Seated around the expansive oak chef's table at Icehouse, Heiruspecs are starting to look more like a local nonprofit's board of directors than our scene's greatest hip-hop band. At a listening party for their new album, Night Falls, members arrive punctually, shaking guitarist Josh Peterson's hand to toast his journey toward fatherhood. Bassist Sean McPherson and lead MC Felix Wilbourn, still dressed with an element of street style, gently badger their bandmates into signing the album's promo posters.
Heiruspecs' approach has changed over the years. McPherson, a.k.a. Twinkie Jiggles, is the capo of Trivia Mafia and a major player in Dessa's recent work; Wilbourn has been building a robust catalog of solo recordings; and keyboardist DeVon Gray has played on just about everyone's album over the past couple of years. Nearly all of the members have day jobs as studio guns-for-hire or as instructors, but they all remain devoted to a band that the principals formed while still in high school.
"A lot of very professional music situations are pretty non-collaborative," McPherson says of his work outside Heiruspecs. "When I'm coming in as a bass player, so many decisions have been made."
He's quick to stress that's not a knock against anyone he's performed with, but it does give a good sense of why we're being treated to a sixth studio album this year. While Heiruspecs may have ceased to be a nationally touring entity for several years now, their partnership has only grown stronger.
"I'm in what looks like... a dozen bands, but I'm only in one true band, and that's Heiruspecs," explains Gray. "It's an even, democratic situation with the writing, with the thinking, with the ideas about merch, and what we do with the record. In other situations, there is a boss, and it's not me. In this group, we're all vice presidents."
The band didn't always work this way, but a harrowing accident on tour back in 2005 forced them to reconsider their goals for their project. By slowing to a more deliberate pace and dialing back their tour calendar, Heiruspecs were able to figure out what truly made them happy and productive as a unit.
"I'm really inspired by the creativity of these five other guys that I've been playing with," says drummer Peter Leggett. "It's hard to recreate; you kind of either have that with a group or you don't. So long as that emerges when we get together, I can't see a reason why we wouldn't continue. We've made that transition where we effectively had the breakup, and we figured out how to do that in a very different way."
"We broke up, but then we formed a company," Gray adds with a smirk.
That sense of partnership, coupled with an urge to prove their continued relevance, pushed Heiruspecs back into the studio for their 2008 self-titled album. While it was enthusiastically received at the time, there was still uncertainty within the group as to whether it would be their final mic-drop.
"I think we questioned if the last one was the last one, to some extent," explains Wilbourn. "I know for me, if it had wound down after the last record, I would have been okay with it, but I certainly would have had regrets."
Now, in the final stretch of their marathon effort to create Night Falls, the band has no such doubts. Their creative process has been more collaborative than ever, with each member bringing in skeletons of ideas, resulting in an expansive pile of demos and instrumentals more than double the size of the album's 14-song tracklist.
"We were willing to put down things on a lark, that I feel that in 2006 we wouldn't have wasted our time on trying," says McPherson of the creative process. "Now if we have four misses and one hit we're like, 'Oh cool.'"
As a result, Night Falls feels simultaneously broader and more focused than previous Heiruspecs albums. MC and beatboxer Mu'Adib's somber and contemplative "Merry Go Round" and Wilbourn's summer-love ballad "Cruise Control" feature the pair of frontmen stretching their singing muscles and showing a level of personal vulnerability rarely seen prior to this release.
In contrast, massive bangers like "WATF" and "On the Ground" are classic Heiruspecs. Leggett and Peterson's monstrous riffs are given a sophisticated twist by Gray's thick chording, affording Wilbourn an ample platform to do what he does best. With a palpable new confidence honed by his endless hours spent grinding solo, the Midway rapper sounds effortlessly contemporary, changing his motor-mouthed flow to an intentional cadence that allows every single word to shine like a beacon.
Apparently, Night Falls is such a strong update of the group's singular sound that it caused a minor argument during rehearsals. There was repeated grumbling from McPherson that a tune amounted to no more than "a virtuosic drum part, percussive bass, well-developed classical chords, and some spacy guitar."
To that, Gray sardonically replied, "That's what we do. Do you remember where you clocked in today?"