REVIVE: Taylor McFerrin Talks The Nuts & Bolts Of The 'Early Riser' LP
Brooklyn-based producer Taylor McFerrin delves into his sonic evolution to detail the making of his debut Early Riser LP and talks future sounds in an exclusive interview with REVIVE. The man who first won the hearts of fans with his staggering improvisational skill as a beatboxer serves up a stellar release for his first full-length solo project. Skirting more traditional paths to musicianship, McFerrin has utilized a famously sharp ear, a distinct aesthetic and a few of the many weapons in the Brainfeeder arsenal to produce a formidable project that stands to eclipse any efforts that are not as meticulously tailored.
Early Riser finds McFerrin fleshing out a bunch of old demos to deliver a compilation of tracks that couple raw electricity with analog warmth and cite a wide swath of influences, from classics of the 60s and 70s to the time-honored sounds of the Native Tongues and Soulquarians. A mash of eclecticism, innovation and musical inheritance, the project includes contributions from Nai Palm, Thundercat, Robert Glasper and Taylor’s father Bobby McFerrin. Taylor McFerrin goes beyond the beats and into all of the moving parts of the record in this discussion. Get a taste of the exclusive chat below. Purchase the Early Riser LP via iTunes. Read the full text of the interview and get more on Taylor McFerrin via REVIVE.
Revive: How did you get started in music? What was your first instrument, first band?
Taylor McFerrin: I took piano lessons when I was in grade school—I guess I had kind of a knack for faking my way through them. My teacher would teach me stuff from the book, and I would memorize it by how it sounded so I could just figure it out on the keys. That was actually kind of foreshadowing, because I never ended up going to music school later in life. I always just made music by ear.
I really started thinking I could make music probably junior year in high school, when I started trying to make beats for me and my friends. I’d have samplers, and at some point, my dad handed down his studio keyboard because he got a new one. The thing was (this was like ’98, ’99), the school curriculums hadn’t really adapted to the music production thing. Now, it’s become an official course, like how to make music on computers and do studio production…because that wasn’t quite happening then, I didn’t realize I could go to school to learn [production]. Since I actually never learned how to read music and I kind of had this free pass to get into a lot of music schools because of my dad, I felt weird about it in general.
R: You still don’t read music?
TM: No—I mean, I’ve started to teach myself a couple times and I’ve gotten pretty far, but then I never really applied it and ran with it.
R: I mean, whatever works!
TM: I usually focus on making music by myself—so I know what kind of key I’m playing in, but I don’t ever have to read anything that someone else wrote when I do what I do. So it never really became a thing I needed to do… though, now that my record’s done, I kind of have time just to focus on getting better at things, as opposed to just finishing a record. So I’m going to be trying to teach myself some more stuff.
But yeah, high school, my friends kind of recognized that I was good at this. I had some confidence that I knew how to make beats, but it didn’t feel like something I could pursue in college. When I went to school though, I was just getting heavier and heavier into it.
R: What were you listening to back when you started out, in high school?
TM: A mix of hip-hop and old soul stuff. I was really into Outkast and The Roots, and senior year was right when the Soulquarian stuff started coming out. Like, D’Angelo‘s Voodoo came out right when I graduated. Same with Erykah Badu‘s Mama’s Gun—that whole scene was bubbling up. I was also into going through my parent’s Motown stuff—Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Isley Brothers… They would get pissed at me because I was just borrowing their CDs and then losing them. Basically just stealing all their music.
It was cool—seeing the connection between that era of music, and the hip-hop that I liked, like soul-based stuff. A lot of times, it was interesting to figure out what they were sampling on a lot of my favorite hip-hop stuff. It helped me identify the sounds that I liked—I realized that everyone was playing these old vintage Moogs and ARP synthesizers. Fender Rhodes became my favorite instrument, because I realized that it was kind of the staple sound of soul. That sparked my quest to build up a studio with old vintage analog stuff.
R: And that’s where you made this record?
TM: Yeah. I have a Roland Jupiter 6 and a Moog Voyager—the Jupiter 6 is old and the Voyager’s new, and I have a Space Echo, a Rhodes, and then drums, bass, and guitar. I don’t have a massive studio, but everything I have is quality.
R: So, getting more into the record—last time I saw you was at CMJ 2011 with Robert Glasper and Jose James. It was awesome, but mostly beatboxing and your own vocals—there’s a lot less of that on this album. How do you feel your sound has changed, or what’s caused it to change?
TM: I feel like with this record, I had certain things I was trying to accomplish, almost strategically. I’ve always been, in my mind, a studio producer—I started out just making beats, and I just wanted to be the guy in the studio making beats for other artists, whether it was hip-hop artists or singers. That’s how I’ve identified myself. Once I became a working musician, doing shows, I was kind of leaning on beatboxing for performance reasons, for years. There was a while where I was really into it, but I actually prefer beatboxing when I can bounce off other artists and jam, as opposed to trying to be super impressive with the sounds I can make. It helps to start the show because it locks people in, and then I can go do instrumental stuff, and then I kind of bring it back to the beatboxing stuff.
For this record, I really wanted to establish that I love making instrumental music and beats. Initially, when I started making the record, I thought I could sing on an entire record. But I’ve been making beats since like ’98, and I just didn’t get to the point over these last few years where I felt like I found my exact voice, and a way to approach singing with the sense that “this is what I do.” That’s what I’m working towards moving forward, but this record was meant to be a production-based introduction of myself.