Feature photo by Tommie Battle

Mayer Hawthorne and the County
Wednesday, Oct 27, 2010 7:30 PM CDT (7:00 PM Doors)
Subterranean, Chicago, IL

Talk about living the dream. Just a few years ago, Mayer Hawthorne was a self-starting hip hop producer who recorded some soul demos to take sampling into his own hands. Like most humble beginnings, it only got better from there. Since bursting onto the scene with a refreshing brand of unabashedly throwback soul, he has garnered fans in the upper reaches of the musical stratosphere: Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Mark Ronson, John Mayer, Snoop Dogg, Ghostface Killah, and Spike Jonze just to name exactly seven.

You’ll have a chance to belong to that exclusive club on Wednesday. When I spoke to him earlier this month, he had just opened up his current tour the night before in Ft. Lauderdale, yet he promptly recited the exact date and venue of his Chicago gig, saying he was “really juiced for that.” To see if I was impressed or not, read on:

I’m pretty impressed that you know the details of your tour eighteen gigs in advance.

Well I grew up on the south side of Detroit, so I used to hang in Chicago all the time. It’s kind of a homecoming.

The last time you were here was at the North Coast festival. I asked one kid who was wearing a Lupe Fiasco shirt who else he was excited to see and the single artist he named was you. What does that mean to you? What do you think the future holds for genre-bending artists like Lupe and yourself?

Well, I grew up DJing and producing hip hop. I’ve only been singing for two years. Coming from a hip hop background and discovering a lot of soul music through hip hop sampling, it’s incredible to see the whole thing come full circle, where I’m making soul records and people are sampling me. It’s dope, because I only started making soul music to sample it for hip hop tracks. It’s a crazy sort of circle.

You’re a huge fan of hip hop, yet your current sound largely refrains from it.

I mean, I made hip hop for a decade. I started with a crew called Athletic Mic League out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and when I moved out to L.A. with my other rap group, Now On, it was to pursue rap music full time, to make a living doing hip hop. I bumped into Peanut Butter Wolf, the president of Stone’s Throw Records, and he was at a point with that label where they were extremely well-known for hip hop music. But Wolf is like me: he loves rap music but he also loves soul music, he loves rock, he loves heavy metal and punk, reggae, jazz. And he wanted Stone’s Throw to be known for more than just rap. So when he heard the soul demos that I had done in my bedroom, that I had made for sampling purposes, he asked me if I would record a whole album of that. It really wasn’t what I was trying to do, but when Peanut Butter Wolf asks you to record an album for Stone’s Throw, you say yes.

What made you want to capture in your music the sound of a bygone era of soul?

The idea has always been not to take it back to the old days, but to make it new again, move the music forward. It’s really important for me that kids my age listening to my music don’t feel like it’s their parent’s music. They need to feel like it’s their own.

What exactly was the quality of that music back in the day that made it so rich?

It’s a lot of things. It’s an attitude. It’s the arrangements, the melodies, the instrumentation. But I think the main thing that it comes down to is songwriting. I think the main reason music has been suffering a little bit is songwriting. I think for a while we kind of lost the importance of good songwriting. I think we’re starting to realize how important that was again, now.

A lot of artists during the golden age of Motown came from far away to record in Detroit because they thought there was something special in the air. Is there?

Absolutely there’s something in the air in Detroit. You can feel the soul in the air when you walk through the streets of Detroit, and that’s why I went back there recently to work on my next record. I spent a couple weeks there recently just recording. It’s incredible, it’s like no other city on earth.

Speaking of your hometown, are you aware that the way you came up with “Mayer Hawthorne” is the same way you figure out your porn name? [Andrew Mayer Cohen’s middle name plus the street he grew up on. (A pet’s name may also be substituted.)]

Yeah, absolutely. That just shows that…I don’t want to say this the wrong way… A lot of people think that this soul project came about as a joke. Any time I make music I always take it extremely seriously, I just don’t necessarily take myself so seriously, where I can’t still have fun with it. When I was first recording these soul tracks, like I said, it was for sampling purposes, my own personal use. I never thought anyone would hear these songs, I never thought they’d be released to the public. I just gave it a funny name, and so my porn name, that was the worst. I really never thought anyone would hear those songs.

You’re a huge vinyl enthusiast. I’ve been looking everywhere for the best way to clean records, to get dust out of the grooves. What do you recommend?

I use a warm water solution and a paper towel. That’s it, man. You can use, like, Windex, but I wouldn’t just spray it directly on there. I always kind of dilute it with warm water. And then just use a piece of paper towel. I rarely use anything more than warm water.

Your show here is right before Halloween. Got anything scary planned?

Hopefully nothing scary; we got a lot of exciting things planned. You know, when we come to a city to perform, we don’t do concerts. I don’t play concerts. I play shows. We work extremely hard in rehearsals and we’re constantly reviewing the footage from every show like a football team. Just to ensure that every show is better than the last one. When you come to see Mayer Hawthorne, you are getting a show.

Mayer Hawthorne and the County
Wednesday, Oct 27, 2010 7:30 PM CDT (7:00 PM Doors)
Subterranean, Chicago, IL

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