Listen while you read:
The dark walls of Coventry Village’s below-ground B Side Lounge are lined with replica paintings of the pastel, color block pixels now synonymous with Freeze-Tag, the better known moniker of musician Marcus Alan Ward. At midnight, in perfect cadence, the televisions all flicker on to debut the video for “Eskimo” that brings his logo to life. It’s the title track from his soon-to-be released EP, the follow up to his debut, Wldflwr_hny, that became one of last year’s best-received electronic projects in Cleveland.
Wldflwr_hny arrived on the downward crest of the chillwave movement and at the time of a striking resurgence of electronics dabbling in R&B. In short, it was poised for success yet set up to battle against being clustered in a ripple of neo-soul riding the tails of the lush electronics of Toro y Moi, and hazy, bedroom noir of The Weeknd. Still, the early 2010s brought soul, and for once not just blues, to the forefront of indie and made unexpected, experimental orchestrations more accessible than ever.
But for a young man who came of age under the influence of pop-art aesthetics and the sounds of prog-rock – he immediately ticks off Anthony Green (Circa Survive) and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (Mars Volta) as his idols – timing may have made it easy to overlook Wldflwr’s tremendous avant-garde, aggressive moments the first time around. How the tension created by the menacing blips and bleeps on “Tidal Wave” could have effortlessly been overlaid on any track of Radiohead’s In Rainbows or how “Don’t Lose Your Mind” was a mesmerizing piece of psychedelia.
“When the Andy Warhol soup cans first came out, critics didn’t understand them. What I get from Warhol,” Ward says of one of his largest artistic influences, obvious in the theme of repetition throughout his work, “is fuck everybody else, do whatever you want to do. One of the most important pieces of the 20th century didn’t sell; it wasn’t recognized until years later. Often the most important things aren’t well-received at first.”
After quitting his band where he cut his teeth as a kid playing hardcore, Ward bought a G4 laptop and Logic. The result was 2011’s Wldflwr, a six-track EP that drew on his appreciation for intermingling sound and his love for the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Henri Rousseau with sparse vocals drowned in heavy drum lines.
“I love how it blends and I just love the innocence and rawness of it because I recorded that myself, in my house,” says Ward. “I made the beats and recorded the vocals and mixed it all. It was just an experiment and a whole learning process for that EP and that type of music, too.”
The EP received praise and international web buzz but Ward admits he’s been told that the project is more fully realized live. “People just need to hear vocals, I guess,” he says with a laugh that blurs between cynical and charming.
On stage, his set-up is entirely hardware, but live performances allow Ward’s warm vocals to wash over the mechanical instrumentation in a sea of soulful, echoing coos. It’s no wonder vocals come out in lead singles from Eskimo, “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and the title track; both emphasize the rich, airy hues of Ward’s range.
“A lot of these chillwave artists are one-man-bands where they expect just to play their laptop and reverbed-out vocals and that’s it,” he says when explaining his shows. “People are surprised in general when they see me. But I love to do that, to surprise people. First of all, it’s different music period but definitely different for a black male to be doing it and especially from my musical background.”
Ward is the type to suddenly drop he’s been studying baroque pop in normal conversation, musing his admiration for the structure and composition of albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz and hinting that toying with shape-shifting ideas of adding unexpected chamber touches isn’t experimental, it’s standard. And it more than hints to everyone asking if one day Ward plans on expanding his project: the answer is yes.
“I’m starting at the base, the most minimal thing I can do, just me and a couple instruments. But eventually I’m going to have a band and it’s going to be all electronic instruments — like an electronic big band,” he says. “Guitar, drums, bass, the whole band arrangement is cool, and I love great bands, but you need to look into the future. A lot of what I see now is outdated. As a musician, when you’re creating, you have to look years ahead.”
After all, it was Warhol who famously declared, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
Eskimo is set to be released this March. Freeze-Tag plays the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest benefit show on March 22 and is planning a tour for summer of 2013. Keep up with Freeze-Tag on Facebook and stream his music on Bandcamp.
Watch Freeze-Tag perform at Ingenuity this past summer. Video courtesy of our friends at CLE Music City.