Hip-hop has been benefiting from the music of Doomtree’s seven members since 2001, but a new decade has brought a new spirit of collaboration and focus that has them pushing new musical ground and finding more fans at every tour stop. Performer got in touch with Doomtree members Lazerbeak and Dessa to talk about the making of the Minneapolis based crew’s new album No Kings and how seven individual artists find success as a collective.
Performer Magazine: When putting together an all-crew album, does everyone bring several songs and then you work to pick the right ones, or is it a group project from the very beginning?
Lazerbeak: We initially started out doing it the “everyone contributing individual songs” way, because I don’t think any of us really knew how to fully make songs together in the beginning. Making No Kings was the first time we all got together and made a conscious decision upfront to really work together from start to finish and worry less about the individual aspect. I think knowing each other for over a decade and playing so many shows together made that all possible.
PM: How do you decide what songs make it and what don’t?
Lazerbeak: I feel like we generally aren’t the type to make like 60 songs for a record and pick the best 15. We’re pretty aware while making a song if it’s gonna be good or not, so a lot of stuff doesn’t ever even get finished if it’s not cutting it upfront. For No Kings, we wrote 12 songs and that’s what made the record.
PM: Is it a democratic process or does someone have the final say?
Lazerbeak: Nah, no one person has the final say. It’s always pretty democratic and usually not even that difficult when it comes to picking songs. We also have so many other outlets as far as solo records and whatnot, that if a song is good but doesn’t fit the vibe of this particular record, it still has a good shot of showing up somewhere else.
PM: Has the process changed since putting out the first all-crew record?
Lazerbeak: Yeah, I think the first self-titled album took us about five years to compile, because we were all just solo artists trying to make a crew record to showcase our individual talents. No Kings was produced, written, tracked, mixed, and released in less than nine months. That shit was crazy!
PM: How do you handle artistic disagreements?
Lazerbeak: I don’t know if we’ve totally figured it out yet, to be honest. Luckily we’re at a point now where we’ve all known each other for over a decade, and we’re much more capable of talking things out and working through our problems than ever before. I think we’ve also learned to pick our battles and not scrutinize every little detail.
PM: So many of your lyrics are introspective and personal, has it gotten easier to open on record as the crew has become tighter?
Dessa: I think writing collaboratively has proven tougher than writing candidly. To write about personal experiences demands a bit of mustered courage, while writing collaboratively demands a share of trust. But there’s an extra trick to the collaborative stuff – you’ve got to figure out how to fit it all together, how to devise a cohesive project, like riding one bicycle with half a dozen of your closest friends.
“To write about personal experiences demands a bit of mustered courage, while writing collaboratively demands a share of trust”
“No Kings was produced, written, tracked, mixed, and released in less than nine months. That shit was crazy!”
PM: Does much Doomtree still live together? If so, how does that help (or hinder) the process of writing and keeping your careers on track?
Lazerbeak: In the beginning there was definitely a Doomtree house that almost everyone lived at. We pretty much made both the self-titled crew record and the False Hopes record there. Living together sounds like a great idea in theory, but I think we got way more done once people moved out on their own.
PM: No Kings includes live musicians in the mix of beats and synths, giving it a feel different from much of Doomtree’s catalogue. Was this a conscious decision or did it just feel like that’s what it needed?
Lazerbeak: The beats kind of evolved into this really dense soundscape right off the bat. We figured, ‘Why not just go way over the top and bring in a bunch of players to make it even more dynamic?’ There are definitely over 150 recorded tracks on some of these songs. Our engineer was actually pretty annoyed with us.
PM: What were some of the challenges of mixing the live instruments with the programmed instruments and samples?
Lazerbeak: It ended up being way easier than I thought it would be, actually. People would come in and play all over the whole record and then we would go in and edit their parts down, so that the live instruments would come in and out throughout the record. The main musical foundation was already laid down in the original beats, so it was more of just accentuating the work that had already been put in.
PM: What’s the onstage dynamic like with all of you on stage at this point in your career? Do you have any tricks for keeping your head on straight with so many bodies on stage?
Lazerbeak: We pretty much built Doomtree’s following off of our live show reputation, so we really pride ourselves on the live set. It’s sweaty and inclusive and pretty much just really awesome. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and when we perform I think people really get a chance to see each of our individual personalities shine onstage as we interact with one another. It’s a blast.
PM: Is Doomtree actively discussing who has what release on the horizon and how they should be spaced or promoted for the benefit of the group?
Lazerbeak: At this point, once you turn in the audio master for your record, we spring into action and figure out how best to place it in the release schedule. We are definitely always focused on building up each solo artist with every release, while boosting the crew every chance we can get. It’s a lot of constant planning and checking in with one another, but making and putting out records is the fun part, so it never gets too stressful. We are all dedicated to make each other as successful as possible.
Photos by Kelly Loverud