FREE Concert Saturday, November 16th

Come out this Saturday, November 16th at 10PM for a FREE concert hosted by WESU featuring HARD NIPS, A Deer A Horse, and Novelty Daughter at Eclectic (located at 200 High Street on the Wesleyan Campus in Middletown, CT). This will certainly be a night you won’t want to miss!

Interview with Yamantaka//Sonic Titan

I caught one of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s CMJ sets this week at Fontana’s on Wednesday. I then sat down with the group’s two leaders Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B at Enid’s in Greenpoint on Thursday. I won’t spend too much time on an introduction since they have plenty to say in their interview, but they are definitely one of the most unique musical acts around and if you ever have a chance, you should see their live show (see the photos for visual evidence!).

IMG_1253I read that your new album was inspired by Journey to the West. Is that correct?

Alaska: I would say a lot of things in the band, including on the first album, were inspired by Journey to the West.

I recently saw the musical that was based on that.

Alaska: Oh, the Monkey with Damon Albarn.

Yeah. Did you see it?

Alaska: I’ve seen clips of it.

Ruby: Yeah, I’ve seen clips and stills.

It was pretty cool. Really cool acrobatics.

One of the other things I read was that you were particularly inspired by the two characters of the Monk and the Monkey. So one of you is the Monk and the other is the Monkey?

Ruby: Yes. Alaska is the Monkey. She always wears the Monkey makeup.

Alaska: It’s a stylized version of it.

Ruby: And then I’m always the Monk with the robes.

Alaska: It reflects the character where the Monkey is always action. And I’m playing the drums. And the Monk is always more about speech…

Ruby: And reflection and contemplation and non-action. They’re related to the sun and the moon in the same way. The sun’s this life-giving, chaotic, plasma fireball and the moon is its reflective light. But they are part of the same thing.

I was actually recently at a ceremony where my friend’s father became a monk. It was really interesting.

Alaska: What school?

Korean.

Alaska: Was it Theravada or Mahayana?

I actually don’t know that.

Alaska: Were they ringing bells or were they hitting gongs? That’s one way to tell the difference.

I don’t actually remember either of those things. It was a very simple ceremony.

Ruby: He just accepted the precepts?

Yeah. There was a lot of bowing.

Ruby: Yeah. He had to promise stuff. [Laughter]

So what about the monk lifestyle…

Ruby: I guess we approach those two characters from the position of storytelling. So rather than reflecting necessarily or not necessarily aspects of our true personality, we’re interested in presenting the two opposites and how they’re related through the characters on the stage. There’s aspects of these two opposites of action and reflection or acts of rationality and acts of impulsivity in everybody’s lives. And those poles contain existence. So we’re trying to express those in a more poetic way than something clinical or didactic.

Alaska: And I wouldn’t say that’s the entire basis…

Ruby: No because there are other characters. It’s like a mode.

Alaska: It was kind of a statement about being in America too. So in Journey to the West… I’ve actually been to the Grey Goose pagoda where the story starts, which was a pretty interesting experience for me years ago when I went to China. The characters go to India. And on the Silk Road they run into all the demons and so on because so many people would starve to death, get killed by avalanche, winds, you know, etc. that there’s the concept of there being so many demons. And they learn to get along to go to a strange place to bring back something that brings peace to where they come from. In the same concept, where we’re starting from in North America, it’s in a way going back there to get further here. It’s like going back home even though this is our home here, which is kind of the tongue-in-cheek irony of it all. It was also a statement about– I’m from Alberta. It’s a little bit like–I hate when people say this– it’s kind of like Texas in Canada. And I really hate that because I’ve been to Texas and it’s not really true. But it’s kind of true enough. So for people to foist these stereotypes that they have of people from Asia upon me, being from the most redneck place in Canada, it’s ridiculous because obviously I identify more with the prairies than I do with big, sculpted mountains.

Ruby: And then, as far as it being a starting point, there are all these myths that we came to from that story or in relation to that story also. Different myths about religious figures, leaders, people who go on voyages, expeditions, and just monkeys themselves. There are so many stories about monkeys because they are this animal that’s also sort of human. There are lots of different myths from all over the world about these animal-in-human characters.

IMG_1263So I know that you draw from a lot of things. You have Chinese and Japanese traditional mythology and you also have North American indigenous mythology.

Alaska: Yeah. We’ve had a total of three native members so far. Two of the members of our band– one is Iroquois. Our former second drummer– we used to have two drummers in the band, and he was Iroquois as well. And we’ve had Jonas, he’s a guest singer on “One.” He’s also Iroquois. And also our guitarist John is also part indigenous from the Southwest from the border with Mexico.

Ruby: Also Spanish. He has a very long, interesting, convoluted family tree. We’re really interested in personal experiences with culture and self-definition.

Alaska: But also, for us… I’m half Chinese, but I’m also part Mormon. I’m part Swedish, part Irish. I’ve got a very complex background that I also draw on for inspiration. We made a statement about being racialized because all of our influences are Chinese and Japanese and all our other influences are denied. I’ve been to Ireland. I have family from the Southwest in potato country. They still live on farms. And if I were to say that I have all this Irish nationalist influence– Celtic music is a big thing I grew up with– people would be like, “Well, you’re not Irish.” And I would be like, “Yeah, but how many Irish-Americans even listen to Celtic music or know a word of Gaelic.” And I grew up with Gaelic around me. So it’s like, “Fine. You want to paint me with a broad brush. I’ll paint myself with a broad brush.” It’s like, “Give me that brush.” So I think other artists, in particular white American artists can draw influence from anything. They can be like, “Oh. I watched a documentary on National Geographic about Africa and now I’m going to play Afrobeat because I saw a documentary.” And then for us, things that are actually deeply personal– we get told, “Oh, that’s not yours.” So there’s a different imbalance about how people can access different cultures.

Ruby: And in terms of cultural influences, I would say that we’re really influenced by certain art sub-cultures I would say almost even moreso than these ethnic references that we make. Punk music. Performance art. Experimental film. Animation. And drawing, painting. Those kinds of things that are cultural, but not necessarily bound by national identity. And that’s how we work as a multi-media collective, and that’s a huge part of our work as well.

Alaska: My dad was actually a progressive rock musician in the 70s, so that’s where a lot of the progressive rock influence comes from. But that’s something that people wouldn’t necessarily see as being part of my personal influence. People hear it in our music for sure, but you wouldn’t understand that that, for me, is a personal thing. I grew up with the prog records in the house.

Ruby: It’s a bit of a joke.

Alaska: It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek thing. I think somebody said once that our entry point is confusion. And I think that’s probably the smartest thing that anybody’s ever said because people want to box things up and instead we made the box really big and then we labeled it with a simple small label that doesn’t describe the box. So, once again, the entry point is confusion.

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Afropunk Day 2: The Coup, Death, Danny Brown & Chuck D

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The Coup’s Silk-E and Boots Riley

We had mixed feelings about Day 1 of Afropunk. Day 2 on the other hand was one of the most musically and politically stimulating days that I have been fortunate enough to experience.

DSC_0034The day started off with The Coup‘s leader Boots Riley announcing to the audience, “We came to funk you hard. That’s easy to do. Sometimes we funk you softly… The sweet angel of revolution whispering in your ear. What does that sound like? I don’t know. I don’t believe in angels. But if I did, it would probably sound like this…” Their set did not disappoint. One highlight was the song “5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.” off 2001’s Party Music. Boots introduced the song as a cover of a traditional song he once heard Paul Robeson perform.

DSC_0043Boots then presented the group’s “fiery femme fatale” Silk-E, who began a powerful soul singing showcase by saying, “We ain’t gonna talk about. We just gonna do it.”

DSC_0047The band ended their set with an “oldie but a goodie,” “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” from their second album, 1994’s Genocide & Juice. The song, an outstanding example of hip-hop storytelling, follows a small time hustler, who learns that the real hustlers are corporate executives. Boots stepped back to allow the band’s guitar player B’nai Rebelfront unleash a filthy solo, followed by bassist J.J. Jungle doing some literal acrobatics during his own solo.

Death's Bobbie Duncan, Bobby and Dannis Hackney

Death’s Bobbie Duncan, Bobby and Dannis Hackney

The next performance we took in was from Death, a group from Detroit, who like fellow hometown hero Rodriguez was unfairly lost to obscurity before recent documentaries (A Band Called Death and Searching for Sugar Man respectively) brought the artists renewed interest and recognition.

DSC_0065DSC_0067DSC_0068Death’s unique style of protopunk was just as powerful now as it must have been in the band’s brief original career from 1971-1976. They dedicated one of their songs to David Hackney (who died of lung cancer in 2000), brother to bassist Bobby and drummer Dannis, and the group’s original guitar player.

DSC_0112DSC_0101Danny Brown was one of Afropunk’s biggest crowd-pleasers. He played some (presumably) new material from his upcoming Old album. He also returned to 2011’s critcally-acclaimed XXX, performing “Monopoly” and “Blunt After Blunt,” and leading the crowd in the unabashed ode to cunnilingus, “I Will.”

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Closing out the day for us was Chuck D, who wore a KRS-One t-shirt and performed with what he called Elements of Public Enemy or Too Much Posse. Like The Coup and Death, Chuck D demonstrated an incredible amount of energy for a veteran performer. He tossed and swung the mic, throwing it up in the air and catching it like he a quarterback passing to a wide receiver.

DSC_0181The musicians backing him up were no slouches either. He introduced drummer T-Bone Motta by asking, “Can the drummer get wicked?” That he did. Also on stage was a member of Public Enemy‘s legendary production crew, The Bomb Squad, Hank Shocklee (Chuck called him “King” Shocklee). Davy DMX, who worked as writer, producer, and DJ for early hip-hop acts Kurtis Blow, Lovebug Starski and Run-D.M.C., played bass. Guitarist Khari Wynn laid down a solo Jimi Hendrix-style by using his teeth.

DSC_0185This set was about more than just the music. Chuck D soon got into the politics that Public Enemy is known for, saying that there are “more check to check, ain’t making a check black people than ever… I ain’t talking for long, but every word I say is gonna be a motherfucker.” The group played “Black Steel In The First World” off 1988’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us BackChuck D then said, “J. Edgar Hoover set out to destroy us as a people.” He called out radio stations Hot 97 and Power 105 for playing “hate music,” or, as he put it, “Hoover music.”

Next, he addressed a subject that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. In my interview with Thoth & Lila’Angelique, we talked about how people are turning into cyborgs, constantly immersing themselves in technology, rather than connecting with other human beings. And in the recently released film, The World’s End, a group of reunited high school friends battle robots in a commentary on the insidious place of technology in our society. Chuck D said that there are going to have to be “medical services for people who keep their heads at a 45 degree angle… Be smarter than your phone. Don’t be a dumb motherfucker with a smart phone. Forget about Big Brother out to get you, people are signing up to help Big Brother.” Then he turned to the corporate suits that control the hip-hop industry, asking, “Who said it was the home of hip hop [a reference to Hot 97's motto "Where Hip-Hop Lives"]? A bunch of motherfuckers in offices, who said they could take this shit from you. The air is the last battleground. They’ve been hating on the originators of this beautiful art form… Reclaim your air. Every city in this country needs to play local artists. Man up, local artists. We are rebellious with our homage to the people and black music, which unites people all over the world.”

DSC_0210Chuck D began the most dramatic section of his performance by asking, “What did James Brown say? “Papa’s got a brand new bag.” I ain’t James Brown, but I salute him every day, cuz I’m black and I’m proud.” He then took out a bag full of magazines and newspapers, along with a barbecue lighter. First up was Rolling Stone, which he called out for not writing about real musicians. “Fuck Rolling Stone. Don’t talk about real music.” Next up was the New York Post. When it comes to hip-hop and black people, “bad news is the only news.” They got burned, along with some other publications that Chuck D considered bad for the people.

That wasn’t the end, though. Chuck went on to say, “I don’t like the way we’ve allowed radio stations to talk bad about our mothers, our daughters, our sisters. They’ve disrespected the classic artists: DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash…” Then came one of Public Enemy’s best and most well known songs, “Fight The Power,” which he introduced by saying, “We went right to a Klan rally in ’97 and played this song…” Next, he paid tribute to his DJ, DJ Lord, asking, “Before there was an MC, who’d we pay attention to? The DJ. DJs were gods.” DJ Lord then displayed some virtuosic skills on the turntables. Concluding the show, Chuck D said, “You hold this microphone like an instrument. You don’t give a microphone to a motherfucker who can’t, like Rakim says, move the crowd… I don’t smoke shit. I don’t drink. But I smoke the fucking stage.” Few in the audience could have disagreed with that statement.

-Jesse Brent and Adam Wechsler

Afropunk Day 1: Corporate Punk and The Skins

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The Skins guitarist Daisy Spencer

The consumerist appropriation of punk rock occurred early on in its history. As The Clash put it in “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”: “The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned/They got Burton suits, ha, you think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money.” The website for the Afropunk Festival states, “the word AFROPUNK itself has become synonymous with open-minded, non-conforming and unconventional, placing the institution at the epicenter of urban culture inspired by alternative music.” Undeniably, the Festival has a great lineup, and a strong emphasis on diversity and artists with a political message. Unfortunately, Afropunk is also a corporate-sponsored event, which relies on companies like Red Bull and Absolut Vodka to keep the price of admission free. That corporate sponsorship undermines the admirable political messages of artists like Chuck D and The Coup. It also means that the speakers are turned up to unreasonable volumes (for some reason this always, in my experience at least, is the case at corporate-sponsored concerts), making the entire Commodore Barry Park deafening. And security guards in tuxedos (whoever made that costume decision for the month of August is a real jerk) guard the entrances. These might seem like small bones to pick, but it does leave the festival with a bit to be desired, especially when (on day one at least) some of the acts sounded like imitators of Korn, and DJs, at extreme volumes inexplicably ruined songs like “Billy Jean” and “All About the Benjamins” by altering them with discordant electronic effects.

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Siblings Kaya, Reef & Bayli Mckeithan

Fortunately, there was at least one group that straight-up rocked, playing a strong, high energy set of blistering punk/soul/hip-hop. The Skins are a group of mostly teenagers (and three of them are siblings) from Brooklyn. Adam and I caught up with the group’s lead singer, Bayli Mckeithan after their show. Bayli led the group in a cover of Kanye West‘s “Black Skinhead,” and introduced some of the band’s songs by yelling out, “We are all artists!” and “This is dedicated to all my soldiers. Not military soldiers, per se, but just soldiers.” This is definitely a young band to keep an eye on. Talking to Bayli made me feel a bit curmudgeonly for my thoughts in the previous paragraph. The whole experience has been fun and awesome for her, and the band, and it’s hard to see things otherwise when watching them perform or talking to them.

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WESU: How long have you been playing together?

Bayli: Just coming up on two years actually now.

WESU: Where are you from?

Bayli: We’re from Brooklyn. I live ten minutes from here. And my siblings, the bass player and the drummer, we all live together.

WESU: Did you always play music together as a family?

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Bayli: We always jammed, and that’s how the band started. We always jammed together in my basement, which is where we rehearse now. And then Daisy and Russell, we met. We always used to see each other at school, and then we met there.

WESU: What school?

Bayli: The School of Rock. It’s a real thing.

WESU: Are you signed to anybody?

Bayli: Well, we’re talking to labels.

WESU: Major labels?

Bayli: We’re talking to major and indie labels. That will probably be happening very soon. That’s what we’re excited about.

WESU: Have you released anything yet?

Bayli: We released an EP when we first started– maybe a year and a half ago. We’ve done a lot of singles and some videos. And we’re going to be releasing another EP, I think, in the coming months.

WESU: I loved your cover of “Black Skinhead.” That was so cool.

WESU: Yeah, definitely ballsy. Better than the recording.

Bayli: That’s so sweet. Thank you. We love Yeezus. We used to cover “Mercy” up until today. I guess we just love Kanye.

WESU: Would you say that you’re a punk band, or how would you classify yourself?

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Bayli with guitarist Russell Chell

Bayli: I would definitely say that we have the rock foundation. We’re a rock band. But we try to incorporate all these genres that we listen to, like punk, jazz, soul, of course classic rock and hip-hop. We try to mesh all those together.

WESU: Who would you say your biggest influences are?

Bayli: I love Amy Winehouse. As a band, we love Jane’s Addiction and Led Zeppelin, Sabbath. A lot of classic rock guys. We love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Shit like that. Vocally, I love ’30s and ’40s jazz singers like Nat King Cole, Sarah VaughanI just really like jazz singers. Soul singers, of course, like Aretha Franklin. Janis, of course.

WESU: So have you been singing your whole life?

Bayli: I only really started singing a few years ago. Like I said, we all went to music school. I started taking guitar lessons. We had these recitals, and I would see someone have a cover show of The Beatles or Bob Marley. So I started singing there maybe three or four years ago. I heard Gladys Knight‘s “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination.” That inspired me to start singing.

WESU: Anyone here that you’re a big fan of?

Bayli: The Heavy. They just played. We toured with them. They’re the only band we ever toured with. We’ve done a US tour, cross country. They’re awesome. Definitely Le1f. I love Le1f. He was awesome. There are a lot of great great great bands. London Souls. There are some really great bands here. I’m so lucky to be playing.

WESU: I never heard of you until today, but we loved your show.

Bayli: We’re relatively new still, I guess. And I guess we’re just trying to get out there. Since two years, we’ve come so far. Literally, we were starting in the basement. And we just came back from LA, playing for writers and producers. So I feel very lucky. It’s been a really fun experience. And I know it’s going to get more amazing.

WESU: Are you doing anything other than music?

Bayli: I’m an art student. I go to Pratt Institute. And I’ve been to art school my entire life. I still paint when I have time. Mostly, we’re all into music.

WESU: Are you the oldest sibling?

Bayli: No. We have an older sibling. She’s not in the band. I’m nineteen. My sister who’s the bass player, Kaya just turned eighteen. My brother is fourteen years old, our drummer.

WESU: So are all of you teenagers?

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Bayli: Russell, one of our guitarists, he’s twenty-one.

WESU: Do you have a Soundcloud or website?

Bayli: Our website is theskinsband.com.

WESU: You designed this yourself (Bayli is wearing overalls with beads glued on in the shape of an upside down cross on the back)?

Bayli: I did this last night. So that was fun. My mother was like, “You should put an upside down cross on the back.” So that’s my mom. I will not take credit. It was so fun playing here. I love it here. Awesome atmosphere. I guess all festivals are.

-Jesse Brent and Adam Wechsler