Speak with Jesse Boykins III for a just a few minutes and you actually start to feel at ease, enveloped in the type of balance and stability that he effuses in person and on record. Perhaps it’s his natural demeanor, maybe it was sharpened over the course of the painstaking, half-decade production of his latest record, Love Apparatus. Crafted over several countries and continents with Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart, on the boards, the record’s thumping electro beats are high powered, loosely wrapped Tesla coils around Boykins’ soulful tones that give the vocals and instrumentation plenty of room to breathe. Dissatisfied to just send beats and vocals back and forth, Boykins and Stewart worked in Brooklyn and Berlin and the effort shows in songs that could come off as blog ready “electro remixes” in less deft hands. Songs like “Plain” thunder forward like a locomotive, softened by beautifully layered vocals and xylophone while “Show Me Who You Are” is all 808s and bed-breaks with Boykins flexing soul chops unabashedly. Speaking last week after a string of club dates and before an intercontinental festival circuit, Boykins schooled me on balance, relationships, ego and the power of women – all of which seem to have radiated brilliantly throughout the new work.
I’m glad I took a look at the Love Apparatus website before we spoke. It’s pretty far out there! This vision that you have, the interviews with all of the women – what were you aiming to learn or teach people with those?
The album inspired the documentary questions. The songwriting inspired the questions and when I got enough courage to ask the questions, after interviewing a hundred women, I started realizing it’s more so about the connection, the understanding of life experiences, and applying that to being closer to balanced as much as you can. That’s pretty much the overall undertone of what I want to be received when I have people experience the documentaries. To realize that everyone’s a human and everyone goes through their process of growth, you know what I mean? I felt like it was good for me to interview women because most times women can balance both the masculine and the feminine. Men are afraid to acknowledge their feminine aspect when expressing themselves emotionally, so I felt like it was a more natural thing for me to interview women. I feel like they’re a little superior when it comes to expression and creativity.
So is this an actual companion piece that you’ll put out or will it all live on the website?
Right now, I’m looking at the website. I’ll release three interviews every week, pretty much for the rest of the year. I’ll compile them and make a whole documentary, so I’m looking at these as like a whole lot of trailers.
How did you pick the women? Some of them are artists in their own right, and were some just women you met randomly?
It varies. Most of them were my friends or people that I knew, then they would get excited about the documentary after I interviewed them and they’d recommend me to interview six of their friends. Some experiences were just me being on a train somewhere like – I remember interviewing two women on a train from Berlin to Hamburg. I just asked them if they’d be down to do it and they were, or, in a lot of countries I’d interview women after my shows. I interviewed a woman in Tokyo; she was my translator for all of my interviews there. She translated Japanese to English for me and back and forth.
Some current R & B acts are touring with a minimalist approach that isn’t far off from bedroom production setups but, for you, it looks like you have a full band and your producer going out with you. Is this pretty important for you in order to get the performance where you want it in terms of taking the sound of the record out to the people?
I understand what you said about the whole minimalist movement and everything like that. When I go and see those artists live, a lot of times it’s not really that entertaining. It’s kind of boring. It’s harder for the showmanship to be there because the energy just isn’t there. I feel like the music, especially with Love Apparatus, there’s so much different energy. That’s what I want to communicate: different levels of energy, different levels of love, and have it translate onstage when I’m performing with my band. I try my best to balance out my acknowledgement and appreciation for the electronic scene and the progressive sound that’s going on now and my acknowledgment and appreciation for traditional soul music. I try and balance out the two because I look at it like I’m from both worlds. I was around before the internet and I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the internet as far as my artistry goes.
I always try to acknowledge both in what I create, in everything that I create. You want to teach people while they’re listening to something, as far as musical palette wise. A lot of people who listen to Love Apparatus who heard me for the first time and never heard a soul album or an album just rooted in soul will, somewhat, be influenced. They won’t think R & B is all Trey Songz or all The Weeknd, they’ll say wow, there’s artists like Frank Ocean, artists like Jesse, artists like Miguel. Then they go further back and say, who inspired those artists? Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding. Who inspired those artists? Teddy Pendergrass. Then there’s the other world of people who just listen to soul music and then listen to Love Apparatus and say wow, I wanna check out a Toro y Moi or check out a Banks. I try to build a bridge between the two worlds and let everyone know that there isn’t a box, it’s more like a whole bunch of bridges.
The song “Live In Me” seems like an ode to love in the long term and brought me back to your question to the women about short term love versus long term lust. Is this a question you’re wrestling with still or perhaps have figured out since this song was written?
A lot of times, as a songwriter, you write songs like your subconscious is speaking to you. You haven’t yet applied the knowledge you have. When I initially wrote Love Apparatus, a lot of those songs I wrote when I was 25 and 24 – I’m 29 now – I didn’t even understand what I was talking about. Especially for a song like “Live In Me,” lyrically what I’m expressing is desperation, but I’m blending the lust and the love because I feel like one doesn’t go without the other when you think about longevity. You can love someone and fall out of love with them and continue to lust for them. You can lust over someone and never love them. The key is to understand the balance with both and submit to both, be vulnerable in both of those emotions. Love is rooted in everything and lust is an aspect of the law of attraction. You’re attracted to whatever is appealing to you, you lust over it. It’s like that desperation to acknowledge or show somebody that you are paying attention and you are very much present.
That’s what most of the songs are about – learning how to balance and be able to kill the ego in moments where the ego would overtake you. Being vulnerable, being ok, acknowledging that being weak is a strength. Being weak in the moment is a strength because most times you’re going to learn something new from that if you endure. “Live In Me” is about endurance in that emotion, sustaining that feeling for a long-term basis. Not for the six months you like somebody then after six months it gets boring and you wonder why. It’s because you haven’t submitted. There’s a lot of things you aren’t willing to try that they’re willing to try and there’s a lot of things they’re willing to try that you’re not willing to try. The ego gets in the way. It’s just about growing with somebody.
Tell me about your relationship with Machinedrum, who produced Love Apparatus with you.
Trav and I, we met in 2007. We were introduced by Theophilus London. Theophilus and I started working together in 2007 and they were on the same label at the time. Theo brought me in the studio and was like, man, there’s this cat I’m working with named Machinedrum. I was like, yea, I was hearing his name a lot in New York as far as the cats I was around. I finally got to meet him and I think we did two or three songs with Theo that day, and it was just really natural. We’re really similar as far as how we feel about music culture and we’re from the same generation, more so than Theophilus ‘cause he’s a little younger than we are. We connected on a lot of different levels and could express ourselves. We’re both sensitive, both acknowledging of the feminine aspect of us being men, and it seeped into the music we were making.
It was really easy to work since we lived down the street from each other at the time, we both lived in Brooklyn. Literally four blocks, so, I would wake up and text him,“Hey I’m coming over” and he’d say OK, cool, so it was more like a hang. We’d listen to some records, he’d put me on to this artist, I’d say, “Have you heard of this artist?” Then we’d be like, alright, let’s open up this Ableton session and have a conversation through this music and that’s what it started out to be. It was the most learning that I’ve had as far as collaborating with somebody instead of me being the one leading the way. Like I said, it’s a whole submission thing, me being like, alright cool, this is your thing. I’m going to implement my inspiration, my aspect, after the fact. After you do what you do sonically and sound-wise. He already understood where I wanted to go as far as sound goes so it wasn’t really that difficult.
The dilemma was that he moved to Berlin in late 2010 [Laughs] and it kinda put a pause on the album ‘cause he was touring at the time and lived there for two years. I went on the road in 2011 and 2012 a lot so it was hard to sit down and finalize the record. Finally, we got our schedules lined up and we talked about it a lot and emailed back and forth how we needed to make it a priority. I’d fly to Berlin and do two songs, then we’d mix a couple songs, then he’d fly to me and we’d do a song and go back and final mix a couple songs. I remember the last session we had for Love Apparatus was 2013, in April, and we looked at each other like “YO. I don’t wanna see your face or talk to you about this album for like months.” [Laughs] It had been four years! Four or five years that we were working on it, listening to the same songs over and over. It was pretty draining, creative wise, but I felt like it was a blessing and a curse at the same time. The best things in life are something that can be both – you can hate it or love it depending on the day. I’m just happy it’s out! [Laughs]