Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Gonzo Interviews Alan Wilkis!
Holy crap, an interview? I must be moving on up in the blogosphere! And for the first official Gonzo's Music-o-Rama interview, I couldn't be happier to have Alan Wilkis onboard.
Brooklynite Alan Wilkis issued his solo debut Babies Dream Big last year. It was a top pick here at the Music-o-Rama, and indeed, was included on my 2008 year-end mix (I even aped his song for the compilation title!).
So I was pleased as punch when I got a sneak "peek" at Alan's new EP, Pink and Purple, out now. Through the wonders of the Internet, I was able to sit down and have a chat with Mr. Wilkis about his new release, the state of the music industry and vacuum shopping among other things. So sit back, relax and enjoy!
Gonzo: First, let's talk a little bit about the genesis of Pink and Purple. You just dropped the full length Babies Dream Big last year, and already you're back with a 6-song EP. Are these from the same sessions as the full length, were you just motivated by the release of Babies Dream Big or - more bluntly, how did this EP come about and how did it develop so quickly?
Alan Wilkis: I pretty much dove right in after was done promoting Babies. I took about 3 months off of really writing to just promote, try to get the word out. I was probably done properly working on/BDB by February of '08, and started working on new tunes by June or so. None of it was preconceived or old sessions or anything like that - I tend to want to finish something once I start it. Generally one tiny little idea pops up, like a drum beat or a synth loop or something to that effect, and then I just chip away at it, keep adding stuff in every day a little bit at a time - and then eventually I'm sitting on a new song! This usually averages out to about a month or so a song, give or take a little. I was pretty much done wit PAP by February this year, then various holdups (as is always the case).
Gonzo: Well, P&P definitely sounds distinctive from BDB, though it is unmistakably your work. That said, how would you say this release builds upon/follows/departs from Babies Dream Big?
AW: Well I think I set stricter parameters this time around. BDB was definitely more hodge-podge stylistically, like I wanna write something like Bill Withers. Now Prince. Now some classic rock. Now Pink Floyd! This time around, I really tried to reign it in, from the get go wanted to make something more of a consistent listen. Much more decidedly 80s pop, R&B, a little hip-hop w/the 808 sounds, etc... I found it to be a lot easier / liberating actually to have some limits.
Gonzo: Forced you to focus in a way
AW: Absolutely! I mean, my style is really a function of the way I listen to music, in the sense that I treat 80s funk with the same respect as Grind Metal or Bach or whatever it is, really try to learn and absorb from everything, and little bits of all of that music rattling around up there wind up expressing themselves at some point or other. So naturally, I wind up jumping around styles/genres quite a bit, even when I'm TRYING to be "focused"! But it's been really great to at least try to curb those zany impulses at least a little... feels like more of a revelation when I break a rule!
Gonzo: The EP definitely comes across as more focused/direct/cohesive than Babies as a whole.
AW: Great! I tried!
Gonzo: Speaking of recent projects, I loved your remix of Phoenix's "1901." How/why did that come about and more generally, do you have interest in doing more remix work in the future?
AW: Thanks! Yeah that was a total blast to work on. I did a few remixes for friends, more or less for fun and then it dawned on me, genius that I am, that I enjoy remixing! So I started looking around for stems on the internet, blogs, etc... found an acapella here and there, nothing crazy. And then I saw on the Phoenix website, free download of "1901" + free remix stems! I ADORE Phoenix, and have for years, so it was kind of a no-brainer
Gonzo: Wow, I had no idea they did that.
AW: Yeah, a really forward-thinking record label move (other labels take note!). In my search for stems, I came across quite a few fucking irritating things, typical major label moves. I believe for Lily Allen, for example, you had to submit some personal info, sign up for an email list, and BUY THE RECORD in order to receive the stems. Just typical resistance to the way the world works and is continuing to go. And at the end of the day, they're getting a free remix out of it for one of their artists, and all the free promotion that comes with it.
AW: Stuff that people frankly get paid to do (at least talented sought-after remixers). It's just so typical/obnoxious, and such a clear indicator of why the traditional label model continues to implode. ANYWAYS... enough ranting... ha!
The Phoenix remix has led to quite a few new opportunities, currently working on some TOP SECRET remixes for a few notable folks who shall remain nameless. Will keep you posted as soon as I'm at liberty to say!
Gonzo: Oooh, excellent!
AW: The other crazy thing was the Phoenix remix got a ton of love out there! Lots of blog reviews, and it got played on freaking KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic! I'm a total NPR dork, and KCRW is like NPR music mecca, so I more or less fainted when I found that out! Also some other random radio stations put it in rotation I've been really lucky with that, and just goes to show, remixes are such a cool way for little guys like me to get themselves out there, and also for big guys to uncover some new talent + re-imagine their own music.
Gonzo: Well that's great and sounds like it has/will open some doors for you. And honestly, I hadn't heard of Phoenix until the buzz for this LP started, but I love it, and think it will top A LOT of year end lists come December.
AW: DEFINITELY. They totally killed it, and they deserve every bit of praise + attention they've been putting out consistently wonderful music for years, and it's about time, dammit!
Gonzo: Yes, many folks have implored me to get their other records.
AW: Yeah man - you won't be disappointed. Just give the song "If I Ever Feel Better" a listen and you'll be hooked instantly. That's the one that did it for me. Very different from where they're at now, but SO good.
Gonzo: Sweet, will do! You actually touched on something that segues into another question/discussion I had in mind.
AW: Cool. Bring it, baby!
Gonzo: The first part of which is - The EP is getting great press from a diverse set of sources online. I'll also say that getting the nod from Okayplayer is kind of a big deal in my world. To what extent do you think both the independent model and our online culture have helped or hindered your reach? Put another way, if you had a choice between being an artist in the pre- or post Internet era, which would you choose?
AW: Yeah, the OKP thing was another heart-attack inducing moment for me. Well, I wouldn't trade the current landscape for anything in the world, because it's all I know as a proper musician. And frankly, the old ways were such that people got screwed in every way possible, your freedom to make the music you wanted to make was hindered perpetually, everyone had their hands in your pockets every step of the way. I don't have a very positive view on the old system. Nowadays, there are many pros and cons, but at the end of the day, 90% of the steps required / hands in the artist's pocket have been severed altogether. You don't need distribution, and frankly people don't want CDs anymore to begin with. Arguably you couldn't pay people to TAKE CDs for free (some people). Companies like CDBaby and Tunecore, etc... effectively ask you to pay a couple bucks, submit a little info, and BAM you're on iTunes, Amazon, etc., internationally.
I think it makes sense to partner up with a company when you're at the point in your music career where you simply can't handle the amount of business you need to do, when it gets in the way of being creative. But I think you shouldn't bother making music professionally / as a career if you don't have at least some semblance on an idea of how the business works. Because it IS a business, and it IS about marketing a product, and getting it in front of people, and self-promotion, and all the ugly things that artists don't WANT to deal with - and if you aren't on top of that, then there's 10 bajillion other musicians out there that will beat you to it. It's been a humbling experience, but I've developed much thicker skin from putting out + promoting the last album.
Gonzo: At the same time, you have people like Ani Difranco and Fugazi who have made it work even before the Internet boom.
AW: Yup, totally. And Raphael Saadiq, big hero of mine.
Gonzo: Oh yes. His album last year was a slick disc of soul.
AW: Yeah! And the purple one, I believe, is independent too? Nowadays, at least. I think he has some label help, but he owns his own music at the end of the day.
Gonzo: He (Prince) is, though he often enlists majors strictly for distribution.
AW: Totally. But he's possibly the best example I could think of, of when an artist reaches a scale SO HUGE that it's just pointless to run his own business end of things (he'd never make another song if he spent his days tracking down royalties in Europe...)
The one last point I wanted to make about the indie route / music and the internet etc. is the barrier to entry is lower, people rarely pay for music anymore, etc. So it's definitely tougher to make a living at it, but I still prefer it this way. My record would not exist 10 years ago, maybe less.
Gonzo: But historically, artist profit margins have been more significant in shows and merchandise than music product anyway.
Gonzo: Not that touring is cheap by any means.
AW: Although I never tour or play shows these days, haven't in years.
Gonzo: Why is that?
AW: Just a recording junkie now. Hard to say. I think it's because I've been in so many bands, spent so many fruitless hours in rehearsals preparing for a gig every three weeks, that only our friends came to. It was hard to feel "progress" after a certain point. With recording, I have something permanent, and I definitely feel forward motion with each new song / release.
Gonzo: Makes sense. The progress is more tangible.
AW: Totally. I think my time is better spent these days behind the boards. (That said, if Joe record label came along and said here's a million bucks, go make records and tour, I'd be on that like flies on a pig!) (and after all my ranting... pretty hilarious, eh?)
Gonzo: Ha well you know, when opportunity knocks -
Gonzo: On both of your releases, I hear echoes of a few artists - what artists/groups would you say have had the greatest impact on your musical development, and how so?
AW: Well there's quite a few big ones!
Gonzo: Loaded question for us music junkies, but have to ask!
AW: OBVIOUSLY PRINCE! Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bill Withers, Al Green, Dazz Band, Gap Band, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Midnight Star, Klymaxx, I could go on and on. Raphael Saadiq is the man. Max Tundra, Junior Boys, Dirty Projectors, Chromeo, Aphex Twin , Squarepusher, Bach, not sure when to stop... ha
Gonzo: I caught Chromeo live last fall - incredible.
AW: SO GOOD! Me too!
Gonzo: One of my favorite records of the decade.
AW: ME TOO!!!! I saw them in NY. They are the best. You will love this: I was in Bed Bath and Beyond with my lady friend and who do I see in the vacuum cleaner area but P-Thugg.
AW: I walk closer, circle the aisle a little but try to lay low / not be a creepy stalker and lo and behold it's definitely him, and Dave is further down the aisle. I finally muster up the balls, and I tap P on the shoulder, voice squeaks a little "ummm.... you guys.... ummm...[squeak] You guys are... who I think you are, right?" They both smiled and were like "Yup. What are you getting?" "This vacuum cleaner." "US TOO!"
Gonzo: HA! Bed Bath & Beyond - where the magic happens
AW: Always. My girl and I are STUPID huge fans, so we were a little starstruck. They were super nice
Gonzo: A Chromeo/Wilkis collab would be out of this world.
AW: Good god, I would give an arm for that (maybe a kidney too).
Gonzo: To continue this tangent for one more second - have you seen the episode of the Daryl Hall webshow they did?
Gonzo: Ah ok. Had to mention it, because that was a moment when my worlds collided.
AW: I completely forgot Hall & Oates on the FYI list. I was super into yacht rock during BDB. Doobie Bros, Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, etc.
Gonzo: For sure. Michael Macdonald!
AW: He came from somewhere back in here long agoooooo
Gonzo: Ha ha. Ok, to get back on track (somewhat?) - Given recent events, I want to take a moment to talk about Michael Jackson. I caught your blog post, which I thought was right on - indeed, Thriller was my first musical memory as well, as I discussed on my own blog. I'm still trying to wrap my head around his death and living in a post-Michael Jackson world. Feel free to expound upon other reflections about the man and his work, but specifically I wanted to ask how his music shaped your own development musically.
AW: Oh man... MJ is just my hero. Thanks for reading the blog post by the way! I mean, Thriller was the first music I fell in love with period. And I'm still in love with it.
AW: And at this rate, my love will continue for a zillion years (or death... ugh... whichever comes first, I guess!) And he just keeps coming back to me. I'll forget for a little while, then he just reappears and it's back on again. I would like to think that the majority of my "sound" is PYT and specifically the choruses, when that little synth pokes through on the side that's like my whole ballgame. And seriously, I STILL HEAR NEW SHIT in his songs. STILL!
Gonzo: Well if you're picking a single track to be a guiding light, PYT is pretty unstoppable.
AW: Yeah it's a force. Such interesting chord changes, SO catchy, so funky, so fun.
Gonzo: Anyone that doesn't make it to the dancefloor on that one should just go home.
AW: Absolutely. A million ways to listen to it + appreciate it. Have you ever read the Quincy Jones autobiography?
Gonzo: No, but I'm sure it's got some great bits.
AW: Holy shit, that is a book and a half. A MUST READ. The man is god. Period.
Gonzo: I haven't read much music stuff in the last few years (grad school) but have been making up for it in the last few months. Will add it to the list!
AW: Gotcha. Well, between the stories, the lessons, and all the MJ-ness it's unreal. In related news, my musical best friend from college was in college jazz band back in the day. And every year they'd get a heavy hitter to come teach a master class and tell some stories, etc. Quincy came one year (HOLY SHIT, RIGHT?).
AW: And there was a Q&A, everyone's asking all this cheesy bullshit. And my friend (who is awesome) was like, "Mr. Jones. every time I want to get people dancing at a party, I put on Billie Jean, and I want to thank you for that." Later that day, my friend was in the bathroom at a urinal and Quincy came in to adjacent urinal, "Hey Matt... that was real cool what you said." HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Gonzo: Holy !
AW: I am eternally jealous and in awe of that story.
Gonzo: For sure. Yeah it's weird - those incredible bass grooves - BJ, Thriller, Smooth Criminal - I've actually found them sort of haunting in the last few days.
AW: Yeah, totally. I mean, they are among the most memorable pieces of pop music ever, not even a debatable point, really. And losing MJ is just such a damn shame and doubly sad that he'd been forced into such a recluse. Media attention etc. just ruined him.
Gonzo: Exactly. I would subtitle my book on MJ "The Most Tragic Tale in Pop Music History."
AW: There ya go - I like it! I'd read that. The REAL Thriller!
Gonzo: Seriously. Sidenote - just ordered the QJ autobio for $0.01 on Amazon. HOLLA
AW: OH SNAP. Well done! It's a quick read, you'll love it. I don't read much anymore... was an english major in college and just devoured fiction at the time, and totally fell by the wayside ever since. But QJ's book is one of the few I actually picked, and thank the lord I did. Well my man, I think I'm gonna have to retire any minute... any final questions / stuff to wrap it?
Gonzo: Well, if we're down to the last question, here it is:
AW: Ha ha - drumroll pleeeeease!
Gonzo: What's next on the Alan Wilkis agenda?
AW: WOOOOOOOAHHHHHH! Well... a few more official top secret remixes in the pipeline, 3 to be exact (if anybody out there wants a remix, you know where to find me!). Also co-producing a new record for some friends of mine over the summer / early fall - the band is called Project Jenny, Project Jan (they are lovely, by the way). They did a delightful collaboration album with a bunch of awesome bands including Fujiya & Miyagi + Mixel Pixel. And then I guess it's on to solo record number #3!
AW: Ha ha! Woot indeed, my man... woot indeed. Trying to hustle, you know?
AW: Ha ha. Well this has been an absolute pleasure!
Gonzo: Likewise! Congrats on the EP, thanks for taking the time to chat, and keep us posted!
AW: Thanks so much, man! Will do!
Alan Wilkis is all over the web! Check out:
his MySpace page
his official website, including blog and storefront!
Also, Pink and Purple is out now on the Amazon.com and the iTunes. GITIT!