There are more eye-catching parts to serpentwithfeet’s music than there are tattoos on his face. At 29 years old, the musician—who, if you’re wondering, has a pentagram, “suicide,” and “heaven” inked near his skull—has finally found the right outlet through which to express himself, and he’s using every instrument imaginable to get the points across.
While serpentwithfeet started out in neo-soul-tainted groups, trying to wed the styles of Gnarls Barkley and John Legend with his own, he realized several years ago that it was time to move on. He didn’t plan on changing. It just hit him. His body wanted to move differently. “I don’t know how else to explain it,” he says over the phone. “I wanted to traverse the world differently and inherit my body in a new way.”
That meant trying his hand in writing orchestral parts, string movements, and woodwind decrescendos. He took his time, and over two years, he eventually funneled those songs into his debut EP, blisters. While it pushed him sonically, having to decide between things like live strings versus electronic strings, the slow process granted serpentwithfeet the time to rehearse the songs to perfection. In fact, they still feel fresh to him.
“It’s because I was trying to think clearly about my relationship with men, with power dynamics, and with traditions,” he says. “When I [worked] with [the] Haxan Cloak, we had a long talk offhand about what we wanted it to sound like and feel like. The first thing I said was that I wanted to feel nice. That sounds strange, yeah. But so often, men, specifically black men, are encouraged to be loud and big. When do we get the chance to be small and focus on the minutia? To be petty? I think it’s important to be superfluous too and to do things with abandon. I don’t know if black men give themselves that permission. If you saw a worm run across your toe, you can complain about it! You don’t have to play it off!”
To dig deeper into the EP’s themes before serpentwithfeet unveils them when opening for Grizzly Bear at House of Blues, we interviewed him for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask bands questions inspired by their song titles. Of course, he was just as imaginative as the music he sews.
DIGBOSTON: What’s the farthest distance you’ve walked?
SERPENTWITHFEET: I take long walks often, to be honest. I love walking. One trip I take every few weeks is that I’ll walk—I don’t know how familiar you are with New York, but—from the Bronx to Brooklyn. There’s several parks up there I love. So I’ll walk up there, on through Manhattan, take a little break to grab a snack, and then walk all the way down and to my home in Brooklyn. I’ve done it! And it’s amazing. I love it. I love walking. There was one time where I did it at night, though, and I walked along the bridge. It got cut off because of construction and I had to hop in traffic. That route isn’t for me. [laughs]
DIGBOSTON: Can you name two horror tropes that always scare you?
SERPENTWITHFEET: There’s a film I always forget the name of—I don’t know if it’s The Others or The Strangers or The Neighbors, something about being next door —where they hear a knock on the door and the people want something. That movie terrifies me, and what terrifies me is the sound. Still to this day, when I hear it on big speakers? You hear that crunch of the grass. That is scary. I don’t think a lot of horror movies scare me, but that one does, and it’s because of the sound design.
Another trope that I love is in those mainstream horror films. Whenever they want to scare you, they use some seemingly innocuous child to sing a lullaby. I. Love. That. It’s so beautiful! I hope in my career that I can do lullabies like that. It’s the most amazing thing. Maybe not scary, but it’s profound, and that’s a trope I hope never dissolves soon. I don’t know what it is about children that scares us—maybe that’s some American or Western psychology that we should honestly really interrogate—but it really is beautiful.
3) “four ethers”
DIGBOSTON: If you could request one thing to be ready for you when you got to heaven, what would it be?
SERPENTWITHFEET: It would be all of Brandy’s songs a cappella. No vocals, just instrumentals from her entire catalog, from her first album all the way to this last one that came out in 2012. I want all of the vocals as instrumentals, streaming. I know most artists don’t like it, but I like streaming. There’s something about my computer that makes me anxious about the clutter. So I will pay before I get to heaven for all the streaming vocals of her singing.
DIGBOSTON: What’s something you wish you would stop beating yourself up for?
SERPENTWITHFEET: Being messy! I’m a messy person, and not like my room. I love for my room to be clean with everything neat. I’m talking about personality. I’m messy, even in the way I dress or walk to work. There’s a rough edge to everything I do, and I always feel bad about it, so that’s one thing I’d like to conquer. It’s a daily work.
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever experienced a moment of redemption, big or small, where you felt like you were saved?
SERPENTWITHFEET: Yeah, absolutely. That will probably be when I started reading Toni Morrison’s novels as an adults. I read her novels in high school, but I’ve developed such a wonderful relationship with her books, which I think began with Song of Solomon in 2012. I know that started me on a path of embracing smallness, minutia, and all of my stem cells. I’m embracing my masked self, and not using those words as indicators of anything. That book is about a black man becoming full, spiraling, and a beautiful coming of age. Before that, I felt like I was the wrong me. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t the wrong version of myself. I was trying to perform masculinity in a way I thought was acceptable, and that book redeemed me from going down that path any further.
6) “Love Drought (Beyonce cover)”
DIGBOSTON: Since your EP is rather short, I wanted to ask a question for the stand-alone cover song you did in April of this year. When you’re solo, be it single romantically or alone in your room, what’s an activity you like to do that reminds you of your worth?
SERPENTWITHFEET: I’ll be honest. I have a Brandy doll. I have lots of friends in my room. It’s important to talk to my dolls. I like to remind myself that my imagination is my best resource. No matter what, being able to play with these dolls? I crack jokes, we sing together, they have personalities—I really enjoy being able to go there, because it reminds me that after all these years and the shit I’ve experienced, that Brandy doll is still intact. It’s elusive. Imagination is always flying around, so that keeps me going.
GRIZZLY BEAR, SERPENTWITHFEET. WED 11.1. HOUSE OF BLUES, 15 LANSDOWNE ST., BOSTON. 7PM/ALL AGES/$37. HOUSEOFBLUES.COM