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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Cheap Chapel Hill Dates

Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s most inexpensive and atmospheric dates.

Maybe you’re a long-term couple and you’re saving up to buy Hopscotch tickets together. Maybe you’re single, mingling, and don’t want to shell out too much cash on a first Tinder date. Or you’re a student and you want to go out, but you’d also like to, y’know, eat food this month. Any way you slice it, we all want maximum romance at a minimum cost- so The Triangle Guide presents the “Cheap Dates” series. Up next, Chapel Hill’s most inexpensive and atmospheric dates. Frugal flirtation, here you come.

Drinks at The Baxter

For a dose of nostalgic, nerdy fun and reasonably priced beer, The Baxter Arcade on North Graham Street in Carrboro makes for a great date.

Whether you appreciate the history of the fifty vintage, all-original arcade games, or just want to try your hand at being a pinball wizard for an evening, Baxter Arcade is a great hangout for aficionados and newbies alike. Enjoy the cheerful pop art and count how many cultural references in the decor you and your date recognize.

With domestics going for $2.50, a 2 AM closing time, and an exciting mix of a crowd, The Baxter Arcade is a winning choice for fun, atmosphere, and frugality. Game on!

Ackland Art Museum

If strolling the halls of a museum and learning about your date’s taste in art appeals to you, Ackland Art Museum is a UNC institution with admission going for the best price of all: free. The museum’s permanent collection of 18,000 works offers something for art appreciators of all levels.

Whether you’re delighted by Asian and European masterworks, intrigued by twentieth century and contemporary art, or you just want to Snapchat pictures of ugly Renaissance babies, you’ll find what you’re looking for at Ackland Art Museum.

Nightlight

Ready to dance the night away? Nightlight on East Rosemary Street has you covered.

Housed in an unmissable pink building, Nightlight’s funky feel and well-curated selection of experimental live music and DJs make it a great stop for seeing if your date is really as good a dancer as they say.

Caffè Driade

Caffè Driade is easy to miss, so keep an eye out for the turn into a gravel driveway off of East Franklin Street. The most magical environs await.

Once you’ve parked, head for the brown, translucent-walled building tucked away in the woods. You’ll find Caffè Driade, a lovely coffee shop with a selection of pastries from local bakeries. String lights and tables cluster around the patios. You’ll feel as though you’ve stepped into another world.

A cup of brewed coffee here will set you back $1.50, though you can certainly spring for the array of tasty caffeinated beverages. Caffè Driade would make for a great morning coffee date- it opens at 7AM most days-but it would also make for a magical evening rendezvous. Grab a glass of wine, enjoy the fairytale atmosphere, and unwind on a Carolina evening until 10PM weeknights and 11PM on Friday and Saturday.

Weaver Street Market

A Weaver Street Market picnic is a quintessential Carrboro experience. This coop offers tons of tasty treats, so let your wallet be your guide as you choose something to snack on.

Then, grab a seat at one of the picnic tables out front and people-watch to your heart’s content. Watching the town of Carrboro pop in and out of the yard is one of the greatest pleasures of hanging out in town.

More Cheap Dates

Cheap Raleigh Dates

Cheap Durham Dates

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