St. Paul hip-hop heavies Heiruspecs end their hiatus
You wouldn't know it from looking at the outside of the building, but inside an old warehouse in northeast Minneapolis, down a giant white hallway and tucked away behind an old, heavy metal door, lies the most active and influential hip-hop studio in town. An array of albums greets visitors, a physical representation of the work accomplished inside these walls: Atmosphere's entire catalog, most of Doomtree's solo and collective efforts, Brother Ali, Eyedea & Abilities, I Self Devine.
The Hideaway Studio is producer Joe Mabbott's playground, and the work he has done for local hip hop in this space is legendary. It makes sense, then, that the members of Heiruspecs have chosen to record their forthcoming album here, amid the ghosts and glory of great albums past.
On a warm fall night in early October, the six members of Heiruspecs are hunkered down in the studio, laying down tracks with palpable excitement and urgency. Their CD-release party is a mere two months away, and this will be the first full-length album the band has released since 2004's A Tiger Dancing.
One might think that Heiruspecs would be rusty in the studio after all that time away, but business is proceeding smoothly.
Mabbott sits in front of a giant mixing board covered with dials and sliding knobs, his face silhouetted by the glow of two massive computer monitors. Heiruspecs MC Muad'dib lounges in a chair in the corner, flipping through a magazine and waiting for his turn at the mic, as lead MC Felix paces the room in a decidedly catlike manner, studying lyrics on a crumpled piece of notebook paper.
Inside the recording space, a room with high ceilings and exposed brick walls littered with dozens of guitars, organs, and amplifiers, the four instrumental musicians of Heiruspecs—bassist Sean McPherson, guitarist Josh Peterson, keyboard player deVon Gray, and drummer Peter Leggett—are rehearsing a riff for a new song. Occasionally McPherson will call out a chord or request a small change, but otherwise the musicians seem to fall into a groove almost instinctively, playing with the kind of ease that only comes from being together for years.
It's been 11 years since Heiruspecs first formed as a group, and they don't appear much worse for wear. They exchange smiles and back slaps, iron out problems quickly, and bounce words of encouragement between the rooms. You wouldn't know it, watching them work peacefully in the recording studio, but they are a band that has weathered some serious storms in their lengthy career.
Just four years ago, riding high on the national release of A Tiger Dancing, Heiruspecs were on the fast track to being the biggest band to come out of Minneapolis in the new millennium. They were playing more than 200 shows a year, had signed onto national label Razor & Tie, and were starting to work on a follow-up to their breakout album.
By the end of 2005, however, it all came crashing down—literally. The band totaled their tour van on the way home from a lengthy outing and, sensing a rising tension among its members, went on an unofficial hiatus. For champions of this local band-that-could, it's been a long wait for a Heiruspecs follow-up album, but that's all about to change. Next weekend, in their first-ever headlining show at First Avenue, the band is set to release a new CD, simply titled Heiruspecs—and it may be their best record yet.
IT'S WELL AFTER BEDTIME on a school night, and Peter Leggett and Felix are seated around a low table in the Living Room bar on the first floor of the new W Hotel. They are both dressed to the nines in suits and ties, sipping microbrews; Felix fiddles with an uncut cigar for most of the interview. At first glance, it would seem that the members of Heiruspecs are accustomed to living the high life, but they both admit they don't usually frequent such swanky nightclubs and are here only because they had a photo shoot for another publication in one of the hotel suites.
"We were in a suite that cost $7,500 a night. Can you believe that?" Felix says, grinning and shaking his head in disbelief.
As soon as the tape starts rolling at the W, Felix clears his throat and picks up my recorder, speaking directly into the microphone: "In 1996, Heiruspecs was formed at the magnificent Central High School in St. Paul, Minnesota," he says in a low voice reminiscent of a documentary film narrator. "At that time, Felix and Sean McPherson, a.k.a. Twinkie Jiggles, met in a recording class. That is the way our story officially begins."
Leggett laughs, nodding his agreement. "It does. We all went to the same high school at different times, and most of us all met at some point, one way or another, through the recording program. We all took the same recording class with the same awesome teacher there named Red Freeberg."
Located off Lexington Parkway and I-94 in St. Paul, Central High School served as a meeting point and hub for the earliest incarnations of Heiruspecs. All six current members and most of its past members went to the school, converging over recording equipment in Central's unique recording arts program.
"I met Chris [Wilbourn, a.k.a. Felix] in 1996, when I had just moved to Minnesota from Massachusetts, and I was a St. Paul Central sophomore," explains McPherson. A new kid at the school, McPherson dove headfirst into the recording program, begging his teacher to place him in the advanced class. He got an opportunity to play with Felix on his first day.
"I started playing, and one of the first people that started rapping when I was playing bass was Chris," he says. "He was a lot more nerdy and outgoing than the other rappers. There wasn't a lot of rapper-ly type attitude.... And I remember thinking, 'That was kind of fun, I wonder if I'll play music with him.' He seemed nicer and more outgoing than these other dudes."
Felix and McPherson started meeting outside of class to play together, with McPherson constructing bass parts and Felix freestyling. After a year of toying around with beats and lyrics, the duo recruited a drummer and another MC and played their first show under the moniker Live Hip Hop in September 1997.
Like the name suggests, the initial goal for the band was to find a way to combine live instrumentation with rap. They played with a revolving cast of drummers and a two-piece horn section, including Martin Devaney on saxophone, with Felix freestyling over the band's beats.
"It was, for 16- or 17-year-old kids, very adventurous," recalls Devaney, who still occasionally plays with the group and employs many Heiruspecs musicians in his own alt-country band. "But it was very bare-bones. This version of the band was bass, drum, two horns, and one MC."
"It was definitely very minimalist on the drums and very minimalist on the arrangements," says McPherson. "But the actual foundation of the music was very happy and wide-eyed and funky."
The group changed its name to Heiruspecs at the suggestion of McPherson, who had learned of the word haruspex, which refers to a type of ancient Roman priest, in his Latin class. "But when Chris sounded that out and wrote it on his hat, he wrote it out the way it is currently spelled, Heiruspecs," McPherson explains. "We all agreed that that spelling did look cooler."
Heiruspecs quickly gained a fan base at their school, selling their first album, Live from the Studio, on cassette tape and playing gigs at Central's Black Box theater and the St. Paul coffee shops Swede Hollow and Cahoot's.
"What happened, gradually, is that Heiruspecs started to take over," says Red Freeberg, who still teaches audio tech at Central. "By the time they were seniors, they pretty much were it in the high school."
"They were like the local celebrities of the school," says Leggett, who was a freshman at Central when Live from the Studio was released. "It was a big deal."
Almost instinctively, Heiruspecs started to nestle itself into the burgeoning local hip-hop community, playing with other groups at Central and expanding to play shows with Minneapolis-based acts like Kanser, then called Kanser Troop, befriending everyone they met along the way. After being invited to play a show with Kanser by MC Zach Combs, the groups realized that they shared many of the same goals and would benefit from working together. By 1998, Heiruspecs and Kanser had teamed up with a handful of other local hip-hop acts to form the collective Interlock Records.
"The beginning of Interlock Records was really Twisted Linguistics—which is Muad'dib from Heiruspecs and Noah Brandau—Kanser, Heiruspecs, and CMI, which contained Oddjobs," explains McPherson. "I remember meeting some of these people for the first time, and you've got kids from Central, South, Southwest, and I was just like, this is so cool. Really quickly, it became clear that our personal motivations were going to be supportive of each other."
WITH A STRONG FOOTING IN the local hip-hop scene, Heiruspecs were in a good position to focus on the band full-time when its members started to graduate from high school. After a short period of post-secondary floundering, the core members decided to knuckle down and make a serious studio recording.
"We got a little bit loose for a little while. Some of us flirted with college but didn't really do the whole college thing," says Felix. Their lineup changed significantly at this point, as the band brought in their Interlock labelmate and Twisted Linguistics MC Muad'dib (born John Harrison II) to join the group as a secondary vocalist, adding yet another new element to their ever-evolving sound. After working with Felix, who produced the Twisted Linguistics album Project Astral, Muad'dib says the decision to join Heiruspecs came easily. "The way [Felix] explained it to me is that he never really envisioned Heiruspecs to be a one-MC group," he says. "And it had been at that point for a number of years, so he wanted to try having someone else in the group."
The two MCs complemented each other well, with Muad'dib adding beatboxing and singing in addition to his backup vocals and secondary verses. The horn section was swapped out for keyboard player Tasha Baron, who now performs in Black Blondie, and Peter Leggett was hired on as a permanent drummer.
"We came back together as a band, and that's where we really were like, okay, this is truly serious," says Felix. "We recorded Small Steps and started to tour."
Whereas their earlier recordings had the loose feel of a live show, Small Steps allowed the band to turn their focus toward song composition and studio polish. It's also the point in the band's career when they started narrowing in on what would become the signature Heiruspecs sound, with the keyboard, bass, and drums meshing into cohesive beats behind the two MCs.
"It was definitely an attempt at stepping out and trying to make something far more official," agrees Leggett. "Getting out of town more and getting college dates and doing the bigger opening spots, things like that. That was like the first time we really got out to the West Coast and the East Coast."
"That was really a personally exciting time for me," says Felix, grinning. "Prior to those first few out-of-town shows, I had never really done any traveling. It was like the world was opening up to me, and I felt really—I felt a little overwhelmed, actually. It's not like we were doing tons and tons of touring to support Small Steps, but we did a little bit."
Once the group hit the road, things started moving quickly. "When we finally settled down after that and started thinking about [Small Steps follow-up] A Tiger Dancing, we had picked up a manager, Vicki Gilmer, who was really sweet to us and really got a lot of good work done."
Their manager started submitting tracks to labels, and three months after they finished recording A Tiger Dancing there was word that the new album would be picked up by national label Razor & Tie.
"The whole process of sending out our material to labels, getting on a label, going out to New York to sign a contract, negotiating, then getting ready to put out the record officially—all that stuff started happening," says Felix. "And the same way that I felt kind of special that I was starting to get to travel after Small Steps, I was feeling like, yeah, we're in business now! We're doing the official, real-deal thing. And then we really got to tour. We got a booking agent, we were doing 200 and some-odd shows a year, and seeing everywhere."
"It was cool to be young men getting on an elevator in New York and going into this place and having people go, 'It's nice to see you!'" remembers McPherson. "It felt good."
"I always liked that they were prepared," adds keyboardist DeVon Gray, who played on and off in the band until A Tiger Dancing and has been a full-time member ever since. "They knew Heiruspecs were coming. Everybody had to make sure to smile and greet and say hello because our band was about to enter from the elevator and walk to the conference room."
WITH THEIR MUSICAL CAREERskyrocketing, Heiruspecs seemed poised to play out the role of local band made good. They were releasing albums at a relatively fast clip, had signed to a major label, and were actively touring every corner of the country. Their single from A Tiger Dancing, "5ves," was receiving widespread radio play and had even been included on a few major motion-picture soundtracks. But as Heiruspecs' career seemed to be on the upswing, tensions broke out within the group.
The label reps at Razor & Tie started pushing for a follow-up to A Tiger Dancing, but McPherson says the stress of spending too much time on the road made it difficult to focus on their creative output. "Label or not, it would have been hard to write songs right at that moment," he says. "At that time there were a lot of arguments and stress. It was still a really tough way to live—on the road for little money, and for not always great returns."
"We spent two years going pretty hard, did a lot of touring," Leggett says. "A lot of touring on our own, a lot of opening acts—Cake, Ja Rule, Lyrics Born, Tre Hardson from Pharcyde, all this stuff. And then we got to that point where it was like, okay, what are we going to do next?"
With the band nearing burnout, McPherson says he could sense that his bandmates needed some time off. But before he could even change the tour schedule, fate stepped in on a cold winter night in December 2005 and dramatically changed the band's course.
"I crashed the van," says McPherson.
"He tried to kill us all," jokes Gray.
The band was heading home from a lengthy tour and had almost made it to Fargo when they hit a patch of black ice and slid off the road.
"It had been really icy, and I was going really slowly," McPherson continues. "I think I was going like 45. Peter was in the front seat—I remember Peter waking up a little bit, and then things started to shake and I was like, 'Oh, shit.' And it felt kind of slow, but it obviously happened very quickly. Somebody said, 'Here we go!'"
The van flipped onto its side, leaving the bandmates dangling from their seatbelts. Though the van was proclaimed totaled by AAA, they were told they could still try to drive it. McPherson drove them the rest of the way home, he says, shaken by what could have been a much more serious accident.
"There were very few injuries. Chris's back got cut up a little bit from glass. We drove home with no mirrors on the van at all, and I remember being in shock and immediately just being really glad that nobody died."
With their touring van totaled and the band members feeling fried, it became blatantly obvious that it was time to take a break. "We crashed the van, and it was like, okay, this is what we are going to do next," says Leggett. "And then we all got really busy doing other things."
The band spent the better part of two years in recovery mode, playing together sporadically and only recording a handful of demos. With no new album in sight, they parted ways with their manager and their label, and McPherson has taken on most of the administrative duties himself.
"We stopped having management, so I started assuming some of those things," he says. "Artistically, it felt like a break, but it was also the start of some figuring out how to handle this band without some of the support of a label."
THOUGH THEY LOST THE administrative assistance of their label and manager, returning to life as an independent band gave Heiruspecs the opportunity to go back to moving at their own pace. The band wasn't active for the majority of 2006 and 2007, but its members certainly didn't rest on their laurels. Leggett toured with Mason Jennings, while McPherson, Peterson, and Gray played with everyone from Martin Devaney to Jessy Greene to Big Trouble. To say that the members of Heiruspecs are deeply entrenched in the local scene is an understatement.
"They've been part of the growth and sustenance of the Twin Cities hip-hop scene almost from the very beginning as a band," says Sean's brother Steve McPherson, who has played guitar in the group off and on since the late '90s. "But if you look at bands that members of Heiruspecs have played in or gone on to play in, you can see just how deeply they're woven into the music scene here: Martin Devaney, Ela, Black Blondie, Acoustic Beatdown, Big Trouble, Supreme Privacy, Fog, Poor Line Condition, HeatdeatH, Mason Jennings, Kid Dakota, and many others. This isn't to say that Heiruspecs is responsible for those bands, but it does point to just how tapped into the scene they are as a band, and what a diverse set of skills the members have brought and continue to bring."
"Dating back all the way to high school, when we put out our first tape—even then there was a small collection of bands that all shared members," says Devaney. "And that obviously has only gotten larger. We always joked back then about the Heiruspecs family. There's still a sense of that. The family tree gets larger every year."
Members of Heiruspecs say that even though they have spent time apart, their work in other bands has allowed them to explore other genres and styles and, ultimately, to return to the group as stronger musicians.
"While we were away we were all staying very busy, musically," says Leggett. "And playing together and not playing together is going to strengthen what we're able to do."
"For balance's sake, it helps that all of us are in other bands, and it helps that a lot of us are in the same other bands," says Peterson. "I definitely think playing in other projects, for me at least, informs Heiruspecs."
Now that the group has spent some time apart, they say they are ready to come back stronger than ever. The band has spent the majority of 2008 writing and recording new material for their first full-length studio album in four years. Heiruspecs will be released next Friday at First Avenue. The album is a testament to the band's new mentality of collaboration and cohesion. Songs swing tighter than ever before and display a vast array of influences without seeming fragmented. Their first single, "Get Up," starts with a catchy guitar hook and expands into an epic, thunderous chorus, with Felix riffing on life in a divided nation; "Change Is Coming" invites Dessa (of hip-hop crew Doomtree) to trade verses with Felix as the band lays down a funky R&B groove; and "Sunshower" is downright poppy, with a guest chorus by Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson.
Heiruspecs finds the band in a promising position, and the album showcases some of their best work yet. Even the fact that the album is self-titled seems to speak to the way the band has reclaimed its identity. After all the ups and downs of their 11-year career, Heiruspecs have mastered the art of not only sticking together as a group but finding a balance that allows them to stay both happy and productive.
"I think part of what's kept us together for so long has been changing the pace fairly often," Felix says. "There have been times when we were very part-time, and there have been times when we've been full blitz, on tour, always together."
"We're all in a place right now where we know what we want, as a band, both with the music and just with our personal lives," says Peterson.
"They've done this business so realistically," observes Freeberg, their Central High School teacher. "And they've done it so well. They've done it in a way where they've not only been able to support themselves and do what they want to do, but they've stayed sane."
"If any young musicians are looking to last in the music industry, they need only to look to them to see what it takes to weather those storms and stick around," says Devaney. "And it does take going through a few disasters, and being on the verge of breaking up and alienating friends, and then taking a step back and taking a break, and relearning how to be a band."
"I've seen the ups and downs and the moments where they were asking themselves if they could keep going," says Steve McPherson. "But instead of ever really answering that question, they've just kept going, and that's huge. They're now sustainable. In terms of how often they play and how much they record and the music they're making, Heiruspecs could keep going like this for, well, forever."
HEIRUSPECS will play a CD-release show with Mayda, Big Quarters, and DJ Anton on SATURDAY, DECEMBER 13, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775
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