First Look Fridays: Exclusive TALWST Interview
The Weeknd has been dubbed an overnight sensation, as has Illangelo, the co-producer of many of his ribcage-rattling tracks. Should the April 24 release of his album, Alien Tentacle Sex, be successful, TALWST (pronounced “Tall Waist”) might just be stamped with the same brand. But true overnight sensations are about as common as black Republicans; underground cats who, by luck or design, were left alone to pursue their muses until they got it so right that the world couldn’t ignore them for another second.
It’s particularly easy to be left alone if you’re, say, making soul music in Canada. The Edmonton-raised, Vancouver-and-then-Toronto-based TALWST—government name Curtis Santiago--has been bouncing around the up-north industry for years--as was Calgary’s Illangelo, before they joined forces and started dropping tracks. Tracks like the addictive, passion-fuelled “Woman” and “Peace Tonight” with its distorted spoken-word verses and incongruous, gentle piano breaking into a softly crooned chorus that shifts the mood, even as hard drums punctuate the track all the way through.
Over Americanos in a café on Toronto’s College Street, TALWST breaks down his history, his dreams and shows off a miniature art piece (he has a solo show coming up at New York’s Fuse gallery in August) that’s as detailed and beguiling as his music. (read more from Dave Morris at his blog, a-void.ca)
OKP: How did you and Illangelo come together?
TLWST: Through a music legend, Chin Injeti [musician/producer who’s worked with Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Eminem]. I was out in Vancouver and some group Illangelo was working with from Calgary were at Hipposonic in Vancouver, mixing their record with [Canadian hip-hop producer] Roger Swan. So I was in the studio one day, just stopping by, and he was there and we just started rapping. And when you meet someone in the business who has that spark—where you know that whatever they’re on is something left of center…. that was it. A year went by and the group needed some vocals, so they called me out to Calgary. Illangelo and I got in the lab, started working, and “Woman” was the first track that we did. And it was like, after that point—boom.
OKP: Was “Peace Tonight” done before or after The Weeknd?
TLWST: Before. I believe it was when the beat was first done for “Crew Love,” because at that time Abel [Tesfaye] and I were splitting morning and afternoons. We were all kind of coming in at the same time.
OKP: On that track, you’re balancing the spoken-word and the singing bit, and it all feels very live.
TLWST: That’s what we were going for and we kept referencing at the time. The live band that was epitomizing the sound I wanted was The XX. Because they had this post-hip-hop, real electronic feel, with the bass sounds and things like that. And that’s what we were constantly trying to amalgamate, because I know that my next project is going to incorporate the live element even more.
OKP: So back to you and Illangelo, you guys had been working together for a few years.
TLWST: Yeah. Writing things, scrapping it, just kind of developing the sound, and then, over the last two years, honing in on what we’re doing. He is such a perfectionist; his attention to detail is so high that, it’s not one of those things where [the producer] never gets it right, it’s that they just see through it. He sees The Matrix with his sound.
OKP: But at some point someone has to go, OK, this one’s done.
TLWST: No, but see, that’s the great thing—we know when it’s done. When we were creating “Woman,” I’ll never forget, he had the synth up just tweaking sounds, and I’m on the phone with my girlfriend in the vocal booth, and we got in this huge fight on the phone. She was supposed to be in Calgary that day, and she didn’t make the flight because she was out partying with the girls. I hung up the phone, and he appeared because he was recording, and he was like, “Go! Just freestyle over this!” and that’s kind of what came out. And so we worked on the track. It’s different, it’s weird. We played it for people, A&Rs especially, and they were like, ‘wow, the pianos are out of tune and the voice is too distorted.’
Anyways, we worked with Malik Yusef two years ago in Chicago, and we played that for Malik and he was like “What. Is. This??” He wanted to license the song to either R. Kelly or wanted to show it to some other people, and we were like, No, this is ours. And so we were like, just leave it as-is, and put it out.
OKP: Tell me about your art. You’ve been doing this since the beginning of your music career?
TLWST: Yeah man, because music, visuals and fashion all sparked off for me at the same time as a child. My mom used to cover my walls with white newspaper print and I used to go to town on it, with these big murals, all these sports-themed murals.
OKP: Who was your favorite sports hero growing up?
TLWST: Oh, it would have been Wayne Gretzky, man. Being from Edmonton? Gretzky to the max. So, I didn’t start getting back into [painting] until I moved to Vancouver to record my first solo record. It was a new city, I didn’t really know anybody, and an outlet to combat the grey—because I was using a lot of bright colors—was just to sit in my room for hours and paint and smoke.
OKP: I saw a video interview you did while painting on a translucent piece of plastic sheeting, which sounds similar to the white newspaper on your bedroom wall.
TLWST: It was a technique I was doing at the time, sort of out of necessity. I was super broke and I had just done this Jackson Pollock-style piece in my bedroom, and it dripped down onto the plastic on the floor which ended up being crumpled up in the corner. So I started taking that and doing collage with that, and then really getting a response from it. At that point I just would like coat my walls in plastic and throw house paint up on it, use that as sample material.
OKP: Are you planning on moving out of Canada and building a base elsewhere?
TLWST: Ideally, no. In my career, there’s a few artists, young artists, I’ve been blessed with the fortune of having hit me up. Like, this singer from Saskatchewan, she contacted me when she was 14, and asked me, ‘How do you make a crowd look at you? What do you do when you’re in front of a crowd to engage them?’ It was unlike all the other questions I would receive. My hope is to be able to bring along artists like her—the genres of which would surprise people, totally, because I’m not trying to do the Lil Wayne/Drake thing where I bring up another R&B thing or a rapper—and really just try to show the diversity of Canada.
OKP: It makes sense to me that you’re into a lot of different kinds of music. Growing up in Edmonton, you were probably the only black kid in your class—
OKP: So you have to pick up some influences from that, you can’t just live in your own world totally.
TLWST: You can’t, yeah. Absolutely. Two guys I sang with in junior high, one of them is one of the main secondary characters in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, Ryan Silverman, and then Tom Macleary is one of the top opera tenors in the country. And these are the guys who I used to have an a cappella group with, when we were kids.
OKP: When Boys II Men was hot.
TLWST: Exactly! [laughs]
OKP: Last question, one which is obviously the most important: Toronto girls or Montreal girls?
TLWST: Oh, man! [laughs]
OKP: It’s the ultimate question.
TLWST: Who was it who had that song, was it Young Money? All the girls? I can’t decide because they’re so different—they’re so, so different.
OKP: But you know in your heart you have a preference.
TLWST: … Montreal. [laughs]