Lo-fi pop powerhouse Japanese Breakfast embraced joy at Denver’s Ogden Theatre in October in support of her new album Jubilee. Korean-American multi-instrumentalist Michelle Zauner is the musician and songwriter behind Japanese Breakfast. She dazzled the sold-out venue as she brought us into her world.
Zauner opened the show with my favorite track from the album, “Paprika,” a triumphant song about “reveling in the beauty of music,” she said in the album’s digital liner notes on Apple Music. Moody synths undulated as she sang about waking from a dream, then the audience joined in as horns and snare drums crescendoed into a celebratory chorus: “How’s it feel to be at the center of magic / To linger in tones and words?” the audience sang rhetorically along with Zauner. “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers / To captivate every heart? / Projecting your visions to strangers / Who feel it, who listen to linger on every word?” An apt way to start the concert, we spent the next two hours lingering on her every word.
Japanese Breakfast’s first two albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet, revolve around the grief and trauma of her mother’s death in 2014. With Jubilee, Zauner channels hard-earned joy.
Although this album’s material has a happier tone than her previous work, her distinct sound remains. She continues to pull from a wide range of styles; this album incorporates disco, sax-heavy jazz riffs, guitar-shredding, and sincere odes backed by orchestral strings. Jubilee’s impressive production is difficult to re-create in a live setting, some of its songs have dozens of layers of instrumentation, but her pared-down band didn’t sacrifice any of the album’s sound. Four musicians supported Zauner’s guitar and vocals by rotating through violin, keyboard, synth, drums, saxophone, and bass.
One of the highlights of seeing Zauner’s live shows is getting to see her chemistry with her husband, Peter Bradley, on stage. He has played guitar and bass in support of her music since her debut album in 2016. Their chemistry is enchanting and brings an extra level of candor and passion to her stage presence. Zauner locked eyes with Bradley as she began a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again,” a sweet song about being helplessly in love. Bradley was blushing as he played twangy licks on slide guitar.
Other standout songs were “Savage Good Boy,” featuring an epic final guitar solo; the quiet and twangy small-town ode “Kokomo, IN;” and dark, sensual, and trancey hit “Posing in Bondage.” Although fans were eager to hear her new content, she sprinkled in some of her earlier hits: “Road Head,” full of guitar and voice loops; the dreamy and orchestral “Boyish;” and ended with Soft Sounds’ opener “Diving Woman,” a spiraling, pulsating, and epic grunge tune that lent itself to a few raucous solos from Zauner.
Not only is she an incredible guitarist, but a truly gifted writer. She garnered impressive acclaim this year for her memoir, Crying in H Mart, which reached #2 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list upon its release this past April. Long-time fans of her lyrics shouldn’t be surprised that more mainstream audiences were quick to embrace her prose. She has a unique ability to articulate poignant romantic arcs, the emptiness of loneliness and self-doubt, and how it feels to depend on someone else too much without slipping into clichés.
If you ever have the opportunity to see Japanese Breakfast, seize it. Her energy and enthusiasm will keep you smiling for an hour straight. Her talent, confidence, and exuberance create a palpable kind of magic, and I count myself lucky to have been spellbound for two blissful hours.
Jonah Mutono is a multi-talented recording artist who released one of the best, and one of the most underrated, albums of 2020: GERG. This album is a story of accepting identity – it tells Jonah’s story. Born into a religious Ugandan family, Jonah struggled to accept his identity and come out as a queer man. This album describes just that. GERG, as he explained to me, was the secret name he saved his now ex-boyfriend as on his phone. This was done in an effort to cover up the fact that he was dating a man. If he ever got a heart emoji text from someone named GERG, his religious friends and family wouldn’t suspect him of dating a man, it could be anyone. This story is just the tip of the GERG iceberg. As you listen to this album, you’ll begin to learn more about Jonah as a person, whether it’s over intricate, catchy production on songs like “If You Mean It” and “Circulation” or on songs like “Spare” and “Smith Johnson Williams Brown”, where his voice dominates the simpler, but no less captivating production. I sat down with Jonah for an interview about his previous work, but also his future projects and next steps. He’s currently on tour with Kacy Hill and is working on a new project set to release sometime next year.
It’s been over a year since you released GERG. What are your thoughts on the album now? Do you think it’s aged well?
Yeah. I haven’t actually listened to a lot of it since I put it out since it’s a pretty accurate time capsule of my life for the four years it took to make. That’s not to say I was working on it every day, I was traveling a lot. I was in between continents and so in between I would sort of work on these songs. Lyrically speaking, I think it has. I think that people still feel the same way. People still feel isolated or out of place and so that’s why people are still discovering and realizing the album over time. I think to myself “we’ll see if people keep listening to it”. I don’t know if it’s my place to say if it’s aged well sonically. It sounds like the time it was put out and that’s for the best.
Who were your biggest inspirations and influences when you were working on the album (both musically and personally)?
I would always say Sufjan Stevens. I don’t think anyone can hear any Sufjan Stevens in my music but I really fucking love him. Everything he does he seems to have a great process. He puts out so much music. I think a lot of artists hold music back but he’s 12 albums in and I’m very very jealous. I love the brushes that he paints with.
On a personal level, I’d say my brother. My brother worked on 3-4 of the songs on the album and he’s an amazing producer. Anything he produces blows my mind. I’ve stolen and been inspired a lot from him as well.
Being emotionally vulnerable on songs like “Spare” and “Smith Johnson Williams Brown” must not be easy due to the fact that strangers are going to be listening to them. What did you do to get into a space where you can be emotionally vulnerable on a song? What advice would you give other artists that want to do this but are hesitant?
That’s interesting you say that. I try not to write with people in mind like that – that people are gonna be listening to it – I try to write for myself. I’ll probably be writing songs till the day I die, and maybe they won’t be released, but I do so to process information and process emotions. As long as you’re telling the truth, whether that sounds emotionally vulnerable to people or not, I think that’s all you can do. My advice would be to tell the truth and don’t skimp on the messy parts.
The transitions between each song on GERG feel natural despite stark differences musically. How did you choose the order of the songs? What did you do to make sure the transition between each song made sense despite the moods of the songs being different (e.g. Circulation -> Spare). Well, I actually did that mathematically. There’s a thing you can look up that’s really fascinating about how some of the biggest albums’ tempos do the same thing. They start at a certain point, they come down and then they peak again but at a place lower than the first peak. You’ll find it in albums like Random Access Memories, Innervisions, Channel Orange. Because I could hear the style discrepancies between songs, I just broke it down by tempo and mood. It’s almost like a film – you have acts 1, 2, and 3 – and it climaxes at a certain point and you always know when it’s gonna happen. When you start listening to a lot of the great albums, they all do exactly the same thing. It was a mathematical equation really and it worked out for the best. There was a point where I wasn’t sure if “Spare” was gonna go after “Circulation
Has this album found success in the LGBTQ community? Has it inspired certain members living in hostile environments to embrace their identity?
I don’t really know. I’m not sure what the metric of success is. I’ve received some really beautiful letters from people in places all over the world who are queer and who have really been suffering. They thanked me for telling the truth about my situation. I had a fan even tattoo some of my lyrics on his shoulder which was crazy. The fact that it touched anyone is a success in my eyes. I saw it as successful because it came out in the first place. The fact that anyone listening to it at all has been fantastic and the fact that, for a few people, it’s gone that extra step and helped them through a time in their life in any way is really important and cool. I’m so glad that I was able to be a part of that. It’s important that I get to tell my story as it is and exactly as I want to tell it instead of having to be an activist at all times or to feel like someone who has to be up on a pedestal. There are so many important voices along with mine. I think that as long as we stay together and we stay visible, we’re doing our jobs.
What are your plans for your next project? How is it going to differ from your previous album?
It sounds a lot different. I moved to LA recently. I feel like it’s a very Los Angeles record. There are a lot of guitars and a lot more natural sounds. We’re actually recording string sections. Sonically probably a lot more cohesive. I really like the songs so far. I feel like I’m seeking natural instruments to offset the artificiality of my new environment. I still feel very new here because most of my time here has been during the pandemic. We’re maybe 75% of the way through it. I want something to come out next year – whether that be a whole album, an EP, or a short film with some songs in it. Something to sort of show what my life looks like now. It will happen, next year maybe, spring/summer there will be something new
In the process of making an album, how many times do you need to re-record a song?
At worst I’ll record something three times and at best I’ll record something in 30 minutes. I “Smith Johnson Williams Brown” recorded in 30 minutes and never did anything to it. I re-recorded shoulders for a year because there’s 10 harmonies in every chorus and the bridge part has 20 different vocals at once and I kept having to re-record those vocals. It took a long time. When you listen to the finished thing it doesn’t sound like the case but I feel like maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe everything should sound easy but be difficult to make.
Who are your favorite artists currently? Who do you hope to collaborate with in the future?
Definitely Sufjan Stevens. I keep meeting people who know him and I’m like “hook me up”. I would totally work with him if we was down. I’ve been listening to Little Dragon a lot. I’ve been going over their album The Puma Rubber Band. It has this song “Clap Clap” on it which is incredible and the album as a whole is fantastic. Little Dragon is really cool and I’d love to work with them. I’ve been listening to this artist Yullola. She only has a couple of songs out and they’re very “vibey”, for lack of a better word. I’d love to work with her. I’d love to do something with Wet, I really like the music they put out. The music they put out recently is so good. I’m liking Lil Nas X for what it’s worth. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work with him – we live in completely different universes. I did a lot of my first EP with Take a Day Trip who’s now doing all of Lil Nas X’s music. Now they’re out in the big time and I’m very proud. I love what they’re doing with Lil Nas X.
How did you get to know Kacy Hill? Are you planning on working with her in the future? What do you hope to gain from this tour?
I actually met her for the first time 6 years ago. We have very similar collaborators. We’re in the same little community of musicians. Many times I’ve seen her with our mutual friend Max, maybe Max is the one who introduced me in the first place. She’s fantastic. I love her and I love her new album. During the pandemic, we sent some things back and forth but nothing came to fruition or materialized. At some point it will though, mark my words. It’s been such a hellish two years and just being able to perform is great. The last show I did was at the end of February  and I want to do a lot more shows next year headlined by myself. I need to get my sea legs backs in terms of performing because I wouldn’t call myself a big performer. I think I’m really exposed and vulnerable singing in front of a crowd. There are those people at the party with the guitar but that’s not me. My dad used to have to force me to play piano for people and I had a lot of stage fright. It’ll be nice to have a friend around and Kacy’s fans are so chill that I think It’ll be a good experience. Getting out there and performing in front of people is what this tour will be good for.
The Front Bottoms’ performance at Mission Ballroom last Monday was a reminder that punk rock and roll is not dead. The genre is alive and well alright. It may not look the same as the days in which The Clash and The Ramones reigned supreme, nor does it sound like Metallica, or even Green Day. Nevertheless, fans of noise first and foremost ought not despair.
The Front Bottoms are not a new band. Guitarist Brain Sella and childhood buddy Mathew Uychich began to write music together in 2007, adding Uychich’s brother Brian to complete the original lineup. Sella and Mathew Uychich still form the heart of the New Jersey band, but on Thursday, the founding duo were complemented by Erik Kase Romero and Natalie Newbold. The next hour and a half quickly morphed into 90 minutes of exhilaration, energy, experimentation, happiness, and noise. The concert was easily the best I’d attended live in recent memory. While this distinction doesn’t really carry significant weight considering that I grew up in rural Middlebury, VT and spent my first year of college living through a pandemic, I have a feeling that it will take a while for another show to match this celebration of sound.
“You Used to Say (Holy Fuck)” set the tone for the concert, with a strong drumset backing a series of playful guitar riffs and a set of conversational based lyrics that embody any good Front Bottoms song. “West Virginia” brought hard hitting head bangs, “Jerk” crowd surfing and a sense of vulnerability through Sella’s words. Then we were into the classics. “Twin Size Mattress.” “Montgomery Forever.” “Peach.” The songs that stole my heart- each one building the excitement, the energy, and the joy on the faces of those that populated the crowd.
It’s the randomness, the human in the lyrics. I remember sitting in my room at boarding school, trying to write an English essay when Sella’s voice first reached my ears from my roommate’s Iphone 8 speaker. I was struck by the abstract, the volatility, the repetition. Lyrics like “this is for the lions living in the wiry frames of my friends bodies,” “I avoid using traditional techniques,” and “it’s snowing right now I wish it was summer” all define The Front Bottoms. They might seem pointless, unimportant, childish even. But it’s exactly this approach that makes the band relatable. It’s what makes the band identifiable. It makes them relevant. As a 21 year old kid, I don’t necessarily need wisdom in my music, nor do I desire it. No. I want friends. I want to feel someone else speaking about a sense of chaos and uncertainty. Who else gets the occasional feeling that they just need to voice their aimless and spontaneous thoughts?
“Au Revoir (Adios)” closed the show. Fitting right? One of my best childhood friends used to hate when I played that song for him. “There’s no point,” he’d exclaim. “The entire song has like 3 distinct lyrics!” I always thought he was missing the point. “That’s not what The Front Bottoms are about,” I’d tell him. I wouldn’t say I listen to The Front Bottoms to learn how to live my life for the next 10 years. No. If I wanted that, I’d turn to those podcasts from Yale professors that my mother loves to forward my way. Maybe I just want to laugh, to bounce up and down for an hour and a half, and most importantly, to listen to noise. And I think there’s some value in that too.
Adele released her previous album, 25, on November 20, 2015. After that, she disappeared from the spotlight, leaving listeners unsure when she would make music again. six years later, almost to the day, Adele’s new album, 30, will be released on November 19, 2021. However, she released a sneak peek for her viewers; her new single “Easy On Me” dropped on October 15. Let’s take a deeper dive into the lyrics and hopes for the new album!
When Adele was asked on Instagram live what her new album is about, she famously responded “divorce, babe, divorce” in her lovely British accent. But what is “Easy on Me” about? It is about the baggage that Adele has in her previous relationship, which happened when she was “still a child”, and to be gentle when letting her in.
Musically, this song was modeled after water. In the visuals of her music video, she is seen making waves with her arm outside of the car window to the song’s first line, “there ain’t no gold in this river.“ She also refers to herself as drowning in prior baggage. This metaphor is also shown vocally through runs, aka words that consist of several notes, that seem like waves. These runs are modified constantly throughout the song which shows that baggage is fluid and strong but it can also be beautiful.
I am looking forward to hearing the process of Adele‘s divorce in the upcoming album and possibly some more tributes to her son. Adele‘s infectious talent and personality shine through in her press interviews and in her music. 30 will be the best and most uniquely “Adele” album yet!
Grouper’s new LP, Shade, is a collage of her unique sonic styles, where every song falls into its place with gentle sincerity. This variation makes sense, as Shade was recorded over a fifteen year span from Mount Tamalpais in northern California to the oceanside town of Astoria, Oregon. Grouper’s Shade can be a peaceful helping hand to those in need of an intimate conversation.
Discovering Liz Harris’ versatility as the mind behind Grouper a month ago was an introduction to many new paths, all ethereal and romantic. One night I plugged in my earphones and turned on Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill, her third album, to drown out the sound of the infinitely spinning fan in my dorm that had been blowing since summer. At first I heard the familiar atmospheric melancholy of Mazzy Star and the nature-inspired drones of Phil Elverum. I would realize how special Grouper’s sound was as I drifted off. Her dark-purple whispers and hums were not only sublime, but Liz Harris’ holds enough subdued power to transport her listener to any environment she pleases.
Fifteen years into her career, it is fair to say that Harris is a master of creating atmosphere. On Shade, she first takes the listener out of reality with the disengaging track, “Followed the Ocean.” Similar in feel, “Disordered Minds,” holds reverb-soaked, ambient songs that follow much of Harris’ earlier work, acting as palette-cleansers to remind us of the altered plane of existence we will drift through for the duration of the album.
In the past, Grouper often sedated the listener with piano ballads on albums like Ruins. On Shade, she uses slow guitars, sometimes to hypnotize us into a world more peaceful than our own. The slow folky guitar on “Ode to the blue” and “Promise” do not create a sense of eeriness, instead one of curiosity and comfort. Like a child seeing the beauty in emotional connection for the first time, Grouper sings “you have the prettiest eyes… and I promise to take good care,” in the most simple, lovely way possible. The lyrics and instrumentals are stripped back, resulting in an intimacy and connection, as if we are in the room with Harris.
In the soft melodies of songs like “Pale Interior,” a highlight of Shade, connections between Liz Harris and her listener have never been stronger. We hear her conversations at the end of the songs and the somber slides of her chord changes. On “The way her hair falls,” Grouper is at her most human, she makes mistakes and restarts verses, but this vulnerability only brings us closer to her. It takes a lot for me to compare anyone to Elliott Smith, but the intimacy Grouper created on these songs mirrors Smith’s whispery vocal link between himself and his listeners on albums like Either/Or.
Grouper created an experience similar to rising and falling tides, where we drift further away during her dissociated songs and drift back during the folk ballads. Although we’ve been comfortable through this whole journey, “Kelso (Blue Sky)” is the final and most accessible song on the album; Grouper brings us back to land here, we can hear the faint hoots of owls. The listener has to allow themselves to feel rather than think while listening to Shade; this works as Grouper knows how to guide us into letting go of reality. Shade is a mosaic of Harris’ styles over the last decade and a half, and she could not have made each song fit with more ease and comfort. This album does not build a haunted environment or grand transcendental experience like some of her previous work, but it does allow the listener to drift away into a quiet state of peace for just a bit.
Two raccoons huddle together for warmth on top of the gigantic red sandstone slabs that surround the venue, our source of entertainment for the 45-minute wait into the amphitheater. Hunter’s moon, the full moon following a Harvest moon that signaled preparation for winter, begins to rise over the hills up into the clear sky- setting the scene for the cold night ahead. Having suffered the mistake of not bringing a coat to the last October concert at Red Rocks, I am bundled and excited for the four-hour performance Dead and Company has in store for us.
This past summer, my friend Natalie and I took a trip down to Bristow, Virginia- the closest location that Dead and Company was traveling to on their 2021 tour- our first Dead & Co. concert. We brought heavy rain gear after checking the weather that forecasted 90% precipitation, but were pleasantly surprised when the skies cleared up towards the end of our drive and raised our spirits. Jiffy Lube Live is an outdoor amphitheater shaped like a wide bowl, with the stage positioned in the basin. Natalie and I were essentially at the rim of the bowl laying in the dewy grass, but we didn’t mind- because right when we entered the bowl, Dead and Company stepped on stage and immediately started playing “Cold Rain and Snow,” that reminded me that we were, in fact, not in the cold rain. The songs were lively and felt emblematic of completion, not only with summer coming to an end in less than a week but also with the looping thoughts of stress and anxiety that were with me until the concert. Bob Weir, one of the lead singers of Dead and Company, shared messages of letting go in some of his songs, with personal favorites such as “Bird Song,” “He’s Gone,” and ending with “Black Muddy River” that speak about the unexpected joys of going on a path alone, and leaving someone or something with grace. “Black Muddy River” in particular struck a chord with me, as Bob Weir opened with the verse “When the last rose of summer pricks my finger/ And the hot sun chills me to the bone/ When I can’t hear the song for the singer/ And I can’t tell my pillow from a stone/I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And sing me a song of my own;” an obvious parallel to the inevitable end of summer and departure back to Colorado- but also reminding me that spending time alone at school is not a bad thing and can lead to necessary reflection. Many of their songs were less introspective as well, and prompted the multicolored sea of Deadheads to kick their shoes off and break out into unrestrained dance- myself and Natalie included. After the two sets and encore song, the sun had long been set and we made our way back to the car. The Dead and Company concert in Bristow was so unique in that the setlist felt rooted in space and time so that the audience would appreciate the deeper messages of the music, beckoning me to come back and learn more.
Two months later, Natalie flew halfway across the country and accompanied me to our second Dead and Company concert of the tour. We weaved through the enlarged steps to join the rest of my housemates in the middle of the crowd at Red Rocks. The band entered the stage, just in time for all of us to start dancing to “Bertha” together. Bob Weir, wearing what I think is the same white cowboy hat from Bristow, was looking as Western as ever, singing “Bertha don’t you come around here anymore” in the opening song. Despite the rugged western motifs that occupy the landscape of Dead and Company songs, so many of them serve as allegories for the band’s values. During the song “Hell in a Bucket,” I turned to my friends and said “Is it just me or does they sing a lot about roads?” And looking back at the songs chosen by the band, I still stand by my original statement- although, most of the time the road is a metaphor for the paths of life. Whether it be by train, car, or foot, Dead and Company encourages listeners to choose the path that leads to love- sounds very corny, but I totally buy it. The band played about a 10-minute version of “Bird Song” again, but this time with the musical motifs more subtly weaved into a trance-like jam. “He’s Gone” was also played at the Red Rocks show- when Bob Weir sang the line “Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile” while tracing his hands to mimic a smile, the audience mirrored it back to him, staying in-tune with the cues from the band throughout the set.
Deadheads are certainly an interesting group of people. In the corner of the audience on the patch of foliage near the stairway, artist Scramble Campbell painted a canvas in monochromatic blues to the sound of the band. Near the end of the concert, he raised his finished work and the crowd cheered enthusiastically, the large screens on both sides of the stage zooming in on his painting. After the second set, similar to the Jiffy Lube Live intermission, the two drummers created a percussive wave resembling either a fever dream or indigenous adjacent (might I say slightly appropriative?) music lasting about ten minutes. Some people sat with their eyes closed, while others were swaying and wildly flailing their extremities. Mickey Hart played the legendary Beam, a large metal string instrument he invented for his percussive intermission, creating a haunting sound that I have never heard before. The second set of the night fit the ambient atmosphere of Red Rocks, with many trance-like guitar improvisations and echoing vocals. John Mayer, bundled up in a black jacket and hair pushed back haphazardly from his headphones, carried many of those guitar solos that night- I am continually impressed and surprised how well his musical style compliments that of the original Grateful Dead members. The show ended on a lighthearted note with “Ripple” that brought my friends and I close into a huddle.
The biggest lesson Dead and Company has taught me from the two concerts: wherever you are, and whoever you are with (or without), “enjoy the ride.”
Scramble Campbell’s painting from the night can be found here
Snail Mail is easily one of my favorite bands, and what I have loved so much about them is their simplicity. On Habit and Lush (Snail Mail’s debut EP and album, respectively), the group perfected their crisp, yet jangly, garage rock sound. It’s what got me into them: crunchy loud guitar (usually in some open tuning), clean bass and drums to back it up, and Jordan’s piercing and personal lyrics. Their new track, Benjamin Franklin, however, is a complete departure from their trademark sound. The song starts with bouncy drums and a poppy baseline, and we don’t even hear Jordan’s guitar until two minutes in. For the first time in a Snail Mail track, synths take the place of lead guitar to create the melody. There’s something distinctively different about Jordan’s vocals too, as she employs a lower, more breathy and raspy sound. I really like the new sound, but I think it’s for the betterment of her vocal health. If you watch her live shows just before covid, Jordan’s voice seems depleted – it seems like her past vocal style just wasn’t sustainable.
When I first heard this track, I was a little confused. It wasn’t what I expected, but as I listen to it more the song is growing on me. I miss their old sound, but I feel like this is a necessary change for them. Snail Mail had gone three years without releasing new music, and I always worried that if they made a third album without changing their sound that it would stifle their progression. I think its stupid to expect an artist to never push their own norms – and its clear that Snail Mail has had plenty of personal growth these past three years. Lindsey Jordan admits on this song (and later in an interview) that she checked herself into rehab in 2020 and Ray Brown, the drummer, started doing more solo work. Snail Mail’s new sound is indicative of the necessary maturation the group went through over the last three years.
Check out Benjamin Franklin. See what you think. Don’t let me tell you what to do! Snail Mail’s album, Valentine, will be out November 5th on Matador Records
Every so often, an artist or group of artists will emerge and immediately cause an impact, becoming widely acknowledged by the public as influential. While certain artists have been fully credited for their music and influence, as they should be, many artists haven’t received the full recognition they should get. This series is meant to highlight artists that haven’t been fully credited for their experimentation, artistic capabilities, and influence on music.
Xavier Wulf is by far one of my favorite artists of the past decade. The Memphis born, LA based rapper is one of the pioneers (along with Bones, Chris Travis, and Black Smurf) of the dark, underground Memphis rap scene that created the “trap-metal” subgenre of hip hop. Some of the most notable current mainstream artists include $uicideboy$, City Morgue, 6ix9ine (in sound, not persona), and XXXTentacion. This sub-genre utilizes loud, often vulgar, and in-your-face lyrics, dark trap production, and reckless personas that aren’t focused on money and fame like many mainstream trap artists. In its birth in the early 2010s, trap-metal was highlighted by its rejection of the mainstream and its embrace of skate and BMX culture. While many of these artists have changed and conformed to current trap standards, Xavier Wulf has always been the self-proclaimed king of the underground, which we hear in “Request Refused”, where he states, “I’m an underground king and I ain’t gonna drop the belt”, and that’s why he has such a loyal fan base.
Biography and Early Career
Xavier Wulf, whose real name is Xavier Beard, was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1992. He started rapping in his late teens around 2011, originally going by the name Ethelwulf as a part of the rap group RaiderKlan, which included rappers such as Spaceghostpurrp and Denzel Curry. He released his debut mixtape The Wolf Gang’s Rodolphe in March of 2012, before leaving RaiderKlan to pursue a solo career. RaiderKlan’s importance can’t be understated as they were one of the first rap groups to exclusively release music through free streaming services, being cited as early pioneers of the 2016 Soundcloud movement. Wulf’s early work was heavily inspired by Memphis legends Three-Six Mafia with absurdly violent lyrics and rudimentary production (listen to “Who the F**k is You” and “Help Yo Self” for early examples of Wulf’s solo work). It wasn’t until the release of Blood Shore Season 1 in 2014 that Wulf started to develop the sound that he’s so well known for. His breakthrough mixtape Blood Shore Season 2, released the same year as the first mixtape in the series included “Psycho Pass”, which blew up on the now non-existent social media app, Vine. This is how I was introduced to his work.
How I Discovered Him
When I discovered Xavier Wulf, I was a moody 7th grader in late 2015, the era of hoverboards, Fetty Wap, and Vine. I was coming off a three year long Eminem phase and I was searching for rappers who broke the lyricism mold that I had become so accustomed to. When I first heard “Psycho Pass”, I only heard seven seconds of the song, which was only the beat drop, but I was immediately hooked. The song’s repetitive, submarine-radar-like beeping accompanied by the rapid 808s and slow bass, which are all introduced separately, counter Wulf’s pugnacious voice and lyrics. His lyrics in this song are simple and almost as aggressive as his delivery, with the topics consisting of infidelity, smoking weed, ridding himself of his opponents by any means necessary, and burning incense for some reason. One of the best parts of the song is when Wulf says, “I’m standing on a boat finna set the damn sail/I burn incense because my brain likes the smell/She get a whiff and thought that it was a spell/I ain’t say, ‘Come,’ but she at the hotel” which he spits right before the aggressive beat drop where the production finally matches his energy. I continued to listen to the rest of Blood Shore Season 2, which is widely considered as his best project by critics and fans alike. Following the success of the mixtape, he continued to drop similar two Tundra Boy Season projects and Project X, which includes the song “Akina Speed Star”, another breakthrough song for Wulf which includes an intro sampled from the anime Initial D.
Another aspect that sets Wulf apart from many rappers of the genre is his love of anime. In many of his songs, including “Akina Speed Star”, he references anime characters and settings. In “Tis the Season” he states, “Princess Mononoke chiefing chee out with Chiyoko”, Princess Mononoke is a reference to the 1997 anime Princess Mononoke from anime legend Hayao Miyazaki and Chiyoko is from the 1998 anime Akira, which is also referenced in the title “Akira Speed Star”. On “Tokyo Drift”, he remixes the Japanese hip hop group, Teriyaki Boyz iconic song “テリヤキ・ボーイズ TOKYO DRIFT (FAST & FURIOUS)”. These days, the fusion of hip hop and anime is common in the industry as Rappers have adopted the Japanese art style to design album covers, merch, music videos, and public persona. Rapper Lil Uzi Vert’s Instagram bio makes the controversial claim that he’s “Asian on the inside”. In 2018, Kanye West claimed that Akira “is not only the greatest animation achievement in history, the subject matter is so relevant to the current state of the world” on Twitter. Some fans even claimed that his outfit at the first Donda listening event was inspired by the film. What Xavier Wulf does differently from these artists is how he is (relatively) subtle about his passion for Japanese culture. He doesn’t have wrapped cars like Uzi and doesn’t go on rants about anime on Twitter like Kanye, but instead makes references to characters in his music and collaborates with Japanese artists (listen to “Riding Shotgun in Japan”, Xavier Wulf’s collaboration with Japanese rapper KOHH). His merchandise doesn’t contain anime characters and most of his album covers lack any reference to his love for anime. I appreciate this because I think that the way Lil Uzi uses anime is borderline cultural appropriation, a theme that I’ve noticed is emerging in hip hop.
Fashion and Public Persona
Another aspect that makes him stand out from other rappers is his taste in fashion. Wulf and his collaborators often choose dark clothing and baggy hoodies over designer pieces and overwhelming chains. While Wulf’s main focus is hip hop, he also collaborates with many independent clothing designers and owns his own brand, Hollowsquad. His concerts are as loud and aggressive as his music, reminiscent of underground punk-rock concerts with mosh pits, stage diving, and injuries being a common theme at most of them. His ability to create this kind of energy without assistance from technology is astounding, with reporter Boom from The Knockturnal declaring, “his energy is felt like an atomic bomb with the wave of excitement that passed through the crowd the entire show. No major light show, no pyrotechnics, or star-studded surprises”. Wulf is also known for his passion for refurbished cars, with his BMW E46 m3 making several appearances at his car meet ups around southern California. He recently refurbished another BMW m3 and seems to be working on another BMW. Before becoming a passionate gearhead, Wulf was a BMX enthusiast, however, his keenness for the sport has faded away in the past few years.
Collaborators and Next Steps
Wulf isn’t known for collaborating with bigger rappers, with his most mainstream collaborations being a 2016 feature on Lil Peep’s “drive by” and a 2017 feature on “F**k a Swisher” by Smokepurpp. Wulf’s main collaborators include Bones, Eddy Baker, idontknowjeffery, and, until recently, Chris Travis. What all these rappers have in common is that they hail from East Memphis and blew up around the same time, which is probably why Wulf chooses to collaborate with them instead of branching out. He’s released two mixtapes with Bones, a mixtape with idontknowjeffery, and countless features including the same array of East Memphis rappers. What’s next for Wulf is up in the air as the last project he released, Rude Dog, wasn’t received well by fans. This was due to the fact that he swapped his iconic, aggressive delivery for a lazier flow with mundane lyrics over mediocre production. Since then he’s only dropped a few singles and hinted at Blood Shore Season 3 but hasn’t followed up on the project since. Xavier Wulf’s been in the game for about 10 years and has been dropping projects relatively consistently since he began, so I don’t blame him for wanting to take a break if that’s his plan. If the next project is the third installment in the Blood Shore series, I’m excited to see whether or not he ditches this new flow for his classic delivery. Regardless of this, Xavier Wulf’s impact on hip hop won’t be forgotten. As the genre continues to evolve, his influence will adapt with it and always allow for an alternative sub-genre that one can look for when seeking a harder, darker sound than what mainstream trap can provide.
Blood Shore Season 2
Tundra Boy Season 2
East Memphis Maniac
Video of Xavier Wulf performing his 2015 song “Fort Woe”:
As we walked down the stairs to meet our Uber, I remembered to ask everyone if they had their vaccine card. Being on campus, it’s not something we all thought to carry around, but in the era of mid/post-pandemic live music, most venues are requiring proof of vaccination- including The Black Sheep. As we waited in line to enter the venue and had our IDs and vaccine cards checked, I scanned the crowd and it seemed like flipturn and Haiva Ru was drawing in an eclectic crowd.
By the time the Haiva Ru came on stage, the venue was only about three rows full, but the excitement and energy from the crowd could be felt nonetheless. Having only listened to about three of Haiva Ru’s songs beforehand, I didn’t have many expectations. But right off the bat, the difference between her live sound and studio sound was apparent. She sounds much pop-ier in her discography which includes her album released in 2021, Bloom Baby Bloom, but on stage her performance leaned more towards the gritty Nashville roots of her music.
Haiva Ru’s lead guitarist, Noah Rubin, killed it – playing everything from dreamy, synth-like progressions to gnarlier licks. Strangely, I don’t think he made a single facial expression, and the most movement we saw was a slight head bop. Devon Vonbalson, stolen from flipturn, backed them up with high-energy pop-punk drums. The band was very much supporting lead singer Allie Merrill, which she made clear when she introduced them as her band.
Haiva Ru played both the electric and acoustic guitar slowing her set down in the middle to play “Wildflowers”, an emotional song about the loss of her sister and the destructive wildfires that plagued her hometown Santa Barbara. She ended her set with “Work It On Out,” which she was proud to mention was just used in an Abercrombie and Fitch commercial, which was very fitting given the track’s poppy sound. Also worth noting that Allie makes Christian pop music under the name Allie Page. Do with that what you will.
Flipturn took the stage and immediately their dynamic and carefree chemistry was illuminated. They’ve been together since 2015 when they formed as a high school band in their small town of Fernandina Beach, Florida and you can see the closeness and communication they’ve been able to create in the way they bounce around together on stage. The lead singer, Dillon, and lead guitarist, Tristan Duncan, begin almost every song face-to-face staring each other in the eyes. Then they burst into dancing and headbanging, bringing the energy in the venue even higher. Looking around, a good chunk of the crowd knew the words to every song, which is a testament to their growing fan base.
Despite their high energy stage presence, they hinted that the tour had begun to wear them out. When Dillon introduced the band they included the rubber chicken that they had bought and brought with them to each show. In a moment of honesty and slight desperation, Dillon explained that to break away from the monotony of touring they started an Instagram account for the rubber chicken. Upon request from the band themselves, here is a link to follow along on Jalapeno the tour chicken’s journey, and peek into the slight delirium that touring can cause.
Flipturn played two unreleased singles from their soon-to-be-released first full-length studio album, “Playground” and “Space Cowboy.” “Playground” kept with their feel-good indie rock vibe, but “Space Cowboy” gave a peek into the evolution of their sound that I’m hoping to see in their upcoming release. The track still had lively guitar riffs but it slowed down into something reminiscent of dream-pop, a step in a new direction for flipturn.
The encore was the most fun part of the night as the band and the audience used up the last of their weekend energy to chant the lyrics to Chicago, shouting the loudest during the line “I get high in Colorado.” Dillon came off the stage to mosh with the crowd and it became clear that the band would have the same energy no matter what size venue they play. They are all doing what they love and putting on a great show while they do it.
While waiting for flipturn to set up, I was able to snag the very last tour shirt and after the show, I talked to the band and had them sign it. They kept their carefree attitude off the stage and were all clearly excited to interact with their fans. If you ever get a chance to see flipturn live don’t pass it up, but for now you can check out their Live at Sugarshack Sessions EP to feel the aura of a live performance.
It’s August 7th of this year, and I’m standing in a crowd with some of my closest friends, unconsciously swaying while the sounds of dobro, banjo, and mandolin wash over me. I close my eyes, but behind my eyelids I can still make out the soft blue lights from the stage. I’m at Salmonfest, a music festival in my home state of Alaska, and Greensky Bluegrass is rocking my world for the first time.
Cut to September 17th, just over a month after my first exposure to the group, and I’m on my way to see the band again, but this time for my very first concert at Red Rocks Ampitheatre and with four brand new friends. I’d never been to Red Rocks before that night. I’d seen photos, heard stories, even listened to and watched recordings of live shows there. But I knew none of that would come close to attending a concert there in person, and I was beyond excited for the opportunity.
Walking into the venue, what was immediately striking was the energy. Everyone was excited to be there, and the feeling was totally infectious. I spotted several folks wearing Grateful Dead apparel, and while I’ve never actually been to a Dead show, I imagine the vibe would be quite similar—smiling and laughing folks everywhere you looked.
Opening for the show that night was Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, and they were already playing as we made our way through the crowd, listening to Nelson crooning to the bustling masses that were settling into the stands. Nelson’s voice is both piercing and soothing—while playing “Just Outside of Austin,” his voice rolled over the crowds and seemed to emanate from around the sandstone lining the venue, singing affectionately of his family’s ranch in Luck, Texas. When the band played their most popular tune, “Find Yourself,” absolutely every member of the crowd was singing along, and my friends and I were no different.
When Greensky Bluegrass came on, the sun had completely set, and the only light around came from the stage and from the Denver city lights that were the backdrop of the event. The setting for the show was completely psychedelic. The stage flashed green, blue, and purple, and the band appeared as colorful silhouettes until a spotlight shone on whoever was blowing minds with a solo. I couldn’t help but feel as if this was the kind of show Red Rocks was made for—driving, lively bluegrass music and a strikingly beautiful venue amplified each other effortlessly.
Throughout the whole show, dancing was simply required. Slower song, faster song, absolutely blazing song, it didn’t matter. Whatever they were playing, all the music made you want to do was move. Even the event staff couldn’t help themselves from dancing with the crowd. With such a rocking, roll the windows down and feel the wind in your hair kind of feeling in so many of their songs, I had to keep reminding myself I was listening to a bluegrass band. Standout songs included “What You Need,” a loping tune with some fantastic solos from dobro player Anders Beck and mandolin player Paul Hoffman, and the group’s rendition of “Atlantic City,” a timeless classic made new with a bluegrass twist.
My favorite tune of the show came right at the end of the night—the band came out for an encore and played a brand-new song from Hoffman called “Grow Together.” Energetic and vibrant, it was a perfect song to end the night and send the crowd on their way home.
My first time at Red Rocks Ampitheatre (now my favorite venue I’ve been to), my first time seeing Lukas Nelson, and my second time seeing Greensky Bluegrass—a night I won’t forget any time soon.
Greensky Bluegrass’s new album, “Stress Dreams,” is available starting 1/21/2022.