Dessa Interview

The Doomtree Crew don’t stop, ever. So when we got a chance to catch up with Dessa from the Minneapolis mob, we couldn’t turn it down. Currently on a huge tour of the US showcasing the amazing new album ‘No Kings‘ to all and sundry, the rapper and singer talked to us about making her solo album, the pros and cons of being holed up in Wisconsin and how she likes her handshakes.

So read on and be sure to click those videos embedded in the text so you can see just why we’ve always been so excited by her and her team-mates. Onwards!

Hi Dessa! It’s time for the dream-team interview [dream team because of my jaundiced face with your wonderful t-shirt on the webstore, obviously] – I was going to open and say “we’ve come on a long way since I first interviewed Doomtree back in 2006” but I remembered you weren’t there because you were busy expanding your horizons in South America [right? I think anyway]. So I gotta open up with how did you come to terms with not being part of the interview back then? Therapy and comfort food? Shock treatment? Booze?

Denial.  I was a part of that interview and enjoyed every minute of it.

I want to get right into it straight away – you’ve just released your new album ‘Castor, The Twin’ on Doomtree Records. For those that don’t know, it’s a reworking of some of your songs with live instrumentation and one of the things I like most about it is that you didn’t just say “there’s an 808 here, let’s just replace it with a real snare”, you brought new levels and layers to each track. So I guess, first up, tell us a little about how you came to the decision that you wanted to re-do your tracks? How did you decide on the tracks that you wanted to use? Was it an epiphany that came to you that 551 would sound dope with a band or did you guys work loads of songs out and cherry pick the best?

When I set off to tour my last album, ‘A Badly Broken Code‘, I asked a trio of live players to travel with me as my backing band. We piled into a van with Sims and Lazerbeak, who served as main support, and headed west to put on some mileage and play a bunch of shows.

(Frank aside: Like a lot of listeners, I have some serious reservations about live hip hop. Done badly, it sounds cheesy or like elevator renditions of otherwise listenable songs. I knew I wasn’t interested in creating a sound that had anything in common with a ‘jam band.’ I wanted an airtight ensemble capable of big crescendos, beautiful counterpoint melodies, and moments of suspenseful restraint. Happily, that’s almost exactly what I got.)

By the time our touring party returned home, we found our set transformed. We’d taken advantage of the live band’s range of dynamics and the players had written new parts for many of the songs. Sean McPherson, my band leader and bass player, was playing bowed upright in addition to his plucked lines—which makes for a moody, classic cello vibe. Dustin Kiel wrote new piano and guitar lines; on at least one song he was playing them at the same time with one hand on each instrument. Joey Van Phillips added a lot of power to the set—he’s a hard-hitting drummer who’s worked in almost every style.

All of a sudden we found ourselves playing music that didn’t sound much like anything I’d recorded. And attendees were asking for the new versions of our songs. So we hit the studio to record the new arrangements, adding viola, mandolin, vibraphone, and timpani.

And maybe a little info on the title too?

In Greek and Roman mythology, there are a pair of twin brothers: Castor and Pollux. (Not so incidentally, these are the stars of the Gemini constellation). Castor is human, Pollux is immortal. In a scuffle, Castor is slain. Pollux loves his brother desperately and campaigns for Zeus to allow him to split his immortality with his twin. Zeus agrees and the brothers alternate days, spending one day among the living, then one day with the dead. In naming the album, I wanted to express the fact that these songs were rearrangements—twins of existing songs. I also wanted to convey the idea that these songs were more organic, tender, nuanced versions—its an album without synthetic production, a very human sound.

I’ve been lucky enough to come out to Minneapolis to see a few Blowouts and over the years I’ve seen you go from straight up rapping over beats to introducing the live element with your band and friends – were you always keen to have that backing behind you? And hard as I’m sure it may be to answer, do you prefer being backed by a band or are you cool with just having Beak or Papes behind you?

Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger make some of my favorite arrangements. In addition to being gifted musicians, they understand a rapper’s perspective: what makes a beat appealing to emcees, and what kind of rhythms make the thing workable. For live performances, though, I’m a sucker for performers who create everything live—it’s like watching aerialists without a net, and knowing that they might make completely different choices from one night to the next.

There’s a brand new track on the album, ‘The Beekeeper’ – when was that written? Was it during the sessions of recording the new album?

I’m never a very fast writer, but ‘The Beekeeper‘ was unusually painstaking. At some point in the song’s history, I think every word was different. I wrote the piano line first, then asked (Jessy Greene, the violinist who now plays with the Foo Fighters) to layer several parts. She nailed it, utterly nailed it. After the neuroses begins: I listened to the song on repeat dozens, or sometimes a hundred times while trying to compose the melodies and lyric content—and then to wrestle them together. For ‘The Beekeeper‘ I knew I wanted something dark and epic to match the piano line. I often write with a zoom lens, focusing on details of scene and character. For this song, I leaned towards the panoramic, incorporating the sort of language that you’d find in a myth or a religious text to describe the broad truths of the human condition.

You’ve got a new rendition of ‘Palace’ on ‘CTT’, which was originally on Papes’ album ‘Made Like Us’. On a personal level, it’s my favourite song because a) it’s awesome, clearly and b) it’s named after the football team I support who I took Paper and Stef to see when they were touring a couple years ago. Can I now claim that Dessa is the newest member of the Doomtree-Palace Connection? I’ll send you a scarf for the Blowout, ha!

I’ll do almost anything for a scarf.

Your album A Badly Broken Code’ got some great reviews [it was my number one album of 2010 in fact] and showcased your ability to both rap and sing in equally high measure. When you’re writing new tracks, do you go in thinking “right, time to make a total rap heater?” or does everything just flow naturally?

There are definitely voices in my head that concern themselves with how my next record will be perceived. But I try to tamp them down and focus on how to best express my genuine experience—I’ve got to trust that people will detect the sincerity in it.

The new CD pre-orders came through with a short story and you’ve already had your ‘Spiral Bound’ book out, do you enjoy writing outside of your music? Is there a separate mindstate when you’re writing poems or stories rather than lyrics?

I write less prose than I wish I did. Music has deadlines that writing doesn’t—at least for a writer without a publishing deal.  Writing prose can feel a little more cerebral than writing rap lyrics—but both involve mouthing words, furrowed brows, frusteration, and maddeningly slow progress.

You have also been a teacher for a while [still doing it even? I’m slack here sorry!] – do you get as much pleasure from teaching as you do from seeing a room full of smiling faces after you’ve killed a Blowout?

I used to teach courses about writing, promotion, and hip hop, but the touring schedule takes a regular classroom gig off the table. McNally Smith College of Music has been gracious enough to keep me on as an Artist In Residence; several times a year I visit campus to report what Doomtree is learning in the trenches. We talk about the habits of successful indie artists, strategies to get press coverage, the social media hustle, and the grind.

Minneapolis has a very supportive hip hop [and music/art] scene and with the backing of the crew behind you, there’s a huge amount of love for you. Does it still surprise you that Blowout sells out super quickly and how about the fact you’re getting love across the board further afield? Are there any shows/cities you’ve played that have been amazingly good?

I figure there are no laurels to rest on. When we put tickets out for the Blowout, it was nail-biting right until doors opened. That said, it can be an amazing surprise to arrive in a new city and find enthusiastic listeners—even people who know the words. That really knocked me out the first few times it happened, I was so dumbstruck I stopped singing myself.

The new Doomtree crew record ‘No Kings’ came out in November. You guys all headed out to a cabin [in Wisconsin right?] to make the record in a concentrated period of time which is a switch up from the last crew album which was a sprawling epic of an album. How did this environment for making music work out and how excited are you by it? What can fans expect?

Man, the cabin was intese. We loaded up on booze and sandwhich fixings and sequestered ourselves for a few days to knock out the bulk of the album. Some of the guys are swift and prolific writers; it can be hard not to feel pressure when you’re the last to finish every song. I spent most of my time walking, trying to hammer out my parts. We’d wake up, have breakfast, pick a beat, and then I’d walk for miles in the woods, with the beat on repeat. After I eeked out 8 bars, I’d head back to the cabin, find out which beat was next, and then set off again.

2011 was a massive year for the crew with your record, the crew album and Sims’ amazing ‘Bad Time Zoo’ and the crew set on the main stage at Soundset [which was fucking awesome to see] – do you all continually push each other to make the music you make? Like, if Cecil drops a ridiculous beat, Mike will want to jump on it, or Beak unleashes another Lava Banger that makes Stef want to jump on his MPC?

I think we’re all motivated by one another and, as we amass more experience, we can better relate to one another’s professional concerns. “Oh, you’re three weeks away from a release date? Man, I know exactly what that brand of excitement, panic, and exhaustion feels like.” Or “Bad turn out in Santa Barbara? I feel you man, push through it. L.A. is around the corner.”

Ok, time to switch it up a little, we’ll do some either/or questions, see what you come back with:
Halloween or Christmas?

Halloween. Sugar and secularism.

Glasses or contacts?

Contacts, unless I’m negotiating a compensation package.

New Edition or Bobby Brown solo?

Lauryn Hill

Normal Skittles or Sour Skittles? [influenced by that huge packet of skittles on your twitter]

Normals, future sure. But only after all the cheap and trashy milk chocolate has been consumed.

High Fives or handshakes?

Handshakes, with a flourish.

Facebook or Twitter?

Twitter. But the crucial transmissions are still sent by passenger pigeon.

And to finish up, do you have any plans to come over to London? Hard as it may be for the whole crew to make it, I know quite a few people who would love to see a Doomtree show in the UK…

I wouldn’t hold my breath quite yet. But it’s time to start crossing fingers. The scheming has begun.

Check out www.doomtree.net and www.twitter.com/doomtree for all the crew updates, Dessa’s twitter www.twitter.com/dessadarling and make sure to grab the crew album ‘No Kings‘ which features this banger:

New MaLLy video drops

We here at Crossfire are massive fans of the Minneapolis hip hop scene and there’s a new player on the block.

Having been championed by Atmosphere’s Slug and a number of other members of the scene, MaLLy has dropped the video to his track Heir Time, produced by The Sundance Kid. We love it and the video is a fun one too, so click play below and see what you reckon.

If you dig it enough, you can buy the track here.

WUGAZI the interview

Fugazi and the Wu Tang Clan are two iconic groups, both defining the sound of a scene and making everyone sit up and take notice of their music and their message. So what happens when you mix the two together? Well, thanks to Doomtree‘s Cecil Otter and fellow Minneapolis musician Swiss Andy, of The Swiss Army and The Millionth Word fame, we now know.

Sleep Rules Everything Around Me mysteriously appeared on Soundcloud and within half a day, the track had garnered 20,000 listens, with over 100,000 in a week. It has been one of the most talked about topics in music of late and we caught up with the two brainchildren behind the project to discuss the process of making the music, how long it took and even preferred fighting styles.

Ladies and Gentlemen, enter the Chamber of the Wugazi!

Words: Abjekt
Photo: Ben LaFond

Straight out the slums of… Minneapolis?

Cecil: Yes Sir, the centre of the Universe!

The big question first – how did you come up with the idea of putting Fugazi and Wu Tang together? Are you both big fans of both acts so know their catalogue extensively?

Cecil: Andy had been kicking around the idea for a few years before he brought it up to me. We had both been huge fans of each group since we were young, so it was easy to fall in love with the idea of WUGAZI.

Andy: Yeah, that is pretty much all that was in my headphones during the 90s.

Cecil: A one point in his life, Andy sold his guitar amp just so he could go see a Fugazi show. I sold my tickets to that same Fugazi show and bought an ice cream cone and shared it with my friend. I later broke into that show, caused a scene and got screamed at by Guy from Fugazi. He kept telling everyone that he saw me eating ice cream outside with my friend…over and over…I didn’t enjoy that at all, but the ice cream was good.

Andy: Asshole.

Did you decide on the tracks you wanted to use first or did you just play it by ear and see which Wu track fit with which Fugazi?

Cecil: We would listen through every Fugazi album and take notes on where the drum breaks, bass loops and guitar loops were. After that I would put them into Protools accordingly, find a close enough tempo to fallow the song, chop everything onto a grid and start cranking away at a song structure.”

Andy: I had a few Fugazi tracks I really wanted to use, but they were just too fast or slow for us to fit under an acapella.

Cecil: We let the samples loop in the background and begin to play Wu Tang acapellas over the song until we found the perfect match. When we found that, we would place it in the session and begin to cut, paste and stretch each verse to fit the track…then we get detailed.

Andy: We would try to use more than one song in each track. Using them more as samples for producing, than just putting one thing on top of the other.

Were there any tracks that you tried to mash together that just sounded horrible?

Cecil: Oh yeah, that’s why we put a full year into this. We have a handful of half done songs that just wouldn’t marry each other or we didn’t have a clean enough acapella to work with. The hardest thing about making the album (well, one of them) was the limited Wu Tang acapellas that we had access to. There are so many Wu Tang songs that we would have loved to do, we probably would have been able to call it Wugazi: 36 Songs if we had all the acapellas!

You’ve got 13 Chambers dropping in July, is there anything you can tell us about it other than it houses the track Sleep Rules Everything Around Me?

Cecil: Well, it will have 12 more songs and they will all be different and they will all have drums and bass and guitar and vocals, never forget the vocals!

Also, Sleep… hit 20,000 plays in 12 hours, did you think it was going to be as huge as that in such a short space of time?

Cecil: Not at all. We we’re very excited about the tracks because our friends loved them so much. We had no idea that the two groups would work together so well. We made S.R.E.A.M. the first night into the project. We lost our shit when we stretched the vocals in and took the first listen. After that night,  Wugazi was pretty much a reason to get together with a friend and lose ourselves in the moment. I don’t think either of us had any idea that so many others would like it as much as we do, but then again…it’s Wu Tang and Fugazi, who doesn’t like them?!

Andy: When Paddy Costello almost started crying, I knew we were doing something right. But never thought this would spread like it has.

Would you like to see the two bands work together, maybe do a one-off live show where Ian MacKaye battles Ghostface? Or have Guy Picciotto go hard against Method Man?

Andy: All those guys are such great musicians. Even after Fugazi, Guy produced that amazing Blonde Redhead record and Joe put out that album with John Frusciante. Putting Ian in a room with RZA, I wouldn’t even know where to start…

Cecil: Without a doubt. That would be one of the happiest days of my life.

If you had a sword style, which you would have to train in the mountains of Tibet to perfect, what would it be called?

Andy: Drunken Monkey

Cecil: Drunker Monkey

Watch: Brand new Sims video

Sims has unleashed a new video to kick 2011 in perfect fashion.

The rapper, part of the Doomtree Crew, will be releasing his new album Bad Time Zoo via Doomtree Records on February 15th. Take it from us, the album is an absolute banger so press play below on Burn It Down and become a Bad Time Zookeeper like the rest of us at Crossfire HQ!

Atmosphere release photography book

Atmosphere are releasing a book of photography from over the years.

Dan Monick, a close friend who has followed the group around for the past decade across the world has taken many photos from behind-the-scenes and the hardcover 272 page book shows these photos in all their glory.

Two versions are available – the standard edition features 272 page book, a 15 track Rhymesayers compilation CD and a deluxe edition features all that as well as an exclusive 10″ copy of To All My Friends, the first of the two new Atmosphere EPs. You can order yours from Fifth Element. One for the hardcore fans!