meta-scriptOn 'Notebook Fantasy,' Chicano Batman Open Up Their Psychedelic Soul: "We Always Know We're Going To Have That 'It' Factor" | GRAMMY.com
Chicano Batman
Chicano Batman

Photo: Josue Rivas

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On 'Notebook Fantasy,' Chicano Batman Open Up Their Psychedelic Soul: "We Always Know We're Going To Have That 'It' Factor"

When Los Angeles favorites Chicano Batman got together with star producer John Congleton, he coaxed out their deepest and most dynamic aural feast yet. Read an interview with their guitarist, Carlos Arévalo.

GRAMMYs/Mar 26, 2024 - 02:19 pm

Sometimes, when bands come to work with big producers, industry pressures kick in, and they start to sound less like themselves. Hearteningly, when Chicano Batman hooked up with John Congleton — who's worked with everyone from St. Vincent to Brian Wilson to Alvvays — the opposite happened.

"At the core of it, we still do what we've always done from the beginning," their guitarist, Carlos Arévalo, tells GRAMMY.com. "Which is: we get in a room, we get in a circle, look at each other and start recording the songs together, which is like jazz."

Indeed, Arévalo comes from a rich jazz background — and that helps explain the sumptuous sound of their new album, Notebook Fantasy, due out March 29. When you hear highlights like "Fly," "Hojas Secas" and "Fairytale Love," you'll grasp exactly what he means.

"It's amazing what happens when you put really good musicians in a room. You give them some direction and you say, 'Go.' Magic happens," he says, characterizing Chicano Batman as "old school" in how they approach their craft.

"We always know we're going to have that 'it' factor, and the magic is going to be in the room if we're in a room playing together," Arévalo continues. "That's what we've always done, and we continue to do on this record."

Read on for a full interview with Arévalo about how Notebook Fantasy came to be.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The textures on Notebook Fantasy really spoke to me. Can you take me through Chicano Batman's textural thinking on this record?

When we met with [John Congleton] him to talk about the album, he was like, "I've listened to your past records, I love them. I feel like the sounds you're going for on those records are great, the songs are great, but I want the songs to come through more clearly on this record. 

"Let's not use a lot of distortion and compression to color your sound. Let's go for something more open-sounding, more dynamic." Which is very in line with record making pre-2000 — like, '90s, '80s, '70s.

And so that meant going to a proper studio — Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood — and using those classic recording desks, those mixing consoles, the API, the Neves — those things that are just so high quality that when you record into them, they're picking up every bit of musical clarity from your amplifier, your voice, the bass.

When you hear it on playback, it's just so beautifully colored without having to add all these extra things to make it sound good. Which was our process in the past because we didn't have access to things like that. We were using DIY equipment, and sometimes that means you have to use a bunch of things to make it sound the way you want it to sound.

But when you work with equipment like what they have at Sunset Sound, it's like, less is more. You get what you pay for: you have a great sounding room, a great sounding mixing desk, all you're going to have to do is play well and it's going to pick up that.

And so yes, the record has these beautiful textures that are just open, transparent, and big-sounding. A lot of it comes down to obviously the players, but using those classic pieces of gear that were used on the Doors' records, Prince records, Led Zeppelin records, Rolling Stones records... literally the same piece of equipment.

Did any albums from the canon come to mind as you crafted Notebook Fantasy?

Definitely. Steely Dan has always been a big, quirky inspiration for me. I unapologetically, actually like Steely Dan, and I appreciate their records, because they bridged that gap that I sought after for many years.

[That aesthetic] had been there for decades before I knew about it, but I was always like, "Man, where's the rock band using this jazz virtuosity or these complex harmonic chord progressions, mixing it with rock's danger?"

And I found out about Steely Dan through a good friend of mine when I was 18. He put me onto them and I was like, "This is kind of smooth, but it's kind of subversive." And then eventually after multiple listens, I was like, this is amazing. These guys are incredible.

And so anyways, that was definitely a point of reference in terms of sonics, just the clarity of those records. Those are the most famous recordings in terms of production. You put them on your turntable, you turn the volume up, and it feels like you're in the room with the musicians. So, that was definitely something to try to attain as best as we could.

Give me a song on the album that reflects that Dan dyad.

Probably "Fly," which is the lead single. That one has Prophet synthesizers and Junos. I mean, they didn't use those kinds of things, but it has a Rhodes as well.

Actually, you know what? Maybe not "Fly." It would probably be "Live Today."The song was one of the last songs to make the record. We were running out of time and we were trying to figure out what song to record last.

I showed that song to the group, and Congleton loved it immediately, because he understood that it was something that could compliment the rest of the material. It was a compositional texture we hadn't used yet on the record. And so I had the parts already written out, but I wanted to see what would happen if I was just like, "Here you go. Let's start tracking."

We worked on that song with this keyboardist named Quincy McCreary, who plays with Jack White and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. He was in town for a gig at the Forum with Jack White, but he had the morning off.He did his thing on the Fender Roads. And then we had this amazing drummer, Tamir Barzilay, who plays with Jason Mraz, and he's played with Macy Gray. Incredible instincts and just musicality on the drums.

It was honestly like a Steely Dan moment. We were directing the song, we're like the inferior musicians, but the songwriters, but we have these amazing musicians there to blossom the tunes.

That's what happened on a song like "Live Today." It was just fast because we worked fast because it's tracking live, and it was immediately gratifying. And I remember Congleton playing back the song, he was like, "This is great. I love this song."

And that was really cool to hear because Congleton kind of has a poker face and he's no bullshit, and he's very direct and objective, which is what you want in a producer. And I remember he did show emotion right there, and he was like, "This is awesome." And so that was fun.

How does Notebook Fantasy reflect your evolution as a guitarist and keyboardist?

Every time I record a new album with Chicano Batman, I try to approach it differently, and build upon what I had recorded in the past. But in doing so, I try to do something different — take myself out of my comfort zone.

In the past, I would write my guitar solos because I want them to be memorable, melodic, singable. And on this record, I didn't do that. I used the instincts of John [Congleton] and our bassist, Eduardo, to help guide me into getting the best takes in certain songs.

So a song like "Live Today," the guitar solo, that was improvised. That was the first take. And I remember I recorded it and I thought, "I don't know, that was probably terrible." And John and Eduardo were like, "That was amazing. Let's move on." And then when you have trust like that with people, it's easy. Cause then you don't have to doubt yourself, you just listen to them and move forward.

Same thing with the end of the song, we have a song called "Parallels." It's like an improvisatory guitar outro. That was done on the third take. I did one pass improvise, and it was more typical of what would be my comfort zone as a musician.

And then, I got some feedback from John and Eduardo, like: "No, try to play here on these spaces." And I did. And again, like I said, the proof was when Congleton jumped up and was just like, "Yes!" He just evoked a sound of approval. I must be doing something right right now, even though I don't understand it.

Because you can't be objective. You're just purely trying to be emotional as a musician and do something that hopefully is felt by the listener. And he was there to be like, "That was the take. Don't overthink it. Let's move on." And listening back, he was right. I really am very proud of those guitar parts.

Give me some MVP moments from your bandmates on Notebook Fantasy.

Eduardo's bass playing on "Fly" is just incredible. It's so funky. It's so pocket, and it's so melodic. It's everything. I just can't stop listening to that take.

And from Bardo... Man, Bardo did so amazing on all the tracks. I mean, on the title track, "Notebook Fantasy," he's reaching and hitting notes that I didn't know he had in him, and he crushed it absolutely on the entire record.

Those guys just continually pleasantly surprise me. Every time we get into the studio, it's just like, Yes, this is why I work with these people. Because they're so talented and they're able to reach inside of themselves and pull something out that's new.

And what's your MVP moment? Pressure's on now!

Probably the song "Hojas Secas."

That's one of the songs Eduardo wrote, and he had a very clear vision for what he wanted the guitars to do on that, the lead guitars. And he wanted a column response, but he didn't want bluesy Page licks, or Hendrix licks. He wanted something that was more brash and harsh, but still had an element of beauty.

And his guidance and Congleton's guidance on that just really helped me get out parts that I didn't know I had in me at all. I didn't know I could play like that. I probably knew I could play like that, but I didn't know I would ever get to use those techniques within this band.

It was just a moment where I was like, Man, we could do anything in this band. As long as we're being true to ourselves as musicians and trying to grow, there is no limit to this.

Chicano Batman Talk Creating Visibility For Invisible People, Representation Of Latinos In Media & Repping Los Angeles

Chicano Batman

Chicano Batman

Photo: George Mays

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Chicano Batman Talk Creating Visibility For 'Invisible People,' Representation Of Latinos In Media & Repping Los Angeles

The beloved L.A. psych/soul rock band dive deep into their powerful, danceable fourth studio album, 'Invisible People,' identity, racism and what the West Coast city means to them

GRAMMYs/Sep 4, 2020 - 11:25 pm

There is real power in music that gets you dancing, feeling joy and thinking about critical human issues. That is exactly what Chicano Batman's music does—drawing you in with their groovy bass lines, warm and soulful vocals and all-around funky, sun-soaked instrumentation and aesthetic. With their fourth studio album, Invisible People, released May 1 on ATO Reords, they double-down on the funkiness and deliver their most powerful, rhythmic project yet.

Founded in 2008 in Los Angeles, the four-piece embodies the true beauty, creativity and diversity of the city they call home. Since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2010, the band has brought their infectious energy and vibrancy to countless shows and festivals through Southern California, the U.S. and abroad, with a (typically) active tour schedule.

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With their 2020 tour with Le Butcherettes put on hold until 2021, the group has stayed busy with virtual appearances on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," NPR's Tiny Desk, KEXP and more. They've also stayed engaged with their community despite quarantine, offering youth music workshop livestreams with the Young Musicians Foundation and a delicious fundraising taco at L.A.'s HomeState.

In conversation with GRAMMY.com, Bardo Martinez (lead vocals, keyboard and guitar), Carlos Arévalo (guitar), Gabriel Villa (drums) and Eduardo Arenas (bass) dive deep into the creative process and meaning behind their latest album. They get real about identity, racism and representation, and the marinization they have experienced as Latinos in the indie-rock space.

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You guys dropped the fourth Chicano Batman album, Invisible People, just back in May. What was the creative process like on this album? How long were you guys working on it?

Villa: A few years?

Arévalo: [Laughs.] A few years. Yes. That's it.

Villa: A few years. Next question. [Everyone laughs.]

Arévalo: Maybe 14 months.

Villa: We had to go on tour, so, we had to stop a little bit. We had writing sessions, but we basically started in 2018.

Arenas: In 2018, we talked about different ideas we wanted to introduce to the new record, and we did a lot of demos. At the end we chose 12 songs. Everybody kicked in on this one and helped develop it, where in the past the Bardo wrote the majority of the songs. This time Carlos was kicking in stuff, Bardo was kicking in stuff. I would join up forces with them and throw in stuff. There were all these different combinations of things that happened that we had not explored in the past.

Martinez: Recording was a big part of it, us using our home studios to record stuff and vibe that way.

Villa: Carlos, talk a little bit about that moment where you came into rehearsal and you were like, "Guys, I know we have to do this album, but wait listen!" [Everyone laughs.]

Arévalo: I had my own little idea of what I thought the record should be in terms of a theme or a direction. That's something I would keep to myself on the past records and then just have my own personal goals for my instrumentation. But this time I shared it aloud to the group. That's choppy waters you can get into because you're asking a drummer to play drums a certain way or a singer to sing a certain way. Well, it's more recommending or showing examples of like, "Hey, could we try it this way this time and see how that goes?" That was a vulnerable place to be. But I've known these guys for so many years, it was time for me to be real with them and hope for the best.

They were receptive, everybody needed a little bit of time at first to just take it in. Once we started trying out these ideas, everybody else started bringing in other stuff they'd been wanting to try before, but maybe never thought this was the project to do that. So, I got the juices flowing creatively for everyone. It was cool.

Martinez: Yeah, this record was a lot of push and pull, as it's always been with our music. It's four dudes in a band, so everybody's pushing for whatever ideas they had in their head. I mean, Carlos was pretty straight forward. He was like, "Well, we should make something we could dance to, danceable music." It was a great idea. It brought us into the late '70s and '80s in terms of aesthetics, in terms of sound—it was new territory for me. It was a lot of fun. It's a dope realm that we eventually got to.

Villa: It was definitely fun to create. The whole process was just fun, fun, fun, and a lot of communication. We learned a lot. We're always inspired and happy to be working with the team so it really, really paid off. You can hear it in the music. If you compare the Chicano Batman discography, you really hear that this album is so different from the rest. It definitely has that element of dancing—for the first time we're doing a lot of 16-notes. [Mimics fast drum beat.]

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Carlos, that idea you came in with, was it "dancing" music or something else?

Arévalo: I had started a little DJ night as an excuse to play records that I was collecting on the road with being on tour—you hit up shops in Michigan and you find amazing 45s that are just so overpriced in L.A. or that you can't even find them. I was playing once a month at bars and exploring what music has that universal appeal to people, that makes them want to get up and move or sing along. It's a cool way to experience music when you have the sound system at your behest. I was controlling the PA and it's bumping, I could control the bass. I could see what was going on from the mixer. That inspired me.

There's so many 45s that I love. I would play stuff like Talking Heads' "Naive Melody," Tom Tom Club. I'd play Prince's "Erotic City," that '80s music that had amazing songwriting appeal, but simultaneously were hit records. I feel that doesn't go hand-in-hand all the time anymore. Now, you have writers that get together to make a song sound exactly like this other song so it can be a hit and make money. It's about capitalism and it's about getting that publishing. Back then, it was more so you can make an art piece that was also danceable. It was really appealing and inspirational to me.

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When did you finish the album? Since you were working on it on and off, was there a period of time where you huddled up and finished all of it?

Arévalo: Yeah, so we started writing the record, like they said, in January 2018. And then we demoed it when we could and we started amassing demos amongst all of us. We had little sessions in between touring and we finally started recording the album in February 2019 at Barefoot Recording, which used to be called Crystal Industries. It's where Stevie Wonder recorded one of his epic '70s trilogy albums, Songs in the Key of Life, those amazing records where he found his synthesizer voice. So many hit records were made there. Sly Stone worked out of there and George Clinton. So, we made Invisible People there for two weeks and then Bardo flew to New York for another two weeks to do vocals and some overdubs. Then we had to wait a year to put it out.

Martinez: Well, it got mixed and we put all the music together. Leon Michels produced it. He definitely put his hand in the sound of it. He's an amazing producer [he's also worked with Lee Fields, Aloe Blacc, The Carters and others] and has an amazing hip-hop sensibility. He knows how to make everything knock. He definitely added some amazing vibes, and then he passed it over to [five-time GRAMMY winner] Shawn Everett who mixed it. So, that was the whole next process of, "okay, well he got the music" and we were in the dark for a week or month or so.

Once we received it, I'm telling you, for me, the summer of 2019 was lit, 'cause it was just blazing, f****ing listening, bumping that in my car. I had just moved into this house that I live in now. It was amazing. Imagine, you move into a new house and you're playing a new record. I had my friends over and it was amazing. It was perfect.

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The title track, "Invisible People" is really powerful and very pertinent to this moment we're in right now—calling out racism. Can you speak to the message behind this song and how you feel that it informs the rest of the album?

Marinez: We came up with a thesis statement, which was the title itself. Carlos was like, "How about we write a song about how the marginalization of Latinos?" "Invisible People"—for example, not being noticed in the indie music world or being on tour and feeling marginalized just entering spaces like the liquor store in Tennessee. That was one piece of it.

I started tackling different pieces in different verses, and I only have three verses. I wanted to make sure that whatever I was saying was going to be very strong and very poignant, straight to the point. I didn't have time to cut corners, so I was going to be direct with it. I wanted it to be as strong as possible because the music was set up that like that. We went into the studio and that song was [originally] a little bit faster and Leon suggested we slow it down. The instrumentation is super sparse. The beat is heavy, the bass drops on the kick in the perfect place. The music is there for the vocal to just shoot out.

I approached every verse as a different thing. My first line is, "Invisible people, we're tired of living in the dark. Everyone is trying to tear us apart." So, it's obviously pointing at some type of marginalization. It's not necessarily specific. The second line—"smoke a spliff so I could feel now"— I don't even smoke spliffs by the way, I like joints, but it was a homage to maybe Bob Marley or something I knew a lot of people were going to relate to. Something edgy, something cool. The next verse is about race, "The truth is we're all the same. The concept of race was implanted in your brain." I definitely wanted to call that out, race as a construct pretty much.

Also, just to challenge all of that because as a band, as, we're Chicano Batman. We decided to use this name, which has its own meanings as a Chicano, as an identity. I don't know if that's problematic, but it's going to challenge norms within our own community, and also in the superstructure status quo. That's the more obvious knot.

Also, anybody could be invisible in society. It wasn't "Just Latinos are invisible or just people of color." The privilege that White people have in this country is not good for them. When they walk onto the street, into the supermarket, there's a lot of psychological weight to all that history, to alter that reality which is based upon history, decades and centuries of oppression, that White people really have to deal with as well. Everybody, regardless of who you are, if you're living in a city, if you're living in society, you're a part of it. You're complicit in it. You're subjugated by it. People don't necessarily talk about it like that on Instagram. People on Instagram are just pointing fingers at each other. So, that's really not the goal of it. The goal is to be like, "Yo, the truth is we're all in this together." It's not some "We Are The World" shit. It's also, "This record is fire, we're spinning the world around you. We got this record, we're ready to tour and do it big." It's all those things wrapped into one.

Arenas: Piggybacking off what Bardo said about Instagram, they're probably not saying that on Instagram because White cops are too busy killing Black people and shooting them in the back. That's a reality that White privilege has led to, it's not only capitalism, but genocide. That's also what we have to live with today. Not only with religion, but with the way communities are divided, with the way we think, with our mental health as a people, with our communities and the disinvestment in them and the lack of education and resources. This is all very implicit and designed to be this way, to lack people of color of the resources while the few good resources go to the top. That's the system that we've been living under here in the United States for a very, very, very long time.

I think for me, "Invisible People" has a very open open-ended meaning, it's a very big concept, and I think it can definitely be understood differently in 10 years, in 30 more years, et cetera. But right now, to me, it speaks so much about the murder of innocent people, invisible people, who are our family members, our voices, our activists. They're actors of change in our society, the heroes. So, to me, we need to put some extra highlight on that at this moment right now.

Arévalo: For me, the idea for the song was explicitly about people of color and the struggle we've endured. I don't know how many bands GRAMMY.com has interviewed where they get pulled over by border patrol in Florida for driving in a tour van, but that's our experience. I don't know how many indie rock bands have gone through that. Dealing with stuff like that was in my mind when bringing up the idea of the song, and the lack of representation we see of Latinos in the media, you don't see us with parts of substance in movies or TV shows. It's always cliched, and it makes me sick, because we're multi-dimensional. We are more than caricatures.

So, that was part of the idea. Also, just tongue-in-cheek like, "Do you see us now? Here we are, this is our record. Will you acknowledge us yet?" Because there has been a hump of, people keep saying, "Chicano Batman is breaking through with this record, this rising band." And every time we put out a record, we're always this new band that's coming out of nowhere. So, it's a critique on that and how the status quo in the media views us.

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You've said "Color my life," which opens the album, is about experiencing nature versus being stuck in the city. Was there a specific experience, feeling or place that inspired this song?

Martinez: That's the first time somebody asked me where, what's the location. I appreciate the question. Honestly, it's Oakland. I lived in Oakland for a year and a half. That was the first thought, literally what I was thinking about when I was writing those verses. I had some lyrics that were taken out too. During the chorus, "You've got to color my life..." I had something about birds. Anyways, Oakland was definitely the place.

Do you feel now when you perform "Color my life" now, especially in a virtual setting like on the NPR's Tiny Desk, do you feel it has taken on new meaning?

Martinez: I'll be honest, it's hard for me to connect with the virtual stuff. It's difficult. I'm a little numbed by the whole virtual reality experience. But what's the new meaning? I just went to the forest recently, to Mammoth for four days with my family. I needed to do that. Honestly, it's been a long time since I've actually gone camping or anything that because of doing the music thing and touring. This pandemic has given me the opportunity to do some of that. I want to do it more often because it's the most freeing thing, just to be out in nature, it's fantastic.

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"L.A. is what I carry with me all the time... It's what I try to represent in my music, at least respective to the instrument that I play and the swagger I input and the way I want people to move. We want them to feel that this is the way L.A. moves you, when we're in Germany, Brazil or France. It doesn't matter where, it's rooted in L.A. and L.A. is international because our roots are deep." -Eduardo Arenas

As a Los Angeles band, what does the city mean to all of you?

Arévalo: It's a forever home for me. My dad immigrated from El Salvador and lived in an apartment complex in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High, which I can't even imagine—what a dichotomy that must have been. My mom is third generation Mexican-American, so her family's been here since the '20s and they all have roots and stories that come from L.A. It's always been a big part of who I am and where I come from. I still have family that lives out there and also family that lives in L.A. It's an important part of my identity.

Villa: For me, L.A. feels like home. I come from very far away. I was born and raised in Colombia and I've traveled around the world. I had the opportunity and was so lucky to able to go to Europe and live there before coming to the United States. I lived over there for many years. Coming to L.A. straight from Toulouse, France was a big cultural shock for me, learning all these new set of laws and lifestyles. And there's a lot of things I probably will never understand, like the freeway, but L.A. is special, it has so much, it's a place for everyone. I feel it's a big blender and that's something that I like about this city. When I was in France and went to Paris and rode the Metro and saw all these different cultures together, I was like, "This is good. I want to live in a city this."

And I ended up living in L.A., and you have the same feeling just like riding on a Metro in Paris. It's like a dream and every day I'm learning something new. There's a lot going on here in terms of opportunities and work, especially music and media. It's crazy. I'm super glad and lucky to have found my brothers here. The band has embraced me as a Chicano, as a brother, and that's the world for me. Yes, I feel home.

Arenas: I'm born and raised in L.A., I'm from the generation of kids that used to walk to the market and get a gallon of milk and a pack of tortillas. That's how I grew up. I used to sell flowers in the street on Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. We used to sell fruit and vegetables that we'd get, extras from the produce market in downtown L.A. and resell them on the streets. L.A. is me.

I grew up with Hollywood movies and TV shows, all this '80s and '90s action stuff—the vanity that comes with that. And the vision of wanting to be something else that also comes with that. Like Carlos was saying, there's no representation of Latinos on TV, especially when you're growing up in the '80s and '90s, only dumbasses or a donkey mother****ers. Or some, "arriba, arriba" type shit, which we tossed around as culture when we were kids because we don't know better. But, in a lot of places in the country, they still perceive it like that.

L.A. is what I carry with me all the time, even when I lived in Brazil and Panama. It's what I try to represent in my music, at least respective to the instrument that I play and the swagger I input and the way I want people to move. We want them to feel that this is the way L.A. moves you, when we're in Germany, Brazil or France. It doesn't matter where, it's rooted in L.A. and L.A. is international because our roots are deep. Our roots go way back, they're not just bounded to the streets and these grids and these traffic lights, they go down really deep to communities in Mexico, at least for me. I think that's what I can offer.

Martinez: I grew up in La Mirada, Calif., it's a suburb [in L.A. County]. My dad came to Santa Ana, Calif. with his grandma in the late '60s. My mom came to Orange County in the early '80s from Cartagena, Colombia. They established the family. I was the first one to come out and there's only two of us. We moved to La Mirada and lived in some apartments over there for a while, and then they bought a house. Parks and beaches were part of my family's recreational activities. I look at L.A. as a massive region as a county, not just a city.

And to be honest, I'm infatuated by its natural beauty, these hills, the mountains, the wildlife, the ocean. I think of things like, "Wow, I can see the sunset over the oceans horizon because I'm facing directly west" in Redondo Beach. And conversely, the sun sets over the mountains when I'm in Long Beach because I'm facing south. After so many years I can visualize the panorama from various points in relation to the map. Although I navigate L.A.s streets and highways, I'd rather be on a bike, traveling at the speed of my own will, heading in whatever direction without so much regard to traffic or signals. I guess I try to feel the region I live in, as opposed to think of it in the confines of the names and boundaries, that actually don't exist.

What key things do you think are necessary for L.A. to become a place where all of its residents are celebrated and able to thrive?

Martinez: I think it's necessary for people to open their minds, drop the judgement. I feel like traveling definitely helped me see and feel things differently.

"For me, I'd say that following your heart can work!... I'm still marching to the beat of my own drum, because that's what I know how to do, and that's what makes whatever I do unique." -Bardo Martinez

It's been a decade since the band's debut—what have you learned about yourself as artists and as humans since then?

Martinez: For me, I'd say that following your heart can work! I've pursued music for aesthetic reasons, never really thinking about the markers of success, not to say those aren't necessary.

And I'm still marching to the beat of my own drum, because that's what I know how to do, and that's what makes whatever I do unique.

Tame Impala Checks In From Hibernation

Ivy Queen photographed in 2017

Photo: John Parra/WireImage.com

news

Ivy Queen, Café Tacvba, King Krule To Play Tropicália Music & Taco Fest

More than 50 acts to play Southern California festival mixing music with all-you-can-eat tacos

GRAMMYs/Oct 26, 2017 - 09:56 pm

Killer music and an endless supply of tacos? That's exactly the combination the Tropicália Music and Taco Festival promises to deliver on Nov. 11 at Queen Mary Park in Long Beach, Calif.

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More than 50 acts, including Latin GRAMMY winners Los Tigres Del Norte and Café Tacvba, will play the food-friendly event.

Other acts on the eclectic multilingual bill include Puerto Rican reggaeton singer/songwriter Ivy Queen, recently reunited Brazilian psychedelic rockers Os Mutantes, R&B/soul group the Delfonics, alt-rock quartet Chicano Batman, British rapper King Krule, Mexican accordion player Celso Piña, and rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson.

Tickets are on sale via the festival website, ranging from individual tickets for $85 and VIP passes for $500. Admission will include "all-you-can-eat tacos" from more than 20 different taco vendors. And for those health-conscious fans on the fence, the menu promises "tacos for every diet."

U.S. Latin Music Revenue Soars In First Half Of 2017

Ryan Tedder Press Photo 2024
Ryan Tedder

Photo: Jeremy Cowart

interview

Behind Ryan Tedder's Hits: Stories From The Studio With OneRepublic, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift & More

As OneRepublic releases their latest album, the group's frontman and pop maverick gives an inside look into some of the biggest songs he's written — from how Beyoncé operates to Tom Cruise's prediction for their 'Top Gun' smash.

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2024 - 03:46 pm

Three months after OneRepublic began promoting their sixth album, Artificial Paradise, in February 2022, the band unexpectedly had their biggest release in nearly a decade. The pop-rock band's carefree jam, "I Ain't Worried," soundtracked Top Gun: Maverick's most memeable scene and quickly became a global smash — ultimately delaying album plans in favor of promoting their latest hit.

Two years later, "I Ain't Worried" is one of 16 tracks on Artificial Paradise, which arrived July 12. It's a seamless blend of songs that will resonate with longtime and newer fans alike. From the layered production of "Hurt," to the feel-good vibes of "Serotonin," to the evocative lyrics of "Last Holiday," Artificial Paradise shows that OneRepublic's sound is as dialed-in as it is ever-evolving.

The album also marks the end of an era for OneRepublic, as it's the last in their contract with Interscope Records. But for the group's singer, Ryan Tedder, that means the future is even more exciting than it's been in their entire 15-year career.

"I've never been more motivated to write the best material of my life than this very moment," he asserts. "I'm taking it as a challenge. We've had a lot of fun, and a lot of uplifting records for the last seven or eight years, but I also want to tap back into some deeper material with the band."

As he's been prepping Artificial Paradise with his OneRepublic cohorts, Tedder has also been as busy as he's ever been working with other artists. His career as a songwriter/producer took off almost simultaneously with OneRepublic's 2007 breakthrough, "Apologize" (his first major behind-the-board hit was Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love"); to this day he's one of the go-to guys for pop's biggest names, from BLACKPINK to Tate McRae.

Tedder sat down with GRAMMY.com to share some of his most prominent memories of OneRepublic's biggest songs, as well as some of the hits he's written with Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift and more.

OneRepublic — "Apologize," 'Dreaming Out Loud' (2007)

I was producing and writing other songs for different artists on Epic and Atlantic — I was just cutting my teeth as a songwriter in L.A. This is like 2004. I was at my lowest mentally and financially. I was completely broke. Creditors chasing me, literally dodging the taxman and getting my car repoed, everything.

I had that song in my back pocket for four years. A buddy of mine just reminded me last month, a songwriter from Nashville — Ashley Gorley, actually. We had a session last month, me, him and Amy Allen, and he brought it up. He was like, "Is it true, the story about 'Apologize'? You were completely broke living in L.A. and Epic Records offered you like 100 grand or something just for the right to record the song on one of their artists?"

And that is true. It was, like, 20 [grand], then 50, then 100. And I was salivating. I was, like, I need this money so bad. And I give so many songs to other people, but with that song, I drew a line in the sand and said, "No one will sing this song but me. I will die with this song." 

It was my story, and I just didn't want anyone else to sing it. It was really that simple. It was a song about my past relationships, it was deeply personal. And it was also the song that — I spent two years trying to figure out what my sound was gonna be. I was a solo artist… and I wasn't landing on anything compelling. Then I landed on "Apologize" and a couple of other songs, and I was like, These songs make me think of a band, not solo artist material. So it was the song that led me to the sound of OneRepublic, and it also led me to the idea that I should start a band and not be a solo artist.

We do it every night. I'll never not do it. I've never gotten sick of it once. Every night that we do it, whether I'm in Houston or Hong Kong, I look out at the crowd and look at the band, and I'm like, Wow. This is the song that got us here.

Beyoncé — "Halo," 'I Am…Sacha Fierce' (2008)

We were halfway through promoting Dreaming Out Loud, our first album. I played basketball every day on tour, and I snapped my Achilles. The tour got canceled. The doctor told me not to even write. And I had this one sliver of an afternoon where my wife had to run an errand. And because I'm sadistic and crazy, I texted [songwriter] Evan Bogart, "I got a three-hour window, race over here. Beyoncé called me and asked me to write her a song. I want to do it with you." He had just come off his huge Rihanna No. 1, and we had an Ashley Tisdale single together.

When you write enough songs, not every day do the clouds part and God looks down on you and goes, "Here." But that's what happened on that day. I turn on the keyboard, the first sound that I play is the opening sound of the song. Sounds like angels singing. And we wrote the song pretty quick, as I recall. 

I didn't get a response [from Beyoncé after sending "Halo" over], which I've now learned is very, very typical of her. I did Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé "II MOST WANTED" [from COWBOY CARTER] — I didn't know that was coming out 'til five days before it came out. And when I did "XO" [from 2013's Beyoncé], I found out that "XO" was coming out 12 hours before it came out. That's how she operates.

OneRepublic — "Good Life," 'Waking Up' (2009)

["Good Life"] was kind of a Hail Mary. We already knew that "All the Right Moves" would be the first single [from Waking Up]. We knew that "Secrets" was the second single. And in the 11th hour, our engineer at the time — who I ended up signing as a songwriter, Noel Zancanella — had this drum loop that he had made, and he played it for Brent [Kutzle] in our band. Brent said, "You gotta hear this drum loop that Noel made. It's incredible."

He played it for me the next morning, and I was like, "Yo throw some chords to this. I'm writing to this today." They threw some chords down, and the first thing out of my mouth was, [sings] "Oh, this has gotta be the good life." 

It's the perfect example of, oftentimes, the chord I've tried to strike with this band with some of our bigger records, [which] is happy sad. Where you feel nostalgic and kind of melancholic, but at the same time, euphoric. That's what those chords and that melody did for me.

I was like, "Hey guys, would it be weird if I made the hook a whistle?" And everyone was like, "No! Do not whistle!" They're like, "Name the last hit song that had a whistle." And the only one I could think of was, like, Scorpion from like, 1988. [Laughs.] So I thought, To hell with it, man, it's been long enough, who cares? Let's try it. And the whistle kind of made the record. It became such a signature thing.

Adele — "Rumour Has It," '21' (2011)

"Rumour Has It" was the first song I did in probably a four year period, with any artist, that wasn't a ballad. All any artist ever wanted me to write with them or for them, was ballads, because of "Halo," and "Apologize" and "Bleeding Love."

I begged [Adele] to do a [song with] tempo, because we did "Turning Tables," another ballad. She was in a feisty mood [that day], so I was like, "Okay, we're doing a tempo today!"

Rick Rubin was originally producing the whole album. I was determined to produce Adele, not just write — because I wanted a shot to show her that I could, and to show myself. I stayed later after she left, and I remember thinking, What can I do in this record in this song that could be so difficult to reproduce that it might land me the gig?

So I intentionally muted the click track, changed the tempo, and [created that] whole piano bridge. I was making it up as I went. When she got in that morning. I said, "I have a crazy idea for a bridge. It's a movie." She listens and she says, "This is really different, I like this! How do we write to this?" 

I mean, it was very difficult. [But] we finished the song. She recorded the entire song that day. She recorded the whole song in one take. I've never seen anyone do that in my life — before or since.

Then I didn't hear from her for six months. Because I handed over the files, and Rick Rubin's doing it, so I don't need to check on it. I randomly check on the status of the song — and at this point, if you're a songwriter or producer, you're assuming that they're not keeping the songs. Her manager emails my manager, "Hey, good news — she's keeping both songs they did, and she wants Ryan to finish 'Rumour Has It' production and mix it." 

When I finally asked her, months later — probably at the GRAMMYs — I said, "Why didn't [Rick] do it?" She said, "Oh he did. It's that damn bridge! Nobody could figure out what the hell you were doing…It was so problematic that we just gave up on it."

OneRepublic — "Counting Stars," 'Native' (2013)

I was in a Beyoncé camp in the Hamptons writing for the self-titled album. [There were] a bunch of people in the house — me, Greg Kurstin, Sia — it was a fun group of people. I had four days there, and every morning I'd get up an hour and a half before I had to leave, make a coffee, and start prepping for the day. On the third day, I got up, I'm in the basement of this house at like 7 in the morning, and I'm coming up with ideas. I stumble across that chord progression, the guitar and the melody. It was instant shivers up my spine. 

"Lately I've been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be" is the only line that I had. [My] first thought was, I should play this for Beyoncé, and then I'm listening to it and going, This is not Beyoncé, not even remotely. It'd be a waste. So I tabled it, and I texted the guys in my band, "Hey, I think I have a potentially really big record. I'm going to finish it when I get back to Denver."

I got back the next week, started recording it, did four or five versions of the chorus, bouncing all the versions off my wife, and then eventually landed it. And when I played it for the band, they were like, "This is our favorite song."

Taylor Swift — "Welcome to New York," '1989' (2014)

It was my second session with Taylor. The first one was [1989's] "I Know Places," and she sent me a voice memo. I was looking for a house in Venice [California], because we were spending so much time in L.A. So that whole memory is attached to me migrating back to Los Angeles. 

But I knew what she was talking about, because I lived in New York, and I remember the feeling — endless possibilities, all the different people and races and sexes and loves. That was her New York chapter. She was so excited to be there. If you never lived there, and especially if you get there and you've got a little money in the pocket, it is so exhilarating.

It was me just kind of witnessing her brilliant, fast-paced, lyrical wizardry. [Co-producer] Max [Martin] and I had a conversation nine months later at the GRAMMYs, when we had literally just won for 1989. He kind of laughed, he pointed to all the other producers on the album, and he's like, "If she had, like, three more hours in the day, she would just figure out what we do and she would do it. And she wouldn't need any of us." 

And I still think that's true. Some people are just forces of nature in and among themselves, and she's one of them. She just blew me away. She's the most talented top liner I've ever been in a room with, bar none. If you're talking lyric and melody, I've never been in a room with anyone faster, more adept, knows more what they want to say, focused, efficient, and just talented.

Jonas Brothers — "Sucker," 'Happiness Begins' (2019)

I had gone through a pretty dry spell mentally, emotionally. I had just burned it at both ends and tapped out, call it end of 2016. So, really, all of 2017 for me was a blur and a wash. I did a bunch of sessions in the first three months of the year, and then I just couldn't get a song out. I kept having, song after song, artists telling me it's the first single, [then] the song was not even on the album. I had never experienced that in my career.

I went six to nine months without finishing a song, which for me is unheard of. Andrew Watt kind of roped me back into working with him. We did "Easier" for 5 Seconds of Summer, and we did some Sam Smith and some Miley Cyrus, and right in that same window, I did this song "Sucker." Two [or] three months later, Wendy Goldstein from Republic [Records] heard the record, I had sent it to her. She'd said, very quietly, "We're relaunching the Jonas Brothers. They want you to be involved in a major way. Do you have anything?" 

She calls me, she goes, "Ryan, do not play this for anybody else. This is their comeback single. It's a No. 1 record. Watch what we're gonna do." And she delivered.

OneRepublic — "I Ain't Worried," 'Top Gun: Maverick' Soundtrack (2022)

My memory is, being in lockdown in COVID, and just being like, Who knows when this is going to end, working out of my Airstream at my house. I had done a lot of songs for movies over the years, and [for] that particular [song] Randy Spendlove, who runs [music at] Paramount, called me.

I end up Zooming with Tom Cruise [and Top Gun: Maverick director] Jerry Bruckheimer — everybody's in lockdown during post-production. The overarching memory was, Holy cow, I'm doing the scene, I'm doing the song for Top Gun. I can't believe this is happening. But the only way I knew how to approach it, rather than to, like, overreact and s— the bed, was, It's just another day.

I do prescription songs for movies, TV, film all the time. I love a brief. It's so antithetical to most writers. I'm either uncontrollably lazy or the most productive person you've ever met. And the dividing line between the two is, if I'm chasing some directive, some motivation, some endpoint, then I can be wildly productive.

I just thought, I'm going to do the absolute best thing I can do for this scene and serve the film. OneRepublic being the performing artist was not on the menu in my mind. I just told them, "I think you need a cool indie band sounding, like, breakbeat." I used adjectives to describe what I heard when I saw the scene, and Tom got really ramped and excited. 

You could argue [it's the biggest song] since the band started. The thing about it is, it's kind of become one of those every summer [hits]. And when it blew up, that's what Tom said. He said, "Mark my words, dude. You're gonna have a hit with this every summer for, like, the next 20 years or more." 

And that's what happened. The moment Memorial Day happened, "I Ain't Worried" got defrosted and marched itself back into the top 100.

Tate McRae — "Greedy," 'THINK LATER' (2023)

We had "10:35" [with Tiësto] the previous year that had been, like, a No. 1 in the UK and across Europe and Australia. So we were coming off the back of that, and the one thing she was clear about was, "That is not the direction of what I want to do."

If my memory serves me correct, "greedy" was the next to last session we had. Everything we had done up to that point was kind of dark, midtempo, emotional. So "greedy" was the weirdo outlier. I kept pushing her to do a dance record. I was like, "Tate, there's a lot of people that have great voices, and there's a lot of people who can write, but none of those people are professional dancers like you are. Your secret weapon is the thing you're not using. In this game and this career, you've got to use every asset that you have and exploit it."

There was a lot of cajoling. On that day, we did it, and I thought it was badass, and loved it. And she was like, "Ugh, what do we just do? What is this?"

So then it was just, like, months, months and months of me constantly bringing that song back up, and playing it for her, and annoying the s— out of her. And she came around on it. 

She has very specific taste. So much of the music with Tate, it really is her steering. I'll do what I think is like a finished version of a song, and then she will push everyone for weeks, if not months, to extract every ounce of everything out of them, to push the song harder, further, edgier — 19 versions of a song, until finally she goes, "Okay, this is the one." She's a perfectionist.

OneRepublic — "Last Holiday," 'Artificial Paradise' (2024)

I love [our latest single] "Hurt," but my favorite song on the album is called "Last Holiday." I probably started the beginning of that lyric, I'm not joking, seven, eight years ago. But I didn't finish it 'til this past year.

The verses are little maxims and words of advice that I've been given throughout the years. It's almost cynical in a way, the song. When I wrote the chorus, I was definitely in kind of a down place. So the opening line is, "So I don't believe in the stars anymore/ They never gave me what I wished for." And it's, obviously, a very not-so-slight reference to "Counting Stars." But it's also hopeful — "We've got some problems, okay, but this isn't our last holiday." 

It's very simple sentiments. Press pause. Take some moments. Find God before it all ends. All these things with this big, soaring chorus. Musically and emotionally and sonically, that song — and "Hurt," for sure — but "Last Holiday" is extremely us-sounding. 

The biggest enemy that we've had over the course of 18 years, I'll be the first to volunteer, is, this ever-evolving, undulating sound. No one's gonna accuse me of making these super complex concept albums, because that's just not how my brain's wired. I grew up listening to the radio. I didn't grow up hanging out in the Bowery in CBGBs listening to Nick Cave. So for us, the downside to that, and for me doing all these songs for all these other people, is the constant push and pull of "What is their sound? What genre is it?" 

I couldn't put a pin in exactly what the sound is, but what I would say is, if you look at the last 18 years, a song like "Last Holiday" really encompasses, sonically, what this band is about. It's very moving, and emotional, and dynamic. It takes me to a place — that's the best way for me to put it. And hopefully the listener finds the same.

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NCT 127 Essential Songs
NCT 127

Photo courtesy of SM Entertainment

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NCT 127 Essential Songs: 15 Tracks You Need To Know From The K-Pop Juggernauts

Eight years after their debut, NCT 127 have released their sixth studio album, 'WALK.' Before you dive in, press play on this chronological list of NCT 127 hits and deep cuts that show their musical ingenuity — from "Highway to Heaven" to "Pricey."

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2024 - 02:55 pm

In the K-pop industry, the Neo Culture Technology juggernaut stands out as a cosmopolitan universe. The project is characterized by its highly experimental approach, where each of NCT's subgroups contribute a unique twist.

This is especially true of NCT 127. Comprised of Taeyong, Taeil, Jaehyun, Johnny, Yuta, Doyoung, Jungwoo, Mark, and Haechan, NCT 127's identity was forged via innovative arrangements that defy convention.

During their rookie days, this ahead-of-its-time strategy felt polarizing and raised a few eyebrows. However, after some years of ambivalence (and with some lineup changes in between), they exploded in popularity during the early pandemic with their second studio album, NCT #127: Neo Zone. This record gave them their first title as million sellers, significantly increasing their listeners globally — many of whom embraced the group's music as an escape during quarantine.

Read more: Breaking Down The NCT System, From The Rotational NCT U To The Upcoming NCT Tokyo

Today, they are more influential than ever and their sound is more accepted in the ever-expanidng scope of K-pop. Nonetheless, some K-pop listeners tend to pigeonhole the group as "noise," despite having a diverse catalog and some of the best vocalists of their generation.

Nearly coinciding with their eighth anniversary, NCT 127 released their sixth studio album, WALK on July 15. To mark this occasion, GRAMMY.com presents a song list — in chronological order — demonstrating their musical geniality, which extends far beyond the public's usual perception. 

"Switch"

The group's first mini-album, NCT #127, laid the foundations of their audacious sound and paired it with vocal finesse. To wit, the lead single "Fire Truck" arrived as an unapologetic disruptor shaking up the K-pop industry.

But the bookends of the EP are uniquely contrasting. Whereas "Fire Truck" opens with bold posturing, the outlier "Switch" concludes the ride with a more lighthearted and youthful production. In a way, this song could also be considered a prelude to the NCT universe, as it was recorded a year before NCT 127's debut, and it features members of other NCT iterations — like WayV and Dream — when they were still trainees. 

"Limitless"

The name of this track is a statement of the group's boundary-pushing ethos. True to form, the song is built over a hammering backbone and lengthy synths that bite. The chorus is the highlight; its dynamic explosion of vocals only intensifies the momentum. And while the Korean version is strong, it could be argued that the Japanese rendition imbues the song with new layers of depth that truly elevate it.

It’s worth mentioning that, during the Limitless era, Doyoung and Johnny were added to the lineup, marking NCT 127’s first release with nine members — a move consistent with the original (now-defunct) concept of the NCT system.

"Sun & Moon"

Some songs are crafted for faraway souls and to offer solace to the aching heart. That's why "Sun and Moon," an evocative B-side from NCT 127's third extended play, exists as an unmissable gem.

It's a lyrical tale of longing, where Taeil, Doyoung, Johnny, Taeyong, Jaehyun, and Yuta serenade a distant love, hoping the gap will shrink and a reunion will come. The arrangement is understated but dream-like, and when the pre-chorus arrives, the most beautiful lines are unveiled: "When my moon rises/ Your sun rises as well/ Under the same sky/ In this different time/ Our hearts are connected/ Under the same sky."

"Come Back"

Co-created by GRAMMY-nominated producer Mike Daley and multi-instrumentalist Mitchell Owens, "Come Back" exemplifies maximalism, undulating between intensity and elegance.

"One of the standout aspects of this song is the creative use of chops throughout the track," Daley tells GRAMMY.com. "Even though the arrangement follows a pretty standard structure for us, these chops add a unique flavor that sets 'Come Back' apart. We got to be more experimental [for this track] and bring in some unusual elements."

The voices of Taeil and Doyoung prominently take center stage, infusing potency that ensures smooth progressions throughout the production.

"Lips"

Featured on the group's first Japanese studio album, Awaken, "Lips" is an unjustly overlooked cut that blends sensuality with hypnotizing Latin rhythms. The deeper you are immersed in it, the more enchanting it becomes, casting a spell over your mind.

Its minimalist formula is effective, and the lyrics hint at a compelling journey: "Your lips come and take me to the place to go/ The place you would know where you should go." Sometimes, less is more, and the impact can be equally powerful.

"Highway to Heaven"

"Highway to Heaven" shines as one of the crown jewels in NCT 127's discography, praised not only for its cathartic production but also for marking a turnaround in their artistry. It sees them delving into more subdued and ethereal soundworlds.

A pre-release single from their fourth mini album, We Are Superhuman, the instrumental is woven with buzzy percussion and silken guitar strings. The group's vocal prowess truly exhilarates, crescendoing a declaration of freedom during the chorus: "We'll take the highway to heaven/ Any time, anywhere I feel you/ You and I, highway to heaven/ This place where we're together is heaven." 

The track reaches its pinnacle with an interlude guided by Jungwoo's velvety delivery, eventually setting the stage for Haechan's soaring voice.

"Superhuman"

"Superhuman," the lead single from We Are Superhuman, is a timeless masterpiece. The avant garde song showcases the group's expansive adaptability, exchanging their usual edge for intricate sophistication.

American singer/songwriter Adrian Mckinnon — a frequent collaborator of SM Entertainment, home of the NCT project — teamed up with South Korean producers TAK and 1Take to bring the song to life, and he recalls being "blown away" when he listened to the instrumental. "All the glitches and stutters immediately gave nostalgia," Mckinnon tells GRAMMY.com, noting the sound choices reminded him of old school video games. "[The song] kind of sits in its own lane, maybe somewhere between glitch funk and glitch hop. Maybe a little Daft Punky too?"

Mckinnon says he sat with the instrumental track for half an hour before recording his vocal ideas. "I wanted to absorb it in its entirety before trying anything."

He also explains that they created the song without a specific group in mind, so he was excited to discover the song was placed with NCT 127. "I think this speaks to the versatile nature of the group because they executed the track very well and were able to make it their own. It's easily one of my favorite songs I've been a part of."

"Love Me Now"

Another piece from Daley and Owens, "Love Me Now" pulses with gentleness and heartwarming nostalgia. It's a song made for those days when everything feels right in place. 

Daley recalled working on "Love Me Now" during a K-pop songwriting camp in Seoul, and says he refined an existing track. "Most of our stuff is tailor-made for artists in Korea, but this track was very much a U.S. pop/dance radio-sounding track," he says. "It doesn't feature a ton of sections, switch-ups, or the musically intricate bridge that a lot of our K-pop songs normally have. It's very minimalistic, bright, and centered, and sometimes that's all you need."

He observes the creation process of "Love Me Now" was more straightforward than "Come Back," as the latter contains the usual elaborateness of K-pop productions. "That simplicity in ['Love Me Now'] lent itself to making a very catchy, memorable record that was easy to digest."

"NonStop"

By NCT standards, "NonStop" — from the repackaged album NCT #127 Neo Zone: The Final Round — is a B-side that overflows with the potential of a lead single. It's an amalgam of unburdened rap verses and cohesive vocals that glide effortlessly across a cutting-edge production.

Adrian Mckinnon explains that he and Kenzie chose the track from a selection created by the British production duo LDN Noise due to the magnetic pull of the intro. "The arpeggiated tones and the crazy melody of the lead synth immediately took us to the future," he says. "The chord progression and the rising energy out of the pre-chorus — it all felt like some high-speed race through some futuristic city."

The development of the structure proved quite challenging, but the end result encapsulated the intended concept. "Listening to it in its final form, you would think the sections were obvious, but each of the melody and topline — including others that didn't make the song — all felt quite hooky," McKinnon shares. "But since you only have so much 'song,' you must pick your favorite bits and massage the ideas together. That's how we arrived at what 'NonStop' came to be."

"First Love"

A burgeoning romance transforms into the dulcet melodies that define "First Love," a B-side from NCT 127's second Japanese EP, Loveholic, released in February 2021. Excitement beams throughout the lines of the song, capturing the world of possibilities that come with finding the person you've always dreamed of.

When the group leans towards professing love in all its shapes, they do so with a rawness that percolates through their voices, easily perceptible to all. And here, they opt for a playful and tender side.

"Breakfast"

Off of their third full-length album, Sticker, "Breakfast" is distinguished by its harmonic richness and stunning vocal arrangements.\

The track emerged from a collaboration in which Swedish producer Simon Petrén devised the sonic framework, complemented by GRAMMY-winning songwriter Ninos Hanna and songwriter/producer Andreas Öberg. "As the melody ideas evolved, the song was also developed and built up to match the topline," Öberg tells GRAMMY.com. "The original demo was called 'Breakfast' and tailor-made for [the group]. SM Entertainment decided to release this song with them shortly after we submitted it." 

Öberg describes the composition as "an interesting hybrid," with the original demo molded to be "a modern dance/house record while still using advanced chord progressions not only with influences from jazz and fusion."

He also cites Michael Jackson as an inspiration, drawing from "his unique style of switching between minor and major tonalities." 

"Favorite (Vampire)"

After releasing Sticker, NCT 127 wasted no time and quickly followed up with a repackaged album centered around the hauntingly resonant "Favorite." A brainchild of Kenzie, American producer Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, and singer/songwriter Rodnae "Chikk" Bell, this record is the most tempered of all the NCT 127's title tracks.

A whistling sample introduces a thumping trap beat that rapidly unfolds into piercing lines — courtesy of Taeyong and Mark — that slice through the song. But as we hit the road toward the chorus, "Favorite" veers into a more vocally-driven approach, a splendid transition that balances its core. In classic SM style, the bridge is a triumph, with Doyoung, Taeil, and Haechan pouring their hearts out as if they've been shattered into a hundred pieces.

"Angel Eyes"

Listening to "Angel Eyes," a cut nestled in the middle of their most recent release, Fact Check, is akin to a healing escape. From the first seconds, pure bliss fills the air and quickly transforms into an open invitation to lose ourselves in the music.

"Paradise, like an angel fly/ With your wings, make me fly through the brilliant world/ My delight in all the days and nights/ Even in darkness, make me dream the greatest dream," they sing in the last chorus, prescribing optimism atop a layering reminiscent of the '80s.

"Pricey"

One of WALK's B-sides, "Pricey" boasts a delightful instrumental with thick basslines and a fusion of piano and guitar chords. Although the rapped chorus momentarily threatens to stall the pace, vibrant ad-libs — growing more captivating as the song progresses — quickly pick it back up, perfectly aligning the overall effort with their unique sound.


"Pricey"
was originally intended for the American market, which makes it all the more inexplicable that it was tucked away in the NCT 127 vault for so long. Thankfully, it's now receiving the spotlight it deserves – it's simply too remarkable to remain unearthed.

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