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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Intervew with Count Bass D for Deluxe Edition of Dwight Spitz

On August 25, Count Bass D released the tenth-anniversary deluxe edition of his little known, but nevertheless classic album Dwight Spitz. The album is available streaming and for download on his Bandcamp. Count Bass D first showed up on my radar when I heard his guest verse on MF DOOM‘s “Potholderz” (which the Count also produced) off 2004 record Mm..Food? The collaboration between the two idiosyncratic hip-hop artists dates back to Dwight Spitz, on which DOOM appears on the tracks “Quite Buttery” and “Make a Buck.”

Music writer Dart Adams introduces the deluxe edition by writing, “I’m just glad we have cats like Count Bass D in this current time to help us in the constant war between real music & bu11$#!+.” That isn’t self-censorship, but rather a reference to Bass D’s song “Real Music vs. BULL$#!+.” The sequel to that track is one of six new songs included on the deluxe edition. The original track samples someone declaring, “Real music’s gonna last. All that other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow.” Dwight Spitz is a testament to that statement.

Though he had previously recorded hip-hop with live instrumentation, Count lost his major label deal with Sony long before 2002 and, as he put it, “I didn’t have the money to record traditional instruments correctly.” Instead, he used the AKAI S-3000 and MPC-2000 to create an entirely sample-based sound that is as engrossing and smoothly connected as other well loved sample-based records like Endtroducing….., Since I Left You and Donuts.

The following is an interview I conducted with Count Bass D over the telephone:

WESU: So, are you in Tennessee right now?

Count Bass D: No. Actually, I’ve lived in Atlanta, Georgia since the end of 2009.

W: Oh, OK. Because on Wikipedia it still says Tennessee. But that’s often pretty inaccurate.

C: Exactly. I didn’t do many interviews for a long time, so my Wikipedia page didn’t have information updated. That’s a reason why I started doing more interviews lately. There’s a lot of inaccurate information that I hear sometimes. So, I’d like to clear the air, and it’s a good idea to do interviews again.

W: I watched the documentary about you last night. One of the things I learned from that was that you were born August 25, 1973, around the time that hip-hop was invented by DJ Kool Herc. I actually got to see him perform recently. There was a concert in Central Park for the 40th anniversary of hip-hop. He was there. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane were also there, and a bunch of other people. It was really cool. So I was wondering, when did you first realize that connection?

C: Honestly, I started to realize it every day as I grew up. I just turned 40 a couple weeks ago. Every day of my life I would see more and more things that were centered around hip-hop. It became my race, more than just my culture. Hip-hop was everything to me. My favorite art was graffiti art. My favorite dancing was break dancing. Any time I saw anything on television or any magazine or anything that had to do with it, automatically, I was drawn to it. It’s always been that way, even up to now. I gravitate to and am automatically drawn toward things that have a heavy concentration of the culture and the art form of hip-hop.

W: Another thing you were talking about was this preacher stage persona that you have– that you based on ministers that you saw when you were growing up. Do you see a parallel between gospel and hip-hop?

C: I guess in some ways. Preachers speak what they’re saying and rappers speak what they’re saying. And a lot of times you have a microphone and an audience in front of you, and it’s your job to speak the words. And there’s music. As far as accompanying, preachers will have an organ behind them, you know, a drummer– a certain type of backing band behind them. And we have DJs behind us. It’s the same sort of dynamic so far as bringing motion out of people, and making them feel things, a call-and-response. Preachers will say, “Turn to your neighbor and do this.” And you might say, “Say ho, and throw your hands in the air.” A lot of soul musicians and black performers borrow from preachers that we saw growing up because that was a concert that we saw every week. A lot of people who don’t go to church now still have a foundation of that from when they were younger– from when they were in grade school up until junior high, and then at that point maybe they stopped going. But most people that are my age have some semblance of going to a traditional church, and by that I mean a real church, not a mega-church– the ones with the big productions and the slick pastors that we see today. People were more sincere about the religious aspect. Now, the religion has gotten a little away from the spirituality. So there are a lot of parallels that I see, at least for myself.

W: You say that you are making music for yourself. And one of the funnier parts of the documentary, I thought, was when you were saying that you have the snobbiest, most bourgeois taste of anyone out there (laughter). When you’re making music, do you have something in mind that you’re aiming for, or are you just creating, and as you go along you say, “Yeah, I like that”?

C: It’s all about feeling and personal opinion. You know, when people go shopping, they say, “I like this shirt. I don’t like that shirt.” For me, musically, it’s the same way. It’s just a feeling that I’m looking for that the music gives me. That’s what I mean by snobby taste. If I can tell that it’s been put together just for the sole purpose of selling a lot or if it’s just for the sole purpose of sounding good in a strip club, a lot of the time that music doesn’t do much for me. Sometimes it does, though. It depends. It’s just a feeling. I’m looking for a loop that goes back to that essence of original hip-hop music. With my music, it’s really just a personal preference. That’s why I’m surprised when people tell me how much they like my music because I’m not making it with other people in mind. When you make yourself a mixtape and you say, “I’m gonna put these songs on here to go on the road. Because I’ve got a long trip, I’m gonna make myself a cool playlist to put into my iPod,” right? That’s your personal preference, you know. So now imagine if someone got a hold of that personal playlist, and a whole bunch of people were like, “Yeah, yeah. I want that mix. I want that mix. I want that mix.” You’d be pretty shocked, too because you just put down some songs that would entertain you. It’s your personal preference on your trip, you know. And so that’s kind of how I make the music. It’s something that would entertain me, that I really would like to hear. And I guess because I’ve listened to so much music, and have critiqued music for so long, there’s a common bond with other listeners out there. The music translates. So that’s the good part. I tell you, doing this interview is a great thing for me because one of my best friends just got in contact with me again last week from high school. He went to Wesleyan. And my spiritual adviser from when I was in Nashville, Reverend Edwin C. Sanders– he went to Wesleyan. And I remember when I was in high school, probably in 1990, I visited the college. I went there for a weekend, and, I’m telling you, it was the best weekend. I’ve been on tour, I’ve been all over the place, I’ve been everywhere, but still, that weekend was one of the greatest weekends of my entire life. Any time that school comes up in conversation, I tell people that’s one of my favorite colleges. That’s my dream college to go to if I could have, but, you know, when I was in high school, even though I was going to a great high school, my mind was elsewhere– really just on music and the background I had just come from. I didn’t really understand what it took to get into a university, and I didn’t have the discipline. I wouldn’t have lasted anyway. But I think it’s a great institution, and so when I was asked, “Would you do the interview?” I heard it was Wesleyan, no question about it. That’s why I did it.

Read rest of the interview after the jump

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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

Thoth & Lila’Angelique: A WESU Interview

Thoth & Lila'Angelique performing at the Angel Tunnel in Central Park on July 24

Thoth & Lila’Angelique prayforming at the Angel Tunnel in Central Park on July 24

The prayformance of Thoth & Lila’Angelique is a truly unique experience. The two (together calling themselves Tribal Baroque) prayform every Wednesday-Sunday (weather permitting) in Central Park’s Angel Tunnel in New York from 3-5 PM. Thoth first showed up on my radar eleven years ago when I recall reading an interview with him around the time when a documentary about his life, Thoth won an Academy Award. Since then, I’ve accidentally stumbled into the audience of his (and Lila’s) prayformances three times, and been blown away each time. I was able to interview both of them over the phone yesterday.

What do you guys do on your days off from performing?

Lila’Angelique: We usually do all the things that we can’t do when we’re performing. We do our laundry. We rest. We work on things. Thoth works on Photoshop a lot.

Thoth: On our days off we get ready for our prayformance. We prepare our costumes. We do a lot of study and quiet time. Some times we treat ourselves to a nice meal (laughter).

Do you go out for food or do you cook yourself?

T: We cook our food most of the week, but on our days off we save money to go out, and have a nice romantic meal. We’re going to have a treat tomorrow. We also buy things that get us through the week. [Before our prayformances], we have smoothies so that we can sustain our energy throughout the day. We don’t eat anything…

Really? All day long?

T: Yeah, all day.

So just one smoothie gets you through the day?

T: Yes…. And also, the world is so… You learn to eat too much. And the reason you do is because everyone is selling food and they’re advertising really hard to people, so you have three meals a day, but you can [survive on just] a little snack. We have our snack bars right after the prayformance, and then we have a meal of whatever we feel like later. Usually [something] simple when we’re doing the prayformance five days [out of the week].

I was going to ask about your prayformance. I watched the documentary about you last night, and I know that at the time you were doing a solopera, which was all about this mythology and about a hermaphrodite. Correct?

T: I still do that.

Is there new material though that you’re working on now?

T: The new material is ours.

L: Yeah, we’ve created new material. Together we don’t do the solopera. He does the solopera every day, but we’re creating our opera.

And what’s your opera about?

L: Love and devotion.

T: They’re more miniature and more individual. They’re more thematic, whereas The Herma [his solopera] was more various chapters of an epic.

Is it still in the same world as your solopera though? Festad [Festad is the mythological world that Thoth invented]?

T: No. I can’t say it’s the same world because Festad is mythic, and we’re dealing with love and devotion and the paradigm of the movement to being.

What about the language, because I know you invented your own language. What is the language you are using now?

T: We’re still using invented language.

 So, how complex is this language? Does it have its own grammar?

T: My language has its own grammar, but what we do together is a little more simpler, more improvised.

L: His has 252 characters. We’re basically starting from the ground up again together. He built his own language and his own opera, and we’re building our own opera and our own language. His whole thing was his personal thing. He’s my teacher and he’s teaching me all the things that he learned, but now we’re building up our own thing. And we’re making an opera about how we met each other and how our lives have been. And that’s very epic too.

Can you tell me at all about that? How you met?

L: I met him in New York in the Angel Tunnel in 2008. I saw him a few times. I saw him on America’s Got Talent just in passing, and I saw him in the Tunnel and I didn’t think much of him at first. And then I saw him again, and I was really just head over heels in love basically from the moment I heard him sing, and I ran up to him, and, “Oh my God, you’re a counter tenor!” And he was really impressed that I knew that word, and I started dancing with him, and then I started singing with him. And after that winter, we teamed up and started playing together, and have been ever since.

So are you a trained opera singer?

L: Yeah. I studied to be an opera singer. That’s what I wanted to do. And then I met Thoth and realized he was making his own opera. And I found that more interesting than what I was doing singing old dead peoples’ music. That we could create our own music—I really liked that idea.

Read the rest of the interview after the jump

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