Kalen Rowe and First Ward Sound

An Eternity with First Ward Sound Type Shit

The house is old and made of art. Imagine you are on the front porch. Watch your step: it is missing some planks. One of the brick pillars on either side of the staircase is hollowed out and empty. A grill rests inside it, filled with cigarette butts and packs, forties, crushed beer cans, cellophane, fast food bags, rubble. There is a charming character to the placement, like a bouquet of debris from various vices. Now look out from the porch and imagine a city skyline—Houston’s, if you can. It is night, but the time does not matter. The skyscrapers sparkle and seem alive with information about transcendence through machinery, light, and a fluctuating, repeating background symphony of noise, traffic, voices, and inner monologue, which seems to emanate from everything. This is First Ward Sound. The first time I set foot in this house was with Spliff. The house was empty and the electricity was still off. We sat on the hardwood and drew, drank, and smoked with candles in the darkness. The inside is jam-packed now with electronics, wires hanging in tangled reels on the walls, drums, guitars, amps, speakers, books, art slapped crookedly in between everything, launch pads, synths, keyboards, ash trays made from countless vessels. Step over toms and cymbal stands and sit low in the couch, like sitting was meant to be done, and couches were meant to be made. First Ward Sound is an experimental collective of producers, musicians, artists, videographers, poets, and hustlers from various solar systems and alternate universes. Its triangular members go by many names and in no particular order are Airosol/A. Madvylxn, Mlcbr/Mulciber, and Spliff/Durospliff/3mspliff. Through a complex series of thermodynamics, entropy, and cosmic mist, FWS formed. Consequentially and simultaneously, the trapping of music also came to be, like a black hole in the speakers of the old, wooden, house, which is its own history of auditory wisdom and hallucination. Spliff rolls a spliff as we get ready for the interview. It’s just him, Airosol, and I. I go on to interview the third member, Mlcbr, a few days later. Starting with the stupid but essential question of what The Trap means, Airosol begins to tell me that to him, if it can be defined, there are two loose definitions. There is the original definition, which involves the lifestyle of trapping, selling, hustling, and living under corporate America, and the music and sound that runs parallel to that definition: “heavy 808s” (bass-driven), “kind of repetitive,” and a “gritty appeal.” He goes onto the second definition: what trap means today, which, he says, has evolved from its original definition, holding onto the original elements of the sound-structure and beat, while not necessarily having the content or lyrics of the original style. Then, changing his mind he says “it’s actually still the same shit, just evolved,” but he can’t seem to place his finger on what exactly has changed. I go on to ask what in society he thinks has influenced the evolution of trap, when Spliff chimes in and clarifies: “the original meaning, what it used to be, has now changed into a genre, a whole brand, that’s what’s changed, there’s a market for it now.” Airosol agrees, adding that “now you got people who are like, ‘I want a trap-type beat or I wanna make trap-type music,’ versus like, ‘nah, I trap, and then I make music, so I make trap music, I talk about what I actually do, so it’s trap music.” The change seems the fate of any innovation in music, art, writing, anything: what begins as a movement, a verb, to escape the state of being effectively trapped at a certain position or situation in society, the music made from this struggle, becomes and provides the genre specs to make imitation possible by people who do not necessarily have to know what it’s like to feel trapped to make trap music. The movement loses its meaning, or its meaning becomes superficial, a way to impress or capitalize. Instead of being the verb or experience it originated as, it is a noun, a blueprint for how to make more. That, however, never diminishes the fact that the movement is still there, there are always those who are struggling to exist in The Trap, the only difference is now they have an array of “trap-type music” to listen to, be influenced by, and parse through. FWS falls into the underground category. Every time I walk up to the house, the bass gets louder and louder, and I start to see the purple light of the living room. There is a constant movement and steady push onward at FWS, and as far as I know, like many artists, they have to work hard to make ends meet and endure the monotony of irrelevant jobs and meaningless work, while struggling to always be creating. Airosol cites Gucci as always being the epitome of trap to him, along with Young Jeezy. He goes on to mention Three Six Mafia, pointing out that while they weren’t always talking about trapping, they were heavily influential on the sound of trap music. I ask my next question about their early influences, musical or otherwise, including those unrelated to trap. Spliff seems confused by the question, “What are some of our influences that have nothing to do with trap? …What are some of the trap-related influences that there are in the music?” “That may be a better question,” I agree and laugh at the pretense that what FWS makes even is trap music. Spliff points out they prefer a looser definition of what they do, broader, “experimental” is the term, and I begin to prefer that word better too. Spliff starts listing some of his influences, including the soundtracks for animated movies, people like Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Sam Cook, Lil Wayne, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Future, Sleep, Jimi Hendrix, and Electric Wizard. He feels the need to involve a well-rounded range of music and sounds in his repertoire of influences. It’s not hard to see why, with the variety of music that exists today, one would want an array, or likewise, a duality or yin and yang in the sound. Spliff wants the “high energy, high anxiety” sounds to coexist with and between the “low key, slower, like you just woke up or something” sounds. “The most interesting ones to me are not just like music represented in an album made by a type of artist, it would be the very general, large scale representation of the human experience with like random recordings of conversations or phonecalls as interludes or all between the tracks, the most interesting and cohesive.” Spliff’s understanding of inspiration and the creative process seems dreamlike, a spliced collection of a little bit of everything, all four seasons together, hopping from universe to universe. I repeat the question to Airosol. “All of the old school soul oldies, all the fucking hits,” he elaborates, talking about the influence his parents had on him growing up. We reflect about the seemingly limitless quantity and quality of old school soul music, how there is so much buried out there and how you can probably never find it all. He says his father is a musichead and specializes in jazz, and was a DJ and was always there when new music came out in his day. He mentions that Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees, and Outkast especially stuck with him. Spliff seconds Outkast. They both mention Lil Wayne again as a middle school obsession, along with Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, who Airosol says is pretty mainstream, but is still innovative as shit, to him especially in 5th grade with The College Dropout album, Missy Elliott (his mom even got the dirty album versions), Timbaland, The Neptunes, and N.E.R.D. Then, after middle school, MF Doom and Madlib, who influenced his other pseudonym, A. Madvylxn, and visual artists: Graduation cover artist, Takashi Murakami, cartoons, especially Looney Toons, WB, Cartoon Network, and Toonami. Airosol mentions that Spliff inspired him to get into music he never knew existed, like Flying Lotus and Toro y Moi. He caps his list of influences, saying he had an eclectic education, going to a predominately white elementary school, a predominantly minority middle school, and then HSPVA, which was also mostly white, and where he was the only Somali, but where he says everyone was their own clique and that he enjoyed the “urban, neutral” feel. I ask how they think their music has inspired the music scene in Houston. “Cuz it’s different than a fuck,” says Spliff. Airosol says he’s gotten past trying to explain FWS’s individual sounds. He says it has its own sound, with elements in each track that would satisfy everyone in the group. Spliff adds, “I think it comes naturally from living together…we talk about music we fuck with and music we don’t fuck with and why…naturally we have this similar strain…the way we produce shit has a similar influence in the characteristics of music we like, and an influence of shit in our personal lives that are stressing on you and you don’t even feel like making shit, you just have to, which sounds different if you’re just in this fair to mid type mood.” When I ask what they see in the future for music, Airosol lights up, “That’s like thee question.” He says it’s evolving much quicker now, that FWS really is just currently heavy in the trap genre, collaborating with R&B artists on tracks, working in what Erykah Badu dubbed “trap soul.” He thinks music will probably keep getting more electronic, with more programming and innovative beats. Airosol is optimistic and believes music is headed in a good direction, though some say the scene is overpopulated, and you can either have good shit or good sales. He sees this as a good thing, as musicians are forced to be creative because of evolution, so that one does not get caught up and left behind. He blows smoke out, “It’s going in a decent direction, like instead of a rapper just saying, ‘I’m a rapper and I’m just gonna rap on the shit,’ a lot of people are trying to do a lot of their own shit,” which we agree is more cohesive, with less division in the labor of a track. Another thing he has to say about the current state of music is you have to put your shit on everything, all audio outlets. Though people complain about the oversaturation of that, they don’t talk about increased accessibility and the huge variety that exists now. People always say there’s oversaturation because the amount of music in the world is always growing. Spliff thinks it’s important to be “multifaceted, multitalented, multipurposed with your shit. My ideal job would be producing my own records, producing for other people, then also like producing the soundtracks for movies, and also like the foley sounds, the sound effects for movies, and soundtracks for video games, cartoons, all those things at once.” Everything you do influencing everything else you do. “If you spend all your time and energy on one thing and that thing phases out for whatever reason, and you never fucked with anything else, what the fuck you think is gonna happen to you?” Spliff’s opinion of how to do well in music today compares a lot to his list of influences. Being multiversed is how you put yourself in the best position to fill multiple creative pockets in the world. I ask if he would say there’s a necessary synesthetic visual aspect or accompaniment to his music, since he imagines doing soundtracks for movies and video games. The answer is definitely. Both Spliff and Airosol have a background in visual art. Airosol says his father made a living from art and that he always thinks about the visual first, what the sound’s mood is. Like Spliff, he would like to do the soundtrack for a cartoon, and animate the cartoon too. My last question is how did they all meet. Spliff and Airosol went to high school together. Airosol would show Spliff beats he made, which inspired Spliff to start making music. After high school, Spliff met Mlcbr one day at Menil Park briefly and bonded over a green plant. The second time they met was at a coffee shop. Mlcbr was making music on Ableton. Spliff had been watching Boiler Room clips, which had inspired him to get a launch pad and Ableton too. Mlcbr let Spliff crash at his studio for a while on a detached car seat, but once Spliff got a place they moved in to the house. On the first day all that was in it was a handle of vodka and a record player. They didn’t care there was no electricity either, they were just happy to have a spot. They didn’t make much music at first, but then the band Mlcbr was in broke up, and together they started going in on music all the time. They started fucking with Billy Black, playing shows, and from there it’s been progressing ever since. Airosol started coming over after he got back from The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. As Airosol puts it, “I was like, ‘let’s make some ten minute beats,’” all the while hanging out with rappers and producers to produce beats with, namely Kream Clicc and Wes Blanco. I don’t press for any more details. We have been talking for over an hour. The lack of switching looming beats is deafening. Right before I turn the recorder off and someone turns on the music, Airosol asks, “Want me to light it?” and Spliff replies, “Oh, I ain’t even rolled it yet.”
*
A few days later I meet with Mlcbr at the house to get his answers. Before the interview I know we have a shared affinity for emotive hardcore music (emo), which, with regard to FWS influences, presents an equally interesting spirit to his production. To Mulcbr, “The Trap is just what it sounds like, it’s a trap that people who are in poverty fall into a lot of the time. It’s an easy way to get by in the moment type shit.” I ask how does he think it reflects in the music they make, if at all, and he answers, “I don’t know if I can say that it does truly, I’ve never truly lived that life. I’ve never had to trap. I have trapped. Even then though have I really? I’ve just sold some weed before, like what is that? Plenty of people have done that…I think what makes it the trap is just like the hustle of it, like you can be trapping CDs, anything basically. We do like fuck with that definitely I think, that mentality type shit. Have I shown you the physical copies of Leaving yet?” He pulls out his latest EP. “I have a fuck ton of them and I folded them all myself and shit, the case turns into a poster.” I enjoy the diy, self-created appeal of the whole thing and buy one. “The trap is like a hub, you can get anything out of it.” I tell him about my talk with Spliff and Airosol, and bring up the repetitive, factory nature of trap beats, how the beat makes you feel trapped in its routine, but also gives you that freedom to move past it and hear it in different ways with how it feels hustled in some spots. Mlcbr adds that it’s not just the beat but whole songs for him. He addictively listens to trap songs that he likes over and over again. When asked about his influences, he says he’s definitely more from a band type, guitar type perspective in comparison to the rest of FWS. “Like when I first heard B L A C K I E, I was a freshman in high school, I thought that was like exactly how I wanted music to be, you know, with that Spread Love album…It’s like DJ Screw and Circle Jerks and like everything.” It was a perfect synthesis for him and when he saw B L A C K I E live he was blown away. “I like so much music you know? I love jazz. I like skramz music, like true emo music, I fuck with bands like that, I mean I play in bands like that you know.” Outside of FWS, Mlcbr currently plays in a band called Mouthing. The distinction between “real emo music,” which came out of hardcore punk in the 80s and early 90s, and the late 90s and early 2000s pop-inspired music of the same name, is as importan t as the distinction between No Wave and New Wave. One has been around since inception, subversively coursing in the underground in hundreds of different variations, while the other is the generic cultural tombstone/guilty pleasure that poseurs get beat up for liking. Mouthing is a brutal raw as fuck shredding powerful and deft manifestation of the former. The other members include Ryan Valadez, Dakota Garrett, or kinggrump, and Darcy Rosenberger (an artist with work in this magazine). Mlcbr’s past bands include Tyagaraja’s band, which he was in at the age of 14. He appreciates the early experience he got in the music scene, but says that ultimately he prefers darker music. “I think my resting state of being is sad.” He was also in Sekoia and Vice, which are both more in the vein of Mouthing. I ask what emo music he’s currently into and he says Pg. 99, one of the more obscure and older bands from the late 90s more correctly dubbed skramz or screamo. “It’s so funny how hard to get into that shit it kinda is, because all those people are so all about not promoting themselves, they’re so anti-branding, which I kinda fuck with, as a brand…what’s that saying, ‘no representation is better than misrepresentation’…I try to be minimal with my presence.” This honest take on presence in a cultural “scene” carries on into FWS. If a brand is required in capitalism, why not negate the brand altogether? Anti-brand is essentially anti-gimmick, anti-ploy. Let them come to you, let the quality speak for itself. Knowledge of FWS is usually by word of mouth or sudden, subtle album or track drops on any one of their many web hubs, usually without so much as a wink of warning. We’d all love to make music or art for a living and not have to be so trapped in jobs we don’t like, but FWS won’t trap its soul to get there. What separates an early movement from the genre it later comes to form is primarily honesty. As Mlcbr and I were talking about skramz, we realize all those early emo bands were too sad and depressed to promote themselves. Their music was a reflection of how they actually felt in the world and also a therapeutic release of that energy, which in a way makes it the trap music of punk. From what we’ve been talking about I know the next question, how does he think his music is influencing or engaging with other music in Houston, is probably irrelevant. “I don’t know man to tell you the truth, how do you really know what your part is? I try not to think about it really, how do you even think about it? Like do you think people fuck with Anklebiters?” With the tables turned, I understand how hard it is to answer. Wanting Anklebiters to be equally anti-brand as FWS, I dodge the question as well and we enter instead into another conversation about people who have inspired us. “Josiah Gabriel was one of the people who inspired me to really fuck with Ableton,” and this was during the time he was writing the music for Sekoia. In high school, he played bass for Perseph1 and she encouraged him to get deeper into beats. In a tangent, he also mentions a future project called Kid Meth he’s writing the music for with kinggrump and Massie, and that Ryan Valadez, who writes the music for Mouthing, is also a huge inspiration, especially with Ryan’s band, Moths. “All the homies in First Ward Sound are of course definitely inspirations, if you can even define the criteria for what it is to be in First Ward Sound.” He’s referring to the following and probably incomplete list of affiliates and associates included in some way under the umbrella of FWS. The collective is simply a way of providing one key point of reference to access a network of artists. “If you look up First Ward Sound you’ll see a whole bunch of artists on our Bandcamp and Soundcloud…the point being that the name of the collective never overshadows the names of the individual artists.” He goes on to point out that there’s no pressure to collaborate with everyone in the collective. If you want to fuck with one person’s music but not another’s, no problem. Anything to keep music growing because as Mlcbr points out, “There’s no infrastructure in Houston.” Massie, who’s been listening in on the couch says, “I’ve kinda been thinking that Houston is like that on purpose…like why? All the reasons that Houston is kind of like musical backwater. I think the rest of the world wants Houston to be like it is so they can come to Houston whenever they want and do what they want.” The lack of structure in Houston’s music scene could be a virtue of its own. Much like the publishing scene, which revolves primarily around zines and underground individuals doing their own thing just to do it, the music scene works on nodes, and instead of a distinctly dominating hierarchy, there are just many points of access that are not too hard to find but hard enough to make their discovery rewarding. I remember when I first saw Mlcbr and Spliff’s side project, PIMP$, play at the Summit, it felt like a treasure. They were ending the night and a bunch of people had left after the previous group played, so it was just a tight knit group of people who were familiar with FWS and some probably who weren’t surrounding Mlcbr’s drum kit, while Spliff sat on his knees in front of a 404 and a synth. Not too crowded, everyone had a front row view of some amazing music. It was the perfect mixture between Spliff’s visual hypnotic soundscapes and Mlcbr’s complex tommy gun style of drums.
“The bottom line is First Ward Sound can’t do shit for you…But we can talk about how everyone is tight.” Regardless of the plays and reposts they get on Soundcloud, “It’s nothing beyond that, there’s no money in it.” The money they get from selling t-shirts goes toward helping each other buy gas or food or beers. Referring to the house, he continues, “We should turn this place into a fucking landmark. We put fucking Wes Blanco’s first mixtape out while he was still in jail. I guess we did that for him, we collectively did that for him. But we’re not like a label or anything, if you’re not already doing your own thing, we can’t help you, we’re not even an entity like that.” I tell him when I think of FWS I don’t think of a label, I think of this place, this house. “It’s like a studio,” says Massie. Their latest thing is having multiple producers on each track. This ties into the idea of being multifaceted, because if a listener likes the track, they have something like five new producers they can explore, they can branch out. A mixtape they released last year called Trap Lexus is getting a sequel soon and they’re excited. When I ask about the future, Mlcbr seems most excited about his friends’ music, he simply can’t get enough of it, which is a virtue highly valuable in the creative processes of feedback and inspiration. The small community FWS has helped attract so far is one of many blossoming in Houston right now, another one being BETA Theater. They all have overtones of diy and anti-capitalism, a distinct nonchalance about monetary gain and instead a focus on always creating, always providing the lifeblood. The experiences I’ve shared with FWS, whether at one of their shows, or passing spliffs and jamming music loud at their house, have always been communal. FWS Associates: Roamcadaver, Kinggrump, Trap Maya, Dante, Billey Black, Qasim, Histo, Persph1, Josiah Gabriel, Lyndo Cartel, Wes, Marco, Tone Mestari, Stockz, Lathareo, Eli the Oracle, Lambiis, Ryan Valadez, Wolf de Michales, Cobeaux, Optia.

Spliff

Airosol

Mlcbr


PIMP$ (First Ward Sound) @ notsuoH 9/10/2015

First Ward Sound - PIMP$ - Durospliff and MLCBR

Bio

Kalen Rowe is an aspiring wizard hermitologist, Keeper of the Five-Sixteenths Truth, and is an assistant professor at the Academy for Sad Clowns where he is a PhD candidate. He has been published by twelve eras of intergalactic academic journals unavailable on Earth, such as 1836529, 88739, and 8280004. He enjoys publishing laser beams with stick and glue, and is working on a dance opera called Chrome Shoes.