Before I delve into my (rave) review, I have to warn you,
reader: this song is an overwhelmingly scintillating odyssey with lyrics that
will either chill or inspire you. I cannot take responsibility for the intense
emotional reaction you are prone to have when you embark on this gorgeous,
sprawling, 7-minute voyage.
Here is a preview of some of the lyrics, all of which are
“Cold eats the flesh of broken hearts / tender the strike of tinder gods.
Embers across a rayless sky / still warm my soul, I often cry. Hot coals.”
…Kind of awesome imagery, right?
I am a staunch advocate for long songs with multiple phases. MGMT’s “Siberian Breaks” and Daft Punk’s “Touch” are definitely in
my top 25. And “Hot Coals” easily entered those ranks on my first listen.
Featured above is a fan-made music video that Edward Sharpe and
the Magnetic Zeros shared on their Facebook page with the following
comment from lead singer Alex Ebert:
The song lilts from a blues rock beginning into more familiar
alternative folk territory, before transitioning yet again into a jazzy and
upbeat chorus complete with masterful piano ornamentations and wire brushes on drums. The time changes just keep coming, surging forward seamlessly and sending the
listener deeper into this vivid arena of aural stimulation.
In later stages, there are trumpet features
and swelling organs that I believe are resuscitative. Seriously. If I
ever go into a coma, play this trumpet solo to revive me.
This is the first single to be released by the band since
their eponymous album in 2013. It is also ESMZ’s first studio release since their messy
split with Jade Castrinos. Many
fans have voiced complaints about the band’s sound without Jade, especially at
live shows. But if you’ve enjoyed Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros in any
musical capacity besides their hit single “Home”, you may find this change is less
a tragedy and more a testament to the band’s maturation. “Hot Coals” is
unmistakably Jadeless. And indeed, it is still a creative masterpiece that demonstrates
fantastic growth for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
There has already been plenty of discussion about how ESMZ
will have to adapt to losing their lead female voice. I would like to turn the
focus instead toward the statement “Hot Coals”makes: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros will thrive in this
Ten’s company: The band’s current members are Alex Ebert, Nico Aglietti, Stewart Cole, Josh Collazo, Seth Ford-Young, Christian Letts, Orpheo McCord, Mark Noseworthy, Crash Richard and Mitchell Yoshida.
Egert said, “Hot
Coals, to me, are memories.” Perhaps that is why the track is so remarkable; it
is a collection of nostalgias lovingly spun together into a song for the ages.
This single about memories establishes itself as more than memorable – it is an
unforgettable milestone in Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ discography
that has left me eager to see what flames they’ll kindle next.
It’s 10 minutes before the interview and my phone rings to my dismay. The basement of Winkenwerder was not where I wanted to talk shop with one of my favorite musicians. But there I stood, with a piece of TP in one hand and a buzzing cell phone in the other.
“Shit,” I mutter – fully intending my pun as I answer the Texas caller ID.
“Hi, I’m calling for your interview with André. I know it’s not for another ten minutes but he’s ready now and we’d love to get started.”
“Of course!” I grin as it starts to feel real. Standing with my pants half-pulled up, I remember my situation. “Erm… Can I call you back in 5 minutes? I just need to get everything set up.”
“Yeah sure. I’ll call you then.” Click.
I fasten my belt, swing my pack over my shoulder and head out into the hallway – frantic to find a spot to sit in relative silence. Behind a giant stump that looks like it was cut from a forest a millennia ago, I slump over and attempt to set up my audio recording equipment before my phone rings again.
“Ready?” He asks.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I respond with slight hesitation as my recording fails to start. A familiar voice is heard on the line and some light indie rock can be heard in the background.
It’s about time Portland grew up
From his home studio in Portland, Oregon, André Anjos talks about the last six years of his life living in the eccentric city. “I feel like a local,” he states first off, “and I love it here.” He goes on to explain that the city has been changing “like crazy” just like the Bay Area and Seattle. Referencing a recent trend in real-estate listings, he laughs about seeing “No California”-stickers, “as if that would dissuade people from moving here.”
Photo courtesy of Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
“People are complaining,” he goes on to mention. “They’re saying that a lot of things that made Portland unique is getting lost.” Although he really has appreciated the “amazing food” and “interesting things” in the city, André wants Portland to grow up a bit. Hesitating, he puts off the rest of his answer – stating that he might have a better opinion in a couple of years.
Portland, prisons and college
“Everything post-college has been here in Portland,” André goes on to say. “Well, sort of. I spend more time at the airport than at home.” We laugh.
“A couple of friends moved here.” His buddy, Karl Kling, had a girlfriend out here in college and they had a place to move. Rent was “cheap” – at the time it was $500 a month. Coming from a life at Greenville College in Illinois, this was quite the change.
“Three thousand people in the town were prison inmates and they counted that as part of the population,” he laughs. “It was a very small town and a dry town!” He had never heard of something like that before, especially since coming from Portugal, where the drinking age is fourteen.
When asked about his major, André couldn’t help but make a few jokes. “I got a music business degree, which is hilarious.” Greenville college was in the middle of nowhere and the Portugal native decided to learn about music from a bunch of old Illinoisans. “Maybe some basic knowledge came in handy,” he continues, trying to give some credit to his education. “But the music industry changes every year and you’re learning information that’s five years old in college.”
So, in school, he learned how the music industry used to work. “I guess you could say I earned a music business history major,” we laugh again.
The idea of RAC, what happened to the collective
“From the beginning, we wanted to be a group of people that all do remixes under one name,” he explained. “We could gather some talent and do it as a group as opposed to an individual person doing on your own.”
“How did that work out?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“You know when you’re in a group project and you’re the one person doing it all?” He asked rhetorically. “Well, I was doing it all. A lot of people had jobs and real obligations – I was just in school.” So André took over the project and started doing everything under the same name, Remix Artist Collective.
“The name stuck and I kind of ignored it. When I started touring, I brought Karl who started DJing with me.” The definition of the name, he went on to explain had started changing during those tours until it stopped meaning anything. As he moved into producing original music, it ceased to make any sense but, “at one point,” he explains, “I decided that I spent six years of my life building this brand… I’m just gonna stick with it.”
“It’s called RAC,” he concludes. “It doesn’t mean anything – it doesn’t matter.”
Now that things have developed and he’s become a writer of original music, the name has unintentionally become a point of confusion. He’s now writing with other people, covering tracks with his wife and has even produced original music for the HBO series, Entourage.
Independence, album woes and staying relevant
"I feel like I put out a track every week,” André says. “A lot are remixes but… it’s just easier to focus on a song at a time and just put [that one] out.” Since recording his album in 2011 and having to wait three years for the record label to approve the content for legal and distribution reasons, RAC has taken a step back from the traditional record deal.
“After the album came out, I didn’t really feel like it was relevant to do that in 2015,” he says of the album’s long release schedule. As of June 2015, a month after getting out of his contract, André has been dropping music at least once a month with a staggered release schedule. From single tracks to lyric videos, these regular releases are his way of “keeping [his] head above the noise.”
“There’s a lot of amazing work, and a lot of mediocre work out there… [the internet] is so incredibly saturated [with it]. Fortunately, a thing I got used to with remixes is getting to do things very quickly.” Despite the constant work, André is satisfied with this new methodology as, “with a waiting period that was once three years is now two months at the most.”
When discussing the success of his album, he reminisced but responded contritely, “the music doesn’t represent who I am anymore. You have three years of built-up expectations and when they don’t go in [the way you want], it’s so frustrating.”
Making music, with new singles and successes
Last month’s single, “3AM feat. Katie Herzig” (embedded below) has been quite the success – garnering almost half a million plays in the weeks since its release. When I asked him how he felt about this, André answered estatically, “I feel like we’re gaining momentum and people are catching on to what we’re doing. We compare numbers a lot since we’re doing things independently. Keeping my eye on it [lets me] make sure things are going well. I think it’s been a very fun game to get into that that, [especially] in these last couple of tracks.”
With all the data analysis that he and his team had been doing, I followed up by asking why he still makes music. Despite a somewhat-programmatic release schedule and metrics to understand their success, RAC manages to keep the soul in the music.
“So who do you make music for then?” I asked, “Your numbers? Your fans? Yourself?”
“Myself,” André answered, “Absolutely.” Stating that he continues to make music “purely for [his] own entertainment,” the man just wants to be happy with what he does. As it turns out a big part of him being happy is making others happy!
“I’m not just stroking my beard, happily listening to my own music,” he says. “For one, I don’t have a beard and I see it as kind of a game and it’s my job and it’s something to have fun with.” His goal is to “keep going” as he’s noticed the music is “creating an outlet for this weird desire [to] ‘have to make music’ and want[ing] to keep that going.”
“Part of growth is being heard and having people listen to your music,” he says. For André it seems that this is the core of the game. “Artists that say it doesn’t affect them are lying,” he continues. “If a lot of people are stoked about your song, it really affects you.”
In regards to his fans, he said “it feels good when sometimes people will leave really kind messages like, ‘hey this helped me out during this time of my life’.” He hears me smile through the phone and continues, “I don’t sit down and write songs to help people in that way, but it’s a really nice validation.”
Building a synth and making some music
In addition to his solo work as RAC, André still finds time to record music with his wife, Liz. “There was this goal on the surface to release [them] as a free track to celebrate when we hit milestones on social media,” he says of the covers (check them out on soundcloud). “There’s obviously a selfish side of it and it’s a fun project.” Aside from the benefits of recording for fun, he also has been grateful for the opportunity to be creative in a way he hadn’t tried before. “Working with Liz is also really fun,” he sums up, “even though we live together, we rarely collaborate.”
In his home studio in Portland, the electronic musician mostly uses physical instruments, “whether that’s a synth, drum machine, guitar, bass… I have a lot of toys and I just work [here],” he says. “It’s a really nice balance with the touring and, when I’m not touring, it’s good to be home.”
When it comes to his own production, André just “feels more comfortable” playing an instrument rather than programming music on the computer. “You can create exclusive items that you just can’t make on a computer since most people don’t have [the same] instrument,” he explains. “You create a unique sound that’s impossible to replicate.”
“The problem is that I can’t work when I’m travelling,” he continues. “I can’t fix a mix or something when I’m on the road, which can be frustrating.” Despite his long time spent on the road, the remix artist still finds time to come home and write original music on his modular synthesizer. “I’m a building a modular synth,” he says excitedly. “It started with one box and now I have five. It’s so much fun and it’s so nerdy!”
Yet the synthesizer has been more than a toy in André’s creative process. With it’s inspirational aesthetic and pleasantly unique sound, the modular synth has become a “magical machine”:
You turn the lights on and it’s blinking. It gets really heady sometimes when I have to think about every wire. But it creates a situation where a lot of unexpected things can happen. Most of the time they’re very positive things, like happy accidents – you can stumble upon a sound. It’s a magical machine. There’s so much potential that sometimes it’s too much… but it’s great because of that.
After geeking out about gear, it’s easy to become existential in describing the sound of an instrument. So André concludes, “I’m very into the studio and that whole process. I’d say I probably enjoy recording music just as much as I do writing it.”
Inspiration and dedication, some advice for new artists
The PR rep’s voice came over the line, “Hey guys. We’re running kind of behind so this could be the last question or so.” Looking at my notes, I grew excited as I read, “Which relatively new musicians have you been listening to or enjoying lately?”
Immediately, André answered, “A decent amount of people know Pomo. He’s a guy from Montreal and it’s just a breath of fresh air compared to the EDM, droning military march stuff. I really like it. His remixes are really top notch and I always check them out and add them to our set.”
I followed up by asking what advice he could give new electronic artists. He answered:
I think it’s important to learn how a lot of these sounds are created, specifically for electronic artists. If you learn the basics and understand synthesis, it’s going to go a long way. You can’t do the production tricks if you don’t know it. Learn the basics of recording and avoid presets. They are an easy way to get a specific sound that sounds good but then there’s everybody else and they’re using the same thing. If you can distance yourself from that and try creating sounds from scratch, [you’ll find] you’ll especially know what you’re doing.
Another line could be heard coming into the phone call and André began to quickly finish up. “Musicians need to beat themselves,“ he said. "You don’t want to be somebody else since they already exist. You can be inspired by other people, but try to do something that, personally, you’d be.”
On February 10 Alabama Shakes released the first single on their new album called Sound & Color, out on April 21. As a follow up to their 2012 album Boys and Girls, I’m expecting really good things from the Shakes’ new material. I already love what I’ve heard in “Don’t Wanna Fight,” but I’m excited to see what else they’re going to bring to the table.
Here’s the “Don’t Wanna Fight” animation video, check it out–
This funky, soulful song revolves around lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard’s mesmerizing voice. The power of the lyrics in “Don’t Wanna Fight” is upheld by the depth in Howard’s voice and the surrounding instrumentals.
The Alabama Shakes have been working on Sound & Color for the past year. Since teaming up with Blake Mills, a California-based songwriter/producer, the band has produced and recorded 12 tracks for this new album that will be released this spring. Sound & Color will be full of genre-bending songs, showing how the band digs into music history, touching on psychedelia and punk, gospel and classic rock, while maintaining the originality that attracted so many listeners when the group emerged from Athens, Alabama in 2011.
The group is planning an international tour upon the album’s release and will be playing at music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, as well. The band will also appear on an upcoming episode of Live from the Artist Den, premiering on public television stations this week.
You can preorder this album on iTunes, Amazon or the band’s website. Prepare yourselves for the release of Sound & Color this spring and keep your eyes peeled for the Alabama Shakes’ upcoming tour dates, too.