We’ve been waiting close to an hour, but neither one of us seem to mind.
As the rain continues to pour outside, the upstairs bar at Songbyrd Music House provides shelter from the elements, cold beer, and a great vantage point for people watching – each walking in through the doors soggier than the one before. It’s a Saturday evening, and the venue is starting to welcome patrons for a preview listening party for Sitting in Outer Space, the upcoming album by local duo FootsXColes (pronounced “Foots and Coles”). The truth is that both of us – myself and BYT photographer Nick Karlin – are also somewhat new converts to their music, with their soulful R&B leanings, jazzy chops, and ethereal, spaced-out sound. Plus, like I said, it’s nice in here. When the duo finally arrive, any lingering tension dissipates – in front of us are are two young men in their early twenties with markedly different personalities, but a shared passion for their art (and a valid excuse about finding parking in Adams Morgan).
FootsXColes, has only been an official project for about eighteen months, though the members have been collaborating for much, much longer. The pair have been making music together for over five years, originally as part of local eight-piece collective Marlee in the Mixx. But they soon realized that a group of that size was somewhat limiting creatively, and the duo capitalized on their natural chemistry.
As part of the newest wave of young artists making their careers in and around the District, FootsXColes have steadily built an impressive resume. In recent months, the group has opened for international indie R&B acts such as Little Simz, The Mattson 2, and Homeshake (who they are playing with again this Saturday). Yet despite being seemingly everywhere, the duo remain grounded and hungry to learn in their own way: Foots, the drummer, leads the way with a constant volley of thoughts, ideas, and concepts, while Coles – pianist and producer – cuts a quieter, shyer figure who nonetheless pipes up to drive a point home. Despite the personality differences, the duo is supremely synced – throughout our interview, it was surprising to see just how attuned they seem to be.
Brightest Young Things: There’s an aura of mystery around FootsXColes. It’s really hard to find information about you guys, at least on the internet – I’ve been digging. There’s lots of great videos of you performing, your songs are out there. I can find out a lot more about your work than I can find any information about you guys. Tell me about yourselves.
Coles: As far as me, I’ve been in the DMV basically my whole life. I went to school here. I played basketball here I did everything here. I started learning the piano probably around nine years old, ten years old. From there I just picked up different things as far as producing as well. I got my first NPC1000 probably when I was like 15, 16 and then that’s when I just built my own studio around that. Everything that I have now is still from that collection. It’s the studio that we record at now. That’s in my house.
Foots: Yeah, I’m from the DMV. Coles is more classically trained and just like a phenomenal pianist and a phenomenal music mind. I was a drummer in this area in the go-go scene but I always had this thing to where I loved to write music as well, write songs. So with our previous project, Marlee in the Mixx, I was kinda like behind the scenes writing a lot. We both decided we have talents that – I wouldn’t say not being used, but like, underutilized because I like to sing as well and write, and Coles can rap and sing and write. We just said all of these ideas, put them together along with our playing and our history of what we do musically and put them into concept based albums. That’s what Sitting in Outer Space is and A Beautiful Mistake is another one.
We kinda appreciate the mystery, and we want to keep it a little bit that way. People have to do their research, so the music talks. Honestly, we want to be featured in our album visuals, but we kinda want it to be one of those things where it’s like just… I don’t know. Some of my favorite artists – I really have to know what they’re thinking and how they think. I have to listen to the music and that’s what we want as well.
BYT: One of the artists that comes to mind when you talk about that framing is SBTRKT. He’s an incredible producer and has collaborated with so many people, but I don’t think we’ve ever heard his voice. We’ve now seen his face but it was a long time before he took off the mask, and he was using other artists like Sampha, Ezra Koenig, and Little Dragon as conduits to express what he was feeling and writing.
Foots: He was really sneaky in his production too. He’s another guy who has pulled, you can hear it in his bass lines and his tempos and what he does sonically. You can tell what he’s inspired by and you can tell everybody’s been going crazy listening and reading up on this Quincy Jones thing.
Everybody’s going crazy about it but the guys who are able to kinda, like us – I do so much research on music before me that I wasn’t offended by it or I don’t take offense to it, because I’m mad that I’ll never be able to hear every song ever made. And Wikipedia it. Like, in talking with you, I can tell with the names you’re spitting out, we can talk [about music]. We’re intentional with our art. So what’s working for everybody else doesn’t work for us and we’re cool with that. We make music for a certain type of crowd, for a certain type of appreciation level. It’s cool man, it’s great.
BYT: I want to talk about the Quincy thing. I’m assuming you both read the interview in Vulture that came out this week.
Foots & Coles: [Nod in unison]
BYT: Besides all the hot tea that he spilled, he has this moment that might sound like an old man yelling at a crowd – at least to the surface reader, and to your sentiment – when he says that producers today don’t know about musicality, and are ignoring all the musical principles of the previous generation. And really it was on point in a way.
This project to me seems like an anomaly to that statement. It seems to be in conversation thematically with Sun Ra, with Gil Scott Heron, with Leon Ware. Is this by design or coincidence?
Foots: Thank you, wow. That’s a good compliment. I’m like “who, what, me?” When you say Gil Scott I fall out, woooooo. [Laughs]
Me and Coles, this is my brother for life. We also play sports together we do everything together. We’ll be in the studio and have a moment like “dog, how do we want somebody to feel right here?” and with him being as good as he is as a pianist, I’m able to bring in the rhythm. I can sing it and then I’ll…even if I’m singing like “da ne ne nene”, Coles can play it and it’ll make sense. When we’re in the studio and we’re in these spaces, what we’re always trying to do is capture a feeling. I think that’s what Quincy hit on. I think everybody who went crazy are people who didn’t really take from it what we took from it, like you said. Because if you really read the whole interview you would know that he paid homage to a lot of people. He also talked about some killer musicians like Herbie [Hancock] who I drill all the time. Some real cats. My thing is – we don’t shade artists. I will never sit and pretend I can tell Quincy Jones what to say. All I can do is listen and try to analyze.
Coles: You hit it on the head. As far as your question: I don’t think our goal is really to be different, we really just go into the studio with the mindset of doing us. I think that’s the problem we really ran into with our old situation. As far as that yeah, like, I don’t know. It just comes naturally to us. I think producers now they sample so much. For us, if we sample something it has to make sense. Like we sampled the Mattson 2. It’s a group we played with, they’re from San Diego.
BYT: Yeah, they’re boys with Chaz Bundick from Toro y Moi.
Coles: Yeah! We sampled them for the intro, and have become good friends with them after opening for them.That’s the only sample we really have throughout the whole project. Going back to producers now a days they borrow so much from the past. I’ve heard songs that sound exactly like the original samples. Like, that whole, not to spotlight on it. The DJ Khalid track “Wild Thoughts”. The whole “Maria” joint.
Foots: They didn’t change anything.
Coles: It’s the same rhythm, it’s the same sample as “Maria Maria” by Santana.
Foots: It gets hard to listen to.
Coles: [Incredulous] Even down to the lyrics now? They don’t even try to write anything new.
Foots: You know, but there’s some good stuff. There’s some good stuff locally too. Some people we’re like really close with and under the same management with under James [Scott, founder of OTHERFEELS]. There’s some killers in this area who are unnoticed. Or like shaping the mold. I say there’s like two types: Guys who want a J Dilla situation but aren’t thinking like Dilla was thinking or there are people who are on FL studio and going crazy with the hi-hats on their DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). What’s crazy is like, it sounds good to that audience because they’re copying…
BYT: It’s a formula.
Foots & Coles: [In unison] It’s a formula!
BYT: Not to jump in and detract but popular music moves in these waves and cycles. There’s obviously people who are at the pinnacle and everyone else is sort of like a copy that begins to like deteriorate. Remember when everyone was doing the EDM trap shit? If I hear another “womp womp womp”…
Foots: [Begins imitating high pitched laser sounds] Do doo doo doo dooooo do doo doo dooo doooooo. [Laughs] Just loud like, I know what you mean. If you put that in context…I know exactly when the drop is gonna happen. I already know. I have a big problem with certain house [music]. I love it and I hate it at the same time cause it doesn’t feel like anything.
BYT: Right, where’s the emotion?
Foots: The reason why we just walked in here before the interview and me and you were talking about music made from ’78-’84 – that was like right before disco took over and it got kind of corny. It was filling with up temponess and it was like dancing and the songwriting complimented and the musicianship was so crazy.
BYT: There’s this fucking song that came into my head the other day and I have no idea why, since I haven’t listened to it in forever. “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. I remember hearing it as a kid and thinking “this shit is tight”. And it was just from that era.
Foots: I think there are some producers who are good — I like Mark Ronson. He’s doing decent. The problem that I had – and this is me personally – I don’t like stuff to be so, so clean. It just sounds too clean.
Coles: Too perfect.
Foots: Exactly. I think that with how they recorded songs on tape back. That was a big difference. It adds to, the musicians were really playing. If they were on a metronome, it may be a little off. It may have a swing, it may have drag, but that added that real musicianship component.
BYT: Are you guys considering incorporating sort of that physical aspect to your recording? Do you do that already?
Coles: Oh yeah we do it already.
Foots: “Possibilities” has it. I play live drums on that record.
Coles: For our next project, that’s really all we want it to be. We wanna do it theme based.
BYT: I’ve noticed that recurring themes in your music seem to be astrology, astronomy, and the cosmos; outer-space. You have the song “Hidden Astrology”. The new record is titled Sitting in Outer Space. Is the interest in the space and exploration a metaphor for searching within yourself or are you guys just NASA nerds?
Foots: [Laughs] We’re not NASA nerds. That’s cool that you caught that. “Hidden Astrology” didn’t even make the record. I would just say when it came to space, I remember Kid Cudi’s record. He was another guy who I would say was a pioneer. I love Cudi, dog. I miss old Cudi.
BYT: Man on the Moon.
Coles: We were talking about that joint. We just wanted to make a theme and what other way than like, space. We just really wanted to challenge ourselves. When you hear the record, you’ll see. We just wanted to challenge ourselves with our writing. Even the way we produced and the music we wanted it to have a theme. We were intentional of that.
Foots: So yeah, I wouldn’t really say it’s really about space or astrology. We don’t wanna get into that whole mess of saying you’re a certain way cause you’re a Pisces. [Laughs]
BYT: Are you both making music full time now?
Foots: [Pauses] Yes I will say. We have 9-5s but we’re getting close to that. Because what we’re doing right now, we’re producing for a lot of people. Our homegirl Alex Vaughn – she’s more on the mainstream level and we’re playing behind her and we produced a lot of her records. Just doing stuff for James [Scott]. I’m deejaying, he’s producing a lot of artists. So yeah man, we’re getting close but staying patient. My eyes are red all the time but we’re getting there. The first chance we get this tour we’re gonna do it.
BYT: What have been the biggest challenges so far of trying to make it as a musician in D.C.? Conversely, what’s been surprisingly straightforward and simple, if anything?
Coles: Challenges? I would say for me, just playing live. ‘Cause as you can see I’m kinda, I’m not really good as far as talking in front of people. [Laughs] But me singing live I’d say is one of the biggest challenges that i had personally. As far as us two, I really think everything we’ve done has been expected. I really have that much faith in our music and what we’re making.
Foots: I think it took people a while to give us the chance, but I always wrote and when i found out his lyrical abilities – you’ll hear it on this project you’re just like “wow”. I just look it as I’m just going to do what I want. I see all these other people, artists, whatever. Any entrepreneur thinking about this and doing it. I’m gonna sing and play drums. I want him to play keys, rap, and sing. And we gon’ do it.
A challenge for us is getting people to kind of understand the vision. Like you understand, because I think you’re a forward thinker – so the fact you pick up on all the things we’re throwing out there, with the astrology and all of that, that’s it. ‘Cause that was intentional too. Some people were like “what?”, so you still have those people in the dark, but they’ll wake up.
What’s been straightforward? I’m not going to say the easiest thing, but the coolest thing about it is like there has been a lot of love, yo. I think there’s something to be said about when you doing what you love, and that we put in our years too. I put in my years as a musician – I can say that. So the rest comes easy. I put in my years as a musician, that’s what I tell young cats like “don’t think this shit comes easy.” As a writer, to come up with good ideas, it takes time. It’s not like it just comes. It’s not like you wake up one day and you can be a great drummer. It took years and years of practice and calluses.