By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
A deep current of creativity runs along Los Angeles’ Crenshaw Boulevard, the asphalt artery that connects many of the historically Black neighborhoods in the Southern California metropolis. Crenshaw, which has been name-checked in tracks by artists ranging from Eazy-E to Kendrick Lamar, flanks the eastern border of Mid-City, L.A. It’s here that I reach Syd Bennett and Matthew Martins, the leading forces behind The Internet, a soul duo that first came to national attention in association with California-based collective Odd Future.
While L.A. has long been the center of the universe for that other pillar of the entertainment industry, it has quietly remained a force to be reckoned with as a musical hub. “L.A. has this vibe, and you come out here and you start seeing people, then they’re hopping up in magazines, they start doing collaborations,” Martins observes, speaking from Syd’s apartment in early June.
Though the city’s most visible musical ambassadors have generally been pop starlets and rappers of the “gangster” variety, L.A. is reaping the benefits of being a dense and diverse urban environment, where the sheer number of people and perspectives has proved fertile ground for incredibly creative and original collaborations.
“Everybody wants to help each other,” Martins continues, before tacitly acknowledging that this might not be the norm for the music industry, with a hearty laugh. “It’s weird.”
The Internet plays Harlem’s My Image Studio on Monday, Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on Tuesday, and Central Park’s SummerStage with Basement Jaxx on Wednesday. Ego Death is out Monday June29th, on Columbia Records.
How do you feel you’ve changed as people and as musicians between these two albums?
Syd: As a person, I’ve learned to stop taking things personally, especially in this industry. You realize that not everything is personal, and at the end of the day, you just gotta be good. Other than that, just the normal growing up shit. [Laughs]
Matt: I guess knowing what sounds are gonna work, and what sounds aren’t going to, and finding the balance between being super creative and not being too creative to the point where you lose the average listener or the person who’s going to check out your music. I guess we’ve honed in on a sound, as opposed to making a bunch of things that we think are cool.
A lot of soul that’s released today – particularly by younger artists – is branded as “neo-soul.” Outside of advancements in recording technology, do you think there are ways that the music you’re making is especially modern?
Matt: I’ll say this: “neo-soul” is a weird term. People that are considered neo-soul, like D’Angelo and Questlove, they don’t even like that word. If they don’t like that word, I’m not going to use it either. I don’t think there’s any such thing as neo-soul. Soul has always been around. A lot of what we’re doing has been done before – the Herbie Hancocks, the George Dukes – they did all of this way before us.
This just happens to be our version of it for this generation. I wouldn’t say it’s anything new or futuristic; it’s just something that hasn’t been around in a while. It feels good because we haven’t heard something like this from a traditional band with people who are all contributing to the record in a while.
I mean, I think it’s a bullshit label, but a lot of bands and artists with a similar vibe to yours get branded with that tag.
Matt: Yeah, and I think it was something that somebody said, and it grew way bigger than it was ever supposed to. I think it’s just labeling, and neo-soul has a stigma to it. There was a big neo-soul push in the late 90s/early 2000s, where they really pushed neo-soul to the mainstream. And I get it, but you do yourself a disservice when you label yourself with these sub genres. It’s weird. And for us, it’s straightforward: We’re soul R&B.
What are the soul records – past or present – that you guys consider to be the gold standards, and what do they do so well?
Matt: Wow. [Pauses] That’s a pretty crazy question. [Laughs] To me, there’s a lot of records that subconsciously shaped my musical tastes.
Syd: So many records.
Matt: Growing up, my dad and I used to go on a lot of road trips, and he used to play The Commodores a lot, as well as Cameo. All the Isley Brothers, all the Earth, Wind & Fire shit – basically, the quintessential black bands that were out in the 60s and 70s. I can’t really put my hand on an album, man. I will say Jamiroquai is very vital to us. Baduizm. N.E.R.D.
Syd: Baduizm shaped me a lot, I think. You know, D’Angelo – shit, Voodoo and Brown Sugar.
Matt: A Tribe Called Quest. Those albums have as much soul as soul albums, and we draw inspiration from them. Tribe Called Quest was really my introduction to really trippy chords. That’s the first time I had internet as a kid, and Tribe to me is just as important to our sound as anything you can label as “soul” music.
Syd: I can’t really say. There’s not really one specific Earth, Wind & Fire album that I love. I prefer their live albums or greatest hits albums to any specific records.
Matt: We were born where all those bands were already big. When we were growing up, all these people were putting out greatest hits compilations, and it’s not focused on the quintessential album. I’m 26, and Syd’s younger than that. Even for me, that’s way before me. I didn’t grow up knowing Earth, Wind & Fire actual albums.
Syd: Let’s be real: I bought every Frankie Beverly and Maze album. Every Maze album I bought on iTunes, but I don’t listen to them that much anymore. And that’s the same reason I haven’t gone back and bought every Stevie [Wonder] album. I kinda just buy the songs I like. [Laughs]
Matt: They made a lot of music. [Laughs]
Syd: They made so much music! And when I listen through, I end up liking the greatest hits, anyways. I think I bought Stevie Wonder #1s, and I bought Sting and The Police’s greatest hits. Does that count? [Laughs] I don’t know. Albums I’ve listened to more are probably of this millennium, like Justified [Justin Timberlake’s 2002 solo debut album.]
Matt: Even with me, Jamiroquai is one of my favorite bands, but I don’t think any album of theirs really stands head and shoulders above the others. Every album they had a bunch of songs you liked, and every one had songs that were cool. They were all really good.
We take inspiration from artist’s bodies of work. We also try to model ourselves after artists that had longevity and really prolific careers. They didn’t just come out with a teeny bopper song that everybody liked; they kept making good music.
We model a lot of things subconsciously after Jamiroquai, [Erykah] Badu, and N.E.R.D. Those are the three bands we get a lot from, in terms of being a hybrid to some extent. Our influences are hybrids of their influences, and that’s what an artist is: a culmination of people who have inspired them mixed in with their own stories.
Los Angeles is experiencing something of a renaissance when it comes to the soul/jazz-fusion scene. There’s Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington. Why do you think this is? Do you guys ever get involved with it at a local level? Do you even feel a part of it?
Matt: Yeah! Yeah! Do you want to know the reason that is? It’s because of how L.A. is set up geographically. Everybody is in this one big area. Everyone’s there. Thundercat lives a ten minute walk from Syd’s house – not a drive, a walk – you know what I’m saying? If you keep going down Crenshaw [Boulevard], it’s a bunch of musicians that live not two blocks from each other, and you see each other all these events, you see each other out, and everybody knows each other. [Laughs]
It’s a very weird energy around L.A. right now, and it’s really dope. You come here, and you start to bop some shit, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t find some shit to do, or find the respect of someone who is very respected in whatever craft they are in. You go to other cities, and there are gatekeepers you gotta go through. It ain’t like that in L.A.
Syd: I’d say we are involved in that scene to a certain extent. We aren’t at Piano Bar, but I’ve heard about that place, and I know a lot of people who do go up there and play. We’ve run into and made contact with pretty much everybody. I think it’s really dope and I’m really happy for everybody.
Matt: You may not see us with those guys, but we show a lot of respect to those folks, behind the scenes. It’s important to have respect for and from other musicians; we don’t want to be a band that loses touch with people who are like us. We don’t want to be the band that makes the same music as you but doesn’t act the same as you when we come around, you know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of people like that.
And I’m very grateful that we have that kind of relations with people we see around town, like J*Davey and Bilal. People who really support what we do, too. When we put something on the internet, J*Davey will retweet it, or Dam-Funk will retweet it. And these were low-key heroes and inspirations of mine growing up. I’m very grateful for their support. They fuck with us.
Odd Future always struck me as more of a movement, or a loose collective of like-minded individuals. People are upset that the group isn’t active anymore, but each member always had his or her own authorial voice and style. How do you look back upon your experience as part of such a phenomenon, particularly as some of the main producers and musicians, and as such, a few of the threads tying it all together?
Syd: Well, it was one of those things that was really blown out of proportion. It’s not like this was an accident, completely. It’s all love. We’re all good. We just naturally had to go our own way, because we’re all artists, and artists have their ideas of what’s dope. As we were growing up, we started to realize that we have different opinions on our art.
This honestly was the plan for a long time. We wanted to tour together to get some kind of foundation, then start touring separately, and then Odd Future became this huge deal. It’s beautiful, and we’re still in touch with everybody, and happy for everybody on the team.
Matt: What we’re doing is still really Odd Future at the core of it. We’re a band, but there’s also a relatability and goofiness to our music that comes from our background in Odd Future, you know what I’m saying? Basically, all it means is that Tyler thinks that everybody should have respect from their own merits – and you know, some people capitalized on what they had, and some people didn’t, but that’s the great beauty of what he did. He basically felt it’s time to move on, and let’s step to a new level and see where everybody can go next. I think overall it’s a good thing, and we’re all actually closer than we’ve ever been, so it’s actually funny. But it is what it is, man.
For Feel Good, you said that you came up with the album name first, and then tried to compose around that vibe. Was there any special genesis for Ego Trip?
Syd: No, we honestly did come up with the title last this time. With Feel Good, we had the album for a while, and it made sense.
For this one, we didn’t know at all what we kind of title we wanted to use further than something that invoked the message and sounded cool. Matt came up with Ego Death, and I liked it initially, but I didn’t want to use it as an album title, because I thought it was like, you know, “Ugh, God.”
About a week later, we were thinking of names, and he brought it up again, and it just sounded like great shit to me. [Laughs]
It plays like a continuation of Feel Good, but it’s definitely a lot darker and introspective, to me.
Syd: Ok, ok. [Laughs] That’s all we were really going for. We wanted it to be harder, and we wanted the drums to hit harder. We didn’t necessarily have an inspiration, but we had a couple of new people involved. Steve Lacey – he’s our guitar player now. We’ve got Jameel Bruner, our new keyboard player. I think that added a lot.
After you expanded the Internet to a full live band in the wake of Feel Good, why did you decide to write and record most all of Ego Death on your own? Is there a special sort of alchemy between you two?
Syd: Everything is pretty collaborative. We had a band with us to make Feel Good, because me and Matt made the first album by ourselves. The second album we had a band, and we had a band for this one as well, but we went back to our production roots a little bit.
As far as writing goes, I pretty much take the lead on that, but on this album I had a lot of help from my friend Nick Green. He helped me write “Dontcha” for Feel Good, and I got him to help me with a lot of the stuff on this album.
I didn’t really touch much production on this. I probably played keys on one or two songs, but other than that it was Matt, Jameel, Steve, Chris [Smith], and Patrick [Paige].
Additional contributions by Philip Runco