Interview: A Q&A with New Colossus Festival Co-Founder Mike Bell
Co-founded by three New York music industry vets and longtime friends, Lorimer Beacon‘s founder and head Mike Bell, Kanine Records‘ founder and label head Lio Kanine and Kepler Events and Lola Live’s Steven Matrick, the second annual The New Colossus Festival, which will take place on March 11, 2020 – March 15, 2020 will feature more than 100 handpicked, emerging indie bands and artists from the US, Canada, the UK, the European Union, Australia, and Singapore. By design, the festival takes place just before SXSW: the festival’s co-founders view the festival as a pre-SXSW stopover that will give its emerging acts an opportunity to organically gain exposure – while filling a critical void in the festival circuit.
Of course, New Colossus offers adventurous fans and music industry insiders alike an opportunity to catch many of these emerging and buzzworthy bands before SXSW – and in many cases, the festival will offer the unique opportunity of catching some of these acts playing their first Stateside shows ever. Personally, I’m looking forward to catching JOVM mainstays The Orielles,Summer Heart and A Place to Bury Strangers, along with Beverly Kills, Hanya, Bodywash (who I caught at M for Montreal last year) and Jackie – but I’m also looking forward to some serendipitous discovery of new acts and the opportunity run into old friends, and to network and meet new friends and colleagues. And much like its inaugural year, the second New Colossus Festival will also feature panels and talks that will be of interest to the music community.
I got in touch with New Colossus Festival co-founder Mike Bell by email to chat about the second edition of the festival – primarily its rapid expansion, the founders hope for the future and more. Check it out below.
WRH: This year is the second New Colossus Festival. In terms of the festival, what makes this year’s edition different than last year?
Mike Bell: We’re thrilled to be back! This year we’ve grown from 6 venues to 9 venues while still keeping everything within walking distance on the Lower East Side. We added MOSCOT Eyewear on Orchard Street as a venue, which will host shows all day Friday. It’s pretty exciting to be teaming up with a wonderful Lower East Side institution. We also added an after-party at Ludlow House on Thursday and a late show featuring our friends A Place To Bury Strangers at Bowery Ballroom on Friday.
WRH: The second edition of New Colossus features a packed lineup of over 100 bands. Much like last year, there’s a big representation of Canadian acts. But I also see a few Norwegian acts, a few Spanish acts, a fair number of British acts, an Irish act or two, a couple of Austrian acts, an Irish act or two, an Australian act and even an act from Singapore on the bill. Was there anything specifically that changed in how acts were chosen and booked this year?
MB: Our prime motive is always the quality of the music and how it makes us feel. We’re booking bands who play music that we love. We aren’t targeting a band from Djibouti because they’re from Djibouti. If there’s a great band from anywhere in the world that is able to make it to NYC and are serious about their careers as professional musicians, we’ll certainly consider them. I will say that there are great festivals and conferences like Halifax Pop Explosion,Focus Wales, The Great Escape and Music Finland that have flown us out to find talent because their governments support exporting their music and art.
WRH: Who comes up with the festival playlist?
MB: That’s all Steven [Matrick]! He’s really good at it and puts a lot of thought into song placement. He’s been sending out playlists to his friends for many years. You can hear his “Best of 2019” here:
WRH: This year’s festival sees the addition of two new venues – Ludlow House and the biggest venue in the festival’s history to date, Bowery Ballroom, which will host arguably the most talked about showcase of the entire festival. Does this give you and the organizers a sense of an even bigger future for New Colossus?
MB: By the time your readers see this, we’ll have announced MOSCOT as another venue that will be hosting bands all day Friday, March 13, with our friends from AdHoc. As mentioned previously, MOSCOT has been part of the Lower East Side community for over 100 years. They’re also a huge supporter of music so it made a lot of sense to team up with them.
The Bowery Ballroom show is a big deal and we’re super excited about it. However, we really don’t see this as a showcase nor as a “headline” show. We definitely don’t want to be the kind of festival that makes fans choose between seeing a more established band versus a smaller one. A Place to Bury Strangers are part of our TNC family and we see their show as another awesome band for festival attendees to see after the other showcases have ended. That said, Bowery Ballroom is a great venue and we hope to expand and do more shows with them next year.
WRH: Festivals like Winter Jazz Fest, New Colossus, SXSW and other festivals with a conference segment have featured talks covering a variety of subjects of importance to their audiences, which will predominantly be musicians, music industry professionals and journalists. How did you and the organizing team come up with the subjects for the various talks that will happen this year?
MB: The topics we chose were the ones that we felt were most useful and interesting to the bands playing the festival. We feel it is important to include speakers who would be the most likely to connect with the artists in a meaningful way. In the age of declining record sales, Indie labels, sync and touring have become vital to survive as a musician. The other panels are on activism, mental health and the history of music in NYC, all very relevant to the bands playing our festival.
WRH: Besides making a living off your art and passion, and how to survive the touring life, one of the biggest issues that concern musicians, music industry types and those who love them is their mental health and wellness. A portion of my readers aren’t music industry insiders. Can you talk a bit about why having discussions on the subject of mental health and wellness is so important for the music community as a whole?
MB: Mental health and wellness is something we need to talk about as much as possible. Professional artists’ lives and livelihoods are dependent on maintaining their wellbeing. We are here are for the artist and want to help them with their careers, which includes making sure that issues like mental health are not stigmatized and that they addressed in an open form. Most touring musicians spend a huge percentage of their lives in bars at music venues and it is a struggle for everyone single one of them to be healthy and sane while touring.
MB: It’s pretty amazing! Tim is also playing his first US solo shows at the festival. Lio has been friends with Simon and his wife Abbey for years and we all love their label Bella Union. In the end it really all came down to them believing and understanding what this festival is all about. Bella Union also sent us two of our favorite bands Penelope Isles and Lowly last year, and Pom Poko and Dog In the Snow this year, as well as the legendary Tim Burgess of the Charlatans.
WRH: Where do you see the direction of the festival next year?
MB: We are already thinking about what we’ll do for 2021 and have some plans that involve integrating more with the community and the neighborhood as a whole. We’d love too partner with a backline company and do more pop up shows in art galleries and stores.
M for Montreal (French – M pour Montreal) is an annual music festival and conference, which takes place during four days in late November. Since its founding 14 years ago, the music festival and conference has rapidly expanded to feature over 100 local and international buzzworthy and breakout bands in showcases across 15 of Montreal’s top venues.
300 music industry movers and shakers, heavyweights and tastemakers from over 20 different countries make the trek to Montreal to seek out new, emerging artists and new business opportunities Last month, I had the distinct honor and pleasure to be one of those 300 music industry movers and shakers, heavyweights and tastemakers, who made the trek to Montreal for the four-day festival. (And yes, I had some amazing poutine and a smoked meat sandwich. After all, when in Rome, right?)
Friday, November 22, 2019 marked M for Montreal’s third day and night of the festival’s four days and for me, it was the busiest and most exhausting one of my time in Montreal, as I made several stops in completely different parts of the city, including a Music PEI (Prince Edward Island)-sponsored brunch showcase early that morning, which featured three of the Eastern Canadian province’s hottest, up-and-coming artists – Vince The Messenger, Russell Louder and Dylan Menzie.
By any music festival’s third or fourth day, you’re most likely a hungover, sweaty, sleep-deprived mess with aching feet and knees and maybe even a sore back. You have business cards from people you can’t remember meeting or having a conversation with – and those people you do remember, their names and faces have blurred. And despite being overstimulated and in complete discomfort, you’d do it over and over and over again because – well, you’re having the best possible life and you might be a bit of a sadomasochist. As for me, I was a bit sleep deprived and somehow managed to enter the wrong address into Google Maps for the brunch showcase. Naturally, this resulted in somehow walking almost three blocks past the venue and missing what seemed to be at least two songs of the opener, Vince The Messenger’s set. D’oh! But I was so impressed by him that I knew I wanted to interview him as part of my festival coverage.
The up-and-coming Etobicoke, Ontario-born, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island-based emcee Vince The Messenger’s solo career started in earnest with the release of last year’s full-length debut Self Sabotage, an effort that led to the Etobicoke-born, Charlottetown-based emcee being nominated for a New Artist of the Year Award and the album receiving an Urban Recording of the Year at this year’s Music PEI Awards. After catching the 22-year old Canadian emcee’s set last month, I can see why: his work is an effortless and seamless synthesis of golden era hip-hop boom bap, introspective and thoughtful lyricism based on personal experience and feelings and slick, modern production. And it’s all done in a way that – to my ears, at least – seems perfectly suited for Hot 97 and Power 105.1.
I recently chatted with the rapidly rising Canadian artist via email about a wide range of topics including Prince Edward Island’s music scene, being an emcee and hip-hop artist on the small Eastern Canadian province, his influences, M for Montreal and more. He’ll strike you as a thoughtful and interesting young talent – and I hope that we’ll be hearing more about him in the States. Check out the interview below. And then feel free to check out some of the Canadian artist’s work, too.
William Ruben Helms: While I have a number of Canadian readers, the bulk of my readers are from the States – primarily in and around the New York Metropolitan area. As you can imagine, many of us won’t know much about Prince Edward Island, let alone Charlottetown. Can you tell us something about the province that we should know but somehow don’t know? What’s the music scene like? Is it unusual to be an emcee out there?
Vince The Messenger: PEI is a province that moves at a comfortable pace. The island thrives off of its tourist industry, with a beach in literally any direction and an abundance of east coast cuisine, the island really booms in the summer months. The music scene is small and tightknit. The music scene is home to singer/songwriters, indie rock, pop-punk, blues, classical, jazz and everything in between. Being an emcee is most definitely a little unusual out here. PEI is definitely not known for its hip-hop, but with artists like myself and others, we’re working to change that narrative.
WRH: Besides yourself, are there any other artists from your province that listeners and fans should know about outside the province?
VTM: I got into music at a relatively young age. The idea of interacting with music creatively was first introduced by my father when I was young, maybe five or so. He used to play in a few bands during his younger adulthood in Toronto, so it wasn’t uncommon for him to have instruments around the house. We’d write songs together and record them on cassette, he’d play guitar and I’d sing. This foundation of interacting with music led me to take songwriting more seriously in my later school years. By junior-high I was recording and releasing my own music and performing at all-ages events around my city. Things really didn’t pick up for me until recent years when I developed a close working relationship with my DJ and producer Niimo. From that point on I put out my first album, began playing shows and festivals frequently and have tapped into my artistry on a higher level.
WRH: There’s quite a bit of that old school boom bap in your sound and work. How much has that influenced your work? Who are your influences?
VTM: The music coming out of the boom-bap era was incredibly real and raw. Hip-hop coming out in the following eras saw more commercialization and at some fault lost some elements of what made it genuine. I’ve always reached towards the golden age due to its rich substance, that’s always something I’ve strived to provide with my own music. Hip-hop being the most popular genre today a lot of what you see on the surface is heavily commercialized and can lack substance. Luckily with streaming and the power of the internet artists with alternative approaches to hip-hop are still alive and well and are able to get their music and message out to the masses. My influences range from artists like The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Das Efx, Biggie to more modern acts like Mick Jenkins, Earl Sweatshirt, Joey Badass and Kendrick Lamar.
WRH: How would you describe your work?
VTM: My work is an expressive take on my life, my experiences and my aspirations. I try to blend a sound that’s easily digestible with lyrics containing deeper meaning for those who seek it.
WRH: I managed to miss a song or two of your set during the Prince Edward Island-sponsored M for Montreal brunch showcase. I was sleep-deprived and managed to enter the wrong address for the venue and walked two and a half blocks past the place. D’oh! Thankfully, I still managed to catch most of the set. I saw a fair amount of rappers during the festival, including a late-night showcase at Le Belmont later that night. But out of the rappers I saw you were among my favorites. How did it feel to represent Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island in front of a bunch of national and internationally-based music industry types?
VTM: It felt great representing Charlottetown in front of a bunch of music industry types and delegates. It’s always been interesting representing Charlottetown as a rap artist mostly because when outsiders or even insiders for that matter think of the PEI music scene hip-hop/rap is not a genre that comes to mind. That’s slowly changing as myself and other Charlottetown artists bring more life to the genre and art style in the city. It presents a unique opportunity to showcase my music with minimal preconceptions of what rap music from my city should sound like, and when it’s received as positively as it is it feels even better.
WRH: Did you get a chance to see any music during M for Montreal? And if so, was there anyone you enjoyed?
WRH: Your solo career started last year, and you’ve been really busy. You released your solo debut Self Sabotage last year. You’ve released a handful of singles this year – and you’ve had a bunch of collaborations and guest spots. I listened to some of your work before I landed in Montreal and again for research for this interview. “Mr. Sun” and “Menace” are two of my favorite tracks of Self-Sabotage. Those songs much like the rest of your material captures your innermost thoughts, experiences, and feelings in a profoundly intimate and personal fashion – that’s somewhat uncommon with hip hop. How much of your work is influenced by your own personal experiences?
VTM: The majority of my work is influenced by my own personal experiences in some form. Whether that be a report of first-hand events or observations I make from things happening around me. A lot of what I write comes from an emotive space – I write how I feel and use these lyrics as a method of journaling.
WRH: You released “Android” a few weeks before M for Montreal. To me, it’s an interesting track because it features you rhyming over a production that’s both atmospheric and glitchy. So what’s the track about?
VTM: “Android” is a track that definitely sits differently in my discography. When Niimo sent me the beat I was skeptical about rapping on it initially just because of how different of a sound it was for me, but there was something about it that had me captured. The song doesn’t necessarily follow a strict theme from beginning to end, instead, it runs as a series of thoughts in a stream of consciousness style. What starts off as a braggadocious ballad turns into me airing out a list of concerns, but ending on the same braggadocious high note.
WRH: This isn’t really a question but that “Azucar Freestyle” you’ve got up on Spotify is fucking fire.
VTM: I appreciate that. That song came out of my fandom of Earl Sweatshirt. I recorded over the instrumental of his song “Azucar” off of Some Rap Songs and instead of putting that up on its own Niimo flipped the same sample and recreated the beat under my acapella.
VTM: Since releasing Self Sabotage I’ve been working closely with Niimo on my next album Trustfall. That’ll be out early in the new year accompanied by visuals and a series of other materials to complement it. Outside of the new music, you can expect to see me showcasing within North America and put out more and more content for my audience.
Several months ago, I was invited to be a panelist on a Baby Robot Media hosted panel titled “Your First PR Campaign” at this year’s Mondo.NYC conference in Lower Manhattan, a conference created by some of the original organizers of the beloved and sadly defunct CMJ Marathon. In fact, after speaking at the panel, I along with several colleagues went to a nearby bar, where I watched my beloved Yankees lose a confounding and infuriating heartbreaking Game 2 of the American League Division series against the then-defending League Champion Cleveland Indians. At some point, I went from networking and mingling mode to yelling and cursing at the TV – and I couldn’t tell if these people, who I had worked with in some capacity for much of JOVM’s history were amused, knowing how much of a Yankee fan I am or if they were horrified. But the postseason when your team is in it is another thing altogether. I’ve frequently told a story about sitting in Clem’s with my dear friend and colleague Natalie Hamingson after watching the New York Rangers lose Game 7 of that year’s Conference Finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning at home, in which I went into a furious 45 minute, expletive laced tirade. About half way through, the bartender at the time said to Natalie, “I don’t think I’ve seen him that angry before.” In my mind, I thought “if I was at home, I would be throwing things at my TV,” but that’s another issue altogether.
Thanks in part to built-in travel days within the postseason schedule, and the weather actually holding up in early October, I was able to squeeze in some live music coverage at this year’s Mondo.NYC. Because I had spoken at Baby Robot Media’s PR campaign panel and worked with them for a good 6-7 years or so, the company’s co-founders had personally invited me to come out to the showcases they were hosting at Piano’s during the weekend. Admittedly, I just wasn’t able to do any research prior to the actual live music, so I went into everything with no expectations and a clear mind as to what I might be seeing – and interestingly enough, I wound up being pleasantly surprised by the variety of the acts I caught throughout that particular weekend. However, in a weekend with several impressive acts – including British folk singer/songwriter Hannah Scott, New York-based Americana singer/songwriter Mieka Pauley, Austin, TX-based Americana act Fairbanks and the Lonesome Light and Kellindo Parker, best known as Janelle Monae’s sideman, there was one decidedly clear champion of the weekend, the classically trained, Sebastian, FL-born, Somerville, MA-based singer/songwriter Hayley Thompson-King.
Thompson-King’s solo debut album Psychotic Melancholia was released earlier this year through Hard to Kill Records, and the album is a “Sodom and Gomorrah concept album” that in some way is an amalgamation of several different sources and wildly disparate sources. The overall concept of the album is largely influenced by her childhood obsession with the stories of the so-called wicked women in the Bible. “I was the skeptical kid with her hand up in Sunday school,” Thompson-King recalls in press notes. “Also, I spent weekends performing with my church youth group called Clowns for Christ. I guess you could say I was obsessed with getting to the bottom of what exactly would send one to hell. I consider myself agnostic at this point, but I’m still inspired by the questions I had as a kid about disobedience, and about the characters I was taught to believe were evil, like Lot’s Wife and Judas and Lucifer. Upon revisiting these stories, I was inspired by their questioning. I thought they were strong and exciting, and I could put myself in their shoes.” Along with that, the album’s material draws from the Sebastian, FL-born, Somerville, MA-based singer/songwriter and guitarist’s small. Southern town upbringing, in which her father was a team-roper and trained cutting horses, and she grew up riding and showing American Quarter horses. “I spent a lot of time in the dually listening to country music,” Hayley Thompson-King recalls. “And then I went to opera school.” And lastly, the material which references Romantic period art also draws from her classical training at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a Master’s in Operatic Performance.
And while having an operatic sweep with seemingly larger than life characters with oversized emotions, the album’s songs interestingly enough manage to possess a deeply personal and introspective nature. “I write about real things that have happened in my life,” Thompson-King says in press notes. “My relationships, like with my folks, the people I love, but using the landscape and stories of outside characters. They’re all about me, I guess, but it’s easier to write if I’m looking at a third party. So I look at myself as another character.” But perhaps more important, that voice, man; while there have been some comparisons to operatically trained vocalists like Pat Benatar and Heart‘s Ann Wilson, as well as Linda Ronstadt, which are all pretty damn reasonable, Thompson-King’s vocals throughout the album switch from feral howls and yelps, the sort of defiant, and self-contained resiliency and pride that only women possess, a world weary ache from a messy life, full of bad (if not completely fucked up) decisions, dysfunctional relationships with shitty, irresponsible lovers and good, decent ones – before ending with a gorgeous and sparse rendition of Schumann’s “Wehmut,” which translates in English to “Melancholy” and features Thompson-King singing in operatic German “Ich kann wohl manchmal singen / als ob ich fröhlich sei / Doch heimlich Tränen dringen / Da wird das Herz mir frei” (“Sometimes I may be singing as if I were full of joy, But secretly the tears are flowing and then my heart feels free”).
Simply put, it’s a powerful and incredibly self-assured debut but it’s arguably among my favorites released this year. Now, as you can imagine this year has been incredibly busy as I’ve had to manage the responsibilities of an involved day job with that of this blog, but several weeks ago I spoke to the incredibly thoughtful and charming Hayley Thompson-King via email about Psychotic Melancholy, her classical training and how it’s influenced her own creative work, how much the Sun Records sound has influenced her on this album and more in a rather revealing interview. Check it out below.
WRH: You grew up in the tiny town of Sebastian, Florida near Melbourne and Vero Beach, and as the impressively detailed press notes I was provided mentioned, you spent great deal of your youth riding and showing American Quarter horses and your father was a team roper, who trained cutting horses. It’s understandable that you would have grown up listening to a helluva lot of country music; but I understand that you’re a classically trained opera singer, who went to opera school, which defies the stereotype of the country singer/songwriter. How did you get into opera? Did you have any of your friends or others make fun of you for singing classical opera? How has your classical training influenced you and your work? When did you realize that you needed to write for yourself?
Hayley Thompson-King: I’ve always had classical leanings…When I was about 12, I basically woke up one day and my voice had changed…like I hit puberty and all of a sudden I had a ton of vibrato and could speak Italian (just kidding about the second part 🙂 But, ya, it was very natural for me to sing classical music. No one made fun of me! (…to my face…At least not for that!) I feel grateful that I had the opportunity to attend college and then graduate school. I think besides being able to control my voice and all it’s little nuances, the training has helped me to be able to analyze music. To dig into what the composer and lyricist are trying to convey and then honoring that…which is great for country music because it’s tradition to sing other people’s songs. I take every note and every lyric very seriously and when I break from that, it’s intentional… As a songwriter, it’s sort of a blessing and a curse…it takes me a long time to compose the “right” song because every note and every word have to serve the plot…It’s challenging for me to rattle off something visceral like Louie Louie (one of the greatest songs of all time, in my opinion).
Realizing I wanted to go down this path- what feels like performance art; using my brain, my feelings, experiences, and my body to express something- came about 7 years ago. I became tired of waiting for someone else to tell me when or whether or not I could make art. So, I wrote, produced and released my first record (an entirely analog production) called Save The Rats; it was the first release on my label, Hard To Kill Records.
HTK: Please don’t judge me, but I am LOCKED on Traditional Holiday Favorites: Christmas Music of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s on Sirius XM…I have no excuse.
WRH: How would you describe your sound to those unfamiliar with you and your work?
HTK: I like to say it’s Psychedelic Country or Alt-Classical. Some folks have said Garage Country or even Riot Girl.
WRH: Earlier this year, I stopped by both of Baby Robot Media’s Mondo.NYC Showcases at Piano’s without any expectations of anything and honestly without researching any of the artists or anything, and out of all of the very talented artists, you and your backing band blew me away. I’m a jaded New York-based music journalist, so I don’t say that often! One of the things that I noticed that you and your backing band seemed incredibly road tested. How did you meet your backing band and how long have you been playing together?
HTK: Oh, that is very kind of you to say! I have about 5 musicians who I work with regularly (2 guitarists, 1 drummer and 2 bass players). Everyone who plays with me has one instruction from me: serve the song. I don’t need them to be perfect or play it like the record, I just want to play together in the moment and serve the song.
That show, I had my original bass player (who played on the record) Chris Maclachlan. Chris is a classically trained singer and bassist for seminal Boston band from the 80’s called Human Sexual Response. He’s been with me the longest…we started as a duo and that was when we began incorporating classical repertoire. I had Rob Motes on drums and Nick Mercado on guitar. My other Bass player Ben Voskeritchian is in a band along with Rob and Nick called These Wild Plains from Boston. Their whole band approached me with the idea to go on the road opening me and then backing me up. They are fantastic musicians, they listen to everything I do and respond…I feel really lucky to have them in the band. And my other guitar player (who played on the record and also engineered and co-produced) is Pete Weiss.
WRH: I’ve listened the album a number of times and sonically it’s like you and your backing band manage to bridge honky tonk country with the Sun Records/early rock sound — I can’t help but think of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on because the album’s material has this raw, feral quality to me. Was that intentional? And how much has that particular period influenced you?
HTK: It’s funny you bring that up…and I’m so glad you pulled that thread. I’m also a college professor on the side 🙂 And I’m preparing for a course right now in Rock and Roll History so listening to A LOT of Elvis. I think ‘feral’ is the perfect term. That music was highly intelligent the way Nature is… and I think results from a feeling of being bound. There is a release and it doesn’t feel contrived, but rather instinctive. AND, most exciting, the audience was effected that way! In my music, I’m working completely instinct-driven, so, yes, I’d say those artists have influenced me.
WRH: The album reportedly stems from your childhood obsessions with the Bible’s wicked women, doubters and questioners, questioning what exactly made them “evil,” and in some way viewing them in a very different, empathetic prism in which you put yourself in the shoes of Lot’s wife, Judas and Luficer among others while tying that together with your own personal experiences. When I read that in the very detailed press notes about you and the album, my immediate thought was “holy shit, that’s pretty heady — for anything these days.” When you began writing the material for the album, did you begin with that overarching theme, crafting material so that it would hew to it — or was it something that came about subconsciously and organically as you were writing?
HTK: As far as the concept for the record, one day as Pete (Weiss) and I were working on pre-production, he said jokingly, “this sounds like a Sodom and Gommorah concept album”. So, that kind of stuck because it was a way to talk to people about what the hell is going on in this body of work. But, truly this was not something that I was in control of… I was guided and sensed it was divine intervention. My entire life, I’ve been haunted by these characters because, it seems to me, they were pawns in a game… Isn’t Judas the real martyr? I realize that this might come across as blaspheme, but I’m resigned to burning in whatever hell being a reasonable person gets you sent to.
WRH: You and your backing band spent the closing months of 2016 and the early months of this year writing and then obsessively revising and then recording the material that wound up comprising Psychotic Melancholia. How much revising and tweaking went into the writing sessions? And when did you know that you had finished, fully-fleshed out songs?
HTK: Pete (Weiss) and I got together in little pre-production sessions before we went into the studio and tweaked some of the songs… those sessions involved adding a chord here or there, some arrangement choices, and our plan of attack for mic-ing/live recording/vocals. Most of the songs were fully formed at that point. Then we went to the studio and a lot of what you hear is live with some minimal editing/overdubs. BUT, a couple of the more kinetic pieces (Lot’s Wife and No Room) needed to be played live in order for us to get the feel… so we booked a couple things and then went back and recorded those… they are mainly live, but what you are hearing is probably the 3rd version of both of those. I just get a feeling when something is right and the band trusts that… so that’s how we work.
“Dopesick,” and “Old Flames” are among my favorite songs on the album. What can I say, a sad song sometimes just works, you know? In any case, there’s a deep and visceral ache to them that comes from very real, lived-in experience, while drawing from some of the country songs I’d expect to hear while in some beer and whiskey soaked honky tonk. What is the story behind those two?
HTK: “Old Flames” is actually a cover song. It was written around 1978 by Hugh Moffatt and Pebe Sebert (Sebert is the mother of Ke$ha!). I only add a cover if I feel a deep connection to it and if I feel I can bring something new to the table…for that one, I had been trying to write about being in love with my partner…I found it VERY challenging to write about joy. I started playing that song and it said the things that I wanted to say about my love. (I’m still trying to write originals about this topic and getting much better at expressing this these days)
“Dopesick” is an old song. I probably wrote it about 5 years ago. It’s also about someone very close to me who was struggling…but, in hindsight, it’s also about me. It’s my favorite song.
WRH: I’ve mentioned this to a number of artists I’ve interviewed but I think that the one of the keys to an exceptional album is when the song order is so perfect that it creates a very specific mood, and if you were to rearrange the songs, it would be a different album with a wildly different mood — closing the album with a rendition of Schumann’s “Wehmut” is an eccentric yet gorgeous and fitting way to close out an album with a huge, operatic sensibility. Did you have any difficulties in arranging the material as it appears on the album or was it something that you always knew?
HTK: It took me about 3 days to do the song order…which, to me, felt long. I was taking into consideration the tempi, flow of the keys and lyrical arch…but really, this was the only way it could be. On the vinyl (which I’m planning to release this spring, but am hoping to get some label support for), each side will end with a Schumann piece….I think the whole thing works beautifully for a record where you listen to one side and then flip:
Large Hall, Slow Decay
No Room For Jesus
Mondnacht (music -Schumann / poem – Eichendorff)
Mondnacht (Moon Night):
It seemed as if the sky
Had silently kissed the earth,
That she in the shimmer of blossoms
Could only dream of him.
The breeze blew over the fields,
The grain stalks gently surged,
The forests rustled softly,
So starbright was the night.
And my soul unfolded
It’s pinions so wide,
Flew over the silent lands,
As if it were flying home
Sometimes I may be singing
As if I were full of joy,
But secretly tears are flowing,
And then my heart feels free.
The nightingales will sing,
When spring breezes play outside,
Their melody of yearning
Out of their prison’s tomb.
Then all the hearts are listening,
And everyone is glad,
But none can feel the sorrows,
The bitter grief in song.
WRH: What’s next for you?
Well, we are home working on a couple videos and doing some writing and light recording in January…and teaching my R&R History course at the college of course. We’ll be doing about 3 weeks east of the Rockies in March. I turn in my grades for \ on May 14 and on May 15 we leave for a month long tour in Scandinavia which ends at the Stockholm Americana Festival. I’m pretty excited about spring. I’m hoping to get back to NYC a few times in the next couple months…we’ve had such exciting crowds there (including yourself 🙂 It feels like the audiences really get what we’re doing and like the artistic aspect of it. So, that’s the plan.
Led by its founding member, composer and bassist Ezra Gale and featuring Rick Parker (trombone), Alex Asher (trombone), Jon Lipscomb (guitar) and Madhu Siddappa, the Brooklyn-based trombone-led dub quintet Super Hi-Fi can trace their origins to a rather unlikely beginning. Gale, who was a founding member of acclaimed San Francisco-based Afrobeat act Aphrodisia, an act that once played at Fela Kuti‘s famed Lagos, Nigeria-based night club The Shrine, had relocated to Brooklyn and was collaborating with Quoc Pham in Sound Liberation Front when Gale was asked to get a band together for Pham and Gale’s then-monthly Afro-Dub Sessions parties in Williamsburg. Much like DJ Turmix’s Boogaloo Party, the Afro-Dub Sessions Party would pair the live band fronted by Gale with the dub’s top-flight producers and DJs including Victor Rice, Prince Polo, Subatomic Sound System, the Beverley Road All-Stars and others.
When Gale founded Super Hi-Fi, the project was initially intended to translate the improvisatory mixing process of dub to the live show; however, with the 2012 release of their critically applauded debut effort Dub to the Bone, a busy touring schedule in which they opened for nationally known acts like Rubblebucket, Beats Antique and John Brown’s Body, followed by the release of their Yule Analog Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the project began to cement its growing reputation for crafting a unique and expansive take on dub and reggae.
With the recent release of Super Hi-Fi Plays Nirvana, the Brooklyn-based dub quintet push the boundaries of reggae and dub by paying tribute to Nirvana. And in typical Super Hi-Fi fashion, the members of the band manage to create their own take on the iconic Seattle-based trio’s material with renowned dub producers, Sao Paulo, Brazil‘s Victor Rice; Venice, Italy‘s Doctor Sub; and Brooklyn’s Prince Polo — all of whom are frequent collaborators with the band — assisting to further bend and morph the band’s sound in trippy and psychedelic ways, which help take fairly familiar songs into bold, new territory.
Adding to the uniqueness of the release, Very Special Recordings, a small, boutique Brooklyn-based label founded by Super Hi-Fi’s Ezra Gale, that specializes in releases cassettes that showcase the diverse of their borough’s and city’s music scene. Interestingly, while we all live in a world of Spotify playlists and streamable music that one never really owns, cassettes have seen something of a renaissance of late with several artists and labels releasing cassette only releases — and in some way, it’s a response against not just streaming services but against the trend towards technophilia for the sake of technophilia. While being relatively cheap to make and sell, a cassette tape does require a bit of effort — you’d have to go to a physical record store to purchase your favorite band’s new record and then bring it home to play; have a label or friend mail or give you a tape; and at the very least, you’ll probably listen to the whole tape, if not an entire side once. Plus, let’s not forget, that unless your favorite song is the first song or last song of a side, finding it can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience. And yet, if you remember buying cassettes at your local record store, as I do, it’s an experience that frankly I sometimes miss very dearly.
I recently spoke to Super Hi-Fi’s Ezra Gale about Super Hi Fi Plays Nirvana, how the arranging and re-arranging process differs from Gale’s normal songwriting process, the band’s upcoming releases and more. Check it out below.
WRH: In the Q&As for The Joy of Violent Movement, we almost always begin with some fairly introductory stuff for readers. So let’s begin, shall we?
WRH: How did the members of the band meet?
Ezra Gale: I had an idea for a two trombone band and placed a Craigslist ad for trombone players which got exactly two responses, from Alex Asher and Ryan Snow, who became our first two trombone players. Everybody else I just met through other musicians.
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
EG: It’s dub, but I don’t know if it’s reggae.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
EG: The last album I bought was Bowie‘s last album, Blackstar, which is just incredible.
WRH: Seminal albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind, U2’s Achtung Baby, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down On The Upside, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy and others reaching important milestone anniversaries, it’s a bit surprising to me that to my knowledge more bands haven’t seriously begun to tackle them with more covers and more tribute albums, especially if you consider how many Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Beatles tribute albums have been released over the years. Why haven’t there been more Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M. tributes and covers? And how did you come upon paying tribute to Nirvana?
EG: I really don’t know about those other bands, for us we started playing a version of “Something In the Way” a couple years ago, and we all sort of got the idea that maybe a whole album of Nirvana tunes could be interesting.
WRH: Much like your fantastic Christmas albums, Super Hi-Fi Plays Nirvana features a couple of very well-known songs such as In Utereo’s “Heart Shaped Box,” and their famous Unplugged cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” as well as some rather deeper cuts such as “Verse Chorus Verse,” their Incesticide cover of “Love Buzz” Nevermind’s “Something In The Way” and “Polly.” What inspired you to choose those songs to tackle instead of something more tried and true?
EG: Well, initially I wanted to do all really obscure ones. Nirvana is a band whose famous songs have been played to death and I don’t know if anyone really needs to hear another version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, for example. But I know them from when Bleach came out and they were just this really great, intense band from Seattle that not many people knew- my college band even opened for them then, randomly. So I wanted to spotlight some of those lesser-known songs of theirs. But then, I think i was riding my bike and I suddenly started hearing “Heart Shaped Box” in this really slow, weird way, so we ended up doing that one. Ultimately it’s just about giving each song a different treatment and finding something new to do with it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before.
WRH: How do you go about re-arranging material that’s fairly familiar in a way that adds your particular spin to it — while maintaining something familiar? And how does the process of re-arranging material differ from your normal songwriting process?
EG: It is different than a normal songwriting process. This album was very similar to our two Christmas albums (“Yule Analog” Vols. I and II), in that the goal was to take familiar material and make it sound different. And like in arranging those Christmas songs, I made some rules for myself doing it, which were that the melody line had to be the same, but everything else around it could change. So the rhythms are obviously very different, but also, Nirvana was a band with only one singer and we have two trombones, so in a lot of these versions the second trombone part is made up- like in “Verse Chorus Verse”, “Heart Shaped Box” and “Where Did You Sleep” especially. And also the chords are quite different in some of these, “Polly” and “Where Did You Sleep” especially are pretty different chord changes than the Nirvana versions.
My attitude towards cover versions is just that there’s no point in doing them if all you’re doing is to play it like the original version. No matter how great the original song is, I don’t ever want to regurgitate what someone else has done- go listen to the original if you want that. At the same time, I think it should be recognizable as the original song, somehow. So the challenge of taking material and sort of shaping it into something different that still has echoes of the original song is something I really enjoy doing.
WRH: While doing a little research for this interview, I learned that you’re currently working on your sophomore full-length effort, as well as Beatles/Police 45 for Record Store Day. Could you tell us a little bit about those projects?
EG: Yes, we are about 80% done with the mixing for the new full-length album, which is going to be called “The Blue and White” and it will be our second LP of all-original music. It’s quite different I think, there are lots of vocals and different sounds for us. It was recorded and mixed all onto tape too, which has been a real pain in some ways (!) but is so, so worth it- it sounds amazing I think. It will be out in the springtime sometime I think, on vinyl, somehow or other, we haven’t figured out yet.
And then the single is done and will be released on Electric Cowbell Records for Record Store Day in April, it’s the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping,” which was actually recorded for our “Dub to the Bone” album but left off it, and a version of The Police‘s “Hole In My Life” which we recorded for the new album, both extremely whacked-out and different versions, I can’t wait to play it for people.
WRH What’s next for the band?
EG: We haven’t been playing live that much the last few months because I’ve been so focused on finishing these albums, so once we’re done completely with the new LP I’m looking forward to playing a lot more in the new year.
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