GODMODE + Shamir: Northtown
GODMODE + Shamir: Northtown
How a kid from Las Vegas found a young Brooklyn label and created this summer's atypical soundtrack
"I moved here for the music," says Nick Sylvester, who's been living in Brooklyn since graduating from Harvard a decade ago. A former music editor and comedy writer for The Colbert Report, Sylvester has been part of the music industry for years, writing about the subject professionally at Pitchfork, The Village Voice, The Wire, Vice and more. Sylvester tell us that during that period, things got tricky: "There was a pretty gross misunderstanding when I was a journalist about what I was actually doing, and I was pretty unceremoniously asked not to be a journalist anymore."
Instead Sylvester (a producer and drummer in the now-defunct rock band Mr. Dream) turned GODMODE, a young vanity record label, into a legitimate act, although he describes it as "a group of loosely related people that kind of hang out with each other and play on each other's bills." The label is unfussy and hands-on from start to finish, and doesn't forget about the fun part of making interesting music: "We put out cassettes and have parties."
It was just another moment where, you kind of have to create the world that you want to live in—as corny as that sounds.
"There's a band right next to our studio, our rehearsal space, that's called Yvette—and they are my favorite band in New York. I absolutely adore them," says Sylvester. "I recorded a 7" for them, it was awesome, and we're like, 'Alright, we'll find somebody to put it out'—and nobody would put it out. Nobody would touch this band. It was unbelievable to me. It was just another moment where, you kind of have to create the world that you want to live in—as corny as that sounds. And so I said, 'Fuck it!' and kind of took the vanity label that was GODMODE—it was just a joke label for Mr. Dream—and turned it into something real and kind of rallied behind that. That was 2012, and we've just been adding a bunch of different acts."
Letting the music he was producing (out of a tiny space at Sound City) speak for itself, GODMODE caught the eye of a then-18-year-old Las Vegas-based Shamir Bailey, who reached out over email. Sylvester was immediately charmed and now, Bailey is dropping his first EP, titled Northtown on GODMODE. Based on the preview, we can say with confidence that Bailey and Sylvester are probably the best things that could have happened to each other.
With just four original—and very different—songs and a Lindi Ortega cover, Northtown will get listeners dancing, listening, thinking, praising and entirely excited about this unfamiliar sound. Bailey sings (and talks) in an extremely high register that doesn't irritate at all, but remarkably feels intimate and real—like one of The Shangri-Las (in the '60s hit "Give Him a Great Big Kiss") meets a younger Nina Simone. The gender-bending vocals leave the listener without preconceptions of what has or hasn’t been done in this genre already; and the unpolished aspects of the songs make it clear that the intent is to create quality music—not a clean, crisp show with special effects.
In his songs, Bailey's thin voice warms up like an analog synth that's just been switched on, and Sylvester pairs it with leisurely house beats (leaving plenty of room to breathe), subtle bass lines, an incredible synth drop that surprises you two minutes into "If It Wasn't True" or hollow acoustic piano in "I Know It's A Good Thing." Instead of going for an immediate aesthetic appeal, they'd rather leave a great aftertaste: an intrigue that keeps you wanting more.
While GODMODE's current sonic palate has a variety of noise-punk, techno, pop and experimental, Bailey is proving to become the label's most successful act yet—and perhaps it's because he brings out an interesting side of Sylvester's production abilities that's a little more pop than the drummer is used to. Living in the fairly barren music scene of Las Vegas, Bailey isn't shy about sharing that he loves pop like Natalia Kills and Taylor Swift. "I love a good breakup song; she's my mean breakup song idol," he says. "One of my biggest influences is CocknBullKid," he shares. "She's this black British artist doing really earnest pop music with good lyrics and was also danceable. She didn't have a typical big black woman, 'Oooooh' Beyoncé-type voice, and that inspired me just to do straight pop music and not have to worry too much about being soulful with it." Bailey lifts up his shirt to shows us a tattoo—his first—that he got last summer of a CocknBullKid song, "Hold On To Your Misery."
Sylvester, who was in a rock band "at a time when it was really corny to be a rock band," explains dance music has always been his love and Shamir reminded him of that, as did their serendipitous meeting. "His voice reminds me of this very specific disco singer named Sylvester—like my last name—and that was really what threw me the most. It was that person whose music I had dealt with in this very weirdly personal way, and it was sort of coming at me in this weird, stupid General Inbox kind of way. I just feel very lucky. It just feels really weird and very spooky in a cool way—like a Paul Auster 'Moon Palace' kind of way." It's clear dance music is where Sylvester's talents shine, which is most recently seen in his completely transformative remix of Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself."
With me and Nick, it was like the universe pushing us together—somehow, someway.
"With me and Nick, it was like the universe pushing us together—somehow, someway," says Bailey. "It was funny because, before that happened, I was planning on moving to Arkansas. I was getting stuck in my ways, I'm doing the same things all the time, every day in Las Vegas." He's satisfied with staying put at the moment, instead of migrating to New York, as many musicians do. "Out here in New York, you have to think about living, eating, bills, rent. In Vegas, you don't have to think about it because it's so cheap. It's easy living and you could literally survive off of a part-time job."
The only time I use the computer is to drop the song from the eight-track in there and then I just send it; I don't even edit anything, like I should.
Bailey also reveals that he's all analog, but not for the reasons you might think. "I'm an old man when it comes to technology! My stepdad, he's a rapper and that's how he makes all his music. And I tried to watch him and he tried to teach me—I just couldn't learn. So I just [said], forget all of this, went on eBay, got a TASCAM tape four-track recorder for like $30. Which I think is how everybody used to start off before computers," he says. "That's what [my previous band] Anorexia recorded our first EP on." He later added an digital eight-track and an analog drum machine from the '90s to his collection. "The only time I use the computer is to drop the song from the eight-track in there and then I just send it; I don't even edit anything, like I should."
He adds that when people give him props for being analog, he responds, "No, that's just laziness. I tried to learn, but I'm just not good with technology." Bailey felt right at home at Sylvester's set-up (amongst a Wurlitzer 200a electric piano, MFB Tänzbar drum-computer, a Sequential Circuits Prophet VS synthesizer from the '80s and more), where the singer recorded his vocals under a ladder, covered by a blanket—more of a space-saving technique than for aesthetic purposes.
While GODMODE is still growing and new acts are added, Sylvester's vision for the label—co-run with Talya Elitzer—is unwavering. "Just the idea of not trying to do the thing where every fucking band sounds the same. Not trying to do the thing where we're really precious about the releases. Kind of thinking about it less as like an art thing and more like a cocktail party. And you want a bunch of weird people at a cocktail party." If the label keeps breeding enticing party guests like the recent releases of Shamir, Soft Lit, Fitness and Montreal Sex Machine, Sylvester is going to have to answer even more emails from aspiring artists very soon.
Shamir's EP Northtown will be released on 11 June 2014 on white label vinyl; find it on GODMODE's online shop for $15. Check out Shamir's debut live performance at Brooklyn's 2014 Northside Festival during the GODMODE showcase on 15 June. He's also been invited to perform at MoMA PS1's outdoor music series Warm Up this summer and will be playing live on 23 August 2014.
"Sometimes A Man" music video screenshot courtesy of Anthony Sylvester, all other photos by Nara Shin for Cool Hunting