Eyedea takes hip-hop By The Throat
"I was on this kick for a while of developing everything I did in public, for better or worse. That wound up destroying me."
One of the more popular and unusual acts to emerge from the Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers label, Eyedea & Abilities (Micheal Larsen and Gregory "Max" Keltgen) debuted in 1997 as the teenage St. Paul rapper-DJ duo Sixth Sense, and found a wider audience later as hype man and DJ (respectively) for Atmosphere. Two albums of furious turntablism and speed-rapping about metaphysics followed (2001's First Born and 2004's Epitaph-distributed E&A). But 2009's By The Throat is something else, a streamlined and highly original mixture of rap, trip-hop, and guitar rock that introduces to a mass audience the Vestax Controller One—a tool that allows Abilities to play turntables like a keyboard. Eyedea's vocals also sound seasoned by experience, recorded in one night with a bottle of whiskey and pictures of his ex close by.
Before reteaming for Throat, the pair had spent the last several years pursuing separate paths: Eyedea has explored free-jazz-rap (with Face Candy), alt-rock (with Carbon Carousel), and solo hip-hop (as Oliver Hart), while Abilities, now living in Milwaukee, has collaborated with I Self Devine (in Semi.Official) and El-P. Speaking in separate interviews before their current tour, which brings them to Cactus Club on Saturday, they describe their new music as the culmination of five years of experimentation, alone time, and fan backlash. (See The A.V. Club's Q&A with Abilities here.)
The A.V. Club: How do you and Abilities write together? By The Throat sounds almost guitar-based.
Eyedea: Eyedea & Abilities always starts with Max. I'll replay a lot of his stuff and add layers, but the core idea comes from him. It's more like me writing parts to his song. For Carbon Carousel's stuff, I write on guitar. [On Throat] I wanted to bring the stuff that I learned playing with Carbon Carousel and Face Candy. One of the reasons I picked up a guitar and started singing [in the first place] was, I was kind of bored with rap music. I thought about my future. "Am I going to be making rap music when I'm 50? Probably not." So I should start learning how to play instruments now. Then Max, as producer, got into the rock stuff I was doing. Before we even liked rap, we were both metal kids.
AVC: Now Abilities scratches guitar solos.
E: Max has been focusing for years on trying to make a turntable part that's more melodic. When we wanted to make a sound before, we'd actually have to go press it on vinyl and pay for it. But now there's computer programs where you can scratch anything you record. So for a song like "Spin Cycle," I just figured out four notes for the solo, and we recorded that, and that's what he's scratching. Pretty much all the solos on this record were a keyboard part or guitar part that he solos.
AVC: You're also singing more. Is that the influence of your other bands?
E: A lot of it has to do with Jeremy [Ylvisaker, of Carbon Carousel] and J.T. [Bates, Carbon Carousel/Face Candy drummer]. When Face Candy started, it was this off-the-cuff gig at the Triple Rock, and I didn't even know J.T. He knew [bassist] Casey O'Brien. We just walked onstage and started playing. That moment changed my life. I was like, "I don't know if I ever want to not play with J.T. Bates."
Then I started writing this music that was half-produced, half-band. I was making some rock-rap, and it wasn't going anywhere. And J.T. was just like, "You should have Jeremy play guitar." Jeremy and I had actually played together in a band at the Front [in the '90s] as part of Fresh Squeeze. I was recording with Jason Heinrichs [a.k.a. Anomaly], Jeremy, and [Happy Apple bassist] Erik Fratzke, with Jason on drums—that was the first recording I ever did, and the first band I ever played with. I was 15.
So the relationship with Jeremy goes back. But then I started hanging out with him a lot in the studio, and just being around him changed the way I want to make music. We decided that Face Candy was going to be an all-improvised thing with no guitars, and Carbon Carousel would be a rock band.
AVC: Before Face Candy had a name, you were billing yourselves as Eyedea And Friends.
E: When that started, it was me, J.T., Chris Keller [a.k.a. rapper Kristoff Krane], Carnage, and Mazta I. When I came back from that tour, I quit, because I would get golf balls and shit thrown at me. I was on this kick for a while of developing everything I did in public, for better or worse. That wound up destroying me.
AVC: Was the tour promoted as a rap tour?
E: They sold it as "Eyedea's new thing," with no idea it was going to be Eyedea freestyling for two hours with a band. It kind of developed into this completely free thing. Now we don't play in a time or a key. It was always going there in my head. It was always going to become jazz. What I wanted to do was show people, especially people that were fans of me, that they don't have to be so afraid to be themselves. But I just couldn't handle it.
AVC: There was nothing romantic about the confrontation with your old audience? It sounds like Dylan going electric.
E: I would get death threats. People were like, "I'm going to fucking kill you if I see you." That was where Carbon Carousel came into play, because I was like, "Fuck you guys, fuck rap music, fuck all that shit. I'm going to play in a rock band for the rest of my life and never rap again." But I was hurt. When I look back at that time, it deeply affected me. Because hip-hop people are so aggressive. So it wasn't like Bob Dylan. You hear those tapes, and people are booing here and there, but, dude, someone threw a golf ball at me as fast as they could. It was at Augsburg College and it almost broke the window.
AVC: At the first Carbon Carousel show I saw, there was this guy in the audience giving you the finger the whole time and yelling, "Bullshit!"
E: [Laughs.] See, Carbon Carousel was nice, because I could hide behind Jeremy's guitar sound. I'd put my hair in front of my face and not even look at the audience. With Face Candy, it was such an emotional event for me, because I'm sitting up there digging into my psyche, trying to solve my problems in front of people. I would walk off stage, and I would feel like I'd cut myself open. So I was already in this vulnerable place, and then to have some guy come up trying to fight me, it fucking made me go crazy. At some of those Face Candy shows, things would come out that I don't even think I was ready to say in public.
We started playing as a trio with J.T. and Casey in Denver, opening for Cage, and it worked. Then we played this free-jazz festival in Paris, and it was a sold-out theater, everybody in suits and ties. And they liked it. It was the first time a full audience enjoyed a Face Candy set. I was like, "Oh my god, we're a jazz band." So we stopped playing hip-hop shows and started playing jazz clubs.
Kristoff Krane would sit in, and that's what Face Candy is now, the four of us. Chris is another guy who changed my life. When I met him, I started getting away from being so macho and hip-hoppy. That was always like an act I had to do, but Chris was like, "You don't really care about this macho hip-hop thing, do you?"
AVC: Why did you and Abilities wait so long to make another album?
E: We broke up at the peak of our career, basically. We weren't getting along. We decided to do the E&A record with Epitaph and tour it, and see where we are. Max had a kid; he moved to Milwaukee. We started hanging out again. It came natural, which is how we began. I remember Max saying, "We're too talented to be broke." We started playing shows, and made some music to keep the live show more up-to-date. Rhymesayers were kind of shocked, because we didn't really talk about it, we just started booking shows.
Eyedea & Abilities, "Junk," from By The Throat: