Joey Van Phillips’ debut album, Punch Bowl, is a party with a hell of a guest list.
P.O.S, Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter, Jacob Mullis, Amy Hagar, Aby Wolf, Open Mike Eagle, Mally, Kristoff Krane, Omaur Bliss, and Joe Horton – each of these artists rhapsodizes over Van Phillips’ beats. “Nothing’s too aggressive,” he says. “Everything’s got quite a bit of finesse to it. It’s softer, maybe, than a rappy-rap album.”
Van Phillips, a third-generation drummer, grew up in Kansas. He relocated to Minnesota when his mother remarried. As a student at St. John’s University, he majored in music “for better or for worse.” Post-grad, he played everywhere he could and worked in musical theater, adding credits as diverse as Dessa’s drummer to a Minnesota Artist guest artist to Mystery Palace member to his resume.
After two decades of searching for his “compositional voice,” Van Phillips has finally found it in Punch Bowl, and it’s consistent enough to contain the unique vocal parts and lyrics of its contributors.
We talked to Van Phillips ahead of his album release show at Icehouse on Thursday.
City Pages: When did you decide that it was time to put out an album?
Joey Van Phillips: Ever since I was in college studying music and curating a professional career, I’ve always been a sideman. I’ve always tried to write music and create music. I studied a lot of jazz when I was younger and I used to try to write for combos and I really stunk at it. Whatever kind of music I thought I could write, I was never happy with it. With Punch Bowl, it kind of came together about five, six years ago or so. We were working on an album for Dessa called Castor, the Twin. That was basically live-band arrangements of a lot of her previous works. Through that process, I was experimenting with lots of different layers of percussion. Some of the tracks got pretty deep in those layers and it gave me the idea: what if I wrote music that was all for these instruments? Because studying percussion, there’s enough variety of instruments there where I could create a full piece of work without missing any elements of the song. So I started writing for different mallet instruments and drum grooves and building up a library of that and started working with other vocalists who were interested.
CP: These are all live instruments on the album?
JVP: Yeah, all live percussion instruments. I recorded it like you would any other band. I started with the drums and layered those up and then put down some bass stuff, which is all like low marimba. We use a lot of different studio techniques to get a lot of different frequencies out of the instruments as well. Then layered on top of it and added different percussions and higher mallet stuff – just kind of built it from the ground up. It is loop-based, it is essentially hip-hop music, so it was a little easier to come up with different motifs or riffs that we could move and manipulate and build on from there.
CP: Would you say collaboration is a way of life for musicians in the hip-hop community? It seems to happen often.
JVP: Yeah. There are certain artists that build their own beats and then they rap over it and they produce it, but that doesn’t seem to be very often. Even if a rapper does create beats, they usually do it for other people. It is a really big, collaborative scene, which is how this all came together in the first place ‘cause people were open to it ‘cause they’re used to doing that kind of thing. Everybody that’s on this record has made appearances on other people’s records in a feature on someone else’s track. I just figured I’d make a whole record of that.
CP: Did each artist bring their own lyrics to this album?
JVP: Yeah. Each artist brought their own lyrics. Absolutely. I couldn’t write a lyric to save my life, nor sing it. It was basically me coming up with a beat like a producer might for a hip-hop artist and they would come up with their own hook and lyrics. Then once we got those two sides together, we’d edit and move forward from there to craft the final song.
CP: How much input did you have on the artists’ lyrics, if any?
JVP: As far as lyrical content, they had full control over it. I basically approached people that I know would write within the guidelines of not creating anything insensitive or misogynistic or any of the kind of ills that are throughout rap music. Whatever they wanted to rap about was fine with me as long as it wasn’t derogatory.
CP: Why was it important to you that the music not be offensive?
JVP: I don’t really want to further that kind of language. I don’t want to have a part in anything that marginalizes any particular group over another one. It kind of cheapens art, I think, when there’s that kind of slander involved.
CP: Did they do this for free?
JVP: There’s no compensation. There’s nobody backing it except myself. But everybody that is on the record was so authentic and approachable. It was either, “Yeah, I’m into it” or “No.” Most people said yeah; it just took them a while because having a project like this where you don’t get paid keeps moving lower and lower on the priority list. But eventually everybody came through with outstanding contributions to the record.
CP: With this many vocalists involved, how do you perform the album live? Will they all be at the release show?
JVP: Not all of them, unfortunately. But hopefully most of them. One tricky one is Open Mike Eagle; his schedule is pretty difficult to work with. Other than that, everyone’s given me confirmation except POS ‘cause he has to leave for a European tour the day before the show. Performing it live, the music itself requires 10 or 11 players. The vocalists on top of that make up another 10 to 12 performers, so it’s quite a large endeavor. It’s kind of ridiculous. I don’t really know what I was thinking.
CP: Logistically, it seems like quite the feat to get everyone in one room at one time.
JVP: I’m happy with the record. I’m satisfied with being able to write music that I don’t think sounds like garbage. But then when I put it all together, I definitely had a “What the hell were you thinking?” moment trying to wrangle all these professional musicians who are all amazing people and great to work with but they’re busy doing stuff as well. Without money, it’s kind of tricky.
CP: It’s great that they were willing to donate their time and their talents.
JVP: Yeah, yeah. I feel very fortunate. I’m pretty surprised it worked out the way it did, that as many people came through as they did. Throughout the process of it, after I approached each vocalist and they confirmed, sometimes it took almost two years to get the track completed. I would check in every couple months and they would be like, “I haven’t had time to do that yet,” which is totally understandable. With every person, though, I’d say, “If you don’t have time to do it or if you can’t do it, I totally understand. Just let me know so I can offer your track to somebody else.” When I initially went to these people, I had about 14 or 15 different beats and each person picked one. But everybody said, “I’ll do it, I’ll do it.” Eventually it happened. It just took a long time.
CP: You must be a really patient person.
JVP: [Laughs] I am patient. I have no problem hanging out and watching TV. That’s one of my favorite things. I don’t ever need to get anything done right away.
Joey Van Phillips
With: C. Kostra
When: 10 p.m. Thurs. Nov. 30
Tickets: $8/$10; more info here