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Shift Change: 15 Surprising Leaps by Musicians

on July 15, 2015, 11:00am
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Let me break it down for you: When I discovered that Devonte Hynes, the mastermind behind acoustic folk-rock project Lightspeed Champion (which fueled many a late-night study session in my early college days) had assumed the new moniker Blood Orange and was producing smooth electronic, R&B-influenced jams that seemed to embrace adulthood and all of its tangles in a way that Lightspeed Champion never had, it was both shocking and a little thrilling. The idea that an artist could shed one genre and so easily assume another, like putting on a different hat, was exciting.

On that subject, we’ve gone ahead and rounded up 15 artists with contrasting resumes: from twee indie pop to smooth electronica, emo to dubstep. Rather than letting themselves be pigeonholed by any genre, these artists followed their muses through a variety of projects, geographic locations, and musical trends. We hope that at least a few of these make you say, “They were in that band too?”

–Katherine Flynn
Senior Staff Writer

Dev Hynes

DevHynes

The Leap: From Lightspeed Champion to Blood Orange

No one is disputing that 29-year-old London-born artist Devonte Hynes is talented, but the vehicles for his talent – from stints as solo acoustic-folk auteur Lightspeed Champion to writing and production work for Sky Ferreira and Florence and the Machine, to the R&B-influenced electronic tour-de-force work of Blood Orange – are as varied as an eclectic record collection. Beginning in 2004 with the London-based dance punk project Test Icicles and quickly graduating to more nuanced work as Lightspeed Champion, Hynes has never stopped evolving as an artist. His more recent work, such as July’s release of “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” has taken a social justice bent, calling attention to racial inequality and police brutality in his adopted homeland of the US. He recently debuted new work as part of David Byrne’s music and color guard show Contemporary Color at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. –Katherine Flynn

Nick Sanborn

nick sanborn Shift Change: 15 Surprising Leaps by Musicians

Photo by Kat Schleicher

The Leap: From Headlights and Megafaun to Sylvan Esso

Headlights, an indie-pop four-piece from Champaign, Illinois, were possibly only known (or most beloved) in a certain Midwestern college circuit. However, what the group, including bassist and keyboardist Nick Sanborn, lacked in exposure, they made up for in fan loyalty. I never missed a Headlights show at my small Wisconsin school, and I still sleep in a heather-gray v-neck Headlights tee I bought in a sweaty, crowded underground venue in 2008.

More recently, Sanborn has made himself known as part of psych-folk project Megafaun, but it’s his work with stripped-down synth-pop project Sylvan Esso that’s seen a steady rise in buzz for the past few years, thanks in large part to Sanborn’s skillful melodies. While a crowded show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club this past April had a very different feel from the low-ceilinged venues where I was used to seeing Headlights, somehow Sanborn and bandmate Amelia Meath succeeded in making it feel no less intimate. –Katherine Flynn

Emily Haines

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The Leap: From Broken Social Scene to Metric

No matter how much Broken Social Scene refuses the supergroup label, their status as exactly that grows over the years. The Canadian indie rock staples rotate between 15 to 25 members, almost all of whom also play in Toronto’s biggest bands — Feist, Metric, Do Make Say Think — in addition to successful solo careers, from Kevin Drew’s score work for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World to Brendan Canning’s own solo material. A large part of their sound comes from two of their original female vocalists, Emily Haines and Leslie Feist. After their ambient debut album, Broken Social Scene struggled to create an entertaining live show and called on three friends to join them for new renditions, one of whom was Haines. From their iconic sophomore LP, You Forgot It in People, to their self-titled follow-up, Broken Social Scene have her to thank for the lush vocals of numerous cult-favorite cuts. She’s there at the forefront of “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”, hiding in “Bandwitch”, and twirling around in the waves of “Swimmers”. She is, whether or not listeners dig up liner notes, a key part of the band’s big hits.

Unlike Feist, Haines didn’t go the solo route after dipping out of Broken Social Scene. She returned to Metric — the synthpop band who most incorrectly believe came into existence with 2003’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? Metric began back in 1998, releasing two EPs prior to that album’s release. There, she showcased, and continues to showcase, her scroll of talents. Haines moves swiftly from lead vocals to guitar, tambourine, synth, piano, and harmonica, the result of a musical upbringing and enrollment at Canada’s Etobicoke School of the Arts. To this day, Metric hold five studio albums to their name that see Haines as the main songwriter, plus a sixth, Pagans in Vegas, due this upcoming September. –Nina Corcoran

Dominick Fernow

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The Leap: From Prurient to Cold Cave

Dominick Fernow first came to prominence producing harsh noise under the name Prurient, blasting venues and destroying home speakers with feedback and roaring cacophony. But, if you’re of the noise persuasion, be warned: Google “Dominick Fernow dancing” at your own risk. His Prurient performances are often tooth-grindingly stoic, but in the right context, dude has some moves. And that right context turned out to be darkwave outfit Cold Cave, a band steeped in crossover cool. Sure, the middle of the Venn diagram isn’t exactly nil — both punish electronic instruments and deal in dark, grit, and viscera. But noise is a genre so used to (and perhaps self-insistent upon) obscurity that seeing one of its poster children dancing like a maniac — a very talented maniac — in front of festival crowds might’ve come as a shock. But then, Fernow also works with several other projects less prominent than Prurient, including the electronic project Vatican Shadow. Turns out Fernow’s equally adept at screaming through a distorted mic and clapping along to a synthpop rhythm, an unexpected combination. –Adam Kivel

James Osterberg

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The Leap: From The Prime Movers to The Stooges

So, who’s James Osterberg exactly? Fair question. You may know him better by a different name, one he adopted when he decided to form a band called The Stooges and rock the world’s faces off. But before Iggy Pop was a Stooge, he was a blues drummer named James Osterberg keeping time for a band called the Prime Movers. Even back then, James was already going by Iggy (a reference to his previous group, The Iguanas), but he was not dressing the part. The shirtless, bleeding, screaming version of Iggy was still to come. This incarnation wore a button-up shirt, kept his little Iggy safely secured in his pants, and made headlines for sharing the bill with the likes of Jerry Garcia and MC5, as opposed to … more sordid affairs. Tragically, very few recordings of the Prime Movers exist. This is due mainly to the fact that while Motown Records did offer the band a deal, the Prime Movers refused to sign, opting instead to focus on the Chicago brand of blues they had cut their teeth on. Regardless, there can be little questions that Iggy’s stint with the Prime Movers helped him bring the Stooges to life, and that is reason enough to celebrate and remember them. –Zack Ruskin

Morgan Henderson

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The Leap: From The Blood Brothers to Fleet Foxes

Vastly bearded bassist Morgan Henderson has played in a gaggle of Seattle-based bands of note — among them the folky Matador and Jagjaguwar veterans The Cave Singers — but he reached peak visibility upon joining the main lineup of Fleet Foxes after their wildly successful 2008 eponymous debut, providing upright bass and woodwind details to their more ornate sophomore outing, Helplessness Blues, in 2011. Not surprising given his talent and/or beard, but surprising considering his biggest prior endeavor was as a member of the post-hardcore blood-curdling-bloody-murder-screamers The Blood Brothers. Switch back and forth between “Boudoin Dress” and “Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck” enough times, though, and the resermblance is totally there. Somewhere. –Steven Arroyo

Robert A. A. Lowe

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The Leap: From Lichens to Om

For years, Robert A. A. Lowe felt like an unavoidable presence in Chicago. He felt like the coolest guy in the city, the type that I’d encounter at each and every cool new gallery, venue, coffee shop, or record store I’d just learned about. And, sure, his impressive facial hair and remarkable style were noteworthy, but his performances as Lichens made it clear he was more artistic genius than mere local legend. Whether via analog synths or acoustic guitar and gong, a Lichens show delivered incredibly thoughtful, evocative, emotional drone music led by Lowe’s unique vocals, ranging from avian whistles to eerie harmonies. The leap to working with a stoner metal legend might have seemed large, but Lowe had in fact already released an album called Omns (close enough, I guess), and his mystic qualities perfectly flesh out Om’s entrancing spiritual heaviness. Lowe hasn’t released an album under the Lichens moniker in years, but did release an excellent album with Ariel Kalma this year, and continues to amaze with his mesmerizing voice and multi-instrumental depths with Om. –Adam Kivel

Sonny Moore

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The Leap: From From First to Last to Skrillex

For a good chunk of the early 2000s, the NorCal musician, then known simply as Sonny Moore, fronted the screamo outfit From First to Last. Moore — complete with spiky hair, black ensembles, and studded belts — rattled his vocals raw on the band’s 2004 album, Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has a Body Count, and 2006’s Heroine. Like many of the angsty acts during that time, he and FFTL were staples on the annual Vans Warped Tour and at one point or another called punk/emo labels Rise and Epitaph Records home.

Not long after the release of Heroine, however, Moore struck out on his own and somehow found a calling in the vast, bass drop-laden, glow stick-happy world of EDM. In the eight years since, he’s nabbed a whopping six Grammy Awards.

Weirdly enough, though both music scenes seem like worlds apart, there are a few elements of the emo kid turned producer’s career that actually overlap: 1. His jet-black locks 2. The concealment of his eyes (dreary make-up before, glasses now) and 3. The blood-curdling aggression and ferocity of his output. Basically, Moore’s an expert at whipping up the kind of songs that could soundtrack a goddamn mental breakdown. –Michelle Geslani

Dr. Dre

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The Leap: From World Class Wreckin’ Cru to N.W.A.

Sure, World Class Wreckin’ Cru had a song called “Gang Bang You’re Dead”, but Dr. Dre’s transition from member of that flamboyant electro-hop group to sonic mastermind of the decidedly more groundbreaking N.W.A. was still extreme. After two albums, the Cru hit the Hot 100 for the first time with “Turn Off the Lights” in 1988, but by then Dre had already exchanged his blindingly shiny suits and name-appropriate stethoscopes for Raiders snapbacks and Cuban links. Along with the Cru’s Yella, he joined N.W.A. and changed rap forever. God knows Eazy-E (kind of) appreciated the aesthetic change: “All of a sudden Dr. Dre is the ‘G’ thang/ But on his old album covers he was a she thang,” he rapped on his infamous Dre diss track “Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’s”, pointing out the contrast between Dre’s solo hit and his old look. –Michael Madden

Derek Smith

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The Leap: From Scary Kids Scaring Kids to MOD SUN

Derek (he also goes by Dylan) Smith hails from Bloomington, Minnesota, just south of the fertile hip-hop community of Minneapolis-St. Paul, which has produced the likes of Atmosphere and Doomtree. However, Smith’s entrance into the music world wasn’t through Twin Cities rap; he actually played as the drummer in local post-hardcore outfit Four Letter Lie. In 2009, he switched over to drum for Scary Kids Scaring Kids, performing on Warped Tour that summer. On the band’s 2010 farewell tour, Smith also took on some opening duties under his hip-hop alias, MOD SUN. With the end of Scary Kids Scaring Kids, MOD SUN became Smith’s full focus, and apparently Kevin Lyman saw something he liked in Smith, because he’s been a Warped Tour staple ever since. His 2012 Happy as Fu*k EP served up some breezy cuts (see: “Hug Life”, “Be Considerate”). While his self-proclaimed “hippy hop” is a far cry from his post-hardcore days, MOD SUN has also recently shored up his rep as an up-and-coming rapper who deserves a listen: His latest effort, 2015’s Look Up, features guest spots from G-Eazy and fellow drummer Travis Barker, and he’s collaborated with P.O.S and Ab-Soul in the past, as well. –Killian Young

Stefon Alexander

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Photo by Nate Ryan

The Leap: From P.O.S to Marijuana Deathsquads and Building Better Bombs

On paper, P.O.S is best described as a rapper, but that doesn’t mean he can be easily categorized. For the artist born Stefon Alexander, his solo career as P.O.S and his membership in the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree are his claims to fame, but he also comes from punk roots. (Among many self-described meanings, P.O.S can stand for “Pissed Off Stef”.) In fact, when I talked with him as part of coverage of Twin Cities hip-hop label Rhymesayers’ 20th anniversary, Alexander described how he felt like an outsider in the local hip-hop scene rather than someone who was built up from within: “I tried really hard to be part of it. But I was on some weirdo shit. So I ended up just bringing my shit to punk rock and metal shows.”

In that vein, Alexander’s intricate web of relationships with notable rock artists makes total sense since he describes Minneapolis’ recent climate for musicians as a “very, very collaborative city” – his 2012 P.O.S record, We Don’t Even Live Here, featured guest spots from Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The Vernon connection came about when both artists performed as part of pop supergroup Gayngs. And the main architect of Gayngs was Minneapolis producer Ryan Olson, who also counts himself a member of noise rock outfit Marijuana Deathsquads. The raw, frantic style of Marijuana Deathsquads has clear crossover into P.O.S’ hip-hop output, which often features propulsive drum hits, blaring synths, and an us-against-the-world punk attitude. –Killian Young

Eric Bachmann

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The Leap: From Archers of Loaf to Crooked Fingers

Eric Bachmann caught the Pavement bug like the rest of us in the early ’90s, or at least he was drinking the same water as Stephen Malkmus at the time. His first band was a rickety, spirited source of good, old-fashioned college rock, the sort of music that pins itself to the ’90s as soon as you hear the treble on the distortion. Archers of Loaf were guitar rock, and Bachmann sang like a guitar rocker, his voice scuffed up like scraped knees. After that band dissolved, he fired up a solo project he called Crooked Fingers and started bringing on a rotating cast of characters to round out the sound. As opposed to the shouty, surreal, and free-associative Archers, Crooked Fingers told stories. Bachmann positioned himself as something of a wandering poet, painting scenes remembered or imagined and embracing the warmth of his own voice in his melodies. He was done being cool, and he started writing the best songs of his career for it. –Sasha Geffen

Michael Gira

Gira

Photo by Jennifer Church

The Leap: From Swans to Angels of Light

Unless you’re good with voices, you might not pick up that the rasp inside Swans’ early work and the oaken heart of Angels of Light come from the same man. Michael Gira vocalized for one of the most important (and loudest) experimental bands of no-wave New York City, but when he broke up Swans in 1998, his music took a turn for the serene. Angels of Light borrowed members from Akron/Family to dive deep into a feverish Americana. The band was more country than rock ‘n’ roll, and while the reunited Swans may have put out more ambitious albums in the past few years, no setting better showcased Gira’s voice than Angels of Light. –Sasha Geffen

Andrew Bird

andrewbird Shift Change: 15 Surprising Leaps by Musicians

The Leap: From Squirrel Nut Zippers to Andrew Bird

Not all that long ago, the country went through a legitimate phase where reviving swing music sounded like a good idea. At the vanguard of the relative goodness of this idea were the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but mostly because swing only constituted a part of their sound — also working around klezmer, blues, Americana, and more. Among the large, rotating cast of performers in the troupe was none other than whistler extraordinaire Andrew Bird. The “honorary member” contributed violin to three of the Zippers’ albums before spinning off into his own group, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, the sort of middle ground between the group’s take on the swing vogue and his eventual move into charming, hyper-literate indie pop. –Adam Kivel

Bryce Dessner

bryce dessner Shift Change: 15 Surprising Leaps by Musicians

The Leap: From Clogs to The National

The twin Dessner brothers are known for being intimidatingly prolific, interspersing production gigs and side projects with roles in The National. For his part, Bryce has contributed to no fewer than five albums by the improvisatory instrumental group Clogs, formed out of a four-piece that met while studying at the Yale School of Music. Clogs pre-dates The National (“Don’t call it a side project,” warns a blurb on Brassland Records’ website) and has been praised in The New Yorker and The New York Times among others. Dessner’s work with Clogs has taken a backseat to make way for The National’s Trouble Will Find Me Tour, but while the project is on hiatus, it seems to be something that Dessner is more than happy to return to when he has some downtime. –Katherine Flynn

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