Jazz musicians have long mined contemporary popular culture to find new avenues of expression, whether Sonny Rollins’s inveterate exploration of hidden songbook gems, Miles Davis’s psychedelic fusions, or Brad Mehldau’s rhapsodic takes on Radiohead. Secret Mall—a young collective featuring Alfredo Colón on EWI, Edward Gavitt on guitar, Steve Williams on bass, and Andres Valbuena on drums—continues this tradition through their exploration of electronic music subgenres like Vaporwave and popular music more generally.
This Thursday, July 27th, Secret Mall will make their Jazz Gallery debut with two sets of subversive covers and curious originals. We caught up with members Colón, Gavitt, and Williams earlier this month to talk about the group’s origins, their upcoming EP release, and their thoughts on the silly and the serious in music.
The Jazz Gallery: How did you guys meet and how did this project start?
Alfredo Colón: I took a few lessons with Dayna Stephens and I was really inspired by his group 3WI, which features Gilad Heckselman on guitar and Adam Arruda on drums. I wanted to try doing the EWI trio thing—a bassless EWI trio with guitar and drums. So I tried that out with Ed, and a different drummer, and the result was, to be honest, kinda sad. Later, we got these gigs where we had the opportunity to put together our own music. We were playing outside, and it was a very low pressure gig, so we were really just focused on getting guys we liked hanging out with. Eventually the group became what it is now, not a bassless EWI trio, but Secret Mall.
Steve Williams: I got the call for the gig via Skype—well actually no, not Skype. I was in Texas visiting home for part of the summer, and Alfredo sent me about 10 Snapchats in a row while he was pretty drunk, being like “Yooo, we’re trying to do this EWI group. I want you to play bass. We have this gig on July 21st, can you do it?” I was thinking “that’s the day I’m coming back from Texas” so I replied “ok, that’s the day I get back, I can do it then, but we have to rehearse that day.” Keep in mind, up to this point they have not heard me play bass yet.
AC: I hired Steve based on personality alone. And then when I got to the gig and he starts playing, I was like “Oh shit, he can play!”
TJG: So this is definitely a friends group. What does that allow you guys to do musically, that you might not be able to do with people you don’t know?
Ed Gavitt: I think it allows us to open up more from a musical perspective. A really good example is when we took this gig at Yale. We basically hung out for 9 or 10 hours straight that day. We got into some deep jokes and I think that translated to the show—I still think that’s the most successful gig we’ve had yet. We were so comfortable in the musical setting to mess around with stuff and go in lots of different places that well-rehearsed bands don’t get to because they rehearse so much—for many of them it’s all about getting the music right and how it is on paper.
SW: I think there’s a certain amount of trust that’s there when you’re good friends with the people you’re playing with in that if we were all just sideman on this gig, and if all we did was only rehearse and not talk before and after the gigs, it wouldn’t be the same. Knowing each other so well creates an inherent trust that goes in. Our personalities off the instruments lead us to trust the personalities on the instruments.
TJG: And your inside jokes make their way into the music literally, right?
AC: So we have an EP coming out called the Yee(P)—Yee is a meme from 2010 that’s become probably the biggest inside joke in the group. If you look up Yee, it should be a six second video of a dinosaur singing [scats the melody]—we found out that the source video for that meme was from a bootleg version of the Land Before Time made by German people and sold in Italy, and we transcribed some of the text that one of the characters named Peek says, and it’s become not only the inspiration for title of our EP, but one of the tunes that we play and it’s become a musical phrase that we use throughout our sets.
TJG: Can you explain what you mean when you say you transcribed Yee?
AC: Well, in the meme Peek says to his friend Oro: “Mamma e papa’ hanno un nuovo bebe’ e non se ne fanno piu’ niente di te,“ which means “Mom and dad are having a new baby and I’m scared that they won’t love us anymore.” At one of our hangs we were playing the video and Andres said “yo, that’s got a beat to it,” and he starts tapping out a clave which I thought was pretty cool. So I got home and looped the quote in Logic, and I made a little beat accompanying it, but I wanted to add harmony and I wanted to see where the pitches of his voice fit, so I transcribed it on the EWI and harmonized it. I think the idea for that also came from Harmonizator, which Publio Delgado uses on his music channel. Jacob Sacks is also a big fan of that. We found that Peek’s speech translated pretty interestingly musically—it almost sounded like an odd metered phrase when it wasn’t.
EG: It turned out to be similar to a trap beat in 6.
TJG: What other inside jokes have made their way into your music?
EG: For the first 5 or 6 shows where I would find every possible place to quote All Star by Smash Mouth on my solos.
EG: Just because.
AC: There’ve also been instances where one of us would play Smash Mouth or quote Yee, and we’d be playing a tune, and we’d stretch out the form to fit the phrase and somehow we would magically land in the same place afterwards.
EG: The phrase is more important than the song.
AC: The commitment to the meme is important.
SW: I think we were playing at Pianos and we added 3 bars to one chorus in the solo section just so we could fit the whole quote in. We could strictly keep the form intact and make the soloist figure out how to make the rest of the quote fit, but we all know what’s going on and how to recover and listen to each other, so why not stretch those few bars to fit the rest of the quote and keep it going from there?
TJG: So that tune is titled Yee I’m guessing, and I suppose it fits somewhere between a cover and an original. Can we talk about some of your other covers?
EG: The first cover was the one that I brought in by this producer called Home—his name is Randy Goffe. The whole idea behind our band was the Vaporwave aesthetic, and at the time that was a very popular song that came out in a lot of Vaporwave/Simpsonwave videos. I thought it was a cool song so I brought it in. It’s an 8 bar form, it has 3 chords, a very simple melody, and the whole point was not to improvise lines on it, but to improvise an arc to it. After we recorded it, Home actually gave us a shout out on his Facebook and Instragram. And then Alfredo brought in MacIntosh Plus.
AC: Usually, when first introduced to Vaporwave, everyone starts with “The Computing of Lisa Frank,” by a producer called MacIntosh plus. She uses a Diana Ross sample, “It’s your move,” and she slows it down to less than half its original speed, which creates this really eerie, unsettling, yet nostalgic feeling. Since it’s the first tune people are introduced to, I figured if we were going to do Vaporwave, why not do the signature Vaporwave tune?
TJG: As traditionally trained Jazz musicians, what draws you to Vaporwave?
EG: “Resonance” was a really popular song in the Vaporwave style, and I saw it as a good vehicle to go where I wanted to go with the group, away from the type of jazz where there’s a head, then changes, then the head. In this tune there isn’t really a head, and there isn’t really a solo form. Instead, just play over these 8 bars and jump in and out of the head whenever you want.
AC: I think I’m drawn to the slowed down sound of Vaporwave and the use of 80s music, and not only the music but the imagery as well—
TJG: This is a video art, correct?
AC: Yeah, you can’t separate the music from the art with Vaporwave, and with a lot of music in general. Vaporwave is heavily based in nostalgia, so the idea of making something feel like it’s new but from the past at the same time is a big part of it. You can get that really easily by using an old song, but you bring it new life when you change something about it, add something to it. Producers usually layer stuff on top of it. Someone like Blank Banshee would use old samples, but then incorporate a trap beat over it, a really popular sound from today.
SW: The whole chopping and screwing aesthetic.
TJG: With all of that as context, let’s talk about your originals. Steve can you tell me about your tune—the one with lots of mixed meters—”Milk Day?” How did that one come about?
SW: Yeah, for “Milk Day” I originally had this bassline groove that I added melody over. The meter changes come from my questioning “how do I make this unique?” In other words, “what separates this song from a song that anyone else can write?” Also, I hear the musical phrases in the same way a person might talk, and no one is talking in a strict 4/4.
TJG: Neither is Yee, right?
SW: Yeah, exactly. On paper the meter changes might look a little odd, but when you’re listening to it, it sounds more natural, at least to me. The vibe actually comes from back during the first presidential debate of last year. It really seemed downhill from there. Trump had it in the bag for that first debate. So I drank my problems away.
EG: You drank milk [laughs].
SW: So I woke up the next day, on a Tuesday, the most hung over I have ever been. And that’s the tune, the feeling of waking up really hung over. Most of my titles have nothing to do with the song. I wish that “Milk Day” had something to do with where the song is coming from.
TJG: How did you come up with the title then?
SW: Well I came up with it while I was hung over, so maybe there is a connection. (laughs)
TJG: Ed, with your musical education as a backdrop, can we talk about your original, “Fleek Week?”
EG: Yeah, Alfredo already mentioned Blank Banshee who’s a producer in “Vapor-Trap” subgenre of Vaporwave. He has a song called “Wavestep” that samples the Mario 64 opening theme. So I went back to the original Mario 64 sample, and thought, “how can I transform that?” The beginning of Fleek week is an adaptation of that. Again, I didn’t want the form to be a head-solos-head thing, even though it is in a way. Ultimately, it became a through-composed pop tune. The title came from when Alfredo and I were writing song titles where the two words rhymed with each other. I’m ardently waiting for Alfredo to finish composing “Finesse Quest.”
TJG: So another layer of inside jokes?
EG: Yeah, Fleek Week is of course an allusion to Fleet Week, and it’s about being “on fleek” for a week, which has nothing do with the song.
AC: It’s when you get your student loan check in the mail, and you live recklessly for a week, and then the next week you realize, “Oh, I’ve gotta budget this.”
TJG: How’d you transfer from your Master’s work to writing a tune like “Fleek Week?”
EG: For my masters, most of my classes were in 21st century music theory, but I love progressive metal, I love math rock, I love hip hop, I love electronic music, and this music is a manifestation of that. I wrote a lot of the music for my master’s recital when I was away at Banff. I was checking out a lot of Matt Mitchell, Miles Okazaki, and other music from that vein then. I’m still checking a lot of music in that style—Kate Gentile just put a great album out as a matter of fact. When my band gigs, which isn’t that often, that’s the kind of music we play, you know—out there stuff. But I don’t think either kind of music is more challenging than the other.
TJG: Do you write with the same process for both types of music? How do you make a tune like that as musical as the tunes you write for your other band?
EG: I’m just thinking about what my intention what the music is. Here, my goal is to make a very catchy pop tune, So I’m thinking: repetitive, triadic-based melodies, limited range—just thinking about the characteristics of pop music, and using that as another vehicle for composing.
TJG: Alfredo, do you approach your soloing to this kind of music differently than over traditional jazz?
AC: Playing this kind of music comes more naturally to me, I feel, than a standards gig. Steve often jokes on a hot day, “I’m sweating more than Alfredo on a standards gig!” (laughs) Playing original music comes more naturally to me, and I put more time into practicing this type of music.
EG: The only real difference is the rhythmic feel—when you play standards, you’re swinging.
TJG: Your next album can be “Alfredo Sweats the Standards.”
AC: Yeah, I’ll play “Satin Doll” and “Autumn Leaves” for you.
EG: It’s a continuation of the Miles Quintet—you have cooking, then sweating.
TJG: So this music feels more comfortable to you than standards jazz. Do you feel comfortable calling it jazz?
AC: Yes and no. I might call it nostalgia music.
EG: When I was working on the mixes for this, I took cues from a lot of records that we sound similar to—records with a similar rhythmic and harmonic profile. You know, Kneebody, Adam Rogers Dice. Asking if we’re playing jazz is like asking if either of those bands are jazz. I don’t think either of them would call themselves jazz, but they’re all jazz musicians.
SW: I think that we’re playing music that’s in a different style of what we would call quote-unquote jazz, but we’re at least bringing some information from knowing a lot about jazz ourselves.
TJG:What are you aiming for with this music?
SW: I think we just want to have fun.
AC: I look at this group as us taking being silly very seriously. Seriously silly music.
TJG: Final question—what and where is the Secret Mall?
AC: Somewhere in the 30s. We had a triple bill with some friends of ours—shoutout to Tinder Godz and Octagon—and we ended up hanging out a lot afterwards. Somehow the topic of my cousin Matthew came up. He was doing security at this mall that only features high end designers. If you were to pass it by, it would just look like a regular building—it’s very gray and bland looking on the outside. But on any given release date, there would be a line of guys outside. My cousin calls it a “Secret Mall,” and I thought that had a ring to it.
EG: You had the light bulb.
AC: I keep a notepad file on my phone of catchy sounding things for tune names or band names, and I wrote it down while we were having a moment where we wanted to change our band name. Both Andres and I keep a notepad file on our phone, and when I mentioned Secret Mall, it really stuck. Looking back at it, a lot of Vaporwave—especially the music of someone I really enjoy, Saint Pepsi—I think it aims to comment on the super-capitalist views of the ’80s. There were TV commercials everywhere; some of the best commercials were from back then. They have a lot to do with the Vaporwave aesthetic.
TJG: He would combine the commercials for his videos, right?
AC: Yeah, it’s a bunch of commercials that he cuts and pastes to fit the music he’s writing. It’s a very Dadaist approach to making this art, where he takes this thing that was designed to profit these big corporations, and he makes art out of them, and they’re given to the public for free. He’s using capitalist tools to make some very socialist art, and that’s where the roots of a lot of Vaporwave comes from. So I think “Secret Mall” fits the vibe of the band, and the origins of the music as well.
Secret Mall plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 27th, 2017. The group features Alfredo Colón on EWI, Edward Gavitt on guitar, Steve Williams on bass, and Andres Valbuena on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. FREE with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.