"It's Okay to Not Listen to Cookie-Cutter Bullshit": An Interview with Brasstracks

“We’re always gonna keep our ear to the future.”
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Brasstracks know you know them, but that hasn’t changed their approach to music.

The GRAMMY-winning jazz-meets-big-band-meets-hip-hop duo of Ivan Jackson and Conor Rayne is a long descriptor for two friends in their twenties who met in Manhattan and have been having one long jam session ever since. 

The duo, who over the past half decade have worked with Chance The Rapper ("No Problem"), Anderson .Paak ("Am I Wrong"), GoldLink ("Dark Skin Women") and Xavier Omär ("Special Eyes"), among others, places an emphasis on live instrumentation and arrangement while keeping their tunes forward-thinking.

“We’re big fans of nature and people playing instruments is the closest thing to replicate that roundness that you find in nature, but mixing it with modern production so it’s the best of both worlds,” Conor explains to me over the phone, bemoaning how manufactured popular music can sound.

“All that being said, we’re always gonna keep our ear to the future,” Ivan adds. “We have a lot of productions that we’ve made for people with a lot of programmed things. On [Chance The Rapper's] ‘No Problem,’ we attempted to fit full live drums, full live organ, and we ended up having to strip back.” 

With the second installment in Brasstracks’ For Those Who Know EP series set to arrive this summer, it'll be exciting to hear what kind of house Ivan and Conor build for themselves and the artists they’re bringing onto the project. Whatever form the project takes, the sound promises not to be standard. “There’s a lot of cool stuff to be made when you experiment and that is the crux of the Brasstracks project,” Ivan concludes.

DJBooth’s full interview with Ivan and Conor of Brasstracks, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: In 2017, you released For Those Who Know EP. How has the meaning of being "known" changed following your GRAMMY win for “No Problem”?

Ivan: Shucks, that’s an interesting question. Obviously, our music and our brand, and our fanship increased, but at the end of the day, it was more as producers and not as artists. You have to look at the Brasstracks thing as two sides of a coin. We are artists first and foremost, that’s our thing. We didn’t start this knowing we were producers. We just were making music, and then people were saying we should make music for other people like Chance The Rapper, Anderson .Paak, GoldLink, Khalid. All those things were spoken into existence by fans listening to our music and saying, “Oh, this instrumentalist artist could make something cool for this vocalist!”

But when it comes to the artist side of things, that concept of us worrying about being known, we don’t really care… I mean, everybody wants to be known and everybody wants a fanbase. We want our fanbase and our platform to keep growing the way it has been, completely organically and based off nothing but our love for making different kinds of music.

So on the artist side of things, nothing has changed. On the producer side of things, everything has changed. People hit us up now to go into sessions all the time, based off of giving somebody a hit. We have this song coming out with Denzel Curry, and that happened because Denzel hit us up after “No Problem.” Later today, we’re going to hang up the phone, prep some stuff, and go into a session with Mark Ronson, and this is our fourth or fifth session, and that probably wouldn’t have happened had we not made “No Problem.”

Do you ever worry one side will take over the other? Have you found harmony?

Conor: I don’t ever think one or the other will overshadow. I mean, yes, they go back and forth in terms of which one takes up time, but they both inform each other.

Ivan: That’s the biggest thing, that symbiotic relationship between producing for other people and being artists yourselves. We like the position that we’re in. It might seem like we’re running back and forth on a teeter-totter, and it’s this constant balancing act, but I think that if we only did one, we’d always be missing the other side. We’re lucky that way.

In an era where you can create nearly any sound, what is the draw to the classic sound of live instrumentation?

Conor: Because the world needs live instrumentation. I feel like a lot of things sound like they’re coming out of a factory, mass-produced. We’re big fans of nature and people playing instruments is the closest thing to replicate that roundness that you find in nature, but mixing it with modern production so it’s the best of both worlds.

Ivan: Also, this is our artist project, and we’re gonna do whatever the fuck we want, and our favorite thing to do is play instruments. And Conor is the best drummer that I know. Why the hell would we program drums? If we want a programmed drum sound, Conor can play the drums, and technology is in such a place, we can converge every sound Conor plays into MIDI and we can put trap sounds on that, and it would be a live trap sound kit.

If we wanted to, you would not notice any difference between programmed drums a la TM88 and Conor playing a trap beat. But it’s just our creation process. We prefer to create from where we originally came from, which is live instruments.

I spoke with Thelonious Martin last month about the importance of vinyl, and he said that, when he holds vinyl in his hands, something is unlocked creatively. Do you have the same experience with instruments?

Ivan: Yeah, I would agree with that. Shout out Thelonious Martin, by the way, he rocks. I would say so… When we get put into rooms with producers or artists and they’re like, “Oh, we don’t have any instruments for you and there’s no drum sets” we’re like, “Oh, that fucking sucks.” We push for [instruments] for every session because you do not know what you’re missing when you don’t have us doing what we do. What’s a good parallel?

Like if someone told me I could only write on a tablet.

Ivan: That’s exactly it! Yes, you could do it, you could absolutely do it, but, do you want to? Then by not wanting to, are you gonna write a better piece or a worse piece? It’s about making sure everyone’s comfortable while creating, and we’re most comfortable in front of instruments.

Will we always have this love for the real?

Conor: I would hope so.

Ivan: Not to harp on Mark [Ronson], but we were just in the room with him last week and there was no programming. It’s all live instruments with a modern ear for production. Check out “Uptown Funk,” there’s some programmed drums in there, but it’s a drum machine. It’s not Ableton.

All that being said, we’re always gonna keep our ear to the future. We have a lot of productions that we’ve made for people with a lot of programmed things. On “No Problem,” we attempted to fit full live drums, full live organ, and we ended up having to strip back. There are some live drums that we ended up sneaking in there, but for the most part, it's a lot of programmed stuff. The live organ that we recorded? None of that made it, and it’s all… I mean it is me playing organ on that, but it’s MIDI organ, which is a little different. We understand that live instrumentation doesn’t always work, but we’re okay with that.

The whole world, in a way, already knows Brasstracks. Once your new EP drops in June, what else do you hope the world comes to learn about you both and your music?

Ivan: We would like people to know that it is okay to not listen to the same cookie-cutter bullshit that you hear on the radio every day—not that we don’t love that shit—but there’s a lot of cool stuff to be made when you experiment and that is the crux of the Brasstracks project. Bringing in people that make mainstream music, bringing in people that love mainstream music, and shoving this amalgamation of live instrumentation and rap verses and amazing singing and jazz musicians and saying, “You’re going to like this!” That’s what we want them to take away.

Brasstracks will be performing the sunset set (6:30 - 7:45) tomorrow, Friday, April 20, at the Do LaB stage at Coachella.

  

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