Hyponik

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Silk Rhodes: Psychedelic Terrain

Besides being one of the finest music documentaries of recent years, 2014’s Jeff Broadway directed ‘Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton’ will also go down as the site of our first encounter with Silk Rhodes. Despite being sandwiched in the midst of a soundtrack that featured label staples such as Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne and Aloe Blacc, the then unheralded duo’s naggingly infectious ‘Face To Face‘ managed to instantly sear its way into our consciousness – becoming the subject of many feeble whistling cover versions in the process. In a way, that track’s surprising resonance reflected the resolution of the film’s narrative, with Stones Throw’s early-to-mid 00’s days as a pillar of alternative Hip-Hop shown to have given way to the present day, where it serves as one of the world’s most impressive independent labels – a hotbed for unusual and exciting talent.

As the months passed and Silk Rhodes began to move from obscurity into the foreground, their fit for Stones Throw became increasingly apparent. Despite the instantaneous nature of ‘Face To Face’ it was clear that there was nothing straightforward about the group. Made up of Michael Collins on production and Sasha Desree on vocals, their knack for melody and hooky immediacy is tempered by a prevalent streak of weirdness that seeps through to their music, their late 70s touring Rock band meets Spanish Lothario dress sense, and of course their name. A not at all subtle nod to the currently banned illicit online marketplace, Silk Road, its only the most recent narcotics pun the two have been involved in – with Michael and Sasha having previously worked together on projects such as Run DMT and Salvia Plath. This particular brand of humour was taken one step further with the eventual release of their self-titled debut in the second half of last year – adorned as it was with an image of an open mouthed youngster with a tab of ‘Silk Rhodes’ branded acid on their tongue.

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Speaking to Sasha over Skype, he concedes that salacious gestures such as the one carried out by their cover art have opened him and Michael up for controversy but that, “..it’s always interesting when people try to have those kind of taboo conversations in a cute way.” Asked whether or not he’s worried that faux-outrage might detract from the music he and his partner make, he shares his hope, “…that today people take it with a grain of salt and they recognize the broad strokes that can be made with a thin brush.”  Its an understandable wish, and one that also belies the very real influence of Psychedelia on Silk Rhodes.

In a mischievous bit of self-mythologizing , Michael and Sasha claim to have made their first tune after sharing a tab of Acid together on a Baltimore porch. Subsequent forays into recording proved to be no less unorthodox – with the duo spending many hours driving around the streets of the Maryland city, recording and picking up strangers as they went. With both of them professing to take inspiration from shifts in environments and stimuli, the method was just as important as the result. “I think especially when we were making things in the car, that was just off the dome and we didn’t think about it, but we ended up making awesome Pop songs and then we erased them, they were gone. They were just for the moment, for us and for the gods”, says Sasha getting nostalgic.

The in-car experiments were just a period in the past though – albeit a fruitful one, and Sasha is aware of the need to avoid, “…the fetishisation of any one way”, of making music. From motels, to Michael’s parents’ house, the various recording locations for their debut album made sure things never stagnated, something which you can hear on the record. It’s there in the wispy and wistful minimalist Soul of ‘Pains’, the breezy Soulquarians-esque meanderings of ‘Realtime’ and the sitar flecked Beach Boys harmonies of ‘This Painted World’ – with each track on the album containing an almost imperceptible dash of the pair’s unique personality.

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Sasha’s vocals meanwhile – often harmonized with himself, float nebulously around gender classification, his falsetto capable of sounding at once sensual and wounded. The juxtaposition of melodious Pop sensibility with more esoteric proclivities is the key feature of ‘Silk Rhodes’, something which Sasha sees as less of a balancing act and more as a byproduct of their natural creative tendencies. “Both sides inform each other and no one is more legitimate than the other or comes first. I think its really important to keep both of those alive and have both of those be informed by each other”, he says.

Probing Sasha on his recent listening habits, the album’s distinctly hazy atmosphere begins to make a little more sense. He somewhat unexpectedly lists the likes of DJ Richard, Terekke and ‘close friend’, Huerco S as inspirations – citing a shared musical kinship with these so-called ‘Outsider House’ producers. “I’m interested in that whole world, because we’re all making different kinds of music and have found ourselves in new psychedelic terrain.” Its a typically ‘Sasha’ take on things, and also one that hints at the creative freedom afforded to him and Michael by their boss Peanut Butter Wolf.

Initially pegged as blue eyed Neo-Soul revivalists after ‘Face To Face’ surfaced, Wolf was happy to allow them to subvert these expectations with their eventual album. Describing this artistic carte blanché as one of the driving forces behind them signing with the label, Sasha explains: “The idea that Wolf is ready to let his artists kind of do whatever they need to feel that they’re expressing themselves, and have the support of a family of musicians and artists that we have so much respect for, and influenced us as young kids, seemed like a package deal that was too good to be true in some way.”

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Asides from the freedom and prestige associated with joining Stones Throw, signing also meant moving to the West Coast. For Sasha at least this move presented him with a stimulation selection of new options on his car radio. “Every day no matter where you are – if you have a radio with you, you can listen to at least two stations at a time that have Funk playing. On the East Coast there’s Jazz stations, we have Soul stations here – but there aren’t stations that are like breathing Funk. That seems as though its ‘alive’ over here.”

Other than the finding himself living in an atmosphere thick with Funk, Sasha also noticed Los Angeles provided a distinctly different all round mood than his old Baltimore stomping ground. “All of these cities in America that have fallen into the Rust Belt – places that have really vibrant artistic communities but also are like broken cities, are so complicated be in, because there’s so much opportunity for growth because there’s space, but there’s also just so much pain.” He adds that he thinks, “being in Baltimore really affected the music that we made just driving around feeling that and feeling emptiness and space.”

Whilst there’s definitely an amount of SoCal sunshine audible on ‘Silk Rhodes’, there’s also a residual amount of this aforementioned Rust Belt melancholy there too. Tracks like (the aptly titled) ‘Pains’ or ‘Barely New’ are tinged with sadness, whilst ‘Laurie’s Machine’ provides a banal yet strangely affecting portrait of the titular Laurie’s life via an answering machine cassette the two found in a Baltimore thrift store. As with their approach to instrumentation, Sasha and Michael prefer to keep an open mind when working on lyrics. “Sometimes we’ll have something we’ve been working on and we’ll want to throw it along with that. Other times it comes along with the first vocal melody, the words are there and its obvious. A lot of times though, we’ll make something and then we’ll sit and just kind of hang out with the sound and get an emotion from it and see how it makes us feel.”

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A well realised and individual artistic statement, the album received has received a uniformly positive response since it came out. Going forward Sasha’s eager to take the songs out on the road – either as a two piece or with a, “small vocal ensemble”. Their open ended approach to recording looks set to translate into the live arena, with improvisation tabled to be a key component of their performances.

Continuing to question Sasha about future plans I ask whether or not he’s considered the possibility of collaborating with any of his talented label mates – a possibility which clearly excites him. “I really, really am into Georgia Ann Muldrow’s music – I think she’s incredible, so dope. I love Bryant K, who’s sort of more a poet and a performer. We’ll see what happens and really it’s so exciting because the places that we’re going now in terms of this project, we can say so many things after this first record – and that’s inspiring to have this kind of openness.” With an inherent refusal to slouch into routine and as good a home as any artist could ever hope for, you feel there’s every reason for us to join in his excitement for what the future has in store for Silk Rhodes.

‘Silk Rhodes’ is out now on Stones Thow. Buy it here.

Words: Christian Murphy
Photography: Theo Jemison