In the spirit of the upcoming Treasure Island Music Festival October 16-17, The Bay Bridged had a chat with Wallpaper. The local band is scheduled to play on Saturday, along with a number of other dance-friendly electro acts.
The most interesting musicians are almost always the ones that deftly walk a fine line between two halves of some fundamental contradiction – bands that hide gorgeous melodies under an ocean of sonic chaos or rappers whose lyrics reveal real emotional depth underneath standard-issue hip-hop bravado. Wallpaper., Eric Frederic’s solo electronic music project turned flesh-and-blood party band, is nothing if not a big heaping pile of contradictions. It’s high art masquerading as low art that’s so deft at satirizing the trashy pop music landscape while simultaneously giving it a big, sweaty hug that it’s often lightyears ahead of what even the most forward-thinking pop producers have in their bag of tricks. We talked to Frederic about his alter ego, Ricky Reed, how something he invented years ago as a joke somehow became the biggest force in pop music this year, and how arranging Bach chorales in college helped him write songs like â€œDoodoo Face.â€
TBB: You initially started Wallpaper as a solo project and it’s since transitioned into something you perform with a live band. What inspired the shift?
The impetus was that I wanted to perform songs I had written live and a guy just sitting behind laptop onstage is utterly boring. Also, a live performance always sounds better with live drums. There’s something very visceral, intense and sort of primal about live drumming. The live band setup we do is with drums, vocals and backing tracks with certain elements removed (like the vocals, kick, snare and some guitar) and we fill those gaps live. It creates a really intimate interplay between what’s happening live and the backing tracks.
TBB: Are you running the tracks from a laptop on stage?
Hell no, we’re running that shit off an iPod! When we first started doing it some industry people were like “you know a lot of people use laptops, why don’t you use that?” I was like, “have you seen our live shows? We have girls dancing on stage and people spilling drinks on us. Our live shows look Lightning Bolt or Hella or something. If we can use your laptop that’s cool.” If we can run these tracks off of something reliable, portable and easy, we’ll do that. That’s the sort of band we are – we’re going to do the easiest thing that will let us put on the best show. We don’t need expensive analog synths and complex laptop rigs.
TBB: Once you started knowing that you were going to be playing all your songs live, did it change the way you were writing songs?
Totally. When we first started playing live, I was in school at UC Berkeley and we were playing a lot of college parties. I was like, “man, these songs should jam a little harder, they should be a little more funky.” I was starting to get really, really, really deep into funk music and, at the time, I was doing a pretty intense study of West African drumming in school. All that came together into my making music a lot funkier and lot more danceable.
TBB: Did you study music at Berkeley?
Yeah, I got a degree in Music with a focus in Composition.
TBB: How does that classical training inform what you’re doing now?
My studies inform everything I do. It’s not that I employ those tools on every song I write but once you learn something you can’t unlearn it. I think you can apply a lot of those techniques in ways where people wouldn’t notice you’re using something classical. If I’m making a rap-style track, I’m still thinking about there being space in the upper register so one instrument isn’t fighting against another. It’s really simple arrangement stuff that I learned arranging four-part Bach chorales. The fundamental points of composition haven’t changed since the 17th century. But it’s not like every rap beat I make has to have a harpsichord solo in it.
TBB: What’s it like playing a festival at home in the Bay Area?
You know, I have no idea. This is going to be my first. It’s very exciting. I guess the exciting thing about doing Treasure Island is that it feels like a reward for us because they don’t put a lot of local bands on it – I think there are only two or three this year. But when we get there it’s going to be about turning that ambition and that drive into going out and making fans out of the whole crowd. When we get onstage we have to kill it and we have to make the best of every opportunity. It feels like an honor to be playing alongside all those great bands, but when it’s time to rock it’s time to rock.
TBB: Do you feel like there’s something different about playing a festival than playing a club. Do you have to think about the performance differently to make it work?
You totally do. I think that we get carried a lot by our live show. Being a two-piece playing DJ nights at a clubs, it’s not too bad being a two-piece. Being at playing at one or two in the afternoon, we’re going to look like two tiny guys on a huge stage. We’re preparing a somewhat bigger ensemble for the show. I can’t speak on it at this time, but we’ve made moves for something pretty special.
TBB: So, who is Ricky Reed?
Ricky Reed is the vocalist for Wallpaper. Ricky Reed and myself are not the one and the same. Ricky is a handful. I can’t predict what he is gonna’ say or what he’s gonna’ do. He’s very unpredictable. I just hope that when Wallpaper performs nothing gets too out of hand. We did a big outdoor show in Los Angeles and the band before Wallpaper was self-censoring – taking the bad words out of their songs. When Wallpaper played that seemed to just push Ricky over the edge. He was swearing profusely, really really loud. F-bombs echoing off the skyscrapers of Downtown LA for the whole city to hear. He’s his own man and I just hope that he doesn’t get the band in trouble.
TBB: Almost all of your songs use some kind of overt vocal processing, why is that?
When Wallpaper started, it was 100% pop satire. Lyrically, it was meant to satirize pop-star musicians and I thought the best way to do that was to sound as robotic as possible. The lyrics were written in this really strained, cold â€œrobo lang.â€ But then I realized the best way to make my voice sound really detached from the music was to use this little known program called Auto-Tune and crank it up really, really, really, really, really high. At that point, it was known as the “Cher effect” because she used it in the song “Believe.” I thought it was cool and crazy and that it was going to my thing because no one else was doing it. Maybe two years later, I was listening to the radio and heard this song by E-40 called “You And Dat Booty” and I was like, “Oh shit, who is this guy singing the hook?” I later found out it was T-Pain and he was fucking using Auto-Tune. As soon as I heard it I knew it was only a matter of time before it was everywhere.
TBB: There’s a self-conscious element of satire in your work but do you think there’s a disconnect when you’re performing a song live that’s poking fun at the crazy party lifestyle while the crowd watching you is unironically having a crazy dance party?
There’s obviously a huge disconnect between some people and the content of the songs. I’d say at the live shows it seems like people, especially people who seeing us for the first time, may not be clued into what’s happening under the surface. I think that speaks to the messy, complex, love/hate relationship I have with pop music and party culture. I really adore a lot of the music and a lot of the melodies and even some of the concepts that happen in a lot of pop music but a lot of the message in that music to me is just terrible. But also there are bits of Wallpaper’s lyrics that are also pretty bad if you digest them literally. Yet, at the same time, I don’t really feel a moral responsibility. As long as I’m not saying, “Black out! Black out!” or “Date rape! Date rape!” I don’t feel an moral obligation to sit down every person that comes to our show and tell them that this is satire, that you shouldn’t be having a good time, you should be reflecting on the irony of this over a chai latte.
TBB: Can you describe a Wallpaper show in three words?
Andy Kaufman, George Clinton and Kimbo Slice