FLOTUS or For Love Often Turns Us Still

They were the typical matriarchal extended family that was once the norm in my neighborhood. Their prodigal son relocated from Atlanta with a broken-down red Firebird convertible on a trailer, which they towed into the driveway we shared. There it sat. It became a living room-cum-listening room of sorts for years. It sat there so long that marijuana plants started growing beside it from the seeds of the blunts they rolled being tossed from the driver-side window. Their music was a revelation and way ahead of the mainstream trends in hip-hop. Early sounds from the ATL, crunk, dirty south, and later trap and juke. It was raw, distorted, exciting, and a perfect foil to the music I made at the time. It made me smile and nod my head. It felt like I was getting an education to the sounds of what people in the real world outside of my “bubble” were into, and I soaked it all in, not having a clue as to who I was hearing most of the time. One might consider it authentic urban radio without the ads and DJ talk-over. There was in a way a different talk-over, and beautiful were their exchanges and conversations, fights and arguments. All that mixed with dancing against the cars in the driveway and the street they called their own. There was a lot of joy there, and I wanted to understand its sound, its source. Over the years, their antics may have become lyrical elements of many of my previous songs, but not their sound.

I began to think about making a record that reflected this music I had been hearing almost by default through my life, this music my neighbors like and that my wife listens to as well, the songs I hear in the grocery store on broken Muzak systems filtered in such a way that you only hear a severely altered version of the actual song. A busted bass, maybe a drum or two, and vocals so tweaked that they sound processed from a computer could turn out to be some classic rock song from the past crushed in some antiquated degeneration or disintegration. You’ve probably heard it too, at the stoplight or the parking lot or through the door at a party or behind a club or at a party down the street. Sound mixed by our environment, a situation, a life.

So I went about trying to make a record that maybe they would like, something that might fit in with the sounds they liked and moved them. I wanted to reflect the way I heard this sound from a bystander’s perspective.

I had been painting still lifes in a somewhat twisted realist manner prior to this, so applying this idea to music made sense. I’ve certainly tried to incorporate the music of my surroundings and influences in the past, such influences being mainly that of my friends’ music and the music we shared an interest in, a passion about. The songs we made and the songs we liked were things we had in common. From the beginnings with Vic Chesnutt, Yo La Tengo, then with all the great Merge artists/writers, the soul music from my youth, Nashville country, past and present — all had been the stereo in my head.

In my Chicago days in the mid ’80s, I used to give the Loop-area graffiti writers two dollars for every dollar that initially they would “tag” on one side and pass on at the train kiosk, further filling the transit system with their art. Word got out that this crazy art-store clerk was doubling their money for tagged money, and the store became inundated with writers and hip-hop crews. They introduced me to the dance sound of 1986 Chicago hip-hop and the DJ world happening there at the time. I just loved the energy, the fun, and its broad appeal. Back then, I hadn’t started to take a look at hip-hop all that closely; it was simply impassioned expression to me. But now I’m considering not only the songs but, more pointedly, their production, as I have before with Sherrill or Sinatra. Now I’m taking a deeper look at this music that’s been booming at the periphery of my life.

Since the early spring, I have been sitting and listening on the porch to the elements of this genre and what was involved. There’s a beat, some nutty effects, some words processed with a style, together making a groove and that’s about it. This led me to go inside and listen to the “new” hip-hop sounds, particularly the last two Kendrick, the last two Kanye, the last Ocean, etc. and marvel at a new renaissance in music production, much of it from L.A. These guys and their producers were creating some kind of new sonic pasture. From what I can tell, this kind of leap hasn’t happened in music production since the ’60s, really. Overall, artists like myself have been using the same production techniques forever, letting technology enhance and further a sound but not really taking it to a new place. That new place is happening now in mainstream hip-hop, and it’s in those new grooves and busted car stereos next door, filtered by busted overloaded iPhone outputs. These guys have found the freedom to innovate and change the way we can make records. It’s through technology handled like a tool rather than a taskmaster — technology bending to the will of the creator, and it is playful, complex, and exciting to hear on repeat with its structure being reshaped in compelling ways.

I learned things, new software programs beyond the engineering-friendly but less intuitive Pro Tools to the more immediate and creatively inspiring Ableton Live. I discovered a new way of putting ideas down fast and reckless and looked for these elements in the refined offerings on the street. This new technology and its influence now seemed to be found everywhere, from the talent shows on TV with their autotuned voices to the country hits on the radio and their hard autotuned voices and choruses. What once was something I found sonically threatening or alarming was now nuanced and had developed into something soulful.

I went to see Shabazz Palaces at Third Man Records one night, and one of the singers had this little black box on a mic stand, which he was using to process his voice during their live set. Sounded crazy and great. I got one and within three months wrote this record entirely with it using only my voice processed and looped, and drum programming (to be later created by Scott Martin and replaced). No instruments! Starting at first with songs I had been working on over the last three years then completely abandoning that form which was originally to be a relationship between folk music and electronic music. The sound now became a direct response to the hip-hop sound I’d harbored as a passive part of my music consumption. Suddenly, with the black box I could sing anything, and it sounded rooted in the music I was hearing next door. While writing these new songs, I’d step outside my office and hear the neighbors playing their tunes not 20 yards away. It all made sense, and the songs started to change from the way I had approached things lyrically before. Suddenly, my voice was an instrument like a guitar going through pedals — it didn’t seem to matter if the words were clearly understandable (not that I ever cared about them making logical sense before, but they had always been intelligible). Now they were more emotionally frontloaded and intelligibly defiant. There was an unexpected soulfulness to the sound. I also knew that removing my guitar from the structure dynamic would allow the rest of the band to move up front in the sound and highlight their contributions in a significant way. They responded perfectly. It’s a new sound for us but represents the openness of a simpler lineup that we’ve become in the last few years.

Here’s your irony back:

In the end, I just really wanted to make a record that my wife would like, maybe have it on her phone to listen to while she worked out or drove across Tennessee. I thought I had done that, but it turns out she’s not impressed. She prefers the sound of my voice as it is and has been. Fair enough, I suppose, even though I used these elements of the music she loves.

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