Eyedea & Abilities pair up again for new album

Eyedea (left) and Abilities return with a long-awaited new album
Jules Ameel

As an MC, Michael Larsen invites controversy. With his pseudonym Eyedea, as one half of underground rap duo Eyedea & Abilities—along with DJ and longtime friend Gregory (Max) Keltgen—Larsen built a name for himself as a battle rapper with an analytical and introspective bent. And then, after their sophomore release, E&A, in 2004, the duo walked away. Keltgen holed up to hone his DJ skills and make beats, and Larsen did something completely different—he started Carbon Carousel, a grungy punk band, and Face Candy, a free-jazz improvisational group. Needless to say, neither outfit went down smoothly with his purist hip-hop fan base.

After almost five years out of the spotlight, Eyedea & Abilities have returned with a new record, By the Throat, and City Pages caught up with Larsen from a tour van on the West Coast to talk about why he walked away, why he came back, and what has changed.

City Pages: When you and Abilities started playing shows again as Eyedea & Abilities, did you think it was going to lead to a new record?

Michael Larsen: Yeah, we were thinking that no one was going to like us if we went up there and started playing five-year-old music, so we started making skits and things to do live. Like that song "Burn Fetish" was an old beat Max had and old words I had from a Carbon Carousel song, so we threw them together to make our show more interesting—then we were like, "Oh, that's a song," and so we kept it and kept going from there.

CP: You recently learned how to play guitar. Why was that?

Larsen: I had all these ideas in my head and I physically couldn't do them, and it was a pain to ask for help all the time. It was probably two or three years ago that I thought, "I want to be able to play an acoustic guitar at a coffee house every night of the week if I want to." It is one of my favorite ways to write music, but I still don't really feel completely comfortable playing or singing. I don't know if I ever will. Part of the danger of the whole thing is that it is uncomfortable or falling apart. I think that that element of danger, especially if you are playing rock, is kind of a cool aesthetic. But with most of the E&A stuff, especially with the production, it all starts with Max, and then I lay stuff on top of it.

CP: But as an introspective MC, aren't you inviting that uncomfortable feeling through examining emotions?

Larsen: Right, I think that was a pretty deliberate move on my part, especially with hip hop, because hip hop is so safe. Because it is typically not live music or a live band, so it doesn't have the ability to fall apart. With a band, I love stuff that sounds like it is going to fall apart. That's why Face Candy is one of my favorite things to do, because it is almost on the brink of being a total disaster the whole time [laughs]. That pulls out all this anxiousness and gets super charged and super creative. It is very therapeutic to put yourself in a situation where you are that exposed and that naked in front of people and then force yourself to try and come up with something that connects with them.

CP: Are people supportive of new E&A material?

Larsen: When we play, we tend to get a good response. Especially after dealing with some of the negativity surrounding Face Candy shows, for me E&A shows are a piece of cake. Literally, at Face Candy shows, I would have people want to fight me, I was getting absurd death threats; it was so insane. As long as people aren't whipping golf balls at me, I'm thinking, "This is fine."

CP: JT Bates [who drummed for Carbon Carousel and Face Candy] said it was one of the weirdest experiences of his career to have twentysomething kids in Jay-Z T-shirts screaming that he sucked.

Larsen: It was so bad. I apologize sometimes to those guys. I feel somewhat responsible because I could have approached it differently, but at the time I wanted to be a martyr. I thought I wanted all that to put myself out there to say, "Yeah, he's that guy who can do whatever the fuck he wants and you can be that guy, too." But the truth of the matter is that I am too sensitive as a person. I know now that I can't be that dude.

CP: But you built from it, and By the Throat carries the fingerprints of those experiences.

Larsen: In the end it is all worth it, and that is what I kept on telling myself in the hard times. In 20 years, when these 22-year-olds stop anchoring their identity in this genre, they are going to realize that it is important for human beings to expand and be free, to do whatever you want, to make whatever you want.  

EYEDEA & ABILITIES play two shows with Atmosphere on TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, and WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775

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