Soundtrack: Jerry Paper

Stones Throw’s Jerry Paper AKA Lucas Nathan shares the records that shaped him

Trying to figure out just one recording to write about as a formative record for me is… difficult. Should I write about Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean”, one of the first songs that truly blew my mind? I still remember where I was when I first heard it, 11 years old in the passenger seat of my mom’s car on the way to a friend’s house… Should I write about Syd Barrett’s Madcap Laughs? I remember hearing it when I was 14, realising I didn’t actually have to be a particularly virtuosic instrumentalist to make affecting music, realising that performance “flaws” can actually layer the emotional content of music. I felt set free as a musician for the first time, free to pursue my personal expression instead of worrying if it was conventionally “good”. Or should I dig into Scott Walker’s Climate of Hunter, exploring the revelation of hearing “Dealer” for the first time and becoming enamoured with it’s minimalist, sparkly, unsettling drama? Chico Buarque’s Construção? Steely Dan’s Aja? There is truly too much music that has had a profound influence on my idea of beauty, creativity, and music to focus on one thing. So rather than talk about one record that guided my journey as a young person, I want to talk about an album that has recently clarified something central about all the music that I love.

That album is Prefab Sprout’s recorded-in-1993-but-released-in-2009 album Let’s Change the World With Music, and if you’re familiar with it and think it’s corny as hell: please, bear with me here. This album fucking rules. Now, I think a lot of millennial Sproutheads are in the same boat as me when I say that when I first started listening to Prefab Sprout the only album I could really get into was the 1985 classic, Steve McQueen. It’s a masterpiece; moving, catchy, funny—everything I could want from a record. Gradually I expanded my horizons and developed a taste for other entries in the Prefab catalog, but I never quite got into anything released after 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback. That is until the guitar player in my touring live band (and my close buddy) Christoph Hochheim played the song “I Love Music” in the van on a tour last year. The song is funny as hell right off the bat. There’s a synthesised upright bass walking around, synth organ stabs, and Paddy McAloon singing extremely sincerely about how much he, as the title suggests, loves music.

As I subsequently listened through the whole album, I found myself simultaneously laughing and dancing. After a few spins, the uniqueness of the music and shameless sincerity of the lyrics really sunk in. It got me thinking, this music is so corny, so goofy, so sweet but why does it hit me so deep? Why is it so satisfying and affecting to me? The more I reflected on this I realized the thread that holds together all the music that I love the most in the world is personality. This album sounds like nothing but Prefab Sprout and it could come from no other person than Paddy McAloon. I can hear him in this music, expressing himself. Maybe the way they express themselves involve metaphors about music being a princess (see the song “Music Is A Princess”) or the almost unlistenably saccharine “Last of the Great Romantics”, but it is very much the sound of someone’s true expression.

Maybe this is some warped bit of American mythicism, romanticising the individual and all that, but music is such a weird and wonderful way for people to express themselves. I love people, and I love the sounds that people make when they need to affirm their existence. I love the myriad ways that people think through problems when they make art. I love the peculiarities in each of our ways of thinking, the fact that we all make different choices when confronted with the same 12 notes, the plethora of timbres, and the words that make up our experiences of the world. I love music.

Jerry Paper’s latest album Abracadabra is out now on Stones Throw records and can be listened to here

Thundercat

Stephen Bruner reflects on love and tragic loss with It Is What It Is

Photography Parker Day

Thundercat is from another planet. Not Thundera, the home of his cartoon namesakes, but somewhere much, much funkier. He is a galactic ambassador from sonic spheres outta sight, the spiritual successor to Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins. A 22nd Century Jaco Pastorius by way of the Hidden Leaf Village. Few musicians have such a gravitational pull, connecting stellar collaborations like constellations, and his bass playing abilities are rumoured to be over 9000. So why is he so down to earth?

On his latest album, It Is What It Is, he sings “Nothing is yours, nothing is mine, we are decaying over time. I’m going to find someone to love, let’s go together, innerstellar love.” The falsetto floats on a searching bass, preceding a soaring saxophone solo from long-time friend and collaborator Kamasi Washington. It perfectly illustrates the intimate inner space of Bruner, the cosmic expanse of his range, and the lyrical exploration of ephemerality that permeates throughout. “There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to my writing,” he reflects, “it’s very much an emotional process. It could be anything from a small noise to a spark of an idea. I was always taught to be honest in music, and sometimes you have to search for how you feel and go from there.”

Photography Parker Day

Produced by twin-soul Flying Lotus, Bruner’s fourth release on Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has all of his trademark off-beat charm and irreverent playfulness, the first half flitting between frenetic bass tumbles (How Sway), hectic drums (I Love Louis Cole) and fuzzy, thumping synth (Funny Thing). How anyone could not fall in love with the shameless, sexy hook of Dragonball Durag, or crack a smile at the line “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good”, is beyond me. Musical contributions abound, with Childish Gambino, BADBADNOTGOOD, Louis Cole, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Ronald Bruner Jr, Dennis Hamm, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil B, Steve Lacy and Steve Arrington all lending their hand. The latter two feature on the exceptional single Black Qualls, a soulful head-bouncing groove about the contemporary black experience that marries funk past and present, the refrain urging “no more living in fear.” I ask Bruner how he amasses this amount of creativity? “You never know what’s going to happen, someone could say no, but the way I treat it – there’s no pressure. I can only do it if it’s genuine and really resonates with me as an artist, you know when that moment happens authentically. It’s like Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald (collaborators on previous hit single Show You The Way), if someone held a gun to my head and told me to sing a Kenny Loggins song, I would win that battle. It’s in my heart, the people I collaborate with. I’m smiling every time there’s a song by Mike on when I’m getting groceries. I still reach out to him all the time, just to let him know I love and appreciate him.”

The most important partnership for the record is undeniably Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), the experimental electronic and hip-hop musician, DJ, filmmaker and (sometimes) rapper. The pair first worked together on Thundercat’s debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse back in 2011, and since then, have become one of the tightest duos in the industry: “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Lotus’ prowess and ability to create. It’s been a joy working with him all these years and I love the places our minds go. We match, spiritually, there’s a synchronicity that I draw a lot of inspiration from.” Both men’s families hail from Detroit and many are musical titans in their own right – Ellison counts Alice and John Coltrane as his great aunt and uncle, while Bruner’s father played drums with The Temptations, Gladys Knight and The Supremes. Was it inevitable he’d fall into music? “I am fortunate and thankful for the household I grew up in because it was exactly what you think it was, a bunch of musicians supporting each other. All my family members are very individual as artists, in our mindsets, the way we do things. We respect and acknowledge that when we offer up our different perspectives.”

Photography The1Point8

At the tender age of sixteen, Bruner joined his brother’s LA punk thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and would later go on to lend his talents as a session musician, first on Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah, then Lotus’ Cosmogramma and most notably on Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, arguably one of the strongest records to come out of America in the last decade. “As time progresses,” notes Bruner, “everybody’s starting to realise that Kendrick is one of those guys that transcends rap. Working with him was one of the best moments of my career. The last time I felt that level of intensity was when I grew up learning new music with Kamasi, Cameron Braids and my brother. Kendrick will bring that out. Sometimes I think, ‘I’d love a chance to do it like we did’, but it’s not always about that. The art of it is the part when it happened, we really did that.”

“It Is What It Is” isn’t a nihilistic shrug at life, but stoicism painfully learnt from the accidental overdose of Bruner’s best friend, Mac Miller, in 2018. The undertow of grief eclipses much of the second half of the album, and the title track and Fair Chance are filled with such longing and heartbreak that it’s sometimes difficult listening, were it not the fact they’re so beautifully composed. Halfway through the final song, a ghostly wind blows and he utters ‘hey Mac’ into the void, a crash of rolling funeral-march drums fading with strings. The hurt is raw and real, the loss keenly felt. How can anyone get out of bed and create something after an event as tragic as a friend’s death? Bruner takes a couple of beats and sighs softly, “You know man, talking about Mac, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Even if it hurts. It’s one of the most traumatic experiences of my life and it’s been hard, but nonetheless, so is life. You can’t have one without the other, the light without the dark. It was a lesson and I had to learn it. After he died, it was hard to be myself for a while, and it would scare my friends because I couldn’t focus my energy in one place. It’s not as intense as it was, and everything takes time. So that’s where I’ve been, taking time.”

It Is What It Is may be coloured by loss, but truly, it’s all about love – fraternal, spiritual, platonic, sexual, artistic, and all the spectrums in between. Before Bruner returns to his afternoon of anime and comic books, he says something that becomes more prescient with each passing day of lockdown. “My mom always said to ‘give a person their roses while they’re alive’. You don’t have to wait until someone passes to let them know how much they matter. I never miss an opportunity to let people know how much they mean to me.”

It Is What It Is was released on Brainfeeder Records April 3rd 2020

Coming Home with Caribou

Dan Snaith discusses his latest album Suddenly, a lyrical exploration of love, loss and family

“When the sun rises in the morning,

Upon my face you’re gunna’ look,

There’ll be nothing but love, joy and constellation.

All these things you’re gunna find in me

I’m home, I’m home baby, baby I’m home.

– Gloria Barnes

After Dan Snaith’s family relocated to Canada, his mother would send cassette tapes back to her parents in England, snippets of thoughts, memories, singing. A short snatch of one of these archive recordings, a joyful nursery rhyme to his baby sister, harmonises perfectly with the mournful voice of Snaith on the first track of his new album – over almost as soon as it’s begun. This sharp, inventive use of sampling, that is at the same time a deeply heartfelt exploration of family and home, is what Suddenly is all about.

Appropriately named for the surprising turns it takes, the latest from Snaith (AKA Caribou) has his recognisable, vibrant warmth throughout, but delights in deftly switching up its tempo, pitch and time signature – chopping and bouncing between dreamy pop, cascading RnB, rolling trap, house and hip hop. It may also be his most personal work to date. “It’s much more particular than my last album, Our Love,” notes Snaith, “I had just had my first child, the whole world was glowing and new and exciting. It had a kind of a utopian excitement about it and I wanted to explore love in the abstract. Whereas this time round, the lyrics and songs are based around specific moments that have made a difference in my life. These important events over the last six years were often tragic, deaths and divorce in the family, for example. I needed to write about them. I couldn’t dodge them. It doesn’t seem like it’s possible any longer to have the changes in my life not make an impression on my music. We are so caught up in the immediate – the details that require our attention every day – that we can be blind to the bigger forces shaping us. That’s why so often when something drastic happens suddenly it catalyses all sorts of changes in our lives – our perspective shifts.”

The songs cherrypicked as preview singles, You and I, Never Come Back and Home, are particularly strong – I could listen to the latter’s soulful loop all day. Other highlights include the warped piano of Sunny’s Time, shoe-gazing-80s-soaked-synth in Magpie and the wandering electric guitar of Like I Loved You. It’s an expressive, melodic and generous record marked by longing and restless experiments. What could be a disparate feeling album of sonic bending and contrast is held together by the thread of Snaith’s beautiful, floating falsetto which features on every track, a first for the Polaris Music Prize winner. I ask whether this was a conscious decision, or just another instrument he’s testing the range of? “I’m not a natural singer, or particularly comfortable doing it, so it takes a lot of figuring out to get a result that I’m happy with. It felt like this time around I had more that I wanted to say. The music is more personal, and I felt that my voice needed to be carrying that message, needed to be there centrally. If this album is like a photo album of the last five years, then that’s the function that it needs to play, capturing and remembering those moments.”

These moments are frequently embellished with incredibly diverse samples and flourishes, aural yelps and snaps – where do they all come from? “Dipping into my sample folder is a great way of changing the context or frame of the music, introducing something that you would never do yourself. Pull a bit of 1950s music musique concrete into the mix and just use a tiny section of it to send things off and enlarge your imagination. I’m always collecting those sounds, other voices. That collection this time around was really varied, lots of old and weird forgotten music from the sixties, seventies, eighties, but then also lots of recent mainstream stuff. There are two tracks I can immediately think of as having a direct impact on this album. Gunna – Speed it up has a repeated hip hop verse phrase floating through it, almost painterly in its layers, with a kind of underwater, woozy feeling to it. I’m instantly attracted to that sound which features in so much of the contemporary hip hop and RnB landscape. A lot of the production in both those worlds are avant-garde and forward looking at the moment. The other one – and this is not in any way an endorsement, 90% of the time I’m listening to the beat – is a XXXTentacion track called Moonlight. It’s got these marimba sounds, but the pitch is modulated and bent in all these unusual ways. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but listening to Sunny’s Time, at some level that was a direct input into the making that track. The atomised, discombobulated rap vocal that’s being chopped up is as explicit as a reference as there will be.”  

For a piece of work examining the strength and loss of relationships, as well as a celebration of what we call home, it’s fitting it was created in Snaith’s cosy basement, an ex-coal cellar. The result of whittling down a dizzying 900 draft ideas over five years with his wife Nitasha and close friend Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), also made for a uninhibited production process: “My studio is side by side, connected with my daily, family life. I take the kids to school and then normally make two new ideas every day, just starting from nothing. I love that process and I do it very uncritically. I’m not thinking about whether they’re any good or if they sound like Caribou. I’m just enjoying the intuitive, spontaneous experiments. Then they start to pile up! That’s when I turn to my wife, who is very insightful, and Kieran, who is endlessly giving me feedback to make sense of it all. I rely on this outside, completely unvarnished, honest feedback. Both of them are totally comfortable telling me exactly what they feel about something, which can be hard to hear sometimes, but it’s invaluable. There were 900 in total, and 600 of them don’t need to ever be heard again. They should be locked in a basement, which, fortunately, is exactly where they are.”

For any work of art, deciding how much of yourself you expose and make vulnerable, as well as those around you, is a crucial balance. Despite the lyrics being poetically applicable to anyone who has loved and lost, there is always the danger the real-life subject of a song misconstrues the gesture. Concluding our talk, I ask Snaith what reception he’d received from his family, who feature throughout? “My wife’s sister went through a super devastating, incredibly difficult divorce. I always try and be somewhat vague in my writing and would never name someone specifically, but I realised the other day that I hadn’t had that conversation with her, told her I had written a song about it. I didn’t want her to find out second-hand in a Canadian paper so called her up and explained that it was a tribute to her strength during that difficult time, luckily she was moved and very happy to be included. One that I haven’t yet had the conversation with, is the use of my mum singing. It was so evocative I had to include it. Because vinyl is the only format she listens to music on, I’m waiting to give her the physical record and show her credit on the back. I’m hoping it’s a welcome surprise!”

Suddenly is released February 28th