A Voice Comes Through: Ayla Nereo on Love, Fear, and Touring Radically with The Polish Ambassador
Photo by J Smilanic

Photo by J Smilanic

My photographer friend and I are directed through to the main room of the Orange Peel where The Polish Ambassador crew are soundchecking. It’s Ayla Nereo’s vocals that stand out first, her honey-like voice winding through the streets of Polish’s bustling city of beats. Boston-born conscious hip-hop fave Mr. Lif is there too, getting his levels on a new collaborative track called “Shine Bright,” a delicious funk song that heats up even the chilly, empty venue.

Like typical touring musicians, the crew is here to support a new album, TPA’s Pushing Through the Pavement, but perhaps in an even greater way, they are pushing something quite unusual for the electronic scene: their accompanying Permaculture Action Tour.

The artists, with the help of a team of organizers and sustainability experts, are bringing their passion to not only music venues but farms, gardens, and even lifeless lots in 32 cities across the country. The day after every show, dozens and even hundreds of fans gather alongside the TPA troop to build, enliven, and connect: to the earth, to each other, to themselves. It brings tangible meaning to “party with a purpose.”

But before we get to all that, I want to know more about the woman behind the voice that’s become a staple of TPA’s sound. We’re sitting backstage in Ayla’s dressing room: clothes, bags and jewelry options strewn about (she’s just like us, girls). Gracious and at ease, she’s warmed up her throat and changed into her stage outfit, a bangin’ capri-length, white and silver bodysuit, keeping in line with the jumpsuit theme that rules the TPA Family.

Having grown up in a musical family, I ask her if singing is something she always wanted to do. “No, I was actually terrified of singing!” she admits, “I thought I wanted to be a film director…but it just started happening, songs started coming through.” Now she regularly teaches workshops on how to use the voice effectively and work through the fear of expression. “I think it’s an important piece that I was afraid of: using my voice. I had to go through the fear process.”

It certainly wasn’t a sense of fear that eventually found her writing rich, lyric-driven folk music and wanting to experiment with different recording processes. It was in the Oakland Ecstatic Dance community that she met producer David Sugalski, aka The Polish Ambassador, and started collaborating with him. “I had just finished my second to last album called BeHeld, and it had the first loop songs on it. Those loop songs were catchier and created those hooks, so I was asking a lot of the producers in the Ecstatic Dance community [to collaborate], and David was one of them.”

We don’t get into the juicy details of how they subsequently fell deeply in love (awww) and formed their duo project Wildlight, but I do inquire into the fascinating subject of navigating a romantic and professionally collaborative musical relationship.

“It’s all very, very woven. We tour together, we live together; it can get muddy sometimes. But the other piece is true; we also get to bring love in. The best shows are the ones where we’re in love with each other on stage the whole time. It’s carrying the music, too.”

It seems that they all carry each other. This theme leads us into the twin aspect of the Pushing Through the Pavement tour: the Permaculture Action Days.

What began as a rolling stone idea of Polish’s quickly gained traction, and a crowdfunding campaign was initiated to meet the financial needs for tools, supplies, education materials and organizers. The campaign was successful enough and took off, quite literally on the road, still with little idea of how it would turn out or who would actually show up to support the idea.

Ayla gushes: “The goal was just to bring some action days on tour, and it quickly grew into this thing where every single city was like ‘We want an action day!’ It became a big part of the momentum and the draw of this tour and the excitement around it. That, for us, has been really encouraging to see people’s interest in what we’re doing.”

She is relaxed and lucid as she remembers the disillusionment she sometimes felt on previous tours and how that’s flipped with this fresh sense of purpose. “It’s giving me a lot of hope to see what’s already going on in these communities…we’re trying to take all this fan energy and direct it…so they can be connected and not so reliant on this system that’s not working out.”

I imagine it’s difficult enough to be a touring musician, but pile manual laborer on top of that, and it must bring a whole new level of exhaustion. Nope. Not this crowd. She beams as she tells me how high the energy runs out there on the land.

“[That’s] the cool thing about having 100-300+ people at an action day. We’ve never been overworked…because there are so many hands on deck. That saying ‘many hands make light work’ is so absolutely true. We are seeing it. It’s giving me chills. To see how quickly and how easily things can happen because we’re all helping each other. We’re not on stage, we’re all just people, and we’re working on something together. It’s so much fun.”

The united focus is strong within Jumpsuit Records, the record label started by Polish and currently rebooting itself as a collective. “The idea is that we’re all in charge, we’re all going to decide who comes in, and we’re all going to promote each other.”

And after experiencing the success of the Permaculture Action Tour, they clearly can’t go back to the old model. “We’re focusing it around action-based touring and activism in that way, being a participant in the creation of this world that we want…together.”

Due to the shitty weather Halloween weekend, Asheville’s action day was relocated to the downtown bar Sovereign Remedies for a few hours of discussion and brainstorming, and it appeared to be a success in itself. It took me quite a while to even notice Ayla and David were there, blending perfectly with the earth-toned group, occasionally facilitating discussion but mostly enjoying Asheville community members forming connections and presenting their own ideas. Needless to say, they really dig Asheville. *swoon*

That’s what this is really all about for them: using their popularity to activate communities to sustain themselves.

“As artists we have a platform, and there’s a responsibility there to use it for the greater good. Whatever your platform is, there’s an ability to do something good with it.”

The Permaculture Action Tour is almost over, but tune in with The Polish Ambassador, Ayla Nereo, and the whole Jumpsuit Records collective to take part in the revolution. Oh, and all of their music is still Name Your Price. Dig it, y’all.

Photo by Fabian Productions via The Polish Ambassador

Photo by Fabian Productions via The Polish Ambassador

Happy Birthday, Martin L Gore!
Photo via modefan.com

Photo via modefan.com

Today we celebrate Martin L. Gore of Depeche Mode’s 53rd birthday! Wowee!

Any excuse to honor this man, really. As the chief songwriter of the first synth band to bring electronic music onto the global stage (and 30 years on still selling out arenas worldwide), all the while having managed to avoid pretension and all other forms of musician douchebaggery, Martin deserves all his cake and to eat it wherever he likes.

Happy birthday, Mr. Gore. We totally fucking love you!

Here’s one of his signature songs, “Home.” 1998 was a bit of a weird time because lead singer Dave Gahan had just gotten out of rehab, but Martin sounds great and everyone’s all better now. Enjoy!

Marley Carroll in a Hammock Haven: An Intoxicating Mix at Highland Brewing
Photo by J Smilanic

Photo by J Smilanic

For a company that specializes in laying your ass out in outrageously comfortable hammocks, Eagles Nest Outfitters (ENO) knows a lot about parties. The festivities at Highland Brewing last Friday proved that.

As part of Highland’s (apparently months-long) 20th anniversary celebration, the brewery and ENO teamed up to host the July 11-12 events, parties to punctuate Night Flight, a four-mile race that benefits the Asheville Parks & Greenways Foundation. Now, I don’t know about any of that because I don’t run unless it’s to catch a plane or a concert, but yeah, I’m always down for hammocks + drinks + music. So when I pulled into the parking lot and the sprawling ENO Lotus Lounge unveiled itself before me, I knew I was exactly where I belonged.

The grassy area behind the brewery is just pleasant as can be. There’s an outdoor bar on one end of the field serving a handful of choice Highland beers, but silly Sally that I am, I go for the faceless white wine. The Lotus Lounge stretches its petals out, hammocks of every color strung between them; the kids dart under and around them like ants disturbed from their magnetic march, crawling over each other to snag any available part of parachute material as if it were all covered in honey. Anyone and everyone I want to see in this moment is here. I smoke mad cigs in processing how lovely it all is; the midsummer air is still thick and hot as the sun slips toward the horizon. A forest surrounds us.

Of course, my attention quickly falls on the guy in the DJ booth at the center of the lotus: local producer Marley Carroll. His familiar dark blond head bobs up and down to his beat, which for the time being is not much more than a general funk/pop playlist to please the masses. But I’m excited for what’s to come because I’ve just recently seen him at the Asheville Music Hall 4th of July show. And in combination with fellow locals BomBassic and Canadian producer Elaquent, it’s the hottest Asheville electronic show I’ve attended maybe ever.

As the night wears on and the kids exhaust themselves and their parents, Marley’s set moves deeper into his true style. I am posted under a lotus petal in front of him, dancing madly in the psychedelic lights, meeting his eyes from time to time because, I admit, I am way turned on. He begins to peel off originals and remixes, his transitions seamless, his (literally award-winning) scratching expertly sensitive.

Marley’s flawless fusion of heavy house beats and minimal, liquefied glitch makes his particular sound remarkably original and lush. Densely-packed layers of sound operate off one another, some stomping, some tapping, some swimming in open water. My body moves all the while, celebrating every molecule of this moment with ultimate conviction.

So, I just bought his album SingsYou can look forward to that review because it’s, oh, only blowing me away.

Big-ups to Highland Brewing, ENO, and Marley Carroll for the satisfaction. You will all be seeing me again. Bwahaha.

 

 

 

This Is My Brain On Beck: Live at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
Photo by Krista Schlueter via spin.com

Photo by Krista Schlueter via spin.com

[Editor’s note: Okay, there’s a lot I have to say about why Backstage Sass has been gone for three months and now looks like total shit all over again, but suffice it to say that GoDaddy is a sleazy bag of dicks. We’ll get to that later. Right now, I just want to talk about Beck because that's all that really matters.]

“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I say as I make a poor attempt at soaking up with my bare hand the champagne I’ve just spilled on the gentleman sitting by the aisle I’ve just tripped in. I’m prepared to face the reality of my more-than-slight intoxication when he looks up at me with a pair of innocent, sparkly blue eyes, and I know he is genuine when he says it’s totally fine. We’re vibing on the same level of excitement for the show that makes us untouchable. I leave him and his wife–who’s looking on with a mixture of amusement and disgust–with my sincere apologies and proceed to my seat, laughing and weeping inside all the way.

Somehow it had slipped my mind completely that Beck was coming to Asheville on July 12, so in a mad dash to procure a ticket two days earlier, I Craigslist whored it all the way up. I contacted about 10 people with seats in the orchestra, prepared to pay upwards of $100 to see Beck’s sweat (hey, that kind of thing is important to me), but in the end I wound up in the next section back, mezzanine center, ultimately a lovely spot for a reasonable price.

I’m sitting next to David and John, two guys from way the fuck out on some mountain east of here, and they’re laughing at the spill I just took on that guy. David is startlingly attractive in a conventional way and a big Pearl Jam fan, so I know this will be better than sitting next to that crisp-shirted douchehole on my recent flight to Boston.

“Did you see the opener?” I ask, referring to The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Sean Lennon’s band. They did while I missed it completely, having peeked in upon arrival but figuring there was still time to get a drink before catching the bulk of their set. I was wrong; they’d left the stage by the time I returned.

What I heard when I entered the dark theater didn’t grab me, but I admit I haven’t cared enough to familiarize myself with their music at all. Still, to witness Sean Lennon onstage, his long, frizzy black hair covering his face Yoko-style as he picks dangerously at an electric guitar, is noteworthy. The GOASTT has some weirdo music videos and will obviously never achieve great recognition while poor Sean will always be compared to the incomparable legacy of his father, but what else is a guy supposed to do when he wants to play music and has to live with John Lennon’s exact face? That’s gotta be rough.

Finally the house lights dim again, the full auditorium erupts in applause, and suddenly Beck’s band is coming in swinging with “Devil’s Haircut.” The sound is fuzzy in the Thomas Wolfe, but my virgin sight on the one and only Beck Hansen, grooving across the stage looking like a hip Amish preacher, makes up for it.

There is something to be said for seeing someone live who’s only existed to you via stereo for the last 20 years. The familiarity of a song I’ve known since childhood juxtaposed with the space pop of something like “Gamma Ray” and psycho-geometrical stage visuals threatens to overwhelm me, but I am reminded of the earthliness of this moment: Beck’s deep, dense voice that has rapped, screamed, crooned and bled into me over the years comforts me, and I invite myself to exist alongside him in this moment.

Most of what’s going on lyrically is indiscernible, but everyone knows what to do during the choruses of the thunderstorm hits like “The New Pollution” and “Loser,” to which he adds entire verses and/or has just forgotten the original wacko words. Fuckin works for me.

Generally, the setlist pleases the hell out of me, my darlings; I was unsure how it would be mixed for this tour, the lushness and sentiment of his latest album Morning Phase more comparable to Sea Change than Midnite Vultures. And while he has performed some seriously mellow sets, the man knows how to throw a party, and electro hits from across the board appropriately support the more emotionally lucid songs like“Lost Cause” and this year’s mushroom-trip meditation “Wave.” I can’t for the life of me understand what is wrong with all the people who choose “The Golden Age” to go to the bathroom. I could die right here in my own arms.

The sold-out auditorium has been beautifully responsive throughout the whole show, but the buzz seems to get down to the molecular level as we approach the end. “Girl” and “E-Pro” open up a new plane of mega-funness, and the only thing that separates the main set from the encore is the head-scratching application of caution tape across the stage and Beck’s inquiry as to “what kind of laws [we] like to defy” here in Asheville. Forget pot, public drunkenness, and acute civil disobedience; the answer is of course SEXX LAWS!

Beck channels his hilarious inner James Brown and Al Green with “Debra” after that and then closes it out with “Where It’s At.” Sean Lennon even comes back to play tambourine, the ol’ sport. Then, as if waking from a dream, the transition from 2500 voices shouting “I got two turntables and a microphone” into everyone-getting-the-fuck-out is seamless. These guys are pros.

If I hadn’t continued to hang out with my seat-neighbors David and John, I would have pulled my usual old school groupie shit and gone around back to try to intercept the man himself. I didn’t even CHECK OUT the situation; tour bus or black car? But honestly, I would have been too late anyway. Everyone knows you have to work that shit out during soundcheck.

Dig the setlist here

Songs I Wouldn’t Kick Out of Bed: Nicotine & Gravy, Mixed Bizness, Novacane, Nobody’s Fault But My Own (they didn’t play ANYTHING from Mutations! Ack!)

Random celeb sighting: Saw Charlie Day in a drink line. You know, this guy.