Beats Antique Made the Most High-Concept World Music Album Ever
It's comparative mythology for the Burning Man set.
Photo credit: (SIC) Images
I would hesitate to place Beats Antique into the "world fusion" genre, because that makes me think of stinky hippies and drum circles. I'd prefer to describe the band—which consists of David Satori, Tommy "Sidecar" Cappel and Zoe Jakes—as a multicultural tornado; a twister of face-melting bass drops, electro banjos, violins, guitars, drums, and just about every other knick-knack and paddywhack thrown in.
Basically, Beats Antique is what happens when you take the circus, throw in some "party favors" and Burning Man getups, and send them all right into the flux capacitor. They've been turning up the weird-o-meter since 2007, and have become mainstays on the festival circuit, putting on a wild live sets that involve freaky animal masks, live belly dancing, and even impromptu appearances from marching bands.
Earlier this month, the crew released an album called A Thousand Faces: Act 1, which they described as a "sonic, spiritual adventure bringing the monomyth of Joseph Cambell's Hero's Journey to life." I have no idea what any of that even means, so I sat down with David and Tommy one day to talk about their concept studio album, and ended up discussing everything from bartering with 50-piece orchestras to shaking Bob Marley's grave and working with the Primus legend Les Claypool.
THUMP: So you guys just put out a new concept album based on Joseph Campbell's theories. It's kind of like a rock opera right?
Tommy Cappel: We knew we wanted to do a concept album—something more intentional than what we'd been doing. So David found—or re-found—the Joseph Campbell stuff.
David Satori: Joseph Campbell was a writer and philosopher who published this book The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949 and basically did comparative studies from traditions around the world. He studied their mythologies and folk tales and found a common thread between all of their stories. He called it the "monomyth" and out of that developed the "Hero's Journey," a narrative pattern where the heroes meet their teacher, lose hope, find hope, experience death, and are eventually reborn. A lot of writers have used this structure for their stories; even George Lucas took some inspiration from it for Star Wars. We looked at it as a chance to find a structure to write music for each moment of the story. The Joseph Campbell Foundation is even part of this which is really great.
T: You can look at so many movies and plays and find these same themes. It's engrained in all of us. You can even look online and find all these graphs that explain the story. A lot of them are in the shape of a circle which is the same shape as a CD or record, and it seemed like there was enough to make a couple albums with this, so we made it into two albums.
That's awesome. What are your musical backgrounds?
T: My parents were both music teachers and I grew up playing classical music and in funny rock bands. I've been playing drums for thirty-two years now. I'll be forty this year; its been a long, wonderful journey.
D: I was studying guitar all through high school and studied jazz guitar up in Burlington, Vermont where I grew up. I was going to Phish shows at the time, like, right before they got big, so that was fun to see them blow up like that. It definitely had some influence on me to see how creative they were and how much improvisational stuff they were doing. I went to Cal Arts out in LA and studied composition and world music from all over the place. I had some really amazing Indian and African teachers who exposed me to a lot of great stuff.
How much did your hometown and where you've lived influence your music?
T: Well I grew up in DC and there were two major scenes to check out: the hardcore scene, and all the go-go hip-hop music. It was kind of like there were two worlds there that really influenced me, and now I'm kind of doing the combination of the two. When I was in Boston going to school I got really into jazz, and came to New York to do that, but ended up just being in rock bands and DJing in clubs. When I moved to San Francisco, I said, "I'm going to take all the things I've done and try to put it into one thing." Eventually Beats Antique happened, and it all culminated with this.
So Oakland is the homebase for Beats Antique. How has the Bay Area inspired you?
D: One of the things that come to mind right away is all the musicians that we use for our productions and recordings are from the Bay Area. There's such an eclectic group of people from all over the world—brass players that can do Balkan music, and violin players that build these complex string sections to get this big sound. I can't do that all by myself. We just did a recording with a fifty-piece orchestra at our new studio, and that was such a Bay Area experience. We were going around the corner to a coffee shop and there was this abandoned building with a fifty-piece orchestra just rehearsing there for the sake of playing classical music. It was just a community orchestra of these people from philharmonics and symphonies who just want to play music.
Wow, so you just approached them and they were totally down to join forces?
D: Totally, we did a trade for them. We recorded them and fed them food and had the whole group in our studio.
T: Yeah, I really don't think you can find that in too many places. Coming to a place like NYC, I know for a fact that wouldn't happen. People would be like, "Wait, where's my break, I need a 15-minute break and need to get paid!" In San Francisco they're doing it just because they love it.
How has the tour been so far? I know you guys have done some work with some amazing visual artists to put together this full-on live experience.
D: Its been great. I think this is the biggest production we've ever done. We got Ivan Landau as the artistic director and Obscura Digital, a media group from the Bay Area, helped put the whole project together, from building the art to getting everything together and mapping the projectors. We've never done something like this. It's really a visual adventure.
T: It takes people to another dimension. One girl was like, "I want to see it again, I need to pay attention more and take it all in!" People are definitely receptive to it which is cool because I was a little nervous that maybe our younger audience wouldn't get it and would just want to rage. The feedback from the younger audience has been great though.
So who does what in your live show?
D: I do most of the melodic stuff. I play violin, guitar, banjo and trumpet and then some sampling stuff.
T: I play the live and electronic drums and keyboards.
Then you guys have Zoe doing the dancing.
D: Yeah, Zoe is dancing and performing live.
So what's it like with you guys in the studio?
D: Mad scientist station!
T: We would take the sketch we were working on for the song and bring it in to the other computer and kind of improvise on everything. We have this crazy room of stuff with probably like thirty pieces of gear. Then we just hit record and get some sort of live element going instead of just programming all the electronics. It becomes a bit looser and more funky. Then we bring that back into the main computer session and cut that up to make some parts. That was probably the bigget change on the album.
D: Yeah, we also brought in an engineer to help the mixing and recording for the parts we made. That helped out a lot.
Do you guys keep Zoe and the whole live performance in mind when you're in the studio?
D: Yeah I think on this album we did. We thought about the pieces she was performing and how it was all going to fit and flow together. Zoe is very creative and influential. She had this dance concept for a whole piece on the album Viper's Den.
Tell me a bit about the influence Eastern music has had on you both.
T: Eastern and Balkan music has had a huge influence on us. We actually have traveled to the sources of the music we love. I went to the Balkan region to find out what made these people play this way and it was amazing. When you go to the source of something you are really able to understand the culture. David went to Mali. That's one of the things you strive for as musicans. You hear this music that you love and you want to learn how to make it as best as possible. You start asking questions and becoming a total dork. I remember going to the record store and getting a ton of West and North African music to understand all the rhythms they're making.
D: Yeah we actually got Antibalas on the new album. They're a big New York band that sort of brought Afrobeat back ten years ago, and they helped put this show on broadway Fela!. We got their horn section on the second album.
So I know you guys did a song with Les Claypool. What was that like?
T: That was kind of a text message and email collaboration. I had his number from a couple tours we did with him—we got in touch with his manager and he said, "Yeah! Send me something." So we did. He went to the back of his bus and played over our song into his computer and we got to cut it up. It was really fun.
D: That was an amazing day. Having his bass and it sounding amazing. We had that kind of experience with Bob Marley. We had all of his original stems and vocals.
T: Yeah, sampling Bob Marley in my living room. I was kind of crying. When we messed with his voice our computer crashed! It was like, "No, can't mess with it!"
Wow. Bob was talking from the grave!
D: Yeah, but we didn't EQ it at all—we just left it.
So what can we expect from part two of the album?
T: It's darker and heavier. The first album goes from light to dark and stops. The second album goes from dark back to light. So it's a little different. It's a little bit more intense and heavier.
D: It's more epic in a way. It has three pieces with full orchestras on it. You're going to hear some super electronic-sounding tracks. It's exciting because these pieces are almost done and I really want to get them out. It's nice to keep the story longer then this tour though. It's a bigger journey.
Beats Antique was the first act David ever saw at a music festival @DLGarber