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An interview with the New York based multi-instrumentalist duo BRASSTRACKS

If you haven’t heard Brasstrack’s debut album Golden Ticket yet, you’re in for a treat. The New York based multi-instrumentalist duo have produced an impressive work of art, with a featuring list including industry legends like Common and Masego that reads like a whos-who of the modern and classic R&B and hip-hop scene. However, despite this intimidating wealth of sound, the album remains quintessentially Brasstracks, an ode to their free thinking approach to songcraft. Since forming in 2014 the duo have gone on to win a Grammy for their work on Chance the Rapper’s ‘No Problem’ and have collaborated with artists including Anderson Paak, Khalid, Wyclef Jean and many more. We caught up with Conor Rayne and Ivan Jackson over email to discuss their new album, living through curfew in New York and how holding on to child-like expression is the key to being truly creative. 

House of Solo: Hey Ivan and Conor, how are you guys doing? How’s lockdown been for you?

Ivan: Hello! Lockdown has been nothing less than weird. Interestingly good at times, but downright terrible at others. It’s one of the scariest times to be living through, if we’re being honest. 

Conor: It’s been up and down. Some days I am really motivated to work, clean, cook, and take care of what I need to take care of, and other days I feel like I’m in Groundhog’s Day, an eternal vacuum. 

HS: Your album Golden Ticket came out on August 21st! You’ve got some pretty legendary collaborations on there from Common to Masego and Col3trane. How did all these various features come about and who was the most surprising to work with?

Ivan: All of the collaborations on Golden Ticket came around in different ways. A good deal of the collaborations are with people that we’ve known for a pretty long time – Masego, Fatherdude, Jackson Lundy, Elliott Skinner to name a few. Some we had been talking to for a while and wanted to make a song together but just never got around to it until now – Tank, John Splithoff. And a few sessions just got set up by reaching out to people whose music we liked – Samm Henshaw, Common, Col3trane. 

HS: Amongst all these features, how would you describe the Brasstracks sound?

Ivan: Ha, this question is exhausting to answer with normal genre or musical terms. We’ve put out 5 EPs, one album, tons of singles, tons of remixes and covers. The Brasstracks sound is wherever we’re at in the present moment. When we were making Golden Ticket, we were obsessing over Stevie, Tower of Power, Prince, D’angelo, just good songs and production that felt organic and human. 

Conor: I’d say it’s a blend of old and modern R&B with Hip Hop elements. It can be challenging to maintain a consistent thread when each feature brings such a different flavor to the music but I think we did a good job aligning everything.

HS: What did it mean for you guys to win a Grammy for your work on Chance the Rapper’s ‘No problem’? I’ve read that after the whole experience you guys needed to ‘reset’. Can you elaborate on this a little?

Ivan: It meant the absolute world, and it still feels surreal. But to get an accolade that big so early in one’s career comes with its own pitfalls. Pressure to follow up with another one can make you go crazy. And you can get your priorities all messed up. It wasn’t until we shook that pressure off that things started clicking for us again. 

Conor: A recording is made to capture a moment in time and winning an award for a moment in time can create a sense of clinging to the past; fixation on the process and result that led to being praised by people. You have to do all you can to detach yourself from the fruits of your work and realize that the awards mean nothing. They’re nice to receive but if you get attached to a creative process for too long, you’re never going to grow. The reset button is a creative reset. It should be a frequent thing to let go and remain fresh.

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HS: You’ve recently released a video for your track with Col3trane ‘Missed your Call’, a hand-held, live-stream style exploration of London and New York, urging fans to support Black-led organisations including Reclaim the Block, Grassroots Law Project and the Black Lives Matter movement more generally. You weave together both London and New York in the video, and while London held its own protests, we watched on as New York was put under curfew. Can you tell me a little bit about what the atmosphere was like and how this (if it has) changed? 

Ivan: Curfew was a scary time in New York. I had never seen a curfew in New York City, and in the midst of the whole world being on fire – I don’t know if I’ll experience anything like this again in my lifetime. I went to a few protests and thankfully was never put in harm’s way, but I had friends in Brooklyn that got trapped on the bridge by cops while they were peacefully marching and protesting. They were kept there until curfew was up, and you could imagine what happened next. In the Bronx, some of my friends were tear gassed and arrested for peacefully protesting “past curfew” in a similar manner. They opened up a medic and supplies tent / area near me on East 9th and 1st ave (which was one of the coolest things to happen in this neighborhood).

Things have died down a bit in New York over the past month or so, but it’s not over. Protests are still happening every single day, and for damn good reason. It’s just not being covered in the news the same way. Seems like the media doesn’t want to show persistent peaceful protesting, they’d rather spin it when they can into negativity. 

Conor: The outer intensity has calmed down and New York is no longer on a curfew but everyone in my current sphere is trying to keep the awareness turned on. Books are proving to be the most helpful resource in understanding the scope of the issue so that I can do my part as an individual in this fight.

HS: You rightly speak openly about playing Black music and about how heavily Black artists have formed your sound. Who are some of your lesser-known inspirations? 

Ivan: This list could get lengthy. Some of the obvious ones that we’ve done a lot of talking about are Stevie, Herbie, Miles, Quincy, Coletrane. We also talk a lot about D’Angelo, J Dilla, the whole Soulquarian crew. Obviously Roy Hargrove!!!!! But maybe to elaborate more on that list- Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner. Lewis Taylor, Earth Wind and Fire (big duh). I could spend a long time on this question. 

Conor: Music is food for our being. Everything I’ve ingested is a part of me in some capacity. So many jazz drummers of the past such as Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Max Roach are all in my DNA to an extent. I spent a lot of time listening to drummer Ed Blackwell on Ornette Coleman records and drummer Milford Graves on Albert Ayler records. They inspired me to get out of the box I was putting myself in. I love Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, and a lot of other reggae. Every drummer should listen to Carlton Barret’s playing on Bob Marley Live At The Roxy for a serious lesson in space and intention. At the moment, Tony Allen is a huge inspiration.

HS: Tell me more about Band Class?

Ivan: We did the first three episodes of Band Class four years ago, super DIY. The goal back then was “everything you see and hear was done in one take”, so we would start off just jamming on whatever (Conor on drums and me on either guitar bass or keys) and then we would just build in a one-take fashion. Honestly, filming, editing, performing and producing this stuff out was exhausting so we took a break from it. When we signed our deal with Capitol and EQT, we brought back up this idea to them, and they were down to help us make it legit. This time around, we thought it would be more fun to really illustrate the process, but we still wanted to give ourselves some sort of limitation. So we dropped the one take rule and adopted the one hour rule, which is a lot more fun. It’s just a cool video series that we get to be fully ourselves, show people what we do, and have some fun in the process. Plus it’s nice to lean into the instrumental thing for us, that’s where we come from.

HS: You both met at the Manhattan School of Music and left before you completed your studies as neither of you liked the restrictive nature of your jazz education. Did you have any teachers telling you that you were making a mistake? If so, what would you like to say to them? 

Ivan: Ha. I’ll let Conor really field this one, I finished MSM by the skin of my teeth. You’re absolutely correct though – we bonded over the restrictive nature of jazz school. As far as teachers telling us that we were making a mistake? Maybe not a “mistake”, but plenty of people had their opinions, and we were pretty selective about which ones we listened to.

Conor: Yes, so it was actually just me who dropped out after 2 years at MSM. No one explicitly said I was making a mistake but one teacher was like, Hey, you never showed up to class but you got a lot better at the drums. I was a bad student but at least I did something right I guess.

HS: How do you reflect on your education now, what lessons do you take forward into making music?

Ivan: Hmm. The biggest lessons are the most broad for me. Always be open to learning more. There’s no limit to how much you can know about music. Remember that this music industry is small, so anyone you meet, you might meet again. But that’s not the reason to be a kind and good person, do that because you should. 

Conor: It’s good to always be learning and to seek knowledge but don’t let it get in the way of your flow. We are super fearless and creative when we are kids and it gets beaten out of us over the years by people telling us we’re doing it wrong. Do everything you can to hold on to that five-year-old expression. 

HS: How have you guys been working during COVID-19? I’ve heard that you’ve been rejecting collaboration requests over Zoom, does this mean it’s been a period for more personal musical reflection? 

Ivan: Did we say this in another interview? Are you secretly Nardwuar?? How did you know this about us?? Hahaha. I didn’t realize that had gotten around. Honestly, we were just in the process of releasing an album, and we are always working with our regular writing homies over zoom or otherwise, so we were just too busy. Also, we LOVE working in person with people, and would always prefer it. However, this doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon, so we’ll inevitably be on a few more Zoom sessions now that the album is out.

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HS: You created a ‘Stay at Home’ playlist while under lockdown. What track on that playlist could you not stop listening to? 

Ivan: ‘Ain’t Gonna Stand for It’ by Stevie and ‘Is It True’ by Tame Impala for me.

HS: As producers you’re famous for using live instruments, building up a song from scratch. What effect do you think this has on your music? 

Ivan: Wow. Famous?! Haha I’m not sure about that. This is an interesting question. Building up a song from scratch – what song doesn’t start from scratch? So I guess we can focus on the first part, using live instruments. I don’t think that using live instruments is what necessarily sets us apart, but it’s how we approach the production equally as instrumentalists, writers and producers. We want everything to feel organic, human, real, with an arrangement that feels like you can get to know it quickly, while learning new things every listen. We find that taking a more “live” approach to every instrument layer gets us to where we want to go in that sense. 

Conor: It’s not innovative, people have been playing instruments for thousands of years. What was different about our way when we began was that we were in a circuit of laptop producers who did things mostly electronically. Sometimes you would get two people doing that. It was rare to see two producers approaching producing like a band of musicians. Now I don’t think it’s so rare. People are getting back in touch with instruments again.

HS: You’ve been quoted saying: “there isn’t a world where someone else finishes a Brasstracks song”. However, if you had to choose another producer, who would it be and why? 

Ivan: This is such a hard question to answer properly. First off I feel the need to clarify – Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. We’re more than open to collaborating with other producers and we’ve done it a bunch, but you can’t take the “producer” part out of us when it’s a Brasstracks project. In that sense, the final version of any “Brasstracks” song will always wind up with us, in our hard drives. We’ll be the one to send to mix and to add the final touches on any song. That being said, there are a TON of producers we would love to collaborate with on a Brasstracks song! Kaytra, Timbo, Dr. Dre, 9th Wonder, Madlib, truly too many to count. But I promise you, NONE of them would want to be the ones to “finish” a Brasstracks song. We wind up with 150 stems at least, every time. I can’t imagine a world where this happens. 

Conor: If I could choose someone to finish a brasstracks song it would be Rob Zombie. Imagine it for a second. Shit would go viral.

HS: So you’re both multi-instrumentalists. Either, what instrument comes most naturally to both of you, or what’s the most underrated instrument? 

Ivan: Trumpet for me. I assume drums for Conor haha. The most underrated instrument to me is a b3 organ. But I cannot play that shit to save my life.

Conor: Drums are most natural because I’ve been playing the longest out of any instrument. Guitar and bass come second. The most underrated instrument is the Didgeridoo. We need that on more records.

HS: Do you feel like your life has gotten back to ‘normal’? If so, what does that look like?

Ivan: Not at all, and I don’t think it ever fully will. I’m just trying to stay sane, conserve, and cope. One day at a time. 

Conor: I don’t believe in “normal”. Life is a constant state of change. I try to live by the motto, “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable”.

HS: What have you both got planned for the rest of 2020?

Ivan: Some musical surprises, as always. We have a few in the chamber. We wouldn’t leave everyone high and dry for the rest of the year. It’s also time to rest for a second though, and then get back to the drawing board and discuss what’s next for us. It constantly changes. 

Conor: Keeping up my regular yoga and mediation. Making more time to listen to people. Eating healthy and experimenting in the kitchen. Smiling. 

Listen to Golden Ticket here

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