Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Futureproofing Vancouver: Take5/Ace Decade

Though a lot of the artists I’ve highlighted on Futureproofing so far might be relatively unknown outside of Vancouver, not all of them are necessarily newcomers; some have been active for the better part of a decade. But Mikëal Frazer is an exception even to that; musically active since the mid-90s, he's an unsung staple of the city, having been involved in the late nineties club scene just as things were starting to take form as we recognize them today. I'll leave the history lesson to Frazer's enlightening interview below, but suffice it to say he's been a DJ and producer extraordinaire in the realms of hip-hop and more recently, dub and "bass music." He's been operating under the name Ace Decade for the latter material, but Take 5 is the name the community knows him by.
It's the latter category that piqued my interest in Frazer. Having only heard the name a few times (much to my embarrassment/lack of credibility; sue me), I was introduced to Frazer through Robert Squire—featured in these virtual pages as Prison Garde last year—who endlessly sung the praises of Take 5 at every opportunity he could get, and who had been working with Frazer extensively just prior to his (rather saddening) relocation back to Montreal at the end of May. Squire was particularly vocal about his excitement surrounding Frazer's recent experiments with dub, and I finally had my own experience with them last month when Frazer opened for Deadbeat at the Waldorf Hotel. A live, hour(ish)long set of his own dub material, I was so floored by the performance I sought out Frazer immediately after to ask if he would take part in the series.

Though you might not guess it from my writing output, dub is one of my favourite music genres; along with R&B it's pretty much just my favourite music, especially for sunny days. Something about the hypnotic beats and endlessly tunneling, playful basslines strikes a powerful chord with me, and Frazer's own material had the same throbbing, passionate heart and exploratory courage of the best of classic roots dub like King Tubby or Augustus Pablo, rendered with a glossy but not obscuring modern sheen coming from his extensive, recently-bolstered home studio. More recently, he's been exploring house and bass-music-influenced sounds as Ace Decade, especially in his collaborations with Prison Garde, my favourite of which is "DTES Standoff" streaming below—not only for its amazing title (Vancouver residents will understand), but of course for the music. Built from the velvet grain of Prison Garde's recent work, it's a terse, antsy track with a killer chord progression and a measured thump that lands somewhere between deep house meditation and anxious heart palpitations.

The mix he's done for me is more than I could have possibly hoped for. Titled "The All Night Time Machine," it's a 30-minute opus mixing both his dub project and his newer Ace Decade work seamlessly and impressively. I'm not sure I can do it justice with words (for once in my life), but it shows an artist who can approach pretty much anything from an angle of unlikely authenticity and expertise—the mark of a true musician. I sat down with Frazer at one of my favourite Gastown coffee spots to have a lengthy chat about his history, Vancouver, and the deserved attention he's finally starting to receive.

RYCE: How long have you been in Vancouver for?
FRAZER: Since 1987. A while. I grew up in Kamloops as a kid, moved to Montreal for a year, and then moved back to Vancouver. My parents made that choice.
When did you first get involved with the music scene here?
In the late 80s I was a young teenager growing up in East Van as a skater going to punk rock shows. Eventually I started going to hip-hop shows in the early 90s. The skate scene had cross genre influences musically, so we flocked to all kinds of shows. PD used to host all kinds of asesome events for all ages back then, so the music was accesible to us. The hip-hop scene in Vancouver became quite vibrant, which was relatively small, but a unified scene; everyone knew everyone. There were different DJs playing all sorts of different clubs, KiloCee was top shelf. It was great to grow up as a youth with all of that in Vancouver, as it encouraged a lot of people to be a part of it—you could be a b-boy, a DJ, an MC, a producer, graffiti writer, whatever. Everybody was doing something. It encouraged people to participate.

As someone who went from punk rock shows to hip-hop, how did that change your interests?
Musically they’re quite different, but they share the same elements of defiance and counter-culture. Those were both elements that were very attractive to me as a youth, as I was defiant and I didn’t believe in the system. I had very politically active parents who always taught me to challenge things, and those were ubiquitous themes in punk rock and hip-hop. It was almost seamless; it wasn’t as if I abandoned one for the other. I still love punk rock. 

Frazer and Rob Squire in the studio behind Catalog Gallery.
When did you first start making your own stuff? What did that sound like?
I moved back to Kamloops for a few years to finish high school, and I used to listen to a co-op radio show Krispy Bisket which was in Vancouver hosted by The Incredible Ease and Mr. Bill with DJ Kilocee spinning on the 1 & 2’s. I would listen to this music up in Kamloops each week and I just thought turntablism was the coolest thing ever. Hearing KiloCee manipulate these records in ways I’ve never heard before, he’d have duplicates of these records going back to back, and he was really just an amazing DJ, that was inspirational for me. I moved from Kamloops down here in 1995 after finishing school, and I got myself a turntable and I had a tape deck and I started practicing. That Krispy Bisket show really inspired me and it was just like “oh, I wanna do that.” Before all that I took piano lessons as a kid and sang in a boys choir. I also, played guitar as a teenager, and was always involved in music as far back as I can remember as my family all sang. It’s intrinsic to me, but as far as contemporary music, I got into it when I moved back to Vancouver.
I had an accident in 1995 that left my paralyzed from the chest down, so that was a really big transformation in my life and it was really difficult. At that point I was scared about how it was going to affect my dreams—for one, I wanted to be a professional skateboarder, but I also wanted to be a graffiti artist and a DJ. So I thought, well, I still have my hands, so I’ll do the graffiti art and the DJ, those two elements of hip-hop. After the accident I got two SL1200s turntables and started making mixtapes and playing at some of the clubs down in Gastown like 7 Alexander and The Hungry Eye, all those places back then. I even got to play the Krispy Bisket radio show, which was an incredible honor for me. At the time I was buying records frantically. At some point I fell in love with the instrumentals on the B-sides, and I started making recordings of all the hip-hop music blending with just the instrumentals, and in 1997 I recorded the first instrumental tape I know of, right around the time Z-Trip was doing similar stuff. I played a show with him on Granville Street in the 90s, and I gave him a recording, and he was just like ‘wow, you’re doing this too?’ That was a little bit of the step out of just pure hip-hop elements and started going into trip-hop, and I started producing that instrumental hip-hop music as Take5, the name I also used as a graffiti artist.
I know your Take5 music more as a dub thing. Where did that come in?
Much later. I’ve always loved dub, but there was never really a strong scene in Vancouver as far as I knew. I remember going to the odd party here and there, stumble on a dub party late night, but it wasn’t like it is today, so making it wasn’t really in my interests then. But with the emergence of all these spaces that have happened in Vancouver over the last 10 years or so, there have been a lot more underground parties and dub has been a huge part of that, and it’s a huge influence on contemporary music, especially visible in music like dubstep. I like to make a distinction that I don’t make dubstep—not that I don’t like it, there’s some good stuff, however my interests lay particularly in the roots dub, inspired by the greats. 
This whole DUB project I have been working on started about one year ago in the summer of 2011. What happened was that a friend of mine Rob Squire (Prison Garde) moved out here to Vancouver, and had a studio right around the corner form my place. I’d been speaking with him about his workflow at that time, and we discussed our approaches to creating music, and I expressed to him that I had lost some inspiration. He suggested that I get some new gear and change my workflow. At that point I didn’t quite understand what buying any new gear would do, as I thought I had everything I needed. In any case, I bought an MPD 32 as he had one too, and Rob hooked me up with his template, and I found it to be very intuitive, and essentially to put stuff together. At some point I loaded up a dub song on there, and I noticed there were several parts of the song that were actually totally isolated—one that just had the bass, one that just had the skanks, and another part that just had the clean drum break. I thought, oh, maybe I’ll just make a mash-up of this song, and I started playing around with it and the effects, and I found it to be really fun to have all the parts isolated to dub out like the greats used to do, and I thought holy shit, I could just write my own stuff! I play guitar, I play piano, and I can do all this. So, I actually just started working on a body of music for a year, writing everything from scratch, and I showcased it intermittently as it developed at different parties around Vancouver, namely the Red Gate, which was a wonderful space curated by Jim Carrico who was an avid dub fan. Jim was always putting a classic dub track on the turntable, so when I showed up with this music, he was very supportive by letting me use that space to create. 
Different people would come by the space at those parties, and there was this one party where a bunch of locals were playing. Michael Red was there with Taal Mala, Calamalka, Rob Squire and PhonoGraff and all those guys who’s sound I love, and they all said after my set ‘wow man, this is really dope, keep doing it.’ So I felt like I had the support of the community, the people that I looked up to, so I just kept going with it. I kept working on this original set, and I was eventually asked by Nina Mendoza from Red Bull to open up for DJ Krush in February, and that was a big opportunity for me to showcase the work in a nice club with an excellent sound system. The momentum commenced, and things started happening for me. I did some remixes around town. I did a remix for The Passenger, which turned out great... Michael Red heard that song and booked me to open for Deadbeat, which was my most recent show with the dub set. I’m also working on another body of music now under the alias ACE DECADE. 

Frazer colour-coordinated in front of his art
What’s the difference between Take5 and Ace Decade?
People are always asking me why come up with another alias, but all the music I made under Take5 was very cinematic, orchestral, textural hip-hop-based music. Some was ambient, some was really downtempo with a lot of live-sounding elements, inspired by that whole Ninja Tune era of artists like Bonobo and Amon. So when I started making this more current sounding work I wanted to distinguish between this and the older work, so people who were looking for the newer stuff wouldn’t be confused as to what I was making.
What styles inspire ACE DECADE as opposed to Take5?
I’m really inspired by a lot of local talent, and current artists. I really like The Passenger, and admire sounds buy guys like Nosaj Thing, Flying Lotus and this list goes on imfinitum. I love Japanese Telecom and Washed Out! This is what inspired ACE DECADE. As for Take5, well that music is inspired by a plethora of artists spanning decades, and many genres. The earlier Take5 stuff was really inspired by Funki Poricni, Bonobo, Savath & Savalas, Aphex Twin and the like. There are also many musicians and artists I draw from all the time, like David Lynch, Keith Jarret and Mad Professor. Those are the masters!
Any plans for a live set around ACE DECADE stuff, or are you sticking to the dub?
The night before the show with Deadbeat, I played at Bonz.ai—which is a great exposé for up-and-coming electronic producers in Vancouver, and that body of work is a continuation of the work that I did with Robert Squire aka Prison Garde at Catalog Gallery. This was my debut as ACE DECADE. Rob was preparing a set for MUTEK this summer, and he had only a couple of weeks before he moved to Montreal, and at one point he decided he was going to do an entirely hardware set—Machinedrum, SH-101, Juno 106. He was also working on a score for David Cronenberg’s son’s film, and I just came in one day and started playing some stuff and he was like ‘oh, let’s print that!’ I started helping him program the chords into the Machine drum with this chart he had (it was a lot of work)! And we just went from there every day.
At some point we wrote a few songs together, which came out great. The combination of our talents worked really well because he has a very solid knowledge of beatmaking. Rob can whip up an amazing beat on a drum machine in under a minute that guy, and he just knows where to put everything perfect. That skill set that he had combined with my knowledge of chord structure and music theory proved to be a very excellent combination. So we kept going working on his Mutek set together, eventually transposing the modal stuff we wrote earlier on the hardware set into songs to be performed via Ableton with a SH101 and MachineDrum. This whole time we shared together was the birth of ACE DECADE. 
So Rob packed up and left Vancouver to go play Mutek, and a lot of us were very sad to see him go, but I took that momentum and kept writing and decided that this is what ACE DECADE is going to be; a lot of screwed-down house/acid/electro from 105-120BPM, and very synth-oriented with drum machine percussion. And so I became inspired and I went on a bender and just bought a whole bunch of analogue gear after hanging out with Rob. He’s a big fan of the gear.
I can see how that would happen.
And Jesse too, the Passenger, he’s such a big fan of analogue gear. It’s sort of a fetish I have. I love this rich sound! It’s been good to take that background in all that other music and push it forward into something new, more current sounding.  

You mentioned that in the past decade or so, more spaces have led to more open-mindedness in the city. How do you feel about the city the past two or three years in terms of venues and spaces?
That’s been a very arduous uphill battle with the city itself. When I say the city, there’s two parts to that: what is happening in the city in the music scene, and city’s policy towards artists and musicians.  The city of Vancouver have not made it easy for artists to represent themselves or the scenes they’re involved with, by shutting down any space that poops up that is under the radar. The Red Gate is a perfect example of this, and the same thing happened with many other artist run spaces in Vancouver. There is also a larger problem which relates to our struggle. Vancouver has this real estate fantasy going on, which is tied into foreign investment, which turn into these unreal speculative markets that make things very expensive. The city has done nothing to protect people from this market-bubble. I mention this real estate mumbo-jumbo because it is related to how unaffordable Vancouver has become. Also the city does nothing really to help protect artists run spaces keep going while the slumlords wait for profit. This is all part of the fantasy of what real estate is worth. The Olympics will do this to any city that hosts it’s games. All this is happening while the whole Downtown Eastside is transforming right before out eyes. These spaces that were empty and cheap to rent that would be something an artist could pick up are now turning into things that are unaffordable as a result of renovations for gentrification. Artists are getting pushed out of their communities which were host to so many of these amazing spaces, the Red Gate being the one that I was involved with. We had all kinds of meetings with the city and attempts to work with the owner, but it didn’t work out. This story is echoed in a lot of other artist spaces. 
As for how that relates to our music scene, what happens is that a lot of the music gets pushed into clubs, but the clubs are still institutions in a way. What happens in an open, free, and democratic space, is that anything can happen, there’s no rules, these are the birthplaces of actual genres of music and artistic movements. This is why Berlin is the Mecca, because they’re so open to artists and allowing them to breathe. Here it’s just stifled by so many regulations and of course this unaffordable real estate. Most artists or musicians I know now cannot afford to rent space and do what you want to do in their own community. What are the alternatives there? Do we keep moving further east as it gets pushed further underground? It’s been a bit of an ebb-and-flow but sadly right now we’re at a low point. I keep hearing about spaces being closed, like 151 W Hastings, which has been around for a long time as an artist space.
Imagine someone like me—I don’t make a lot of money. Where does someone like me go to listen to the music that I make? Studio space is not affordable. I’m not just talking about of availabilities of venues but even space to just create that work.
To have a studio that’s not your bedroom.
Yeah. I can’t always do things at home. Musicians need practice space, where they can monitor stuff and jam. That’s another detriment as part of the unaffordability.
10 years ago, people like the Jonson brothers and that whole axis moving to Berlin, and now with people like Rob moving back to Montreal because he couldn’t get what he wanted out of the city...
Yeah! Look at Jeremy Shaw, he was known as March 21, he was one of the greatest talents to come out of the city in the last 15 years, both visually & musically, and he was another one of those Vancouver’s exports. That list is pretty long.
Aside from the practical issues, do you think it’s a healthy scene right now?
I don’t know how to answer that.
 [Someone walks by and tells him ‘nice tunes!’] I guess we’re doing alright then! [laughs]
Maybe it’s just because Vancouver is small. We have a very small scene, but there’s a large amount of talent. I would just like to see more stuff happening more often. I don’t know if that’s reflective of the scene’s health or not... there are some bad things. There are some promoters that bring in acts to Vancouver that do not represent the scene’s interests. There’s bigger promotion companies that are bringing in the artists that I would want to play with, but the promoters are not giving back to the scene, they’re just cashing in on it. That’s a bummer. I’ve always dreamed of a day where everyone in the scene has a sort of union and everyone knows when someone is bringing someone else into town, and being able to boycott the show out of solidarity when we know they’re not giving back. But when someone brings a big name into town, people aren’t going to say ‘no I’m not going to play that because you’re not supporting the scene.’ I was faced with this once, and it really opened my eyes and my heart to what was going on. 
That’s where it’s unhealthy; when the larger corporate promoters cashing in on what we do. There’s money in that, they know it. They’re cashing in on something they had no part in creating. That sort of thing has a long history—if you look at a lot of festivals, they go corporate, and then a lot of the magic is taken out. I’m not against people making money, but what needs to happen is that is must become sustainable in relation to how it is created in the first place. It needs to be symbiotic, or better yet synergistic, not parasitic.  
With all that being said, there are some wonderful things happening here in Vancouver—the Bass Coast party fro one.. there’s no corporate sponsorship, everything is sustainable, and if you look at the list of artists, everyone has a chance to do something, everyone’s up there. I’m not talking about its’ environmental sustainability (which it is), I mean that it generates support & solidarity in a community. Scenes need to support up and coming artists, scenes can’t just let one group of people be in the limelight. If we are doing something for the scene, we have to be open to the possibility that there’s all this talent that might be underneath because we’re saving everything for the top. I don’t think that happens all the time, but I think if we’re going to be responsible in that way in the musical community, we have to be open to all the people that want to shine. That’s what those kind of free and democratic spaces do. They breed community and encouragement. You don’t have to be this big name to play an underground spot. Those spaces and festivals will keep popping up because we are resilient, determined and genuine in our creative efforts. One love! 


(NO T/L)


You can hear more Take 5/Ace Decade material at his SoundCloud.


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