written by Ariana Assaf
Jaw Gems bassist Andy Scherzer is a pretty funny guy. I got him to ramble about music, laser showers, and how it feels to share the stage with Lettuce for over an hour, and have transcribed the following conversation for your reading pleasure. Some background: Andy met bandmate Hassan Muhammad through a mutual friend, who met drummer DJ Moore and keyboardist Tyler Quist—who had a residency at a club in Portland—when he moved there in 2009. They needed a bassist, so Hassan called Andy, and Jaw Gems was born.
That was seven years ago. The Portland, Maine-based drip hop/ratchet jazz group has their second album coming out August 26 on STS9’s 1320 records, and throughout our conversation that was originally sparked by the new album, Andy let me in on some fun facts about their trajectory through the Portland scene and beyond…
Andy: It couldn’t have been a more lucky situation for me. I’d been in the Portland music scene for a while but I wasn’t really doing much, kind of on the outskirts of the scene. I just walked into this gig to play my favorite kind of music with three of—as far as I’m concerned—the best musicians I’ve ever met, let alone played with…I literally just got to walk into the band.
Festival Squad: Well I guess a “congratulations” is about seven years late…but still, congrats!
Andy: Thanks, I’ll take it!
FS: You had released an album before this, in 2014, right?
Andy: Yeah, we put out a six track EP called Take a Sip of My Wish, that was us figuring out how to go about making up original music and recording it. When we first started playing, we were doing mostly all covers and definitely more traditional soul sound, I guess…more regular electric piano/guitar/drums/bass, trying to comp the sound of Erykah Badu or D’Angelo or J Dilla. We were playing so much, every weekend, and the other really lucky thing about the residency that we had was…it’s pretty common at an amateur level to not be allowed to just do whatever you want at a gig, you know? The club owners aren’t just gonna be like, “We’ll pay you money, you aren’t guaranteed to be awesome because we don’t know you and you might not bring people, and do whatever.” That doesn’t fly, but partly because Ty and DJ had that gig for awhile, so they gained a lot of trust and respect from the scene, so we were allowed to just pick whatever we wanted to play and play however we wanted to play. The second album Blades Plural… I don’t wanna say the first album didn’t count, I love a bunch of the material on that, but I feel like the second album was…we had figured out how to go about recording music. I kind of almost consider the second album our real first album.
FS: How did you all work your way into this drip hop/ratchet jazz direction, and what does that mean to you?
Andy: I guess drip hop for me would be like a softer version of hip hop. I don’t really know what I mean when I say that, but I would not call it hip hop because we aren’t bagging emcees for the most part. Its not…I usually don’t even use genre names when people ask me. I describe the band as sounding like “taking a shower but it’s not water, it’s laser beams.”
FS: Oooooo! Have you ever taken a real laser beam shower?
Andy: No, I can’t afford it.
FS: Do they exist?
Andy: I don’t know, but if they don’t I’ll invent it.
FS: Hell yeah. When you do, please let me know.
Andy: I’ll start the Crowdfunding next week.
FS: Great, I’ll let everyone know.
Andy: I always feel weird having conversations about the genre thing because I feel like…I don’t have a problem with coming up with genre names and putting bands in to that. Some people immediately get in to the sort of pretentious “I don’t fit in a box, man.” And I’m not trying to hate on the idea of coming up with a category, but that said it’s so difficult to come up with what you actually think of a genre as. I feel like, if you really dig in to what you think about something, you’ll immediately find out its not what anyone else was thinking about necessarily. Drip hop feels good, aesthetically. Ratchet jazz kinda describes the idea that this isn’t necessarily jazz, it’s not heavy improve, we definitely improvise our music when we play live but there’s not like, long raging solos and stuff like that.
FS: So your thing is kind of making electronic sounds but with live instruments…how difficult is that? Why not go for the CDJs and Ableton, versus what you guys do?
Andy: It’s a little bit of a conscious choice among us to do that, but I think its just organic. If you look at the roots of how all of us learned how to play music, what we’ve been doing live versus…everyone in the band produces music themselves. We all make beats, we all play in a lot of different genres aside from Jaw Gems. If you take a producer who makes bedroom beats and you also play live, you kinda wanna do both things. Live, I don’t want to play a sample, because I wanna play the notes that are in the sample. That’s much more fun to actually actively be able to play the notes, as a foundation. If you’re slaved to pressing a button that cues a sequence, you can’t improvise. You can move faders and stuff to tweak the sound, but you’re not playing the notes which means you can’t change the way you might inflect or change a note. To be able to improvise with each other, we can’t be locked into doing things with a track playing in the background. If we feel like something naturally is about to happen live, we couldn’t go after it because we’re locked in to needing to play the backing track or sequence or something.
Festival Squad: Makes sense. Moving on, you’re going to be opening for Lettuce soon? How cool is that?
Andy: It’s super weird to all of a sudden get gigs with…they’re definitely one of all of our favorite bands, for sure. And Ryan Zoidis is from Maine, so he’s known us and supported the band, so it didn’t kind of come out of nowhere, but it kinda felt like it did. It still feels unreal to be able to share the stage with those guys. We have three shows with them locked in, we have some supporting gigs with Papadosio and The Motet this fall.
Festival Squad: HEATWEAVER is out August 26, I listened to the preview I was sent about a week ago, and it’s wonderful. Is there a message or a feeling that you were going for? What was going through your head when you were making it, what was your goal either musically or otherwise?
Andy: One of our goals is definitely—this is where I get scared of sounding pretentious—I don’t like trying to necessarily go for something. It’s totally cool if some people want to come up with an era that they want to sound like they’re inside of, or a certain idiom or genre. I’m not good at doing that, I like throwing crap at a wall and seeing what sticks. Throw a bunch of colors, a riff here, hit a chord there and then it’ll be like that sucks take that out, wow no take that out, I like that leave it, that just gave me an idea (editor’s note: this went on for over 20 seconds and it was awesome). I think we all kinda work like that when we’re recording together. First off, because everyone does their own production, a lot of the music, the tracks, come in almost finished. Hassan records his own music, Tyler too. DJ writes music all the time. I’m much lazier than all of them, but we’ll come in when its time to start moving onto a new batch of material. Its like a bunch of kids sitting around with a big pile of legos. If you just concentrate on keeping your intentions clear and make sure you care about the sound feeling good…it’s just supposed to feel good.
Festival Squad: You sound like such an artist! In a not corny way.
Andy: Aww, thanks!
Festival Squad: That’s pretty much it for my original list of questions, but you talked about covers so I have to ask, is there a favorite cover you like to do?
Andy: Oooh, that’s a dangerous question. I learned by listening to my favorite musicians, just sitting in my room practicing until I felt like I could perform the music with them. A huge influence on my playing was definitely D’Angelo’s Voodoo album. That came out right when I was getting to the point in my musicianship when I could attempt to play real soul music and not be bullshitting. Getting past technique and into style, the part where you can move your fingers correctly and get into the real nitty gritty details. That album came out right when I was getting to that point, and it was like a textbook for playing r&b/ jazz for me, among some other bands…Soulive is a huge influence. I learned music by playing to those albums so, covering D’Angelo is definitely really satisfying to get in to a band that can actually, legitimately play that music, and then get to play those basslines. We covered a lot of music from Voodoo and I’d be like, “Ugh, this is the best. Yes!” So many good basslines, so many dope songs out there and I’m like why am I playing? I could just go listen to a dope album instead of trying to make an OK album.
Festival Squad: So why do you keep making music then?
Andy: I have no idea. I love playing, but I swear, I was just watching an interview and he’s paraphrasing somebody who said go find what you don’t like doing. Do something you hate because you’ll get successful at it because you won’t give a shit, and you won’t try to stack up against other people who are doing something you don’t care about, so you’ll just concentrate on doing the thing as best you can. It’s a really jaded, cynical way to look at it…maybe part of the drive to practice is continuously being like, “Dude, you just played a bunch of bullshit. That sucked. Go practice.” The first gig we had with Lettuce…Lettuce and Soulive’s organ player Neal Evans…those guys are musical legends to me. I love those guys and the way they play, so the first time I was on stage I was inside my head going, “Don’t play anything dumb. Don’t play any extra notes.” I was just looking at my fingers like, mad at them. They were about to try to do some cool fill and I was like, “Don’t do it you stupid assholes. Don’t you move. Just play the bassline and shut up.”
It’s like you kinda wanna be more delusional and arrogant so that you don’t have that fight. It’d be super great to walk around feeling like I’m the damn shit, but you don’t get awesome at stuff if you think you’re awesome already. Then you just settle, you don’t move forward, you don’t evolve your sound. That’s when you lock into a genre and you keep putting out the same album over and over again. That’s no good, so I think understanding that is one of the important tricks of keeping yourself motivated.
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