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JUMP’s Top 25 Albums of 2018

December 7, 2018

Between a steady stream of bands relocating here, and a rich crop of homegrown talent, Philadelphia is arguably the country’s best city for music. The quality of releases on this list is jaw-dropping, and by no means complete. Suffice it to say, it was a difficult task paring it down to 25. We hope you enjoy, and please let us know what you think!

1. Tierra Whack – Whack World (self released)
Fifteen one-minute songs, and a stunning video for the entire album, serve as an announcement of a major talent. Whack World is infused with humor and is bursting with creativity. A fan of Quentin Tarantino, Tierra Whack shifts gears quickly, and displays a musical versatility comparable to her new friend André 3000. Tierra Whack is going places, but she started here.


2. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (Saddle Creek)
Somehow, even with high expectations following the excellent Painted Shut, indie rock outfit Hop Along manages to surprise. Frances Quinlan and company are at the top of their game.

3. Low Cut Connie – Dirty Pictures, Part 2 (Contender Records)
Low Cut Connie is one of the most energetic and entertaining live shows in the business, but this record, anchored by the single “Beverly,” reveals a more introspective dimension.

4. The Skull  Eclipses – The Skull Eclipses (Western Vinyl)
A collaboration between Philly-based Lushlife and Texas-based Botany, The Skull Eclipses sounds kinda like It Was Written-era Nas meets Olivia Tremor Control or Ryuichi Sakamoto remixing Kool G. Rap’s Road to the Riches.

5. Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (Matador)
Vile somehow aims high while wandering aimlessly. Coming off a great album with Courtney Barnett and a mega-hit mural-earner Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Vile’s drifting never fails to captivate.

6. Nothing – Dance on the Blacktop (Relapse)
Even a move by lead singer Domenic Palermo to New York couldn’t make Nothing anything but a Philly band. Dance on the Blacktop combines their dark, unyielding shoegaze heaviness with flashes of positivity. You know, like life in Philly sometimes.

7. Dr. Dog – Critical Equation (We Buy Gold Records)
Dr. Dog has never been a group to take long breaks. They released the surprise LP Abandoned Mansion just months after 2016’s The Psychedelic Swamp. This year’s Critical Equation sees the psych-rockers just as tight, trippy and immersive as ever.

8. Secret American – Warmth & Shelter (self released)
The instrumentation is undeniably retro and hearkens back to pop/rock groups from the mid-1960’s, while the lyricism is contemporary, innocent and familiar. Secret American presents a respite of brightness to the otherwise current dark texture of indie rock.

9. Ivy Sole – Overgrown (Les Fleurs Records)
Since moving here to attend Wharton, Ivy Sole has emerged as one of the city’s finest talents. Her sweet, poetic rhymes and ear for catchy melodies make Overgrown one of the most impressive debuts in contemporary rap.

10. SAD Marquise – iPhone Pop (self released)
iPhone Pop is somehow joyous and melancholy, optimistic and bitter. Completely recorded on a smart phone, iPhone Pop is a shining example of  DIY ingenuity and an ode to the complexities of modern love.

11. Outer Heaven – Realms of Eternal Decay (Relapse)
Equal parts primitive and complex, Outer Heaven sounds familiar yet new, culling influences from death metal classics and streamlining their sound to break new ground.

12. Restorations – LP5000 (Tiny Engines)
With a mature take on the changes in life that took place since their release of LP3, LP5000’s earnest rock and roll shows growth while keeping everything the band’s fans have loved over their career.

13. Ceramic Animal – The Horse (self released)
A psych-rock element permeates the record, but Ceramic Animal tests the genre with doses of pop and, uniquely, a certain Western cinematic style. The Horse is compact and stunning, but you should see these boys live.   

14. Strange Parts – Oh God, What A Beautiful Time I Spent in The Wild (Specious Arts)
Attia Taylor and Corey Duncan’s debut is full of dense, soaring, heartbreakingly beautiful songs. A breathtaking debut by any measure, Oh God… is a perfect piece of psychedelic dream-pop full of magic and grandeur.

15. Johnny Shortcake – It’s the Johnny Shortcake Show! (self released)
A superbly crafted album that will delight kids from one to 92. This is a funky and funny record; when will Johnny Shortcake get the TV show he deserves?

16. Horrendous – Idol (Season of Mist)
Idol is the Philadelphia quartet’s most ambitious work yet, with Horrendous delving further into progressive song structures and intricate musicianship. Each listen yields previously-unheard surprises and the songs are some of Horrendous’ most memorable yet.

17. Dark Lo – Bucket List (OBH Records)
A short, brutal concept album, each song touches on something that Lo would like to do before dying, from the big ticket personal dreams like “Win a Grammy” to the overtly political “Break Mumia Out of Jail” complete with dramatic delivery and cartoonishly violent imagery.

18. Free Cake For Every Creature – The Bluest Star (Double Double Whammy)
The Bluest Star is one of those albums that proves you don’t have to be loud to hit hard. The melodies are hushed, and the recording is charmingly lo-fi, but Katie Bennett brings so much power to her third full-length LP.

19. Palm – Rock Island (Carpark Records)
Rock Island is all over the place. We really mean that as a good thing. For fans of glitchy melodies and shimmery soundscapes, the latest release from Palm is right up your alley.

20. Queen of Jeans – Dig Yourself (Topshelf Records)
Queen of Jeans blends classic girl-group harmonies, ‘90s folk sounds, and hazy, lo-fi beats to make music they call “crockpot pop.” Take a trip to their soft femme aesthetic dreamland with their debut LP Dig Yourself.

21. Speedy Ortiz – Twerp Verse (Carpark Records)
Though Massachusetts-bred, Speedy Ortiz is ours now. Sadie Dupuis has a knack for pop-ready hooks that also feel at home atop grungy guitar. The stories on Twerp Verse feel familiar and relatable, and are witty as ever.

22. Steady Hands – Truth in Comedy (Lame-O Records)
Truth in Comedy is like a PBR-fueled night that ends in smiles—and maybe a couple new tattoos, too. The full-length debut shows vocalist/guitarist Sean Huber’s songwriting chops, grit-punk prowess and the strength of his surrounding cast.

23. Thin Lips – Chosen Family (Lame-O Records)
Chosen Family is an emotional, honest and fun love letter to friends and community. Killer riffs, huge hooks and powerful lyrics. 2016’s Riff Hard did just that, and gave us a a full exposure to Thin Lips as people.

24. Zilla Rocca – Future Former Rapper (P.O.W. Recordings)
Melding gritty, sample-based beats with devastating one-liners about being “30 years old and you never had a breakthrough,” these songs highlight the fear, contempt and confusion that comes with growing old in a young man’s game.

25.  mewithoutYou – [untitled] (Run for Cover Records)
Aaron Weiss’s vocals alternate between being deep in the mix as an instrument themselves and scorching in the forefront, and the instrumentals keep pieces of their post-hardcore beginnings and genre-exploring history.

Complex Sentences: A Q&A with Eric Krewson of The Chairman Dances

November 20, 2018

Story by Emily Kovach. Photo by Charles Shan Cerrone.

Tightly wound, drama-tinged indie rock shot through with synthesizers and anxious lyrics is what you’ll find on Child of My Sorrow, the newest record from The Chairman Dances, released in early September on Black Rd Records. It’s the follow-up to the band’s 2016 full-length, Time Without Measure, which earned a spot on CMJ’s Top 200 Chart and garnered positive critical reviews.

It can be tricky creating something new after a warmly received work. Do you replicate the process or go in a wildly different direction? The Chairman Dances took another path: pushing forward, leaning into layered instrumentation, watering the seedling of the band and coaxing it into a state of full bloom.

Dan Wisniewski, 32, of Northwest Philly, from the Philly band Spelling Reform, was in the first iteration of The Chairman Dances back in 2010. In the almost-decade since then, he’s observed a deliberate shift and growth in their sound.

“The most obvious change is the shift toward these complex, synth-saturated arrangements, which are quite engaging,” he says. “This most recent record is also notable just for the amount of ‘stuff’ that’s going on … I hear different things every time I listen to the new record, which is super fun.”

We chatted with Eric Krewson, 32, of Fishtown, lead vocalist, guitarist, and trumpet player in The Chairman Dances, to learn more about the band’s evolution:

JUMP: Who’s currently in the band?
EK: The current lineup of the band is Dan Comly (synthesizer, piano), Dan Finn (synthesizer, piano), Maria Mirenzi (vocals, baritone and alto saxophones), Will Schwarz (bass guitar), Kevin Walker (drums) and myself. Over the course of the band’s lifespan, a number of other musicians have been involved. Thankfully, all those members are still in touch with us, and a few of them contributed to the new album.

Were there any particularly strong takeaways from making the newest record?
EK: Child of My Sorrow was an all-consuming project. There were many stages of editing before recording. That sounds like it’d be boring and enervating, but it was exciting for everyone. Each band member took an active role in building the arrangements. We took turns taking the lead, so to speak. I should add—not everything was planned. I brought “No Compass, No Map” to the group at the last minute. It wound up being a single, and it might be my favorite track on the album.

In addition to the core group members, there were many guest musicians this time around. It was a thrill working with Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner, who played on my favorite Magnolia Electric Company and Songs:Ohia records.

Also, the name of the record seems pretty dark. What’s behind that title?
EK: The title comes from the last song on the record. While that song does not seem to end well for its narrator, I think it’s implied that their grief is bearable, that it’s temporary, even as it feels otherwise. I don’t think the album is especially dark. A number of songs are supposed to elicit laughter. There’s a song for the Chick-fil-A mascot. The Acme at Girard and 2nd Street is the setting of the opening track.

The phrases “bookish” and “literary” are often used to describe your band. Is your songwriting inspired by literature?
EK: I hope the songwriting is literary. I love novels and essays, theology and history. There’s nothing like creating characters, even if they exist for just a few lines.

Songwriting aside, sometimes I think the term is used to describe the tone of the band. By that, I mean my bandmates write and perform thoughtfully and deliberately. That’s not always the case with rock bands.

City Rain: Back from the Void

November 19, 2018

Story by Lauren Silvestri. Photo by Milton Lindsay.

Ben Runyan never thought he would perform as City Rain again.

After starting the electronic project in 2007, it became a full band in 2010. In 2013, he released the single “The Optimist” as a duo with guitarist Scott Cumpstone, which caught MTV and VEVO’s attention and did well on Spotify.

“I’m just blessed and happy that I had one piece of art that reached people on more than a molecular level,” Runyan says as he sips his coffee in Center City’s Capital One Cafe.

However, by 2015, Runyan felt disenchanted. He became increasingly unsatisfied with the production and end result of his last album, Take Me To The Void. It was the first record that Runyan did not solely produce, and the different creative opinions lead to screaming matches with the co-producer.

“I don’t think I really understood the implications of what working with another producer would look like,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t in control, and I’m fine not being in control in a lot of aspects of my life, but in my artistic life, I do require that control, and I think I have a right to it.”

The experience, coupled with personal conflicts within the band, caused City Rain to go on an indefinite hiatus in 2016, and Runyan admits he does not speak to most past members.

In fact, he’s pretty sure they all hate him.

“I would imagine I’m not the easiest person to work with, because I have such strong opinions,” he says. “I’ve been accused of such before.”

Visual artist and director Stephen Rutterford, who has collaborated with Runyan in the past, says he has not come across that behavior. He calls their relationship a “two-way mentorship.”

“He has a very clear vision on things,” Rutterford says. “He’s so passionate about music; there’s an excessive fire within him.”

During the hiatus, Runyan preoccupied himself with JUSTPROCESS, an ongoing collaborative project where he writes and produces for other artists. He also teaches music technology at Drexel, Rowan and The University Of The Arts. Over time, he missed creating his own music but believed City Rain was over.

His best friend and current band member Matt Rivard relentlessly tried to convince Runyan to restart City Rain. Runyan was reluctant, but one day he wrote a riff during a class. At home, he finished the song and realized it was a City Rain song. He released the electro-pop spinner “Little Dreamer” under the City Rain moniker in May.

Soon after, he reformed the band with Rivard, Amanda Desenna and Gabby Relos, debuting two new songs on Radio 104.5’s Live at 5 earlier this year.

“It felt natural making the songs again,” Runyan says. “It’s a core emotional outlet for me.”

At 31 and recently married, Runyan feels better than ever.

“I’ve proved myself,” he says, his “No Excuses” tattoo peeking out from his black T-shirt. “I wasn’t a well-developed adult during some of the earlier years of the band, and I think that affected my relationships with bandmates. The walkaway was a good thing for me, and I’m glad I’m doing it again. It provides me with an identity, which I think everybody needs.”

Runyan believes his identity is more than a performer.

“A performer is a small aspect of it, but my records and what I write, I think that’s something that will hopefully last forever,” he says.

He’s become his own optimist.

smth savant: Kindred Spirits in Beats

November 12, 2018

Story by John Morrison. Photo by Megan Matuzak.

Backyard Bxss (pronounced “Backyard Bass”) was founded in 2017 as a monthly showcase for local women, gender-nonconforming people and people of color who produce and perform electronic music. By being intentional about booking and the work it highlights, the event brings a totally new energy to the scene and challenges the stifling homogeneity of experimental music.

Recently scaled back to a quarterly event, Backyard Bxss has featured live sets from a variety of electronic musicians. In its short time in existence, Backyard Bxss has built a rich community of diverse performers dedicated to pushing the sound and social mores of electronic music forward.

The event’s founders, multi-instrumentalists/producers Ada Adhiyatma (aka Madam Data) and Kilamanzego (who goes by K) met through a mutual friend when Adhiyatma moved to Philly from the West Coast. Upon hearing Madam Data’s electronic sound, Kilamanzego invited them to play at her birthday party/BBQ in South Philly. From that event, a desire to create a new space for Philly’s beat-making community was born, and that became Backyard Bxss and smth savant (pronounced “something savant”), a collective and independent record label.

“A mutual friend of ours in Oakland hit me up saying that we should meet because their experimental style reminded him of mine,” Kilamanzego says. “I checked it out, and it sounded like some boiler-room-ready set to me. [laughs] Anyway, I immediately hit them up and was like, ‘You’re playing my birthday party.’ They agreed. It’s funny because this was before we even knew each other, but I was super-confident in their abilities, and their sound amazed me, and still does so much.”

“From that BBQ, I wanted to replicate the same mood and have it be monthly, because Philly’s beat scene has gone through a lot of phases,” Kilamanzego explains. “I just happened to be a part of it at a time where locating that particular scene wasn’t the easiest. So I tapped Ada on the shoulder to partner up with me on smth savant.”

In a scene that sometimes does not tolerate diversity, their event and label celebrated it.

“I know so many artists who have run into complications getting booked or getting paid properly due to their gender or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is,” says Kilamanzego.

Despite their aligned visions, Adhiyatma and Kilamanzego came from two very different musical backgrounds. A formally trained multi-instrumentalist and composer, Adhiyatma dove deep into the post-Bop work of Miles Davis’ late quintet as a teenager, a discovery which led them into a musical journey through the avant-garde.

“And from then on there was always something just out of my reach,” says Adhiyatma, “that I didn’t quite understand, and I could never put it down, ’cause I need to know what these people are trying to put into the universe.”

Adhiyatma would eventually enroll in Mills College in Oakland, and had the opportunity to study with Roscoe Mitchell, the legendary avant-garde composer and cofounder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It was this relationship that helped open their ears and heart to the spirit of community that music could help create when it’s done the right way, with care and compassion.

”The jazz world nowadays is not a good place to be in,” Adhiyatma says. “It’s very macho, very masculine, very competitive, in a completely non-productive way. … It’s, like, dominated by institutions where white people have a lot of power, which is bizarre to think about.”

Adhiyatma says what saved them at the time was going to AACM concerts in New York, a place they felt was more open and caring.

“It was a community thing,” they say. Everyone was open. They were listening for new sounds.”

Playing music since she was a kid, Kilamanzego spent her formative years playing bass in a variety of bands, from ska and punk to hardcore and death metal. She eventually was inspired to dive into hip-hop production after being blown away by J-Dilla’s iconic second album, Donuts.

“It had either come out that year or I found it early the following year,” she says. “That’s how quickly it must’ve blown up. Anyway, I listened to some snippets and bought it. I was completely floored. I didn’t stop playing that album for months.”

It was simply different.

“It was the first time I started asking questions like ‘How do people produce?’ I remember my roommate at the time smiled as he saw me listening to it and was like, ‘You could use a program called Fruity Loops.’ ”

So she did just that, eventually moving on to more sophisticated programs like Abelton.

Marked by pounding drums, oceanic basslines and elegant synths, her tracks are like a sonic funhouse of glitchy twists and turns, not unlike the twists and turns in their own lives that led them to where they are now in Philly.

The artist collective/record label has been busy since the two first met and realized they were kindred spirits, with Kilamanzego releasing genre shifting singles like “Red Light Green Light” and the gorgeous dancefloor burner “Stay Floated in the Tribe.” Madam Data recently put out their 2018 experimental opus A Thick Band of Orange Light and the label’s first compilation, featuring local producers and electronic musicians. Coupled with Backyard Bxss, which relaunches as a quarterly event in January, the smth savant crew has made an invaluable contribution to Philly’s music scene.

Changing the Game: How rapper/Ph.D candidate Sammus pulls off the ultimate balancing act

November 6, 2018

Story by Brendan Menapace. Photography by Charles Shan Cerrone

Énongo Lumumba-Kasongo seems calm. Calmer than you might expect considering her current workload. The 32-year-old, perhaps better known by many as Sammus, is sitting on her couch, which is perfectly angled in a spotless, sun-filled living room that could very well be found in a West Elm catalog or interior design Instagram feed that focuses on minimalism. The only thing that resembles clutter in her West Philly home is one shelf of books on the wall and a stack of records beneath the TV. On the other wall is a Mac desktop computer and small keyboard.

In this place of absolute organization, there’s tranquility. Nothing seems overwhelming to her, even as she balances life as an up-and-coming hip-hop artist and as a Ph.D candidate at Cornell.

Which makes her kind of like a superhero: She’s Énongo at school and on paper, but on stage she’s Sammus, and she just might bust out a mock blaster cannon like her namesake wears in the “Metroid” video game series.

“It’s been really nuts,” she says. “I’m really blessed in that things started to take off after I finished my first round of qualifying exams. Basically, before you take your qualifying exams, you have to be on campus. You have to take classes, and you have to teach classes, and you have to write a project proposal, all of this stuff. So, during that time, I was just dipping my toes into what it would be like to be a full-time artist, but I wasn’t fully committed.”

After she wrapped up her first round of qualifying exams at Cornell, she had a little more freedom to move outside of her academic bubble in Ithaca. This allowed her to do her first tour, and eventually, move to Philly with her fiancé.

It didn’t mean her workload was any lighter, though. And now that she’s away from school, she’s had to learn to decide which one of her passions she feeds at the moment.

“In terms of balancing, I guess it’s just figuring out what’s more urgent when,” she says. “It’s like a series of putting out small fires. Even with working on my dissertation now, ideally, I would be working on my next album. But my committee [at Cornell] is like, ‘Yo, you need to finish this.’ And I want to be done. I work on songs when I can, but Monday through Friday is dissertation time. At other points in my career it’s been forget the dissertation. I’m not thinking of that. I need to figure out the details of this tour. I need to email with folks and figure out where I’m staying, how much I’m making, whatever, whatever. Going hard for whatever I’m working on in a particular time. Switching gears right away.”

Lumumba-Kasongo’s Ph.D dissertation focuses on how recording spaces exist as both commercial entities and also spaces designed to benefit the community.

“My area of research is focused in the politics of recording studios that are supposed to also function as community resources,” she says. “I would say over the last decade, there’s been this burst of the number of programs that are studios for the underserved communities, that are geared toward teaching them certain skills. Not just recording skills, but mixing and mastering more generally. So what I’m interested in is how the people who run these spaces and also participate in them, how they navigate the dual identity of the space—how it’s functioning on the one hand as a commercial studio, but on the other hand as this radical community space, and that sometimes those interests don’t necessarily align. They could be in contention.”

The theme of two worlds living in contention is what brought her to Don Giovanni Records, a Jersey-based label that mostly puts out punk music, and is run by Joe Steinhardt.

Lumumba-Kasongo and Steinhardt met while they were both at Cornell, while the latter was working on his post doc. She had gone to see a Don Giovanni band, Izzy True, and ended up talking with Steinhardt.

“Basically, I was telling him that I wanted to move out of this weird geek space that I had been sort of placed in,” she says. “My name, Sammus, comes from a video game character. I have a concept album about ‘Metroid.’ I love video games, I love cartoons. So I reference it really heavily in my music. But what happened was a lot of folks started putting it in the category of Nerdcore hip-hop, which I didn’t even know existed until people were like, ‘You’re a nerdcore rapper!’ ”

Although people connected with her love of video games and references in her music, it’s not what she wants to be known for or identified as.

“So I want to resist this label so much! I’m more than just this woman who talks about geeky [stuff],” she continues. “I’m using it to talk about other things. So I was talking to Joe about, like, how do I reject that label in a strategic way? And we started thinking, like, maybe it would be cool if I worked with Don Giovanni, because they’re, like, kind of a punk label, not really like a standard hip-hop label. So, in that way, I would really be differentiating myself from the label that I had before. And also, he felt it would be a nice way to start exploring what it would be like to represent hip-hop artists on the label. So it just worked out really nicely.”

She and Steinhardt realized they were kindred spirits in the sense that they both were balancing on the line between academia and indie music, and both had similar ideals and goals for themselves and their art.

“I was on this panel [at Cornell with her], and I started talking to her, like, ‘I want to support you, and I want you to stay independent and succeed, and I want you to make smart decisions. I want to help you,’” Steinhardt, 34, says over the phone from East Lansing, Michigan, where he’s currently teaching at Michigan State. “Then, I think, the more we talked, it felt like we could really do big things together. I was like, ‘Wow, we really share the same values.’ I’ve always used the word punk incredibly loosely. I don’t think punk is so much about a sound. So, talking to Sammus, I was like, ‘Oh, you do punk stuff! You want to be a punk band, even if you’re an emcee and producer.’ And having these discussions, we were like, ‘All right, let’s do this!’ ”

Don Giovanni put out Sammus’ last full-length LP, 2016’s Pieces in Space.

Having the partnership of two people who understand the unique world of balancing an academic career and creating a music career, especially one that allows you to live off your art, made the two connect in ways that other labels and artists might not.

Steinhardt says his scholastic perspective gave him a better understanding of her current situation, and he tried to encourage her to, as she puts it, put out the academic fire at that moment, and finish upcoming music when she can properly dedicate her energy toward it.

“I was like, ‘Don’t worry about the record, get your dissertation done,’” he says. “The record is going to be huge, and your dissertation will pass, and you’ll get your doctorate.”

The theme of duality returns over and over again in conversation with Lumumba-Kasongo, understandably. She’s this incredible rapper and creative force, and she’s also smart and thoughtful in the traditional academic sense. And she keeps these two very heavy plates spinning (three, if you count preparing for her wedding).

“I think at first I tried to keep the two worlds as far apart as possible, because I thought I was going to go nuts if I even brought in a little of my academic work to my music,” she says. “Music was my escape, almost. It was like a refuge from academia. But I do find that even the way that I write, the way that I work on songs mirrors the way that I write my dissertation or work on papers. I’m very particular with the words and connotation, and how the music or the paper is going to be interpreted by other readers or other listeners. So I think that kind of attention to detail about what the meaning of what I’m trying to say has been informed by working on this Ph.D. And I guess, to an extent the content itself is also a little bit informed by what I’m working on academically.”

She mentions one particular track of hers, the 2016 single “1080p,” as an example of this. It conflates self-doubt about higher education (“Cuz they write books nobody reads / For these white folks that they tryna please / Recycle all the right quotes tryna cite blokes ain’t my cup of tea”) and a devastating post-break-up depression.

When asked what she learned the most from all of this, she pauses longer than any other response during our conversation.

“I would say that the biggest takeaway that I have is that it’s really complicated, but really rewarding, to celebrate complexity—to live in complexity,” she says. “The spaces that I’m studying for example—they mean multiple things to multiple people. Instead of trying to whittle it down to being purely a commercial space or purely a radical community space, it’s kind of nice for it to live in this in-between world, and it’s actually a benefit for a space to be interpreted in multiple ways. I think, for my career, for all kinds of folks to be invested and engaged with my music… Whether you’re a geek or a gamer, or just really love hip-hop, whatever it is, I don’t want my stuff to be able to be easily whittled down to one thing. And so I think that complexity is an incredible thing that’s difficult to deal with, but necessary for future change in the world.”

She more easily answers what she plans to do after she finishes her Ph.D and album.

In addition to a celebratory tour, she’s got one other thing on her to-do list.

“I’m gonna sleep so much.”

Rocker Erin Fox’s Rebirth as a Folk Artist

November 2, 2018

Second Life

Story by Jennifer Granato. Image by Mike Arrison.

It’s a wet, late summer Sunday night. The back room of Ortlieb’s in Northern Liberties is dark and quiet. With daisies on her shirt and a crown of short baby blue hair, Erin Fox, 29, strikes a slight figure on stage.

She plucks her guitar, finishing up a new song. Her haunting, clear voice sings, “I never had time for the doctor,” and echoes off the wooden walls, “until my time was almost gone.”

The audience listens silently. The sparse, folky pop of her recent EP Your Joy, and her first solo album, Forbidden Youth, both self-released, is surprising if you’re only familiar with Fox from Resilient, the genre-mashing local rock band.

“This is stuff I’ve been sitting on for a long time because it’s so emotional,” Fox says. “I don’t really like expressing that much of myself.”

But that changed in 2013 when she was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of brain cancer and underwent surgery to remove a tumor.

“I had to wrestle with the idea of not being around anymore,” she says quietly while sitting in the backyard at Interstate Drafthouse in Fishtown. “I don’t know, it just kind of changed how I write.”

Since recovering from brain surgery and ditching producers she found controlling, Fox has reclaimed her music, letting it guide her.

“Her music seems to be more encompassing of what she wants to do and what she’s trying to say,” says Kat Bohn, a longtime friend of Fox and substitute bassist for Resilient. “She has more of her own voice now.”

“At first I didn’t like it,” Fox says. “I was kind of like, ‘No, where is this coming from?’ But sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about the song. You just kind of have to let the song take over and go with it.”

Fox’s music confronts social and political issues, with tracks like “Sick” (about Philadelphia’s heroin epidemic) and “Ships,” which speaks to the Trump administration’s travel ban. Fox also chose to collaborate primarily with women, including her fellow members in Resilient and Babe Grenade, a new punk and hip-hop crossover band she plays guitar with.

“It’s just a stance in itself to be with an all-woman band,” Nia Ali, the emcee of Babe Grenade says. “It’s really liberating, and I think in the context of this social climate it is really important right now.”

“I want to work with female engineers, too,” Fox says, “I feel like there’s a lack of that in the music industry.”

Fox found the collaborations exhilarating and feels like she gained new perspectives through her experiences.

  “I’m just glad that I can play music again,” she says. Though she lives with some vision loss from the surgery, she still feels pretty good, all things considered. “So if I can’t drive but I can live here to play music, that’s a win to me.”

The Sound of Hard Work

November 2, 2018

Andy Clarke answers the calls

Words by Maggie McHale. Image by Bonnie Saporetti.

Andy Clarke follows one guiding principle when it comes to choosing his work.

“I want to work on music I enjoy,” says Clarke, a 30-year-old sound engineer based in South Philly. “If you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point?”

Clarke initially moved to Philadelphia a decade ago to attend the University of the Arts for drum performance but always had a knack for doing front-of-house work. Beginning at The Trocadero and eventually adding Boot & Saddle and Union Transfer to his client base, Clarke’s journey behind the board has typically tended to come on the fly.

“That’s kind of how I feel most of my jobs have come: just a call that day asking, ‘Are you available tonight? If you’re not, can you be?’ ” Clarke notes. “I’ve worked at six or seven different clubs in the city over the last eight years, and the only way I’ve gotten my foot in the door there is that last-minute phone call.”

The same thing, too, has happened with tours. He’s been able to develop relationships with heavy hitters such as The Menzingers, Circa Survive, Kurt Vile, Restorations, Thrice and Balance and Composure, with the last being a band for whom he served as a full-time sound engineer for around five years.

There have been multiple instances where Clarke was asked to jump on a tour as soon as the day before it left. He typically declines those offers, but occasionally his hectic schedule allows it.

“But sometimes,” he notes, “the calls are, ‘Hey, can you go on tour next week?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, maybe.’ ”

In addition to the plates he juggles doing sound and touring, Clarke also runs and works at Retro City Studios in Germantown, recording a variety of artists and building relationships with them.

His business partner, Joe Boldizar, 37, says that Clarke is “the guy you want to have around when things go wrong,” thanks not only to his tireless work ethic but also his natural talent and abilities behind the soundboard.

Jeff Meyers, 35, his boss at Boot and Saddle, agrees that Clarke’s a workhorse.

“He has unrelenting drive,” he says. “Sometimes I want to yell at him and be like, ‘Take a damn day off dude,’ ” Meyers says. “He hustles like no other sound engineer I know [and is] always willing to go the extra mile.”

Coming out as trans brings Francis Ponton musical freedom

November 2, 2018

Text by Ben Seal. Image by Cassi Segulin.

Francis Ponton started out writing EDM and dubstep, but over the past couple years he left that scene behind in favor of a jazz-infused, synth-focused style.

“I wanted to do more stuff that was active performing,” says Ponton, who writes and records everything at his house in North Philly. “DJing was really fun, but performance-wise, you have all your stuff premade and just hop behind the decks and stand there and mix. So now being able to do live stuff and sing feels a lot better.”

It helps, he says, that about a year ago he came out as trans, clarifying so much about himself and his music in the process. His lyrics were always sincere and addressed issues like mental illness, but they’re now anchored by his comfort with his gender and sexuality.

“I spent a lot of time in my teenage years not being able to be as open as I am now. That stunted relationships for me, not being able to communicate who I am in truth,” Ponton says. “To be able to do that now, and especially to put that in music … it’s exciting to be able to be open about it and not feel like I have anything to be afraid of.”

In the year since he self-released the five-song Condor EP as Overwinter, he’s added live instrumentation to his blend of R&B, dance and electronica, and he’s put together his first full-length album slated for release this fall.

“It’s got a weird fusion this time around,” Ponton says of Francis Winter, which will be released by South Philly’s Good How Are You Records. “It’s got some dancey stuff on it. Then it ranges all the way down to very ambient, mellow stuff you could hear playing in a smoky bar where people don’t want the music too loud.”

Ponton, 25, grew up playing everything from guitar, bass and drums to saxophone, violin and piano, and for the first time he’s incorporating some if it into his music, cracking into a closetful of instruments to fill out Overwinter’s sound.

Matty Klauser, co-founder of Good How Are You Records, says he’s noticed Ponton’s newfound confidence in himself and his music.

“I think coming to a better place in regards to his gender identity has helped define who he is and who he will become,” Klauser says. “At the same time, it’s who he has always been.”

Ponton has always been an instrumentals first, lyrics later kind of songwriter, and that hasn’t changed, but now he can come at it all unobstructed.

“To have that wall taken down in my everyday life allowed for any other kind of wall that might be up to be taken down when I’m writing music,” Ponton says. “It all came down at once, and I can be very open and upfront about anything.”

He wants people to connect with the new album and find something in it that they can identify with, even if it can be difficult to be so open.

“It’s something that’s helpful for me,” Ponton says. “At the end of the day, I’m going to talk about it, and if I have to do it in my music, then fine, I’ll do it in my music.”

Soaring Success: Michelle Zauner and Japanese Breakfast’s unstoppable creative explosion

November 1, 2018

Text by Dave Miniaci. Image by Ashley Gellman.

Hanging in the entranceway to Michelle Zauner’s apartment are framed posters of concerts past, from her former band Little Big League and current band, Japanese Breakfast.

They serve as fun mementos but are also reminders of the hard work that has led Zauner to this stage in her career.

“I’m at the point where I’m achieving things I thought would just be comical and outlandish to achieve,” she says, then continues with a laugh. “So I’m just trying to do a good job and work hard and keep it that way.”

It may be surprising to Zauner, but here she is, performing internationally, playing to a sold-out crowd at Union Transfer last summer and headlining an end-of-the-year residency/three-day-long party at Johnny Brenda’s in December.

Zauner exhales as she sits down in her living room, a well-lit and cozy space in Washington Square West. This is her staycation, a few days in between tours.

The past year for Zauner has seen extensive touring in support of her latest album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet. The record was critically acclaimed and scored a spot on many end-of-the-year “Best Of” lists, including Stereogum  and Rolling Stone. The album deftly mixes elements of shoegaze, noise rock and ’80s alt rock. Rolling Stone called it “an expansively trippy album saturated in science fiction and 1980s shoegaze sounds.”

Zauner has spent the past few days mostly relaxing and catching up with friends. She and Marisa Dabice, lead singer of Mannequin Pussy, had been out the night before “drinking a whole pitcher of wine.”

Cleaning was among other evident activities—“I’ve basically just been cleaning my apartment for four days,” says Zauner—as the place was pretty spotless, save for some guitar amp parts lying around. They belong to Zauner’s husband and bandmate, Peter Bradley.

“He likes to tinker with that stuff, and I’m scared I’d electrocute myself,” she jokes.

While she may never be an electrician, Zauner has ventured into a number of other creative endeavors. Dabice describes Zauner as “this tiny person with the energy and presence of 10,000 men.” And that is certainly reflected in the number of projects she has undertaken.

Zauner has directed several of Japanese Breakfast’s music videos. “Machinist” is a dark sci-fi adventure reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the video for “Boyish” features Zauner and her bandmates playing a high school dance, following a main character dealing with insecurity and confidence issues, a theme of the song.

“I really wanna make a short film. I’ve directed most of the Japanese Breakfast music videos, and I want to venture more into that,” she says. “Anything that’s been a male-dominated field, my entire life I’ve had this desire to infiltrate, and there aren’t enough women directors, and I want to experiment more with that.”

Much to her surprise, Zauner became involved in the making of a video game. The game, “Japanese Breakquest,” was released to the internet last September. When the player wins, they are rewarded with the downloadable MIDI version of the album. It also led to Zauner being approached to soundtrack a game that was released earlier this year, “Sable.”

She has also written essays, from her recent, very personal piece published in The New Yorker called “Crying in H Mart” to her award-winning essay for Glamour she intends to turn into a book. Both of these deal with the heartbreak of Zauner losing her mom and finding comfort in cooking and the foods of her Korean heritage.

“[The Glamour essay] was a memoir about Korean cooking and grief and losing my mom and how that affected me, and I felt like I was losing half my identity,” Zauner says.

She isn’t sure when she will get to writing the book, and she knows it will take time to put together, especially with everything that comes with being a touring musician.

Zauner admits it’s time to hit the pause button ever so slightly, though. She has been on the road for extensive touring, and there was little time in between Soft Sounds and her first album, Psychopomp. She doesn’t want to rush right into the next album, but she doesn’t plan on slowing down altogether.

“I wanna take my sweet time with this [new record],” she says. “I wanna try on a couple things and live a little before the next record.”

She’s in an enviable position. On early Japanese Breakfast tours, Zauner planned nearly every aspect of the schedule. Now, she just worries about playing. And enjoying the company of her tourmates.

“We toured with Mitski, and I remember thinking if I could be where she is now [at the time of the tour] then I’d be happy,” Zauner says. “We’ve toured with friends like Mannequin Pussy and we’ve also toured with Tegan and Sara, which was always a dream.”

Zauner is excited for her run of upcoming shows at Johnny Brenda’s and plans to create a fun atmosphere. She even has Dabice DJing the New Year’s Eve show.

“I wanna do something super special and decorate it and learn some fun covers,” Zauner says. “I’m excited to hang out for a few days with friends at these shows.”

Zauner has found herself in uncharted territory and considers how far the band has come. Japanese Breakfast sold out Union Transfer last summer, but Zauner recalls working coat check at the venue when it first opened. When she started Japanese Breakfast, she had only hoped to release an album on vinyl and sell shirts out of her apartment.

“I didn’t think I’d still be in music,” she says frankly. “It wasn’t a stable job, and after something bad happens in your life, that’s what you want. But then there’s this slow growth of when you accomplish something, you move onto the next thing. Everything has just been so far beyond my expectations.”

The City and I push punk boundaries and reach out to a more diverse audience

November 1, 2018

Punk Like Me

Text by Hannah Kubik. Image by Julia Leiby.

You might recognize The City and I’s Colin Regisford as the bassist for punk/pop Philadelphia-based band Mannequin Pussy. And if you do, you probably know him as Bear, a nickname that stuck after a single day as a high school mascot.

According to Ben Roth, a friend of over a decade who helped record and co-produce tracks for The City and I, Regisford’s solo career is a natural progression.

“Since I’ve known Bear, he has lived and breathed through the writing and performing of his art,” Roth says, adding that he loves Regisford’s songwriting because it does not follow traditional structure. “The songs are [both] linear and tangential, like a guided tour through the strange funhouse that is Bear’s brain. I believe Bear is on the forefront of a movement that is reimagining what punk music is.”

Regisford started writing songs as a teenager while living in the Poconos. As a fan of bands like Blink-182 and Green Day, he gravitated toward the punk rock scene, but, as a black male, he found himself to be a minority. Often a minority of one.

“I used to have to trick people to let me play with them and would literally just show up at their doorstep and push my way inside,” Regisford says. “They would look at me and didn’t see a kid who could play bass and like punk.”

Eventually he encountered someone who recognized his talents. This someone was Casey Weissbuch from Diarrhea Planet, a Nashville-based garage punk band. While touring with Colleen Green, Regisford met Weissbuch, and Weissbach asked if Regisford knew anyone with a new sound. There was no hesitation.

“I played him some songs I wrote, and Weissbuch was like, ‘I need you to send me every single song. I want to put this out for you because this is really cool, and I think people should hear this,’” Regisford recalls.

In 2015, Regisford released Downer, his first The City And I album. While the seven-song release has a song or two that might betray his punk rock roots, the music is stoner hazy, sprinkled with snippets of conversation, with melodies that can be haunting and quite beautiful.

The good news is that there’s more on the way. Regisford shared a few singles with us that he plans to drop soon, including the doomy “Cecilia” and “ADD,” a super catchy rocker that devolves into a nightmarish chaos.

It all makes sense when you consider that Regisford claims the purpose of The City and I, is “to really destroy all of the old ways of people who were making punk music.”

And that is all rooted in the alienation he felt as a teen, an outsider looking in. Along the way, Regisford befriended someone who fully understands the loneliness of being a Black punk: Ruben Polo of Soul Glo, a Philly afro-punk band that uses lyrics to protest white power structures in punk and beyond. Both Regisford and Polo imagine a future where they see more diversity in the mosh pits.

Regisford says, “One day we won’t be showboating for a sea of cream.”

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