Mekons Forever


In some parallel universeMekons are huge rock stars. They’re worshiped for their legacy as first-wave Brit punks and adored for spending four decades evolving into something else entirely. Their hodgepodge of influences, from the Sex Pistols and Balfa Brothers to George Jones and King Tubby, only add to their popularity, and the one-time Leeds-based socialist collective are both recognized and respected as transformative pioneers.

It’s a nice thought. One that the band’s shamefully small legion of fans and advocates know is far more deserved than their status as perpetual underdogs.

Widespread adulation, however, as well as its accompanying trappings, allows many artists to become complacent. And that is the one thing Mekons will never be.

In an age where most bands spend more time on their social media presence and identity branding than staying rigidly true to their core ideals, Mekons just keep thinking up quixotic ideas and acting on them.

So it makes perfect sense that the group’s latest release, Existentialism (out now on Bloodshot Records), is yet another exercise in pushing limits.

Recorded at a Brooklyn theater in real time last summer, an audience of 75 “mekoristers” got lyric sheets, directions from an actual conductor and were politely required to break through the fourth wall.

With the band not much more versed than the audience in the recently composed material, the initial goal was to see “just how spontaneous and immediate the thing could be,” says Mekons cofounder Jon Langford, in a phone interview with CityBeat from his home in Chicago.

“We never really thought of it as a live record,” he adds. “It was a recording session where the audience was forced to be part of the band. That was the initial premise. We wanted to make a record that completely discarded any need for modern production values. We just thought we’d try and make something that sounded quite barbaric.”

If held to today’s standards, the objective was definitely met. But for anyone even remotely familiar with Mekons’ music, it’s just another charming and successful endeavor from a band that never seems to worry about much more than making sure to see things through.

“Does the world need another overly produced, heavily compressed Mekons studio album?” asks Langford. “I don’t think so. If you have a formula for how you approach each record, I think it makes it kind of lazy. And I really like the way this one sounds.”

Existentialism also comes with a 96-page book of art and writing responding to each of the album’s 12 songs, along with a download of Mekonception, Barry Mill’s 30-minute surreal take on the politically infused recording session.

It also comes on the heels of Joe Angio’s 2014 documentary on the band, Revenge of the Mekons.

Angio tells the band’s story through both past and present members, as well as a wide-range of fans, from National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen to filmmaker Mary Harron.

While Mekons knew the film was unlikely to be a merited watershed moment, Langford admits it has been a boon to the band.

“It’s been a very useful thing for us,” he says. “It’s something that both pleased and satisfied people who were interested in the band and provided an introduction for those who didn’t know anything about us. Joe did an incredible job because he actually finished it. He didn’t just run away screaming after dealing with us for that length of time.”

The film also seems to have prompted the group to recalibrate their desire to join forces creatively. Despite band members being spread across the globe and not a cent coming from any kind of corporate backing, the Mekons have three—three!—tentative albums in the works for next year.

“If we had the air miles,” says Langford, “we could probably do a couple of them every year. But then it would become a formula and become crap. So we have to change it up. But at the moment there are three achievable, but slightly scary, projects on the horizon.”

One of them will celebrate the collective’s impending 40th anniversary, one will find them returning to a proper studio in Joshua Tree (“We have mechanisms in place to booby trap that process”), and one is still in the early planning stages.

But regardless of what ends up materializing, the indomitable ensemble is undeniably re-inspired. And for both old fans and new, that’s good news.

“There’s something in the water at the moment,” Langford says. “You just reach a point in your life where life takes you over. You’re too busy with the things of having kids and earning money. It makes something like the Mekons a desirable thing to do, but just too hard to get to.

“And now, we’re suddenly entering this age where weíre like, ‘Fucking hell. If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it.’ There’s a lot of stuff on the agenda. And there’s a greater sense of urgency than we’ve ever had.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Lucy Dacus Lays Burden Down


Too bad there’s not a better way to say “wise beyond her years.” Lucy Dacus deserves more. But it almost seems impossible to imagine anyone coming to a different conclusion after listening to the 21-year-old singer/songwriter’s stunning debut album, No Burden.

Recorded in a single day thanks to a friend who worked at Reba McEntire’s Starstruck Studio in Nashville, Burden sounds like anything but a rush job. Filled with big rock hooks as well as nuanced slow-burners, Dacus’ undeniably big voice moves effortlessly between them all.

Knowing that it was the singer’s first time in a studio, and that she and the band had only played together for a week prior, makes it all the more impressive. But it also seems to be perfectly in line with the Richmond, VA, native’s genuine and unceremonious path to a career in music.

Adopted by a piano-teaching mother and guitar-playing father, Dacus had a childhood filled with musical theater and sneaking into rock shows. Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent her from enrolling in film school. But when a planned semester off from Virginia Commonwealth University coincided with the studio availability, a new trajectory was set in motion.

If No Burden sounds more like a seasoned effort from a mid-career pro and less like a whirlwind debut from a film major, it’s a testament to the potent combination of Dacus’ big-league voice, forthright storytelling, and a determination to get better.

And she’s just getting started.

“We’re all ready to get back into the studio,” Dacus tells CityBeat during a recent roadside stop for hot dogs between gigs. “We have enough material. And I know I’m going to have a much more hands-on part in the production of it. When we recorded, I had never been in the studio. I didn’t know anything about the technology or terminology of recording. Now, I’ve got a much better grip on that stuff.”

No Burden was released in February on Richmond label EggHunt Records and was picked up shortly after by veteran indie label Matador Records. They just re-released it digitally and will be serving up physical copies on September 9.

Considering the album was getting substantial buzz before Matador got involved, it’s easy to understand why the floodgates have opened since. Everyone from Time and NPR to Pitchfork and Noisey have nice things to say about it. And because Dacus already has a stockpile of new songs ready to go, whatever comes next has a great chance to escape being tainted or shaped by everything that’s going on now.

“I wrote a lot of these new songs,” she says, “around the same time that the No Burden songs were written. Or since then, but before the album took off. A lot of the new stuff is uninfluenced by how our lives have changed. I mean, there has been some reaction to what it’s like to be a full-time musician, but it does seem a bit preserved and lucky that we had so much content before any of this happened.”

Essentially having another album in the can also means that Dacus won’t have to adjust her writing style any time soon. Pressure to adhere to a timeline doesn’t jibe with the singer’s current “capture it when it comes” method. And while inspiration seems to be coming to Dacus plenty these days, it’s nice to know there’s a reserve ready to cover any dry spells.

“I don’t push to create,” she says. “Whenever I try  to write, it comes out bad. I just have to pay attention to when my mind is moving. Listen to my thoughts. I think some people fall into the pitfall of wanting to immediately translate their experience into creative work. You have to process your thoughts. I don’t have a lot of control over it.”

For now, Dacus and her band are enjoying the ride. They’re content to share their music with a host of new cities (the band’s first ever San Diego stop comes August 12 at the Casbah) and know there is plenty more music making to come. But with all the planning, execution, and adjustments needed to make it all happen, there is one thing that they didn’t see coming.

“I didn’t realize I was basically agreeing to move away from my hometown for the first time,” says Dacus. “When most people move to another city, they usually plant their roots in that second place. They meet people and build a new circle of friends, a new network. For us, we didn’t move to a new city. We’re just roaming. It’s hard to maintain everything that I knew, all of the relationships, while being on the road.”

She’ll adjust. They all will. The music is too good and the potential too promising. It might still be a bit early for all that’s happened to truly sink in, but it’s definitely started.

“We’re way more pleased than we expected to be,” Dacus says. “We had really low expectations at the beginning. But at this point, it’s definitely exceeded them.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat 

The Geography of Kevin Morby


Kevin Morby isn’t flashy.

He isn’t known for on-stage antics, run-ins with the law, or heroic battles with substance abuse. The 28-year-old singer/songwriter is the kind of performer far more likely to be found writing new songs in his hotel room rather than trashing it in some kind of Dionysian stupor.

Yet, despite his workmanlike approach and matter-of-fact demeanor, Morby’s backstory reads like a page out of the “How To Make It In The Big City” playbook.

He escaped Kansas City at 18, heading to New York by train at the request of the one friend he had there. With little more than a sleeping bag and wide-eyed ideas of making music, Morby made ends meet working short-term jobs from bicycle courier to babysitter.

It didn’t take long before the affable singer was playing bass with Brooklyn folk-rockers Woods and cranking out a couple of albums (as The Babies) with Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls. But much like the icons that initially inspired him, Morby was destined to carve out a path of his own.

Recorded after a move to L.A., 2013’s Harlem River served both as the young musician’s solo debut and an eight-song homage to his time in the Empire State. He followed it a year later with the 10-song collection Still Life, and just released his third album, Singing Saw, in April.

“I like the metaphor of something that’s beautiful,” Morby says while driving to a recent show in Minneapolis, “but also eerie.”

The first release for indie label Dead Oceans, Singing Saw was again inspired by geography. This time around, musical ideas were sparked by a move to the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington.

Nighttime walks – with the expansive city lights as a backdrop – first led Morby to the sparse and otherworldly sounds found on his new record.

Perhaps more than anything, it was an upright piano left behind by previous tenants that helped to shape Singing Saw’s collection of songs. Never working on piano before, Morby was excited by the serendipity that was seemingly directing him to shake up his songwriting process.

“The guitar is my go-to,” he says. “And it’s always been that way. But things get a little boring when you’re writing and recycling the same chords that you always do. To stumble upon an instrument like that opened up this whole new world for me.”

Even as a beginner, Morby found that dealing with basic mechanics again was anything but a hindrance. Things like not realizing what key he was in while on the piano allowed him to forget his own accrued musical prejudices and simply concentrate on sound.

Renewed energy and a creative push weren’t the only benefits the piano brought, either. Working on a new instrument allowed the songwriter to blow off steam in a newfound way.

“It’s really percussive,” says Morby. “I’m a big Fiona Apple fan and I read this interview with her where she said that she liked to write on the piano because she could take out her aggression on it. And it’s true. You can bang it. It’s almost like you’re hitting it. Even now, I write something on guitar and I’ll take it out on the piano. It’s like having two different lives or something.”

Singing Saw’s arrangements were fleshed out by Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds), who Morby met while playing in a Cohen-led live recreation of The Band’s final performance. Although the two became friends, it wasn’t until he heard one of Cohen’s self-produced solo albums that Morby thought about working with him.

“We had gotten along really well,” he says. “But it was never my intention to record the whole album with Sam. It was more just about testing it out – a ‘hey, let’s get together, record a few songs and see what happens’ kind of thing. But then we got together for four days and it went so well, the album was basically done.”

Morby has since moved from Mount Washington and taken a sublet in Echo Park, but for all practical purposes is on the road for the foreseeable future.

“I’m living in the town of tour,” he says.

But no matter where Morby ends up, the creative shift and expansion of musical arsenal he acquired in the L.A. hills left an indelible mark.

And while he admits that his next project is already close to completion, it will be interesting to see what comes when the singer has a long stretch of nights to just walkabout and absorb his surroundings again.

“I’m always working,” says Morby. “But a big part of this record was the time and space I had from touring. There was a lot of reflecting and being appreciative of music in general. It sounds cheesy, but I really found an appreciation for all instruments and aspects of music. And that’s exciting.”

Originally published in San Diego City Beat

Cressey: Padres Piano Man


Padres organist Bobby Cressey has probably “taken you out to the ballgame” more times than you know. Since 2010, the lifelong Friars fan has provided live organ music to select games at Petco Park from his perch in the Upper Deck along first base.

Now in his 7th year, Cressey is scheduled for 28 games this season – including the July 12 All-Star Game. But landing what the 34-year-old calls “the coolest job in San Diego” wasn’t as simple as catching a routine fly ball.

Growing up in a musical household led by the choir directors of a Carlsbad church, Cressey started playing piano at 10. When the family moved to Scotland, music was part of the curriculum. And when they moved back to the States a handful of years later, the teenaged keyboard player worked at an L.A. music store.

Cressey returned to San Diego after high school to attend UCSD and graduated with a degree in structural engineering. Likely the only student to take a fluid mechanics final early so he could tour with a reggae band in New Zealand, the University Heights resident has yet to use his degree.

“I’ve never made a dime from that,” Cressey told DSD over a cup of tea at Lestat’s. “I stuck it out because so much of my time, and parents money, had already gone into it. But the idea of going back and actually having to make a career off that terrifies me.”

Cressey moved back to L.A. after graduation and made a name for himself, among other places, as part of the House Party band at the now non-existent House of Blues, Sunset Strip. Playing with L.A. luminaries from Snoop Dogg to Ice Cube, the bearded musician seemed destined to put his roots down two hours north of his hometown.

His wife, whom he first met at UCSD, lured him back to America’s Finest City. After dating by distance for two years, Cressey moved back to San Diego in January of 2010. By chance, he heard through the local musicians’ grapevine that the Padres were planning to add a live organist. Just a few weeks later, at that year’s Padres Town Hall Meeting, Cressey handed his card to then-CEO Tom Garfinkel.

When February rolled around and he had not heard anything back, Cressey kicked things into high gear. He made a video, tracked down the director of in-game entertainment, and put together a list of reasons why he was uniquely qualified for the gig. “I’ve probably never hustled so hard for anything in my life,” Cressey said.

The musician had all but given up on the gig when he got the call to audition three weeks before the season started.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In addition to his continuing role at Petco, Cressey also plays with top 40 act The Mighty Untouchables, r&b/soul crooner Tiffany Jane and The Kicks, and The Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra.

“I try to be as versatile as possible,” said Cressey. “It’s allowed me to be a part of so many different scenes. And it makes sure I don’t go too far down any one rabbit hole.”

As a life-long and die-hard Padres fan, being at the ballpark for all 81 home games each season is one rabbit hole the musician wouldn’t mind completely falling down. But Cressey is also aware of the balance his schedule gives him, and cherishes his role as part of the team he loves.

“I still feel the passion,” he said. “If I was there every game, it might start to feel like a grind. When I walk into Petco, it still feels fresh and I’m still completely stoked. I mean, I tune into the ball games when I’m not playing at the park. I’m into it.”

Originally published by DiscoverSD

Banking on Santigold


Santi White is nearing the end of her proverbial rope. She’s over-worked, bone-tired, and making a concerted effort not to burn out. But mostly, the artist also known as Santigold is wondering just how long she can continue the energy and acuity needed to push her third LP, the February-released 99 Cents, released in February via Atlantic Records..

“It’s really intense. Honestly, it’s hard to be a human being and sustain this pace,” says White with a laugh from Austin, Texas, where she’s holed up between multiple SXSW appearances. “And it’s especially hard with me because I’m so hands-on with everything and approach it all as art. It’d be a lot easier if I were one of those corporation artists that had millions of dollars, still actually sold records, and had crazy teams behind me. But because I’m the type of artist I am, it is so all-consuming.”

The performer/producer is undoubtedly stretched thin, but it’s not like she didn’t know what she was getting into. A former big-label A&R rep, she had written songs for the likes of GZA, Lily Allen, and Ashlee Simpson before releasing her own 2008 self-titled debut as Santogold – later changed to Santigold after a legal challenge from a filmmaker and owner of a mail-order jewelry business.

Earmarked by significant contributions from Switch, Diplo, and producer John Hill, her first record was a genre-bending mixture of pop, new wave, punk, and dub. She followed a similarly eclectic blueprint on 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe, an album that made it to number one on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart. But it isn’t the music or the process of making it that is throwing White for a loop this time around.

“It’s all the new technology,” she says. “Everybody is trying to utilize it, but for the actual human trying to move through it, I just don’t know how it can be sustainable. The quantity of content you’re expected to be doing now is too much. Luckily, I’ve been trying to create content daily. The creation is what I love. It’s the pace and the budget that are really fucking difficult.”

White is well aware that a lot of the pressure she’s currently feeling is self-imposed. No one is forcing her to promote 99 Cents with mini infomercials on tumblr, art installations, parties at actual 99¢ stores, and a seemingly never-ending laundry list of press commitments – all on top of directing videos, choreographing live-show dancing, making costumes, and producing social content.

But when big-name artists backed by production crews and creative teams are setting the standards, regular artists are forced to keep up.

“It’s almost as if the music is a side note at this point,” says White. “And that’s what I think is the real danger. You just can’t spend as much time on the music. Everybody is at their max. There are no budgets. There is no help. And there is a lot of expectation.”

Despite the inequalities, pressure, and increased workload, the 39-year-old singer is anything but deterred. Instead, she’s taken on the new challenges of technology-based self-promotion with a spirited tenacity. And she’s done it all while raising her nearly two-year-old son.

While she doesn’t hesitate to criticize the current state of the pop music machine or its non-musical burdens, White is bolstered by the thought that good music will always survive passing trends.

“I think the fact that people are buying vinyl again is telling,” she says. “But it all comes down to values. Do people value talent? Do they value hard work? Immediacy? Disposability? Empty celebrity? Culture is moving without thought or direction for where we’re headed, and is letting us be guided by the wave of new technology, rather than driving the ship. I just really hope it swings back to valuing something more someday.”

Until that day comes, expect Santigold to keep producing her unique blend of musical stew and designing the entire experience around it. Whether she continues to keep stride with the system she routinely calls out remains to be seen. But just because she’s got all of her chips on the table doesn’t mean there still aren’t a few tricks up her sleeve.

“I do have in the back of my mind where I’d like to go,” says White. “But I also feel like it’s really important to be in the moment. It’s hard work right now and it’s all I can do to barely hang on. I’m just trying to see this thing through.

“I’m an artist, I love creating, and I want to participate. I want to be part of the pop world. I like pop music. And I love making pop music. But I want to keep the integrity. Honestly, I just want to keep the art of what it is that I’m doing.”

Originally published by San Diego CityBeat

Exploring Julia Holter’s ‘Wilderness’

Julia Holter - Credit Juri Hiensch

Julia Holter readily admits she isn’t a huge fan of touring. Perhaps she’s only saying that because the L.A. singer/songwriter is currently enjoying the waning days of a 6-week break between extensive runs. Or maybe it’s the fact that she hasn’t yet figured out how to get any work done on the road. Either way, it isn’t going to matter for a while.

The 31-year-old released her fourth full-length, Have You In My Wilderness, in September. She spent October opening dates for New Mexico indie-poppers Beirut, and the rest of last year zigzagging the globe from Germany to China and Korea to Australia.

Holter is kicking off her first full-fledged U.S. run for Wilderness this week with a 6-date West Coast tour starting in San Diego. Then it’s off to Europe for a few more shows, and back once again for some East Coast and Midwest dates, as well as a few in Canada.

Although it won’t be until mid-March before the classically trained multi-instrumentalist will be back in her own ZIP code for more than a few days, she does recognize the upside that comes with performing every night.

“Things surprisingly change,” Holter tells CityBeat from her Los Angeles home. “Songs from the albums end up sounding a lot different when they’re played live. And that’s always something that I’ve been comfortable with. We have different instrumentation when we play and there aren’t a million layers of vocals and keyboards. You do something different with what you have and I like that.”

Born from a trio of songs that once exclusively lived in her live set – “Sea Calls Me Home,” “Betsy on the Roof,” and the album’s title track – Have You In My Wilderness sets itself part as Holter’s only record that doesn’t construct an overarching theme from literary sources.

Her 2011 debut, Tragedy, was inspired by the ancient Greek play Hippolytus, and 2012’s follow-up, Ekstasis, leans on references from Virginia Woolf, Frank O’Hara, and Canadian poet Anne Carson. It was Colette’s Gigi that helped to color Loud City Song in 2013.

Breaking from that tradition, Holter has described Wilderness simply as a “collection of ballads.” And while producer Cole Marsden Greif-Neill made sure the singer’s voice was far more prominent in the mix this time around, the new album still rests comfortably where pop and experimental music intersect.

Does that mean Holter is done with literary references or operating under a thematic umbrella? Not necessarily.

“I like to work with overall stories,” she says. “There’s something very exciting to me about having recurring characters, even if it’s an abstraction of that character that’s not always fitting. I’m sure I’ll do something like that again. But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Even if she does return to an academic text or outside source for inspiration in the future, the singer is skeptical of anyone with the idea that her music is any more fraught with ideas than other things out there.

“I don’t think my music is high-concept at all,” says Holter. “And I don’t think I’m pushing the boundaries in terms of conceptual music. Some people might say it, but that just has to be semantics or something. There’s far more conceptual music that exists these days. And I’m not really strategizing my music in any way.”

She’s also not about to switch things up by incorporating direct life experiences into the narratives of her songs. First and foremost, Holter sees herself as a storyteller.

“Nobody really wants to know about my weird relationships,” she says. “I mean, don’t people want to listen to a song and apply it to their own lives anyway? Then it has a universal quality and is much more engaging than a song that’s about this very specific, weird person’s life. Nobody needs to know that. It’s kind of boring.”

Fans would likely enjoy debating that, but it doesn’t really matter. Even if Holter fancied the idea of completely re-designing her creative approach, she doesn’t have the time.

In addition to her current tour schedule, Holter was just tapped to compose the musical score for “Bleed For This,” an upcoming Ben Younger directed/Martin Scorsese produced boxing film. She also recently joined her father – historian, author, CEO of Downtown L.A. Motor group, and folk singer Darryl Holter – on his 2015 release, “Radio Songs: Woody Guthrie in Los Angeles 1937-1939.”

Performing alongside Ani DiFranco and Sara Watkins as the album’s guest performers, it was a surprising first for the father/daughter duo.

“It wasn’t exactly a familiar experience,” says the younger Holter. “I’ve definitely listened to him play for years. But that’s very different than playing with one another. And it was the first time that we worked on something like that together. It was fun and very moving.”

She’s excited to repeat the process again on his next album, but has plenty of her own work to do in the interim.

After the breakneck pace of four albums in five years, as well as her first foray into the world of film scoring, Holter is content with just concentrating on her upcoming tour dates before making a commitment on the next creative project.

“I’m actually trying to figure that out,” she says. “But there’s not a clear process for it. For now, I’m just trying to make sense of the ideas I already have.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Leon Bridges’ Old-School Cool

Leon Bridges press photo 2 - record player - photo credit rambo

It’s apparent within a few moments of speaking with Leon Bridges that the cool he exudes is genuine. The singer-songwriter’s subtle southern drawl and off-the-cuff humility are undeniably infectious. And both perfectly reflect his conservative Fort Worth upbringing as the son of a church-going single mother.

He begins more than one response with “I’m a simple person,” and measures each question before answering thoughtfully. His polite and straightforward manner never wavers.

In an age dominated by shameless self-promotion, Bridges’ modesty is almost at odds with his unbridled success. His June-released, retro-leaning debut, “Coming Home,” premiered at number six on the Billboard 200 and he’s currently in the midst of a completely sold-out world tour.

“It’s insane, man,” Bridges recently told CityBeat before playing to a capacity crowd at Chicago’s Vic Theatre. “Everything’s moving so fast. It’s totally blowing my mind. I just had no idea. Some people might think I did this because I knew it would be successful. I didn’t think that at all. (laughs) I wish I did.”

Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the 26-year-old’s meteoric rise to stardom is the mythology that is helping him get there.

And it reads like a Hollywood script.

Once on a path to becoming a choreographer, Bridges spent downtime between college dance classes writing songs with a fellow keyboard-toting student. When his Usher and Ginuwine knock-offs sounded more like the “old school singers” to a friend, Bridges was encouraged to check out Sam Cooke via YouTube. It stuck.

Combining his already astute fashion sense with the simplicity of Cooke-era songwriting, Bridges initially floundered as a retro-soul act in Fort Worth clubs while working as a dishwasher on the side.

That is, until high-waisted Wranglers came into play.

One night, Bridges was introduced to Austin Jenkins of Texas garage rockers White Denim because they were both wearing the same kind of jeans.

A week later, Jenkins saw Bridges perform and asked him to record in the studio that he and White Denim drummer Joshua Block just set up. That was a year ago. And they haven’t looked back.

“What’s crazy is that none of this was forced,” said Bridges. “I had my own thing going on when I met Austin. He was like, ‘Let’s record these songs,’ and we did. The fact I found the most amazing band, team, management, and record label just from that is amazing. And now everything is going so well. I did not expect any of that.”

He also didn’t expect the label frenzy that hit epic proportions when he first released a few of his songs online. But that didn’t stop high-level execs from flying in from overseas or the endless barrage of invitations to a variety of pitch meetings.

Although he finally settled with historical powerhouse Columbia Records, Bridges did it with the caveat that “Coming Home” would remain unchanged from the way he delivered it.

“If the labels weren’t down with what I was doing,” he said, “then I’d be totally fine being an independent artist. And really, it was almost like an experiment for them, because they didn’t know how the crowd was going to react. We’re doing the old school formula and you just never know. But to see how people are reacting to it, and to see labels totally accepting of what I’m doing, it definitely gives me the confidence to keep doing my own thing.”

Confidence isn’t exactly an innate quality for Bridges. But with each sold-out show, he’s admits to gaining more and more traction. Things like a recent collaboration with rapper Macklemore haven’t hurt either.

But despite the many requests for contributions to various other projects, as well as past opening slots for a diverse range of headliners like Lord Huron and Sharon Van Etten, the low-key crooner has absolutely no plans to change his formula.

“I mean, I do want to make the next record better than the first,” said Bridges. “But it’ll be the same approach. Right now, I’m just really presenting it to the crowds and saying, ‘this is what I’ve got.’ We only have a 10-song record out and a lot of those songs aren’t the types that immediately get the crowd up and dancing. But it’s working.

And I think it’s great that what I do is nothing new.”

Bridges isn’t divulging any of the surprises his follow-up to “Coming Home” might contain. But it’s obvious that his interests go beyond classic-era soul/gospel when he casually mentions his love for singers like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zant.

And while his current tour has now been extended all the way through next summer, Bridges admits new material could arrive sooner than later.

“I write wherever I am,” he said. “I could be in the grocery store and think of a whole song right there. I don’t need a certain place to do it. I just write whatever is in my mind at the time.”

Whenever the next thing comes, Bridges knows it’ll be hard to compete with the unfathomable run he’s currently enjoying. But he’s determined not to lose himself along the way.

“I look at myself as a songwriter,” said Bridges. “I want everything I do, and everything I put out, to be a reflection of me. I write under the umbrella of soul music, and my songs are about love. I’m just trying to package it in my own way.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Top Chef: Raekwon reflects on ‘Cuban Linx’


Raekwon the Chef isn’t much of a destiny guy. The Staten Island rapper is more of the ‘you create your own’ kind. But it’s impossible not to think that “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” is the album he was destined to make.

As part of the Wu-Tang Clan, Raekwon helped turn hip-hop on its ear with 1993’s landmark “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” Two years later, while the infamous collective continued to build their brand with solo albums, he was more than ready to shine on his own.

Following efforts from fellow Wu members Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon (given name Corey Woods) batted third in the line-up. And even though most assumed OB4CL would serve as a solid release for Wu-Tang, few earmarked it as an album that would end up in the conversation of hip-hop’s most influential.

That came, in part, with the album’s undeniable credibility – its violent inner city narrative painstakingly detailed and surprisingly accessible.

Wu mastermind RZA was also hitting his stride at this point, producing the perfectly foreboding backdrop of beats, loops, and samples to highlight the cinematic storytelling of Raekwon and main guest-star Ghostface Killah.

Or maybe it all came down to the construction of the album as a whole – an unwavering, brutal fable about drug trafficking and redemption spanning every one of its 17 tracks.

But OB4CL was a game changer.

Raekwon’s solo debut turns 20 this year and he’s hitting the road with Ghostface to celebrate.

Retrospect allows fans to debate the album’s impact on everything from Mafioso rap and MC aliases to meticulous storytelling, unique slang, and product endorsement. But according to the man who made it, nothing was more important than keeping things real.

“When we was writing it,” Woods tells CityBeat from a tour stop in Kentucky, “there was a lot of pain in those pens. We was just really trying to give people a movie, or a film, where you could go, ‘Wow. That’s real.’ And you can’t run away from reality. When I sit here and think about 20 years, and we go back and reminisce on these songs, it’s like, they’ve become so common because that shit’s actually still taking place. Now I become more than just an artist, I become a prophet of what’s going on.”

Although the 45-year-old rapper had the foresight to keep the devil in the details on his debut, his clairvoyance stopped short of realizing the album also had a broad-based appeal.

“I was surprised it reached that level,” says Woods. “That wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to speak for that particular audience of people. It’s more like an album from a kid speaking about pain, just trying to move with the times and survive. But the success of it shows there are all kinds of people out there that understand these stories.”

That’s never been more apparent than during recent live performances of the Cuban Linx album.

During his more than two decades in the game, the Wu-Tang star has watched his audience change dramatically. And just like Raekwon’s own transformation from street hustler into rap icon, it seemingly happened overnight.

“This tour is a celebration,” he says. “But I see as many 45- or 50-year-olds as ones no older than 17. And it’s wild to me that they know it like that. We’ve become The Rolling Stones to these young kids. They go back, study their history and pay attention. Just when we think they’re not there, they right there. We living in the modern times right now. Kids know that if they wanna go after the ones that make an impact, you gotta know your history.”

And while Raekwon isn’t the kind to turn any new fans away, he also isn’t content to sit back and get comfortable in a dusty corner of historical context.

After giving his current milestone the attention it deserves, the veteran rapper will re-focus on promoting a limited-edition jacket he recently designed for fans, as well as his sixth studio album, “F.I.L.A,” released in April.

 “I understand that I’m cemented in the game right now,” says Woods. “But more importantly, I still got work to do. When you’re a winner, you can get whatever you want as long as you feel like that inside. And I want more. I want to be able to really feel like I understand what artistry is all about. To be one of the greats, you got to have a catalog. I’m working on making mine bigger right now.”

Despite recent public infighting, it seems the Wu-Tang Clan might not be ready to call it a day, either. Although he didn’t address it directly, Raekwon reflected positively about the crew that some consider the best ever.

“I came from a strong background of individuals,” he says. “We all had different styles. But musically, you know, they was willing to walk inside my chamber and see what I was about. And legacy is important. It’s almost like completing a mission where you gain the power that was always there.”

Whether Wu-Tang can complete theirs on a unified front remains to be seen. But Raekwon is determined to keep working on his for as long as it takes.

A follow-up to his debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II, was released in 2009. Is it possible the MC plans to celebrate it with another 20th anniversary tour when he’s 59?

“Hey,” he says through a husky laugh. “You know what? I’m not saying no.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Howling with Hiatus Kaiyote


Hiatus Kaiyote played Minnesota for the first time a few days ago. Among those who took in their set at Minneapolis’ Fine Line Music Café was none other than Prince. Although it admittedly gave the Australian soul quartet more pre-show butterflies than normal, it really wasn’t much of a surprise.

When the Melbourne-based group released their debut album, 2013’s “Tawk Tomahawk,” the purple one wasn’t the only iconic musician touting it. Public endorsements came from Questlove, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Animal Collective, and more.

And their fan base is growing exponentially. The foursome just released “Choose Your Weapon,” an expansive, 18-song opus that clocks in at nearly 70 minutes. Filled with joyful, meandering, polyrhythmic excursions and spaced-out interludes, Hiatus Kaiyote certainly isn’t pandering for accolades.

“We definitely wanted to say more this time,” says keyboardist Simon Mavin. “‘Tawk Tomahawk’ actually started out as an EP. It wasn’t until we got in the studio that we added a few things to stretch it into 10 tracks. So I think we were keen to make a full album.”

Singer Nai Palm takes a more philosophical approach.

“Everything we do,” she says, “is going to be an evolution of us as people and musicians. We had only been together for about 6 months on our first record. So this album is the evolution of our relationship together as musicians with multiple world tours under our belt [that helped] to refine our skills.”

To say Hiatus Kaiyote does a lot of touring is an understatement. But all of that traveling around the globe has only bolstered the quartet’s creative mindset of exploring all ideas that come to the table.

“That’s the exciting thing about this project,” Mavin says. “We just go in any direction we want.”

“We’re constantly challenging ourselves,” adds Palm. “We like to create a cohesive journey from start to finish, like a movie. Everyone now is so consumed with the temporary buzz of a hot single, and a lot of time and beauty is lost in the craft. We strive to achieve music that is timeless.”

For now, the band will have to relegate making new music to working out ideas on their laptops as they travel from one gig to another. Their current U.S. tour goes through May, and in June they’ll start an international run that will keep them busy until at least August.

And while their unique creative freedom allows Hiatus Kaiyote to think about incorporating new instruments and sounds like Gamelan orchestration, Shakuhachi flute or the kora to the next release, the band refuses to decide on any part of the process until it’s upon them.

“There’s no time limit or habitat for creativity,” says Palm. “It builds as you go and you sketch ideas and inspirations out all throughout your life.”

“There are no real boundaries to our creativity,” adds Mavin. “It can really go in any direction. We’re definitely still exploring. And that’s never going to stop.”

Originally published in DiscoverSD

The Gaslamp Killer readies his new “Experiment”


William Bensussen, aka The Gaslamp Killer, knows a thing or two about Coachella. The one-time San Diego DJ/producer has attended every music and arts festival in Indio since its 1999 inception. And since 2010, whether in the campground, Heineken Dome, or Gobi Tent, Bensussen has performed at the annual event.

He’s performing again this year, but the show is going to be much different.

Just after sundown on each of the festival’s Saturday nights, Bensussen will present what he calls The Gaslamp Killer Experience – a psychedelic, 12-piece ensemble that initially formed after a scooter crash nearly killed the DJ two years ago.

“I’ve only done it once,” Bensussen told DiscoverSD from his Los Angeles home. “It was a fundraiser to help cover the bills from my accident. We did at The Mayan in 2013. I brought this band together and they just killed it. I decided it was something I wanted to record, and it ended up being so good we decided to release it as a live record. It just seemed like this was an awesome moment to put out the one-take amazingness we captured.”

Titled “The Gaslamp Killer Experience: Live in Los Angeles,” the album’s release is perfectly timed with the second- and third-ever performances of the new band. Vinyl pressings will be available on-site at Coachella, and the album will make it to shops in time for Record Store Day on April 18. It will be released digitally on Bensussen’s own website a week after the festival wraps up.

And while it seems this unique project could develop into more, it’s something that will have to wait. Bensussen is set to put the finishing touches on his next album the moment Coachella ends.

A long-awaited follow-up to the beat maker’s 2012 studio debut, “Breakthrough,” the new Gaslamp Killer album will primarily focus on organic sounds.

“Breakthrough had a lot of old stuff on it,” Bensussen said. “On this one, I’m not digging into my old vaults as much. I never thought it would change my opinion of anything, but hearing what people liked on Breakthrough changed things. I realized that songs like “Nissim” and “In the Dark” really touched people. No one really ever mentioned the drum machine stuff. But it helped me realize how much I like making live music. I’m excited to be able to do this one from scratch.”

Whether with The Gaslamp Killer Experience or on his own, one thing will always hold true – Bensussen is the kind of musician who refuses to dull the edges of his art to appease strangers.

“In one way or another,” he said, “we’ve all lived our lives like that. So when you finally find something you don’t have to do that with, it’s one of the most rewarding feelings ever. Why change it?”

Originally published by DiscoverSD