We Can't Stop Here, This is Bat Country - Part 4

Pirates at The Gramophone
Photo: Ed Aller

When Earthworms returned from Europe, we were full of promise and steam. There was zero question that our rocket ship was going to continue it's meteoric rise, after all - we were being aggressively courted by an established label out of California, subsidized by Columbia Records. I'll leave out the name of the label here because there isn't any reason to slander them, but suffice to say that we were very pleased with the attention we were getting. As the primary point of contact with the label, I would send them regular updates and new recordings, all of which were received enthusiastically. The vibe was great and only getting better as we rolled along in the process.

"Midnight at the Capricorn" would be our strongest release to date. Production from DJ Crucial, Splitface, J-Toth and more was sprinkled in with our main source of sound farming for this record - Ben Bounce. Ben's production is lush, melodic, textured and memorable. We chose a collection of ear worms that hold up to this day. Each of us took a solo track for this album as well, setting it apart in this way from the first two records. "Midnight" shaped up to be an inspired and flex-worthy collection of vibes that we anticipated would catapult us to the next level - which would have been financial sustainability and deeper international notoriety.
Logo: Jim Mahfood

Earthworms and Fresh Heir, back in the states

Video shoot, or just a regular Sunday?
Upon completion and with our heads held high, we submitted the final master to the label. It was time to talk contracts and game plans. Tours, a booking manager, a tour manager, real deal shit. After the submission, I got an email asking for a list of all the samples we used on the record. There were a LOT. The art of sampling was the foundation of our sound, as it was for every classic hip-hop artist we took inspiration from. I didn't see this as a hurdle because the entire reason this label wanted to work with us was tied to the unabashed love the label president has for 90's New York City hip-hop, and that's the road our sound traveled to get where it got. However, we were way too honest with our list of samples it would seem. As it was told to us on a conference call, the label president sat down to a dinner with another extremely notable label president who was more hip-hop business savvy (someone you've all heard of, I assure you), and was given the advice not to put our record out as it stood because sample clearing process would be a massive hurdle. After a solid year of weekly correspondence and nothing but unbridled enthusiasm when presented with a new (clearly sample based) creation, we were being flatly told that this record label was no longer interested in putting our record out because they had cold feet. We were being asked to re-create the album with zero samples that would need clearance.
Kama and I at Hi-Pointe, early days

Anyone who's ever made a full length album before - especially a group effort - will know how it felt to be told such a thing after the tremendous effort that went into everything we did. We were beside ourselves. Hindsight says we definitely should have swallowed our egos and recreated those song parts with live instruments, and Mahf should have re-done his scratches that used obvious samples. The process would have taken a few months but it would have been worth it. Instead, however, we told the label president to get fucked (I’m paraphrasing, I think it was more like “no thanks”). We were positive that the momentum we carried would take us right into the sun, regardless of the vessel we chose to bring us there.

We chose to ride with Indyground for this record instead of going back into the lab for the laborious task of cleansing the flagrant samples from our third baby. Indyground is the brainchild of Steddy P, originally formed in Columbia, Mo during his college years (now based in Kansas City) - and continues to be the platform for his and his friends' releases today. We were no strangers to being a scrappy indie outfit, so we felt comfortable with this decision after a lot of deliberation. Mahf was already in cahoots with Steddy - as much his DJ as ours at that point - and we'd done a great deal of touring together over the course of a couple years, so we were confident this would be a fruitful endeavor. We could have stayed with F5 and kept our nice distro deal in tact, we could have worked hard to get our record in the shape the big guys wanted it in, but we chose to go with our guts. Indyground was on the rise due to Steddy's work ethic and the gusto in which he approaches the game. This was attractive to us so we moved forward.

Artwork: Jim Mahfood

The St. Louis release party for "Midnight at the Capricorn" is legend at this point. We booked The Library in the Soulard neighborhood - the historic Carnegie Library transformed into a beautiful music venue - and we sold it out. It was by far the most successful day that venue ever saw, including Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest. But this would be the where the climax happened, as STL and the hip-hop world in general would collectively move on to other sonic interests in the coming year.

It was through no fault of Indyground that "Midnight" did not do well. Steddy and his team admirably hustled our record as hard as they could, but a couple of things became immediately apparent. The lack of an international distribution deal stopped our momentum dead in it's tracks. Combine that with the enormous generational shift that was occurring in real time and the differing musical tastes that came with it - and there was no way our record was going to be successful without a larger engine behind it. We'd outgrown the indie world as it was, and the indie world that became moved swiftly past us. The fans who used to pack venues to see us perform were in their 30's with kids and careers, probably listening to the Avett Brothers. Younger hip-hop fans were into more moody, less sampadelic vibes - and because young hip-hop fans aren't brought into the world with any sort of reverence for what came before - they were barely aware of our presence or impact. We were at a crossroads.

Artwork: Ed Aller
It was during this time of uncertainty that Kama and I started working on solo records, and Mahf started prioritizing tours with Steddy over anything Earthworms had going on. None of us can be blamed for these actions. When the vibe isn't right in one arena, you look elsewhere for inspirado. I had a handful of solo songs recorded and really dove into the process of adding to them by collecting production specific to my intentions. I leaned on my longtime sources for these things - DJ Crucial, Ben Bounce, Capo, and a few others as well. The result would be my one and only solo offering to date - "Devils, Pirates and Rebels" - released on Indyground in 2010. Kama would release his opus in collaboration with J-Toth, "KamaToth Cocktails" in 2010 as well. Mahf and Steddy went HARD and toured constantly. I toured a
lot in support of my solo record. Months went by without an Earthworms show, so I went ahead and booked one at Lola in Downtown STL. Mahf couldn't be there, so we employed DJ LB and took the stage together at Lola on a fateful night in 2011 that would see the end of Earthworms for a long, long time.

On stage at The Pageant with Midwest Avengers
Earthworms broke up on stage that night and it wasn't pretty. I'll leave out the why's and how's because as time tends to facilitate, these things have long since healed and relationships have been fully resuscitated. It absolutely does not matter, and hasn't for a decade. It was a tough night and it would send all of us directly into a new chapter, post haste. As some of you reading this will know, a big ass circle has come complete and there is new Earthworms music on the horizon in 20damn20. More on that later.

Rolling solo at Slumfest

Mahf, Steddy and I at Amoeba Music,
Sunset Blvd, Hollywood
It wasn't long after that my personal relationship with Indyground was starting to fray as well. I was operating like a decorated hip-hop veteran with leverage and financial needs, and Steddy really needed me to adjust and get on his level so we could be productive. I did not. I am historically slow to accept new realities and adjust accordingly. When I was in a place that demanded a reinvention and adaptation to a new way of operating, I would not make concessions - instead insisting on being treated with more reverence than younger label mates who were frankly out-performing me in effort and execution. Steddy made the decision to cut ties. Looking back, I can't say I blame him. Gotta detox your environment on occasion, and I was probably a bit toxic at that point - so we moved on separately.

 Side note - I was just wearing an Indyground shirt yesterday and have nothing but love and respect for that whole team. Earthworms and Steddy P have shared a stage in recent months and it was a joyous occasion. There are no bad vibes. We're all grown and a damn sight more humble in our advanced ages. We just caught each other in a precarious time back in the day, nothing more complicated to say about it. Peace to Steddy P - I celebrate your longevity and your hustle my friend.

With Miss Sharon Jones, Blueberry Hill
Photo: Alexis Tucci

Solo set with Mahf at 2720 Cherokee, 2010
For the first time since I'd moved home from California in 2004, I was out there in the wind. This was a situation I immediately embraced, as I am no stranger to reinvention. I still had a solo record to push, even though I was no longer with the label who's logo decorated the back cover, and I was still very motivated to continue making memorable art that would put me back in the papers, as it were. At this point, I was living in the neighborhood bordering Kingshighway and Chippewa in South City. As it happened, my friend Candace (pronounced Can-dah-say - aka Ms. Vizion) lived a block and a half away. She had been a long time contributor to the regional hip-hop scene as a member of Royal Illite (with Nyquill from the Art Thugs era) and the Grea Tones - the latter of which broke up around the same time Earthworms did. Candace and I collaborated on two songs for "Devils" and I really liked the vibe we created in those tracks. Not only does she have an incredible singing voice, but she is an excellent writer and rapper as well. I've always been more inspired by working with other creatives in projects, so I gave her a call one day and pitched the idea of starting a band with her. I wanted to do something very different in every way and she was on board with it. I already had a name for the outfit as well - Mathias and the Pirates.

Image: Ed Aller

Logo: Ed Aller
Photo: Chris Renteria

DJ LB (also from Royal Illite / Grea Tones) hopped on board to round out the initial line-up. We would add permanent live instrument players in coming years, but we kept it simple and straightforward to begin the journey. Dace and I got down to business quickly and furiously. We were churning out at least one new song every week, sometimes more. Inspiration was at an all time high. Both of us were carving out a new path like the human heart creates new arteries when old ones are blocked. We had production from the likes of Damon Davis, Charlie Beans (from Detroit), Ben Bounce and Matt Sawicki, and we recorded most of the record with Tony Esterly at Shock City Studios - where he added some key production of his own, as well as live instrumentation to the other beats we were using that really tied all the varying sounds together to make it cohesive. A few songs were recorded with Mr. Sawicki at Suburban Pro Studios as well, but the entire project was mixed and mastered at Shock City. Tony would eventually move to Nashville and Suburban Pro would become our permanent home for recording, but not until after "Life of the Buzzard" was ready to set sail.

Artwork: Damon Davis
Being that we called ourselves Pirates, we decided it appropriate to reference pirate lore in songs, song titles and in the name of the album - without being corny about it. We weren't going to be rocking eye patches on stage. There was a line and we didn't cross it. But songs like "Queen Anne's Revenge" (Black Beard's ship), "Vie del la Buse" (Life of the Buzzard in French - The Buzzard being Olivier Levasseur - a French Pirate known for quick and cunning attacks), "The Ballad of Old Long Ben" (a nickname for Henry Every - the first known pirate to fly the Jolly Roger flag), "Starlight Cove" and more kept the vibe we were going for in tact. We even adapted an old pirate sea shanty for the third verse in "Old Long Ben". But again - NO EYE PATCHES.

Photo: Doug Tull (I think)

First Pirates show w/ DJ Mahf,
Old Rock House, STL, 2012
We quickly started getting booked for high profile shows, based on our collective reputations and the assumption that this new project was going to be the tits. Our first two gigs as Mathias and the Pirates were Slumfest, and then opening up for hip-hop supergroup - Slaughterhouse. Both gigs went extremely well and it only got better from there. Soon we would be booking our record release party at Atomic Cowboy, and employing a live backing band for the first time in Superhero Killer - a group of allstars led by Donald Williams and Jay Summers, with Jesse Gannon and Grover Stewart. An embarrassment of history and talent and we were excited to have them on stage with us. The record was, and still is, very well received. "Southcitylivin" was our anthem, "Old Long Ben" was our show stopper (and starter) and we got really dialed in.

It was 2012, and by this time we'd entered into a partnership with Farfetched - a label and collective spearheaded by the great Damon Davis - one that I (and we) are still with to this day. This was an attractive landing spot for us due to the musically daring, current and extremely varied nature of the artists involved. Farfetched is not just a hip-hop imprint and Pirates are not just a hip-hop group. Nothing about the trappings of being pigeon-holed into an easily identifiable bag of Rap Snacks was appealing to us. We wanted something to match our boundary-free vibe and we found it.

Opening for The Urge at The Pageant, STL
 Over the next couple of years, we really caught the wind in our sails. We shared stages with countless major touring acts and legends. The Urge took notice and we ended up opening for them multiple times, as well as being invited to perform a couple of songs with them during their sets on occasion. Notably, Pirates and Superhero Killer opened for The Urge at Soldier's Memorial with the Gateway Arch as the backdrop. It was a free to the public show during the summer, and about 20,000 people showed up. Glory was ours. The Urge debuted material from their long awaited new album and all was right in the cosmos. Once again, my band was on a serious come-up and I couldn't have been happier about it. Everything I've done has begun at the bottom, no matter where the last project ended. Pirates was so sonically and foundationally different from anything else I'd done, and for it to grow like it did is nothing short of alchemy embodied. Lucid dreaming. It's my super power.

On stage with The Urge at Voodoo Lounge, Kansas City, Mo
On stage with The Urge at The Pageant, STL, 2016
Photo: Don Schroeder

Artwork: Damon Davis
During the time in between the release of "Buzzard" and our second offering - "Caveman Barnacles" - the landscape had changed enough to provoke us to change with it, and release a shorter form EP as opposed to a full length album. The title of this new EP came from a series of projects Matt Sawicki was producing called "Caveman Chronicles". Us being Pirates, we substituted the word "Barnacles" and made it ours. Sawicki produced the entire EP, with an assist from yours truly on the opening track. I play the keys, establishing the reggae riddim that would become the backbone of our most important and well known song in Pirates cannon - "The Panic Button".

The world changed in the summer of 2014, specifically August 9th when Michael Brown Jr. was - and let me say this clearly - murdered in cold blood by Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department. It was unfortunately not a unique occurrence for a young, unarmed black kid to be gunned down by the police, but the way it happened and the manner in which it was handled in the very immediate aftermath sparked the modern civil rights movement. Priorities changed. It no longer felt appropriate to create art that didn't speak directly to the movement.

Performing "The Panic Button" at Lo-Fi Cherokee, 2018
Photo courtesy of Bill Streeter and crew

Pirates had five songs in the can for the Cavemen Barnacles EP and it didn't feel complete. We needed some sauce to put on top of the pie. We also felt a responsibility to use our platform to stand in solidarity with the burgeoning civil rights movement, and to add our collective voice and our bodies to those who were putting themselves, their freedoms and their livelihoods on the line to directly confront generational inequity, institutional racism and injustice. We set out to write a protest song.

Dace and I hammered out a verse each and we arrived to Suburban Pro Studios without a hook having been written. I stepped into the vocal booth and the universe just kind of pushed it right out of me.

"When the walls come crumbling down (repeated three times), that's exactly when you stand up and never press the panic button".

This was not planned, it came out organically and on the spot. Typing it out right here is actually the first time it's ever been committed to text. We didn't know at the time that this song would resonate like it did, or that Time Magazine would mention it in an article about the music coming out of the Ferguson protests, or that we'd have the opportunity to yell "hands up, don't shoot" in front of thousands of people on some of the most prestigious stages in St. Louis and beyond. But that's what happened. The ripple effect Ferguson had on the world absolutely extended to music and art, increasing notoriety and visibility for many of us - though this was not the intention.

Photo: Eric Nemens
The people I personally know who leveled up professionally after Ferguson did not set out with that goal in mind. It just so happened their voices were vitally important to the moment. I was particularly mouthy on social media during this time period and my post engagements skyrocketed. All the trolls, all the arguing - a huge reason why my accounts are private for the most part now. I wore a Fishbone shirt to a protest that said "Fuck Racism" and a photograph of me taken by a news organization made its rounds on the web. I was made into memes by racist trolls. I was threatened and harassed and I would do it again. I was shown on national news with a mask on, sweeping up broken glass in a cloud of tear gas on South Grand. My friends have traveled the world doing speaking engagements, spoken in front of congress, sat down with President Obama, made Oscar nominated films about Ferguson, created art that is considered vital to a generation of people grappling with how to unravel centuries of racism. As a white man (pretty much the whole damn problem in the world), I thought it was my absolute duty to speak loudly to other white people who aren't wired to immediately grasp what institutional racism actually means. Dace is a black woman, and so our experiences are clearly not the same. Putting those worlds together in a protest song made it pretty powerful. I am humbled to have played a small roll in providing the soundtrack to a movement.

Photo: Ed Aller

Moving on..
"Caveman Barnacles" was very well received and had cameos from Aceyalone (long one of my favorite rappers) and Family Affair. Sonically, it stood in contrast to "Buzzard" due to the sample free approach we used in the production, and the use of live instrumentation on every song in some fashion. It became more and more apparent that our live sets sounded better when we had live instruments on stage with us. For numerous shows, mostly the well paying and/or high profile ones, we've employed a full band. But the core of the group expanded to include three more permanent members - Andrew Gibson on drums, Shelby Carter on trumpet and Terry Grohman on sax. DJ LB stepped away from the band in 2017, so for a while we had a very busy DJ VThom on the decks with DJ Whiz filling in when VThom couldn't make it. Evetually, Quasar Camp joined the crew as our full time DJ and Darren McClelland became the permanent master of the low end and that's where it stands today.

Photo: Me

VThom's first show with the Pirates was one for the record books. After a few years of lobbying, we were finally booked to play the biggest music festival in St. Louis history - Loufest. We opened the festival on one of the main stages - the same stage Run the Jewels, Huey Lewis and the News, Cage the Elephant, Robert Randolph and more would grace over that weekend. Lizzo, Noname, Weezer, Spoon, Snoop Dogg and a host of others were also on the bill. After our victorious set that included the biggest band we'd employed to date, our keyboard player Dave Grelle went straight into Huey Lewis's trailer directly behind our stage and taught Huey how to play Chuck Berry songs for the tribute set in his honor. I watched many of the sets standing on stage behind the amplifiers. I autographed Chuck Berry's guitars alongside legends and hobnobbed with heroes all weekend. Mathias and the Pirates were in everyone's ears and on everyone's tongues.

Pirates on stage at Loufest, Forest Park, 2018

Backstage at Loufest with 18andCounting
With Darian Wigfall of Farfetched at Loufest

With Mr. Huey Lewis, backstage at Loufest

On stage at Peabody Opera House, STL
As we continued to rise, we were booked for every festival and high profile opportunity the city of St. Louis could conjure, as well as in surrounding states. We hit Chicago a few times a year, played an extremely fun Pagan festival in Kansas, a surprisingly big festival in Kankakee, IL, every beer festival ever, and we continued getting booked to open shows for the likes of Fishbone, Femi Kuti, Gangstagrass, Dam Funk, Blackalicious, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Camp Lo, Freestyle Fellowship and so on, so forth. When it was time to begin work on our third act, we decided to contact an old friend to produce it - DJ Crucial.
Performing with Dave Grelle's Playadors at the
Ferring Jazz Bistro, STL
Photo: Nate Burrell

As if to prove our versatility, we thought it would be fun to make a sample based record as an ode to the music we came up with in the arena of hip-hop. I hadn't worked with Crucial in quite a few years at this point, so it felt like a homecoming when I was sitting in his house and deciding which SP-made beats to use on the new EP. Keeping with the Piratey theme, and paying homage to the strong female presence in our band - we decided to name the record after a female river pirate from the Gangs of New York era - "Sadie the Goat" (after Sadie Farrell - who may or may not have actually existed). A different, more modern version of Sadie is depicted in the de-facto title track - "Sadie and Doug" - a story about troubled star crossed lovers in deeeep South City and one of my favorite songs I've ever written. The EP begins with a guest appearance from LA legend Abstract Rude, and ends with a remix of another song we did with Ab, along with fellow LA legend and Freestyle Fellowship alum Myka 9.

"Sadie the Goat" dropped in early 2018 to a packed house at The Ready Room in St. Louis. For this show, we partnered with our friend Stan Chisolm (aka 18andCounting) and billed it as a double release party with the very talented super group Broke Poets (Jonezy, Capo, Che Sanchez, Que Houston, etc) opening things up.

Artwork: Damon Davis

Also during this time, Dace and I had joined forced with versatile Flamenco guitarist Lliam Christy for a project we called "Barbary Saints". To date, we've released one song under that name - a very textured, Cuban flavored version of "Summer Breeze" by Seals and Crofts - featuring the legendary Lazaro Galaraga on percussion and aux vocals. Lliam would join Pirates on stage a number of times, notably while opening for Femi Kuti (son of Fela) and for a few acoustic performances.

Acoustic Pirates w/ Lliam Christy, Off Broadway, STL

Photo: Eric Nemens
Additionally, I joined a Fishbone tribute project called "Ghetto Soundwave" that was conceived by Dwight Carter. The process of learning all of those songs and leaving my rap comfort zone was one of the most satisfying and challenging things I've ever done in over two decades of performing. Fishbone is one of my all time favorite bands and I couldn't pass up an opportunity to be a part of a massive tribute to them, so I sang my ass off until I was mostly on key and confident in my performance. To date, we've played four or five shows over the course of three or so years. The first one was at The Ready Room and it was jam packed with as vibrant of an energy as I've ever swam in. This experience made me better in so many ways and I do hope to do it again at some point. It requires a LOT of rehearsal though, so that will be a challenge as long as I live closer to actual Fishbone than I do to my comrades in the tribute band.
Photo: KB the Selfie King, Blueberry Hill

Ghetto Soundwave, The Ready Room, STL

Photo: Eric Nemens

Artwork: Jim Mahfood
As if I wasn't already a deeply busy person when combining my various projects with a full time job and life in general, the year 2019 saw to it that I would take on another project - the rebirth of the mighty Earthworms. Mathias and the Pirates were intentionally saying no to more show offers than we were saying yes to after years of going hard in the paint, and I was approached by Capo to play a show with an old friend who lives in Oakland but was coming to STL for a record release show - Alleyes Manifest. He asked about Pirates, but I turned him down initially, offering instead to play my first solo set in years. Through the back and forth, we decided it would be fun to see if Black Patrick wanted to join me for a few old Earthworms songs. He agreed. Around the same time, our friend and STL rap legend Joe Ruma passed away unexpectedly, and we (along with DJ Mahf) signed on to play the benefit show for his family a couple of weeks later as well. Suddenly, Earthworms had two shows on the books when just a few weeks before, this was not in anyone's imaginations.

Photo: Ed Aller

We had a lot of damn fun playing these two shows. The energy was infectious and the people in attendance were JAZZED to hear us rock those old familiar songs for the first time in nearly a decade. It was so fun in fact, that the three of us decided to continue on together and make some new music. The fourth Earthworm - Kama - had moved to LA and hung up his rapper pants many years previous. We got his blessing to continue with the old name in tact, and so we did. It was not known at the time that I would soon be joining Kama under the California sunshine, albeit in quarantine, but life is a series of curveballs and here we are. Earthworms played a few more times over the course of the following months, most recently at The Monocle in late December. We have linked up with Doug Surreal in Portland, OR (ex-Litterthugz) on production and we have a handful of songs recorded and in the mixing process. Once we can all go to studios again, there will be more to come.

Earthworms V 2.0, on stage at The Monocle
Photo: Justin Jones

I am thankful for technology. Thankful that I can keep making music with my friends after moving thousands of miles away from them. Life has brought me back to Los Angeles for a second go of things out here (with extremely precarious timing), but the internet makes it easy to collaborate. Personally, I finally reached the point where I no longer wanted to play a million shows a year to scant crowds in St. Louis, with the occasional payoff of a big, juicy crowd thrown in for good measure. At this point, if it don't make dollars, it don't make sense. I'm too old for "exposure" gigs to be appealing, and I'm very much over the process of pushing hard on a million things for a modest payoff. I'm over 40 and you have to start thinking about how many fucks people give about what a rapper my age has to say. I'm not sitting here announcing my retirement or anything, but being more strategic with my approach is a step I absolutely had to take, and it truly doesn't matter where I live if I'm going to dramatically scale back on the amount of shows I play in a year anyway. I can hop on a plane after a half-work day and get to STL in time for soundcheck.

Earthworms will release new music with Doug Surreal in 2020. You can write that down. Mathias and the Pirates will ride again as well, we're too dope to be done. One of these days the FLYOVR project I started with Capo and Matt Sawicki will come back to life. I've also begun making beats, and when they start sounding less amateur - I'll let them find some sunshine. I'm doing this long-form writing thing and I've taken a leadership role with Farfetched. Many irons, many fires, as is my nature. If there is ever a time when I am a little too quiet, you might want to check my pulse. Being a creative is what makes my entire heart beat and my soul come to life.

Thank you very much for riding with me on this long journey. I'll get back to writing about other things in the coming weeks, but I really wanted to get all of this out so it's documented somewhere. I appreciate anyone who made it this far, you're the real heroes here. Much love, stay safe, wear a damn mask and be kind. Deuces.

A painting by Mark Dethrow, featuring yours truly and a bunch of STL legends,
on the wall at the Shaved Duck, STL

Artwork: Jim Mahfood

Shelby Carter, Will Betts, Matt Range, Matt Risch, Kerry, Kama, Me

Earthworms in 2019

Earthworms and Serge with Shane Presley of Rock Paper Podcast

4 Hands Lupulin Festival, Photo: Ed Aller

Pirates at The Pageant

Pirates and 18AC at Gaslight
Photo: Doug Tull

On stage in Downtown STL with The Urge

With our original drummer, Grover Stewart

On stage at The Pageant

With Lincoln Nelson during the "Go With Me" video shoot

Photo: Ed Aller


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