Widespread critical acclaim on releases from Yazmin Lacey, Kaidi Tatham, and Children of Zeus made underground and mainstream heads around the world acknowledge First Word Records in 2018. For 16 years this London-based imprint has steadily provided an IRL version of where urban music is at. If that means bass-heavy beats meet jazz, soul, and hip-hop in the most austere British club culture way, then that’s what’s up. Talent changes trends. Ask First Word. That’s how they became named Label of the Year by the highly influential Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards in 2019.
Tom Leah records and performs under the moniker Werkha and hails from Manchester originally. After releasing his début EP back in 2012, he followed it up with a series of records for Brighton-imprint Tru Thoughts, including an album in 2015, Colours Of A Red Brick Raft, and co-writing/producing Bryony Jarman-Pinto’s début album in 2019.
Leah has rounded out his many-sided blend of electronics, broken beat, soul and jazz into The Rigour. Ever the consummate keyboard player, his début on First Word epitomizes quality British club music. This tight and loose red cupper of a house party is produced with careful signs that Werkha is quite comfortable getting his fingers innit, constantly refining his craft. No matter the context, grooves move without regurgitated duplication.
All five tracks hit on point, with sole identity. DJs know, some EPs will pack on throwaways to fill things out. On The Rigour, not one bammer track resides in the lot. More than just a new school futuristic bruk producer ( you can hear sprinkles of those West London seeds planted by Dego, Kaidi Tatham, IG Culture and so on), he’s established himself as an in-demand working musician, producer, remixer and arranger who retains a firm grasp on numerous sub-genres of dance music.
From deep house swing, forward-mashing boogie or hip-hop presentation that evokes a head-nod procedural, this is know-how coming from a revisionist jazz perspective. Being plucked to tour with Bonobo at age 22—while receiving praise from Peterson early—fueled his drive.
Werkha’s 2014 hit “Lapwing” displayed great promise. Rearranged sax tones, gurgled bass lines, assorted guitar chords, lyrical Fender Rhodes stretches and chopped up vocal patterns made this a heavyweight jam…That hit someplace between James Blake dance productions and early Sam Shepard aka Floating Points compositions.
Dope… but not singular. Even the charming “Yoga Teacher Gone Rogue” music video could not take attention away from the similarities.
Fast-forward to “Generation X”—the bouncy opener to The Rigour—and it seems Leahʻs concentration is on energy first, dance floor second. The synth attack remains plentiful, bass tones land like space ships and kick drum snare combos stay present in your middle ear. Flush with strings from Simran Singh, joy becomes the movement. “The Key” a disco smasher according to Leah, has proper cowbell, “low-slung head-nodding funkʻ and proper Emcee accompaniment from Berry Blacc.
Both “Swing Thru” and “In Sunny Gʻ give a proper neck-snapping from the bass-weight, but “Favourite Corner” a humid bag of swag, cracks on with accented guitar licks, ephemeral strings, and punched-up breakbeats designed for two-stepping all nite long.
Midge Ure is willingly doing the two things that most performers dread on his upcoming US tour, which kicks off in the Bay Area this week, Wed/15 at Yoshi’s.
The former Ultravox frontman, Visage and Thin Lizzy member, and Band Aid, Live Aid, and Live 8 co-producer will take questions and song requests from audience members.
“I think it’s been instigated by social media,” Ure told 48 Hills. “Prior to that, people who wanted to know something about you had to read it in a magazine. Social media has broken down that barrier, so the logical conclusion is that you can — if you’re brave or stupid enough — get in front of an audience and open yourself up to questions or musical requests. There’s an intimacy about that that the audience will like.”
Aside from audience interaction, the raw and revealing “Songs, Questions & Answers Tour” will feature acoustic versions of the Grammy and Brit Award-winning Scottish musician’s most indelible tracks from his 40-year career, many of which are found on his recent 32-track Soundtrack 1978-2019 CD/DVD collection.
US fans will surely recognize such ‘80s synthpop staples as “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and “Vienna” with Ultravox, “Fade to Grey” with Visage and , as well as Ure’s solo single “Dear G-d.”
I spoke to Ure about his new greatest-hits collection, upcoming tour, and the upsides and downsides to being vulnerable.
48 HILLS Soundtrack is not only the soundtrack to your career but also the soundtrack to many of your fans’ lives. What does the title mean to you?
MIDGE URE We all have soundtracks to our lives. Every significant moment we have is peppered by a specific piece of music. When I thought about what I wanted to do on this album, I wasn’t interested in the greatest hits. I wanted to handpick a journey through my life in song and songwriting because your songwriting changes as you get older and you get more proficient at it.
You have a wider subject range as you grow older, so I wanted to put something together that encapsulates both my life of songwriting and recording but reflective of the fact that each and every one of us has a different soundtrack than everyone else.
48 HILLSYou’ve played your songs acoustically before on 2017’s Orchestrated and are now embarking on an acoustic tour. How does that change the songs, especially the ones that were originally synth-based?
MIDGE URE I think there’s an element of when an audience hears anyone performing a stripped-down version of a song, they still hear the original arrangements in their heads.
For anyone who doesn’t already know the song, you better have written a song that stands the test of time and stands the test of being able to be stripped down to that extent that you can perform something on a piano or guitar and it still stands up.
48 HILLSYou’re promising an increased intimacy with the question-and-answer portion of your show. But what’s in it for you?
MIDGE URE It makes for a different show every night. There’s a security in having a setlist, of course, but there’s also a repetitiveness to playing the same songs in the same order every night because that’s what you’ve routined with your band.
When you don’t have a band, you can change as often as you want. But it also means that I have to be on my toes in order to be able to do this and have to be fairly confident that if I attempt to play something that I think I know, it doesn’t go horribly wrong.
48 HILLSDoes the transparency that fans are demanding from their favorite artists today detract from their rockstar mystique?
MIDGE URE I think it opens up the world a little bit more. The days of barriers and walls and barbed wire and absolute secrecy are gone. People like to see that you’re real, human, and have flaws as they do and you get depressed and elated and fed up and tired of politics and people — all of that stuff.
We’re all made of the same substance and suffer from the same problems. We all become elated by the same types of things, so why would you pretend to be something different or better than the people sitting in the audience? So I think the time is right to drop the facade and see the real person.
48 HILLSYou’ve been in so many bands. If you could reunite just one, which would it be?
MIDGE URE Good question. It would be Ultravox. Ultravox was the band. Everything prior to that was an apprenticeship, as I worked my way toward Ultravox.
48 HILLSYou’ve said that the Russell Mulcahy-directed “Passing Strangers” video set the template for all videos to follow. For kids today, who grew up on YouTube, can you explain the importance of that video and what makes it still stand up today?
MIDGE URE At that time, people were talking about “Bohemian Rhapsody” and some of the other early pop promos going around, which were all shot on video — all squeaky clean and electronic. But there was no quality to them.
When we decided to do “Passing Strangers,” we set parameters that we wanted to follow through into future videos. So instead of shooting on video, we shot on 16MM film, which gave it a grainy movie quality. We cropped the screen top and bottom to make it Cinemascope and we went from color to black and white and did the entire film noir thing like shadows on walls and made it a very European-looking thing.
We used the same director, Russell Mulcahy, for “Vienna” and just translated all the parameters into the “Vienna” video — the same feel and atmospherics that worked well with the music. When we put out a video, viewers around the world would see something that was absolutely Ultravox. We cared about our image, which didn’t tend to happen with other artists, who just handed their music to their label who then just farmed it out to directors who just came back with their visions of what it was all about.
48 HILLSTwo years after the release of “Vienna,” you recorded a brilliant cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which you recently re-recorded for your Soundtrack album. With Bowie’s birthday and deathiversary this week, he’s been on a lot of fans’ minds. How have you coped with his passing?
MIDGE URE I was devastated when I heard the news because it was a weird generational thing. Bowie was only maybe a handful of years older than I was when he died. But it’s that weird thing that when you’re young, someone that much older than you seems like an adult because they’re much more grown-up. But as you get on in life, that gap between your ages disappears.
But in my mind, I was still the 15-year-old kid, who fell in love with Bowie and his music. That never changes, that fandom, that idolizing someone as talented as him, so you don’t expect people like that, that you respect and admire to that extent to die. It was too soon. It just wasn’t right. It makes us more in touch with our own mortality because he was one of those guys who was going to go on forever. It’s just not right when it’s someone from your generation.
48 HILLSI noticed that Eurythmics just reunited for a show for the first time in years. Who are the other bands from your generation that you would love to see back together?
MIDGE URE I never saw Talk Talk, so that would have been an amazing thing. I was fortunate enough to see Kate Bush doing her first shows in London in the late ‘70s and see her at the Hammersmith [Apollo] in 2014, so I’d love to see her again, sitting at the piano and singing for me.
48 HILLSMost people have only scratched the surface of all the amazing music from the ’80s. Who do you think are some of the most underrated bands from that decade?
MIDGE URE Japan. I can see why Japan had a hard time becoming successful in America because you kind of had to work at Japan. They weren’t what you’d call radio-friendly for the American airwaves. Very similar to Ultravox, they were played on college radio and some of the new wave radio stations, but they never cracked mainstream radio.
48 HILLSIf I had to describe your music in a phrase, it would be “heart on your sleeve.” What are the pros and cons of being so vulnerable in this way?
MIDGE URE I tend to think that that’s what songs should be about. I shouldn’t have to sit down and invent a scenario or create a world that I don’t inhabit in order to write a song. I write a piece of music and sometimes I find it very difficult to let the piece of music go out into the big wild world because you’re right, I do wear my heart on my sleeve and it’s not always comfortable doing that.
I’ve written songs about depression, alcoholism, and not knowing what to do next because if I write something that’s real, true, and honest, I firmly believe that someone somewhere will connect with that song because they’re going through exactly what I am talking about. That’s what makes it worth it.
MIDGE URE (ULTRAVOX) ACOUSTIC DUO Wed/15 8pm, $24-$59 Yoshi’s, Oakland. More info here.
Even with 75 million records sold and 12 Top 40 singles under their belts, The Monkees haven’t yet been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But founding member Micky Dolenz told 48 Hills he doesn’t care.
“As I’ve said before, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is like a private club,” says Dolenz, 74, who appears along with band mate Michael Nesmith at the SF Sketchfest Tribute to The Monkees on Sunday. “You’re either invited or you’re not.”
It was almost 55 years ago that Dolenz was selected from among 400 applicants for a spot on a new TV show about a Beatles-inspired rock quartet called The Monkees.
Dolenz and his fellow TV bandmates Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones soon became musical superstars thanks to the success of their eponymous show and no. 1 singles “Last Train To Clarksville,” “I’m A Believer,” and “Daydream Believer,” and an initial tour that featured rock legend Jimi Hendrix as an opener.
Since splitting up in the early ‘70s, The Monkees members have reunited for tours, two new albums including 2016’s Good Times, and a TV special. In 1986, the band achieved “Monkeemania” once again after their classic show made waves again — this time in syndication — and their first new track in years, “That Was Then, This Is Now,” hit the Top 20.
In the wake of Davy Jones’s death in 2012 and Peter Tork’s passing in 2019, Dolenz and Nesmith (who continue to perform as The Monkees) are celebrating the release of their first live album as a duo on April 3 with a companion tour hitting San Jose Civic Auditorium on April 8.
Dolenz opened up about returning to Sketchfest for the second year, his favorite Monkees memories, the group’s legacy, and how he’s coped with the loss of ”the brothers [he] never had.“
48 HILLSWhat do you hope to accomplish at your Sketchfest event? Why is now the perfect time for a tribute?
MICKY DOLENZ I did Sketchfest last year and had a terrific time. It’ll be a good dialogue with Mike as we’re going to tour this April.
48 HILLSWhat are your funnest memories with The Monkees from the show or the road?
MICKY DOLENZ We worked with some terrific actors and directors, including James Frawley who passed last year. And, we had some terrific songwriters: Neil Sedaka, Boyce & Hart, Carole King, and Neil Diamond. We were blessed for their contributions.
48 HILLSWhat are your favorite songs to perform with The Monkees?
MICKY DOLENZ That’s a hard question, but definitely the ones I sing lead on. But, in total, it’s just great music.
48 HILLSWhat is The Monkees’ legacy?
MICKY DOLENZ I think the fact that the impact is still being felt and appreciated. We have people from ages eight to 80 at the shows and that’s a tremendous compliment.
48 HILLSThe Monkees were early adopters of Moog synthesizers and many argue that the band pioneered the music video and even set the template for the future boy band movement.
MICKY DOLENZ I definitely would agree with that. The videos and the shows were innovative for their time and are still making an impact.
48 HILLSDo The Monkees get the credit they deserve? Why or why not?
MICKY DOLENZ I’ll leave that to others to answer.
48 HILLSHow have you coped with the passing of Davy Jones and Peter Tork?
MICKY DOLENZ By remembering the good times and the camaraderie. They were the brothers I never had.
48 HILLSWhat can you tell me about the upcoming tour and the band’s first live album as a duo?
MICKY DOLENZ The live album is from the first Mike & Micky tour last year, where we had the chance to perform some deep cuts. The shows were tremendous with a great band.
SF SKETCHFEST TRIBUTE TO THE MONKEES: A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL NESMITH & MICKY DOLENZ Sun/12 4pm, $40-$50 Marines’ Memorial Theatre, SF. More info here.
For his 20-plus year career and the latter part of this decade, Elusive—the Los Angeles based producer—has remained steadfast about that work.
Making music with like-minded creatives who understand experimentation keeps the future close. By stretching out his musical base of collaborators and working beyond the hardware/software aspect of his electronic music landscape, an eclectic sonic reach dips into adjacent areas where hip-hop, fusion, soul, and jazz share space… Grinding out those beat tapes and EPs which feature percussive outlines, moody diagrams and odd time signatures has fed Aaron Koslow’s choices to elicit a forward-leaning type of arrangement.
A production output that dates back to the late ’90s, making beats on analog gear and Akai MPC for collaborations with Abstract Rude and Myka 9 from Freestyle Fellowship prepped his work for the future. Alpha Pup became his recording label home following inspiring sets at LA’s Low-End Theory club night circa 2010.
Since he’s moved about projects that involve live jazz instrumentation-pieced together at various studios across Los Angeles-to solo projects based out of the chop shop of dicing samples and tapping out new pathways from the mighty boom of Elvin Jones drum.
Afterthoughts, his 23-track fleshed out watercolor, that acutely pointed out where modal and digitized sounds work together best, from September, a front and back-loaded pastiche of various colors and voices moving through fidgety bump topography. It featured LA vocal progressives Nite Jewel, Jimetta Rose, Natasha Agrama, Mali Hayes, Nikeita Crichlow, and Olivia Hale. The voices of these women, exquisite musicians in their own right, balanced out the project with a harmonized definition. Making it the closest Kozlow has ever come to producing a neo-soul release.
So, true to form, Ambient Void, his most current release, pivots back to beat tape programming.
Like a boxer readying to shed weight, getting back into the gym, Elusive uses these 17 tracks (not one over three minutes) to focus on hand-eye coördination. Pound that body bag. Switch up combinations. Tighten that jab.
And he does.
Besides “In The Clouds,” a welcoming lead-off replete with ideas reminiscent of Fusion Swing from 2017,
Ambient Void crackles along in newfound beat composition. From the double-time, woodblock cadence at the top of “Level Up” to the warbled crab stumble wonk of “Avoid”, these rhythmic ideas, revised sideways experiments, presents a whole other style of knock.
Nope, Koslow IS havin’ it all. Doling out the tripped-up 4/4 meter on tracks like “Get 2 Clappin” and “Space Disco.” No sleeping tryptophan material here. Packed with a healthy dose of vocal “yeahhhhs” tossed in for swag emphasis, we head-bobbing. Even when the tempo drops a bit low on “Chocolat Crossaint” or double-times on “Love Handles,” flush atmospherics with cascading synths, vinyl crackles, and fussy circuit board ephemera makes the session, whichever one you are having, proper.
On December 22, The Klezmatics celebrated the first night of Hanukkah at the SFJAZZ but—unfortunately for San Franciscans—unlike the oil in the Macabees’ lamp, they didn’t stay for eight days. Their sold-out show, “A Happy Joyous Hanukkah”, lasted one night only.
But that one night shone brightly with superb musicianship, soaring spirits, and plenty of heymish Yiddishe stories.
The Grammy-winning ensemble provided an eclectic mix of klezmer music—from the traditional Ale Brider to Woody Guthrie’s version of Hanukkah songs to elegant, complex instrumentals incorporating not only Eastern European folk tunes, but jazz, country and Latin motifs.
The Hanukkah theme ran through most of the selections, and even those songs contained surprises. Fiddler Lisa Gutkin explained that they had combed through Guthrie’s archives and found his unpublished poetry—handwritten on wrapping paper and the backs of envelopes—that they set to music. Guthrie, she explained, lived longer in Brooklyn than anywhere else and his mother-in-law was the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.
Vocalist Lorin Sklamberg announced wryly that Guthrie’s version of Hanukkah symbols might sound unusual to the Jews in the audience. They then proceeded to play—with just a touch of irony—Hanukkah Bells and Hanukkah Tree!
“[The Klezmatics] can rank among the greatest bands on the planet.” -Time Out New York Read SFJAZZ Staff Writer Richard Scheinin’s interview with The Klezmatics ahead of their performance at SFJAZZ on SUN, DEC 22: https://www.sfjazz.org/onthecorner/
The group’s Grammy was for the CD Wonder Wheel, which also featured previously unsung Guthrie poetry. (Guthrie’s Jewish songs were the result of a special connection with his mother-in-law Aliza Greenblatt, a well-known Yiddish poet.) The New York-based Klezmatics have been together for 30 years, have collaborated with many artists including violinist Itzhak Perlman and playwright Tony Kushner, and performed in more than 20 countries. They have released 11 albums, including the exquisitely-named Jews With Horns.
The dynamic Frank London, who always seemed to be playing both the trumpet and keyboard at the same time, explained the origin of one of the more traditional selections Zol shoyn kumen di geule (The Salvation Shall Come Soon). “It’s a combination prayer and drinking song.” If we sing loud enough, he sang, the “Messiah will wake from his slumber when he hears our song of prayer.”
Percussionist Richie Barshay played an astonishing drum solo: Without a word he got the audience clapping along to his complex, syncopated rhythms. Barshay also made use of a pair of bongos for Do the Latke Flip-Flip, a song inspired by the 1960s Barry Sisters’ combination of Yiddish music and Latin beats. Gutkin’s composition, Spin Dreydl Spin was inspired by listening to the rhythmic clicking of the dryer—“too many buttons,” she quipped—in the laundromat when she was stuck trying to write a tune.
The origin of the word “klezmer” is from the Hebrew, kley zmir, or “vessel of song” which denoted the actual musical instruments. In Europe “a klezmer” came to mean a musician. The klezmorim traveled throughout the countryside playing at weddings and holiday celebrations, adapting and adopting local musical genres. During the period of massive Eastern European immigration to the U.S., the term came to be applied to whatever the immigrant musicians played.
When some listeners complain that contemporary groups are not really playing klezmer, they forget that the main tradition of the music is eclecticism. The klezmer music that arrived on these shores was a snapshot of what had been created at that moment in time. And with their Guthrie lyrics, Latin beats, and laundromat-inspired rhythms, the Klezmatics now follow—or rather lead—that tradition!
The three original members of the group are London, the full-throated Sklamberg, and Paul Morrissett, who plays bass and the traditional tsimbil. All of the musicians perform with other groups and as soloists. Fiddler Gutkin and clarinetist Matt Derriau performed on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indecent by Paula Vogel. They are in great demand and have a dizzying schedule. In fact, the morning after their SFJazz show, London led two klezmer workshops across the country at the Yiddish New York Festival!
One of the most moving songs of the evening was Hanukkah’s Flame, with words by Guthrie, set to music by London. “If your lifelong heavy load brings you down my path and down my road, my light of Hanukkah shines your way… Hanukkah candle dances warm to help you weather your heavy storm. I’ll send my beam to light your dream.”
The musicians may have flown home, but their music will light our way for eight days, and many more.
Fresh off the road from touring with The Black Keys, Modest Mouse delivered a triumphant headline show in Santa Rosa less than a month after performing at San Francisco’s sparkling new Chase Center. The choice in location likely came as a shock for those who’ve followed the band after it tapped into mainstream success with 2004’s “Good News for People Who Love Bad News,” and its shows consisted of venues like the Chase Center, Berkeley’s Greek Theater, or packed festival crowds like BottleRock in Napa
Undoubtedly, there is no way a concert at the more than 1,600 capacity Luther Burbank Center will ever compare to seeing Modest Mouse perform at a house on Orchard Street in Santa Rosa. The two sets of drums dancing in a synchronized battle would be hard to cram into a small living room. Heck, just the production required for the band’s current light show could take up an entire house alone.
Regardless of the size of the venue, the band did return to town. This time with an infinite song catalog singer Isaac Brock invited fans to choose from mid-show. Most of hoots and hollers consisted of newer songs like “Fire It Up” off 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.
Ultimately, the band went with a request that was a bit older. As the lights flashed upon the faces of a crowd mostly consisting of people who drove in from out of town, it became clear 1996 was decades ago. Even if the song request the band performed was a throwback there would be no going back. Not for a Grammy-nominated band or for a small town that has somehow become an overpriced bridge town to San Francisco. But just for a moment, as Modest Mouse played “Paper Thin Walls,” it wasn’t hard to imagine being back in 1996, with the cops pounding on the door of a little duplex.
Alice Bag, who fronted first-wave LA punk band The Bags and appeared in Penelope Spheerisʻ eye-opening 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, adapted to modernity by blogging and writing about her band, ensuring the pioneering POC outfit would not be omitted from history.
“I wish that there was a whole other documentary that was focused on the bands that had a lot of women in them or people of color or queers making quirky music with synthesizers or banging on a water jug” she stated in The Milwaukee Record from 2018. “All the crazy creative elements of the early punk scene have not been adequately documented. A bit of our work was, but not nearly as much as we had done, which is regrettable. If you were in on the first wave, you might have escaped notice. If you came in a little later, there was enough popularity and mainstream attention that you might be better remembered than somebody who was actually a pioneer.”
Decades later, some representative balance is finally being foregrounded: Bag along with Bikini Kill, Circle Jerks, Carbonas, Pansy Division, Bleached, and Plastic Bertrand are the first round of artists announced for the 11th installment of Burger Boogaloo. The annual music festival, held in Oakland’s Mosswood Park, July 11th & 12th of 2020, will again be hosted by cult film director and self-named “Pope of Trash” John Waters. It definitely more queer, woman, and people-of-color fronted than most such long-standing festivals.
In past years the event has featured spirited performances from DEVO, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Shannon and The Clams, The Dead Boys and Iggy Pop. That tradition of rad entertainment for a sea of goths and rockabilly constituents resumes with Bikini Kill making their first Bay Area performance in over 25 years, Circle Jerks’ and Carbonas’ first show in 10 years and the Bay Area début of Plastic Bertrand.
That first wave of artists also includes Flipper, The Fevers, The Younger Lovers, Panty Raid, and Midnite Snaxxx. Further line-up announcements will be released in January and February 2020.
When the South London artist Kamaal Williams, aka Henry Wu, comes to 1015 Folsom on Fri/13 (with Jazzy Jeff as part of the Motown on Mondays 10th anniversary), expect his DJ set to showcase various international peers that have propelled his career as a jazz musician and electronic music producer.
His acumen for uncommon musicality and skilfulness is beyond par. Tapped to curate the 70th installment of the DJ-Kicks series, he distills a liberal assembling of house, broken beat, jungle, soul, hip-hop, and of course jazz. Reading like a non-stop bullet train, the release sets up how the London underground dance movement, over the past decade, informed the current resurgence of jazz by a younger generation weaned on rattling bass bins.
These 29 songs, delivered in a David Mancuso-selector style most of the time (one record right after the other), fit and feed one another in a way that moves minds and hearts first, then asses. As stated in the liner notes, “although not traditionally mixed or predictably sequenced, this unique standout set has a high level of narrative and coherence, linking styles like a family treeʻ.ʻ By selecting Williams and his “Wu-Funk”, the folks at the !K7 label assure us again, their intent is to showcase authentic inventiveness, pushing Spotify metrics and regurgitated algorithms into the trash.
Kamaal‘s inspired work in the studio and live arena has influenced a whole new generation of like-minded musicians, who‘ve helped make London one of the most musically exciting cities in the world. The Yussef Kamaal album ‘Black Focus’ was one of the most talked-about records of 2016, keeping the vinyl pressings hard to get. The follow-up, The Return, came on Williams’ own new Black Focus label and took his band global, making it onto many Best Of 2018 lists.
From earlier in the DJ-Kicks series this year, Laurel Halo’s mix maneuvered through fierce arpeggios, ruff bass lines, space-age micro-house, and machine-like landscapes, damn near shuffling musical microclimates like a card shark elbow greasing a three-card molly hustle. Giving us the audio tour of Berlin nightlife at peak 5 am bustle. In July, Peggy Gou, the first South Korean aoman to DJ at Berlin’s techno institution Berghain, put together a real loose and comprehensive across-the-board mix: disco, house, techno, and electro, from 90 to 150 BPM, that plopped us dead center in her living room, sipping a good red, putting that smoke in the air.
But Williams is on a different undertaking.
“The main aim of this mix for me was to give praise and pay my dues to the forefathers, the originators London’s underground scene. From the likes of Dego, Seiji and Steve Spacek, through to contemporaries like K15, Tenderlonious or myself, it’s about connecting the lineage and giving respect to the creators—those undervalued heroes of this British dance landscape who deserve more recognition today.”
The opening track “Sometimes”, a spiritual edit bourne out of Gospel music sets the standard for what is to come. And itʻs quite lofty. Produced by Budgie, an influential member of the production team behind Kanye Westʻs Jesus Is King, he keeps the vocals running quick, never displacing their sincerity.
From the “run dem tings” drums of “Spaced Invader” by Lord Tusk into the 20-year-old jungle bedlam called “Buggin Out” by Seiji, to the comedown stillness of “Hey There” by Steve Spacek, featuring an 18-year-old Thundercat playing bass. It leads us into the squiggle vision funk of “Speed Metal Jesus” by Max Greif, matched next to the always identifiable KaidiTatham and his broken beat jazz-funk, mined out of the vast well of the African diaspora. “Two Tens Madam” from 2016, gives us that insight into Williams’ multi-hyphenate journey as musician and producer connecting the two worlds of electronic and live.
If the early 1990s are regarded as the golden age of European techno, a theory recently put forth by British electronic music royalty Kirk Degiorgio, for San Francisco in the late 90ʻs, the soundtrack reverberating-from underground parties, converted warehouses, Full Moon gatherings, grimy punk-rock clubs and “daytime pizza joints that morphed into night-time rave caves” was drum and bass.
UK artist Goldie (performing alongside STAMINA! residents Jamal and SF legend Method-One at1015 Folsom Thu/12) became the day one avatar for this movement in the US circa 1995. That trademark gold grill, definitive grimace, charming presence….. With other pioneers of that era-LTJ Bukem, Grooverider, Roni Size, Jumping Jack Frost, you had to preface the introduction with “this new music called Drum and Bass.” Goldie somehow fused all of his interests—breakdancing, graffiti art aka bombing, breakbeat techno, hip-hop, trip-hop, jungle, and soul-into accessible alchemy.
Inner City Life, a 1995 global anthem, featured the soaring, existential vocals from British songster Diane Charlemagne, enmeshed with granular rhythmic accents and gully bass lines that emoted freedom. This universal concept dragged electronic music into the normcore zeitgeist. So you could just play it. And ffolkes got it.
Back in the day Phunkateck, True Intent, Sister SF, and PBS were some of the DJ crews at the forefront SFʻs drum and bass movement, evangelizing the sub-genre. Darkstep, techstep, atmospheric, liquid funk, ambient, and drumfunk all took up residence, spearheading this music. While not mainstream, it infiltrated. The sound painted the corners of culture in the City. Informing the direction of fashion, gear and art spaces. Entertaining Tech 1.0 happy hour networking events and making a space in the Bullet Proof Boat Party game, it created a dialogue among house, hip-hop, R&B, techno, electro even post-punk DJs.
Somehow those influencers heard their respective musical voice beneath the largest grumble of the bass bins.
The Top, a tiny bar on Haight Street, now called Underground SF, with its small dance floor in back, and the party Eklektic, were the micro-communities, selected temples for worship, that eventually pushed the music to larger venues such as Justice League (now the Independent), 1015 Folsom, and 550 Barneveld, now called Space 550.
These embryonic tent poles, where local talent played beside international artists, fostered connectivity. For a stretch, the city hosted at least six drum and bass parties a week, so these local DJ crews would fly talent out, on Ramen budgets, from the UK knowing there would be plenty of opportunities for artists such as Paradox, Jumping Jack Frost, LTJ Bukem and such to pick up more gigs. Seeing Roni Size pull massive rewinds at The Top, after-hours possibly, beat any larger venue performance.
SF took that UK breakbeat creation, splintered up the sensibility and smoked it out with hydroponic open-minded idealism. As with all golden eras, gentrification, the corporate cash grab disguised as change, is what comes next. DJ’s turned to tech-house, garage, broken-beat, dub-step, and grime… Soon a bass music movement took off in LA at The Low-End Theory party, and brought us many of today’s biggest US dance music artists.
Goldie’s full-length début, 1995’s Timeless, remains his career statement, as well as one of the few jungle releases to reach a broad audience outside of the underground. SF’s d’n’b underground legends will surely turn out when he takes to the decks.
Sugar, booze, and music — these are the things that Ana Gasteyer’s holidays are made of.
Top on the comedian, actress, and singer’s list of most beloved holiday sweets are fruit curds. The rich and tangy spreads (also a favorite of Martha Stewart, whom Gasteyer regularly impersonated on SNL in the late ‘90s) are closely followed by Brach’s Lemon Drops, Spearmint Leaves, and Star Brites.
“All the things that make your face slightly screwball,” she told 48 Hills. “They are my true personal cocaine in the most positive of ways.”
When it comes to Christmas spirits, Gasteyer is all about the smokey mezcals, as well as other winter-warming favorites like Irish coffee and spiked cider.
Musically, she’s drawn to the swingin’ jazz records, the Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, and Nat King Cole that her father played over the holidays when she was growing up.
It’s this vintage swing vibe that the actress, who most recently appeared on ABC’s The Goldbergs and Schooled, aimed to capture on her retro-modern and deeply personal Sugar & Booze holiday album, mixing covers of Christmas classics with original numbers.
This big-band exuberance is also immediately apparent in Gasteyer’s “Happy Jazz” act, which she’s bringing to Holiday Gaiety with the San Francisco Symphony this weekend.
The Christmas-themed variety show, co-emceed by conductor Edwin Outwater and scream queen Peaches Christ and featuring musical performances by the SF Symphony and guest vocalists, as well as drag entertainers and the Fou Fou Ha! performance ensemble, comes to Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday.
I spoke to Gasteyer about the making of Sugar & Booze and why performing at the Holiday Gaiety show feels like a career milestone.
48 HILLS Sugar & Booze is one of the best new Christmas albums I’ve heard in ages. I love your covers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” as much as your four original tracks on the album. Your “Nothing “Rhymes with Christmas” song is absolutely hilarious.
ANA GASTEYER My producer Julian Fleisher is a great lyricist and writer in his own right. He made me laugh because he said, “I really want to write a song for the album.” Then he couldn’t think of anything to rhyme with Christmas, so he came up with that song, which is really clever. It’s like the songwriter’s lament.
48 HILLSOne of my favorite songs on the album is “Secret Santa” with your friend and former SNL colleague Maya Rudolph. How did it feel to work with her again?
ANA GASTEYER I wrote “Sugar & Booze” and “Secret Santa” with my good friend Nicholas Williams who is half of a member of a really fun cabaret group in New York called The Gay Agenda. Those hooks came to me like inspiration and then Nicholas and I got together to properly craft them.
At a certain point, in all ridiculous songs you have to ask what the song is actually about, so you know what you’re leaning toward. He’s so funny because he said, “I guess what I’m getting here is that she had a bad boyfriend, went down to Havana, slipped on a banana, cracked her head on a sidewalk, and got woke.” I’m like, “That’s what happened.”
Maya is one of my favorite harmonizers in the world. She has a crazy good ear and she’s a natural fun singer. I knew the song was up-tempo, a kind of ridiculous and happy song, and she’s the most perfect person to lean into what’s joyful about a song, so I just asked her if she’d harmonize on it. She heard it, loved it, and was happy to oblige. Working with her on it was really fun.
48 HILLSMost of the songs are so joyful, but there’s definitely a touch of sadness in “Blue Black Friday.” What inspired that song?
ANA GASTEYER I came to Tedd Firth, an accomplished jazz pianist I work with, with a lyric for “Blue Black Friday” that spoke to me — “It’ll be a Blue Black Friday if I don’t spend it on you.” Even though it’s kind of cheeky, anti-commercial, and funny, I did want a ballad. I think there’s loneliness sometimes that comes around that time of year, particularly right after Thanksgiving when you’ve eaten too much and the guy hasn’t called. So I wanted to write a blue song because there’s nothing worse than gluttony and rejection.
So I just worked on those lyrics on my own, and in the studio, Tedd helped me get it into a form that made sense for us. I love it so much. I think it’s so beautiful and I really wanted a musical moment that was a little more sentimental, which is hard sometimes.
When I do my act, the goal is to have a great time and have it be a cocktail party in a show, but every great musical evening takes it down a notch for a second and lets people feel for a moment. It’s hard to find songs that have some humor in them that are sincere nonetheless, so writing my own seems like a good solution for that problem.
48 HILLSWith so many Christmas songs out there, how did you choose which ones to cover?
ANA GASTEYER We were looking for a balance because I didn’t want to do a totally wacky, kooky novelty album. I wanted it to feel traditional, sentimental, and fun. There are so many great songbook songs written by great American songbook writers, so all those tunes like “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” have a great sense of the classic songbook in them.
That Cy Coleman song, “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again” was introduced to me by my reed player who’s a novelty fanatic. It was only in demo form, discovered posthumously after Cy Coleman’s death, and it’s kind of amazing. He wrote it with Floyd Huddleston who wrote the music for The Aristocats and it just has that really subversive and fun energy. So I was just thrilled when the Cy Coleman people said I could record it.
48 HILLSWith so many Christmas albums out there, how did you approach yours to make it stand apart?
ANA GASTEYER It was less of how am I going to stand apart and more about what I like and what kind of band and arrangement I want. It’s an incredibly personal, joyful, and naturally vintage and throwback record because that’s the nature of my approach to music in general. Certainly, the swing of it, and I like jazz-swing music during the holidays. The Nat King Cole Christmas Album and Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas are my favorite Christmas records.
I think that for the holidays, so much is rooted in tradition and what we come back to year after year are our favorite ornaments, movies, and foods. So I wanted to make a record that felt like you had it before, that felt like it fits into the collection of your favorite Christmas party music. I also wanted to make a record that you could leave unattended, that wasn’t all over the map and confusing in the styles. That the originals would fit in seamlessly with the nostalgic numbers, so that you’re free to mix your drinks and eat your cookies and not running over to change the record every second.
48 HILLSWhat can you tell us about your upcoming Holiday Gaiety performance?
ANA GASTEYER I am thrilled because I wrote the song “Sugar & Booze” a year ago, and a year ago we had a few little gigs in New York and Boston and I put it up to see if it was a song that people might like. Now, the fact that it’s not only recorded but that we have an orchestral chart, makes me want to pass out with joy. I can’t even believe I get to hear that music with a giant orchestra. We have some really fun songs from the album and a couple of other ridiculous things planned as well, so I’m very much looking forward to it.
Between the symphony, drag queens, and Sugar & Booze, my three favorite things on the planet, if I died that night it would all be ok, meaning I could die happy. That’s an incredible lineup. These are the reasons you play shitty clubs and suffer all the indignations we endure for a living — for opportunities like this.
HOLIDAY GAIETY Sat/7 7:30 pm, $20-$89 Davies Symphony Hall, SF. More info here.