Posts tagged: musician

Being All In It with Identity Crises Incorporated

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By , September 22, 2009 8:00 am

Given that we live in a diverse city rich in music festivals ranging from the Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, to the currently ongoing World Music Fest, we decided to go behind the Chicago music scene with some of our fine local talent.  The group we talk to, Identity Crises Inc., explains their song assembly process  and how they maintain fluidity in their music.  Catch them on October 2nd, at the Andersonville Arts & Home Weekend festival.

Rocking the park at Ravinia

Rocking the park at Ravinia

F: What is the story behind your band name? Any specific moments in your life where you’ve gone through a major identity search?

I: When I (Jacob) was a teenager, I started this high school band that was long on talent but short on focus. My band mates and I began with a common love of U2 but then started to diverge without really adjusting to each other: me towards jazz, our drummer towards Bob Dylan, and the other three guys towards the grunge / late alternative surge of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Offspring, and such. When the band fell apart, I kept thinking how I would love to launch another project one day that purposefully maintained a more fluid sense of style, i.e. where we would create a genre along the way rather than try to impose one from the top down.

A couple years later, I enrolled in college and happened to read Augustine’s Confessions concurrently with the writings of Erik Erikson, a seminal developmental psychologist. Erikson coined this term “identity crisis” to refer to a normal period during adolescence where one looses touch with a sense of individual and historical continuity. Becoming a fully functioning adult in a Western, industrialized context involves resolving that crisis—figuring out who you are and how you fit with the way the world is. It occurred to me that a lot of people these days are dealing with prolonged, almost unending identity crises; many biologically matured adults (let alone teenagers) don’t seem to have a clue about who they are or what life is truly about.

I think there’s something fundamental to humanity generating this, something that is being optimized in contemporary society—hence the “incorporated” part of Identity Crises Inc. (We’re all in this together.) Nevertheless, Augustine shared a parallel experience.  Here’s this ancient Roman, North African, proto-hippie-like figure who teaches rhetoric, sires a son out of wedlock, and cycles through a variety of spiritual orientations from paganism to Gnosticism to Neo-Platonism before he has this radical, liberating encounter with the divine. He becomes convinced that it is possible to experience unity with God by “putting on” the spirit of Jesus, and finally resolves the crisis; thus, he begins his Confessions with a prayer to God claiming that “our hearts are never at rest until they are at rest in you.”

“Identity Crises Inc.” works like a double entendre, playfully referencing the group’s stylistic fluidity while addressing these bigger themes about who we all are as people living in a certain culture fraught with particular problems but also laced with promising solutions. And, yes, we’ve all gone through major identity searches! For example, two of us are Jewish and two of us are Latin American in our primary roster, all navigating our way through a postmodern, “post-Christian,” increasingly globalized world while fashioning our own soundtrack.

F: You seem to have a constantly evolving band crew as you travel around the country performing – how do you find the talent and how hard is it to maintain some sort of ‘identity’ in your music?

I: Great question; this is why we’ve typically called Identity Crises Inc. a “musical project” rather than a “band.” Finding dependable partners can be really tricky; we use a hodge-podge of traditional networking methods as well as web-based social networking utilities to accomplish this (traditional networking is still more effective).  Maintaining a sense of “identity” in our music has been pretty simple since we built this thing on the premise of stylistic fluidity, are very picky about the people with whom we work, and chart our arrangements excessively!

Developing an identity

Developing an identity

More or less locking the vocal melodies and basic harmonic structures of our songs lets us play around with the other pieces—instrumentation, a semi-permeable roster, whatever the stylistic focus might be for a certain performance—while maintaining project continuity. This lets us broaden our network of collaborators, both individuals and venues, while refining whatever genre it is that we happen to be creating. We would be approaching our goal if we could play excellently at, say, the Rivera one night, then cross the street to play at the Green Mill the very next time around.

F: Can you share your song assembly process?  Do you think of the music first then the lyrics or the lyrics then the music to go with it?

I: There’s nothing hard and fast about our song assembly process, but most of the music usually comes before most of the lyrics. The caliber of poetry in today’s market is pretty low; it’s easier for us to wordsmith something at or above the norm once we’ve hammered out a basic harmonic and rhythmic structure. Every once in a while, we get lucky and pop a song out with lyrics and music together in one shot, but it’s usually a longer process.

F: We enjoyed listening to your song ‘One for My Sisters’, can you tell us more about what the song talks about?

I: “One For My Sisters” is one of those rare songs that clicked really quickly. It talks about this dynamic of surrogate sisterhood from a masculine perspective, i.e. the women in a man’s life who are capable of being truly good friends without drifting to romance, as is otherwise usually the case. I realized one day that I couldn’t think of a single song that talked about this relational dynamic. Most music about women written from a man’s perspective might be romantic, sexually objectifying, frustrated, whimsical, or what have you, but it’s not celebratory of a platonic, mutually edifying, fiercely loyal friendship.

I think songwriters often truncate passion to romance, forgetting that people are routinely passionate about a host of things. (Just go to a Bears game in November.) I absolutely adore my girlfriend, but my “sisters” have played a huge role in getting me through life well, and I love them for it. They’ve helped me weather some intensely difficult storms, and I will beat the crap out of any guy who messes with my sisters. I figured I’d write a song about all that one day while playing around with some chords on a guitar, and it just came together.

Listen to ‘One of My Sisters’: [mp3_embed playlst=”http://blog.funsherpa.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/One-For-My-Sisters.mp3″]

F: Your Myspace page lists quite a bit of classical music inspiration – were you formally trained? Why so much inspiration from the classics?

I: Almost all of us are formally trained; that’s one of the things it takes to play around with a bunch of different musical styles while maintaining creative tension (otherwise, you typically revert to whatever “home” is for you musically).

Our Myspace page lists our influences chronologically; it probably looks like there’s more classical inspiration than is actually the case because most classical composers are near the top of the list. (I guess we might have to change that one day…) Nevertheless, the classics generated truck loads of musical technology that has never been utilized in popular music, and we love that stuff. Everybody gets basic, Western harmonic theory. You can bet your rent check that you are going to hear a song this week utilizing a I-V-vi-IV progression, e.g. the top of Green Day’s “When I Come Around.”  But you’re probably never going to hear any counterpoint, chromaticism, polytonality, leitmotif, etc. in popular music.

The same thing goes for basic jazz theory. As a result, the average popular music listener is processing shifts in style or audio production versus harmonic or song form depth; this is exacerbated by the fact that hit tunes are usually short, truncating liberty of form for popular songwriters. By introducing some of those neglected aspects of classical and jazz theory, our songs become more complex while remaining accessible. For example, “One For My Sisters” uses a modal mixture straight out of jazz theory 101 to set up the hook, although it’s basically a pop rock or Americana tune.

F: Let’s say Rolling Stone magazine featured you on their cover, what would the caption be? Why?

I: Caption: “So So Def!” Reason: That would be so, so def!

F: From your travels across the US, what do you find missing from Chicago compared to the other cities you’ve traveled to? Conversely, what things about/places in Chicago did you miss while you were making your way around the US?

I: Every city has its own spirit, and Chicago’s is very near and dear to our hearts. All the sunshine in California and cultural density of New York notwithstanding, the one thing Chicago lacks that is specific to music is the potential for long term business development. For example, there are lots of great venues in Chicago, a number of solid indie labels, and a couple significant publications, like Pitchfork. Nevertheless, there are relatively few producers or studios of the highest caliber in Chicago, and there is almost no solid management, publicity, or legal counsel dedicated to representing musical artists. Ironically, this makes Chicago an excellent place to get started musically but a tough place to stay (even the occasionally bad weather is good for the club scene); it’s rich with talent and opportunity but poor with market superstructure.

On the other hand, Chicago has a well-deserved reputation for being a hard-working, no-nonsense, on-point sort of town—one that doesn’t take itself too seriously but does take itself seriously enough. Furthermore, Chicago has world-class musicians playing a very large variety of music coupled with a discerning but supportive public. As a result, you can get a ton of great work done fast in Chicago. Furthermore, your average Chicagoan optimizes congeniality and work ethic; trying to collaborate with people elsewhere can be a total crap-shoot. For example, we love San Francisco, but it was incredibly difficult to find anyone who could simultaneously play rock, jazz, folk, and blues at our level despite the town’s history in a couple of those genres. In contrast, there are a ton of phenomenal artists around, say, L.A., but it’s going to be very tough to collaborate sustainably with them unless you’re nationally recognized or have some crazy, nepotistic connect.

I think one of the main things Chicago needs is a better awareness of its own treasure. You could spend every day of the week essentially jet setting on the cheap, but the general public tends to focus only on the really obvious, well-publicized events without digging deeper. By way of contrast, it’s partly publications like The New Yorker at one end of the spectrum and Brooklyn Vegan at the other that help make New York so great. Chicago needs similar utilities, but we’re not all the way there yet. Hopefully, folks like you can help.

F: Where do you enjoy listening to music in the city? Any favorite local bands you have?

I: For top shelf or festival-based music, it’s hard to beat Millennium and Grant Park, although we occasionally make the trek up to Ravinia. For up-and-coming artists in rock, jazz, and folk, we love Schubas, The Green Mill, and Uncommon Ground, respectively. We typically catch mid-level groups at The Metro while picking up a performance at, say, The Vic, The Park West, or The Old Town School of Folk Music every now and then.  There are a number of other places we love, but we keep going back to these ones the most.

Our favorite local artists right now are Bill Tucker & Friends, The Wiitala Brothers, Harley Figuera, Chuck Webb, and the great Orbert Davis. Our quasi-local picks are The Saturn Project (focusing now in Miami), Rue Royale (currently in Europe), Kid Sister (watching that Bears game), and especially my sister’s band, Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons (over half of whom live in Chicago). The alums we probably miss the most are Herbie Hancock, The Smashing Pumpkins, Kurt Elling, and Deanna Witkowski, who always seem to be everywhere but Chicago…

F: Can you share your favorite place in the city to sit down, reflect, and write some songs?

I: Yah, sorry! That’s exactly where we don’t want anyone else to find us. (Hint: certain parks and theatrical green rooms are particularly fecund.)

F: So what is your next gig?

I: We usually play at clubs with the occasional festival or coffee house gig, but our next show breaks the mould: We’ll be performing two, one-hour sets at 7 and 9pm on Friday, October 2nd, to support the Semiotic Art Show’s contribution to The Andersonville Arts & Home Weekend festival at 5255 N Ashland Ave., i.e. near the corner of Ashland and Berwyn in a community center appended to a nearby church.

Local graphic artist, Dana Chen, curated this year’s show under the theme of “metamorphsis,” which I guess is pretty appropriate for our music! We’ll be playing a mixture of original songs along with some jazz, bossa nova, and folk standards, adjusting the more rocking aspects of our repertoire accordingly. We’re planning to feature a couple of our buddies from the Chicago music scene, and the event is open to the public, stocked with food, and free across the board.

If people miss this for some reason, we should be back to our usual game at a couple of the venues we previously mentioned around the same time that all the leaves change with summer’s passing.

NYC: An Uptown Soprano Interrogation

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By , September 10, 2009 12:47 pm

Antoni

Funsherpa NY features Antoni Mendezona, a rising star who just got accepted into the Dicapo Opera Young Artist Program.  Antoni moved to NYC soon after finishing her studies at the Westminster Choir College at Rider University.  She has performed in a variety of Operas and Concerts in California and tonight will be her New York debut in Tobias Picker’s Emmeline at the DiCapo Theatre.  Antoni currently resides in Washington Heights where she enjoys quiets walks and the rich Dominican culture.

F: Why did you move to New York?

I moved to New York to continue studying with my voice teacher and to be a Resident Artist with Dicapo Opera Theatre. Plus New York is the hub for auditions and it makes sense to be in the center of where everything’s happening.

F: What has been your most defining ‘welcome to new york’ experience so far?

Well… I have this neighbor who lives in the building across from mine and he apparently likes to hang out of his window and watch people. My roommates and I nicknamed him “Peeping Pablo”  when he decided to choose our apartment as his new found interest. Every now and then he puts on a cowboy hat, or a wrestling mask or plays with animal balloons. It’s always entertaining to come home and guess what he’s up to next!

F: When and how were you first drawn to opera / classical vocals?  Were you always musical as a child?

Piano was my first instrument and I took lessons for about 8 years in the Philippines. I always sang at church and in school – it just came naturally to me. So when it came time to decide what to major in for college, music was the only thing that made sense to me! The first time I saw an opera, it was La Boheme with Anna Netrebko at the San Francisco Opera. I immediately fell in love with it and auditioned for my college’s opera program as soon as I could!

F: How do you prepare for your roles ?

First I try to see what literary piece the opera is based on. It’s really important to me to know the historical aspect of the role I’m prepping. Then if it’s in another language, I first do a literal translation and then a poetic translation. Then I speak what I need to sing for a while to get the language in my head and flowing easier off my tongue. After I do all of that, then I learn the music. Since I play the piano, I like to learn the accompaniment first to understand the music aside from the vocal line and then I sing! I try to do all of this before I take the music to my teacher and coaches. It’s a lot of work but worth it in the end!

F: What’s been your favorite role to date?

I sang “Elisa” from Il Re Pastore last December and fell in love with her character. Not only was Mozart’s writing absolutely stunning, the strong personality appointed to Elisa made it so much easier to commit to the performance.

F: Tell us about your upcoming performance in Emmeline ?

Emmeline (written by American composer Tobias Picker), is a story about  a young girl from Maine who was sent to work in a factory in New Hampshire. She is seduced by the boss’s son-in-law and actually ends up having his child. The child was taken away from her and adopted and Emmeline never knows who her child is. She returns to Maine and lives with her family and falls in love with a young man new to the area. They marry and live happily until the truth about his identity is revealed in an extremely dramatic scene. It turns out that he is actually her child!

I am covering one of the leads and singing in the chorus as well. Our stage director is Hungarian and is a genius! We are taking the show to Hungary in November as participants of this competition and I hope we win!

F: How would you make opera appeal more to the younger generations? What do you think of an American Opera Idol?

That’s a really tough question, one which has been asked and discussed at length at most of the parties I go to with musicians! I think if we try and market opera the way the MET is doing right now, more drama, more mainstream advertising, then maybe it will appeal more to younger generations. The most important way I think to get younger generations to even begin to appreciate opera is music education and exposure at an early age.

I think an American opera Idol would be really cool!

F: Tell us about what “non-opera” jobs you have had or are currenty doing? What has been your favorite?  Which one sucked the most?

Well, I do LOTS of things. I temp, baby-sit, dog-sit, sometimes sing at a church …. what else?

I really can’t say which one has been my favorite and which one sucked the most. I am very grateful for all the jobs that I have! Some days are harder than others but I do enjoy them most of the time.

F: When not rehearsing, auditioning, performing or working you non opera jobs, how do you unwind and relax in the city?

I barely have any time to unwind! But when I do, I like to go for walks. The city is so beautiful in so many different ways that it is always interesting to me.

F: What are your top 3 songs you would choose when you go to karaoke?

That’s easy! Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, Eternal Flame by the Bangles, and  Yesterday by the Beatles. I know…I’m sappy.

F: Have  you thought about what you might do when you stop singing?

I hope that the only reason why I would stop singing is because I decided to retire! (I’m not joking either!). When that happens, I think I’d like to direct some shows, maybe do some work with young artists.

F: How do you like living in Washington Heights ? Any spots you recommend in your neighborhood?

I love Washington Heights. I like the fact that when I get out of the subway, the air feels cleaner and I can actually breathe and hear my own thoughts! I would definitely recommend a restaurant called Plum Pomidor. They make most of their pastas at the restaurant and their duck confit is delicious and super inexpensive!

Instruments prove instrumental in uniting the world music scene

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By , August 7, 2009 8:00 am

Alex of Andy's Music

Alex of Andy's Music

The entrance to Andy’s Music spans a Belmont street corner in a welcoming way. The shop sign is too big to ignore: rather than walk beneath it, you detour into the store. Momentum carries you through the cluttered foyer into a room covered with pipes, flutes, sitars, and harps. The store extends back further, though you won’t find that out until later. When you discover the basement – filled with percussion instruments from every part of the world – you’ll realize you’d need days to properly explore.

If you haven’t already guessed, Andy’s Music is not your “standard, one-size-fits-all” music store: it’s an experience. They feature instruments along with their world music counterparts. For a musician, it’s heaven; even for a non-musician, immersion is irresistible. The employees are storytellers who can relate each instrument’s evolution. Funsherpa talked with Alex, a longtime partner and professional multi-instrumentalist:

How did this store evolve?

At first Andy’s Music was a neighborhood kind of place that sold guitars, keyboards, and drums – more standard-issue music technology. Andy was into many different kinds of music, but never had the time to travel around the world learning about it firsthand. Slowly but surely he began to change his retail business to acoustic and exotic products.

Around the same time he started a rental business to capture what’s commonly called backline rental, where you rent drums, keyboards, guitars to traveling acts that come through town. The rental business was built into its own establishment, and they deal with a lot of the main venues in town. Very frequently a band that is traveling through say, House of Blues will need something. Backline rental fills the gap between what the venue has, what the band has, and what they need.

What is your best-selling instrument?

Gongs have been a big part of our sales in the past year and a half. I’ve sold tremendous amounts of gongs to all different parts of the world, but mainly the US.

How do you import handmade instruments from countries all over the globe?

Andy has partners who are very experienced musicians with a keen understanding of what quality looks and sounds like. The problem was investigating the right vendors to collect sellable musical instruments – not just kitsch-kitsch from all over the world – and maintaining those relationships so as to restock the inventory. My secret to success is feeling out what people already know about world music and offering enough inventory to broaden people’s perceptions – instruments that can carry them from any point in their learning path.

I’m always learning myself and am always interested in what my customers have to say about world music that has affected them. The more I know, the better I’m going to be at choosing the right stuff for the store. I want to make people interested in instruments in a musical way and make them want to play it. That’s the hands-on approach that makes this store much more interesting and – so far – successful.

How do you find people to teach each indigenous instrument?

There’s a lot to be said for finding a good teacher who is close to the actual native tradition that built and created the instrument. When I was learning to play the conga drum, the guy I found didn’t speak English but was an unbelievable musician. We didn’t need to speak English – I came there to play conga. I tuned my drums; he tuned his drums; and he would say, ‘Salsa!’ and begin to play very slowly. When he heard me pick it up, he’d speed up the tempo; then I would go faster, and he would go faster…  Eventually I was playing so fast, I could barely think about my hands anymore. That kind of experience is invaluable, but it’s not going to be available to everyone.

There’s more community-based music making going on in America, which I think is a positive thing! Interest has been channeled into just hanging out and playing music – whether it be Irish music or hand-drumming or any kind of European folk music. You don’t have to be an expert at first – you can feel your way along. Drumming is just putting yourself in rhythm with a bunch of other players who may have many different levels of experience. Creating that kind of resonance is the next step to integrating world music, so that it becomes more understood and accepted in the first world.

What is the life of a professional musician like?

I got hired by these really good tabla players from India. I’ve studied raga, so I know a lot of raga forms. Raga music, to me, is a form of very meaningful improvisation, but they don’t consider it improvisation because they’ve learned the material and reproduce it without the page. If I can convince them that what they’re doing is improvisation, that can only affect their playing positively. But there’s a certain meat-and-potatoes practicality to learning songs: it’s a means of communication.

What is your favorite instrument in the shop?

Sitar is definitely one of my favorites. I was a classically-trained trumpet player as a child, so I studied a great deal about classical and jazz music. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was experimenting with all kinds of percussion instruments – conga, djembe – and then slowly but surely the more exotic, Arabic flavors of percussion. Now I’m basically a professional multi-instrumentalist that specializes in Indian music – the most compelling music for me to take apart and to learn about the universal structures of all music.

Can you trace characteristic variations in instruments based on the country of origin?

Many instruments have a very long and interesting musicological history; they go through stages where they were played by this group of people for these reasons, which affected the physicality of the instrument in this way, which led it to be introduced into this country several hundred years later. The other part of that story is how instruments like the Sitar have been put together hodge-podge over hundreds of years – developments in the music itself caused certain physical characteristics to be added to the instrument.

Even the word ‘sitar’ is hybrid – just like a lot of Northern Indian music – because Northern India switched from a poly-theistic Hindu culture to a monotheistic Islamic culture. That changed their music irreparably, and the sitar is very much a reflection of that rupture. We’re all trying to reach those same tones and resonances, but it’s fascinating how varied our approach is to achieve the same aesthetic sound.

Has this shop found its place within the community?

Our family of musicians and artifact-finders stretches across the country and is always growing. We have 4500 square feet and yes, we do get a little busy on Saturdays, but there’s plenty more room for people to come explore, to experience different kinds of musical instruments and sounds.

On another note, we are interested in creating a museum of musical instruments, a specifically cultural experience. The role we play – where people can come in and have a hands-on experience with music from thousands of miles away – that’s a goal in and of itself: to make music more accessible to people. A museum is the best way we’ve been able to frame it.

Andy’s just started to open up his warehouse for performances. You think it’s crazy here, but he’s got even crazier, incredible, museum-level pieces scattered all about the place. It makes sense to buy a building and house everything in one place. We’re working all that out in the next few months – it’s an exciting time.

Improvising skits and composing folk music with Tim Joyce

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By , July 27, 2009 9:49 am

Funnyman and musician Tim Joyce

Funnyman and musician Tim Joyce

Tim Joyce, a Second City improv student and folk musician talks about his passion for performing.  Like the best musicians and comedians, Tim strives to keep learning, changing and improving his skills. When you have some free time, you should watch him perform at the Second City and catch a late night brewsky with him at the Old Town Ale House.

F: Many people enjoy comedy without ever trying it themselves. Based on your experience, what are the biggest differences between being on stage and sitting in the audience?

T: This is a tough question. I think the differences are far fewer than most people think. What really makes people laugh are the things that they can identify with. Most people know when things are funny, and funny stuff happens in our lives everyday. When you see someone on stage in a funny situation and you recognize it as something that has happened or could happen to you, it makes you laugh. The one big difference: as a performer, you are putting your self out there. You and your life experience can get laid out for everyone to see. If someone yells out “embarrassment” as a suggestion, you may likely have to deal with the time that you wet your pants in gym class in second grade. And there is the rub, you will have to deal with it in front of a bunch of strangers. (That didn’t happen to me though…)

F: What was your first routine like?

T: My real first stab at comedy was as a little kid. I would jam a globe under my t-shirt and pretend I was an uncle who had quite a large gut. People laughed. Turn about is fair play I guess, because now my nieces and nephews get to do the same thing to me. One of my more recent opportunities to perform in front of a non family audience was at the end of my first year at the Second City. There were definitely some nerves and the fear that I would screw something up, but as soon as I stepped out on the stage, I forgot I was nervous. You trust that your teammates will not let you down, and have to trust that you are being honest and make sure you are having fun, and things will work out.

F: How would you describe your comedic style?

T: I think that is always evolving, especially in improv. Currently, I think I am a slow burn type of guy. When it comes to improvisation, I find myself taking a lot of time to let things sink in. Not that I am slow on the uptake, but I might react with a facial expression or a movement of my body before anything comes out of my mouth. This might be out of necessity at this point in my training. I’m still learning. It would be nice to be one of those people who can say what seems like the right thing every single time. I think a lot of that comes with practice: The more you do it, the more comfortable you get. (At least I keep telling myself that.)

F: How do you learn in comedy class?

T: I think the key is listening. It sounds corny, and you hear it all the time, but you have to pay attention. I learn more from watching my classmates than any other way. Seeing how they succeed and how they fail is the best instruction. And I think failing is a huge part of improv. You have to be able to let yourself screw up, forget about it, and move on.

F: Do people always ask you tell jokes? How hard is it to improvise something funny on the fly?

T: “Tell me a joke” happens pretty often. But more often is “Do something funny,” or “Do an improv!” I try, in the nicest way possible, to explain to people that it is not a crazy-hands, toe-tappin’ cigar-in-the-mouth Vaudeville thing. I try to explain that it is more often the people you work with who make you funny. It is getting in a scene with them and connecting with them that gets the laughs, it is about people in the audience being able to recognize something you are doing as something they might do, or more likely something they have already done. I guess to answer the question: “On the fly” is what it is all about, but it feels most rewarding when you have a partner in crime who knows the ropes a little bit.  This answer doesn’t usually leave family members very satisfied at Thanksgiving though, and that is usually the time I pull a joke out of the old funny bag.

F: What do you think of the comedy scene here in Chicago, especially improv?

T: I think Chicago is an amazing and incredibly supportive place for improv. I have spent a lot of time in the music scene here in Chicago and I find them very similar: Two very supportive groups of people with a lot of overlap. On any given night in Chicago you have access to some of the most accomplished performers in their fields. You can see a musician at the Old Town School of Folk Music on one night and the next night they will be playing at a little club in Evanston. Or, you can see someone on the mainstage at Second City one week and then see them at the iO or The Annoyance the next week. All for not that much cash, really. Great for the audiences, not so great for the performers. But a testament to how much people love performing. (Pay: another sad but true similarity between music and improv.)

F: Second City has some pretty famous alums: can that be intimidating while taking classes at the Training Center? What do you want to do after you perfect your craft?

T: There is no doubt that history surrounds you at The Second City. There are reminders everywhere about all the other people who preceded you: old flyers, posters, paintings. even the people who are training you are part of that history.  It is intimidating at first, knowing that all these famous folks who came through the programs and performed at Second City. But as a student, the real solace is something I mentioned before: knowing they all failed at some point and kept plugging along. I don’t really have an end goal in mind at this point really. Right now, I just want to really continue plowing through to be able to get good at this. I don’t know if you can ever perfect the craft of improv either. It seems that even the best performers are always learning and changing and getting better, even the ones you think are already geniuses.

F: You also work at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a singular presence on the Chicago music scene. What distinguishes folk music (from classical or pop, for example)?

T: I think folk actually has a pretty expansive definition. People usually just think of the sixties folk revival most of the time, but I think it extends way beyond that.  A lot of musical genres have more folk in them than people realize. The points where musical genres overlap are what I find the most interesting and I like music and artist that are blurring those lines. For example, one thing that is exciting to me right now are the groups of younger classical musicians who are playing smaller group shows in venues that normally wouldn’t be for classical music, and not necessarily playing all classical pieces.

F: How does comedy relate to music, particularly folk music?

T: I think there is a real similarity on the learning level. You have to practice to improve. No one can just sit down and pick up a Banjo and play Bluegrass having never touched a banjo before. The same way that no one can jump up on stage and be an expert improviser from the get go. You need a little instruction and you need to practice. You need to learn the basics. In banjo, it is chord shapes, tunings, clawhammer style, Scruggs picking technique… In improv it is dialogue rules, how to react, how to move your body, how to listen and respond…  And then after you get the basics down, you can decide what you like, what you want to continue to use, and find out where you want to go from there.

F: Do you think folk music is becoming more popular with listeners and/or musicians?

T: I do. Even though I would love to expand the definition of folk, there are things that definitely fall into the folk category for many people. It seems like every time you turn around there is another band that has a fiddle player, or a ukulele, or a strange Appalachian instrument in it. I think that is a good thing.

F: What are your favorite places to go in the Old Town neighborhood? What do you think Old Town has to recommend it (above other Chicago neighborhoods)?

T: Ahhhh the Fudge Pot. One of my favorite places in Chicago. You can get chocolate shaped like anything there. I think Old Town is a great neighborhood because of it’s accessibility. Once you are there, you can spend the whole day in a few block radius. This would be mine: I am a bit of a food geek, so I’d hit the Spice House and Old Town Oil then grab Lunch and a smoothie at Fresh Choice, proceed to dessert at the Fudge pot, grab dinner at Trattoria Pizzeria Roma, Catch a show at the Second City, then hit the Old Town Ale house for a late night beer.

F: You said you also run a record label with friends… tell me more about that.

T: The label is called Contraphonic. Part of the label is a traditional record label with a roster of bands running the gamut from freaky folk music, to giant experimental jazz orchestras, to 70’s style pop music. The other part is a Chicago History based project called the Chicago Sound Series. There are two parts to that currently. Little Hell is a Series (currently 4 volumes) in which we have musicians compose short, e.p. length musical interpretations of historical people, places, or events related to Chicago. The second portion is called “ A Lot You Got to Holler.” The “Hollers” are very short studies/field recordings of things in and around Chicago. Those are free downloads on our site.

F: And, finally, please tell me how you manage to pursue all these diverse interests and find time to sleep!

T: It is difficult. But when you are lucky enough to be involved in things that really mean something to you, it makes it easier. The excitement and enjoyment I feel when I am about to head to a class at Second City, record with my band, or watch a show at the Hideout keeps me going. (Plus I have a very supportive wife.)

F: There is another comedian named Tim Joyce based in Chicago – also associated with Second city, no less! Have there been any embarrassing mix-ups between the two of you?

F: I get the occasional Facebook message for him, but nothing major. Wait, I’m not even sure it was the same Tim Joyce, but there was this time in college…(cue flashback music)… It was the final day of a History class I was taking. The day before the exam and the professor asked me to see him after class. He pulls a Chicago Tribune out of his desk drawer, looks me in the eye and says “I need to know if this is you” He slaps the Local section of the paper down on the desk and there is a giant photo of Barney the dinosaur. I begin to read the article and the first lines say something like: “ Every weekend local actor Tim Joyce dons his Barney suit to entertain kids on the North Shore of Chicago…” I vehemently denied it until he finally believed me. But before I left I asked if it would have affected my grade, and he said very honestly “Very likely, I can’t just overlook these kinds of things.”

F: Any other cool things we should know about you?

T: I am addicted to cooking Italian food. I am a rabid cookbook reader, not a big fan of roller coasters, I love visiting Montana, and I used to drive a school bus.

NYC: Smooth Groovin and Chillin’ with Conchita Campos

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By , July 15, 2009 8:00 am

Conchita concentrating before a performance

Conchita concentrating before a performance

A funsherpa first! Interrogating the interesting is now in New York City!  Our first NYC feature is with singer/songwriter Conchita Campos. Having recently moved back to the Big Apple after a year of self discovery in San Francisco, Conchita brings back her unique sound and music talent back to the city.  If you’re interested in checking her music out, you can find her EP here and on iTunes

F: So what’s up with Conchita these days?

C: I am currently working hard on my first full-length album – it is quite exciting because it is about 75% done!

F: You seem quite talented in many things, what made you decide to create music?

C: I come from a musical family. My dad played the piano and my brother picked up the guitar in high school, so that’s how I got into playing music. When I got to college, I eventually decided to take it up as my major and have been playing ever since.

F: Who are your major influences on your sound/style ?

C: I grew up around a lot of jazz and Latin jazz and my dad collected a lot of records, so there’s a big jazz influence in there. As I got older, I started to listening to other styles, like soul, hip hop, indie rock, electronic – I think there’s a little bit of all of that in there.

F: Has NY influenced your music much?

C: Definitely!  I think the dark, grittiness that comes out in my music is a NY thing. I noticed the songs I’ve written in California are significantly more upbeat, at least in melody.

F: I’ve thought of becoming a singer…any advice to the aspiring singer/songwriter?

C: Like most things, there will always be ups and downs and you’ll always have doubts. As long as you remain sincere and passionate, you’ll be able to push through it. Keep creating and dreaming.

F: So you mentioned that you have an upcoming album…can you spill the beans on it?

C: It’s a big departure from the purely organic, acoustic sound of the EP.  It’s heavy on the jazz and soul, with some elements of my roots in acoustic music. I worked with really amazing people (The Park, Rachel Lastimosa from Dirty Boots, Nino Moschella) to create the sound I envisioned for the album.  Hopefully, people see the fruits of our labor in this collaborative endeavor.

F: Aside from the finance world, NYC has an awesome arts scene.  How do you feel about the current music scene in NYC?

C: The NYC music scene is diverse and always evolving, just like the city itself. My biggest gripe with it is that it’s so extremely competitive, so there isn’t as much of a sense of community in the music scene, unlike that in San Francisco. On the other hand, it’s good in the sense that it forces you to stay motivated and driven and passionate.

F: Why did you decide to move back to NYC after moving back to San Francisco for a year ?

C: I went to San Francisco to record the album. It made absolute sense to do it in there because I could work with people I admire and respect, who would be able to achieve my vision for the album. I was surrounded by amazing musicians who were also my friends. It made everything easier and more enjoyable. Now that the album is pretty much done, I felt like it was time for me to go home. One of my favorite artists, Alana Davis, said that as an artist, you must be where you feel most inspired. Being in the Bay Area for a year made me realize that NY is now home. It’s where I’ve been inspired to write and constantly evolve and create.

F: Where do you go in the city when you need inspiration for writing your music?

C: I watch a lot of shows, whenever and wherever I can.

F: Can you tell us where Conchita hangs out in the city to listen to live music?

C: The summer is awesome because you have all these great free concerts. I love jazz shows, so there’s Smoke and Sweet Rhythm.

F: Favorite place in the city to perform?

I have a soft spot for The Bitter End, since it’s where I played my first NY gig.

F: We love summer – any suggestions for things to do in the city during this time of the year?

Summerstage, the music festivals, food festivals – so much to do really!

Jay Ryan smashes together the worlds of rock music and poster making

By , May 22, 2009 8:35 am

The man behind the Bird Machine

The man behind the Bird Machine

Rock-band bassist and silkscreen artist Jay Ryan speaks to us about his work, interests and love for labor intensive processes. While most poster makers enter the craft by way of graphic design or digital artistry, Jay’s education consisted of a degree in painting from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, ditching fine art painting for the more exciting world of poster making. He prefers creating his posters by hand, avoiding Photoshop at all costs…including many cuts from his treasured Exacto knife. Also, unlike most rock bands (with the exception of the Rolling Stones and U2) Jay’s band, Dianogah, has played together in the Chicago area and internationally for about 15 years.

F: You have a degree in Painting, why work on posters and not stick to painting or try out photography?

J: One of problems I had in school was finding justification for doing what I was doing. I wanted to do something where I could have fun with it visually and at the same time serve a purpose. To me, images alone seemed pointless, so I was always attaching text and creating a message with my work. Then, the other half of my life was spent going to rock concerts or band practice – so making posters for bands seemed like a great way to combine these interests!

F: So are your posters as easy as hitting the print button?

J: I make them all by hand with no computers. They are hand drawn, and all layers of film are cut by hand using Exacto knives. If we are making 300 posters, we go through 300 pieces of paper, put one color down, change screens and put another color down on all 300 pieces. We’ll usually end up making posters that include 5-7 colors so it is quite labor intensive.

F: Do you feel threatened by the digital world, where almost everything can be created through Adobe software and a printer?

J: I am encouraged by it because a lot of my peers in the poster community design all their work digitally but still go through the physical process of making these screen prints. In general, I believe there will always be those who appreciate handmade work. For example, there are still people who buy LPs and books despite itunes and the Kindle. Maybe my posters won’t be in the hands of a hundred million people, but I’ll still have people who appreciate and care about the art and amount of work put into the piece.

F: Why is it called the bird machine?

J: I was going to call it IBM, but that was taken, so we settled on The Bird Machine. There’s no real good reason, but I should really make one up. A lot of people ask me this question. A few probable reasons are that my wife is an ornithologist, and when I started the company I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

One of Jay's handmade creations

One of Jay's handmade creations

F: You are in a band, Dianogah that recently performed in the UK, at the ATP Festival, what was it like?

J: Traveling anywhere with this band is a lot of fun. I’ve been in this band longer than I’ve been making posters. Anytime we get together and travel and play is a blast. We got to see some good bands, stay up late, and act like we were 23, even though we are all in our late 30s. It was a fun weekend, with not a lot sleep.

F: Where do you play out here?

J: We have played in almost every venue in Chicago over the years, but The Hideout is our favorite place to play. Our next gig in Chicago is at the Pitchfork Music Festival; we are playing there on July 19th. There is a poster convention at the festival too, and I’ll be there showing and hopefully selling my posters.

F: What neighborhood do you live in? What do you do around there?

J: I live in Evanston, mow the lawn and walk the dog daily – I am fully suburban, as I work and live outside the city. Actually, there’s not a whole lot to do really close to my house, though there’s plenty within biking distance. I go to Chicago a lot. I used to live near Granville and Western. First best reason to go into Chicago is to go to Hot Doug’s, then Kuma’s Corner to get an amazing cheeseburger. I just had a swine flu burger there and it was great. I love browsing books at Quimby’s Books in Wicker Park and spend more money then I should at Reckless Records. Oh yeah, I also enjoy going to Rotofugi, Renegade Handmade, and eating at Milk & Honey.

F: What is your favorite gallery or place to check out visual art?

J: Rotofugi is like a vinyl toy store, but they also have some books, and have gallery space. Definitely have a bunch of good stuff there. Heaven Gallery is cool too.

F: Where can we see your work?

J: This is where I go hi-tech. Best place to see my prints is to check out my website.

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