The-Drum Are Building an Amazing Experimental Pop Scene in Chicago Whether They Want to or Not
Working with acts like JODY, The GTW, KIT, and others, The-Drum are spearheading an unlikely movement as they launch a new label, Lo Motion.
The-Drum, photos by Scott Kaplan
Can a scene form if its leaders don’t think it actually exists? I’m asking myself this question during the middle of my interview with production duo The-Drum in a sleek coffee house in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. As an outsider, all evidence points to the existence of an experimental electronic pop scene in Chicago tied to The-Drum. But the two don’t see themselves in that light. The situation, the city, their challenges as musicians—it’s a lot more complicated than what appears on the outside.
“It’s like, yes, there’s a scene, yes there are people that DJ here a lot and are in the studio and are making tracks with each other all of the time, but it’s not like how the world thinks it is,” says member Jeremiah Meece. “It’s so small, so segmented. It’s just filtered off, little small things.”
Since arriving on the then-burgeoning hybrid online electronic music scene in 2010, the two (Jeremiah Meece and Brandon Higgenbotham, aka Jeremiah Chrome and Brandon Boom) have put their touch on a variety of releases, from the thumping and dark sounds of imaginative rapper Le1f to the weird and lovely pop-R&B of emerging vocalist Dre Green. This doesn’t even include their own work as solo artists, as a duo, and as members of the R&B collective JODY. With each new release there's a gravitational pull that leads to one center: The-Drum.
The fruits of their labor have come packaged in a new compilation, Lo Motion Singles Vol. 1, the first release from their new label, Lo Motion. Each track on the compilation was created with a Lo Motion artist or affiliated performer. On the compilation’s Bandcamp page, tags such as “ambient,” “electronic,” “neo-soul,” and “psychedelic” are used to describe the music. This grouping of sounds may seem disjointed on the surface, but a quick listen to each track highlights the uniformly eclectic mindset.
While no one song sounds similar to the next, they are united in their open approach to mashing genres and styles. An instrumental wonder from Ando, full of lush corners and unique samples, fits together smartly with Dre Green’s “Guarded,” a slower yet still familiar play of whispered singing and vocal manipulations. Many of the tracks are produced by The-Drum, but some (such as KIT’s “Used to Be,” produced by Hawaiian Gardens) are produced by other acts on or associated with the label. Each work, despite the mind behind it, fits within the label's unique aesthetic, while providing an opportunity to showcase the individual artist’s talents and artistic vision.
What runs through each of The-Drum’s individual and group tracks, as well as the music that is associated with their label and nascent “scene,” is an acute level of strangeness and awareness. Jeremiah and Brandon appreciate music on a fundamental level outside of the social signifiers that come with it. This deep love of music of all kinds translates to their songs. James King, who's featured on the Lo Motion compilation and performs as both The GTW and a member of JODY, ascribes this broadminded taste as a reason why he was excited to work with the duo. “I could hear all of the influences in what they were playing,” he begins. “Funky electronic music to house cuts to Al B Sure to old UK funky. It’s pretty much chaotic. Their taste in music is chaotic, similar to mine. That’s what made me really connect with them.”
When the duo first broke out, their music was posted to a YouTube channel that featured a bevy of acts across the globe that trafficked in slick, experimental electronic music. “We realized there were a lot of people who had a similar sound palette to ours, but then when you go back and listen to us, we’re like way weirder,” Jeremiah says. “We weren’t trying to do that.”
The sort of music The-Drum found in these types of places, which they describe as “druggy R&B,” offered a challenge. “After hearing that stuff, we went purposefully a little weirder,” says Brandon. They are much more likely to classify their always evolving aesthetic as that of a film score or soundtrack (“erotic film noir sci-fi” as they describe). “It’s not crazy. It’s not about trends. It’s just everything they like all at once,” James mentions.
Born earlier this year, Lo Motion is a new, Chicago-born, but nationally-ambitious label. Releases will largely be digital to facilitate their desire to release music more quickly than previously.
“We can have an avenue for us and our collaborators to put stuff out in an official way,” Jeremiah says. This structure is key, “especially when you’re trying to do cutting edge productions.” Despite their aversion to the label “scene,” The-Drum’s uniting of artists and creators in the city creates a united front.
“We’re all coming together and everything is so open,” James says. His upcoming projects include his Chigeria (Chicago + Nigeria) album as well as a JODY tour and new EP. “It may be that their work is so open that I feel comfortable around them. I’m excited. They’re definitely leading that.”
The-Drum say that they create music full-time. They don’t have to succumb to the pressures of a day job due to the relatively low cost of living in Chicago as compared to coastal cities. And because of this ease of existence, the ability to experiment creatively and to dedicate themselves to their vision is fostered by the fact that they are doing and making 24/7. Although Jeremiah notes that it is a, “very destitute way of living,” The-Drum largely survive on their own releases, monthly remixes for other artists, and live DJ sets throughout the city. So far, the system has worked out for the duo, freeing them up to create during the day and invite others to work with them in their home studio.
Their set-up is minimal, at best.
“It’s a computer and monitors. That’s it. And an optical microphone,” Brandon says. “We don’t have a real set-up with like a desk, and knobs, and all kinds of vocal booths. No, we have a sock around a microphone.”
“And all of those collaborations we told you about—” Jeremiah interrupts.
“Sock on a mic. Sock on a mic. That’s how we do it,” says Brandon.
Their group of collaborators (most of which are featured on the compilation) and people Brandon refers to as their “crew,” regularly make appearances in their studio to collaborate and record.
And the two would prefer it this way. In terms of the actual act of making music, this in-person, collaborative ethos makes their work less of work. Although their rise coincided with a particular musical movement online and continues to flourish online, they need a more tangible method of working.
“I just hate doing it over the Internet. It’s really obnoxious to get stuff done that way,” says Jeremiah. “If the person’s not sitting there to be like, 'Oh I like that. Or, oh I don’t like that.' It doesn’t make sense.”
To me, the idea of a scene (or in this case, a crew) feels more present than ever. Environment, ideals, basically a place to “make” feels like a crucial part to their process. Scenes develop around central figures and spaces. The assumption of the freedom of the Internet is that it has broken down the limitations of local scenes, making it easier for artists across the globe to collaborate with each other. And while this may be the case for some artists, for others such as The-Drum and JODY, the opposite is true: Their preference for in-person work is leading to a stronger physical, tangible scene at a time when those are supposedly dying.
“We’re just making music and whatever happens, happens. It’s a really fun thing blossoming and happening with the Lo-Motion label,” says King. “We all have different things going on, but it’s all together. It’s so crossed and intertwined. It’s monstrous.”
This phenomenon of physicality is not unlike other Chicago scenes, especially larger and more established ones like the South Side drill scene. Perhaps the tangible presence of the scenes, the literal making of music in one place during a set amount of time will give it a better chance of surviving and thriving outside of the city or even outside of the constantly evolving attentions of the internet. Like a flag in the ground, they are setting up roots.
Chicago is not a city so much as a mini-country. Musically speaking, different musical genres and scenes have brewed in the city, often forming on the back of each other but heading in different directions. Distinctive subgenres like footwork and drill and house and moody R&B are all thriving, without the need for sustenance from the other. Perhaps more than any other American city, Chicago is full of discrete neighborhoods, which means that tiny worlds can emerge and exist. This also means that people don’t have to interact with each other if they don’t choose. The-Drum and their collaborators have managed to push against this historical pattern.
“They have the outsider’s perspective,” says King. Many Chicagoans are born and raised here, sticking to the communities and culture they were bred with from an early age. The-Drum's background is varies in place. Both moved around a lot when they were kids Brandon says. Brandon was born in Seattle and eventually went to high school in Arkansas. Jeremy landed in Texas for high school. Later, they settled in Chicago where their nomadic nature came as an advantage. Their curiosity and interest in a variety of different styles, genres, and scenes (whether it be music or culture) solidified their distinct sound. “Them being here so long, being Chicagoans, they’re receptive to pretty much anything going on.”
The Lo Motion Singles compilation draws attention to the vastness and creative spirit in the city while also the current identity of the city and its music as greater than its legacy and the sum of its parts. Other cities tend to have flashier and quick scenes, but Chicago’s bubble permeates for far longer before and after it gains any sort of attention. It is a city outside of trends or fads.
Even if their journey finds them working outside of Chicago (a very real possibility based on the obvious limitations of exposure in the city) they can recreate the magic they’ve already built. But Chicago is also far removed from the clusters of creative community that exist on the coasts and abroad meaning anyone that chooses to create here must work that much harder. The hustle is more real.
“That’s the thing about being here. There’s only a finite amount of people that go out and listen to music here,” Jeremiah says. “And yeah, it grows and there’s an influx with like, during school time with new students, but it’s really a finite, fixed amount of people. And with those same people, you could have the best party in Chicago, but too often, there’ll be no one there. Everyone’s like, Oh, I’ve been to that enough times, I don’t care anymore.”
Brandon agrees, adding, “In Chicago, for what we do, there’s only so much you can do to stay. Until we make a hit song or something crazy. Like if we lived in New York, we could be DJing every night. Whereas in Chicago, there’s only so many nights we can do or so many times we can DJ.”
The music must also be more real, more precise. Generally, it must be that much better than everything else. In a hype-machine world, a Chicago artist can’t just create; they must also thrive. Right now, the two are well-known among those in the broader experimental electronic scenes within the city and the country, but their next test will be translating that sound to larger audiences. With the help of many of the artists now associated with Lo Motion and their numerous side projects, this becomes a stronger possibility. They are less stretching themselves thin than building up a body of work that can promote their ideas and vision. A one-off single or EP won’t and can’t be enough, not as they try to sustain something in Chicago.
“Like our shit is only based around music,” says Brandon. “We don’t like dress really amazing. We don’t have cool visuals. We spend all of our time making the music sound good.”
They speak often about the advantages of LA or New York. There, they say, they could DJ five nights a week. There, they say, they could throw parties and events that would sustain themselves for years. But that doesn’t factor in the challenges of both cities, either.
“The only advantage is that there’s not a lot of people in Chicago doing what we do,” Brandon says. “Whereas if we were in New York or LA, it would be like, 'Oh, another LA band that’s R&B influenced. Or another Brooklyn band...' So being in Chicago, people think we run shit here.” He laughs, “When actually we don’t.”
Each scene is an incubator of itself. This is what we live and breathe in this side of the city, in this neighborhood of the city, on this street of the city. These scenes brew outside of each other and artists are often not familiar with each others’ work. But The-Drum have found their peers—an eclectic, inspired, creative group that cuts across boundaries in Chicago. And, for those who are paying attention to the emerging and experimental electronic music scene, they've have found their “voice”— genre-bending, attention-driving, and eerie in its presence.
Britt Julious is a writer living in Chicago, and she endorses dancing more. She's on Twitter - @britticisms
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