Category: Interviews

IU Fundraising Comp Artist Spotlight Series: #4 – Lady D & The Shadow Spirits

Every year, as a part of our ongoing fundraising efforts, Ithaca Underground puts together a compilation album featuring local, regional, and national artists. Proceeds from the comp help Ithaca Underground fund volunteer training, support local musicians, buy equipment, and produce radically inclusive music events. Purchase the comp for yourself or as a gift here.

From the Lady D & The Shadow Spirits press kit:

Lady D and the Shadow Spirits is Alyssa Duerksen’s soul calling, songs of her higher self and through this she’s shining the light on the darker sides of her past and what we are experiencing as a collective human race at this time. This band has their roots deep in ethereal folk music with a post punk-rock edge, their latest album, to be released in the summer of 2018, is even pushing into the realm of pop. Alyssa Duerksen’s potent vocal command with Justin Roeland on drums, Mike Amedeo on bass and Chris Ploss on keys, richly textures and grounds the music; together they create a passionate current between the intimate and expansive that brings the audience into a dreamlike magic.

Alyssa shared the following about the track “Warlord” from the compilation, and good news about upcoming projects:

“I recorded ‘Warlord’ on my iPad in Garageband the night before the 2017 election. My biggest announcement is I’m doing a crowd funding campaign to raise $ to release my album on vinyl this summer/real release this fall but I’m hopefully gonna have records to sell at Grassroots, fingers crossed.”

Follow us on social media (links below) to stay up on this series; for the next entry we’ll be highlighting mysterious technomancy artist, bit rot and the track “init”.

IU Fundraising Comp Artist Spotlight Series: #3 – Kyra Skye

Every year, as a part of our ongoing fundraising efforts, Ithaca Underground puts together a compilation album featuring local, regional, and national artists. Proceeds from the comp help Ithaca Underground fund volunteer training, support local musicians, buy equipment, and produce radically inclusive music events. Purchase the comp for yourself or as a gift here.

Kyra Skye, a nineteen-year-old singer-songwriter and producer from Nyack, NY, released her debut album Summer Nights last August. Skye wrote, performed, produced, and mastered the album with help from drummer Leah Byck. Along with pursuing her own music endeavors, Kyra Skye is the bassist in the band Izzy True, a Live Sound Engineer for Ithaca Underground, and a sophomore at Ithaca College.

Skye had the following to say about her compilation track:

“‘I Wonder’ is about my experience in high school. In my sophomore year, I was diagnosed with a pretty severe case of Tourette’s Syndrome. I had to be taken out of school because I was ticcing a lot and was really disruptive in all my classes. I struggled with it a lot and it got to the point where I didn’t want to leave the house so people wouldn’t look at or make fun of me. It was really frustrating because I didn’t know what was happening to me and felt powerless to do anything to stop it.

“However, I had such a great support system of friends and family that helped me get back to a place where I felt comfortable in my own skin. They built me back and an helped me feel confident again, despite everything that was happening to me. I was able to build up a resiliency to go back to school after a semester of being homeschooled. It was an incredibly difficult time in my life, but it’s one that has shaped me into the person I am today.

“‘I Wonder’ is a reminder that you are meant to be who you are, even when it feels like life is going against you. When you go through the hard stuff, the muck, the growing pains of life- it sucks, it’s scary and it’s painful. It might even feel like a huge setback. But it’s going through these trails and tribulations that help you grow into an even better version of yourself.”

Kyra’s album Summer Nights is available on iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, and other streaming services worldwide.

Follow us on social media (links below) to stay up on this series; for the next entry we’ll be highlighting Lady D & the Shadow Spirits and the track “Warlord”.

Benjaminito: A Work in Progress

Benjamin Torrey, 26, sits in a rain-soaked chair under an umbrella in the backyard of The Westy. He’s wearing a black Pinkwash shirt and grey cut-offs. He’d wanted to go to a bar since he works from home and so “I’m not stuttering and talking about self-harm in front of college students eating bagels or whatever.” His steel blue eyes survey the area from behind his squared brown glasses. He asks if it’s ok if he smokes before pulling out a lighter wrapped in duct tape and a box of Natural American Spirits.

The night before, Torrey had been in Trumansburg shooting a music video for a friend who goes by the stage name Izzy True. Torrey had wanted to make music videos since transferring from Tompkins Community College to Ithaca College’s cinema and photography program. It’s been two years since he graduated and he’s been busy doing far more than just making videos for friends. Torrey is a videographer at the Ithaca Voice and a veteran volunteer at Ithaca Underground, a local non-for-profit organization and music community – shooting and editing video, creating art for posters and merchandise, and helping train new volunteers. He also performs under the name Benjaminto and puts together house shows with his roommate Krystal Cannon at their house, dubbed theTweehouse.

Matt Colgan, a friend from Ithaca College, describes Torrey as “a quiet guy, but… incredibly polite. He’d make a great dog.”

While many who know him now would agree, Torrey had a long journey to get here. Having battled depression and anxiety for most of his life, Torrey hadn’t planned to finish high school, let alone live past 18. He grew up in Lansing, a primarily white town not too far from Ithaca, with his two sisters, Jamaican mother, and Caucasian Michigan-born father. With even his cousins on his mom’s side seeing him and his sisters as “their white cousins,” Torrey had a hard time with his biracial identity growing up.

He’s also had a stutter since kindergarten and always been shy. Once middle school hit, things changed, he says – he became loud, obnoxious, and a “shitty bully.” Always feeling sad and scared, he avoided social activities. Stomachaches began to greet him the second he got to school. Being a good kid with good grades didn’t make up for his lack of interest and the monotonous work.

Sophomore year of high school, Torrey got a bad case of pneumonia, keeping him out of school for weeks. He was glad to be home, but eventually his parents urged him to go back, which frightened him. It’s common to interpret actions and memories negatively when suffering from anxiety and depression. When Torrey thought of his friends, whom he hadn’t talked to, he says he only remembered how mean he’d been and began hating himself. He tried returning a few times, but ultimately decided he couldn’t.

While his parents allowed him to drop out, his emotional state worsened. Without having any major obligations, he’d lie around all day listening to music, watching movies, or playing videogames. His parents tried to get him help, he says, but “I didn’t know what was going on with me and I didn’t trust the people I was talking to.”

Everything changed when his sister asked for a guitar for Christmas one year. Torrey taught himself to play the instrument during the day while home alone.

“Working on things felt like a really healthy outlet,” he says.

Having fallen in love with indie band Neutral Milk Hotel, Torrey taught himself how to play every song off In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. For his older sister, commuting to college meant waking up each morning to Torrey screaming the songs’ lyrics.

His video game habit also turned out to be far more helpful than he initially thought.

“Sammus [Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, social justice and nerdcore rapper], Naps [Jason Calhoun, Torrey’s childhood best friend], and I all learned how to do multitrack recordings through MTV Music Generator,” he explains. Through using loops and layering tracks, the game taught him how to create songs. He also learned to play drums through Rock Band. “It’s not impressive to tell real musicians that,” Torrey says. “But it’s cool to be able to do that.”

In 2010, when he was 20, some friends he’d met on a message board about Elephant 6 – a music collective Torrey discovered through a music sampler on his family’s computer – invited to play Athen’s Pop Fest in Georgia. Performing in the “really supportive, safe environment” of someone’s backyard among friends, he felt comfortable and thought about hosting his own shows.

Most of the songs he’d written, and still writes, are about his battles with his mental health.

“Benjaminto is the sad essence that revolves around Benjamin Torrey, the mix between cute vocal melodies and witty slightly depressing lyrics,” says Colgan.

To Torrey, the things in life that scare him seem less scary when sung to pop music.

“I’ve always felt like after writing a song about like suicidal thoughts I’ve been having or [pushing friends away due to anxiety] – once I’m finished with it, I feel so much better,” Torrey says.

In 2010, Torrey also decided he was ready to go back to school. He started at Tompkins County Community College, where he found the professors to be encouraging and great resources. He also had the support of his first long-term girlfriend, which he’s still thankful for. After transferring to Ithaca College, Torrey quickly became friends with Tyler Coby, class of ’16, and Matt Colgan, class of ’17, who got Torrey involved in Ithaca Underground (IU). Before that, Torrey describes his anxiety as debilitating to the point where he couldn’t order food from a mall food court.

“I feel so much more invincible just knowing there’s so many cool people there [at IU],” he says. “If you’re not a dick, people will just love you; everyone is there to just be nice to you.”

But as much as Torrey talks about how IU helped him, he’s also helped them in a big way.

“While Benjamin continues to become busier in his own endeavors, he has made a lasting impact on our organization from our protocols, to our aesthetics,” says Bubba Crumrine, president of the IU Board. “And any time he is present in our meetings and events, there is always an extra level of passion, excitement, and inclusiveness added to the environment. He is one of the most loving and engaged people I know. His passion for music and the desire to help others learn, succeed, and be a part of something bigger than themselves is the embodiment of the Ithaca Underground mission.”

In 2015, a year after graduating, Torrey moved into an apartment with Krystal Cannon and immediately decided to start organizing shows. They started as if joking, only inviting a few friends; overtime the crowds became bigger and the bands more popular, turning their apartment into a more serious venue. They brought in bands Torrey had met through IU who typically play much larger venues, or as Torrey says, “bands that shouldn’t be in a tight space.”

As co-owner of a venue he lives in, Torrey explains how this both helps and sometimes worsens his anxiety. On one hand, he frequently jokes with his roommate, “We’re so anxious and lazy that it’s easier to have all our favorite artists play at our house.” On the other hand, he talks about the inability to escape from discomfort: “if you’re feeling panicky, you can’t really hide.”

Today, while not fully recovered from his demons, Torrey knows he’s getting there. The progress he’s made he credits to his family, music, and his community both at IU and Tweehouse. “[I] got better ‘cause I’m just lucky and had good resources, which is not the case for a lot of people.”


Interview with Monki

I recently caught up with Monki, the notorious noise artist, in anticipation of his upcoming performance at Big Day In, which takes place this Saturday at the Haunt. Upon sitting down with Monki, I became aware that he is actually incapable of communication. Thankfully fellow No Aliens member, Mad Brain, was present and willing to discuss: Monki, No Aliens, & their unique backstory.

Evan: Hey Mad Brain, could you explain how Monki came to be?

Mad Brain: Monki was actually once a wild monkey, abducted by scientist in order to test a new Gerber Baby Bath & Skin product. Unfortunately, due to lack of care his face was badly disfigured. Later, an uprising took place in the animal containment, which led to a fight between animals and humans. During this fight a device in the lab was activated, which coded Monki’s brain with a human scientist. After this, the animals escaped leaving Monki free to roam, fated to never find his past.

Evan: Why does Monki feel the need to create music?

Mad Brain: In his case, the music is a search to call on something that can’t be particularly seen. It’s primal, every noise and sound you hear in his music expresses his story. Even though his [Monki] level of intelligence is considered genius, he is still unable to communicate.

Evan: No Aliens, what exactly is it and can you tell me about the other group members?

Mad Brain: No Aliens is a three person collective comprised of Computer, Monki, and myself [Mad Brain]. Monki created Computer, similarly cursed with a high level of self-awareness, he is better able to cope due to his ability to communicate. Computer is also responsible for all production for No Aliens, his music specializes in trance & ambient loops. His inspiration includes Brian Eno, Miles Davis, and Soulja Boy.

Evan: I [Mad Brain] am the voice behind No Aliens; I’m responsible for the lyrics and expressions where Monki fails. Typically, when you hear rapping in our [No Aliens] music, that’s me. I was once a scientist, whose mind was fused with Monki, leading to a constant struggle for control of this body.

Evan: Has Ithaca Underground helped you find a sense of community?

Monki: For the time being, I suppose so, but the point of No Aliens is to never have one home.

Ithaca Underground is proud to present our 12th annual Big Day In. Featured artists on the Main Stage include: B. DolanGuerilla Toss, Japanese Breakfast, LVL UP, Eskimeaux, Sharpless, Izzy True, Sammus, Alter, Mr. McBean, Imperials, First Pet, Spazzare, & the Horses. Featured artists on the Deck Stage include: Benjaminto, Shull (formerly _____), Tender CruncherotodojoKNEW, MONKI, FlocariousMotorcyclez, Eternal Savages, & LC Jones. The show takes place this Saturday, from 12pm to 11:59pm, at the Haunt.

Interview With Sammus

I caught up with Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, better know as Sammus, in anticipation of her upcoming release show for her latest EP, “Pieces In Space”. The album will be her first release with Don Giovanni Records and is available for purchase on October 28th. Produced entirely by Sammus, “Pieces In Space” features: Jean Grae, Homeboy Sandman, Open Mike Eagle, and Latasha Alcindor, as well as label-mate, Izzy True. Besides her career as a musician, Sammus is working towards a PhD in Science and Technology studies at Cornell, serves on the Board of Trustees at Ithaca Underground, and is a founding member of Black Lives Matter Ithaca, among other things.

Evan: Sammus, you’ve mentioned early memories of producing music on the MTV Music Generator, which was a popular game for PlayStation. Recently, you’ve stated that producing your own instrumentals has been critical in your music. What impact do you think video games have had on your production style?

Sammus: Video game music has informed my production style primarily in that I see a piece of production as more than just background music for vocals. I believe a beat should be able to stand on its own as an enjoyable and engaging piece of music.  So I always try to make my beats dynamic whether it’s incorporating a variety of melodic flourishes or subtle changes that can only be heard on headphones. I want my beats to paint pictures just like some of my favorite video game tracks have done for me.

Evan: Alex Trebek recently caused some controversy with his comments surrounding nerd-core music. I saw you, along with a few other rappers, recorded a response track. What do you think would cause Trebek to make such comments?

Sammus: I’m not actually sure why Alex Trebek would make the comments he did. It seemed uncharacteristically snarky to call nerd-core music for “losers” but it’s pretty obvious to me that he was joking around and I hope that people who listen to the response track recognize that it too was made in jest. I do think his words struck a chord with folks because although I’m ambivalent about using the term “nerdcore” to categorize my catalog, nobody can deny that the genre has produced a rich scene full of artists and incredible supporters who have worked hard to build a space for themselves. Some of my biggest supporters have been people who found me through my more “nerdcore” tracks. I have friends who identify as nerdcore artists that are making a full-time living performing their music across the country. Nerdcore has such a significant following, that for the past several years SXSW has seen fit to give nerdcore musicians an official showcase—So yeah, anybody who took issue with Trebek was probably taking his comments to be a dismissal of a genre that has found a lot of love with a lot of great people.

Evan: You’ve recently aligned with Don Giovanni, a label specializing in punk music. Are there any areas you draw similarities between Hip-Hop and Punk music/culture?

Sammus: First, I think punk is largely about incorporating and celebrating a kind of sonic rawness in the music. The centrality of rawness as an aesthetic can certainly be found in hip-hop circles, whether in live performances, in recordings, or in the very practice of putting a song together. On a personal level, I believe in utilizing my rawness as a way to engage audience members — I think anybody who has seen me live would agree that I give all of myself to each and every performance.

Additionally, I think that the DIY ethos that is the heart of punk music/culture is just as deeply embedded in underground hip-hop spaces. I never thought of my work as DIY until I became a part of the Ithaca Underground scene. It was then that I began to associate being DIY with the creation of music on one’s own terms. I realized that even though the sounds were often different, the values that went into making my music and the punk music I heard at IU shows are very much the same.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, many forms of punk and hip-hop music are rooted in culturally critical political discourse and activism. One need look no further than the powerful messages behind songs from bands like Downtown Boys or punk legend Alice Bag to see the connections with politically-minded hip hop artists. Themes of resistance, cultural pride, and rejecting the status quo have all been integral parts of the definitions of both of these genres/cultures.

Evan: Over recent years you have been very active in integrating Hip-Hop performances into Ithaca Underground shows. Any specific performance(s) come to mind, which you are especially proud of?

Sammus: One performance that was really special emerged out of a collaboration between Ithaca Underground and the CFCU Summer Concert Series hosted by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. For the first time since the inception of the Summer Concert Series, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance reached out to Ithaca Underground to host the concert on the Wednesday before Grassroots. Although typically this date had been given to an artist performing at Grassroots, both Tatiana Sy, the Concert Series organizer, and Bubba Crumrine from IU decided to prioritize artists who were not going to be on stage at Grassroots. I was so honored to be selected to headline this show—it made me reflect on the lack of opportunities I saw for weird hip hop to flourish when I first moved back to Ithaca in 2011. And when I contrast that with my set at the Concert Series, in which I got to rap in front of so many different Ithaca residents, I realize that I’ve played a role in changing the kind of music that this town prioritizes. It was exciting to share my raps as well as talk about the importance of Black Lives Matter and Ithaca Underground to me to a captive audience of folks, many of whom may never have seen me otherwise. That moment was really important to me.

Evan: On your single “Weirdo” you speak about being an introvert, however you seem to be involved in many different communities. As a student myself, I’m curious: how do you maintain your mental health while balancing a career in music, working towards your PHD at Cornell, serving on the Board of Trustees at Ithaca Underground, among other things?

Sammus: It’s been challenging to keep all these things together because my preference is generally to be on my couch being weird by myself or with my boyfriend. So, I take self-care time where I can find it. For example, I often use my performances as a space to get certain things off my chest. I’ll tell the audience how I’m doing —if I had an annoying issue I had to deal with in class or if I’m stressed about the state of things nationally. I also have gotten much better at saying “no” although it might not seem like it. There are quite a few times that I’ve turned down opportunities because I knew it wasn’t in the best interest of my health. A few years ago I took any gig that was offered to me but now I make sure that I have enough time in my schedule and that it’s going to add something substantial to my life before I accept. Finally, I would say that sometimes the work itself can be a form of self-care. Yes, meetings can be exhausting, but it’s exciting to talk about the future of music in Ithaca with other volunteers and artists or in the context of my work with Black Lives Matter, it’s energizing to have conversations and plan actions that will result in a safer world for black people.

Ithaca Underground & Helen Stride are proud to present the release show for Pieces In Space, Sammus’s latest EP. Featuring Sammus, Sad13, Kelsey McBean (aka Mr. McBean), and No-Comply. The show takes place this Thursday, October 27th at the Haunt, doors open at 7PM

Interview with Mr. McBean

Kelsey promo photo

I caught up with Mr. McBean recently in anticipation of his first headlining show taking place tonight at the Chanticleer Loft. Mr. McBean is a rapper, self-proclaimed mind blower and co-founder of Smacked Records, an Ithaca based hip-hop collective.

Evan: So Mr. McBean, how does it feel to be headlining your first show?

Mr. McBean: Could you write that I’m requesting Tyler to answer all my questions? (laughs) It makes me feel like this is only the beginning.

Evan: In what ways do you believe Ithaca’s hip-hop scene has developed over the past couple of years?

Mr. McBean: I want to say that Smacked Records has come a long way this year. I also think the community has come together and become much more accepting of hip-hop because of organizations such as IU (Ithaca Underground).

Evan: What effects do you believe Ithaca Underground has had on the Hip Hop scene here in Ithaca?

Mr. McBean: I think it’s opened doors for us. IU has helped to create a-lot of opportunities for hip-hop based artists in this community to perform in new venues.

Evan: In what ways do you think being raised in Ithaca has affected the narrative in your music?

Mr. McBean: I don’t know, I’m just a product of my environment, I guess… I’m trying to make my environment a product of me.

Evan: What exactly is Smacked Records and how did it come to be?

Mr. McBean: Dude, Smacked Records is history in the making.
It’s a long story if anyone cares to know I would like for that story to unfold for him or her over time.

Evan: Anything releasing from Smacked Records that we should be on the look out for in the near future?

Mr. McBean: Organic Material, man I’m dropping an album, that’s the name of it by the way. (Lil) Fe’s dropping a mixtape, Series of Me. Vol 2, Infamous has a mixtape, Infamy, Lunagram is dropping an album, 2am @ Denny’s, and we have the Bobby Womack video coming soon from Eyukaliptus…


Ithaca Underground and Helen Stride present: Mr. McBean, Uncommon Nasa, Carl Kavorkian, & Asante. The show takes place tonight at The Chanticleer Loft, doors open at 7 p.m.