“We want to move into a sphere where we can be accessible to anybody who likes music”: Antibalas drummer Miles Arntzen talks about his other project, an Afrobeat/funk/soul/punk/rock collective.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“If the party’s on the stage, then the party’s in the crowd,” says Miles Arntzen, the founder, drummer and sometime singer for EMEFE, a 10-person Afrobeat/funk/soul/punk/rock collective that delivers an ass-shaking, mind-bending, all-encompassing live experience — and, hands down, the best show I’ve seen all year.
EMEFE is short for “Music Frees All,” less a catch phrase than an animating philosophy for this band. “What does Afrobeat or funk music do for me? It frees me from anything I’m worrying about at the moment and it brings me to the most core elements of life that I need to take stock of every day, every moment,” says Arntzen. “We’re doing that through our music, but we’re also doing that all together.”
That’s why EMEFE’s show begins right in the middle of the audience, in an irresistible percussive groove that becomes a parade and then a celebration, drawing the talkers, drinkers and texters into the experience before they even know the show has started. “A lot of times with out of town shows, we really like to start in the crowd because people tend to be standing at the bar,” says Arntzen. “It’s kind of a practical thing. We want to get them over to the stage, almost literally to grab them.”
Groove, rhythm, trance
Arntzen discovered Afrobeat about half a decade ago, while organizing benefits for his friend Scotty Hard. Hard was a Vancouver-based music producer who was paralyzed in an auto accident early in 2008. Brooklyn’s Antibalas played a series of shows for Hard in March 2008, and Arntzen, in the audience, was hooked.
“I didn’t know what I was listening to, but I’d never felt that free before. I wasn’t even flailing around dancing. It was a very subtle thing. It was seeping into my skin,” Arntzen remembers. He started listening to Antibalas and Fela himself. Then he reached out to the Antibalas crew via Facebook and MySpace and found mentors. “I began basically meeting up with a couple of them weekly and they would teach me a lot about the music — not only about Afrobeat, but life and music and all sorts of things. And so they started me on my journey of really getting inside the music, like I had never done before. There was a very constant 24/7 immersion in the music and it was quite an amazing time. Every day I was just discovering something new. “
What was it about Afrobeat that caught his attention? “First of all, it’s music that’s based in rhythm. It’s based in groove and not only the drums are providing that groove and rhythm. The guitars and the bass and the horns and the vocals, they’re all contributing to the rhythm in a way that is individual and yet works with the whole spectrum of instruments happening,” says Arntzen. “That idea just resonated with me — because I’m a drummer, but I’ve always played guitar, bass, piano and I’ve always sang. So that was probably the first thing.”
“But also there’s a spirituality in the music because of the persistence of rhythm,” he says. “It’s hard to pin down. It simply makes you feel good, that everything’s okay. That’s kind of what spirituality is, just finding a way to be okay.”
Arntzen admits that there’s a tension in Afrobeat, between the trancelike grooves that take you away from your troubles and the fiery political messages embedded in many of the songs. EMEFE is not overtly political (though Arntzen’s other band, Antibalas, is), a decision which he explains like this. “Even though there are of course things that I could write music about, politically, I don’t feel like that’s my job,” Arntzen says. “Politics are not what drew me to the music immediately even though that’s something that’s amazing about the music. What drew me to the music is the way it made me feel.”
College freshman, Afrobeat ringleader
EMEFE came about well after Arntzen discovered Afrobeat. In 2009, during the first few months of his freshman year at NYU, he found himself writing music inspired by Afrobeat. He invited musicians over to rehearse his tunes – some of them new acquaintances from NYU, others like bass player Doug Berns, friends from childhood. They rehearsed once, and Arntzen booked a gig. “So I was like, we have a gig, we have to rehearse. We have to rehearse a lot,” Arntzen recalls. “We put together about five songs and played at a jazz club in midtown. And that became EMEFE.”
Arntzen got recruited into Antibalas while still at NYU and took some time off to tour with them midway through his college career. But EMEFE continued to grow up alongside it. The band released Good Future in July 2012 via bandcamp and began touring the Northeast in a Striker Van. A couple of times, they made it as far as Chicago and Milwaukee.
“Anywhere you can drive is fair game for us,” Arntzen says, when asked about the logistics of touring with a 10-person band. “A Sprinter Van can hold 15 people if you want and has a full stand-alone trunk that we can put all our stuff in. Not to mention that it has a video game system and DVD and all that fun stuff.”
Broadening the sound
Now, as EMEFE begins to think about recording its follow-up to Good Fortune, Arntzen notes that other influences, outside Afrobeat, are taking on a larger role. “I’m having more and more trouble describing what EMEFE is because it’s taking on more and more influences. Funk is really at the core. But we definitely draw a lot on rock.”
Indeed, at a recent show, EMEFE veered sharply between Afrobeat, funk, punk, rock and soul, sometimes within a single song. “I grew up playing a lot of Led Zeppelin type rock. John Bonham was one of my favorite drummers. We’ve always been able to find a way to kind of meld different things together.”
Any, anyway, even Fela’s own music is pretty badass. “If you take one of Fela’s bass lines and you play it with a guitar, it sounds awesome. If you play the horn lines with distorted crazy keyboard sounds, it sounds awesome,” Arntzen continues. “That’s a testament to the spirit that he put into his music. There’s that fierceness there.”
Arntzen is anxious to get back into the study, to try to capture the way EMEFE is evolving. “We’re singing more,” he says. “I love the Talking Heads stuff where [David Byrne] goes between a lead vocal and a group vocal seamlessly on records like Remain in Light, I think that’s a beautiful texture to use, to jump between lead and group vocals. And that’s also a big part of Fela’s music. The lead vocals and the group vocals are always responding to each other. That’s the direction we’re going in.”
EMEFE might also be edging at least partly out of the all-instrumental category, a change that Arntzen says he welcomes. “Being an instrumental band can be kind of a handicap sometimes. We all want to sing. We try to do it as much as possible in the set that you saw. We’re kind of on that edge. Are they vocal or are they instrumental? And we don’t want to go all the way over into one or the other, but we want to stay on that middle ground.”
“We’re kind of moving away from more traditional world music,” he adds. “We want to move more into a sphere where we can be accessible to anybody who likes music.”
UPDATE: The band has launched a Pledge Campaign to raise money to help finance the upcoming album (they begin recording next week). If you hop over to their Pledge site page— http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/emefe —you can pick up more details and also watch the promo video about the project.