BigWheel Electrosoul keeps on rolling at Appaloosa Grill
We're BigWheel Electrosoul," DJ Check One announces after the band's first song before adding, "and we're here every Tuesday at Appaloosa."
Before the percussionist can take his next breath, a highly inebriated gentleman begins to chant with slurred thunder, "One more song! One more song!" which inspires sardonic shrugs and a laugh from Check One and the rest of the crew before they launch into the next song in their set. Seemingly satisfied, the drunken man screams and claps. "Thank you! Thank you!"
The legend of BigWheel Electrosoul's Tuesday-night gathering begins about eight years ago. From its earlier incarnation as DragonFly (featuring Dominique Lolly of Big Gigantic and Jared Sayers of the Motet), the trio now comprises Damieon "Check One" Hines, Charles Parker "Murder" Mertens and Jerod "Qknox" Sarlo.
To the untrained eye, it appears as though the three are merely meshing sounds, Check One on drums and making beats with the MPC, Qknox on the keys and synthesizer ("and the occasional shaker," he notes) and Mertens with his monstrous bass. What's actually happening is that the three beatmakers are playing live over beats — their beats. It looks easy, but the guys say they've played together for so long, the chemistry is almost natural.
"There's a lot of screaming, a lot of hand signals," Mertens explains.
"I always feel like if I stare intently at them, they'll look up at me," says Qknox. "I'll intend to stop a tune, and I won't be able to get Charlie's attention, so I'll just stop, and he'll stop it anyway. That's just years of working together. I've been playing with Charlie for 30,000 years, it feels like."
The inspiration to perfect live beatmaking came when Check One witnessed Mark De Clive Lowe's signature live production on stage at the Jazz Cafe in London, a sight that so moved him, he began honing his own skills in that regard. "I saw him making beats with the MPC and said, 'Man, I gotta try this,'" he recalls. "It's been a growth and sticking with it; it kind of bled into everything." Hines, who is also a producer, DJ, drummer and T-shirt designer, is a classically trained percussionist. Live, he employs electronic drum sequences with live drumming and his trusty MPC 2500.
"When I moved back here," Qknox remembers, "Check One was the only one doing this. I didn't have the MPC, so I didn't have the capability to do that live stuff, but when I saw how he was using samples and live music, it was like, 'Duh!' This was before Ableton and all of those programs."
The tremendous talent that exists in each of these musicians is what drives BigWheel forward and has kept the trio at the forefront of the live-music scene. All three make beats, and each of them is involved in a smattering of individual projects.
"Each of us has 200 beats that we go through," Check One points out. "I have pages of beats. We've done a bunch of projects when people die, like Michael Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass. We'll drop these beats and then bring them back. Halloween beats, compost beats, where we chop up radio hits. We've done shows dedicated to Too $hort — there are just a gross of beats that we have to work with."
In addition to these three pieces of the puzzle — Mertens, Qknox and Check One — there's an interchangeable fourth element, which might be an a cappella vocal or a horn solo. "If I play an a cappella and no one is on stage," Qknox explains, "the fourth person is whatever element we use. If we use a sample of 85 people singing, the fourth element is 85 people."
Qknox is the melodic spoke in the turning wheel. Trained on the keys and experienced in artist development, he studied at the New School University's Jazz and Contemporary Music Program in New York City. A traditional foundation of jazz informs his playing, even in progressive projects like BigWheel. "To make beats for BigWheel was different than making beats that were not intended to be made live," he points out. "There's a certain sound that fits well with all the instruments together and fits in a live setting. You could make these amazing beats and wonder what it sounds like live, but it's always completely different when a band plays live behind it."
Originally the trio was trying to create loops on the fly with the bass, hi-hat and snare drum, and make up lines along the way. But then they started bringing down the productions that each of them had been working on, and that's when the magic happened. "Everyone was trying different things," Check One recalls, "and so many different parts came together to make the sound more musical."
There's a mathematical formula to making the music work, however. "Just like a jazz musician will compose a song and bring his chart to the music session, it's the same with us," Mertens reveals. "We compose the beats and we bring a beat down to the session, but we listen to it, pick it up by ear, find the notes and the keys and react to it. We make up our parts that work against the beat to rock along with it."
Also classically trained, Mertens is a beast with the bass. When he straps up, it's with the intensity of an entire cavalry preparing for war. He holds his instrument with authority and brings the underlying element of rhythm that gives all within earshot the inevitable scrunch face. His beatmaking skills (Ableton is his weapon of choice) have earned him the nickname "Murder Mertens," because "the beats were a bit murderous," he says with a laugh.
Back at Appaloosa, each instrument colors the sound in the steadily filling tavern. Folks are making their way to the bar, where the trio's trusty bartender, who answers to "Double Dutch" — and who is also known to get down on the microphone with the guys on the late-night tip — is serving up the drinks tall and strong. Qknox is getting intimate with the keyboard, Check One is tap-tap-tapping on the drums, and Mertens is preparing to unleash a monster groove, going through the routine before the beat opens, silky and funky.
The players make smooth transitions from song to song. There's a sample from Lost Boyz that leads into the second song, inspiring cheers from the group's already tipsy fans. This joint flows smoothly into the third track, which is a remix of a song from MC Bianca Mikahn. Her vocals come in without warning, drawing "Where did that come from?" glances from several people in the crowd, who clearly enjoy the change-up.
It's that fourth element that makes BigWheel Electrosoul seem like an interactive band. The truth is, the guys are happy being a trio — but there's always a steady parade of MCs, poets, singers and other vocalists who want to join the rat pack on stage on Tuesday nights.
"We don't have an open mike," Check One clarifies. "We like to call it a 'guided microphone.' We enjoy being a trio, yet there are plenty of MCs who come down and jam with us. Singers, poets, even drummers and bassists will be invited to play."
It gets a bit complicated, though, when artists become overzealous with the mike. "They just rap because they have the microphone, and they will rap until you take it away from them," says Qknox. "We let people on the microphone, but we're honest with them when they don't pull it off. Damieon, especially, talks to them afterward. We've recently been giving little talks beforehand, like, 'After you do your verse, give us a second. We might have a drum solo or something.'"
Some folks, of course, just can't help themselves, as is the case with the enthusiastic fan who wanted an encore after the first song. Without warning, he makes his way onto the stage, where he then rambles off a freestyle that makes Qknox shake his head with laughter. The bandmembers never skip a beat during his slurred rap, and when the song finishes, Check One gives the rhymer a "Thanks for playing" pat on the back and directs him from the stage. The party-goer yells, "You only live once!" before Jay-Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls, Pt. 2" blares through the speakers and the boys are at it again, doing what they do.
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