Update 1/17/13: Full interview with Yonnas Abraham added below.
Always check your spam filter. If there's one thing we can learn from BLKHRTS -- who, as you've undoubtedly deduced by now if you've been monitoring your Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates this morning, have signed a deal with ORG Music -- it's to always check your spam filter. Always. For, had it not been for due diligence on the part of the act's manager, BLKHRTS might've completely missed out on a life-changing email from Jeff Bowers, who heads up the outfit's new label.
Sometime before the end of the year, we spoke with Yonnas Abraham, and he told us that something big like this was in the works, but he wasn't ready to discuss the details quite yet. Yesterday, the news finally broke in the form of a video premiere of "OVR" on AOL's hip-hop blog, the Boombox. We caught up with Yonnas this morning and talked to him about the new record, how BLKHRTS hooked up with ORG and Dave Sitek, and what this means for the Pirate Signal.
Westword: I saw the news finally came out, and I just wanted to chat you up about it. Just wanted to talk about the deal, now that we can officially talk about it. So tell me how the whole thing came about.
Yonnas Abraham: Well, I don't know... you know what, the funny thing is, that video [that premiered on AOL's Boombox blog] was our EPK, and it had a bunch of press clippings on it -- I don't know if you saw that in the past. But that's what got us our deal because these guys at ORG, they saw that. And he told me, 'That was the video that made me want to sign you.'
We'd been fucking with this management company called Mammoth for the past, like, year. They manage Bassnectar and stuff. This guy David Temple, he's basically been sort of pro-bono managing us for the past year, and he had a real bright idea to set up a management account. So he had set up this management account and this label sent an email, like, "Let's make some records," or "We want to make records with you guys," or something, and we never saw it.
It was in the spam folder. And this guy David goes, "I went through the spam filter and I saw this email. I don't know what you guys think." It was an email that said, "Let's put some records out," and it was from ORG. The signature was like, "Jeff Bowers. Works at Warner. Distributed through Warner. Works at Atlantic." I sent it to FOE, and he was like, "Does that say what I think it says?" I was like, "I think it does, bro." [laughs]
So there was a number at the bottom of it, and I called him, this guy named Jeff Bowers, and he called me back at, like, one in the morning. He was like, "Yo, I want to sign you guys," blah, blah, blah. We had already been getting a little bit of interest from some guys at Atlantic and stuff like that. We were kind of burnt on the whole thing. The deal that ORG was offering is, like, revolutionary, bro -- a fifty-fifty split, right down the middle, after recouping. They take zero percent of our publishing -- zero percent! Yeah. And we have guaranteed release dates.
How many records is it for?
Wow. That's incredible.
That's what I'm saying. We'd been approached by other labels and stuff, and I think we've done a pretty decent job of getting out in the mix, but it's not like we have a ton of leverage like Odd Future, these people who already had hundreds of thousands of fans. I think we have maybe five thousand, twenty-five hundred fans in the world. I don't know. Our email list is kind of big.
So all these labels were offering us shit deals because we don't have any leverage. So they were these horrible deals, where it would be like development purgatory for twenty million years and shit. Nobody needs to sign a record deal so I can sit in development purgatory. Remember the Rouge? Remember? These bands that get major label record deals with Atlantic -- ten percent of them come out. Ten percent of them put out an album. You know, I don't need that. I'd rather sit in my basement and make records and put them out on my own, period.
So when this deal came along, we were like, "Holy shit!" Like it came from God -- it came from God. This is the only record deal we were ever going to sign. And so, but even then, we were playing hard and fast with these guys. You know? We were like, "Yeah, I don't know." And then, they were like, "Well, who do you guys want to work with? Who would you like to have produce your record?"
Because this album we're working on, JZBL JNKNS, it has some samples on it that are -- I mean, the album is littered with samples. If we put it out as is on a major label or a pretty big label, we'd get our asses handed to us in court, in litigation. So we wanted to remake the samples. So he was like, "Well, who would you want to work with to do that?" I was like, "I don't know." He was like, "What about Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio?" and it got really quiet. He was like, "Hello? Hello?" And I was like, "Quit fucking playing, bro. Quit fucking playing with me." He was like, "No, I'll ask him. I'll see if he'll do it." I was like, "Quit fucking playing." He was like, "No, he's my friend. He'll do it."
So I shit you not; he asked him, and then like a week later, he called me. He was like, "He's in. He's a hundred percent in. He wants to put you on his label. He's in." I was like, "You're fucking lying. You're so full of shit. If you're serious, have him call me." Dead ass: Dave Sitek calls me the next day. I almost crapped my pants. I'm a grown ass man, dawg. I'm thirty years old. I almost shat my pants, bro. I shit you not, bro. Dave Sitek called me with some weird New York number. I was like, "Uh..." and I just picked up, and it's, "Hi, is this Yawness?" I was like, "Yeah, it's Yonnas."
He was like, "Hey, what's up? It's Dave." "Dave who?" "Dave Sitek." I was like, "Oh," and then he gets to talking and he's like, "I don't know if you guys are familiar with my work..." and I busted out laughing. Because, you know, Return to Cookie Mountain was like top five in my albums ever. I was obsessed with TV on the Radio in that period, you know? So I laughed really loud, and he was like, "What are you laughing about?" I was like, "I'm super-duper familiar with your work." He was like, "That's cool, bro, because even if you guys were assholes, I'd still work with you." I was like, "Really?" So that was a great compliment and stuff.
But even after they got that lined up, still, we were like, "Man, we just can't do this as is. We have to get a lawyer." So it took us a long time. We researched a bunch of lawyers. We ended up getting one from out here to help us with the contract negotiations. We ended up getting a better one in L.A., so we fired that guy. But nonetheless, when we got to the contract negotiations, we were able to work in the release date clause and a couple of other things -- you know, just to cover our asses, in terms of everything. It's a really simple contract, six, seven pages. It's not long at all. But it's really artist favorable, really artist favorable.
So when's the record coming out?
We've recorded the record entirely on our end, and now we've sent all the stuff to him. So he's tinkering with it and stuff like that. But I think we're going to go out there [to Los Angeles]... I mean, basically for the past two or three months, we've been sort of circling each other, but he has the material now. So we're going to start correspondences, start sending us his mixes, and then eventually we'll probably go out there in, like, February or March -- I don't really know when -- to finish it up, after we start corresponding.
It will be sometime this year, probably second quarter, June or July [that the album gets released], but we don't know exactly, for sure, yet. It's recorded. We've recorded all our raps. We've recorded all the beats and everything like that. The process we have now is remake the samples. So I'm working on that a little bit on my end. He's working on it on his end, and we're sort of doing correspondence and stuff, and then eventually we'll probably spend a week together or a couple of weeks together just finishing it up.
So are they going to be interpolations of the samples, or are you going to recreate them altogether?
I mean, it's a complicated thing right now. The way these songs are made now, the samples are a huge part of them. Some of these samples we can't live without. There's one or two we can't live without. There's a Bauhaus sample on there of this song "She's In Parties" that we need to figure out.
When I was on the phone with him talking about it - because he had only heard two songs; he's heard, at that point, when they approached Dave Sitek, all they had was three demos from JZBL JNKNS, and they had the EPK, which was that "OVR" video. So they showed him that. He was really into it, and then they showed him these demos. And we talked on the phone about it, and he was like, "Well, I'll just get somebody to..."
Because, like, the "She's In Parties" remake I flipped, the sample I flipped, is like a dub version of "She's In Parties," where it's just his vocals. So I sampled his voice. It's just Peter Murphy's voice. The entire beat is made out of that and drums, obviously.
So he was saying he was going to get the guy from Blood Brothers, Johnny - because I guess that guy does an incredible Peter Murphy impression - to resing those parts, and then maybe we'd change the words up, so maybe it would be an interpolation, or maybe it would just be a remake. You know, it's like decisions we have to make, aesthetically, that aren't a hundred percent decided here.
You've always shown deep crate-digging abilities when it comes to choosing your samples. Like, you sampled Erasurehead on the first EP and you flipped some Stevie Wonder stuff. What went into the thought process for this one as opposed to the first one?
Well, the name of the album is JZBL JNKNS, and JZBL JNKNS is a real person. She's a friend of mine. Her name is Patafria. She goes by Patafria. She lives in Richmond. I kind of followed her on Twitter and met her. And I guess the aesthetic I was going for on JZBL JNKNS is, like, this ghetto-goth thing -- like, we love street shit, and we love goth. You know? So just to put it together more... not to step away from guitars or anything like that because there's still a lot of guitars and stuff, but just this ghetto-goth thing.
That was the defining aesthetic, and she [Patafria], as a person, embodied it -- on her own. She didn't know who we were, you know. But I would follow her on Twitter. I would see her pictures, and eventually I met this person, and we became really close friends. She's like a living, breathing embodiment of this aesthetic that I was going for. She's loves death and romance, but she's loves 'hood shit; she loves street shit. You know, she's super street smart; she's also very artistically literate.
So I guess the sound we're going for here, as opposed to the first one, is the quintessential goth-rap album. So that's why I sample Bauhaus; that's why I sampled "She's In Parties." Another song that I sampled, a Siouxsie Sioux song from this album Rapture -- I can't remember the name of it -- but, like, Siouxsie, Peter Murphy. There's a song on the album called "Mozzy and Siouxsie." It's about a girl who's obsessed with Morrisey and Siouxsie Sioux; they're the soundtrack of her life.
So I wanted to make these complete touchstone references, that our heroes are Mozzy and Siouxsie; our heroes are Peter Murphy; our heroes are these people, but with the modern production techniques of beats that happen nowadays is how we make music. You know, none of us play guitars and stuff, so.
I love modern music, too, but in terms of my heroes or the aesthetic goals, or the aesthetic gods -- the God and Jesus and Holy Spirit of what we're doing here -- are goth figures from '78-'83, like Siouxsie, Peter Murphy. Morrisey isn't super goth in the respect of black and eye make-up and cake make-up and all that other shit, but he's a very sad, romantic, death-obsessed individual.
The problem with goth is it's Marilyn Manson, in people's brains. You know? It's like that's the quintessential. Not that I knock Marilyn Manson. He's a genius, and I love Marilyn Manson -- I love a lot of his shit, too - but that's not really what we're talking about here. It's a little bit older than that. I just wanted to mix modern production techniques with my heroes, you know, with Mozzy and Siouxsie and Peter. All my heroes.
How did you get so much into that stuff?
I mean, to be honest with you, I've always had a pretty deep interest in indie rock, or just in rock and stuff like that, but after I sampled the Joy Division song, people... I guess I kind of thought it was goth rap, too. I'm not going to say I invented the term, but that's the term that people kept referring to us as. You know? Any article you see about BLKHRTS, it's "goth rap."
So it was sort of circular. You know, people started telling me what kind of music they think we are, so I was like, "Hmm. Let me do more research." And that's when I got really, really obsessed with goth and old school goth. I mean, like all my time, when I'm alone in my house, I just...I'm on websites, just digging through all sorts of old school goth blogs, reading and just researching the culture and the time period. Because I can, but also because it's fascinating to me.
I think it was a circular thing. I was sort of circling this genre that I didn't really know for sure, and then people started referring to it [BLKHRTS music] as such, and that informed me. When I went back, I was like, "Oh, we're making goth rap? Let me try to make the best goth rap album ever, and let me really discover what I love about goth. I think it's pretty rare when journalist or people give an artist some sort of genre tag, and the artist actually likes it. You know? I love the term "goth rap." I love that people call it goth rap. I don't have any intention of getting away from that.
So I just started to burrow into it further, as opposed to: "Let's do something different now." I think that's the only thing that's different between me when I'm twenty and me now that I'm thirty: If something is working, or if I'm hitting a sweet spot, I have no problem hitting that sweet spot again, and again, and again. As opposed to when I was twenty: "Oh, I made a good song? Let's never make that song again." You know? I still want to do different stuff, and I still want to specify what's going on here, but rather than run away from whatever it is that people like about us, I would rather run further into it.
One of the songs on the first release, you sampled Warsaw. So like even before you were delving more into goth, you were already kind of heading in that direction.
Yes. That's a funny story. That song was actually... An ex-girlfriend of mine -- her name is Alea -- I've had that album for probably four or five years now, and I used to always listen to it, and one day, I was just walking and I was listening, and I was like, "Holy shit! I can flip this shit." And it occurred to me that nobody else would probably be trying to flip this song. At all. So I just went home, and it took me a while, actually. It took me like two or three tries to get it right. But when I did that -- the first BLKHRTS song was that song "Bloodlines of That Gangsta Shit," which I think was a band called Witchcraft that I flipped. It was sort of '70s stoner metal stuff. But with this, Joy Division, Warsaw, I mean, it's all pretty proto-goth shit. It's prototypical, quintessential goth.
So I made that and we put it out, and people started to say -- you know, I made that beat and we rapped on it and put it out - "Oh, this is goth rap." I was like, "Ding, ding, ding!" It was definitely a revelatory moment for me, for people to say that. I never knew there was a genre of rap I'd been making, but I would venture to say that, honestly, that's what I've been making for the past ten years. You know? That's probably what I've always been doing.
You talked a little bit about yourself in your twenties. Not too long after the Pirate Signal first started, you moved to New York, and you had a record that you had finished that you ended up having to remake. When you moved to New York, I remember us talking -- and you actually have a Pirate Signal song where you talk about getting out of Denver and just how bad you wanted to make it. And so you went to New York and then ended up coming back here. How does it feel now, looking back in your thirties, with how much you've progressed as an artist, how much you've grown and what you've been able to accomplish?
I think that, really, in my twenties, I was learning. That was a learning experience. I went to New York under the guise of this impression, and I learned first hand what was right about the decision and what was wrong. I think, for me, I'd already established something, at least to the point where I was doing what I wanted to do -- I was performing regularly; I was in the studio regularly -- and moving to New York, I had to rebuild all those resources. I wasn't performing. I wasn't in the studio, because I didn't have any of those connections.
I guess the decision I realized I made is that I was already doing what it is I wanted to do. You know? And, like, the internet and the nature of some of the other things that kind of destroyed the fact that you have to go to one of these buzz cities to get noticed. I mean, not that I was operating behind the times, but I guess I still, from 18-23, that still was pretty important.
By the time I was 23, the internet had really blown everything open and it wasn't as important. So from 18-23 -- I moved when I was 24 -- I mean, it was still informing my decisions. For those previous five years, moving to New York is what you had to do. Moving to L.A. is what you had to do. I feel like I found out sitting in the middle of Brooklyn that this is not what I have to fucking do here. And then the Warped Tour happened, and I just took it as a sign. You know? This is a sign that I need to get back to Denver and finish what I started because I had left before anything was done.
And that album, One Alone, I didn't end up remaking it, you know. It's just that the engineer took it -- and I still haven't spoken to him. So I came back and that album was kind of destroyed. But I guess that was another major lesson that I learned. You know? You can't be too married to any particular project. You have to be married to the process. You have to be married to the constant act of discovery.
After you've made a song and it's done, it's just as much everybody else's as it is yours. You give it to people and you shell it out -- you know what I mean? It occurred to me that instead of this horrible catastrophe of losing my album breaking me down, it was like let me just make another album. Even the process of making that album, One Alone, it was a huge albatross. It was horrible.
I couldn't move on, but I couldn't finish this project because there were all these ambitious things I wanted to do. Like I had this one song that was written for a hundred and fifty person chorus choir, and I was determined to get this choir recorded at that church on Colfax and Logan. And it's like the resources that would have costed -- it was so expensive. So I was stopping myself from finishing my album. So when that happened and he took it away, I realized I need to make projects within my own resources, and I just need to do what I'm capable of, and I need to finish shit. You know?
So I came back from New York, and I realized that whatever it is I do, I need to start it and I need to finish it. So I made No Weak Hearts Shall Prosper. We finished it, and the album is good; I really like it. There's a lot of decisions I think that I'd go back on and done differently now, but like I said, it was a learning process. My first album, my second album, my third album -- these aren't necessarily going to be my greatest works ever. I just need to keep working and somewhere along the line, my greatest work will happen. Instead of pre-meditating: "This will be my greatest album." You know, you can't do that. You just can't. You don't know what's going to happen. And you don't make the decision on what your greatest shit is. Everyone else does.
So, I guess for me, the process is just learning -- I've learned so much in the past ten years. Finally when we made the first EP for BLKHRTs, we just went into it like, "Let's just make songs." We made six songs and we put them out and we got more love, nationally, than we'd ever got in any of our separate projects. So instead of it being some thing where, like, we planned it, "We planned this whole thing. We knew it would happen this way." We were just rolling with the punches.
That's what I feel like you have to do as an artist. You just have to be keen about your reactions just as much as your actions. That's how you can become a quality consistent, long-standing artist. So the accomplishments in Denver, I don't feel like...they were all really...I'm really proud of the stuff we were able to do, like winning the Westword award so many times and just really getting a lot of respect out here. But in terms of what my career aspirations were, they were a lot bigger than that. You know?
So I never settled. I wasn't like, "Oh, well, I've won these awards five times, and I'm retired. I'm the best of all time, and I can go away. I still knew that in reality what I want to accomplish versus what I have accomplished, there's a huge disparate gap. I'm just still working, you know. I think that we can be massively successful, nationally, internationally, and maybe one day be the greatest rap group ever. But that's only going to happen from us being humble and us being intelligent with our reactions.
It's just got to feel gratifying -- and when I said "remake," what I meant was that you came back and created something new, from scratch -- so, it has to be somewhat gratifying to know that you came back, started from scratch and you were able to recapture all the momentum you had and push forward artistically and career wise.
Yeah, it definitely does. You know this whole thing was happening over my thirtieth birthday. The thirtieth birthday: It's always supposed to be this scary thing, like you're supposed to come to this conclusion that, Oh, my life is a complete dismal failure. I've done nothing up to now. But because all this stuff was going on, I felt really good about it. I was like, "I'm turning thirty, and all the stuff I'd been working toward during all my twenties is finally coming to fruition."
It makes sense that it's happening in this way because now I can handle it. Now I feel like the lessons I've learned in these past few years, I couldn't have made decisions, I couldn't have done the things I've done, without having had what happened, happened. You know? So it's definitely very gratifying, but it's also the kind of thing where you've kind of just got to relax. You can't control everything. You can't make it exactly how you...you've got to roll with the punches and take it how it comes. I feel gratified by it, but it's like this huge sigh of relief. I feel relieved. I feel distinctly and greatly relieved.
I mean, I definitely feel like the lion's share of the stuff is still ahead of us, but even the decision to do BLKHRTS was -- it actually spawned from a conversation me and you had. I remember you were like, "The only other person that's performing as good as you is FOE. The only other person in this town who can fuck with you is FOE." I was like, "Wow. I guess that's true."
So I went to this show where I saw FOE and Karma perform together, and it was mesmerizing. It was fucking amazing. So that's when I just walked up to them, and I was like, "Hey, maybe we should do a group together." Because they were into my shit, too, you know. And so, I was like, "Let's do a group together," and we did that one song, "Bloodlines of That Gangsta Shit," and it was fucking amazing. To this day, FOE says that's the best BLKHRTS song. It was a watershed moment of chemistry.
And so then again, you make a decision. You're like, "Well, I've been doing the Pirate Signal for ten years. It's my bread and butter, my baby. But something is happening here that I cannot ignore." And then you, you came back and said, "Whatever you're doing over there, you need to keep doing that shit." Stuff like that -- that's what I'm talking about "rolling with the punches." I don't want to be having the blinders on and only wanting to do what I want to do.
Sometimes stuff happens and you've got to pay attention. You've got to read the writing on the wall. You know? So I was like, "Fuck. I need to shift focus here because this is what niggas want to hear. This is what niggas want to see, man. Niggas want to see this BLKHRTS shit." So then I started doing the BLKHRTS shit. We made this six-track EP. I send it out to all these blogs - blogs that never in million years gave a shit about anything else we were doing -- and they're posting it. They're talking about it. Pitchfork, Two Dope Boyz, Passion of the Weiss -- these are guys who I've been reading for years, who I always like, "Why are they not talking about us?" You know?
And I don't necessarily think it has anything to do with the material. I think it's timing. I think it's packaging. I think one of things with BLKHRTS that really aligned is the sound, the look and the name. It's like alignment for people, for the consumer, is everything. If you see a band, you like the name and then you hear the song, you're like, "Oh." But if you like the name and then you like the song, you're two-thirds of the way there. And then you see what they look like -- if you like their visual image, it's sold. You love the band.
And I don't think those things aligned ever with the Pirate Signal. Because the name, for instance, was never something I came up with. You know? It was something that somebody else started, and I just shouldered the burden and kept working with. It was always sort of me fighting against it. I had never started my own band name. I had never picked a band name for anything I had worked for.
For as smart as I may think I am and stuff like that, very simple decisions that artists have made very primordially in their career took me a long time to do. I didn't pick a band name. I didn't start my own band until I was 27. You know? I've been making music since I was sixteen. I think that's another major lesson I've learned is just take the fucking blinders off.
I know you have the way you want to do it. I know you have a pretty clear master plan in your brain, but you don't control everything else. You only control you and how you react, to whatever occurs, to whatever stimulus, is really how you're going to succeed, not just bulldozing reality into conforming to my will. You know? There's a little bit of that, too, but the majority is adapting. You know? And that's the true sign of humanity and of intelligence is the ability to adapt.
So even with the Pirate Signal right now. It's not that it's dead in the water; it's that I'm adapting. This [BLKHRTS] is getting all of the attention and the Pirate Signal is not - maybe I need to read the fucking writing on the wall type shit. You know? I mean, I just feel blessed and lucky that I have all ten fingers and all ten toes and I'm still relatively healthy and everything and I can still do this. It's not like...being thirty, I have another twenty years in me, thirty? I don't know.
It's not like I'm in a physical sport here. I'm not a basketball player. I'm not a football player. I'm making music, you know. My mind is my muscle. So I didn't feel like, "Oh, man, it's over. I'm thirty!" You know? I just felt like it's finally starting. It's finally starting.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!