The Music Playground Presents Cultfever Live on PopMatters

Conor Kelley

This month’s episode of the Music Playground Presents features the Brooklyn-based duo Cultfever, comprised of songwriters Tamara Jafar and Joe Durniak. Their self-titled debut album is the type of record that will seep its way into your daily rotation and stay there for months.

This month’s episode of The Music Playground Presents features the Brooklyn-based duo Cultfever, comprised of songwriters Tamara Jafar and Joe Durniak. Their self-titled debut album is the type of record that will seep its way into your daily rotation and stay there for months. The album eludes labels from one track to the next, mixing spacy, downbeat, grooving tracks with intense and rhythmic pop songs. They write together almost everyday at their studio, conveniently located in the apartment they share as roommates. Cultfever is an exciting band, brimming with originality and instant appeal.

This was by far the biggest crowd for one of our tapings yet, and the energy is evident in the videos. The band has their own little devoted NYC following, making the “cult” in their name entirely appropriate. Cultfever’s forthcoming EP, entitled Animals, will be out in early 2013. Also, they’ll be playing at SXSW this year. We had the opportunity to sit down with Tamara and Joe following their performance to ask them a few questions.


When you guys prepare for a live performance, what is that like? Is it a total reinvention of every song?

Joe Durniak: It's been interesting- - especially because we’ve evolved a lot along the way. There is a lot of detail in the album that we wanted to convey in the show but ended up having to ask ourselves: “how much can we get rid of in track and how much can we accomplish live?” Now we’re at a point where -- with bass, guitar, keys, drums, vocals-- we can strip back the track and just enjoy performing.

Let’s talk about how Cultfever formed. You guys were roommates before you started the band. How has being in such close quarters influenced your sound?

JD: We were not a band before we moved in. We had met and got along famously and were both looking for a new living situation. We started working on music almost immediately. I set up gear and then three songs in we both thought, “oh, okay, this could be something.”

Tamara Jafar: Yeah, we knew each other for a solid three or four months. But both of us have commented that it was a move of intuition and, for some reason, we thought it was easier to approach the topic of moving in to create a shared workspace before approaching the topic of actually collaborating. [laughs] So, we were both playing coy with the courting process.

What were your previous musical projects? Anything like this or totally different?

JD: At the time I was doing solo stuff and writing music for small films but not doing anything band oriented. I hadn’t done that since college so I wasn’t necessarily thinking about being in a band at the time. I was just working on music on my own.

TJ: It was similar for me. I’d just graduated when I met Joe and had been in a couple of bands in school. When I moved to the city I knew that, in some capacity, I was moving to pursue music and creative ambitions but I had no idea how that would manifest. Or at least I didn’t expect that in the first internship that I’d meet a prospective bandmate. I thought I was going to be eating Almond Joys and working late with audio engineers and just taking notes. And then this guy ended up being there.

Let’s talk about the songs you performed, “Knewyouwell” and “Collector”. “Knewyouwell” is the album starter and that beginning just hits you like a ton of bricks. Is that how you planned it?

JD: Once we we built the song we knew it would be the best thing to hit people with at the beginning of the album. I shared the chorus with Tamara and all of a sudden we were writing to it and building structure. It was the third or fourth song we worked on together and by the time we finished Knewyouwell, in particular, it kind of hit home that we were definitely going to be a band and release an album -- I don't think we even had a name at that point.

TJ: The night we finished Knewyouwell also coincided with the rare occasion of getting Joe out dancing. So we both definitely felt there was cause for celebration. “Knewyouwell” was a funny case because some of the songs on the album were redrafted eight or nine times. For better or worse, we rarely settle on the first draft. But “Knewyouwell” and maybe one or two other songs on the album ended up coming together quickly -- for some reason it was just an easier song for us to fit together.

So, that’s pretty rare, where you’ll record a song and it’s kind of perfect right away?

JD: Yeah, things generally fall into place on a second or third revisit. Spill is one we are very proud of and it took about eight or nine redrafts -- the evolution from start to finish is actually kind of cool to revisit. That said, “Knewyouwell” was one where we didn’t have to change much.

How about “Collector?”

TJ: “Collector” was awesome to work on. We often begin a project by starting stripped down -- Joe will be on guitar and I’ll be singing-- and we’ll just take cues from each other. If something hits, we'll record it and then both listen back separately, probably somewhat compulsively, to think about how we want to build it. We did that with “Collector”. Though, I remember our initial comments on the stripped down acoustic session was that the song had a very beachy, surfer-esque vibe -- which isn’t what we were going, actually. Then we walked away from it for a bit -- I left for three weeks to visit family and spent that trip writing. When I got back, Joe had come out with some amazing, squirrel-y synth ideas. Though we were apart writing it, both of us saw it as a somewhat fitful, discombobulated song that would have some sort of dramatic release at the end.

So it seems like the songwriting process is totally collaborative, where you guys would both just get in a room and get it done together.

JD: Yeah, it feels the best that way.

TJ: I think our strength is in the editing. Collaboration is always difficult in the sense that you always have to approach it with a certain degree of humility, and that sometimes is difficult because one of us will bring up an idea that we’ve been holding precious-private for like three weeks and the other person's initial reaction is, “you know, it’s not necessarily your strongest”, or “this is how I would change it”. And you have to be willing to be ok with that and say, “you know, you’re right. Or, actually, this is how I see it.” There’s a constant negotiation but the process, on the whole, makes us sturdier.

JD: Yeah. While we were writing the first album we were still learning ourselves and the way that we work best together. We’re a lot better at communicating with each other now. We know when to humor something and go down certain roads but we're also more disciplined. A lot of solo artists enjoy the freedom of doing whatever they want but don't always get input. Then there’s a lot of infighting or management of dynamics in, say, a band of five people. For us, two people has felt like a really good balance.

TJ: I have no idea how a six-person band does it. It just seems like so much more personality to deal with [laughs]. In our case, we also both know any perceived criticism is coming from the best place. That is to say, I think we feel that we can be candid with each other because our basic starting point is mutual respect.

That’s probably the key.

TJ: Yeah, it's a pretty essential piece.

So the end of “Collector”, where it’s just this great sing-along ruckus, was a stripped down acoustic thing at first. How did that evolve?

JD: We kind of knew, even when it was stripped down, that we wanted to make that ending big and then we just went after it with everything we had. To get it there, we felt like we needed more -- more voices, more symbol crashes. We ended up recording ourselves standing in something like 20 different positions in a room and adopting slightly different affects to achieve that giant chorus feel. Once we started building it we immediately knew that it would be the closing track on the album.

TJ: It was one of those songs that was just a pleasure to make. One afternoon was spent like little wide-eyed children running around a mic. Another was spent with Joe emulating a marching band to layer in crashes and some of those quirky percussive elements. It was very playful.

We were talking about the upcoming second album, but the self-titled first album still seems fresh. There are still a lot of ears that have yet to hear it I’m sure.

JD: Very true. It’s new to a lot of people... just not us. [laughs]

What is your outlook on your schedule? Are you going to push this for a while, let it settle, maybe tour on it little bit, or are you going to get right back in there and record?

JD: I don’t think anything can keep us from writing and recording simply because we have the equipment, we do it all the time anyway, and we’d probably cut you if you tried to stand in the way. [laughs] But we are definitely planning to continue touring on this album while we also integrate new material into our live show. We still love playing it and want to continue sharing it with more people. We love that album -- it's our first and I think something we will always feel proud of. We're also really looking forward to a string of releases in 2013.

Geographically, have you guys noticed that there are little patches of fans in certain weird places that you didn’t expect?

JD: Illinois.

TJ: I think some of the international hits have been pretty unexpected.

JD: Like Brazil. Or getting hits from Algeria and Israel in the same day-- things like that are amazing.

TJ: [Laughs] Or Cambodia. We'll see a hit from there and without fail we'll both send shocked emails that go “who’s listening to us in Cambodia?” Or “whoa, did you see the North Korea hits?” For us, it's been a really special part of this experience because people sometimes make assumptions about the types of listeners that will gravitate to specific types of music. It blows your mind when you see people all over the world with such varied realities connecting on a website over songs. It’s a cool feeling.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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