope to catch up again with Dustin soon as he continues to tour and work on new projects.

 

 

 

Related links:

http://www.tinymixtapes.com/features/dustin-wong-ponytail

http://www.bmoremusic.net/2010/09/interview-contest-dustin-wong.html

http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/14802-infinite-love/

48 Volts: Interview with Drew Fernando of Orange Drink

Orange Drink is a band of many faces and configurations. It's self-described by member Drew Fernando as a collective; members come and go leaving imprints like memories, chugging forward like a train at full steam with no intention of stopping. Depending on when you hear them they might sound like a folk rock band, the next minute a noise group, and then at the end of the night they'll be bumping electronic dance music. Their vaudeville style performances are equally eclectic and can feature electronic manipulation, breakdancing, puppets, performance art, comedy routines, horror soundscapes, as well as a standard rock setup.

 

 

It's a band that enjoys contradictions, enjoys radical inclusion that tests your palette, and treats the journey like a documentary crew documenting itself. This type of challenge to norms and self motivated spirit is reminiscent of a punk aesthetic: "We do it because we like it. We do it because we can. Join us!"

 

Currently Orange Drink is raising funds to release their next album on Kickstarter. As part of their campaign they are offering 3 hour bookings at Soapbox as an option when donating. For a limited time, if you chose this option we will actually double this amount to 6 hours. We support local music, and you should too!

 

Soapbox:  A brief history of the band name and how it formed?

Drew Fernando: I got involved with Orange Drink around 1992 in Virginia Beach, VA when I was learning guitar and drums and experimenting with 4 track cassette recorders.  The band was formed around the concept of having fun and exploring the world of sound and music.

Soapbox:  When did you first realize you wanted to pursue music?

DF: I don't know if there was a definite realization point, but it is more like a lifelong dream that I am slowly turning into reality every day.  It seems like every year we take bigger risks and work harder to make steps towards our goals.  It never felt like a decision to enter a career field; it feels more like coming out - you can either admit that you're an artist or deny it.  So I'm trying to stay true to it and follow the dream.

Soapbox: Orange Drink is self-described as a collective. What does that mean?

DF: It means that this isn't a typical band situation that has set members that perform certain roles.  Some people only contribute visual art, others are involved in production, others perform live - people come in and out.  It's less about the particular people involved and more about the diverse world of Orange Drink, through video, music, performance, dance, art, etc.  The OD crew rolls deep!

Soapbox: Your new album Minotaur is 8-bit inspired instrumental dance music.  It's a radical shift in style from your previous album Narcolepsy, which consisted of lyric-driven experimental folk songs with live instrumentation. Can you shed some light on this shift in style?

DF: We love many different styles of music and the plan was always to explore whatever we found intriguing or exciting.  With only a few releases the contrast seems pretty stark, but 10 albums down the line the many phases of the Orange Drink multiverse will maybe make sense.  Some of the songs on Minotaur were actually started while Narcolepsy was ending.  It served as a refreshing break to get away from guitars and singing for a bit and focus on something completely different. Another element that influenced Minotaur was our living conditions.  Living in apartment complexes in the city was not conducive to guitar feedback noise sessions.  Laptop computers and portable electronic devices were a way to compose music, easily travel to performances via public transportation, and keep the neighbors happy.  But don't worry kids, we're still going to make the guitar feedback noise album!

Soapbox:  How has this change in style affected the songwriting process? Is it hard to express emotion without using any vocals or live instrumentation?

DF: The portability is nice.  You could go on vacation and work on tracks, or go to the library for a change of scenery.  The infinite possibilities of computer editing made composition a little tricky.  The live performance found us mixing elements on the fly, depending on our mood and the audience's reaction.  But for the album, it was a little daunting to know where to start.  Ultimately, our live performances allowed us to test drive certain arrangements and get instant feedback.  If they go "OH SNAP THAT'S TIGHT!" it's good; if they go "Hey, you guys wanna head out?" it's not so good.  If they go "THAT'S WACK!" it's wack, unless they themselves are wack, and then it's awesome...

 

DF: I don't think it is hard to express emotion without vocals or live instrumentation, but I think it is a little harder to communicate singular ideas or concepts.  During the final weeks of production of Minotaur, a lot of the meaning and the storyline of the album appeared after the fact.  Instead of writing with a clear intention, it was written and arranged with a lot of good faith and enthusiasm for the sound in the music, and then the meaning was uncovered after the fact.  I've heard dance music that has tons of energy and creativity, but maybe not too much that was emotional or intellectual.  It's a delicate balance, because you want to dance and lose yourself in the music, and you can't do that if you are trying to think about how sad you are or how the hi-hat is reversed every 7th and 13th time and how that represents The Great Bluedini's struggle.  So hopefully listeners will find that Minotaur is something that you can crank up, dance, break out a sweat, and maybe sprain your back to.  Also Minotaur is an album that you can sit down and listen to, think about, and let the story play out in your mind...you can choose whether to get lost in the labyrinth or try and find the Minotaur.

Soapbox: Your street team uses a variety of approaches to get the word out - your website, facebook, kickstarter, street flyers, demo cds, promotional shows, parties, and more.  Any words of wisdom for musicians/artists new to the scene here in Chicago? What's worked well and what hasn't?

DF: Finding out exactly how your fans want to be contacted is something that we're still working on.  Some people check their email everyday, other people forget about shows unless it appears on their smartphone, others catch the news on social networking sites, other people check the official website everyday.  We use the variety because we try to make it convenient for people to catch the latest news on shows, videos, new products and releases.  Giving out free stuff in exchange for e-mail addresses has helped build our contact list.  Hopefully people who would have otherwise forgotten can get a reminder and watch our fun videos and listen to our music online.  Also making friends with bands you play shows with has worked because, one, you make new friends and that rules, and two, it seems like venues are more likely to book you if you can promise them two bands that will bring fifty people rather than one band that will bring twenty five people...you know, so they can sell them alcohol.

DF: Complaining has never worked, neither has being rude to people.  Other than that, just being ready for any opportunity and loving what you do despite the lack of opportunity has been a helpful ideology.  Playing, writing, and recording is fun and we're just going to have fun.  We'll put in the work to try to perform for larger audiences and be compensated, and if that opportunity comes we'll be ready, because we've put in the work, but if it doesn't, we'll still be having fun.

 

Soapbox: Your live show incorporates performance art, breakdancing, puppets, and other theatrical devices. What is important to you when you perform live? What do you want the audience to walk away with?

DF: It's important to me to be honest, be creative, work hard, and put all of my emotion into a performance.  I want the audience to have a great time, and maybe have their artistic horizons broadened.  I want them to feel energized and maybe even inspired.  I'd like to show them something they've never seen before.  I also want the audience to walk away with melted faces. "Dude, that Orange Drink show was crucial."

Soapbox: What is the band's favorite local venue?

DF: Reggie's Rock Club and Music Joint.  They have one of the best veggie burgers and great soundsystems.  I like how they have a music venue, a record store, a bar, and a restaurant all in the same building.  With all those different things, it is a refreshing change of place from venues where the only options are drink alcohol or not.  It makes me feel like they care a little bit more about music than your average venue.  They also treat their performers very well and have been very good to Hemlock Records & Orange Drink.

Soapbox:  Any future projects or shows?

DF: The Minotaur Kickstarter project ends this Friday.  After that, we've got 2 more albums coming out, one that is closer to singer-songwriter indie rock and another that is closer to experimental noise.  And our next show is January 21st at Leland Tap at 4662 N Western Ave.

 

***

Pre-order Orange Drink's new album Minotaur here. Their campaign ends this Friday, Dec 24th, 2010.

Website: Orange Drink Music

Label: Hemlock Records

 

soap box session from Hemlock Records on Vimeo.

48Volts: Interview with Raj Mahal

Originally from Detroit, Raj "Mahal" Malosh is a producer now bringing that Motor City soul to Chicago in the form of futuristic & experimental beat production. 

 

Latest tracks by Raj Mahal


I first heard about Raj Mahal through our good friend DJ Limbs (who always deserves a shout out, check him out).  The words experimental, hip-hop, and live beats sorta grabbed my attention and after checking out some tracks on his soundcloud I found myself putting them on repeat.  Then one of Raj's tracks (Fenkell Ave) got stuck in my head for a day and a half, so I figured I should probably find out more about him.  What I like about his tracks are the subtleties, the understated gated kick/snare swing and really minimal tweaks of a sample over time to get you to see it from all sides.  It's difficult to balance the hypnotic, circular, and minimal, but still provide the necessary squeeze-your-eyes-tight-and-nod-your-head-with-your-hands up soul that brings it all together.  

 

We originally wanted to film a little bit of Raj in Soapbox showing us a demo of his live setup, but due to time constraints it didn't work out.  Hopefully we'll be able to catch up again soon and in the meantime you can find Raj Mahal at Lokal for Push Tuesdays, Beauty Beats at Beauty Bar, and as guest on Cutz on Cuts.  Here's a recent mix he did for Vocalo.org as well.

 

Soapbox: Can you describe your earliest musical memory?

 

Raj Mahal: My earliest substantial musical memory happen to be when I heard Egyptian Lover at maybe age 5 or 6. I was riding with my family in the car and it came on WJLB FM 98 in Detroit. That was when I fell in love with hip hop and music in general. WJLB became my main source for music from then. Although I didn't know it at the time but there was something about the synths and and the arabic tone that made me really intrigued. From then on I was always drawn to that particular sound. 

 

S: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

 

R: Growing up I stuck with mostly hip hop. I remember my sister saying that the music was a fad and of course I disagreed. But my family was into music in general. Motown, blues, pop, reggae, and soul were always around in my house. Stories of my dad running around with and learning guitar from John Lee Hooker would entertain me.

 

S: How did you first get involved with DJing and beat production?

 

R: I got involved with DJ-ing kind of by mistake. I never had thought too much about it aside from playing tapes and CDs at friends parties until I was about 18. I was at a friends house who had two janky turntables and a radio shack mixer. I tried it out and blended two beats.I felt like I was being creative and saw doing that was like creating a new song.  I then found a new respect for the DJ and wanted to become one myself. 

 

As far as production, I had been wanting to make beats since about 8th grade. I never really thought that I could even though I would do the play, pause and rewind beats on cassette tapes. I definitely had an affinity toward instrumental hip hop. I was the type to listen to the beat first and maybe hear the lyrics later.

 

S: Can you describe your songwriting process a bit...from idea to execution?

 

R: When it comes to songwriting I have many different processes. I am a sample head. I have always loved the hard drum and sample sound. I try to to keep that as pretty much my main formula. But I also play guitar and know a little music theory so I figure stuff out on guitar usually and expand from there.

 

S: "Fenkell Ave" is probably one of my favorite tracks - is that named after a street in your hometown of Detroit?

 

R: Thats right. It is technically 5 mile road in Detroit. Peeps say 5 mile and you know that they're talking about Fenkell. It is deep in the city and I would feel it's pulse being there. So that title was a summation for me of Detroit the pretty and ugly mixed into one.

 

S: In your opinion, do you think music inspiration originates from a) your heart & soul, b) ideas floating around us and plucked out of thin air or c) cosmic rays beamed in from a faraway galaxy (possibly including alien transmissions)?

 

R: I think the key to answer this question is in the word inspiration itself. If you break it down "in spirit" is what you get. Spirit is where I feel that I derive my creativity be it good or bad. But I am a spiritual cat so I try to hone good spirit and strength. Next would be heart. If I don't feel something I make it seems 9 times out of 10 others won't either. Last would be brain for getting things to fit right so to speak.

 

S: "Tired of You" has an awesome dry, staccato, stark vibe. Who are you tired of? 

 

R: That was made at a time when an ex- girl wouldn't leave me alone. I felt trapped. I found solace in being locked in my room and making that beat. It was also a measure of me moving into the music world from the reclusion that I was in and tired of. 

 

S: Can you name a few favorite musicians or producers, dead or alive?

 

R: Of course J Dilla. He was and continues to be a hero to me. He was the one in Detroit that took on this ethos that embodied what good music was and is for me AND he was from Detroit. So he was a super influence. very much love and appreciate what he did for hip hop and music in general. But outside of him James Brown, Fela Kuti, Augustus Pablo, Curtis Mayfield, and Can.

 

S: Can you explain a bit about Push Tuesdays at Lokal?

 

R: It was started by my man Adam (Abyss) who I was talking with about getting something together with and he brought in a couple of other guys (Cos and Illiac). We all have similar taste in music so Abyss got it together and spearheaded it. I was tired from running around and promoting when it started so he and the others took most of that on. But it was dope cause we as DJ's and musicians could do our thing with no restrictions. As it turned out so many other DJ's have there own thing that they do that is more of there own whether it be live beat sets with MPC's, Ableton Live sets, Serato, Traktor, or vinyl. People have a chance to come out and show more of their true colors. The music is centered around experimental beats though the performers can roll with what ever their set is. We are happy that it is growing in popularity and that it was also a critics choice in Time Out Chicago Magazine.

 

S: Any Chicago musicians/producers you want to shout out?

 

R: Yes..... I love the people of Chicago! There is Cos, Tess Kisner, Moppy, Lokua, Garo, Johnny Fonseca, Rude One, Ben Jordan, Abominable Itch, Itch 13, Abyss, V eight, and Conner Camburn. Soooo many good people! 

 

Photo from Vocalo.org