The Small Town series focuses on artists, producers, and members of DIY communities in areas lacking a large metro and widely accessible music hub. The series hopes to focus on how life in a small town affects one’s style of music and communication within a DIY scene, hopefully providing insight to readers in similar circumstances.
I met Eli Kahn and Arthur Schroeder through a friend from the South Bend area. Housing the University of Notre Dame, South Bend isn’t really a “small town,” but the area’s isolation from major music hubs has allowed for a distinct DIY community to thrive. In their band After Ours, Eli and Arthur play what they call “head-nod jazz,” a blend of jazz and hip-hop that’s sole aim is to groove. During their recent tour, I talked to After Ours about their histories with hip-hop and jazz, as well as their immersement in South Bend’s DIY scene.
by Xana Pierone
RARE CANDY: How did you two get your start in music?
Arthur Schroeder: I first started playing snare drum for the school band in fourth grade. I didn’t get back into a band setting until I had dropped out of college and audited some music performance classes at IUSB – that’s with Indiana University South Bend – with their big band, community, and school bands.
Eli Kahn: I started playing piano when I was eight or nine, but I never took it super seriously. I started to get into guitar when I was fifteen, just ‘cause it seemed like a slightly cooler instrument. Then I ended up going to Indiana University South Bend as a classical guitar performance major. I started playing with their big band jazz group, and that’s where I met Arthur.
RC: When did you start producing music, as opposed to just playing for yourselves?
EK: The first band where I was writing all the time was a band we started in 2008 called Sobriquet. We were working with an avant-garde saxophonist, and it was more out-of-the-box modern jazz. Then in 2010 we started another band called The B.E.A.T., which is an experimental hip-hop project. The B.E.A.T. is the two of us with a rapper named Billy East. We’ve released three projects of our own material and one project of obscure covers that we turned into our own style. With The B.E.A.T., our music is a lot more abrasive and loud, unlike After Ours where there’s more subtlety.
RC: You describe After Ours’ sound as “head-nod jazz.” Can you explain what that means?
EK: For sure! We both played hip-hop for five and half years before we started gigging as After Ours, and a lot of what we do is geared towards making people groove to music. In terms of the overall way things are laid out, I feel like the way I set up loops and layers is more like how a producer or beatmaker would. Even though I'm not creating any of the beats themselves, the way I approach my contributions to the music, to me, is very much based in hip-hop.
AS: I think a lot of what we try to do has a jazz sensibility, just because of the way we like to play, but it’s very much groove based. As opposed to being a sit-down and observe jazz concert, we try to bring more of a move around, nod-your-head feel to it.
RC: Are you both from South Bend, Indiana?
AS: Since 1999. I moved there with my family at the start of high school. I was in the suburbs of Chicago before that.
EK: I moved there in ‘99 for middle school. I’m originally from New Mexico and I grew up in Costa Rica.
RC: South Bend isn’t a traditional “small town”, but it’s still isolated from major music hubs. How would you describe the DIY scene there?
EK: I think there is a lot of creativity happening in music, and arts in general, because we’re in a scene where it’s necessary for you to make a contribution to the scene in order for it to exist. Maybe in a major city, there’s a kind of pre-set mechanism for bands to start out and get their material out there, but in South Bend, everyone really has to work together to make the scene work. Everybody in the scene goes to see everybody else, regardless of genre. I see my friend’s country western band, and my friends that play pop music come to see me. There’s a healthy amount of variety. When you live in a place where there’s not a lot to do in the winter and you’re trying to get all of the angst out, you need a creative outlet to do something weird. I feel like people in South Bend generally like things out of the norm because of that.
RC: Can you talk more about the venues in South Bend, specifically their role in the DIY scene?
EK: The venues that I like the most exist in a self-sustaining way. A venue we’re going to be playing at in the next few weeks is a non-profit coffee shop, and it’s a cornerstone of the DIY scene in our area, because if bands are coming through and they play weird music, they can always get a gig there. Same with other venues in our area, there’s just about a scene for everything because everybody has made it their own.
RC: So are there established venues or is it more of a house system?
EK: The venues available are a small spectrum to pick from, but a coffee shop might have the craziest show you’ve ever seen. There’s one place in our town called the General Deli & Cafe that might have a singer-songwriter one night and might have a band that’s lighting all their instruments on fire the next night. It also hosts art shows and is an artistic hub in our city. There’s another place called LangLab that’ll do everything from opera to Shakespeare events. The rest of the venues are more like bars or rock club type places, but there are some jazz spots as well.
RC: It sounds like you have a really good setup for DIY music in South Bend! Can you talk about the difficulties you’ve encountered within the scene, if any?
EK: It’s a challenging place to be a part of, because you really have to represent the art form you are taking on. Outside of After Ours, there aren’t a ton of people in town doing a modern jazz project. There’s more of a traditional scene with older players, and for several years we were not taken seriously, because jazz is an older person’s game.
The biggest struggle for me is that you cap out really quickly at the percentage of people who are going to see you and hear what you do. That’s kind of why we’ve been going out on the road, out of necessity to have new people hear our music. It’s good to get fresh ears and advance your music.
RC: When you two started After Ours, did you always know that you’d play head-nod jazz? Or has your style changed significantly over time?
EK: I think we’ve changed a lot. When we first started, we had this idea of a performance art thing, where we weren’t going to write setlists and we weren’t going to play specific songs, it was all going to be improv. We probably did twelve shows like that and we slowly started writing material. I think that in the last two years, it’s really tightened up and turned into more of a song-writing direction.
RC: What inspirations do you and your music draw from?
AS: Oh man. Officially, the inspiration comes from musicians that I get to work with or musicians that I don’t know and find on the internet. I feel like I try to steal things from the drummers that I encounter on a semi-regular basis, rather than the “icons” or more famous people.
EK: Yeah, I would say the same. You definitely get a lot of inspiration from your peers. Other than that, I get a lot of inspiration from traveling around and seeing things that I wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Sometimes it’s musical and sometimes it’s not. We just got done playing a festival in the Upper Peninsula, and after seeing all the music and scenery up there, I feel super inspired. I’m in a good headspace for playing. Sometimes, a way of living is more inspiring than actual music.
RC: How has your experience playing hip-hop affected After Ours?
EK: We took a year break from The B.E.A.T. and, having played so much with After Ours, we’ve been able to go out and really hone our craft. Going back to hip-hop has been so fun, ‘cause we’re much better players than we were before.
RC: Besides going back and forth between projects, what else do you draw from your experience playing hip-hop?
AS: There’s a kind of attitude. Our name “After Ours” is a little bit on the aggressive side – we do what we do for us. The risks that we take sometimes turn out great, sometimes they don’t, but we try to be true to what we are doing as musicians. So with the name After Ours, we’re kind of letting people know that we’re interested in fulfilling ourselves first with the music, as opposed to groups that can get popular from pleasing their audiences, and I think that’s definitely a hip-hop attitude.
EK: Hip-hop has influenced my life in a huge way. I think, at this point, it’s basically the most culturally important modern art in the world.
RC: Did you both grow up listening to a lot of hip-hop and jazz?
EK: I got into hip-hop when I moved from Costa Rica to Chicago and my uncle gave me a Beastie Boys cassette, and kids on my bus route were listening to Eminem who was just getting popular. From the age of twelve, I’ve been listening to tons of rap. The first artists I really liked were Pharcyde and other artists that were jazz heavy. I really liked the Beastie Boys’ sound, and I actually think it seriously influenced the sounds that I play now.
I got into jazz in college when I started playing it in the big band, ‘cause I wanted to push my playing into a new direction. I wasn’t that into jazz, at least starting out, but now I love both jazz and hip-hop and I see a lot of commonality between the two.
AS: I didn’t get into hip-hop seriously until I found out that a lot of the well-schooled jazz drummers that I liked were influenced by hip-hop. I was more interested in seeking out those drummers and their influences than the rappers themselves, so I come from a musician’s side of things.
RC: So fast forwarding to now, what are you currently listening to?
EK: I listen to Madvillain’s Madvillainy, J Dilla’s Donuts and Freddie Gibb’s Piñata in the van as go to classics. I like to get new music on cassette so I can listen to it in the van. In terms of new music, I’m really into beatmakers and electronic music, so I’ve been loving this British beatmaker, Sam Gellaitry. In terms of instrumentalists, I listen to Charlie Hunter. He’s like my biggest influence in terms of my playing. I’ve also been really into this group Yussef Kamaal, and BADBADNOTGOOD. I love their stuff. Also everything they do with Kaytranada is awesome, and I really like Kaytranada as well. There’s a ton! We listen to stuff all over the board.
AS: At home, I really like to listen to Run the Jewels and the Deftones. Those are two that I listen to all the time, but besides them I try to seek out players. I really like drummers, so looking through them I find out about new bands and different things like that, more on the jazz side.
EK: I’m more into the experimental side. I just went and saw Japanese Breakfast and I really like them. I listen to Death Grips just about every day.
RC: Since you’re on tour, are all those albums you mentioned physically on cassette tapes that you brought with you?
EK: Yeah! Every time I go to the Bay Area, I go to a cassette tape shop and I probably spend like seventy bucks on cassettes, ‘cause they have all the stuff that I really like that’s on limited format. I collect old cassettes too.
AS: We’re limited with our vehicle. It only has a tape player, so we can’t do CDs or AUX, and we keep trying to buy a tape that has the chord coming off of it, so we can plug in our phones, but it’s all jacked up and won’t work. So yeah, we’re pretty limited in what we get to play in the car. We beatbox and Eli raps a little bit, so we do that in the car too.
RC: Have you guys had any Whiplash-type experiences with really intense jazz musicians or teachers?
EK: Oh, of course.
AS: There are definitely some people who take it to the next level. In my experience, it’s been more of a generational gap, and I think there are different ideas of what the genre is capable of. So there’s the school of thought that jazz was at its highest in the late 50s and early 60s and they don’t get past that and they’re really into reliving that, which is great! I enjoy that music very much and have nothing against it, but part of the thing that Eli and I like about jazz and its culture is the idea of improvisation and being able to fit into the moment, because that’s so important. We open ourselves up to more than the traditional, small combo situation.
EK: Yeah, I’d follow up saying I do a pretty unique thing where I play a custom instrument that has bass strings and guitar strings, and there’s really only one other person who has done that on a really large scale and that’s Charlie Hunter. I remember when I first got my guitar this guy came up to me and he’s like, “well you know you’ll never be as good as Charlie Hunter.” and I’d only been playing a few months and that left me with a really terrible taste in my mouth. We shouldn’t discourage younger players, and I see it all the time from older players. We should be fostering creativity and not shitting on people’s dreams. Even if someone isn’t on the level of your playing abilities, you should try to spread the wealth and knowledge, not be an elitist about it. I really can’t stand that.
RC: I ask that question, and some people think I’m trying to be topical or cliché, but I feel like in jazz it’s common to have intense instructors. In eighth grade, I had a super intense visiting instructor come in and just yell at us, and for what purpose?
EK: If you dedicate your life to something that’s kind of fringe and outside the norm, you’re going to take it really seriously and sometimes, too seriously. People who are doing something that not everyone appreciates, I think, feel like they’re not getting their props or what have you. Especially in jazz, I’ve noticed it’s more prevalent.
RC: Right, it’s a sense of gatekeeping or safeguarding their fringe community.
EK: Yeah, you’ll meet some people who are jaded in the jazz world, because everything is about flexing all the time.
RC: I think it applies to a lot of different disciplines too. The idea that “no, you can’t like this thing now that it’s more popular, because I liked it when it wasn’t and suffered” or whatever. I think it especially applies to comics or “geek” culture when men try to keep women and POC out.
EK: Maybe it’s just all music, but there’s definitely an element of sexism in jazz. I think there are some incredible women in jazz right now and I’m really stoked about that. I really think that in order for the art form to progress, it should be as inclusive as possible. I agree, there is an element of gatekeeping and that sucks, we should stop that.
RC: Totally. Do you have any advice to people who are starting to produce their own music, specifically to people in smaller towns without access to larger music hubs?
AS: It can be very easy to feel overwhelmed and think that because you’re in your grandma’s basement and can’t afford nice things, you can’t record or get your music out there. I think that people can find resources and go out and produce music. You can’t feel held back by certain industry standards or expenses. You need to give people more credit; the listener will be appreciative that you’re going out there and trying to do something. When we recorded this last record for After Ours, we did it in a basement, borrowed friend’s instruments, and the gear we used wasn’t the top of the line. It’s important to just go out there and do it, or you’re going to keep putting it off.
EK: If you love playing music and you love being around it and you want to make it your life, do it. There are already enough people being bankers and lawyers and shit, so if this is really what you want to do, just do it. I stopped having a conventional job two years ago and it was terrifying, but if you want to go out and share your gift with people, you’re almost obligated to do it, ‘cause this is what you’re meant to be doing. Don’t let people get you down because you’re in a small town. You can go to other towns. I like where we’re at, but we’re trying to leave. I’m not going to lie about it, I want to go to other places and get my music out there. It’s hard to summarize in a sentence the lifestyle and journey that you’re going to be on forever.