“The Drum Record.” Talk about the shift in your production style and aesthetic that happened for this.
Bob: Stuff like that just progresses over time, I’m coming off of six months of not writing any beats, I played piano the entire time, I was tired of the ideas that I kept coming up with, it felt like I just kept going back to the same rhythms, the same melodic ideas and harmonic ideas, and I went from the very beginning, working on the Korg. That was the first gear, the beginning of the Brother Reade project, in which I was using Jimmy’s MPC, and from there, I went back to another keyboard, and I’d been working on a keyboard for years. You look at that thing, and if you’re not a trained pianist, you learn how to use it, and then you always look at it that way. You understand the relationships of the keys, but in a very defined manner, because you taught yourself.
I took off a bunch of time and I really wanted to change my relationship with what a keyboard meant to me, and also the relationships of the keyboard, notes, chords, etcetera. Just coming off of that, those six months of not writing, I started writing a little bit with the keyboard and then bought two MPD18s, which are these two small MPCs but MIDI joints that you can plug into your laptop. After all that study on keyboard, I got all those things and started writing stuff on that.
Now, I think what the Drum record has taught me is that the things that I’m strong at, that I believe I’m strong at, is rhythm, and rhythmic ideas, and so it was something I just needed to enhance in any degree that I could, and so playing on a keyboard, it was totally counter-intuitive compared with playing drums. I grew up playing drums. So I looked at it one day and was like, “Well, why am I trying to play piano when I’m a drummer, shouldn’t I just be playing drums instead?” So just working from there, the new-new stuff that we’ve been doing, I’ve been writing just on those, which is a whole different experience.
You imagine the person that wrote that sitting in the studio, just really feeling it, bobbing their head, elbows are jerking, knees are jerking, standing up, listening to it, dancing around, it’s a whole…once you get into these off-rhythms, you have to feel them to get it right. -Bob
That’s out now, right?
Bob: Yeah, that one’s out now.
Jams: All that stuff flows way better into a live setting, too, for us, just because you already know how to play. Your playing is way more on the crazy levels than what it is with rhythmic instruments.
Bob: It makes so much more sense, too. Because rhythm is just body movement, and so like my fingers, they move well, but I don’t think I sense rhythm completely in my fingers, I think I have to move my whole body to make it all make sense, especially your more off-kilter things. That’s what’s crazy about all these rhythms that took me a while to understand, is because you’d hear people do something, we’ll say like, for instance, out of the UK, beat scene stuff or UK funky stuff, you listen to it and some dudes totally get it and understands the rhythm, and then some of them, you listen to it and go, “This just kind of knocks around, I don’t really believe that the person that wrote this feels what the rhythm is, but their interpretation of it is that it’s just an off-kilter rhythm.”
Jams: They hear the weird, they don’t hear what’s really underneath it.
Bob: So they program off-kilter, and you go, “That’s part of it,” and they got that part right, but then the dudes that really understand it, they play, and you can tell because of the way their beats swing, and the off-hits and everything, that they totally understand exactly where the rhythm is.
Jams: Their shit actually knocks, though. The lowest common denominator in that shit is the most important one, all the other stuff is beautiful. You could tell the wheat from the chaff just by if it knocks or not, you know?
Bob: It knocks because…you imagine the person that wrote that sitting in the studio, just really feeling it, bobbing their head, elbows are jerking, knees are jerking, standing up, listening to it, dancing around, it’s a whole…once you get into these off-rhythms, you have to feel them to get it right.
Jams: It’s like how somebody can dance or they can’t dance. You see a girl and the way she dances is actually attractive to you. It’s the same thing, it’s not even a confidence thing, it’s a kind of compatibility or cultural wavelength or some shit that people are either on or they’re not.
Bob: You just have to get loose, too. You can’t just sit in there…it’s not like programming a house song where you’re like, “Oh, this part comes in, there’s this build and then this part comes in.” The good stuff, if you listen to it and you feel it, it all makes sense that the next part’s coming and this part’s coming, and that hi-hat clicks right before the snare hits, and there’s that shaker that throws it up-tempo all of the sudden.
You don’t stick to the music unless you’re a behind-the-scenes guy or management or living check to check off of somebody big. You don’t stay doing nights with good sound in LA that are not like thousand-cap huge things, unless you just love quality in music. -Jams
When you’re talking about the off-kilter and whether it hits you or not, it’s hard to not think of the Low End Theory guys, like Flying Lotus.
Bob: That dude understands the rhythm he’s playing.
There’s a musicality to it, too. They’re all trained.
Bob: I feel those dudes are really on to something. I do enjoy it, because so much of their stuff is still based in rap. You can tell what they listened to when they grew up, and you hear it in the music that they make, it’s not just ambient kind of jams or whatever, it knocks, and that’s so important, because it carries on the theory of beats and just growing up and listening to rap and listening to instrumentals and being like, “Oh…” You need that version of it in 2011.
Jams: The Low End scene, those guys are not trying to be trendy, they’re trying to make shit that’s beautiful. You can tell, that’s their intention, and it gets carried off. Some of those guys have been around forever, and that’s always been their MO. You don’t stick to the music unless you’re a behind-the-scenes guy or management or living check to check off of somebody big. You don’t stay doing nights with good sound in LA that are not like thousand-cap huge things, unless you just love quality in music. That whole generation inspires me. It’s not even like loyalty, it’s like they don’t want to have it at somewhere they don’t want to go. It’s such a good indicator, if people throwing the night seem like they’d hang out at the place where it’s at, then their motivation has a lot to do with coming out and hearing their new tunes on a system, which is kind of what music like that has always meant to revolve around, always, in the beginning and the end, they never really change.
You have spent time in LA, New York, Winston-Salem, all places with defined and distinct hip-hop culture and sound, and I don’t know if you guys identify the most with LA or if bouncing around has allowed elements of all those scenes to creep into your style. Tell me about the influences, where it came from, and how your sound came about.
Bob: I think, really, it’s this back and forth between the two of us, and just our personal taste. We’ve just listened to the same thing and talked about the same type of stuff throughout every stage of our friendship, and so it’s something that’s crazy, because we’ll get into a record, and then we’ll listen to it and we’ll talk about it and discuss the ideas about it and what’s rad about it, etcetera. Once we were LA-based, I think we just happened to be listening to things that were in LA, but if we were anywhere else in the country or in the world, we probably would have been listening to them at the same time, because you’re talking about the early 2000s, Mad Lib, Dilla, all of that, and so all of that stuff definitely influenced us, but then we weren’t a part of any of that scene, though.
Jams: In a way, there are LA scenes, whether it's the beat scene or the hip-hop scene that we're on the fringe of, it’s just very much a mutual respect, and we don’t go out and try to sound like that. But playing shows in LA and having our music in that context, i.e. the house parties of LA or the venues of LA—and I mean LA in a very broad way—the scene around Echo Park, Silverlake, house parties, and mixed in with some of the bigger dates, more LA mainstay crowds, and even down to the stuff I’ve done with Smog, the more dubstep, crossover tunes…if anything, we took it all in and were influenced very heavily, I think, just in a wider way than if we had dialed directly into more stuff that sounded like us. In a way, we never really looked for influences that were like what we are, which is why we are chasing our sound all over the map.
Everybody I know says, I went to LA and didn’t like it, and I’m like, That’s like saying you went to a shitty buffet and ate the mashed potatoes and you were like, Fuck mashed potatoes. If you come to LA and have a bad time, you either need to move your vacation two miles east or west next time and start again.
I hear a lot of different production styles. It must be hard to put music out that isn’t immediately classifiable right now.
Jams: That’s very flattering.
Bob: Without a doubt, LA has been a huge influence, just in general, but as Jimmy was saying, on a whole level, just being part of any type of music scene out here, any type of social scene out here, I think, is always influential, just because there’s so much happening.
Jams: It’s such a specific town, I feel like just the layout of the city…you don’t find places that big and that populous but that wide. Everybody I know says, “I went to LA and didn’t like it,” and I’m like, “That’s like saying you went to a shitty buffet and ate the mashed potatoes and you were like, ‘Fuck mashed potatoes.’” If you come to LA and have a bad time, you either need to move your vacation two miles east or west next time and start again.
Not many cities make you work as hard for your fun.
Jams: I’ve been living in New York City for a year and some change now, and it’s definitely taken me in new directions, artistically, for sure. In a way, I really feel like geography, room you play in, even just the daily mode of interaction, everything you put in comes out in this strange way that you can’t even…I couldn’t explain it, but it’s like…even if we’re not necessarily bumping a certain record out of LA, we’re still eating tacos, so it all comes out in the wash somehow.
What’s next for Widows, what do you have lined up?
Jams: We have a new small run of songs that we need to do, that we’ve conceptualized what we want to come up with. I want to replicate some more multimedia projects, they kind of mix design and print, and then we have some great starting points for an album after this EP, and I really would like to set aside some time and do that in a focused, just the classic, “Oh, we went to X place for X months and made a record,” I think that’s definitely in store.
Bob: And do some more jams. We have beats that I’ve made over the past year or so that we could dig into, but we’ve definitely come up with some rad ideas coming off this other project, story-based ideas that we needed to explore, and then I think after that…what always happens is that we decide we want to do something totally different, then we do it, and at the end of it we’re like, “Oh, I made this beat, and Jimmy raps on it,” then suddenly we’re just back…
Jams: We’re like, “Let’s do this violin thing,” and then we’re like, “We need to make a banging rap song.” I don’t have any reason to evacuate any genres, I don’t have any problems with any genres. Whatever serves us well would be next. I want to make some more banging-ass rap songs, too.
You’re not pigeonholing yourselves within genre, you’re not even pigeonholing yourself within music, it seems you have a lot of ideas as far as what makes music one avenue for expression and then you have audio/video elements and even the Green Box augmented reality project that you're involved in. Is this part of your master plan as artists? It sounds as multimedia as you can get.
Jams: Yeah, to use an old and worn out term, we’re renaissance men, I guess, or renaissance people.
Bob: A lot of the stuff we’re doing just makes so much sense, because it shares a lot of the same ideas, and so then we broke down the idea of what Jimmy and I do, which are two very basic functions. I create structure, he creates words, and so just going between and playing with the idea of structure and words, you obviously can take that to several different mediums.
Jams: Or a graffiti project or film or a short film or even a music video. We’re trying to boil things down to basic elements and kind of run drills, just do whatever the task is, and to have that be that, just use the skills that we have.
Where do you think this wide range of sensibilities in art and music has come from? A lot of people are content to just be one thing. Where does this drive come from?
Bob: I think for me, I’ve always drawn, it’s still a large part of my life, doing paintings and art shows and things like that, and it’s always something I come back to when I feel a little burnt out on doing music, and I think having a larger project that combines the two of them, that fully falls in line with my own ideas about each, is the perfect thing.
When it’s just auditory, something’s missing without a visual companion?
Bob: I wouldn’t actually say that.
Jams: You’re already doing this other stuff anyway, just to get your mind off of music sometimes, and the smarter method is to inter-articulate everything.
When you have an audio element, it’s easy to see a visual side.
Bob: Also, on that I’m not entirely sure. When I make music, I don’t necessarily think of an image when I’m doing it. I’m not like, “And this happens, then this happens, the alligator jumps out of the swamp with a crown on…”
Jams: Really? Because that’s exactly what I was just thinking.
Bob: On a late night, I might have some type of visualization, but I don’t just draw a picture and think about, “Oh, this is the music that goes underneath it.” I think in my brain, they’re still combining into something that’s unified, but I’ve always thought of them as being two separate things, and I think the exciting part is to…you understand their meaning by themselves, and once you start combining elements, then it’s really rad to then wrap your mind around what idea it is that they share or that binds them together.
Jams: For me, I was born this way. My granddad was on some shit, he was a tobacco auctioneer, which is not unlike what I do, and he was a painter, and then he taught himself Spanish from some records, and he went down to Mexico and painted in Mexico and then started doing stained glass. But he was kind of into physics, so he kind of taught himself a lot about contemporary physics, this is in the Seventies and Eighties, and once he took physics and stained glass and made these things called Penrose tilings. I don’t understand it, really, but it’s some tiling shade that articulates some theoretical physical principle, and my granddad made a stained glass example of it and sent a picture to all these scientific journals and got on the cover of them. He lived two blocks from me when I was growing up, I just thought that was how you were supposed to be. “Oh, cool, you have all these real disparate hobbies that are really hard to keep up and cost money and are really intense, and you put them together pretty effortlessly, and if you ever want to learn to do a thing, you just teach it to yourself by working really hard for a couple of years and then you get really good at it, and then you either move on or stick to it or both.”
It sounds like a solid metaphor for your approach to music.
Jams: It’s funny, because I wasn’t able to put these thoughts together until years in. “Oh, OK, that makes sense.” The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.