Aaron Matthews

Interview: Wes Jackson, founder of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival

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Wes Jackson is the founder of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, co-founder of Seven Heads Entertainment, and president of marketing firm The Room Service Group. He answered my questions via email about his motivation for creating the Festival and what he looks for in a performer, among other things.

Aaron Matthews: Why did you start the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival?

WJ: I started the Festival for several reasons. One, I thought hip-hop should have a world class festival on par with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  An all day, outdoor representation of the city’s music, cuisine, culture and energy. 

Secondly, I wanted to create an event that would help reclaim the hip-hop brand from years of bad press, vultures and interlopers.  Hip-Hop needs to grow up and take itself seriously.  There teenage fans of hip-hop as well as 30, 40, and 50 year-old fans. Hip-Hop fans of all ages need quality music and events that appeal to where they are in life.

The Summer Jams take care of the teenagers. There is Rock The Bells who attacks this issue with a sledgehammer and a slightly alternative spin.  I wanted to create one for our demographic as well. Metropolitan, educated, slightly older, female, and racially/ethnically diverse.

AM: What do you look for in a performer when you are assembling the lineup for the festival?

WJ: Someone with fundamental skills. More than this elusive ‘swagger’ that is so prevalent these days.  I am looking for someone who is pushing the art forward. I look for real content. Stage presence. When putting together the line-up, I look for a balance of old school and new school. Local acts and acts that rarely make it to Brooklyn. 

AM: How do you balance the different tastes of long time Brooklynites and more recent arrivals?

WJ: It’s not that tough. I get Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One for the old heads. Lupe [Fiasco] and Mickey Factz for the gentrifiers. Is that a word?  At the end, both old and new Brooklynites appreciate quality and history.  We also price the event so that as many socio and economic groups can participate.  This brings the old and new communities together.

AM: Have there ever been issues over which acts have been chosen?

WJ: Sure. Everyone has their favourites and I have the final say. Feathers get ruffled sometimes but we are all pros and sort it out.  The one who gets pissed is me when I let people talk me into acts I know don’t fit the brand.  I have learned to use my experience and lead without being despotic. My gut instincts on this are usually right. For the most part we all come to a consensus.

What was your initial goal in starting Seven Heads Entertainment?

WJ: My goal was to work with my friends and changed the world. Still is. [Laughs]

Back then I was enamoured with the idea of running a record label. I wanted to be Russell Simmons. After the returns started to mount, that dream ended. Fundamentally I just wanted to get my vision of hip-hop out there. I wanted to start my own business and realize my dreams.  We did some great things. Released some fantastic records. Saw the world. I hope to bring the brand back soon as a digital entity.

The main performance day of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival starts at 4pm tomorrow, featuring performances by Mickey Factz, Blu & Exile, KRS-One, DJ Premier, 88 Keys and more.

You can find out more about the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival at brooklynbodega.com.

Interview: Emily Horne & Joey Comeau of “A Softer World” by Aaron Matthews

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Emily Horne is a Victoria, B.C. based photographer and Joey Comeau is a Toronto, ON based writer. Together they create the critically acclaimed webcomic “A Softer World”. In 2007, the comic won the first Web Cartoonist's Choice Award for photographic webcomic and Loose Teeth Press published “It's Too Late to Say I'm Sorry”, a collection of Comeau’s short stories. “A Softer World” celebrated its 5th anniversary earlier this year. I talked to Emily and Joey via email about the process of creating a strip and the strange power of cover letters, among other things.

Where did the idea for "A Softer World" come from?

Emily: Joey started making photocopied comics in 2001 using his own captions and
photos cut out from magazines about the British royalty. When the possibilities of that had run out, he decided photos might work, and I, being inclined to photography, had a good stash of them ready to go. We would take an old manual Smith-Corona typewriter and a stack of photos to the all night Kinko's in Halifax and make comics for the local 'zine fairs. We made two print editions and then decided in 2003 to put them online so more of our friends could see them. These comics make up the first couple of dozen that are currently on the website.

What's the process for creating a comic? How do you and Joey work on the
comic together?

EH: The process for creating the comic is very now different than it used to be. I live in B.C. and Joey lives in Toronto, so the process isn't as immediately collaborative as it used to be. Usually I will put together the visual elements of several comics, cut and paste as necessary, and send them to Joey every few weeks. That way he has a backlog of comics to caption. Usually he runs the text by me before they go up, either by email or via MSN.

Why do you think ASW's format is effective?

Joey: The format's good on a few practical levels. Having the photos illustrate the text directly would have been a nightmare for us, I think. We could have people acting out the scenes but we'd be limited in the kinds of stories we could tell. Zombies? Exploding stars? All impossible. So we chose a format where Emily and I try and find the same tone for the words and images, or different tones that work well and compliment one another.
For the text, having it be so short means that I have to work to fit everything into that one sentence or two. It makes the impact stronger. It's a lot of information at once sometimes, and that's great. I like writing for constrained space. I have to work harder to make everything work, but I think it comes off with more of a punch.

Joey, explain the concept of Overqualified for the uninitiated. Why is the cover letter the perfect medium for this strange combination of despair and hope?

JC: I've written so many regular cover letters while applying for jobs.
They're frustrating and useless and they are just lies, beginning to end. You are saying what they want to hear. These letters don't have anything to do with you as a person or with your hopes for the future, your dreams. Nobody reads these anyway. You could write the craziest things and nobody would ever read them.

So I did. I started writing batshit crazy cover letters and sending them out. At first they were just jokes and frustrations, but hopes and dreams started sneaking into them.
In December I signed a book deal with a publisher here in Toronto to release a novel based on Overqualified. It's going to come out in [Spring] 2009, and it is told entirely through the cover letters. It's probably the craziest thing I've written, and I am super excited about it.

Are there any common thematic threads joining your writing, between A Softer World, Overqualified, and your fiction?
JC: I got an email a little while ago from someone who attended a book club where they were reading my short story book. He said they liked it, but they were all pretty sure that I was a paranoid weirdo. A lot of the stories are about obsessions and people who do things without really knowing why, just knowing that they have to do them. But I think that most of my writing is optimistic in a weird way, too. Anyway, I feel optimistic about it. There's a lot of sex in my writing, too. I don't know about themes. There are a lot of zombies and dead moms and lesbians. That's sort of a running joke between Emily and I, but it never stops being true. There are a lot of zombies and lesbians and dead moms. One day I'll write a story about a zombie lesbian mom.

What’s the usual reaction to the strips? Sometimes when I read ASW, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
EH: Sometimes I feel like it's unfortunate that ASW is called a comic, because it means people go into the experience of reading it with the notion that it’s always going to be funny and end up disappointed. Even those that are overtly hilarious usually manage to make you feel a bit guilty about your laughter. It's a complicated world out there. Few things are black-and-white, funny-or-not-funny, and ASW reflects that. Reactions to the comic run the gamut from delight and recognition to (occasionally) vehement hatred, and while the angry reactions are hard to take, we do stand by what we've created.

Read a longer version of this interview at Aaron's blog here.

Interview: Comedian Chelsea Peretti, by Aaron Matthews

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Photo by Zach Klein

Chelsea Peretti is a NY-based comedian, writer, and member of the 4-woman sketch group, the Variety Shac. She is the co-creator of the New York City Rejection Line at (212) 479-7990 and of the web satire blackpeopleloveus.com. She is also the creator of two original series for online humour site SuperDeluxe: "All My Exes" & "Making Friends with Chelsea Peretti". Variety Shac recently released their first DVD collecting their short videos and sketches and they are currently working on a pilot for Adult Swim. I spoke to Chelsea over IM about her influences, her writing career and her inspiration for her internet series, "All My Exes."

AM: Who were your favourite comedians growing up?

CP: I liked all kinds of stuff. My dad loved Jonathan Winters so he introduced me to him.

I saw Martin Lawrence perform when I was in Jr. High. I loved Gilda Radner, I Love Lucy, The Wonder Years, Cosby Show, Monty Python, and Steve Martin movies like The Jerk and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. I had a birthday party where we watched Top Secret. I liked Married with Children lots and Roseanne. I can't really remember as much with standup. I know I watched [Eddie Murphy’s] Raw with my grandmother. That was lame watching it with her. And Def Comedy Jam when I was in Jr. High was big, and In Living Color.

AM: How did Variety Shac end up coming together?

CP: Well, Andrea [Rosen] and Heather [Lawless] and I did standup and knew each other from that.

AM: Had you, Heather, and Andrea collaborated at all at this point, beyond performing at the same shows?

CP: No, just all guesting on other peoples shows. We all wanted to make short films and decided we would premiere a new short at every show (our show is monthly.) It was a really fun homey feeling and a great place to try new bits. It was my first experience with shooting and editing and basically telling a story or making jokes on film. I learned so much.

AM: What is your writing process like for the media you mostly work with?

CP: For standup, the best jokes seem like they come up in conversation or in the shower or travelling. But also lately finding more stuff onstage. Sketch I don't do much anymore. But Bobby [Tisdale] and I used to sort of talk through ideas and improvise them, then get onstage and do them.
The Shac shorts are largely improvised but we try to discuss the overall concept and shape. And each of us will usually bring something a line or a bit or a character we want to involve.

All My Exes I scripted. I have a flow outlined and some good lines ready - but then had the exes improvise responses to my questions.

AM: Where did the idea for All My Exes come from?

CP: I can't remember. I went in to talk to Mark and Daniel Weidenfeld [of Super Deluxe] about it. There were various ideas and that one we all got into and tossed around ideas. It just was the one that got us all excited. One thing I've always thought would be if you could put all the people you've dated into a room or photo. Just how funny the photo would be, just lots of different types of people, like a circus.

And I've also always thought the idea of journalists being objective was funny. So the idea of putting something so subjective (matters of the heart) and so clearly personal into this journalistic interview format was funny to me.

AM: You have a lot of online projects, including your blog, the Super Deluxe series and your web projects with "The New York City Rejection Line" & "Black People Love Us". Do you think the internet has opened a new venue for comedians who might not otherwise get much exposure outside of their local scenes?

CP: I think the internet is so saturated now that you're not really guaranteed "exposure" just because you upload a clip. Maybe your friends will see it but I still think you need to be talented and/or aggressive/strategic to have any kind of high impact project online. Or be a freak show that people will laugh at or have a heckler attack you during your set, etc. The kind of things internet people will flock to.

AM: What else are you working on?

CP: I am going to LA at the end of the month to do some shows with Fred Armisen. I just opened for him in Tallahassee at FSU. Doing lots of standup. Oh, and Shac - we are working on our pilot for Adult Swim.

AM: Are the four of you still in the process of writing it?

CP: Yeah, getting closer. It's really cool so far.

AM: Is it all new material or is it like the Human Giant MTV series where some of the older stuff is revamped with newer stuff?

CP: Well, there's a very new feel to it in lots of secret ways!


To read a longer version of this interview, visit Aaron’s blog here.

Interview: Paul & Storm by Aaron Matthews

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Paul & Storm with Jonathan Coulton (center) Photo by Aaron Haley

Together Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo are professional singing persons Paul & Storm, who comprised ½ of comedic a capella group Da Vinci’s Notebook. Da Vinci’s Notebook has been on hiatus since 2004 but still occasionally reunite for corporate events. Paul & Storm are currently touring with noted troubadour and TSOYA guest Jonathan Coulton. Their latest album, Gumbo Pants, was released online on August 26. I corresponded with Paul and Greg via email and asked them some questions about making a career of music & comedy.

Aaron: What made you want to get into the lucrative genre of musical comedy?

PAUL: The short answer: it was the only thing we were really good at.
The somewhat longer answer: we started out in 1994 in an a cappella group called Da Vinci's Notebook, which started as a little hobby group that only did covers. The songs that seemed to be the most fun and get the best audience response were songs by another a cappella group called the Bobs, who did a lot of funny originals. So we drifted towards that, and Storm and I fell into a writing partnership, as we have similar backgrounds (children of the '80s and lovers of all pop culture) and compatible senses of humor; so we started writing songs in a similar vein. Before we knew it, we were the main writers for what had evolved into a full-time comedy a cappella group.

When that group stopped performing in 2004, Storm and I desperately wanted to avoid getting real jobs, so we tried performing as a duo, and with a good degree of adjustment (like getting comfortable with playing an instrument and singing at the same time), it worked pretty well.

What's your writing process like?

STORM: We don't have a single set process. Sometimes an idea will strike one of us out of the blue and the other will have just a few tweaks, or add what Lennon and McCartney called "the middle eight". But more often it's comparable to two people working a potter's wheel together.
Generally one of us will drop the initial lump of clay (usually a comic hook, song style, and/or a few lines), the brain wheels spin, and we shape it until it's just right, adding more clay as necessary. Sometimes both of our hands are on the clay, sometimes we alternate, and a lot of the time the pot doesn't make it to glazing (chord structure/melody) or the kiln (recording phase) at all.

P: Sometimes it's demand-side-based ("We gotta write a song this week"); and sometimes it's supply-side ("Wow, we should totally write a song about this awesome topic/idea/thing I just thought of/had/saw"). And sometimes they can feed off each other. For example, we were going to be on the [nationally syndicated morning radio program] "The Bob and Tom Show" a couple months back, and wanted to come up with one more new song the night before. While noodling, Storm started doing his awesome James Taylor impression; so we tried to find a way to make a relatively lame thing (impressions in general) somewhat more interesting, so we thought, "well, what if he were...I dunno, on fire?" Which led to our song "If James Taylor Were on Fire", which in turn led to a bunch of other "If" songs ("If Bob Dylan Were Hiding at the Bottom of a Well", "If They Might Be Giants Were the Ice Cream Man", etc.).

So the demand side ("We need a new song for radio tomorrow") dovetailed nicely with the supply side ("We do some impressions; how can we use them in a not-crappy way?").

What would you say are the benefits of distributing your music independently through online stores? Have either of you been approached by labels since DVN or considered signing to one?

S: We haven't been approached by any labels (yet) as Paul and Storm, but in DVN we were, and it just didn't make much sense for us.

The upside [of signing with a label] is that more people will know who you are so that you can draw large numbers of people to your shows, be on the cover of magazines, and otherwise live the rock 'n' roll dream.

That's all fine, but you give up making money on your actual music, and it means that to really make a living you have to be on the road all the time. And while we're by no means geezers, we like being home and not waking up every morning in a hotel room wondering what city we're in.

P: Labels have been historically good at three things: advancing you cash to get a recording done, putting your record in stores, and coordinating PR. But a) recording technology, home studios and such have made getting a quality recording far more affordable than in decades past; b) retail may not have been made completely obsolete by the Internet, but it's getting damn close; and c) you can hire a PR person independently (since you'd be paying for the PR at a label anyway). So it's far less necessary to be "signed" to achieve a reasonable degree of success. We don't have an unquenchable ambition to be ridiculously famous, so for us, the trade-off is worth it.

Special thanks to Ian Brill for help editing the interview.

You can learn more about Paul & Storm and purchase their music here.
To read an unedited version of this interview, visit Aaron's blog here.

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