Chicago Underground Duo: Studio wizards

Chicago Underground Duo

“…tension is what makes the music interesting.”

Real musical evolution is rare. But some bands—think of Radiohead on the startlingly un-rock Kid A—manage to pull it off. They outgrow the straightforward presentation they favored in the beginning and, in a way, become their own remixers. Enter Chicago Underground Duo: originally a stripped-down, jazz-oriented two-piece but now a borderless sound factory that treats each record as a chance to reinvent not only their sound but also their process.

“For us, the studio is a big laboratory,” says drummer Chad Taylor, who has collaborated with cornetist Rob Mazurek in various Chicago Underground projects since the late ’90s. “We call it a duo, but it’s always been a trio, with whatever producer we’re working with. Postproduction is a big part of our sound; recording is only about half of it.” The title track and album opener of the group’s new Northern Spy LP, Locus—which features Tortoise’s John McEntire behind the boards—illustrates this method. Synths blast like laser beams over a strutting drum groove that sounds like it was mined off a vintage funk LP. But as Taylor points out, no looping was involved; he and Mazurek, playing keys, tracked the piece in real time, then manipulated the tones afterward. The same studio magic helped the duo simulate a larger ensemble on their danceable version of “Yaa Yaa Kole,” a traditional Ghanaian theme. Here, Mazurek employs a pitch-shifter to make his cornet sound like a two-piece horn section, while Taylor layers rhythms to suggest a trio of percussionists. “It’s hard [for a listener] to know what the process is,” Taylor says. “And I think that’s something that Rob and I like to manipulate.”

At the same time, there’s no mistaking the instrumental prowess of these two players, each a formidable improviser steeped in jazz. (Taylor’s résumé includes work with the late Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson and NYC guitar hero Marc Ribot; Mazurek oversees the avant-jazz big band Exploding Star Orchestra and a slew of other projects.) Even through a wall of effects, you can hear Taylor and Mazurek generating serious heat on “Boss” and “Dante,” pieces that suggest the classic trumpet-and-drum encounters of Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, filtered through the heady, slice-and-dice-and-reassemble sensibility of late-’60s/early-’70s Miles Davis (with some punk grit stirred in for good measure).

The Duo is currently split between two cities—Mazurek in Chicago, Taylor in New York—but on tracks like these, you can hear the influence of the environment that birthed the project: mid-to-late-’90s Chicago, where free-jazz specialists, avant-rockers, pop sophisticates and the tough-to-classify likes of Tortoise mingled freely. “In New York, you have to specialize in something in order to be successful,” says Taylor of his current home. “In Chicago, it’s the exact opposite. You had these groups of musicians who played completely different genres of music hanging out and collaborating. It’s just a different aesthetic, and I’ve always had trouble with that transition.”

Chicago Underground Duo

Fortunately the Taylor/Mazurek collaboration is a safe space, unfazed by regional bias. Locus is the latest in a string of increasingly confident releases from the pair, an album that bears the now-unmistakable Chicago Underground feel. It’s hard to think of another group that might explore disembodied ambient jazz (“The Human Economy”), collage-like electronica (“Blink Out”) and exotic groove construction (“Kabuki”) on a single briskly paced LP. Taylor credits Mazurek—who embraced electronic music shortly after the Duo’s 1998 debut, 12° Of Freedom—with fostering the project’s liberated soundworld. “I didn’t want to go that direction at all,” explains the drummer. “I grew up playing acoustic music, and whenever electronics were involved, it was like a fight. But Rob kept pushing, and eventually, I realized that the friction that happens between a drum machine and a drummer is okay. That tension is what makes the music interesting.”

These days, Taylor is fully on board with the idea that no sonic strategy is off-limits. “We don’t get caught up in the actual sound of what we’re playing, because it might change,” he says of his and Mazurek’s current approach to record-making. “We never hang onto any ideas, like, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ There are so many possibilities.” It’s to the Duo’s credit that they can channel such a wide-open process into an album as listenable as Locus; in that sense, their editing is as impressive as their playing. “There aren’t a lot of cornet or drum solos on Locus,” Taylor points out. “It’s more about having these compositions, these songs. Each has a different sound, and that’s the record.” It’s a humble description of a method that, as this album proves, can sound a whole lot like magic.

Your New, Improved Discography

“The album array on the home page is very cumbersome. When I add a new release, if I want it to appear on the top left, I have to manually shift all 15 of my other albums over. Huge hassle.” –Mark D.

Agreed. And fixed:

Ladi6 discography

The new discography page automatically displays your releases from newest to oldest, and also lets you easily reorder them using drag and drop. The sidebar (which used to only show up on album and track pages) is also shown, so fans will always see your image, bio, links, shows, and so on.

By default, a fan visiting you.bandcamp.com will see your full discography. To instead take fans right to your latest release, go to your profile, and under Home Page, choose “When a fan visits my site: go to my latest release” (bonus: you also now have the option to go directly to your merch grid).

What happened to the index page? The discography replaces it.

The index page let me showcase just a few of my releases, and leave out everything else. Can I still do that? No. Most people used the index page as a full discography and were frustrated that it didn’t simply auto-fill, and this change is about fixing that problem. We’re considering adding a separate landing page option where you could feature a specific release, an image, a video, or a merch item, but no ETA just yet.

Hmm, I’m not seeing any of this, what gives? If you’re a label, you likely use the index page to link to individual Bandcamp artist sites. That is how-you-should-be-doing-it, so we haven’t touched your index page at all. However, we know you want the improvements mentioned here too, so stay tuned, a label solution is on the way.

Rolling Boulders, Making Beats

Sisyphus

The process for the Sisyphus record was a meta-shift, and you can hear its result. It sounds like three friends in a room together making music, each one allowing the others to be themselves.”

“From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all.” These words embody philosopher Albert Camus’s analysis of Sispyhus—the boulder-pushing figure of Greek myth, condemned by the gods to repeat the same task for eternity. For Camus, Sisyphus was the emblem of absurdity: his tireless, fruitless quest was that of humankind, a search for meaning filled with much fervor but no answers.

The passion of absurdity, too, marks a more recent boulder-rolling attempt: the new full-length album created by the trio of rapper Serengeti, songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and producer Son Lux. Released under the name Sisyphus, the album drives the boulder a bit higher up the mountain than Beak & Claw, their 2012 debut EP. The futility that the trio’s appellation evokes may be a bit of an over-sell: the music on this album feels entirely natural, a coming-together of artistic personalities whose differences enhance their collective vision.

Take “Rhythm of Devotion.” Squeaky, space-age pulses—created by Sufjan, fine tuned by Son Lux—kick us off. Serengeti unfolds verses with resolute bluster, wrapped around the insistent refrain “I’ll be right right where you stand.” The music segues smoothly into a brassy interlude—bass drum smacks, industrialized cymbal crashes—and we hear Sufjan’s cooing response, the sugar to Geti’s spice: “This is how I want to love you/With an open heart, and an open hand.” Then the two voices intertwine, Sufjan calling out with a seductive gleam and Serengeti responding with stern braggadocio. It’s alternately loving and boastful, all atop the grandeur of Son Lux’s gunmetal beats.

The intimacy of those trade-offs marks the album as a whole. In their previous collaboration, Sufjan and Serengeti didn’t meet in person. This time, the trio spent eleven days working together closely in Sufjan’s Brooklyn studio and in Indianapolis, at Son Lux’s in-laws’ house. “The process for the Sisyphus record was a meta-shift, and you can hear its result,” Son Lux wrote to me. “It sounds like three friends in a room together making music, each one allowing the others to be themselves.”

That intimate spaciousness is a boon throughout. Several tracks are absent Serengeti’s rapping, with the focus instead on the delicate realm of Sufjan’s voice. These interludes are airy and deliberate; “I Won’t Be Afraid” plays out like a Baroque passacaglia, with a shimmering, repeated bassline undergirding Sufjan’s singing.

Commissioned by the Walker Art Center and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series as a response to artist Jim Hodges, Sisyphus picks up on the themes of Hodges’s pop-ish installations: love, drugs, masculinity, death. Dark tones lurk beneath sparkling surfaces. The Walker Art Center’s campus features Hodges’s “Untitled,” a series of multi-colored boulders that inspired Sisyphus’s name. In the hook of one song, Serengeti mutters “Give it more than you can take,” echoing the name of the Walker’s Hodges retrospective.

Jim Hodges - Boulders
Jim Hodges’ sculptural boulders, Untitled (2011)

“While fleshing out ideas together, we ‘shocked the system’ of our process with mediations on his work, responding literally but also emotionally to his stuff,” Son Lux told me. On “Dishes in the Sink,” Serengeti raps about the hazards of aging and caring for a family in a broken economy. But it’s not just a familiar rage against the machine; there’s a sense of exasperated agency to the music, the self-portrait of a melancholic father. In the chorus, Sufjan chants “It was my choice/And the life I create.”

There’s also a swagger to the collaboration that’s not usually present on the artists’ individual releases. If the rhetoric occasionally verges on the cloyingly macho—Sufjan emphasized Axe body spray and grinding girls in an interview, and there’s a Twitter campaign giving out Sisyphus-brand shot glasses in exchange for party pics—it is fortunately tempered by the intricacy of the music. Swagger and intricacy come together in the album’s final track, “Alcohol,” perhaps the textual and musical mantra of Sisyphus. Taking after Hodges, it’s a fierce and desperate portrayal of addiction as illness and inheritance—“Disease in my knees,” Serengeti calls it.

Serengeti spins out lines, accompanied by beats that resemble drumming on empty oil drums: “I need you beside me like Sisyphus/Down on me, holdin’ me thrown/Like he’s found in the stone.” When he concludes, the music seems primed to segue into one of Sisyphus’s typically expansive interludes; one anticipates a Sufjan section, followed by another Serengeti rap. Instead, we are treated to an immense, three-minute electronic postlude. Sheets of sound gradually accumulate; towards the end, a blur of voices races ahead, just out of focus.

At the album’s conclusion, the boulder hangs, somewhat perilously, at the top of the mountain. For Camus, there was no solution to the absurdity of endless toil; it served as its own ends. “The struggle itself,” he wrote, “is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” We’ll see if the stone rolls back down. At the very least, it might get us another great album.

From Oslo to Austin

The Young Mothers

“I don’t think I could’ve found a group of musicians like this anywhere else.”

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten can’t wait to unveil the new debut by his Texas-based band The Young Mothers. But he knows that even for fans of his prior work—the bassist-composer is one third of the Thing, the Scandinavian punk-jazz powerhouse that teamed with R&B survivor Neneh Cherry on 2012′s The Cherry Thing—the stylistic breadth of a mothers work is never done might be a tough sell. So he prepared a mixtape, featuring tracks from the group members’ various other projects, to serve as a heads-up to his audience.

Tektite Records presents The Young Mothers sends a clear message: No genre is out of bounds. In addition to a typically gruff, stomping track by The Thing, the comp includes angular surf rock by Plutonium Farmers (an Austin band led by Young Mothers guitarist Jonathan Horne), abstracted grindcore from Orgullo Primitivo (percussionist Stefan Gonzalez’s solo vehicle) and the futuristic alt-hip-hop of the Bully Love Set (featuring MC and trumpeter Jawwaad Taylor).

All these elements and more play into a mothers work—a testament to Flaten’s bandleading philosophy. “I was super excited about trying to make sense of everybody’s influences,” says the Norwegian-born bassist. Flaten moved to Austin in 2009, and quickly aligned himself with the Texan avant-garde, including veteran Dallas trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez—Stefan’s father— and musicians affiliated with Houston’s Nameless Sound organization. “I don’t think I could’ve found a group of musicians like this anywhere else,” Flaten says. The Lone Star State also gave rise to the band’s name. The bassist’s wife worked with the Houston nonprofit Project Row Houses, which offers housing to young mothers. “I was highly impressed by that program, and it totally inspired the name of the group,” Flaten explains.

Flaten took the same interest in his collaborators. When he met Jawwaad Taylor and Stefan Gonzalez, he knew he wanted to draw on their respective influences. The bassist admits that before getting to know Taylor, he wasn’t well-versed in hip-hop. “It was never a music I was listening a lot to, but I was always fascinated by good hip-hop,” he says. “I wanted to try to grasp that element and give Jawwaad that space.” Flaten does exactly that on a mothers work‘s opening track, “The ’Wood,” which juxtaposes dissonant guitar-and-saxophone accents with Taylor’s steely rhymes. Similarly, Gonzalez takes center stage on “Wells, the original,” shrieking maniacally over a raucous, Fishbone-esque vamp. “Black metal is part of my Norwegian roots,” explains Flaten. “But I was never really playing it when I was back in Norway—just listening to it. That element is [in The Young Mothers] because it’s something Stefan is coming from and is strongly inspired by.”

The Young Mothers

Flaten leaves room for his own tastes as well. The dusky, gradually unfolding melody of “Virgoan Ways,” stated in tandem by the leader’s bowed bass and the breathy tenor sax of Jason Jackson, recalls Elise, Flaten’s spare 2008 collaboration with saxophonist Håkon Kornstad. And the way a wall of squalling, hyperactive noise slowly rises up and overtakes the track’s theme is a direct nod to The Thing’s chaos-embracing improvisational style. “I always liked bands that had both sides,” Flaten says. “If you’re going to have a sweet melody, I like to really contrast that, so it pops out even clearer.” One of two covers on a mothers work is also a window into Flaten’s personal aesthetic: an eerie and meditative version of the Benjamin Britten theme from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, one of the bassist’s favorite films.

Despite its many stylistic shifts, a mothers work doesn’t feel random, a testament to Flaten’s thoughtful leadership. “I needed a long time to put this record together,” he says. “My big challenge was really the sequencing—to make the album make sense.” Having navigated that obstacle, he now faces another one—audience reception—over which he has considerably less control. “I demand a lot of my listeners,” Flaten says, referring specifically to The Young Mothers’ output, but also summing up his entire wide-ranging career as a composer, improviser and now, proud Texan bandleader. “It’s a thin line to involve such clear references, particularly the hip-hop reference; I’m really aware of the fact that a lot of people find that very surprising. But all I’m asking is, please give it a chance.”

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