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.

Tropical Thunder: Paradise Palms Records

palms.jpg

Originally published for The Skinny April 2017 issue.

We speak to Paradise Palms Records’ boss Aaron Main about championing local music and the importance of community

Edinburgh’s music scene has long been hindered by strict council legislation and a lack of opportunities for local artists, but small communities brewing across the city are beginning to change this. One of these communities is Paradise Palms, a tropical-themed dive bar which has grown into a hub for local musicians from varying backgrounds, particularly with the development of its own label last year. “It was quite easy to gauge that there wasn’t enough support for Edinburgh artists in such a broad sense,” says label manager Aaron Main, aka Chow Main. “It was apparent we needed to do something here to help the scene as far as putting out music, especially on record.”

It seems fitting given the bar’s aesthetic that the label’s first release, in September 2016, was entitled Bonnie Tropical: a 12” compilation featuring tracks by 12 artists predominantly from Edinburgh and Glasgow – or “a collection of tracks from acts near here”, as it is simply put on the back of the record sleeve.

The label’s latest venture is a digital single release from Paris-based electronic duo Hey Mother Death for their track Deranged My Love, which will include two remixes by local artists. This will then be followed by a vinyl release for Record Store Day, featuring a further four remixes of the track. “The exciting thing is that this project is bringing a lot of different artists together,” says Main. “It’s quite a broad spectrum and I knew each one of those artists would bring something unique to the table.”

 

Many of the artists featured on Bonnie Tropical and on the upcoming RSD release have previously featured on the label’s monthly SoundCloud playlists or have played at its Paradise Palms Presents nights in the bar. “I think establishing Paradise Palms as a community for music and allowing it to grow organically is how we’ve been able to get those artists on board,” says Main. They hope to continue incorporating this community feel into a new singles club series. “We’re going to do a series of 7” records that will not necessarily be people from Scotland, but people who have played at the bar,” he adds.

But the label is also taking steps further afield, with its first music video currently in the works. “One thing we noticed when we started this label was that there aren’t many music videos for local artists. That’s one of the things we wanted to offer artists on the label,” says Main, and the label has been duly working with Edinburgh-based experimentalist M.O.T.O on a video for his track Long Shot, alongside filmmaker Magnus Huntly-Grant. “It’s a really powerful track and we wanted to give the artist the opportunity to express what it meant to him visually, so we’ve given him the creative control to represent what it means to him in a music video context.”

As well as the label, the bar opened its own record shop last year, which is currently co-managed by Matt Belcher and Andrea Montalto. “We’re trying to focus a lot on what’s going on in Scotland and mainly stock everything new that’s coming from Scotland in electronic music,” says Montalto. “We really aim to keep a community feeling, especially for new DJs and young people who are just starting to buy records.”

Both Main and Montalto agree that having the store within a bar setting allows for a less intimidating environment for record buyers. “It’s a friendly environment down at the bar and it’s nice having the records not be the main thing but by the side while you’re having a drink,” says Montalto.

“It’s a much more relaxed approach to the sale of music and there’s no pressure to buy anything,” agrees Main. “If you want advice, you can get it or you can just have a listen.”

While the two don’t work particularly closely together currently, there is hope that as both businesses grow, more opportunity to do so will arise. “We hang out together, we listen together, we exchange music tips between all of us involved here,” says Montalto, “so there is a connection because we are on the same page.”

“I think they go hand in hand quite nicely,” adds Main. “As time goes on we’ll be able to sell more music that we’re making and promote more local music that’s getting made in Scotland.”

Community is certainly key within Paradise Palms, as a venue, record shop and label. It is this sense of community that seems to be the reason why so many local musicians are willing to jump on board with its different projects. With a strong focus on supporting and promoting local music, it manages to transcend its potential status as ‘just another bar’ – it’s pretty clearly that it’s not just the Buckfast daiquiris that keep people coming back.

 

PWR BTTM’s favourite Queer Rappers

mykki blanco

Originally published for The Skinny 2017 April issue.

We caught up with PWR BTTM to discuss their new album Pageant, but also got onto a sidetrack discussing their favourite queer rappers. Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce introduce us to three of their faves…

Big Momma

“The first mixtape that he put out was seriously fire,” says Bruce. “He has some of the most tense and fucked up flow that I’ve ever heard.”

Big Momma may not be the most well-known rapper in the movement but he’s certainly one of its unsung heroes, gaining attention guesting on tracks by fellow queer rapper Cakes Da Killa. Describing his aesthetic as a mix between Lil’ Kim and the WWE wrestler The Undertaker, Big Momma’s music is fast, frank and fearless.

 

Khalif Jones (f.k.a. Le1f)

“I think Le1f has been hinting on Twitter that he might be wrapping up that project and starting to work under a different name,” says Bruce – right enough, Le1f recently uploaded his “last music video as Le1f” for the track Umami / Water to Facebook in February, and has since deleted his Twitter. But Le1f’s legacy will live on as one of the most honest and outspoken rappers of his generation, with Jones sharing his first music under his new alias earlier this month.

Mykki Blanco 

“She is such a genius, incredible creator and has become a friend,” says Hopkins of the performance artist turned rapper. Initially created as a female alter-ego for a video art project before switching to a gender-fluid persona, Mykki Blanco quickly rose to the forefront of the queer rap movement. Following a string of independent releases, Blanco released much-anticipated debut album Mykki through Berlin-based !K7 Records late last year.

 

Catch Mykki Blanco at Love Saves The Day festival in Bristol on 28 May, and at Southbank in London on 17 Jun as part of the M.I.A-curated Meltdown Festival.

QR PWR: PWR BTTM interview

pwr bttm

Originally published for The Skinny April 2017 issue.

PWR BTTM tell us about rediscovering themselves on new album Pageant, being born performers and how Lady Marmalade changed their lives

It’s only been a matter of months since PWR BTTM last graced our shores but, just like their fast-paced music, the New York queer-punk duo are not slowing down.

“Liv and I actually walked into a haunted cave as children and we’re cursed to be touring musicians, so an evil witch will kill us if we don’t do this,” says Ben Hopkins, speaking from their van on the way back to New York, having just completed another round of live shows in the US. Their touring schedule has clearly been quite gruelling, judging by the sound of Hopkins’ voice: “I’m criminally an optimist despite my sore throat.”

It barely feels like any time has passed since the release of PWR BTTM’s debut album Ugly Cherries, a 27-minute long collection of short, sharp and sassy pop-punk tunes about love, heartbreak and fucking shit up at Disneyworld. But the duo refuse to rest on their laurels, quickly returning with the announcement of their second album.

Pageant feels like a second album should: a growth and progression on the first, with a more reflective, looking-from-the-outside-in perspective. “We had to take some time to figure out who we are now because we’ve grown up so much since writing Ugly Cherries. I think this record reflects the difference in who Ben and I are since we made that last one,” says Liv Bruce.

“We’ve been working on it for a really long time,” adds Hopkins. “Not as long as Solange, but a long time.”

The UK release of Ugly Cherries in October 2016 was followed two months later with their maiden jaunt to the UK, by which time it had been out in the US for over a year and work on Pageant was nearly complete. “The last time we were in the UK we were finishing our record via conference, getting masters and mixes back every night, so we were non-stop working,” says Bruce.

This time the band are doing things the other way around, with their live shows preceding the album’s release date, a decision they say was intentional. “It’s just fun to take the doggy on a walk before anyone knows the songs. As a music fan, it’s really exciting to me to get to hear new music live before the band puts it out and to remember songs from the show when you finally hear the record.”

They’re not only looking forward to less after-hours work on their upcoming tour, however; they’re also hoping for some warmer weather. “I remember Ben was furious all the time,” says Bruce. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this cultural difference but I think people in Britain just generally don’t believe in heating the way that Americans do. We would be soundchecking at a venue and everyone working there would be wearing a scarf, hat and gloves and be like, ‘What are you talking about, turning the heat on?’”

Having both studied performance-related subjects in college where they met (Hopkins studied theatre and Bruce studied dance at Bard College in New York), the live show is an intrinsic element of PWR BTTM. “I feel like I don’t really understand our music until we perform it,” says Hopkins. “Just on this last tour, there were a couple of songs that we recorded that I’ve sort of had an idea how to play, then after the live shows I’m like, ‘Oh, this is where the real vibe is.’”

There’s one specific performance Bruce remembers as being “truly life-altering”, that being the iconic rendition of Lady Marmalade by Mýa, Pink, Lil’ Kim and Christina Aguilera, as performed at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards. “I remember downloading the video of that performance on Kazaa after it happened and then watching it all the time and just being like, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up,’ and here I am. Gotta get that dough, sister.”

Their love of performing seeps through very obviously into their music videos, where the song’s stories are visualised in a very PWR BTTM way. Their video for Pageant’s lead single Big Beautiful Day is a glitter drag fest, which sees the pair at a party anyone would want to be at. Bruce tells us: “That was the first time we had ever done a music video with a stranger but it felt very similar, very collaborative.” Is it more difficult working with a stranger, though? “It just takes more emails.”

For anyone in their early to mid-20s, PWR BTTM’s music is likely to have an element of nostalgia to it, a throwback to the pop-punk bands of their youth. But the band’s influences spread much further out with that genre. “The first time I heard Mykki Blanco, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is possible,’” says Hopkins.

“I was very much influenced by that music and still am,” Bruce agrees. “The queer hip-hop explosion of the early 2010s.”

You might think that it would be more difficult to be accepted as a queer rapper, given the narrative of mainstream hip-hop’s prominent and oft-discussed issues with homophobia, but Bruce is quick to interject: “I think that the indie rock community can be just as closed off. It happens in ways that might be subtle and not easy to put your finger on, so instead of someone saying, ‘that person is a fag,’ or whatever, they would say, ‘that doesn’t seem very authentic to me,’ or ‘that seems fake,’ or ‘gimmicky,’ but it’s all kind of coded language just getting at the same misunderstanding and almost fear.”

Being an openly queer punk band does come with its controversies. Last year, a group of anti-gay protestors picketed PWR BTTM’s show at Big Sleepy’s in Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of allowing them the satisfaction of causing upset, however, PWR BTTM reacted in the only way PWR BTTM would: with humour. “These protestors at our show said my asshole was going to fall out, and I was like I think I’m a better bottom than that,” the band posted on their Twitter feed. “In a way, I understand them because I want attention too,” says Bruce today, “but we’re better at it and we don’t have to resort to violence and evil to do it.”

No matter what’s thrown their way, however, PWR BTTM just keep bouncing back. It really seems there is nothing that can fuck up their big beautiful day.


Pageant is released on 12 May via Big Scary Monsters / Polyvinyl
PWR BTTM play The Deaf Institute, Manchester, 11 Apr; CCA, Glasgow, 15 Apr

Ibibio Sound Machine’s Eno Williams on Uyai

ism

Originally published for The Skinny March 2017 issue.

With the release of West African highlife powerhouse Ibibio Sound Machine’s new album Uyai due this month, we speak to the band’s dynamic frontwoman Eno Williams about her diverse creative influences

The Skinny: Where in the world are you just now?

Eno Williams: We’re in Pattaya, Thailand. There’s an odd vibe, lots of dodgy old man tourists but we’ve come out of town and it’s lovely. I’m sitting on a beach and it seems more like the proper Thailand. We were doing a festival called Wonderfruit. It’s very well run, I think Wilderness Festival has something to do with running it. It’s just been going a short time.

Your new album is out this month – can you tell us about it?

The album is called Uyai, which means beauty in my mother tongue, Ibibio. It’s not the obvious Western idea of beauty so much as referring to the beauty and strength of women in general. It extrapolates further to encompass the beauty of nature: the moon, the sea, even the process of making music. Lyrically, there are themes around this idea and particularly freedom and empowerment of women, and people in general. Musically, we delved further into electronic territory, which is what seemed to capture people’s imagination on our first album.

You’ve said it was a difficult journey completing the album. Why was that?

Well, there are more expectations with a second album. We particularly had more expectations of ourselves I suppose. Also, we had a couple of internal changes in the band which meant it was a more drawn-out process than usual, perhaps. But every album is difficult to make and is its own journey so that’s more significant.

What’s the story behind the lead single Give Me a Reason?

It’s about the Chibok girls that were abducted in northern Nigeria some years back – you may recall ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ [a series of protests prompted by the kidnapping of 276 female students by extremist group Boko Haram in 2014]. The story struck a chord and I was thinking, ‘Why can’t girls have the simple freedom to go to school?’ And on a greater level, ‘Why can’t we be free to be who we want to be?’ So I ask the question, ‘give me a reason’ – why not? It felt like a positive message, something that should be uplifting rather than melancholic.

Who did you work with on the accompanying video and what was the concept behind it?

We worked with a company called The Forest of Black from Glasgow. They were really cool; our label Merge had worked with them previously and suggested them. The director was called Ciaran Lyons and most of the visual concept was his idea. I guess the idea was to transmit the feeling of the song visually.

On the album, a lot of the songs are given their English titles and then their Ibibio translations. What were your initial reasons for wanting to sing in both Ibibio and English?

Our initial idea as a band was to try something with the Ibibio language but we also want people to understand what we’re saying. There is something we like about trying to communicate a message with words that the vast majority of people will not understand. It’s a challenge.

How would you describe traditional Ibibio music?

There is a lot of chanting, storytelling, as with most tribal languages. In later days, it had quite a highlife aspect to the sound, incorporating the popular styles of West Africa in the 20th century.

What’s your favourite Ibibio record?

My grandparents used to love dancing to a guy called Inyang Henshaw, who had a song called Kpong Me Yie Adesi. It was a funny track about being introduced to rice by Westerners. A lot of highlife tracks have topics that seem very funny or odd in the context of Western songwriting. I remember laughing about one highlife song that Alfred [Kari Bannerman], our guitarist, told me about that is from the perspective of a man asking a woman, ‘Why have you lost so much weight? You were so pretty when you were fat.’

What records or artists brought you together as a band?

We love all sorts of different stuff. A lot of 70s highlife, funk, and 80s stuff like Talking Heads and Grace Jones. We also get inspiration from people we meet in our travels and hear live: Jupiter and Okwess, The Comet is Coming, a trio we played with a while back called Peluché. It’s always a tough question as there are so many influences.

You get compared to Grace Jones quite a lot. What’s your favourite Grace Jones record?

Nightclubbing. I guess it’s just the one I connected with as a kid at a certain point. Obviously, she’s an icon and did things no one else before her had or since her has done. She opened the door for black female artists in a new way. The visual imagery was all part of her appeal, of course. I really couldn’t say I’m even a tenth of the artist she was though.

How much does fashion influence you personally and your music?

I love fashion, I try to incorporate that in what we do. I must give props to a very young designer in Berlin called Laura Lang – she designed the outfit on our album cover, she’s very talented. I tend to look about for people but we have had a couple of people asking to work with us and our music on occasion as well.

Who’s your favourite designer?

I always liked Alexander McQueen. I like the hips in his clothes; his stuff has a femininity about it. It reminds me somehow of our traditional Ibibio clothing, which emphasises the power of a woman’s middle. We have a dress called abang, which is like a hoop or cage skirt.

What’s your favourite record to dance to?

We recently did a mix for BBC 6 Music and I was enjoying Ohue by Victor Uwaifo. I was dancing to that when I was practicing for our video so I’ll say that as my current favourite.

What record always cheers you up?

African Woman by Baba Maal. I find it an empowering song that takes me back to my upbringing. I also find a lot of gospel very heartening.

What’s your favourite of your own tracks to perform live?

I like The Chant from our new album, we’ve just started doing it live. It actually features my mum doing a bit of speaking in tongues and I can’t wait to get her up to do that live.

What are you looking forward to most this year?

We’re trying to plan our first trip to the US at the moment and I’m really looking forward to playing there with the band for the first time.


Uyai is released on 3 Mar via Merge. Ibibio Sound Machine play Aberdeen Jazz Festival, 18 Mar & Band on the Wall, Manchester, 28 Mar.

The Upside Down: S U R V I V E interview

survive

Originally published for The Skinny February 2017 issue.

Best known for their Stranger Things soundtrack, we talk to S U R V I V E about synths, sophomore album RR7349 and what’s next for the four-piece ahead of their UK tour

For the most part, bands tend to follow a formulaic structure: vocals, guitars, bass and drums. In a synth band, however, roles are not strictly set – or so say Austin-based quartet S U R V I V E, who prefer to let the synths decide.

“There’s no rule necessarily of ‘this is how it goes down’,” explains Kyle Dixon, jokingly referred to as ‘the conductor’ by his bandmates. “Sometimes the synthesisers themselves have limits or can excel at different things,” adds Michael Stein, ‘the best engineer and producer’ in the band and the only member based outside of Austin, in Dallas.

With everyone in the band essentially playing the same instrument, their writing process is often quite different to that of a regular band. “Sometimes one person will have a song that’s 60% done and other people will add parts to it… or some people will get together and work on something,” adds Mark Donica.

“It’s usually one or two people’s individual efforts that eventually becomes a group effort, and after that becomes its own thing for our live version,” agrees Adam Jones, co-founder of Holodeck Records, the label on which the band reissued their 2012 debut album HD015 at the end of last year.

S U R V I V E on new album RR7349

Riding on a wave of unexpected popularity in the latter half of 2016, following the success of Stein and Dixon’s Grammy-nominated score for Netflix’s 80s-style sci-fi thriller series Stranger Things, S U R V I V E released their much-anticipated second album RR7349, named after its catalogue number like all the band’s releases.

“(RR7349) was finished for a while before (Stranger Things)… we were just looking for a place for it to come out,” says Dixon. That place turned out to be metal label Relapse Records, whose roster includes Mastodon, The Dillinger Escape Plan and the charmingly-named Dying Fetus. It might seem an odd fit for an electronic band, but Dixon believes it allows their music to reach a wider audience: “I think a lot of those people will like our music as well as metal,” he suggests, “but they wouldn’t know about us if we put out our album on some other more niche electronic cosmic label.”

Their shared openness to and passion for all kinds of music is what brought them together as a band, with influences ranging from Italodisco to hip-hop. “If you listen to our first EP, you kind of get an idea of how it all started coming together,” continues Dixon. “There’s a little more of a disco thing, it’s pretty cosmic, there’s even a little rap kind of vibe.”

 

The rap influence seems to mainly stem from Stein’s time spent working in a studio in Dallas, where most of his clients were rap artists. “We did stuff kind of around the time that D-town boogie was a thing,” adds Stein.

But S U R V I V E’s music is rooted in 70s and 80s electronica, with nods to krautrock, psychedelia and dark ambient music. “We all started getting into old stuff from the 70s and the 80s, and listening to similar music,” says Donica. “But we gravitated towards the more serious-sounding… I don’t want to say ‘darker’ stuff.”

“What would Eno say?”

The band’s 70s obsession becomes even more apparent when at one point during the conversation, Stein holds up a card which reads ‘Try faking it.’ It’s taken from Oblique Strategies: a deck of cards with a different statement printed on each one, which was released by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 as a way of helping artists combat creative blocks.

“When you weren’t sure what to do in your writing or whatever, you would just draw a card; these really obscure statements,” says Dixon. “You’re supposed to take the advice or just interpret that statement however you want to.” Do they ever use them to help with their own creative blocks though? “If somebody sees them sitting there and we’re in a crunch or something, we’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what would Eno say?’” concludes Stein.

With a brief stint of UK and European shows coming up this month in support of the album, the band have started to think about transporting all the equipment needed for their live show across the pond. “We’re having to change the set-ups a little bit for flying everything but generally they’ll be comparable to what we would have here,” says Dixon.

Although they don’t have strictly set roles during the writing and recording process, when it comes to performing live there is a little more regularity. “Kyle always has the drum machine,” Jones explains. “And I always play the keyboards that have multiple notes and all the chords, but then everything else can be anybody.

“A lot of the time, when we bring a song from the studio into the live setting, we’ll just devise how it makes the most sense for us to play it. Sometimes somebody just wrote a part that they enjoy playing a lot so they want to play it live. That’s cool, they can do that if their gear allows them to.”

S U R V I V E’s plans for 2017

While they’ve toyed with the idea of making music that isn’t completely synth-based, the chances of any of their upcoming work straying too far away from their blueprint is unlikely. “We’ve used samples and other weird stuff that isn’t quite synthesisers before so yeah, I would say I could see us making some music that wasn’t synth-based,” says Jones. “It might be more abstract and weird but we’re not going to whip out acoustic guitars or anything like that anytime soon, that’s for sure.”

The others seem less open to the idea, however. “I can’t imagine us making a record that isn’t heavily reliant on synths,” counters Dixon. “They’re all going to be synth-based but we might have a non-synth element at some stage.”

Most recently, the band curated the music for Sensory, the multi-dimensional ‘Immersive Restaurant Experiment’ at Sugar Mountain Festival in Melbourne, Australia. Collaborating alongside visual artist Daniel Arsham and chef Peter Gunn, together they created a 60-minute set menu narrative bringing together food, sound and visuals.

They’ve even had time to start work on a new album: “We’ve got some progress done on a new album but it’s still in the works,” explains Jones. “Over the next year, we’ll probably finish it up. But I think we might do a couple of smaller releases, like EPs or various other non-LP stuff if we can, maybe remixes or a live album,” he adds. Just don’t hold your breath for that acoustic S U R V I V E album coming out quite yet.


S U R V I V E play The Art School, Glasgow on 20 Feb & Deaf Institute, Manchester on 21 Feb