The Electronic Folk Music Improvisation Test

The members of Kuda Fudra warm up between sets at a show.

By Meredith Sharpe

It is nearly midnight on a hot summer evening in Brooklyn. A group of three musicians, all in their early twenties, revel in their success after a well-received show at a venue called The Neverlands. Back at the apartment they share on the Eastern edge of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the members of Power Music Electric Revival share cigarettes, crack open beers, and playfully mock each other’s performances, only to follow with genuine congratulations.

After months of production difficulty, their hard-to-sell blend of punk, rap, and psychedelic sounds seems to be working, having drawn a large and dedicated crowd to that evening’s show. They unload their equipment, making the block-long trek from the apartment to guitarist Andrew Downs’ car in a cacophony of celebration. They get rowdier, louder, more noticeable. As the other three settle in upstairs, Downs and a woman friend return to the car to retrieve instruments and have some time alone. To make the job easier, they leave the apartment door open behind them.

They take their time at the car, ambivalent to the action on the street around them until threatening shouts ring out in unidentified voices from the open windows of Downs’s apartment. Take off all your clothes, the voices command. Shut up and lay on the floor. He realizes that the voices are addressing his friends. Crashing sounds echo from the apartment’s open windows soon after. Looking up, they see several men dressed in dark clothes, running from the apartment with the band’s instruments, equipment, and laptops in tow. The stolen items are collectively worth thousands. Each man brandishes a gun.

“I hid under my car,” says Downs as he recalls the incident that changed his life last June. “I thought they were dead.” The utter dread associated with the memory comes through in his tone even now, and he briefly avoids eye contact with a reporter. But for him and former Power Music Electric Revival keyboardist Ian Harris, the robbery became a blessing in disguise, a catalyst for a much-needed change in lifestyle that began with the formation of a new band.

Sprawled out on a couch in their Crown Heights apartment, the pair discuss their new project, a half-electronic, half-improvised band known as Kuda Fudra–a made-up phrase intended to be memorable based upon its ambiguous origins and repetitive vowel sounds–that is currently on the rise in the Brooklyn underground scene. Their drummer Seth Weiss is a nomadic character who has disappeared for the day, while the band’s newfound bassist is attending classes at Brooklyn College, the institution where Downs and Harris originally met two years ago. They are recording an album and hesitant to reveal rough tracks that have yet to be mixed for optimal sound quality. “It won’t sound right through speakers. You’d be better off listening through headphones right now. Just remember, it’s not done,” Downs warns again and again. Like many musicians, he is wary of revealing a product that has yet to match the ideal. His philosophy in marketing his current music is based in modesty. He claims the band is “not trying to get rich,” but focused on obtaining the financial means for the best music possible. “Production is expensive,” he admits pragmatically, and the band demands to produce their sounds exactly as imagined.

Both members of Kuda Fudra are staunchly protective of their music, and, though they do not directly acknowledge it, seem fearful that their foray into electronic music may result in a loss of respect within the musical community due to the genre’s recent connotations. They both insist that they are “not making dubstep,” referring to the wildly popular electronic subgenre that has drawn criticism for its lack of musical intricacies. “It’s more like dub,” Downs says as he launches into an explanation of their musical ambitions. Dub is a genre born out of reggae, characterized by the use of pre-recorded tracks, which are then remixed in a studio or at a live show, usually with an emphasis upon drum and bass. “What we’re doing is mixing recorded with live, or electronic with improvisation. Ian has a laptop in front of him the entire time as we play, and mixes tracks we’ve already recorded. He also plays keys if the song calls for it. Then Seth is hooked up to a metronome as he drums to keep time with Ian, and the bass and guitar are improvised live over that.”

The man behind the band’s decision to turn to dub is equally ambitious. Downs is a physically magnetic presence, a few inches over six feet tall with long hair and an impressive beard that do not betray that he is still a month shy of 21. He is clearly the leader of the band, having recruited the drum and bass players himself and providing lengthy tangents about their sound before Harris has a chance to speak. Harris seems content to stay in the background. “Ian’s spacey, but he’s a good guy. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, I think, and he’s crazy talented. Everyone in this band is the best I’ve seen at their instrument. It’s incredible,” Downs says with gratitude.

The talent behind the group and Downs’s assertive attitude seem to be paying off: in the previous months, they were offered an opportunity to record in the studio of a billionaire producer in New Jersey after he came upon a sample of their music by chance, then traveled to Chicago to incorporate the work of a guest drummer whose talent was recently featured at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. They are looking into a loft in North Brooklyn to use as a consistent practice space and potential venue for small shows. “I’m sick of living in the hood,” Downs states bluntly, an unsurprising statement given his experiences during and after the robbery.

The band’s personal hardships extend far past the night of June 13, though. The robbery and loss of equipment was an enormous blow in itself, but the event was followed by an onslaught of bad press from The New York Times and Gothamist. “They made us look like naive,” Harris recalls. Both articles focused not on the band’s members, but on the location of their apartment, and attempted to use the incident as a commentary on young, misinformed, generally white artists who choose to live in neighborhoods that have yet to be gentrified. Worse yet, the Times attacked their productivity, claiming that the robbery sustained more damage “than the band had songs.”

Downs attempted to take the comments in stride and insisted to his bandmates that any publicity was good publicity. He was personally propelled into action by the attack and refused to give up his ambitions and leave New York City in favor of an easier life in his native Chicago. The old apartment was damaged and a crime scene, and the incident confirmed that “living in the hood” had been the wrong decision, despite its cost efficiency. He could not find another home on short notice and little money, so he couch-surfed. “I was living in my car for a while, sleeping in parking spots on Eastern Parkway, and trying to study for finals during all of it,” he recalls. “It was three months of hell.” He ultimately dropped out of Brooklyn College due to his financial situation, albeit with a 4.0 GPA, and was forced to take up a variety of minimum-wage jobs from restaurant busboy to deliveryman to support himself. As his band halted production to acquire the money to purchase new instruments and equipment, he stopped playing shows, stopped composing, and seemed to hit rock bottom.

Unfortunately, the suggestions of musical inefficacy made by the Times were true to some degree, though the root cause was not naivete. While Downs and Harris quarrel often over musical decisions, they agree on one thing when considering where to place responsibility for their earlier band’s dissolution–“there was always too much Spaceman.” The rapper for the now-defunct Power Music Electric Revival is a native New Yorker with an anti-authoritarian attitude and, in his own words, “a mean acid habit.” Both qualities proved problematic for the band, but they eventually encouraged Downs to reconsider his own habits and ambitions. He is no stranger to drug use, having previously put off pursuing music for a year so as to have time to contain the issue. “I was supposed to move to California,” he explains, uncharacteristically avoiding eye contact again at the mention of the sensitive subject. His speech becomes slow, its words carefully chosen. “But I stayed in Chicago for a year and went to community college. I went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which were bullshit and like a cult. I toured all over the South with an industrial band just to keep myself immersed in playing music. My girlfriend at the time was moving out to New York and all I really wanted was a city with a music scene, so I gave up California and followed her.”

The mostly sober hopeless romantic was soon eviscerated by New York City’s drug culture, which Downs found himself immersed in after befriending and forming a band with Spaceman at Brooklyn College. They would trip on a variety of substances for days at a time, drinking all the while. Downs’s relationship fell apart. On a whim, he released a song of his own entitled “Paper Perception” under the band’s name, a guitar-heavy track which ironically laments the self-aggrandizement associated with drug addiction with lines such as “properly, paradoxically forming castles and statues from hills of debris” and “potent doses sew poor-lit poets.” The track blew up despite its creator’s inner turmoil, and the band rode its coattails to local success. “There was so much arrogance in that house,” Downs admits in reference to the Bed-Stuy apartment, shaking his head with regret in his voice. “Spaceman was always talking about fame, how much money we were going to make, but the songs never got made.”

“One time, we were supposed to play a show at The Knitting Factory.” The story promises controversy already, a given roadblock in the days of P.M.E.R. “We were out of our minds on mushrooms walking in, and for some reason we weren’t on the list. The bouncer took one look at Spaceman and said ‘I don’t like that one.’ Spaceman of course argued with him and he couldn’t even enter the venue. The rest of us played so badly that we were booed off stage.” The members of Power Music Electric Revival are now banned entirely from performing at The Knitting Factory, and the event was one of many significant incidents that led to its dissolution and the formation of Kuda Fudra. In the months after the robbery, they eventually separated following an explosive fight about their future in which Downs both resigned from the band and, in his fury, punched an argumentative Harris in the face. “Ian and I made up later that day and decided to form a new band of our own,” he concludes with a laugh.

His current view on drugs is less forgiving than in the past. “I firmly believe that acid has made me more stupid. Drugs may start out interesting or mind-opening, but they never lead to anything good,” he insists. The admission is shockingly mature for a musician who has striven in the past to mimic the charisma of hard-living figures such as Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, whom he cites as early musical influences. “I drink beer and smoke now, and I don’t do it in excess. I don’t have time. I want to work and make money to pay my rent. I want to make music and get it out there for people to see.” He has formed a theory that “acid can either break you down or build up your ego. [The latter] is what happened to Spaceman–it made him more arrogant overall. It made him believe he actually is everything that he says he is.” The example was what Downs needed to get sober, more than Narcotics Anonymous, more than the financial gain that Spaceman strove for in making music. He does not extensively address drug use in his music beyond occasionally playing to the culture surrounding its reggae influence; in fact, most of the songs are instrumental or contain only abstract lyrics. The anti-authoritarianism of P.M.E.R. is gone, the inner conflict expressed in “Paper Perception” solved, at least for the moment. He has finally obtained what he strove for in moving to New York–it is now, truly, “all about the sound, all about commanding the scene” rather than shaping a memorable but ultimately detrimental lifestyle.

In April 2011, back at the Neverlands, he has taken the stage once again, this time with an entirely new band and genre. He makes heart-shaped gestures with his hands at a girl in the audience, and takes a drag from a joint offered up to the stage, his first in weeks. An atmospheric, high-pitched electronic sound issues from Harris’s laptop, accompanied by initial notes from the drum set and a tambourine. We’re off into a journey of reggae, rock, and intense guitar improvisations, during which Downs yells to the crowd, dances, and tosses his hair. The members of Kuda Fudra may never play The Knitting Factory, but they have overcome homelessness, addiction, and apathy to gain a place in New York City’s upcoming music scene. With a final chord to the song, Downs throws his arms out in encouragement to the dance party that has broken out at the foot of the stage and tosses his head back to take in their applause, a triumphant smile on his face.

 

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