Monday, June 25, 2012

Phantasmagoria boggle Illy Mack

or vice-versa

photos: Raymon Grubb
Illy Mack and Phantasmagoria play board games

Steve swivels around suddenly in his computer chair to face Phantasmagoria and tells them that if he and Jen both died tomorrow …then Illy Mack’s new album could be released. 

They’re really the only ones’ holding it back at this point. And Jen’s losing patience, she just wants to get out and play live; sing live.

All four members of both bands are in Steve (Kendzorski)’s living room in Ferndale, talking about their new stuff around a coffee table cluttered with retro board games. Yahtzee, Boggle, Trouble, Sorry!

Jen David says the Illy Mack album is almost 75% done, but her bandmate, Kendzorski, says, well, its probably about only-maybe 70%
...and Chris Jarvis (of Phantasmagoria) says he feels like their progress-percentages seem to go down a peg or two every time he revisits their rehearsal space (i.e., the game-room, the mic-booth, the mixing board, it’s all here…)

The Living Room

As Illy Mack rap things up, Jarvis, along with his bandmate, Lianna Vanicelli, as Phantasmagoria, are done with their second full length album, Currents. Done-done. No more percentages, it comes out next week on Five Three Dial Tone. 

Kendzorski says that with Illy Mack's forthcoming album: the songs-themselves are done. (Last count surpassed 20 of them). Yes, all Illy's songs are “down,” recorded. But now comes the editing process: mixing, re-working, adding, re-adding, layering, overdubbing, scrapping…physical and verbal-scrapping between the two of them...

David, the guitarist/singing-half to Kenzorski’s bass/drum-half, worries that her bandmate is going to drive himself crazy with his ardent recording methods and exhaustive dissections. 

“Probably already has…” Jarvis shrugs. 

This musical-meet-up occurs on the last day of March 2011, as the clock ticked over at midnight and April's first early morning began, both groups were still abuzz from their recent Blowout sets, having shared a bill at the New Dodge wherein they covered each others songs.

This pair of musical duos stirred up notable buzz in Detroit’s music scene throughout last year (or two):

-Phantasmagoria compose computer-based ambient dance-pop,
-Illy Mack kick out a minimalist, blues-scuffed soul-rock.
----Both have new albums coming out this summer (one sooner than the other,) and it’s not the first “release” for either band.

Still, both consider these forthcoming works to be, on some level, their “actual first album,” as Vanicelli puts it.

Each band feels this will be like the actual first impression.


Each did make considerable first impressions through their live shows (Illy Mack debuted in 2010 and Phantasmagoria broke out in spring of 2011). There’s something intangibly alluring about boy-girl musical-pairs – with Phantasmagoria they strike something more mysterious, airier, while Illy Mack flared a more gregarious, even uproarious aura.

Each pairing similarly employs eclectic instrumentation, form saxophone to cabesa shakers to maracas and bongos... One might employ synthesizers, vocoders and laptops while the other’s got guitars, cinder-blocked bass drum and tuneful whistling. 

Phantasmagoria feed your head with layered, tripped-out dream-pop sensibilities while Illy Mack punches your gut with disarmingly heartfelt lo-fi blends of R&B and rock.

The young quartet (their ages add up to about 101, all together) are not just two sides of a coin musically, but personally: the boisterous David and “Kendzo” verbally leapfrog each other in serving oneupping snipes, sporadically knocking that taboo ceramic vase of etiquette and tact to the floor in their charming way of holding nothing back, while Jarvis and Vanicelli’s cooler, calmer diffidence is only augmented when they then compete against their louder counterparts in a bemusing game of Boggle.

Phantasmagoria is, beyond just being in a band together, an actual couple, whereas Illy Mack is not, -even if bittersweet bantering mimics that of an old married couple.

On the surface, they seem diverged to distant poles – analog to digital, madcap to meticulous, acoustical to synthetic, blues-based to techno-based. And yet, a tiny epiphany struck during their well-received bill shared at last March's Metro Times' Blowout, swapping respective cover songs:
...they found common-ground.

It’s in “the feel” of the song…


Jarvis talks about Phantasmagoria’s song-crafting process:

--Inherent to “making electronic music,” he starts  by creating a loop on the computer and then builds upon it, adding different elements atop: primarily melodies and from there, the program (Ableton Live) will always remember your song’s characteristics, key-changes, crescendos.

Whereas, for David, playing her parts back live on her guitar, in a studio or in Steve's living room requires “making yourself play it perfectly…”

“Not even 'play it perfectly',” Kendzo cuts in, “but ' it with the feel you want.' It’s not about being perfect but about emoting it the right way.”

Then it can be about going on instinct, David considers. “Pretty much none of my guitar solos are written,” she says, “its just noise that I make live.”

Kendzo scoffs dramatically and Jarvis coolly smiles, pondering aloud, “…is that line gonna go in the article?”

“Who the fuck are you?” Kendzo’s exclamation avalanches into a laugh, there's such guttural emphases slalomed upon "fuck" and "are" in that sentence. He's taken offense at how rock-star-ish of a quote it was...

After the quibbling quiets Kendzo comes back to recording-music-talk and he elaborates:
“Its just, us, when we’re live, you can feel the sweat hitting your face, sweat-from-Jen’s face-from-the-stage-hitting you …and that makes a big difference when you go to record.”

“Steve’s trying to ‘hone-in’ on something,” David pokes at his zealousness, an eyebrow cocked as she finger-quotes. “I’m trying to figure out just what it is, too.”

Interestingly, though, Jarvis says he makes some of his drums off-time on purpose. Kendzo, who works as a music teacher by day at the Schoolof Rock and Pop in Royal Oak, heard that curious intricacy right away when he listened back to a song from Jarvis’ laptop: “Yeah, that last song, 12 measures before the end, there’s a timbale just lilting behind.” He pinches his index and thumb, "...just off."

Jarvis has no idea why he slips those subtle marks emulating human error into his digital composition program but enjoys “the weird rhythm that it adds…”

“It’s not on-on, mechanically,” Kendzo says, “but…it feels good…because it’s not that off.”

Seated at his own computer, a desktop with imposing monitors that throb out bass-bulged, drum-heavy demos, Kendzo’s glasses don’t hide the bags under his eyes, admitting that when he gets locked into certain projects, particularly mixing an album, he tends to focus on nothing else. “We didn’t want to just document what we sound like live,” Kendzo said, “we wanted these songs to stand. But, there’s a lot of improvised moments that happen in an Illy Mack-set that need to be telegraphed when we put them onto an album. That’s the struggle, to keep things organic-sounding.”

The struggle might also be keeping it simple. “The Illy Mack drum set up is two drums, right?” Kendzo leads in, “in a way it’s simple. But, I miked the drums with 16 microphones.”

Vanicelli bursts in disbelieving chuckles while Jarvis prods “Were you reading the Kurt Cobain journals when you did this? That’s absurd…”

And David shrugs as though her point’s proven, “Steve’s insane.”

Kendzo says “If I’m gonna track 20 songs of drums right now, I don’t want every fucking song on this album to have the same drum set, or to sound like the same drums. I’m way over miked but I can pick and choose the best mics for each recording.” And, yes, currently, the Illy Mack album packs 20 potential tracks, though that will likely be pared down.

“We spent a lot more time perfecting minor details, “says Vanicelli of their album, Currents, “tweaking the order of the songs and the vibes they produced. I was constantly learning things about recording vocals and improving them.” Vanicelli, whose striking voice, soft and silvery, was so distinctive to Phantasmagoria’s bewitching, earthy-electro sound, said that she’d almost always gone with her “first take” before this record, deciding this time to endure “an annoying amount” of takes to achieve perfection.

That’s really what’s taken Phantasmagoria thirteen months, (and Illy Mack, for that matter, about just as long), to make these albums, both wanting, as Jarvis puts it, “to make the absolute best and truest album…”

Inevitably there’s a mix of pride in the new production, tailed by a weary anxiety to just get onto the next thing, already. “Personally,” David says, “this process makes me want to go back to my 4-track and never look at a protools-session again. Every time I record, I feel like I hate everything, but every time I play a show I remember how much I love music, and love Steve.” (Illy Mack) works because we belong on a stage together.”

David’s voice is just as formidable as Vanicelli’s, but deeper, more a ballady belt than a staticy lullaby; David’s got a subtly sweet, but smokier rasp. She says that over-thinking any song’s aspect needlessly builds obstacles for its fruition. Similarly for Jarvis and Vanicelli, they admit that their songs work best when they’re formed out of randomness. (They reiterate, as they had months ago, that their first album wasn’t even intended to be an album. It just sorta happened.).

So both bands, despite whatever divergences, particularly in sound (“We get billed together a lot,” Steve admits, “but we are SO different,”), they’ve got this common ground – going on feeling.

But they’re also representative of that the new millennials’ school of musical thinking – where genres blur – they’re open to trying almost anything, defying convention or built-in stigmas. 

All four are open, particularly, to cover songs. Illy Mack took on the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and even Eminem, while Phantasmagoria embodied Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel and, yes, Neil Young.

Then, at Blowout 2012, they covered each other. “People like to hear familiar songs from a band that sounds nothing like the original,” Vanicelli posits. “Plus, I love taking on another vocalist that I admire, it puts me inside of their head.”

Jarvis and Kendzo bond over rhythmic structuring – the same way Vanicelli and David can talk about vocals – only the dudes dork out way too deeply into the technicalities and their idiosyncratic thought processes, as they admit to the fun of “getting inside each other’s heads…”

Beyond that, Jarvis said it was just so weird hearing someone cover their song. 

Kendzo said it was like watching fireworks go off when you’re a kid. His enthusiasm swells into his finally revealing that he wants, someday soon, to make an App on his new iPhone for their bands: 

...the PhantasMack-App – something still amorphous that would ideally provide band updates, tour dates, stream songs, but he eventually expands it into applying it, potentially, to the entire indie-rock/electronica music scene in the city. Why not?

“Stop,” David says, “…not into it!”

“Fuck you, it’d be really fucking sweet,” Kendzo prods.

Phantasmagoria recently released a split 7” with Coyote Clean Up (both bands covering Nirvana songs). They'll release their album, Currents, with a concert on the kick-off night (Friday July 13) of the Pig & Whiskey Festival (at the Loving Touch in Ferndale) featuring Shigeto and Charles Trees

Illy Mack, meanwhile are finishing up their album and are also performing at the Pig & Whiskey -on Sunday - July 15 - along with The Electric Six, The Hard Lessons, Child Bite, K.I.D.S. and Dragon Wagon.

1 comment:

Jen David said...

illy mack is playing pig & whiskey festival on sunday the 15th! ! ! ! !! ! ! - JD