Interested in sourcing material from a wide variety of musical influences, the internet, and their own in-jokes, Secret Mall combines jazz, vaporwave, and friendship with aplomb, resulting in a band that you want to hear and one you want to hang out with. The group features Alfredo Colón on EWI, Edward Gavitt on guitar, Steve Williams on bass, and Andres Valbuena on drum, and (for this performance) Abdulrahman Amer on trombone. We caught up with Colón, Gavitt, Williams and Valbuena to discuss memes, inspiration, and what’s next.
The Jazz Gallery: Hi!
Secret Mall: Hi, I’m Secret Mall.
TJG: How are you guys?
SM: We are good. Collectively. Individually, answers may vary.
TJG: In some ways you guys are kind of an internet band—how does that work in real life, in real time?
Ed Gavitt: I guess the concept comes from the internet. The aesthetic of vaporwave is an internet culture, phenomenon. I was reading an interview with Macintosh Plus, the producer, who kind of described how music used to be thing where you have to be in a scene. If you’re a jazz musician you have to be in New York, or if you’re a pop musician you have to be in LA kind of thing, but with the advent of the internet, that barrier broke. In a way we are jazz musicians because we’re in the New York scene, but we’re taking elements from the internet and bringing that to the music.
Alfredo Colón: Also the internet is the future. I feel like a lot of people don’t accept that, like, everything’s on the internet. So if you’re not on the internet, you’re not anywhere.
EG: Honestly, as bad as Spotify and bandcamp are, people are embracing the fact that that’s how you’re gonna have to meet your people. We released our record on bandcamp, and that’s a way that we reached a lot of people.
TJG: Vaporwave is super visual—how are you bringing that to what you’re doing?
Andres Valbuena: It has to do a lot with the way we present ourselves, on our facebook, especially. The artwork. The person who’s most in charge of that is Alfredo, because he’s in charge of dealing with flyers and making promotional videos. You should go a little bit deeper with that.
AC: I mean with any kind of art, there’s always visual art of the time associated with it, there’s a parallel. We draw from vaporwave, that aesthetic of the music and the visual aspect is so closely tied to it that it’s hard to separate them from each other. Since that was the original idea for the band, to draw from that kind of music, it felt wrong to not draw influence from the artwork as well, for promotional stuff.
EG: It’s a medium where the artwork and music go hand in hand.
AG: It’s a complete thing when they’re together, so we try to do that as much as possible.
EG: Last time we played at the Gallery we actually presented video as well. Not during the performance but between performances which is part of the vibe too. We were projecting just memes and stuff, I basically just made a really long reel of memes.
TJG: Are you going to do that again?
EG: Yes! I might not make a video though, I might not have time.
TJG: Speaking of memes, on your first ep, the yee dinosaur is a thread. In your new material, are you taking inspiration from memes?
SW: Yeah! So there’s a song we’re going to premiere at the Gallery—
EG: I don’t know if that’s a meme so much as an inside joke.
SW: Yeah, well—the thing is, we take these memes and we really expand on them in our rehearsals, when we’re hanging out. We’re living shitposts, basically, so we have all these memes. So I watch, have watched, the Tim and Eric series, like five or six videos on youtube based around this character Spaghett [laughs] and he scares people by jumping out of places and yelling, “That’s Spaghetti!” [laughs] so I have been uncontrollably been saying “Spaghett” and trying to spook people for months now, and recently we did a gig in the Bronx at the Fordham campus, and we came back, and were in Washington Heights and went to this Dominican restaurant. And on the menu they had spaghetti, but instead of—
AC: it was just mofongo with spaghetti on the side. It just said spaghetti mofongo, but they spelled it spaghuetti, with a u and an h. [Laughs]
SW: So that has now, instead of me spooking people with “spaghett”, we just all run around saying, “ey, spaghuetti” [laughs]. This new song is called “spaghuetti.” So that’s your answer.
There’s also this new song we wrote called Dubai about the Dubai kid, who’s like, “Dubai was lit” This kid went to the dentist and was high off the laughing gas, and they were taking a video of him post surgery, and he was talking about his adventure in Dubai, and how he has all these camels and wives.
AC: This kid is like 12. But there’s just a point at which he goes, “Dubai was liiiit”. Steve made that the climax of his tune.
SW: I don’t want to give the impression that we’re just writing songs that are memes, but definitely for some of the compositions for this group I’m trying to recreate the feelings that those memes give, either that I feel or the group gets from the memes. Within the jazz tradition, a lot of people draw their influence from quoting other artists and learning from them, and I don’t see why in a newer-aged setting, where we’re drawing a lot of influence from the internet, why we can’t quote things from that.
TJG: Do you go looking for memes with the thought that you might use them, or do you just find them and think, yeah, that one?
SW: It just happens. Like divine intervention. I don’t want to make it seem like we’re trying hard to be all memey and edgy. We find these things funny and they just creep into the music.
AC: When the meme becomes an inside joke, and then it gets repeated so much, we end up finding music in it. With the yee thing, for example, we found the original clip of Pete, the character, saying “Mamma e papa’ hanno un nuovo bebe’ e non se ne fanno piu’ niente di te,” and I think Andres was the one who said, I think that’s kind of got a beat to it. We just kept looping it and we kind of felt a clave to it, and eventually heard the music in it. I think it’s like through repetition, like engraining itself.
EG: We had been using yee as a thing for a while before that.
SW: I’d like to draw another parallel. If someone has a standard and they play some Charlie Parker licks, that’s because they’ve listened to that music so much that it becomes a part of them, but they don’t seek out like, oh which Charlie Parker lick am I going to play? None of us are ever going on youtube being like, “what’s our next big meme?” [laughs]. We all spend a collective ton of time on youtube, and instagram and reddit, just looking at memes, and they become part of how we talk to each other and communicate.
TJG: How is it playing at the Gallery versus some of the other venues you’ve played?
EG: The Gallery gives us more freedom, because usually when we play elsewhere we have to do double bills, so we have to cater to what the whole space needs, what the other bands need. Here it’s just us, we’re doing two sets, so we can actually create a vibe, that’s what I’m talking about, playing projections and playing our own playlist—we’re gonna play not jazz music between sets, play with the lighting. There’s stuff we can create to further the vibe, like you’re not just coming to see music, you’re coming to hang out, have a good time.
TJG: There are chairs here—do you want people standing, do you want people dancing?
EG: I don’t think we’ve debated that yet. I would feel cool either way, I know there’s clubs where the vibe is not having chairs, and we’re definitely trying to branch out to getting outside of just the jazz thing, and most of those situations are standing crowds. But if we’re doing that we have to see where the music is going, because we can’t play just jazz shred over that. If people are standing, they wanna dance, they wanna groove. We’ve debated, we should have a club set, that kind of thing. With some of the tunes we do focus more on the groove than on the shred, but shredding is also fun.
SW: To put that another way, we gauge our audience. Do they want to hear the more artful, how far can we explore with material, or do they want to have a good time, have a good laugh, groove to some music? We try to be a band that can support both of those, and the benefit of playing at the Jazz Gallery is we can do both of those and get to choose which one, as opposed to having an audience or a bill tell us what we should be doing.
TJG: How do you guys approach writing for this band?
SW: We usually bring in a tune, but we end up reworking it so much during rehearsals that it becomes a collective thing.
AC: My tunes always end up being the ones that get reworked the most. I’ll bring in this tiny thing, and then Andres will be like, yo, let’s move this here, or someone else will be like, yo, let’s stretch this out or put this in a different key. It always ends up becoming this long thing that’s a lot better than what I had.
SW: We usually just bring in lead sheets, and the melodies and harmonies will stay the same, but the arrangements are definitely a collective effort. We all put our thoughts in, changing it how we think it would be best for the band, but the main skeleton remains the same, and it gets credited to whoever wrote it.
SW: Or is that whom?
SW: For clarification, just to make me seem grammatically correct, write whomst’d’ve whensever.
TJG: That’ll be the title of this article.
SW: Secret Mall: whomst’d’ve whensever. [laughs]
TJG: What influcences do you guys see as present in your music?
AC: Aside from memes?
AC: For me, Kneebody, KNOWER, influences a lot of my writing.
EG: If we’re talking about just Secret Mall, mostly vaporwave, synthwave producers. Tennyson, Macintosh Plus, St. Pepsi.
SW: It depends on what I’m playing, what influence I can draw from. I’m listening to St. Pepsi, but also listening to a lot of my favorite bass players and trying to combine them, like Paul McCartney plus Harish Raghavan, whatever weird combinations I can come up with. I am an amalgamation of whatever has come before me.
AV: One of the biggest inspirations for me here is whatever I’m feeling at the time. I think wherever we are has a huge influence on what I do. If we’re playing at The Jazz Gallery, I tend to play a little more on the compositional side of the drumset, support the music as much as I can, offer a lot of points in which I complement the music with groove—how can I put it? Less laying down the groove in the pocket, shaping musical statements. Aside from musical influence, I think the way I’m feeling and the place that I’m playing in do a lot for me, that influence.
TJG: Bigger question, so take it as you will, but what is jazz?
SW: For me, it’s interesting to pose that question in 2017. A lot of people talk about jazz as the tradition, the tradition.
EG: Even the tradition is a question in itself, like you can go to Lincoln Center, you’ll hear the tradition as being Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Monk. Basically the people that founded bebop and swing. My thing is that all those people who founded those styles, the fathers, I guess you wanna call them, they were experimenting. Bebop was progressive music when it came out, and a lot of people still play like that. There’s nothing wrong with it, but when you dismiss other music because it’s not straight ahead, as a jazz fan, then I don’t think you’re supporting the tradition, or jazz in itself.
SW: What has come in a vacuum and not had societal purpose? The phenomenon of music. Jazz is a super vague word, but for me it’s an artful representation of where society is, mainly through improvisation, for my purposes. That said, there’s some structure, it’s not totally free. But there’s an improvisatory aspect to it. It’s a complicated word.
EJG: What is next?
AV: The main thing right now is this thing at The Jazz Gallery, we’re preparing very diligently for it, we’re promoting it thoroughly. But after that, there’s so much that you can do with a band, whether it’s on a promotional basis or a rehearsal basis, getting your stuff together, making sure you can be fit for any musical situation. I think what’s next for us is, aside from practicing and rehearsing a lot, is getting more familiar with ourselves. A lot of compositional choices and a lot of experiments, with different outlets, whether it be more of an electronic outlet, more of a rock-ish outlet. I also think we want to expand our fanbase—we want people to know what we’re about, we want them to take in the fact that we’re not going in a specific direction. What we do is very broad, and I think people can grab on to that. I want to round up people who are fans of rock, electronic music, jazz, so our next step is to get a lot more material together and branch out to different communities of music.
EG: I want to add to that—also, collaboration is a huge thing that we want to do more of. We’re doing this show with a good friend of ours, Rocky Abdulrahman Amer, and he’s just the best. We had a rehearsal the other day, and he was adding so much to the music. I’d like to see us adding more people to play with us, or alongside us. I spoke about the double bill earlier, but I don’t want it to seem like a negative thing, it’s just another vibe. I love doing double bills because our people get to check out this group and their people get to check us out. I’d love to see us do stuff with rock bands on the bill, with producers, with DJs or something like that. Us play a gig and have a DJ between sets, or something like that.
AV: I want to add one more thing. I think we also want to put a greater emphasis on the word band.
AV: My favorite thing in the world—there is nothing I love more than playing with bands. I love music and I love playing the drums, but the thing I love more than playing drums is playing in a band. Making music with a certain group of people and having that music and that chemistry just flower into something that’s so mature—it’s such as incredible process. This started out as a joke! We all have worked the same job and we wanted to do something just for fun. The fact that we’ve been able to make each other better in so many different aspects, music, business, moral support, whatever, the fact that we’ve been able to do that strictly through playing music is one of the most incredible things in the world to me. I want to—we want to—put the emphasis of a band in jazz. There’s a lot of solo projects, the blank blank quartet.
EG: Even collectives. People like to say collective, which has its own connotations. People like to ask if we’re a collective, and it’s like, no, we’re not, because collective implies that yeah, you’re working together, but you’re just playing each other’s compositions without reworking things. Somebody brings in a finished tune and you just play it. We actually sit down and work on everybody’s music, and concepts, sometimes we won’t even play a song, we’ll just work on a concept. I think the nature of jazz really will lie in bands. I think that’s a very attractive thing to anyone who’s a music fan. The idea of a band is so important, and we want to collaborate with people, or do double bills.
SW: What I think is next, it’s really important to have a band aspect. Within a band, as opposed to a solo project, we have the ability to grow with each other, as opposed to growing separately and bringing it together. And when we grow with each other we, as a band, begin to respect the things we agree with and respect the things we disagree with, and we all individually put ourselves in really vulnerable positions by doing that with each other. As an audience member, you can really tell when someone is truly open with the people they’re playing with, as opposed to it being like, Joe Schmo’s all-star band, and they don’t know each other and don’t have arguments. The vulnerability of knowing the people you’re onstage with so well really contributes to the music, and that’s one of the most important aspects of what we do.
SM: Heck yes!
TJG: Anything else you guys wanted to get to?
SW: I’d also like to emphasize that we’re a band of true equality. There’s two people in this band who don’t wear glasses, and two people in this band who do wear glasses. We don’t really see a division between the two, you know?
AV: That reminds me, there is one thing I want to point out. So Alfredo, Ed, and myself are of Latin ethnic backgrounds. And I think that’s of great importance, because a lot of the time, most Latino musicians that you see work in the Latino sphere, whether it’s Latin jazz, or salsa, or merengue, you name it. What I’d like to see is more Latinos who have a strong rooting in playing jazz, and not only just playing Hispanic or Latin American music or whatever. I think the fact that us three, being jazz musicians and not really playing Latin jazz is important. I want to emphasize that we’re Latinos who aren’t playing Latin jazz—I don’t want to say it’s a stereotype, but it feels like what’s expected of us.
AC: Growing up, you don’t really connect with that music, in my situation at least. Growing up in New York, I listened to rock music more than I listened to Dominican music. You see someone like Henry Cole, someone who looks like he could be related to me, doing something that I connect with on a much deeper level, that’s something special. So it means a lot to me to be doing something that’s outside of what is expected, that I know my past self could look at and be like, wow, that’s pretty cool.
AV: I’m not cutting any Latino musicians who like the Latin scene at all! I just want to sit on the fact that we are Latinos and we have made the decision not to go in that direction, because we identify with something else, musically.
EG: For me, Alfredo and I are both Dominican, and I actually grew up there. I know a lot of the musicians in the scene in the DR ask me, oh, are you doing a lot of salsa gigs, and I’m like, no, I’m playing jazz, improvised music, I’m playing weird gigs, gigs like—that’s a surprise, because a lot of the guys come here for the jazz thing, or for the Latin music thing. That’s not what we’re doing.
Secret Mall plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, November 3rd, 2017. The group features Alfredo Colón on EWI, Edward Gavitt on guitar, Steve Williams on bass, Andres Valbuena on drums, and Abdulrahman Amer on trombone. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.