In conversation with grandson

A year in review: accomplishments, firsts, and the road ahead

In conversation with grandson

In June 2017, The Varsity sat down with up-and-coming Toronto artist, grandson. A year later, The Varsity caught up with grandson to discuss the major changes that had occurred in the last year, including a new label, new mentors, and new projects.

The Varsity: It’s been exactly year since we sat down to have our first interview, and in this time, you’ve been able to achieve a lot of success.

grandson: Has it been exactly a year?

TV: A year minus a few days.

g: That’s amazing.

TV: A year ago, you had four publicly released songs with a combined 3.5 million plays on Spotify. Now, before the release of your first EP you have eight released singles. Do you want to try guessing how many plays you have now?

g: I don’t know man, let’s go with fucking 20 million?

TV: More than double that: almost 50 million plays on Spotify. What has this massive growth in support meant to you?

g: While it’s awesome, I think of it as an affirmation that what I’m doing here is providing the sort of support and is meaning something to some people. It’s a reminder that we have a lot more to do. It’s definitely an achievement that I’m proud of, to have accumulated this sort of engagement in the music that I’m making. It is really reflective of the people or else maybe I got lucky with playlisting: there are a lot of factors that contribute to numbers. So, I’m not really too caught up in the numbers game. What I’m really caught up in is how do those numbers translate into people really giving a shit. What it means to me is people giving a shit and that’s exciting, and I hope that I can get more people to give even more.

TV: Two of your most successful songs, “Blood // Water” and “thoughts and prayers” have racked up nearly 20 million plays on Spotify alone. Yet these two songs are both seen as political anthems for environmental protection and gun reform, respectively. What do you think your job is as a musician to support political movements?

g: That’s a good question. I’m trying to tell stories that are true to people listening. I am very proud of the sorts of feedback I’ve gotten. I’m also proud, more so particularly with “thoughts and prayers,” that we’ve been able to raise thousands of dollars through selling limited edition merch to support the Youth for Safety and Justice Fund… They have taken these poems and this song that I wrote and turned that into concrete resources for activists. I think that is something I’m really proud of, but what can you say? Hopefully of those 20 million plays, you get a handful of people that are inspired to have difficult conversations, be it with their parents or the responsibilities of government, about transparency, about progressivism, about the future of these sorts of issues. That might be the biggest change I can possibly make — injecting into some kid a seedling for change.

TV: Last time we talked, you named a couple of your musical inspirations such as Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, and John Lennon. How have they and how has their history in music helped motivate your political activism?

g: Well, I think they really exemplified that sort of relationship that I want to have with culture at the particular time that they were making music. They’ve had an impact on me when it gets exhausting. I’ve spoken to a lot of other musicians and activists about a certain fatigue that can set in when trying to make change or when talking about big stuff: these things take time and they move slowly because it requires the active participation of millions of people. Sometimes I can get a little discouraged along the way. I think that’s human. I try not to be too hard on myself for it.

TV: On April 4, 2018, you were signed to the record label Fueled by Ramen, the same label that supports Twenty One Pilots, Panic! at the Disco, and All Time Low, to name a few. How has Fueled by Ramen been able to support you as an artist?

g: They’ve been awesome. It was really important to me when it became time to expand the team around me. We were able to maintain flexibility beautifully. It was important to me what the growth and success of this project might look like, because through the process of finding our team I found that a lot of people can see potential in something on any vision, but you have to have an aligned vision. I was really grateful to have a team that’s not committed to changing what’s happening here, but rather just pouring gasoline on it and giving me more resources at my disposable to play with.

TV: I want to talk about something that is definitely an amazing opportunity you’ve had, but unfortunately it stems from tragedy. On July 20, 2017 Chester Bennington of Linkin Park passed away from suicide. You tweeted about his legacy and your dream of one day opening for the band. On May 24, 2018, you were featured on a song with Chester’s bandmate, Mike Shonida. What does it mean for you to be able to live out your dream in a different way, but essentially being part of something bigger?

g: When talking about mental health and advocacy, I think that for someone who lived a life as hugely impactful as Chester, I can’t imagine trying to get into words of what that loss meant to so many people. I am constantly in awe and admire Mike’s capacity to take all of that confusion, grief, and frustration and channel it creatively — to make this really raw, confessional project. That’s pretty cool to me. It pushes me as an artist to kind of go, ‘wow’; it really inspires me to have that relationship with my fans and to be that sort of open book. I think he’s done that throughout his career with Linkin Park and Fort Minor and what it means for me to be able to work with someone who’s pioneered so many movements of how to fuse rock and hip hop and pop and electronic music. I think that I can confidently say that I would not be doing what I am doing if Mike and that band didn’t pave the way.

Another thing that’s really impressive to me about Mike is his commitment to music fandom and his commitment to discovering new talent and finding the other young upcoming artists that are kind of following in his legacy. He actually reached out to me first; he just followed me on Instagram one day, having heard my music on Spotify. The whole thing was pretty surreal. I shot him a message thanking him for everything that he’d done. I really didn’t come at him with any particular agenda. My intentions were not that. It really was just mainly, ‘maybe he could be a mentor. Maybe he could be a friend.’ With everything going on with the label situation and the expansion of what grandson is, I knew that I wanted some more mentors around me. I think it’s important, no matter what your condition is or your profession in life.

One day, I wrote the song on the spot, my contribution to it. I played him some ideas, he played me some ideas. I wanted to hear what the rest of the album sounded like, so he played me the beginning of “Running From My Shadow.” He didn’t really have the end flushed out. He didn’t really have the structure where he wanted it. I asked for his blessing to take a stab at it — then it came out a couple of weeks later.

TV: So far in your career, your music has come out as singles. Your first EP, a modern tragedy volume 1, released on June 15, 2018 as your first multi-song release. How has this project been different than your others?

g: In some ways it’s an extension of what I was already doing, which is just trying to tell a story, one song at a time. But it’s also been really exciting to look at this first body of work. Keep in mind this is only volume one. But to begin to kind of lay out a more cohesive ‘Magnum Opus’ of sorts… this is where it’s at. It’s a reflection of where I stand as a young, disenfranchised poet in the twenty-first century, politically and societally.

TV: Last year you mentioned sitting on over 30 unreleased songs. You only chose five songs to put on EP. How did each song find its way onto it?

g: Well, part of that was having a team around me that helped me kind of establish where my songs were at and trying to figure out how and when we can get more music out. This felt like a very natural evolution from the singles I was putting out. I wanted to continue to build creatively and find that cohesion and these five songs tie together in some ways as being very reflective of these past couple of years for me as a songwriter. This is my first EP. I have eight singles — that’s only four songs more than this time last year. We’ve got a lot more ahead of us than we have behind us.

TV: Going into the summer, you’ve released your first EP, you’re playing festivals, you’re going on tours with Hobo Johnson, Joy Wave, and Nothing but Thieves. Where do you see yourself a year from now and what is your goal?

g: If I tried telling you last year where I’d be in a year, I wouldn’t even know where to start. So, I wouldn’t have the audacity to claim that [I know], but I know I’m going to write some big songs. We’re going to continue to make controversial pieces of art that can give people like me a sense of understanding and belonging. We’re going to find more ways to take these messages embedded in these songs off of Spotify and onto the pavement. We’re going to roll out some more ways for people to be able to latch on to their identity as a ‘grandkid,’ be that through what they wear, and through other ways in which they can point to someone else and say, ‘you believe in the same things I believe in. You understand me.’ I just want to be able to provide that forum and that sort of community engagement. And we’re going to rock the fuck out. We’re going to be playing some bad-ass shows, making some bad-ass music. It’s serious, but it’s also a good time — it’s fun.

 

grandson’s EP, a modern tragedy vol. 1, came out June 15.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Drumroll, please, for Our Lady Peace

In conversation with drummer Jason Pierce on the band's new album and tour

Drumroll, please, for Our Lady Peace

In 1991, U of T criminology student Michael Maida, now known as Raine, put out an ad to find musicians for his band. Now, 27 years later, that band, Our Lady Peace, is still touring Canada and releasing new music.

On February 23, Our Lady Peace released its ninth studio album, Somethingness, before heading on a cross Canada tour. Their newest band member, drummer Jason Pierce, spoke with The Varsity about joining the band, his personal career, and what to expect at the band’s two Toronto shows.

The Varsity: How is this album different than others that Our Lady Peace has released in the past?

Jason Pierce: Well, this will be the first record that I have any involvement in playing on and writing, the first record that has been released since I joined the band.

TV: You’ve been on tour with the band and you’ve played songs off of previous albums. Are there any differences between this record and those before?

JP: I feel like there’s a more edgy element on the new record, specifically on tracks like “Head Down” and “Drop Me In The Water.” There is a more edgy, dirty guitar-driven sound on a few tracks, compared to the last few records.

TV: Our Lady Peace is one of the most successful Canadian bands, with their records going 12 times platinum and one-time diamond in Canada while releasing nine albums in over a quarter of a century. What do you think makes this band so successful?

JP: I feel like it has a lot to do with being honest and being true. None of the songs on any of the records, from what I’ve seen, are contrived. Everything is very much there for a reason and there because everybody wanted it to be there. It’s not there just to put a song on a record. What also makes the band, from my perspective, is the fans. The way they appreciate the band… they are the reason that we still get to do this.

TV: You’re working with Raine, and he is technically the only original member left. He went to the University of Toronto. What’s it like working with him?

JP: Incredible, just incredible. He’s got this built-in dynamic. Something incredible to see. I’ve got to learn a lot from watching him.

TV: How does the band carry themselves when writing new music, specifically now that it’s been 24 years since their first released album?

JP: Actually, I believe this record is done a little bit differently. Duncan [Coutts, the band’s bassist] and I get together a few times a week and we write together. So, we’ve been presenting songs for the new record to the rest of the guys. So, it is a pretty equal share of songs that Duncan and I have started and songs that the other guys have started. It’s really a collective on this record.

TV: You technically joined the band in 2014 on tour, and then officially in 2016. Before that, you toured with acts such as Paramore, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Justin Bieber. I was wondering what tour is most memorable to you, outside of Our Lady Peace.

JP: Outside of Our Lady Peace, it would probably be my first tour with Paramore. Just because it was the first time I got to play with a band of that scale and shows of that scale. We were over in Europe doing arenas and stadiums. It was incredible. It really opened my eyes to the fact that that level of touring still exists, especially in this day and age.

TV: You’ve played stadiums, arenas, and now you’re going to be playing in smaller venues. What do you prefer when you’re playing onstage? Is it looking out to see thousands of people, or is it when you have a smaller audience and feel more connected?

JP: It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because [at] the bigger venues, there’s this energy you just cannot get from a smaller venue. But like you said, it’s so much less connected once you get used to that. When you do start going back to the smaller venues again, it’s eye-opening how terrifying it is when you can actually see past the people in the first 10 rows. So, I don’t know which one I actually prefer. It’s a completely different skill set. As a musician, you play to the room, and playing to a smaller room is different than playing to a football stadium.

TV: Other than Raine, Our Lady Peace is a band that has seen their members change over time. Is it hard to join a band that’s already solidified their name, or is it easier knowing that the support is already there?

JP: Yeah, it’s great that the support is already there. I think one of the hardest things to do is to almost live up to people’s expectations of you, just because you’re filling the shoes of people who are already great. It’s just trying to do your own thing and still trying to stay at that level.

TV: You’re going to be playing two shows in Toronto. What’s it like knowing many, if not most, of your fans that are going to be out at the shows on this tour are not old enough to know the first records that were released by Our Lady Peace?

JP: I have never thought about that before. It’s kind of scary.

TV: I’m speaking from experience; I wasn’t born when the first two Our Lady Peace albums were released.

JP: That’s incredible that the band has been around for this long. I love that. And it’s going to be cool because then you get to actually play that old material and it’s new to them. That’s totally a plus.

TV: These fans both new and old, those who have been with the band since 1991 and those who are just picking it up from Somethingness — what can these fans expect on this tour?

JP: Expect a good amount of new material but also paying respect to the catalogue. We’re still playing the hits, but we’re incorporating different new material every night. We have songs that we pop in place of other songs. We’re playing a larger, more diverse collection of songs.

TV: Would you say that going to both shows in Toronto, you would experience two different shows?

JP: 100 per cent, there is no way we’ll play the same set.

TV: Does that exemplify how the band is staying true to itself? It’s not out there to play to the majority, it’s out there doing its own thing.

JP: Totally, totally man. You have to do that stuff that turns yourself on before you can try to present that to the masses.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Our Lady Peace will perform at Massey Hall on March 15 and at Rebel on March 16.

Black Panther is already revolutionary

Marvel's new film is the result of massive cultural collaboration in the Black artistic community

<i>Black Panther</i> is already revolutionary

Kendrick Lamar said it best on the opening track of the soundtrack to Black Panther: “Sisters and brothers in unison, not because of me / Because we don’t glue with the opposition.”

The sticking point across the entire production of Black Panther is unity. The making of the film, comics, and music represent a mass confluence of mainstream artistic participation.

The soundtrack, curated by Lamar and released on February 9, mixes hip hop, rap, and R&B. It features SZA, ScHoolboy Q, Khalid, The Weeknd, Future, and Lamar himself, among many others. According to Complex, Lamar decided to produce the soundtrack upon watching scenes from the movie.

At first glance, the reason for the total cultural push behind Black Panther seems obvious. It’s the first mainstream superhero movie with a Black protagonist, taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has been meticulously crafted with numerous blockbuster hits. The film’s namesake, the supremely cool T’Challa, the Black Panther — played by the previously relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman — is a warrior and leader unlike any other.

The production became something of a star-scape of world-class Black talent. Aside from Lamar and the soundtrack artists, the film stars Michael B. Jordan and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o alongside Boseman, and it is directed by Ryan Coogler, the director of 2015’s incredible Creed, which also starred Jordan.

Preliminary reviews are glowing. The film has a 97 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics praising its direction, performances, and screenplay for delivering a charismatic and powerful movie. The soundtrack has been described as “beautiful, propulsive, and spacious” by Rolling Stone, which noted the significance of many of the lyrics: they allude to “age-old African diasporic dreams and 21st Century politics.”

The film is a symbol of empowerment for a marginalized group. Hopefully, the movie will succeed in provoking a thoughtful discussion of racism and racial identity in our collective cultural conversation.

What’s behind the rise of Brockhampton?

'The Internet's first boy band' is set to perform in Toronto on February 8

What’s behind the rise of Brockhampton?

“Me llamo Roberto — y me gusta bailar.”

With these seven words — meaning “My name is Robert, and I like to dance” — that open their music video for “Boogie,” Brockhampton, a self-described boy band, herald the coming of their latest album, Saturation III.

With this latest addition to their discography, Brockhampton maintains their fresh brand of youthful and bold hip hop while moving forward in terms of intricacy and musicality. But the quality of their music is only part of their allure.

Rappers and other artists release hit songs and records all the time. What makes Brockhampton special is that the group is redefining what it means to build an artistic brand. Now, following the release of Saturation III, they have become a unique, independent, and creative powerhouse.

Formed in San Marcos, Texas in 2015, the founding members of Brockhampton first met online on a Kanye West fan forum, where they began sharing tracks and collaborating with one another. In 2016, they decided to move out to Los Angeles together.

All 14 main members of Brockhampton live together in one house in south central Los Angeles. They include the regular performers you see in Brockhampton music videos, as well as producers, a photographer, a graphic designer, and a webmaster.

In this small house, Brockhampton has become a self-sufficient machine, churning out three albums in one year, filming enrapturing music videos, and crafting their absurdist aesthetic. They’ve self-funded most of their creative output and founded their own label, Question Everything.

Living together like a boy band has allowed the group to dive headfirst into their artistic pursuits and create a cohesive product, one that has surpassed similar projects like the hip hop collective Odd Future.

The devil is in the details. Brockhampton’s video thumbnails use an all-caps font in bold, bright colours, against a black and white background photo. Every music video begins with Robert Ontinient, the group’s web developer, delivering the latest edition of the ‘me llamo Roberto’ statements, an odd Hispanic prologue to the subsequent events of the video.

What usually ensues is a whirlwind of incredible storytelling, lyricism, and infectious beats, as well as surrealist sequences and the band’s typical absurdist comedy.

Brockhampton lyrics have a wide scope, addressing issues of homophobia, racism, and domestic abuse, coupled with recurring themes of inadequacy, anarchist nihilism, and brotherhood.

On Saturation II’s “JUNKY,” Kevin Abstract, the band’s leader and arguably most recognizable member, raps about coming out to his mom and the dangers he faces living as an openly gay Black man.

In the “JUNKY” video, sitting in the backseat of a car with his face painted gold, Abstract is flanked by knife-wielding, baby mask-wearing men in a film sequence that evokes the stylistic influences of Salvador Dali and Quentin Tarantino. In the same video, Merlyn Wood takes a bath in Froot Loops.

On “RENTAL,” Dom McLennon raps about his fear of “being everybody else.” On “GUMMY,” the group samples Veronica Petrucci’s “Star Against the Night,” a soft orchestral interlude, and then they abrasively interrupt it with an image of Ameer Vann with a llama on a leash.

It’s these sorts of idiosyncrasies that have endeared Brockhampton to their fans and given them such massive success thus far. Even as an independent collective, they’re on the bill for the Governors Ball, a massive festival in New York. They’re slated to play at Coachella, and they’re selling out shows across North America.

Brockhampton has managed to churn out content that is tuned to mainstream issues, albeit in an increasingly countercultural way. They operate as their own creative and stylistic directors. They don’t use ghost writers. They don’t have the backing of massive publicity firms and labels, and they have virtually none of the usual sex appeal of a manufactured boy band.

Despite all of this, they have over a million monthly listeners on Spotify. They are masters of style, and they use the personalities, stories, and beats that surround them to tap into collective consciousness with ease.

Perhaps their relatability is why the band is enjoying increasing celebrity. Brockhampton are frank and real to the core.

Brockhampton will perform at Rebel on February 8.

Tafelmusik Orchestra’s series brings together DJs and baroque

The next instalment of Haus Musik takes place February 1

Tafelmusik Orchestra’s series brings together DJs and baroque

Tafelmusik, the critically acclaimed Canadian baroque orchestra best known for its thrilling yearly sing-along of Handel’s Messiah, is widely appreciated for its classical style, flawless choir ensemble, and enchanting period instrumentation.

On February 1, however, Tafelmusik’s Haus Musik series will return, targeting a different demographic by removing its formal attire and rows of seats in favour of DJs and a bar. The immersive concert, boasting music that defies genre, will feature a rare combination of baroque style and DJ sets from Noble Oak, a fitting name given the event’s advertised theme of “bringing the great outdoors inside.” 

The Varsity corresponded with Anna Theodosakis, U of T alumna and a guest director for Haus Musik, about the upcoming event.

The Varsity (TV): Haus Musik events are described as “atmospheric” and “immersive.” Can you elaborate on what this means and what people should expect from this event? How does this differ from other Tafelmusik events?

Anna Theodosakis (AT): Haus Musik strives to provide audiences with an immersive experience that enhances the music presented. All the added visuals like sets, lighting, and movement are directly inspired by the music thus creating a cohesive journey for the audience.

Unlike other more traditional Tafelmusik concerts, the audience is encouraged to wander through the space, relax at the bar, and interact with the actors and set installations. There is no separation between the performers and audience like a stage, the entire space is part of the show and so are you.

TV: In addition to excellent music, this event promises aesthetic appeal, including “imagery and dance” and an exploration of the theme of “bringing the great outdoors inside.” How is this visual aspect woven into the rest of the event, and what does it add to the overall effectiveness of the evening? Is there a set, or is the atmosphere more evocative of a bar?

AT: We are creating a mystical forest within the Longboat Hall complete with an interactive, majestic tree. There will be a series of video projections and we’ve paired the musical numbers with nature soundscapes. Our dancer is a deer/human hybrid who will interpret both baroque pieces and electronic music, bridging the two musical worlds.

There is still a bar, of course, and the audience is encouraged to compare the contrasts and similarities between indoors/outdoors, music/nature, and baroque/contemporary.

TV: The music at this Haus Musik event features both baroque and DJ music; how will these different forms of music complement one another? Is the music still played on traditional period instruments, or does it take a more modern form?

AT: Noble Oak, our DJ and electronic music composer, has a background in classical piano and understands what to pair with the baroque sound. In both the baroque and electronic set there’s an emphasis on long lines soaring over atmospheric ensembles. It’s amazing that when compared with contemporary music the baroque pieces can somehow seem just as radical and progressive. The baroque set will be performed on traditional instruments including the rare Viola d’amore.

TV: The target demographic of this event is clearly younger than that of other Tafelmusik events. What makes Haus Musik appealing to a young adult crowd? Is the ultimate goal to draw younger people to more traditional Tafelmusik concerts, or it is simply to expose younger audiences to classical music and different concert experiences?

AT: Haus Musik draws in younger audience members who maybe aren’t as familiar with baroque music as they are with the contemporary offering. The hope is after being exposed to the baroque genre they may choose to attend a more traditional concert or continue to attend the Haus Musik series. Regular Tafelmusik goers are also being exposed to something new with the addition of the electronic artist and visual impact. Whether someone attending is new to baroque music or an expert, the real goal is to provide a new and exciting concert going experience that will enrich their listening experience.

Tim Crouch, Senior Manager of Marketing & Audience Engagement, told The Varsity that Thursday’s event is the sixth Haus Musik event, with the next one planned for April 26. Each one will showcase unique DJs and artistic directors and thus offer a different experience from the last.

Advance tickets are $20, with $25 tickets offered at the door. Doors open at 8:00 pm at The Great Hall at 1087 Queen Street West. Be sure to check out what promises to be a concert unlike any you’ve been to before.

How rap, R&B, and lo-fi artists are crossing the east-west divide

Exposure to Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese artists is enriching North American music

How rap, R&B, and lo-fi artists are crossing the east-west divide

For many western listeners, exposure to East Asia’s complex modern music culture has come through Korean pop, and Korean pop alone. It’s no wonder why — the genre’s catchy tunes, clothing, and intricate choreography come together to form the complete entertainment package.

However, this is an association that will soon start to change. Last year saw a rise in rap groups and R&B artists across many Asian countries’ music scenes.

Such growth can only be excellent news for music fans, regardless of nationality. Eastern reinterpretations of traditionally western genres, such as R&B and rap, with their roots in African-American culture, are vital to music, emphasizing the best aspects of both traditions.

The bloating of R&B has become a plague in recent years, with flat, stunted projects like Drake’s Views and XXXTentacion’s 17 trying to manufacture the emotional resonance that great R&B artists establish with their listeners.

However, fresh perspective from Asia has arrived to help reverse that trend. Artists like the half-Japanese Joji, with his debut EP In Tongues, have provided a welcome antidote, eschewing vague, commercial lyrics in favour of lines with tangible impact.

It’s Joji’s focus on tactile songwriting that has become arguably his greatest strength. “Will He,” a bitter love letter from an ex-boyfriend, asks a former lover, “Will your tongue still remember the taste of my lips,” and, “Will your shadow remember the swing of my hips?”

The songs aren’t very long, and repetition is frequent, but — reminiscent of some tracks from Frank Ocean’s Blonde — they prey on your senses, using your sense of taste, smell, sight, and touch to pull you into stunning places.

Joji builds a visceral connection with his listeners that has mostly been lost with artists in the modern day. Hopefully more artists will build on projects like these, which focus on the elements of R&B that make it stand as its own art form, and hopefully they cross over to western audiences.

Joji’s instrumentals reveal evidence of a notable trend. Rarely featuring more than a piano, a guitar, some trap-style hi-hats, and a simple bassline, they mirror his songwriting in their simplicity and surreal melancholic vibe.

Compared to the synth-heavy R&B that has gained popularity in recent years — think of The Weeknd’s Starboy or 6LACK’s Free 6LACK — Joji’s tracks are startlingly unique. Here, though, Joji is only building upon another genre of music in which East Asian influence has been key — lo-fi hip hop.

Historically, lo-fi rap was characterized only by its low-fidelity recording quality, hence the name. Modern lo-fi has taken on some additional hallmarks — tracks are superbly relaxing, and their dreaminess is nearly unparalleled in other musical genres.

Saib, a popular Moroccan artist, samples Japanese vocalists on tracks like “in your arms.” and draws inspiration from Asian locales in songs like “Shinjuku Metro Line,” named after Tokyo’s busiest train station.

Matatabi, an up-and-coming Japanese producer, makes great use of a sample on his song “Walking in the Moonlight,” while Brazilian artist Digital Waves brings back the infectious funk of ’80s pop artists such as Tatsuro Yamashita on tracks like “Talkin.’”

Iconic western songs in the field of hip hop, like “Who Shot Ya” by The Notorious B.I.G, have always been defined by an ability to enrapture the listener with simple beats that set a unique mood. Lo-fi artists, breathing life back into forgotten eastern songs, are one such example.

Perhaps the most surprising musical development of 2017 was the continued growth of quality rap from musicians like South Korean rapper Keith Ape and Chinese hip hop group Higher Brothers. Dressed almost exclusively in brands like the Bathing Ape, their aesthetics bear a striking resemblance to American groups like Migos. They draw on trap beats that any Atlanta- or Florida-based rapper would be happy to work with, and they even carry western vocal techniques across linguistic barriers. In the absence of English, anglophone listeners pick up on the importance of vocal delivery by listening to these artists. In English tracks, listeners might be swept along by a particular line or verse, not understanding the finer vocal details that separate it from mediocrity.

By contrast, Keith Ape, stepping on the track “Achoo” with Ski Mask the Slump God, delivers a performance in Korean that makes you want to bob your head from start to finish. Even without any knowledge of his songwriting ability, it’s easy to pinpoint his strength in pacing — as with his 2015 hit single “It G Ma.” Ape constantly manipulates the tempo of his rhymes, slowing down and speeding up with precise timing.

The Higher Brothers also help underscore elements of rap that western consumers enjoy, even if they might not be able to articulate why. Really, it’s because the Higher Brothers have adopted the triplet flow used by American rappers for their use in Mandarin. Dividing each beat into three notes, they’ve ensured that songs like “Flo Rida” and “Young Master” will stay stuck in your head for days.

When the listener can’t get caught up in the lyrics, they’re forced to pay conscious attention to the artist’s sound. Listening to songs like these can force music connoisseurs to think critically about the reasons why they like the music that they do.

Western artists haven’t been oblivious to this development either. Florida natives like Ski Mask the Slump God and XXXTentacion collaborated heavily with Asian artists throughout 2017, while rappers such as Famous Dex and 21 Savage made brief cameos on the scene.

This crossing of the east-west divide is absolutely necessary. The refreshing perspectives regarding songwriting, instrumental focus, and lyrical delivery provided by elements of different East Asian music scenes will add immeasurably to the richness and complexity of the global music industry as a whole.

Dorval takes home the gold at Winterfest’s Battle of the Bands

The band competed Wednesday night against Newcomer, Rocket Bomb, and Basset

Dorval takes home the gold at Winterfest’s Battle of the Bands

Once again, Battle of the Bands was a Winterfest highlight, with four bands competing to take home $500 and a gig at University College’s Fireball dance.

WENDY WEI/THE VARSITY

Act I: Newcomer

The night opened with Newcomer filling out the Lee’s Palace stage, and an early crowd reluctant to move too close. After the first song, lead singer Matias Gutierrez invited the crowd to “dance or bounce around,” and bassist Joshua Sofian did his best to fuel the hype by jumping up and down himself. 

They played a few new songs, including a particularly catchy number called “Rushed.” Marty Camara stood out on drums, especially during lead single “Zeitgeist.” Gutierrez also caught the crowd’s attention when he threw in a ‘ting goes skraah, pap, pap, ka-ka-ka’ from Big Shaq’s “Man’s Not Hot.”  Despite the band’s best attempts to pump up the room, however, only a few brave souls danced beyond the invisible barrier.

WENDY WEI/THE VARSITY

Act II: Rocket Bomb

It wasn’t until Rocket Bomb came on and lead singer Jagger Cleeves called out people for “still sitting” that the audience began piling to the front of the stage. Playing popular covers of songs like Bruno Mars’ “Locked out of Heaven” really got the crowd dancing. 

Drummer Daniel Kiss kept up audience interaction by asking everyone to turn on their phones’ flashlights for a slower, original song, in which Cleeves sang poetically, “This is my uncomfortable place.” 

WENDY WEI/THE VARSITY

Act III: Dorval

As the ‘redemption’ band competing a second time, Dorval was definitely the most prepared for Lee’s Palace. Their use of stage lighting drew attention to different band members, topping last year’s performance. Dorval’s stage presence had also matured even more — perhaps it was the added presence of bassist James Yoannou, perhaps simply another year of experience. 

Daniel Lewycky’s vocals were on fire, bringing to mind blues-rock artist Barns Courtney. Midway, Yoannou announced that it was Lewycky’s birthday, and the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to him. Dorval’s energy was unstoppable for the whole set, with drummer Adam Moffatt actually standing up to play. 

WENDY WEI/THE VARSITY

Act IV: Basset

Basset rounded out the night with a softer indie folk set. Yasmine Shelton immediately captivated the audience with her powerful voice in a rendition of “Feeling Good.” The rest of the set alternated between original songs and unexpected rearrangements of classics like Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” 

Watching ensembles perform is quite different from watching rockers. Basset was not rocking out per se, but their shared smiles let the audience know they were enjoying their performance, making them a delight to watch. Musician Sam Clark was proof of their versatility, slinging his mandolin over his back in order to pick up his violin during seamless transitions from one instrument to another. 

Notably, Shelton was the only woman to perform at the event, and the first woman to be part of a competing band since 2015’s Battle of the Bands. Even the emcee, Kaitlyn Ferreira, noted that there were “a lot of men performing” at the event. Last year, The Accolades had a female guest singer join them, but for the most part, male artists have dominated the event.

Shelton said that at U of T at least, she rarely sees women in bands, though she is not sure why this is the case. She encouraged women and non-binary people to join ensembles, saying that she does think “there are people who are open to having them there.” 

“Maybe it’s just not their first instinct to reach out, but I think having the courage to go out there and find people, maybe that’s what’s lacking,” said Shelton. “But I think it’s worth it.”

“I would say if you are going to join a band with men, make sure they’re great people because the music industry isn’t necessarily known for being particularly great for women,” she added. “The further you go, in a weird way, the fewer options you have in terms of picking your people based on character as opposed to skill level.”

At least on Wednesday night, everyone on and off the stage appeared to be having a good time. The night ended with the judges announcing Dorval as the winners, to the sound of cheers from the audience.

WENDY WEI/THE VARSITY

Live at Lee’s Palace

Winterfest's Battle of the Bands to take place January 10

Live at Lee’s Palace

Winterfest’s annual Battle of the Bands takes place this Wednesday, with four bands competing for $500 and a gig at University College’s Fireball dance. Each boasting a diverse set of influences from funk and blues to classic rock and indie folk, this year’s lineup promises enough energy to give the new semester a proper kickoff.

The 19+ event takes place at the legendary Lee’s Palace at 8:00 pm and, as usual, cover is free for U of T students who are of age. For non-U of T attendees, cover is $5.

Here’s a look at the groups competing for the grand prize this year.

STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

Newcomer

Appropriately named for the youngest band competing, Newcomer’s four members all met at U of T and started playing as a full band together last September. Lucas Ratigan and Matias Gutierrez both play guitar, with Gutierrez also on vocals, while Joshua Sofian plays bass and Marty Camara plays drums.

Despite their relative newness, Newcomer has already signed onto Mississauga-based record label Coin Records. They describe their sound as similar to alternative rock, citing The Strokes as a major influence, but they describe their writing processes as feeling “for the vibe.” They love performing, but their standout trait is their dedication to producing music they love.

“Whenever I feel like the rest of the guys are really vibing to the song, when we’re all vibing together, that’s a good Newcomer song,” said Gutierrez.

“We understand each other musically,” explained Camara. The band said that the audience can expect to “definitely connect” to their lyrics because they are widely interpretable. So far, they have two singles out, “Maternity Leave” and “Zeitgeist,” but all agreed that they are currently the most hyped about their unreleased songs. Be sure to come on time to hear a preview of their upcoming album.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCKET BOMB

Rocket Bomb

Rocket Bomb’s guitarist and lead singer Jagger Cleeves and guitarist Josh Papa are childhood friends who moved to Toronto about two years ago. They began recording an unreleased EP in November 2016, which helped them recruit their drummer, Daniel Kiss, and bass player, Jerry de la Cruz, last summer.

Although they are all alternative rock fans, the band aims to produce pop music with a funk edge. It is refreshing to hear from a band so ready to entertain yet still focused on writing solid tracks, citing DNCE and Bruno Mars as influences for their collective sound.

“It’s kind of an effort to write pop music, but it’s so much more fun and more satisfying because it leads to people who are surprised by it,” said Cleeves. “In the end, they are like, ‘Whoa, you really went out on a limb here and made something cool.’”

If you are not a fan of pop, don’t worry. According to the band, their performances are an experience, comprised of not only visuals, sound, and the feel of the show, but also the natural chemistry of the musicians. In other words, you don’t have to love their songs to love their shows.

Photo by TIM LEYES PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesy of BASSET

Basset

Previously called Sheepishly Yours, the almost year-old Victoria College band comprised of Yasmine Shelton, Sam Clark, and brothers Aaron and Noah Philipp-Muller is now Basset. Primarily an indie folk band, their collective classical training gives them a unique grasp of technical musicality, as seen through their diverse instrumentation and three-part harmonies.

For Wednesday’s performance, they will most likely stick to strings, with Clark switching between the mandolin and violin, Aaron on guitar, and Noah on cello — but each member plays multiple instruments. All of them offer vocals on one track or another. Shelton’s lead vocals are especially versatile, easily adapting to different styles.

“Especially in Toronto, there aren’t a whole lot of bands that use mandolin and then have a cello as their bass instrument — that’s kind of unusual,” said Aaron. Unsurprisingly, they noted The Punch Brothers as a major influence on their sound.

While their acoustic instruments might not line up with the rockability of Lee’s Palace, the chemistry between the four and the effort they put into workshopping each song should make for a tight show. Expect to be pleasantly surprised by unique rearrangements of popular songs and to hear some original tracks.

PHOTO COURTESY OF DORVAL

Dorval

Those who attended last year’s Battle of the Bands should remember veteran band Dorval’s stunts and theatrics, which they promise will continue at this year’s show. The band formed at the end of 2014, but now bass player James Yoannou joins the original duo of guitarist Daniel Lewycky and drummer Adam Moffatt, allowing them to produce a fuller sound. Yoannou and Moffat are U of T alumni, while Lewycky is still a U of T student.

Moffatt described the band as “alternative experimental blues.” Although they have rock and roll similarities, Lewycky emphasizes the climax of a song as much as possible, which he said is “a very bluesy thing to do.” Despite the clear blues influence, they pride themselves on the uniqueness of each of their songs.

“It’s when the three of us come together; we start making the songs more progressively interesting than one of us could have done alone, which I really like,” explained Yoannou.

They are currently working on a second EP and will play some of their new songs at the show. Their first EP, A Match Made in Toronto, was released last March. Live shows are one of their greatest strengths, and their blues-inspired tracks are “more danceable than you might think,” so prepare to get up and groove.