Interview: Madam West

Madam West is an NYC-based experimental soul-pop band. They were kind enough to reach out to us about their experience using the techniques in our book and so we decided to talk to them about what they’ve been up to and get some insight on the world of music today.
There’s an endless debate as to whether being a band from Brooklyn is the worst thing ever because you are in the most over saturated market for music in the world or if it is the land of opportunity because every single blogger, A&R person, music licensing boob etc. all lives here. How do you see it?

It’s definitely a little bit of both. It’s certainly way more expensive to make a living and simultaneously attempt to build a following here. But I get more motivated when I am surrounded by a whole horde of hardworking, interesting artists who will gladly take my spot at any venue or promotion opportunity if I get too complacent. I try to do as much of my own A&R and promotion as possible while being aware, given the concentration of music people in the city, there is always the slight chance that a useful connection will show up at one of our shows.

Knowing that, we rehearse and play as if it isn’t just our friends and the other bands’ friends at the majority of shows we play. We wrote and recorded privately for about a year until we were certain we could put on a smoothly-run show for whoever happened to be listening. Also, people underestimate how useful it is to network with other bands—they’re not our competition, they’re vital to our survival. They’re also everywhere in this city. Without befriending other local musicians, we’d never have booked out-of-town shows or learned useful lessons about staying afloat.

Your music isn’t easy to peg in a single genre; have you found anything helpful for getting audiences to accept you when figuring out how to get fans to check you out?

We’re definitely putting out antennae musically right now to see what material evokes the strongest reaction from our audience. Of course, there are huge discrepancies between the kinds of people who love our free-association electronic tracks, those who enjoy our sparse gospel and folk songs, and those who are simply delighted by seeing a ukulele onstage. But that just allows for a wider draw, and I consider that a good thing.

Your book talks a lot about the DIY musician’s freedom from “gatekeepers”, i.e. labels, who, historically, want bands to stick to a specific sound so as to know exactly how to market them.

Alternately, as an unsigned band, we have the freedom right now to play over and through genre lines, so we talk up the elements of the band that are most likely to attract the individuals we speak to. “Synth-pop” evokes a grimace from some people, but “electro-soul” is acceptable in certain cases, for whatever reason. It’s all about taking the time to see our audience as individuals, figure out what people like, and what classification people are most likely to react to.

Tell me something cool you see going on in music right now.

I like the current movement of electronic music from something emotionally distant and intangible towards a cathartic and evocative art form. Listen to Baths’ latest album. A few years ago, no one was yelling “rectal wall of agony” over a heavy electronic beat you could dance to—that subject matter was usually restricted to the world of hardcore and punk music. The content that is emerging as a result of artists like Austra, Olga Bell, Thundercat and Zammuto is turning electronic music into a much more honest genre. These guys aren’t using technology to hide or protect themselves; they’re using it as a way to x-ray themselves in front of strangers. It’s wonderful.

What are the three coolest things in the world right now that not enough people know about?

The Standing Man of Taksim Square, Cartoon Hangover, and the Thundershirt.

What is the biggest mistake your group has ever made?

Hands down, waiting too long to record and master our EP. We’ve had two singles out forever, but we do a fair amount of our own engineering, so the process can seem endless. We’re starting to put more trust in our engineer friends (Raphael Jungmin-Lee at MSR, Alex Almgren at Razor&Tie, Noah Guttell at The Blue Door Studios) as we get closer to release. But having worked on this material for so long, it’s like a foster puppy you don’t want to give back. That being said, there have been a few unavoidable scheduling setbacks, especially with mastering, and we’re already writing a lot of new material that won’t make it onto this first record.

What is the smartest thing your group has ever done? 

Putting constant daily effort and most of our budget into promotion and research. We played a lot of shows this summer, including a quick mini-trip to Montreal, and I fell behind on my daily regimen of social media interaction, ReverbNation/SonicBids submissions, HypeMachine, BandCamp and SoundCloud research. Now that summer show season is over, I’m starting to get back in shape again. It’s exactly like hitting the gym for the first time in awhile. It’s exhausting, and seems pointless at first, but the rhythm of routine kicks in and it gets easier. I mean, I’m not insane—I’m not going for six-pack abs here. My generation was brought up in a very shoot-for-the-stars mentality, but I have accepted the reality that I will never have a six pack, and I will also probably never be Annie Clark. I’m interested in setting realistic goals for us. Finish the record, play more local shows, seek out more opportunities to play abroad next summer. We also listen to all of the weekly releases to get a feel of current awesome (and not-so-awesome) trends in the industry. 

What is the coolest piece of gear you have come across recently?

I cannot  put down my TC Helicon Voicelive Touch 2. The guys at ProAudioStar were having a flash sale (highly recommend), and I got it for $200 off the sticker price. It’s a full loop and effects station built for a vocal performer (in essence, idiot-proof), so I don’t need to fiddle with a whole lot of knobs and buttons mid-performance. It also allows me to write and arrange parts before rehearsal.

Tell us something you learned from your last recording experience.

Spend the maximum amount of time setting levels, even if it feels over-indulgent. So crucial to avoid paying up the butt for extra sessions if something ends up clipping. Also, your engineer can spend hours mic-ing every drum from every angle, but chances are you won’t use half of those tracks in mixing unless you’re an industrial or heavy percussive band.

What does the future hold for Madam West?

A higher output of recordings. More basement and house shows. A larger live band, including our new guitarist, backup vocalist and possibly a few horn players on our recordings. I would definitely love to play more international shows. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback in the UK, so we’d probably start there. We met a lot of like-minded musicians in Montreal when we played a small show there this summer. I recently received my dual citizenship in Germany, so if I could swing a residency there someday, I wouldn’t say ‘nein’.

Check out Madam West here.

Jesse Cannon is the editor of Musformation. He produces records at his studio Cannon Found Soundation. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseCannonMusF. For more info please visit his website.