I Predict a Riot: Sløtface interview

slotface

Originally published for The Skinny September 2017 issue.

Back in the early 90s, Bikini Kill frontwoman and riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna would go on stage with ‘slut’ written on her stomach in lipstick in an attempt to reclaim the word. Now, over twenty years later, Norwegian four-piece Sløtface are still fighting that exact same battle.

“If you had something with dick in your band name then I don’t feel like it would be interpreted in as harsh a way,” says frontwoman Haley Shea of the band’s decision to change their name from Slutface to Sløtface in April last year. They were forced to make the change following struggles with social media censorship, as a result of having the word ‘slut’ in their name. “It was really frustrating to us but it was also an interesting process to go through and the discussions we had to have around why we thought it was important to keep it made things really clear to us,” says Shea.

Shea, along with guitarist Tor-Arne Vikingstad, bassist Lasse Lokøy and drummer Halvard Skeie Wiencke, formed the band aged between 16 and 18 in their hometown of Stavanger in Norway. Initially, the name was merely intended as a bit of fun and wasn’t to be taken too seriously but it quickly grew to become more of a statement than they had first intended. “We wanted to be provocative and edgy and keep some kind of weird, messed up punk ethos alive,” says Shea. “But as we started to write more feminist-oriented lyrics and we learned about slut shaming and the SlutWalk movement, we thought it fit the themes we were trying to write about. Then it became a really important cause for us to keep it, which was ironically when we had to change it.”

The band struggled to gain any real exposure early on in their career because of their name, due to the lack of access to daytime radio play in English-speaking countries, continuously being flagged as pornography by Facebook’s algorithms, and being unable to be advertised for upcoming gigs and festival appearances. “In the end, it was just causing us so much trouble that we felt like we were spending more energy on that than actually writing music,” says Shea. “We thought if we make this small change then we can still reach a lot more people and the message in our songs comes across just as clear in the music as it does in the name.”

Now all in their twenties, the band have graduated from writing songs about their teenage angst to writing songs that address the confusion and anxiety that comes with figuring out adulthood. Their debut album, Try Not to Freak Out is jam-packed full of catchy pop hooks and clever, witty lyrics that prove them to be far more advanced than their years. ‘Patti Smith would never put up with this shit,’ sings Shea on album opener Magazine: a clear sign of the band’s feminist, punk influences. The track is intended to sound like “an early 2000s rom-com high school movie soundtrack,” says Shea; and that it does.

Although Sløtface are too young to remember the late 90s/early 00s pop-punk golden era, they are one of the bands currently leading its resurgence. “I think there’s definitely some of that in it but it’s just hard for us to know the bands that people compare us to because we weren’t alive when they were really big,” says Shea. “We obviously hear some of the 90s and we think a lot of the sarcasm and irony that we use has a very 90s sensibility about it.”

It wasn’t until the band discovered the riot grrrl movement though, after watching Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, documenting Kathleen Hanna’s legacy and her struggle with Lyme disease, that they really seemed to find their voice. “That’s when I feel like I understood more what the whole movement was about,” says Shea. “It was the first time I felt like I’d found punk music that was directly discussing issues that I was dealing with in my everyday life, regarding being a woman and feeling like you didn’t have the space you deserved in punk and in the whole scene.”

Since then, they started writing songs told directly from a female perspective, with titles like Angst and Shave My Head, and joined the likes of fellow DIY punk bands Diet Cig and Adult Mom in campaigning to make their gigs safe spaces for women to enjoy live music. “I think for me, and a lot of women, it’s just been one of those things – you’re trained that you have to accept people touching you inappropriately if you want to be in the mosh pit,” says Shea. “Mostly, we just think it’s really depressing because it’s exactly the same thing that riot grrrl fought for in the 90s and it’s been twenty years and it’s kind of slipped off of people’s radars.”

In recent years, many bands have spoken out against sexual harassment at gigs, and it’s not just female-fronted bands. Most recently, Brendan Ekstrom of Circa Survive walked off stage mid-song during a gig in St. Louis in July this year to help a woman in the audience who he witnessed being sexually harassed. Peace, Drenge and Slaves, amongst many others, have also taken to social media to condemn any kind of sexual harassment they have been made aware of at their shows.

This sparked the Girls Against movement, created by five teenage girls in the UK in October 2015, following one of the founding members’ experience of sexual harassment at a Peace gig in Glasgow. The movement encourages anyone, not just girls and women, to share their experiences of sexual harassment or unwarranted attention at gigs in order to establish a discussion around the topic and introduce a change in the way certain people behave at gigs.

“We want to make sure that we talk about it as much as we can and try to be really concrete about protecting people at our shows but also talking to other bands and getting new ideas about what we can do,” says Shea. “We were in the States at SxSW and we did this interview with a feminist radio station based in DC called Femchord. They told us about how Speedy Ortiz have a phone number that’s posted around at their shows that you can text to get in touch with security anonymously if you want to tell them about something that you’re not comfortable with that’s going on.”

The band have since trialled the method at some of their gigs but believe they could be a lot stricter about putting their own rules in place at their shows and be more explicitly clear that their gigs are a safe space for everyone to enjoy live music. “There are people who have been pretty accommodating and have printed out signs for us and set up a designated person, but we feel like we might need to be even more strict about it and print out our own signs and hang them up,” says Shea. “We’re just going to try to be even more DIY about it for the venues that are maybe too small to be able to accommodate it because of their time or budget constraints, so we’ll just take it into our own hands even more.”

It may have been twenty years since riot grrrl fought for the same issues but with a new wave of DIY punk bands like Sløtface willing to continue the fight then hopefully it won’t be long until people stand up and listen again.


Try Not to Freak Out is released on 15 Sep via Propeller Recordings 
Sløtface play Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh, 9 Oct and Broadcast, Glasgow, 10 Oct

https://www.slotface.no/
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Going for Gold: Kobi Onyame interview

kobi onyame

Originally published for The Skinny August 2017 issue.

For over ten years, Glasgow-based musician Kobi Onyame has been gradually making a name for himself, under numerous different guises, as one of the most promising hip-hop acts in Scotland; but for his new album GOLD, he’s going back to his roots. “I wanted to challenge myself to do something that I haven’t done before because I feel like I did the hip-hop thing and I didn’t want to just make another boom bap hip-hop album,” says Onyame. “I’ve kept the hip-hop undertones but it incorporates a lot more percussion and that whole West African, Ghanaian highlife feel.”

Born to Ghanaian parents, Onyame’s earliest memories of highlife music come from hearing his mum and dad playing it around the house. It wasn’t until he spent three years doing his undergraduate studies in Ghana, however, that he became fully immersed in the Ghanaian music scene and met many of the artists who he went on to work with on GOLD. “For those three years, I started a hip-hop crew in Ghana, so I know M.anifest, M3NSA and Wanlov (the Kubolor) from those days, from 1998 or 1999,” Onyame tells us. “Each time I go out to Ghana, I try and make time to network with artists, soak up that energy and collaborate.”

Onyame’s interest in pursuing a more highlife-leaning sound though, stems mainly from his time working with Ghanaian producer and head of production company/record label Pidgen Music, Panji Anoff. “They’ve got artists that are very authentic to highlife and Panji’s a very big influence on my music,” says Onyame. “Just working with him and getting that vibe, I wanted to create something that reminded me of the old Fela Kuti, slightly over-saturated sound: that tape, almost vinyl sound, so the whole album was recorded that way.”

Rather than go down the route of a traditional album release format, Onyame decided to release GOLD track-by-track via streaming sites such as Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud to build up more of a buzz around the album before its actual release. “I feel like in this day and age, albums come out and just get lost,” explains Onyame. “I think the whole album structure only works for superstars, like Beyoncé and Jay-Z can put out a whole album and everyone gets excited about it but for lesser known artists, sometimes the whole release date thing makes the album get lost.”

Taking a leaf out of one of his hero’s book, Onyame’s method of releasing GOLD is much like the way in which Kanye West promoted his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the months leading up to the album’s release, West released a new song every Friday as part of his G.O.O.D. Fridays project, four of which turned out to be alternative versions of tracks that ended up on the album.

“I finished recording the album round about the start of December last year, and basically what I’ve been doing is putting out alternative versions, so when the album finally comes out some of the tracks will be different to the single versions I’ve actually released,” says Onyame. “I really believe that the album is something special and I’m saying quite a lot on it so I didn’t want an album release date to just come and go.”

Initially starting his music career as a producer, Onyame believes that being allowed time and space to develop on his own away from London, without the demands and pressures of record labels, has helped him grow into a more rounded artist and performer. “Up here, labels don’t have the time or money to develop people anymore so I guess we’re developing away from them and by the time they notice that, we’re way ahead of their acts,” stresses Onyame. “I would never say no to the right label or the right situation but I think in this day and age, being independent is the strongest position you can actually be in.”

Since moving to Glasgow to do his Masters degree at Strathclyde University, Onyame has found that being based in Glasgow has benefitted his music career, as there are just as many opportunities to get yourself noticed but there’s not as much competition between artists. “I’ve always thought that being up here gave me an advantage because it’s kind of like being away from the hub that London can be sometimes,” says Onyame. “Obviously, there’s a disadvantage of being so far away from where everything happens but at the same time, there’s the advantage of being able to develop and being unique to your sound.”

Success may feel like a long time coming for Kobi Onyame, but if patience really is a virtue, then GOLD might just see him end up in first place.


GOLD is self-released 1 Sep

http://www.kobionyame.com/

Growing Up: Dan Croll interview

dan croll

Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.

The music industry can be a very cut-throat business at times, and Dan Croll has learned that the hard way. Last year he found himself dropped from his label, left with no management and stuck with the task of trying to find a way of releasing his second album Emerging Adulthood. “I had already pulled the trigger on the album,” says Croll. “I had released One of Us and started to release another single then found myself without any support around me, so I had to start again very quickly.”

Luckily, Communion Records came to the rescue. The label had previously included Croll’s single Marion on their New Faces compilation album in 2012, alongside the likes of Michael Kiwanuka, Ben Howard and Gotye, so as fans, they agreed to release his new album. Croll had turned things around for himself very quickly, with it seems barely a minute spent to dwell on the situation. This he says is due to his competitive nature, born out of a childhood spent consumed by sport. 

“Up until I was about 17, my life was so dominated by sport and I think naturally playing that much competitive sport made me very competitive, not only with other people but with myself as well,” he says. “Once I had got over the immediate shock of it and I felt quite down, there was a real resurgence to compete with these people who I wanted to prove wrong and with myself to get back on my feet, so the competitive spirit kicked in.”

By the time Emerging Adulthood had been given a release date, however, some of the singles taken from it were now over a year old: One of Us was first released in October 2015, second single Swim in August 2016. But since the album had already been recorded, Croll felt it was appropriate to keep things as they were. “They’ve been around for a bit longer than some of the other tracks but they still belong together in my eyes, on the same body of music,” he says.

Given the success of his debut album Sweet Disarray and, particularly, its lead single From Nowhere, it may seem surprising that Croll found himself in this position. But achieving the same level of commercial success again was not his only concern. “Even when you take a step away from that and think to yourself ‘I want to do this for myself’, for me that’s still not the case because I have to support seven of my closest friends,” he says. “Admittedly, it’s commercial music I want to make, pop music that can be played on the radio, but I want to come at it from more of an alternative angle.”

The album was recorded in Maze Studios in Atlanta with producer Ben H. Allen, who won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album for his contribution to Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 album St. Elsewhere. As well as writing all the tracks, Croll also set himself the challenge of playing every instrument on the album.

“I really wanted a hard contrast from the first album where that was quite DIY in its approach,” he says. “When I approached it this time round, I wanted to do what people would consider the more professional way or the more appropriate way and try that out, where I gave myself a time limit. I wanted to write it in five months, record it in two months and I wanted to play every musical instrument on the album.”

In the heat of Atlanta, however, this wasn’t always easy. The way in which Croll describes his drum recording sessions sounds reminiscent of a scene from Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning film Whiplash. “The room that I recorded drums in didn’t have any air conditioning so it was like recording in a sauna,” he says. But being as competitive as he is, Croll refused to give up and let anyone else step in, instead suffering through the smouldering heat to finish the recordings.

Croll’s music style is not exactly fitting to the music scene in Atlanta, known as the birthplace of trap music, so it seems an odd choice of location to record his album. “It was quite tough to do an album there because there wasn’t a scene that I could engross myself in that was similar to my music,” he says. But what did impress him was the dedication to and passion for live music.

“What I really enjoyed the most out there was the local radio set-up,” he says. “There were hundreds of stations locally but they weren’t in radio stations or offices, they were the clubs themselves, so they would live broadcast the radio from the club. Everything was so live and energetic.”

Croll himself is admittedly bit of a live music snob. In the past, he has voiced his dislike for artists using backing tracks when performing live, something he says stems from going to gigs and noticing the corners being cut by certain artists. “I think it’s a bit of a muso thing,” he says. “But some gigs I went to where I loved the band’s album, you go and watch them and it was almost robotic how similar it was to the album and part of me thought that just felt like listening to the album.”

Vowing to make his live shows a different experience to listening to the album, Croll and his band only use backing tracks when absolutely necessary. “While I use some elements of backing tracks myself, it is the absolute last resort and it’s only if me and my other four members physically can’t play that part but we need to have it there,” he says. “That to me is what makes the difference, that kind of last resort thing.”

Engaging with his fans is very important to Croll and, with a predominantly young fan base, this means spending a lot of time communicating with them on social media. Despite managing and running all his own social media pages himself, he didn’t feel he was achieving the kind of engagement he desired. “There were some very heavy periods where I found myself on it a lot and after spending all of this time on it, I still felt like I was no closer to my fans than I was when I started,” he says.

To combat this Croll launched a ‘Dial Dan‘ hotline, a project where he releases his phone number to his fans over a week-long period and takes as many of their calls as he can. “My one rule is that I can’t hang up,” he says. “A lot of people rang me and I managed to take 258 calls in the first week.”

Part of this engagement also involves him encouraging his younger fans to participate in politics. In the run up to the June General Election, Croll consistently posted on social media urging fans to vote, while not so subtly sharing his own personal voting preference.

“I think everyone should be active in it, especially musicians and anyone who appeals to a younger age range because there is a very clear divide at the moment in our country of young and old,” he says. “Obviously it’s a fine line, you want to push people to vote or register and try and direct them to what you feel is good, also keeping them in mind, but you don’t want to be in people’s faces, so it’s trying to find that balance.”

Croll’s dedicated fan base and his own competitive nature seem to have been the key factors in allowing him to get through a very tumultuous year. It seems apt then, given the circumstances, that his new album be called Emerging Adulthood because over the past 12 months, Dan Croll really has had to do a lot of growing up, and fast.

Emerging Adulthood is released on 21 Jul via Communion Records
https://www.dancroll.com/

 

Quazarz and Beyond: Shabazz Palaces interview

shabazz

Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.

Ishmael Butler tells us about the Palaceer of Shabazz Palaces’ encounter with the sentient being Quazarz and how it came to influence the duo’s two new albums

Few artists have gone as far to create an entirely separate universe around their music as Shabazz Palaces, and their latest project is no exception.

Told through the perspective of Quazarz, a musical ambassador sent from another planet to ‘The United States of Amurderca’, the duo take us on a journey over the course of their two new albums where we learn about his experiences on Earth and his observations of our planet. “It was like being in a movie, where you’re immersed in the character and you’re doing it so much that you lose yourself until you get back to yourself,” explains Ishmael Butler, one half of the duo.

Butler developed the idea during the recording of what was to become Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and was so inspired that he decided to release another album, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, alongside it. “I was trying to think of a perspective to come from with the music and the lyrics,” he says. “That’s why I came up with Quazarz as this alternate personality so that I could be an observer and present my discomfort with things.”

This is not a two-part album, however. Both explore separate themes and ideas, with the only constant being that they are both told from the perspective of Quazarz. “It’s just like the new approach, the Quazarz approach, so these are two different albums but with that approach in mind,” says Butler.

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines focuses on our obsession with modern technology, specifically personal devices and social media. Butler takes a very negative view on this side of technology and sees it as incredibly damaging to society.

“I feel like it’s a very dangerous path that we’ve taken and a choice that we’ve taken as human beings to rely so heavily on these devices and let them permeate our world and give them to our children,” he says. “These are products that are meant to prey on idle-minded people that just need something simple and titillating to do and spend a whole bunch of unnecessary time on so it’s kind of like a dumbed down newness of technology.”

Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, on the other hand, is more observational and explores a wider critique of modern society. “Being in the States, with the political climate, I started feeling more alienated so it was kind of like being a person who lives in a place but doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s home or that they’re a part of it,” he says. “I’m not out here talking about things specifically but the overall feeling that is evoked when thinking about it and living in it is definitely in the albums and soaked in it pretty deep.”

But Quazarz doesn’t just address politics. Observing the music scene, Quazarz notes being immersed in the “ethers of the Migosphere here on Drake world.” This isn’t Butler’s way of addressing the current state of hip-hop though, rather it’s him observing the current state of commercial music on Earth as a whole.

“Migos is sort of the oxygen in the atmosphere, at least here in the States, so I was basically saying that we were offering our musical contribution to this current place,” says Butler. “And it’s Drake’s world, so it was just a play on words and a sci-fi approach to the current musical landscape.”

The futuristic, sci-fi influences in Shabazz Palaces’ music have always been a notable attribute, but with the Quazarz saga Butler has taken that influence to a whole new level. Alongside the double album, the duo will also be releasing an accompanying illustrated book by Joshua Ray Stephens, which visualises the Quazarz story.

Stephens contacted Butler via email to suggest they work on something together and once Butler saw Stephens’ work, he knew he wanted to collaborate with him in some way. “I looked at his stuff and I was like ‘damn, this shit is dope,’” he tells us. “He was originally going to do a cover for the album but then the ideas started growing and growing and we finally arrived with this illustrated book, which came out pretty smashing.”

And it doesn’t stop there, with potential Gorillaz-esque live visuals also on the cards. “We plan to do a tour where we incorporate the music with the book and the illustrations and go to special places and do special events,” says Butler.

In fact, like Gorillaz, Shabazz Palaces is as much its own world. Butler reinvented himself from Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler to Palaceer Lazaro and joined forces with Zimbabwean multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire to form Shabazz Palaces in 2009. This was almost fifteen years after disbanding from jazz/hip-hop trio Digable Planets, whose 1992 single Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) won them a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.

Initially, Butler refused any interviews and there was a great deal of speculation as to the true identity of Palaceer Lazaro. “I don’t really go for the whole ‘I want my credit and I need people to know that it’s me.’ I like the ambiguity and the mystery to what’s behind artistic stuff,” says Butler. “I was hoping to put the focus back on the music really. Plus, it’s just another way to be creative and add another layer to the product.”

Palaceer Lazaro is to Butler what Sasha Fierce is to Beyoncé: it’s a way of presenting Butler’s weirder, quirkier, more progressive musical side under a new persona. “If you come into each thing with the same perspective and the same outlook, you are probably going to be running on a treadmill, making stale stuff,” he says. “It helps to get into that frame of mind too: change everything around, rename stuff and come from a different perspective.”

Both prominent members in the Seattle music scene, Maraire and Butler each have their own projects outside of Shabazz Palaces. Maraire is one half of Afro-hip hop duo Chimurenga Renaissance and Butler is part of production duo Knife Knights with Erik Blood, who has worked on every Shabazz Palaces album with them. “I listen to him implicitly,” says Butler. “I trust him and I believe him, but I know what I like and what I want to try to do and he helps me to get there really.”

The duo collaborated with Blood once again on the Quazarz project, with Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star recorded over two weeks at the Protect and Exalt Labs: A Black Space he and Butler share in Seattle. Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, however, was developed and recorded over a longer period of time, which allowed Butler to travel to Southern California to work with Quincy Jones’ grandson Sunny Levine.

Butler though is hyper-critical and a perfectionist of the highest order; so much so, that he finds it almost unbearable to listen to his music once it’s completed. “I don’t really listen to my music because it’s just not relaxing and comfortable,” says Butler. “I’m just listening to what I’m perceiving as flaws or mistakes mostly, so it’s not that enjoyable of an experience.”

When it comes to his music and the messages he puts out provoking change, particularly with such a heavily political project, Butler is reluctant to overthink things. He does, however, seem to see the Quazarz project as more of a catalyst for change rather than as his own personal attempt to create change.

“When you do something and it’s your emotion and your instinct and you release it, it’s almost like a chemical reaction and it’s unknown how it’s going to do anything or change anything,” he says. “I don’t kick back and be like ‘I’m about to change the world with this one’ or something, but I know that we dedicated a lot of time, energy and passion to it so somebody will probably hear it and have some feelings about it and maybe it will do something for them.”

Butler may want to play down the impact Quazarz could have out in the real world, but in Shabazz Palaces’ world, Quazarz’ landing has set off more than just a few ripples.

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machine and Quazarz: Born Under a Gangster Star are released on 14 Jul via Sub Pop.

Being Human: Turtle interview

jon cooper

Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.

Scottish producer Turtle tells us about embracing the symbolism of his namesake and finding the light on new album Human

When artists talk about music as therapy, it can often feel a bit clichéd, but for Jon Cooper, aka Turtle, the process of making his new album Human has taken him on a spiritual journey even he didn’t expect.

“I’m getting attuned as a Reiki practitioner so I’m researching frequencies,” says Cooper. “I really want to try and integrate that into some kind of musical healing, not just to heal myself but to heal other people and imprint some love into the sound.”

Human came into existence during a time when Cooper was attempting to confront a dark period in his life. From the opening track Time, the album feels like a rebirth; a washing away of any negativity and a step forward into a new chapter of Cooper’s life. “I was just really trying to find my place in the world and struggling with self-identity so I was using the music as a kind of healing method for myself, which ultimately let the light in,” he says. “It was a cathartic experience, just struggling with personal issues that anybody can relate to.”

But getting to this stage hasn’t been easy. Cooper has been working on the album for nearly two years and it’s gone through various incarnations along the way. A lot of this seems to stem from Cooper’s meticulous attention to detail and his desire to get everything sounding exactly the way he wants. “I’ve had to retrain myself to leave an idea as it is because once you start processing it and using plug-ins, you almost start to sound like 90% of the people out there who are using the same software,” he says.

Following the release of his last two EPs, 2014’s Who Knows and 2015’s Colours, Cooper found the project going down a path he hadn’t envisioned. “I got swept away a bit with the playing live thing,” he says. “It’s very difficult to play the stuff live when you’re just standing with a laptop and tweaking a few filters. It just didn’t feel right, so I called it a day with playing live.”

Initially, Cooper created Turtle as a stepping stone: a means of furthering his way into the sync world, with the final goal being to score music for film. This is something Cooper has been working towards for several years, writing music for various production libraries under his own name. However, with a change of direction in mind, he decided to go by the pseudonym Turtle, he says “so it was less about me and more about the music.

“Somebody gave me the name because I didn’t want to use my own name and I just went with it,” he explains. “Then I started researching the symbolism behind the turtle, what it represents in different cultures and traditions, and it kind of aligned itself with everything I was trying to say in the music.”

There is a distinct film-like quality to Cooper’s work as Turtle: it’s vast, vivid and incredibly emotive. Naturally, this is a result of Cooper’s interest in film, particularly independent, foreign and experimental cinema. “I always sway towards the cinematic. I love atmosphere and it needs to have atmosphere for it to be alive in my personal opinion,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to marry the two and bring the atmospheric, cinematic side into the electronic realm.”

Although based just outside of Glasgow in Clydebank, Cooper says he’s not particularly influenced by the Glasgow music scene, nor does he participate in it much. “I’ve never really followed scenes,” he says. “I can appreciate them wholeheartedly and I can get where they’re coming from but I just kind of did my own thing.”

Instead, he is more influenced by European and American music, which he feels is more in line with his own musical interests. “I’ve just always resonated with European stuff. I think because it’s so far away and it literally does feel foreign,” he says. “When I’m listening to stuff from Scotland, it just doesn’t resonate.”

Now that Cooper has finally found some peace in his life, he is in no rush to jump straight into another project. Rather, he is going to take some time to clear his head and focus on his newly discovered interest in Reiki: a Japanese healing art, which focuses on stress reduction and relaxation.

“It’s been nice to step back and focus on my Reiki stuff, get in that zone and focus on helping others, rather than just helping myself,” he says. “I feel with the album, I helped myself but I really want to help others as well in any way I can so, even though it’s not music-related, that’s really where my head’s at right now.”

In mythology, the turtle symbolises tranquillity, and through the making of Human, it seems Cooper has finally begun to embrace the qualities of his namesake.

Human is out on 30 Jun via Beatnik Creative.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Perfume Genius interview

perfume genius

Originally published for The Skinny May 2017 issue.

Perfume Genius tells us about trying to feel happiness and rebelling against himself on new album No Shape

Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is known to bare his soul in his music but once a tortured soul has expelled all their demons, can they ever achieve real happiness?

‘Let all them voices slip away,’ sings Hadreas on Slip Away, the lead single from new album No Shape. The track is indicative of Hadreas’ new writing style and, seemingly, his current state of mind. “I was writing more in the moment about how I feel or how I wanted to feel, as opposed to going over old stories of things that have already happened to me,” he says.

Hadreas’ first two albums as Perfume Genius, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, introduced us to some of his deepest, darkest secrets: battling drug and alcohol addiction, teenage sexual abuse and struggling with his sexuality, to name a few. But 2014’s Too Bright really felt like Hadreas’ coming out; his departure from lo-fi piano-playing, singer-songwriter to fully fledged queer icon.

Hadreas’ music is heart-wrenchingly honest and on each album, we’ve listened to him processing different issues in his life, with Too Bright feeling like the moment he finally unleashed all that lingering internal anger. Now that he’s shed that skin, on new album No Shape he has been able to explore more positive themes. “I never really get happy, but I’m really trying to,” he says. “There’s a lot of rebelling against my own self and my own brain in some of the songs.”

Writing optimistic songs doesn’t come easy to Hadreas, who is more accustomed to drudging up dark moments from his past. “I find it really easy to write something really disturbing,” he says. “Even the happier moments have a dissonant thread underneath but there is something vulnerable about it because you’re just admitting that you have no idea what’s going on.”

Despite his previous material dealing with darker issues thematically, there has always been an underlying sense of hope in Hadreas’ writing; a desire to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. With his life in a much less tumultuous state nowadays, he had to make a conscious effort to tackle new ground musically and emotionally for his latest effort and it appears he has finally come to terms with his own contentment. “I thought about it all together, not just the emotional content but how to push myself farther in the structure of the songs and the chords that I went to,” he says. “Happy chords for me felt fresh, just to try more major keys.”

While Too Bright had its experimental moments, and toyed with the idea of a bigger sound, No Shape is much more boldly cinematic and epic. Hadreas enlisted Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills to assist on the songs, taking his music to another level of grandeur. “I kind of let everybody go to town on the songs,” he says. “I knew I was writing these anthemic, stadium songs so I wanted it to have that kind of feeling and I knew working with Blake would take it there.”

Much of Hadreas’ music is created at home. His debut album Learning was recorded in his mum’s house outside of Seattle, following a stint in rehab, and the songs for every album since have been created in his own home. Taking his music from such a personal space into a big studio may have taken some getting used to at first but for No Shape, Hadreas knew he wanted a fuller sound right from the beginning.

“I wrote this album knowing much more than before that that was going to happen,” he says. “I knew that the piano was a placeholder and I wrote the songs knowing that the sound was going to be completely created after the demo.”

Hadreas’ boyfriend Alan Wyffels is the somewhat unsung hero of Perfume Genius. The pair first met during a period when Hadreas had relapsed and Wyffels helped him get sober again. They have now been together eight years and live a very normal, peaceful life together in Tacoma, Washington with their dog. But Wyffels is much more than just Hadreas’ muse, if you could even call him that in the first place.

Wyffels, a classically trained musician, has seen Hadreas through every step of the making of his last three albums – every album apart from Learning – and has lent a helping hand on each one along the way. “I write the music but he’s played every single live show with me and he helps figure out how to translate the songs live,” Hadreas tells us. “It’s nice to be talking about him more because even though he’s been here the whole time, I’m always the one getting my picture taken.”

Sometimes getting your picture taken isn’t so bad though. Hadreas worked with Dutch photography duo Inez and Vinoodh on the artwork for No Shape, which sees him facing away from the camera looking upon a picturesque landscape. “When we were doing all the pictures, I thought for certain we would use the one that was a more traditional portrait and I even had to fight my label after for this one,” he says. “I felt like it fit with the songs, having this warmer energy but then underneath there’s always some discomfort.”

Interestingly, Too Bright is the only Perfume Genius album to use a portrait shot on the artwork, while both Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It used images where faces are masked or covered up in one way or another. “I think for [Too Bright] having that picture felt really rebellious. It felt more defiant to be on the cover of that one, the way that it was,” he says.

Hadreas has never shied away from his sexuality and he openly deals with queer issues in his music. “I can’t get too mad about constantly talking about my sexuality, because if I didn’t want to then I probably shouldn’t have made three albums about it,” he says. But that’s not to say you must be queer to identify with his music. The emotions and feelings dealt with in Hadreas’ music are universal, but being labelled a queer artist can create unfair prejudices.

“People are allowed to steal ideas, or to play with the same things that queer people play with, but as long as they’re not actually queer then it’s seen as subversive and exciting and somehow people can be thrilled by it, but not feel like they need to be uncomfortable and that can be really frustrating,” he says. “Some people think listening to a queer artist means something about their sexuality, and sometimes it does and it can then be a really powerful thing, but you don’t have to qualify before you like my music.”

You begin to get a sense that Hadreas really does struggle to allow himself to be happy, but it seems that in many ways, he is also his own worst enemy. Although he makes steps towards a more positive, uplifting sound on No Shape, there are still plenty of cracks to be found underneath the surface and those demons appear to still be there, even if they aren’t as obvious as they once were.

Whether Hadreas will ever be able to reach that light at the end of the tunnel is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure,  he’ll never stop trying.

No Shape is out on 5 May via Matador; Perfume Genius play with The xx @ The Galvanizers Yard, Glasgow, 29 & 30 Aug

Flying High: Little Dragon interview

little dragon

Originally published for The Skinny April 2017 issue.

Little Dragon tell us about celebrating twenty years together and finally feeling comfortable in their own skin

Not many bands can boast twenty years of friendship, but Little Dragon seem to have found the secret to making it work, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it.

“It gets stranger and stranger to work together and it gets creepy sometimes,” says frontwoman Yukimi Nagano. “Somehow, we’ve managed to stay together and change, all in different ways, and still like each other.”

Over the years, the Gothenburg four-piece have made a name for themselves as musicians’ musicians, collaborating with everyone from Gorillaz to Big Boi and featuring on tracks from SBTRKT, DJ Shadow and Kaytranada. It really feels like Little Dragon have done it all.

Coming off the back of their Grammy-nominated fourth album Nabuma Rubberband, however, the band were keen to take things back to basics for their next project and not let all the success go to their heads. “We’re trying to go back even more to the time when we didn’t have a record deal and we were just making songs for the fun of it,” says drummer Erik Bodin. “We’ve gone through phases and all of them have been equally important and part of our journey but right now, we’re not trying to fit in as much,” agrees Nagano.

Earlier this year, the band teased us with the first single from their new album Season High with the seductive, 90s R’n’B-influenced slow jam High, appropriately released on Valentine’s Day. But just when it looked like the band might be taking things in a softer, more mellow direction, they followed it up with the club-ready, electro-pop banger Sweet, just to keep us on our toes. “We always like to mix flavours,” says Bodin.

The band worked with surrealist filmmaker and frequent Yung Lean collaborator Ossian Melin on the videos for both singles and, despite admitting to not being particularly aware of his previous work, they appear to have formed a strong bond with him, almost like kindred spirits. “He’s a character and a real sort of tortured creative soul that we totally connected with,” says Nagano. “He has a strong artistic personality and his expression is very inspiring so we’re very happy we found out that he existed on the planet,” adds Bodin.

For the first time in the band’s history, they chose to work with outside producers on Season High, accepting a helping hand from Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and revered pop producer Patrik Berger (Robyn / Charlie XCX / Santigold / Icona Pop / Lana Del Rey). Despite the calibre of those producers though, the band say they are always nervous allowing others into their close-knit circle to work with them on their music. “With our own music, we feel a bit protective because we really feel like it is already a big collaboration between the four of us,” says Bodin. “It’s a big process working with four strong-willed people, trying to get to a conclusion and we’re still working on that,” adds Nagano.

Once they’ve reached that conclusion, however, they don’t seem to feel that natural sense of relief most people would when completing something. “It’s always a bit frustrating to finish an album,” says Bodin. “You want to leave it sort of fresh and have a feeling that it’s a bit unfinished almost so it’s still open for taking it to the live shows and you can keep on developing it.”

The band’s process now sounds just like what it was when they first got together, one big old jamming session. So much so that one of their biggest struggles, they say, is trying to rein themselves in. “There are quite a few songs on the album that are over four minutes and there’s one even going on eight minutes, but it’s just showing our classic ability of not knowing when to end a song,” says Nagano. “An average song at three and a half minutes always feels too short to us… I think it’s like a little beautiful accident constantly.”

Just like all their albums previously, Season High was made in the band’s home studio in Gothenburg, which they built themselves and have continued to develop over the years. “There’s a personal touch to it and I think everyone feels at home,” says Nagano. “I think that kind of security is important when you want to somehow express yourself and not feel any walls or restraints, especially when you’re trying to find something new and dig within yourself.”

Having that studio space has also allowed the band to encounter fellow like-minded Gothenburg musicians, such as their studio neighbour sir Was, who features on the album playing clarinet on the track Butterflies. “He’s a bit of a Swedish Woody Allen, a beautiful neurotic person whom we love very much, so it was fun to have him on the album,” says Nagano. But the family affair doesn’t stop there, a childhood friend of the band, Agge, also features on the album. “Some of our first shows we actually did were with him, just at the local shitty jazz club or whatever. He’s someone who everyone in the band loves so for him to be on the album feels like the most natural thing ever,” adds Nagano.

It seems routine for the band to take a two- or three-year gap between each album, something they believe allows them the ability to maintain a fresh creative outlook and a healthy balance of work and personal life. “We really make music out of passion in our hearts, not to please anybody’s demand so I think creatively it’s better when you have time and that freedom, but we also prioritise life,” says Nagano. “It’s nice to step out and take a break from it because then you keep your ears and your mind fresh for when you come back and work with the music.”

For Little Dragon, the secret to being able to stay together for so long seems to be keeping things simple. By working in their own studio space and rarely collaborating with anyone outwith their tight-knit unit on their own music, they manage to avoid a lot of the pressures that may come with being a globally successful band and instead, focus on doing things their way, on their own terms.

Little Dragon’s Top Collaborations

SBTRKT – Wildfire

Much of Little Dragon’s mainstream success can be put down to their feature on this 2011 dubstep smash from the mask-wearing British producer SBTRKT. The track was such a hit that it even spawned a hip-hop remix from Drake, taking it to even bigger, but not necessarily greater, heights.

Big Boi – Higher Res

The band featured on three tracks on ex-OutKast member Big Boi’s 2012 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours but this track, also featuring the ever-elusive Jai Paul, is certainly the best of the bunch. Nagano described working with Big Boi as “the most exciting collaboration we’ve done so far.”

Gorillaz – Empire Antz

Damon Albarn selected Little Dragon as his ‘star of the future’ for Dazed & Confused’s 20th Anniversary issue in 2011 after working with them on two tracks for Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach. The subtlety in the production of this track brings Nagano’s vocals to an almost otherworldly dimension.

De La Soul – Drawn

One of the band’s heroes, De La Soul got them on board for a track on their 2016 Kickstarter-funded album …And the Anonymous NobodyKelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer cited the track as one of the reasons DLS decided to crowd-fund the album, due to its experimental nature.

 

Season High is released on 14 Apr via Because Music.