Music » Music Stories

B-Sides enters the Vortex with Erykah Badu and catches up with Centro-matic lead singer Will Johnson

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Amerykah the Beautiful
Erykah Badu's latest album, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), follows the progression of the neo-soul queen past the Sunday-morning sound of 1997's Baduizm into zany, more synthetic and densely layered lyrical territory. True to her onstage persona, the singer is distantly regal in conversation — until the topic falls to the specifics of songcraft. B-Sides questioned Badu about a track from Amerykah called "The Healer," and she broke into song between bites of her sandwich, graciously clarifying some of its more mysterious lyrics.

B-Sides: It's been a few years since you've released a new album. Can you describe what that interim meant for you as an artist?

Erykah Badu: I haven't had time to do anything. I'm a performance artist first, and a writer second; performing is creating a moment, and writing is perfecting a moment. I haven't missed a beat or step.

In a documentary you participated in [Before the Music Dies], you talk about the idea of "art as commerce." Talk about this in the context of your new album, New Amerykah. What motivated you in the creation of this album?

Art comes first, and I do this for art. I'm not afraid to express who I am, and I don't limit myself to others' expectations. It's a very important gift and to be able to use it to its fullest potential is a gift, and that's my platform.

Tell me more about one of the tracks featured on New Amerykah called "The Healer." You open it by singing different cultures' names for God, but it's in a specific context that later becomes apparent: hip-hop.

What I'm talking about is people's influence over one another more than anything else. Hip-hop is a language all its own and is a culture all over the world that I've seen when I've traveled for concerts to Israel, Jamaica, Mexico, Argentina, Africa. We might pray to different gods, but the thing we have in common in that moment is that we're bowing to the kick in the snare, the bip and the boom, the sound of hip-hop. And we've latched onto a look that we agree on; the look is graffiti, and the clothes, we wear baggy clothes. But before that recitation you're hearing at the very beginning of that track, I say, "Humdililah" — means "give thanks to all" — and then "Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Dios, Ma'at, Jah, Rastafari," so I'm incorporating Hebrew, Arabic, Kemetic and Spanish. I'm giving thanks to all.

You use Kemetic again in "Twinkle," right? Why that language?

Kemetic is an ancient Egyptian language, one of the most original languages on the planet, and its frequency really vibrates with me. From 1996 to 1998, I took some coursework on the language and culture, and one of the students in the class, Amen Khumra, was one of the first students to master it, so that's his recitation you're hearing at the end of "Twinkle." That's a pretty special track; I also collaborated with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta, and that's his guitar solo you're hearing.

What does it mean to you to be touring with the Roots? Describe the dynamic that they're adding to your concert.

The Roots annoint the stage. We've toured together many times before, and it's a very natural fit. We're from the same tribe. We have a very different sound, but we have an understanding, and that's based on our mutual love of hip-hop and jazz. This tour is called "The Vortex," which was inspired from the astrological event that happens around black holes, when things like stars or astroids that get close to that outer realm get pulled in. The Vortex Tour is intended to emulate some of those swirling energies, giving back to people all that they bring to the show, taking that frequency to a higher level. And New Amerykah is meant to be heard, from back to front, as a movement of sound, rather than an emphasis on any one track.— Kristy Wendt

8 p.m. Thursday, May 29. The Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. $38 to $59. 314-534-1111.

Split Personality
The New York Times recently ran a story about the burgeoning music scene in Denton, Texas, a town with a population of about 100,000 near the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. While the Times article spent a few paragraphs talking with local dream-poppers Midlake, many music fans know Denton as the home of indie-rock phenoms Centro-matic. The quartet specializes in smart, expressive rock & roll with plenty of loud guitars and the occasional piano-led heartbreaker, while its spirited live shows have made the band a St. Louis favorite.

On June 3, the band will be releasing Dual Hawks as a double record with South San Gabriel — which is the darker, slower and more dreamlike alter ego of Centro-matic. Lead singer (and Missouri native) Will Johnson talked about touring in Europe, the differences between his two musical projects and the prospects for this year's St. Louis Cardinals.

B-Sides: How are the two bands perceived overseas?

Will Johnson: It depends over there. I guess South San Gabriel is a better-known name in Belgium than is Centro-matic, which is kinda funny. We'd like to eventually take a Centro-matic/South San Gabriel tour in the States. I think in certain cities it could be justified. For right now, we'll keep it with Centro-matic and for certain shows we'll have South San Gabriel. There was a point in Switzerland where this guy walks up and said, "Well, I don't get the first band, but the second section I really loved." Five minutes before, someone said the exact opposite thing. It was really funny, because I don't have a response for that. Both individuals approached it as if they were possibly offending us.

Centro-matic played Twangfest last year. How does your band fit into the Americana genre?

Well, the Americana tag has been confusing to me as a fan — it's such a broad stroke to paint with. As far as what people consider Americana over the years, I think we kind of fit within that. We're not twangy, but we do use loud folk chords every now and then. We also try to push it a little, but to less overt folk song territory, into more spacious territory. It's nice to know that we might be accepted within that group.

What can you tell us about the new record?

The new record is a double album — one side is Centro-matic and the other one is South San Gabriel. We just felt like it was time to do a fairly unconventional release. And these two records sit well together and illustrate some of the territory into what we explore musically. The Centro-matic side is definitely more of a raw record. It's not nearly as polished or shiny around the edges as the last couple records. Most of it was written and recorded in the studio. It has a spontaneous feel, too. It gets back to the warts-and-all technique we used on earlier records. South San Gabriel is more orchestrated, it has more strings — it took more bodies and brains to make. It's a dark record and fairly complex, instrumentally.

I have to ask about your beloved St. Louis Cardinals. What do you think of the team so far?

I gotta say I'm pleasantly surprised. I went to see them in Houston, and it was very sound baseball. I hope they can stick it out till the end of June when we get some of the big boys back off the disabled list.— Christian Schaeffer

7 p.m. Wednesday, June 4. Schlafly Tap Room, 2100 Locust Street. $20. 314-241-2337.

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