Miles Arntzen started EMEFE with one goal in mind–to create a listening and live show experience unlike no other. EMEFE pumps out wild and catchy tracks, leaving you wanting to know more about the eight piece mega band behind the music. In anticipation for their debut album, EMEFE, out May 5th, we chatted with frontman and creator of the mega group, Miles Arntzen.
Juliann DiNicola: Miles, you started EMEFE back in 2009 as a means to bring to life the music you were writing and composing. When did you begin writing? What were you looking for in a live act, and in the musicians joining you onstage?
Miles Arntzen: I grew up writing and recording music in my dad’s basement studio in Manhattan, and through high school I played my music live at parties and clubs like Don Hill’s and Lion’s Den. Once I got to NYU, though, I dove deep into afrobeat music, and a wave of new musical ideas flooded in. I was in my freshman year dorm room with my noise-canceling headphones on, getting lost in this new musical world I was creating. I was exploring a key component of my musical identity without realizing it, and pretty soon after I decided to gather together a band to share this identity with.
When I got to NYU I experienced a sudden onslaught of insecurities about myself as a musician that I had never felt before–competition, jealousy, fear–all of which are part of growing up and becoming conscious of your self. Through afrobeat music, I was slowly learning how to let go of those thoughts, to put a hold on my mind momentarily and just be. I would spend hours alone playing along to Fela Kuti songs on bass, like it was some alternative form of therapy.
I wanted to share this feeling with audiences of people, but first I needed a band. The main things I looked for in bandmates (and, for that matter, people in general) were patience and lack of ego. In afrobeat and funk music especially, repetition is a huge theme, and repetition takes patience. I first approached Doug Berns, the understated yet explosive bassist I had grown up playing with in NYC. Keyboardist Jake Pinto and saxophonist Jas Walton joined the crew, both of whom also had an inkling to shake off the jazz mentality they were accustomed to. I made mix CD’s with Fela, Antibalas, and Tony Allen songs, and I essentially told them, “Listen to this CD, and if you like what you hear, come to rehearsal next Monday.” At that rehearsal, I told them we had our first gig in three weeks … and that was it.
Through our first performances, I discovered that I loved breaking down the standard wall between band and audience. I loved the feeling that everybody was in it together – the people playing instruments and the people watching and dancing all played an equal role in lifting up the room. The live experience we create has been the band’s propelling force ever since.
JD: EMEFE had a whirlwind ride in the early years of you all playing together, opening up for outfits like Big Boi and Passion Pit. What’s it like playing with other artists that may not seem like an obvious fit (Big Boi, per say)?
MA: Early on, opening for artists like that was almost like a social experiment, because we would be playing this weirdo music and jumping around onstage, and loving the different reactions we would get. Nowadays I actually prefer when EMEFE plays with artists that would seem like odd pairings, because we learn so much from those experiences–both watching how other bands do things, and performing for crowds with different tastes.
JD: EMEFE’s upcoming self titled release is said to be about “breaking through static, the undefinable noise and clutter of everyday life.” How did holding that concept in mind shape the writing/recording process?
MA: The album’s concept was sort of writing itself throughout the whole process, so it was more a game of uncovering that concept at the end of it all. “Dream Your Life Away” was the first song written for this album–musically, it was the song that unlocked the new sound that we have now developed more fully. Lyrically, “Dream Your Life Away” is a confrontation of the personal anxieties and fears that threaten to shape you as you grow up, and the struggle to power through them to a place of peace. So, in a way, “Dream Your Life Away” is an encapsulation of the whole album. The visual elements of static and light came later in the process, when we were able to look at the record as a unified statement and explore how all the songs tie together.
JD: As a drummer, you’ve shared the stage with some huge names, like Will Butler of Arcade Fire, the Roots & Tuneyards. What is the difference in supporting another artist on stage, and touring with your own outfit?
MA: Every experience I’ve had supporting other artists taught me a little something about who I am and who I’m not, and those lessons filter directly into my work with EMEFE. Working with and observing other artists has shaped who I am as a performer and songwriter. I am a bandleader at heart, so at this point anybody who has worked with me as a drummer knows that I feed off of getting involved creatively and going beyond the standard drummer role.
I consider myself a songwriter as much as a drummer, because that’s what I spend most of my time doing these days. So, playing my music with EMEFE is more important to me than it has ever been because it is my vehicle of full expression. Over the years, I have balanced playing with other artists and playing with EMEFE, and EMEFE has been steadily growing as a band alongside those experiences. Through finishing this new album, though, EMEFE’s potential has been more fully realized, so it is time for this band to seize the moment.
JD: What is next for EMEFE?
MA: Play this album live, in as many places as we can. At the end of 2014 we took a few months to develop our live show so we could communicate our new music and new sound in the most exciting way possible. Now, the live show is more powerful than it has ever been. Our roles have developed immensely since those first live shows in 2009. Javier Ramos transformed from a conga player to the minister of electronics, percussion, and crowd-hyping. Michael Fatum is a complete rockstar trumpet player, one of the most exciting performers in the world. I feel immensely grateful to have this group of people taking the EMEFE vision to such heights.
We’ve been working for almost two years on this new album, so we are basking in the feeling that people are actually listening to this music and feeling all of the emotion and excitement that went into making it. As new EMEFE songs are written almost weekly at this point, there is probably a follow-up record not too far in the distance … but for now, it’s time to bring this new album to the people.