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“Part of the process for Papi Shiitake is it’s not just about the music,” Alex Gruenberg, aka Young Tuxx, told me over the phone earlier this week. The project is a collaboration between him and Ryan Sieloff, and the duo just released their debut EP, Quarantine Dream, on October 9th on Trash Casual.

Today, they’ve released a brand new music video for the title track.

“It’s an animated video; we started working with this artist named peDal, and they killed it,” he said. “The video is of me in quarantine kind of longing for love from six feet afar, journeying through and exploring the emptiness of Manhattan while nobody’s there.”

The tunes (ft. Gruenberg’s vocals) have a delightfully woozy sun-soaked vibe to them, and make for great listening, even on a rainy day like this one. Gruenberg explained more about the Papi Shiitake sound and concept during our phone call, plus he told me about Toki Toki, his vegan Korean BBQ venture, and he even went the extra mile and came up with some bottom shelf liquor ‘n bodega snack pairings that have Friday night written all over them. (Gin and powdered donuts? Rum and beef patties? YES, PLEASE.)

Internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation, check out the EP, and be sure to scope the new video RIGHT NOW:

So how’s all this pandemic stuff affected you? It’s obviously hit the creative industry super hard in NYC, whether it’s food or music or etc.

It’s weird. I’m a believer in the dao, so there’s two sides of the coin to everything. Of course it’s horrible that so many people have died, but the quarantine process was interesting to me; I’d just started living alone before this happened, and I’d never lived completely by myself in my life. All of a sudden it was like, QUARANTINE: you can’t see anyone, and especially in New York, you’re usually in constant contact with so many people’s energy. In isolation I kind of found new strength within myself from being still and taking a moment. It really transformed me in a way that I hadn’t expected. I’m also lucky, because I’d just put a small studio in my apartment, so when all of this happened, it was like, “Well, I guess it’s recording time.”

I also live alone, and I think it’s been really lucky in terms of being able to navigate my own comfort levels by myself, rather than having potentially opposing viewpoints flying around. But it definitely has been a little maddening at times; I’m an introvert, but even for me, this is a long time to go without much human interaction. Now, how do you feel as a musician in terms of your optimism (or lack thereof) about the future of live performances?

I think it’s an opportunity for us to rethink music in some ways, and live performances in some ways. There have been paradigm shifts in the music industry that we’ve experienced so far, like when Napster was happening, we were able to download music, and everyone was illegally doing that. Then Spotify ushered in this whole streaming era, which completely changed the way recorded music is released and digested by people. So with this pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this is just another paradigm shift. You know, everybody initially started going to live streams, but for me, live streaming kind of sucks; the thing about it is it’s really bad audio, not good video, and a lot of the time it’s just people playing acoustic guitar. You don’t get that same visceral response from it. So I’ve definitely been thinking a lot about that. 

For Papi Shiitake, we’ve been doing a guerrilla setup where I’m just singing to tracks hip-hop style, so you can set up anywhere. We got signed to Trash Casual this year, and this is our first release, and we’re really starting at zero because we never got to play any shows. All those day one fans were never made, and you really do see the effects of that.

Right. And tell me about this debut EP, because it’s called Quarantine Dream, so I assume some level of it came out of this whole experience, but was any of it rolling around in the ether beforehand that carried over?

Yeah, totally. It’s kind of weird; I do this vegan Korean BBQ pop-up called Toki Toki, and so on the same day that I first did Toki Toki and brought it out for people to taste, Papi Shiitake was created. I have a buddy who I used to play in a band with who lives in San Diego, and he just randomly sent me this song, so I thought he had a new band because it was just instrumentals. I didn’t even ask him, I just threw vocals on it and sent it back to him and was like, “I don’t know what this is, but here are some vocals,” and he loved it, I loved it, and it was actually just him writing alone. I was like, “Wow, this is a super cool thing; we should see where this goes. Should we write another one?” So that was around May 2019, but it wasn’t very serious; we didn’t think it was going to become anything. And then right before the pandemic hit in February, started working with AJ who created Trash Casual to put out some Papi Shiitake stuff.

Cool! Alright, since you mentioned it, let’s talk a little bit about Toki Toki. 

So I’m a quarter Korean, and I love Korean BBQ. I’m not even vegan, but I thought that there weren’t that many vegan Korean BBQ places that I knew about, and I created a recipe for vegan bulgogi that I loved, and that other people who had tasted it loved. We started doing some of the vegan pop-up markets, and then we’ve been at Tradesman in Bushwick doing some onigiri there. So it’s really just about getting the flavor of Korean BBQ to be vegan, and I think people love it.

Which is such a good idea, because obviously meat is celebrated with Korean BBQ, but at the same time, there are so many sauces and flavors and gochujang and all of this that can be made vegan, and I agree, there are so few places that are doing that. And even with stuff that seems like it could easily be veganized, it seems like people just don’t take the time or interest; like there’s always some level of anchovy or etc. lurking in a lot of otherwise plant-based stuff, and it’s just about selecting the ingredients a little more thoughtfully. (I’m not vegan either, so I don’t mind if the kimchi isn’t or whatever, but it is cool to have the option.)

Yeah, and for people that have it that used to not be vegan and loved Korean BBQ, it’s super cool for them. I had this one time where I did a pop-up with this old Asian man got a bulgogi bibimbap that I was making then, and he came back and was so fucking pissed. I was like, “Oh my god, what happened?!” I thought there was a hair in it or something, but he was like, “I’ve been vegan for twenty years, you just made me eat meat! I can’t believe this! Why would you do this to me!” I was like, “Bro, I cracked the code, dude! It’s vegan!” Moments like that are awesome.

That’s incredible! And I hear you’re also working on a potential sake line?

Yeah, so the album we’re doing is called Wabi-Sabi, and I grew up on a vineyard, in a winery, so I’ve been kind of in this. I was talking to my dad about it, and I was like, “I love sake. What if I made Wabi-Sabi Sake?” The name kind of went with Toki Toki and Papi Shiitake, so I’m like, “Okay, let’s do this!” We’re working on that right now, but we’re still figuring everything out. Everything’s kind of been slowed by the pandemic. You have all these awesome ideas but you have to remember that there’s a global pandemic and everything is moving super slow right now.

Totally. Alright, lastly, now that we’re on the topic of alcohol, I hear you have some thoughts on pairing bottom shelf booze with bodega snacks, and I am HERE FOR IT. Whaddya got? 

Yeah, I’ve got some of my favorite well liquors and bodega snacks. 

I think my favorite shitty vodka is Crystal Palace. There’s nothing like a shitty vodka, because they all kind of taste the same. I like a vodka soda because I just want a crisp, delicious, alcoholic drink. It doesn’t even have to be delicious, just crisp and let’s get straight to the point. A little bit of lime. Now, a lot of people are watching their weight when they’re drinking vodka sodas, so my pairing is a Slim Jim. It’s gonna give you what you need, it’s not a lot of calories, and it’s fulfilling. I’d go giant size for the Slim Jim, though. The tiny ones are just not an option. 

If I’m gonna have well gin, I’m probably doing a gin and tonic. So my source would be Burnett’s London Dry Gin. I don’t know if you’ve had it, but it’s a pretty solid gin for a gin and tonic. My pairing with it is the Hostess Donettes powdered mini donuts. Something about a powdered donut and a gin and tonic…I think that’d be good together. I’d get the big size bag. You may as well go all-in, because I imagine this is happening after you’ve left the bar and you’ve had the well liquor. (Or too much well liquor.)

My rum is Castillo Silver. I’m not drinking a lot of rum. I like a good rum and Coke for sure. In college we’d play this game where we’d just sit in a circle around a bottle of rum and finish it. I think that just kind of ruined rum for me. Anyway, it’s cliche, but I’m pairing this with a Jamaican beef patty. Let’s get a warm snack in there.

I’ve lived here for a decade and I’ve never had a Jamaican beef patty. Shame on me. It’s really my own fault.

Let’s make it happen! I don’t think I understood, either, but then I had one and was like, “Yeah, this is awesome.” It’s awesome drunk food if you eat meat. 

Now, tequila’s a really hard one. I worked for a long time as a bartender in New York, and there’s so much shitty well liquor; it’s hard with the tequilas because they usually all taste like shit, but my favorite is Montezuma. If I’m gonna have a shitty shot of tequila (and I’ve had many), it’s gonna be Montezuma. And I’d like to have it with Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili. The purple bag.

So good!

The purple bag’s what’s up. That’s my jam.

And for whiskey, I feel like there are better varieties of well whiskey, but I like Heaven Hill American whiskey. It’s got this weird label that just seems kind of old and Southern, and I love that, so I’m gonna probably be taking shots of whiskey and eating some (and I think this is the only kind they carry in bodegas) Jack Link’s peppered beef jerky.

These are all snacks you can get at any bodega, pretty much guaranteed. And that wraps up my well liquor and food pairings.

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