Exclusive Video Interview with Aaron Konkol of Natty Nation

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Natty Nation has been a staple of the Madison reggae music scene since 1995. Unlike classical reggae artists, the band is influenced by rock and hip hop in addition to reggae and dub. Their musical style has been known to evolve over time but never stray too far from the all-original roots-rock-reggae format. The band has been described as Steel Pulse meets Jimi Hendrix. Their messages are positive and often spiritual or political in nature. However, their later albums have shifted away from Rastafari and moved more toward Eastern philosophy.   

Over the past 22 years, Natty has played countless festivals such as SXSW, Summerfest and Freakfest, won numerous awards including 27 Madison Area Music Awards (MAMAS), and toured the U.S. and parts of the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. Not to mention, they have released six studio albums and six live albums.

In this interview, we head to the studio to speak with Aaron Konkol, keyboardist and backup singer for Natty, about their latest release, Divine Spark, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Magazine reggae chart. We also hear about how he wound up joining the band and what it was like touring overseas. Finally, Aaron tells us about some of his most memorable shows with some of reggae and dub’s pioneers.

Stream the video or audio now or continue reading!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

J: Are you from Madison originally?

A: I was born in Sheboygan, then I moved to Illinois when I was two, and then I moved to Madison when I was eight.

J: When did you enter the Madison music scene?

A: When I was 18, and in college, we started a band called, The Spontaneous Throwdown. It was a funky, jazzy jam band. We were just playing at parties and stuff. Then we got an opportunity to play Tuesday nights at Ken’s Bar. They had what was called dead tape night. We played there every Tuesday for about a year. We even wrote a song called “Tuesday at Ken’s”. So yeah, I guess that would have been 2000 when I officially started playing paying gigs.

J: When and where did you start playing keys?

A: I’ve been playing since I was three. My sister who is five years older than me had been taking lessons. She was eight at the time, and I had shown a lot of interest in doing it. I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged that. We did the Suzuki method, which really helped with ear training. I would get the music and plunk through it and figure it out, but I would already know how it was supposed to sound. Once I got the mechanics of it, I would just get rid of the music and memorize really easily, but later in life that became a problem because it was harder to just sight-read.

When I went to UW I went through a whole bunch of different majors, African American studies, social work, psychology, a few other things, but I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do. At the time, I was enjoying playing with my band, The Spontaneous Throwdown, so I thought I would try music. I was already taking a couple music classes with Joan Wildman, and she immediately accepted me. We decided to do a jazz studies degree. A couple weeks after that, she let me know she was retiring and there wouldn’t be a jazz piano professor anymore. That summer I got the offer to play with Natty Nation and haven’t gone back to school since.

J: You mentioned that you became a part of Natty Nation in 2002, but when did they first form?

A: 1995. The first album came out in ’96.

J: How many of the original members are in the band?

A: Just the lead singer, Jah Boogie.

J: Who is currently in the band?

A: Chris Di Bernardo on drums, Nick Czarnecki on guitar, [Aaron Konkol on keys and Jah Boogie on vocals] right now that four piece, like the one in the “Vibrate” video that you saw that we recorded down here, that’s the band right now.     

J: Awesome! So beside Natty Nation, what other bands have you been in?

A: I was one of the founding members of dumate. I joined Know Boundaries with Boogie in 2006, then Star Persons after that, and finally Megan Bobo and the Lux.

J: How is it different playing with Natty Nation versus some of the other groups? Did your role change from band to band?

A: With dumate it wasn’t that different. When dumate started it was just Natty Nation plus Laduma, so my role carried over, as did everybody’s. We just added a rapper. With Know Boundaries, it was kind of the same thing, but I was coming in as the new guy. It was just a different dynamic, different people, personalities. Things change in every scenario. Then in Star Persons, I really didn’t write that much at all. It was mainly based on recorded material that we recreated live, but I helped a lot with orchestrating that and turning it into something that was living and breathing on its own. You were there!

*we laugh*

J: With Natty Nation you have done some big tours. Who are some of the people that you’ve played with? What were some of your most memorable shows?

A: Opening for Toots Hibbert, Toots and the Maytals at the Minneapolis Zoo. That was awesome. Have you ever been to those shows there?

J: No.

A: It’s really amazing. It’s like you’re in the middle of a rain forest, just this really nice amphitheater. Toots was credited with coining the term “reggae”. He was still just as good of a performer. He knocks it out of the park every time, especially that time. I don’t know how old he is, probably in his 70’s, but he’s loaded with energy. His voice sounds exactly the same as it did back in the day. Then backing up Lee Scratch Perry was probably the other super memorable one, who along with King Tubby, invented Dub.

J: Ziggy, Stephen, Damien Marley?

A: Yes, I was there for none of those. *laughs* Unfortunately.

J: Oh OK. Those were before your time.

A: Yeah, but we opened up for Steel Pulse, one of my favorite reggae bands from that era, late 70’s early 80’s.

J: You also played at a military base right?

A: A bunch of military bases.

J: Tell us about that experience.

A: The first time was in 2008, right after we dropped Reincarnation. We almost immediately got the call from Armed Forces Entertainment, which is the non-profit arm of the entertainment arm of the military. Unlike the USO, those people get paid. Armed Forces Entertainment is all volunteer. You get a small premium per day. We got the offer to fly into Kazakhstan and then go play at this base in Kyrgyzstan. From there, we dropped off about 180 troops in Afghanistan. We were riding with these 18, 19 year old kids with M-16’s. Everything they had on their body was all they were going to have for the next 18 months of active duty. We were grown men looking at them like, so you’re really going to do this huh? They were like, yeah. Some people were super jovial and messing around, some were tripping hard! That was heavy. There was a reporter from CNN on the plane with us as well, a giant C-17 that tanks could fit in. There were about 150 people on that giant thing. We were sitting on the ground in a bunch of bucket seats. I found out after the fact that when we were flying out of Afghanistan we took some shots. I was glad I didn’t know that at the time. *laughs* Then we dropped down in Kuwait, and I forget the order after that, but we hit United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Djibouti and then back to Kyrgyzstan. So we got back from the first one and a year later we got asked to go back, but instead we went to Japan, the Marshall Islands and Guam. On that tour we didn’t have to bring our own PA, so it was way less stressful. The first tour, people hadn’t seen entertainment in so long. I think the shortest autograph signing was like half an hour. In Qatar everybody on the base was lined up to get an autograph. There were like 4000 people on the base!

J: Divine Spark is the latest Natty Nation album. What was the creation process like?

A:  Some of the songs were really old. We had written them in 2003, right after Inatty in Jah Music had come out. They were recorded two weeks after I had joined the band. By that time, we had already started dumate, which premiered in 2004. We were making a whole bunch of music then. Some of it never got recorded until Divine Spark. “Suffice” I think was the only one. We released that as a single in 2010. But then the album Divine Spark didn’t come out until 2016. We had a whole bunch of ups and downs with personnel, recording waxing and waning, motivation, and you know, studio time and money and everything else, personal things in life. But then it kind of came together when I happened to meet Errol Brown, who is Bob Marley’s engineer.

I sent him the mix we had for “Meditation”, and he wrote back immediately. He said, “it sounds good, could use some Ska piano on it but yeah, let’s go.”

I was like really? Okay. I was like oh my god Errol Brown is totally down to work with us!  So then he ended up mixing the whole album in the back of Revolutions’ tour bus. They were pretty popular at the time, more popular now. They had a tour bus for the crew and a tour bus for the band, so he took over the whole back of one of the buses and turned it into a mobile studio. He mixed the whole album there and on headphones. And then the plan was to do a final mixdown at a studio. It ended up taking him a lot longer because he is super particular about drum and bass, especially drums. He kind of revolutionized recording drums. He uses a mic on the rim of the snare. He was the first person to do that I think. With reggae there are a lot of issues with the drums, so he wanted to go through and replace them. He didn’t trust Drumagog or BFD, or any of those other programs to help with replacement, so he went through every single drum hit and found a version he had recorded. The final product sounded exactly like a drummer had played it.

J: I listened to the whole album and wow! The sound quality is amazing. I wasn’t actually expecting it to sound that good. We use a Sonos player at Murfie, so I was like, is the Sonos player making this sound better? You know how Beats by Dre make things sound better. Was that what was happening? Because this sounds really good!

*we laugh*

A: I’m glad to hear that.

J: What format is Divine Spark available in?

A: We’ve got vinyl for the first time, and CD, and digital.

J: Digital everything, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play?

A: Yeah, Symphonic Distribution is awesome.

J: I’m not familiar with that. Is that similar to Tunecore or CD Baby?

A: Yeah.

J: How do you feel about physical media over digital?

A: I like the convenience of digital a lot, but what I really miss and what I am sad about for future generations is liner notes. When I was a kid, if I wanted to go buy some jazz records, I would have to go into the basement area of The Exclusive Company, where they were kept. I would have to ask the snobby clerk, hey, do you know where the Herbie Hancock is? They would bring you somewhere and say, “This is probably the one you want, Headhunters.”

So I had to push through that like I really wanted it. When I bought records, I’d take them home, put them on and listen to them front to back. I would read the liner notes and essays like oh, okay, this trumpet player on here is awesome. I need to go check him out and then go back. After awhile you’re asking the right questions and the guy behind the counter is like oh, this kid is cool. He knows what’s up. There was no CD burning. You had to buy this thing, and when you get it, there is a package. You didn’t have to read it, but it was there, and so if you cared, you’d be able to. That’s the saddest part to me about streaming. You have everything available to you at any moment so nothing is special. Before you had to go searching and searching to find a specific album. Trying to find Prince’s Black Album, that’s why it was a thing. It was impossible to find. Now you can get it wherever. Everything is available any time you want it.

J: How important is merchandise at your shows?

A: It’s super important. We’re making moves to go on longer tours out to the coast right now. We’re also working on Europe. I think when you’re on a longer tour merchandise can really help. The income is just immediate and it can help put money in the gas tank. I do all the design work for it. I do all the ordering as well, but I’m trying to delegate it to somebody else. *laughs* I didn’t start writing songs just to decide how many smalls to order of a certain design. We have a lot of merch and people like it a lot. So my thing is, you want to have quality merch. Of course, it’s going to cost you more. It costs us $13 for our cheapest shirt, but it’s a nice American Apparel shirt that people love, and therefore, they are going to wear it more often with your band name on it. More people are going to see it, and that is the main thing for me. CD’s are probably the best way to make money. Beyond the initial production cost of making an album, it costs you one or two bucks per CD. You sell em for 10 bucks for a 10, 12 song CD. That is an 80 percent mark-up. That is pretty good, but for a t-shirt that is 13 bucks, you can’t really charge more than 20 unless you’re a bigger name band.

J: Who shot the “Meditation” music video?

A: It was shot by Harvest Walker and Joe Ramos. Joe filmed a bunch of it in Boogie’s basement. That’s where we were rehearsing at the time. And then Harvest came and filmed a bunch at the Jam for Jam festival in 2015. He rented a $20,000 camera to take a bunch of slow motion shots. I think that added a lot to the video. He also did all the narrative parts with the girls having a bad day, and then meditating and doing yoga. It went through a bunch of incarnations because we initially started doing it in 2012, right around the time we started tracking for most of the album, and then the album kept getting pushed back. We needed to prioritize that immediately. Four years later, when the album came out, it was like oh, yeah, we might as well finish this thing and get it done. Joe Ramos then picked it up at that point and knocked it out. He did a few revisions with me and I was super happy with how it turned out. That was our first official music video.

J: Are you working on any other projects currently?

A: Yes, but they are top secret. The world will know soon.

J: Ok… Is it related to Natty Nation or something else?

A: That is also top secret. Everything is top secret about it. Don’t take that as it being yes, but also don’t take it as being no. *laughs* But yeah, there are lots of things in the works so stay tuned.

What did you think of this interview? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Want to hear more music from Natty Nation? Check out the Murfie shop for previous releases. Want to purchase merch or the latest album, Divine Spark, from Natty Nation? Check out their Bandcamp.

Stay tuned for more interviews like this one!

Heyday of the MP3 – A History

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via Flickr

Did you know there are over 1.2 trillion mp3 files on earth? That’s more than 171 times the number of people on the planet! It took nearly 200,000 years to grow the human population to 7.2 billion but only 20 years to produce the number of mp3s that exist in the world today. How come there are so many? What has made the mp3 so popular?

In this article we’ll take a look at the history of the mp3 and see how it gained its foothold in the audio world. We’ll also investigate some of the newer codecs that are being used alternatively to the mp3.

In 1989, the Moving Picture Expert Group (MPEG), an international standardization organization, wanted to introduce an audio standard. They received 14 audio coding proposals from participants who were then encouraged to combine their contributions. This resulted in the creation of ASPEC (adaptive spectral perceptual entropy coding), the precursor to the mp3 (MPEG layer 3). The technology was later incorporated into ISO MPEG standardization, which ultimately led to the success of its creators, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (FIIC).

Unfortunately, marketing the mp3 was a bit of a disaster. In 1996, consumers were able to purchase the first mp3 encoder via the internet, which quickly led to mass distribution of the mp3. Regrettably, the software was bought by an Australian student using a stolen credit card and was made publicly available. Fraunhofer’s software business may have been laid to rest, but the result was the mp3 spreading like wildfire across the internet.

What’s more, music that was encoded in mp3, often in breach of copyright, was being distributed via file sharing and torrent sites such as Soulseek, Napster and Grooveshark. At the time, an average 128 kbps mp3 took up around 3.5 megabytes of space, a size that could easily be transferred over the internet when higher connection speeds ranged only from 56k to 1.54 mbps.

Finally, the advent of the mp3 player would solidify the mp3’s existence for years to come.

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via Flickr

The last two decades have shown that mp3s were favored over formats such as AAC because they were compatible with more listening devices at higher bit-depths. They also required less storage space than large, uncompressed file types such as AIFF or WAV. This is still true today and streaming and download services such as Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and Murfie continue to support mp3s, but they also support alternative formats as well.

There’s debate about which file formats are best for consuming music, but what consumers should be primarily aware of is the difference between lossy and lossless compression and how it affects their listening experience.

Lossy file types such as mp3 and AAC are compressed audio formats that use inexact approximations and discard data to represent the content for the purposes of storing, handling and transmitting. In other words, what you’re hearing is not the audio in its entirety. It’s similar to printing a draft on your printer as opposed to a full quality print. Less ink is used and the print is often lighter, but what remains is enough information to tell you what you’re looking at. Depending on the bit-depth of these file types the listener may experience reduced audio quality. Some would argue, however, that at higher bit-rates degradation in audio quality is hardly noticeable when compared to lossless formats.

Lossless file types like WAV and AIFF, FLAC and ALAC are containers that are able to store all of the data of an audio signal. Bit-for-bit, these file formats are more accurate representations of a signal because they don’t eliminate any data while encoding. FLAC and ALAC are newer codecs, which are compressed to some degree, but claim to deliver the same quality as uncompressed formats.  Although these containers are often massive in size, they are great for storing audio files in their original condition (true CD quality). And with the advent of hi-res streaming packages like Murfie Hi-Fi, you’re able to stream your music in FLAC on your lossless-ready devices for only $10 a month!    

When you send your collection to Murfie, we’ll rip and store the data as uncompressed audio (WAV) and make it available for streaming in 320 kbps mp3 (1411 kbps FLAC if you choose the Murfie Hi-Fi plan) or download in AAC, mp3, FLAC and ALAC.  

If you’re looking to transfer your CDs, vinyl or cassettes to digital and stream them from your preferred devices, send your collection to Murfie. To get a free quote click here. To learn more about our services, contact us or check our FAQ for answers to frequently asked questions.

Exclusive Podcast: Katie Scullin Talks About Her Latest Release, ‘Pieces’ and More…

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Katie Scullin is a talented singer/songwriter who’s been performing around the Madison area for over a decade. She’s played countless bars and cafes throughout Wisconsin as well as a number of large festivals such as Summerfest. She’s been a part of several bands over the years, including Rivalry, a band named for her relationship with her brother and bandmate, D.J. Scullin. She’s also played with Star Persons, an electronic/hip hop group similar to The Black Eyed Peas, and currently, The Katie Scullin Band, which she jokingly calls a “revolving door band” because the members tend to come and go.

Her accolades include being nominated for and winning multiple Madison Area Music Awards (MAMAS) for her role as front woman in Star Persons, as well as “Best Alternative Artist” in 2011. She was also crowned Best Singer/Songwriter by 105.5 Triple M’s Project M Competition and Best Local Musician in the Jefferson County Daily Poll for the release of her EP “She Smiled,” in 2013.

Katie recently released an album titled, Pieces, a blend of tracks written over the last couple years that deal with personal growth, sudden life changes and deep introspection, possibly even a little frustration. She writes from the heart, making it easy to be drawn into her world: one filled with rocky roads and arduous climbs opposite still lakes and silent, snow-covered forests. Her music is a way to escape the distractions of everyday life and the disquiet of unwelcome thoughts, not only for herself, but for her audience as well. Her song titled, “Whitney,” is evidence of her desire to relate to any kindred spirits out there who share her points of view.

In this in-depth interview with Katie, we talk about her latest music video “Dream Awake,” and the story behind it. We also get her thoughts on Pieces as a whole and learn about her writing process. What’s more, she tells us about her Kickstarter campaign that raised a whopping $21,000 from supporters! She also explains her struggle as an independent artist and the challenges she has faced while raising a family and trying to make a decent living from music.

Listen to the podcast here:

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

J: How is your son (Mason) doing?

K: He’s awesome! Very good! He’s going to turn six in a couple weeks!

J: Six already?!

K: I know! He’s a lot of fun. He loves playing the drums which is very, very cool. He’s getting into singing. His dad likes metal, so for a while there he thought that singing was screaming. I’m trying to wean him down a little bit and be like, “Oh, but you also have to be good at singing like this too.”

J: I’m sure he’s you heard you sing plenty of times though right?

K: Oh yeah. Sometimes he tells me to stop singing.

*we chuckle*

J: I think the last time I saw him you were living in Stoughton.   

K: Uh-huh

J: He was just a little baby.

K: Oh was that at Joe Ramos’ (a mutual friend of ours)?

J: Yeah. He’s grown! I saw the clips in your video “Dream Awake,” from when you first had him.

K: Oh yeah.

J: That was really cool.

K: Thank you.            

J: So, tell us about “Dream Awake.” What’s your take on the song?

K: When I started writing it I was living in the basement of a couple’s home, and they lived up on a hill overlooking a lake. I had a really awesome view from up there. The weather that day was crazy. It was like Mother Nature was almost bipolar. There was a snowstorm with twisting winds and all of a sudden the clouds would part and it was sunny out, like a spring day. The water had this crazy, blue hue to it. I was at a point where I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in life. I was sort of reflecting, thinking about the turns my life took, not expecting what had happened to happen.

I think it’s really about painting a picture of your own life. You have control of your own thoughts and how you react to things, whether or not it’s going to be a cloudy, crappy, stormy day or it’s going to be sunny and beautiful. We do have some control of how we react to things.

The music video was interesting. The director took a turn with it bringing Mason into the picture. I thought it was really cool because he interpreted the story differently. His wife had a similar story to mine where she was about to go to Africa to do an anthropology project and she ended up getting pregnant. Her whole life changed at that point and she had to rebuild her life. It was neat that the director had that story in common about his wife and what she went through. I wasn’t expecting to have a child. It was amazing at first but then I realized music was going to have to sit on the back burner a bit.

J: Well, I’m glad you have stuck with it. It was exciting reading your article in Maximum Ink about your Kickstarter campaign. I can’t believe it! You raised $21,000? Tell us about that experience.

K: Yeah. It was a huge decision and really scary because I didn’t want people to know that I was struggling, but I came to the realization that I either needed to ask people to help me out or I wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore. I planned a lot for it because I knew I was going to need a good chunk of change to put together a polished product. I felt like there were so many artists around me doing the same thing and all of them including myself were struggling.

Every time I would do a show I never had anything to sell because I didn’t have the money up front for it. I had this little five song demo that I put together for $1200, and we did it in like three weeks time. It was never mastered. The volumes were really low. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. I just felt like I didn’t have anything to show for as many years as I had been doing music. I thought I had to do a Kickstarter and I saw a lot of people who were really successful with it, so I pushed aside those self-defeating thoughts that I might fail. I might not make it. I planned a lot and had a lot of help from my family who gave me ideas on how to reach an audience aside from online. Because a lot of people who donated were not online and wouldn’t have known it was even happening. I was a basket case for a month.   

J: Did you do any shows beforehand to get people interested in what you were doing?

K: Yes. I talked about it a lot before I even launched it. Where I bartend and at my shows I spoke about it just to let people know I was going to be doing something. I put together a little two song demo with what I had done already. I had started the album previously and realized I couldn’t finish it without financial backing, so the two songs I had already finished I gave away. I printed 200 copies. Every single person that I gave it to I asked them to check out what I was up to and if they liked it and people felt like donating, they could. So that was a way to reach people. I also had a fundraising party where we had computers set up and my band came and played.

J: Awesome! And the name of the album is Pieces? And it’s available on your website?

K: Correct.

J: Is it available anywhere else?

K: iTunes, Spotify and Google Play I believe.

J: So, you were talking about merch and how important it was to have that. Why do you feel it’s important? Do you notice a difference in response from the crowd at your shows when you do have merchandise?

K: Yes. Definitely. People are intrigued by it because I have stuff that looks good now. It looks professional. Sometimes I do shows and nobody buys anything, but then there are shows where people buy a ton of stuff. It definitely helps because people come up and look at it and it starts a conversation. People love t-shirts. I made some handmade coasters, and I’ve got stickers and stuff. It’s extra revenue on top of the performance. It helps get the word out when people have your stuff and they’re wearing it.

J: So in terms of physical CDs would you say you’ve sold more physical copies than digital?

K: Yeah, I think so. You know with streaming these days it’s hard to say. You get less than a penny per stream. With digital downloads where people have actually paid for the album, yeah, I think I have still sold more physical copies.

You know as much as people are into digital downloads and having everything on their phone… I’m old school. I think there is something cool about getting something tangible in your hands, being able to look at the artwork and read about it. A lot of other people still feel that way. They like to have something, but a lot of vehicles don’t even have CD players anymore.

J: What was your inspiration for the songs on Pieces?

K: Some of them were songs I had written in previous years. One of them was with my band Rivalry, which originated from Sibling Rivalry with my brother. Another song I had half written, and I went down to Nashville and worked with a songwriter by the name of Carey Ott. He’s really amazing at what he does. He’s like a music mentor now. I was having writer’s block and he kind of helped me finish it and pull out the good stuff. But the idea for the album came from the first song on the album which was “Whitney,” not really named for any particular reason. It was the working title, and we just left it. I felt like maybe there was some Whitney out there who might think the song was written for them and maybe it would help them in some way. But I was at a low point. I didn’t know how I was going to continue doing music as a career because it’s hard. It’s really, really hard as you know. I just felt this urge while writing the song to just keep reminding myself or reminding whoever is going to hear this song and feel inspired not to give up. You don’t have to have it all figured out right then and there. It’s a journey. You’re going to figure it out as you go, and that is what it all came down to. I didn’t have it all figured out when I started. I just knew I wanted to do something bigger than what I was doing. As things developed, “pieces” were falling into place. It was like a puzzle, picking from different parts of my life, different pieces in the song, bringing it all in and figuring out exactly what it was. It was a reflection of where I was in my life. I was in a broken place and I needed to make something of myself from that broken place.

J: Where did you record the album?

K: We started recording it up at my parent’s cabin. We did an experimental project and filmed the video “The Walrus,” which is on YouTube. We played a gig up there and used the money to rent the rest of the equipment we would need to start recording. I thought that we would record the whole album that weekend but that was not the case. It took another two years to finish. But I had all these pieces from there and then we went to DNA Music Labs with Mark Whitcomb, and I did some stuff in my kitchen. Paul Schluter, from Megatone Studios, also helped produce the album. He took all these pieces and kind of mapped it out and we recorded the rest of it there.

J: What is your writing process like? How do you go about writing a song?

K: I usually start with the guitar and I will just start humming. It’s almost like I am talking in a different language, like speaking in tongues. *laughs* I just start these melodies and then a line will come out and I will be inspired by that, and then I figure out, okay where did that come from? What is the subject right there? And then build off of that, and it kind of just develops from there. And then sometimes I will write a poem and just start singing pieces of the poem and begin rearranging it if it doesn’t quite work with the guitar, or if the melody and consonants don’t fall into place.

J: When did you start to feel comfortable being on stage?

K: Right after high school I auditioned for a play called “Tick Tick Boom,” and I got a pretty good part. I practiced and practiced. I don’t know what it was but I built up a confidence to keep those nerves at bay. It felt really good. I felt like my voice was getting stronger. I still get nervous but it’s controllable I guess. Knock on wood. I’m opening for Jay Leno on Friday (May 19th, 2017).

J: I was going to ask you about that! How did you get hooked up with that show?

K: A friend of mine is their main booking person now. He’s been helping me out with shows here and there since I got into the Madison music scene. He does the main booking for Brat Fest. Do you know Michael Alexander?

J: I don’t know him personally but I’ve heard the name.

K: Yeah, so he took over that job and asked me if I wanted to open for Jay Leno. I was like, “what?!” I think I’ll pass on that.

J: But you decided to do it anyway?

K: Oh yeah. It wasn’t for sure I was going to get it. He had to personally approve it, so I quickly went online and dolled up my website. In the top corner I put a “Hi Jay!” with a little smiley face.

J: Do you do your booking personally or do you normally have someone book for you?

K: It’s a mixture. I have two different booking agents that help me out.

J: As a singer/songwriter would you say it’s pretty easy to get shows in Madison?

K: Yeah, but I do 50/50 covers and original material. People always want to hear covers. I’m trying to get away from that and do more original stuff. I’ve been trying to get more into the listening room type venues which is more difficult than booking at a restaurant/bar and being the background music. I can do the Tracy Chapman or whatever songs people want, but then I’m not really doing my own art. It isn’t as rewarding as booking a coffeehouse where people pay $5 or $10 and are really engaging and listening to the music. Playing a bar sometimes is easier. You get paid a flat fee, but you don’t really gain as much in terms of fans.

J: So other than Star Persons and Rivalry you have the Katie Scullin Band. Who is in that band?

K: I like to call it “the revolving door band.” There have been so many people in it. My original drummer is Travis Drumm. He recently moved out to California. He was in a lot of different projects so I would have several other people fill in for him. The original bassist stepped away for awhile so Nate Wiswal took over. Nate is on 8 or 9 of the 11 songs on the album. He also got a really good job out in California and moved out there so Jacob Bare is playing bass with me again. My brother has always been my number one guitar player. He has a newborn now and is married and has a really great job, so he doesn’t do all of the shows. My boyfriend, my baby’s daddy, Darren, is also my guitar player, but sometimes it’s hard getting a babysitter so I’ve had Paul Schluter play guitar for me before. And then my new drummer, his name is Bruce Root, filling in for Travis. I don’t know how long he will be in California… You should play!

J: It would probably be good for me to play! I rarely play live, but I want to get to the point that I feel comfortable doing it. So are you thinking about writing a new album?

K: Yes I am. I worked on Pieces for so long that within the last 6 to 8 months I probably wrote a whole other album worth of songs. I learned a lot this time around and think things will go easier next time, knock on wood.

J: Well I’m down to help on production.

K: That would be awesome!

We hope you enjoyed this interview. Check out some of Katie’s other videos on her YouTube page. To purchase a copy of her latest album Pieces, click here.

Want to see Katie Scullin live? Click here for her tour schedule.

Album Review: Brother Ali- All the Beauty in This Whole Life

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Brother Ali, a Madison, WI native based out of Minneapolis, MN recently released his sixth studio album, titled All the Beauty in This Whole Life, on Rhymesayers Entertainment. Ali once again teamed up with Ant (producer for Atmosphere), who he’s worked with almost exclusively in the past save for his previous album, Mourning in America Dreaming in Color, which was produced by Jake One.

For nearly two decades Brother Ali has been spreading messages of love, hope and acceptance contrasted at times with anger, struggle and reprisal. Ali suffers from albinism, a disorder characterized by lack of pigment in the skin, which consequently led to enduring social stigma throughout his childhood. A number of his works portray instances where he was discriminated against because of his condition followed by moments of personal triumph as he overcame his abusers and the mentality associated with defeat.

As a father, Ali often writes songs for his son, Faheem, providing him guidance or letting him know how difficult it is to be a parent who has to make tough decisions. He raps, “I can’t protect you like I want to,” a line that breathes truth to any parent, that no matter what you do to protect your children, they will at some point be subjected to the dangers of the world. In fact, sometimes, all you can do is pray.

Religious themes have become somewhat of a motif in Brother Ali’s later albums. Ali converted to Islam at the age of 15 and is now a practicing Imam. Although religious messages exist in his music, they are not bold advertisements coaxing listeners to follow Allah, rather they are a proclamation of his own spiritual journey to find peace and understanding through God.

In addition, many themes of social justice have been incorporated into his music. He raps frequently about racial inequality, slavery and the U.S. government’s trends to exploit minorities and the working class. He has been arrested in the past for occupying a house in Minneapolis to fight against its foreclosure. He was also recently trapped in Iran after giving a speech on the significance of Black Lives Matter and performing his song, “Uncle Sam Goddamn” on the Combat Jack Show.

Unbeknownst to Ali, and as luck would have it, hip hop music is illegal in Iran, and the event had been televised through all the major broadcasting networks. This led to accusations by leaders of the Nation of Islam calling him a terrorist and stating he was aligned with ISIS. Death threats and lax security at his hotel caused him to flee but his escape was halted when he found his credit cards, phone service and airplane ticket had all been voided. Brother Ali sat at the airport for three days without money or food! His song, “Uncle Usi Taught Me” explains the event in detail.

That said, All the Beauty in This Whole Life does not disappoint in its delivery of Brother Ali’s most crucial topics. “Own Light (What Hearts Are For),” the first single on the album, conveys a message of rejection for the lives we as a whole are sold in order to keep us subdued. Ali raps, “And you know they want to paint us with the same brush / Wanna entertain us ’til we fill our grave up.”

He explains that we’ve been manipulated and controlled through our desires. We’re raised to believe we need to reach certain plateaus in life or we’ve failed. Those ideals cause us to spend our lives worrying about things that for the majority will never be achievable. Ali gives praise to God for helping him overcome these unnecessary desires. He raps, “They’ve been trying to shut us down our whole life / I thank God for healing / You ain’t got to get me lit, I got my own light.”

The production on the track is a gorgeous mix of layered keys, guitars, bass and drums, classic boom bap. There are some smooth vocal parts in the background that fill out and add depth to the beat as well. Ant is known for quality beats that have a soulful, vintage feel to them. Brent Bradley of DJ Booth wrote, “The production on this album crackles with the warmth of secondhand vinyl even in digital form.” I would agree. This beat sounds like something Kanye West or Ryan Lewis (producer for Macklemore) would have produced.

In addition, the music video is visually stunning and opens doors to the imagination.

The second single off the album, “Never Learn,” is one of my personal favorites. It’s the most unique beat on the album. Lyrically it has a battle-rap quality similar to something off of Shadows on the Sun. The instrumental feels like it could be on a soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino film. Furthermore, it reminds me of production from Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, or earlier works such as Portishead’s Dummy.

Brother Ali sings the chorus in a soulful, sorrowful tone as if he were singing “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone.

“I don’t know where to turn 
I hit my head I guess I’ll never learn
But they tell me I should let it bleed, let it sting, let it burn
Get my head firm”    

Once again, the music video is visually stunning, no doubt a lot of time, energy and resources went into these marvels.

Additionally, “Out of Here” is one of the most emotional tracks on the album. The song addresses Ali’s struggles in dealing with the suicide of both his father and grandfather. He raps that he felt to blame for their deaths and wished they had given him a chance to sit and listen. Maybe he could’ve helped them. Toward the end of the track Ali questions his own life and its importance because sadly, the men in his family have all died young. He raps, “Every man before me in my fam died by his own hands / How am I supposed to understand my own role in this plan / When nobody who grows old stands a chance?”

The beat sounds similar to “Don’t Ever F**king Question That” off of Atmosphere’s Lucy Ford EP (another great album produced by Ant), however, it has a much better dynamic range. The beat comes in as you would expect with any boom bap beat, but it soon dissipates into a single acoustic piano riff. As the track progresses, subtle guitar strums chime in between the rhythmic phrasing of Ali’s lines. The minimal nature of the track makes for the perfect canvas for Ali to paint his emotions on.

All in all, the album was well crafted. Ant is a great producer. At times he can be a bit methodical with his production (intro, verse, chorus, repeat), but it pairs well with Brother Ali’s storytelling and preacher-like delivery. The uplifting beats on the album sometimes clash with the darker lyrical themes, but it’s almost necessary to keep you from becoming depressed.What Brother Ali is saying can sound ominous, but he doesn’t want you to feel like it’s the end of the world. He wants you to keep your head up, and if you find you can’t, find God.

How did you feel about the album? Feel free to leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

Also, if you are a Brother Ali fan or would like to purchase other albums from his discography, click here.

Amazon Echo vs. Sonos Play:1- Who Will Be Victorious?

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The popularity of music streaming continues to rise as more companies enter the market to compete and win over customers looking for easy-to-use, high-quality playback devices. There seems to be a trend in the home stereo market that’s leading buyers away from complex systems with dozens of components to sleek, simple machines that roll your tuner, receiver, and speakers all into one. Of all the choices available, the Amazon Echo and Sonos Play:1 have become two of the top contenders, but which of these devices is truly worthy of your dollar?

At a glance the Amazon Echo seems promising. It features Alexa, a voice assistant program similar to Apple’s Siri. Alexa can be commanded to stream music from your collection, give you weather updates and even help you with your math. There is a large list of commands people can use and even some “Easter eggs” to get things done or have a little fun.

Digital Music News quoted The Times, saying, “While Echo has received mixed reviews for its sound quality, its Alexa voice assistant — which allows people to quickly play music with verbal commands — has captivated the tech industry and the public.

The Echo sounds like a great investment if you have your hands dirty and need someone to scratch your nose for you, but what about its sound quality? How does the Echo compare to the Sonos Play:1 and other streaming devices?

A number of reviews state that the sound quality of the Echo is uneven (despite its 360-degree, omni-directional audio capability), and that the bass frequencies are weak at high volumes. When pushed up against a wall, it showed minimal bass improvement, a poor use of the “boundary effect.” It also lacks resolution at times, which could be due to the fact that the Echo encodes mp3s at only 256 kbps using a variable bit rate. A variable bit rate means that while complex parts of audio are playing, the overall bit rate will be higher than when less complex parts are playing, so listeners are not hearing the same quality audio at all times.    

On the contrary, the Sonos Play:1 has received rave reviews for its audio quality. Trusted Reviews writes that it, “…produces excellent, rich and meaty sound for its size. It has pretty neutral voicing, but the depth and scale of the bass the speaker is able to produce is very impressive.”

A single Sonos Play:1 can fill a room with sound almost as well as the Echo, but if you’re looking for true surround sound, Sonos gives you the option of purchasing multiple units as well as woofers and soundsbars to pair together and play as one unit. What’s more, the device allows you to stream mp3s at a constant bitrate of 320 kbps, not to mention FLAC and ALAC files at a whopping 1411 kbps. That’s over four times the bit rate of the Echo!

In addition, nerdwallet.com reports, “the Echo can play songs from Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Amazon Music Library, whereas the Sonos Play:1 can stream music from your iTunes library, pull from over 100,000 free radio stations, and work with a number of popular online music services (Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, Google Play Music, Amazon Music and iHeartRadio, to name a few).”

Not to mention, you’re able to stream your entire Murfie CD and vinyl collection via Sonos. We at Murfie have been using the Sonos app and speakers to listen to music for several years now, and we love it!

Price-wise, the two are comparable. The Amazon Echo goes for about $179 retail while the Sonos Play:1 goes for $199.

There has been some debate on whether or not the Sonos Play:1 will remain a competitor in the streaming device market in the coming years. There are a number of other companies producing similar products for a fraction of the cost (i.e. Google Home priced at $129 or Muzo’s Cobblestone priced at $60). Regardless of what the future holds, the choice for audiophiles and music aficionados should be clear. The Sonos Play:1 is hands down the better buy. It may not have all the bells and whistles the Echo has, but it does what it was designed to do, provide listeners with the highest quality audio possible.

We at Murfie will continue to support Sonos because we know the importance of audio quality. When subscribers send in their collections, Murfie ensures quality playback, with full metadata, in 320 kbps mp3, lossless FLAC, and other formats, all of which Sonos is able to deliver.

To learn more about our streaming services, see our FAQ or contact us.      

Album Review: Slowdive Releases Their First Album in 22 Years

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Slowdive materializes once again from the nebulous vastness of space and time with an uplifting, re-envisioned, self-titled album. After releasing Pygmalion in 1995 and being dropped from Creation Records, the band’s members dissipated and reformed as several offshoots including, Mojave 3 and Monster Movie in the coming years. In 2014, the band hinted on Twitter that they were reuniting. In 2017, they signed with Dead Oceans and released their first single in 22 years.

Slowdive features drummer Simon Scott, who left the band after their 1993 album, Souvlaki, which consequently sounds reminiscent of it. Contrarily, the album differs greatly from Pygmalion in energy, texture and composition. The drums have moved to the foreground in several of the tracks and are the driving force in maintaining and supporting the movement of the swelling, ethereal guitars and vocals.

Texture-wise, Slowdive is comparable to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, but it retains chord progressions more similar to previous works as well as Beach House’s Bloom. The composition is well planned, each part of the song flowing into the next without interruption. Many of the songs have two-minute intros before the vocals start, which in the case of shoegaze is paramount because it allows the listener to be enveloped totally by the realm of each song before reaching any sort of plot.

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Slowdive via Flickr

The album begins from nothingness. The guitars fade in, each strum like a tiny bolt of lightning, and suddenly you are swept away by an anxious drum beat similar to Lush’s “Superblast!” The title of the opening track, “Slomo,” contradicts the feeling of the song; the name would have been better suited for one of the tracks off Pygmalion, where everything was slower paced.

“Slomo” takes you for a ride. It’s an attention grabber, and at the same time it feels like a testament to the reestablishment of the band. It speaks to its fans and lets them know that they’re back and all they have is love for those of you who are still here and have been waiting all this time to hear another album. Of course fans were never too far away since the members had gone on to form other bands that included Slowdive’s core members Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell and Christian Savill.

The second track titled, “Star Roving,” was the first single to be released off Slowdive. It has an energetic quality similar to “Slomo,” but feels deeper and thicker. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, called it “revisionism, not revivalism”. Slowdive at this point is able to pick and choose from a variety of styles they have experimented with in the past. That being said, “Star Roving” sounds like something off of Souvlaki, but this time around all the kinks have been ironed out.

In “Don’t Know Why,” the energy and driving force of the drums continues to whisk you away to a place outside existence. The airy vocal harmonies float elegantly over the guitar and drums, beckoning the listener to come closer. Be one with us in the emptiness of space. Follow us into the center of a star where it’s hot enough to dissolve your entire being. That’s where you’ll find love.

It’s not until “Sugar For The Pill,” the second single off Slowdive, that we get a chance to breathe. Up until now, we’ve only been taking off. We’ve finally reached the stratosphere, and now we can float for a bit. This track is definitely one of my favorites on the album. It begins with gilded, shimmering guitars followed by a pulsing, four-on-the-floor kick and rich, moving bassline, a perfect pocket designed to carry Halstead’s spectral vocal lines. He writes,

“And I rolled away
Said we never wanted much
Just a rollercoast’
Our love has never known the way
Sugar for the pill
You know it’s just the way things are
Cannot buy the sun
This jealousy will break the whole”

In other words, you can’t have everything you want in life. If you don’t let go, you will ruin what you had. Take nothing for granted. At least that is my take on the song, however, I believe Halstead may have left it open to interpretation.

The album continues to breathe and expand until it ultimately reaches the final track of the album, “Falling Ashes,” another one of my favorites because it encompasses the totality of Slowdive’s creativity. The track is eight minutes, but its length is hardly noticeable. The track develops continuously keeping the listener curious and eager for what comes next. “Falling Ashes” has the most complex texture of all of the songs on the album. There are pieces of guitar noise and plucked notes which loop in the background as a sort of counterpoint to the main piano riff. Bitcrushed pads phase in and out like an electron cloud around an excited atom. The vocals are solemn yet sultry, similar to Ride’s “Ride The Wind.” The chorus, a single line, “Thinking about love,” is repeated over and over, summing up the theme of the entire album. Eventually, the instruments fade away and Slowdive ends how it began.

What were your thoughts on the album? Feel free to leave a comment below. If you are a fan of Slowdive and would like to purchase albums for your collection, click here.

Evolve Your Listening Experience with Murfie!

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Imagine a time before the invention of the CD burner, back when tapes were still more popular than CDs because they were more durable and our only means of copying and cataloging music.

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I remember fearing the inevitable destruction of my CDs, a consequence made real by overplaying them or neglecting to put them back into their cases afterwards. I certainly didn’t want to pay for the albums again (though that would have been the only option since there was no internet), so I often transferred them from CD to tape.

There were moments when my CDs even fell by the wayside and all I had were tapes of albums I had recorded or mixes of the lot. After all, cassette Walkmans were still more efficient than CD Walkmans back then because CD skip protection was still in its infancy, and I liked to jog while listening to music so the choice was obvious.

When CD burners entered the scene, CD Walkman technology had improved enough that you could pretty much play a CD without skips so long as you didn’t jostle the player too much. People were already ripping CDs to their computers and storing them on hard drives at this time, but it wasn’t until awhile later that actual burning capability became a household item. Consequently, we might have just skipped burning CDs altogether and just moved immediately to file sharing and streaming if it wasn’t for the lack of technology and our learned behavior of collecting physical media.

Binders full of plain discs with hand-scribbled titles gradually replaced the authentic, colorful and provocative ones. The originals were either sold or sat on shelves or in boxes in storage. Eventually, all I had to look forward to was what was on the CD when I played it. I could no longer hear with my eyes. It’s no wonder many of us lost interest in physical media.

music-1163286_1920Today, with the advent of streaming services, ownership of music has declined. We no longer flip through tiny booklets filled with pictures, art, lyrics and production credits while we enjoy our favorite albums. Certainly, we might look at the CDs front cover as a 2″ x 2″ thumbnail through the glare of our cellphone screen, but for the most part the haptic aesthetic of albums is gone.

Additionally, we pay for monthly subscriptions to listen to our favorite tunes, but in the end we’ve sacrificed ownership. If we lose our account or stop paying, our collection disappears. Not to mention, the music we can listen to is limited because subscription services do not have everything. The collections are incomplete.

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Contrary to the latest trend, physical media still exists and will continue to exist in many forms because there is a human need to experience the world with all of our senses. An artist performing a show personalizes it by offering physical media to their fans at a merch booth. A rare box set sells because it was uniquely crafted in remembrance of a great musician. A new generation of audiophiles realizes we got it right the first time with vinyl records and begins rummaging local thrift shops for sonic delights. Not to mention, a vast majority of consumers’ shelves, attics, basements and storage continue to brim with cassettes, CDs and vinyl records.

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Subsequently, a solution that ensures consumers retain the value and ownership rights of the albums they’ve paid for must be brought into being. We need to preserve the option of the aesthetic experience of an album if a listener so chooses and alternatively provide an efficient and safe way in which to catalog and store it. Finally, we need to ensure that when music is streamed, it can be done so at the highest bit rate possible per listening device for the ultimate listening experience.

So what is the solution you might ask? Murfie.

Murfie will take your collection of vinyl, cassettes and CDs, digitize them and make them available for streaming in a variety of popular formats, such as FLAC and mp3, complete with metadata for your preferred devices. When you send us your collection, it is ripped to your personal account for you and you alone. We believe that ownership matters, and so we provide you with exclusive access to your albums as well as give you the option of selling or trading your albums in our marketplace. The marketplace is also useful for filling the holes in your collection. In addition, we provide you the option of storing your albums indefinitely in our secure warehouse to free you of the burden of storing them yourself.

What makes Murfie unique from other streaming services is that if at any time you want to cancel your account or get your music back, you are able to do so. We don’t want you to lose the music you have spent countless hours collecting. We also don’t want you to pay for albums you have already bought over and over. We encourage you to enjoy your physical media the way it was intended, but we understand that advances in technology have led us to more simplistic ways of consuming media. And that is why we are here, to help you evolve and make the decision of what to do with your physical media effortless and pain free.

Send us your collection today, click here for an instant quote. If you have any questions feel free to contact us or check our FAQ.