In his fantastic memoir entitled Mo’ Meta Blues, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson talks candidly about the early days of The Roots. Specifically, he tells a story about how his drumming became a point of contention with his bandmates. As the band grew in prominence, they wondered why their songs weren’t being played in clubs. Do You Want More?!!!??! was a certified hit, complete with 3 singles released to radio and eventually going Gold, but they never heard their music during live DJ sets.
Eventually, the band asked a trusted DJ friend why this was happening, and the response was simple. Questlovle’s drumming wasn’t quite precise enough, so it was difficult to mix The Roots live against other tunes using programmed drums. As in, people loved the band’s sound, but the band was aggravated with Questlove for denying them this chance to expand their fanbase even further.
Questlove responds by putting in extra practice time to develop his internal metronome. The Roots were creating something special by making soulful hip-hop via a live band. He would not let down his bandmates again. The results were the vibrant Illadelph Halflife, the immaculate Things Fall Apart, and the band’s eventual acceptance as innovators and musical bad-asses.
The Roots were not the first musicians to push the boundaries and seek to do something intentionally different. They will not be the last. This is objectively a good thing! Artists should always look for every opportunity to break with conventions – whether their own backstory or people’s general expectations.
But you must be willing to accept that every attempt won’t be met with immediate success. In fact, just like Questlove, you must be willing to head back to the drawing board to improve your sound if something isn’t quite up to snuff. If you have a good idea, please pursue it, but you can’t be afraid if that first iteration isn’t the groundbreaking piece of art you thought it might be.
This is my message to Pikefruit, a delightful art-pop duo based in Seattle, WA who’ve just self-released their debut EP, entitled Sprig. On its face, the music of Nicole and Alex (they don’t use their surnames to protect their day jobs) is quite simple:
- 1 part ethereal soprano vocals
- 2 part vintage synthesizer (specifically, the Emagic ES2)
- 1 part acoustic drums
It’s lilting, airy, mysterious, and melancholy. It’s somehow both dreamy and moody, adolescent and self-assured. I found myself looping Pikefruit’s 6 songs over and over again over the course of a morning at work, not as pleasant background music I could ignore, but because there’s something compelling at work here. Something that stands just outside of modern indie and pop trends, while also happily conceding those same influences.
Yet, I felt something nagging in the back of my mind, and the sensation grew with each spin. Something about the Pikefruit’s music didn’t quite make sense. The pieces didn’t fit as seamlessly as they should, and while that’s fine for the ramshackle nature of some genres, it became increasingly off-kilter until I finally recognized what I was hearing.
The drumming wasn’t as precise and on-tempo as it should have been. This was not a case of wonky syncopation, snare claps just behind the beat, or jazzy fills to give some organic textures to the synth pads. This was drumming that simply wasn’t on the right beat as consistently as it should have been and it totally threw me off.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not intentionally harping on Alex’s skills, much less claiming that they drug down Nicole’s world-weary soprano or the synth melodies he penned. It’s more that, when you attempt something relatively outside the norm, you run the chance of making a few mistakes. What matters is that you don’t give up chasing those new ideas.
Because there’s a lot to like with Sprig. Pikefruit’s music calls to mind Air, Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, The xx, and Beach House, while still being even more low-key than those forebears. I’m a big fan of the sparse and delicate production, as it provides plenty of room for Nicole’s glistening vocal runs in her upper register. At times, I wish the synth bass was more prominent on “Stars” and “Free” in contrast to the icy synth strings, but that would just turn them in to a Lorde or Billie Eilish B-side.
My absolute favorite Pikefruit song is “Hold You.” The fourth song on the EP, it possesses the best overall energy and warmest textures, complete with just the right amount of that ‘80s synth bass I mentioned earlier. Featuring the project’s most personal lyrics, Nicole projects the warm, deep affections of a committed relationship and deep companionship, not the typical horny lust or paeans of romantic love. It’s grownup shit, and I dig it.
But I can’t shake those drums, especially on “Wedding Bells” and “Streetlights.” They kept me from buying wholesale what Pikefruit was selling on Sprig, which is a shame. The duo has some great intentions and instincts, but everything didn’t work every time. I just want them to keep chasing their ideas. I sense they could create something big in the future.
Besides – if Questlove of all people had to commit specific time to improve his drumming, that means each of us should schedule time to improve our own craft.
Despite all of the cliches you might have heard about the place, Adam P. Newton actually enjoys living in Texas – most of the time. He currently creates and curates content for a marketing agency, and in his limited free time, he writes a memoir about his journey through music called “Explaining Grownup Music to Kids.”