Friday, April 18, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews José James

Q&A: José James

Minneapolis born, New York based José James is the son of a Panamanian saxophonist father and an Irish-American mother. A drifter and sonic chameleon, the 36-year-old started out as a Catholic school choir singer, graduated from The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and now merges hip-hop, jazz, R&B and soul music. His fifth studio album, “While You Were Sleeping,” drops in June on Blue Note Records.

Q: What’s most salient about your music is that it doesn’t fit neatly in any one category. Is that a conscious effort on your part or does it happen organically?

A: I don’t set out to not fit in, but the way I listen to music is I jump from a lot of different genres. It’s a natural outgrowth of how I experience music. I’ve never been a pure hip-hop or rock or jazz dude. I think it’s interesting in the time we’re in now where there’s a trend of people bringing in disparate styles—like James Blake bringing in European church or folk music into electronica. I think it’s a natural thing that’s happening in music in general.

Q: How were you exposed to all these different genres?

A: Just being a fan, growing up in the ‘90s. Pre-Internet, I remember being really excited about videos on MTV, being excited when Nirvana or A Tribe Called Quest came out with a new album, or when “Ill Communication” by the Beastie Boys came out. It seems quaint now, but it really stoked my imagination and enthusiasm to be an artist. It was a different time and there was a lot more freedom. People just liked great bands.

Q: How did the Twin Cities specifically influence how your sound developed?

A: When I lived there, there were really only two stars on my radar: Michael Jackson and Prince. “Purple Rain” was my first vinyl LP. I felt really proud of Prince; not just musically, but to have somebody put us on the map in that way, internationally. It was exciting to be part of that scene and watch it unfold as a kid. I was too young to know about the great rock bands, but I remember The Jets and bands like that. It’s always been a great music town, and it had a great connection to Chicago, too, which is how I got into the jazz. A lot of Chicago musicians live in Minneapolis.

Q: Since then, your career has taken you all over the world. What other kinds of music scenes have you experienced?

A: New York is the most internationally sophisticated music city I know, because most of the musicians are from other countries or cities. All of the best players go to New York. I’ve been able to keep my bands fresh; there’s always somebody showing up and playing who’s amazing and has a different take on music. Right now, my bass player is from Kansas City, my drummer is from London, my guitarist is from Memphis, and my keys player is from L.A., but we all met in New York. That gives it an edge. In terms of production, L.A. and London are way ahead of any of the other cities I’ve been in. I lived in London for a year, and new genres and sub-genres were being invented by the week.

Q: The titles of some of your songs, like “Bodhisattva,” “4 Noble Truths,” and “Salaam” suggest you were inspired by spirituality on your new album?

A: I went to Jakarta and played the Java Jazz Festival. I stayed in the hotel that’s modeled after the Borobudur Temple. Something about that mix of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city and being in this hotel garden full of statues of Bodhisattvas and angels. It was a heady experience and I felt something intangible and all these songs started coming to me. I’m not a Buddhist or religious person, but I am definitely very spiritual. I pick up on those kinds of vibrations. I was trying to take that feeling—and the feeling of being so far away from home—and translate it into music, which is why those songs feel different from my normal stuff.

Q: You said the songs just came to you. Do you ever have to work at it?

A: When I try to write something, it’s horrible. When I’m inspired, it’s great. I try to focus on the more boring, fundamental things, like warming up my voice and playing guitar, and when an idea comes, I’m in good shape to do it. I’m not one of those writers who’s like, “I have to write a song today.” I wait until I have a really good idea, then I obsess over it until it’s done. It could be 10 minutes, it could be a year.

Q: How do you balance the commercial side of the music industry with your artistic needs? Are there conflicts?

A: I’m realistic. I don’t say, “This is going straight to radio.” There’s definitely a format, especially in U.S. radio, and it’s a game you have to play. I made a decision a long time ago to be an album artist and to put more of my focus in my live show. The quality grows. My band has gotten better every year since I’ve been out since 2007. My writing and production have also. It’s quality over everything else. I don’t want to chase a hit. If something clicks with people, I know it’s because it means something to them, not because somebody told them to listen to it 20 million times a day.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Tom Rhodes

Q&A: Tom Rhodes

There’s never been a better time to be a stand-up comedian. Or so says Tom Rhodes. The 47-year-old funny man has spent three decades of his life making people laugh. His acerbic wit and dark humor have landed him television gigs as a late-night talk show host in Amsterdam as well as his own (short-lived) NBC series. A globetrotter at heart, Rhodes has no formal address and lives a nomadic existence. This year alone he’ll hit Costa Rica, Korea, China, Vietnam, Amsterdam, and Scotland. In addition to frequent stand-up performances, he produces a podcast, Tom Rhodes Radio.

Q: You’re one of the few comedians that travel all over the world. How does travel inform your comedy?

A: I was maced the first time I was in Paris. That’s a lively story. I have a lot of jokes and stories about different countries and I always love asking the audience if there’s anyone from a different country. I usually don’t get stumped, but I was in Las Vegas a couple nights ago and I had someone from Romania and Nepal. I had nothing for them.

Q: Do you find that some of your jokes are universal?

A: Absolutely. When you go to different countries, you find out what’s universally funny and what’s regional and you have to adjust pretty quickly. Everybody gets the same news now from technology and everybody gets American television and movies, so as Americans we have that advantage. Pain, suffering, heartbreak—things like that people can relate to everywhere.

Q: You have a video on your YouTube channel featuring a recent exchange with a heckler [who almost came to blows with Rhodes]. How has your approach to hecklers developed over the years?

A: When I walk onstage, everyone loses rank and title. I’m the sheriff. This guy had a UFC fighter build with very predictable tattoos and a shirt that was open down to his navel. He wanted to high-five and interrupt everything and finally, I just got tired of it. I’ve got a lot of heckler comeback lines. In my early years, my fragile house of cards would easily get blown over. You have some pea-brained drunk steal your thunder at a show enough times and you’re going to go home and lie in bed and think of the most evil insults possible so you don’t have that happen again. I have a lot of arrows in my quiver now. I never look for it. I never make fun of the audience. I don’t pick on people. I hate that kind of comedy, personally. But if somebody is an idiot and keeps interrupting the show, I take great pleasure in humiliating them.

Q: Are there things you won’t joke about?

A: Absolutely. Last year there was a big controversy about rape jokes and a lot of comedians were saying, “Comedians should be allowed to speak about anything,” and I agree with that, but I don’t find anything funny whatsoever about rape. There are a lot of topics I wouldn’t make fun of because I want to entertain people. I like shock humor, but I don’t talk about certain topics because why ruin someone’s evening?

Q: What do you consider selling out?

A: Not being true to yourself.

Q: Are you anti-endorsement?

A: No, not for the right thing. I’m a snob about certain things. I travel constantly, so luggage is important to me. If Travelpro Luggage asked me to endorse, I would be happy. I’m a faithful consumer.

Q: You swore off alcohol at the beginning of the year. What prompted that?

A: Wow! Have you been talking to my mom? You know everything! How do you know that?

Q: From your interview with London Real. You mentioned that’s how you got the scar above your eye.

A: Yeah, I had an unfortunate incident. Actually, it’s kind of a blessing. I blacked out for a second and fell off of a stool and got six stitches in my forehead. I took that as a wake-up call. I just stopped drinking. I’m enjoying it. Like that incident with the heckler, I was completely clear-headed and in control. I felt like a matador, like I was standing in front of an angry bull. There’s certain things that if you say to another human being, you expect them to punch you in the face. Maybe not Minnesotans, ‘cause you’re so nice. [Laughs.] I love having total clarity and total recall while I’m onstage. I’m on a whole different level since I stopped drinking.

Q: Tell me about your friendship with the late Minnesotan comic Mitch Hedberg [who died from a drug overdose in 2005].

A: Mitch was one of my best friends. Like most everyone, I was completely devastated when he died. He was a really sweet, brilliant human being. We worked together a lot. I partied with him a lot. There was a period I was living in New York City and he was living at the Chelsea Hotel and we had some very wild, wonderful times together.

Q: Did his death change your views on drug use at all?

A: It’s kind of a personal question. Hmm… [Pause.] It was…yeah…hmm… [Pause.] I love the guy. I felt like a big brother to him in certain ways. It’s unfortunate.

Q: You’ve said “Comedy was invented for the ugly and the damaged.” Where did that philosophy come from?

A: The scar on my forehead. [Laughs.] I think comedy has been hijacked in certain ways by young, good-looking suburban kids without much life experience. Comedy wasn’t meant for the people who got everything in life. Comedy was meant for the outsiders.

Q: Who’s on your wish list to interview for your podcast?

A: There’s loads of people. It’s mostly comedians talking about comedy, but the unique thing about mine is that I’m traveling all over the world. I got to interview [tech entrepreneur] Kim Dotcom. The guy’s like a vaudeville and he’s got his own private army of men in black with machine guns around his property. I got to go talk to him and ask him all about the United States government persecution and us trying to extradite the guy. It was great. I have it in my mind now that anything’s possible for interviewing people.

I would love to interview Prince. I love that guy. I was playing in Minneapolis at least 15 years ago and someone who worked for him was a fan of mine and I got invited to Paisley Park. He did these summer jams, like every Saturday night where started playing at 3 in the morning and ended at 6 or 7 in the morning and there were only 50 people walking around. I love the fact that he’s still a Minnesotan. I think he’s one of the coolest performers of all time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Erica Rivera Spotlights Dan Croll

Spotlight: Dan Croll

British singer-songwriter Dan Croll discovered music at age 17 thanks to a broken leg that ended his rugby career. In 2011, as a student of the Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts, Croll’s folk-pop tunes were praised by Sir Paul McCartney and won Croll the Musicians Benevolent Fund Songwriter of the Year Award. The 23-year-old, whom the Guardian described as “Paul Simon jamming with Prince,” just released his studio album debut “Sweet Disarray” on Capitol Records. Singles Home and “From Nowhere” have steadily gained traction, and Croll performed both last month on Jimmy Kimmel Live! 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Ages and Ages

Q&A: Ages and Ages

Ages and Ages is a secular septet that specializes in its own brand of invigorating folkadelic pop tunes. Tim Perry founded the Portland-based band in 2009, and their debut album, “Alright You Restless” dropped in 2011. NPR featured the delightfully raucous band in anticipation of their first appearance at SXSW that year, but Ages and Ages’ 15 minutes of fame truly came when their song “No Nostalgia” was included on President Obama’s playlist for his 2012 re-election campaign. For their sophomore effort, the band hunkered down in Jackpot Studios with producer Tony Lash. The result was “Divisionary,” released in March on Partisan Records.

Perry spoke to from the band’s tour van.

Q: You guys just played SXSW for the second time. How did this year compare to 2011?

A: Frankly, I don’t think it’s totally amenable or hospitable towards artists. It’s frantic. It’s awesome in other ways. The response was really positive. The weather was good. It’s great and terrifying at the same time.

Q: If you had a mission statement for Ages and Ages, what would it be?

A: We are non-believers in apathy and shoulder-shrugging. We embrace having opinions, having feelings, and feeling passionate.

Q: The press often uses “congregational” or “gospel” to describe the sound of your music. Do you think that’s an accurate comparison?

A: My mom was religious was brought me to church as a kid. In certain ways, that was my first introduction to music. The sound of multiple voices hitting the same note at the same time and shaking the rafters made an impression on me. The purpose of having as many people as we do in the band is to be able to pull these things off in a live setting. This day in age, we could over-dub all we want in the recording studio and make everything sound perfect, but when it comes to a live show, then what? Being able to carry that sound live gives it this uproarious quality of gospel. I’m cool with that comparison, for sure.

Q: Your song “No Nostalgia” made it all the way to the White House. Are political themes prevalent in your music?

A: To us, that song was blatantly anti-establishment in terms of leaving the culture of greed and distraction behind for a utopic place. It’s interesting that a campaign would pick up on that. The madness we’re talking about is modern, mainstream culture. It’s easy to be apathetic. It’s understandable. Apathy is something that comes with feelings of powerlessness and feeling overwhelmed with the grandness of the problems, but I think that it’s the wrong approach to take.

Q: Is making music the way that you fight against apathy?

A: I think it’s one of the ways. Music is an extension of us and the human spirit. I think we all try and live lives that also reflect that perspective.

Q: You spent time at a meditation retreat while writing “Divisionary.” How did that experience influence the album?

A: I wanted to be silent, not communicate, not be communicated with, sort through my own thoughts, and be a better observer of life. A couple of us in the band have done this very retreat and it’s super helpful. As far as “Divisionary” is concerned, once the noise filtered out of my brain and I was able to slow my thoughts down, the music just started to come and got trapped in my head and cycled around over and over and over. I couldn’t write it down or play it or record it, so I had to keep it in there, and a lot of those songs made it on the record.

Q: The title track on “Divisionary” repeats the words “Do the right thing.” What did you have in mind when you were thinking about the “right thing?”

A: I think lyrics are directed at me just as much as anyone else. There’s a sense of irony in doing the right thing all the time because it’s hard. Actually, it’s impossible. I wanted to play with that irony and be mindful that doing the right thing is complicated. It often involves upsetting people or creating something that can be construed by some as righteous, by others as divisive. I think that’s where the word “divisionary” comes from. Pursuing that path, whatever that is for us, might not be what your parents had in mind. It might not be what is reflected in the status quo or the power structure. Doing the right thing sometimes creates inner conflict as you grapple with having to break off your old habits, your destructive ways, or what you used to identify with. It’s not always pretty. There’s a struggle happening in real time, because I think we all struggle as we experience growth and revolution.

Q: During the making of this album, several members of the band experienced the death of loved ones. There was a marriage and a birth as well. How did those events play a part in the album’s creation?

A: It’s that real life stuff. This band, collectively, experienced a lot of that in a condensed amount of time. It was intense. It played into the group dynamic. In many ways, it brought us closer together, and in many ways, it accentuates the existential things you struggle with [like] “Where am I going? What am I doing?” When you experience a loss, it heightens that and it may motivate you further in one direction or another, away from or towards something. And with kids or marriage, it’s the same thing. Good and bad are happening simultaneously and it’s a challenge to process them and keep a clear head. How do we find a way to sit with the darkness and the negativity and the sadness, but ultimately come out with a positive perspective?

Q: What does the apple with the keyhole on the album’s cover art symbolize?

A: We didn’t intend for a biblical reference, though the apple may have that connotation. It’s more about the apple being a thing of sustenance, representative of life. The keyhole is depth; there’s a darkness and mystery to that. I think that’s what we’re about: on the surface, sometimes people hear us as optimistic and uplifting, but if you look inside, we’re more complicated. It’s one thing to be naively optimistic—you know, the person who watches TV, eats a Hungry-Man dinner, and shops at Wal-Mart—versus an optimism that comes from observing and stews these confusing things in their brain, then comes out with an optimistic perspective. The pile of keys represents that all locks have different keys. All paths belong to different people. We all want the same thing: to live a peaceful life, to be whole. So how do we do that? We go there in different ways. 

Originally published on in April 2014.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Erica Rivera Profiles Fox Tax

Erica Rivera spoke with Mark and Alyssa Fox, founders of Fox Tax, a Minneapolis based company dedicated to facilitating better relationships between Uncle Sam and artists. Read the interview in the April 2014 issue of Minnesota Business magazine.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Erica Rivera Profiles FrozBroz

Erica Rivera interviewed Erik Powers and Ben Solberg, owners of FrozBroz, a new craft ice cream company in Minneapolis. Read the feature in the April 2014 issue of Minnesota Business magazine.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Zeus Jones

Erica Rivera sat down with the founders of Zeus Jones, an unorthodox creative agency in Minneapolis that is expanding to San Francisco. Read how they got their start and the ways they're doing advertising differently in the April 2014 issue of Minnesota Business magazine.