The first thing you should know about singer and songwriter Craig Greenberg is that he’s a heck of a pianist. His new EP, Spinning in Time, showcases his knack for writing upbeat piano riffs that support catchy melodies and thoughtful lyrics.
But, as people who know him will tell you, he’s also known for his genuineness—and in the music business, that’s saying a lot. He’s the kind of guy who turns an afternoon gig with no cover charge at Rockwood Music Hall into a benefit for tornado victims in Alabama; the tip bucket is used to collect donations instead of tips. He’s the kind of guy who, in April 2010, organizes a concert at Brooklyn Bowl with Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors, webcasts the show to an international audience, and gives the proceeds to Americares to aid survivors of the earthquake in Chile. The kind of guy who brings Starbucks treats to a friend in the hospital and stays to chat even though he’s feeling a little under the weather himself (thanks again). And the kind of musician who works diligently not because he wants fame but because writing and sharing music make him happy.
It’s a joy that’s contagious. The energy of Greenberg’s piano playing quickly wins over audiences, but the authenticity of his lyrics and of the way he delivers them, unselfconsciously and in earnest, keep people listening. There’s something about his songs that feels very solid and true, attributable to the fact that that’s kind of person who wrote them.
Greenberg also has a strong independent streak, a sort of stubbornness he credits to his being a native New Yorker. Originally from Long Island, he spent three years after college in Chile and Spain on a self-guided sojourn, finding himself as a songwriter before taking on the challenge of making it in his hometown. “You don’t want to be place-dependent,” he says. “You want to be work-dependent. It’s like, is it about New York, or is it about the work you’re doing?”
It seems like the answer for Greenberg is both. Largely self-taught on the piano, he has worked doggedly to refine his natural talent while drawing inspiration from his New York roots: he recalls hearing his parents’ Broadway records as a youngster and later studied Billy Joel songbooks religiously.
But for someone who’s lived in the city for most of his life, he still feels a bit like a fish out of water. “It’s tough in New York,” he explains, “because there are a lot of ‘scenes’ and circles…It’s hard for me to swim in the scene because I’m kind of a loner. I just can’t belong to any one scene too much.”
Fortunately, New York is a place that also rewards individualism. “There’s a definite integrity in what I’m doing,” Greenberg says. “In the long term, people come around to it. I feel like if I dig it, other people will. And you find your people.”
(I can’t help adding that that’s the attitude of an Original Hipster.)
OH: Tell me about your time in Chile. How did you start playing music there?
CG: There were these two guys that played in this bar three nights a week that would play like two-thirds English stuff—Beatles, Rolling Stones. And grunge music was still really big there at the time. So I started just sitting in with them with these egg shakers I had, and then after a while I graduated to getting a pair of bongos there, and later to singing harmonies. I was doing it all for free, getting food and drink.
After a couple months, one of the guys I was playing with there had a friend who had opened up a new bar that was looking for a house musician, and so I went in and auditioned. At that point I had like six or seven cover songs that I could play and sing, but they hired me. Maybe partly because I was like a gringo novelty. So that was the start. I was playing there Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, three sets a night. Each night I would learn more and more songs, and that’s when I really started singing. That kind of changed my whole career trajectory–up until that point I thought I would just be a songwriter. But I remember having this very profound moment. I woke up that first Sunday after just three nights of playing, and something had just fundamentally changed in my life. I just felt like, wow, if I’m doing this in my life, I can be happy.
OH: What was your musical background, growing up?
CG: I took guitar lessons. I started playing guitar when I was sixteen, and I went to this guitar workshop in Connecticut one summer. So that was the formal training, and I had a good amount of theory through that. In school I took some music classes, like electronic music and jazz. I played in the school jazz band.
I never had a piano. I had friends that played and who would show me things here and there. But, that I really mainly did learn on my own, like sitting with Billy Joel songbooks. It was a lot by ear. I was also able to translate a lot of what I did on guitar to piano.
Piano opened me up more because all of a sudden I could now keep the bass in my left hand. It was a much fuller sound and added a new level of sophistication to my music. I feel that when I started writing on a piano, I became more of a composer. Vocally, too, it brought out my voice in a deeper, more resonant way.
CG: People say modern-day Billy Joel or Ben Folds. I definitely relate to Billy Joel, musically and background-wise. So I absorbed a lot from him–especially in that sense of New York identity and pride.
OH: I’m noticing your Ben Folds t-shirt.
CG: Oh, yeah. Ben was a huge influence, though much later.
OH: He’s like the ultimate rock pianist. There’s kind of no one better.
CG: I agree. And that’s the thing—there are a lot of piano player/songwriters out there, but I don’t think there are that many that really rock. There are people who take parts of what Ben does, but it doesn’t really have that rock attitude. So, that’s something I definitely feel, and I’m trying to incorporate that in what I do.
But also, Phish was a band that was hugely influential on me. It’s now kind of my guilty admission. They had a looseness in their music and this giddy exuberance. So I always thought about taking some of that but putting it into more of a pop structure. So you have good, hooky stuff and emotional vocals but room for improvisation and solos. This has been like the vision that I’ve been trying to actualize this whole time, that i think i’m only just getting down now.
OH: How would you describe your lyrics?
CG: They range. I have several songs that are about overcoming adversity. I guess I’ve tried to put some of the struggle I’ve gone through with this crazy career path I’ve chosen into songs that will inspire others. Also some about relationships, some about just random city experiences, and some political thoughts sneak in there from time to time, too.
For me most often in writing it’s a process of discovering what the song is about. That’s how I’ve always written. I’ve never sat down and said, “I want to write a song about this.” As some who considers himself a pop-songwriter, and a big melody guy, to me the lyrics just need to serve the song, and if you can say something interesting, that’s a bonus. The goal is always, you don’t want a lyric to take people out of the song.
These days I try to pull from concrete experience as much as possible, and I think my better songs are based on real things that happen to me.
I consider myself an old-school troubadour songwriter, kind of a throwback. And someone with a conscience, too, not just trying to write typical love stuff. There’s just so many people that do that, and I’m trying to explore other themes.
OH: How would you describe your singing style?
CG: People say there’s a little bit of a twang in there…I think there’s also a bit of sadness in my tone.
OH: How did your experiences abroad influence your music?
CG: More than musically, it was the experience of being on my own in these foreign places and being forced to make a life there and interact. Also, people say they get a very visual impression from a lot of my music, like a sense of place, so I guess my travel experience comes out that way a bit.
OH: What strikes me as interesting is that, even with all the traveling and your sort of wide-eyed view of the world, you seem to have remained consistent in who you are.
CG: Yeah, I think that’s true. I guess I would attribute that to my “New Yorker-ness”. With my music, at a certain point, I just accepted the fact that I’m never going to be the coolest thing out there, partly because I consider myself a throwback in many ways and also because keeping up with what’s currently “cool” is just too exhausting. There’s just too much stuff! I decided to just make the kind of music I’d want to hear and that the most important thing is to be true to yourself and to your vision.
OH: What’s the alternative to cool, for you?
CG: Being real. Being who you are. I feel like cool is such an intangible thing. And so is fame and celebrity. I just want to do good work…I’m just trying to find something real and find a connection with people.
There are people that are in “the scene” and trying so hard to be cool. But I don’t really think—mainly from my experience with my travels—it’s something most people in the world care about when they experience music. I’ve always tried to approach what I’m doing from the broadest perspective possible. And I really believe that, anytime in music, soul will cut through. So in my view, if you have soul, you’re cool.
At the end of SXSW, Charlene Kaye, along with band member Megan Cox on violin, are playing El Mercado, an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant—and an appropriately ironic venue for Kaye to finish out the week. “I don’t think I can eat anymore Mexican food after this trip,” she laughs. “If I never see a taco again, it will be too soon.”
A 24-year-old Hawaii native with Singaporean parents, Kaye grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Arizona before attending college as an English major at the University of Michigan. She moved to New York about a year and a half ago, immediately after college, with a number of musician friends from school, no money, and no place to live. Since then, she says she’s been “single-mindedly” pursuing a career in music.
“I really can’t see myself doing anything else. I almost don’t really feel like I have a choice.”
A few minutes of listening to Kaye’s jazzy vocals, poetic lyrics, and strong song arrangements will convince anyone that she’s chosen exactly the right profession. Her exotic beauty and effortless confidence onstage present a singer/songwriter who seems primed for success.
In fact, Kaye’s recent single “Dress and Tie” has already earned her an impressive amount of recognition for someone so relatively new to the music business. Recorded with fellow U. of M. alum and Glee cast member Darren Criss, the song made the top 150 downloaded songs the day it was released on iTunes. Not surprisingly, Kaye says this has significantly expanded her fan base. “I have a lot of all-ages fans, as in, under-21 fans, because the Glee demographic tends to be a younger crowd,” she explains. “Everywhere we’ve gone, I’ve gotten at least ten little girls who are like, ‘I love Darren, and I love you! I love you because Darren loves you!’”
While the Midas touch of the Glee association has increased Kaye’s popularity, the attention certainly isn’t undeserved. Keep an eye on this talented lady. She is going places.
OH: Where did your band name, Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes, come from?
CK: It came from a dream that I had. The more I thought about it, the more I started to conceive it as the people around me, my bandmates and others that inspire me, who help me realize the musical ideas I have and flesh out my vision. It was also kind of inspired by the feeling of looking out into the crowd the second right before I start to sing and seeing all these eyes looking back in anticipation.
I feel like performing is kind of like having a conversation with somebody. If you feel like they’re giving something back, then you want to give more back.
OH: How long have you been playing music?
CK: I was trained in classical piano since the age of five, and I took piano lessons until I was sixteen. And then when I got into middle school and high school, I kind of dropped the piano and got really into Elliot Smith and Blink-182 and Good Charlotte and Goldfinger. I went through a big punk stage and learned like every song in drop-D possible. The first guitar I ever played was my mom’s classical, nylon strings, and I was playing Blink-182 on that. I just got frustrated with the formal training because it was nothing that I was listening to at the time, and once I discovered how to play songs I actually liked, I got really excited. And that was sort of the portal into discovering how much I loved music, when it didn’t feel like a homework assignment.
OH: I noticed Megan, your violinist, was playing and singing at the same time. I’ve never seen anyone do that before.
CK: Megan was a prodigy classical pianist. By age ten she was playing these really advanced sonatas, winning regional competitions and beating her older brothers. And then she was like, actually, I want to learn how to play violin. And so she became a badass at violin, and then she was like, actually, I think I want to be a classical voice major! So she majored in that in college, and now she’s a monster. The perfect triple threat.
OH: Did you take any voice lessons?
CK: Here and there. I took one class in college with this huge opera singer that was amazing in his own way, but I don’t really feel like I took anything from it because I’m more like a soul/rock vocalist, or at least I aspire to be. And he wanted me to sing in a traditional style. It didn’t really resonate. So I just sing however it feels good. I’ve been known to take Mariah Carey karaoke tracks and just practice with that because she’s so all over the place that anything you sing after that feels so easy—especially my stuff that has very defined melodies. I don’t riff that much. So, if I have to warm up, I’ll run through a Mariah Carey song! (laughs)
CK: My first album [Things I Will Need in the Past] I would describe as indie-folk-pop. All the instruments on the album are real acoustic instruments—cellos, lots of strings, real drums, lots of ambient percussion like woodwinds and chimes and glockenspiel and stuff like that. My EP [Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes] I would describe as more alternative rock. There’s one song that’s inspired by old soul songs…I’m so blatantly influenced by everything that I hear.
The new album is going to be much more personal and more intense. I’ve had a lot of life experiences since the release of my first album, and I think that though the voice that emerges is still me, it’s a more mature one, one that’s moved past writing about her first heartbreak or imaginary fictional scenarios. Musically, I want to say it’s stranger and more ambitious than the easy-listening pop stuff that’s characterized my sound in the past, but I hesitate because in some ways it actually does lean towards a more pop sound – a good handful of the songs from the new batch sound like singles to me, which I guess is a good thing. My inspirations are all over the place, from Blondie to M. Ward to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to of Montreal.
OH: Is this your first time at SXSW?
OH: What’s your experience been so far?
CK: Oh, man. I’ve had a blast. I cannot wait for next year. It’s been like margaritas nonstop!
Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes play Don Hill’s in NYC with Shoot the Freak and Hank & the Cupcakes on April 24 at 7:00 p.m.
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If you answered yes to any/all of these questions, then get in touch with me. I am pimping out my blog, my opinions, and my writing next week at SXSW.
Here’s how this will work:
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Alison Clancy, frontwoman of rock band Electric Child, is an unlikely newcomer to New York’s indie music scene. Originally a dancer, Clancy, 27, grew up in Northern California—“in a solar-powered cabin up a dirt road with no phone and no TV,” she says—before moving to New York in 2001 to attend the highly prestigious dance program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera as a dancer in Les Contes d’Hoffmann; she also works in the NYC companies Zvi Dance and The Brain Factory. Her resume reads like that of an accomplished professional whose freelance dance career has begun to blossom.
But, in the past year, Clancy’s focus has shifted—or at least, expanded—to another artistic endeavor: namely, becoming a rock star. “She really does want to be the biggest star in the world,” says Roger Greenawalt, the record producer who also plays bass in Electric Child. The band, Clancy says, is a collaborative effort between herself and Greenawalt; however, Greenawalt is known for his penchant for identifying and grooming young talent (see The New Yorker article from April 7, 1997, on his discovery of Ben Kweller). According to Clancy, Greenawalt initiated the idea of “going into business” together after seeing an impromptu singing performance by Clancy at a party; in addition, he brought on drummer Ethan Eubanks and produces and mixes all of the band’s songs. A Pygmalion analogy seems appropriate, yet both Clancy and Greenawalt insist that, when it comes to songwriting, they are equal partners. “I’ve never been in such a collaborative process before,” says Clancy. “The songs wouldn’t become what they are without either of us there.”
Ultimately, it’s the music that matters—and the performance. And there, Clancy truly shines. Her quirky voice and somewhat nonsensical lyrics bring to mind Karen O (perhaps a more subdued Karen O, though Clancy does pull off the occasional scream). In any venue, she immediately assumes full ownership of the space by jumping off pianos, walking on tables, knocking over chairs. She improvises dance like a child playing in her own imaginary world, seemingly oblivious to the audience; then she engages a bystander in a spontaneous dance-off before returning to the stage and taking up the microphone again, missing nary a note. A lifetime of performance training has clearly paid off.
One could argue that, in this city, dancers who sing are a dime a dozen. (Broadway, anyone?) And still…there really is something…well, interesting about Alison Clancy. And something unique about the music of Electric Child. It’s totally bizarre and feels like it shouldn’t work…yet, it does.
Original Hipster: How long have you been interested in doing music?
Alison Clancy: Well, I’ve always loved music, as a dancer. But I was always really intimidated and never really played as a kid. My final year [in college], I took a music recording class, and the first project was to write a poem and record a backing track for it and then just speak the poem over it. And I was so terrified. But, by the end of the semester, I was obsessed with writing and recording music. I was sneaking into the lab late at night and doing it all the time and just kind of became really into it.
I think something about being a dancer where you’re seen and not heard for so many years…you really are this kind of tool for someone else’s expression. There’s something about literally having a voice was just really exciting to me. I was actually like totally mute in college. I was kind of crazy and kind of mute. Then, something about, once I started opening, it was like WHOOOOSH!, and now you can’t get me to shut up. (laughs)
OH: How has your dance training informed your music and your performance as a musician?
AC: I think dancers inherently have a certain understanding of musical arc because you’re always responding to it. I think dancers think about music very differently in that way because it’s more of a feeling than a structure. It’s like, I need to feel this because this is what would be physically satisfying if I were dancing to it. Like, it needs to have this resolve, and then it needs to go this way, and then it needs to go that way because that’s what would feel good.
I feel like with dancing, it’s a way of connecting to yourself from the outside-in. You use spatial stimulation to become more and more aware of what you’re doing. Whereas with singing, it’s really going from the inside-out. You’re having to find, where does that sound come from? So, I feel like singing has been really good in balancing myself…I feel like it’s similar [to dancing], just kind of the reverse.
OH: How would you describe your music?
AC: We’ve been going with the term “electro punk murder disco”. But I don’t know if that’s really accurate. I feel like our songs, there’s kind of a big range. We’re still experimenting with different sounds and styles.
OH: And how would you describe your performance style?
AC: Basically, my dance style is, I’ve sort of mastered the style of chaos…I feel like naturally I have this wild abandon kind of thing. I look out of control, but I’m actually pretty aware of where I am in space. I’ve never actually broken or hurt anybody. There are people who are always scared that I’m going to. But I never do. Or at least not yet.
Thirteen candles in a dim converted warehouse.
Two old pianos. A vintage organ. Countless guitars, bass guitars, and ukuleles (one signed by Warren Buffet) hang from the walls. A drum kit.
A giant desk/Mac/mixer/speakers arrangement in the middle of the room looks like an electronic shrine. Directly opposite sits a slouchy couch.
Near the door, a bookshelf sags under the weight of non-fiction. In another corner: a white bed—strangely pure-looking.
There aren’t many windows. At night, the space resonates with a sort of gothic undertone; by day, it’s less foreboding, but its occupant is no less eccentric. Although he does go out, home is where he spends most of his time.
“I’ve realized in the last three years that there’s only being in your favorite place doing your favorite thing,” says Roger Greenawalt. “That’s what someone would do with a billion dollars. It’s all you can ever do. And, if you are there, as much as you can. And that’s it. And then you just repeat, do it every day.”
Accordingly, Greenawalt lives, eats, sleeps, works, fucks at Shabby Road Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He hosts salons with artists and billionaires (allegedly). Surrounds himself with beautiful women, whose music he also happens to be producing. His resume includes work with Ben Kweller, The Pierces, Adam Green, and Rufus Wainwright (whose “Old Whore’s Diet”, from the Want Two album, was recorded at Shabby Road).
Such is the life of a musician and producer who has carved out the exact niche that he wants in an industry where there’s no such thing as bad publicity. (Exhibit A: the infamous People’s Court appearance in which he calls plaintiff Scott Alexander a “self-hating Jew”, among other unsavory descriptors.) But, without a doubt, Greenawalt would trade both notoriety and money for more fame. “I just want to have the max amount of neurons and the max amount of human brains,” he says. “I want the max amount of time spent listening to my stuff by people. I’ve seen this term recently—mindshare.” His voice drops to a whisper: “I like that.”
He has a way of speaking that’s musical in its crescendos and decrescendos, surprising in its accented syllables, and sometimes so meandering that it seems possible that it would only emanate from the mouth of a crazy person. (Mad genius, maybe.) For this reason, the quotes that follow have been left fully intact except where paragraph breaks indicate breaks in the conversation. I’ve used ellipses to indicate actual pauses rather than cut text, and I’ve left in all the “um”s, “you know”s, “whatever”s, and the like. If I’d cleaned up the quotes, they’d have lost their wonderfully bizarre rhythm.
(And anyway, it’s my blog, so I can do whatever the fuck I want on it.)
OH: What is mindshare?
RG: That’s, ok, so, instead of like, people are looking for metrics to find value and decide what to do and what’s important, and Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are at the top of one metric, and there may be living artist reputation one, might be, Bob Dylan. Whatever.
(His cell phone rings. The ringtone is the sound of a cuckoo clock.)
This is the crisis in show business, book business, newspapers, magazines. Music’s free. I don’t pay for it. Who does? Only suckers. And so. What are you doing it for? Same reason as Keith [Richards]. Same reason I’ve always been doing it: is glory. I want as many people as possible to hear my stuff and go, “That’s the shit.” I want to have a Charles Barkley—I mean Gnarls Barkley “Crazy” that’s a tune of mine. You know, just, it’s the one. Just so I could go, like, in the fuckin’ airport, when the person next to me on the plane says, “Whaddya do?” And I say, “Oh, record producer.” “And they say, “Oh, who have you worked with?” And it’s like, “Do you know that song BA-ba-DA-ba-BA-ba-DA?” And like, “Yeah.” “I did that.” Hey, fine. Now. Whatever.
RG: The closest is “Secret”, by The Pierces. ‘Bout three million downloads, and it’s the, uh, theme song of Pretty Little Liars, it was used on Dexter, it was used in Gossip Girl, um. Whatever, so, in terms of like mindshare, it’s that song for the last three years.
OH: What bands are you working with right now?
RG: Electric Child. The model, think Yeah Yeah Yeahs-meets metric. It’s me and this chick Alison Clancy. She’s the best dancer in New York, I think. Modern dance. She gigs at the opera—she’s in the ballet troupe of the Metropolitan Opera. That’s her day job. She’s the principal, and it’s the dance company. It’s advanced shit. She’s deep.
The music is just my extreme landscapes, just loudspeaker painting. I don’t just, I don’t give a fuck about music anymore. I really just want it to be like an atmosphere that’s so believable, and you’re in it, and there happens to be music playing in it.
So I’m a fetishist, totally egalitarian about any sound from any period of history, how it’s made, irregardless [sic], there’s no credibility associated with how a sound is generated or how it’s recorded, through what process. It’s just the sound that’s coming out of the speaker, and that’s it. And—except—that singer for the voice. And there, it’s like Chairman Mao, and this is the Cultural Revolution. We’re just all suckin’ the vocals’ dick. ‘Cause it’s really all about the human voice. That’s what our brains wanna hear.
(His other current collaborations include work with the band Lovely Liar, solo artist Leah Siegel, and French singer Violette. One notices the pattern of gorgeous women figuring prominently in each equation. Greenawalt has something of a Svengali reputation.)
OH: You’re a highly regarded bassist now. But what was the first instrument you learned?
OH: When did you start playing?
RG: Thirteen, fourteen. And then it was just total. When I switched. I just, remember vividly, I just started playing, all the time. I already had the habit, or the temperament, anyway, of obsessional [sic] practice with baseball. So it was an easy switch. Now all that energy just gets poured into that.
OH: Where was this—where did you grow up?
Suburban Maryland. Right outside of Washington, D.C.
My parents met studying Russian. 1958, like height of the Cold War. My dad was an intelligence guy. My father was in the C.I.A., so that was his job, too. You needed to learn their language, in the same way there’s lots of smart kids at Syracuse University learning Arabic now. Whatever. The problem’s going to be, they should be learning Chinese. But anyway. Yeah. Annnd…Music! Music!
Seventeen music school, by nineteen doing the band full-time.
(“The band” is The Dark, a New Wave band in which Greenawalt played guitar. He left Berklee College of Music for The Dark.)
But, you know, what I found in The Dark was I quickly became bored of the guitar.
I was basically doing the most extreme sound effects I could do on guitar. Wasn’t even playing. You know how Hendrix kind of did lots of sound effects, would sound like a chainsaw, would sound like uh—a jet engine. Make it sound like, uh, a siren. That’s the shit I was doing. I wasn’t even playing music anymore. And the music I was playing was things that are in the air, very jagged, rhythmic, jagged, like, what—Gang of Four? Public Image Limited, just fragments of sounds, with effects. Or U2. But usually simple things—not—no chords. Always been very suspicious of chords.
OH: How did you get into producing?
RG: I’m just, you know, by temperament solitary and just so non-authoritarian that a lot of my outcome in my 20s was just predicated on that, really, more than anything. I wasn’t the type of guy who would have been able to tolerate the good advice of mentors in their 50s, which is part of what is crucial to making it in your 20s.
And then, just the supervisory role, being in the studio. The guitar, see, wasn’t enough. I kept trying to get a bigger canvas than guitar. And literally it became a canvas.
The band’s just, a rock band’s just so limiting when you’ve got…the recording studio. And really that’s the best instrument. You know, it’s awesome. Just the loudspeaker paintings is the best thing to do. And it’s endless.
I know I can have this [studio] forever. I’ve kind of proven the point. Since 1987, I’ve sustained myself as a record producer, and uh, so, I guess that point is proven.
OH: Can you talk a bit about your Beatles project?
RG: Oh, the Beatles thing. God, I’ve got so much work to do. (whispers) I’ve got so much fucking work to do. Um. San Francisco, I’m doing one in kind of like a society setting [third weekend of November]. It’s this thing called the McEvoy Ranch. That’s in my family. It’s my aunt’s. Um.
(He crunches a Ricola. This happens often.)
Olive oil business, it’s award-winning. It’s interesting. It’s hundreds of acres in Petaluma, north of San Francisco. You have this big harvest festival. And I’m playing like an hour-ish version of my Beatles Complete on Uke there. Which is just me on uke along with a band playing Beatles and reeeeaally good singers.
I’m doing the Beatles Complete again here [in New York], which is a hundred eighty-five songs. In twenty-four hours. With like a hundred guest people. I’ve done it like four times, so it’s doable, and I figured out how to do better now. The best way I’ve come up with so far is the way I’m doing it this year. A Saturday night, fifteenth of Jan, six to midnight. That’s kind of like the grown-up part. And then next day, wholesome fuckin’ family uke and little kiddie brunch noon to six. Same venue, Brooklyn Bowl.
OH: What do you like so much about the ukulele?
RG: It’s awesome. I mean, let me just put it in your hands. Have you ever played one? Ok, so look at this right here.
(He gets up, takes his ukulele out of the case, and sets the instrument parallel to his cat, Chatterbox, who is lying on the bed.)
Do you see this, anything, similar, between these two objects? Chatterbox and the ukulele?…I’m not kiddin’—look. What do you notice about this two—this set?
OH: They’re about the same size?
RG: (grins) Bingo. And, this is also the same size, ratio-wise, of a baby to an adult. Of a kitten to an older cat. Ok, so there’s something really happening here, with about this size and shape, in your arms like this. It’s not true for a guitar, not really. It’s not true for a keyboard, sitting at this piece of furniture. K, so? This is already something magic here like this, cradling it, like this. See? Hold it. Just do it. Hold it like a baby. Just hold it like a baby, seriously. Not like a guitar. Hold it like a baby.
OH: Like a baby?
RG: You don’t—like a baby. See, yes! I’m serious! Hold it like a baby. Just feel like the—and you’ll see like, oh, and look how the little curvy kinda fits in, even that—that fits against your boob there? You know what I’m saying? Like it goes right there, like a little baby. Right in your hands. It’s awesome. Now. Have you ever played—the instrument—before?
OH: I’ve messed around with one, but I really don’t know—what are the strings here? What have we got?
RG: All right. I’m gonna teach you a song right now. Put your first finger there. All right?
OH: First finger?
RG: Doesn’t matter which one. Now. Strum steady. Like this…Keep it steady…Keep going. Don’t stop. I’m gonna start—we’re gonna learn a song now.
(He begins singing a very staccato, unusually pronounced version of “Frere Jacques”.)
Door. May. VOOSS!
Door. May. Vooss.
Climbs the Eiffel Tower.
Coo. Coo. Cachoo.
Who. Is. The dude?
Crude is oil
In my ear…
OH: Never heard those words before.
RG: Well, I’m just making it up.
A few choice quotes from my upcoming interview with Roger Greenawalt…which I have been transcribing for TWO WEEKS. I broke my own twenty-minute limit rule and let the man talk for an hour. It was worth it.
“Warren Buffet loves the ukulele. Won’t ever be as good as me at it. Never. There was never any chance.”
“I don’t give a fuck about music anymore. I really just want it to be like an atmosphere that’s SO believable, and you’re in it, and there happens to be music playing in it.”
“We’re just all suckin’ the vocal’s dick. ‘Cause it’s really all about the human voice. That’s what our brains wanna hear.”
…Stay tuned for the full interview, coming soon…
As I write this, the Texas trio Girl in a Coma are playing the Music Hall of Williamsburg. But, when I spoke to bassist Jenn Alva yesterday, the band was still on the road and had recently been pulled over by a border patrolman about twelve miles outside of Mobile, Alabama. “He said that he had stopped us because we had a lot of luggage and Texas plates,” Alva says. If only the patrolman could see them now at their sold out show in Brooklyn…
Besides staying busy with their current tour (which includes opening for The Dresden Dolls in Texas in November), GIAC will release on October 19 their third album, Adventures in Coverland, a collection of—you guessed it—cover songs. (Lest you think the band is taking a breather from songwriting, know that guitarist Nina Diaz has already written about twenty new songs for another studio album, planned for release in spring 2011.) Alva explains that, with the exception of one new song and an acoustic version of a track off their previous record, Coverland is a tribute to artists whose music has influenced GIAC.
OH: How did you choose the cover songs for the new album?
JA: Each of us made a list of about ten to fifteen songs by different artists that we wanted to cover, and Nina looked at all of them. [The selection process] was about if we could do it, if we could pull it off. Because we’re not just dealing with fans of our band. If you do a cover, you’re dealing with fans of The Beatles and Patsy Cline. So, we really had to make sure that we were able to pull it off. We’re happy with our choices.
How did you incorporate your own style into the songs so that they sound different from the original versions?
You want to put your own touch on it. You want it to be a Girl in a Coma song, almost. It started with Nina rearranging the song, and then Phanie and I came in. Some of those original bass lines I didn’t even pay much attention to. I wanted to kind of rewrite the bass line so that it would be kind of like a new song altogether. For example, the Selena song—that’s a completely new bass line. Patsy Cline—that’s a new bass line. And then some of them, you don’t want to drift off too far with changing it, especially doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” because it’s already so great—not that the other songs are not or that they needed changing. It’s just one of those things with the Beatles.
Of the artists the band chose to cover, which ones had the most influence on you personally?
I love Patsy Cline. I love all oldies and rockabilly. So, Patsy Cline, Ritchie Valens—those were a pleasure to do.
It was at SXSW. He’s good friends with our buddy David Garza, and David was talking about us. [Robert] wanted to come check us out; he did, and he really liked our music. He did some filming during SXSW and kind of threw it together and asked, “Hey, do you want this? I put it to ‘As the World Falls Down’,” and of course we said “Yes!” There was a lot of common ground, with being from San Antonio and all.
It seems that the success of GIAC has drawn some attention to San Antonio and to the music scene there. Would you agree?
I hope so. This is another reason that keeps us going. You want to put your city on the map. You want it to be known that there’s great art, great music, and great people. We’re very proud of San Antonio.
Want to catch GIAC live? Check out their upcoming shows on their facebook page.
If you think beatboxing was an 80s fad, now essentially extinct and having gone the way of The Fat Boys, think again. Not unlike post-80s metal, beatboxing has continued to thrive underground and has become a more sophisticated, international art form. In fact, while it began in the U.S., beatboxing is now more popular in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe. Still, there are American beatboxing virtuosos, and, over the past ten years, Adam Matta has emerged as one of the best in New York City.
When I caught up with Adam on August 19, he was performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with Renaissance-style instrumentalist Sue Carney. Yep, that’s right: the pair had set Shakespearean texts to period-appropriate music and…beatboxing. And if that’s not proof enough that beatboxing is as relevant today as are the words of the Bard himself, read on…
OH: So, you’re accompanying Shakespeare. Are you beatboxing in iambic pentameter?
AM: Close, yeah. (laughs) It’s a good mix. I’m just doing beats with her. She’s playing her different instruments from that time period.
How did you get into beatboxing in the first place?
It started out like a nervous habit. You know, some people will hum or tap their fingers or tap their foot. I feel like that’s what I was doing, but vocally. I beatboxed as a kid, learning from Doug E. Fresh and doing his style when I was 11, 12 years old. But then when I was in high school, I kind of picked up my own style, which is very much more quiet.
(He demonstrates for a few seconds.)
I started doing that on my way to school and riding the train and what not. And then after college—I was in a program studying art—my roommate overheard me. The next day somebody else in the program came up to me and said, “Yo, I beatbox too!” as if it’s this underground clique. So that inspired me to start doing open mics, until I was 21, 22. That introduced me to more musicians, and then it just kept going from there.
Do you have any beatboxing heroes, so to speak? People you admire and look up to?
My favorite beatboxer is Kenny Muhammad. He’s an amazing, gifted guy. He has incredible beats that are so precise and powerful and funky. He really puts on an incredible show. We’ve been performing a little bit together over the past couple years, too, and it’s great to go on the same stage with him.
What’s the prevalence of beatboxing? Is it used in songs more often than people realize, maybe getting mistaken for electronic drums?
It’s still kind of underground, but once in a while you’ll hear a tune and be like, “Oh, that’s beatboxing!” But beatboxing is still very under-utilized. You’ll hear it in some Missy Elliot songs, in some Timbaland compositions. But there aren’t that many songs that use beatboxing. Most of the time it’s a drum track or a program track…But you can tell it’s beatboxing when you hear it.
What’s the foot pedal that you use when you perform?
It’s a BOSS loop station. It allows you to record in real-time and play it back right away. So you can loop layers. You can just tap it once, and it records what it’s hearing, and then you tap it again, and it plays it over and over again. So I can lay down a groove and then do my trumpet over it, and sing over it, and build compositions with it.
Is that pretty standard for beatboxers, or is it something you’ve picked up on your own?
I picked it up on my own a long time ago. I feel like it was my idea to start looping, but many other beatboxers had the same idea. (laughs) You can do three layers with it, so you can compose a real song, if you choose to. I also use delay pedals for my trumpet, just to give it that Miles Davis kind of spaced-out feeling.
How long have you been using that equipment in your performances?
For almost ten years.
I really love your piece about the day in the life of a New Yorker. How did you develop that?
It started out as a project with a singer, Philip Hamilton. We would do these programs for youth at Lincoln Center. I forget how it really started, but it just kept snowballing. He was like, “Wait—can you do a subway train? Ok, cool. Can you do a toaster? Oh, cool. Can you do a can-opener?” And finally, it just kept building until it was like all the sounds from your day. It just kind of organically came together. I started to incorporate it into my shows.
I think the taxi sound is my favorite. It’s so spot-on.
That comes from my early, early childhood, like with matchbox cars, playing in my room. The car sounds are probably the most ancient sounds I have. (laughs)
Does it take practice to come up with certain sounds? For example, if you’re going to do a toaster, does it just magically come out of your mouth? Or do you have to listen to a toaster and practice imitating it?
For most of the sounds, I can kind of hear them in my head for a split second and make my mouth do what it’s hearing. Sometimes I’ll have to go to the actual object and hit it, or press “on” or something, and listen to it. But most of the time, the sounds are in my mind somewhere, and I can just pull it out and do it with my voice.
Are there any women beatboxers?
Yeah, there are some. It’s definitely out of proportion, male-dominated. But there are some women who beatbox, and they’re really awesome. There’s a woman, Bellatrix, from the U.K., who’s really great. And Butterscotch, from the West Coast. She’s been on “America’s Got Talent” [in 2007 and made it to the final four contestants]. She’s really great. There’s a handful, like maybe six or seven that appear on the international beatbox scene, but mainly in Europe. And there’s Luckey Monkey from Florida. She’s really great. So there are women beatboxers, but it’s definitely more a male thing. Oh—and there’s Julia Dales, a woman in Canada. She had a really viral video. There was the world championships, and she entered her video, and her video got like millions of views. She really nailed it.
A world championship of beatboxing? I didn’t even know that existed.
(laughs) Yeah, there’s world championships. There are battles held in Berlin. It’s a little disorganized, in that sometimes they’ll skip a year, but there was a beatbox battle last year in Berlin, and a guy from Switzerland won. It was a great event. There were a lot of awesome, talented people there.
Did you participate?
Yeah, I did. I didn’t place. They selected 16 out of 50 to go to the semi-finals, the elimination round. I didn’t make the cut to the 16, which I was bummed about and a lot of other people were bummed about. People said I had the best drums of the event. But my style is not really a battle style. That’s a different muscle. A lot of international beatboxers have really extreme sounds, and they’re really dexterous. My sound is more musical. I’m more of an ensemble performer. Or when I perform solo, it’s more about building the dynamics and the subtleties. So that kind of thing doesn’t really translate into battle format. But I’m just glad I threw my hat in the ring at least once and just tried it out. It was really fun. And the finals were awesome to watch.
What is a battle like?
A battle usually consists of two beatboxers on the stage. There’s a coin toss to see who goes first. Basically, the first beatboxer does a two-minute routine, and the second beatboxer does a response to that one. Then it goes back to the first to do another response, and then another response from the second one. And all the time, you’re trying to put down the other beatboxer. If you’re doing a response, you can take what the first beatboxer did and flip it on him or try and make the other beatboxer look bad. You can do that by interjecting words or sound effects. There was this one battle in Berlin where there was this little kid from Asia battling this huge guy from Russia. The guy from Russia was really intimidating, just looking at him. And the kid battling him did this car sound, like, “Oh, look, there’s your sports car,” and he made it start struggling to get up a hill. It was hilarious. So it can be really funny and just really powerful. It’s an interesting art form.
How do those events get judged?
It’s a combination. There usually is a panel of judges, usually professional, accomplished beatboxers. And sometimes people from other parts of the hip-hop community, like producers and DJs will judge. But applause has a lot to do with it as well. There’s different criteria, like originality, musicality, technique.
We just had one in the states [on July 31, 2010]. The American Beatbox Championships. At that event and at the Berlin event, people always question the judges’ final call. But in the end, it’s important to have the winner really represent the best of beatboxing. So if the person is overly violent or overly aggressive or doesn’t have their musicality locked in, then they probably won’t get chosen. The judges want the winner to represent the most hopeful for the future of the art form.
For more on Adam Matta, including mp3s and videos, check out his website and blog. To learn about upcoming beatbox championships and learn more about the international beatbox community, go to Beatbox Battle.
To see and hear Adam being badass in Berlin, watch this:
One last note: this blog post is in lieu of my promised “part 2″ review of a concert on July 30, 2010, at South Paw, where Adam Matta performed.