Photo: Jess Bernstein/Courtesy of Meow Wolf
Taos Vortex 2018
Meow Wolf & Taos Vortex Fest Are Shifting Art & Live Music Towards More Interactive, Playful Spaces
…And its creators just want to have fun with all of us
How many times have you been to an exhibit where you've crept up close to a breathtaking work of art, only to be yelled out for standing too close? How many times have you been excited to check out a live show, but the performer is barely visible from your spot at the back of the crowd? Enter Meow Wolf, an experimental, experiential art collective making headlines for their trippy avant-garde-art-meets-funhouse-meets-kids-museum space in Santa Fe, N.M.
In 2016, Meow Wolf opened this ultra-exploratory venue featuring art you can touch from rotating collabs with multi-media artists, the House of Eternal Return. It is their first permanent space, thanks to funding from the one and only from George R.R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones. Fast forward to two years later, and the growing crew has launched the Taos Vortex music festival, incorporating their love for interactive art and community spaces with their eclectic taste in music.
Now, in 2019, they are preparing for a second year of the fest in Taos, N.M., running from Aug. 16–18, along with getting ready to open new permanent spaces in Las Vegas, Denver and Washington D.C. in the subsequent years. Vince Kadlubek, Co-Founder and CEO, Sofie Cruse, Art Director for Events, and Max Beck-Keller, Events Director, treated the Recording Academy to a phone conversation about what they were most excited about for the second Taos Vortex, why they strongly believe in integrating music and art in interactive spaces (because music is art, right?), what's up next for Meow Wolf and more.
So, the second edition of Taos Vortex is coming up soon. What do you guys most looking forward to about the festival's sophomore year?
Vince Kadlubek: I'm looking forward to the experience as a whole. All of the elements coming together; the music, the art, the performers. And then getting there, being there with all of the people and all of the contribution the Vortex inhabitants are bringing.
Sofie Cruse: I would definitely agree, in that this year it's highly collaborative and having all of these different elements come together and sing together is going to be something that we're all really looking forward to.
Max Beck-Keller: Vortex the vibe, Vortex the harmonic frequency.
Cruse: Completely. It's harmonizing all of the experiences together into something that feels cohesive. And also that you can't even get a snapshot of a moment of it because there's just so much.
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Looking back at last year, we’re beyond thrilled to return to the lovely community of Taos for #TaosVortex this weekend! Taos Vortex is a fun, mind-bending, weird, multi-sensory experience that we get to share with thousands of inhabitants concurrently. It’s a weekend to fully dive into a universe of installed art environments, music, experimental interactions, and adventures. Come vibe with us ~~> taosvortex.com [: @katerussellphoto + @jessbernsteinphoto]
It sounds so all-immersive. And the musical lineup is really top notch, yet super eclectic. What was your main vision going into booking the artists?
Beck-Keller: Meow Wolf is eclectic, it's maximal, it's stacked. New Mexico is eclectic, there's a lot of different people here. It was really important to have a lineup that is as diverse and eclectic and happening as Meow Wolf and the place that we live in.
Kadlubek: I think the artists who are all coming there, they're fun. And we see the best success with artists who come and play our venue when there's this commonality and there's a synergy between us and the artists. I think that's what the programming is all about, trying to create that artistic synergy that Sofie said, trying to create that harmony in the experience.
Cruse: You did a great job.
Can you speak to a specific artist that you feel Meow Wolf is really synergistic with? We're you're like, "we have to work with this person"?
Kadlubek: There's a lot of the artists who are playing this year we have a relationship with, perhaps they've played at Meow Wolf in past years. I think Empress Of is an artist like that. She's playful, there's intensity; there's a certain unexpectedness with what she does. And she's fun. Also, we go back, personally and culturally, with CocoRosie, and aesthetically. Also, from a community perspective, they're someone who not only just represents Meow Wolf, but we actually feel like we're of the same fabric.
Beck-Keller: Totally. CocoRosie has a strong relationship with Taos. Their friends are good friends of ours. Like Vince says, it's that fabric.
Cruse: CocoRosie has been one of my favorite musical groups for forever and seeing the integration of what we're naturally doing and what they do and how those two things shake each other's hand, it's a nice thing to be able to look at.
I love that, all of the universes aligning. Looking at the whole offering of Taos Vortex, in addition to the music, there's a lot of other things to get excited about, to get lost in. What is your biggest hope that an attendee of Taos Vortex might get out of the experience?
Kadlubek: I want people to leave feeling inspired. I think as artists and makers you want to create new worlds. And I think we want people to come to Vortex and see a world that relates to their world and inspires them and makes them want to be creative in their own life.
Cruse: Piggybacking off of that, I think a lot of people go to experiences like this to be transformed, to have something that changes them a little bit. And through what we've been trying to curate and bring together, opportunities and invitations for people to not only come out transformed, but to be supported in that. This is going to be very community-based, world-based.
I think all of you mentioned the collaborative element of the festival this year. Could you speak to that a little bit and the different pieces or maybe the different players that led to it all coming together?
Cruse: Creating an environment that changes your locomotion, in an outdoor setting. The installations that we're providing this year are not only going to encourage movement from people but encourage different movements. I think that by getting people outside of normal party expectations and giving them an environment that has less rules but more to engage with, it's a huge thing. So, the impetus to get people excited and then kind of run with it themselves.
Kadlubek: We do this at the House of Eternal Return, too. We want to provide a really nice environment and want people to feel like they can explore and discover and utilize and create within it, however they want to. It starts with people and the community to dig the vibes of the environment first, then music's the byproduct of that and the art and the sculpture is a byproduct of that. And then food is too. We try to have our festival be something that's anchored by the people in the community and the environment first. Then everything else derives from that, like a really cool park.
Why do you believe it's important to enhance a standard music festival experience and integrate art play and creativity into it?
Beck-Keller: I think art and music has to be an experience. It's not a consumer activity. Meow Wolf doesn't make art that's on a wall in a gallery or in a museum to be looked at and not touched. And I think all art is like that; you want to play with it, you want to experiment.
Cruse: I think it's what people want too, people want to have this experience about the music and the space that they're in, something that's less formulaic in a way. [They want] to be able to interact with it and change, to feel the place and the connectivity.
Beck-Keller: We don't want to create observer moments. We want people to live in their experience.
Kadlubek: Although it's important to bring art, creativity, vibes and community into the centerpiece of the festival experience, I think that's because festivals that are based on music alone, a big crowd and big names, has been done and it's predictable. What's fun about bringing in art, imagination and participation is that it's harder to predict those variables. You're not quite sure what the festival will be, who you might meet, what you might do, how you might contribute to it, what rabbit holes you might go down. And I think that unpredictability is what people really want.
It's the type of thing that Burning Man is the best at. They don't have headliners, they don't have schedules. It's still very much an environment for you to explore, for you to find whoever it is you want to find. It's the best model. So it's just trying to tap into that ethos. I also think an important part of is that festival culture has evolved.
There's new values that need to be brought to the table and new ways of interacting with people. There's new things to consider important and new priorities that need to be brought in to the fold of festival culture, and it takes producers, programmers and event promoters to be the leaders when setting new values for communal experiences. And so that's largely where we are coming from as well. We want to be part of a movement of festivals and music shows and that helps define a new way for people to come to interact with each other.
Cruse: I think that Vortex is giving us the vessel to be able to play with that in a really intense way. To change the model and be able to give people this "show me, don't tell me" experience. The culture is rapidly changing in awareness over how people wish to choose their nighttime when they have it; you want to make sure that it's different and wild and weird.
In my mind there's kind of two camps of thought for the festival experience, with one end being "let's have a completely brand-owned experience."
Kadlubek: Yeah, totally.
And then there's the Burning Man end of it, where everyone there has to participate and contribute to have fun. It's cool to see that happening in a music festival design.
Beck-Keller: Yeah, we're trying to find somewhere in between those, definitely towards the Burning Man side. I think how we're doing it is with our Meow Wolf platform is inspiring experiences that we resonate with. Like DoLaB [who throws Lightning in a Bottle fest] and Symbiosis [a roaming-home festival], Meow Wolf has their own vibe. There are festival promoters out there who are absolutely thinking about how people come together in a way that promotes social change and new ways of communicating. And that is taking off and we're doing it. But I think what Meow Wolf does is that we also add in an element of accessibility and party and just fun. "Fun" is a really important verb for us.
Cruse: I want to throw the kind of parties that I want to go to. We also have put in the homework to decide that there are a lot of different ways to do this but we seem to have found a way that is really appealing to a bunch of different kinds of people, that I think are craving something new and a little weirder.
Kadlubek: And I want Vortex to be a place where people in their sixties want to go and feel comfortable. That's a goal for us. I want Vortex to be something that a family who have 12-year-olds who come into the party during the day and it feels like the House of Eternal Return in that the same sort of feeling of inclusivity for people who normally wouldn't feel comfortable at a festival.
Beck-Keller: Absolutely. Creating art and experiences for people and not having some kind of vibe that people feel alienated as though they're not cool or weird enough that they can't come.
Looking at the House of Eternal Return, as you all mentioned, you've had some pretty amazing acts come through there. Why was important to bring live music into that space?
Beck-Keller: Music has always been part of Meow Wolf, so it make sense to bring it into our program. It also creates another opportunity to explore the space.
Kadlubek: It's funny because 13 years ago when we started, the reason we rented the very first warehouse was to throw music shows at an art exhibition. What turned into our first art exhibition was really the decoration of the venue. So that's our genesis point.
What's amazing about music is that as long as you're booking really great acts, you will always remain relevant. Whereas if you're a fashion or visual brand, you're susceptible to being off trend. Think about a successful festival like a Coachella; they've been around 25 years or so and still is super relevant, super beloved.
That's the thing, music is the beating heart of culture. It drives right into what is relevant today in the world of culture. Not to spend too much time bashing on the fine art world, but that's where you can start to really drift off into some strange abstract, disconnected places. Culturally, it's when you stopped aligning yourself with that beating heart of music.
What has been your favorite show at Meow Wolf so far? I know it's probably impossible to pick.
Kadlubek: Oh my gosh. [Pauses.] I think when we first saw CocoRosie play there.
Cruse: Oh my god.
Kadlubek: Yeah, that was like a holy sh*t moment, that was absolute.
Cruse: That was one of my favorite in the venue. Because of the size of our venue and the amount of hype that there was for CocoRosie's show, it was one of the best, most energetic times I've had at Meow Wolf. Really, really fun. Jonathan Richmond was another one that was just a mind blowing lifetime experience and getting to see it in what is our home, essentially, was very special.
Kadlubek: Justin Martin's played a bunch of times. I went to one of those parties and it was probably the best show that I had been to. It seems like consistently his Meow Wolf residency was just really special for us.
Beck-Keller: Justin Martin is so influential for us. I've been to every single one of his parties but one, when I was out of town. And then shows like Kevin Morby playing on a Sunday night absolutely blew my mind.
This all sounds so fun. What is the capacity for the space as a music venue?
Beck-Keller: It's 400 for live music and 500 for parties because when we have a party we know that people hang out in the exhibit too.
Wow, that's a super intimate space.
Beck-Keller: Yeah, it's our tiny baby.
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As we head into the new year, we look back (via the link in our bio) at mind melting music that graced us this year. Music was, is, and will always be part of our lifeblood at Meow Wolf.⠀ Huge credit to the entire Meow Wolf Events team here in Santa Fe, and to the entire operating staff that maintains this phenomenon. The work that you all put into this venue is LITERALLY changing our city and state for the better. Come out y’all, check the venue, get to a show! Photo Credits: ⠀ 1. Evan & Zane by @katerussellphoto | 2. Shakey Graves by @katerussellphoto | 3. Itchy-O by @katerussellphoto | 4. Tokimonsta by @brandonsoder | 5. Taos Vortex by @jessbernsteinphotography | 6. Dan Deacon by @katerussellphoto | 7. Tinariwen by @katerussellphoto | 8. Mountain Goats by @katerussellphoto | 9. Poppy by @katerussellphoto | 10. Justin Martin by @sidesquash
I was talking to someone recently who told me that shortly after Woodstock, Bill Graham closed both Fillmore East and West [iconic concert halls he ran from 1968-1971 in N.Y.C and S.F.] because he realized he and the artists could make a lot more money with bigger venues. So, the early 70s were a turning point for bigger shows. But there's just something special about seeing your favorite artist in a small space.
Beck-Keller: Totally. I think it goes back to the importance of being part of the experience and not being an observer. An intimate room gives you that, you're right there, up close. Justin Martin always invites people onto the stage to dance right there in the DJ booth with him. We welcome it as a venue. We worked really hard to make sure it's safe for everyone to dance on the stage and on the speakers and all our subwoofers.
Music has a powerful effect on most people, especially when you can either connect with the artists who makes the music that you cry to or just be around other people that are also crying to the same music. I think that's an important thing that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of big venues and events.
Kadlubek: Also, we're coming at it from a perspective of "let's party." Let's party, but let's be safe. Let's have be respectful to ourselves and others. Everybody can party responsibly; we welcome all into this party. That's kind of the message that Meow Wolf has had for a while. That still translates into our venue as they can let loose.
Cruse: Totally. We are not in the business of having a bad time. It is my personal mantra. We want people, when they choose to have a nice time, to choose to have it with us. And we do focus on individuality so much that it's really hard to be embarrassed at our parties, which I think is something that sometimes an outsider-feeling person can have, but it's just not seen as rampantly at our parties.
I think that's so important. Here's another hard question. What is the biggest thing you feel like you've learned so far from working with Meow Wolf?
Cruse: Learning and learning and learning. Max and I say that to each other almost every day.
Beck-Keller: Yeah, I think coming from DIY culture, it really has been about that. We set the bar high for ourselves and teach ourselves how to get there.
Cruse: Being overly ambitious is a good thing for us because it puts us in situations where we have to figure it out. With events there are hard deadlines; you either make it work or pivot. I think that's been a huge thing to learn; we always say that our events team is scrappy because most of the time we are trying to make everything work even if it isn't something that we necessarily know how to do.
What does the future of art and music look like to you?
Kadlubek: I think about this from the production world. Sometimes in putting on shows, you may want to rely on a formula and do something in a rote way because that's what you know and that's what you see. I don't know what the future looks like, but I definitely know that it's about getting outside of the box and not doing things that are rote and opening up new collaborations between venues and artists and event producers and installation artists and really exploring the edge no matter what that edge is.
Beck-Keller: I'm going to sound pretty futurist here, but in the future art and music—and really events—is going to be based on the fact that people will be able to experience each other without being in the same space. So having the ability to think about events, music and art from the vantage point of attendees coming in from anywhere in the world. Coachella's realized this with regards to the live stream; that audience is actually bigger than their in person attendance. There's been some issues with that; how much attention is given to the live stream versus the people who bought tickets to be there. But it goes beyond even just live streaming video.
It's all the way of how do you build venues and experiences that anyone in the world can log into and can feel the community, experience what it's like to be at a Meow Wolf venue. For me, the goal is how do we integrate and build an even larger culture or subculture of like-minded people who want to have fun and be expressive and want to share an imagination with each other without actual physical space being a limitation.
Cruse: I see the world of art and music changing so much, just by the nature of materials that we are using today and how they're continuing to be developed. whether that may be something that is tangible, I think that the non-tangible ways of creating and sharing, what Vince is touching on, is going to be a really interesting way of how we show each other the things that we're trying to say. I think it's what art is, trying to communicate.
What's next for Meow Wolf? I know you have some new cities opening on the horizon.
Beck-Keller: One of the next things that Sofie and I are developing is a new party that follows after the Vortex summertime narrative, and goes into the winter, called Dark Palace. We're going to announce that pretty soon.
Ooh, is it another festival?
Beck-Keller: Yeah, but it's not like a camping thing like at Vortex. It's a cold-weather, indoor thing. For all those freaks that don't like the sun but still want to enjoy music.
And what about the other magical playhouses around the U.S.?
Kadlubek: So we're going to open Vegas, I'll say a year from now. It's going to be about three times the size of the Santa Fe experience and it's a whole new concept. Its part of a really large development called Area 15, which is going to be a really sweet new type of cultural experience.
And then a year after that, we open Denver, so we have two major projects right now that are in production and one project that's in development, which is in Washington, D.C. There's a lot happening for us. Everything that we're doing has music attached to it, with more music venues. We are really trying to expand what has happened in Santa Fe and what people have fallen in love with there and take it to a level that can accommodate big cities and larger populations, but still maintaining the same vibe and character.
When I first heard of the Sin City joint I thought, "Meow Wolf in Vegas, what?" Which quickly shifted to "Wait, this is exactly what is needed there," exactly like you were saying, like a different experience.
Kadlubek: Yeah. So one of our friends and one of our favorite venue operators, event producers in the world is House of Yes [in Brooklyn]. The owners of House of Yes, when we were thinking about Vegas, at first the reaction was, "What? Vegas?" And then they said, "Actually, every time we go to Vegas, we're like, 'Why the f* are we here? What is there to do here that's even fun?'" That's the exact crowd that we're trying to speak to, all the people who end up in Vegas, wondering sort of like, "Okay, now what?"
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.