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Through the Looking Glass

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Alias recently shared a cafe in California with staff writer Dan Thomas-Glass, and discussed the dynamics of puddles, his life as a full-time musician, and how Malcolm Jamal Warner introduced him to the world of hip hop.

Through the Looking Glass

It has been said that artists migrate to California for a reason. The particulars of those motivations vary, though, depending on who you ask, or what you read: the sunsets and the landscapes, the culture and the clash, the clean air (ha...), or just the mirage of the great western escape, the never-ending Pacific. Richard Candida Smith has argued that it was the (somehow not contradictory) solitude and community that artists sought in flinging themselves away in the early part of the 20th century from the exhibition and book tour world of the East towards the (culturally) savage West.

Regardless of the reasons, the contemporary Golden State pudding is proof positive: though some might still take Woody Allen’s point about Los Angeles, the fact is that California is the counterpoint to New York, the cultural bookend to the country between which, in the minds of many, there resides little of significance. Musically, there is plenty of evidence: the second wave of American punk at least partially made its home in the Bay Area, and the well-documented transition that began in the late 1980s to what has become "gangsta" pop-hop doubtless came Straight Outta Compton. And certainly the avant-garde of American poetry since mid-century has frequently looked toward the Left Coast: the echoes of Ginsberg’s NYC “Howl” reverberating as a supermarket in California. So it came as little surprise to many when, early into a new century of American art, a collective of reformed battle-rappers, art-school drop-outs and glitch-tech wizards started broadcasting a new sound from the anticon chateau in Oakland, CA. These were a new breed of hip hop bad boys, by turns embraced and reviled by their public, fighting the good fight against pop-idol worship and the presumed immutability of the fractured postmodern subject. Unabashedly pretentious and unconcerned with convention, they announced themselves on Sole’s manifesto, “Bottle of Humans”: “anticon: hip hop music for the advancement of mankind.”

Alias, born or at least known on his license as Brendon Whitney, is in some ways the backbone of that anticon collective. Much like William Burroughs was for the Beats, Alias is the group’s self-effacing prose-poet (though he works more in directly-communicative ideas than the abstracted images of old Bill): the quiet but necessary antidote to Sole’s hyperkineticism, or Dose-one’s schizo showmanship. Driving to meet him on a Wednesday afternoon at The French Hotel (a cafe in Berkeley next to the corporate supermarket that is the remains of the co-op where Ginsberg had his visions of Whitman-- an auspicious site for a conversation with a new-generation prose-poet), I reflected on my own motivations for requesting this interview. My notes and interview questions carried all the tangible reasons: The Other Side of the Looking Glass, Alias’s first solo LP, released last year, was a fascinating piece of work: in many ways, it's the most complete project yet to come from the ever-prolific anticon camp. In addition, Alias has not garnered the same attention as an individual artist that he deserves. But the world of indie-hop is, by definition, full of such stories: when the number of albums from the genre to sell more than 30,000 copies can be counted on one hand, it’d be hard to make the claim that very many of the artists are over-exposed.

Perhaps it was simply the intangibles, then, I concluded-- that undefinable something that distinguishes a good album from a great one, or a great album from one so singular that it cannot help but go down in history-- the difference between Harvest and Tonight’s the Night, maybe. As I sat eating lunch in my car before going inside, I decided that doing the interview itself would most likely bring to light my own motivations.

I splurged on a huge latte and grabbed a table in the corner that I hoped would keep the noise to a minimum (it didn’t). The French Hotel is a haven for aging literati-- gray-haired men and women that are still hip forty years later, who hack their way through jaded conversations about experiences they had that I imagine I’ve probably studied at one point or another. Listening to them, testing the tape recorder, I wondered if history would prove so gentle with Alias and his peer group of “avant guardian angel dust mites,” to quote Sage Francis. Alias arrived fashionably on time, sat down, promised not to slurp his coffee too loud, and I decided to start with the details of his life at this moment in time, then work back to how he ended up transplanting to the Bay Area with the other anticon folk.

Alias has an undercurrent of nervous energy to him when he speaks that contrasts with his placid demeanor: he’s clearly a shy person, unused to talking about himself despite many years now under the heat of the love-hate spotlight that seems perpetually pointed at anticon. As I ask him to talk about where his brain is these days, he laughs in an almost preemptive way, then slowly begins: “I’m actually in the best personal space that I’ve ever been in my life, especially now coming off the tour I did with themselves, that was like a stepping stone, or something... Kinda like how Deep Puddle got me to take music seriously, doing this whole tour really put me in a good space.” He pauses to sip (not slurp) his coffee, and stares at the table. I wonder if he is thinking about where he had been before he had been in a good space. He laughs again.

“[Being a professional musician] is pretty crazy. I’m still trying to adjust to it. My wife works for Head Start, and she gets up early every morning... She enjoys her job, gets to work with kids, but it’s hard for me, ‘cause I was always the one that got up earlier than her, so it’s kinda weird now, still laying in bed, watching her go to work at like seven. I don’t know if it’s some kind of subconscious guilt with me, but I always get up right after she leaves, and I go in my little music room and start doing music at like 7:30... It’s crazy, I had always wanted to get to this point, but now that I’m here, it’s weird. I wake up in the morning, make some coffee, make some music for a while, watch CNN, laugh, then I walk my dog... I don’t know, I try and book shows here and there... I just feel really lucky.”

Interviewing an artist whose work you respect is a difficult task: there must always be some reciprocity in an interview, but the tendency when the person sitting across from you is a personal favorite is to give only those elements of yourself that your subject is likely to appreciate-- most often, that scenario plays out as ego-stroking in dialogue form (“but enough of what I think about me, what do you think about me?”). Music journalism is notorious for these sorts of conversations. However, with Alias sprinkling his responses with insecure asides (“I’m always downplaying myself. It’s a personality trait that I can’t really seem to shake.”), it is damn near impossible not to shore up what feels like an ego that can barely stand to be there, let alone talk about itself. I mention that I had, along with many others I knew, been pulling for him and all of anticon to make it to the point where they could become full-time artists, then I ask him what the experience of that transition had been like for him.

“Well, when I was living in Maine, there weren’t a lot of outlets for me to do the sort of music that I was doing. I met Sole, um...” He trails off and I wonder what the time-line he is walking down in his head looks like.

“I met Sole ten years ago. It was a long time ago, when we first met each other and actually started doing music together. He and I had a little crew in Maine, but everyone went their separate ways eventually, people just started not doing as much music, and it got to the point that Sole decided he was either going to move to New York or San Francisco... So he went, I think it was in ‘97, he went out to New York and a week later to San Francisco, and he decided he liked the Bay Area a lot better, because people are more relaxed, and open to different music and ideas. So he decided he was going to move out here, and then Moodswing9 moved out, and it was basically just me and DJ Mayonnaise left in Maine.”

The conversation edges away from the more personal experience to nuts and bolts, his then equipment woes and current contentment. “I didn’t really do a lot of music while I was in Maine, just because I didn’t have the equipment-- I had been using Moodswing9’s sampler and studio to do all the music I was doing before. Now I use an MPC 2000XL, and I use digital performer, I have a G4 that I record on, I have a Korg MS2000 keyboard, it’s a newer one but it has analog nobs and all that, I have a Dr. Sample 303, one of the newer ones, I have a guitar, an effects pedal, and lots of records that I’ve borrowed from people.” He seems pleased with the list, nodding, before getting back to the story.

“Eventually I just moved out, my wife and I and DJ Mayonnaise, at the very end of the summer of 1999. We all kinda moved out at the same time, Jel and Dose and I, and we were living in this two bedroom apartment, there were nine of us living in this two bedroom apartment, it was horrible, man. I mean, it was good, we look back at it and it was fun, but you know, at the time it was pretty weird, a weird transition. But it was good to come out here, 'cause you know, statistically Maine is 99% white, and it’s all a Christian white conservative culture. It was really different to move out here to where there were so many different cultures, so much different music. That was the other thing, the music scene when I first moved out here, going from Portland, Maine where it’s all shitty modern rock bands to out here where there’s all kinds of different music.”

The question that immediately comes to mind, how he embarked on a indie-hop post-rap career when surrounded by “shitty modern rock bands,” is one that I wish I hadn’t asked as soon as it leaves my mouth. The answer that comes back is almost flat, clearly a stock answer given to my exact question too many times. He sips his coffee.

“I didn’t have cable growing up, but my sister and I would watch Friday night music videos on NBC, at like one in the morning. For some reason Malcolm Jamal Warner was hosting one of the episodes, and he directed Special Ed’s ‘I’m the Magnificent’ remix video, so I saw that, and I was just like man, I really dug it, and my sister bought me the tape for my birthday like a month later. I found the Source magazine in this one store in Portland,, and it had Kid n’ Play on the cover... I just started getting really into it, and buying as much as I could... It was good back then, because you know, everyone had their own sound, it was exciting, everyone was doing different things, it wasn’t really what it is today. That’s pretty much how it happened... I started listening to Special Ed, and next thing I knew I was writing rhymes in my bedroom, and only rapping them in front of DJ Mayonnaise... It was funny. That’s all I listened to that point in my life.”

The emphasis on “that” suggests that such was no longer the case. Certainly his recent Listed feature for Dusted was far from rap-centric. When I ask him about it, he seems hesitant.

“I don’t know, when we did Deep Puddle, the way that I was looking at hip hop at that point, I really hated everything, and I despised all the bling-bling, Puff Daddy shit. I think most hip hop fans went through that, but it kinda stuck with me. At that point, Moodswing9 started listening to Portishead and DJ Shadow, in 1996. After listening to Portishead, you know... They had a hip hop edge to them, but they were still really musical, and that made me want to check out other things. I started listening to The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy and other kinds of electronic music that was also hip hop in some ways. Then after meeting Dose and Nosdam and Why?, those guys are always trying to seek out new music. Just being around them you found out about a lot of other bands. I can listen to Timbaland production, and I can appreciate certain qualities about it, and I don’t hate it now, but there’s not a lot of hip hop out there now that I can really listen to and fully enjoy, and get something out of; it doesn’t really do much for me anymore.”

By now he has mentioned Deep Puddle Dynamics twice, so I feel justified in asking him about it. All four members of the “supergroup” (Alias, Slug, Sole and Dose-one) have, since the album’s release in 2000, seemed somewhat haunted by its success. Which is not to say that all four of them have not all gone on to different and better things, because they have. But the question has at times seemed touchy, and I don’t want to elicit any sort of “I don’t believe in Beatles” response. Surprisingly, he seems eager to talk about it.

“I think basically just the whole idea of how we did that album, looking back at it, was pretty crazy... We were all aware of each other musically, and we all just hooked up through Mr. Dibbs and talked about doing this album together. But even then I wasn’t taking it too seriously... We ended up setting a date to all go out to Slug’s, and we all crashed on his floor and recorded at the Rhymesayer’s studio. The first song that we recorded was ‘Heavy Ceiling,’ and after we all laid our verses for that we listened to the track, and we all just sorta stood there, speechless, looking at each other, like ‘damn, that’s pretty crazy...’ For me personally, I didn’t think I was able to bounce off people that I hardly knew, because I had recorded with people that I didn’t really know before and it never jelled together like that... After we recorded the whole album I went for, I think it was a month without having a copy of the album. I left Minneapolis without a copy of the album, and I kept bugging Slug to send me a copy... The day that I got it I had gotten home from work, and my wife and I were going to go do laundry... I pulled it out of the mailbox and I was just tripping about it, like ‘man I can’t wait to listen to this,’ so my wife and I packed up our laundry and got in the car, and started listening to the album, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. We drove around for about three hours just listening to it over and over again. Even my wife was just speechless about the first couple songs that she heard, and there were a couple songs that I was getting all emotional about... It was weird to hear something like that, that I was a part of in that way... Even now, when I’ll be doing shows, kids will come up to me and tell me about how that album changed their life or something. It’s still weird to me, but I started seeing why people say that, ‘cause looking back to the other music that was coming out at that point, it seems a little more... honest... There was something about it, kinda magical.”

He’s right, it’s an incredible piece of work. For myself, hearing The Taste of Rain... Why Kneel? was an important moment. More than that, though, the album inaugurated the trend in the indie-hop scene towards deeply introspective work that concentrates on the speaking individual, a trend of which anticon has remained at the forefront. Hoping to take advantage of his willingness to talk about Deep Puddle, I ask where the name of the group originated. He laughs, but this time not in a way that seems directed at himself.

“Well, we went through a list... I can’t even remember the names we came up with... I think Paper Airplanes was one of them... That one just had a ring to it... It’s kinda pretentious now, but the whole idea was that you can’t tell the depth of a puddle until you immerse yourself in it, or really check it out, or whatever. 'The Taste of Rain... Why kneel?' is a Jack Kerouac line that Dose came up with, he was reading, I think it’s from Dharma Bums, at the time, the night we finally got all the tracks recorded, and he read that line, and we were just like 'yeah, we should call it that.'”

On the subject of Dose-one, the mercurial voice that for so many epitomizes anticon’s willingness to experiment past the point of listenability, I ask how it came to be that Dose was the only guest vocalist on The Other Side of the Looking Glass.

“The reason I had him as the only guest was because I had done Deep Puddle, and I had done So-Called Artists, and I really wanted to establish myself as my own artist. We had just moved out to the Bay, cause my whole album, except for two songs, was recorded in 2000, so it’s kind of an older album... But anyway, he and I had talked about doing songs together, and I came up with that beat and thought that we could go back and forth over it, it was kind of a different beat than I had done in the past, so I just asked him to do it. But I made a conscious effort to only have him on there, because I wanted to prove to people that I could do my own thing.”

That certainly should be something he crosses of his list of things to prove. The album is tremendous, a carefully woven soundscape that supports prose-ish poetry that cuts to the bone. It is an album that many artists would be proud to have as the crown jewel of their career, and it was the first album Alias ever released as a solo artist. Not too much give though. “How,” I ask, “do you feel about the response the album got?”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting it to do as well as it did, sales-wise or acceptance-wise. I’m really happy with it, I put a lot into it, it’s really pretty honest music. Having people come up to me and tell me stories about how different songs affected them in different ways, or helped them get through difficult periods in their lives, it’s kinda weird when people tell you that, but it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. And it has helped me become a full-time musician, without being something that I’m ashamed of.”

Again the self-effacement, as though the best he could hope for would be to not be embarrassed by his own music. Sitting across from him as he fidgets with his coffee cup, I wonder whether Alias could ever make anything other than honest music. In talking about how the album was received, the term “goth-hop” comes up, and we get to discussing the darkness of Looking Glass as a whole.

“Well, I moved out to California, and I was born and raised in Maine, and I was always really close to my family. My dad’s Irish-Catholic, you know, so we have this naturally close family, and they were very supportive of me coming out here to do music. But I came out here in 99, and I was living in that apartment with 9 people. After we lived there, then Sole and my wife and I and DJ Mayonnaise and his girlfriend, we all found this warehouse loft, that was in the same building that the Living Legends had lived in a few years before... But, so we had this loft apartment in East Oakland, off International Blvd., and it wasn’t a very happy neighborhood to be in, you know? I was living there, and burning through temp jobs, because they’d either realize that I wasn’t doing any work, just surfing the net and doing anticon business all day, or they’d offer me a job, and I would say I didn’t want a job because I moved out here to do music... I mean, I think I literally worked eleven or twelve temp jobs in two years. So I wasn’t happy doing that... And you know, the idea of living in a loft is cool, but living in the actual building we lived in, it was always cold in the winter and really really hot in the summer, and there were always flies, and bullet-holes in the windows... Plus I was living with Sole, who, as good a friend as he is to me, is a hard person to live with, for me at least. And, we were doing the So-Called Artists album, and we were all conflicting about that, so pretty much, while I was recording the bulk of the songs for my album, it was right after I had finished recording So-Called Artists. So that was pretty much just the space I was in then, just working shitty jobs that I couldn’t stand, and wanting to record music but being unable to because someone else was in the studio... It was just a really awkward time. That’s why my album was so dark, I was just in a bad space in my life.”

I wrote in my review of Looking Glass that Alias' music is more Gothic in a 19th-century literary sense than just goth. “I always suspected that goth-hop had to be at least partially tongue-in-cheek....”

“[The term goth-hop] is completely tongue-in-cheek. It was a joke between Sole and I, we used to call our music goth-hop ‘cause it was kinda dark. When we did Bottle of Humans, we just kept calling it goth-hop. When we finally had proper distribution for my album, through Revolver, when my bio was written it said ‘the humble godfather of goth-hop,’ and we all laughed at it at first, that they were calling it its own genre of music. But then when I went on tour, every interview I did, they asked me why I called my music goth-hop... So Dose and I decided that when my next album comes out I should declare that goth-hop is dead, I killed it.” He laughs, and I imagine that it’s more at the memory of the conversation with Dose than anything else. “So, it was tongue-it-cheek, but people took it too seriously. I guess I can’t really expect people to know it’s a joke, though, especially when it’s up on our website. There’ll be a new bio written for me soon.”

It’s heartening to see the overly-humble godfather of goth-hop coming out of his shell. But now I'm almost done with my huge latte, and we’re onto the third tape of the interview. Time to wind down: “What’s next?”

“Right now I’m working on an instrumental album that should be out at the beginning of next year, but I’m going to put out an instrumental EP sometime this summer. It’s a lot more electronic sounding than other work I’ve done. I mean, it’s still got organic drums in it, but there’s a lot more programming and editing I’m doing on the computer, chopping up all kinds of things, re-sampling things with the MPC and Dr. Sample... Everyone I’ve played it for has said ‘wow, that’s a lot different than your other stuff,’ but I’m pretty sure that people will feel it, some of the hip hop kids might be kinda weird about it, but it still has a pretty hard edge to it... It’s different, it’s weird, I’m pretty excited about it.”

“And from anticon as a whole?”

“The next thing coming out is Odd Nosdam’s LP, No More Wig for Ohio. After that is the Why? album... I can’t wait to see what people say about that, it’s a great album... When I did my album, I got to break away from everyone and do that album completely on my own, and that’s what I hear in this album. He’s had complete control over everything... The melodies are awesome, it’s all really acoustic, but has samples that come in and out, and the writing is so great... That comes out in either in May or September... Those are the two that are scheduled to come out, and my EP will be out this summer. The other things that are in the works are a pedestrian album, an EP for Mush and a complete album on anticon...

“The elusive pedestrian album is actually going to happen, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s happening, and people aren’t going to know what to do with it. The only stuff he’s had out is from years ago... The new songs that he has, the beats have this really classic hip hop feel to them, like early 1990s, and the rapping that he’s doing also has that sound, his delivery, but his writing is crazy, he’s one of my favorite writers, the stuff he comes up with is amazing. And the Passage album will probably be out by the end of this year. He produced it all himself, and it has this 80s new-wave sound. The themselves remix album is also coming out, with remixes by Notwist (the lead singer from that group is actually doing a track on my instrumental album, he’s singing on it, I’m pretty excited about that), Controller7’s doing one, I’m doing one, The Fog is doing one... That’s coming out this year, I think.”

“Is there anything else you’d want included?”

“Buy the Notwist album when it comes out. Thanks to everyone for enjoying my music if you do, and if you don’t, thanks for not hating me.”

I wonder if there’s anything else I’d want included. Reflecting on the interview after dropping him off at his place, no longer in East Oakland but still far from the upper-crust luxury of Piedmont, I’m not sure that I understand my own reasons for doing it any better than I did before. New windows into both Alias and Brendon Whitney, both sides of one particular looking glass, certainly. But it’s still in the intangibles, which, as they say, don’t make good copy, and I need an endpiece. Running through it all in my mind, there seems to be some common thread: Burroughs, the literati, a new generation, a cafe in California... It hovers near the tip of my tongue, like a nearly-remembered taste, but then spins away, forgotten, and I’m left in solitude, pondering the landscape of the culture, or the never-ending Pacific. I suppose we’re all here for our own reasons.

By Daniel Thomas-Glass

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