With year-end “Best Of” lists populating News Feeds and other media spaces, they are being met with equal parts vindication and scorn. Some allege favoritism, while some promote their praises. Others — like Sam Kacala of Rhythm Changes — quietly take note of the underappreciated, the overrated, the justified, and move on. Kacala would rather focus on the music he’s creating with his band.
Sam Kacala is one of the most understated artists I’ve met in the Milwaukee music scene. It may have something to do with the fact that he works with youth at his day job. Kacala is the Character & Leadership Coordinator-Supervisor at the Don & Sallie Davis Boys and Girls Club.
As a result, I figured Kacala would be an ideal candidate for the in-school performance series I produced as part of the Arte Para Todos festival back in April. Rhythm Changes not only entertained and interacted with a gymnasium full of students at Gaenslen Elementary School, Kacala even assembled a student/teacher band for an on-the-spot jam.
In terms of underrated Wisconsin releases, 2015’s The Message is Real by Three. Stacks. Eliot (TSE) is one of the best examples. Rhythm Changes is the current incarnation of TSE, representing both a lineup and name change. The band continues TSE’s tradition of being a premier hip-hop/R&B backing band, while creating their own jazz-pop sound.
“Three. Stacks was done as a group when Teddy decided he was going to Japan,” says Kacala. “Even though I still speak for the band in terms of press and what not, it’s more of a collaborative project. Three. Stacks was more so me and Teddy’s vision of collaborating with hip-hop artists, specifically Klassik.”
TSE achieved their goal of collaborating with Klassik for a number of memorable performances in 2015, including one at Brady Street Festival and another at the Grain Exchange Building with the Milwaukee Ballet.
“Once that happened and we put out the album it was like, ‘Well, this is it. This is what we set out to do.’ Then we added new members and it became more of a group change than a name change. We have a lot of fun playing together. Our stage presence is like we’re laughing at each other.”
Rhythm Changes added Kyndal Johnson and Curtis Crump to TSE members Cody Steinmann, Calvin Turner, and Kacala. Earlier this year they produced a debut EP — We Had No Choice. Unlike the slew of guest rappers and vocalists on The Message Is Real, We Had No Choice is feature-free.
“It came together really quickly. It took a couple months to develop the music and then we recorded it all in one session. Kyndal’s vocals are somewhat repetitive, so it’s not a huge lyrical project. That helped the process. She’d be in rehearsal scatting, come up with a lyric line, then repeat it,” says Kacala.
Like The Message Is Real, the Rhythm Changes EP was recorded in Kacala’s parents living room.
“It’s so comfortable for me, though I can’t speak for the rest of the band. But we always get stuff done there. I like to have my hands on every part of the project. And I think it’s more of a learning process for me that way,” says Kacala.
Rhythm Changes threw an EP release party in September at Jazale’s Art Studio in the Bronzeville neighborhood. The lineup featured Genesis Renji, a stand-out guest on The Message Is Real. Renji — who recently moved back to Milwaukee after living in Washington, D.C. — is one of the most underrated hip-hop artists around according to Kacala.
“The release show was a great night. Renji is one of the hardest working rappers, but I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. It was a great moment for people to see how raw his material is. It was just him, no mic, nothing but his voice. He did a piece on diabetes and two on gun violence. People started tearing up,” recalls Kacala.
Back in 2013 when TSE was starting out the band produced a showcase series at the Jazz Gallery Center of the Arts. Among those first performers were WebsterX, Vonny Del Fresco, Lex Allen, and Emmitt James. Kacala prefers the art gallery/cafe setting to a traditional bar venue, where he feels people are more concerned with drinking than the music.
For the Rhythm Changes EP release at Jazale’s, Kacala and Darren Hill — Jazale’s co-founder — came up with an idea to do an art raffle.
“Vedale Hill is my favorite artist in the city. So we bought four pieces from him and ended up raffling off two of them. Kyndal had an artist that wanted to get her work out there so she had a piece there too. We had them on display at the front and each person got a raffle ticket when they walked in, but you could also buy them for a certain price,” explains Kacala.
“We raffled them off at the end of the night and we didn’t expect people to get into it. But the crowd was so intimate that people ended up bantering back and forth about who wanted what piece. It felt like I was watching a scene from a play.”
Kacala — who taught a free drum camp for kids at the Jazz Gallery in the summer of 2015 — will return to the East Center Street venue on Friday December 23, as Rhythm Changes will be the house band at the Freespace Holiday Fundraiser. Freespace is an all-ages, free, monthly, (mostly) hip-hop showcase featuring youth performers and established artists. It is the brainchild of high school English teacher Vincent Gaa and Sam Ahmed (WebsterX), with production help from designer Janice Vogt and KaneTheRapper. It provides an opportunity for youth to learn from and interact with professional musicians, as well as their peers.
“As a musician, I think it’s important to ask yourself if you are making a positive impact on your community,” says Kacala.
“We’re going to move on someday, whether it’s to a bigger stage or to no longer making music, so it’s important that young musicians have a chance to take our place. Music also kept me out of trouble. I was given so many opportunities and wouldn’t be where I am if not for older musicians taking the time to help me, so I expect that we do the same for the next generation.”
For more information on the Freespace Holiday Fundraiser click here.
To listen to Rhythm Changes’ We Had No Choice click here and Three. Stacks. Eliot’s The Message Is Real click here.
At the end of the summer I noticed an article by Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee promoting a three-track EP — Gravity— by a producer named Thane. As soon as I heard Thane’s soulful blend of jazz, electronic, hip-hop and R&B I was in awe.
I immediately thought to myself, “Who the f*ck is Thane?” I like to think that I pay pretty close attention to the Wisconsin music scene, but Thane seemingly came out of nowhere.
Less than a month later the mysterious Thane released a debut full-length album, Topia. The exceptional 12-track record features guest appearances by local and national artists including Mick Jenkins, Amanda Huff, BJ the Chicago Kid, and one of 2016’s breakout stars, Anderson .Paak.
It is rare for a debut album from an unknown talent to be so fully formed, with such a distinct, assured and progressive sound, yet that is precisely what Thane has accomplished with Topia.
Determined to uncover the identity of this up-and-coming maestro, I searched for clues. I could only find one picture of Thane on the Internet and it is of a tall, young man whose eyes can’t be seen. Local jazz musician Jamie Breiwick appears on both the Gravity EP and Topia.
My first guess was that Thane is a former student of Breiwick’s. When I reached out to Breiwick he debunked my hunch and passed along a phone number for Thane’s manager. An interview was set up for a Friday night at Colectivo on the Lake.
Going into my interview with Thane and his manager Jake Kestly I was nervous. I had no frame of reference except for the music. Thane appeared to be nervous as well. It was one of his first in-person interviews.
Thane grew up and still resides in the small town of Pewaukee about 20 minutes west of Milwaukee. He describes his home as having a “strong music environment.” As a child he took piano lessons and picked up a brass instrument called the euphonium, which is similar to the baritone but with an additional valve. In middle school he played in the jazz band and kept it up in high school for a few years. Thane continues to play the euphonium and incorporates the instrument in his production.
Like many young musical minds, Thane was aided by an older sibling with good taste. His brother Jake, who is two years his elder and now his manager, turned Thane on to hip-hop and electronic artists like Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. Jake initially bought production equipment for himself, but according to Thane, “he kind of sucked.” Thane first tried digital production at age 15 — within a couple of years he had crafted over 600 beats.
“For the first two or three years I would go home and make music until the late hours of the night, almost every single night,” says Thane. “It was kind of an escape from reality.”
While Thane and Jake’s parents didn’t quite understand the boys mission, they were always supportive, allowing them to work into the wee hours of the night, despite the loud, often repetitive sounds coming from Thane’s room.
The brothers attended private, Christian schools throughout their childhood. It was difficult to find like-minded people. Listening to and discovering music was their primary means of entertainment.
“There was nothing else to do. There weren’t any parties or anything to go to in our town. We had a few friends that were really into it. So we’d talk about music and get really excited and go to shows at Turner Hall and in Chicago,” says Jake.
Topia is an expression of how the Kestly brothers navigated their adolescence. Rather than an overtly positive (utopia) or negative (dystopia) existence, “Topia” is about a neutral understanding of your reality — it is what you make it.
The concept is also a commentary on the individual versus their environment. The first words heard on Topia are actually a clip from a Ted Talk by a neuroscientist who is discussing how the brain works that suggests we have more power over our fate than we might think.
As Thane’s production skills developed, Jake approached him about putting together an album. Thane was only 17 at the time. The logical first step for a producer would be to create a SoundCloud or YouTube page and put up a few beats. Maybe reach out to a local rapper/singer to collaborate on a track.
But from the beginning, the Kestly brothers aimed to create a conceptual album that featured national talent. With no direct connections to the Milwaukee music scene, the Kestly brothers set their sights outside of the city for potential Topia collaborations.
Jake — who worked as an intern at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee during the early stages of Topia— reached out to artists all over the globe. The artists who ended up on the album were people who vibed with both the concept of the album and the music Thane created.
The beat for “Responsibilities,” a stand out track featuring BJ the Chicago Kid and Anderson .Paak, was not originally intended for the album, but an impromptu selection when BJ wasn’t feeling the groove of the initial beat.
When my girlfriend and I first heard the recorded version of “Responsibilities” we looked at each other and she said, “I’ve heard this before.” We are almost certain Anderson .Paak performed the song at the Soundset Music Festival in Minnesota this May. When I told the Kestly brothers this their eyes lit up.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, because he really loved the track. His manager contacted us and said he was jumping up and down when he finished recording it,” says Thane.
The other featured artists on Topia include Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, LA singer Low Leaf, London poet/rapper Kojey Radical, Boston ambient musician Solei, plus a few “SoundCloud artists,” meaning musicians similar to Thane, who have music online but not much presence elsewhere. They include Memphis-based Jay Stones and Milwaukee singer Marxus. Instrumentation is provided by Thane (keys, guitar, euphonium), Jamie Breiwick (trumpet), Earl Turner (saxophone) and Aubrey Ellickson (violin).
‘STREETS OF MILWAUKEE’
On my favorite Topia track “Metropolis” we first hear dramatic strings, the sounds of cars driving by, then Amanda Huff’s voice. Next a beat drops and then disappears before haunting synths come in and a vocal sample says, “These are the streets of Milwaukee, something many of you have never seen.”
Later on “Metropolis” a frenzied drum beat drops and we hear Kanye West say, “That’s the main thing people are controlled by, their perception of themselves. They’re slowed down by their perception of themselves.”
Thane confirmed my suspicion that “Metropolis” is commenting on how Milwaukeeans tend to have a chip on their shoulder. Kanye — a Chicago-native — was an interesting choice to convey the message, considering the Kestly brothers have followed the Chicago hip-hop scene closer than Milwaukee’s. They admit that the Milwaukee music scene is becoming more receptive to collaboration than when they started. Jake cites the Strange Fruit Festival that took place in August as a successful example of the Milwaukee hip-hop, jazz, soul, and R&B scenes blending.
“I’m pretty familiar with everybody in the Milwaukee scene at this point,” says Thane. “I like Milo a lot, I like King Courteen, and Kiings are pretty good. Melvv is a big producer in Madison right now. Trapo and IshDARR are dope too.”
Since the release of Topia the Kestly brothers have been contacted about potential collaborations. Thane is being selective about who he works with. He is also not ready for a live performance just yet. Thane has an introverted nature and at 20-years-old he is entering the public eye after years of isolation in his bedroom studio.
When the time comes for a live performance, the Kestly brothers hope to create something visually dynamic and possibly interactive. They are inspired by Flying Lotus’ live show and the LA/Philly artist Ryat. They also have a lot of ideas for music videos but don’t want to rush the process.
A shroud of mystery still hangs over Thane. I was never given his real first name. A few things came up in conversation that they wouldn’t go into detail about. Jake is working on the next step in their business, but wouldn’t reveal what it was. I do know that Thane is currently a student at Carroll College and they’ve come up with a concept for the next album.
We’ll have to wait and see what the next moves are for this small-town Wisconsin music prodigy.
Click here to listen to/purchase Topia.
I met with Thane and his manager/brother Jake Kestly at the Colectivo on the Lake one Friday night a few weeks back. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
WiG First of all, I’m a big fan. Love the record. And to be honest it kind of came out of nowhere. So the obvious question is, where did you come from?
THANE I’m from Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Kind of near Pewaukee Beach.
WiG Growing up what were you listening to? What were you influenced by?
THANE I’ve always had a strong music environment. I started piano lessons when I was little and then I picked up this brass instrument called the euphonium and I’ve been playing that for a long time. Since maybe third or fourth grade. I really started getting into “good music” per say around eighth grade or so, my brother was getting into it so I did too.
WiG Older brother?
THANE Yeah. [Points to Jake.] He was listening to Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and stuff like that. I used to listen to more rock, and there’s still a little bit of influence from that…
WiG What kind of rock?
THANE Like bad stuff. Nothing terrible…stuff like Train. Pop rock stuff. But then my brother started listening to good stuff and I’d always be driving around in the car with him going to school so he was always playing that. I didn’t like it at first but he kept on playing it and then I got into it. That’s how I started to expand my tastes.
As far as electronically producing, I started that when I was 15 going on 16. I’m 20 now, so I’ve been working on it for a little while. Jake actually tried his hand at it first with FL Studio and he kind of sucked.
[Jake and Thane laugh.]
And he bought this cheaper MIDI keyboard and a machine micro and so we had all that stuff in the house and a year later I picked it up. I gave it a try and I really liked it. I’m more tech oriented too so I was having fun with it. As I advanced I got some monitors and got a better set up.
WiG Are you primarily doing everything digitally at this point or playing instruments yourself?
THANE The thing with my music is that I usually make a building block, maybe a bassline that I like, then I’ll create a beat around that on the digital workstation. Then I add keys, then either I record instruments I play or if I can’t I’ll bring someone in. Like how we brought in Jamie Breiwick. He’s a phenomenal trumpet player in the Milwaukee jazz scene. I remember my brother showed me him one time and we contacted him and asked him if he would like to be on a song and he was into it. So yeah, I like to combine electronic with different jazz elements and strings.
WiG In high school were you coming to Milwaukee to see shows? Or down to Chicago?
THANE Me and my brother went to Chicago a lot. I haven’t recently just because I’ve been super busy, but we would go to the Metro quite a bit. We went to see a lot of local hip-hop shows.
JAKE Were you at the Mick Jenkins and Earl Sweatshirt one?
JAKE Yeah we’d see a lot of the Chicago hip-hop acts there. More importantly we would see the energy in the scene that was going on there and we were inspired by that. Vic Mensa’s homecoming show was a big one.
WiG Is Pewaukee closer to Chicago than Milwaukee?
JAKE No it’s about 20 minutes west from here. It’s kind of out in the country but it’s a very quick trip to Milwaukee.
WiG You said you were a piano student Thane. Did you play music in high school, like in band?
THANE I didn’t do it all four years but I did band with the euphonium. Do you know what a baritone is?
THANE It’s like a smaller tuba. The difference between the euphonium and baritone is that the baritone has three valves on top that you play and the euphonium has an extra one on the side, that’s the only difference.
WiG Are you familiar with a guy who was in the Milwaukee music scene but has since moved up north, he was a pretty heavy electronic producer named Lorn?
THANE Oh yeah. I like his music a lot.
WiG He moved out to the woods by Eau Claire. I know he’s made music for videos games. Could you see yourself getting into that? Are you a gamer yourself?
THANE I used to be, but I haven’t in like three years. Maybe, but I don’t think it would be as cinematic. Do you know who Jon Brion is?
WiG Yeah, the producer.
THANE I like him a lot. Lorn’s style is a little different, I don’t know how to describe it.
WiG It’s really dark, more minimal. Your stuff has the strings and horns and uptempo keys.
THANE For sure, I like the minimal stuff though.
WiG The production on Topia is really polished and clean. How did you get it mixed and mastered? What was the process like? THANE It was a really long process. We actually started the development when I was like 17. I had been making beats and getting better and my brother was like, why don’t we make an album?
WiG Had you put anything out prior to the EP?
WiG So you were just making music for you? THANE Yeah. We came up with the concept. It was originally called “Utopia,” but we cut it to “Topia” because conceptually we wanted it to be an environment that you’re not trying to break out of. It’s not a utopia or dystopia…
WiG So not overtly positive or overtly negative?
THANE Yeah. You kind of make what you want out of the environment that you’re put into. I’ve made over six hundred beats and we went through and picked maybe five. The other ones were added on later. The ones that we started with kind of fit a certain sound we were going for. Then we built on those.
The guy who mixed the record, he’s not our engineer anymore, but he was a friend of my brothers, a friend of a friend. He did it in his mom’s basement. We had a pretty limited budget at the time so it seemed like a pretty good deal. And then we slowly built it as more ideas came.
WiG How did you link up or land the features? Because you’ve got some big names including Anderson .Paak, Mick Jenkins and BJ the Chicago Kid.
THANE We reached out to them before they got big but Jake did more of that on his end, so I think he can explain that.
JAKE Basically we kind of operate and always have like A&Rs to an extent, I like to think. I was on to Kendrick years before he blew up and I was telling people he’d be huge. So I kind of have an ear for stuff like that. We reached out to a lot of people that we vibed with, people we thought were really talented and would make a good addition to our project. We hit up a ton of different possibilities and the ones that came through are people that vibed with our concept. It was a really long process of going through who would fit and who wouldn’t.
THANE And it was figuring out the music business as we went along and how complicated it is. The funny thing too about the “Responsibilities” track is that one initially had another beat. It was almost too electronic-y so BJ didn’t like it as much because he wasn’t feeling the groove, so I was quickly trying to find one that worked with the sound of the album and had more of a soul influence to it. Then I quickly sent over that one and it turned out great. So that beat wasn’t intended to be on the album. It’s kind of funny how that worked out.
WiG I saw Anderson .Paak at the Soundset music festival in Minnesota this past Memorial Day and my girlfriend and I are almost certain he performed “Responsibilities.”
[Both of their eyes light up.]
THANE Really? JAKE That would be sweet.
WiG Did you hear any reports?
JAKE No. But I wouldn’t be surprised because he really loved that track.
THANE His manager contacted us and said that he was jumping up and down when he recorded it.
JAKE Since that time it took a while to get all the materials ready for release and come up with a plan. That took longer than expected and during that time Anderson .Paak inked a deal with Aftermath and I think there’s something within that contract that didn’t allow him to promote it on his social media at the point when we released our record, unfortunately. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he performed it because he did really vibe with the end product.
WiG And it was done by Memorial Day?
JAKE Oh yeah.
WiG I’m almost positive. Because the first time we listened to “Responsibilities” my girlfriend and I looked at each other and she was like, “I’ve heard this song.”
JAKE That would be super cool.
THANE That’s very cool.
JAKE Him and BJ have a really good chemistry. That was something that was cool too, we were one of the first people to get them on a track together. That was before they met and before they were on Compton, we put them together. There was a piece about those two in The Source a couple months ago.
WiG Did they record together for that?
JAKE Nah, we got BJ in February of 2014. We’ve worked on this project for a long time. But then we got Anderson in April of 2015. We had the BJ hook and we knew we wanted something soulful. At first we were trying to get GoldLink because we thought that would be dope. We were really vibing with The God Complex, but that didn’t pan out. And then we said what about Anderson .Paak? I heard him first on the Watsky album. He did production and had some vocals on it and I was really impressed. Then I heard “Suede” which came out later that year. That’s the first single on the new NxWorries, which just came out today. I was super impressed with that and I knew he was something special and I convinced Thane that we try and pursue him.
WiG Who are some of the other people? I’m not familiar with Jay Stones…
JAKE Thane found him.
THANE I found him on SoundCloud. I really liked his voice and delivery and thought he’d fit well over my type of beat. He’s one of those SoundCloud artists that doesn’t have a really big presence in any scene but he was totally down with it. I really like how it turned out, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album.
This is a weird comparison but for some reason his style reminds me of Jamiroquai. He’s got that type of futuristic funk vibe.
WiG It’s interesting that the genre designation on Apple music is “Funk” for the album.
JAKE We gave them a bunch of stuff to choose from and that’s what they ended up going with.
WiG Do you feel good about that?
JAKE I mean it’s kind of a blend, we had no genre in mind. When he was making it we never said, “Oh, we’re going to make an R&B album.” We just took a bunch of elements and put them together. I guess funk is appropriate…
THANE I definitely didn’t set out to make a funk record, but there are funk elements. It’s just kind of all the stuff that I like Modge Podged together.
WiG Do you listen to Rhythm Lab Radio on 88Nine?
WiG Because I feel like the album fits perfectly in the myriad genres and sounds that Tarik plays. And he’s been a supporter of the album, right?
JAKE Yeah he played “Responsibilities” a couple weeks ago, which is pretty dope.
THANE Jake actually used to intern at 88Nine.
JAKE Yeah, we played Topia for a few of the DJs early on and they were rocking with it.
THANE Him and Barney…
JAKE Justin and Tarik were the main ones listening and then Jordan just came in.
WiG So you were an intern at 88nine?
JAKE I did a couple years ago.
WiG So is that kind of the goal, to work in the music industry?
JAKE Yeah we were just discussing this project that we’re working on. I don’t really want to talk too much about it. It’s not really a label, but we do want to get further in the music and do something bigger with it.
WiG Topia is all you production-wise. And there aren’t any other tracks that you’ve produced for other artists, but do you see yourself starting to do that? Have you been contacted by other artists to make beats for them?
THANE Yes. I’m trying to be pretty selective right now. I haven’t done anything yet. Should I tell him about the remix thing?
JAKE Don’t tell him too many details.
THANE You can just tell him.
JAKE Okay, so we got contacted by a fairly respectable label out of Los Angeles to do a remix on spec for one of their artists. They seemed interested in Thane to an extent. We just submitted it and have yet to hear back. What were we talking about? Labels…oh yeah, collaborations. So when stuff like that comes up it’s a just matter of whether Thane vibes with the artist. It’s about natural collaborations.
THANE I’m pretty familiar at this point with everybody in the Milwaukee scene. I’ve listened to a lot of local music. If there’s an artist that I really like in the local scene that reaches out I would probably collaborate.
WiG Who are your favorite musicians in the local scene?
THANE Any genre? WiG Sure.
THANE I like Milo a lot. I like King Courteen. I like Kiings, they’re pretty good. I don’t know if you know who Melvv is?
WiG How do you spell it?
THANE Melvv. He’s in Madison. He’s a pretty big producer.
JAKE I personally fuck with Trapo.
THANE Trapo and IshDARR are pretty dope. Most of NAN to a certain extent.
JAKE Gotta shout Jamie out.
THANE Of course Jamie. I found Marxus too…
WiG Where is he from?
JAKE He’s from Milwaukee. He hasn’t released any material yet. You can explain how you found him.
THANE I always search the “Milwaukee” tag on Bandcamp. That’s how I find new music. I listened to his one track “X” and thought this guy had some really sick pipes. We emailed him and asked if he wanted to vocally contribute. Initially he just did backing vocals but we dug it so much that we featured him on “Summer in Paris.” Now we’re collaborating on more stuff. He’s going to be on some new material. He was backing on a lot of the other tracks like “The Arrival” and “Gravity.” You can hear some of his ad libs on those tracks.
WiG Yeah, it seems like when you have official featured artist on the track I can still hear other artists adding little elements.
THANE The main two backing on “Gravity” are Marxus and Amanda Huff. I remember hearing her on some compilation tape and I thought she was really cool.
WiG I think one of my favorite tracks on the album is “Metropolis.”
THANE Oh really?
JAKE That’s one of mine too.
WiG Yeah I love that one and you use some interesting samples. There’s an audio clip about “the streets of Milwaukee” and then you hear Kanye talking about people being slowed down by their perception of themselves. I’m wondering if that’s sort of a commentary about Milwaukee and how people here tend to have a chip on their shoulder?
THANE That’s exactly it and that’s kind of what Topia is about. You see Chicago and you see how collaborative everyone is there. And then you see Milwaukee, and it’s getting better, but especially when we started it felt very separate. Some people were doing their thing and some people were doing another thing over there. People have a chip on their shoulder and don’t want to collaborate as much. I think it’s one of the reasons why scenes like Chicago and LA are thriving more than a scene like Milwaukee. But Milwaukee is doing much better than it has in the past.
WiG And the intro track “The Arrival,” who is speaking in that clip about neurons?
THANE My brother actually found that, it’s from a Ted Talk.
JAKE I helped out with the concept of the album. I remember hearing that back in a psychology class my freshman year of college. I was really fascinated by this neuroscientist talking about how we are more in control and we’re more powerful in regards to our fate than we allow ourselves to be. It’s a lot about positive thought. A lot of what Topia is about is taking your environment and the stuff that we may perceive as really positive or really negative, and just realizing that it’s this neutral thing that is for your making. That was kind of the whole idea of Topia. Individual versus environment. A lot of those things are there throughout, examining the idea of how in control are we when it comes to our goals and dreams.
THANE If you can tell he’s more articulate with this stuff. He’s the communications major. I’m more of the introvert hermit. Sorry if I’m coming off in a certain way, that’s just how I am.
WiG No no. I mean the music is introspective and I feel like it’s geared towards putting it in the headphones and vibing out.
THANE Especially the first two or three years that I was working on it I literally went home almost every day and made music until the late hours of the night. It was kind of an escape from reality.
WiG Does that sort of speak to how I haven’t seen your name on any shows? Is it because of your introverted nature?
THANE I don’t really want to do shows, at least not yet.
JAKE I’m trying to get him to.
WiG Have you done any?
JAKE We want to do some cool audio visual stuff for it too, but that’s not ready at this point.
WiG In terms of a music video?
JAKE Well, I help serve as creative director and I get really inspired by what Flying Lotus is doing with three screen layers and making electronic based performances a little more interactive. We’d also like to bring in some live instrumentation and he’s honing in on some other instruments. We want to wait until he feels more comfortable and then we get some concepts together for a live show.
WiG So having it be not just a concert, but like an experience?
JAKE Yeah. That’s kind of how we approach creating records and that’s what we’d like to translate into the live setting.
WiG You familiar with Video Villains?
JAKE Yeah I just had a meeting with Adam the other day about something that I can’t really talk about. But yeah, they’re tight.
WiG Are you familiar with this audio movie art installation that came out I want to say 2010. It was originally an installation in New York where the artist/producer had multiple speakers in a space and you would stand there and listen to this audio film happening. It was narrated by an actor and it was a movie told through the music of New York rappers like Ghostface Killah, Nas, and Biggie. It was super cool and the way you incorporate audio clips, I feel like it would be really cool if you did something like that.
[NOTE: The project I was refering to but couldn’t remember details about is called “City of God’s Son” by Kenzo Digital. You can listen to it by clicking here.]
JAKE We’re totally into the idea of performance art. I’m really into what is happening in LA with Ryat. They blend a lot of film and incorporate it into the music making it this whole art experience. They’re doing some of the best stuff in terms of visuals.
WiG I’m not familiar, I’ll have to check them out.
THANE They’re Brainfeeder right?
WiG Who else are you inspired by and listening to right now? THANE I like electronic artists like Flying Lotus and James Blake that have more of a barrier breaking sound. This probably doesn’t make any sense but I listen to a lot of like chill music.
WiG Ambient sort of stuff? THANE No, no. Like Norah Jones, Nick Drake. Jordan Rakei, Nick Hakim. Those are some of the artists I listen to the most right now.
JAKE Nick Hakim has one of the best EPs out. We tried to get him too, but he’s not really a collaborator. He’s out of DC, really good.
THANE His voice kind of sounds like Jason Mraz, vocally. But the beats are more neo-soul.
JAKE Dwele almost. Jill Scott kind of.
THANE It’s really dope.
WiG All the strings and keys and horns on the album, is that people you brought in?
THANE Yeah mostly.
WiG So you’re moreso the composer?
THANE Yeah me and my brother. They’ll be the basic beat that I make and then we add live instruments, which either I’ll play or we bring a collaborator and they add stuff. I’m trying to learn more instruments to add to my arsenal. I’m honing in more on the guitar, piano, and I’m getting better at the euphonium, expanding my sound more. As far as trumpet and violin I think we’ll still be collaborating with Jamie Breiwick. The violinist is someone from Carroll College, Aubrey Ellickson.
JAKE You should mention Earl too.
THANE Oh yeah. The saxophonist is a high school friend that we’ve known for a while. He just comes over and lays some sax down.
WiG What’s his last name?
THANE He has no music presence in terms of putting anything out.
JAKE We’re trying to get him to get on the jazz scene here but he’s pretty busy right now.
WiG It seems like you’ve contributed a lot of ideas with the production…
JAKE Yeah I executive produced Topia…
THANE When I make a beat he’s always the one who’ll tell me if it’s garbage or not. He’s really critical of my stuff. The rare times that he says, “It’s pretty tight” or whatever, then I know I have a good one.
WiG That got me thinking, if you’re contributing so much why isn’t this like a duo, sort of like Kiings?
JAKE I don’t want my role to be that. I enjoy being behind-the-scenes. I like being able to have the creative and conceptual control and contribute the way I do. My role as manager I enjoy as well. It’s not really a big thing for me. He’s the talented one as far as the music itself goes.
WiG Are you the only siblings?
WiG What high school did you go to?
JAKE We went to private Christian schools all throughout.
JAKE That was interesting because there weren’t really like minded people around us. I remember trying to get jam sessions going, trying to find like-minded people when it came to music, but it was really difficult to do. Topia too is somewhat about how we were never in an environment with like-minded people, so how do we create that? It’s this multi-layered idea that both describes the process itself, like a commentary on the things that we see, and a general commentary on the individual versus their environment in an abstract, conceptual way.
WiG So was music sort of an escape for you guys?
THANE Oh yeah definitely.
JAKE For sure.
THANE It still is.
JAKE I would go on the Internet and Bandcamp and stuff like that and just search because there was nothing else to do. There weren’t parties or anything to go to. So music was the fun shit that we did. We had a few friends that were really into it too. We’d talk about it and get really excited and go to shows at Turner Hall and in Chicago. That’s kind of what we did.
WiG Did you go to that Flying Lotus show when he played the Miltown Beat Down final?
I don’t know if I was at that one, but it was after he released Until the Quiet Comes and Thundercat was there.
WiG How old are you?
JAKE 22. I just graduated college.
WiG Cool. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JAKE He’s working on the next project.
THANE Yeah. I’m like one song deep with a friend of mine from high school actually.
JAKE I wouldn’t even say that she’s included in the project just yet…
THANE Probably don’t want me to share too much of it…
JAKE Yeah no, because we’re figuring out the sound. But it’s in the works.
WiG So you’ve already moved on to the next thing?
JAKE It’s going to be different though.
THANE It’s going to be really cool. We came up with a very unique idea. I’m pretty excited to start flushing it out.
WiG And how has the reception been for a Topia so far?
JAKE It’s been expected but unexpected. We planned and we were doing it in a proper way, trying to execute it in a very orderly way. And so we would have expected it to have a good reception. We were grinding for a minute to try and get all the press spots beforehand, but we only got a few. But then just how the other blogs caught on, the way it built the way it did was kind of unexpected. The ripple effects of who’s been contacting us has been unexpected.
WiG You feel like you want to keep pushing that project or move on to the next thing?
JAKE Since he’s not ready to do shows we are still working on promoting it in the ways that we can. We’re a very small team. I have a few friends that kind of help with the social media stuff. But we’re ready to push ahead and focus on the concept for the next record. When opportunities like this come up we do them. We have a bigger thing coming up in a month or so that we’re doing. We have a music video too that we’re not sure if we should do or not.
WiG For a song from Topia? JAKE Yeah yeah.
THANE For the song “Minor Movements.”
JAKE We may shoot if the time is right. But there’s a bunch of ideas in terms of putting visuals to a lot of the tracks. So it’s just a matter of us finding the time to do it and the right videographer. We’re not going to close any doors but right now we’re kind of off Topia.
JAKE Again, I really dig that jazz piece that you wrote. It was interesting as hell. As a huge jazz fan it was cool to read. I had no idea that Milwaukee had that type of presence at one point.
WiG Yeah and I feel like it’s getting better.
JAKE Yeah it is. That’s the one thing I got kind of irritated with, that Milwaukee is mad talented when it comes to jazz but you wouldn’t know it. Me and my ex-girlfriend would go to Mason Street Grill every weekend and watch these guys play and shit was just crazy. You would have never thought because it doesn’t really get promoted. It would be really cool if all these hip-hop and jazz scenes melded even more. I went to Jay Anderson’s Strange Fruit Festival and that was a super cool curation. I definitely hope the Milwaukee scene keeps doing more stuff like that, keeps blending and collaborating.
WiG I feel like that’s what Topia is sonically. It’s such a blend of jazz and hip-hop and soul. The second article in my jazz series is coming out in two weeks and it’s about the present and I’m sure I’ll end up mentioning Topia in terms of Jamie being featured on it.
JAKE I’ve been a fan of Jamie’s since I heard of him on Bandcamp [CHECK] back like my sophomore year of high school. I reached out to him at one point when we were making the album and he responded and was enthusiastic about collaborating. To me he’s like the essence of what jazz is supposed to be in terms of the freedom and soul.
THANE You see a lot of electronic stuff that they call jazz, but it’s a lot of watered down stuff. I used to be in the jazz band in middle school and I thought it was really cool to be a part of that. I’ve always liked jazz, my brother even more so than me. So it just made sense to have a strong jazz element and presence on the album.
WiG Do you guys know BADBADNOTGOOD?
JAKE I dig them too. I feel like jazz is slowly becoming trendy again. You have the Kamasi Washington thing, ever since Kendrick dropped To Pimp A Butterfly I was very excited about that. It’s not just jazz samples, it’s legitimate jazz musicians playing on there.
WiG Yeah I feel like that was a turning point.
JAKE And then Chance the Rapper has his own variation. On Acid Rap it was more like a ragtime influence, like on “Juice.” On Coloring Book it’s more of like that southern, Louie Armstrong vibe. It’s cool how hip-hop is incorporating real jazz.
WiG Do you go to college now? THANE Yeah. Working and going to college at Carroll. I was at school all day and he just picked me up from there before we came here.
WiG What are you studying?
THANE Business marketing and a web design minor. Staying busy.
Over the last decade, Milwaukee-based artist Gabriel Sanchez has strutted on stage and performed the brilliant works of the legendary Prince — curled wig, ruffled shirt, guitar solos, and all — as part of “The Prince Experience.” In re-creating the experience of Prince in his more sexualized heyday of the mid-1980s, he’s able to prove the sound of Prince is immortal, even after we’ve lost the artist himself.
Sanchez’s portrayal feels almost uncomfortably close to the Purple One himself in the months since Prince’s unexpected death in April at the age of 57. Despite that, he says he started donning violet by chance.
“Basically a friend of mine was involved with a local theater and they wanted to do Purple Rain live as a play,” Sanchez says. “He approached me about it and at first I said no. I’ve never acted before and at that point, never learned how to play Prince music. … I told him, ‘Tell me when you guys are doing it. I’ll buy tickets. I love Prince and I love that movie. … (but) I can’t do that. There’s no way. It sounds too hard.’”
Sanchez says his friend eventually wore him down, which left only the monumental task of becoming Price. Despite growing up with rock, funk and R&B practically a part of his DNA — having learned to play guitar, drums and keyboards as well as write his own music already — Sanchez says he had a tough time trying to copy Prince. After a few runs of Prince’s hits on repeat, he felt comfortable covering the wide vocal range utilized in Prince songs, but the dancing was a completely different story.
“That was kind of the funny part because I’m really shy when it comes to actually dancing in front of people and my whole entire family knew that,” Sanchez said. “I knew I could dance sexually, but I did it behind closed doors like when I was at home by myself getting ready and when I had music on. When I did it live, my family thought that was so funny and said, ‘We didn’t know you could do that!’”
With the vocals learned and the embarrassment of dancing on stage conquered, Sanchez had just one challenge left: mastering the iconic guitar solos.
“Back then I was more of a rhythm player so I had to actually learn all the guitar solos,” Sanchez said. “Someone told me, ‘If you can’t play the solos, we’ll have someone on the side of the stage and we’ll have them play and you fake it.’ I said, ‘Nope. Then I won’t do it.’ It just didn’t feel right. I worked really hard and learned the solos, learned the vocals, and watched (Purple Rain) over and over and over again so I could study the way he moved just to get the essence of him.”
After the play was over that weekend, the reaction was so huge that Sanchez had no other choice other than to keep The Prince Experience going. Gathering top-notch local musicians, Sanchez has spent more than a decade creating a show that he describes as high-energy, sexual and fun — more than just a random tribute performance.
To Sanchez, all that effort is worth it for an artist he considers one of the greatest of all time.
“I think it’s such real music,” Sanchez says. “It comes from a talent with a soul. … There are some songs that sound like they were thrown onto the table to make a hit song. His are more than that. They’re deeper than that. His songs will live on forever.”
Sanchez says he was as blindsided as anyone by the news of Prince’s death several months ago. “I thought it was a hoax,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is not real.'” For him, realization came as local news stations began calling — having been associated with the artist for more than 10 years, he was an obvious person to call for comment — and texts started to pour in.
The news came with a sudden surge of interest in The Prince Experience, and now that he’s had time to process things, Sanchez is satisfying demand. His original plans for the year were to perform under his own name, having booked a gig at Turner Hall in January as a release party for his first album Immortal By Sound. Instead, he’s personifying Prince again, and keeping the spirit and sound of the legend alive.
His appearance at PrideFest will mark one of the first times Sanchez has performed his expanded show, having secured a two-hour timeslot double his usual set. Rather than stay exclusively within the mid-1980s period he’s specialized in, Sanchez will add in music from the back half of Prince’s career — maybe even ditching the iconic curled wig and ruffled shirt.
“I’m thinking about doing the post-Purple Rain look as well with the shorter hair and the different outfits and doing other songs,” Sanchez said. “I don’t want to do just the hits and that’s it. Everybody plays ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘Purple Rain.’ We play those songs really, really well, but it would be even better with more songs included. The show’s going to keep evolving and I want to build this huge catalogue so it’s not the same show every time.”
One day, Sanchez will have to call his time with The Prince Experience quits. But he’s confident that Prince’s sound will live on long after he puts down his guitar.
Not, of course, that that’s any reason to miss his turn to bring Prince’s sound to life.
Poised to be one of the big musical breakout stars of 2013, British diva Paloma Faith comes across as a sober and sane Amy Winehouse. Her domestic debut “Fall to Grace” (Epic) is a lustrous showcase for her remarkable vocal range. Heavily influenced by American R&B vocalists from bygone days, Faith can belt like the best of them, infusing songs such as “Picking Up the Pieces,” “Just Be” and “When You’re Gone” with a maturity belying her youth. She unleashes her inner dance diva on the track “Blood, Sweat & Tears.”
I spoke with Faith shortly before the release of the disc.
Your debut disc was released in 2009 and its follow-up, “Fall To Grace,” was released stateside at the end of 2012. What was happening during that three-year period?
I was quite popular in the U.K. I think my first album went double platinum, but only in the U.K. To my frustration, there was no real mention of it in the States. Basically, I spent 18 months touring and promoting it. Then I took a year to write this new record.
You co-wrote most of the dozen songs on “Fall to Grace.” Where do you find inspiration for your songs?
I don’t write music, because I can’t play an instrument. I write lyrics. All the words you hear on the record are from me. I find inspiration from conversations that I hear passing or that I have. I always have a notebook with me, and I write lines or words or sentences down that I think would be inspiring. Then when I go into the studio I read out the possibilities to whomever I’m working with and usually let them choose what they’d like to work with. Then I respond to the music they’re playing.
So is the “agony and suffering” in the song “Agony” a personal statement or something you observed?
It was a personal one. I was going out with someone who was addicted to drugs. I really, really liked him, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stay with him because I don’t want to create a world of hits for myself (laughs). I tend to get out of those relationships (laughs).
That’s very wise.
(Laughs) It was all a bit like, “Oh. I’ll enjoy it for another couple of weeks” kind of situation.
Because your sound has a retro pop feel to it, I was wondering where Lulu and Dusty Springfield fall on your influence spectrum?
To be honest, I think most of my influences are from American music. My all-time favorite singer is Etta James. I grew up listening to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald – Peggy Lee, all those kind of people. I’ve always loved Tina Turner and women who have balls when they sing, but they’re all American.
Your music videos are wonderful productions. Are the costumes in some of the videos a carry-over from your theater days?
Probably, but I’ve always kind of dressed up. I’ve always dressed in a kind of contemporary vintage way, ever since I was about 18.
You make good use of your acting in your videos and have also been acting in motion pictures. What do you like about acting?
I like the escapism of acting. What I do as a musician is very personal and autobiographical in a way. When I’m acting, I remove myself from it and I’m embodying another character or another person, really. I find that part exciting for me – it’s the escapism.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears” is a house music anthem that is sure to appeal to your gay fans dancing in the clubs. Have you made appearances in gay clubs?
Yeah, I have played in the big London gay clubs. Gay radio stations, as well.
Do you feel like you have a strong embrace from your gay fans?
Earlier this year you recorded a video backing the Out4Marriage campaign, saying that you are “proud” to be a supporter. Have you had the opportunity to sing at any same-sex weddings?
No! I wish! When I recently performed in a gay club, I was saying that I really hate heterosexual marriages. If anybody wants to invite me to their same-gender marriages, I prefer those.
Is there a specific song you’d like to sing at a gay wedding?
I’ve sung at weddings before and usually I sing “At Last” by Etta James.
Is there anything else you want people in the States to know about you?
I mean well (laughs).
To purchase “Fall From Grace” from Amazon, click here.