Telekinetic Walrus – Interview
A popular mathematical theorem posits that, given an infinite amount of time, a chimpanzee hitting keys on a typewriter would eventually churn out any given piece of text or literature, even something as dense and complex as the complete works of William Shakespeare. And while I realize that the chimpanzee is simply a representation of an abstract device of randomization, if the same principle was applied to said primate and a recording studio, I still have my doubts that it would ever produce anything even remotely close to Telekinetic Walrus’ eponymous full-length album release.
SEVEN LIGHT YEARS BELOW SEA LEVEL WE GO
My introduction to Telekinetic Walrus and the Pride of Ions was a very rushed one. The path was a short one with few stops, namely: editorial request, Mediashare album download, expedited aural ingestion of said download, and planned sit down. And suddenly, I found myself in a dimly lit Little Haiti parking lot, adjacent to an out-of-the-way car reupholstering shop, surrounded by cars of remarkable vintage and questionable owners. The scene, while mildly intimidating, was not without its charm. After all, along the wall of the complex, I was greeted by a large, green, bright neon flamingo. I traced its path downward, spotted a door and immediately knew I had found my destination.
Sometimes, you just know.
Fittingly, the first person I was greeted by was Jake Fletcher, one of three founding members, and the main lyricist of the group. His handshake was firm and his demeanor was incredibly self assured. I know for a fact that he was never intimidated by that dark parking lot. Funny enough, I was somewhat casually ignored by a group of five other people upon entering the warehouse. I did not interpret this as rude, but simply assumed that strangers passed through their creative hub regularly, and my arrival was no reason to drop what they were doing. Speaking of which, they all seemed to be engaged in something a lot more interesting than talking to me as I arrived.
We all gathered around a large wooden table, sitting on a series of sectional couches, as I ham-fistedly pulled out my digital recorder and legal note pad. I inquired if it was alright if I recorded the interview. Jake pointed out that it wasn’t a problem, as they are, by trade, recording artists. I made it a point to do my best to not ask any more dumb questions.
All bullshit aside, I had the pleasure of meeting Jake, as well as Aleah McGhee (bassoonist, other founding member and self described “part cyborg”), Wyatt Meagher (producer, third founding member), Andrew Parker (in house graphic designer, resident music guru), Corrine Stevie (vocalist), Charlie Winkler (DJ, sound engineer) and Jessica Hruska, who knows everything about the band and does everything short of actually being in the group. I sat for a second, and realized I knew next to nothing about the people in front of me. Lucky for me, they were all too willing to get me familiar.
I don’t have a clue what a prime primordial walrus is. You probably don’t either. But, that and other similarly sounding creatures are mentioned in a very convoluted story that I found online while searching for clues to the birth of the band, and their name. I do know that the whole thing sounds cool. I imagine they think so too. As far as stories of a less apocryphal nature go, the Telekinetic Walrus connection happened less in the annals of time and space and more on the roads connection Miami, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia. Jake, originally from Atlanta, made his way down to the University of Miami to study music, focusing on classical voice and graduating in May of this year. Wyatt, also hailing from Atlanta, became a bit of a nomad, travelling to Miami and back again frequently while working on music projects before deciding to call Miami his home in August of 2009. Aleah, also at UM, directing the student run radio station among other things, formed the third piece, and before long, they had a booked show, high expectations and no name to call themselves. A brainstorming session and some juxtaposing led to “Telekinetic Walrus and The Pride of Ions”. It’s made very clear early on that the majority of what they do as a band, including naming themselves, is done without consideration for its possible reception by others.
Often groups reminisce about meeting at school, or at a jam session of a mutual acquaintance. Charlie Winkler doesn’t exactly know what that type of meeting feels like. He met with TW at a Halloween party, where a mutual respect of their crafts and a need for a mixer led to a relationship that started off bumpy but eventually smoothed out. Wyatt remembers very lucidly.
“He’d be on his Kaoss Pad, making all these noises during the set, and Jake would give him this look, like “Stop that shit!”, and when we were done I told him, “That was cool. Keep doing that. Jake’s gonna get mad, but just keep going.”
This leads to laughter from the rest and a knowing nod from Jake.
Corrine’s story also comes via Wyatt, who simply explains that while picking up a friend from the airport, he encountered Corrine, who also needed a ride. A car ride with a perfect stranger provides the perfect set of circumstances to discuss music, find that you both make music, and determine that making music together is an unavoidable conclusion. Corrine became a member of the band whether she wanted to or not:
“We just recorded a few tracks, and then I came back after going to Atlanta for a while, and they come up to me and say “Hey, check out these songs you’re on.”, Corrine tells me in between laughs.
IT JUST KINDA HAPPENED
The above is Aleah’s response to how their stylistic approach manifested itself. And really, it seems just as valid a response as Jake’s suggestion for what to label their brand of music.
“Mystical psychotropic electronic hypnotecha”, he suggests in a mild deadpan, reciting it as if he’s been asked this question hundreds of times prior.
Trying to determine what their musical influences were was a thankless task, in that the answers were so varied across the board, that the only thing that was certain was that they had a deep rooted appreciation for all things music. I suggested a few influences that I caught in their music, and each seemed to resonate positively with the group. The Mars Volta got a bunch of nods. The mention of Nine Inch Nails made Aleah light up a bit. Flying Lotus and Bassnectar got gestures of approval as well. Which makes the long winded description that Jake suggested, or the shoulder shrug explanation that Aleah gave me all the more appropriate.
It would be fruitless to describe the description of their music without actually, well…describing it. The album is a densely layered work, with the foundation of many of their songs set in a rhythmic, repetitive bass. Corrine’s lyrics are peppered throughout, and seem to be delivered effortlessly, albeit with force. This is in stark contrast to Jake’s vocal contributions, which are often slathered with a plethora of filters and effects, and are delivered as short, scathing mantras, in the form of harsh, chanted couplets. The result is a monolithic, cerebral soundscape that at times can border on abrasive, but rewards those who brave multiple listens.
The production aspect of the record was also touched on, and again, despite their vast knowledge of music (Immortal Technique and Spanish polka were discussed in the same conversation), none of them could put their finger on a producer who makes anything that sounds like Wyatt’s brand of mayhem. Personally, several of the songs have a very dystopian, industrial feel that bring to mind the best qualities of Trent Reznor’s solo work and El-P during his work with New York’s beloved Cannibal Ox.
Wyatt does his best to explain their reluctances to spew out names and labels. “We don’t try to categorize ourselves, because when you do, you put yourself in a box, and you are limited to a certain sound. We go in the studio and we make some tracks. That’s how we do it”
It doesn’t end there. You should see Jake and Wyatt light up whenever they are given the opportunity to discuss hometown heroes, Outkast. Jake in particular finds many similarities between his approach and that of the duo from East Point, particularly Andre 3000.
“I’m all about taking risks, too”, he explains. From a lyrical standpoint, Andre has vastly improved the technical aspects of his writing; something that Jake explains takes place daily, through an organic, yet academically precise process.
“There’s always chemistry when we write, but at the same time I’m looking at the whole thing. Cadence, pitch, timbre, everything, trying to make it better.” Jake explains. Wyatt feels the same way on the production end. “We don’t ever go into the studio saying ‘let’s make a song that sounds like this band’. We all feed off each other and the energy in the room. When you listen to the album, you hear a variety of sounds, but really, you can still tell its Telekinetic Walrus”
THE LIVE SHOW: IT’S JUST THAT
In today’s era of readily available technology, anyone with an amp and a laptop can book a show at Churchill’s and take the opportunity to try to not bore a crowd to tears. Telekinetic Walrus is well aware of this fact, and therein lies a dilemma. Their live show is elaborate, energetic and theatrical. These same elements can also lead people away. They are in no shape or form interested in compromising their music for the sake of accessibility, however.
I mention Gwar to the group, and Jake seems to know where I’m going with the reference. “We don’t want to be as gory as Gwar. But their live show is out of sight. We want to be up to that caliber. Or perhaps several thousand calibers above that.”
“Yeah. We’re not DJ’s, up there with just a laptop, hitting ‘play’”, Charlie states. “We’re doing a lot of these song arrangements live, on the fly, which might be hard for people to appreciate sometimes.” Think Kanye at this year’s VMA’s, except without the ridiculous chain.
Wyatt doesn’t miss a beat. “I love to mess with intros, and do all sorts of weird things to fuck with them. Then when I make the song come in, the people that get it are like “Awww, yeahh.”
Words in print can’t possibly explain to you how cool he made that sound. I ask them if these qualities make their live show less accessible, and as such, limit what they can do when performing.
“We do whatever the fuck we please.” Jake says, in a very matter of fact manner. “A better tactic instead of molding your music to sound a certain way, is to make more music, to have more variety.”
“The reception when people hear us for the first time goes both ways. Some people love it, some people hate it”, Aleah chimes in.
I mention that Miami is by nature a fickle place, particularly in what can be considered a weak music scene. Aleah disagrees.
“It’s a really good city for us to be in right now. We don’t have to make a lot of compromises. With Ultra, Art Basel, Winter Music Conference going on down here, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved and be heard.”
Eventually, with being heard, comes being seen. Again, they don’t have a problem with this either.
In the tone of a savvy businessman, Jake explains, “You’re selling experiences. I’ve found people that don’t like [the music], but still stay and watch us. Even if they don’t like it, they’re still being visually entertained”.
This is where Parker and Corrine smear their fingerprints all over the entire thing. What began as Corrine simply using some humans as canvases turned into a prime example of artist and fan interaction.
“At first I just painted my own face. Then I did a couple of other people. After that, people really got into it.”, she says.
It has since turned into a widespread phenomenon, with a slew of fans branding themselves “The Bioluminescent Plankton” coming to shows in glow paint, wearing costumes and generally tearing the club up.
Parker’s approach is more subtle, as he provides the visuals and trippy projection images that go on for the duration of any given TW performance. And if the glow paint and videos becoming viewed as a crutch or gimmick is a concern, it certainly isn’t a serious one.
Corrine makes the point that “the musicianship would never get overlooked in favor of the theatrics.”
Jake sums up the groups feelings: “What’s important is that it keeps evolving. Right now, it’s just a great way to get people involved. “
Fascinatingly enough, the conversation turns strangely reverential, as the (seemingly) modest Parker sits in near silence as the group unleashes a torrent of praise for his design work, his visuals, his dedication and his knowledge on all types of music. Wyatt becomes aware that I wouldn’t be familiar with any of his work, particularly the abstract work he spent the last few minutes regaling me about. I haven’t seen much outside of the fantastic album cover art, and as far as the performances go, it seems the YouTube videos don’t come close to doing any of them justice.
“His designs are sick as fuck!” he assures me.
SEE THE SUN RISE MORE THAN IT SETS
Your music is bending everything in sight, from rules, to genres, to people’s minds. Your live show is what the young people refer to as “off the hinges”. You’ve got groupies that knowingly refer to themselves as glowing, drifting sea organisms. So what’s holding you and those huge tusks back? (Note, I didn’t actually ask this in this fashion, but bear with me)
“Monetary limitations” Charlie says morosely.
Most of them have jobs, in a variety of fields, but none of them see those are permanent positions, but merely side hustles necessary to keep their musical lovechild afloat. Many of them, despite their suit and tie approach to their daytime gigs, appear to have a bohemian lifestyle of sorts.
“I know tons of people that would kill to have your lifestyle”, I mention casually. Jake stops just short of correcting me.
“It’s not like it’s easy either. Don’t get me wrong, its fun as fuck but we hustle and bustle. There are many nights of no sleep. Or little sleep. And then we get up and do it all again. It’s a hustle, it’s a non stop hustle.”
Parker shares the same sentiment. “Most of my hours are spent trying to make money to pay rent. And then I [work with the band], when I should be sleeping.”
Additionally, their concept is admittedly a tough one to get into right away. Bur rather than alter their approach, they feel the people will warm up to them, because so many of the elements of their music are things this local scene is already used to. They make a compelling argument.
““We are doing something that’s so different but at the same time…MIAMI BASS!” Wyatt emphasizes, noting the bass heavy rhythms and similarities to house music and dubstep. It’s worth mentioning that at this point, a lengthy discussion into the genesis, direction and future of dubstep spawned. This may have continued for some time before Parker, in Zen-like fashion announced “Fuck dubstep. We’re not here to talk about dubstep”. And so it was.
Back on the topic of the cerebral but danceable music, Jessica mused “The music is complex but they’re all still club bangers”. Somewhere, Timbaland and Stephen Hawking are nodding their heads in unison.
The idea of overcoming the clash of so many different ideas coming from so many directions would also presumably be an issue for a band trying to push the envelope. For the most part, it’s all fun and games with these guys.
“Me and Jake butt heads like fucking lion and fucking bull sometimes, because we’ve known each other for way too fucking long.” Wyatt chirps. Jake, in a sort of pseudo-offended tone, inquires “Is that how you feel? Way too long?”
Wyatt punctuates perfectly: “Fuck yeah”
Jake clarifies, in between titters of laughter, that “we got better together as a band, and our relationship as friends developed as our bond as musicians developed.”
Spending just short of two hours with the Walrus collective, I was left with the idea that despite their natural and organic approach to making music and operating under the bounds of the music industry, there is very sensible, calculated and academic method that goes with it. This falls in line with their admirable, if not unrealistic ambitions for themselves and the Miami music scene at large.
They spoke at length about their talents as individuals and as a collective, and it was difficult for me to not picture them as some sort of assembly of superhero musicians, or at least some sort of Dade County Wu-Tang Clan derivative. Despite our knowledge about how evolution works in a biological sense, they seem bent on speeding up the process artistically and culturally. Somewhere along the times, bassoon toting multi-armed Walruses will be the standard. Perhaps they’re not part of the right century. But in any case, Darwin and them may have their differences of opinion.
Parker, in monk-like stoicism, leaves me with something to chew on.
“A huge part of this is to just try and open people’s eyes. And just try to show them something that pulls them out of their own element for a minute and helps them realize that they’re breathing…and that they’re actually here.”
Building on that, Jake takes the baton and runs with it.
“We all feel [the music]’s bad ass, therefore it is badass. It doesn’t matter what anyone else feels. It just matters that we all feel that the music moves us and that we want to get on stage and perform it, and hopefully move others, and we feel it represents us.”
Parker takes the baton back, and races across the finish line.
“And we don’t want to get real jobs, man. Fuck that.”