Brasstracks want to know if you can tell they’re having fun. On stage at Johnny Brenda’s in Philly, electric as ever, the duo can’t help but ask the crowd time after time if they can feel the joy resonate from the horns and drums. Comprised of GRAMMY-winning musicians Ivan Jackson and Conor Rayne, the duo is absolutely radiant and elastic on the stage, working the intimate venue into a boisterous dance hall. For those keep score at home, Brasstracks are having fun. Fun, after countless inorganic recording sessions with star artists and chasing the wrong path in music, has become their secret sauce.
“We would wind up going into a room and playing 50 beats in a row,” Jackson recalls. “[Sighs]. You like this one? You like that one? It was never really natural, so we stopped fucking with that… I think we wasted a lot of time chasing some shit that just wasn’t fun for us. The minute we got back to the fun of it, things started moving.” Jackson shifts on the green room couch and thinks back on his and Rayne’s time in studios chasing what they once thought to be the staple Brasstracks career path: big hits and big names.
It was a frustrating ordeal and a not too fulfilling one. But when they got back to the simple pleasure of making music, the names, big or small, ceased to matter. Everything of importance became a byproduct of energy. “We just decided to move in another direction that just felt better,” Rayne adds, to which Jackson replies: “That was more focused on us just playing our instruments. It led us to do stuff with people that appreciate that, and that’s where we wanna be.”
When we think of moving and being, for Brasstracks, we can think of working with everyone from Kemba and Pell and S’natra, to super-producer Mark Ronson. Ronson, in particular, is the duo’s perfect example of the importance of live instrumentation in the 2019 music landscape. Per Jackson, Ronson is alchemic in his live music approach, summoning gold countless times. “All of that gold is from live shit! That’s the sauce that none of y’all can recreate,” Jackson happily tells me.
Live music will live on forever. As the band note, their approach is tried and true, which is why the 2019 Brasstracks mission statement is simple: bring an organic touch to popular music. The rest, of course, will be history.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: From producing, to the band, to now helping so many artists with their music, did you see yourselves expanding the enterprise so?
Ivan: I don’t know, dude… We started making music on SoundCloud for fun, never thinking that anyone would listen to it, where it would ever snowball and that was with songs like “Say You Will.” We put out a little bit more in an electronic trajectory, but still with hip-hop and R&B undertones, and [from] that, we got enlisted for a couple different things. That was the Anderson [.Paak] stuff, the GoldLink stuff, which turned into the Chance [The Rapper] stuff.
I think we were so excited about that, we chased more, like, celebrity figures. We got a taste and it was so cool… Industry shit, we thought maybe we’d move to LA and make a whole career producing for people. We just needed to get that next one, that next one. And that didn’t really happen. We just kept on making music for ourselves, and we always had friends with us, and we just kind of made music for them. After so many sessions of big people and names I don’t wanna go into, just getting more and more dark on hip-hop industry sessions, and feeling like it’s not organic.
Instead of me and Conor going into a room and doing what we do, and them doing what they do, and making something collaborative and beautiful, we would wind up going into a room and playing 50 beats in a row. [Sighs]. You like this one? You like that one? It was never really natural, so we stopped fucking with that. We stopped doing that and started making the music that we know, which resulted in For Those Who Know part one and part two, and this next EP, Before We Go, that we’re about to put out. And that led us to work with bigger people again, just having fun and doing what we want to do. All of a sudden, Mark Ronson was calling us. I think we wasted a lot of time chasing some shit that just wasn’t fun for us. The minute we got back to the fun it, things started moving.
Did you find that fun was the most important thing?
Ivan: We only figured that out by finding what didn’t feel good.
Was that scary for you, when you were doing all those sessions that you couldn’t stand?
Conor: Yeah, I mean it was not scary as much as just frustrating. When something’s not working, you just get frustrated. We just decided to move in another direction that just felt better…
Ivan: That was more focused on us just playing our instruments. It led us to do stuff with people that appreciate that, and that’s where we wanna be. We still work with people who don’t appreciate that fully, and we’re trying to wean ourselves off of that.
What’s the most important project you guys are working on now?
Ivan: Uhm, ours [laughs]. Sorry, everybody. After our project, everyone’s project is equally important, but we’re artists first and foremost and I think a lot of people forget that. We have an EP that’s coming out in February and we’re also working on an album, and it’s exciting. Really, really fun. If I were to go off on a list of the different people we’re working for, everyone is equally important and all of the music is equally good because we made the decision to only work with people that we’re having fun with.
How do you keep from getting overwhelmed by all the work?
Ivan: It’s just fucking fun. It’s not a job.
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Ivan: We’re not saying that we don’t get overwhelmed and we don’t step away. We totally do try to be healthy… Spend time with our families as much as we can. We try to keep a balance of regular person life as much as we can, but when we’re working, we’re having fun. It’s fucking awesome.
Do you feel like regular people, stars, some weird middle ground?
Ivan: No, not stars! I just feel like a sicko, always working [laughs]. We’re always touring, or working in the studio. I don’t feel super normal.
Conor: I try not to let things go to my head. I just follow whatever comes my way, and it makes sense. To bring it back to the process thing, something happens when you set an intention for what you wanna be doing. Like, the Law of Attraction. You want something, so you say no to the things that don’t fit in that circle, and then more of what you want comes your way. It just takes some time. I never wanna feel like I’m a star.
Ivan: We don’t feel that way. Me saying we don’t feel normal is like, we don’t have a 9-to-5, and stuff like that. And we love what we do. A lot of people can’t say that. We just really, really love it. That’s all I wanna do. Shit, we don’t got anything else to do. I wasn’t good at math.
Talk to me about what goes into conceiving your live show.
Conor: To be honest, we steal a bit from the DJ thing, that’s a constant movement. Tempo-wise, we start at a certain place and build it up, build it up, take a break. How’s the crowd doing? Just, you know, peaks and valleys. But always trying to make things move alone. A standard show might be: song, stop, song, stop. But…
Ivan: We don’t like that… Not that we don’t like that, we actually like going to those shows. We just don’t like that for us.
Conor: Totally, we just try to bunch five or six songs together in a creative way.
That’s the most important thing to you guys: intention on the stage.
Ivan: It’s a thing. It’s definitely an important thing. It’s not just a bunch of songs, we crafted it so that it’s in that order for a certain reason. The same reason we craft the order of our EPs.
What’s the most rewarding part of the tour?
Conor: Sleeping. When you actually get a good night’s sleep, that’s pretty rewarding.
Ivan: Yeah, it’s pretty fucking awesome. When you get a really good sleep, you’re like “Oh, my God!”
We already talked about the importance of live instrumentation in hip-hop. Looking back at what sounds really popped off in 2018, has live instrumentation grown more important in an effort to cut through the noise?
Conor: So, Ronson… I think one of the great parts about working with him as a musician, is he’s into discovering things without that much of a plan. He just kinda puts musicians in the booth and is like, “Do a take, and we’ll pick the parts that work.” It’s inspiring to work with someone who’s keeping instruments alive.
Ivan: And he’s one of the top producers right now. He’s touched… I mean, I think he just won a Golden Globe. He’s all over the place, and you go back and you don’t realize that he’s done… He did all the Amy Winehouse shit. All of that gold is from live shit! That’s the sauce that none of y’all can recreate. The right people, the right group, to play the right four bars. It all comes from live instruments, so that example… The proof is in the pudding, man. We’ve watched him make magic for the last two years.
Is there magic from the live moment that you can’t get from a drum pad?
Conor: Yeah, it’s like talking to someone face to face versus on Facebook.
There’s just an organic energy to it.
Ivan: Rappers are afraid of live drums. We’ve talked to you about this, but they don’t understand that in the digital world, there’s ways to keep the live drum feel. Now, I’m gonna get into nerd territory. You can take the audio and with plugins, detect every transient. Every kick and every snare will give you a nice transient. You can convert that into digital language and add your own slapping samples if you want! You can do these things, and people don’t understand that you can get a really happy marriage between 2019 drum programming and classic drum playing. They can co-exist.
Last question, what is the Brasstracks mission statement for 2019?
Ivan: We’re having so much fucking fun. You can correct me if I’m off, but it’s been the same. It’s just gotten clearer and clearer that we want to bring something organic to popular music. Just give something organic to the people. What we do has been around for decades and it’s tried and true.