Interview by John Bugbee
I knew that doing a track by track interview with billy woods about his new album Dour Candy was going to be a cool experience. The level of insight and detail he puts into every verse he writes is staggering, especially compared to most of his contemporaries. I was surprised though, not just by what a great, genuine guy he was, but by the same level of insight and detail he put into explaining the songs to me. Whether you’re considering giving the album a listen, or you already love it, hopefully this breakdown gives you a window into the creative process of one of the most brilliant artists on the planet in 2013.
Thought on Tracks: For the intro track “Prologue” what movie was sampled and why did you choose it?
billy woods: It’s called The Dancer Upstairs, it’s John Malkovich’s directorial debut. I saw it around about the time it came out, it’s old now…I just think it’s a great movie and part of the reason is I grew up with in a family where my dad and people around me really believed that Marxist revolution was stuff that they lived. When I was a kid I was really up on different groups or whatever, just out of curiosity… I lived in a country where there was wars and it was exciting to me, the of idea of being a guerilla fighter and all of these sorts of things were really glorified. I always knew the Shining Path. I would argue that it’s a top 3 name in leftist revolutionary groups of all time, and it sounds good in Spanish too, Sendero Luminoso. Now of course they ended up being total psychotics and more of a cult of personality and they got way off the reservation… [The Dancer Upstairs] is one of those movies when every time you watch it you catch something new. So I was watching it one day with this girl and [heard that dialogue] and I was like “Yo, I need that”, and then the fact that at the end he said he would never allow anybody to photograph him. Also the reference to history in the beginning he says “You’re a man who understands history right?” That’s the opening line, and obviously my last album was History Will Absolve Me.
2. The Undercard
ToT: “The Undercard” sounds like a day in the life of someone caught in between two worlds. Can you speak on that concept?
billy woods: The beat for that, “One Thousand Nights”, and “Cuito Cuanavale” were all sent to me as part of a batch of really dope loops that Blockhead chopped up when we were about 60% of the way through the record…I told him I was feeling them and he said we should sprinkle them throughout and create some sort of structure. That was one of the big things Blockhead said that helped progress the album further… It let me explore some ideas without a whole lot of structure in a way that I liked while providing structure for the rest of the album. I was really free within these little loops to imagine little self-contained scenes. With “The Undercard” the same night as a show the character that I’m portraying is going to get a re-up… before I do a show a lot of times I can’t even be in the venue, I’ll be like out walking around and just come in the venue when it’s time to perform… When (the character) leaves he’s nervous about getting bagged up, but then at the same time it’s blending with the nervousness about the show. He kills it, but never losing sight of the backpack with the re-up in it… I got this crazy story about “The Undercard” too. I was with this photographer Alexander Richter at my house this other day and he said “It was cool how you did that Clipse thing on the first song” and I was like “yeah, I thought that was cool”. Then he was like, “I put it in and as soon as it came on, before I even heard the lyrics, I was like wait…” and then I was like “wait, what are you talking about?”. Then he was like “that song, the beat, they did the same beat”…I end up looking it up, I had never heard this Clipse song “Freedom” until the other day… The crazy thing is I made, just by sheer coincidence, a “Pushed a ton, no Malice” reference on a song that [uses a beat] from a Clipse song… It was fucking bizarre.
ToT: “Gilgamesh” feels incredibly personal, at the same time it’s almost too interesting to be true. How did this song come about?
billy woods: That song is pretty important to the album. It was in the first batch that Blockhead sent me and I don’t know if anyone else he was collaborating with passed up that beat, but to me when I heard that beat I was like ‘Oh my God!’… I think it’s one of the best songs in my catalog personally… I was coming back from DC on the Chinatown bus and this really beautiful girl ends up sitting next to me and then we end up having this really involved conversation on the way up. She was half Dominican and her dad had somehow been involved with the Trujillo regime and she was like an illegitimate child or something, but she had grown up here…She was beautiful, political, and she was a writer and I’m sitting there like “Yo, I would wife this girl if I was still young.”…But she was talking about how Rafael Trujillo had this thing where he would come through and basically demand to have sex with the bride-to-be on her wedding night… Then she started talking about this story of Gilgamesh which I didn’t know, so then I looked up the legend of Gilgamesh and it was pre the Bible, but it was a creation story that was very similar to the Bible in a way…One of the reasons God made another creature for Gilgamesh to do shit with was they complained that Gilgamesh was demanding the right to sleep with their wives on their wedding nights. So my narrative starts off when an ex I’m close with comes to town and, surprising to me, we end up hanging out and she admits she’s getting married, but basically wants to fuck… I listen to songs and [rappers’] sex lives are so triumphant and that isn’t always how my life [has gone]… In the second verse I wanted to give a couple different perspectives, maybe in the video it’ll be clearer, it’s the same character in a way, but a different scenario and situation… The “rattling medals” line is because Trujillo gave himself so many medals, I always thought that was funny. Like you’re the president and the head general and he had so many medals they called him bottle caps because you could hear him clicking wherever he would go. I like the idea of him still wearing them, he probably just unzipped his fly to smash with his epaulettes on!
4. Redacted (ft. Elucid)
ToT: “Redacted” has a great feature from Elucid, you guys have developed some serious chemistry in a short period of time. What’s it like to work with him and how did this song come about?
billy woods: Starting off working with him it was a really difficult experience for me because I wasn’t used to always getting outdone on tracks. I figured you need challenges in life to get better and so I started taking a lot more time in working on those songs… Elucid can really do it all as an MC so it’s a big challenge [to work with him]… I asked him to get on it and he came up with a great chorus. To me it’s a song that makes me want to break out good trees.
ToT: Does the word Manteca have a meaning and does it relate to the concept of the song?
billy woods: I’m a huge Spike Lee fan and Crooklyn was on. There was one scene with the tranny in the convenience store and they’re playing “I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia” and it’s this whole dance scene and the bodega owner is freaking her…I was like “Why are Dominicans singing about I’ll never go back to Georgia?”… [Manteca] is the name of an Afro-Cuban jazz song that Dizzy Gillespie did and then the Joe Cuba Sextet in the 60’s put out the one that I am used to [as an homage]. They took that ‘never go back to Georgia’ chant from Dizzy Gillespie’s introduction to Manteca. Obviously Dizzy Gillespie’s “I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia” is connected to the early civil rights movement and they just took that out of context and used it and I found that interesting. So I thought it was a cool word and I already knew from living in (a Puerto Rican/Dominican) neighborhood that Manteca is lard or pig fat. I thought this is a song about living the life and the police and all of that, and I snuck that “I’ll never go back to Georgia” line in there, and the Kool Aid Man line for which I am most proud.
ToT: Have you ever been witness to someone’s door getting broken in? You’ve made a few different similar references in past rhymes.
billy woods: Yes, one time when I was living in D.C. a long time childhood friend who’s since been deported, let’s just say he chose our guests very poorly on a regular basis…They were men of ill repute and one day after they left, the cops showed up and forced their way into the apartment much to everyone’s chagrin. Suffice to say I did not sleep at that apartment again.
6. Central Park
ToT: This was one of my favorite songs on the album, I commented in my review that it feels like a much different song, especially with the beat and the scratched chorus, than the type of production that you usually work with. Was that a conscious decision or do you even feel that it’s different for you?’
billy woods: Blockhead would just send me the beats and I would [choose the ones I wanted] and hope that they wouldn’t be taken yet. I just picked it and Blockhead was like “Oh, I was hoping you would pick that, but I really didn’t think so because it’s so different.” I was like, “yeah, it’s different” but I feel like I’ve rapped on every type of beat in my career so to me it wasn’t that different… Blockhead was really excited about it and thought people hadn’t heard me rap on something like it and scratching the chorus just seemed like a no-brainer, DJ Addikt is really good.
ToT: If it was done right I could hear a whole album of you over that type of production and it would be a completely different look for you and I think it’d be great.
billy woods: If somebody came to me I would 100% do that. What I really want to do is do a 4 or 5 song EP with Lil Ugly Mane, if he gave me 5 beats, that’s all I would need… If I had 5 Ugly Mane beats, it would inspire different things than if I had 5 Aesop Rock beats, I want 5 of both of those people’s beats by the way.
ToT: Do you feel like you changed your tone with the lyrics at all?
billy woods: It’s interesting how delivery and the music itself can affect how people look at something because “Central Park” to me is a pretty depressing song. When I started writing it I latched on to the idea of the park as a central device and went from there with hustling or whatever… The second half is facetiously about removing yourself from situations, but you don’t have anything to do for other people who are caught in those situations because the manner in which you do it [might not work for them]… There was a situation with my cousin where I did one or two things, but I didn’t put myself out there like that even when I got the feeling that things were going wrong… My cousin actually did end up going to jail after he fled for a little while to Jamaica, then he came back and he took a charge and they gave him a decent plea, but he got convicted of being in possession of a gun in New York. I question the legality of why he was searched, but it was like “why is my cousin out there with a gun like that?” and “what did I do when I saw [what was going on]?”
ToT: When I first listened to the album “Poachers” didn’t hit me right away but the more I’ve listened it’s become one of my favorites.
billy woods: I tried to convince them to make it the first single and I couldn’t understand why only Blockhead and I seemed to think it was absolutely the shit, but part of the reason is that’s the only song on the album where I had anything to do with the production. I sent Blockhead the sample, I’d also like to note now that [“Poachers”] is not on the [official] album. It’s another one where the narrative is not as clear [as it might seem]. The two verses are kind of different and I think sometimes people think they’re the same. They start with the same metaphor, one is they come for somebody else and then the other one is they’re coming for me. Poaching is when you’re killing animals on the king’s land… The idea of stealing and taking things and people is part of the idea…Police come into the neighborhood and take people.
ToT: I interpreted the first verse as the ‘kingpin’ is watching as one of his underlings gets arrested and then later they come for him.
billy woods: That’s understandable, it could work like that. There’s no kingpin in this because none of these people are doing anything that’s worthy of kingpinhood. It’s more about the fact that they come for this one person and how that ripples through the community while this other person is watching the stage and then in the 2nd verse it’s another person in the wilderness and people came for me, but they’re the ones who got harmed… It’s like “everybody’s got a plan till they get hit in the mouth”, that’s a Mike Tyson quote. I tried several times to work a Mike Tyson reference in and I just couldn’t [until then]… I did that song and I told Elucid he had to do to the chorus and he took a long time to do the chorus, but when he did do it, it was flames. I love that song, I love performing that song, it’s a fun song to rhyme. The structures flip a couple times and it felt like stuff was just tumbling out.
8. One Thousand Nights
ToT: What was the concept for “One Thousand Nights”?
billy woods: That was another one where Blockhead sent me the sample where it’s more of a loop and we just kept it stripped down. The idea behind it was trying to talk about dating and sex in an interesting way… There is some aspect to getting over the end of a relationship and you’re putting yourself out there more, but I’m not really the type to be like “let me make a song about this shitty date I went on” because actually nobody gives a fuck.
ToT: I didn’t know who Scheherazade was until I looked it up and it kind of gave the song an interesting twist. Was that just added at the very end, or did you have that character in mind the whole time?
billy woods: I read your review and I was like “Blockhead, isn’t it weird that people are saying they have to google Scheherazade?” and he was like “What? I don’t know who that is.”… But as far as Scheherazade, the whole idea that she keeps this king at bay for a thousand nights with these stories.
ToT: I can’t say there’s any song I like more on the album. You had a couple lines with Indiana related wordplay, Marvin Harrison is my favorite football player of all time and then the Hoosiers reference. To me it’s as good of a beat as you’ve ever rapped over. How did it come together and how do you feel about the song?
billy woods: It was the first song I wrote. It’s cool that people like it, I like it. I remember questioning if I made the second verse long enough, but I was like, “fuck it, I like it how it is”…It was very free, the 2nd verse has a thematic relation with the first verse, but that’s it. I like the chorus a lot, a little bit of a Public Enemy interpolation there…I was really happy to get that Marvin Harrison [line] in there although almost nobody knows about that whole thing… That’s what makes the whole story so fascinating is Marvin Harrison is like such a low profile guy and then when you research the story there was this dude who just still resented him. [see: The Dirtiest Player via GQ]
ToT: There are like 4 or 5 choruses from you on here that are really good. Sometimes in the past it feels like you’ve avoided doing choruses, I know on the Super Chron albums Priviledge did a lot of them. Is that something you’re trying to do more of and do you like writing choruses?
billy woods: Yeah, you know you gotta get better. I still like having non chorus songs and doing other things, but I try to make sure that I don’t have choruses that are OK. If I’m going to do it I want it to be really good and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better.
10. Tumbleweed ft. Aesop Rock
ToT: Aesop Rock is one of the best MC’s out there, it feels like a natural collaboration because of the pen skills that you both have. What was the concept for the song and what was it like to work with him?
billy woods: I’m a big fan… so it’s been a big thing not only working with Blockhead, but getting to know Aesop more… I can’t tell you how much it means that he’s into my music and agreed to do a song, I have a lot of respect for that dude… I admire his ability to be consistent and innovative, he really doesn’t have two albums that sound the same… We sent him three beats to pick from and he picked this one which I was happy about, and then I just let him set it off… If there was a companion piece to “Blue Dream,” this would be the song after “Blue Dream.” Now you’re broken up and you have a shit load of spare time and not many people to spend it with.
ToT: I thought I might have misinterpreted the first verse of “Hack” in my review. I noticed the cab references, but there were certain parts that convinced me it was about dealing as well.
billy woods: That is what it is. It’s both of them. Also a shout out to my man Richard Price… He wrote Clockers, in Lush Life he started using the term “quality of life” for these unmarked police cars that were disguised as yellow taxis in New York… The protagonist is like, “I hate hustling at night, just increases the chance ‘quality of life’ gonna flash them ‘misery lights,’” Those are two Richard Price terms, “quality of life” and the “misery lights” are blue and reds. I love both of those terms, what could be better than “misery lights”, they go on, that’s how you feel… It’s like yeah, you’d rather stay home and rap, it’s conflating the issue of hustling, rapping and life…The other part of it is I wanted to address being a hack…A lot of people now just pumping out product, the same thing over and over…I was also trying to say with [the chorus] “Write the rhymes they wanna hear right”, that’s what hacks are eventually doing.
ToT: The vocal sample at the end of the song, talking about guy getting trapped between and a subway train and the wall, is very creepy. Where did that come from and why was it used?
billy woods: It’s the worst… When we were doing it in the studio Blockhead was like “This is just fucked up.” I was laughing. I used to watch “Taxi Cab Confessions” when it first came on and I just searched for that episode back in the archives.
12. Fool’s Gold (ft. Open Mike Eagle, Moka Only, & Elucid)
ToT: Did you write you’re verse to “Fool’s Gold” first with the title in mind or how did that come about?
billy woods: I gave everybody a loose concept and then both Mike and Moka ended up talking a little more about the rap game and Elucid and I ended up on a different tip, but that worked because of how the song is split up… Mike’s verse is perfect to set it off, I like the Doomposter reference. Elucid’s verse is pretty fucking crazy…I believe it’s about a succubus. I think that’s what it’s about, maybe I shouldn’t even be guessing what his shit is about, but it’s like an otherworldly experience, being visited at night by this creature. My verse is pretty obvious… Me and my friends used to joke about the type of guy who says to a sex worker “I’ll take you away from all of this.”
13. Pro Wrestling
ToT: Talk about “Pro Wrestling”.
billy woods: This is one that a couple people have gotten wrong. It’s not about politicians, it’s just about 24 hour news media.
ToT: I was one of them. It’s crazy because when I first wrote my review, that’s how I interpreted that song, but after listening a couple more times something convinced me that it was about politicians.
billy woods: Obviously politicians come on the shows to engage in the wrestling drama, but that’s essentially what I’m talking about. I was reading Harpers and there was an article or an intro from the editor and he compared somebody on the news to a pro wrestler and I thought it was a great analogy… Half the time I can’t even watch CNN, I might watch Fox News to laugh, but a lot of times it’s just easier to watch the BBC or Al Jazeera because people are not shouting… I wanted to use the Ric Flair [sample] and I wanted to know the best place to put it. Once I recorded “Lucre” I really liked how it went into “Lucre,” because he’s talking about all the money.
ToT: “Lucre” was another favorite of mine. It’s a very potent song lyrically.
billy woods: “Lucre” was the last song that I recorded. The chorus was something that came to me after reading a Cormac McCarthy book. This guy said in there “They say God remakes the world every day, but the amount of good and evil, he never changes.” He didn’t say it [exactly] like that, but that’s what he said… It’s ambiguous, he doesn’t say the amount of good and evil is properly balanced or imbalanced or what it is, just that he doesn’t change it… The song itself is kind of about back room deals, how power and money are wielded and used… [The line] “What you expect with a black president elect” is talking about how it’s really hard to get certain types of ammunition because they’re scared that shit that hasn’t been grandfathered in is going to be taken by Obama, and the price of gold skyrocketing after his election, I just thought that was funny… In the second verse I’m painting a picture of a country in turmoil… This guy finds himself in the wrong place with the wrong side, even though he didn’t have his uniform on he still got expeditiously murdered… They’ll tell people “you can’t take the bodies out of the street” in order to instill fear or exert control… It’s like somebody’s life hinges on the inflection in somebody’s voice… The “Anwar Sadat/Death Parade” is my favorite line on the record, but that’s my own thing.
ToT: When you make a song like “Lucre” that has detailed political and historical references and themes, does it come out naturally or what is your process in making a detailed statement song like that?
billy woods: “Lucre” was actually not difficult to write and I felt really good about it when I was writing it…I don’t really separate the songs in my mind. I feel like Americans have a separation of the political and the other things in their life…I didn’t grow up in that scenario… My parents would have a party and people would argue about social, political, and gender ideas the whole night. So if you wanted to feel grown up when you were 8 years old, then you would find something to say and be involved.
15. Cuito Cuanavale
ToT: It feels like a continuation of some of your songs where Mugabe has been referenced before. I didn’t know about the specific battle that the song is titled after, or about Africa’s current relationship with China, can you speak on that a little?
billy woods: In Africa right now China is really active, I was just watching Al Jazeera the other day and they were talking about China’s whole thing with Nigeria and the oil, but in many ways, including the way that Africa is now a dumping ground for cheap Chinese goods, Africa stopped producing their own shit…With China owning all these things I’m trying to make the point that the people are not benefiting in any appreciable way. Obviously there’s a Cuban Linx reference [in there], there’s probably some road Cuba built and now China owns land where miners are striking something. It is mentioning Angola, but it’s less about that battle than the ideas represented within that… I’m trying to refer to the bigger idea of winning a battle like that, on one hand it’s the shattering of white supremacy. At that point South Africa had never been stopped in a military objective in its history since becoming a republic. Not only was that a new experience to them, but the South African public found out they were getting in this war they hadn’t even really known about, and that they had lost…From that point on the illusion that they could solve everything with military force was gone. They thought the CIA would come and help them and the CIA was like “actually, no we’re not going to”… That burned the South Africans because they think they’re in this global fight against communism and they realize at that moment that the United States still is not willing to put themselves as South Africa’s ally in front of the world… People that you think are riding with you, when the shit starts to go down are like “We barely know the guy”… The whole refrain is from Marlo from The Wire, “You want it one way, but it’s the other.”
ToT: The line “I bridge the gap from Marechera to Sweatshirt”, that’s one of my favorite lines on the album.
billy woods: Me too. I think of Dambudzo Marechera being the one who blazes the path for the generation that comes after Sweatshirt’s father…So I’m saying between Marechera and Earl Sweatshirt, is me.
Pick up Dour Candy over at Backwoodzstudioz.com and look out for a “Tinseltown” remix dropping soon.
Cult Favorite consists of MC Elucid and producer AM Breakups. I reviewed their stellar debut For Madmen Only earlier this year and reached out for them to be the guinea pigs for a new interview format I came up with for Thought On Tracks conveniently titled “Track for Track”, designed to give the reader some insight into the concepts behind each individual song contained on a particular album. They obliged, we linked up over Skype and peeled back some of the layers of the onion that is For Madmen Only.
1. People’s Temple
Thought on Tracks- Elucid on the first song “People’s Temple” your rhymes sound like they’re from the perspective of a cult leader. Can you touch on the perspective you used to write the song?
Elucid- I just wanted to set the vibe for the album as far as like the concept as the Cult Leader. I mention
Father Divine and Daddy Grace and those are two guys from the New York Area, leaders of large groups
of people in the 50’s for Daddy Grace, and Father Devine was a little earlier on in the 20’s. Also I had in
mind guys like Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre. A lot of the lyrics like “for who so ever believes”
are like bible verses. I was raised a lot of my life in the church so coming out of that, that’s like second
nature to me. I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian now, I don’t go to church or follow those kinds of
teachings, but it’s natural for me to reflect back on that.
ToT- When you say “Fear not you are perfection, would you die for my message, after all that I’ve
invested” you could take it from the perspective that someone is deceiving someone or possibly
helping them out.
Elucid- It’s encouragement, but with ulterior motives there, even evil…With the Jonestown example he
did that so much that these people packed up and left the country…
AM Breakups- It’s scary to have blind faith in anything. I know kids that I grew up with that are Jesus
freaks now and you can’t get a thing in their ear because they are so thankful that someone has done
this for them. It’s a very strange psychology to get into that, it’s almost unnecessarily guilt driven, like
you gotta pay them something back.
ToT- The specific word “Technocult”, is that something you came up with? Or where did it come
Elucid- It came from a free write session. (I just thought) these words sound cool together. Technology
and Occult, you can kinda jump off from that, like “Data miners tracking my keystroke/ they offer me
deep throat” thinking along internet lines with surveillance. It included ideas like police brutality as you see in the interlude at the end. I try to have concepts, but I’m not the best with that honestly, I just kind
of let it go.
AM- Which is amazing because your songs are all so conceptual by the time they’re done.
Elucid- I think it comes out of being aware. I read news, watch news, read books…all that makes its way
out via the rap. But I don’t really think about things when I sit down and write, I just go where his tracks
ToT- AM, the beat on “Technoccult”, especially the drums, has a thick, almost underwater feel
to it that I feel is representative of the album. Were you trying to create any particular sound or
AM- (Elucid) really pushed me to do things out of my comfort zone that I’ve never done before. When
we were making it he would come over every Sunday for our Sunday worship. I would play him things
that I had worked on and wasn’t sure about and a couple of them that I didn’t think were worthy tracks,
he said “No, this is finished”. I would have kept going but he made me restrain myself at times.
ToT- For “Omega3,” which features billy woods, was it something where you already had the concept for the song and asked woods for a verse or how did it come together?
Elucid- We had already done “Freedman’s Bureau” and on that song I was going again with police
brutality and I think he thought “I can fuck with this kid”, so on this record here we went more with the
racism in America type of thing…I was working at this bullshit job and got harassed on the phone and it
turned into that song.
AM- You showed up at our crib right after work that day and were like, “You’ll never guess what
happened to me at work today”.
Elucid- Yeah, so it came out of that experience and when I sent it to (woods) he was like, “Oh yeah, I’m
all about it”. We had just started making the Cult Favorite record and he was like “What is it about?
What’s the concept” and I told him the title came from reading essays from Eldridge Cleaver and he had
a strong anti-opinion of Eldridge Cleaver, so his line (“don’t get it confused like Eldridge Cleaver/ Soul on
Ice, balls deep in white pussy/ still cuts like a knife when he out juxing”) is a little jab at my concept.
4. God Body
ToT- “God Body” is a different song from most of the album, is it about a specific relationship or what is it drawn from?
Elucid- It came from a couple different relationships, being attracted to these similar types of women.
AM- (Elucid) gave me the drum loop, but that’s interesting we haven’t really talked about how on a
couple of occasions it goes from the cult leader vibe the girl/romance thing.
Elucid- Yeah, I mean cult leaders have sex, we like to fuck too!
AM- As a whole package I think it’s cool because it exposes the weaknesses, where as other places it’s
much more bravado.
Elucid- I think I brought it in late into the album, I thought “I haven’t even talked about women at all on
this record” so I thought pulling from real life stories it would work.
5. Planet Earth About to be Recycled
ToT- “Planet Earth About to be Recycled” is an instrumental track so AM, I’ll talk to you about this
one. What does the name mean and is there a concept behind the song?
AM- It’s funny that’s the only instrumental on the record and (Elucid) made the whole thing.
AM- No, but he played the synth…if you notice on that track it’s the same high-hat from “For all of
These Birds” and then Elucid sat with a couple synthesizers and made most of the tones, he sent me a
60’s rock track that we sampled for the distorted screaming sound, and then he picked all of the vocal
samples. So he basically made the whole thing, I just put an 808 underneath it.
Elucid- Yeah it came from a lot of different voices like Khalid Muhammad…Marshall Applewhite…Alex
Jones, who’s nutty and controversial but there’s certain things that he said that I sampled from…Bill
Hicks was on there too.
ToT- Were you responsible for all the vocal samples used throughout the album?
Elucid- Yeah, I did all of that. Even on my earlier projects I did that. AM was the first producer to give
me full reign…he was just really free to work with me in that way, I could even produce my own vocals
and stuff like that, so it was cool.
6. For all of These Birds
ToT- “For all of These Birds” is a big song for you guys, being a single and having a video. There’s a lot going on in the lyrics and the production is great. Just take me through that one.
Elucid- I think “For all of these Birds”, like “Omega3”, came out of frustration with work, “Dressing
better than my boss when what I have’s not what I want/ Still I’m thankful others make it work with
less”. I knew what I wanted to write about once I heard his beat, it just kinda took me there, that was
probably my favorite of the bunch that we recorded.
AM- That’s another one of those tracks where I don’t know if I’ve ever produced something like that
before or if I ever will again…I think Jimmy Da Gent was spinning a Cam’ron song in the living room
at the time and I was like, “Fuck this, I can make my kicks like that” and then it just turned into this
Elucid- The title is his title from the original beat, I didn’t do anything but add lyrics…I did the whole song
from top to bottom with no stopping and thought it was the best song we’d done.
AM- You can hear him say “gotta switch it off, gotta go from the paper back to the digital” when he
switches from the piece of paper he wrote the first verse on to his phone where he wrote the second.
He did it in all one take and then we all just sat there for a while.
7. Then He Rose
ToT- You follow up “For All of These Birds” with “Then He Rose” which is also as good of song as there
is on the album…
Elucid- That one almost got cut from the record. I didn’t want to put it out…I didn’t think it was that
strong, I thought it was very confusing to people. I thought that way because it was personal to me
in my upbringing. It was like bible verses twisted to fit where I wanted to go with that…I didn’t think
people would be into it…(AM) convinced me to put it on there
AM- It’s important, it’s the counterpart for “People’s Temple”. It shares the “there’s a man at the
pulpit” kind of thing. For me that track has a lot of weird inside stuff going on…The intro sample where
the guys are talking in the studio, that’s Levon Helm from The Band and he had just passed away so I
found this studio outtake where they were talking and I put that at the beginning and Elucid, completely
inadvertently, wrote a lyric in that song that goes “The band played a song, a smile spread across the
Elucid- I had no idea that was a Band sample, I’d never even heard of The Band.
AM- Also back in the day Elton John was obsessed with The Band and wrote a bunch of his songs about
The Band including one called “Levon” where he says “(Levon) calls his child Jesus”. Levon had passed
away so it all came full circle with the “Then He Rose”/Resurrection thing and it became this weird head
trip of a concept.
ToT- “Demolition” was the first song I heard that really got me excited about you guys as a group. Was it one of the first songs you recorded together?
AM- The first one was “No Invitation”, which is truthfully an AM Breakups featuring Elucid track because
that instrumental had been used on my previous album The Cant Resurrection…but I was making (the
“Demolition”) beat and I was super, super stoned. Jimmy Da Gent had dosed me with weed butter, I
was supposed to go out on a date or something this night and it was like me and Jimmy Da Gent and
MC Eleven chillin’ at the crib and Jimmy said like “Yo you gotta make sure that you eat before you go on
your big date”. I’d broken up with a girlfriend of like 2 years, really nervous and the kid fed me so much
weed that I was stoned out of my gourd. Eleven’s sitting on my couch writing raps and I’m just making
this beat because I’m really frustrated and really fucked up and I’m like, “This is definitely for Elucid”. I
burned two CDs, one of regular AM Breakups beats and one with just (Demolition) on it…I came to that
show that you did down in the Village.
Elucid- Culture Fix
AM- I was like “Here’s all these beats you should check out, but this other CD is THE beat that I made for
you”…must have been a week or two later you were like “Yo, I listened to that one that you told me to
write to, and I kinda like it now, I didn’t know what to do with it at first.” That was the second track that
we actually recorded, but the first Cult Favorite track.”
ToT- To me “Mollywhop” is more of a classic hip hop banger, the way the track hits you immediately, Elucid comes through really clearly on the song, what was the feel for making that song?
Elucid- It’s another song that I did not want to include on the record.
AM- [Laughs] We wouldn’t have had any songs on our record!
Elucid- On the hook I was like, “Oh that’s too much DMX” and then again I thought it was too slow and
too dark to do live, but again it just worked, people dig it…This is like the end scene, closing credits ya
know? “Dark shades in the rain, 10,000 yard gains”. This is I’m getting taken down, the Feds are rushing
in, like this is it ya know? It’s me recollecting…The “no knock, no knock” thing that came from these
NYPD laws, they don’t have to knock if they find whatever’s behind your door, if they find suspicious
cause they can just barge on in and mollywhop upside that head.
ToT- AM on the piano parts on there, did you take individual piano notes and stack them together or
was that a sample used on that song?
AM- I kinda give it away at the end of the track a little bit when I let the original sample ride out for
a minute. I guess I shouldn’t tell who it is, but it’s a really well known sampled guy, Busta Rhymes
sampled him for a couple of old 90’s singles and I don’t think anybody in a million years would have
chopped that sample and used it the way that I did because it’s not the way that the rhythm was
supposed to go…but that’s just one piece, that is actually one of the only songs that has synthesizer on
the album that wasn’t from a sample. Both the bass and the twinkly synth that comes in in the second
half are from synthesizers.
Cop For Madmen Only on wax at CultFavorite.com and look out for the full album remix featuring an
all-star list of producers which is dropping later this year.
Interview by John Bugbee
Last month, I received a nondescript album submission from Huntronik, an electro-infused trio from Brooklyn. It was the type of email that typically gets buried in the siege of PR spam that floods our inbox on a daily basis. If I was a more intelligent man, I would spend my days designing an algorithm that filters e-mail based upon whether it was sent by a press agency or the band itself. Unfortunately, I only recently learned how to spell algorithm, so that venture will have to wait until a later day.
Within the submission was Huntronik’s debut, self-titled LP. The album features nine, concisely crafted, imminently danceable tracks that straddle the line between krautrock and more traditional, synth-heavy electronic fare. From the initial listen, it was apparent that Huntronik had more going on than the typical bedroom DJ and electronic dance output that has become so trite since multi-track home recording became the right of the everyman a decade or so ago.
The tracks combined textures and tones from a wide swath of influences. The lyrics were both cerebral and playful, growing in depth as each sonic layer was peeled back. I was immediately taken with the release, and wanted to know more. So I reached out Huntronik’s architect and lead vocalist Greg Hunt about doing an interview.
Below, you’ll find the culmination of two chats with Hunt. For readability’s sake, I’ve combined our two discussions. During the interview, we talked about Hunt’s recording process, his goals for the release, his influences – music and otherwise. We talked at length about Hunt’s fascination with the theories of scientist and designer of artificial intelligence, Hugo de Garis. De Garis is a mathematical physicist and leading researcher in the field of evolvable hardware, which uses genetic algorithms to evolve neural networks using three dimensional cellular automata inside field programmable gate arrays. You know, just your everyday music chat. Stream Huntronik’s debut LP, and read the bulk of our interview below.
How was your vacation?
I went to some, random. exploited Carribean island, and drank some girly drinks with big umbrellas on them. I went with my girlfriend and my family. It’s good to be back in our studio. I’m here now – in Greenpoint. I live in Brooklyn. Steve lives in Jersey, I think he’s moving to Brooklyn. John lives in Brooklyn. I’m originally from a town called Acton, right outside of Boston.
What brought you to New York originally?
I moved here four years ago. Just music. I had always played music my whole life, and I just really wanted to buckle down and grind it out in New York.
What kind of music were you into initially?
Initially, I was playing piano when I was about eight, and I played jazz music off and on. It would start and stop from eight to twelve, and in high school I started up again and kinda got into electronic music. I dunno. I listened to maybe like Chemical Brothers or something in high school and was kind of fascinated with two guys and these strange terminals and consoles that were actually kind of conducting this dance music, which I wasn’t at all familiar with. But I started getting into a combination of rock and electronic.
What made you make Huntronik a full band project, as opposed to something you’re just trying to accomplish on your own?
I really wanted to play everything as instruments. Even the electronic sounds. When we play live, we play those with our hands. There is actually only a few loops. Like two drum loops. I’m not a fan of loops or looping anything. It’s like 70s rock. I like that. But I do really like electronics that are kind of grimy and old and kind of feel like they grew out of something. I don’t like clean sounds. My favorite synth is EMS 50 from 1970. It’s like the greatest thing ever. It’s one of the first synthesizers ever made.
Talk about your writing process a little bit. Are these songs that you pretty much construct on your own and take them to the other two members?
Maybe half of the songs, I would just do on my own. Some of them were slower than others, as the process goes. When it was slower, we would tend to do a group thing. But that also worked really well. The song “Rabies” was definitely a really slow, group process that took a few months and the same is true for “Deeper Watts” which went through a number of different versions. It started out as something completely different, and then it just became this kind of groove-oriented song. But most of them, like say “No Deceiver” for example, I just did pretty much on my own and then we just framed it as a group.
Talk more about the various versions of “Deeper Watts” and how the band wound up settling on the end result.
Originally, the song had words and it was structured in a difficult way. In other words, I think we all agreed that it wasn’t enough of a song as it was when we started. And then we just decided to take the elements of the song that we enjoyed the most and re-work the song. So it ended up being kind of a more mellow. It worked as something to put in between songs with words. Cause we do like instrumentals. We like a lot of scapes.
A lot of people talk about music as math in language form, or something like that. And I’m not a musician, but music doesn’t register in that way for me. It’s more of a combination between creativity, technical skill and somebody’s ability to effectively communicate. You said that you don’t like loops, and prefer these dirty electronic sounds that feel like they grew out of something. Talk more about what you mean by that, and where that gets lost with most electronic music.
A great example is Conrad Schnitzler. He’s this guy who was one of the founding electronic composers back in the late 60s and 70s on up to his death a few years back. And, what he did was use these really obscure synthesizers to make music that sounded like some kind of alien communication or something. It’s very strange. It sounds completely organic. I think that there’s a certain sense of wonder that come from that kind of electronic music that you’ll never really get from that more mechanistic stuff. I also like German minimal house or something. But it’s almost like a different thing completely.
I mean, this term electronic to me is confusing, because there’s an argument that you could make that guitar music electronic. So it’s a confusing distinction to try to draw. But it just means more that I want to hear something that sounds like it’s alive I suppose.
What are some examples of stuff that you’re listening to these days?
Well for rock, I like bands like Iceage, The Men, and Cave. Cave actually came out of Indiana, I believe. It might’ve been Illinois. It’s either Indiana or Illinois. [They're currently based out of Chicago] For older rock, I like kraut bands like Can. For electronic stuff, I like this guy Pole, whose name I think is Stefan Betke. For older electronic stuff I like guys that were using really big, strange boxes. I have a bunch of really obscure records that are just crazy sounding today that people don’t really make. I guess Oneohtrix Points Never is like one example of contemporary electronics that I dig.
I remember when we were exchanging emails you mentioned Super Meat Boy, are you a gamer?
Yeah, a little bit. I played Super Meat Boy, X-Com. That was fun my friend has that. Yeah, you know. It’s fun.
On tracks like Deeper Watts, I get like subtle influences of video game sounds. Are those conscious influences at all or not so much?
I think so. I like 8-bit type sounds. I just like texture a lot. It’s odd, because I like melody a lot, but I also like texture. It’s one of those things I think people who are 30 or under grew up with. They were around video games and I think it permeated their brains or palate if you will.
Are there any other non-musical influences that informed this record at all?
Definitely. This guy who is a professor of computer science named Hugo de Garis. The song “We Can Build You” is basically just me trying to deal with a lot of his ideas and theories about computers. It’s hard really to articulate this, but I think today people do not associate rock music – at all – with computers. I guess if you say “computers and music,” most people are thinking of electronic music, and that definitely plays into it. But when you say computers, you don’t really think of rock music and I was trying to make a serious rock album that dealt with the future and what the future might be about for humans. I think Hugo de Garis has an interesting approach to rock.
I haven’t read his books, does he address something about music specifically. Or how did you apply what he was talking about to music?
That was the big challenge. It wasn’t all him. I don’t think he ever talks about music, but my big challenge was that if I want to approach taking this seriously. If I want to write a song like “We Can Build You,” for example. If I want to write a song about a higher intelligence and put it into the framework of rock music. Is that even doable? Will it still be interesting? I thought it turned out okay. I think, maybe it’s not something people will get all the way. Like, a lot of people will say, maybe this means something else. And that’s part of the fun. I don’t ever want to put something on a silver platter and say this is what this is. I like when people have their own interpretations.
I watched like two-thirds of that 21-part interview with de Garis. It’s fascinating stuff.
I remember when I watched that, I was pretty disturbed by it. I dunno. I work through a lot of ideas anxieties and problems through music. So, now I actually feel nothing about it. But yeah, I remember feeling really disturbed. But yeah, it’s interesting.
He’s most concerned with this issue of species dominance and its potential to inspire mass violence, but you said that you were less concerned with the pros and cons of what this technological evolution is causing. And that you were more interested in how it’s affecting our interactions with each other right now. I just wondered how you were able to push off that “threat” for lack of a better term.
That’s a great question. I think, for me, the way I see looking into the feature. I think the scientific community, generally the rule is, if you can view it, it can be done. So I just kind of internalized that, and said forget it. Whatever anxiety I have, there’s really not much to worry about, because whatever is going to happen will probably just happen. In other words, if I feel fear or anxiety about where technology is headed, there’s no point in me fighting something that can’t be stopped. I feel, not complacent, but I feel content that the direction technology is headed. But I don’t feel good about the way that people see themselves or see others, necessarily?
What do you mean by that?
For me, I know that there is a tendency now to be distracted and to lose focus on one thing, simply because there’s more distractions and there are more things coming at us. So, in that light, interacting with other people can become sitting in a room looking at a screen rather than being physically present. It’s that thing you’ve heard over and over: Oh, give a person a call and go hang out. But, I’m not necessarily sure that technology’s not good for socializing with people. It’s just something I wonder about.
You wrestle with some serious topics on the debut. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who hear the record, or see the band play live are not going to be digesting these songs on that level. So why do you think Huntronik’s music resonates beyond the heady stuff? What do you think allows it to reach listeners on other levels?
Mostly because it’s not a joke. The music is rhythmic, but the instrumentation that we use is a little strange. I use synths. I play a sampler like a keyboard. But I think fundamentally, it’s because the song structures and the grooves resonate on a musical level. I think you’re absolutely right. If you’re just casually listening to some band and you’re hearing these songs, I don’t think you would necessarily make the connection of what I had in mind. But it’s possible to come up with your own interpretations that will satisfy you as a listener.
How did the band come together initially?
Basically, it was me and this other guy playing bass originally. The other guy left, and John – the drummer – joined up, and then Steve joined up. Now, we have to swap out John because he can’t afford the band – he has to go and work. But there’s been a few different members. But it was originally just a duo, and now we’re a trio.
You said the other member has to go to work, does that mean you don’t have a day job?
Well, I vacillate between walking dogs and working at restaurants. Anything I can do to pay the rent.
Keep fightin’ the good fight. What are the plans for 2013?
For 2013, I’d like basically to get the album heard by as many people as we can, so that we can tour. I’ve got a lot of ideas about new music. I hope the other group members will be into it, and we can work on that. But pretty much, just playing shows and trying to get people to hear the record.
Are you planning to continue to explore this theme of technological evolution? What kind of ideas are you wrestling with?
I think I’m going to move away from the technology thing. Aesthetically, I think it will be similar. This is just guesswork at this point, but I think we might grow in a way, harsher. Not more abrasive, but I’d say more attacking or aggressive. I keep hearing these sounds, rhythms and stuff and I want to try to get to them. But I think lyrically, there are other things that I may want to try to approach. More along the lines of just being a person, and not framing it with science or theories or anything like that.
Interview and introduction by Rob Peoni