Photos: Ryan Schreb
Photos: Ryan Schreb

PUBLIQuartet’s Amanda Gookin Shares Her Thoughts On Equality In Classical Music

Sponsored by Washington Performing Arts, PUBLIQuartet from New York City is bringing their one-of-a-kind string improv style to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Saturday, Feb. 24. Their newest program, Freedom & Faith, features arrangements by Jessie Montgomery, Meredith Monk, and Jihyun Kim, as well as the world premiere of “Get Into The Now” by Jessica Meyer and co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts.

On Tap speaks with cellist Amanda Gookin about female representation in classical music, the importance of music education and PUBLIQuartet’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016.

On Tap: Can you tell me a little bit about what your audience can expect from the performance in DC?
Amanda Gookin:
Our program is called Freedom & Faith and we are exploring the idea of creativity, inspiration and artistic freedom. The program features compositions all by women and many of them are living. We called it Freedom & Faith because I’m interested in exploring the freedom of women artists especially in composition because they are still sorely underrepresented in classical programming and the idea, not necessarily of religious faith, but more of a confidence in oneself and the faith that an artist has in them to create.

OT: Since your program is very focused on uplifting female composers, I would love to hear your experience as a female professional musician and what you think the industry can do to work towards equal representation.
AG: Essentially, I think it’s always just to ask yourself the tough questions if you’re a performing musician or you’re running a conservatory and accepting students. What are your demographics? Who am I empowering? Who am I encouraging to write, create and perform music? It seems like it shouldn’t be that difficult, but I guess because major orchestras and presenters are still programming music by primarily white males, and many of them are long gone, there’s a lot of work to be done. In classical music, people may be afraid of stepping outside of what we call “the greats” or “the masters,” which in of itself is a pretty oppressive term because the gender associated with the term “master” is usually male dominated. There are not a lot of people that we call “masters” or “greats” in the canon that are women. In fact, I really can’t think of any.

OT: Do the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have anything to do with creating an all-female composers program?
AG: #MeToo came about well after we had created this program. The program is layered; there’s the curiosity of understanding the female experience of these composers in addition to understanding where art comes from in general. My favorite quote is the Nina Simone quote, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I do think it is our duty to do what we can to help the community grow and create a better future. If there are women in the #MeToo movement who have struggled, I hope that programs like this can offer a sense of comfort and solidarity, but at the end of the day, it’s about everybody coming together and celebrating the art and the music of these women and lifting each other up for a brighter future.

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OT: When did you start playing cello? When did you realize you wanted to become a professional musician?
AG: I started playing cello when I was 9 in public school, and around age 10 I started taking private lessons. It was the first thing that I really latched on to, so as I continued taking private lessons, I really had a great relationship with my private teacher and she was very encouraging. Probably when I was in middle school to early high school I decided that music was going to be my path and all activities after that were focused on music performance.

OT: Support for the arts in public schools is becoming a little bit of an issue with arts programs being cut across the country. Why is it important for music or other forms of creative expression to be available for students?
AG: Just on the baseline, there has been quite a bit of research on the benefits of music education. It is proven that music education is imperative for a child’s development. As somebody who has studied music and also teaches, there are so many facets that it’s not just learning how to have fun and play some notes. You learn really good listening skills, how to play with other people, and respect. On a mentally developmental level it’s really important, but it’s important on a social level as well because you have to learn how to communicate through another language and it can really bring people together in a way that many other areas of study can’t.

OT: With your background of teaching music in New York public schools and leading courses in career development and artistic programming, how do you help PUBLIQuartet bring music education to kids and people in general?
AG: We do a lot of education and outreach. Primarily, we bring improvisation workshops to these schools where students have the opportunity to create music on the spot. When students first learn, they’re so on the page and especially with string musicians in classical music, there’s a real fear of improvisation because there’s this oppressive need to play everything correctly. We try to encourage kids to see that they can be musical beyond the page, and they all have the ability to create and compose. With our audiences, we’re really focused on educating them on the importance of supporting living composers.

OT: Speaking of improv, I watched PUBLIQuartet’s performance hosted by The Late Show during the last presidential debate. What was that like? Did you get to meet Stephen Colbert?
AG: That was a definite highlight, it’s one for the books. It was really nerve racking because there were over a million viewers tuning in and there was a lot of pressure around the final debate. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen, everything is on the spot. We were on our toes the entire 90 minutes, and it just flew by. And yeah, we did get to meet him. A total dream come true.

OT: You said part of your mission is to bring improvisation to the classical quartet world, so what are the other parts of PUBLIQuartet’s mission?
AG: Honestly, I think any arts organization’s mission is always evolving because people change, times are changing, and I think it’s important to always keep your thumb on the pulse of society and how music evolves as time goes on. But the quartet’s mission in general is to support the work of living composers, to expand the traditional model of the string quartet, and to create pathways for younger musicians that are up and coming. We are always evolving in terms of what music we’re programming. Connecting with composers and audiences on a deep, humanistic level is always really important to us.

OT: How would you describe PUBLIQuartet’s sound and style?
AG: We do have a strong base of traditional quartet training, but we try not to think about our instrument as a box. Playing viola, violin and cello, there are limits, but we try to figure out how to overcome those limitations. So if we’re trying to emulate an electronic sound or something that you could only create with a computer, we have to figure out a technique to get it as close as possible. A lot of times, those techniques are far away from how we’ve been traditionally trained. We’re really into percussion, so we add rhythm a lot. Nick, our violist, is really good at chopping, which is this technique where you scratch the bow really close to the bridge. We really like to make the sound of what a record stop would be, or a record moving backwards. All in all, we come at it from a sound perspective. We have a sound that we want to achieve, and we just have to figure out how to surmount our instruments.

Check out PUBLIQuartet’s performance on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: 600 I St. NW, DC; (202) 408-3100; www.sixthandi.org

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Tedeschi Trucks Band At Warner Theatre

During the weekends of February 9-10 and February 16-17, the Tedeschi Trucks Band gave audiences at the Warner Theatre a glimpse of their powerful Southern soul rock, including some covers of rock n’roll stalwarts such as David Bowie. Photos: Nathan Payne

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Superchunk at Baltimore’s Ottobar

Superchunk kicked off their 2018 tour on February 15 at Ottobar in Baltimore. Their set list included several songs from their newest release, What a Time to Be Alive, as well as classic hits that everyone came to hear. The show packed a lot of energy from the band and the crowd. Superchunk is playing Black Cat on April 3, and this show is a can’t-miss. Photos/write-up: Shantel Breen

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BØRNS at The Anthem

Following the smash success of platinum-selling single “Electric Love” BØRNS has performed at major festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo, in addition to headlining a sold-out theater tour in 2016. BØRNS released his sophomore album Blue Madonna on January 12th on Interscope Records and is currently on a North American headline tour. He played at The Anthem on February 13. Photos: Shantel Mitchell Breen and K. Gabrielle Photography

Photo: Cara Robbins
Photo: Cara Robbins

Josh Hodges Talks 10 Years in STRFKR, Upcoming 9:30 Club Show

Best known for hit songs “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” and “While I’m Alive,” STRFKR is throwing a high-energy dance party on Saturday night at 9:30 Club. Since Josh Hodges’ solo project began at house parties in Portland 10 years ago, he’s released 11 albums, toured all over the U.S. and built a reputation for insanely fun homemade lighting effects at his live shows.

Hodges’ latest release was 2017’s The Vault series, featuring three volumes full of unfinished songs from the 2007-2008 era that he salvaged from a 15-year-old computer. To prelude his sold-out show, On Tap got in touch with him to talk about the band’s 10-year anniversary, playing drums, Target commercials and his personal take on Buddhism.

On Tap: I read that you never really thought that STRFKR would become as big as it did, so that’s partially why you chose the name. 
Josh Hodges: Both things are true, but not causally. I didn’t choose the name necessarily to not make it big, but I definitely chose it as a joke. It was just a solo thing for me to play house shows in Portland.

OT: As you were gaining more and more popularity, was there a moment when you realized that your music was reaching a lot more people than you ever thought possible?
JH: The first time I remember was when we played a festival in San Francisco that was really successful – like the biggest crowd we’d ever played in front of – and it was kind of trippy. I never thought we’d do this. And also getting to travel; we just did an Asia tour. That’s cool in that way too – meeting people in Thailand and Taiwan and China.

OT: What was going through your mind when one of your songs was featured in a Target commercial in 2009?
JH: That was like winning the lottery for me. That was what even enabled us to tour. It was super amazing, actually, even though I definitely felt like it was sort of embarrassing because there’s something about selling a song to a commercial [that] is a lame thing to do. But I also was pretty poor, and if I could make some money doing something that I actually like to do instead of making coffee for people, I think it’s a pretty good use of my time. And so I had to wrestle with it, but I feel way better about it now. I’m actually really grateful for it now because if that didn’t happen, maybe we still would’ve toured, but it really funded everything.

OT: I’m sure it got your name out more because people watching the commercial might have looked up your song if they liked it.
JH: That definitely happened, and that was a trip too. Many people at shows would say, “Oh, I heard your song on that Target commercial.” Man, that’s trippy.

OT: So, it’s STRFKR’s 10th birthday. Are you doing anything special for it?
JH: It’s not totally set in stone yet, but we’re planning a tour of the first cities that were supportive and special to us on our first couple of tours. We’re still going to do the whole first album front to back and some other stuff, but there’s a bunch of songs on the album that we’ve never played. It’s kind of crazy that it’s been 10 years. Time flies. It’ll be kind of a cool weird thing we’re going to do; we’re going to play at small clubs, like the clubs we used to play back then and just do a couple nights at them. We’ve never done anything like this.

OT: What can fans expect from your 9:30 Club show?
JH: We put a lot of time into working on the light show with this, and then we designed a bunch of stuff. We tried to switch up some songs we’ve been playing. We added a bunch of deep cuts, like some weirder B-sides and songs from The Vault period. I think people who have been coming to our shows for a long time will be happy because we’re changing the set around quite a bit; we’re trying to rotate out old songs and put in songs that we’ve either never played or haven’t played very much. If people request stuff on Twitter or whatever, we usually try to accommodate them.

OT: How important is it for you to have an engaging stage show, and what are some of your favorite moments while you’re performing live?
JH: I think it’s important for us because it’s kind of our thing; we’re known for having fun live shows. The fun part for me is when I get to play drums, because a lot of the project when it started was I would just write songs that were simple for me to play drums on because I like to play drums, but I’m not a great drummer. So I only play drums on a few songs, but that’s probably my favorite part. There’s a later part of the show where we have people dress weird and come out and dance and that’s fun – just seeing people’s reactions.

OT: I read that you went through a period of depression, and even though you were going through that, your music is mostly light and groovy. Is there any reason you felt like writing the way you did?
JH: That’s always been like the vibe with this project: feel-good music. The lyrics can be dark, but the music generally has a feel-good vibe. When I first started it, I had this idea where I don’t even really like to dance, but if people come to shows, even if they don’t like the music, but they can still dance [and] have fun. So I was trying to make it where it’s an even mix of that; where it’s still songs that are written and not played on a laptop but also danceable. Sorry, I’m walking around getting lost in Milwaukee right now. I’m trying to find a place to get a flu shot.

OT: That’s okay! Good luck with that. There’s a book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh that helped you through your depression. I’m wondering what book that was and if you could talk about some of your favorite Buddhist principles.
JH: A lot of what he writes is pretty similar, but Being Peace was the book that I read that I really like. I was in a particularly dark place then and my dad gave me that book and I just started reading it and [Hanh] is really good at making Buddhism simple and accessible. It’s not super esoteric; it’s practical shit. My interest in Buddhism or Eastern philosophy has always been kind of practical. It’s actually useful to me and it can help change the way I engage with people, and a lot of depression for me was almost like obsession with my own suffering. And what I think is cool about it is it truly addresses a big spectrum of what’s difficult about being a human or being alive. It’s not necessarily satisfying answers, because a lot of times it’s about doing a difficult thing. It’s counterintuitive.

OT: Would you say that has affected the way you write your lyrics and music, or is that a separate thing for you?
JH: [For] a lot of the songs, especially in the first few albums, I wrote stuff about [Buddhism] because I was coming out of that depression when I first started the project and so I was definitely influenced by it. And even [in] a lot of the Alan Watts samples from a lot of the songs from the first album, I found a lot of that stuff to be really useful. Watts isn’t particularly great with that stuff, but he’s an entertainer. For me, using his voice and parts of his lectures in our songs is kind of vague; it’s like, “Oh, this is silly dance music.” But if someone resonates with it and ends up exploring it more, it may be useful. And I’ve met people who’ve said, “Oh, I found out Alan Watts because of your music,” and that totally makes it more meaningful to me to do this.

OT: Why did you decide to turn STRFKR into a trio instead of a solo project?
JH: I always liked the idea of it being a big extravaganza thing. It was easier to just get one person together because if I needed to book a show, it [was] easy. But it’s more fun and interesting to have other people in shows. I didn’t really know [Shawn] when he joined the band, but he’s been with me the longest. And then me and Shawn and this other guy did a tour, and we were like, “Wow, we need a real drummer.” And then we played with a band [that Keil] was in and we just kind of stole him, and then eventually we started touring a lot so he just started playing with us.

OT: What can people expect from STRFKR in the future?
JH: When I have time, I’ve been writing R&B stuff, and I still have a long way to go. A bunch of songs are started, but I don’t know when or how I’ll finish [them]. A lot of [them] are songs that I wrote when I was trying to write another record for STRFKR, but I thought about it and it wasn’t the right fit. Playing these songs live, it wasn’t going to be a party. So I still need to figure some things out with it.

Although STRFKR’s show at 9:30 Club is sold out, check out some of Hodges’ other tour dates here.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

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2018 District Wharf Mardi Gras Parade

DC came together for a Mardi Gras celebration at The Wharf on Fat Tuesday. Parade-goers enjoyed live music, decorated floats, and beer and wine at the bar on District Pier, and fireworks on the water. Photos: Mark Raker

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Steve Aoki At Echostage

One of the biggest names in EDM, Steve Aoki rocked the Echostage music floor on Saturday. Though the DJ, producer was atop the marquee, the list of names that preceded and joined him on stage were extensive including: Desiigner, Grandtheft and Ricky Remedy. Photos: Gevar Bonham 

Photo: múm's Facebook page
Photo: múm's Facebook page

múm on a Sunday Night

The shot that captured the night was the slow but persistently waving Icelandic flag. Some lone fan leaned against the stage, and waved the flag like the turtle from Robin Hood – that is, gently and unfaltering.

múm played for a sparse but appreciative crowd Sunday night at 9:30 Club. The Icelandic collective, best known for tracks like “Green Grass of Tunnel” and “We Have a Map of the Piano” makes down-tempo, experimental electronic music inflected with acoustic instruments.

Last night, these acoustic instruments included a cello, which Gyða Valtýsdóttir plays standing, and a water jug used as a drum. The group was a little pretentious and, begrudgingly, I loved it.

They opened with “Sveitin milli Sólkerfa,” a track that – like the two aforementioned tracks – is off of their second record, Finally We Are No One. The song’s a 12-minute slow burn, and it was their strongest of the night. The glitchy, building beats along with Valtýsdóttir and Sigurlaug Gísladóttir’s voices feel like a call to the new communion.

Örvar Smárason spoke for the band that night. His banter was amusing but never clownish, much like the band; they’re cool, but toe-the-line dull.

“I’m going to play a special apparatus now called a synthesizer,” he told the audience, a line he’d also used during their KEXP performance.

He also made some rehearsed jokes about how it’s now “bikini weather” in DC. I’m sure nothing is cold like Iceland, but it’s f–king freezing out. Though if you want to wear a bikini, Örvar, be my guest.

A Little Bit, Sometimes” was the most energetic track of the night, from their 2006 record Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy; it sounds like a really cool cover of “Hotel California” that Yann Tiersen helped arrange.

Much of their music actually reminds me of Tiersen. It plays on the same tropes of eclectic instruments, modal changes and a subdued aesthetic. Like Tiersen, they had a strong record in the early aughts and have since continued to make music from that capital.

For Tiersen, that record was L’Absente (2001), which was famously used for the movie Amélie (2001). For múm, that record was Finally We Are No One (2001). Since then, múm has continued to make music in a similar vein, but I’m sure only a deeply invested fan could tell me why they keep coming back to it.

Since Finally We Are No One, their music doesn’t sound much different, but it has little of that initial verve. Still, I envy what they do, and still, I enjoyed their performance. The crowd was small and quiet, but genuinely enthusiastic in their applause after each song.

I probably wouldn’t go see múm live again if I had the chance, but I’m sure they’ll continue to come up in my work-related listening. Follow múm on Twitter to learn of upcoming performances, and check out their KEXP performance for further listening.

Photo: Shawn Brackbill
Photo: Shawn Brackbill

John Maus Rocks Out to John Maus at Rock & Roll Hotel

John Maus alternatively headbanged and screamed “All your pets are gonna die” onstage at the Rock & Roll Hotel on Saturday night. Maus brought his experimental and medieval-inflected synth pop to the H Street venue, and though he sings only 70 percent of his own lyrics, Maus rocked out and had the sold-out crowd losing their voices with him.

Pets” comes off Screen Memories (2017), and the lyrics are pure Maus. I won’t try to say where the madness of his lyrics comes from, but the majesty of his music comes from the influence of early synth pop pioneers like The Human League and Ultravox. Like those artists, baroque and medieval influences shine through in his music.

He is on tour for the first time since 2011 and the release of We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. One of my friends who joined me for the show actually saw Maus on that 2011 tour. I was told to expect that he’d plug in his music and sing along. I love Maus for his nonsense and regal synth pop, but wasn’t sure how I would feel about a karaoke set.

Maus actually performs with a live band this tour, but his role hasn’t changed. Mainly he screams, punches the air and stalks the stage. But after a few bars of the opener “Believer,” I found myself not giving a shit that Maus only sings – and sings over recordings of himself and not even all the lyrics.

He never played the anthem of a generation, but standouts from the night include “Maniac,” “Bennington” and “Time to Die.” Maus’ role as a performer is made clear on the latter. He held his hands over his eyes as he yelled into the microphone.

“It’s time to die / and everybody knows that you can’t ask why / and even if an answered could be supplied / it wouldn’t change the fact that it’s time to die / Listen to your body.”

As text, the lyrics read depressing and the music is spooky. Maus’ knit brow and his sweat-drenched hair and buttondown bear the absolute severity and gravity of a child. But the feeling in the air is euphoria. Maus’ role is almost that of a priest. He is there to experience the music as much as the audience, and to lead the audience through a bit of hysteria to catharsis.

I’m writing this at home with my cat asleep on my lap. Our pets are going to die, but not you, Toulouse; don’t ever die. Meanwhile, go see John Maus rock out to John Maus and experience some mild relief in light of the fact that your pets are going to die. For more of John Maus, listen to him on Spotify, YouTube or Bandcamp.

Photo: Mathieu Zazzo
Photo: Mathieu Zazzo

Carla Bruni Brings French Touch to Birchmere

Even over the phone, Carla Bruni is wonderful. She says she’s doing well, though it’s a very rainy day in London. She speaks in a way that puts you at ease, like a lazy morning. There might be some cloud cover, but you feel a good walk in you yet. For now, you’re still taking in your breakfast with a guitar in reach; it’s the kind of morning well-suited to her music.

On Tuesday, February 13, Bruni brings her music to the Birchmere. She says she’s made a special mix for her American tour, combining French songs and tunes off her latest record French Touch, a collection of covers of American and English music.

From The Clash’s “Jimmy Jazz to my personal favorite, her cover of Willie Nelson’s Crazy (note: I attached both Nelson and Patsy Cline’s versions because both are great), French Touch is a diverse assortment of songs. But what holds them together on the record is what Bruni calls the “French Touch.”

“I like very, very simple production,” Bruni says. “My favorite thing is to really have the simplest [production], to have the songs work [with] just the lyrics and the melody. What I like is when a song can stand without heavy production. That’s the way we try to do this album, and even though most of these songs are very famous, we tried to do them as personal songwriting – as if I wrote them myself.”

The simplicity of French Touch, as well as her other records, hearkens back to the ease of earlier French pop artists like Georges Brassens. The title “French Touch” is also partly ironic, Bruni tells me.

“The ‘French Touch is supposed to be that wave with Daft Punk and Air and many others, and I couldn’t be more far from the real ‘French Touch.’”

Bruni says the idea for the record came to her one day when she was hanging out at her studio with a few friends, including producer David Foster, known for his work with musicians ranging from Madonna to Andrea Bocelli.

“I played for [Foster] maybe all afternoon. We just hang out and play. He played on the piano and I played on the guitar, and he kept saying, ‘Oh this I love, oh this no, oh this I love,’ because there are some songs that are so famous that you can’t really change them at all, and there’s no point to covering them. Like ‘Moon River’ – it’s impossible to change it. You can’t change the tempo, you can’t change the tune, you don’t want to change it. It’s sort of a perfect song.” 

The songs that ended up on the record are ones Bruni says she’s been singing and playing since she was a teenager. She laughs as she speaks about her early enthusiasm for groups like The Clash or The Rolling Stones.

“Discovering most of these songs as a teenager, I was very excited about everything,” she says. “I was incredibly excited about discovering a new band or new songs from a band. I remember my brother sort of teasing me saying, ‘You know, these songs have been listened to for years and you’re discovering them now, [but] the world’s been listening for like 20 years. I can’t believe you’re discovering the Stones; everybody knows about the Stones, so stop bothering me as if it was a new band.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Bruni tells me, “You know, I wish I could dance onstage, all dressed in glitter. But I’m going to go onstage and sing my songs, and hope people like it. I’m always very much admiring the incredible people – those singers who throw themselves into the crowds. But me, it takes all my energy just to go onstage and sing.”

Not that I knew what to expect in making a phone call to Carla Bruni – international model and music star, and wife to former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy – but I didn’t expect someone so gracious and down to earth.

Catch Bruni at the Birchmere next Tuesday, February 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $59.50. Listen to Bruni on Spotify and YouTube – including her take on Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,”  featuring Nelson himself – and learn more about her here.

The Birchmere: 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com