Collaborator Hopscotch

The Grant Wallace Band

Here’s a fun game I’ve been playing as of late: collaborator hopscotch. Start with an intriguing new release—let’s say, Grant Wallace Band’s Axle of the World (with Rabbit), out earlier this month on Two Labyrinths Records. Drink in the twisting bluegrass lines of the album’s opening track, “Hengs”:

Next, pick an intriguing element—perhaps Luke Gullickson’s bluesy piano dwelling under Ben Hjertmann’s elastic voice—and find a new project. Possibly To Evening Lands, a set of charmingly mysterious songs with Gullickson on vocals and piano, accompanied by violinist Ellen McSweeney. The tune “Little Bird” starts out with an instrumental process reminiscent of Philip Glass, but soon becomes a jaunty dance and a lovely vocal duet.

Drawn to McSweeney’s understated presence, hop another step in that direction. Get lost in her haunting song “Saturn,” off the 2014 album The Wrong Idea, in which McSweeney harmonizes her voice in a gentle hush over lilting violin lines.

Alas, it’s a solo album—a collaborative dead end! Go back one space and roll again. Let’s try Gullickson’s Open, a large-scale, minimalist work for viola and piano which, despite its length, somehow retains the folksy intimacy of the composer’s three-minute songs.

Pursue the sound of Doyle Armbrust’s viola and, next thing you know, you’re listening to the Spektral Quartet—of which Armbrust is a member—and they’re playing Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s meandering and guttural Dig Absolutely:

Now we’re back where we began: Fisher-Lochhead plays the quivering viola part in Grant Wallace Band’s “Hengs.” (And if you dwell on that Spektral release for a bit longer, you’ll discover a saccharine and spidery quartet from band member Hjertmann, too.)

This particular round of collaborative hopscotch sketches out an eccentric but seemingly unified musical multiverse, with Grant Wallace Band at an axis. And Grant Wallace Band is intriguing not only for its wealth of connections but also for its own music. Gullickson, Hjertmann, and Fisher-Lochhead met in college and grad school and came together in Chicago—where two of them were working on graduate degrees in composition at Northwestern University—before deciding to start a band in 2011. “All that time we were just bringing in scraps of material, workshopping tunes together, improvising together, and learning to be a band,” Gullickson told me. “Most of the music on Axle had its origins during that year, though it all grew and changed a lot over a few years playing shows together and a few years working and reworking the album.”

The band didn’t intend to form as a quasi-bluegrass project, instead envisioning something closer to a jazz trio that would build from notated sketches and lead sheets to fleshed-out songs. “Hengs” started off with an initial compositional framework upon which the musicians improvised in rehearsal. “The bluegrass thing happened because we learned we loved singing together in three parts,” Gullickson said, “and because we kept getting gigs at places with no piano, so we started using me more as a guitarist.” The success of those three-part vocals is audible in “Hengs,” which concludes with a seemingly ceaseless reiteration of the phrase “Dead man walking,” in full-bodied harmony over an instrumental freakout.

The Grant Wallace Band

The music of Axle cogently balances each musician’s compositional ideas with a collective vision worked out in rehearsal. “The Game of 58 Holes,” for example, was conceived by Gullickson—its casual introductory groove evokes Open—but transformed by the other players’ hiccuping viola and mandolin riffs, as Hjertmann sings of strange realms (“I’m just a minor god and no one can recall my name”). There is a gentleness to the complexity: the voices of children sound softly in the distance during the song’s instrumental interludes.

“For me, the ability to try things out in rehearsal every week was the biggest appeal,” Fisher-Lochhead said. “Far more than inclinations toward a specific style, the band was and is characterized by a willingness to explore whatever ideas we would each bring in to rehearsal, no matter how off the wall or unfamiliar.” That attitude is ingrained in the band’s lyrics and its name, which takes after early 20th-century outsider artist Grant Wallace, who made incredible drawings as part of his experiments in telepathy and attempts to communicate with aliens. “Even where there’s nothing obvious or explicitly connected to the art, the atmosphere of the record is suffused with a special combination of esoterica and whimsy,” Fisher-Lochhead added.

It might seem similarly alien for three composers to form a bluegrass band, but it probably shouldn’t. The new-music world has long been engaging with folkish idioms, from an ongoing American fascination with shape-note singing to William Duckworth’s bluegrass-infused Time Curve Preludes. More recently, groups like Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire and Matt McBane’s Build have combined the immediacy of the band with the notated forms of the new-music ensemble. And the commitment toward improvisation outside perceived boundaries of genre has a strong Chicago precedent in the massively important Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Grant Wallace Band

“The dream of GWB is the same dream that I have for my own music,” Hjertmann said. (See, for example, his eclectic projects as Kong Must Dead.) “And that is to allow me to explore the depths of my own inclinations and desires as a musician and to explore the great expanses of possibility of what that could sound like. The chief distinction here is the great joy of working collaboratively, allowing us to create music as one entity, which means that the musical material itself will migrate and evolve through the collective will of the band.”

That collective exploration is palpable in “Land of Lenu,” in which Hjertmann sings windy, peculiar phrases – “The deep blue mathematics of what’s behind” – atop a composite drone that echoes La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. The music takes a creepier turn as additional voices enter, accompanied by stressfully unremitting strumming and the manic gurgling of a bassoon. And now, we’re back in the game of collaborative hopscotch—that bassoonist is Katherine Young, the composer responsible for the Parlour Tapes+ release DILIGENCE IS TO MAGIC AS PROGRESS IS TO FLIGHT. That mind-boggling album centers on J. Austin Wulliman—of the Spektral Quartet!—with Young’s electronics and contributions from the Chicago ensemble dal niente.

As Grant Wallace Band evolved over several years, so too has the quirky Chicago new-music scene. I myself left the area in 2010 after graduating from Northwestern, and remembered Spektral and dal niente as promising developments. When I checked back in on the scene for Bandcamp in 2013, I discovered a rich tapestry of strangeness, symbolized by the uncanny independence of Parlour Tapes+. Axle, an unfamiliar transformation of the familiar, slides into that activity with ease.

The Grant Wallace Band

“We definitely grew to exist in and around the Chicago new-music community, which has been blooming, exciting, and mutually supportive over the last several years,” Gullickson said. “Really I just feel indebted to all the individual musicians who helped make that place what it was while I was living there.” Since then, the three bandmembers have scattered—Gullickson lives in New Mexico and Hjertmann in North Carolina, though Fisher-Lochhead remains in Chicago.

But they plan to continue collaborating across long distances, gradually shaping their music—and an in-the-works Kong Must Dead album—just as they did with Axle.A big part of the story of Axle is the returning to it again and again as time passed in all of our lives, because each time we set it aside for a month or two and then came back, there was an implicit process of editing and testing, weighing all of our previous decisions with new perspective,” Gullickson said. “That said, we also tried to maintain the humor and spontaneity of the thing.”

Beats, Rhymes, and Identity

Alexandre Francisco Diaphra

“Don’t complain that there is no more space for culture in Portugal, be the culture. If you do it, the culture won’t disappear.”

For Portuguese poet and artist Alexandre Francisco Diaphra, understanding his identity has been a lifelong quest. This summer he is releasing Diaphra’s Blackbook of the Beats, a multimedia project that’s part beat tape, part poetry, and part post-colonialist discourse. Years in the making, the Blackbook was shaded by Diaphra’s artistic growth and his desire to understand the world in which he lives.

Born of an Angolan mother and Guinean father, Diaphra grew up in Portugal using more than one cultural filter to make sense of the world. Travels through Portugal, Europe, and Africa only left him more confused, until he landed in Brazil. In the melting pot of Sao Paulo he found the beginnings of an answer, seeing new connections between the cultures he’d inherited. “That’s when I decided to focus on who I was, and Alexandre Francisco Diaphra was born,” he explains over the phone from his Portuguese home. The name provided an anchor, a way to be one “instead of different people all the time.”

Alexandre Francisco is his birth name, and it rolls off his tongue with his thick Portuguese accent. Diaphra is a nod to his artistic side. He jokes that his full name always felt a little aristocratic, maybe even pompous, and was only ever uttered by his teachers. Whatever the past associations, today he feels good. “It’s been like living a different aspect of the same life,” he explains. “And that’s where the album came from, it’s a trip I took to find myself after the name.”

Alexandre Francisco Diaphra

Diaphra started his musical career in the late 1990s as a percussionist. Experimental jams with friends in the Portuguese countryside soon led him to rapping, and from there to creating his own beats to soundtrack his raps. But it was an encounter with Existereo, a veteran of the Los Angeles underground and member of the Shape Shifters crew, that solidified Diaphra’s belief in the power of rap. “I call him my tutor,” he explains. “One day he shared a tape by a guy called Busdriver and that’s when it shifted for me.” Diaphra came to a new understanding that lyrics and style could be just as important as the message one tries to get across. “That was my flame,” he reveals, “the ignition for where I am today.”

Despite all this, rapping wouldn’t prove to be Diaphra’s ultimate calling. He was invited to enter Portugal’s first national slam poetry contest and came out on top. He says, “I felt a freedom writing slam that I didn’t have in rapping. Structure-wise, especially. And because it’s a cappella, you’re not enslaved by the beat. You can just follow your own beat and interact with what’s going on, follow the moment. That gave me more freedom.” This move toward poetry and free-flowing vocal expression left those who had been a fan of his rapping confused. For Diaphra, however, it was a case of being true to himself, of living something that is genuine. “It’s the human aspect I want from this,” he explains. “Music for me, and the artistic space I want to be in, is really connected to the human aspect. It’s hard for me to disconnect the two.”

The Blackbook was written and composed over a short period of time. It combines poetry in his native Portuguese and sample-heavy productions manipulated by hand rather than locked to a machine’s grid. After discovering his new name in 2012, Diaphra spent time with a portable sampler and record player in Lisbon’s public spaces. He would set up in various locations and record ideas. He wrote words in his book as they came to him and looped up beats in the sampler. Two friends, videographer Manuel Lino and fine artist Fidel Evora, worked with him to create a body of images, videos, and texts that were used in the final package, which includes a DVD that he describes as “video poetry.” It took them three years to put everything together.

While the music on the Blackbook is very much rooted in hip-hop, for Diaphra the beats are also indebted to Guinea-Bissau’s gumbe, a local style of music that unified the country’s different ethnicities after the region gained independence. “I found that the beat of gumbe really provided a union: everyone was around one heart, drinking from things that were lost,” he recalls. “That’s what I wanted to bring to my beats, something that showed me as someone who doesn’t know who he is. Despite all this information being available, we still don’t know who we are.”

Alexandre Francisco Diaphra

The most obvious signifier of identity in the Blackbook is Diaphra’s choice to rhyme in Portuguese. “It’s because of the connection the project has to culture,” he explains. “When I began, the Portuguese department of culture was being closed. People often complain that when a crisis hits it’s culture and education—things we need to get out of a crisis—that are the first to be cut. I state at the beginning of the Blackbook that I understand this, but at the same time I never depended on the government to help me. Don’t complain that there is no more space for culture in Portugal, be the culture. If you do it, the culture won’t disappear.”

A special edition of the release comes with its own version of the Blackbook, a blank Moleskin. According to Diaphra, “The Blackbook was supposed to be a book and for me it still is; it’s a book about ourselves, for people to write their own stories. It’s something connected to everybody. So it’s blank, and I give them the music and the images.”

They Call It Rock and Roll

White Reaper by Michael Powelphoto by Michael Powel

“We think we’re making rock and roll… it’s kind of frustrating (to be labeled punk).”

Not too many of today’s rock stars actually play rock music. And the act of being a rock musician—a sincere (non-ironic) proponent of colossal guitar solos and epic vocals—is out of fashion, not hip, and uncool. In light of this, White Reaper’s debut LP, White Reaper Does It Again, is exceptional. It’s an unpretentious adrenaline shot of earnest, youthful glory, full of gloriously unnecessary drum fills, a handful of guitar riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place in Spinal Tap, and at its heart, the spectacularly snarling voice of Tony Esposito—giddy even when he’s pissed, euphoric even when he’s howling.

White Reaper emerged quickly and confidently out of a fertile scene of metal, punk, and noise bands in Louisville, Kentucky—a small city where, as the band points out, “you can get anywhere you need to go in twenty minutes.” Beyond White Reaper, the label Eviction Records and bands like Blood Planet, Weird Girl, and Black Kaspar have drawn attention to a thriving DIY community. The band explains, “A lot of people [coming to the shows] are really young… they’re really into it.” Having first nurtured them, Louisville has sent White Reaper out into the world as their ambassador.

The group’s self-titled EP, released last year, captures a fully formed band, albeit heard through a messy, hectic recording. These six songs are stealthily sweet, even when they threaten to explode or throttle you by the throat. On standout track “Half Bad,” each of Esposito’s throaty howls runs alongside a sugary keyboard riff, and the pummeling shrapnel explosions of cymbals collide into whimsical guitar riffs.

White Reaper Does It Again is the natural extension to the self-titled EP, and the band has learned a thing or two along the way: in the year since its release, White Reaper toured the country several times over with veteran bands like Priests and Deerhoof. “Watching how (other bands) handle their dance, you pick stuff up… or not,” says Ryan Hater, the band’s keyboardist. When the band returned to Louisville (they pronounce it “Loo-ville”), they enlisted local producer Kevin Ratterman to help enlarge their sound to its proper dramatic size, allowing White Reaper to shine and glow, roar and crash. “He’s awesome. He’s a musical genius. We didn’t even [have to] say anything to him,” the band says of Ratterman. “With other guys, we had to go over the same points. Kevin didn’t even talk to us. It was unbelievable.”

Ratterman’s intuition is evident from the first swells of “Make Me Wanna Die” that come flooding through your speakers, surging and punching all the way through the euphoric chorus. While before, the keyboards sounded almost cartoonish and out of place, standing out in sharp focus against the racket, here they meld perfectly into the mix.

Beyond Ratterman’s influential production, the biggest change between White Reaper’s EP and their debut album is the heightened confidence in Esposito’s voice; it’s a surprisingly versatile instrument, capable of hoarse bursts, wails, a punk snarl and a borderline Brit-pop affectation. He matches his band’s stadium-ready energy on “Make Me Wanna Die,” then he channels a snotty Mick Jagger on “I Don’t Think She Cares.”

White Reaper by Michael Powelphoto by Michael Powel

While Esposito’s snarls evoke some of punk’s most fabled past, White Reaper’s music is rooted far more in undiluted rock and roll. “We think we’re making rock and roll… it’s kind of frustrating (to be labeled punk),” Esposito says. “Pills” sounds delightfully like a Cars B-Side, and “On Your Mind” is much more likely to make you boogie than mosh. Later, on “Sheila,” bassist Sam Wilkinson adds a surf feel to the thrashing drums, themselves bearing an uncanny resemblance to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” White Reaper Does It Again is an amalgamation of rock and roll history, tropes and styles, held together by sincerity and unrelenting energy.

On Spoon’s 2005 record, Gimme Fiction, frontman Britt Daniel howled, “When you don’t feel it / it shows / when you believe they call it rock and roll.” White Reaper is a realization of that prophecy: a band that believes in unadulterated rock music, that doesn’t eschew its braggadocio or its joy in favor of irony or modesty. White Reaper might even crank it up to eleven.

App update: browse by genre, location, and format

bandcamp discover app

You can now browse Bandcamp’s catalog of 1.8 million albums and 14 million tracks by any genre imaginable, and filter by format and artist location, right from the app. Portland chillwave on cassette? Pfft, you know it! Surf from Madrid on vinyl?! We’re as surprised as you!

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The appicon-format lets you filter by artist location…

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…and the appicon-format filters results by format.

In the likely event that you are now hyperventilating, please grab a paper bag and have a seat, because you can also follow any such browsing criteria, letting you channel all new beat tapes from Montreal (for example) straight into your music feed:

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Tap “follow” at the top of Discover results…

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…and whenever there are new suggestions matching your search, they’ll appear in your feed.

To demonstrate the stupefying power of these new crate digging capabilities, we dove into the latest hip hop, electronic, soul and indie coming out of Oakland, California, and compiled the result into our first ever Bandcamp City Guide. Pressed onto 12″ vinyl with a gorgeous gatefold jacket illustrated by Oliver Barrett, the comp features 11 previously unreleased/exclusive tracks from bands we love emanating from the other City by the Bay, plus tips from the artists themselves about their favorite dive bars, record stores, venues, and restaurants. Pick up your copy here, and listen to the whole thing below:

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