No, he doesn't sound like Death Grips.
With the release of Cities Aviv’s Black Pleasure, much was made of the Memphis musician’s supposedly eclectic sounds. It was all about genre crossover again, as if Purity Ring’s novelty bullshit hadn’t already made me casually place my laptop in the trash just a few months before. His music may seem like an intentional attempt to straddle two genres with listener bases that are becoming increasingly similar. From talking to him, however, it's clear to me that he takes a much less purposeful approach. Cities Aviv is simply the brainchild of a music lover with very particular, yet very broad tastes.
On the cusp of his stint of upcoming dates with Death Grips, I sat down to arepas with Cities—otherwise known as Gavin Mays—to talk about what those tastes are and how exactly they affect the music he makes.
NOISEY: How did you get into rap music as a kid?
Cities Aviv: For the most part, it was always around, like family and shit. My cousins would always play Skinny Pimp tapes and Playa Fly tapes when I would go to their house, but as far as me just nerding on it and getting into it, it was more so just through the Internet, honestly.
And that was more recently?
I was still pretty young, like in my early teens, but I was getting into late ‘90s and early 2000s rap like Non Phixion and Necro, all that goofy shit, but simultaneously with Jedi Mind Tricks and the more cliché [rappers like] Mos Def and what not.
In Memphis, did you have mainstream stuff going on at the same time?
It was there, but not really. People didn’t really fuck with it. People only listened to local shit, or whatever was big at the moment in the South, like in the early 2000’s that would be Jeezy. Memphis is boring as hell, there isn’t really much, so everybody is just looking to Atlanta for what’s cool.
Memphis rap can be pretty varied--there are a lot of different veins going on at once. Is there a specific thing that you take for your music?
There’s nothing in particular that I try to draw into my music as an aesthetic in regards to Memphis music. I just feel like it's naturally internalized, just being from there. Especially, looking through the history of Memphis, all the way back to soul music, it has kind of a dark tone to it, but it's not pushed as, “This is supposed to be dark.” It's just the nature of the city. It’s a dead city. For me, when I reference Memphis, it's me referencing my existence in that city and being born and raised there. I’m not so much trying to take from what other people have done and make it my own.
I definitely draw influence from it, but I like to draw that influence to pay homage and not really bite it. I will say, as far as the music there goes, if you listen to a lot of the very old rap there, it has a rough element to it that’s almost like metal, in a weird way. Not that I’m an expert, but old DJ Zirk shit or the old Juicy J [Gates of] Hell tapes are pretty intense. No other place has that steeze [Laughs].
You’re also into other music like Joy Division. How did you get into that versus the rap you grew up with?
It was shit I heard randomly through the Internet. I guess its what opened me up to other music, which is really funny in a way. Buying that At the Drive-In album, Relationship of Command, when I was in fifth grade, I used to bump that real heavy. I was actually listening to that and Deadsy’s Commencement really heavy. I was kind of always into other music, but those records kicked me in the head to search for it. It’s funny to speak about that, because prior to us, people into music were getting zines or tapes, but for a lot of the younger dudes, we are the internet generation. Napster and shit like that was supplying a lot of music.
So what do you see as the common thread between the post-hardcore and the rap stuff that you were listening to?
Just emotion. That’s the reason I like rap music a lot, especially early 2000’s underground rap era shit, listening to Company Flow and a lot of groups like that. In relation to post-hardcore and whatnot, the energy was very much the same. The same nature, just kind of like, off time signatures and whatnot, people fucking up words, but it doesn’t really matter, because at the end, you still get that feel, or whatever there is to convey from the beginning.
Going into the second album, was there anything you intended to do differently the second time around.
I mean I was just trying to make a pop record is really what it was. Honestly, I’ll tell anyone that and some people might think I’m being funny when I say that. But for real the full intent going into it, when I sat down and it actually hit me, and I was like “Black Pleasure, this is what I want to write,” I was like, “How do you go about making a pop album?” Just in the sense of looking back through history, a lot of “successful” artists that people listen to, you might get that first record that is edgy or whatever and then the second album comes out and you’re like “I’m not really that into that,” but then later you’re like, “Damn, I actually was really into that.” When I wrote this album, that’s honestly what I was thinking about.
I was telling somebody the other day, I would love to just totally redefine this whole idea of the obscure. Not that I’m a noise head or any of that, but if you think of a genre such as that and how it is only brought up in certain circles, it's not everyday or common. It would be crazy to switch that, but not in a way that’s contrived, more so that you can enjoy it as well, putting it in a different way so that now you can understand it.
You produced more of this album yourself. Was that the idea? Did you want to focus more on the beats this time? The vocals have definitely been pushed to the back on some tracks.
I wanted to just be like, “the vocals are there, but I’m not going to like give you the lyrics.” A prime example would be listening to a record like, I hate to even reference this album so much, but [My Bloody Valentine’s] Loveless. Listen to Loveless. The vocals throughout that entire record are seemingly nonexistent, but you still hear them. You listen to “Sometimes” or “Loomer,” all those songs, they have very much a strong vocal presence, even though they are buried in there to an extent.
I’ve heard people compare you to Death Grips. Do you like that?
I hate that. I hate Death Grips comparisons. I just think it's lazy people, trying to throw something in a category so they can keep it together for their iPods or their playlists.
It’s more Romantic than anything. It's not testosterone-fueled, even though it can get hype, with fools running around. We play crazy, but its not to be taken in an “I’m going to mosh you out and beat you up” way. I think people compare us just because we aren’t afraid to express ourselves in that fashion, to make music that is beat-driven, that is at the same time fueled by energy. We aren’t some young-ass motherfuckers on some bullshit, is what I’m trying to say.
Colin Small is not going on tour with Death Grips, but he is on Twitter--@ColinSSmall