Thursday, October 29, 2009

Article: Ben Watt | Up the Wattage

Back To Basics

by Joshua P. Ferguson

Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine | 10.22.09

TOC | Ben Watt

In the ’80s and ’90s, Londoners Ben Watt and his wife, Tracey Thorn, had a hugely successful career as the alternative-pop act Everything But the Girl. But after losing interest in the spotlight, the couple started to wind down the project in 2000. Thorn focused on raising the couple’s family—before launching a solo career— while Watt returned to his indie roots and an increased focus on electronic music.

“Everybody wants fame, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Watt says by phone from his London studio. “We’d had an extraordinary comeback in the early ’90s and reinvented our sound. But we also felt like hamsters on a wheel. We’ve never been that comfortable being too popular.”

Although Watt insists EBTG was “extremely independent” creatively, “the thing that always used to depress me was at the point of delivery—when you gave your record to the record company—you then just went into an established process which was exactly the same for everyone,” he says. “You had the same promotional activities, the same shit TV shows you had to go on, and still you had that feeling that whatever you sold, it was never enough. That is one of the great failings of the record industry.”

Having left behind the major-label rat race, Watt now calls his own shots thanks to his deep house and techno label Buzzin’ Fly—while traveling the world as a highly respected DJ, which brings him to Smart Bar on Saturday 24. “I love the looseness and the ability to act spontaneously that underground scenes give you,” he says. “The fact that it’s totally democratic and not mediated by boardrooms and overpaid A&R people that don’t have their finger on the pulse: These are the things that started to inspire me in the late ’90s. Buzzin’ Fly came out of that.”

The 47-year-old recalls a deeply musical youth: “There wasn’t a room in the house where music wasn’t playing when I was growing up.” While his father, prominent jazz musician Tommy Watt, listened to the Count Basie Orchestra and Charlie Parker, his brothers and sisters played Santana, Steely Dan “and more middle-of-the-road stuff,” he says. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s, when EBTG was reinventing itself, that Watt started focusing on electronic music. “I was getting more and more into drum ’n’ bass and deep house and a whole new world I’d only just discovered, which was strange for a guy in his thirties. That’s normally something you discover when you’re 16.”

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interview: Frankie Knuckles | The Don

House music’s Godfather gives us a history lesson

By Joshua P. Ferguson

Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine: 10.08.09

TOC | Frankie Knuckles

At 54, Frankie Knuckles is a living history of house music, which, as he’ll readily tell you, is about more than the homogeneous 4/4 beats blasting out of clubs now. Knuckles came of age in New York City in the early ’70s, witnessing the growth of DJ-driven culture firsthand. Alongside the equally legendary Larry Levan—a childhood friend and club personality who gained fame as resident jock for the Paradise Garage—Knuckles took NYC by storm before he moved to Chicago to become the debut resident DJ for the Warehouse Club, the sanctuary for gay and minority partygoers. With a new installment of his soulful house mix-CD series Motivation dropping Tuesday 13, we rang Knuckles at his South Side loft to hear his thoughts…

…on his early days

“As a kid, I had the reputation that, if I was at the party, it was the best place to be. At one point, I started working at the Gallery hosting the parties. Before you knew it, somebody offered me a job playing records. It wasn’t something I thought I could do, but I needed the money. It just snowballed after that. I used to say, ‘I’m not going to wake up one day and be 33 years old and still playing records.’ Be careful what you say you’re not going to do.”

…on Chicago

“Coming here in 1977 was the best decision I ever made. As my hobby became a profession, it was already big business everywhere else, so I happened to be perched in just the right spot. The original Warehouse was at 206 South Jefferson Street, and that was my club. I lived there in the building for about three years. This was when it was not fashionable to live in [the West Loop]. It was pretty much like Death Valley around here.”

…on the Warehouse

“We started renting the club to fraternities on Fridays. Slowly, they started filtering in on Saturday night. Of course, they wouldn’t tell each other they were going, but they’d all bump into each other. At this point, it was fashionable to act gay if you were straight just so you could be at the party. The minute people heard it was a gay party, they thought it was sexual, but it wasn’t. It was really about dancing.”

…on house

“Musically, I played everything, because when you go to a good house party, that’s pretty much what you hear: disco, James Brown, jazz, postpunk, all of it. The crowd that’s hanging out now, I think they misunderstand what house music is. Once people got in there and heard the music, they began to spread the word, and it all took off. That’s when they ended up giving [the club] the name the House and [called the music] house music.”

…on Frankie Knuckles Day

“The best thing about it is that Barack gave it to me. He was still a senator at the time. I have a number of friends that used to hang out at the original Warehouse that now work in government in Springfield. Obama and a couple of other people—including Mayor Daley—proclaimed the day [August 25, 2004] and gave me a street. The street where the original Warehouse sat is now Frankie Knuckles Way.”

…on the Motivation mix series

“It came on the heels of the events of 9/11. I felt like I needed to do something, but what do you do? I thought I should just do the best thing I can, so I went into the studio. I put that first mix together in just one afternoon. Now here we are, facing another [dark time], which is the economic downturn. So this particular mix is to help lift people up and get them motivated again.”

Frankie Knuckles Motivation Too is out now on Nervous Records.

Myspace | Frankie Knuckles

Album Review: Hudson Mohawke | Butter

Originally published by Time Out Chicago: TOC | HudMo




Hiphop\hip-häp \ v + Dubstep \ dub-step \ n + glitch \glich \ n

In the past few years, fresh incarnations of U.K. bass music—dubstep, grime, funky—have infiltrated U.S. ears and commingled with the already left-field hip-hop scene here. The ensuing love affair between the speaker-rattling styles has produced numerous artists, most prominently L.A.’s Flying Lotus and his Ann Arbor brethren Samiyam and Dabrye, who’ve subsequently made waves overseas, spawning the latest cycle of bass-loving cross-pollination.

Glaswegian wunderkind Hudson Mohawke—a.k.a. 23-year-old Ross Birchard—is at the center of this new generation. On his debut album, Butter, he playfully creates an abstract hip-hop fantasia, with moments that are dark, frantic and fleeting and others that are breathy, fluid and beautiful.

At times, his productions sound as if P-Funk and Outkast collided with Prefuse 73—two-minute cosmic funk workouts that are more sketches than songs. A glimmer of hope for a more complete thought arrives with “3.30,” which could have been beamed down by a J Dilla circa 2050. At other times, the two minutes become two too many: “Trykk” is crammed with so many drum crashes and cheap MIDI horn sounds it comes off like a digital Tasmanian Devil having at an orchestra hall.

Yet as the album continues, HudMo hits his stride…and it’s a slower one, as when he lets loose the half-time head-nodder “ZOo00OOm,” in which his taste for breakneck-pace glitch floats over a proper dubstep beat. He also reaches equilibrium on “Rising 5,” containing his freak-outs in favor of syrupy, Sa-Ra-like boom-bap soul. All told, it begs the question, is this what digital-age kids hear in their heads: something sublime yet scatterbrained?

Article: Bobbito Garcia | Rockin' Steady

From B-boying to beats, Bobbito knows hip-hop’s street culture.

by Joshua P. Ferguson

originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine 10.01.09

TOC | Bobbito

“PRO-Keds is rereleasing the Royal Flash for the first time in 30 years,” Robert “Bobbito” Garcia says with the excitement of a die-hard sneaker freak. “They’ve asked me to contribute my design and thoughts, which I’m very proud of because I loved the shoe when it came out in 1979.” It’s hardly surprising that Garcia knows the year a pair of Keds hit the streets: An avid consumer of New York street culture, he’s dedicated his life to documenting it, from the shoes on its basketball courts to the music in its clubs.

Along the way, the renaissance man of hip-hop culture has donned an array of hats: skilled basketball player, break-dancer, sports announcer, journalist, author (Where’d You Get Those?: New York City’s Sneaker Culture 1960–1987), consultant for the creative marketing firm Project 2050 and, most important, renowned DJ, who spins at the Shrine Thursday 1.

“I was immersed in culture—seeing graffiti on trains, hearing music coming from people’s windows,” the 43-year-old says of his formative years. “I was engulfed in it before I was even aware of what that meant.” Garcia grew up across the street from Rock Steady Park, as it’s now known, the Upper West Side park that gave birth to world-famous break-dancing team the Rock Steady Crew. “It was a pillar to the hip-hop and playground basketball communities,” Garcia says. For the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, athletics and music have held equal sway: His father was both a Latin-jazz musician and a lifelong basketball player.

Taking up his family’s first love, Garcia became a professional basketball player in Puerto Rico in 1987 but ultimately felt drawn to his other passion, music. He returned to the U.S. to complete a sociology degree from Wesleyan University in ’88. All the while deejaying, Garcia was snapped up by Def Jam in ’89 to host a radio show with fellow NYC DJ Stretch Armstrong. The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, which aired for eight years, was voted the best hip-hop radio show of all time by Source magazine in ’98 thanks to its taste-making promotion of breakout artists such as Nas, Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. “We introduced the world to over 30 unsigned artists that changed the face of the industry in the ’90s,” Garcia says. “They were all heard on our show before they were known.”

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Live Review: Fever Ray at Metro

photos courtesy of Rez Avissar:

LIVE REVIEW: Fever Ray @ Metro Chicago 10.03.09

by Joshua P. Ferguson

I’ve been to a lot of shows at the Metro. And I’ve seen some weird ones. Marilyn Manson walking around on stilts in front of a ouija board backdrop beckoning the crowd to spit on him comes to mind. Even shows that aren’t all shock value but featured prominent stage presences—like last weekend’s Grizzly Bear show—come to mind. But none quite reached the light, costume and musical spectacle of last Saturday’s performance from Sweden’s Fever Ray (even if most of the show was covered in a thick—thick—shroud of smoke.)

As the ominous rumble of “If I Had a Heart” began undulating from the system, the smoke machines were turned up to 11, billowing sheet after sheet of grey out on to the sold-out crowd. Towering at the center of the stage, surrounded by turn-of-the-century boudoir lamps, Karin Dreijer Andersson—who made waves earlier this decade as the Knife, alongside brother Olof Dreijer—emerged with a fur-adorned headdress that gave the impression that she was over six-feet tall.

Joining her, her band of eerie pranksters was in no less impressive garb, sporting costumes that were like a cross between the Nightmare Before Christmas and Lord of the Flies. Stage left, a white-faced keyboardist nodded to the beat wearing a four-foot tall top hat. Running to and fro was some sort of hype man-gone-witchcraft waving a scepter decked out in feathers and torn bits of rags. All the while, one of the most intricate light shows ever to blast its way through the Metro mesmerized as beams of green, purple and blue shot all across the room.

Beyond the stage theatrics, the eerie, macabre soundtrack kept the crowd completely enthralled. It really was a sight to behold. Fever Ray does not make easy listening music and somehow, still, everyone there was fully on board, letting the fans and beams and laser swirls hypnotize while the band lumbered through all the highlights from its album, including “Seven,” “Now’s the Only Time I Know,” and its hit single, “When I Grow Up.” At one point my buddy—an AV specialist by trade— turned to me, in equal disbelief about the show and commented that he, too, had never seen anything like it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Article: Mayer Hawthorne | Vinyl Junkie

Mayer Hawthorne digs up the roots of Motown soul

By Joshua P. Ferguson

Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine 09.25.09

TOC | Mayer Hawthorne

“What do you mean these are your songs?” asked Stones Throw Records frontman Peanut Butter Wolf after first listening to Andrew Mayer’s demo CD. According to Mayer, the one-man soul revivalist who records as Mayer Hawthorne, Wolf couldn’t believe his songs weren’t some long-lost vintage soul. “He really didn’t get it at first, which has been a common reaction from everyone, especially when they see what I look like,” says the 30-year-old white dude originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It took a good deal of convincing for him to believe it was really me singing those songs and playing the instruments.”

The avid vinyl collector and longtime DJ pristinely re-created the dusty authenticity of Motown soul on a lark—“as a challenge for myself,” he says. A graphic designer by trade, Mayer never intended the recordings to amount to anything. Yet shortly after a move to L.A. in 2006, a mutual friend brought the concept to Wolf’s attention, and he was sold on it. In the years since, it’s become Mayer’s full-time career. His album, A Strange Arrangement, is out now, and he’s just begun headlining his own tours.

When we catch up with Mayer on the phone from the Stones Throw offices in L.A., he’s still a bit sluggish from the night before. “I’m just trying to recover from a sold-out Roxy Theatre last night. It was bananas,” he says. “[The club] said they hadn’t had a show there like that in a really long time.”

This popular embrace of classic soul has been making waves for a few years now. Obviously, there’s Amy Winehouse (and, perhaps more importantly, her producer Mark Ronson); there are also acts such as Duffy, Jamie Lidell and Alice Russell in the U.K. But most of these artists reappropriate the style for their own purposes. Winehouse pines about rehab and “fuckery,” Duffy seems more marketing vehicle than anything truly genuine, Lidell has added a fair bit of electronics to the mix, and Russell, well, she’s incorporated soul into a world all her own. Mayer has stayed much more true to the roots of the sound.

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Album Review: Lusine | A Certain Distance

Originally published by Time Out Chicago: TOC | Lusine



Ghostly International Records

chillout \ chil-aût \ vb + tech•no \tek-nõ\ n

When genre tags like IDM (intelligent dance music) or minimal techno get thrown around, the qualifiers that follow rarely include lush, sexy or human. Usually pigeonholed as being sparse and cold, it all gets backed into a mechanical-feeling corner. Refreshingly, both sides of spectrum—from blood-pumping humanism to well-oiled mechanics—are given room to breathe when Texas-born, Seattle-based producer Lusine is at the controls. On his latest album for Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International, A Certain Distance, he works in the techno or IDM realm—what he’s known for—but brings a needed warmth and emotion to his sound.

On lead single “Two Dots,” brushed drums mix with chords bubbling up from the equator while the sultry vocals of Vilja Larostjo get chopped and screwed. Most of the album focuses on this sort of comforting chill out rather than his usual minimal constructions. In addition to “Two Dots,” tracks like “Tin Hat” and “Twilight” give something that’s at once atmospheric, lightly brooding and 100 percent worthy of joint rolling.

That’s not to say his prior production inclinations are all together absent. Songs like “Thick of It” and “Crowded Room” have progressed from detached, robotic beginnings, going beyond a mere 4/4 thump to a hybrid shuffle comprised of piano, sometimes guitar, whispers of effects-laden vocals and an arsenal of esoteric clicks, pops and 8-bit bleeps. Elsewhere, as on “Every Disguise,” he showcases the minimalist thump and glitchy grit that’s been a focus in the past. All told, A Certain Distance riffs in multiple disciplines and maintains cohesiveness that is a rare commodity in an electronic artist album.

- Joshua P. Ferguson

Album Review: M.A.N.D.Y. | Get Physical 7th Anniversary

Originally published by Time Out Chicago: TOC | M.A.N.D.Y.

Various Artists


Get Physical Records

house \haus \ n + tech•no \tek-nõ\ n

Listening to the latest DJ-mix from dynamic Berlin duo M.A.N.D.Y. (a.k.a. Philipp Jung and Patrick Bodmer) is always more of a treat than a task. The two head up one of Germany’s sources for the techier side of house and the housier side of techno, Get Physical Records. Home to a star-studded cast of producers and DJs that includes Booka Shade and DJ T, the label is often synonymous with the best in dance music.

The individual parts of Get Physical’s latest release, a 7th Anniversary mix disc, will mostly meet with smiles. A master of its art, M.A.N.D.Y. fine-tunes each of its mixes with all of the requisite ebbs and flows to perfectly re-create the feel of a packed dance floor, misty with perspiration. If you close your eyes, you can almost anticipate points where the crowd breaks down into fits of applause and whistling before being built back up into dance frenzy.

Track selection is where things get a bit murky. The mix sees the signature soft-tipped thump of Booka Shade on more than three separate occasions, which is usually a good thing. Get Physical’s flagship act has earned the exposure. Add to that some soul from Samim and Mical’s remix of Chelonis R. Jones’s Prince-like “Le Bateau Ivre” before shifting gears to the ghetto-techno-juke of “To the Gum” by Riton and Heidi, and you have a colorful breakup of the sometimes tracky monotony. Other highlights include Marc Newumann’s “Calypso” and Elbee Bad’s “Just Don’t Stop the Dance.”

The stutter steps are few but noticeable. Jona’s housed-up remake of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is a glaring example. The original isn’t in 4/4 time which makes for tricky adaptation to the dance floor. Not only that, but it’s the only time the sound scape is taken over by a strong piano line which, when finally over, leaves a gaping sonic hole in the mix. Other low points include Patrice Bäumel’s “Roar,” which sounds more like a metal detector on the fritz than an actual song.

Beyond these specific critiques—M.A.N.D.Y.’s latest just doesn’t measure up to its past mixes—it works as party platter or gym soundtrack. If you’re looking for a first foray into M.A.N.D.Y. or Get Physical, start with 5 Years of Get Physical and M.A.N.D.Y.’s contribution to the At the Controls mix-CD series.

- Joshua P. Ferguson

Article: Little Boots | One Step Beyond

YouTube’s latest pop sensation, Little Boots laces up for a U.S. invasion.

By Joshua P. Ferguson

Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine 09.17.09

TOC | Little Boots

“I like that in America it takes on these urban connotations,” says Victoria Hesketh with a giggle. Increasingly well known as Little Boots, she gets a kick out of the fact that her childhood-nickname-turned-pop-moniker receives a hip-hop twist to “lil” as it crosses the Atlantic. “In England it would never sound like that, but in America the ‘lil’ lets everyone know you’re down. It can be my rapper alter ego; Lil Boots and Lil Wayne.”

While her fantasy collaborations with Weezy may never come to fruition, Hesketh’s momentum as an up-and-coming pop star has never been more real. Fueled by her sugary, disco and electro-tinged dance numbers as well as her high-traffic YouTube page, she has become a viral sensation. The attention has sparked multiple magazine cover stories and an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly. Two weeks ago her album—slated for a U.S. release in January—went gold in the U.K.

Though the buzz seems to have materialized overnight, the 25-year-old Hesketh, whom we spoke to by phone from her London studio, says it hasn’t been as immediate as it appears. “There’s no prior to music for me,” she says. “It started when I was two, and I’ve been playing piano seriously since I was five.” Even college was a strictly musical endeavor where she focused on the sociology of music rather than theory, of which she already had a firm grasp. “I got to deconstruct Madonna and things for my college essays,” she says, laughing.

While at university, she formed an indie band called Dead Disco with classmates, but after creative differences sucked out all the fun, she branched out on her own, creating Little Boots to indulge her love of synthesizers and gadgets skirting the line between toy and instrument. An especially popular YouTube clip shows her covering Hot Chip’s “Ready for the Floor” on a Japanese instrument called a Tenori-On. “It looks like a piece of the future,” she says of the square, many-buttoned instrument—reminiscent of those old Simon toys—that has become a centerpiece of her live show. “The visual side of music is really important to me. Any way to physically demonstrate the music I’m making is really exciting,” she says.

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Little Boots | Myspace

Little Boots | Youtube