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Noise Experimentalist Evicshen Talks First LP 'Hair Birth,' Crafting Xenomorph Face Masks & More

Evicshen 

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Noise Experimentalist Evicshen Talks First LP 'Hair Birth,' Crafting Xenomorph Face Masks & More

The Boston-based instrument maker, video and sound artist tells GRAMMY.com about writing her first LP, making an album cover that can be used as a speaker and why noise music can be so "liberating"

GRAMMYs/Jul 17, 2020 - 09:03 pm

Watching noise musician Victoria Shen (A.K.A. Evicshen) perform is like watching a mad scientist transform into a joyful noise cyborg. In an amazing 2019 video taken at New York's Ende Tymes Festival of Noise and Liberation, she carefully tweaks a table full of boxes bristling with knobs and wires before wrapping cables around herself, sticking a wire in her teeth, and thrashing around so that the movement of her body itself elicits grinding spits of feedback.

Born in San Francisco, Shen went to the Museum School in Boston in 2007 for illustration. But a class on synth construction with instrument maker Jessica Rylan changed her direction. "She really liked the way I soldered," Shen says, "so she hired me and I worked for her for five years on weekends soldering electronics." As a result, Shen learned music and noise "in a totally backwards way, starting from the nuts and bolts of practical stuff and later coming into the theory, and graduating to doing printed circuit board layout design."

Shen's been an instrument maker, video artist and sound artist for about a decade, and has put out a couple of releases in various formats since 2018. She's releasing her first LP, Hair Birth, this year on American Dreams records: 45 minutes of hiss, roar, shriek, feedback, and vibration, with an album cover that can be used as a speaker. 

Coming into music from what she calls "the technical back end" of construction gives Shen a unique perspective. She loves building the things that make the noise as much as the noise itself. She talks very quickly, because she's got so many ideas she can barely get them out in time. When you listen to her it's hard not to get swept up in her enthusiasm for making things and banging them together until they make a satisfyingly cacophonous noise.

Noise music can feel angry or dystopian, but you've described your own sound work as optimistic. What's optimistic about noise?

Noise music is so liberating because there are no rules. We have this idea and this notion of the way music should work and what a musician is. And then there's noise!

I think noise highlights that the rules of music are just things we've assumed. Because there are no real rules in noise. If anything, you're encouraged to break rules, to transgress rules. When you present work that doesn't have any embedded, meaning it's up to the audience to interpret it. So it forces them to take an active stance. I'm trying to shock people out of complacency, so that they're present.

How did you become interested in noise music?

I worked with Jessica Ryan, who's a pioneer in noise music. She makes these chaotic synths. They are themselves chaotic systems that are designed with feedback in mind. One small change in the parameter will result in really complex aperiodic sounds. So that completely dispenses with the idea of reproducibility and mastery over your instrument. There's always an element of chance.

Her instruments fundamentally have this chaos in them and so it attracted a lot of noise musicians. She herself was a noise musician.

So, she would bring me to shows. That was my introduction to the local noise scene. It was kind of mind-blowing. I don't think I was quite ready to enter that scene quite yet!

What prompted you to start performing yourself?

When I was 25, I fell head over heels for this guy in San Francisco. It made me feel so alive. And we enjoyed the same kind of music, and that inspired me to start this band called Trim. The logo was an illustration of a pubic hair triangle, which was the "T" and then one errant pube like kind of strays out and spells the rest of our name.

At first maybe it was a kind of rock, maybe kind of metal because we had guitar and drums. But then I dispensed with the guitar and it became synth drums. But then the drummer moved to New York and  I was performing more and more as a solo musician.

The guy who inspired me, me and him weren't even really dating; I'd just see him when I came to San Francisco and we would hang out. But he epitomized to me the weird funky underground aspects of San Francisco with comic books writer and graffitti and skateboarders, and living in the moment. His small presence in my life had huge consequences for me down the line.

I know you make your own instruments. Do you have instruments you made and now use regularly, or are you making new ones all the time?

I'm making new ones all the time! I have a bandsaw that I have a contact mic on. I modified a stethoscope to turn into a microphone so you can listen to your heartbeat. I made this…I don't know what you'd call it. I put audio tape on a spindle on a motor. And I can change the speed and direction of the motor. And then on my hand I have a glove with tape heads on the fingertip. So I applied the tape heads onto the tape spindle. And it plays audio that way.

So I'm always trying to add stuff to the sound palette.

So for this album, Hair Birth, the cover actually functions as a speaker. How did you come up with that idea?

At the end of 2018, I was figuring out how to make speakers by winding magnet wire. And I found out that you can make planar speakers. You take a coil and you can integrate it into a single plane and then distribute the magnets across the back of it and then you have a flat speaker.

And then I thought it would be really amazing if we could have it render an image. And so I did a bunch of different stuff. I embroidered fabric with conductive thread and made fabric speakers. I turned a cassette tape into a speaker; I turned a drum into the speaker. I made a levitating speaker using four coils that switch polarity really fast.

It was while I was in Copenhagen with sound artist Jenny Gräf that I developed the workflow to actually make images. And the first image that I made into a speaker was Else Marie Pade, who is a Danish electronic music pioneer and composer. And I was like dude, I'm going to make an LP jacket that you can listen to the LP through! So that was when the Eureka moment came, when I was in Copenhagen.

What did your label American Dreams say when you said, "Okay, I'm going to turn this album cover into a speaker"?

Oh my god, they were so into it.

Is it expensive to make these covers?

It's very laborious. I'm completing the last few right now, but I've been working on it for months. It's conceptually very simple. You take this copper foil and adhesive on one side, and paste it on the jacket. Then you put it under a vinyl cutter so the vinyl cutter will cut out the pattern.  And then the difficult part is taking out the negative space with tweezers. And then you have to solder the coil together.

So you have to do them one-by-one by hand? How many of these are you doing?

Yeah, by hand. There's 100 that we're selling with the speakers.

Are you working on anything else in lockdown now?

I've been secretly really loving lock down! [Laughs.] I've had so many projects that were back-burnered—things I would ordinarily feel too guilty to devote a lot of time to.

So recently I've been co-teaching this introduction to digital fabrication class at Harvard. It's laser cutting, 3-D printing, electronics, embedded programming, I was able to whisk away part of that lab so I have a couple 3-D printers at home. And I've been making masks. I made a fluorescent day-glo mask, and then a xenomorph face-hugger mask. And then I made this mask that has an LED smiley face if you're talking in a low tone, and then it turns into a frowny face when you're yelling.

I'm trying to figure out how to cut my own records at home. And I've also been working with micro-phonographs. The Audubon society released these trading cards with tiny platic discs, tiny plastic records on them which described the birds and played birdsong. And they also released these phonographs you could play them on. And what's interesting is that instead of the plate moving or the record spinning, it's the needle that moves, because it's mounted on a motor. It spins from the center outward, which is the opposite of conventional records.

I've been figuring out how to replicate them by making silicone molds of the microphone grafts and then pouring like a very low viscosity urethane into them.

There's not enough hours in the day, I'm telling you!

Are you living alone?

I have a roommate but I share an apartment that's pretty spacious for Boston, I'd say.

So you're not in her way when you're pouring fluids and things.

I kind of am, actually. [Laughs.]

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

Mumu Fresh On What She Learned From Working With The Roots, Rhyming & More

Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

Be Like Björk: Iceland Unveils New 'Record In Iceland' Initiative

Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."