| Band: Mad Happy|
Interviewer: Joshua Heinrich
A diverse, socially conscious melting pot of hip-hop, electro, funk, blues, alternative, pop, and even Hasidic folk influences, Mad Happy have managed to carve their own unique musical niche. I recently got a chance to ask members Mike iLL and Rivka a few questions about their unusually colorful pasts, their latest album, Renegade Geeks (read my review here), and the future.
Hey. Thanks for doing the interview. Sorry again that it happened a bit later than expected.
Well, first off, the question on everyone's mind. According to your bio, you've both come from highly religious and interesting backgrounds to create ebonics-laden, stylistically unusual electro-pop after meeting in a sweat lodge and eventually becoming romantically involved...and that's the short version. I've seen certain members of the press precede that bio by "the band claims". The doubt may, perhaps, be enhanced by a certain quirky tongue-in-cheek quality that appears to be present in some of your work and your live performances. So, to lay all doubt to rest (and with no offense or innuendo intended), is that bio entirely true? Could you elaborate a bit about your backgrounds and how that impacted your work?
|Mike:||Well, that's a well put short version. The bio is entirely true, though we've joked about making some stuff up. Basically my father was a very nerdy kid (eldest of 10) from an artsy, academic catholic family in Vienna, Virginia, who started their own grammar school 'cause it was the only way to have their kids attend a non-segregated school. He got his ass kicked every day when he tried to attend a more working-class school and ended up in the seminary; a strait A student who had never smoked, fucked around or dated. His ideas were considered too bohemian to make him a "priest", so he left there to teach at Salve Regina College in Connecticut, where my mom, the oldest of three in an Irish Catholic family, was a student, having finished her own 8 year stint in the convent. After she had graduated, dad wrote mom to come visit him at his parents house, and they were soon married, and headed to Montgomery, Alabama to work in the Civil Rights Movement, where they had me.|
|Rivka:||100% true on the bio. My parents grew up more cultural than religious jews and met while they were both checking out the Hasidic movement. They stuck with it and had nine kids(six boys, three girls), of which I am the seventh. I went to an all girls yeshivah (religious school) in Brooklyn. I was a bit of an outcast, my older siblings were rebelling, I liked boys and kids don't quickly forget that you used to pee your pants. I dropped out of high school when I couldn't deal with the religion anymore. Started writing poetry and became a hairdresser/makeup artist. One of my gigs was makeup for a local art group. Which is how I ended up in that sweat lodge where I met Mike.|
Now that that's out of the way, we can talk about your work and the new album. The sophomore album is typically the tricky fork in the road where artists can fall into the trap of simply rehashing what they did on their first release or, perhaps, alienating fans by going too far in the other direction. How do you feel Renegade Geeks both compares to and differs from your past work?
|Mike:||The first Mad Happy record was really more of a mike ill record, and it was when I was going through a period of being "sensible" and playing "rock" music like white boys are supposed to. Maybe it's a longer story than that, 'cause I had been touring solo for a while with just a guitar, but that was more of a pragmatic than a stylistic choice. That being said, we ended up being forced to ditch our "band" when the van broke down and finish a tour with the Roland MC-505, which was a lot more rewarding for both of us. Renegade Geeks is the first album of that. And we've surely alienated some people, especially since I'm not even carrying the guitar at this point. Chris and Tina (who helped produce the album) were a little bugged out by that, but they understand that we follow our crazy hearts, and we're really happy with the direction things are going.|
|Rivka:||I jumped on the first record really last minute, only doing a couple backup vocals. Playing together as a couple was kind of against our rules. So we just jumped into it not really deciding exactly what it was gonna be. When the van broke down and mike pulled out the 505, we just came to life. Personally, I feel like Renegade Geeks is the first Mad Happy record and now we're working on the second album. And I think, staying away from rehashing as much as is possible while still being myself.|
Your musical formula is obviously fairly diverse and unusual, at various times combining hip-hop, electro, funk, blues, and even Hasidic folk elements. How has response to your work, in particular the new album, been so far? Have you found that a lot of people don't particularly get what you're trying to do, or have listeners and the press been fairly receptive?
|Mike:||We've definitely had some "hip-hop heads" in the press and audience get really upset by our music. A lot of people have said they didn't get it for the first couple of listens, or the first few songs, if they're seeing it live for the first time. Even we don't have a total plan for what we're doing, it's very much explorative and about communication. We've had some positive reviews, and as far as live shows, it's at the point where it's almost always a dance party with lots of audience singing along and stuff. And there's a lot of acts we like who are fans.|
|Rivka:||People seem to be diggin it. They're dancing at the live shows, playing the album at parties and commenting on the lyrics. In terms of our diversity, when people talk musical styles half the time I don't understand them. I've been influenced by so many artist and styles that I would only recognize if I heard them. Having grown up in a sheltered community, where tv and radio are basically outlawed, I used to keep a little radio under my pillow and I'd turn the dial until there was music playing, any music. I didn't know there were different genres until I was thirteen or fourteen. In terms of folks getting it, promoting this album has brought us into contact with so many great communities all over the states. I feel well received.|
On a similar note, what is the typical crowd makeup at one of your shows? Do you find it to primarily be a hip-hop crowd, electro crowd, or perhaps a diverse mix of fans of various genres? Have you ever had any experiences where you've ended up playing for a crowd that wasn't exactly expecting what they got?
|Mike:||Our crowd is quite mixed - I almost feel like the things we all have in common are more philosophical than stylistic - love of life, truth, health, exploration. The people are a lot of dancers, potheads, philosophers, poets, writers. Maybe it's like when the Minutemen or The Stooges were doing stuff inspired by James Brown or Miles Davis - there's a movement happening that's somewhere between hip-hop, electro, punk and folk.|
|Rivka:||When the music started moving toward the electro hip-hop thing we were already playing for a rock crowd. It didn't always mix well. These days, three years later, we've found our community, definitely a diverse group of people.|
For those who have never seen you perform live (myself admittedly included), how do your live performances compare to your studio output? Is it a direct translation or sort of more of a reworking? Which do you prefer, the creativity and clarity of the writing/recording process, or the immediacy, improvisation, and visual aspects of performing live?
|Mike:||Well - aside from us having developed as artists since recording the CD, the live show is very interactive with the audience, so that's one of the biggest differences. I love both writing and performing. I guess if I had to pick one, it would be writing, but there's something really life-affirming about sweating your ass off and making contact with someone else (on or off stage) who's also having a cathartic experience.|
|Rivka:||It's the writing and programming process that really take the cake in terms of creativity. In the studio we really get to the point and get out, it's the stage we work things out on. To me it seems the live show is a direct translation of our studio work. I just don't have to push as hard to feel alive, that's live. These things are all part of one, I couldn't choose. My preference could only be explained by my mood.|
A significant portion of your work carries liberal political/social themes and positive messages of tolerance and individuality. Do you feel this is a product of your unique upbringings? Often times, devout religious groups or parents don't particularly encourage individuality or tolerance or are more prone to conservatism. Is there also sort of a sense of rebellion against stricter religious ideas and intolerance in your music? What are your thoughts on the negativity and intolerance being promoted throughout much of the current music scene, particularly the violence and sexism currently found in a portion of today's hip-hop scene?
|Mike:||The funny thing is that there's such a difference between what happens in and out of the public eye. So someone who's output really seems to objectify women and/or be really materialistic runs their business in a really supportive, honest manner, and someone whose art exemplifies "liberal" values is beating their wife or something. The whole "keepin' it real" vibe in hip-hop can be just as self-righteous as a lot of religious stances. Humility teaches tolerance, and my parents are really open-minded (unlike their religion). I've learned to let go of a lot of artistic snobbery through being with Rivka, 'cause she really had to discover music for herself, and it happened outside of the so-called "educated" viewpoint through which I would always filter my likes and dislikes.|
|Rivka:||I definitely have rebelled against strict religious ideas and intolerance, and it has cost me so it only seems fitting that these ideas should make it into our art. My parents talked a lot about social tolerance and the idea that all people are equal. They also talked about "our people" being chosen by god, and how one set of rules apply to "our people" and another set to "the rest of them". This kind of contradiction causes confusion, my stand is against the confusion. I believe that all people are equal and that no people has ever been chosen above the rest. In terms of the music scene, I don't know that negativity and intolerance are what is being promoted. They're definitely there but are they dominant? And the hip hop scene, most of the hip hop I know is underground and conscious. The rest of it I hardly hear.|
Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club produced a few of the tracks on Renegade Geeks. How did you hook up with them? How was your experience working with them?
|Mike:||We hooked up with them through Kid Ginseng (the DJ), who was playing with Tom Tom Club when we met him. They loved what we were doing and when we asked them to produce, they brought in Doug (McKean, the engineer) and we worked in their studio. It was amazing. I was very influenced by Talking Heads, especially Fear of Music, Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues. They have a very organic and very punk approach to capturing the music.|
|Rivka:||Working with Tina and Chris was really inspiring. They're just real down to earth. Our down time was filled with "lectures" in music and art history. The on time was really straightforward, I love moving in a straight line - unless I'm caught up in a rebellion. Doug McKean (the engineer) had worked with those guys before so they had a real comfortable flow between them. Speaking from a female perspective, it was awesome working with a woman who's had lot's of success in a so called mans world. And I got to see a household running on music run. Like I said, inspiring.|
Like I said before, your musical blend is fairly stylistically diverse. How do you approach that from a songwriting standpoint? Do you start with a stylistic direction or elements you want to incorporate into a song, or do you simply start writing from a melodic or rhythmic frame? Of the two of you, who usually contributes what to the songwriting pot, or is it a completely collaborative effort?
|Mike:||We're still developing our songwriting. Some of the stuff, even on Renegade Geeks, was written when I was touring and playing solo - "Serial Wigga" was one of those, which we just kind of developed a bit more, lyrically, as a duo. "Icicle Man" was also written back then and it's still the same. "Wild and Bold", the most eastern-European sounding track came to me in a dream, and we wrote the last verse together. "Paint it Pink", "Loaded Up" and "File 2 the Metal" we really developed together from simple guitar or drum riffs. The material on the CD we're working on now is even more collaborative.|
|Rivka:||In terms of our song writing approach, all of the above. It just depends on which idea one of us has first. Sometimes where we start is very far from where we end up. Every time I answer one of these "who contributes what" questions I'm contradicted in the next song writing session. It's very grey I guess.|
Again on a similar note, could you elaborate about your multi-genre influences? What stylistic or influential differences exist between you two, and how do those differences play into your work, in terms of both collaboration and compromise?
|Mike:||Another good question, man. Rivka's favorite artists are like, Celine Dion, Richie Havens, Phil Collins; mine are Charles Mingus, KRS-ONE, Sly Stone... But we both dig on so much different music now. Nora Jones, Outkast, Nina Simone, Hank Williams, Johnny and June Cash. In our work, Rivka leans toward danceability, listenability and lyrical clarity, and I lean toward edginess, humor and "funk". We never compromise. We discover what we both really wanted in the first place.: )|
|Rivka:||My early musical influences are just melodies. In school we sang without instrumental music, every day. In shul (synogouge) also lot's of singing and no instrumental music. On the holidays and weekends musical instruments couldn't be touched, and there was lots of singing. Every so often my mother would play the piano on a Sunday. Like I said earlier, when I started hearing "goyish (nonjewish) music" I didn't know about genres. For at least six months at one point, I thought all country singers were one guy. When we started working together our two biggest differences were that I liked pop music and he despised it and he liked hip hop and I despised it. We've gotten through to each other since. His stand on hip hop was that some of it was conscious. He proved it to me with krs1, public enemy, tribe called quest and so on. My stand on pop was that some of it moves me emotionally, I like that. Collaboration we've found is not so easy, but worth it.|
The logistics of balancing work as a touring and recording musical duo and life as a romantically entangled couple can, to put it mildly, be difficult at times for some artists. How do you balance the two?
|Mike:||Well, we've seen a few different counselors over the years and we're really committed to both our act and our marriage. So we're determined on many levels. You know how much work it is to have a creative career, so we have to force ourselves to take time to enjoy life, even though it means letting go of a huge pile of work for a while. It seems to be getting better all the time; musically, emotionally, financially and sexually.. As far as how we balance the workload, Rivka's really good at scheduling.|
|Rivka:||They don't seem balanced to me at all. I seem to fall to one extreme or another being really focused on my work or my personal life. And now, my work life and my personal life mix. If I think of my mentors, most of them have been women with a business they treat as their child. I guess that's the grey line, where does your work become your personal life?|
I know this one's sort of an interview cliché, but where do you see Mad Happy going next? Any plans for the next Mad Happy album or is it too soon to be thinking that far ahead? Is there anything you'd particularly like to do stylistically or any guests you'd like to work with, either artists or producers?
|Mike:||As I said, we're already working on the next album, finishing lyrics and making beats and stuff. On the last CD all the programming was done on a stand-alone drum machine, and now we have a laptop with some super-bad-ass software (which will remain secret), so we're pretty excited about that. As far as other artists and producers we might work with, Zef Noi$e, who did a bunch of work on the last CD, will definitely be involved, and there's a couple of other people we're talking to, but it's too early to put names in print. We're definitely planning to produce most of the record ourselves.|
|Rivka:||We're moving straight ahead, working on the next album. It should be out fall 2006. We'll be performing some of these new songs on tour in April 2006. We're performing all over the country including up in Canada. I'm also looking forward to heading overseas and checking out some other continents.|
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Mad love and thanks to Chris and Tina, Zef Noi$e, Kill Audio and Kid Ginseng...and the crew at Milk Boy and Harariville and Mark at Sony for mastering. We invite people to contact us at www.madhappy.com, or on our MySpace page and we're all about grass-roots development and networking.
Props to MC Trachiotomy, Drop the Lime, Tiana Hux, Mutiny Zoo Records crew, Tom Tom Club, Serengeti, JaGoFF and all the fighters, biters and writers out there helping develop this wild world.
Thanks for interviewing us, man. It's been fun.
Thanks again for doing the interview. Best of luck!
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