EMEFE Through the Years

Hello EMEFE fans, friends and family.

Miles here. As you hopefully know already, EMEFE played our final public show on August 19th, 2016. It was an absolutely glorious night - a 13-piece band of EMEFE members past and present, a beautiful night in a beautiful park, and a loving crowd. In the week leading up to the show, I wrote some essays about each album we released throughout our career as a band since 2009. It is difficult and rare, yet so important, to look back on your own work and remember all of the effort that went into it, and consider all of the context surrounding each passing year. It was a good exercise for me. I hope it sheds some light on what it felt like to be in the band through the years, and what it feels like now to look back at a band that we all grew up playing in. Enjoy.

Music Frees All, released September 17th, 2010. 
Our first show as a band was at Tutuma Social Club in December 2009, and it was a complete hit. We were all on cloud nine after that show. It was a jazzy club, but everybody was up dancing and shouting. In retrospect, it was like an old-school swing night. We became a band that night. We played more and more in the coming months, and pretty soon our live show had quite a buzz in our NYU bubble. In those days we were playing all instrumental songs that I had written in my dorm room at NYU in late 2009. They were funky afrobeat tunes with good melodies and exciting song arcs. I had made an unofficial (and essentially unreleased) EP of my original demos of the songs, but once I brought the songs to the band they took on an entirely bigger and more powerful energy. We needed to record our songs as a band, so we got in my basement and essentially did it ourselves (my dad and his friend helped me set up the Pro Tools session and the mics, and then left us to our own devices). It was simple and great, and we captured our spirit easily, recording all 8 songs within hours, extremely minimal overdubs… something bands would normally rent a cabin the woods for months to try to do. In “Oh That’s What It Is” I hear all the same musical/compositional turns and phrases that I use today and will likely use forever. The DNA is in there. (You can even hear layered vocals I recorded in the middle of the track and put low in the mix, a precursor to EMEFE’s move towards vocal music later.)

I listen to Music Frees All now and I hear pure excitement. We were young and psyched to be playing groove music with each other. We weren’t just playing rote and immature funk music, even at that stage of our band - I was lucky to have been exposed to afrobeat, which provided an alternative road to groove music, using similar instrumentation and vocabulary as your typical funk songs. So that set us apart immediately, and gave a certain character to our sound early on that set us apart from other bands around us. (We were blessed to have the record mixed by my dad’s closest friends, Scott Harding, who gave the record warmth and actual sonic character. Mixing is so important, as we would really learn later… but that’s another essay.) 

That’s all not to say Music Frees All isn’t a funny record for me to listen back to - we clearly are all searching, some more than others, for our musical voices (except maybe bassist Doug Berns, who has had a confident and mature musical voice since the day I met him in middle school). To speak for myself, my drumming (and songwriting and blah blah blah) is a tad cringeworthy, to the point where I took our early music offline once we released our later albums. But I was just at the beginning of exploring afrobeat, of leading a band, of a 7 year journey. (and yet I feel like NOW I am just at the beginning of the journey… funny how that works.) We have to accept where we began in order to appreciate how far we’ve come, so I am happy to share this music with everybody again, and to leave it out there in the never-ending internet abyss for anybody to listen to forevermore. Because at the time, we were all absolutely unfettered by industry standards for what music should be, how you should release music, and what the current trend is, not to mention what people would think of our music. All we cared about was playing together. You can hear it in the music and it is the bedrock of what EMEFE grew to be. That is rare to find in music, so this is an important album to acknowledge and respect… and dance to!

Europe EP, released January 1st, 2011.
Between our start in November 2009 and the end of 2010, EMEFE’s personnel grew from 8 people to 11. We quickly became a robust afrobeat band, and I began writing specifically for the group (as opposed to the first songs of the band, which I mostly wrote as demos without a band in mind). The horn section was immediately strong and quickly became the melodic focal point of the band, with Javier Ramos and I supplying the raw energy underneath. The week I got back to school at NYU (my sophomore year) I booked a recording session with Dan Knobler and Jon Seale (of the Mason Jar Music collective) for November.12th, 2010 (Facebook frequently bums me out but one good thing is it keeps a log of all the messages we’ve ever sent to each other). We recorded 3 songs in three hours, no overdubs except adding trombone and woodblock on a separate day. It was our first time working with Dan Knobler, who we would work with for years to come. 6 years later, Dan is flying to NYC next week to make a live recording of our final show.

Our groove was much tighter after playing together for a year. At the time, I told interviewers we knew what we were doing, we were more confident, etc which was true. Somewhere between recording Music Frees All and Europe EP we had become an afrobeat band in the more standard sense… my early demos and EMEFE’s first shows featured a smaller band with more open compositions (as in, less conventional because I didn’t have a complete concept yet of what a conventional afrobeat band setup required). Pretty soon we added a second guitar player and 2 more horns, and the band was 11 college boys strong. The shows got even more powerful too with the bigger lineup - playing with that many people onstage is one of the most empowering feelings, and we all loved it. 

In retrospect, it is interesting to reflect on this period, because in the past year, EMEFE in some ways returned to our original form we started with almost 7 years ago. I realize now how much EMEFE changed once we became such a big band, and how that effected the sound and vibe of the band so drastically. At the time, of course, I was totally psyched to have as many people down as possible. My subconscious thinking was, “second guitar player? Sure! Because that’s what Fela had, that’s what Antibalas had, that’s the afrobeat standard. (instead of “do we really need all these people?”) My compositions quickly and happily adapted to the concept of having a big band, and I began churning out charts for 5 horns and 2 guitars and the whole crew. The Europe EP songs are the most conventionally “afrobeat” songs EMEFE ever put out. We were rehearsed & tight, and becoming more self-aware as a young band. 

Composing can be influenced by the band you’re writing for, or it can be freed of that structure, to be adapted to a band later. Same thing with recording an album… and this is a lesson we wouldn’t learn until we recorded our self-titled a couple years later. What if the idea of expanding the band hadn’t tempted me (us) so easily, and we had stayed an 8-piece or smaller - what would our music have sounded like then? One can only speculate… but for the time being, in 2011, we had an EP that represented exactly what we sounded like live onstage, and our live show was our calling card anyway. We were young, confident and ready to play, it was as simple as that.

Good Future, released July 6, 2012.
Though we had released Music Frees All and Europe EP in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Good Future was the first record that had some thought put into it further than “just jump in the studio and record.” Throughout 2011 and into 2012, our sound really solidified around the horn section. The horn section had its own singular voice in live shows, sophisticated and virtuosic. Jas Walton became the leader of the section, and we rehearsed a lot and took it very seriously - trying to get as tight as possible, emphasizing the importance of locking in on every single phrase. Once the horn section and I were in the pocket together, it felt like we were high. Good Future in many ways is really a showcase for that horn section. 

Our live shows were also more exciting than ever in 2011 into 2012. We were playing a lot of shows with Mokaad, a SUNY Purchase funk band that, in addition to displaying their deep studies in funk music, threw in tons of exciting song quotes, twists and turns for their live show. Whenever we had a show with Mokaad, I remember planning EMEFE’s setlist like my life depended on it. We displayed our afrobeat knowledge while also throwing in party specialties for the crowd. We were barely paid, and we promoted the hell out of ourselves to get people out, but we were putting on THE most exciting shows in New York City, hands down. It was during that time that we all learned the potential for what a live show could really be: a through-composed experience, with timed energetic ups and downs and thoughtful transitions, so there was no real dead space.

Good Future was conceived and recorded as a document of our live sound, like the albums previous. We didn’t amend the songs much in the studio, besides all the necessary overdubs. It was one weekend at Mason Jar Music where we got in the studio and played all of our songs straight down. We put deeper thought into the song order, and recognized that having some vocal songs on the album was helpful to the flow. The record was beautifully mixed by Dan Knobler again, who really nailed the process of recording EMEFE… and the timing of each of the tracks made Good Future the perfect encapsulation of EMEFE in those days. But again, Good Future was at its core a document of our live sound. I emphasize this because in the future we would struggle with balancing the recorded EMEFE with the live show EMEFE.

The track “Lucecita”, for instance, was very different from my original demo of the song. The live version you hear on the record was a rollicking freight train groove that kicked off strong and didn’t let up until the last notes. The demo version was more electro and airy, written over a drum machine beat, with emphasis on the guitar/bass line (something you maybe would hear on our 2016 EP, Time). The band was 11 people strong at that time, though, so the compositions were filtered through our instrumentation. The horn section should be featured, the core drumming style was afrobeat, and the energy was Live. The songs were written based on how they would go over in a live show, as opposed to writing the songs to be recorded and then figuring out how to play it later. We didn’t realize that distinction then, because at that time the live show was EMEFE’s whole life. If a song didn’t pop in our rehearsals together, it wouldn’t work onstage, so it had to be amended. That may seem obvious, but the thing is: when you are rehearsing a new song in a room with people, you are limiting the song to whatever instrumentation you are working with. That limitation can be good and natural, but it can also direct the song in a weird subtle way, away from the original vision for it. For example, almost all of my demos for the band featured the lead melodies recorded on synths or effected guitars (because I couldn’t record horns myself). But there was a horn section in the band, and they should play. So those melodies end up being played by the horns. But what if there wasn’t a horn section - who would play those melodies then? What would that sound like?

This is important in understanding why EMEFE evolved the way it did after we released Good Future in 2012. When we released our future albums, “EMEFE” in 2015 and “Time” in 2016, people remarked all the time about how the band’s sound was changing. I understand that, because on the outside nobody has the context that I am explaining here. But to me, the band’s sound has gotten closer and closer to my true vision for the songs in our more recent releases. EMEFE’s sound, as everybody grew to know and love around 2012, was something that mystically happened on its own once we all got in the room, without much control from any of us (not even super-controlling me). The EMEFE Sound now *required* 2 guitars, 4 horns, and lots of percussion, which was a development that would be hard to maintain. Our sound straight up required 11 people! and it was a beautiful thing. If one member of the 11 piece band couldn’t make the gig, I would get somebody to fill in - I wouldn’t settle for less. In retrospect, thinking through our growth as a band in the early years, we weren’t thinking much about the end goal for EMEFE. We were supremely in the moment… which is so rare, and is something I envy a little too. You can hear it throughout Good Future: we were excited and high off of playing together, and that was the most important thing. That high wore off for me after we had toured Good Future a bunch, because I began to feel that we were hitting an artistic ceiling. For those years, though, we were flying, and we now had a great full-length album to our name.

EMEFE, released May 5 2016.
We learned *a lot* making “EMEFE”. The time between our first recordings for the album in September 2013 to the album’s release in May 2015 was quite a rollercoaster. We began recording “EMEFE” the same way we recorded “Good Future”: we set up in the room together, played down our songs, and added overdubs later. Dan Knobler was at the helm again. The difference this time, though, was the nature of the songs: there were some instrumental songs a la “Good Future,” but half of the record now featured… vocals!

How did that happen? I’ll try to make this brief. A year after we released Good Future, I organized and curated a festival in NYC, the finale of which was a small orchestra I put together. We played Fela, some EMEFE… and 3 songs I had written where I was singing lead. Most of EMEFE’s members at that time played in that orchestra, and it was a success! (I mean, I wouldn’t want to listen back to that show or anything, but it felt good in the moment so let’s leave it at that.) That same month, EMEFE played a raucous residency at Rockwood in NYC. We were totally in command of our live show (we had been playing the same music for a while). Those two events that month made me question if EMEFE could be something more than an instrumental afrobeat band, potentially destined for a life in the jam band scene. Once I brought up these concerns to the guys, Doug suggested we try to play those 3 orchestra songs in EMEFE. That was the turning point - those 3 songs became Come Back to Me, The One, and Dream Your Life Away. We added vocals to 2 other previously instrumental songs, Same Thing and Free to Scream. We also changed our setup so my drums were set up at the front of the stage. The addition of vocals took a while to feel good, though. I hadn’t sang in front of these people before. I grew up singing and songwriting almost as early as drumming, but I set all that aside when I got to college and pursued afrobeat. So here I was, trying to sing for the first time in years, in rehearsals with my band who was used to having virtuosic singers like Gabriel Garzon-Montano and Grace Weber sit in with us. It was humbling for me, to say the least, but I had a vision for EMEFE that I couldn’t let go of, so giving up wasn’t an option. The guys in the band recognized that and stuck with it.

The week we spent recording “EMEFE” was the most joyous musical experiences I’ve ever had, and I think the band would all agree. We set up for a week at Javier’s parents house in NJ: all 10 of us were living together, eating amazing home cooked meals every night, swimming and playing bball, and playing music we were all psyched about. I am forever grateful to the Ramos family for facilitating that week for EMEFE to be together. You can hear us and the Ramos family laughing all throughout “Same Thing” as we were doing vocal and percussion overdubs. Soonafter that weeklong session, we did overdubs at Mason Jar in Brooklyn. I recorded the vocals myself in my basement studio, and it took a while. I was still finalizing the lyrics, and my singing style was still taking shape. The music was dense already, with no vocals, so once the vocals were added (and i wasn’t conservative with background vocals, either) - the album became pretty mammoth sounding. Once everything was recorded - all the drum machines, synths, guitars, vocals, background vocals, percussion, extra horns, everything - we were looking at a wall of sound on almost every song that needed to be organized. At that point, Dan had bowed out of the recording process, so we needed to find somebody to mix the record. Luckily we found Jacob Blumberg, who worked out of Mason Jar Music as well. Jacob was a miracle for us to find at that time. Jake and I, working with Jacob, began an intense editing and mixing process that would last months. We went song by song, shaved it down, re-worked arrangements, experimented with changes in instrumentation, shortened sections. “Summer” went through an amazing transformation from a 10-minute afrobeat jam to the concise yet fluid version on the record. We indulged all of our ideas, we tried many different paths for each song (like taking out the horn soli from the middle of “Come Back to Me” and making it into its own interlude, “CB2M Reprise”). We went deep into it, because at the time it felt that’s what we needed to do. Jake and I would work with Jacob countless hours, then EMEFE would get together at my place and talk through ideas for how each song should sound (we have playlists of sonic references for each song on the album). It was like we were scientists, in search of the perfect way to present this material to the world.

The dilemma that sent us editing for months was that we realized we were making a studio record backwards. We recorded “EMEFE” as if it were a live record (like we had always done), but then we cluttered the songs too much and had to scale back and figure out what the most important elements of the songs were. Once that can of worms was open, that gave way to trying out endless possibilities for how the songs could flow, section by section. And then we were dissecting the songs so much that it was like we were making the record all over again. In retrospect, this wasn’t necessary for us to make a cool EMEFE album - but it was deeply fun for Jake and I to work with Jacob on exploring an album like that. Jacob was patient and up for anything. We wanted to make something more than “Good Future,” something more than what was expected of an afrobeat band.

The editing went too long, though. We had started and long finished a successful PledgeMusic campaign to raise funds for the album. There were personnel changes and the band was getting restless. It felt like the excitement we had going into the process (right off of our exciting Good Future shows) was wearing off a bit. Once we released the album in May 2015, the band was down to 8 people - the same amount we started with back in 2009. That felt great actually, because we were all very committed to the band. EMEFE in the old days felt a bit like an open-ended afrobeat collective, and in 2015 we finally felt like a true band in the rock-and-roll sense. We felt so proud to finally release our music, but it was hard at times to keep momentum up. We had a new look, a new sound and new live show, so our confidence was being tested. Fans of 2012’s “Good Future” were introduced to a very new-sounding band by their standards, 3 years later. We were following our inspiration, as we always have since the beginning, and we broke through the ceiling we had above us in 2013. That felt really good, it felt like our band could do anything we wanted. 

Though it took a while, and there were missteps along that path, I wouldn’t have it any other way now. I’m so proud of that record. We were so tight as a band when we went into the studio, you can hear the confidence in the performances. The songs seamlessly lead into each other, and it really feels like an “album” in the classic sense, which was what Jake and I were after. It is dynamic, it is weird, it is satisfying. The most important thing about the record, though, is that it presents a band taking risks. THAT is rare for bands to do, especially when you have a great thing going already. We broke out of the comfort zone we had built around us, even though breaking through left us a bit scarred. EMEFE powered through, though, and we had a record that we never imagined we could make back in 2009.

Lucid (prelude), released August 2015.
We released Lucid (prelude) shortly after our full-length, “EMEFE”, and we didn’t make too big of a deal about it at the time (which is why it may have flown under your radar). It plays an interesting role in the discography of the band, though. We had so many outtakes and interesting musical moments from the past couple of years, and I especially wanted to formally release two songs that had been in our live show but didn’t make it to the full-length album. “Release!” was one of the first songs that incorporated vocals. We recorded it in the same sessions as the self-titled album. The mix Jacob Blumberg did is amazing - clear sounding but tough and raw. The very end of the song, too, features an intense static blackout and then a slow horn outro. That static blackout happened completely naturally, some weird sign from the house we were recording in - and then the horns fully improvised the horn outro right on the spot. That outro is a good marker of how in tune with each other the horn section was at the time. Jas would lead the breaths with his sax, and everybody picked notes to play, listening to each other’s choices and adjusting to make a beautiful and eerie chorale.

“Bang Bang” was a staple of our live set for a long time. It was a composition that could have lived on “Good Future” - an intense and horn heavy afrobeat tune. This was mixed by Dan Knobler at the very beginning of the “EMEFE” sessions. These two songs together present Dan and Jacob’s mixing side by side, and you can hear the different approaches - they are both great in their own way. Dan had been mixing us for years at that point, so he had an idea of how to organize all the parts like we always had. Dan adds a signature warmth to the band’s recorded sound, which is why so many people responded well to “Good Future.” Jacob was new to mixing us at that point, so his approach was more experimental and explorative. It’s an intense mix, in the best way - it encapsulates the energy of a song that we used to hit so hard when playing it live… needless to say, it’s difficult to translate that to the studio. (The section at 4:50 in that song is one of my favorite recorded EMEFE moments ever.) “Release” and “Bang Bang” were soft-released as a tour single while we were mixing the self-titled album. The songs didn’t feel current, at the time, because we were focused on our growing sound as a vocal-oriented band, so we released them privately to whatever fans were at our tour shows. I decided to release them on “Lucid (prelude)” because they represent a shift in energy for us, between “Good Future” and “EMEFE”, and they reconcile our older style with where we were headed.

Besides recording those two songs, EMEFE wasn't really involved in stitching together the Lucid EP - it was me and Jacob in the studio doing some sound experiments using different moments from our time making the record. Though Lucid wasn't a major endeavor for us whatsoever (really more of a quick idea), the way it was made is somewhat of a precursor to how our final release, "Time", came together - it was a singular vision executed by me and Jacob, using the music of the band. “Casa Ramos” was a short demo song I made that we used to start our shows with. “Water Interlude” is made up of Jake’s synth outtakes from our song “Free to Scream”, and "Far As I Can" messes around with a vocal interlude at the end of "40 Watt". 

"Lucid (prelude)" was a palate-cleanser for me to make and release after the self-titled album process. It was essentially meant to be a through-composed 20 minute piece, but Jacob and I didn't labor on it too much - we just went with our gut decisions, finished it in a couple days, and then released it shortly after. There wasn't any fanfare, no build-up, no music videos, nothing - just a piece of music posted up on Soundcloud... as opposed to the long (but deserved) buildup to the release of "EMEFE" a few months earlier. It didn't seem to get noticed by anybody, and we didn't promote it heavily at all - but there was actually something refreshing in that. Sometimes as an artist you just want to throw something out there and not make too big a deal out of it, and for us that was necessary coming off of such a big album campaign.

Time, released May 13, 2016.
During the long process of editing and mixing “EMEFE”, I began writing new songs that we began performing live. Something big changed with my songwriting process, though, which majorly impacted how our next EP, “Time”, would come together. In the early days (which you can read about in the essays about “Music Frees All” and “Europe EP”), I would demo out the songs on Garageband and they would be translated to the band in rehearsal. Elements of my demos would be adapted to the complicated instrumentation of the band, as I talked about in the earlier essays; for example, melodies I would demo out on fuzzed-out guitar or my kids-keyboard would automatically be transferred to the horn section. In late 2014, though (just as we were finalizing the self-titled album for release), I got my Pro Tools recording rig up and running in my basement, so “demo’s” were actually becoming professional quality. The sounds I was creating didn’t necessarily have to be re-recorded or re-performed anymore, because I was self-producing the tracks in my basement and getting them pretty far along. 

This new process was a perfect follow-up to the self-titled album. In editing a song like “The One”, Jake, Jacob and I spent hours effecting the sound of the horns until they didn’t really sound like horns anymore. Now, I could record the sounds the way I wanted them, and they would stay like that; for example, on “Time”, the melody in the middle and end of the song was recorded by Doug with an effected fuzz bass. The horns didn’t necessarily need to play the main melody anymore. The drums didn’t necessarily have to be frenetic afrobeat drums - I could play through the song on Tempest drum machine, like on “Confess”. 

We started breaking through the afrobeat band box with our self-titled album, but with the “Time” EP we truly broke our own mold. We also broke the mold of what an album release even is by releasing the EP in a special personalized USB pouch full of tons of extras. We broke our own mold in other ways, too - by the time we released the Time EP, though, EMEFE was down to 6 band members. A couple months before deciding to release the Time EP, we had amazingly successful band writing sessions that yielded tons of new songs - but none of these songs featured horns in a prominent way, and they lived in more of a rock-n-roll sonic world. Those songs, mixed with the songs I wrote on our “Time” EP, made for the most exciting live shows we had ever played. But… as excited as we were about the new songs, we were collectively becoming more and more aware that our sound was changing quite drastically from our earlier style. 

I can’t personally speak for everybody in the band here, but a large part of me didn’t care that our sound was continuing to change and evolve - EMEFE is EMEFE. We have grown into a deeply exploratory group of musicians when we are all in the same room, not confined by fitting into genres, just following the excitement. That is what we were building up to through all these years, and we will continue to explore together in the future. We wouldn’t have gotten to this moment of maturity as a band without putting so much intensity, so much emotion, so much of ourselves into EMEFE. But that intensity and emotion has overwhelmed us to a certain extent, too. Band members are moving in different directions due to that fact, artistically and life-wise, which is natural. We aren’t done making music together as a group - the spirit of the band we’ve created will continue with us in whatever we do next. We are extremely lucky to have had our evolution as a group of friends and musicians documented in our music, set in stone forever. EMEFE may be at rest, but its spirit lives on!