2011 was a big year for the Midwest hip-hop collective Doomtree. The year included a few critically acclaimed solo projects. In February, Sims‘ Bad Time Zoo, produced exclusively by Lazerbeak, transported listeners to an urban jungle where the line between predator and prey blurred into something terrifying and beautiful at the same time. In July the Wugazi project, co-created by Doomtree’s Cecil Otter and a fellow Minneapolis-based producer Swiss Andy, put out an album entitled 13 Chambers that mashed the punk of Fugazi with the Wu-Tang Clan. Like the Wu-Tang Clan themselves, the end result was still absolutely nothing to fuck with. Dessa‘s classically inspired October release Castor, The Twin, re-interpreted several previously released tracks with live instrumentation including piano, guitar, bass, viola and vibraphone. It also featured an advance of her next single, “The Beekeeper.” The year culminated with the November release of Doomtree’s No Kings.
The record was conceived when the groups five emcees and two producers, including the aforementioned plus P.O.S., Mike Mictlan, and Paper Tiger retreated to a cabin with one goal: leave 7 days later with an album like nothing they’d ever created before. The aptly named second all-crew release is made up of 12 give and take tracks, none of which feature fewer than two MCs, and three of which feature all five. Absent is the pretense that might come from solo success, and in its place is a group of friends collaborating together to create an album that combines hip-hop with sonically charged rhythms and punk rock sensibilities.
As they prepared to start their tour, lyricist/emcee Dessa and producer Paper Tiger were able to take some time with Listen Up Denver! to discuss life on the road, the writing process, what the group stands for, and their famous Wings and Teeth logo.
Listen Up Denver!: How does it feel to get back out on the road with whole crew again?
Dessa: Well, we haven’t gotten on the road quite yet. So right now it feels more like we’re doing laundry and last minute packing. But, we’re all really excited to get on the road. You know Denver has been in our short list of top markets for a really long time so we’re really looking forward to rolling through there.
Paper Tiger: Yeah, Denver is always really good to us.
LUD: You guys played the “Snowboard On The Rocks” Festival last year, what was that experience like for you?
PT: Surreal. But I was definitely ill that day so I also have a very strange memory of it. But yeah, it was absolutely surreal.
D: It was also kind of disorienting. I’ve never really played a venue where I’m looking up at the audience, and I was surprised at how stupid my neck was. That like, I couldn’t train it for the first couple of songs to cock my head back. I kept looking at my feet where the audience usually is, I was really excited when I got it. That was a really surprisingly significant part of the experience for me, that changed sort of relationship between the performers and the audience.
LUD: By my math you’ll be on the road for something like 60 days. That’s a lot of hotel beds and gas station burritos. Does the crew thrive on tour?
PT: We’re taking a 15 passenger van and a minivan with us. I definitely eat a lot of Subway, too much. I have some food allergy problems so eating at gas stations is a bit of a trip for me, but I end up inventing new foods all the time.
D: I think a lot of the time the combination of travel is tough. But you know, you end up sharing a hotel bed and making microwave nachos because it’s worth it to play the show that night.
LUD: I read an article on the Doomtree website that detailed a really cool writing session the crew put together back in June where everyone sequestered themselves to a cabin for a week to write some new tracks. Was any of the No Kings material written over those days?
PT: Yeah, 11 out of 12 of the [No Kings] songs were written during the week we were at the cabin.
D: The purpose of that trip to cabin was to finish a record called No Kings. We never worked like that before and we did it because we knew we were facing a pretty serious timeline.
LUD: How was this different from the writing process for your 2008 self-titled release?
PT: [Chuckles] 2008 was more of a collective effort, like a compilation. Everybody basically worked by themselves, other than a few of the collaborative tracks. But this time around was the first time we had a full collaboration all across the board from the music to the writing.
D: I think Doomtree rises to the occasion of the deadline. In the past we’ve collaborated a little more loosely. If a song doesn’t get off the ground, you could always set it aside and work on something else for a while. And, for me at least, a lot of those half finished collaborative songs would kind of get put aside or buried in my inbox. This time around there was nowhere to really go, except like, stomp off to your room and slam the door in the cabin. So you really had to stay focused. I think it prompted us to push through some of those momentary challenges that would’ve off put us if we weren’t all in the same room eating sandwiches and drinking a beer together.
LUD: Who came up with the Wings & Teeth logo? Was that your doing Paper Tiger?
PT: Uh, no that was MK Larada. A little history, the name Doomtree was originally going to be a record that was made between P.O.S. and MK Larada. And that logo came before we really started this thing as like a record label/ collective. It’s a really long story but it was uh, a looong time ago.
LUD: Is the logo supposed to represent any idea or motto the crew believes in?
PT: I think it’s supposed to look gnarly and get your attention. Really kind of look mysterious, but tough.
D: I remember MK saying in a conversation we had that happened way too late at night, and after too many Budweisers, but I remember him being like, “If you turn around, there’s teeth with wings!” [laughs] That was a pathetic explanation.
LUD: What about the No Kings logo? Who drew it and what idea does it represent?
PT: That’s something Cecil Otter had been drawing, when he used to do graffiti a lot he’d always put that up. Me and P.O.S. asked him to send it to us when we were getting a tattoo of it, and that specific drawing that he sent for the tattoo ended up being the cover of the record. The concept is something that’s always been kicked around but the design is all by Cecil Otter. It’s just an idea that’s been carried out through our history; there are a lot of songs that sort of speak to that idea. Mike [Mictlan] had a song called “Kings Get Deaded” a long time ago. It’s something we’ve always thought about within our music.
LUD: You have always upheld a pretty strict DIY ethic being self-sustaining artists releasing music on the Doomtree Records since 2001. How does it feel to create and release music without the assistance of another record label?
D: I think Doomtree really benefits from the fact that our “one man machine” is 7 dudes and a girl. We’ve got a lot of hands on deck. For example: When Mike Mictlan’s next solo release comes out, Paper Tiger will be there to help design it, Lazerbeak will learn how to put it up on iTunes, and I’ll write the press releases.
PT: Yeah man, I feel the ethic the started this thing was DIY because we didn’t have a choice. We started making some songs, burning them to CD’s, and giving them to friends. We just kept doing that because we didn’t have an option to not do that. Obviously every year things get a little bit bigger, a little bit better, you hire the right people to burn those CD’s. But it’s still the same thing we started 10 years ago.
LUD: What about the Doomtree Press branch? What inspired you [Dessa] to make a push into publishing written material with your first book Spiral Bound?
D: I had an interest in trying to be a writer long before I met the Doomtree dudes. It seemed like the Doomtree guys have always been more about helping our artists succeed, than sweating exactly what success might mean. So as soon as I finished a manuscript I asked Doomtree, “Hey, do you guys want to start a publishing house?” And everybody was like, “Sure! Next agenda item…” It was done, it was pretty cursory. I think that’s part of the strength of Doomtree, we’re really set up to help artists succeed and we don’t have a lot of other objectives. I imagine if Paper Tiger were to develop an interest in Metallurgy tomorrow then there would be Doomtree Forge.
PT: I remember a quick conversation I had with Dessa a long time ago, where I was looking to do a graphic design poster or book, and I remember asking if I could use a poem or an essay that she had done for content. I remember her saying she had almost enough to make a book, and I said, “Let’s make a book.”
D: [Laughs] oh, shit.
LUD: Dessa, I’ve found personally that writing is a great tool to cope when life comes at you fast. Has writing helped you emotionally with any particularly tough events?
D: I know that a lot of people use writing successfully almost as a therapeutic tool, and it’s not that for me. I know that a lot of great writers do that, but I’m not one of them. There’s a thrill of finding the words to express a complicated feeling just right, or finding the exact combination of verbs and nouns to express a nuance scenario. But, that thrill doesn’t make me feel better about personal problems, you know? It’s a pretty uneven scale. For me I think writing has been just another appetite. You’re tired because you’re hungry and you write because you’ve got that writing thing.
LUD: Could you two describe the idea behind writing your collaboration on the track “Palace” from Paper Tiger’s 2010 Made Like Us LP?
D: Well, Paper Tiger was going to cut his new record and he asked if I’d be on it. And I was really excited, because I like working with Paper Tiger’s beats a lot because the melody is always really easy to write with, but the drums are sort of a challenge sometimes for me. So it’s a perfect mix of accessibility for my musical mind and also sort of a challenge. He’s got the most interesting song structures, as a lyricist there both fun and challenging to work with.
PT: I guess in some way, because it was the first time I was making a full-length record, it was sort of like I got to, you know, I wouldn’t say call the shots. But I got to ask favors.
D: He definitely called the shots. One of my favorite tracks on that record is “The Painter’s Arm” that features Maggie Morrison. Hearing that it was indisputable that the standard had been set very, very high for that record. That song was really sweet.
LUD: What can our readers look forward to from your upcoming January 22nd show at The Summit Music Hall?
D: I think we’ll be doing the whole new No Kings album. I think our set is going to be just shy of 2 hours so they can expect a lot at The Summit. It’s a room that we haven’t played before, so we’re really excited for a big gig in Denver. For the ones that have seen us in the past, the show is kinetic and no-holds-barred but there are a lot of tender moments as well. There are a lot of totally explosive moments, and you know, accidental body-checking. It’s something that we put our whole selves into every night.
PT: Yeah, it’s a wild, crazy rap party!
Come catch Doomtree’s volatile live show as Soda Jerk Presents brings them to The Summit Music Hall this Sunday, January 22nd for an all ages show. Doors are at 8:00 PM, advance tickets are $15 here, or $17 day of show at the box office.