Chicago, a “tale of fame, fortune and all that jazz,” has been honored with six Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards and a Grammy. The touring production — starring Heisman Trophy winner and 2017 NFL Hall of Fame nominee Eddie George — comes to Uihlein Hall at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee, April 25–30 (see website for show times). Tickets range from $31–$179. 414-273-7206 or marcuscenter.org
Next Act Theatre presents the Milwaukee premiere of Bloomsday by Steven Dietz, running through April 30 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $30–$40, depending on performance day. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. April 20–21, April 24, April 26–28; 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 22 and April 29; and 2 p.m. April 23 and April 30. Directed by Joseph Hanreddy, the production is described as an “Irish time-travel love story that blends wit, humor and heartache into a buoyant, moving appeal for making the most of the present before it is past.” 414-278-0765 or nextact.org
Milwaukee Collects features works of art from local private collections — from Impressionist paintings to hallmarks of Art Deco design — by artists from Jules Chéret to Ed Ruscha. The exhibition runs through May 21 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee. Museum hours are Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Thursdays when the museum is open until 8 p.m. Museum admission is $17 for adults, $15 for students and seniors (65+), and free for kids 12 and under. Milwaukee Collects is drawn from nearly 50 collections and includes more than 100 objects. 414-224-3200 or mam.org
Drawn Out features giant compositions from Todd Mrozinski’s new series of graphite drawings of trees and clouds — which stretch up to 7 feet long — as well as Mark Ottens’ hallucinational, microscopically detailed 8-foot pen drawing, referred to as an “epic doodle.” The exhibition includes small-scale works by Mrozinski, Ottens, Adolph Rosenblatt and recent MIAD grad Melissa Lee Johnson. Drawn Out runs through June 4 at Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St. Fifth Floor, in Milwaukee. Hours are Thursdays–Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. 414-870-9930 or portraitsocietygallery.com
April 22 to April 28
The Wisconsin Area Music Industry honors area musicians and industry members at the 37th Annual WAMI Awards, taking place at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1040 N. Fourth St., Milwaukee, April 23 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25, with VIP packages also available. The event features performances from Wisconsin artists including The Prince Experience, The Pukes, This Time Tomorrow All-Star Band, Scott E. Berendt and The Us Project, Bella Cain, Green Screen Kid, NO/NO, Big N’ Tasty Blues (house band) and a Tribute to Al Jarreau and Clyde Stubblefield. 414-286-3663 or pabsttheater.org
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s biennial event Hair Affair: The Art of Hair, has become known as the wildest runway show and outlandish fundraiser for the museum, celebrating the intersection of art and hair design with local salons and stylists. The event takes place 7–11 p.m. April 27 at the museum, 227 State St., Madison. Tickets are $60–$90. The event also will feature hors d’oeuvre from Fresco, cocktails, a live DJ, and a silent auction. mmoca.org or 608-257-0158
Stand-up comedian, podcast host and actor Marc Maron brings The Too Real Tour to Wisconsin for two shows. The first is April 27 at 7 p.m. at The Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $29.50. The second is April 28 at 7 p.m. at the Orpheum Theatre, 216 State St., Madison. Tickets are $15–$30. Maron is known for his hit podcast WTF with Marc Maron, which averages 6.5 million downloads each month. He also has appeared on television talk shows, including those hosted by David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Bill Maher and Conan O’Brien. 414-286-3663 or pabsttheater.org and 608-250-2600 or madisonorpheum.com
Arte Para Todos (Art for Everyone) is a four-day music and art series — running April 27–30 — where all participating local bands are waiving their fees and 100 percent of proceeds from each event goes to supporting art and music programs in four local schools. The APT 2017 events are split up by neighborhood, including Walker’s Point, Bay View, Harambee, Riverwest and the East Side (see website for schedule). The event will span 28 venues and feature more than 90 bands and many visual artists. Tickets are $20 for a four-day pass, $13 for one-day pass, and $8 cash at the door for any event in the festival. arteparatodos.me.
April 29 to May 6
The Historic Milwaukee Poetry Event features The Last Poets, consisting of several groups of poets and musicians from the late 1960s African-American civil rights movement — considered the rappers of the civil rights era and the godfathers of hip-hop. The event takes place April 29 at 7 p.m. at Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25. 414-273-7206 or marcuscenter.org
SOUL is an evening celebrating the culmination of creative work done by young people and professional artists working in collaboration during Express Yourself Milwaukee’s yearlong multi-disciplinary arts exploration. The performance brings together dance, music, spoken word and visual arts. SOUL will be performed May 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave. The family-friendly event is free and open to the public. 414-272-3498 or exyomke.org
Comedian and transformational speaker Kyle Cease says of himself, “If Eckhart Tolle and Jim Carrey had a baby, that baby would be Kyle Cease.” He brings his one-of-a-kind, self-help wisdom to The Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, May 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30. Each ticket buyer will receive a copy of Cease’s new book I Hope I Screw This Up. 414-286-3663 or pabsttheater.org
The Florentine Opera draws its 83rd season to a close with Rossini’s tale of opera’s most famous barber Figaro, The Barber of Seville, under the baton of Joseph Rescigno. Performances take place May 5 at 7:30 p.m. and May 7 at 2:30 p.m. at Uihlein Hall at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $40–$158. 414-273-7206 or marcuscenter.org
Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood of Whose Line is it Anyway?!bring their comedy improv chops back to town with an all-new show — The Scared Scriptless Tour — for their 13th year at The Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, May 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29.50–$49.50. Mochrie calls the show “the most fun you can have with a theater full of people that’s legal and doesn’t include washing up.” 414-286-3663 or pabsttheater.org
Formed in 1995, Recycled Percussion became a national phenomenon during its performances on America’s Got Talent in 2009, and currently headlines in Las Vegas at the Saxe Theater at Planet Hollywood. The group brings its “junk rock music” to the Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee, for shows May 6 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45. 414-273-7206 or marcuscenter.org
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.
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.
Amos Lee continues to deliver the kind of laid-back, soulful sound that has set his work apart for years.
He just keeps getting better at it.
On his latest album, Spirit, Lee is in his sweet spot, one that has long prompted one of the more interesting “Who does he sound like?” discussions anywhere.
The truth is, he doesn’t sound like anybody but Amos Lee — though for years now he’s turned out music wonderfully evocative of singers like Al Green in his 1970s-era prime and vintage, mellow Isley Brothers.
With his new record, the first he has produced himself, Lee doubles down on his distinctive style, delivering a fuller sound without abandoning the elegant simplicity that set him apart in the first place. The best musicians know when not to play, and none of the added touches violate that rule.
The opener, “New Love,” is resplendent with understated gospel inflections and brass reminiscent of the late, great Memphis Horns, who of course played behind Green, Otis Redding and other legends.
And Lee’s gentle acoustic playing sets him apart from those greats even as he follows the silky trail they blazed.
That comes through beautifully on a striking ballad called “Lightly,” which Lee builds around a surprisingly elegant banjo riff, and on a tender but morose breakup song called “Vaporize.”
Both showcase Lee’s ability to explore new territory without abandoning the essential goodness of what he’s been doing for years. And they elevate an album that broadens the range of a singer who will never be mistaken for anyone else.
Aretha Franklin, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” (RCA Records)
Aretha Franklin sings the sound of America like nobody else alive — a point of unceasing pride for Detroit, the place she was raised and remains near today. So the release of “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” raises one question right off: Does the singular Queen of Soul really need to borrow from other divas?
The answer is she doesn’t need to do anything, but a dive into the realm of other divas is a solid move.
Taking on standards is a common, often lucrative, move for career artists of a certain age and older. But it can be risky, revealing unfavorable comparisons and weaknesses brought on by the march of time. Yet in her uniquely Aretha way, she emerges largely ready for the challenge and more often than not scores commercial and artistic points.
The next question many prospective listeners will ask is if the 72-year-old Franklin can still bring it. The answer is, for the most part, yes, and she makes a strong case on “At Last.” The demanding range of the song made famous by Etta James can lay bare deficiencies, and Franklin reveals none — nailing the opening line and even coming back at the end for some swoops to show she’s got chops to spare.
Aretha goes into the domain of a 21st-century soul diva and returns with a thumping disco version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” While it doesn’t eclipse the original, it offers some new perspective as well as an inspiring mash-up with Motown Records’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The result shows the timelessness of both Aretha and Adele’s new classic.
Somewhat less deep is “I’m Every Woman/Respect,” which seems to be a battle to a draw with Chaka Khan’s original — at least until “Respect” pops up in the middle. It’s a groovalicious and welcome update of her own classic — so much so that many listeners might wish it didn’t disappear so quickly and return to the pleasant but by no means persuasive “Woman.”
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is another Motown throw-down — a disco take on the gem by Diana Ross and The Supremes. Franklin, who didn’t sing for the hometown label, comes confidently and in full voice as if to say, “Diana, you may be Supreme, but I am the Queen.” That said, it could have benefited from a different arrangement, built on soulful funk or jazz found elsewhere on the album.
To that end, one of the finest moments is the straight-up swing of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” written by Prince and popularized by Sinead O’Connor. Franklin expertly recalls the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, with some spot-on scatting. It’s light and tight all at once — a fitting way to close out the collection.
Aretha’s latest clicks by spanning genres and generations. And even if it wasn’t her intention, it’s hard not to see the album as part compliment, part competition. “Divas” proves Franklin’s still got it, and it shows that we’ve still got her.