Eyedea & Abilities by Jules Ameel

IF EYEDEA COULD go back in time and redo his life, he’d probably be erasing things that every fan of underground hip-hop associates with him: the mastery of battle emceeing, the win at HBO’s Blaze Battle in 2000, the touring with Slug of Atmosphere. Basically one half of the rap duo Eyedea & Abilities said he has a career made out of “a series of, a string of, bad mistakes.”

“Well, when I was young, I assumed that battle kind of stuff was necessary for me to have a career, make a name for myself,” said Eyedea (real name: Michael Larsen). “But it was more just a means to an end — I wanted to get enough people to know who I was, and then just have them buy my records. … But looking back on it, it kind of fucked shit up. When you’re young and you do something and you kind of blossom in some way, people really, really define you by that, and since it was something I never wanted to anchor to my identity, it may have been something I shouldn’t have done. It was really hard for people to get used to the fact that I didn’t want to make music about being that guy.”

The guy that Eyedea does want to be, though, is the person he is right now: Back with DJ Abilities (born: Gregory “Max” Keltgen) after a break-up a few years ago, the two put out their latest full-length album, “By the Throat” (Rhymesayers), in July, their first release together since 2004. And each of them has an array of side projects — such as Eyedea’s rock bands, Carbon Carousel and the new Puppy Dogs and Ice Cream, and his free jazz group, Face Candy — that keep them occupied when Eyedea & Abilities isn’t.

Eyedea spoke with Express about moving past the artistically unfulfilling world of battling, hooking back up with Abilities and the gratifying feeling of putting music out under his real name. Watch out, “16-year-old dumbass hip-hop kids” — Eyedea has no qualms about calling you out.

» EXPRESS: Do you actively try to push against your rep as a battle MC?
» EYEDEA: I feel like I did push hard in a lot of ways — this will be a long story, but I will give it to you because I’m bored and I need a friend this morning. I started out touring before doing any kind of battling, with Atmosphere, kind of as a group — Atmosphere used to be me, Slug and DJ Abilities; that’s what it was live, anyway. The group was a whole different thing on record. But I started doing that and battling, and that’s kind of where the underground world started knowing a little bit about who I was — we started leaving the Twin Cities and going to all these events and being videotaped, and the Internet started becoming a part of how the underground culture was evolving.

Then I quit battling, and decided, “This is kind of not fun. I want to be perceived as somebody who doesn’t do this with their time.” It’s a very negative thing — it’s not artistically fulfilling enough. So I quit that, but then I stayed in Atmosphere, just to kind of keep playing live with Slug, because it was fun — but then I had to quit that, because now everybody thinks I’m in this group, and I’m kind of screwed. People don’t know who I am, so now I have to separate myself from that and redefine my identity as this other person, but if people think I’m another person, they think I’m a battle rapper.

So [me and Abilities] release “First Born” [in 2001], and we wrote that as kids, as teenagers, and it had nothing to do with battling. There were a couple of songs that were battle-y, but we only did that because we thought had to — most of it was some teenager’s philosophical struggles. But then, when we start touring as Eyedea & Abilities, we at least have an honest career. We would improvise a lot during our sets, and we did quite a bit of touring, until when I was 19 — actually, before “First Born” was released, I released a solo record, “The Many Faces of Oliver Hart,” so that screwed a lot of people up. People were like, “What? What is this?” And looking back on it, it was a weird career move not to put the name of your band on it.

But then we came with “E&A” [in 2004], and we really quit the band a couple of times. We just decided, “OK, we’ll do this one last record,” and we were so pissed off about people being like, “They’re so weird and philosophical,” that we made a lot of macho bullshit just to show them they were wrong. And then we stopped — I made a rock band and a free jazz band and Max did his own thing, and then we come back together five years later and put out this album.

I told you, it would be a long story.

» EXPRESS: When you decided to quit the group, did you guys think you’d ever get back together, or at the time were both of you seriously done with it?
» EYEDEA: I was devastated at the time. I wanted to be an example of a person that was like, “Oh, yeah, it doesn’t matter, throw rocks at me, the most important thing is personal freedom and expression and, as an individual, being able to not be tied down to your past, so deal with it, fuckers!” But what I learned while doing that was, while people were throwing things at me and giving me death threats — literally — is that I’m a little too emotionally unstable of a person to deal with that position. I don’t have enough of whatever the hell it takes to be able to deal with that every day and not have it beat you down.

So I learned a great deal about myself — I thought, fuck that, fuck everything, fuck everything people think about me. And I grew up being a rock kid, and though the hip-hop stuff kind of took over in my genes and just developed into whatever, I was really happy with Carbon Carousel. I was doing the music that, at the time, was my most honest and the truest and made me the happiest, but I was getting the least amount of love from the world for it. So for a while, I was like, “I’ll just keep doing this,” and people would say stuff that was like, “Maybe if it had a little bit more rap,” and I would be like, “I’m never rapping again!” I’d be on that kind of shit. People would say, “You left hip-hop; you abandoned us,” and I would be like, “Yup, fuck you.” I didn’t realize that for some people, it was such a big deal — that I was like this spokesperson for this subgenre that I don’t even really understand and believe in myself.

» EXPRESS: So did you feel more at home in the rock world, or how different was it than the hip-hop scene?
» EYEDEA: In the hip-hop world, I’ve always felt like an outsider — as I do in the punk world, in the free jazz world, in any world. I feel not quite the same as anyone else, and I think what’s beautiful about that is, I think that’s what everyone feels about everything. You feel like you don’t really quite connect with anyone around you, and that’s what connects us all.

And that’s when I started realizing there’s an audience for all this that’s not 16-year-old dumbass hip-hop kids, and that’s when I started separating myself form the youth aspect of hip-hop and the youth aspect of pop in general. There’s a lot to me, but I’m in the business of discovering it, and that’s what I want to do as a human being — dig inside myself and find out how to be that.

» EXPRESS: How did that transition into getting back together as Eyedea & Abilities, then, and what was your creative process like when you guys got back together?
» EYEDEA: Max had moved out of Minneapolis and he was like, “Do you want to play a show again?” And then we started playing and fussing with music just to make sure our music wasn’t, like, eight years old or anything. So then we put together songs, and then after that show we started making our album, and it was like, “Yeah, we should work on really making music.” I was writing most of the music on guitar, and he was like, “You pick up a guitar and I’ll pick up my MPC, and we’ll make noise and make things happen together.” It was the first time we produced as Eyedea & Abilities in conjunction with each other, and I played a lot of the instruments on [“By the Throat"], which makes it a lot more fulfilling for me to listen to.

I don’t want to sound cheap … but I don’t spend a lot of time writing the songs. I feel like the quicker you can get that shit out and get out of the studio and stop thinking about it, the more real it’s going to be. You’ve got a better chance of it sounding less contrived. … I’d rather be visceral than articulate, at this point.

And even for the vocal, I did all the vocal in one setting, for the whole thing. I had a bottle of whiskey and some friends over, and we recorded the whole thing sitting down once, and it sounded the same and all the feelings were the same.

» EXPRESS: So now that you guys had time apart, are back together and have had years pass since you started making music, what’s changed for you when performing live?
» EYEDEA: I think it’s different in many ways, because we’re different. I think it’s different every night, because we improvise a lot still, and this time we’re also touring with [fellow rap duo] Themselves, who are the kings of improvising, so we’ll probably end up just fucking around for a couple of hours. But in general, as far as Eyedea & Abilities is concerned, we know more about who we are, so there’s less of an act. We don’t really play roles anymore, we play music.

I’ve been getting into stand-up in the past year, so I throw that out there — I test out my new jokes on audiences, and that’s always fun. And Max’s turntable chops — he does like 15 solos at every show, and that’s great, too.

[The best moment at a show recently] was when some guy was like, comparing me to some other people — he was like, “Michael Larsen, Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison will go down as the most influential people to me.” That’s the kind of stuff people say to me, as well as, “I’m going to fucking kill you when I see you.” I’m kind of happy to walk the line that I walk, being this very intense kind of individual who has a very intense ouput, but yeah, that Brian Wilson thing made me cry. You’re comparing me to the guy that wrote “[Oh,] Pretty Woman” and the Beach Boys? It can’t get cooler than that.

I kind of feel like, if I died right now, I don’t know, I’ll be fine. I didn’t know by putting out this Michael Larsen shit, how much of a void it would fill. I always had this creeping depression, and I could never put my finger on what the fuck was going on. And then when I actually released the songs I had been writing and put it out there in the world as my own name, it just filled this weird void that I never knew was completely there. It was like, now I get it. I always have to be, for better or for worse, I have to give the world everything I do. As long as I’m playing with Eyedea & Abilities, I have to be touring, I have to be making music. I just started a new band called Puppy Dogs and Ice Cream, and as long as we’re doing shit, we have to be booking shows. It’s supposed to be like that, and when it isn’t, my internal organs go into shock and weird shit happens and I get severely psychologically fucked up.

» EXPRESS: So does that mean Eyedea & Abilities is now a definite thing and you guys will stay together from this point on, or is that not something you can guarantee?
» EYEDEA: I wish I could put forth a more definitive answer there, but I don’t think I can. I can say we’re going to stay a band and be productive for a while, but I think what I’m trying to find out how to do [is] how to do everything at the same time — everything I do with every band and every idea, because that way Eyedea & Abilities doesn’t become such a battle for me. I hate to sound like this, [a] complaining fucking dude who says, “Oh, I have to play music for a living, it sucks,” but I think it’s hard to be in a band that’s moderately successful. It eats up a lot of our lives — not just the music and touring, because if it were just those two things, I would love it. But it’s just the decisions — once you’re in a thing that’s a record label, managers are involved. … It’s always meetings and this and that and this, and I think you become more and more like a product and like a business. There’s like, six people who aren’t in your band who are involved in your band’s decisions. … I guess I care so little about fame and status at this point that I would just rather release my music the instant I make it and then tour all year and see if I can make a living that way.

So back to the question: I can promise there’s a future, but I can’t promise what it is. If we have our way, we’ll still be touring all year, up until next summer, because I think we need to do that to support our record and we need to do it just because we enjoy playing music and none of the other bands we are in really tour. And then after that, we’ll settle down and start taking a look at new music — we may actually start making music in a completely different way, too, and I might take the stuff I write for other bands and take that to Eyedea & Abilities first and use my original parts first [instead of Max’s]. We might try it backward, and if we do try it backward, we’ll have a shitload more of material if it works — I write a song a day. In that case, we’d have a new Eyedea & Abilities record in a year, which means — thanks to the six people that aren’t in my band — it would come out in three years.

» Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE; with Themselves, Educated Consumers, Wed., Nov. 25, 8 p.m.; $12; (202) 388-7625.

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi

Photos by Jules Ameel