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Inside the Neon Soul of Shiro Dame

Shiro Dame | Mill City Nights | Saturday, October 18
"I feel like there's some weird, magical thing that happens when we're together," says vocalist Sarah White of her five-piece band Shiro Dame. "Once we start playing, we just fall into this really good pocket where we can make all different styles of music."

Just sitting with three-fifths of the band -- White, Rico Simon Mendez, and Ry Dill -- at Peace Coffee reveals multiple strings of influence and identity, reflecting numerous passions unbound by borders. You can tell from their global fashion sense alone there was a myriad of ideas at play.

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Branching off from interpretations of White's Afrofuturist solo material into collective songwriting, the band has come to encompass an array of styles, labeling themselves "neon soul" after forming about two years ago. At that time, White and Rico Simon Mendez -- a former guitarist and percussionist with Los Nativos who now utilizes traditional and virtual instruments -- returned to Minneapolis after a five-year stint in Brooklyn. Partners romantically and creatively, they've brought their two daughters along to the interview, who sit calmly playing Uno. The players are likewise relaxed, casually revealing their process and its laundry list of influences.

In the early aughts, White had a local legacy rapping and singing with Traditional Methods and Black Blondie, but New York helped give her the freedom to really explore her voice.

"I'm still kind of growing as a person," she says. "I want to get more crazy with it. [Initially] I didn't want to sing on anything. [My Traditional Methods bandmates Big] Zach and Twinkie [Jiggles] had to force me to sing. It's nice to not be afraid anymore."

White and Mendez cut their teeth with a hybrid mode of performance as a duo during their New York stay.

"We played at the Knitting Factory, Southpaw, with groups that all had the same type of vibe," says Mendez. "Ursula Rucker, Taylor McFerrin, King Britt [with] Saturn Never Sleeps -- it really incorporated electronic and live stuff. I think that just kind of opened us up to that crowd acceptance, that energy. Coming back here, I wasn't as timid as to explore that kind of realm."

When the pace and expense of life in the city prompted White and Mendez's return to Minneapolis in 2012, the evolving local scene proved a positive force for their artistic momentum.

"I feel like people are more experimental and risk-taking in New York.... People aren't afraid to do something that doesn't fit in with the scene," she says. "[But] I was missing that, like, emo element. I don't know, the pain."

Now White, Mendez, Dill, Dameun Strange, and Blayr Alexander conjure sounds from their multiple spheres of influence, embedding house, jazz, hip-hop, rock, dub, funk, and EDM into single songs. "I think once we are together, that part isn't an effort," says White of mixing the various sources. "It's just trying to... be at the right place at the right time. Once we get a track like 'Crazy Ways', I feel high [laughs]. I feel good."

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"Crazy Ways," Shiro Dame's first single from an in-progress EP recorded at the storied Humans Win! studios, mashes White's singing and rapping with washing synths and deep bass grooves. Mendez or Strange bring their electronic compositions to the rest of the band to replicate and reconfigure.

"It ends up being different, because when I'm writing, I'm still thinking like writing a full song, without the band," says Mendez. "If we're building a new song as a band... sometimes I [think about] just what kind of energy I want to put forward. What sound is missing? It might be turning into a really deep, spacey, jazzy, soulful track, but I might want to add some wobble bass to kind of take it to another direction."

Drummer Alexander and bassist Dill follow suit, adding low-end grooves that provide appropriate texture.

"I don't necessarily consciously think about what to interject; I think the song kind of dictates that," says Dill. "The song wants to go to a certain place, and you just kind of have to listen to it."

For Strange, who composes pieces solo, with dance ensemble Alternative Motion Project, and with KBDS and Moors Black, Shiro Dame differs from his typical writing.

"For the most part I am not usually that interested in writing pop music, which I feel is in a lot of ways pretty constraining artistically," he says. "I tend to write more expansive experimental music and themes based on mid-century classical theories [or] on West African xylophone music. In Shiro Dame, I simplify a lot of that.... The complexity I do add comes from the sounds I create for the group."

Strange sculpts original synth patches that are lush and layered, linking the group's slow funk and pulsating electronica. Much of the work is downtempo and somewhat spare, with fluid grooves that are striking without being brash. White considers Minneapolis a great hub for creativity, driving her penchant for socially aware lyrics (such as "Corruption marching in the streets/Disguised protection marked the beast" from "Crazy Ways," an indictment of police that becomes all the more poignant with each daily headline).

"It's so inspiring that now, so many people from Minneapolis are playing all over the world. Minneapolis is not unknown now," she says. "We came out here ambitious, ready to make something different; fearless, in a way."

SHIRO DAME play the Legalize It Minnesota! benefit for NORML with Mike Mictlan, Mixed Blood Majority, Ecid, Guante, Meta, Greg Grease, Manchita, Truth Maze, Mastermind, and Toki Wright on Saturday, October 18, at Mill City Nights; 612-333-3422

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