How Conservatory Training Pervades Electronic Music for Brasstracks, Alexander Lewis and JNTHN STEIN

We chat with Brasstracks, Alexander Lewis and JNTHN STEIN to see how they use their background in classical music training to fuel their electronic experimentation. Interview by Max Stern
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We chat with Brasstracks, Alexander Lewis and JNTHN STEIN to see how they use their background in classical music training to fuel their electronic experimentation. Interview by Max Stern
candid music group

It barely seems plausible that four close friends could independently find success in today’s competitive electronic music landscape. After attending Manhattan School of Music together, Alexander Lewis, Jonathan Stein, Conor Rayne and Ivan Jackson each carved their own paths from SoundCloud notability to bona fide positions as the most sought after emerging musicians in the electronic music space. When I caught up with the group, Ivan and Conor (of Brasstracks) had recently returned from tour opening for Lido; Alexander Lewis flew in from his new home in LA where he had been working in the studio alongside trap music heavyweight Yogi; and Jonathan Stein (JNTHN STEIN) just arrived back stateside after orating a demonstration for Ableton’s Loop Berlin conference with Team Supreme. 

“Classical” music training has casually pervaded electronic music for some time – producers such as Jon Hopkins and Floating Points employ their musical trainings to craft genre-transcendent masterpieces, Zedd applies his pianistic background for his pop-styled musical pursuits, and even Kygo has been known to make fans swoon by tinkling his famously pedestrian melodies on piano – but few electronic musicians have been keen to react as deliberately to their conservatory trainings as these four MSM graduates. 

Brasstracks

Brasstracks

While in school, Ivan and Jonathan created Candid Music Group, the name for a studio in their Brooklyn apartment that offered business and recording services to musicians whose training left them ill-equipped to deal with today’s ever changing music industry. Candid Music Group directly reacted to the incompatibility of its members’ formal musical training with the real world; the average conservatory musician graduates with no skill other than the ability to perform a dying breed of music, and Candid Music Group aimed to help these musicians develop viable careers from this narrow skillset. Since incorporating fellow MSM students in Conor and Alexander, Candid Music Group has expanded its aspirations from aiding emerging musicians, to breaking the bounds of its members’ musical trainings. Specifically, these four musicians aim to bring a new relevance to their classical and jazz backgrounds by melding traditional musical backgrounds with cutting-edge sensibilities from the electronic beats scene. 

Ivan and Conor of Brasstracks take the most straightforward approach to this combination of classical and modern influences, applying their backgrounds on trumpet and drums to collaborations with musicians such as Lido, Luca Lush and Schoolboy Q, as well as massively popular trap-infused covers and original productions. Alexander Lewis adopts a less derivative strategy, doing away with overt influences from his jazz training and instead bringing unprecedented melodic, harmonic and rhythmic insights to the future bass/trap-inspired genre, as well as the occasional placement of his own trombone, playing on releases and live performances. Perhaps even as notable as his astute sense of harmonic and rhythmic devices, Alexander has left his studies with an unparalleled, conservatory-inspired work ethic, on one occasion creating seven fully formed tunes in seven consecutive days. Under his JNTHN STEIN moniker, Jonathan takes the most brazen musical approach of the group, applying incisive harmonic sequences, orchestral timbres, classically informed melodic motifs and the occasional jazz bass solo to his distinctive style of dark trap music. 

JNTHN STEIN

JNTHN STEIN

These three projects approach electronic music from drastically different perspectives, but they each have caught listeners’ attention for their own reasons. This impossibly coincidental set of musical successes is virtually beyond reason, hinting that there must be something significant about the pairing of conservatory training with modern electronic music. As humbly as they portrayed it, these core members of Candid Music Group also alluded to this significance when I spoke with Alexander Lewis, Brasstracks and JNTHN STEIN about the beginnings of their musical careers. 

What have you each been doing musically since graduating? 

Jonathan: Ivan and I started Candid Music Group in our last year of school, and we really started going full into that after we graduated. Basically running our studio, helping with business, producing, recording, we were doing videography for people who were producing their own shit and building up their SoundCloud game. 

Ivan: Well, that’s how it started. Then eventually we abandoned everything. Well, not abandoned. But where it started originally, Jonathan and I were thoroughly convinced that we could do everything for an artist who’s just starting out and really needs help. We could get them their photos, we could get them their videos, and we could get them their audio recorded, mastered and produced at a much lower cost than anyone else in NYC was offering, because that’s what we saw around us. Everyone in New York, all my friends, were spending a crazy amount of money on making recordings. Mainly what we saw was people making jazz recordings when we were in school, for example everyone making quintet and sextet recordings that would cost them an arm and a leg and would ultimately get them nowhere. So we were coming straight out of college, figuring out a way to get ourselves a job, and make it doing something that we also enjoy. And we realized we could do that stuff for other people for way cheaper. But then eventually we all got really into our own projects, and that was a double-edged sword for Candid Music Group. On the one hand, it has made our name. People reach out to us more now that Brasstracks is doing things, Alexander Lewis is doing things and JNTHN STEIN is doing things. Making our presence known, that makes Candid Music Group have a little more of a reputation. But now we’re not pushing the same. With Candid Music Group, when we were really pushing, we were trying to make our rent so we could pay our bills with music, which is extremely hard. Now we’re not as worried about that stuff because people are coming to us. But because we’re so involved with our own projects, it’s hard for us to promote Candid Music Group. I think the ultimate goal is to continue with our own projects and come back to Candid Music Group as a big time way to offer services to people that they wouldn’t normally be able to get at low prices too, staying true to what we started doing it for. Just come back to it after we get a little bit bigger so we can bring more people in and make it a whole movement. 

How about you, Alexander? You moved out to the West Coast recently, so what has been your trajectory since graduating from college? 

Alexander: Well, after graduating I stayed out here [in NYC] for a little bit and basically did the same thing as Johnny, Ivan and Conor. Ivan and Johnny, they originally got me into electronic music, Johnny mostly.

Ivan: Johnny got us both into electronic music.

Alexander: Yeah, Johnny was the one that got us all into electronic music. So after graduating I stopped trombone and just focused on electronic music and just shedded a bunch. So we were trying to bring those two together. I was just trying to find my sound just as they were doing as well. I fucked around with a bunch of different genres, and eventually…

Ivan: AJ is extremely modest. He still plays a ton of trombones on his tracks and doesn’t tell anybody. You can go back and listen to his tracks and hear him destroying it on trombone. He doesn’t tell anybody, he doesn’t even credit himself. But yeah, I think we’re definitely all taking our training and trying to put it into our music. 

Was there ever a specific moment, either individually or as a collective, when you guys knew you were going to pursue a career in electronic music instead of straight ahead jazz? 

Jonathan: Yeah, that was probably my senior year of college, when I saw how quickly, even relative to how little I knew about producing beats, my stuff was getting recognition from homies that were in the beat scene, just because of the influence of a musician’s touch on this stuff. Like, “Whoa, this is dope, imagine if this developed more,” and next thing you know beats had cool chords and rhythms and shit, and obviously it has a much bigger listening audience. And, it’s just new, and I had to take it to that. 

Do any of you get worried about there being a difference in integrity between the two scenes, or feel that you’re losing out on an art form that can be thought of as having more integrity such as jazz or classical music? 

Conor: I guess I can speak on behalf of everybody. We were all into electronic music before getting to college. And in a way, I think when I got to school I was so set on playing jazz music and thinking that was going to be a career until I saw Jonathan, he was the only person in my immediate group at school who was pioneering this electronic movement. It was cool to see somebody else taking a lead and trying to make a career out of electronic music. And that’s when I realized you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re making good music. I don’t necessarily feel as though integrity is being sacrificed, but I think we all take what we learned studying jazz and classical and incorporate it into electronic music. 

How do you think your audiences change their impressions of you when they find out you have backgrounds in classical or jazz music? 

Jonathan: It’s ironically a big street swagger. Normally, or back in the day, if you were the musicians you were definitely on the nerd spectrum. But now, coming from people going into your work through the eyes of SoundCloud or the beat game, they see it as this really cool, mysterious, rare thing from their world. 

Another prominent electronic producer and jazz musician is Dominic Lalli from Big Gigantic, who also graduated from MSM. Do you think there’s anything specific about MSM’s culture that leads to this, or do you know other MSM graduates who have gone on to do similar things? 

Ivan: I don’t know a huge amount that has gone on to do similar things. I will say that I know Dom pretty well and he is the fucking man. He is such a great human. He has been so supportive in general. Music school’s interesting, man. There are so many people that go through MSM or go through music school in general and come out super bitter, but with the right guidance at that school you can become a super positive musician, just a positive person, further than being a musician, even coming out of all the darkness that is music conservatories. And I think Dom took all the best things from music conservatories and came out of it just such a good dude and that’s why he’s doing so extremely well. So that’s one thing, that if you take music school a little too seriously, you won’t get any of that shit, but if you do music school the right way you can come out a really awesome person who understands how to deal with a bunch of other kinds of musicians and people, and music school is a fucking crazy melting pot where a bunch of people get put together from around the world. Dom is a great example of a guy who knows how to deal with everybody, and I feel as though music school probably helped him with that. That being said, I don’t know how many people coming out of music school are doing this same electronic shit. 

Do you guys find it frustrating collaborate with other producers who don’t understand the basic concepts of music theory? 

Jonathan: In the beginning, yes, but after a while you just learn to delegate the different skill sets. You basically have to be like, “you push the buttons, make the dope rhythms, and then I’ll do all the musical shit, structures, you know.” 

Ivan: I don’t know about all the “musical” shit, that word. I think more of all the harmonic stuff. 

Alexander: I will say that collabing with all these guys is like a dream come true because you don’t have to explain anything to them.

Ivan: Coming out of music school makes it really hard to listen to a lot of other music because you get brainwashed while you’re in music school. You think that all the things that you have learned are way better than everything that you’re listening to, than everything on the internet, that’s on pop radio, than on radio in general, which is absolutely hilarious because ultimately you go to jazz school and the best thing that happens is you’re playing in venues like fucking Smalls or Fat Cat to a room of 100 people and that shit’s not all there is. And they teach you to think that’s all there is in music. There are so many more people to reach. So coming out of music school we all had to un-brainwash ourselves and realize there are people out there with zero musical training that are the most musical individuals that we’ve ever heard in our lives. And that’s factual dude, there’s so many people that I’m studying their shit, and they’ve never studied anything, you know what I mean? And that’s fucking weird to me. From where I come from that makes no sense, but I’m realizing in 2015 there are people who aren’t us with straight musicality, and that’s cool, that’s awesome. We, coming from music school, we aren’t better than them. And they aren’t better than us; with us coming from music school we aren’t too brainy. It’s just a little bit different, with different perspectives, and I respect the shit out of anybody that’s coming from there. 

Do you notice any other striking differences between musicians who do and musicians don’t come from traditional conservatory backgrounds? 

Conor: I don’t know. I almost try to ignore it these days. I try not to let it effect my perception of what’s coming out. 

Jonathan: A non-trained person is going to be more rhythmic and sound, texture and energy oriented, where a trained musician is just naturally going to be more focused on the details of stuff including pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony. Their sounds are secondary, with sound types, [sound]scapes, timbres. 

Do you guys miss playing in traditional jazz ensembles or combos, or was this transition to electronic live or DJ performances a welcome change? 

Alexander: No I don’t. I’m not going to speak for all of them, but I probably could, but no. 

Jonathan: I don’t miss playing jazz, but if I didn’t play live now then I definitely would miss that. 

Ivan: Well, we play in Natalie Cressman’s band, but Natalie Cressman’s band isn’t all from modern jazz music. It’s mixed with indie music to electronic music. So it’s gone through the same transition we do. But yeah, Jonathan, Conor and I play in Natalie’s band, and that’s a really nice outlet for us to do live music. It has a pop sensibility, but it also has really interesting shit. Natalie sings her ass off, and we all get really fucking balls to the wall shredding for 45-90 minutes. 

Conor: Yeah that group is really fun to play in because it’s very part oriented but it’s very open for improvising. It’s the best of both worlds. 

Ivan: Yeah if we didn’t have outlets like that. I play in a couple sort of New Orleans brass band vibes. I play in a brass band called High And Mighty Brass Band that’s way more New Orleans traditional music mixed with a bunch of funk and hip-hop oriented shit. I just was on tour with Brasstracks for two weeks and I came back and had a gig with High And Mighty and it was super nice to be able to improvise a little bit. Well we’re constantly improvising with the Brasstracks thing but it’s a mix of a DJ and a live set and coming back to an entirely live band thing, I think I can speak for all of us, that I love playing with a live band. I don’t think that’s something any of us ever want to lose. We want to be able to do it as long as we can, as long as we can play our instruments. 

Alexander: Yeah my answer was just based on jazz music. 

Conor: I think [Alexander] doesn’t miss playing tunes. Neither do I. I don’t think any of us miss it. 

Ivan: He plays trombone in his live sets! He’s not not doing live stuff. We’re all doing live stuff and we’re incorporating that shit. We spent tons of time trying to perfect our live shit. If we were to cut all that shit out just because we’re in the electronic music scene these days we’d all be really sad. 

Do you find yourselves being competitive with each other? 

Alexander: Most of the time I’m truly inspired by what these guys are doing. I do feel a healthy competitiveness, but not to the point where it really hurts me or ruins my relationship with them. Every time I hear something I’m like, “Fuck, I wish I could bring that,” and that’s what makes me try harder. So yeah there is competitiveness in it, but I don’t think that it’s to the point where I’m trying to hurt their growth. I would never talk shit about them. There is a part of me where when they do something a small percentage of me feels as though the jealousy comes out, and then it turns into inspiration and then it turns into lighting fire under my ass. And I think that’s natural to be sort of jealous, and then learn to turn that jealousy into a productive thing.

Conor: Yeah I don’t think any of us individually is trying to make it to the top by ourselves. I think we’re all trying to make it to the top together, and along the way we’re all making dope shit, and sometimes we’ll look at each other and realize, fuck that was amazing, I want to make something like that. What it all comes down to is we all have different musical influences and have some great things we all bring to our production, which is why we love each other and say, “How did he come up with that?” We all individually listen to the same things, our influences in this group. But we also have things that we listen to and don’t really share with other people and that’s why we all have a different sound. 

How would you guys describe the difference in sound between your different groups? 

Ivan: I feel as though we all go through phases. We all do a bunch of different things. Johnny just came off of the tip of doing really intricate, dark trap bangers that are all super unique and is only the way that Johnny could make them, and they’re minimal but all the sudden they get all maximal at the end, and it’s just orchestrated so well. But this has been, I don’t want to call it a phase necessarily, but it’s been the tip he’s been on for a second. And I walked into his room today and he was making something much more like R&B, upbeat hip-hop kind of shit and it was a completely different thing from what he was doing even last week. We all go through different things. You take a look at everything we’ve done from right now to back in 2013; we’ve tried to cover the board and tried to do everything. So I wouldn’t say in that sense there’s a very huge difference in our sounds. Besides the fact that we’re doing all live drums and trumpet shit, AJ sometimes put trombones in his shit and Johnny is putting bass in his stuff, the stuff that we’re trained in. We’re all doing a bunch of different shit, and at any different time we could all be doing a different genre that we’re really into. 

Alexander: One thing that’s in common with all of our productions though is we all make original synths. We’re really big on using operator in Ableton.

Ivan: That’s because of Johnny. 

Alexander: Yeah that’s because of Johnny, but we all do it. Every production that you hear from us.

Ivan: There’s virtually no plugins. 

Alexander: 100% of my instruments are from operator. 

Ivan: Johnny’s way more hardcore than us. He absolutely refuses to even have a foreign plugin on his computer. It’s so funny. 

Jonathan: Yeah I don’t even search for them in the Ableton browser. Fuck all that extraneous shit. 

Alexander: But I don’t hear a lot of people making their own sounds, which I think is why we, well obviously Brasstracks having live drums and trumpets is a huge thing, but he also makes his own synths. Every synth than you hear is his, made from him. And I don’t hear a lot of people doing that. I hear a lot of producers using, and it’s okay, but I hear a lot of people using the go-to presets or whatever is the popular sound.

Where do you guys each, or together hope to go with your music over the next ten years? 

Jonathan: Traveling the world, getting all my plane tickets and hotels and amenities paid for, playing for thousands of people, playing bass, playing push, making good money, making good music, doing more shit, playing the push 10 at that point. It’ll be dope. 

Alexander: Push 2 to Push 10. I want go a similar route, but I want to get more production deals and do stuff for radio. I love playing live, but I think that I would just like to get a publishing deal and at the same time play for thousands of people on the push 10.

Conor: Me and Ivan are going to get deeper in to the combination of the live element that I think audiences are attracted to these days, and combining it with electronics, and keeping it as organic as possible, but also getting deeper into electronics. 

Interview by Max Stern