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Spanning from ambient to dub to techno to industrial, there was a philosophy underlying all of the music that was gradually peeling back from the streets of Seattle, where grunge was pioneered and hardcore of all shapes and sizes had thrived.
The contemporary manifestation of Seattle’s ’90s rock scene lay before me.
Spirit Kid: a bunch of boys from the ‘burbs who take their love for big ‘60s pop riffs—Beach Boys and Beatles style—and channel it into an infectious, dizzying and well-played rock performance each and every show. Joe Bermudez: a world class DJ we’re lucky enough to call Boston’s own in between his tours backing David Guetta and his sessions remixing hit singles from pop princesses Britney, Katy and Taylor, respectively. Over drinks at ZuZu, Joe and Spirit Kid’s Emeen Zarookian found out they shared some common ground beyond their penchant for catchy hooks.
ON THE CROWD:
Emeen: When I was in high school, I grew up playing a lot of shows for kids my age.
I just remember the enthusiasm being like way higher than now, when everyone’s an adult and the concern is having another drink, or whatever it is.
Joe: Yeah I mean, kids are great but there are no limits.
I actually did a sweet sixteen party for one of the owners of Underbar.
And he called me last minute because his DJ got stuck in France. And I was like, “Yeah I’ll help you out. You guys have booked me a lot.” I didn’t know what to expect at all and he’s like “You know you’re gonna have to play a lot of hip hop stuff.” And I was like, “You do realize I’m not a hip hop DJ?” And he’s like, “No no no! But I know you can do it!” This is like an hour before the gig—I had to go on iTunes and download stuff.
They went nuts. Kids put each other up on their shoulders—they were throwing each other in the air, swinging from chandeliers in this living room. It was insane.
Like literally they took the birthday girl and they were throwing her in the air. Her dad comes upstairs and I thought I was getting in trouble—and he just looks up and he’s like, “They really like you! Keep it up!”
Emeen: That sounds AWESOME.
Joe: It was like the last thing I expected, you know?
Emeen: Were they like, drinking or anything?
Joe: No! They were all sober and just having a great time. I mean, when the last beat stopped, there was a standing ovation and everyone was like, “THANK YOU DJ!”
Emeen: You know what? They’re not jaded.
Joe: Not at all. They just wanna have fun.
Emeen: That’s the thing, probably. People in Boston like, cross their arms. New York’s like that too sometimes, at least for us. We’ve played shows where it seems like nobody liked it, and everyone’s just standing around. They’re there, watching us, but they’re just standing around. And at the end everyone’s like “Oh that was awesome man, yeah that was so rad.” I’m like, “Really? ‘Cause I didn’t think so …” and apparently it wasn’t because it didn’t seem like it, but it’s just funny how in different cities you get those different vibes. I’ve noticed that on tour too.
Joe: Without a doubt. And I think big cities are the most jaded because they have so many options. My friends make fun of me for playing Montana. I go there once a year. I’m one of two DJs they bring in and I play this little basement room—
Emeen: —And they go nuts though, right?
Joe: They go NUTS! It’s that Sweet Sixteen party with the chandeliers all over again. It’s crazy … A lot of nights I think I have a really, really bad show, that’s when I get the best reviews from people. I think subconsciously we try harder, because we’re like, “Why aren’t they moving? Why aren’t they doing stuff?” And it’s just not that type of crowd.
ON CHANGING IT UP:
Emeen: How often do you play in Boston?
Joe: I used to never play here. When I first moved here I played maybe once a year—I played LA and Miami way more than Boston. Nowadays it’s pretty regular. I do every other Tuesday night at Bond, which is cool and just total lounge music. I don’t have to worry about a dance floor, so I get to play all kinds of obscure stuff that I couldn’t play anywhere else. And then I do this other spot which is basically your standard college dance place. So it’s a lot of like the big hits and we just have as much fun as possible.
Emeen: Same here—funny! How often do you change up what you play?
Joe: I just get bored so I don’t like doing the same thing.
There will be times where I just know certain things will work from other parties and I’m like, “Oh, if I do this other record next it’ll set the place off.” I’ve seen it consistently, so I may sneak it in but I know there’s a lot of DJs that plan out a set and do the same thing in every single city.
Emeen: Seems boring, yeah.
Joe: I just laugh at these guys because if their floor were ever to clear, they would never have any idea how to get them back or win them over again. And I started in really crappy bars where it was a challenge to get people out there. So knowing how to do that helps me when we’ve got people that are into it. Do you ever have that? Do you change up your set too? I feel like rock bands are a little more consistent.
Emeen: It’s hard because Spirit Kid is not just one person—we’re anywhere from five to seven of us at any time, and not everyone might know every song that I would wanna play, or would have practiced it.
So I would love to just always play new songs. That’s pretty much all I ever wanna do.
We played a couple of new songs last week and I was most excited for those. I didn’t care about any of the other ones anymore. I get super bored, just playing them over and over again. It’s a different thing if you’re on tour and it’s for new people, but it’s the same thing for the same people and it just starts to kind of get to me a little bit.
Joe: Do you ever just do jam sessions with the guys live on stage? [Laughs]
Emeen: We’ve joked about that! That happens in our practices too often, and I’m starting to put a stop to it because we’re not learning songs we’re just doing this stupid jamming! The problem is that we do it and we’re good at it—like we sound good when we’re doing it, but I don’t wanna do it. So it’s gotta stop. And I keep saying, we can’t do that anymore. No more jamming
Joe: What about changing up your hit songs? Make them different for your fans?
Emeen: That’s interesting—we haven’t done a ton of that.
Joe: Like new melodies.
Emeen: Yeah, that’s interesting for sure. I would say there is an element of our show where we might extend certain parts of songs or whatever. We might jam out the ending of a song, but it’s not like a full out jam session. That’s not the kind of band we are.
We’re very much about the songs and the song structure and the arrangements. That’s the fun of going to see a band, and you want it to sound good, like the record, but you want it to be kinda different.
And give something else to the experience—which is I think the best part of going to see a band live.
Joe: Would you ever sneak in someone else’s record? Like if there was a Prince song in the same key as your big hit, would you go into his chorus? Just to throw people for a loop?
Emeen: You know, we’ve actually done that. Not Prince but we’ve done that with Guns ‘n Roses. [Laughs] It was on Halloween a couple years ago. It was off of a song that we don’t really play anymore called “Wait a Minute.” And in the middle it goes to this completely different section, different tempo and everything, and we went into “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” I don’t know why or how that came about but it was kind of hilarious. But we’ve long since stopped doing that.
Emeen: Well you know, you do it like twice, joke’s over.
ON … BANANAS?
Emeen: One of us has to do Neil Diamond.
Joe: It’s gonna be like a race now to see who does it first.
Emeen: Didn’t he write “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees? I think that was one of his songs.
Joe: Yeah, he wrote a lot of songs for people.
Emeen: I’m a big Monkees fan.
Joe: So what are your thoughts on bananas?
Emeen: Love em! Had one the other day. It was kind of soft, it was kind of gross actually. I like em ripe.
Joe: No flaccid bananas for this guy.
Emeen: No, no thank you.
ON ROCK AND ELECTRONIC MUSIC:
Emeen: Do you listen to a lot of rock stuff?
Joe: Rock’s what I grew up on, yeah. AC/DC’s my favorite band of all time. I was looking online earlier and I saw that we both like ELO.
Emeen: Oh yeah, one of my top favorites!
Joe: I worked in a kitchen for awhile, so all the cooks—all they’d listen to was rock and roll.
I didn’t know who Led Zeppelin was at that age or any of that stuff, so they’d school me.
Anything I didn’t know I’d get my ass beat in the kitchen. So I worked really hard to learn these songs.
I didn’t wanna get stuffed in a trash can.
Emeen: Tough kitchen you worked in. Hell’s Kitchen.
Joe: [Laughs] It’s where Gordon Ramsay got a start. He was a lot more violent back in the day—he had a drinking problem. Seriously though it wasn’t pretty. Alright, this is how bad it was. One of the bartenders only had one arm, and he would still stuff me in a trashcan. He would take his nub and give me a noogie and then like … yeah. It was not pleasant being a dishwasher at like 13 or 14.
Emeen: And that was because you didn’t have knowledge of Led Zeppelin.
Joe: No. He was just a dick.
Emeen: We’ve all been there. I was a busboy once. It was a pretty shitty job.
Joe: But it totally makes me appreciate what I do now for a living. So much better than getting thrown in a trashcan.
Emeen: Now you have to go to trashcans to perform. [Laughs] I actually like electronic stuff too. A lot. And it doesn’t really show in Spirit Kid but I’ve done some random electronic songs in the past. There’s one I’m really excited about that I’ve been working on for like a year. I just need to finish it. The whole ELO thing, I really like the later half of their career, which is a lot of synths and late ‘70s, early ‘80s kind of stuff, which is really cool—synths and strings and stuff. Cool arrangements.
Joe: I’m a sucker for strings. They get me every single time.
Emeen: Yeah, and they use ‘em really well, you know? So it’s kind of vocoders and cool things like that. Which we have some of on our records. But that I love just like stupid pop music too. Just love it. I eat it up.
ON REMIXES AND RECORDING:
Emeen: Which Britney Spears song did you remix?
Joe: The last one I did for her was called “I Wanna Go,” which is still kinda floatin’ around on the air now.
Emeen: So when you remix, do you get like the stems from them?
Joe: Every one is different. For Britney I did get the stems, but I pretty much chucked everything and just took her vocal tracks and then rebuilt everything from the ground up. The only time I like music stems is if they have a really nasty guitar player. Because there’s no way A) I’m gonna do it better or B) mic it better—so I’ll take what they have, put it in a sampler, chop it up, and do some crazy things with it.
Emeen: What programs do you use?
Joe: I use ProTools for everything.
Emeen: Me too!
Joe: Nice. My favorite thing I have is a Juno 106. I’m a big fan of the vintage gear.
Emeen: Cool. My old band in high school used one of those. Synthy kinda thing …
Joe: It’s crazy now because there are VSTs for everything, but it’s just … it’s so nice just to touch something! [Laughs]
Emeen: Well, you know it’s a limitation you get when you actually have a piece of hardware, I think.
Joe: No, you’re right.
Emeen: That’s why I love recording analog sometimes.
Joe: Because two takes are never the same. It’s always different and it just gives it a unique character.
Emeen: It’s interesting coming from the pop music world where a lot of stuff is cookie cutter, everything’s perfect in a way.
Joe: It’s very “perfect.” Some of the sessions I get, I can go in and see exactly what they’re doing. And it’s basically just my learning, like I’m going into school. I can open up my Pro Tools session and say “Alright, how are they doing this?” And I can break down each instrument and see how they’re getting certain things to pop and why things are sitting a certain way.
Emeen: Yeah, I worked with Harmonix and I used to mix for stuff. I’ve done the same thing where I get the stems and learn a lot from these iconic songs for Rock Band that you’re hearing stems for.
And it’s cool hearing mistakes and all that.
Joe: Yeah, because when you separate everything you hear things like “That was in there? Really?” But if it weren’t the record would not be the same.
Emeen: We’re being nerdy.
Joe: Yeah, we’re about to geek out about the snare drum for the Beatles.
Emeen: Yeah, I think there’s people who are way more extreme at least. I mean if you wanted to separate it who’s more electronic and who’s more rock or whatever. I’m very open to both worlds.
Joe: Me too.
Emeen: For me, Ableton is a tool and it is kind of what you put into it.
Joe: No it is. And sometimes too, I’ll get like a really cool pattern, and I’ll just run through different patches. Because there’ll be a weird arpeggio on something that I would have never thought of, and then all of a sudden I’m like, “Ohhh… what if I do this now!” And then everything just starts to snowball.
Emeen: I actually sometimes do that as well. I’ll be writing as I’m recording. I’ll try a part out and if it’s not working I’ll play it out a bunch, so it’s a whole other world than just sitting there with a pencil trying to write something. I guess it’s never the same way twice.
Joe: Never. You never know when creativity is gonna strike.
It’s always the silliest thing.
Emeen: Yeah! And I’ve noticed too, if you just stay in and try to write for a night … It’s not necessarily gonna happen.
If you just go out and experience and just live your life, you’re gonna get inspired to do something.
And I think that’s really important.
Joe: I think so too. But I also think it’s very important to kinda schedule some kinda regularity where you’re trying to write.
Emeen: Yeah you need to go back. You need to go back and do it.