Q&A: Scott Jones of The Upward Dogs

I spoke with Scott Jones, drummer and founder of the improvisational musical collective The Upward Dogs, about his unique approach to combining musicians.

Drummer Scott Jones approaches his role as the founder of the Chapel Hill-based musician’s collective, The Upward Dogs, with the passion of a chef. For each gig, he’ll pull from a list of ingredients: a roster of accomplished musicians, many of whom have not previously met. A pinch of this guitarist, a dash of that horn player- and off the musicians will go, improvising and interpreting, seeing what flavors the performance will yield. Jones refers to each gig’s assembly of players as “soups”. And the jazzy, funky, hip-hoppin’ results of Jones’s musical cookery are delicious. Bon appétit!

I spoke to Jones about the origins of The Upward Dogs, the genesis of his approach to assembling musicians, and how audience participation informs the group’s performances.

The Upward Dogs is a continuation of an approach you practiced previously in New York and LA of assembling “soups” of musicians, who often have not previously met, for sessions and gigs. Describe the genesis of that approach. How did the idea occur to you in the first place?

The “soups” concept came to me from my day job in technology.  I had been talking to a product leader at a tech company in RDU and we got onto the philosophical point that all engineering teams are different — what works for one team with respect to rituals, management practices, and so on, will not necessarily map to other teams.  He described it very effectively by describing how each team is a “soup,” comprised of the unique ingredients of each team member, resulting in unique ways of working, levels of productivity, chemistry, and so on.  That really stuck to me.

When I kicked off the Upward Dogs in early 2015 I had held onto that “soup” concept.  The quick backstory is that I had relocated from Los Angeles in the fall of 2012, got pregnant the following spring (ok, my wife did, ha!) and had identical twins born two months early in November of 2013. I kind of disappeared into a twin wormhole for many months and started to really emerge in early 2015.  As I started to ramp back up to playing music regularly, I realized that my improvisational itch was palpable and I wanted to get back to artistically express all of the wild changes I had gone through the past two years. I also realized that in my short time in RDU to that point I had already built up a rolodex of great players with “big ears” (meaning they can listen well and make appropriate musical choices) that would be great improvisational collaborators.

I realized that the “soup” philosophy in this context would give me great flexibility- rather than committing to a fixed personnel list, I framed The Upward Dogs as a collective of musicians and artists, and I could pull from the collective to put together “soups” for sessions and gigs. I was excited and humbled to find there was a lot of interest to participate, and that allowed me to put together really great groups and create many really fun moments over the past four years. And just like with the software engineering analogy, each configuration of players- each soup- is totally different, and it’s always exciting to see how the ingredients will add up.

How did your experiences in New York and LA inform your current approach with The Upward Dogs? 

NYC is a global hub of jazz where you will always find the best players in the world- sometimes playing in tiny and or empty rooms on off nights and very late at night- pushing forward on the fundamental jazz philosophy of improvisation. In that particular context it tends to be about interpreting texts, so to speak, such that you play through the form as written but when you solo you are channeling the intention of the original material and yet adding your own commentary, emotions, colors and so on. 

Since this has been going on in NYC since the beginning of jazz early in the 20th century, it feels like that energy has been baked into the musical fabric of the city. During my time there I connected with, listened to, and otherwise vibed with players who took that improvisational energy and would take it to the next level, so to speak, by improvising compositionally. So rather than starting with a jazz standard or an original composition, the group would create on the fly and in the moment.  One of the most inspiring outfits doing this- featuring one of my favorite bass players and drummers, and led by amazing MC named iLLspokinn- was a weekly residency called Free Style Mondays at a club called Sin Sin.  hey would improvise fully developed hip hop songs, including beats (instrumentation often being guitar, bass, keys and drums), verses from amazing MCs, and hooks sung by amazing vocalists.

This blew my mind and inspired me in my own direction.  I started off by leading a group called decoi, where the core of it was a self-taught upright bassist, phasing in and out a variety of players including keys, guitar and horns. I would book us for gigs and we would do recording sessions at the bassist’s home studio, and there would be absolutely nothing planned. We would simply set up and create, and see where the muse took us, and we’d often get quite “free” and experimental, sometimes more ambient than groovy. I led this group for about three years and landed on some great stages in front of great audiences while getting to learn and evolve myself as an artist. In LA I would host lots of improvisational sessions at my house with a variety of players. 

Occasionally I would take these groups out for gigs, but most often I was leading gigging groups that would play standard and original jazz/funk/fusion compositions but leave a lot of room for improvisation. 

Now with the Upward Dogs I have been using probably 75% full improvisation and 25% of the more LA approach of having tunes to interpret, and I decide on the approach depending on the opportunity and the players. 

What is the process behind selecting the musicians for each soup?

It’s pretty random, to be honest. I liken it to being improvisational as well, where the other “band member” in this case is the universe. I essentially just reach out to a variety of folks about a date and see who’s available and find out where I land.

Do you try for something different every time as you assemble soups of musicians? Creating new “flavors,” so to speak?

I will follow cues from the universe and generally “go with the flow.” If I just met an MC, for example, I will randomly think of them and then reach out to see if they want to participate. Same goes for horn players or really any other instrument. I just listen to the inner voice or otherwise wait for serendipities to tell me. Networking is often a driver of this.

You’ve described The Upward Dogs as being “groove-oriented,” and the collective generally plays jazz, funk, and hip hop. Why those genres, specifically?

Those three zones have been merging and melding for a decent amount of time now. Top of mind I would like of Robert Glasper as someone operating at the forefront of hip hop jazz, so to speak, where there are sophisticated compositions and harmonies, and the rhythms will often sound like produced beats but played by live instruments. There’s often also an influence of the ideas of the amazing producer J Dilla. All to say that the melding of jazz/funk/hip hop has been a personal focus area of mine because everything I’ve been hearing is so inspiring and it is very effective for personal development, especially as a drummer. The techniques and internal knowledge required to pull it off are amazing for education.

Additionally, when you combine these genres and add the notion of being “groove-oriented”, it tends to make for a great audience experience. The music might be heady, but at the same time it will make you want to shake your butt! It’s really just calling out the contrast from my past experiences in NYC where we had the latitude to get weird and- potentially- alienate an audience who might not have been expecting that.  Truth be told, I can’t and don’t enforce a jazz/funk/hip hop paradigm and instead keep open ears and an open heart to see where the muse takes us in the moment. 

How does audience connection shape an improvised/loose interpretation-heavy show?

This kind of requires level setting on what your personal belief system is, as that would inform whether what I’m about to say comes off as total B.S. To keep it high level and simple I might first point to quantum physics and the realization that surfaced earlier in the 20th century that the role of the observer- the consciousness, more particularly, and the associated expectations- actually informs the behavior of subatomic particles. We are all energy, including our consciousness, and when we are together in groups that energy blends together. 

When you are an artist and creating in the moment, you are tapping into and channeling the available energy of yourself and your group but also the audience, the location, and everything else around. Whether they realize it or not, they are actively participating and contributing simply by being present, but even moreso by listening and being actively engaged. The musicians will connect with and feed off of the energy, and that energy will manifest as ideas that the players will “hear” and essentially release through their instruments. 


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Q&A: Carrboro’s XOXOK on Recording Debut EP

Carrboro artist XOXOK talks his debut EP, Worthy, and his formative musical experiences.

What’s in a name? For atmospheric soul artist XOXOK, everything. The implied warmth of the kisses and hugs in his stage name, and the quip of the “ok” at the end embody the artist’s honeyed vocals and playful lyrics.

XOXOK- aka Carrboro musician Keenan Jenkins- has a crystalline singing voice he complements with wise storytelling that thrums with sincerity.

Take “Worthy”, the single off of his upcoming EP of the same title.

“I don’t need you to love me, I just want to be worthy,” he croons. That lyrical vulnerability is precise in its heartbreak. Meanwhile, the polished production builds into lush vocal harmonies and shimmering guitar. It’s an ambitious and lovely entrée into Jenkins’s recording career.

Keep your eyes peeled for XOXOK’s debut EP, Worthy, out on May 4th, 2019. You can stream the title track here. XOXOK will celebrate the release of Worthy with a free show on May 11th at The Station in Carrboro.

I caught up with XOXOK on his formative musical experiences and what he’s most looking forward to playing live from his new EP.

What was your musical training like? Were you formally trained in guitar and vocal performance, or are you self-taught?

My musical training is…ongoing. I suppose my informal training began around the time I was a toddler, when I would belt Whitney Houston songs from the backseat of the car.

My formal training started when Margie Jesse taught me to play the clarinet in middle school. 

I started to play guitar when I was fifteen; by that time, YouTube and Ultimate-Guitar.com were the most cost-efficient teachers, so I learned from the internet and from my guitar-playing roommate, Brian Koepnick. It wasn’t formal training, but I’m not sure if it counts as self-taught!

I went on to receive a minor in music from UNC-Chapel Hill; that’s where I immersed myself into the world of music theory.

You pull from a wide variety of rock and soul influences; what you describe as a “far-flung but cohesive” palette of sound. When were you first exposed to rock and soul? Did you grow up with those genres, or did they influence you later in life?

Music has been part of my life for so long, it’s difficult to recall the first moment that I was first exposed to rock and soul, broadly. Growing up, both of my parents listened to the R&B and classic soul radio station (Foxy 104.3 FM), so I was exposed to that at all times. I didn’t enjoy it as a kid, but I’ve grown to really love and appreciate that music.

As for rock music, I had to find that on my own. I was an only child and a latchkey kid, so MTV was my babysitter in the early 2000s, which exposed me to rock, rap, and of course, rock/rap (my mom did NOT want to buy me the Linkin Park CD). I eventually found my way to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and hearing John Frusciante’s guitar is what made me want to start playing – I had to figure out how to make those exact sounds.

When is the first time you remember being moved by a piece of music? What was the song, and what do you remember about the experience?

Wow, this is a good question! Again, it’s hard to remember particular moments. My earliest memory of being obsessed with a song is “Will You Be There” by Michael Jackson, which I knew from the Free Willy soundtrack. I listened to the cassette of the song and watched the VHS of that movie on repeat when I was a young child.

In your body of work, your guitar playing and your voice compliment and build upon one another to reach a wider emotional range. While your singing is generally mellifluous, your guitar playing can go sweet or rugged depending on the emotional scope of the song. Tell me about how you approach the relationship between your voice and your guitar.

I had to google “mellifluous” to make sure that wasn’t a sneak diss! Thanks for the compliments. I’m almost always trying to find a vocal melody or tone to fit with an existing guitar part, rather than the other way around. Up until four years ago, I rarely played with other musicians – it was usually just me and my guitar, playing and singing alone in my apartment. So I’ve had years to focus on the interplay between my guitar and my voice.

Something that I’m still learning is that I don’t have to make my voice sound like someone else’s – if I just sing like myself, it’ll eventually match some piece of music I’ve written.

I haven’t always been a good singer – I’ve really had to work on it. Even now, it’s the main thing I focus on when I’m performing live, because it doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’d be ashamed to let you listen to some of the demos I recorded back in college.

What did you learn from your first experience with recording your own material that you’ll bring into the studio next time?

I had a great experience recording this EP, and I learned so much! I’m already looking forward to going back to the studio. Next time, I think I’ll put a more strict timeline on the recording process – it’s fun to play with ideas for a year, but I’m interested in trying to make something beautiful in one month, for instance. That will take a lot of preparation on the front end – making sure that the songs are rehearsed, that the arrangements are settled, that the guitar tones are dialed in, and so on.

Upon the release of the EP, what song are you most excited to play live? How will it translate from recording to the stage?

The title track, “Worthy”, is my favorite song on the record – I always feel like I’m floating when I play that song well. I don’t know what it is about “Mitt”, but it seems to be a fan favorite. Honestly, I’m more excited to play some newer songs, ones that I’ve written since finishing this EP!


All images courtesy of XOXOK. Photos by Wyatt Kane.

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Q&A: In Conversation with Zephyranthes

I caught up with Zephyranthes on their recording process, their birth in the Raleigh underground, and their favorite conspiracy theories.

Nomenclature and musical genre fusion share a similar problem. You can shove a handful of syllables together, but that won’t make your new word pronounceable. Likewise, you can blend influences from a wide variety of genres into a band’s oeuvre, but that won’t make for a coherent sound.

Raleigh band Zephyranthes, who pull from jazz, psychedelia, math rock, and prog rock, could’ve easily gone one of two ways. By stitching together disparate elements, the listening experience could’ve become a scavenger hunt of name-that-influence, without ever coalescing into a distinct whole. They also could’ve tipped too far the other way, melting elements together into a wall of reverb, full of sound and fury, signaling nothing.

The great joy, then, of Zephyranthes, is the seemingly effortless synthesis of favorite genres into something that sounds utterly fresh. Michael Lamardo’s jazz-driven drumming creates the strong spine of a two-handed, tightly-coiled beast: namely, Elijah Melanson on guitar, and Logan Maxwell’s bass, vocals, and saxophone. Every genre component- the complex rhythms, the distorted vocals, the psychedelic guitar- remain distinct and recognizable, even as they serve the group’s greater sound. And each member of the trio gets a chance to display their (prodigious) chops without sacrificing a moment of musical synchronicity.

Over beer at Foundation, Melanson, Maxwell, and Lomardo play off one another in conversation just as well as they do in their music, scooping in and out of stories, laughter, and explanation just as they dip in and out of musical genres.

I caught up with Zephyranthes on the recording process of their latest EP, their birth in the Raleigh underground, and their favorite conspiracy theories.

TTG: For Zephyranthes III, you guys recorded at Fidelitorium out in Kernersville, and Missy Thangs produced. What made that studio the right choice for the new EP?

Elijah: It was the right choice. I think we’ve heard her work, as well as just bands around who’ve recorded at Fidelitorium. Everybody’s tracking out there and getting awesome results, so we asked around .

Logan: I had previously recorded with another group I was in.

Michael: I keep forgetting you recorded there before!

TTG: With Vacant Company, right?

Logan: Yes! I really enjoyed that experience. That whole place is like- there’s no- well, there’s a computer for the monitor, but there’s no computers or screens, and it’s all, like, old ‘70s furniture.

Elijah: They have a blue naugahyde couch, which is beautiful.

Logan: And you spend the night there. It’s usually like, you come in, you shoot it out, you go. And then you come back the next day, or whatever. But with this, there’s a guesthouse and you stay, and you cook dinner together, and you’re a team, and so it’s more immersive. And I was like…if we could repeat that with this group, we’re going to come out with something good.

TTG: I want to talk to you guys about your experiences with math rock as a genre. What led to you embracing math rock right out of the gate?

Elijah: That’s a really tricky question because I think it’s such a wide label, and I think we’re trying to embrace that aspect of it. Because it’s just outsider music, in a way.

It’s interesting that the psychedelic scene has so much to do with progressive rock, which as a lot to do with math rock…they’re all sort of intertwined, and I think we’re somewhere in the confluence of all three of those things.

TTG: Michael, tell me about your training. Did you study classic jazz, or was it more jazz-infused rock from the beginning?

Michael: So, the thing is, I didn’t go to school for music. I went to school at a very unrefined music business program at a small school in upstate New York.

I played through high school and college, but I didn’t really- I took lessons through a guy in Syracuse in New York, where I’m from, but like, mostly, I’m pretty much self-taught in a lot of ways. But yeah, I admit I was kind of an insufferable jazz purist for like, about five, six years.

Logan: He knows all the standards.

Michael: Mostly in high school. And then I guess I went to college, and I guess it’s the typical freshman in college, who like, smokes pot once and gets introduced to crazy stuff.

But then, I don’t know, my palette started to expand and I still love jazz, I still take it very seriously. If you talked to me ten years ago, I would’ve never imagined playing in a project like this. Ever. Not for any bad reason. My drumsticks back then were essentially toothpicks, but I never played with 5A rock sticks until now. It’s kind of funny how it evolved.

I think it’s interesting to approach what we’re doing with jazz…I don’t want to say chops, that’s a very tense word. I don’t know, I’ve kind of always wanted to experiment with those elements. Drummers like Jack DeJohnette and Brian Blade and people like that. And if I can mix that into a prog and math rock environment…and it has its ups and downs, sometimes it doesn’t always fit, but that’s the point of it.

Elijah: Yeah, Logan and I were both saxophone players. He plays saxophone- I’m not nearly the saxophone player he is. So we both did the jazz thing too. I was actually a jazz fusion performance major at school. Which I never say that anymore ‘cause I don’t want to get roped into playing jazz.

Logan: When I grew up, I was listening to Stan Getz. Because I was playing saxophone, so I’d be listening to that type of music. So it formulated early for all of us.

Elijah: Where I think it comes together is where we improvise so much together. Where every time we get together we’re improvising.

Logan: That’s usually how we start rehearsal.

Elijah: We always jam. And I think that’s fundamental to, like, the jazz experience. It’s just…wanting to improvise with structure.

Logan: Make something new!

Elijah: Continually. We have a track that we play live, too, “Nigredo,” which is like our weird, misshapen jazz ballad. It’s guitar and saxophone and then we just get really crazy every time. It’s like a little performance art piece.

TTG: Tell me more about jamming at the beginning of rehearsal. Does that loosen…the…I’m trying to think of a good phrase. I was going to say “loosen the juice” but that’s maybe the worst thing that’s ever come out of anybody’s mouth.

Elijah: Loosen the juice!

Logan: That’s actually the first track of our next EP! No, that just kind of happened naturally, like, none of us were like, “Hey! Every time we step in we should definitely improvise together.” We all love to make stuff up and like…it’s honestly hard to reign us in sometimes during rehearsals.

Elijah: It’s a big tension releaser, and it really helps reset the tone. It’s fundamental to our process of developing new material.

Logan: It’s communicative. In a good week, we’ll practice once a week. And we haven’t seen each other in a while, and we just like, walk in, and somebody will be noodling and then we’ll all be like-

Michael: Cool!

Logan: Yeah, let’s just noodle. Y’know what I mean? I really like it.

Michael: Fifty percent of it, let’s be real, is just procrastination. When we actually have to do some work.

TTG: In terms of your songwriting process, you guys have mentioned in previous interviews that it’s pretty democratic. How do you keep that process democratic?

Logan: The democratic process is tough. And I don’t even know that it’s democratic, because we’re not voting. It’s just like, “Yo, play that. Oh, that sounds pretty good. Eh, let’s try something else. ” And it’s almost like- I think what helps is that we all have similar and dissimilar influences, but are trying to create something that sounds really good and is cohesive. And if you as a unit have a similar end goal in mind, the nuances work themselves out

Elijah: We all have dissimilar influences but we all agree that it can’t be certain things.

Logan: It has to be new. At the end, we’ll play sections and we’ll be like, “That would be good if we were a funk band. But we’re not.” So we’ve got to figure out a way to make it us.

Michael: Lots of tweaking!

Logan: I have to say, yeah, there totally is. Elijah is very good in particular at being able to take a section, and even though it’s a verse, we’re trying not to stray too far- there are like, verses and choruses at least. But if you tweak the verse, you can make it interesting every rotation, by slightly adding something as you go. It’s really nice to be in a group where everybody is contributing as much as they can.

Elijah: Definitely, yeah. I think there are a lot of like, compositional things that we try and incorporate to set us apart a little bit. And thinking about, like, influences from different brands of composition, y’know?

Logan: We’re all really big fans of the Romantic period of classical music.

Elijah: Like Chopin and stuff.

Logan: Which you might be able to hear.

Elijah: We’re just trying to be punk rock Phillip Glass. I don’t know.

Logan: That’s the next sticker, dude.

TTG: I wanted to ask you guys about your origins. You formed in late 2015.

Logan: Oh my god, it’s been that long?

Michael: That’s right. If I remember right, I met you [Elijah] at the end of 2014 on Craigslist and I was kinda new to Raleigh at the time, and I didn’t really know any musicians, and I put out this desperate Craigslist ad, like “Hi, I’m a drummer, I want to play with people, I just want to play drums.” Pretty much.

I went and joined another project for about six to seven months, I can’t totally remember. It didn’t really work out. But then I was like, Elijah…what were you doing again? Let’s start that up.

Elijah: We finalized arrangements.

Michael: And that’s what’s important about the first EP, actually. Most of that music was already written by you [Elijah]. It was already done. And you didn’t have the musicians to do it.

Logan: Except for “Suck It.”

Elijah: Yeah, “Suck It,” was really, like, Logan’s. And “China.” And I was also on Craigslist furiously looking for people. And a mutual friend from college…

Logan: …knew the guitarist from Vacant Company. And I knew him through Tommy as well, from Vacant Company. And he was like, yeah, my friend just moved to North Carolina and he’s looking for people to jam with. And we were like, alright we’ll go jam with him. It’s me, Tommy, the guitarist from Vacant Company, and Elijah. We did a really crazy-ass storage unit jam.

Elijah: It was in the middle of one of the big snows of late 2015.

Logan: It was cold as all- and we were in the storage unit playing crazy stuff and at the end of that, Elijah’s like, hey man, I’m making a new band. It’s gonna be- and then listed, I kid you not- like twelve genres in a row. That none of them made sense together. And I was like, that’s gonna be a hard no. Like, I’m not gonna be in your band, that’s like, funk-metal-prog-jazz-soul-indie-orchestra.

And three months later, we bumped into each other, same mutual friends, and…you either gave me a flash drive or you gave me your computer. And you were like, “Listen to the demos, please, I need a bassist.” Because they had been trying out bassists at this time. And I listened to the first minute and I was like, “Oh, shit.”

And of course, I was in totally trash indie and prog bands and so I showed up to the first rehearsal, and I hadn’t practiced at all. And they were like, “Oh, you definitely should’ve learned all the charts before we got here.” And I was like, oh man, these dudes are pro. I’m digging this!

Michael: Even before that…I didn’t know who you were at the time. You came up to me at Slim’s and you were like, “You and I are going to be in a band together.” And I was like, who are you? I had no idea who this cat was at the time. No idea.

Logan: He thought I was like some stalker. This weird mustachioed man is like, “Yeah, we’re gonna be in a band together.”

Michael: Is like, another alternative life colliding with my current one right now?

TTG: It’s closed now, but you refined your sound at The Kosher Hut. What about The Kosher Hut and that environment allowed you to distill who Zephyranthes was going to become?

Elijah: Naked painting during rehearsals.

Logan: That was wild, dude.

Elijah: That was one of the crucial things.

Logan: It was a great spot. I was living there, at the time. And, y’know, it made for an incredibly convenient rehearsal space, but the vibe in general was just creativity. It was me, with, like, five other people there, I think one of us was living in a blanket fort at the time, one of us was in the living room. It was a wild place.

We would rehearse and we hadn’t written anything. It was brand new, and we were just learning some of the tunes Elijah had come in with, which I believe was “Edelweiss,” the beginning part of “China King”, and “Nigredo.” So we were learning those songs, and Joe Wright lived there and painted my bass.

Elijah: Naked painting.

Michael: It was naked painting.

Logan: He would come in and he’d set up sheets and he’d strip down and he’d paint naked. Huge canvases, eight foot canvases while we were playing. And I felt empowered in a way, like, wow, we can inspire someone to create. We started to write and hone that. And we didn’t want to play there too often. I think we only ended up playing there twice.

Michael: Once. It was only once.

Elijah: So, The Kosher Hut, to put it in perspective, was a house and a ballet studio in the back. So the ballet studio, they would host house shows in. It was a two hundred cap room. It was a really big spot, and it sounded wonderful.

Logan: We started to get some good touring acts in there too, at the end of it. In the last years, before they bulldozed it. Now, it’s literally just a grassy knoll. Totally done. Which is kinda cool. It ended!

Elijah: We can reveal the location, now.

Logan: Yeah, 620 Price Street. It ended. It was like, the house is getting bulldozed guys, you’re out.

Michael: The mailbox is still there.

Logan: We had some really good times there.

Michael: I feel like I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Elijah: It was kind of like a combinator of bands. ‘Cause Vacant Company came up in there, y’know, we came up in there.

Logan: Yeah, Lonnie Walker practiced in there a little bit. When they reformed. Drag Sounds had a few practices in there. Every band practiced there. It was like eighteen, twenty local bands practiced there. And everybody scattered like roaches.

Elijah: And for a lot of scene mainstays, it was one of their first places that they played in Raleigh. Like Zack Mexico, from the Outer Banks where I grew up, that was one of their big breaks, was playing The Kosher Hut.

Logan: You got in front of over one hundred local people right away. Sure, we weren’t pulling in a ton of cash, it was donation-based. But that wasn’t the point. You got to play for people who enthusiastically enjoyed your stuff. I’m glad we got Blanko Basnet in there, Canine Heart Sounds got in there. It was good.

Elijah: The Bronzed Chorus, Night Idea, Arc Iris.

Logan: Yeah, we pulled Arc Iris somehow. But we locked down those invites hard. We never shared the address. You have to park in the right places, you turn your lights off, you come in, you keep it chill. We kept all the lights off on the outside of the house. We had police drive by, and they didn’t know what was going on.

Michael: It was systematic.

Logan: You couldn’t hear anything from the street.

Michael: You really couldn’t.

Logan: And so they’d just see a ton of cars, but there’s nobody out boozing it up on the lawn or the street. And they couldn’t hear anyone. So we kept it locked down, man.

Michael: I do remember the first time I went, it was like, look for the house that looks like McDonald’s. ‘Cause it was red and yellow.

Elijah: It was pretty unsightly. It’s definitely a contrast to some venues that you see nowadays which have social media presences in the Raleigh area.

Michael: They’re branding themselves now.

Elijah: Yeah. Which I think is cool, I mean, we love those venues. Oh, and I would have to say that Kosher Fest was, like, a seminal Raleigh show.

Logan: I don’t know how we threw that together, man. Mad credit to Jason Warnoff of Vacant Company for booking a lot of that. He booked probably sixty percent of those acts, Tommy Quinn booked another twenty, I probably booked another twenty percent. And we had two stages, simultaneous, for the whole day. Marc Russell- who finally has a brick and mortar store for his food truck, Longleaf Swine- had his food truck there. He sold out.

Elijah: He had an eighteen foot trailer.

Logan: Yeah, he brought an eighteen foot trailer there into the yard. And we had to park it the day before. He sold out of plates by like, 5:30.

Michael: I bought two plates.

Elijah: It was amazing. All the bands. So many bands!

Logan: Everybody played. That was crazy. The only person that didn’t get to play was Oak City Slums, because when somebody said that the police drove by, he split.

Elijah: Understandable.

Logan: Understandable. But everybody else played. It was great.

TTG: No question the Raleigh underground scene has changed a lot. Where do you hope it goes in the future?

Logan: It is tough for a house, even if you garner the attention and the crowds and the vibe, to have the right architecture. It sounds stupid, but you have to have a big enough space in your place to host the show. And if it’s an old home, split into these smaller rooms, back when they were building wood supports, like- you can’t have it.

And what I hope to see- and I think Nick Neptune is onto it- there’s areas where people bought up warehouses, expecting to sell it to the soccer stadium that’s not going to get built. And they are doing nothing with those spaces. So eventually, somebody with money who loves the scene enough is going to start doing it. ‘Cause it’s gotta be private property. But the prices are so expensive that somebody in our income bracket isn’t going to be able to buy a warehouse and just start throwing shows. It’s tough.

Michael: Also, I think, Raleigh, since I’ve been here- I think Raleigh is still developing its identity in a lot of ways, if you go to New York City, or Memphis, or Nashville, their identity coincides with the music scene. And I think Raleigh is still working on that. There’s really no centralized point of like, this is what Raleigh’s about. But I think it’s coming up. You know, the city’s still growing. Diversity is good. There’s so many different scenes. But there’s really no centralized Raleigh sound. And that’s fine. It takes a long time.

TTG: What’s your favorite conspiracy theory?

Michael: Oh man, I’m not starting this one off.

Logan: Are we talking like, government-based, music-based?

Elijah: Yeah, if we get into music-based, there’s some really good ones. Like, the whole Canyon Valley conspiracy? So y’know the Laurel Canyon conspiracy, where all the Laurel Canyon folk rockers- all of their parents are like, CIA and government intelligence.

Which, like, Jim Morrison’s dad, I think- I don’t know, Crosby, from Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Zappa, guys like that- they’re all in this little zone. It’s like, an MKUltra Project, to get super musicians to influence American public opinion. It’s great. Read that one! That’s cool!

Logan: Y’know, flat earth obviously, is a go-to. I mean, they had the convention in Raleigh, and the new documentary came out, I’m big into that, that’s a good one. Behind the Curve, you should check it out.

Beyond that, Alex Jones slowly unraveling. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of his recent exclamations that the upper elites of society are draining themselves of blood and taking a large amount of DNT to commune with the machine elves. That are telling them how to shape society to move in a progressive fashion.

Elijah: You also have the quote, recently, where he’s like, “Yeah, they’re wizards with palantirs, and they’re smoking marijuana, and looking into crystal palantirs with psychedelics…”

Logan: And it’s like, I hate him as a person, he’s a scumbag, terrible person-

Elijah: Trash.

Logan: But the fact that- draining themselves of blood, taking large amounts of DNT to commune with the machine elves- I was like- whoa. That is a- even just machine elves! What is it? It opens so many doors in terms of just, me being able to, like- whoa, what am I even imagining right now? Like…I’m communing with the machine elves.

Elijah: That’s a whole theory unto itself.

Logan: That is a whole theory unto itself. Like. What is that? Now obviously, flat earth is the go-to, but the machine elves…that tripped me recently. Last week’s favorite conspiracy theory.

Michael: My favorite was from an Uber driver I had last month. When I was coming back from Salt Lake City. He said that he was working on his latest book. And he was transposing it for YouTube. And it was all about how there was an intergalactic cooperation at the middle star of Orion’s belt where they’re protecting the galaxy. It involves NASA. He sounded so convinced, he was like, “Yeah, man, you’ve got to look it up. There’s an intergalactic meeting happening at Orion’s belt. The meeting is happening right now.” That was the longest Uber ride of my life.

Logan: That’s a good question. It probably, secretly, tells you a lot about somebody’s personality, their favorite conspiracy theory. I think that’s every conspiracy theorist’s worst fear, is that they will actually be proven right. They get to the two hundred foot ice wall, and they’re just like…it’s here!

Elijah: It’s here! I’m at the edge of Earth! It’s a flat disc!

Logan: Think about flat earth. What’s on the other side?

Elijah: Is it just endless space? It’s a Cartesian plane.

Logan: It just opens up so many doors. What’s on the other side of the ice wall? Is it another Earth with just a different…it’s all the same experimental conditions and we’re just a petri dish? And then it’s the same exact Earth with the same exact…

Michael: If you don’t stop him now…

Elijah: We’re going down a hole.

TTG: I wanted to ask about sonic distortion in your records, because you guys have really leaned into that kind of production since the beginning of your recording career. In terms of how it affects vocals, the lyrics are not necessarily intelligible-it’s more about emotion, it’s about the stretching of sound. Talk me through that.

Logan: So…it all began when I was a child. [Laughs.] No, for real though, this does start with that. So when I was fifteen, I heard a record by Sigor Ros- and he wrote everything in a fake language. It was just syllable singing. It was called Hopelandic. Totally unintelligible. It meant nothing. But it meant everything. Because you interpreted it how you needed to interpret it. It blew me away as a fifteen year old.

And so as we moved into the lyrical phase for this group in particular, it became more about the space we’re filling, and less about the lyrics.

What we started to do was experiment with pedals. So we started to do delay pedals, I started running my vocals through delay pedals, and then I started running my vocals through a chorus pedal, and in particular a really cheap, crappy chorus pedal.

Elijah: Yeah, it’s like a twenty dollar chorus pedal.

Logan: It’s like, at best, a twenty dollar chorus pedal. It really compresses and kind of treble-izes the vocals in a weird way. And so when we brought that same pedal in to Missy, in Fidelitorium, I said, well, I sing through this live, it’s a big part of our live sound, me singing through this chorus pedal. When we put it through and like, gained out, it had this really sparkly, kind of beautiful quality to it, in a weird way. And so we were like, we’ve got to keep that.

TTG: A lot of the guitar sounds coming out of pure math rock are very clean. And you guys definitely diverge from that. Elijah, tell me more about how that affects your guitar playing and how you incorporate technology into that.

Elijah: Totally! I came from this perspective of being this really huge gearhead for many years. And then got to this point where I didn’t really care about it so much, and just cared about what the end result was. So, you know, if you have to smack your guitar, you have to hit it against the ceiling, whatever. It’s all valid.

Logan: It’s not like math rock is easy listening, but the harmonic content of math rock seems to be relatively- it doesn’t change a lot. It’s very technical and angular, but a lot of times it’s like they’re sticking either with a very dissonant tone, or it’s easy listening, almost.

Elijah: Yeah, like you’re saying, it all pulls from very simple harmonic material or very complex material.

Logan: Too dissonant.

Elijah: So trying to work in some of that jazz influence. And really loving harmonies. That’s one of my big things. I just love chords and stuff.

Logan: But you get to fuzz out- he uses a really gated fuzz a lot of times. A very in-your-face, aggressive…and again, it’s the space you fill, as a trio, you have to fill space and be interesting. You don’t have the luxury of having a rhythm guitarist, so I have a thick pedal on my bass a lot of times.

Like, I either have an octave pedal, or I have a harmonizer on, like in some other form, or I’m picking really hard to get a thick tone, and then he’s got like- the sonic palette to fill as much of that treble area as he wants, right? Because my singing range is really high already, and it’s kind of thinned out and distorted. So it’s filling its space, but like he gets to like- and the distortion helps you be more in-your-face about it.

Elijah: Definitely. That style came from listening to Annie Clark and St. Vincent. And John Frusciante, Cedric and Omar. People like that. It’s almost more about the timbre impact of the part-writing rather than necessarily the number of notes you’re playing or how it’s going. So stepping back and viewing guitar in more of a soundscape-type area.

TTG: Before we wrap up here, is there anything you’d like to say to the kids at home? I don’t know what kids would be reading this blog.

Logan: Yeah, the kids at home. Um…think about what’s on the other side of the ice wall.

Elijah: On the flat earth. That’s important. Maybe we’re there. That’s where our next show is.

Michael: Live at the ice wall.

TTG: If you played at the ice wall, you’d have to do a live album.

Elijah: I mean, people have been trying to recreate Woodstock for years.

Michael: Next show is live at the ice wall.


All photos by Olivia Huntley. Photos courtesy of Zephyranthes.

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Q&A: Durham Beat Editor Matia Guardabascio on Community Involvement

Matia Guardabascio, editor of local arts publication Durham Beat, talks community involvement and the founding of the magazine.

At the opening of many a classic Disney movie, the first shot is of a storybook flipping open to an illustration of the setting of the film, with a voiceover from a narrator droning, “Once upon a time…” Violins play, we zoom in on the illustration to see the main characters- you know the drill.

Let’s imagine a new movie opening. That the narrator says, “Once upon a time, in a town called Durham…”

Rather than violins, there’s distorted guitar. And the storybook flipping open to images of Durham’s grit and glory…well, it might look something like a ‘zine from Durham Beat.

Founded in April of 2018, Durham Beat is a print and online publication devoted to telling the stories of the Durham arts scene from a first person perspective. The Durham Beat staff are narrators and storytellers actively participating in the Durham scene as artists themselves. The artist profiles, show and album reviews, and food and beer coverage are all from an intensely and intentionally personal perspective.

The magazine’s mascot is called the Owlephant, and she does look a little like a Disney character come to life. A symbol of the magazine’s commitment to Gonzo journalism, it’s easy to imagine her wandering Durham’s streets, taking it all in, writing stories featuring the diverse array of artists she encounters.

The Owlephant

The remarkable commitment to community involvement goes beyond the lens of reporting at Durham Beat. The magazine has hosted a series of exciting art and music community events that emphasize equal opportunity for local artists. The Beat Market, the magazine’s signature event, returns to Fullsteam Brewery on Friday, April 12th, with a local art market and live local music.

Durham Beat will celebrate the magazine’s first birthday (delightfully, on 4/20) with a raucous show and party at The Pinhook.

And if you’re hype for Moogfest but haven’t been able to snag tickets yet, Durham Beat is giving away one general admission pass to two different winners of their Instagram contest. Submit an original image based on what Durham means to you with the hashtag #durhambeatmoog and you could win. The contest runs through Saturday, April 13th.

I spoke with The Editor (as she is formally known) of Durham Beat, Matia Guardabascio, about the founding principles of Durham Beat, the magazine’s commitment to community involvement, and where she and the staff find their favorite talent.

It’s safe to say that by Durham Beat’s launch in April 2018, Durham wasn’t a secret anymore. The art, music, and food scenes had blossomed, the startup scene and STEM jobs exploded, and many people who might’ve dismissed Durham just a few years ago have taken notice.

While launching a magazine documenting the city from the inside, others might have chosen to define Durham Beat as an objective voice in the midst of outside forces. Durham Beat deliberately went in the opposite direction. Why the emphasis on Gonzo journalism, personal narrative, and subjective experience? Why is that important for chronicling Durham?

Matia Guardabascio aka The Editor

Objectivity is easy. It’s cold, distant, and boring. There is no shortage of “objective” reporting in the media- writing devoid of passion and flavorless content that strives to separate fact from feeling. It’s impersonal observation posing as gospel and offers little more than a prosaic imitation of something I could have Googled. Anyone with a smartphone and the ability to form a coherent sentence can present perceived facts “objectively.” This is not my way. In my experience, engagement and participation take courage, and often yield greater creative rewards. I want to feel a connection to the stories I read. I want to be moved by them in the same way that I’m moved by the people and places they are about. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Fundamentally, the idea that objective journalism is free from bias is total bullshit. Every writer experiences the world individually, that is, subjectively. The Gonzo approach embraces and elevates the experienced over the informational. Where traditional journalism creates distance between subject and writer, Gonzo instinctively connects them, yielding a philosophy of writing that I think naturally lends itself to coverage of the arts.

Like the Durham Beat staff, we all come from different backgrounds, levels of education, areas of interest, political leanings, and cultural influences. The way I interact with my surroundings differs from how Zoe or Stephan interact with theirs because each of us looks at the world through our own little key hole. Gonzo isn’t the regurgitation of information from a personal perspective; it’s about participating in the moment, becoming part of it. The writer is the character, therefore the stories we write are decidedly human- deeply honest and totally authentic.

In the eleven years that I have been working as an editor and writer, I have always been heavily involved in the arts and often dreamed of starting my own publication, one exclusively dedicated to local arts coverage. When I moved to Durham, I realized this was the place. The creative energy here is incredibly powerful. The people who have become involved with Durham Beat and joined the staff are all local artists (most born and raised right here in NC) who were seeking a flexible platform to pursue their own artistic ambitions. The subjective model empowers them to pursue those ambitions in a free and open space, while also building a portfolio and experimenting with new ideas.

What we’re doing at Durham Beat- what Durham Beat practices– is not news. We write stories. In so doing, we offer our readers something more than mere coverage- we offer the opportunity to feel connected, to share in the experience of and appreciation for the creative community thriving here. Anything less would be a disservice to Durham.

In the editorial philosophy of the magazine and in organizing events like The Beat Market, community involvement is a pillar of the Durham Beat brand. What motivated that decision, and how does Durham Beat go about implementing it?

AWAY MSG at Raund Haus party 2019; by Dalvin Nichols (@8bit.photog on Instagram)

First of all, thank you for pointing out that “community involvement is a pillar of the Durham Beat brand.” I feel pretty good about how folks are perceiving Durham Beat because yes, community involvement does live at the heart of what we do. In fact, community involvement stems naturally from the type of storytelling we do. But ultimately, it goes beyond content. The broader vision is to create and grow a platform for empowering local artists- Durham Beat contributors included. In the process, we’re trying to redefine the scope of what a magazine can be.

Among the staff we have writers, musicians, designers, models, photographers, educators, poets, and dancers. We all have stories to tell and we all want to create, share, and connect. Why shouldn’t those sensibilities inform all of our endeavors? As a business made up of active members of the creative community, Durham Beat is uniquely suited to collaborate with, organize, and represent the interests of local artists.

The Beat Market is a perfect example of this. In my travels through the art scene, I have noticed over and over again the same struggles for working artists. One key issue is the ability to get the kind of exposure they need in order to sell their work. While Durham hosts a number of farmers markets and craft fairs (some on a regular schedule, others as “pop-up” style events), nearly all of these opportunities require registration fees or some kind of investment up front from the artist. This is problematic for the working artist, especially those in the DIY scene (which I daresay is the majority of artists in Durham). I created The Beat Market as an alternative model that offers guaranteed minimum payments for performing musicians and a no cost regular vending opportunity for our fellow working artists.

Durham Beat handles all of the logistical planning and participates as one of several vendors. As a business made up of artists, our interests are directly aligned with the interests of our collaborators, our local business partners and hosts, and our performing and vending artist partners. In the same way that the Durham Beat publication is a platform for the artists on staff to pursue their artistic ambitions, The Beat Market is its own platform, the beginnings of an economic infrastructure meant to create opportunities for and investment in local creatives…the very same people who are responsible for the creative energy and steadfast edginess that give Durham so much of its persistent cultural authenticity and appeal.

Artistic collaboration is a major tenet of our community involvement. A good example of this is the REUPCYCLE Lookbook Zine and party we did with local fashion artist Cool Boy 36. He was interested in making a lookbook for his new fashion line and I wanted to do an artist profile and make a zine. So we combined all of those ideas and ended up creating a totally original work of art that included his designs, my writing and photography, and the opportunity to host a launch party featuring an exclusively local lineup of musicians. Within the project itself, we also created opportunities for other local artists to be involved: paid modeling gigs, paid music gigs, paid photography gigs. Through this kind of collaborative work, we are able to imbue that subjective sensibility into the very business structure of Durham Beat, while simultaneously investing in the local creative community.

The work we have done with The Beat Market and Cool Boy 36 is only the beginning. We have some serious plans in the works right now to create regular paid opportunities for artists to showcase their work, participate in events, and interact with the community at large in a meaningful way.

Where do you and the the staff look for local talent? Any favorite venues or online resources you can share?

At Free Things Fest 2018 by Riley the Photographer (@odetomyday on Instagram)

Discovering talent requires effort, certainly. I always comb through the calendars at all of the venues and galleries and event spaces. I sift through Facebook event pages to find things I might not otherwise hear about. I pick up flyers on the street or take pictures of show posters on bathrooms walls or community bulletin boards. I will also often go to a show blind, without any knowledge of who or what I am about to see. I have been happily surprised, totally freaked out, and deeply inspired in my adventures following these methods. I enjoy the unexpected.

Of course, sometimes artists write to us too and invite us to their shows. We do our best to make it to as many of them as possible. We are only limited in our capacity to cover events by our numbers. And we are steadily growing…in fact, there are eight of us who make up the core staff now.

To get to the crux of your question though, the “resource” on which I rely most is participation. I go to the shows. We all do. Because everyone on staff, myself included, is an artist, we exist naturally within the art scene, broadly and within its various niches. We all have different backgrounds and tastes, so inevitably what each of us will find will be different. What’s the best way to find local talent? Go to the shows. Participate. Be surprised. Follow the night wherever it leads.

If you could throw a city-wide party with one beer, one vendor, and one band, who would you choose?

Behind the Scenes of REUPCYCLE with Cool Boy 36. By Riley the Photographer (@odetomyday on Instagram)

My initial reaction is this: for a party of this size with only one beer, one vendor, and one band, the keg ought be bottomless, the art’s a-gotta be plentiful, and the band would have to play a four hour set and be well paid for it. This is a very challenging question. But, being decisive by nature, and relying as I do on stream of consciousness methods, my answers at this particular moment are:

Band: VSPRTN

Beer: Green Man ESB

Vendor: JoRose.

This question, however, begs a collective response. So I sent this one out to the Durham Beat staff and collected their answers:

Zoe says:

Band: Reese McHenry

Beer: Wicked Weed

Vendor: Worthy Women.

Ari says:

Band: The Wiley Fosters

Beer: Starpoint Kingadanoff

Vendor: Boriqua Soul (folks gotta eat.)

Stephen says:

The beer…well, it has not been brewed yet.  We need a collaboration of Durham Brewers. I would name the beer the The Bull City Backslap…it would contain hints of artistic innovation, a fine blend of culture and a wallop of civil disobedience and revolt!

I would hold the release party…unannounced with no permits in front of the prison.

The Vendor…Runaway with single print t-shirts designed by one hundred Durham artists…representing brown, white, black, multisex identified however we like…ARTISTS!

Oh yeah…weed would be legal…

Riley says:

Cider: Bull City’s Steep South

Vendor: Pincho Loco ice cream

Band: BANGZZ or Corroder. Or Cosmic Punk! Or H.C. McEntire! Gosh, I don’t know.

Adair says:

Beer: Ponysaurus Don’t Be Mean to People. The beer itself is pretty good, not my favorite, but I feel that the reason it was created is a good representation of who Durham is.

Vendor: Runaway (I miss them already) or Chaz’s Bull City Records – maybe a collaboration of the two!

Band: Severed Fingers. I fell in love with them when I covered their show at the Pinhook.

Behind the Scenes of REUPCYCLE. By Zoe Carmichael.

All images courtesy of Matia Guardabascio. Featured image by Zoe Carmichael.

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Q&A: Rapper and Producer Steezie on Effortless Artistry

The Raleigh artist sounds off on the genesis of his flow and how he operates in the studio.

Whether he’s buoying a crowd behind the mic, or orchestrating chest-rattling bass in the studio, rapper, producer, and engineer Steezie maintains his tranquility.

The name “Steezie” is an amalgamation of the words “style” and “ease;” words that the Raleigh-based artist has built his persona around.

For a look at that internal placidity in action, check out the music video for his 2017 single, “MI AMOR.” Steezie jumps, spins, and grooves around The Raleigh Rose Garden. His dancing could easily motivate a crowd and anchor a party, but his easygoing smile and economy of movement all feel utterly effortless.

Steezie rarely strays from an unblemished vocal delivery and low-pitched placement. His flow is the star; he’ll spit rapid-fire for several bars before stretching out syllables like taffy.

Steezie’s lyrics compliment the image of effortless mastery he’s cultivated. Generally featuring his skills as a lover and his ability to foresee snakes in the grass, he positions himself as a man in command, always a little slyer than his enemies.

Originally from Harare, Zimbabwe, Steezie’s move to the States coincided with his decision to make music. He spent the following ten years learning his craft, and cut his teeth performing in Raleigh.

When I met Steezie over Hangouts, I found that his particular brand of passionate equilibrium carried over from his public persona to his personal life. He’s happy to share, enthusiastic about his projects and the development of the Raleigh rap scene, but he sustains an unruffled air at all times.

I spoke with Steezie about the sounds coming out of the Raleigh rap scene, how he navigates his time in the studio, and how his roots have shaped his style.

What are your favorite places in Raleigh?

Oh, I love Kings Barcade. I definitely love…The Pour House is a nice spot. Except that they don’t accept people under twenty-one, which is a killer because people in that age range listen to our music a lot. I like The Ritz. That was definitely the best place I’ve performed at. The Wicked Witch is another spot that I’ve been to. That’s really good. Those are some of my favorite spots, definitely, in downtown Raleigh.

What are a few of your favorite shows you’ve performed in, and what made them your favorite?

I performed one time in Boone at a college event. It was a frat party and that was one of my favorites. The energy inside this frat house was really crazy. They rooted for us from the start to the end, and they were just on point the whole time. The energy didn’t stop from start to finish. It was not a big venue or anything crazy. When you’re in something that everyone is participating in, and involved, and everyone is cheering for you, it’s something special.

Is crowd energy what makes a show for you?

Generally, yes, crowd energy is definitely the biggest factor. I would also say this; the Ritz was a great place that I performed at, even though it was a different crowd from…basically from young to old. It wasn’t a targeted group of people. So it was hard to capture the crowd with that different sound. It was a weird experience, but it was great. It was the biggest stage I’ve performed at.

In addition to being a rapper and an artist, you’re also a producer and an engineer.

Yes, I do engineer for myself. When I started out as an artist, and I had friends that I saw were creating and making beats and engineering, I used to sit back and I felt left out, so I was like, “Yo, I’m going to see what that’s about.”

So I got into the studio and started making beats and producing, and while I was producing I got connected with different artists from around the city. And they were trying to hop on my beats, and sometimes I didn’t get to record them because I didn’t know anybody that recorded people. So I started learning how to engineer. It’s all connected together: producing, engineering, and artistry. It’s all connected together, it all helped out.

And it’s created something special, not only for myself but for the upcoming scene here in North Carolina. I get to see so much talent come through and being able to get on a verse, or make the beat, or engineer the song is…I want to be involved in any type of way, you know? So that’s why I love it.

If you had to typify the sound coming out of the Raleigh rap scene right now, how would you describe it in a few words?

Well, right now it’s evolving because we have so many different sides and parts of Raleigh. I don’t even know if you can even give us a stamp on a sound, because we have an old school sound from Rapsody, she’s got that boom bap. So we’ve got that type of sound, we have artists that make trap music, we have R&B…we got so much to offer. Like I can’t even put it all in one box. So it’s really everywhere, that’s the interesting part. It’s just gonna take the right years to come and listen and find this area and hear what we have going on. It’s something special.

It’s terrific. What would you say are the greatest challenges facing the scene as it develops?

The greatest challenges right now…I just feel like people…I feel like people should connect more and not so much have an expectation towards situations that have other people involved. Like shows, or going into a studio, or collaborating with an artist. I think people’s first impressions towards artists are not really good. I think people should go out there and really get to understand the artist and get to creating. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musical artist, or photographer, or a video person. I think we should open up to each other a lot more, because we have so much to offer for each other.

Everybody wants to get that coastline, from Atlanta and New York and L.A. and stuff…but the people are here, within us, like the producers are here around us, the video people are here around us, so everybody should just reach out more. Go to events. Go to the studio. Go link up with a video person, talk to them, you know, be friends with them. Besides just music, just connect with them so things can move forward.

That makes sense to me. Let’s talk genre for a sec. You have a really interesting old school hip hop approach to genre, in that you pull from a wide palette of sounds. There’s a real R&B feel in “Sublime,” and you’ve got an alt-rock feel with “Evaporate.”

Yeah.

You also definitely use sounds that are associated with hip hop. What inspires you to use that old school approach and pull from a variety of genres?

I’m so eager to make different types of sounds, and show people what I’m capable of making. Because I don’t want to be boxed into one type of genre.

I want to break that boundary, because right now, what being an artist is about…people have a certain sound. Like when you hear a certain sound, you’re automatically associated with one artist. Oh, that’s- that’s him. My whole like thing is like, I want to do songs that people don’t realize it’s me. They’ll be, like, “Yo, who is this?” And then they’re like, “Oh, he doesn’t even make that type of stuff,” you know? I feel like being a producer too helps out a lot, because I have so much to pick from, sounds to pick from, that I can just go to. I have old school sounds, and I can’t take out that old school root for me. I love it. I feel like it will always stay alive.

Absolutely. One of the hallmarks of your flow that I wanted to draw attention to is how effortless it seems. Even if you’re doing something that’s technically difficult, it always feels natural, like you’re not breaking a sweat. You pair that with a really organic sampling style. How did that approach evolve?

That approach is just…it’s just me. It’s Steez! My whole name is “style and ease,” that’s how the root came together. That just who I am. And I’m very introverted. I’m quiet. You know, I have…most of the time I’m just quiet. And I take things with a lighter approach. So that’s how I approach my music. Like I don’t need to prove anything. I’m making the art from from my heart, not to prove the point that I’m the hottest out or anything like that.

That makes sense.

Yeah. But I definitely have songs where I am not quiet. Like, it’s that party vibe, I still have that party side in me a lot. So it’s going to come. Right now I’m in a slow type of music, my music is slow-tempoed, but I’m bringing that fast energy very soon, so I’m excited for that.

Because you have these aspects of you as a producer, as an engineer, and then you frequently generate your own beats to rap over, what in your mind makes for an iconic beat- a great beat to rap to?

Right now, what makes a great beat is something really raw and organic. Something that just flows within you. Like, if you were to sit there and make a beat for ten, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. I know that sounds like a rush, but if you’re just trusting your gut, you just trust your gut will place things where they are supposed to be. It’s about trusting yourself. The producer that trusts themselves, and believes they can make something in a small amount of time just by going with the flow and the energy in that time, are the greatest producers right now. Because it’s simple, it has to be open for the artist to throw different different types of cadences to it. So that’s what makes a great beat. Something open and vibey for the artist to get on and do that thing.

So it’s all about instinct.

Yes. This is really about instinct. You got to be raw at it. Because when you’re in the studio, the process is you have an artist behind you. And they don’t want to sit and wait for you to make a beat in like, a whole hour. By that time, most of the time artists are already like…the ideas have really flown out their head. So if you’re making it right on the spot, you’re done with it in ten minutes, and you know the artist gets on it and that way the energy is captured right there. Everybody’s just passing around this energy. It’s crazy. It’s magic.

It’s like catching lightning in a bottle.

Seriously. So that’s how you create something great right there.

Very cool. I wanted to touch on that you’re originally from Harare, Zimbabwe.

Yes.

And you moved here in 2008. What was that transition like?

It was really different. Because it wasn’t like I was not aware of the culture here. I knew the culture here. Like, you know, I was watching music videos. I was listening to Lil Wayne, I was listening to a lot of artists from here. And I knew a lot- I thought I knew a lot, but when I got here it was way different. I got to know what’s going on. It took me some time to get to understand how people are. You know, everybody’s different. So it took me some time to kind of adjust to the people here. And I got used to it, and I just grew into it. So it was great. It was awesome.

How do you integrate American influences with Zimbabwean influences? You’ve mentioned in the past that it affects your cadence. Tell me more about that.

“In Atlanta, their accent and flow and cadence is there and like- it’s just straightforward. Like for me, I had my accent. I can kind of blend in, so people could understand me. You know what I’m sayin’? I feel like that was one thing that I had to spend some time working. I had to find a certain place where I can fit my voice. And that soft cadence, it’s something that I had started out with and it was great. But I know I have so much more inside. So it’s been really great finding that.”


Photo courtesy of Steezie.

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Q&A: Playwright Natalie Sherwood on The Premiere of A Good Little Rain

Natalie Sherwood on how their North Carolina roots shaped the writing of A Good Little Rain, a new play premiering at the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre at NC State.

In a production still of A Good Little Rain, a new play premiering at NC State this week, the cast of student actors peer through set pieces that represent mirrors. In these mirrors, the characters pose and posture, examine and evaluate their reflections.

The image distills the critical conflict within A Good Little Rain: how does self-image develop as a young person comes of age? And how will that self-image mutate through mental illness and grief?

These questions shape the play, which premieres at The Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre at NC State. Playwright and recent graduate Natalie Sherwood is one of the winners of The 2018 NC State Creative Arts Award, which honors exceptional original work in music, dance, and theatre by NC State students. Sherwood mined previous acting experience to translate their vision of a young person’s interior life to the stage.

Through the story of Michelle, Sherwood explores how identity emerges through grappling with depression, anxiety, and the loss of a parent. The nonlinear memory play dips into Michelle’s past and present, in dialogue punctuated by poetic interludes. The resulting character study is an unflinching portrayal of a young woman’s coming of age.

Sherwood’s commitment to realistic storytelling and emotional honesty stems from passion born of experience. The playwright drew inspiration from their own life in the writing of A Good Little Rain. The title of the play honors Sherwood’s mother, who wanted to write a book of the same name before her passing.

I caught up with Natalie Sherwood on realistically portraying mental illness, Southern narratives in theatre, and the writing of A Good Little Rain.

Tickets and more information on A Good Little Rain at go.ncsu.edu/goodlittlerain. A Good Little Rain runs from March 20th – March 24th, 2019.

In the description of A Good Little Rain, you explain: “Much of traditional theatre founds itself upon escapism and romanticism. I wanted to escape the escapism and deromanticize life’s hardships…”

Why was a realistic approach so important for the telling of this story?

At its core A Good Little Rain is an exploration of mental illness.  This story confronts very intimate challenges people face, internal struggles that are growing more universal but remain unspoken.  Unfortunately, in lucrative narratives these sorts of struggles with death, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and sexuality are often romanticized plot points.  They’re accessories and character quirks instead of dynamic sources of conflict.  I chose not to make light of these issues or make them seem uncommon.

There are parts of the play that exist in an unrealistic setting–a void within mirrors–but these sections are distinctly separated from reality only to portray a distorted self-image of the character, to encapsulate the vast emptiness that depressed people may feel.  The reality is that anxiety affects 18% of our adult population in the U.S.  More than 300 million people of all ages are affected by depression globally. Mental illness deserves our attention. It deserves to be seen as valid and treatable.  People deserve to know they’re not alone in their efforts to manage their mental health.  Hope is real.  

Who are your favorite playwrights? Who would you consider most influential in the writing of A Good Little Rain?

I am certain I have much to absorb when it comes to the expanse of playwrights in existence, but I do have an appreciation for Tom Stoppard and Theresa Rebeck.  They are meticulously clever in their word play and unyielding in their truths.  Christopher Durang is also a breath of fresh air when it comes to comedy.  

A Good Little Rain is inspired thoroughly by Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive.  I read the play in my Introduction to Theatre class at NC State a few years ago and worked with the text to direct a small vignette from the piece.  I found the story structure compelling—it alternates between the past and present, between observing scenes objectively and hearing personal accounts from the protagonist. 

You get to see her powerful, articulate voice juxtaposed with her lack of self-agency as her history unfolds.  It details a pedophilic relationship between a young woman and her uncle.  There is no pretense, no rose colored lens, no pandering; it is raw, ugly, vulnerable, and honest.  It is almost funny to say it out loud, but I was galvanized by a playwright so daring as to tell the truth.  

A Good Little Rain is a memory play based on your own experiences growing up in the South- and of course the South has a rich tradition of memory plays. How does A Good Little Rain pull from regional experience and Southern narratives? Where does it diverge?

Though it is a memory play, the content is contemporary in nature.  There are vignettes, however, that thrust the main character, Michelle, into her childhood often spent tailing after her grandfather doing odd projects.  Tender moments of nurturing and conflicting lessons of integrity influence her future mentality.  

I, too, spent time over my summers as a girl learning from my grandpa how to measure and saw wood, hammer nails, stain furniture, and add tiles to roofs.  Some of my favorite memories involve fishing at his backyard pond and mowing his acres of land on his green John Deere mower.  My grandpa taught me toughness, resourcefulness, compassion, and how to pull pranks.  Those same lessons he instilled in my mother, who originally wanted to author a book of the name A Good Little Rain.  She worked in tobacco fields and picked cotton for handfuls of change growing up.  Call it “southern grit” or what-have-you, but my mother had it.  The mother in the play is inspired by her.  

She and my grandpa also loved God fiercely.  They, and I, grew up Christian, as many Southerners do.  Throughout the play, Michelle loses her religion as she witnesses the death of her mother, who trusted God so deeply.  She struggles terribly with her failed attempts at prayer and by worshiping the wrong people.  The play doesn’t embody the entirety of the Southern experience, nor does it attempt to, but rather gives respectful and nostalgic nods to its rich influence on Michelle as a young woman.  

You’re an actor in addition to being a playwright. Did you find yourself looking at A Good Little Rain through an actor’s lens as you were writing it? How did being an actor inform your writing process?

Oh, absolutely.  I do not think I would be as successful in creating a fully fleshed out piece of theatre without my knowledge of the limitations of a stage.  There were moments I instinctively envisioned cinematically, with close frames and seamless cuts, and my actor brain had to work to translate it to the openness of a stage where almost nothing can be completely hidden from view. 

The most challenging aspect, I found, was keeping an eye out for the stage directions that implied acting choices.  I truly want the text to be interpreted by the actor, informed by their own life experience and psychology.  It was difficult to distinguish between an acting choice I made and a direction that singularly supported a character arc.        

The phrase “a good little rain” comes from your mother, who wanted to write a book herself with that title.

You describe the phrase as a saying from local farmers your mother encountered growing up in North Carolina: “She recalled hearing local farmers say they needed ““a good little rain,”” a shower that was just enough for their crops to survive the growing season.”

Needing just a little sustenance from an outside source to get by is a powerful idea. How does that concept come into play in A Good Little Rain?

It is interesting you say sustenance, when often people see a cloudy sky and rainy forecast as inconvenient and dreary.  Personally, I hold a soft spot for rain and petrichor.  Raindrops on a window and rumbling skies inspire pensivity and nostalgia in me.  Yet, for some ironic reason, as I related to Michelle’s character, I tended to view her mental illness and darkness as water. 

In one poetic interlude, she describes the heaviness she feels as though she is drowning, being swallowed by her sorrows and unwilling to swim.  By the end of the play, Michelle realizes that water is not all bad and that sometimes we need life’s obstacles to teach us how to grow. 

I think “a good little rain” is the stuff in life that we impulsively brush off as inopportune.  Somehow, years later, with compounded experience and introspection, we come to find that the rain we did not want was the rain we really needed.


Headshot courtesy of Natalie Sherwood.

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New Vegan Eats: Earth to Us and Vegan Community Kitchen

Earth to Us of Durham and Vegan Community Kitchen of Apex offer vegan cuisine to satisfy any foodie.

Vegans and omnivores alike, rejoice! Two new additions to the Triangle dining scene are doing vegan versions of beloved cuisines with flair that foodies of any diet will appreciate.

Earth to Us of Durham does comfort food with a Latin bent, and Vegan Community Kitchen of Apex takes on Turkish cuisine. Both family-owned enterprises are taking root in the Triangle vegan scene, but anyone who loves a delicious meal will feel at home- this omnivore included.

Earth to Us

Cauliflower wings.

You’ll find Earth to Us tucked just outside of Northgate Mall in Durham. The space is cheerfully decorated with a bicycle installation, framed photos of the food, and chalkboard drawings.

Firstly, all of the appetizers are tempting, but I think you can’t go wrong with the cauliflower wings. With a satisfyingly crunchy fried exterior, the spicy bang bang sauce and drizzle of ranch fulfill every wing craving. The loaded nachos, topped with a mound of guacamole, are infinitely Instagrammable and delicious.

The chicken and rice plate.

Next, I went for the generously-sauced soy barbecue chicken, served with pigeon pea rice and slaw. The well-spiced barbecue sauce complimented the soy chicken’s convincing texture. Plus, I have a weakness for arroz con gandules, and this was a great version of that Puerto Rican treat.

The Impossible Burger

Finally, I had to try Earth to Us’s take on the Impossible Burger, the bona fide fad by Impossible Foods. I can add my voice to those lauding the patty’s realistic texture. I love me a good burger, and this is as close to a red-blooded texture and taste as I’ve ever had in an imitation. The Earth to Us version comes piled high with fresh lettuce and tomato, spicy sauce, and cooked onions.

Although the Earth to Us menu has more favorite American comfort foods, the arepas are also yummy. Accompanied by a creamy garlic sauce and daiya cheese (a substitute made from cassava and arrowroot), this arepa addict gives them a big thumbs-up.

Vegan Community Kitchen

Just a few minute’s drive past downtown Apex, the mother-daughter team at Vegan Community Kitchen serve vegan Turkish cuisine.

Right at the door, you’re greeted with an enticing case of brightly-colored fresh salads and grains. Make sure to return to this case after you walk past down the counter to order, because tasty options abound.

Red lentil balls and tabbouleh.

I sprung for the red lentil balls and tabbouleh. Peppered with fresh parsley, the tabbouleh was one of the best I’ve had- uber-flavorful. It was my first time with red lentil balls, but based on the Vegan Community Kitchen version, I’d order them again anywhere.

The Iskender kebab platter.

Next, I hit up the Iskender kebab platter. Seitan, a wheat substitute, stood in for traditional meat. The seitan, cooked to a beefy consistency, was a great base, but took a backseat to the yogurt and fresh tomato sauces. Served on pita triangles with herbs tossed on top, this is a more-than-worthy meatless alternative for those of us with a doner kebab habit.

Falafel combo

Finally, the falafel combo cemented Vegan Community Kitchen as a foodie destination for me. Light, flavorful falafel, classic hummus, and traditional stuffed grape leaves served with fresh veggies? Yes, please. This is a Mediterranean classic done right.

The welcoming atmospheres and diverse menus of Earth to Us and Vegan Community Kitchen make them exciting additions to the vegan scene, and the Triangle food world at large. Forks and knives at the ready, everyone.

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