Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Alan Wilkis - Babies Dream Big

While my interview with Alan Wilkis gave some long-winded insight into the man and his music, let me try and condense it a little bit. Mr. Wilkis is from NYC and currently resides in Brooklyn. After receiving his degree from Harvard he was a member of various bands/projects that focused on more hip-hop than solo pop fare. With parents from almost opposite backgrounds and eclectic musical tastes Alan's music is a continuation of America's melting pot society. His influences cover a wide range of hip-hop, R&B, Motown, electronic, Latin flavor, and Rock. But what is probably most evident is his affinity for the dawn of 8-bit video games and their accompanying music. Rarely do you hear such self-assured execution of 8-bit sound. Normally, those types of sounds sound out of place, ridiculous, or just don't mesh well with more modern instrumentation. Alan manages to find harmony (in more ways that one) between his retro-futuristic sounds, electric guitars and occasional thumping bass.

Alan's solo debut album is Babies Dream Big (2008), and in his own words it is "an ambitious exercise in stylistic cross-pollination, paying homage to the soul, R&B, classic rock, and electronic music of the 60’s - 80’s." He's pretty much spot on with this description. The first time I listened to his album I had no idea what to expect. I had (admittedly) barely read his accompanying letter explaining his influences and his process. When I began listening it took me a moment to adjust my ears. There were so many various influences coming together that dissecting each piece was giving me a headache (in a good way). I had to turn off that function in my brain and just go with it and dissect later. Alan's debut is ambitious, adventurous, and a bit audacious. He explores a lot of territory that ranges from fun and playful to a little plaintive and melancholy, all the way back to dance-worthy pop. All of this in a scant 43 minutes. Normally, an artist is taking a chance trying to pull together so many strings but he manages to pull it off rather well. There will be tracks you'll enjoy more than others, but none that should have stayed in the can. In fact, there are a couple personal faves that stay in my head for a while after hearing them ("Girls On Bikes" and "Bad Mamma Jamma"). Overall, I can't wait to see what Alan cooks up next.

"Bad Mamma Jamma"

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Recently, I was lucky enough to have musician Alan Wilkis send me his solo debut Babies Dream Big (2008) and I've listened to it numerous numerous times since. Because he was so gracious in sending me a free cd, I took the opportunity to conduct an email interview with the man behind the music. I'll follow up with a full album review, but for now it's great to get to know a truly new artist. Enjoy.
Q: Give me a little personal background. Where are you originally from? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?

I was born and raised in NYC, now living in Brooklyn. I went to Harvard for undergrad.

Q: What were some of your earliest musical influences? Were your parents musical types? What are some of your early music memories?

My influences have been all over the place, but the earliest ones were probably Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Beach Boys, and Beatles... I used to go on long road trips with my folks, and they basically had two cassette tapes on very heavy rotation in the car: Sgt. Pepper's and the soundtrack to the movie "Stand by Me," so I'd say those two are pretty hard wired in my brain. My first musical memory was totally freaking out to "Thriller" - my parents put it on the stereo and I just ran around the apartment like a maniac!

My parents aren't musicians, but they both love music very much. They used to sing to me quite a bit when I was young... Peter Paul and Mary, Spanish lullabies, a bunch of stuff. My dad is Jewish by way of Baltimore, but is somehow inexplicably obsessed with Motown and Philly soul music. My mom is from Cuba, so i can pretty safely attribute my sense of rhythm to the Latin side of the family!

Q: Were you in any bands (organized or unorganized) growing up?

I played with friends a bit in high school, but i didn't properly join bands until college. I did a fair amount of jazz guitar combo stuff, then I was in a hip hop band called the Witness Protection Plan for about 3 years. We played mostly in NY and Boston - our biggest achievement was opening for Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious for a few thousand people at a college springfest (Amherst, I think)... I got a pound from Chali 2na at the end and pretty much had a heart attack!

After WPP, I started a hard rock duo with my friend Pete (the drummer from WPP). We were called A+P - we were together for about 2 years, total opposite experience from the previous band. WPP was an 8 person thing with attempts (some less successful than others) at a democratic process to songwriting, etc... so it was both challenging and extremely liberating to strip it down to just 2 people. Also it was the first time I fronted a band and sang onstage. Was an extremely rewarding time - really learned how to love singing and feel confident doing it.

Q: How did the record come about?

The record came about after my last band amicably split up. I basically just got into home recording a lot, started investing in more gear and more or less teaching myself how to record/mix/produce/master etc... I'd been writing songs and playing guitar for well over a decade, but I really didn't have the foggiest idea of how to make something SOUND good on tape...

Just kinda kept experimenting, trying out different sounds and arrangements, mic techniques, etc... After quite a bit of... well.... shitty music, to be perfectly honest, I wound up with some sketches of things I was happy with. Found myself in a place where I could hear a sound in my head and figure out a way to at least approximate it on tape.

I think the album was officially born when it dawned on me that I wanted to make something happy and fun. I'd dabbled in mope-y stuff, faux-deep stuff, and then suddenly I was just tired of it... if anybody was going to take the time to listen to my songs, I wanted to put a smile on their face! That realization + the recording experiments turned into a solid year and a few months of work - eventually the babies were dreaming bigly!

Q: I read about some primary influences but was curious if you could be more specific about where you gathered ideas from.

It's definitely a long list, and pretty varied, but the big ones are Stevie Wonder, Prince, Hall and Oates, The Doobie Bros, Steely Dan, Boston, Todd Rundgren, Harry Nilsson, Gary Numan, Frank Zappa... I'm pretty obsessed with this guy Matt Mahaffey - he had a band called Self - he is kind of my hero. Incredible songwriter, can play 1000 instruments (and play them WELL), is a recording guru, and really does the genre-hopping aesthetic pretty flawlessly.

Q: The lyrical content deals with various things, but seems a central focus is on girls/relationships. Are these general emotions or were you trying to exact revenge on some hearts?

Hahaha! I don't want to give too much away, so let's just say they're general emotions...

Q: You shift between falsetto and more of a chest voice over the course of the album. What dictates how you'll sing a song?

I never really thought about that actually! There wasn't really a conscious decision to sing more falsetto at first, and then cruise on over to the chest as the album goes along, but it TOTALLY does! Good call! Really what dictates it more than anything is the key / range of the melody of a given song. Sometimes lyrical content too. Milk and Cookies is a dance jam, and it just kinda demanded that I sing it in falsetto... I didn't have a choice!

Q: Clearly you must also be a big Nintendo fan, how difficult was it learning how to replicate the perfect 8-bit sound?

Definitely a big Nintendo fan. Those 8-bit sounds are also pretty hard-wired in my head! I can't say that I'm a purist - I saw a documentary last year called "8-bit," and there's a huge movement out there of musicians that actually take apart their old Nintendos/Ataris and make music with the original 8-bit sound cards! I'm definitely not that strict, nor would I know where to start on the electrical engineering front, but basically I just played around with synthesizers to replicate those sounds - if you take a simple oscillator, no frills, just a pure saw wave or something and don't treat it too much, you can get a pretty solid Nintendo kind of sound.

Q: I was actually going to ask if you had ever done any hip-hop producing, because you have a great sense of "the beat" as well as guitar lines. Would you ever go back to that?

I've done a teeny bit of hip hop producing for others, as well as with my old hip hop band, just kinda one-off beats, but I've never pursued it too seriously. It's something I'd love to do more of, and I definitely want to do some collaborations on album number 2 (whenever that finally materializes!)

Q: What do you do when you're not creating musical fusion?

Day job (a brother's gotta eat), also doing some freelance film composing and music supervision, yoga, and I practice the drums as much as I can... that's actually been really huge for me... a friend once told me it's really good to pick up a new instrument every 5 years, and he was right! It has really re-invigorated my desire to play and practice, especially after being in recording mode for so long...

Q: Do you have touring plans? If so, when and where can "we" expect to see you? / If you do tour, what kind of live show could people expect to see? You with a laptop and guitar? Or something a little more elaborate?

No concrete tour lined up just yet, but been working out live arrangements with some friends. Trying to plan something more on the elaborate side in NYC in the fall hopefully. In an ideal world, the band would be me on guitar/keys, a synth player, another guitar, bass, drums, 2 or 3 percussionists, and 2 or 3 backup vocals... (i'm a dreamer, what can I say?).

Q: How much do your surroundings influence your music? I'm curious what else you see/hear on a daily basis finds its way into the music.

Surroundings DEFINITELY influence my songwriting. Not always immediately, but you never know when you're gonna notice something that turns into a musical idea later on; on "I love the way," the initial idea came to me probably about 3 or 4 months before I actually started turning it into a song! And the weather definitely affects me too - I'm always much more inspired / productive when it's sunny.

Q: Are you still in song-writing mode? Or purely focusing now on promotional stuff?

Actually just starting to get back into writing finally! Have ideas for 2 new songs, been chipping away at them the past few weeks. I finished mixing BDB in February, and I needed a little time off to promote but also to just decompress - it's so healthy to step away from the creative process when you've been deep in it for a while - gives me fresh perspective, and helps me forget some old habits / hopefully force me to come up with new stuff!

Q: What has gotten you to this point in your career?

Not sure what point I'm at exactly, and the road ahead is certainly a long and windy one, but more than anything else, PRACTICE! Lots and lots of practice!