Amidst French films and a healthy dose of escapism arose Vague-à-bonde, Nicole Brenny’s solo endeavor, which is now aptly running amok in the pop-electronic realm but always with a sensibility and authorial intent grounding the project. Growing up cloistered in the Midwest, Brenny found herself in the stillness of small town living; what would spell hellish boredom for some, she instead directed into free studio hours, writing music and recording on her computer’s basic sound software. Now, after moving through an electro collaboration with Mark Mallman (Waxx Maxx), guest recording with Gigamesh, and relocating to Minneapolis, Brenny has self-produced a debut album under her Euro-cized moniker.
Entitled Involution/Evolution, the new album treads various textural and lyrical planes – working in and out of 808s and dabs of glitch are vapor-like vocals, airy yet rich, to deliver her content. Good-natured synth lends some tasteful misdirection in the track “MV,” as Brenny’s words consider the fleeting nature of experience, like sneaking some existential theory inside a comic book. Vague-à-bonde, as the debut title suggests, handles some heavier dualisms: internal processing versus outward expression, or dismal perceptions meeting vibrant proclamations, to name a few. “Originally the album was supposed to be two EPs and one was supposed to be darker,” says Brenny. “[That] would deal with the feelings of involution – loss and regret – and then evolution is expanding beyond yourself; it’s about opportunity and growth, so the second EP would have been songs that were more hopeful and pop inspired…less experimental and dark.”
After further consideration of her split record, Brenny settled on fusing the two ideas into one: “It’s a concept of turning something that’s ethereal into something of matter and weight – and also the opposite,” she explains, pledging to the unity of polar ideologies. Effectively, Vague-à-bonde has soldered poetic contemplation into the accessibility of electronic pop – a move of most delicate roguery.
Since their inception in 2004, Windy City quartet Maps & Atlases have been an amicable and ever-evolving entity of the rock-persuasion, featuring abstruse melodies, keen rhythms and a sharpened sense of lyrical wit. Comprised of Dave Davison, Shiraz Dada, Erin Elders and Chris Hainey, the group is set to take their mercurial blend of post-folk technical rock on the road, touring Europe this spring before embarking on a 31-date summer stretch through North America in support of their sophomore album.
On songwriting: “Different from our usual tight-knit, puzzle piece approach to songs, with this record we would feel out the mood and ride it as long as we could.”
Released last month on Barsuk Records, Beware & Be Grateful is one part organically dynamic rock, one part open-heart croons, and a third part of vivaciously sexy dance quarrels. This triptych is a product of the band’s growing creative patience and adroit musicianship. “There is a real cohesiveness to the record,” says guitarist Erin Elders. “We let the songs run wild a little bit before tying them up. Different from our usual tight-knit, puzzle piece approach to songs, with this record we would feel out the mood for a song and ride it as long as we could.”
“Over the last year we have been working on material for this record and once we had a decent amount of ideas we spent a few days at Dave’s [Davison - vocals/guitar] parent’s house in Indiana, where [producer] Jason Cupp brought abunch of keyboards he found at a farmer’s market. We used those to work out the songs before breaking up the actual recording into three separate sessions at ARC studios in Omaha.” He adds, “What is really exciting about the songs on this record is that we really embraced some sounds and ideas that our younger selves would have thought, ‘No way will I ever wanna have a wah guitar part or a blistering guitar solo in one of our songs,’ and that element of personal and creative risk was really fun for us.”
He finishes by adding, “We are always pushing ourselves and each other creatively, constantly interested about what will come next; it’s all about exploring our limits and trying to keep the music interesting, as musicians and as a band.”
Crank up the debut EP by Jersey rockers Empire Escorts and clean lyrics rally with sharp riffing in an air of punk influenced rock that holds a definite power and mystique. The solo work in opening track “Electric Whiskey” qualifies its title, but what really deserves attention is the way this fairly new band attracted a local following. From 2009-2011, the group built its following by playing energetic live gigs, and then recorded its first self-titled EP in 2011 at Lakehouse Music in Asbury Park with producer Jon Leidersdorff. As drummer Cameron Lockwood explains, “Tools like Facebook allow bands to reach hundreds of fans and [they] no longer rely on word of mouth; however, the influx in social media has created a saturated market place. I believe that word of mouth holds more sincerity and has more of an impact on non-listeners.”
Singer Joe McCaig describes the band name as an epiphany taken from song lyrics: “We were working on a song and there was a lyric I had that was ‘Empire escorts enslave empty egos.’ The guys heard it and, almost simultaneously, we all agreed that Empire Escorts was it.”
The diversity in themes and the execution of the songs shows Empire Escorts deserve the word of mouth and buzz surrounding their music. In referencing the themes in “Bury the Man,” McCaig says, “The whole idea of ‘Bury the man, become the myth’ means we are more than just a bunch of particles making up a human body; we can be our own gods. Lyrics can be interpreted differently by everyone, though. To [our guitarist] Tim [Spaulding], it speaks about the 1% and Occupy Wall Street, which is really cool, and shows the true beauty of poetry.”
“Our music reflects the tough times we currently live in and are faced with; however, there is always a sense of optimism and a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Spaulding adds that he views most of the songs with a sense of disenchantment: “Our music reflects the tough times we currently live in and are faced with; however, there is always a sense of optimism and a light at the end of the tunnel.” Empire Escorts offers its EP and the lyrics to all five tracks for free online, because the guys understand the value of getting the music heard. They know the word of mouth will take off from there, and Spaulding shares, “We are currently booked for a spring tour in May along the East Coast. This is our first time playing a string of shows outside of New Jersey. We are planning it all out ourselves. We are also always working on new material which will hopefully translate into a full-length album within the next year or so.”
On making music with toy pianos: “I’m pretty sincere about my music, and I don’t go into it trying to make it sound jokey or outright kitschy. I think that’s just a byproduct of the sound of the instruments and the general cheerful tone of [them].”
Mike Langlie, known as Twink to toy music aficionados, turned to the toy piano when he burnt out on the conventional music scene. Seven albums later, he is still exploring new ways to coax his signature style of complex music from a relatively simple instrument.
Yours isn’t exactly the kind of music that you can just sit around and listen to. How do you anticipate your listeners to experience your music?
It’s always a surprise to hear how people come across it and consume it. As you can probably guess, I get a lot of email from people saying that their kids love it, and that seems to be the natural audience. They like to jump around and bang on things and create crazy dances for it. I’ve heard from a bunch of people that have asked to use it for performance art and dance pieces. So, I get the impression that – like you said – it’s not really a passive thing. Just by the nature of it, it’s more of an active experience. And people have said it’s helped keep them awake on drives too. For good or bad.
Are you making this music for kids, or for adults? Or is there a difference?
When I set out doing toy piano music, it was in a response to becoming really jaded to the music scene in general. I was not feeling like I was doing anything new or productive or inspired. And when I started exploring the toy instruments, I realized pretty quickly that there was going to be a high kitsch factor. Around that time, it seemed like there was a lot of people in the art world that were doing very kitschy things with a devilish undertone that was meant to upturn everything they were parodying, like Little Golden Books, Richard Scarry, Sesame Street, Hello Kitty, things like that. And I knew if I followed that path, I was going to really limit myself. I wasn’t really interested in taking an ironic or cynical approach. So I decided to make it all-ages friendly. It’s not necessarily kids’ music per se, but I realized from the sound of it, it was going to attract them, and I didn’t want to have angry parents sending me emails.
For those who aren’t familiar with toy-driven music, who are the notables in the genre?
It really does seem to be a growing trend in the last decade or so. My direct influences getting into it, that I discovered as I was starting to record my own stuff, were people like Pianosaurus – who put out a great album of toy alt-rock in 1987. And they’re famous for destroying their instruments after every show. Margaret Leng Tan is probably the most famous. She’s well known in both the classical and avant-garde piano worlds. She was a protégé of John Cage late in his life, and has been called ‘The Queen of Toy Piano’ by the press. So, since I’ve been doing this, I’ve tried to track down as many like-minded people and resources as I can.
It seems like there’s a lot of love for the toy piano in France. Yann Tiersen is a composer, probably most famous for doing the Amélie soundtrack. Another guy is Pascal Comelade, and there are French bands like Klimperei and Chapi Chapo who do really whimsical instrumental music, much more pure toy music than what I’m doing.
Are they the reason you got into the toy piano, specifically?
I actually discovered a lot of these people well into it. They seem to be popping up more and more. There’s a Canadian group of people who have done the Music for Toys festival and CD compilation for the past few years. Phyllis Chen is a young avant-garde and classical pianist, following in the footsteps of Margaret Leng Tan, and she formed a yearly festival called the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition, where they put a call out for people to write new pieces for toy piano for musicians with all kinds of backgrounds to perform.
What really got me into it was just that it was different than anything I’d ever heard before. I liked the sound of it, and I really appreciated the limitations that it offered, especially coming from an electronic music background. It was nice to focus on melody and simple tunes, instead of having millions of options in front of me that were distracting me from getting any music made most of the time.
Can you tell me a little bit about composing a song? What special equipment you have to use in your recording process?
Starting out, it was pretty much just a solo thing – and intended as such: just a fun, pure musical outlet of expression. I didn’t intend it to be for performance or recording, even at the beginning. I just wanted to do some musical doodling, so to speak. And I also have a big collection of Casio keyboards from when I was a kid and a bunch of other silly electronic musical instruments. So they became my accompaniment – a toy backing band.
On transitioning from electronic music: “It was nice to focus on melody and simple tunes, instead of having millions of options in front of me that were distracting me from getting any music made most of the time.”
My process then is pretty much as it is now. I will pick up a toy piano – as you can imagine I’ve got a ton of them by now, probably about three dozen. And all of them have their own personalities or quirks. I get a lot off of eBay or thrift stores. They find their way into the house, to my wife’s chagrin most of the time. Some are missing notes, a lot of them have their own idea as to what’s in-tune or not. When I’m writing a new song or melody, it really takes on the character of the actual instrument I’m using. And then I’ll just start filling things in with electronic beats and flourishes.
So, through my discography, I’ve tried experimenting with directions I can take it. I’ve done a number of collaborations with different people that I either know or am a fan of and was delighted to, most of the time, get positive reactions from people who wanted to try experimenting and letting loose a little bit themselves.
How do you re-create the effect of this live?
It’s definitely a studio construction – or bedroom studio construction. I haven’t figured out how to do a satisfying live show yet, especially with my work schedule. Based on the character of each toy piano and being really limited – sometimes a single melody line will be pieced together from several toy pianos, just to meet the required number of notes that I want for a song. So, for the next album, I’m hoping to strip out the electronics a bit, trying to get a little ensemble together and focus on something that might actually be able to be played live. I’ve gotten so many requests for it that it kills me every time I have to turn one down. It seems like I can spend my time either recording stuff, or figuring out how to do something live. And I’ve just been trying to create as much as possible and having fun in the studio. So I’m hoping to explore the other side of it soon.
How do you get yourself taken seriously – or do you care about being taken seriously?
I certainly didn’t expect anyone to take it seriously. I certainly don’t take it seriously most of the time. If I did, I would fall prey to my critics too easily. As much as I said I get email from people that enjoy it and are encouraging, I get plenty of email and see forum posts from people that think ‘the bunny should be shot,’ so to speak. I have no delusions about ever making a career out of this. Anytime anyone responds well to it, it’s just gravy for me and encouragement more than anything else.
But at the same time, I am pretty sincere about my music, and I don’t go into it trying to make it sound jokey or outright kitschy. I think that’s just a byproduct of the sound of the instruments and just the general cheerful tone of it. I’m seriously an ex-Goth at heart and still have a strong tie to that world and the Boston Goth scene in general. Fortunately, they haven’t asked me for my black eyeliner yet. The perky Goths seem to get where I’m coming from more than anyone else…I think.
Do you have plans to experiment with any other genres or instruments?
I think my name is pretty well-tied to Twink and toy instruments for now. I’m still getting a lot out of the project, and I still feel like there’s a lot more to explore with it. It was a surprise to discover that when you’ve got a gimmick – and I’m not going to deny that that’s what the toy piano is – it allows you to explore all different kinds of directions, genres and moods, while still maintaining a unifying element and a signature sound. More so than a rock band trying to explore something new, like Nickelback and their soon-to-be released dubstep disaster.
I think you might alienate some Nickelback fans with that comment.
Genre: Electro-Rock Hometown: Philadelphia, PA Artistic Approach: Balancing textured sounds and catchy beats. URL:cityraintunes.bandcamp.com
It’s hard to learn to share your creative process.
But this proved to be a game-changing decision for electronic musician Ben Runyan, who teamed up with guitarist and classic rock lover Jarrett Zerrer in 2010 – giving a few Facebook messages credit for the formation of Philadelphia’s buzz worthy electro-rock duo, City Rain.
“We’re like yin and yang,” Runyan says of their musical partnership. “I’m kind of the crazy impulsive one who says, ‘Hey, let’s do this, let’s do this, let’s do this,’ and Jarrett’s the one who wants to take a lot more time on it and flesh out certain ideas.”
“It’s a very delicate balance,” Zerrer adds.
Though their process is delicate, the product is larger-than-life. While a dreamy, texturized sound and fuzzy surf rock elements populate some songs off of their latest I’m Gone EP, others provide a catchy dance beat that has captivated live audiences in Philly, Washington, D.C. and New York.
“There’s no part in our set where you can’t see the cause and effect relationship between what we’re doing with our hands and what’s happening [sonically].”
Runyan says the band’s live set is much different and more interactive than other electronic acts. “With a lot of electronic bands, maybe you’ll have a person singing, a person playing an instrument and then you’ll have two people on stage that you’re not even really sure what they’re doing,” he says. “There’s no part in our set where you can’t see the cause and effect relationship between what we’re doing with our hands and what’s happening [sonically].”
This visual element has helped City Rain bridge the gap between pop, rock and electronic fans, Runyan says. But tackling such an undertaking isn’t really the band’s agenda while they’re writing. Runyan explains that lyrics start with an autobiographical narrative fresh in his mind. This is supplemented with beats and guitar parts that are more like rambles of genius than meticulously thought-over arrangements.
“I know it sounds cheesy and typical, but I kind of just let whatever’s happening in our lives flow, especially when we’re both working together,” Zerrer says. In the time between releases (they will drop a new EP in May), City Rain is constantly working on remixes and new songs. They also cite making music videos as a low-cost way to get attention and let people know what you’re all about.
“When you look at a music video of us, you can tell that, ‘Number one, these guys look like they’re having fun; and number two, they look a little crazy,” Runyan says. “I think it’s the best possible medium to immediately attract someone to your music.”
Genre: Electro-Avant-Rock Hometown: Boston, MA Artistic Approach: To stay fresh by constantly releasing new music. Website:www.cancerkillinggemini.com
While an entire industry complains about today’s current music business model, one band has a plan: “One song a month, forever.” Cancer Killing Gemini releases a new song on their website, for free, the first of each month. In fact, the two most recent songs are always free. Giving away music isn’t a new idea, but CKG’s take on it is unique. After two months, the song goes into the back catalog and is available for purchase. If fans check in on the band every 30 days, they’ll be perpetually treated with new material free to download. “I’m not into letting it be free forever,” singer/founder Eric Michael Cohen explains. “That’s just not sensible.” With over a year’s worth of material online already, it seems the plan is working.
“We all know the hours suck and the pay sucks, so if it’s not fun, there’s just no reason to do it.”
Cohen released It Only Hurts When We Breathe under the CKG moniker in 2010. Then an electronic solo project, he desired to form a live band. The addition of bassist Andrew Padua, guitarist Chuck Pukmel, drummer Frank Hegyi and keysmith Max Butler immediately influenced CKG’s sound. Cohen’s singular vision became an exploratory experience, moving “towards something more organic very fast.” Also acting as CKG’s engineer, he records into Logic with an array of “fairly inexpensive” but “carefully chosen” microphones, such as M-Audio Pulsar IIs, Sennheiser e609s, and an Audix i5, a microphone he particularly cares for. “The rejection is so much better [than an SM57]. You get less hi-hats on the snare mic!”
Gone are the programmed drums, sequenced keyboards and most of Cohen’s initial electronica influence. “We’ve found our balance now. The all-electronic music can be fairly sterile. It’s a lot more fun playing with actual musicians.” A “side effect” of the group’s recording experiment is the drastic change in their sound from song to song. “It has turned into a living history of the band,” he says.
Cohen’s enthusiasm and dedication to the ambitious project is compounded by the fact that, in 2002, he had retired from music completely, “We all know the hours suck and the pay sucks, so if it’s not fun, there’s just no reason to do it.” Now, a newly inspired Eric Michael Cohen isn’t just playing, he and Cancer Killing Gemini are making up their own rules, one song at a time.
“A dark and mysterious romance with Leonard Cohen, Lady Gaga and the Who”
Popular Music, Richard McGraw’s third release,offers an unrecognizable – yet harmonious – palate of songs that have influenced the high-tier songwriter. McGraw treats each cover to his urban growl, solemn guitar and softened-by-chamber orchestration. A comparison impossible to avoid is with McGraw’s majesty, Leonard Cohen, and early, pre-dark carnival era Tom Waits.
The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” a rock n’ roll anthem that endures and emboldens each budding generation, is slowed to a beleaguered murmur – drawn and pulled along by gentle strings and McGraw’s plucking fingers. McGraw, in a near-conversational snarl, repeating like a distressing anti-anthem, “Don’t you cry / Don’t even raise your eye / It’s only teenage wasteland / Teenage wasteland.”
Another sparkling gem is Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” featuring radio-friendly listenability. McGraw raises the tempo, infuses percussion and female harmonization; it’s one of the most resilient covers and demonstrates McGraw’s songwriter competency – his versatility is an asset. The signature protagonist on Popular Music is McGraw’s voice; the album would suffer if his tone didn’t reinterpret the meanings, rather than simply paying homage. McGraw breathes new life, vigor and pain into some of America’s most enduring cultural bloodlines. (Self-released)
In a musical landscape fraught with Auto-Tune, 808s and faux strings, The Revelations – featuring Tre Williams – continue to stay true to soul. Their ’60s and ’70s inspired songs explore issues like love and poverty with heart-wrenching lyrics and rich instrumentation.
The band debuted with The Bleeding Edge in 2009 and recently released their second effort, Concrete Blues, which was recorded at the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis. A great sophomore effort that fuses R&B with modern blues and soul, standout tracks include Johnnie Taylor’s “Don’t Wait,” “ How Could You Walk Away” and “Until You Get Enough of Me.”
This month, Performer got a chance to talk with Williams, who got his start singing hooks for hip-hop artists including Petey Pablo and Nas, about the making of Concrete Blues, his songwriting process and misconceptions about the music industry.
When did you first fall in love with music?
I’ve been singing in the church choir since I was five. I wanted to understand it [music]. I wanted to lead. It wasn’t until ten or eleven years ago that I got serious. I stopped drinking and smoking and hanging out all the time and put my whole life into making music. I left Daytona for New York with a bag of dirty clothes and five dollars.
I know your background is in hip-hop. What made you change your sound?
I had my first mainstream song with Petey Pablo, but I didn’t feel like I’d put all of my effort forth. When I did the “I-95” song with Styles P, I felt like I was on my way in the industry. I was getting my feet wet in the business.
Later, I signed a deal with Nas. I was signed three or four years with him. I did the “Let There Be Light” song on his Hip Hop is Dead album. Even after all that, I didn’t know where I needed to be until I met Bob Perry. Through meeting him, the idea of a full band was born. When we did the “I Don’t Want to Know” record, I knew this was it. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, let me change course.’ I felt something special. It’s bigger than me. God had a plan and I was going to follow.
“There are times when I’m sleeping and I jump up in the middle of the night and tell my wife I got a song to catch”
“If I have to struggle with writing it, then people will struggle to like it”
What’s your creative process for songwriting?
My view is that [a process] is routine. There are times when I’m sleeping and I jump up in the middle of the night and tell my wife I got a song to catch. I just let it come natural. If I have to struggle with writing it, then people will struggle to like it. Sometimes I get the melody but not the words, or sometimes I listen to a track and say, ‘Whoa!!! I can write something mean to that.’ Some other artists might sit down and drink black tea whenever they’re trying to write, but that doesn’t work for me. You should write whatever you feel. Write what you know about.
Tell me about The Revelations studio sessions.
Well, with Concrete Blues we did something very special. We all went to Memphis to record at Royal Studios. Al Green recorded there. We called in the Hodges Brothers, James Alexander and other musicians. We all sat down and I just started singing and everyone started playing. We recorded it live. I told Bob that the experience is a story in and of itself. I was in awe of these musicians. But, they were in awe of being with me. I told them that I’d done nothing compared to them. They told me that I’m the future of soul; I’m the beacon.
Did you give them the music before they showed up at Royal?
No. No rough drafts or anything. I just started singing. It was very powerful. There are no synthetic sounds. Everything is as it should be.
How does one become a great artist, especially when it’s so difficult to move units?
Consistency. That’s the only way. You have to constantly give the people something that’s worth their money. It used to be that you could give people two or three good songs and they would buy the whole album. I also think it’s important to do Facebook and Twitter yourself. First, it’s fun! But also, how can someone else do it for me? This is what we signed up for. If you can’t embrace Facebook, Twitter or whatever, what are we here for? You should have real conversations back and forth. Imagine if we could have talked to Steve Wonder [in his prime] online and been on Twitter with our heroes? Imagine that. Now that we can do that, there’s no reason we shouldn’t take full advantage.
There are a lot of misconceptions about being in the music industry. What are some that you’ve had to deal with?
Honestly, people think as soon as you get signed you’re going to be rich and famous. But there’s a lot of famous hungry people. I have seen ‘stars’ walking down the street who are struggling to pay rent or living in their cars. When I got signed to Nas’ label, I thought it would be a no-brainer. I’m as talented an artist as anybody else. I felt like there was no ceiling, no limit to how high I could go. But, suddenly the roof started closing in quick.
But lately people come up to me and say, ‘Man! You came out of nowhere. You made it, you’re a star.’ If they only knew how long I’ve been doing this. And, if I’m a star now, then who was I last year? There’s no such thing as making it. This is a job. If you work at Burger King and get fired, you can go to McDonald’s and get another job. But in music, once the people have decided that you’re fired, there’s no other job. In this business you’re a work in progress. You can sell millions of records in one moment and struggle the next. Didn’t Janet Jackson and Nelly sell millions of albums? Didn’t they ‘make it?’ They’re struggling to sell records now.
Since 1994, guitarist Brian Albano and bassist Michelle Montavon have been “kicking it,” and making a statement about the music they make. Along with drummer Matt Covey (since 2006) The Suicide Dolls – a power trio from New London, CT – has been making waves through their long time collaboration and mission to stake their claim. After several years of building a loyal fan base, and creating their own identity, they have a good understanding of the competitive edge between bands in their realm and even share a perspective that many others seem to miss. Albano explains, “We have a lot of good scenes within the region where we perform – places like New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts -there are a lot of other great bands that hail from our area. We could get together and become something; New England-based bands could [form] a unity between venues and other bands, and we could be a strong force.”
“We have typically done things backwards, emphasizing the live show, never really focusing on recording”
Continuing forward on their mission, The Suicide Dolls have finally broken, what is to them, new ground. After the years of the much-enjoyed performance aspect of their act, they took to the studio and began working on their new full-length, Prayers in Parking Lots (recording at Q-Division in Somerville, MA), which was co-produced with Justin Pizzoferrato. The Suicide Dolls recognize and understand the benefits of working with a producer, “We needed an expert to help us. We have different styles; you can’t really label it. We’ve been classified as being anything from rock to punk to noise. We needed someone that could help us get all these different sounds and capture the mix of our influences, and working with Justin, and getting down to the real recording process, was beneficial to us,” Albano says.
Montavon adds, “It was a real labor or love; we have typically done things backwards, emphasizing the live show, never really focusing on the recording aspect. This was the first time we went to a studio and did some real recording. We worked on both older and newer songs.
Up to this point we only had some home recordings. Nothing was good enough to represent us and release; we finally were able to do it for real.”
The Suicide Dolls have learned much about the toils that life in a rock band can bring, but they are determined to keep doing it for as long as they love what they do – making music.