Industry Insiders: Trenchermen Brothers Mike and Pat Sheerin, Living Large

When settling on a name for their new restaurant, brothers Mike and Pat Sheerin found a moniker that seemed to embody their own life philosophies: Trenchermen. The term describes hearty eaters and drinkers, but, as Pat explains, "We take that a step further to mean a person who lives life fully." It’s something both know well. Pat, the older of the two brothers, has an extensive background in fine dining, having worked at such acclaimed Chicago restaurants as Everest, Ambria, Naha, and most recently as the executive chef at The Signature Room. Mike is just as prolific, having spent time in the kitchens of New York hot spots Jean Georges, Vong, Lutèce, and  WD~50, But it was back in Chicago when everyone began to take notice of his work as the chef de cuisine at Blackbird, a post he served until 2010, when he left to pursue Trenchermen. In the process of opening their newest restaurant, (which should hit the Chicago scene this spring), Mike and Pat took time to chat about how they got started cooking, what it’s like to work together, and where they opt to grab a bit after a long night in the kitchen.

When did you first get started in the restaurant industry?
Pat: For me, it started long ago. I was lucky enough to get some work at the Taste of Chicago for a company called Shucker’s, which was an old steak[house] with a raw bar out front. We’re talking about 23-24 years ago, though. I kind of caught the bug at that point–I was 12/13 years old and I knew that was what I wanted to do. My parents were smart enough to guide me to go to a four-year school before I went to cooking school so I have my undergrad [degree] from Michigan State in Hospitality Business.
Mike: I did not go to college just because I didn’t really feel like I was ready and I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. I had been baking bagels for many years and then I started working as a short-order cook or a prep cook in a restaurant and my brother was like, “Why don’t you try cooking?” so I went to school for it at Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Pat helped me get my first two jobs.  
Pat: They [Michigan State University] set me up with a six-month internship at Everest and that’s where I caught the fine-dining bug. Being in that environment was a real eye-opener. I realized I needed to go to cooking school. We were breaking down venison, wild game from Scotland, stuff like that there. I went out to New York to go to the French Culinary Institute. I lived in Brooklyn in Brooklyn Heights, just right across the bridge–it was a 25 minute walk to school. It was just fantastic. I went back to [Everest] and spent almost three years there.  I was the poissonier–the fish chef; that’s where Mike and I worked together. He was my veg cook. It was fun. It was interesting, I’m sure, for everybody at times. Some days were a little bit longer than others, to say the least.
Would you guys ever butt heads?
Pat: Yeah, we would. Just over stupid stuff or not stupid stuff. It happened, but I think we got past it pretty quickly.  
When did you and Mike first start talking in earnest about opening a restaurant together?
Pat: It was close to 10 years ago–maybe a little longer than that. He and I always talked and kept talking about food and just dining in general and ideas [that] we’d bounce off one another. When we got a little bit more serious about it, it was probably two years ago when we started to discuss the idea and work on a business plan. We just kept meeting with people and learning more and more about the process and going to meetings. It can be deflating because you meet all these different people and they’re the ones with the money. Everyone thinks restaurants are extremely risky and you have no idea what you’re doing going into them, but if you have a stable plan and you execute it, I don’t think it’s as risky. It’s making sure you find the right match.  
What first prompted you to resume discussions two years ago?
Mike: The truth is, why do people leave the jobs they have before? I was honestly looking for something that was gonna allow me to have ownership and partners as well, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed in the kitchen with people – the collaborative efforts. I wanted to push myself and I wanted my brother Pat to be part of that. [And] to be able not to have guidelines set by somebody else. I wanted to see how far I could think about food and where exactly I wanted to go. You never really know where you can go until you get there. I felt like I had definitely grown and gone further in my culinary career and my ideas but I wanted to go further, I think, than Blackbird wanted.
What can you tell me about the concept behind Trenchermen and some of the dishes you’ve been developing on the menu?
Pat: [Our business partners] wanted to make sure we did it right. We were all in agreement that everyone was gonna do what they do best; this is not about holding back. We’re gonna create a restaurant that people either love or hate because we want to make sure it’s defined. It’s a lot of things from the turn-of-the-last-century and some steampunk things to it. Things that–I don’t want to say vintage–are being retrofitted so that they’re purposeful. Nothing’s being used because it looks good; everything’s being used because there’s a purpose for it. It’s functional. We have a great barrel cocktail and tap program that we’re working on with quite a few great beers on tap, as well as ciders and wines on tap and we’re gonna do a carbonated cocktail as well. Kevin [Heisner, one of their business partners] has found a bunch of different old-school taps, but he’s gonna retrofit them so they’re usable for our purposes. The [interior] design has these elements of an old turn-of-the-century factory. We wanted to create a booze-y restaurant, which kind of fits with the moniker of being a trencherman, which is a hearty eater and drinker. We kind of take it a step further to mean a person who lives life fully.
What are some of the inspirations menu-wise?
Mike: We want to make delicious food. We want to present familiar flavors in unexpected ways. We really want to bridge what casual fine dining should mean.  For us, casual fine dining [has meant] fine dining atmospheres that have very casual, rustic food. We really want to have a casual atmosphere, but extremely refined food. That means it’s technique-driven, the food is plated beautifully, and it’s obviously very seasonal.  
Pat: I think we draw inspiration from almost everywhere. We’ll take ideas from a mundane concept, [such as] a tri-tip pastrami that’s brined and smoked and cooked sous-vide slow and low. We reverse a sandwich where we make a sauerkraut-flavored gnocchi and then make a broth with gruyere cheese and clarify, and then we make a mustard air. We add soy lecithin to a mustard broth.  t’s familiar flavors presented in an unfamiliar way.
How do your two styles complement or clash with one another in the kitchen now that you’re working together again?
Pat: We went in two different directions but they were very parallel, I guess. Mike’s a phenomenal cook and he’s got great ideas. When we talk about our food, how’s it gonna mesh, Mike brings some advanced technical skills to the mix.  
Mike: I think that Pat’s had a different audience than I have had for the last nine years at The Signature Room. He’s also really brought a lot of great things there, such as seasonality and the use of the farmer’s market. I definitely learned that at Blackbird, and he’s influenced me as well. We’re similar in that we really like to push ourselves to do better everyday and try our hardest, always. And where we clash is I think that we’re stubborn and strong-viewed, when we have different ideas and we’re not communicating or clarifying everything. We’re looking for a conversation with each other about all things.
Will you have a noisy kitchen?
Pat: It’ll be focused. During service, it won’t be quiet-quiet but it’ll be quiet.
What do you guys like to do to unwind after a long day in the kitchen?
Pat: Now that we’re getting a little bit older – we don’t do this as much anymore – but we definitely like going out, going to the late-night spots, having a bite to eat, and socializing with friends in the industry. But I’m married with two young kids so that doesn’t happen very often anymore.
Favorite Chicago place to grab a bite when you’re leaving the kitchen?
Pat: If they’re open, I definitely love to go to Avec. That’s one of my favorites. Now that we’re in the neighborhood, I definitely see myself at  The Bristol a little bit more often. I haven’t been there enough but I really like Maude’s Liquor Bar.
Mike: Lately I’ve been going to MingHin in Chinatown because I live on the Southside. They do a chilled beef tendon and tripe salad. The two restaurants I’ve really been digging a lot and I’ve been going to is Nightwood and Lula Cafè. They’re definitely better than ever now.

Industry Insiders: The Men Behind Rockit Ranch Productions, Rockin’ it to the Top

As the original pioneers of two of Chicago’s storied nightlife districts past and present–Weed Street and River North–it appears that the gentlemen of Rockit Ranch Productions possess the Midas touch.  With the continuing success of their current venues, The Underground and Rockit Bar & Grill, Billy Dec (CEO/Founder), Arturo Gomez (President), and Brad Young (Chairman/Founder) seem to have perfected that elusive formula for success and longevity (more on that later). Amid a whirlwind lifestyle spent constantly managing, honing, and promoting their venues, their brand, and their city, Dec, Gomez, and Young found time to chat with us about how they all met, what you need to do to create longevity, and why Chicago simply has everything.

How did you guys all meet?
Billy Dec: I opened Dragon Room in 1998 [which is] where I met Arturo.
Arturo Gomez: I actually started working for him at the time as a barback.  I had recently graduated from University of Michigan where [I studied] biology and Latin American Studies. I’m using absolutely zero of what I studied. I was supposed to go to dental school and I had cold feet so I moved here to see if there was anything that sparked my interest in the year I was taking off.  When I jumped in, I quickly realized I had a passion for the hospitality industry.  
Billy Dec: The cool thing about Arturo was he started as a busboy, a barback, and then he made his way up to head barback and then manager and now he’s the president of the company.  
Young: I [had] left a job working at Mesirow Financial and I had planned on taking the whole summer off and traveling, going to Europe. It was probably two weeks after I left Mesirow, I happened to run into an old high school friend who was in the nightclub business and was partners with Billy at Dragon Room.   The direction of the club scene in Chicago at that time was going really small. There were a lot of boutique clubs but not a lot of big dance clubs like there were in New York and Miami. We began a partnership to start Circus in 1998 and it was a 17,000 square foot dance club that people would perform live circus acts over your head when you were dancing. It was really over-the-top. People loved it. It was a great way to get my feet wet in the business.  
You guys ushered in that era where Weed Street was crazy.
Dec: Yeah, it wasn’t there before we got there. We totally pioneered Weed Street; no one was there. Brad and I, in 2002, went off and started our own company, Rockit Ranch Productions, and looked for a desolate, up-and-coming area, and it happened to be Hubbard [Street]. No one was in River North, which is now the #1 entertainment district in Chicago. One of the first things we did in 2002 when we looked for a new space [was] we took a consulting deal with ownership at a club called Le Passage, which wasn’t doing well [at the time]. [We] took it over, made it a hit. They were losing their butt in the first two years until we came in in 2002 and made all their money back.
Le Passage was huge in the early aughts.
Dec: Yeah. Then immediately we started building Rockit [Bar & Grill]. We were building it in this area that everyone said we were crazy to be in. It was called Hubbard/River North and we pioneered that neighborhood.  
Young: Basically we looked at [Rockit] kind of how we looked at Circus. Not necessarily that the concept was the same but we looked for voids in the marketplace. What are the things people might want but don’t know they do? At that point, personally, I was sick of dance clubs and hearing the same kind of techno music or trance or hip-hop or whatever. I was in my car driving one day and listening to Guns N’ Roses and thinking, “God, what an awesome song.”  This was nine years ago already. “How come I can’t go somewhere and listen to rock music and not have it come out of a jukebox at a dive bar?” So we also said, “You know, there’s not a lot of places where you can go out to dinner and have a great meal and not spend $50 a person.” There was nothing that fit that middle market. So we combined that into Rockit Bar & Grill, which tailored to a very mainstream [crowd]– no velvet rope, no guest list, no VIP. We had rock music, pool tables. It was a place that I would want to go to and hang out. We always build places that are places that we’d want to go to because if you don’t enjoy what you do, what’s really the point?  
How would you summarize the three of your respective roles?
Dec: I’m mostly focused on branding and communicating to the rest of the world outside of our four walls. Marketing. PR. Social media. What I do has a lot of celebrating what our team of top talent is constantly creating and is capable of creating. I do a lot of external communication at large, rapid volumes. I’m constantly meeting with influencers from around the city or people who are visiting the city. I’m hugely into creating new products and new brands and new business and new relationships for the company.
Gomez: My personal responsibilities as the president are really to ensure that all departments that exist within the company are focused, given clear-cut directions, and have the resources needed to achieve and accomplish the goals we set out in the beginning of the year. It’s also to make sure there’s consistency in all of our products. A lot of my time–I would say a vast majority of it–is focused in on the four walls of our businesses. Billy is focused on business development and outward messaging. He’s become an ambassador of the company. Brad also shares that responsibility with him so together they are really focused on how the company is going to grow. Brad is the person who is really the front person for all of our investor groups. Brad is the person who has become a liaision to those individuals.
Young: My role was always the creation of the entity from the ground up. Everything that people take for granted, as far as the actual opening of a place from the financing of it to the actual construction to the design to the conception. Not just raising money but making sure your place is [going to be] profitable.
Dec: I think a really cool way to look at it is that anything that happens within the four walls of any property we have, whether it’s training, the temperature of the food, a lightbulb, anything a customer can touch or see or taste, that’s Arturo. Anything that happens outside of our four walls that a customer can hear, perceive, learn about, that’s me. And things that customers will never know about or see, that’s Brad.  Like accounting, finances, architecture, design, things before we even open that people will never know about.
What do you think the Rockit Ranch brand signifies today?
Gomez: I think three words: Elevated Entertainment Experience. That’s something that we preach and we focus on in everything we do, whether it’s a nightclub experience or a higher-end culinary experience. For us, it absolutely means looking at every single detail start-to-finish and making sure people enjoy our products as much as we do. It’s giving them a mental vacation when they stop by. That’s the mantra we focus on and [we] make sure we’re always delivering that elevated entertainment experience.
What has been the secret to your longevity when people are so fickle about nightlife?
Young: I think the key factor is we have three partners: Billy, Arturo, and myself who all do different things. I think a lot of the problem with a lot of operators is that they start off with a common goal because they’re either friends or they’ve always wanted to do a certain thing – whether it’s a restaurant or nightclub – but their skill set overlaps a lot. What that doesn’t allow you to do is expand or cover each other’s weaknesses. What Arturo and Billy and I have set out [to do] from the start is truly to have a mission to define our roles and do what we are best at and apply it not only to Rockit Ranch Productions but also to our venues.
Dec: No one in this entire organization is more important than any other–it’s a collaboration. That mix and commitment to the mix is what separates us from everyone and what has kept us in business. We have our separate strengths, [so] we need to work together and keep them equally valued.
Gomez: We pride ourselves on really staying very, very close to the pulse of the way the city is moving in likes and tastes. Relationship-building is something we put a strong emphasis on too.  
Dec: Chicago is a very relationship-based city. It’s not as transient as, let’s say, L.A. or Miami or even New York. People here create relationships and a lot of that is built on dependability, so when people like Arturo execute consistency and Brad has implemented accountability, which helps solidify the relationships, you have true relationships in place. People will then communicate with you how you’re doing.  If they like something, they’ll let you and 100 people know and if they don’t like something, they’ll let you know so you can have honest feedback and you can improve. The whole relationship-building thing is literally at the core of our mission statement.  
Gomez: It’s [also] really continually coaching our people that the overall experience–whether it’s an entertainment aspect, service aspect, or actual product aspect–has to continually evolve to accommodate to changing tastes but also have some consistency.  
As guys who have traveled to a lot of different cities, what would you say Chicago has that other cities don’t? What do you think is a misconception about Chicago?
Young: First and foremost, I think Chicago is the best city, really, on the face of the Earth. Maybe I’m being biased but Chicagoans are good people to their core.  What I think separates Chicago from the primary markets–L.A., New York, Miami, Las Vegas–is that those are way more transient cities than Chicago.  Most people who live in Chicago are either from Chicago or from the Midwest.  
Gomez: I think the misconception–from people who haven’t been here–is that Chicago is still some ho-bunk town in the backwoods of the Midwest. Obviously, if you’ve ever been here, you know that’s not the case.
Dec: [People] don’t understand the different diverse offerings [in Chicago] and the levels within each of those different offerings. Diversity in culture, diversity in income and flash. People don’t realize how beautiful the new buildings are to the old architecture. They don’t realize how cosmopolitan, how business we are.  They don’t realize how hardcore our business and financial scene is and they don’t realize how beautiful our parks and lake are. They don’t realize those extremes. The extremes are bigger than anywhere in the world and the diversity is really special. Basically what I’m trying to say is we have everything!  We have everything!  
Gomez: I’ve had so many people who have come to visit and been floored by everything Chicago has to offer. This is a world-class city without a doubt. For me, growing up in the Midwest, it’s the epitome of everything I’ve ever known. It has true Midwest hospitality–that means welcoming everybody with open arms, and you don’t necessarily get that in every major city. From an entertainment aspect, Chicago is on the level of any other city, no problem.
What can you share about the two new venues you have in the works?
Dec: Basically we just have two new places that we’re opening! They’re like restaurants and bars–they’re not clubs. I can’t really say anything about them because partially we’re still in the process of formatting the concepts.
Gomez: We think that there’s going to be some more movement in the more casual sector.  
Dec: But what people don’t have with casual and quicker as we know it is [something] as innovative as Sunda is, so we won’t compromise the innovative part.  It’ll still be ridiculously cool and innovative and we’ll combine that with quicker and easier.
Do you have a timeline for them to open?
Dec: I would say one is gonna happen spring/summer and the other will happen summer/fall.  

DJ Shadow on Technology, Music, & Glorified Wedding DJs

In the fickle world of dance music, where consumers and producers chase after new sounds and styles, only to abandon them once something fresher and edgier comes along, DJ Shadow (born Josh Davis) has admirably stuck to his guns. After two decades in electronic music, he remains relevant as ever, as evidenced by the excitement surrounding his latest release, this month’s The Less You Know, The Better. But as well-regarded as he is in the States, he approaches deity-like status across the pond. It was in 1996, with London’s legendary Mo’ Wax label, that Shadow recorded Endtroducing…, an album built solely on samples, and widely considered to be one of the best of the decade. We recently sat down with the notoriously press-shy DJ in the back of his tour bus to talk about his new album, his ambivalence towards technology, and why a laptop doesn’t make you a DJ.

Could you tell us a little bit about your new album, The Less You Know, The Better? Well the last album, Essential Mix, was a provocation—it was designed to be one. So it was, I guess, a bit of a deviation in terms of what I consider to be the lineage of Endtroducing to The Private Press to now this album. Which is not to say I think in any way that this record is not challenging or that I’m just sort of giving up and going back to a default mode. Definitely not. I do think that every record has a different design and this record was more about going “OK, I cleared the air. That was accomplished.” Now it’s just time to kind of get back to refining my art with samples and making music that will resonate with people. Because ultimately that is always what I want—for the music to matter to people and for them to feel invested in it and for it to speak to them.

Let’s talk a little bit about the campaign illustrations that accompany this new album. It’s really just to have a little bit of fun. I’m the subject of the satire.

Like with that “You’re either with us or against us” line I saw on one of the drawings? I live in Silicon Valley, and it’s well-established as the world’s best testing ground for any new gadget. So as a result, the message that I receive on a daily basis is that my life is incomplete and my soul is unfulfilled unless I have this new product or this new app. It’s just sort of accepted, especially in this country, that that is our salvation, and I think that has come at a cost for a lot of art. I didn’t grow up wanting to start my own tech firm. I grew up loving music. So I think naturally, my reaction is to be a little suspicious. I think it’s OK to have a little bit of pushback and to say that maybe this isn’t the healthiest message. I think it’s just kind of not going to rock the foundation of any of these major corporations by one artist saying, “You know, hey, if anybody else out there is feeling a little bit ripped off by this whole philosophy, then you’re not alone.” And I think that for some reason, I feel like a lot of artists are sort of afraid to take that stance because they don’t want to be beaten with the Metallica schtick. And I just sort of feel like it’s apples and oranges and it’s really not about that for me.

I see you have these big cases of cassettes on the bus, which you rarely see anymore. Let’s talk a bit about how much DJing, and music in general, has evolved—not only the sounds but the actual forms—how DJs started by spinning and scratching vinyls, to hopping onstage with just a laptop. And just pressing play. What’s astounding to me about all of that is not so much the methodology or the technology. It’s the fact that we have access to 10 millions songs, and yet they’re still playing the same fucking 100 songs over and over and over again. That’s the part I don’t get. It’s not like they’re going out there saying ‘I’m gonna expose these people to 50 songs they’ve never heard of.

And now you don’t even have to get your hands dirty crate digging. You can just go on the Internet, so I’m sure the lack of astonishment is compounded by the fact that it’s so easy to access some pretty obscure music now. I understand where technology has a place, and it’s hard for people to understand that you can say these things without being a Luddite. Technology isn’t going to make you less of a lazy person. And if you are a DJ that really doesn’t care all that much about making a personal statement or trying to break any new ground with your audience, then essentially you’re just a glorified wedding DJ. There’s people who are like, “What’s wrong with giving people what they want?” Nothing. But that makes you a wedding DJ. For me, it’s a compulsion to expose people to music.

What are some particularly memorable finds during your career? It happens almost every other day. But where it really matters is, for example, working on this record. One of my ways of sort of clearing my head and stepping away from my workspace would either be to make some lunch, or go out and just wander into a thrift store and there’s kind of this karmic element of “Am I going to find the ingredient that’s gonna get me out of the arrangement issue I’m having.” So there’s been so many times where I go to a thrift store that I went to last week, and there’s a box of new records there and it’s like, “Woah, this looks really crazy,” or “This looks interesting.” Or you just get this sort of vibe where you’re holding it and you’re like “I think I know what this is but I’m not sure. It’s only 50 cents so I’m gonna buy it.” So many times I’ve taken those records back and within the first 5 minutes, it’s like “Ah, that’s it.” You know what I mean? And I really like that. Like I said, it’s almost like this karmic element that you’re meant to find that record at that time. And I just don’t personally feel like the same thing would happen if I just start googling peoples’ names.

You’re from Northern California but you’ve made quite a name for yourself in the UK. How does the UK scene compare to the scene in the U.S. for a DJ? You know how they used to say about New York, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere?” I feel like London is that for electronic music. It’s the most discerning and most forward-thinking—and not just London but other cities in the UK. The UK is a music-loving country, there’s just no other way to say it. As an artist, you want to go where people care about what you’re doing and it just seems like people care there. These days, when you touch down in the States—no matter who you are, I’m sure a lot of artists would identify with this statement—that it just seems like people care a little less about the arts in the U.S. right now. It just seems like it’s not a priority, it’s not where people are getting their emotional fulfillment. I don’t know what that means, but for me, it’s a truism. I don’t see a lot of people running away from home and defining their life on any one genre of music right now. I don’t think anybody’s gonna be doing that for your average pop catastrophe that’s ruling the charts right now.

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Toro y Moi Talks Success, Isolation & Inspiration

At 15 years old, Chaz Bundick began making music in his bedroom. The Columbia, South Carolina native has since risen to become one of indie music’s most original voices, under the name Toro y Moi, having already produced two critically acclaimed full-length albums, Causers of This and Underneath the Pine, and an EP, Freaking Out, which was released on September 13. Earlier this summer, we caught up with Bundick backstage at the Pitchfork Music Festival—where Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator jammed to his set backstage—and got him to share some thoughts on his origins, his success, and his inspiration

Where did the name, Toro y Moi, come from? I was on a road trip with my parents when I was 15, and I just made that name up. I wrote it down and started drawing it everywhere, and I stuck with it since I was 15.

During that time you started a so-called “bedroom project,” and now Toro y Moi has evolved into something much bigger. Has it remained fun? It has its ups and downs. There’s a lot of traveling involved, a lot of being away from home and from friends and family, but on top of that, you’re doing something you love and you just sort of keep the focus.

You grew up and still live in Columbia, South Carolina. How has South Carolina impacted your music, and what advantages and disadvantages have you found being separate from bigger music hubs like Brooklyn or L.A.? I guess the main advantage is we’re out there by ourselves, and people are starting to pay attention. It’s easier to be noticed when you’re from a scene like that. I think Columbia’s scene as a whole can stand out more because it’s Southern, and there’s only Chapel Hill, Atlanta and Athens, that area. Georgia and North Carolina have their thing—but for another thing to pop up in South Carolina, for instance, it’s going to have a better chance of being noticed, as opposed to California, where there’s tons of music everywhere.

Does it ever feel isolating? Not really, because I think the Internet helps cultures easily mesh. Within the arts, it’s easier to communicate with other artists and fans and make connections. I don’t really feel left out. I feel like Columbia isn’t out of the loop or anything. The only thing is the location is very uncommon. Other than that, it feels pretty normal.

Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming EP, Freaking Out? What can we expect from that? It’s a 25-minute pop extravaganza. It’s going to be really fun. I’m excited to play it live.

What is influencing you most directly now? It’s hard to say, because I’m always incorporating my influences, no matter how the music sounds. If it’s electronic, I’m still finding influences from jazz and psychedelic music, and I still incorporate my influences of house and disco. My influences are like a pendulum. I’ll work on something with live instruments or I’ll work on electronic music. but I’ll always take something from each whenever I go back.

James Blake on Dubstep, Outkast, & Growing Up an Only Child

They say in the music world that every generation witnesses a “British Invasion.” Consider yourself warned: James Blake, the talented “post dubstep” artist from London, might be the new coming. But perhaps his thoughtful, haunting music will ultimately stand alone rather than be lumped in with that of his countrymen and fellow dubstep producers, many of whom are currently also gaining traction in the States.

To listen to Blake’s self-titled debut album is akin to burrowing inside the head of an introspective young musician; the quiet yearning expressed in his songs seems a far cry from the deafening, all-encompassing bass that often comes to mind when you think of the genre. Yet if his remixes of “A Milli” and the Destiny’s Child anthem “Bills, Bills, Bills” (along with his recent set at Pitchfork, which transformed into a dance party during “CMYK”) is any indication, Blake doesn’t take himself too seriously. Furthermore, he wants to make sure his music will bring the ladies out on the dance floor. Here he talks to us about what “post dubstep” actually means, why he considers OutKast to be a major influence, and how the “arbitrariness of University” helped inspire his debut album.

You consider yourself a dubstep artist, but your songs are a lot slower and more lyrical than a lot of the big, loud dubstep tracks that your hear in clubs. Especially in America.

That’s led some music critics to create a new term for you, called “post dubstep.” For those of us non-music critics, what does this mean exactly, and what kind of music do you consider yourself making? I mean, I’m a non-music critic, so I’d probably just say it’s just musical, electronic music. Some of it’s dance music, some of it’s electronic music. I would draw a distinction between the two and I’d say I didn’t just borrow from dubstep, I tried to make it. And I suppose in doing so, I made things that weren’t necessarily dubstep. Or at least what it originally meant, which was kinda the Digital Mystikz,Loefah, Skream, you know, a Pinch sound. I couldn’t really ever make music like that. I feel like my latest Hemlock 12″ is as close to that as I’ve ever been, but not really backward-looking. For me, that was forward-looking. Thing is, I haven’t really thought about what dubstep means to anyone, actually. I’ve only really thought about what it means for me.

What does it mean for you? It’s headspace. And it’s darkness and it’s intense. At the same time, it’s fun. It is kind of a weird paradox of people and producers, taking the art very seriously but actually making music that can be very fun. It went through a massive series of mutations before it even arrived in the U.S. So now I suppose the average kind of thing you would get over here—and actually now in the UK as well—is really noisy, aggressive stuff. Which is cool as well.

Dubstep is reaching such a fever pitch in the States whereas it’s been around in the UK for quite a bit longer. What do you think it is about the London scene, or Croydon where it originated, that made it such an incubator for this, as you put it, dark sound? Well a lot of garage, especially, wasn’t dark, wasn’t intense. But some of it is very emotional. I think also the distinction is that some of it was music that girls could dance to.

Could you explain more about that? I mean, girls can dance to anything they want. You know, I remember going to some drum n’ bass raves where girls wouldn’t even go on the dance floor because it was just too aggressive. It was too masculine, there was too much testosterone floating around. And I felt like what was nice about dubstep when it came along was that it wasn’t like that really. It was girls and [guys]—it was a mixture, a 50-50 split. It was also really diverse culturally, as well. That’s why London was a good place for that to start, because London is that.

So in other words, it was the club scene that was able to make this music evolve into something that could be consumed by more people perhaps, or by people looking to dance? Yeah, it was just people looking to dance. And a lot of people are like “Oh, it’s too slow.” Or “It’s too, like, too whatever…”Like what are you talking about? All the dances that I used to go to were such vibrant things. But when it gets to be that level of testosterone, that’s when it’s just to me, not fun anymore. It’s not rewarding at all. It’s not a statement of intent, but it’s kind of nice when girls are all dancing ’cause you think, “Well, if the girls are all dancing then the guys will.” But if the guys are all dancing and there’s no girls, then that’s it. The night ends in about two hours and everyone goes home.

I read somewhere that you consider OutKast to be an influence, which might surprise some people. Can you talk more about that and how American hip-hop and R&B have influenced you? Obviously I kind of understand it [hip hop] in a different way. I’m not from the States but I connected to some hip-hop—mainly instrumental stuff—in quite a big way. And I found that Andre 3000 has this kind of self-awareness and introspection in almost all of his stuff that I felt like I identified with. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter. It was the delivery, his rhythm, and his poise, and just the respect that he commands when he’s rapping. And the fact that they produced it—my mind was completely blown. Speakerboxxx was the first that I actually heard of them, and I just got so into their album that everything I did after that must be colored by, in some way, their approach to music.

A lot of your music in your debut album seems to evoke this wistfulness or yearning, almost. I’ve heard others describe the songs as having a sadness to them. Are there any experiences in particular you could share with us that have influenced or motivated your songs? Yeah, growing up, really. That’s kind of what did it. There’s no point in going into specifics because everyone has their own experiences in school and university and all that sort of stuff. But I didn’t really like it. It felt a bit arbitrary to me.

University? School and university. I just felt, you know, “Why are we stuck here?” But I think my attitude to it was—I mean, I did okay in school. I did quite well, but I think I had a similar experience to what a lot of other people have, but I reacted to it in a [different] way. I was an only child as well, so I was always thinking about things and not necessarily having anyone to bounce those ideas off. When you’re an only child, those things just swirl around your head for years, you know? All those ideas you have just don’t come out the other end, they just kind of remain in there. So when you write an album, they say that an artist’s first album is everything that they’ve experienced until that album, and the second album is just everything they’ve experienced on tour, which is virtually nothing really, especially creatively and musically.

Since you brought up touring, have you noticed differences between shows you’ve played here in the States, and the crowds that come out for your shows back home in the UK? There are a lot of differences. I must say, I do absolutely love being in the U.S. It’s difficult to relay what it’s like to be English and come here but it’s exciting, fun, and it’s an adventure. And it is for the band as well. We’re all mates together, traveling the world, but when we come to America we feel like [it’s an adventure] because we have the language in common but virtually nothing else, let’s be honest. The Atlantic sea separates us more than physically. It’s like everything’s a discovery in an amazing way. I just feel like it really is a discovery every time I come here. We’ve had such a good time. We’ve met so many amazing people, and I’ve made some great friends, and that all adds to when you come play here. The shows are fun because of that.

Top Photo by Steve Scap

An Exhaustive Review of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival

The hipster gradation begins on the subway. You know you’re getting closer to the Pitchfork Music Festival as the crowd on the El, Chicago’s famed elevated subway system, begins to shade from downtown office workers and tourists coming in from O’Hare to twentysomethings in cut-offs, neon, and free-range beards. Unlike other music festivals in more remote locations – Coachella, Bonnaroo – the caravans to Pitchfork aren’t composed of Subaru Outbacks, but rather the Green Line, the Ashland bus, and bikes. Indeed, one of the best things about Pitchfork is the extent to which it identifies with the city of Chicago, home to the e-zine’s headquarters (there’s also an office in Brooklyn, of course).

"It feels good to have established Pitchfork here in Chicago. It really is, I guess, an institution at this point," says Ryan Schreiber, founder and CEO of Pitchfork Media (author’s note: no relation). Chicago pride is on display throughout the weekend–vintage Bulls jerseys abound, and more remarkably still, you can catch glimpses of naked arms displaying Chicago-flag tattoos.

The three-day fest, held in Chicago’s Union Park, provides that rare combination of big-name talent (Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio were this year’s headliners) with an intimate, community vibe. Compared to larger behemoths, Pitchfork only sells 18,000 tickets per day; to put that in perspective, the attendance at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza each hover between 70-80,000 fans. Rather than having every sensory organ pummeled – competing guitar chords, the musky scent of sweat not your own pervading your nostrils – Pitchfork allows its attendees a high-quality experience, where you can actually take in and be aware of your surroundings rather than be overwhelmed by them. Incidentally, it also makes finding your friends and bumping into people you know easier.

"We’ve done it in this park for seven years, and there are many other opportunities to move it to a bigger park or do something different with it, but I just like this. I feel like this is the perfect size. Get much larger and you have to walk for miles to get to where you’re going," says Schreiber.

Because it’s sponsored by the influential online music magazine rather than a big marketing firm, there can be, at times, a distinct ‘industry vibe’ (the ratio of industry-to-non industry folks is higher than at bigger fests, even if overall numbers are low). You can’t go more than two feet without seeing someone prance by in a "VIP" pass, "Artist" pass (which managers, agents, and publicists may wear in addition to the bands), or "Press" pass. All of this is a long way of saying that this festival has cred, both geeky and cool.

In addition to the previously-mentioned headliners, buzz-worthy acts like Das Racist, James Blake, Odd Future, Toro y Moi, Deerhunter, Ariel Pink, and Cut Copy were joined by veterans such as Guided By Voices, Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), Off!, and DJ Shadow. The process of choosing the lineup is "about booking the artists we really love," according to Schreiber. "We [the Pitchfork staff] come up with sort of a dream list, collectively." image Twin Shadow image Das Racist

Battles was one of the first acts to kick off Friday, playing a high-energy set that included LED screens of Gary Numan and Matias Aguayo singing in the background. Perhaps it was the heat, but the crowd, though receptive to the show, seemed to be conserving its energy, failing to match the moxie onstage. Towards the end of the show, guitarist Dave Konopka shouted "Afterward, everyone’s invited to my house, 857 Marshfield. We’ll have a party there." (A quick and stalker-y perusal of Chicago’s White Pages was unable to verify if the Battles guitarist had actually just invited thousands of people to his house.)

Despite the fact that they didn’t humor the audience by playing "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," Das Racist provided some on-stage rowdiness, enhanced by their hype man, Dap, deliriously jumping and running around onstage. The crowd erupted and girls were hoisted onto dudes’ shoulders when the three rappers came onstage and played "Who’s That? Brooown!" The energy (both that of the group and of the crowd) dipped a little towards the middle of the set (at one point, a rapper named Danny Brown from Fool’s Gold hopped onstage, and although his performance promised a talented new MC, the crowd was just hankering for more Das Racist). Finally, towards the end of the show, hands were back in the air when Das Racist launched into "You Oughta Know" before ending the set with "Rainbow in the Dark."

James. Blake. James Blake is perhaps the most buzzed-about artist to play Pitchfork this year and, perhaps, one of the must buzzed about new artists anywhere. Let’s not mince words: Blake did not disappoint. Whereas, after listening to the slow and sparse songs on his debut self-titled album, it can sometimes be tricky to see how his music is affiliated with dubstep, his pitchfork performance was a new (and exciting) experience entirely. The powerful, heavy bassline that’s so characteristic of dubstep came across more clearly in his set than I’d ever heard it before, yet the enveloping beats still left space to enjoy Blake’s haunting vocals. Blake’s stage presence (much like his demeanor in person) was charming and mild-mannered, most clearly evidenced by the fact that he chose to sit off to the side of the stage rather than front-and-center. When he played "CMYK," the crowd turned wild, getting down to the lighter and dance-ier track. Before a rapt audience at dusk, he closed the set with a great rendition of one of his album’s signatures, "The Wilhelm Scream."

After Animal Collective’s Friday night closing set, the crowds dispersed, many en route to any number of "Official" and "Unofficial" after shows and parties. One of the most cleverly marketed parties proved to be a fête hosted by Patron XO Cafe, Spin Magazine, and Superfly marketing group. Invites had been emailed to guests a few days before, revealing only the date and time of the party and vague instructions about finding a food truck parked near the festival grounds, where more information and directions would be dispensed. By 10pm, a small crowd was gathered outside Mama Green’s Gourmet Goodie Truck eager to continue the party-meets-scavenger hunt. We were given cups of iced coffee with the secret address of the event written on the coffee sleeve, which turned out to be the site of Chicago’s Prairie Studios. We party-goers ended up being a funny mix of media folk a little grungy from hanging outside at the festival all day and some of Chicago’s most beautiful people decked out in cocktail dresses and heels. Once inside, you could pose for professional photographs with models dressed in 20s-inspired burlesque costumes, sip any number of Patron-inspired cocktails, and chomp down on classic Chicago-style hors d’oeuvres such as "mini deep dish pizzas" or mini Italian sausages. Walking around the beautiful inside-outside space, sipping Patron margaritas, we could also listen to a live band and watch a magic show. Even if some of it was a little gimmicky – and more than a few people wished the live band could have been replaced by a DJ (of which there are many in Chicago, like the Hood Internet and Flosstradamus) – the party was a success. image Fleet Foxes

Saturday’s uncomfortably hot temps didn’t stop people from getting down during Gang Gang Dance‘s set, which provided a raucous blend of their unique multi-instrumental, percussion-heavy dance music laced with electro. After feverishly jumping and jolting onstage during instrumental breaks, lead singer Lizzie Bougatsos took the mic and told the audience, "If you can’t act crazy onstage, there’s no reason to live. If you see me humping a monitor, you just know."

As it grew later and became just a touch cooler, crowds coalesced before the Green Stage to see Fleet Foxes, who played one of the best sets of the weekend. Given the usual amount of delays in between set changes, people were visibly impressed when the band hopped on stage to begin their show a mere seconds after DJ Shadow ended his at an adjacent stage. Playing mostly songs from their first album led a guy next to me to remark, "They’re just putting on a big show. That’s what they’re doing." Yes, sir. The sound quality was stellar, such that you could actually distinguish between the various instruments onstage. The hushed crowd broke out into cheers when the first chords of "White Winter Hymnal" reverberated out across the crowd–a song that can evoke feelings of wintry tranquility and Christmas tidings even during the peak of summer. In a smart move, they brought the crowd out of their trance with a rocking rendition of "Ragged Wood" before ending on a song from their new album, the titular "Helplessness Blues."

As Day 2 drew to a close, not everyone had the stamina to keep up with the afterparties, but for those of us who did, many chose to head over to Beauty Bar, which hosted one of the few "Official Pitchfork After Parties," featuring DJ sets by Twin Shadow, members of Deerhunter, and Tim Koh of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. The Pitchfork crew (including Ryan Schreiber) were in attendance, as well as members of the Windish Agency (disclosure: I do some on-and-off unpaid work for Windish), which represents both Twin Shadow and Deerhunter and DJ/local celeb Million $ Mano.

Sunday was the most anticipated day at the fest if for only one reason: Odd Future. Already one of the most hyped new acts, Odd Future’s show at Pitchfork received a particularly large amount of publicity due to the planned anti-violence protest during their set. For better or for worse, it appeared that by the end of the afternoon it was Odd Future: 1, Protesters: 0. Representatives from anti-violence groups were in attendance and handing out fans as first reported, but the ill-conceived gesture didn’t seem to have much impact. Sunday was an inferno and concert attendees were grateful to get a fan–any fan–but hardly anyone gave nary a glance to see what was emblazoned on its side (besides, there had been several different sponsors handing out fans throughout the weekend so any novelty was lost). If anything, the preceding controversy and the insane amount of PR that ensued only upped the ante for Odd Future, increasing what would already have been a huge crowd. image Odd Future

Though it was the first time I’d ever seen the collective, Odd Future’s set was basically exactly as I expected: brash, punky, and a pretty damn good time. As Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah reported in her feature on the group in this month’s BlackBook, the guys understand the role they (and the media) have created for themselves, and they work hard to live up to it. They seem to relish playing the part of the villainous rap group, donning freakish masks during set, strutting across the stage, and chest thumping with the bravado that only a twenty-year-old can possess. Occasionally, the heavy bass drowned out some of their lyrics, but when you could hear Tyler, the Creator or Hodgy Beats, their oft-reported crudeness and offensiveness was in full force ("You fucking bitch, you smell like dick").

One majorly weird thing I witnessed were hipster parents who’d brought their toddlers to Odd Future’s set, the dad bopping around to Tyler’s jams with the tot on his shoulders (there were actually a disconcerting amount of hipster parents who brought their kids–sometimes babies!–to the fest). Neither the baby sightings nor the fact that Tyler had been hobbled by a broken foot and monster cast (he spent much of the set seated but managed to get up and chant "Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School" at the end) killed the vibe. As the show ended, Left Brain did a half stage dive/ half body slam, throwing himself projectile-style into the crowd. It was a fitting description of the group itself and their Pitchfork show: aggressive and in your face but openly received by the mainstream.

After that intensity, it was nice to take a breather before heading over to absorb Toro y Moi’s blissed-out, disco-y electronica. Even though the crowd was subdued–maybe still recovering from the heat or Odd Future’s set, or both–their stillness could not be mistaken for disinterest: all eyes were fixed on Toro y Moi, lapping up his every beat.

Finally, as the sun set over the Chicago skyline, TV on the Radio came on and gave everyone a festival-wide second wind. With the ubiquity of electronica or experimental pop at the fest, the explosion of percussion heralding their rock show was a welcome sound. Throughout the set, intensity built up with a steady trajectory but, almost teasingly, would hold out, captured as if like steam pressure in some kind of boiler. That is, until they broke out full-force into "Dancing Choose" ("He’s a newspaper man") and "Wolf Like Me," their crescendos giving the crowd the relief they wanted. The audience ebbed and flowed in a massive wave of dancing and even the industry folk gathered on the VIP risers had their guards down and were seen grooving (one VIP was even maniacally jumping around). Finally, towards the end of the show, hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces joined TV on the Radio onstage, playing tambourine shakers as backup to "A Method."

And with that, another impressive performance ended along with another impressive effort by Pitchfork’s organizers. The festival proved that once again it lived up to much more than the hype of being an "indie fest" or "hipster fest," displaying a diverse line-up and three days of non-stop musical experiences. Combining the cool, industry-ness of SXSW with the grassy, park setting of a large-scale music festival and the intimacy and community vibe of your local fest, Pitchfork has managed to create a unique festival experience. It is sure to continue being a destination for those seeking to hear some of the best acts they know and to be exposed to new ones they don’t.

image James Blake

All Photography by Steve Scap

Artist Ali Assaf on the Return of the Iraqi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

In 1976, four years before Iraq became embroiled in the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein was Deputy to then-President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. The future dictator’s invasion of Kuwait and two wars with the U.S could scarcely have been imagined. It was also the last time Iraq had a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale—the massive art festival held in that watery city. 35 years later, Iraq has returned to show off some of their best talent at the “Olympics of the Art World.”

“Iraq has been absent from the Biennale for many years due to the various political upheavals in the country, making an Iraq participation extremely difficult. Our country wishes to establish new ties with the world at large and especially its culture,” wrote Ambassador Hassan Janabi, Iraq’s representative to the UN agencies in Rome, in a letter to the Foundation of the Venice Biennale requesting admittance into this year’s event.

Iraq’s exhibit, entitled “Wounded Water,” is located in the Gervasuti Foundation, an alternative art space that also houses the Bangladeshi pavilion. Gervasuti, with its narrow passageways, dim lighting, and peeling walls, provides a stark backdrop for the show, which includes all varieties of media: paintings, photographs, video, performance, sculpture, and installations.

The exhibit features six Iraqi artists — Ali Assaf, Azad Nanakeli, Walid Siti, Adel Abidin, Ahmed Alsoudani, and Halim Al Karim — each of whom has presented works dealing with the theme of water and its importance to the arid country. “This is a timely interpretation since the lack of water is a primary source of emergency in Iraq, more than civil war and terrorism,” wrote Iraqi Pavilion Curator Mary Angela Schroth in her Curator’s Statement.

The delegation “didn’t want [their] works to reflect terrorism or war,” says artist Ali Assaf. “TV gives you those images.” It may also be fitting, if ironic, to display the art in a city most closely associated with its famous waterways, and whose existence is threatened by encroaching tides and the habitual flooding of its canals.

Another feature Schroth highlights in her Curator’s Statement is that the six artists represent two generations: one that came of age in the 1970s (just before Saddam seized power and declared war wtih Iran), while the other grew up in the 1990s, when war and dictatorship had already become commonplace.

Talking to Assaf, who is also the Commissioner of the pavilion, it is clear that each of these artists, regardless of their generation, have been influenced by the changes to their country as well as their experiences in exile. The 60-year-old Assaf, along with Nanakeli and Siti, is a member of this older group. He remembers a time before the violence and tyranny, when culture flourished, Iraqi artists and intellectuals participated in dialogue with the West, and Baghdad was, as he says, the “avant garde [capital] of the Arab World.” When war with Iran broke out, massive financial losses resulted from the eight-year conflict, only to be worsened by succeeding sanctions and two wars with the U.S. Standards of living plunged, causing not only a regression of Iraq’s economy but also its cultural and artistic spheres.

image al Basra, the Venice of the east (2011) by Ali Assaf. Photo courtesy of the Iraqi Pavilion.

Many artists and intellectuals fled their country, able to neither sustain their livelihood nor express themselves freely under a censorious dictatorship. What few creatives remained were suddenly isolated from the global arts community, unable to contribute to the art world’s ever-changing dialogue. Instead, they produced portraits of Saddam Hussein and kitschy historical paintings.

“It was a disaster for everything–for the economy, for culture and for artistic practice,” says Assaf of that period.

For those artists of Assaf’s generation who were fortunate enough to have left before the war with Iran broke out, many had hopes of continuing their studies abroad and returning to their native country to share what they had learned. Their homecoming “never happened,” Assaf says, thwarted instead by the onslaught of violence that continues even today.

Assaf was one such artist. Born in Basra, he moved to Baghdad to study art in the late ’60s, deciding to go to Rome in 1973 to further his education. “When he refused to play along with the apparatus of the right-wing regime, which seized power in 1979, his passport was withdrawn and his citizenship removed,” his biography reads. It would take 36 years — and Saddam’s removal — before he returned to his native country and his home city in 2009 for a visit.

His younger counterparts, artists like Abidin, Alsoudani, and Al Karim, left under quite different circumstances. “The other generation ran,” Assaf says, leaving their country as a matter of survival.

Whatever the cause for their leaving, both groups of artists suddenly found themselves exiled from their home country. Living and working in Europe or the United States, their work became shaped by both their experiences as Iraqis and as members of a new diaspora, by a national identity as well as a global approach.

Assaf has remained in Rome. Rather than feeling as if his Iraqi identity has been diluted in exile, he suggests that living abroad has allowed him to be “rich in experiences” as well as “mix identities and two cultures [rather than] stay in one place and be provincial.”

“Globalism and technology gives you the possibility to look [at] your identity [as well as] the identity of others,” he says.

image Outside of the Iraq Pavilion, located inside the Gervasuti Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Iraqi Pavilion.

In one of Assaf’s pieces on view at the Biennale, Narciso (2010), the artist re-imagines the story of Narcissus staring at his reflection in a watery pool. An update of Caravaggio’s Narcissus (1597-1599), we see a video installation of the artist as the titular subject, dressed in Renaissance garb like the original and crouched before a river in Basra, Assaf’s native city. However, it’s not immediately clear that this is the setting, given the background’s opacity. Upon closer inspection, and the knowledge that the imagery is Iraqi, it becomes easier to perceive the blending of Iraqi and Italian elements, the re-situation of a classic Greco-Roman myth—one that was immortalized in an Italian Renaissance masterpiece—in an Iraqi setting. The blending of these two cultures seems to parallel Assaf’s own background.

Assaf says that the idea for the work came from that first visit back to his native city in 2009. While in his childhood home, he found an old book of paintings by Caravaggio—left over from his days as an art student. Included in these pictures was Narcissus (1597-1599), and soon the artist started to “see [myself] as Narcissus looking for my identity in water.”

However, in Assaf’s version, the peaceful tableau is constantly interrupted by flotsam—by pollution in the water, which “cancels the identity and reflection,” Assaf says. Much of the pollution comes in the form of old photographs, some of which appear to be of the artist’s family, whose photos can be seen in another of Assaf’s works at the Biennale, al Basrah, the Venice of the east (2011). In this sense, some of the “pollution” impeding the subject’s self-reflection and search for identity is not worthless trash but discarded images from the past—a past that no longer exists. In al Basrah, a sign reads “I kept my memories in order to survive, but when I came back to my hometown after an absence of 36 years, nothing that I remembered was there.”

These themes of water, identity, and memory resonate on a universal rather than a personal scale. Just as Assaf spoke of the decision not to focus on Iraq’s individual problems of war and terrorism, these works, as well as Iraq’s inclusion once more in the Biennale, signify that the country desires to once more participate in the global conversation. The future is as yet uncertain for Assaf’s nation, but he and his fellow artists prove that Iraqi contemporary art and culture is not gone forever, but rather exists in exile. Perhaps that with the return to Venice, the contemporary art community’s return to Baghdad is not far behind.