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You could be forgiven, on this occasion, for not recognizing Paper Tiger. Normally, the Doomtree DJ is unmistakable: Sporting a pair of white sunglasses, a baseball hat cocked to the side, and headphones slung around his neck, he commands his own corner of any stage where he waxes his turntable poetics. Today, though, he stands quietly outside the Jasmine Deli, wearing a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black horn-rimmed glasses as he casually scrolls through his iPhone.
Made Like Us, Paper Tiger's brand-new album and his first full-length as a solo artist, could cause a similar double take for longtime fans: It's not wholly unrecognizable, but it's also not quite what you might expect.
"There's a lot of stuff on the record that I've kind of stashed away [over the past couple of years] because it was either too weird for a rap beat or didn't work with anything else," he jokes, giving a short chuckle with his low, monotone voice. The album—which began taking shape during a monthlong stay in New York City late last summer—has traces of the brash beats of "Game Over" or the lush arrangement of "The Chaconne," both of which are hallmarks of his style. Yet these 11 new songs are a departure from anything he or the rest of the Doomtree crew has done before: Largely instrumental, they're spare and moody, driven by mechanical rhythms and colored by plenty of '80s electro-pop flourishes.
"Ever since the late '90s, I was a huge fan of instrumental music. The DJ Shadow record really woke me up," Paper Tiger explains, citing the influential ...Entroducing alongside the likes of Portishead and Lamb as his earliest inspirations. "I did [the Cloquet 7-inch] a couple years ago that was all instrumental, [but] this was a complete project. This is my starting point, this is me as an artist."
Made Like Us certainly follows in the tradition of great headphone records, kicking off with crackling vinyl low in the mix on "First Track" and packing in plenty of hidden gems that slowly reveal themselves over time while never cluttering the album in the process.
"Typically, when you're making stuff you're conscious of the fact that there's going to be another element to it, [but without lyrics it has to] actually be a song and not just the instrumental version of a rap song," he says. Fortunately, he found such an approach meant fewer restraints from conventional songwriting. "It was less counting bars to make sure this is the verse part and [more] listening to it and saying, 'Hey, now, at this point something else should happen,' and, 'Now this is cool and something else should drop out or come in.'"
A perfect example of the technique Paper Tiger developed appears in the hiccupping funk of "The Bully Plank." In it, the music is arranged around a short vocal snippet—the phrase "Don't know how I love you"—which is then repeated throughout the song, the words shifting and layering to create an oblique narrative while chiefly serving as part of the larger sound palette. "With a lot of the songs I did the vocal samples on, I found the vocal sample first and then sort of created an arrangement around that, so it's kind of like working backwards," he reflects, speaking deliberately and gesturing in a ladder motion to illustrate his point.
There are a few guest vocals on Made Like Us, most notably from Doomtree cohort Dessa and Lookbook singer Maggie Morrison; each of the tracks fits in seamlessly with the fabric of the record while proving perfectly suited to the individual performers. "Me and Dessa worked a lot on her record [A Badly Broken Code], so we kind of knew what we were doing there," he explains. As for Morrison's song, "The Painter's Arm," "I remember even when I started making that one, I could totally hear her right away," he says. "It was definitely the one that made the most sense to ask her to be on."
These tracks might also indicate the direction the producer will take on future projects. "I love the idea of having guest vocalists," he says. "One thing I want to explore for my next [album] is playing with more instruments and coming up with stuff on my own."
If Paper Tiger is justifiably pleased with Made Like Us, he's equally enthusiastic about the upcoming release show, which will see the debut of a brand-new Doomtree concept: "We were having one of our weekly house meetings and talking about what we could do for the [show] and somebody just yelled out, 'Doomtree Karaoke!' It was one of those things where we all laughed about it and then we were like, 'Oh, no, we are doing that.'
"I'm really, really excited about it," he grins, another chuckle escaping as he does so. "[It'll be] just like I do for all the rappers whenever we're playing a show, [except] hopefully somebody is going to come up and be like, 'I want to do this song,' and I'll DJ for them and they can rap the song.... That would be amazing."