While splitting their days between both NYC and LA, indie pop rock duo The Lulls have come together to release their latest EP, Meridian, out October 9th. The band, comprised of California natives and longtime friends Rutger Rosenborg (singer and guitarist) and Ryan Miller (drummer), take listeners on a journey of shimmering guitar riffs, cruising beats, and introspective, poignant lyrics. Ahead of their EP release show at Berlin on October 13, Bedford + Bowery was able to talk to Miller and Rosenborg about the new project, what it’s like to be a bicoastal band and how isolation and traveling influenced the creation of Meridian.
B + B Q + A
Leslie Zemeckis, the author of Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl, which drops next week, is well-known in the burlesque world for her previous book on the life of Lili St. Cyr, and the book that started it all for her: Behind the Burly Q, which was also made into a documentary.
She followed that film with this year’s Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, about Mabel Stark, a Jazz Age badass who—no spoiler—trained tigers. (And yes, since you’re going to ask, Leslie is married to another well-known Zemeckis.)
“I’m the only person selling these dumplings on the street,” says Mo Rahmati as he dishes up some of the last of his steaming mantu, labor-intensive Afghan dumplings. He often sells out, and business is only going to get busier. Saturday, at a celebration of street food on Governor’s Island, his Nansense cart won the Vendy Award for the Best Rookie of 2018.
Combine the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie with millennial anxiety and you’ve got the sound of Brooklyn-based Plastic Picnic. The band, comprised of four West Coast transplants, makes sad yet energetic indie rock tunes that– with their catchy, danceable beats, melancholy lyrics, and shimmery melodies– could be mistaken for ’80s synth pop. According to Nylon, they’re on the Brooklyn bands you should be listening to right now.
Ahead of their show at Baby’s All Right on Monday, Bedford + Bowery spoke to lead singer Emile Panerio about the grind of being an indie band in the New York City music scene, and about their new single “Doubt.” It’s about “beginning a life with someone you love and never seeing them,” Panerio has told me. “When you’re going to sleep, they’re leaving for work. When a partnership works in theory, but current life doesn’t allow it the time it needs to healthily grow–something New York City seems to have a good reputation for.”
Photographer Alex Harsley Created An Artists’ Hub In the East Village—And Now He’s Trying To Save It
All the roads in Alex Harsley’s life have led him to photography (many of these roads he traversed as a young man keen on tearing up the streets of New York on his sweet motorcycle). Specifically, what he calls “information photography.”
“I like discovering things nobody knows. And that’s how I got into photography…I had this way of seeing things before they happen. And then getting there as it was happening.” He gestures to a photograph on the wall near him, where a man and woman stand under streetlamps on a New York night. Two drops of blue from the streetlights—almost like splashes of paint—stand out from the yellow and black hues of the photo. This is a signature technique of Harsley, who’s spent much of his life experimenting with the ultraviolet spectrum by pulling different colors out and plopping them where they normally wouldn’t be seen. But Harsley is fixated on a different detail at the moment. “The way that woman’s heel is, for instance. Minor things in the image that say a lot…I’m always looking: ‘Well, how can I push this medium even further now?’”
I first came upon the 80-year-old founder of the nonprofit Minority Photographers Inc. while wandering around East 4th Street and seeking to escape the 90-something degree heat on a ruddy June day. He was resting on a chair outside of his narrow storefront, above which was painted, in charming print, “The 4th Street Photo Gallery.” Harsley invited me inside, where I met his daughter, Kendra Krueger, who had recently moved back to New York to help her dad with the gallery’s needs. These include archiving and digitizing countless photos shot over a lifetime and monitoring a GoFundMe campaign that they had set up to meet the demand of rising rents, hefty property taxes and loss of storage space as the East Village gentrifies.
Despite the efforts of nonprofit Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association—who rents the space to Minority Photographers and supports affordable housing in the area—to keep costs down, their rent has jumped from $1200 to $1400 a month and another ten percent hike is expected in the coming years. In order to stay afloat and keep the gallery—which has been a collective for artists of color for the past four decades—going until at least its 50th anniversary, Harsley has reached out to the community for support by asking for donations and giving participants a photographic print of their choice in return.
“There’s enough people out there that I have invested heavily in that, now, they can start paying something back for what I have helped them. I’m looking at hundreds and hundreds of people out there, saying, ‘I need some help now. Help me,’” says Harsley.
When I return the following week, Harsley—surrounded by a backdrop of hundreds upon hundreds of photos hanging on the walls and connected by clothespins—narrates his life story, which is enough to fill a half-dozen books, let alone a short article. Harsley grew up in a multi-generational household of 15 people in South Carolina, headed by the patriarch—his great-grandfather—who took care of him when he was born. Being born in the late 1930s, Harsley saw most of the young men of his era go off to war, but he was raised for the farm life. “I was basically brought up and taught everything I needed to know about running a farm. Horses. Vegetables. Fruits. Different seasons for different things. Making specific objects in case something broke. Like welding, for instance, with just a hammer. So, I had these interesting skills.”
From a young age, Harsley was tinkering with different objects, which foreshadowed the extensive exploration he would do in terms of researching photographic techniques. A key moment was when his mother took him to a photo gallery for a family portrait as a child, and he spotted the black photographer taking their photo. “And it was like this magic stuff was happening in this box. Did all these funny things and gave this tiny little picture. And I was like, ‘How’d you do that?’” Harsley says, mimicking his sense of wonder as a child, which he still possesses in abundance.
But Harsley never felt at peace in the South. As the child of a Baptist father born into a Methodist household, the family marked him as an outsider. “That’s when my mother was asked to come and get me and take me out of that environment. They could no longer handle me, as the saying goes,” recalls Harsley with a knowing smile. So his mother, who had been working in New York to support her family, brought him up to the big city in 1948. Harsley hung out with a bunch of kids who had survived the hardscrabble years of the war on the streets of New York. He also inadvertently sneaked into museums—one of the gatekeepers of the art world—thereby absorbing the strange dual nature of life in the city.
As a young man in the 1950s, he used to ride down to Washington Square Park. One day, a fellow in the park sold him a $15 camera, which he promptly took apart and examined. He was hooked. Not many years later, he would become the first black photographer in the New York City District Attorney’s office. He had first got a job working as a messenger in the district attorney’s office. “That was the beginning of equal opportunity. And the white structure was bringing in us folks,” says Harsley. “They had a photography department, and the person up there, I got to be friends with [him]. And realized he wanted to get a job working in the clerk’s office. So it was a good opportunity for me to take his job.” Harsley laughs, his voice crackling slightly.
But being drafted into the army in the early ‘60s derailed his plans. He re-enlisted, as he thought he would be able to use his service as a way to enter photography school. But the army had other plans for him, and he was unceremoniously shipped down to Alabama. Back to the “negative reality that I escaped many, many years ago as a child.” He stayed in his post and refused to go into the main town, and described being taught “very bad technology” which could be used to chemically kill or maim people. He was subsequently sent to a new posting in Massachusetts. After he returned from his service in the army, he realized it was time to get serious about his photography. He freelanced for a variety of publications and committed to research in a less destructive chemical technology than what he had been taught in the army: photographic techniques, which he honed as a supervisor in the Color Lab.
Meanwhile, he was also a bit of a self-admitted “playboy” when he moved into a place over on 11th Street called Paradise Alley in 1964 (Bedford + Bowery previously interviewed Harsley for a piece on the complex in 2013). “Paradise Alley was notorious. I didn’t know that. Where artists come and create troubles for everyone else.” He lets out a light laugh. “To me, it was like moving into paradise, literally. They had all these beautiful women. They had parties every night. Nobody complained.” It was around this time that he met Shelagh Krueger—Kendra’s mother and Harsley’s wife.
The photographer became acquainted with a lawyer in the office where Shelagh worked as a secretary. The attorney was irate that a building on Madison Avenue, which had a connection to Winston Churchill’s family, was being torn down for a high rise. Moreover, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court was also next to the building, and Harsley said the lawyer felt this new high rise was going to “cast a shadow on this important institution.” Literally. So the lawyer struck a deal with Harsley: take a photo of the building and preserve its glory, and I’ll help you set up a nonprofit art organization.
And that’s how Minority Photographers Inc. was born in 1971. The gallery came along not long after in 1973. The gallery hosted workshops over the next four decades and cultivated artists from communities of color like Dawoud Bey— a 2017 MacArthur Fellow that Harsley lauds for his writing ability as well as photographic talent—and David Hammons, who “was important to the [art] culture because he knew how to make fun of it in the most ridiculous way.” Minority Photographers also provided guidance to women photographers like Cynthia MacAdams. Harsley exhales deeply when describing her work. “I shiver when I look at that woman’s work. Wow. Techniques that she came up with. Difficult techniques. She’s the best. Ever. Ever.”
Harsley takes me on a tour of his life’s works. Photographs of celebrities like Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali scatter the walls and old-school cameras line the desks. But most of the people in these photos are ordinary New Yorkers, like a girl standing in a snowy landscape in front of a laundry sign. Some of the individuals Harsley have photographed have even spanned decades of contact, such as a series on his neighbors in the Village and Lower East Side. And yet, Harsley makes them appear extraordinary through his lens and often captures them in heated moments of history, such as during the riots in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the ‘60s. He had been heading to Bed-Stuy to put up placards advertising Minority Photographers when he crossed paths with a black photographer he knew who was working for The New York Times. “He said, ‘Don’t go in that area. The people’s going crazy rioting!’ I didn’t have the camera, so I had to rush back here and rush back out there,” says Harsley.
Besides displaying his work in the 4th Street Photo Gallery, Harsley has exhibited in numerous other galleries from New York to the Netherlands. His creative experimentation also extends to the audiovisual sphere, including videos that his daughter Kendra describes as “hypnotic” and “deprogramming experiences.” And he also loves installations, he says, pointing to what may be his most eccentric work to-date hanging from the ceiling. “Anti-Gravity” consists of fiber board from which lollipops dangle. “I was in the hospital for a while and they had bad news about lollipops. So I decided I could stick the lollipops on the ceiling,” says Harsley. The installation moves in accordance with the sounds in the room, and it took him 18 years to complete.
Why is it so important for the legacy of Minority Photographers to live on in the 4th Street Photo Gallery? Harsley wastes no time in answering. “I figure it’s important in terms of history. Their history, mainly, that’s here. And they have something in place that they can come back to and recognize. More and more people are starting to come back and say, “He’s still here?!” He chuckles before stating the gallery’s unofficial purpose. “It’s become like a museum now…the first museum [of photographic technology] in New York City.”
The 4th Street Photo Gallery is located at 67 East 4th Street. Store hours are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday from 2-8 pm and Friday and Saturday from 3-10 pm (closed on Mondays). You can find their GoFundMe here.
A slender man draped in a long coat and sporting coiffed dark hair descends a set of stairs, strolling along the South Street Seaport in a faded video sequence that seemed straight out of a dream. The man narrates in Spanish while English subtitles roll underneath: “There are things and dreams that disappear by not thinking them/And lovers whose pain is forgotten during each successive sleep.” The man is Pablo Conejero López, a Spanish artist that has haunted the Lower East Side with his introspective poetry and eclectic multimedia music collaborations.
The poem in the video is an excerpt from Lopez’s third book, Cuerpos (“bodies” in Spanish), which will be released in December with Paradigm Publishing. But although López has been prolific on social media—his Instagram boasts 12,300 followers and growing—that’s not how I was introduced to the curious artist. In a way, I first encountered López while I was walking around Great Jones Street and a ragged piece of paper stuck atop a Minnie Mouse sticker caught my eye. The haunting opening lines resonated with me: “Come/take me with you/by the hand down melting pathways/and store windows/so we can see our reflection.” So I looked up hashtag #PabloCL to learn more about my mysterious street poet.
When I met up with López in person a few weeks later on a bench on the outskirts of Seward Park, he recounted the story of how his “sticky paper” poem adventures began. “It was sort of an accident that happened. One day I was printing stuff up, and I used sticky paper instead…so I realized it could be a sticker…Like, why didn’t I do this before? Because if you’re an artist or poet, it’s the fastest way to get your words out there.” He used the hashtag #PabloCL to connect with passerby. Some liked his art and some did not, but the most important thing was that people took the time to notice his art, which could feel like a rarity in a world where writers often faced a steady stream of rejections from literary magazines. “When you’re doing this, you don’t need anyone’s approval. You just post it. And it’s free. It’s more direct. Maybe somebody would never find out or you would have never found out if I was published [in] the Paris Review.”
Upon our first encounter, I immediately noticed two things about the soft-spoken artist, who seemed out of place in this bustling corner of the Lower East Side where the sirens of ambulances mingled with the loud conversations of park goers. First: the intensity of his gaze and keen self-awareness (during a lull in conversation, he sighed and asked, “Am I boring you?”), which I attributed to his background as an actor. Second: his sharp attire (a crisp blue striped shirt, sheer black dress pants and shiny leather shoes), which spoke to his day job (he works in a shoe store now and before that in a tailor’s shop).
The 38-year-old poet-musician was raised as the youngest of four children in the coastal Spanish city of Valencia, where he was raised “in a very conventional and traditional atmosphere because of the area of Spain I grew up in, but also a very unconventional family.”
Although both of his parents were educators before retiring, López spurned the academic life, opting not to go to college after high school. “I didn’t want to be a part of a system in any way. Because I grew up, you know, like many kids that are a bit artistic or the classic effeminate kid, I was always feeling inadequate in a kind of way. That sort of pushed me away from any kind of system.”
Instead, while he was developing his own writing, he set off for London, where he studied drama at the National Youth Theatre. He auditioned for and subsequently starred as Mercutio in a play his father wrote, an adaption of Romeo and Juliet and Two Noble Kinsmen in which Mercutio falls in love with Romeo and Juliet. He split his time between London and Madrid, bartending to earn his keep and also taking voice lessons.
Although he was an actor by training, López felt his true calling lay elsewhere, and he started shifting more formally towards music and poetry in the late 1990s. Of music, he says it “helped me develop an identity as a teenager when you feel misplaced and [have] classic adolescent feelings.” While writing the poems that would comprise his first book, Rock and Roll Jolie, López wound up joining a group of hard-nosed kids from the outskirts of Madrid, among whom the reclusive López found a home for five years when they formed a band called Vice and Vanity, featuring López as their vocalist. Even though their music hewed more to rock and roll, they had a sort of “punk rock aesthetic” that was inspired in part by the music scene unfolding in New York at the time. “It’s more of an attitude or a way of looking at life than a style of rock and roll,” said López.
Inevitably, he made his way to New York in his early twenties. López was visiting a friend at Stony Brook in Long Island, and he would take the train into the city and just roam the streets. But New York cast a spell on López, and he returned every year until 2005, when he met his now-husband, Vincent Michaud. Michaud would soon become a creative partner with López, as he illustrated the poet’s second book, New Reality, and also developed the visuals for many of his multimedia works, including Park Poem, a collaboration with Laloved Magazine that also featured spoken word poetry from López alongside out-of-this world music from López’s current band, Ensalmo (roughly meaning “incantation” in Spanish).
Newly in love and wanting to pursue other creative endeavors, López moved to the city for real in 2006 and split up the band, though in his first year in New York they did play a few gigs at spots like Continental (back when it was still doing live shows) and the Trash Bar in Williamsburg (now the Brooklyn location of the popular Overthrow boxing gym). But eventually, he and the band went their separate ways, separated by more than just an ocean. “They were demanding a presence from me, and I was also withdrawing and wanting to start a life here. I wanted to stay with them, but I also wanted to explore, not only personally but also artistically.”
López’s present-day band, Ensalmo, was eventually born with the addition of bandmates Florencia Zaballa Moon and Jamie Del Moon. All the while, López’s love of poetry grew stronger, inspired as he was by poets like Manhattan native and musician Jim Carroll, who also lived on the Lower East Side for a time. López released his second book of poetry in 2011, and then more recently began to plaster his writings around the city in places like Washington Square Park and the East Broadway subway station. So many of his poems centered on the experience of dwelling in this ever-changing place–whether it was being a romantic in the city or observing a flock of birds and meditating on their significance in one’s own life.
He was particularly inspired by the Lower East Side, where he’s lived for the past 10 years. In fact, it was in part due to the diversity of his surroundings that he decided to write his next book of poetry in both English and Spanish as a way to fully embrace his native tongue. “For this book, I really want to develop my love for my mother language. It’s the first bilingual book [of mine]. I wrote it, I translated it,” said López. “That’s what I like about New York—the diversity and the language diversity. The cultural diversity is something I identify with. Especially in this neighborhood,” he said, gesturing to the small storefronts and residential walk-ups on Essex Street.
We chatted for a little bit about the shops of nearby Orchard Street and the gentrification of Chinatown. In the process, I discovered that López had more than just a personal connection to the Lower East Side—it was a historical one that spanned generations. His grandfather and great-grandfather moved to New York, and it’s possible they may have at one point lived on Cherry Street, settling in among the influx of Spaniards that flocked to Lower Manhattan in the early twentieth century. “It makes me feel subconsciously that I ended up here.”
It was a boiling-hot day in Brooklyn when I strolled by a dull gray electrical box and glimpsed vivid shades of red, purple and blue. The square black sticker pasted onto the box contained a blue angelic figure with red wings kneeling in prayer beneath a bizarre hodgepodge of images depicting the decrepit state of America today: pills—possibly a nod to the opioid epidemic—logos for Fox News and Vice, Facebook and Twitter social media icons, an iPhone, an AK-47, an Amazon box, and an array of dollar bills upon dollar bills. Scrawled in tiny white font beneath the image were the words Dom Dirtee.
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Lovehoney is here to make you care about rock and roll again, and they’re doing a pretty damn good job of it. Band members—vocalist Alysia Quinones, guitarist Tommy White, drummer Tom Gehlhaus and bassist Matt Saleh—may not presently live in Brooklyn—though Alysia grew up in Bushwick—but their home base where they rehearse is a local fixture. The Sweatshop, which lies off the Montrose Avenue L stop, offers space to many rising New York artists. As we’re chatting, the whirring of a machine and other banging noises periodically disrupt our conversation. Tommy smiles wryly and says, “The perks of having a rehearsal studio in a warehouse.”
Director Crystal Moselle, who traced a family of Lower East Side shut-ins with her documentary The Wolfpack, is back in the public spotlight. This time, she’s touting a feature film instead of a documentary and hanging out with a feisty group of teen girls tearing up the skate parks and streets of the Lower East Side. Her new film, Skate Kitchen, depicts a fictionalized version of the lives of real skateboarders who captivate their 70,000-plus followers on Instagram with viral videos of skating tricks and gnarly wipe outs.
Longtime East Village photographers James and Karla Murray installed a structure in Seward Park recreating the Lower East Side’s Cup and Saucer, which closed after more than 70 years in business. Now, they’ve set up a gallery show featuring photographs from their “Store Front” books just a few blocks away at The Storefront Project (70 Orchard Street). The exhibit, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” pays homage to the mom-and-pop shops of the Lower East Side and will remain open through August 12. Bedford + Bowery chatted with Karla Murray about her hopes and thoughts on the changing neighborhood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I hope the opening reception went well.
We got a lot of love and support from our friends and store owners as well. The granddaughter of Moe Albanese [of] Albanese Meats & Poultry on Elizabeth [Street]. Really the last butcher in Nolita. A neon sign fabricator who created the sign for Trash & Vaudeville and refurbished the Russ & Daughter’s sign was in attendance as well.
Tell me about your hopes for the Orchard Street exhibit.
The majority of the photos relate to the Lower East Side. You know, to relate back to the neighborhood that the gallery is in. We also have a smattering from our so-called other “favorite” ones, mostly departed stores like Zig Zag Records and the Ralph’s that you saw in the window. We included some others but concentrated on the Lower East Side because we wanted to continue our story. ‘Cuz certainly the Lower East Side has changed a lot with gentrification and different people moving in. Unfortunately, a lot of mom-and-pop stores have closed. Buildings have been knocked down—it’s not only the stores. They’ve destroyed a lot of old tenement buildings [that] have been replaced with newer developments. When that happens, what replaces them on the ground floor as far as retail [goes] is a massive space that usually doesn’t lend to a mom-and-pop store leasing it because it’s just too expensive.
Are you mainly trying to preserve the legacy of these buildings or do you think there is some hope for activists to see your work and get inspired?
Oh, of course. The way we’ve always thought of it is a celebration of the businesses that are still around. We always photograph vibrant, lively businesses. That’s why we always put the address with the cross street because we want people to be able to go to the stores and shop at them. That’s really the key to their survival, [which] is that they need customers.
And how many businesses did you end up photographing as part of this project?
It’s countless. Thousands of photos. There’s over 325 stores just in our first book. And we have three books on the subject. Too many to count and interviews with the store owners as well. It’s over twenty years now [that] we’ve been documenting these mom-and-pop stores.
You [and James] have been East Village residents for how many years now?
We’ve lived in the same apartment for 22 years now. So it’s been a long time. It’s changed a lot in the time that we’ve been there. To be honest: we wish we had photographed more. There’s many, many small businesses that we remember fondly, but frankly we didn’t ever take a photo of [them] because we didn’t think they would ever close. And then it was too late. It’s always been a race against time to document them because they seem to be closing almost on a daily basis. For the most part, if they don’t own the building they’re located in, with the cost of new real estate going up, the landlord will triple, quadruple [the rent]. One business, they increased the rent 15 times. I mean, no small business can absorb that kind of rent increase, so then they’re forced to close.
So how do you feel about new developments like the Target in the East Village? Do you feel that kind of bodes ill for the mom-and-pop businesses?
We live on that street.That was all mom-and-pop stores. We documented them on film in the ‘90s. There was a pizzeria. There was a Permacut [Beauty Salon]. There was an old dive bar. Blarney Cove. There was a little bodega. There was a 99 cent [store]. There was a whole strip of store after store after store. Mom-and-pop places. They knocked all that down and built that development. I mean, you can go anywhere and shop in Target. You don’t have to be in New York City. That doesn’t make a neighborhood. To us, it’s the mom-and-pop stores that define a community. The very reason we moved to the East Village years ago [was] that we thought it was fun and funky and had a lot of cool and interesting shops. When those types of stores close, the fabric of the neighborhood suffers.
James and Karla Murray will lead a walking tour from their Seward Park installation to the Orchard Street exhibit on Saturday, August 4th from 1-3 p.m. Check their Instagram and Facebook for further details coming soon.
As Adrian Galvin sprawls his legs on a wooden bench in the Think Coffee shop on Bowery, the 28-year-old who performs as Yoke Lore tells me something that I’d never imagine any self-respecting New York musician would admit.
About halfway through our conversation, Kiefer Shackelford launches into one of his favorite jokes: “Can you imagine Duke Ellington teaching a piano lesson and going, Now remember, son, make sure they always think what you’re doing is jazz? That’s got to be the most idiotic thing I’ve heard, and yet we’re so stuck in that.”
A UCLA-trained pianist who records under his first name, Kiefer’s light jabs at jazz snobs are in-bounds, since he admits that was once his mindset. But after seeing MNDSGN at the late-lamented L.A. showcase The Low End Theory in 2015, he dived headlong into the city’s bohemian, genre-fusing scene as a producer, earning co-productions with the likes of Kaytranada and Anderson .Paak.
While last year’s debut, Kickinit Alone, was an instrumental travelogue through the wake of a break-up, HappySad (released Friday on Stones Throw Records) takes more of an overview of an artist trying to balance a scale of ambition and anxiety. Beneath the accessible speckling of MPC-inspired rhythms, cool jazz noodling, and molasses-slow G-funk that play under the soft-white vinyl hiss of the record, one might not catch the looming uncertainty– or true reverence for American composers–Kiefer demonstrates on each track. HappySad’s hip-hop readymades establish his foothold in Stones Throw’s unsinkable roster of beatmakers, upholding a jazz heritage while envisioning its boundary-less future.
“Your job as a musician is not to be the smartest, most esoteric, eccentric or artistically superior person out there,” Shackelford said. “You can develop those cool harmonies and rhythms, but your job first and foremost should be for the purpose of encouraging people and making their lives better.”
Ahead of his New York debut performance at Elsewhere on Friday, Kiefer caught up with B+B to chat about HappySad, the link between education and jazz, and the freeing feeling of “abandoning” art.
Kickinit Alone doesn’t start in the same place it ends emotionally; it takes listeners from a dejected mood to a optimistic one. Did you go into HappySad thinking it would have a similar emotional arc?
Definitely. I think at a certain point I realized that although writing about sadness is particularly potent, I wasn’t as emotionally distraught as I was when recording the previous record. This one’s more of a hodgepodge, but it’s consistent in that I’m writing with the same mindset all the time. It’s emotional journaling, and [HappySad] is my journal for 2017. A lot of songs are about my anxiety, being ambitious and having dreams and trying to follow them, romantic feelings. A lot of songs are about ego and trying to control that. I think it’s about an emotionally complex person who’s … just a got a dream [laughs] and just trying to make it work and balance my emotional life with my musical aspirations.
It seems like these records are a pretty distinct snapshot of where you are as you make them. Was that always a natural path for you? Many artists try to shy away from wanting people to think of their music as diaristic.
It’s definitely natural for me. I’ve been playing piano since I was very little and learning how to improvise from day one. Being an improviser offers you the chance to write for the moment; being able to make music extemporaneously allows for me to put down whatever I’m feeling in that instant. Usually every single song I do [starts by] sitting down at the piano for 60 seconds or so, and then I think about the most emotionally captivating thing in my life at the time. Over the next 20, 30 minutes I’ll have the basic idea finished and I’ll put it away.
When do you know when the recording is complete?
It’s kind of a cop-out answer, but it’s an artistic decision when to stop. I’m of the belief that no art is finished. Michelangelo once said, “All art is abandoned.” At some point you just have to stop and be content with it not being done. Even Kanye West with The Life of Pablo, he’s still updating that shit and re-uploading it to Spotify. I just read yesterday that Bob Dylan is always rewriting his greatest songs that a lot of people have deemed as “perfect.” But we have such a reference for musicians, sometimes, that we forget that songs are not necessarily finished with they’re recorded.
We try to get as close to perfection as you can within reason, but for me it’s more about being real with myself. I find that a feeling only visits you for so long, and as an improviser I’m trying to channel those constantly changing emotions very efficiently. If you have aspects of your technique that are blocking you from getting that out, that’s something that you need to work on.
What aspect of your technique do you think you’ve spent the most time working to un-block?
I think the biggest one was mixing and understanding how to use software. The laptop is quite literally an instrument, a tool for creative expression, and learning how to see my computer as a part of my process as opposed to just the piano has been an essential part of this new art form I’ve been trying to develop.
That was a huge fork in the road for me, actually. In August 2013, Mndsgn played, and he became one of the most irreplaceable presences in my musical career, because had it not been for watching him perform and really loving what I’ve heard, I would have never considered this as a career path. I used to be one of those jazz snobs who only wanted to play jazz, but then I saw this jazz-influenced type of thing that I suddenly became very interested in, and that was all at Theory.
You’ve spoken before about the importance for jazz musicians not to get in this mindset of I only can play jazz music. What’s some stuff that you’ve been listening to that helps get you out of that bubble?
I love a lot of my contemporaries. I love Kaytranada, Knxwledge, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music, but that’s still kind of jazz. I think especially in this day and age, jazz musicians dedicate ourselves to tradition, we think it’s really important. But the irony is we’re ignoring a huge part of the tradition, which is that a lot of the great jazz musicians throughout history were not playing [what we call] “jazz” at the time. Think about Duke Ellington; he called his music “American music.” Miles Davis called his “social music.” Same goes for John Coltrane. Even Robert Glasper is doing things he doesn’t even consider jazz all the time.
I think a favorite person that I have taken the most influence from in recent years was my teacher, Abraham Laboriel, who’s played bass on Stevie Wonder records, Quincy Jones records, Michael Jackson records, everything. Something that he reminded me to do all the time is most fundamental thing of all: play from your heart. Don’t ever touch your instrument if you’re not doing that. Even if you play one note, if you put your heart into it, your stresses and your self judging, any insecurities start to go away. You’re less concerned with “Are people judging me? Am I doing this the right way? Oh man, I sound terrible.” Those thoughts kind of subside.
“HappySad” is out now on Stones Throw Records. Kiefer’s record release show at The Del Monte in Los Angeles on July 12.