“And That Is Honestly Not Hyperbole”: Soul Cannon’s Impossibly Heavy Prog-Rap
If you were at the Golden West in Hampden at around 11 p.m. last Thursday, you would have seen an MC deftly rapping over shredding synth and guitar riffs. And despite how eclectic — even ill-advised — that looks in print, you would know that for Baltimore four-piece Soul Cannon it’s an alchemical mixture, one that yields raw punk energy from rap and technique-heavy math rock.
But they don’t need me to hype them. They’re happy to hype themselves. Their Facebook page defines their musical labor as nothing short of “tearing apart the guts of hip-hop’s musical workings and transforming them into a new sonic beast altogether.” And in the interview to follow guitarist Matt Frazão claims that he and his bandmates play “everything,” and then insists it’s literally true. While that is absolutely impossible, I will grant that their frankensteined sound builds a summer home in an area previously thought uninhabitable, and that that requires a broad skill set.
The rhetoric matches the music, which is anything but bashful. The band oscillates between loud and really loud, and between agitated and really agitated. Rapper Eze Jackson resorts to screaming some of the hooks, and for a moment I believe I’m watching a hardcore band.
Recently I put some questions to the band about their process.
Baltimore Fishbowl: How did the prog-riffs-plus-rap concept start? Who had the vision to say, “No trust me; this will all make sense?”
Matt Frazão: I’d say the trust was already there. I think all of us are into a very wide variety of music, and are maybe somewhat predisposed to writing and playing stuff that is both challenging and clever, both instrumentally and musically. So, playing a hip-hop song in 5, 7, or 13 or whatever seems like a perfectly natural thing to do.
Jon Birkholz: I would say that the person who put the lineup together got musicians who could handle this “prog riff”stuff, however, he himself could not. Also he stifled the creative outputs of other members, so when he left the band the whole thing was like already there under the surface.
Eze Jackson: I’d say, for me, that was when I really started to feel like I was a part of something new and challenging. Having played with the guys for a while, but also having seen them play in other settings, for me, like Matt said, the trust was there.
BFB: When I see a live band setting up their gear to back up an MC I’m always skeptical. There’s a richness of tone you get with produced beats that most live bands can’t — or don’t — match. But somehow you’ve all managed to fill a lot of sonic space between the guitar and the Hammond / Korg setup, and whatever you’ve lost in tonal range, you’ve traded for immediacy. What kind of planning and work goes into crafting a song for you guys? Is it second nature now?
MF: Songs take shape in a variety of ways, but a lot of the time one of us, usually Matt or Jon, will come in with either a part of a tune written, or maybe even a whole tune. From there we usually fool around with various aspects of it, and experiment with the possibilities that intrigue us.
After we have a clear idea of what the musical aspects of something will be then the lyrics start to come together, and we try to figure out how the f— a person might rap in 13-beat phrases or over odd bar structures or whatever the case may be. We definitely benefit from our ability to collaborate, and by throwing out ideas or thoughts without worrying about judgment or offending anyone. We’re way past all that BS, both as musicians and as a band.
JB: That and also the fact that the songs you hear lately at our shows have been played for years. And years. So the fact that they exist for so long ferments them, or makes them more themselves or something.
BFB: Eze, what were you doing before Soul Cannon? Was it more straightforward hip-hop?
EJ: I mostly did solo stuff. Definitely straight forward hip-hop. I’d put together one band but they were all musicians more interested in recreating the beats I rapped over than creating something brand new. No one read music or listened to anything outside of rap, R&B, or gospel. That got boring for me. Soul Cannon was something where I felt everybody should have some stake in it. It’s not The Eze Jackson Show. I like how when we perform sometimes, people in the audience are no longer paying me any attention. They’re staring at Matt, Jon, or Nathan with this look on their face like, “Whoa. What the f— is he doing back there?”
BFB: And the rest of you?
MF: All three of us came from different parts of the country to pursue degrees at the Peabody Conservatory after growing up nerding out to musical things in our respective hometowns. I got a degree in Classical Guitar, Jon got his in Jazz Piano, and Nathan studied Jazz as well. But all three of us play everything, and that is honestly not hyperbole.
BFB: Is there anywhere online that one could check out some MP3s?
JB: Our first two albums are out on iTunes and various other distribution services. You can hear a leak of our new stuff if you come party with us in one of our living rooms for now.
MF: We might be able to send you a few rough mixes, but only if you’ll make sure to play them for everyone you know.
Look for Soul Cannon’s as-yet-untitled new album (recorded by Oxes’ Chris Freeland) later this summer.