Behind the Making Music Series
by STEVE MCPHERSON
Walk with me here. It’s about this time of year in 1998, and I’m sitting at a table in Little Tijuana at two in the morning. To my left is James Everest, then of the Sensational Joint Chiefs. Across from him is Eric Fratzke and to his left is David King, and they’ve just finished playing a Happy Apple gig. There might be nachos in front of me, or maybe a Whittier burger, but what’s consuming all my attention is the heated debate going on between Fratzke and Everest. Fratzke has a rather dim view of hip-hop, especially its appropriation by suburban white kids (this may no longer be his opinion—I haven’t asked him recently), and Everest is trying to disabuse him of this notion, explaining how hip-hop is entering a new phase, where the kids who are doing it now have never known a world without it, how it’s no longer the musical tourism/opportunism of Vanilla Ice. The kids who are making it today have it in their blood, he insists; they grew up in it the same way that we grew up in rock and roll. Look at this guy’s brother, he says—indicating me—and Heiruspecs, who were at the time just a bunch of highschoolers. Mostly I just sat there, soaking it all in, savoring being in the middle of a real discussion about music with serious musicians, thinking that this guy James knows what’s up here.
Fast forward eight years. Everest’s latest project, the Making Music Series, is getting set to welcome two of its most high profile guests so far, the stunningly talented violinist/singer/whistler Andrew Bird on Thursday, Oct. 19 and beatmaker extraordinaire Anthony Davis aka ANT of Atmosphere, on Thursday, Nov. 30. Of course, the arm’s-length list of guests that have already graced the Whole Music Club’s stage is already impressive: David King, Wendy Lewis, Martin Dosh, Haley Bonar, James Diers, Andrew Broder, British electronic musician Scanner, Robert Skoro, P.O.S. and many more, including most recently Lori Barbero. They’ve all been subjected to questions about their childhood, some adorable baby pictures, embarassingly bad early recordings and, in the process, given the audience a little better insight into their craft.
biggest factor in this whole thing was that, when I went to the University of
Minnesota, I was super into music and had heard that there was a club on campus,”
says Everest. He’s a seriously wiry guy, looking not a lick older than
he did when I first met him at Little T’s back in ‘98. We’re
kicked back on the furniture in his living room, two Corgis meandering about.
“You could volunteer at the Whole and book shows, make flyers, do soundchecks,
help bands load in, all that stuff. So I did that for a couple years as a Whole
Committee volunteer. It was an amazing experience, and if you look at what I’m
doing in my life right now, is it the history degree, or my time at the Whole?
It’s all time spent at the university, but this extracurricular thing
was as valuable to me, if you look at what I’m doing now (pauses) ...
maybe I should have just gone on with my history degree,” he laughs.
Everest is a soft-spoken but animated conversationalist, a trait that serves
him well in making his guests feel welcome, as does his extensive experience
as a musician, both on his own under the name JG Everest and with bands like
the Joint Chiefs, Lateduster and, currently, Vicious
Vicious and Mandrew. For as long as I can remember, he’s been an integral
cog in the Twin Cities music machine, but it all began back at the U.
“One of the coolest things of the whole experience was that I was with
the other music geeks at the U. Of that group of the 12 of us, one of them was
a REV 105 DJ, one is Ben Durrant, who’s got Crazy Beast Studio- that’s
how I met them. One was the Foxfire soundguy who now has a company that makes
crazy audiophile gear. It was a little community,” he explains. What’s
that John Lennon quote about life being what happens to you while you’re
busy making other plans? Like many of his guests, Everest’s early musical
experience is founded in a community of likeminded individuals, people who wanted
to be involved with music but weren’t sure it could be taken as a serious
“You’re at the university, it’s this educational institution,
and you’re on this track, but here’s this music club, but it’s
just something to do for fun,” says Everest. “That was my struggle
in college—wanting to play music, but I felt that that wasn’t a
legitimate career unless I was doing the school of music. I felt, if I wanted
to be responsible, be in college, and get a real job, then I need to get something
like a history degree, or an English degree or a science degree.”
Leaving questions of being able to get a job with an English degree aside, this
conflict over how to make what you love to do jibe with what you do for a living
is something just about every musician has wrestled with in one way or another:
When I went to college, I started with the intention of being a biology major,
unsure if I could study the music I loved in an academic setting. I benefited
from studying at Wesleyan University, whose music department didn’t have
a conservatory mindset, but for an undergrad like Everest at the U in 1991,
he had to look to other outlets to explore his true passion.
thing I remember the most about those two years,” says Everest, “other
than meeting musicians like Billy Battson and Grant Hart and getting to work
with them, was that the woman who was in charge of the student volunteers started
this lunchtime talk thing. Basically what would happen is that on a given Thursday,
between classes, I would go over to Coffman and we’d sit around a table,
eight of us, with, say, Steve McClellan—sitting there, talking about his
job and what it means to be general manager of First Ave. It was like career
day for the music geeks. Danny Murphy, from Soul Asylum (this was before Grave
Dancers Union), was at this huge crossroads at that time and he came in.
She brought in managers of bands, people from WMMR, musicians, club people:
all these different aspects of the scene. And it was huge, just to relate to
them, because you’re never given a sense that this is actually a career
path. It was cool because, as you know, there are so many jobs and careers doing
this stuff in the arts- not just music. There actually are jobs in the arts,
but so often people who do them just kind of have to stumble through to figure
it out. As I went on to do more music stuff, whether it’s at the Dinkytowner
or playing in bands or promoting records or trying to have a record label, I
wondered why can’t there be more of a way, at a university—especially
one like the University of Minnesota, where there’s Radio K, there’s
this scene, this tradition—to teach this.”
Fast forward to 2004. David Hill, who had been working as a tech at Coffman
Union, has begun taking on more responsibilities for working with programming
there, and has been working with Mark Wheat, at that time still at Radio K.
They’re working on putting together a music interview show that can be
broadcast on Radio K, but just as it’s getting rolling the Current starts
up and Wheat decamps for public radio. In steps Everest, who has known Hill
for a while.
“I had never done anything like an interview show,” he says. “We
didn’t really even know what form it would take. All I knew was what I
had gotten out of those roundtable things with real people: relating to musicians
as real people rather than as a rockstar thing. I wanted it to be a thing where
you can see the connections. I was really proud of the local scene and part
of the goal was having conversations that could really illustrate the role the
community plays in the development and evolution of musicians in this town.
At some point, it went from having producers and club owners to being focused
on the musicians so there could be a performance angle and what I got really
interested in was really looking at the processes—the development of a
musician from when they were a kid to their process of creating music or the
process of creating a setlist or the process of ordering songs on a record.
When I see any piece of art, I’m affected by it, but I’m always
interested in the nuts and bolts of what they were trying to do. The thing that
I love about art is that it’s this endless process of problem solving
and you’re constantly employing your creative faculty to do it. When you’re
around someone who’s doing that creative problem solving, it sticks with
you a little bit. Our faculty as human beings, our God-given whatever—it’s
our creativity, our touch with the divine. It’s just so underappreciated
in this society.”
Not how; why?
The Making Music Series’ own press refers to it as “Inside the Actor’s
Studio” for musicians, but where that show’s host, James Lipton,
seems content to bask in the reflected radiance of his guests’ celebrity,
and moments of real insight happen by accident rather than design (viz. Dave
Chapelle’s now infamous appearance), Everest is interested in a musician’s
personal history only insomuch as it illuminates the creative process. I guarantee
you at any given installment of the series, there’ll be a couple of those
moments of clarity that suddenly light up the path of a musician’s career.
For instance, did you know Andrew Broder was a metalhead back in the day? “The
first tape I ever got was Quiet Riot, Metal Health—with the mask?”
says Broder (who records with a revolving cast under the name Fog) as he reclines
in an easy chair, looking across a stack of electronics and tapes to address
James Everest. “And I think more than anything I liked the mask, but I
also like that they did ‘Cum on Feel the Noize.’ And I remember
that was my first introduction to—you know the name of it, James, but
I don’t—but the G in relation to the F# and the E minor—it
has a melancholy thing to it. And that song was my first exposure to that tingly,
goosebump feeling—that feeling you get when you hear a piece of music
that really grabs you and resonates with you.”
know just what he means, and the shocking thing here is not so much Broder’s
dark metal past—a past that seems impossibly distant from the fractured
and abstract, yet nonetheless tuneful, work he does with Fog, but that from
within the bluster of Quiet Riot, he pulled this chord progression out as melancholy.
When he retrieves his guitar and plays it by himself, yowling out the melody
with a half-smirk, you can hear what he’s talking about. That major/minor
seesaw has been the backbone of pop songs since the first 78s, and if you’re
of a certain sentimental bent, you’ll quickly recognize it as the soundtrack
to high school breakups and slow dances.
Hell, my own brother revealed something about his early musical education that
made me understand him better, and I’ve known the guy for 25 years.
“I remember hearing a dude in Red [Freeberg’s music] class at Central
[High School],” says Sean
McPherson, aka Twinkie Jiggles, bassist for hip-hop group Heiruspecs, “in
the first couple days when we were listening to something and he was like, ‘That’s
tight!’ and I hate to be all country bumpkin, but I wasn’t super-familiar
with that word. And all The Roots stuff and all the James Brown stuff, it’s
all literally tight. Like tight voicings—things move together closely.
This is economy of motion, big time. And that’s something that makes stuff
sound funky, if it just creeps to the next thing or sits on one thing.”
It was a lightbulb moment for me. I’d always known that he liked to construct
things in this tight way, but to hear about the exact moment when that idea
really began to form for him was fascinating. Much the same thing happened when
Lori Barbero, drummer for local legends Babes in Toyland and currently playing
with Koalas, spun an Alice Cooper record from her early chidhood. The needle
drops and out came these thundering toms.
did Babes in Toyland get their sound?” asks Everest rhetorically when
we get to discussing the moment. “Well, it’s because when she was
a kid, the drummer liked this song that was like a punch in the gut and that’s
what she would do to her brothers. Twenty years later she’s sitting behind
a drumkit figuring it out and what comes out?”
For her part, Barbero had never even made the connection until that night. And
here’s where it gets really interesting, because while for an artist it
might be enough just to make the music, for us as listeners it’s important
to ask not just how they got where they are, but why. As Stef Alexander, aka
artist/producer/Doomtree leader P.O.S., replied when I asked him about his experience
with the series, “There’s tons of dudes that can shred, but you
want to know why they shred the way they shred.”
Alexander made his Making Music appearance just a few weeks after selling out
the mainroom at First Avenue, but, he says, “It was one of my favorite
shows I played this year, and it wasn’t even really a show. On a fan level,
where people get to ask questions about music—not just where’d that
song come from, but where’d the idea for this beat come from—that’s
my favorite shit to talk about. Actual songmaking.
“I’m actually going to help teach a class,” he continues,
“with Kevin Beacham [aka DJ Nikoless and the host of “Redefinition
Radio” on the Current] at IPR (The Institute of Production and Recording)
and I was actually hoping to have a more intense role in the class, but they
kind of put me on the critiques, so that’s cool.” Aside from Beacham’s
class, I Self
Devine and Brandon and Medium Zach from Big Quarters have been teaching
classes that address a variety of aspects of hip-hop culture at Hope Community
Center. It’s a topic worthy of its own article someday, but for now, it’s
just going to serve as an example of the struggle to provide music education
in popular music topics in America.
“You really see a difference when you spend time in Europe,” says
Everest as we shift into talking about music in society. “I studied in
London for a year and spent a lot of time in Russia. Just being over there in
that culture, and performing as an artist, the way that art and the artist are
treated, it’s not like it is here. So much emphasis here is put on economics—your
success is just an equals sign. So, Britney Spears is a successful musician.
What problems did she solve? What was she overcoming in her art? Compared to
what [multi-instumentalist] Martin Dosh is trying to figure out, nothing.”
abilities as a host may still be a little rough around the edges—certain
sections of the shows drag a bit—but his real strength is knowing what
he’s after when it comes to talking about music, and he knows it’s
not the same answer every time. He’s not after canned soundbites, he’s
not after juicy biographical detail for its own sake. Art, and by extension,
music, is a way of seeing and it doesn’t have to be limited to the creators.
“There’s this idea that I keep coming back to, from a quote by Salman
Rushdie, which is that art is a way to open your eyes to see the world differently,
to challenge your perspectives,” says Everest. “That’s the
purpose of art, and it’s a crucial and fundamental thing for living life.
A huge part of living life is growing, and to grow and evolve you have to be
constantly shedding your skin and you have to be losing limbs and be constantly
adapting and re-evolving. Art is a wonderful example of how to do that. You
go to a film and it changes the way you think about things. So often it’s
all about what’s commercial and because commercial viability is the barometer,
you end up with stuff that reinforces perspectives, so you see a film that is
sappy and sentimental where everything just happens the way you wish it would.
It doesn’t make you question. And when you have a film that would
do that or a song that pushes you and makes you uncomfortable, that’s
bad [commercially]. When you talk to artists about the choices they make, and
how they go about things, it’s so applicable to how you go about life,
but it’s missing from the dialogue.”
He’s right, of course. It’s not enough to just accept what’s
been given to you. Half an hour into our conversation, Everest and I get off
on a tangent about politics, discussing the stunning lack of self-examination
that followed in the wake of 9/11. Instead of really asking why this happened,
instead of examining the climate of the world we live in and trying to understand
the motivations behind this act, we fell almost instantly to examining how it
happened, intending to build ever higher fences, fixing symptoms and not the
causes. As Keith Olbermann pointed out on a recent airing of “Countdown”
on MSNBC, the president actually said at a press conference that “[i]t’s
unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the
behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists.”
can never be unacceptable to think. We need to ask questions, and not just about
mechanics, but about motivation. “Artists have spent their whole lives
trying to figure how not to let this groove be boring,” says Everest,
and it’s an approach that can have far-ranging applications to anyone’s
life. How do I approach my life every day to always be making something of it?
Where does meaning in my life come from? Is it possible to actually craft a
life out of doing what I love instead of what everyone expects of me?
Everest talked about art as a way of seeing; I tend to think of it as a way
of crafting narrative meaning out of the experience of our lives, a way of finding
balance between what we strive to accomplish and what actually happens out there
in the messy world. It’s complicated, though, and the more I think about
it, the more my head hurts. Besides, Andrew Broder, before dropping the needle
on an early jazz record, explained it better in reference to the music he was
about to play.
“It appeals to me: that struggle between perfection and mistakes, between
intentional and unintentional music.” ||
The next installment of the Making Music Series will take place on Thu.,
Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. and will feature Andrew Bird. The last installment in this
semester’s program will take place on Thu., Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. and will
feature Anthony Davis, aka ANT of Atmosphere. The shows are free and take place
at the Whole Music Club in Coffman Union. 300 Washington Ave. SE, Mpls. 612-624-INFO.
for more info on the series, including sound clips from previous guests. For
more info on James Everest, visit jgeverest.com.