Getting (Musically) Naked with Kelsey Warren of Blak Emoji

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more expansive musical background than Kelsey Warren’s. He studied classical voice and jazz guitar, plus fronted New York City hard rock outfit pILLOW tHEORY. Now with the release of KUMI, the debut full-length album from his latest project, Blak Emoji, he’s officially added pop to his resume.

As a live band, Blak Emoji features drummer Max Tholenaar-Maples, bassist Bryan Percivall, and keyboardist Sylvana Joyce, but KUMI is a more intimate affair. Performed almost solely by Warren, it plays like a one-on-one tour of his electronic influences and innermost thoughts.

From the sensual synth grit of “SXY” to the sentimental piano soul of “The Perfect Catch,” it’s a record that runs the gamut of emotion and style–a debut that delves into a whole range of Warren’s talents as a newly-minted production powerhouse as it strips away the barriers around his emotional life.

Shortly before the long-awaited release, Warren spoke to The All Scene Eye about the joy of recording in isolation and the industry obstacles that threatened to keep KUMI from its audience.

You’ve had this album finished for some time now. What have you been up to? How does it feel being on the precipice of that release?

It’s interesting–I’m in publicity mode, which I’m happy about. I’m glad it’s finally coming out on all platforms this month, but I’ve been recording new stuff. [laughs] It’s like, “yeah, this is great, but wait until you hear this.” I’ve almost finished a new EP called TANO, and we’re doing this GoFundMe campaign, so I’m using that as one of the gifts for people that are contributing. But yes, I’m excited. It’s kind of like when you’ve had something for a while, and you appreciate it, but you’re also on to the next thing, but you don’t want to go too far on to the next thing, because then you neglect the other thing.

Tell me more about the GoFundMe campaign.

I don’t know how much I want to get into, but I’ll get into a little bit. I had someone as a publicist last year, and it was a bad, bad move. It wasn’t a legit publicist, and we kind of got screwed, which is why the album is coming out later. This happens to musicians and artists all the time, you know? I suggest doing your research and checking whether other bands have worked with a company. I took a risk and lost a lot of time, a lot of money, and it was really bad. Basically, I’m making up for that right now.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of funds, so this is basically a campaign to supplement publicity and make sure the album gets to the right places and gets reviewed by cool people like you guys. We found somebody who’s really great, and it’s like his job is cleaning up the mess that was made last year. We’re almost there, but I’m just glad we have a chance to–it almost feels like a restart.

When I finally woke up and realized this was a bad situation last year, I had a meeting with these people on the phone, and it was bullshit, but one thing they did say was, “you know what? You don’t have to put this album out now. Why don’t you just to a soft release? Put it out for a weekend, don’t put it on any major platforms, and that way you can release it later and have ample press.” I was like, “you know what? That’s a great idea.” I know they were saying that to cover their ass because they didn’t do their job, however, it worked in our favor. Because, you know, I’m all about fans. When we say something, I want to honor that. So I said, “I’m not going to not release it, because I told our fans it was going to come out.” We put it out for a weekend through our website and through Bandcamp, threw a little party, and it was fun. It was a good crowd, it was a good weekend, and actually, it was a good idea. A lot of bands are doing that these days, I’ve noticed.

It’s got to be frustrating for you as an artist–as demonstrated by the fact that you’re already on to the next record–to be doing so much creatively and then to have to worry whether or not you’re getting screwed over by PR.

Yeah, it hasn’t been a fun six months, to be honest with you. Even longer. But I’m always going to be a music fan, and I remember being young, and like, “wow, why do these bands break up? How does that happen? Why are people drinking on the road? What’s the point?” Now, after all these years, I’m like, “how do these bands stay together? How do you do this without drinking? How do you deal with a bad A&R person? How do you deal with having an A&R person that has your back, and then that person gets fired?”

Now I understand how certain albums and certain bands I’ve loved didn’t make it. It’s not always the music; it can be other things. The song wasn’t promoted at the right time. They didn’t have the right people behind it. The artist wasn’t well enough to promote. There’s all these other factors that go into what makes something, quote-unquote, successful–whether it’s a hit or not a hit. We can look at someone before our time, like Velvet Underground. That was a local sensation, but no one was fucking listening to Velvet Underground. But those people that bought that album all became famous, and then Velvet Underground became a bigger thing later on. They were this avant-garde rock band that no one knew what to do with, and they were the token rock band on a jazz label. It didn’t work then, but the album became a classic.

These days, with the internet, you have options of going straight to fans. You have options of doing soft releases. You can’t control everything, but in my situation, being able to do this semi-properly, I’m a little upset because I was like, “wow, a couple singles went through, and they didn’t get the due that I think they should have.” I’m not just saying that because I’m the artist. I’m not on some Kanye shit. I’m just saying that this is what happens. You hear certain songs, you’re like, “why is that not a hit?” Maybe because it wasn’t on the payola list, you know? It’s all those things that come into play, but at least now–it’s so broken, the system, but there are some cool ways to Machiavelli the broken parts of it.

You break it just the right way.

Totally, so that I love, because I’m going to be honest with you, I was just over it. Then that weekend happened, and it was stressful, but it was so much fun, and it gave me hope. It was like, “ok, party’s over. Now I’ve got to get out of this shitty deal and find somebody else.” Hopefully, something will be salvaged because I’m proud of this album. I thought the EP was great, and, you know, successful to me, and it was a beautiful experience. It was our first thing that got our audience, and when stuff was played on Quantico, it was a big spike for us–all this cool stuff. When that happens and you do the next, whether it’s a good album or a bad album, you should at least have the playing field of where you were before, not below.

How did you see this project evolve from that first EP to making this new album?

It’s really interesting, because I do a lot of it by myself; it’s kind of a Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails situation, but I was inspired by the band a lot. This whole thing started out as just some experiment. I didn’t have a band name. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I just knew that I didn’t want to do what I was doing in my previous band. I loved it, but it was like I strait-jacketed myself into this hard rock, pop metal dude, and I wanted to embrace what I grew up with–a lot of 80’s electro and funk–and mix it with stuff that’s happening now. I just started making these tracks, and then, “oh, okay, I’ve got a new project. Now I want to play live. Let’s get a band together.” Once that happened and we started to gel as a unit, it affected the way I looked at certain things like going into the studio and recording this.

This album was really just me on my laptop. I bought a Mac Pro and just started doing stuff. It was fun, because I was like, “ok, I can wake up at 4:00 in the morning and finish a song. I don’t have to call anybody. I don’t have to go to a studio.” I would work, and work, and work at night and get off at, like, 3:00 in the morning, and I’d go to a diner and sit there for, like, three or four hours, eat, mix songs, and come up with sounds. I was crazy. I was recording on the subway. I was recording literally in the park in New York City. I recorded some stuff in a park in Jersey City.

I think of the band, but this was probably the most isolated I’ve ever recorded in my life. [laughs] I’ve done projects with my previous band, and I would either go in with a couple people, or by myself, or with the full band. This was just me, and my computer is my best friend. Then I did some stuff the last few months, a couple songs, I went to a bigger studio. Max, who’s our drummer, who’s fucking incredible, played on a couple tracks.

It’s really noticeable when the live drums kick in. Those little moments take it up a notch.

Exactly, so it’s not a whole bedroom jam type of album. He’s also great with programming sounds and stuff like that. He programmed a lot of shit for “Alone,” and it’s just beautiful. I remember writing it and bringing it to the band, and he just threw in all these beautiful sonic elements that I was looking for–he completed the sentence. It had a beautiful minimalist electronic vibe, and he made that come to life, so I was like, “okay, we’re going to record it, we’ve got to do it that way. That’s your piece, man. Come in here.” [laughs]

It was about a year, and it’s heavy; you lose some friends and stuff like that, but it was a fun ride. It really was. I learned stuff about myself, and unlearned things, and tried to overcome certain obstacles just by making this album alone. I wasn’t expecting that. I just wanted to record. [laughs]

Tell me more about some of those pieces you recorded in parks, and just out in the world.

Two of the first songs I ever did on this thing, there was one called “Lust Love Above,” which is on the album, and I was really proud of the minimal vibe. That was basically in my apartment. I was inspired with someone I was dating at the time, and it just kind of came out quick. I was working on another song around that time called “Perspective.” It’s not on the album, but again, it had this minimal thing. I couldn’t really finish everything, and it just wasn’t right, and this was maybe 2:00 in the morning. I used to live in Jersey City at that time, and there was this huge park, and I was like, “man, I just need some tea, and I’m going to go to the park [laughs] and just work.” It’s a very downtempo atmospheric type of vibe, so I was like, “well, fuck, man, I’ve got the scenery. Let’s put myself there.”

I usually would use a proper mic to record vocals, and this time I didn’t. I wanted to capture the atmosphere outside. It’s not too loud, because it’s at night, so it’s a nice, beautiful breeze. I remember reading an article with Bjork, and she was talking about recording her second album, and she was like, “I would go out to the woods and bring a microphone and just start recording. I could hear the ocean, and birds, and stuff like that.” I remembered that, and that’s really what happened there.

Once that song happened, I was like, “well, that’s it. I’m going to go everywhere and just [laughs] make the best of what I can while I’m out and then fix things when I go home to my apartment.” I would just go crazy. If I had a 30-minute commute on a train, boom, I’ve got good headphones, and I would work on tweaking mixes. It was really fun.

You mentioned the isolation, and to me, there’s a vulnerability in the whole production. Lyrically, “Naked” springs to mind as being completely vulnerable, which seems like something you could also say about this album experience.

Oh, definitely. It’s very naked. [laughs] not just the song, but the process. It’s weird, because I was like, “alright, I just want to do a dance record,” and there’s a lot of stuff like that; going to the club and having a good time and all that, but other things come out in your brain that are a little different than the ride you intended on taking. There’s a turn with a song like “Naked,” or a song like “Alone,” where I’m addressing being in a long-distance relationship, and wanting to be with that person so bad. There’s a lot of soul on it, whether it’s electronic pop, funk, soul–whatever. I don’t know what it is, but it is very naked, lyrically. It’s fun, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but there’s also stuff like that, and like “The Perfect Catch.” This was everything that I was going through at that time, lyrically and sonically, and it’s as honest as I could have gotten.

One track that strikes me as interesting is “Rats,” with lyrics like, “you try to run away / be the better man / try hard to succeed / staying tolerant / of the rats who run through your life.” What inspired that song?

I was working at a club at the time, and you deal with a lot of people like that when you work in nightlife, whether they’re at the job or they’re patrons. There’s a lot of beautiful people in the industry, but there’s also so many who are not, and you have to deal with it, because on a business level, this is part of the game. Everybody has to deal with assholes once or twice–maybe a week. [laughs] So how do you deal with that when you can’t just walk away? You’re trying to sell something, you’re trying to make a deal, and you can’t walk away or you lose the fuckin’ deal. “Rats” was about my job, and how it was becoming difficult to deal with certain people and certain attitudes. How do you stay sane in a toxic environment?

Then there’s an underlining thing, totally not planned or expected, but I was also living in an apartment at that time–thank god I’m not there anymore–in Mott Haven, which is like–they’re trying to make it a nicer area of the South Bronx. It’s not bad, it’s actually okay, but there were rats all over on my block. It was like every night I had to brace myself to go home with rats around the stoop. Every. Fucking. Night. It was gross, it’s unsanitary, and mentally, it’s just the worst. So I’m like, “oh man, what the fuck? Did I write a song about rats that manifested real rats?” Literally and figuratively, I had rats in my life. Right now, they’re all gone. [laughs] I don’t live there anymore, which is awesome.

The first thing you hear on this record is that really buzzy synth melody, and the last thing you hear is these fading piano chords. In your mind, is there an arc to this album?

There is, and some of it was subliminal; it’s like I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know what I was doing. The more people listen to the album, the more people say the same thing, like, “oh, there’s a theme; you’re starting here and you’re ending here.”

There’s an album called The Fragile from Nine Inch Nails. That one starts out very quiet and it gets crazy. He would talk about the theme of, you know, “this is a guy who’s beyond repair, or he’s really fucked up–how do I get through this?” The Fragile starts that way and it gradually gets to a solution, or a light at the end of the tunnel.

With KUMI, it’s more like, “ok, let’s party, let’s dance, let’s drink, have a good time, celebrate life.” You’re starting out with a song like “SXY,” it’s this dirty indie trap-not-trap type of song. Then you have “Velvet Ropes and Dives,” and “Another Club Night.” There’s a lot of lust, a lot of love, a lot of lust and love in there, then you take the turn to the crazy people in “Rats,” you get more introspective in a song like “Alone,” and then you reach a song like “Poison to Medicine,” which basically I’m writing it as a–”how do you deal with depression? How do you escape it and how do you find light at the end of the tunnel?”

It ends with “The Perfect Catch,” probably one of the most cheesy love songs I’ve ever written in my life [laughs] but that’s on purpose. That’s saying, “what’s going to win in the end? Love.” It sounds cheesy and hippie and shit–because love is a pain in the ass too, don’t get me wrong–but when it’s beautiful, and you feel the beauty in it, it’s the best thing. So I wanted to start out the album like, “okay, we’re all here,” and now it’s like this–you know, “this is what life is really about.” We can all have fun, and there are ups and downs, but if you can end life with a song like that, then okay.

Can you tell me about the album title, KUMI?

Yeah, it’s Swahili for ten.

Ah, so what’s the–

That’s all.

Oh, I see.

That’s as deep as it goes, Taylor. [laughs]

[laughs] Software-wise, what were you using to make those synth sounds and drum patterns?

I did most of this on GarageBand, surprisingly. You know, I’m not too savvy. I would work with Reason a little bit back in the day, and I remember GarageBand was just this kind of crappy program, but I ended up getting that Mac, and GarageBand was in there. I was looking to get Logic, because I’ve had some experience with Logic too, so it was like, “okay, I’m bored, I’ve got nothing else to do right now,” and I started fucking with it. I was like, “holy shit, they’ve updated their stuff, and these are really good sounds. I’m going to have fun with this and see what I come up with.”

That’s “Lust Love Above.” It’s all GarageBand, and I felt so weird, like, “I don’t want to tell anyone I’m using this,” but I was listening to a podcast with–there’s a band called The Internet, who I fucking love. Steve Lacy, the guitar player, I hate him, because he’s like 20 and he’s a genius. Incredible guitar player, great writer, great producer, and he was talking about how he would use GarageBand, and that he does a lot of his beats through his phone. I read something else, how Grimes did her whole first album on GarageBand because she couldn’t afford to go to a studio, and I’m like, “oh my god, that’s me right now!”

It was like, “you know what? I’m good. I’m going to run with this and get the best out of it,” and it was so much fun. After that, I started doing stuff more in Logic X, but I didn’t mix everything, and I know that a few songs were mixed in Pro Tools. I’m not good at Pro Tools, so when it comes to that, I’ll get the engineer who really knows what they’re doing.

I feel like people don’t want you to know how much you can do without dropping a lot of money.

Totally, it’s like a secret that’s coming out. I told someone I did “Lust Love Above” on it, and they freaked out. I’m like, “I’m serious!” That and a Neumann mic. That was it. I used some guitar on the album–a very little bit–and I just recorded that in my room. I have an Alesis keyboard that I use a lot for the purpose of it not being a current, current thing. There’s a little bit of influence as far as 80’s and 90’s synth stuff, but I want it to be now, you know? What would Travis Scott do on a song with Human League? How does Mike WiLL work with Prince or Depeche Mode? That’s my shit. I love those old analog synths–the Roland Junos and the Prophets and I like a lot of the arpeggiation stuff of old Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin, and I’m trying to do that, but more in a pop sense. I like to use current stuff, but I don’t want it to sound like everything that’s happening right now. This is the way I craft my niche.

It sounded so current the first time I heard it, I didn’t pick up on what was going on with the synths, but on “Another Club Night” I almost get a retrowave feel.

There’s a lot of that. I was trying to do a song like, “hey, if this was on a Madonna album, like Confessions on a Dance Floor” or something. I wanted that roller-skating disco vibe where it’s like, kids are going to be into this, but your mom will be on the dance floor kicking it too.

You studied jazz guitar, classical voice, and music theory. How does that influence the kind of music you make now?

Again, I think most of it’s subliminal, especially live. We talk about this a lot, where you go to school or you’re in your room honing your craft–I was that kid that spent hours in my room playing jazz guitar and learning chords and modes. I went to study classical vocal not to become a classical vocal singer, but to get that training and apply it to the rock music I was doing at that time–more like Lamb of God screamo type shit. It was rough, but I loved that I could have that technique in classical to supplement.

Some of the members in the band have gone to New School, and all these different types of music study, but we get on stage and it all goes out the window. [laughs] It’s fun, because you have that foundation. It’s like you know how to drive, you know where you’re driving, you don’t really have the directions, but you know how to navigate. That’s where I think that music background is used best: where you’re not consciously thinking about it, but you have that knowledge. I never really think about that when I’m recording, because I know when I do, I get too heady. I’m like, “oh, wow, this is such a basic three-chord song.” And I’m like, “yeah, it’s supposed to be a basic three-chord song. Don’t get jazz. Don’t get jazz. Don’t get jazz–” you know. [laughs]

You take a band like Chic, and you listen to these songs, it’s like, “man, these are fucking awesome tunes.” But then you break it down, like, “holy shit, there are 13th chords in here. It doesn’t sound like its crazy, but listen to what the bass is doing and what the drums are doing.” That’s the beauty of it: when you have that musicianship thing, but you make it sound simple and you make it groove, and you’re not playing a bunch of notes just to play a bunch of notes. No disrespect for people that do that type of music. I love that style, but we like pop, and that’s what these are. They’re pop songs.

I guess it comes down to knowing when to deploy that knowledge. It’s almost more powerful when you can feel the person holding back a little bit, you know what I’m saying?

Yeah, it’s fun. I also remember when I was doing “Rats,” and I was like, “man, this song just needs some crazy drum stuff in the middle, and some in-the-pocket drum stuff.” I called Max, and we went to the studio–I don’t think we did the tune yet. I had it, and no one had heard it. [laughs] Like, “I want you to play this” and he’s like, “really?” And I’m like, “dude, go nuts. Do all that stuff.” We did two or three takes, and I think that third take is where he goes crazy in the middle with all the other drum programs, and he kills it. I love that section so much. It was like, “all that stuff you learned in school? You have 20 seconds to do it,” but that’s cool, and it goes right back to the groove, and then it has his flavor on it.

Having already started the next project, what can you tell me about your direction? What do you want to do going forward?

Just keep putting out more music, but be strategic about it. I want to concentrate on pushing KUMI. I really like the songs, I’m not sick of it yet, but I’ve also moved on to recording and writing, because I know myself. I do get writer’s block, so when I don’t have writer’s block, I seize the moment. [laughs] I’m like, “ok, keep recording, keep recording,” so then when I have writer’s block, that gives me a chance to catch up and go back in the catalog and be like, “oh man, this is a great piece, I need to finish this,” or I’ll listen to something, like “man, this is the most awful shit you’ve ever recorded, like, erase it.”

I’m psyched about this EP as well. That’s going to come out around the same time, but it’s not going to be heard by a lot of people. I’ll probably put a single or two out from that later on. We’re shooting a video pretty soon. I’m not going to get into it until it’s done, but I’m looking forward to that as well, and just getting back with the band, and really taking this stuff out live. It’s like another jacket, playing it live and just listening to it, so that’ll be fun.


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