Some call him Eyedea. Some call him Micheal. Some even mistakenly call him Oliver. Just don’t call him a battle rapper. Though he crafted a name for himself in his early teens as a quick-witted, sharp-tongued freestyle MC, winning the 1999 Scribble Jam and being spotlighted as the winner at the Blaze Battle on HBO in 2000, the diversity of his lesser-known musical projects have taken him through a gauntlet of tests and trials over the last decade. He has emerged a fuller man, one with conflicting influences and ambitions, with uncertain aspirations and intentions, but he still seems to approach whatever he does with the same intensity and passion for which he became known in his youth.
He is currently working on several albums, the foremost of which is the much-anticipated follow-up to his and Abilities’s last album, E&A. The duo took a long break from touring and playing together before reuniting to craft the new album and tour the country on their Appetite for Distraction tour. Meanwhile, Eyedea has been working on other projects, including the improv-based jazz-rap band Face Candy, and his rock band, Carbon Carousel. He’s also working on the follow up to his 2001 solo album, The Many Faces of Oliver Hart.
On Eyedea & Abilities
I’m sure this story is out there, but how did you first get involved with Rhymesayers and Headshots?
We hung out with Sess, who’s one half of Soul Eclipse, which is part of the Abstract Pack. We kinda just hung out with the St. Paul Headshots guys. I was just a young dude hangin’ out, partyin’, and that’s really what it was all about…I had a little bit of novelty factor ’cause I was 13 and rapped…I was dancing at the time, too, breakdancing in the Battlecats. And back then in the scene, it wasn’t how it is now where there’s four million bands playing. Back then, underground hip-hop in the Twin Cities, really everyone knew each other. Word travels fast when there’s a small network of people. That’s kind of how we got down with the whole situation…Sess died in ’97, the Abstract Pack left Rhymesayers, which was kind of the Minneapolis side of Headshots. Then Headshots was kind of dead…Just Rhymesayers was the only thing around. And they would give us gigs, we would do shows with them… And at some point, we just asked, Should we just be in Rhymesayers? And they were kinda like, “Yeah, probably.”
So you and Abilities were the Atmosphere “band,” right?
That’s when we started traveling. We all would travel together as this trio under Atmosphere. That was when stuff was really small. We were playing shows with Slug in L.A. for 30 people.
I’m still surprised to see groups around here who are just starting to make it playing in L.A., where they’re just starting to tour but they’re not really cranking ‘em in yet.
I don’t envy any of these younger guys now, ’cause it’s so different now. When we were doing it, granted we didn’t have enough of the benefits of the Internet…but what we did have the benefit of was under-saturation in the underground market. There’s a hip-hop show or two somewhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul tonight. When we were doing it, it wasn’t like that. There was really no one doing anything, especially here. Even in the bigger markets, it wasn’t much. [Now], because of the fact that recording has become so easy and cheap, and everyone’s in a band now, everyone raps, everyone does something. Where before, you had to be really dedicated ’cause it was so expensive. You’d go into debt over this shit, lose every relationship you ever had.
There was an article in City Pages that was profiling you in 2001, where the writer said that Slug was afraid of you. Was there any ounce of truth to it?
In all playfulness probably, but in seriousness, he wasn’t afraid of me, or intimidated by what I had to offer. But…a lot of people have always looked at me and been kind of in awe at how young I was…I wrote First Born when I was 16. Most of the Oliver Hart record I wrote before I graduated high school. So I feel like a lot of people who were a bit older kind of were in awe of the fact that I was young, and maybe when they thought and envisioned my future, they were like, “Whoa, what’s this guy gonna be like in 10 years if he’s this good now?”
Do you think that larger-than-life expectation is part of what made you slow down with the hip-hop?
No, not really. What made me slow down was…Well, I was listening to the [Beatles’] White Album, and I was like, “I can do this.” That’s what I thought, I was listening to the music, and I was like, “I can write music that’s like this.” Now, no one can. But I started to understand that you don’t need to be some really super, freaky jazz piano player to write a good song. So then I started getting interested in playing piano and instruments a little more. And then at some point I just came to the realization that if I didn’t start singing or playing guitar until I was 40, I’d be kicking myself in the ass saying, “Why didn’t you do this when you were 25?” So I just started doing it, went in full-fledged.
When you and Abilities did “slow down” or whatever you want to call it, was it a conscious decision, or was it just something that happened?
There are a lot of different levels, different ways to look at it…We were definitely getting to the point where we weren’t completely connecting on a lot of things. One of the big things was Max felt like he needed more time to work on his craft. He didn’t necessarily want to spend his whole time touring. And I felt the opposite way. I felt like we had these records, we should be doing this full on. So we always kind of butted heads on that. And we’ve been friends since we were kids, too, so we fight like brothers sometimes. But that was one of the initial things…I started doing a lot more on my own, started being able to play on my own. And then I just kept going in that direction and he kept working on his scratching…and then by the time Face Candy and Carbon Carousel started coming out, I was getting so rejected from the hip-hop community with all this stuff that I literally was like, “Fuck this. Fuck this whole genre of music. Fuck these guys.” Which was a little childish on my part, and I think I did that out of hurt, but I did, for a while. When people started saying that I turned my back, and that I’d betrayed this culture that I supposedly am part of… it made me go, “Good idea. That’s what I’m gonna do. Fucker.” It was just like, what is your problem, you know? I thought you were open minded… You listen to me, too. It’s not like I’m KRS-One and I’m trying to make a punk rock album, it’s like, Listen to me! Everyone of my friends thought it was obvious that I was gonna start playing in a rock band at some point in my life. The first records I bought were metal records. I liked metal before I even thought rap was good. It was a little childish of me, I guess, but that’s kind of what it was. You want to feel like I abandoned you? Then I’m gonna fuckin’ abandon you.
Sometimes it takes something like that to realize what a conservative mindset you can get in when you’re a purist about something.
Yeah, exactly, and I really got sick of that. But I’m not with that anywhere. I’m kind of an outsider in every genre… It’s always been like, typically, you see these guys with this big punk rock attitude, and their whole life is punk rock. And it’s like, What are you? That’s the most shallow thing I’ve ever heard about. Same thing with hip-hop. Same thing with religion. Same thing with politics. If you are defined by that idea, you are a slave. You have no ability to grow and turn into a flower, really. Just a fuckin’ bitter old bush!
Some people just are that way, they don’t feel the need to expand, they don’t feel that they should, I don’t know.
And that’s the difference between me and the people I hang out with, and some people. A lot of people, their art for some reason is about comfort. It’s about finding their personality and then sticking with it. That’s just complete death. That’s what it is to stop living, is to accept that you are a thing and then just be that. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, it’s fucking stupid to me! And then, when it’s like rap! Like, come on, that’s what you are? For real? Is that what you’re gonna be when you’re 75 years old, dying of pancreatic cancer? You’re gonna be a fucking MC? Get out of here!
So with the Appetite for Distraction tour, how did it differ from touring back in the day?
Our perspectives have changed quite a bit. So it’s easier to play music, it’s easier to enjoy things, easier to kind of want to be part of it all. It was new again, it was nice to make a little money again. It was just a lot better. And we can also present ourselves in a more mature way…Because we used to search for what we sounded like, who we were, what we were live. Now Max has accepted what he is, I’ve accepted what I am, and so we play as humans. Before we used to play as Eyedea and Abilities. Now I feel like we play as people. And we improvise a lot more, which is always fun. We used to have these sets, especially if we were opening up for somebody, we’d have this set of magic tricks we would do to get people into us. Now it’s like, Hey, remember this song? We’re gonna play it.
Was there a moment when you realized you needed to get back together and make an album and start touring again?
Well, we started hanging out a lot more. And then we just fought about it. To be honest, Max called me up one day, and he said, “Me and you are too talented to be broke. Let’s go out on the road.”
Are the shows themselves smaller in general?
It depends on the market…when we went out in December, we pretty much did the same numbers…some markets we did a lot better…the thing is now, we’re not so focused on trying to impress everybody and be some huge band…so even if there’s only 100 people there, it’s just great. Hell yeah, man, we’re about to rock 100 people like a motherfucker.
Kind of more comfortable in your own skin.
Yeah, totally. That’s the thing about playing. We play as people. We can be humans.
And most of the people who are coming to shows already know you.
What’s really interesting actually is there’s so many young people at the shows that when we were touring five years ago, they couldn’t have been there, cuz they’re 15 now…It really encouraged me and made me think wow, it’s really great that this music has lived on. For young kids, it’s always been something they’ve grabbed…So I can just lay, chill, get drunk every night, and watch my fan base grow.
I always figured a part of it around here was that it’s our hometown. We’re proud of it, we’re happy to be from the same city. But it’s still building with young kids in Denver, or…?
Yeah, it just happens. I think that no matter what, when you’re in a successful band, it seems like, especially if you’re doing some kind of pop music, that half the people that like you have to be kids. Every big band, that’s who likes them, is 15-year-olds. ‘Cause they’re the ones with money, I guess, or free time, or whatever the hell it is. They’re not jaded or bitter yet, or they’re not quite purists or quite critics yet. I’m not really sure exactly what it is, but I also know that hip-hop is a youth-oriented music…It’s kind of like the punk rock of its time. Now, it’s the rebellious music.
Is it your intention to regain the momentum with E&A you had back then, playing festivals and stuff?
Once our record comes out, we’ll probably be in full-blown mode again. I’m really excited to play new songs, too. It gets kind of tiring playing “Birth of a Fish.” I’m like, man, this is 10 years old. It wasn’t that good to begin with…Like I said, we’re a lot more human, a lot more comfortable with ourselves, and a lot more willing to be who we are, which as I said before is kind of a culmination of a lot of different ideas and a lot of different personalities, and different places to put our feelings, really. I think the new E&A record will most likely showcase a lot of that. I play guitar on it, on almost every song. Play a lot of keyboarding. It’s also the first E&A record that we produced together. Usually Max on all the other stuff would make almost a complete sketch and then we would arrange it together as I wrote it. But this one, he just throws me a bass line and then I write all the music on top of it…There’s still sampling, but it’s not loop-based music at all.
On Oliver Hart
How’s the new Oliver Hart record coming?
I’ve really put it on hold to get this E&A record done. My order right now is E&A: top priority. Then the day that gets done we’re gonna book a two day session in the studio and do a studio Face Candy record. And then the day that’s done I’ll be back in the studio with Oliver Hart. I do have a lot of the material kind of mapped out, figured out…it’s gonna be a double disc. One is gonna be Oliver Hart, the other one’s gonna be Carbon Carousel.
Yeah, sold together for the price of one.
To compete with free downloading.
Yeah, and also, I just want people to hear Carbon Carousel in an unbiased way and not have to pay for it. You know, cuz that’s when people get pissed off.
I couldn’t believe when I looked back researching that the Oliver Hart record came out in 2001. Doesn’t seem like it was that long ago.
Ha ha, yeah, you’re telling me!
So I’m sure you’ve changed a lot in the last seven years. How has Oliver Hart changed, and how does that reflect your changes?
The new record that I started working on…the whole theme is kind of, there’s a guitar player somewhere in there. So in between the rap tunes, I’m gonna play acoustic guitar and a few of my songs that way. And I think one of the things that has evolved with that idea is now, I’m at a point where—and the only thing I feel comfortable doing this with is Oliver Hart—but with that kind of project, I’m at a point where I feel comfortable kind of blending and melting things together, and kind of bringing the guitar in and bringing singing in a little more. There probably is no other place in my musical boxes I’ve created where I’d be comfortable having a sub-plot of just acoustic guitar and singing. So I think it’s evolved in that way. I might even have some Face Candy stuff on there, who knows…It’s just gonna be kind of collage-y. And actually, the idea is, it’s all at a show, and the show has three performers: Micheal Larsen, Eyedea, and Oliver Hart. So in between all the actually written, composed, produced songs—rap songs, I guess—there’s gonna be these characters, Eyedea, Oliver Hart, and Micheal Larsen, playing guitar and singing. So it’s gonna be pretty fun.
Concept albums are underrated. They’re kind of a dead thing.
Well, I always liked collages. We tried to even do that with Carbon Carousel with Face Candy a little bit. [With] Face Candy, every song is a bit of collage in itself. But I really like albums that do that, that are just kind of a whole experience…I really like sub-plots, where there’s recurring themes or running jokes that kind of pop in and out of the album, because I think it can help the listener feel more like they’re actually going through something specific, as opposed to just running through a mix tape of songs or whatever.
So you’re doing all the recording and engineering yourself again?
When you did that the first time was it kind of a learning thing, or did you already know all that stuff?
That was the first record I ever mixed, first shit I ever recorded, and I ruined a lot of it with reverb. I was really into reverb. But yeah, I mixed the E&A record as well. Oliver Hart, E&A, Carbon Caroousel, Face Candy… I pretty much mixed and engineered all that stuff.
So did you learn that working with Rhymesayers?
No, I learned it making the Oliver Hart record. When we made First Born, we made it with a friend of mine, Chris Blood, at A440…He’s really good at engineering and mixing, but one thing that’s lacking when you’re working with an engineer is your ability to just keep changing and evolving the mix, because you have to go to the studio to do it. So I just got kind of sick of that and was like, I’m gonna try to do something where I do it all myself, so when I want more reverb on the vocals, I can just turn up the reverb instead of having to call someone and book studio time to go turn up the reverb. So I did it that way, and since I always have focused on sound quality, I started using my ear and started really studying mixing, started reading a lot. There’s really cool message boards where you can go and hang out and talk to top-notch engineers. There’s one called GearSluts.com. And it’s the best. There’s people on there that mixed Motown records…They’re all on there, talking to each other. And you go in there and you say, “Hey, how’d you get that snare sound?” or “What’s your favorite way to record direct bass?” or “How do you make a hip-hop mix sound a certain way?” So I really studied it as I was doing it. And then you just get better with time, as well. And also, I kind of got a lot of my chops by just working as an engineer in my own studio…I did Knonam’s two records, did some Abzorbr stuff…I definitely learned a lot by practicing on other people’s music.
Is that at E&A Studios? Is it a full-fledged studio?
I mean, it’s in my mom’s basement, so as full-fledged as that can get. But it actually is…We record a full band, the whole thing. I pretty much spent all the money I made from like 18 to 22 on studio stuff, building a room down there, equipment, microphones.
On Face Candy
So when you tour around with Face Candy, I know you don’t tour internationally or anything.
Well, we’ve done some international shows actually…We played this festival called Sons d’Hiver in Paris. That’s actually when the band started up again…We stopped doing it after the first tour ’cause I was just sick of people throwing shit at me, you know? But then we revived it there, played that jazz festival in Paris, and suddenly we’re like “Whoa, people digged that set.” It’s just not necessarily young rap enthusiasts’ music…There are a lot of people that really get into the performance aspect of it. So anyways, your question was…? I didn’t even let you get anywhere there.
Oh yeah. I’ve really only seen you guys around here for the most part. What’s it like when you go to Iowa or Madison? Do people come knowing what they’re going to see?
Well, the majority of the touring we did, people didn’t know what they were gonna see. It was booked as Eyedea and Friends. So people threw stuff and booed me and wanted to fight me, wanted to have long conversations about things that have to do with shows, and wanted their money back, and you know, all this stuff…now…people would kind of know what it is a little bit. The funny thing is, we don’t even know what it is. You know, it’s different every time. It’s just kind of a beautiful thing in that way. After this next record I think it’s gonna be a lot more established. I’m gonna really actually push for actually getting it into the world a little more than I did with the last one.
Do the same crowds that come to Face Candy and Abzorbr shows come to the Eyedea and Abilities shows?
Pretty much, because most the people that come to Face Candy shows really just want to see E&A. Like, “Well, I’ll deal with this for now…” It’s hard to tell. When we take Face Candy out and play the Artists’ Quarter or more jazz-oriented venues, I think we got a little more mature, older, probably more musician type of crowd.
Is that better?
I think it’s better for Face Candy, for sure. If you’re not into watching the search of it, and watching it all unfold and stuff, it might not be that entertaining. I realize it gets fairly indulgent at times. But that’s the thing, that’s what that band is about. That’s why Face Candy will never be a pop band, because it by nature can’t be.
Seeing the intensity of it on stage , and I don’t know how much of it is actual intensity, or how much is for performance’s sake.
Well, when you’re playing music like that, I think you only have one choice, and you either live it and completely embrace the moment and go for it, or you’re not doing it. There’s no way to fake it, there’s no way to perform it. It’s either the real deal, or not. And I’d like to think when we play, we’ve developed a pretty quick method for getting into the real stuff real early on. When we used to play, sometimes it would take an hour before I said anything good. I was just like, “I—don’t—know—what I’m doing—in this group—what is this music about—who am I…”
I think you actually say that on the album, too.
I say that every show!
Who’s your biggest musical influence?
Right now? That’s all I can really answer for, is right now. Regina Spektor is probably my biggest right now.
In what ways does that influence what you’re making?
She actually made me re-listen to a lot of Dylan. She got me into the idea of being able to write songs, stories, that are so detailed. They’re kind of just about one simple idea. She has this one song about [having] four kids, and she doesn’t have health insurance but she has cancer and they’re trying to get her to do chemotherapy. And she decides with the money she would spend on chemotherapy, she’s better off just getting a limo and just dying looking really good with her children. And it’s that detailed…It made me go back and listen to Highway 61 Revisited. Some of the details of the stories have really gotten me back into writing rap songs…The one right before I found her was Kimmy Dawson…She’s the one I listened to and I realized everything I had made my whole life previous to hearing her was a lie. Like, “Oh, that’s my problem. I’ve never told the truth.” You know what I’ll have to really say about who my biggest influence is, is Jeremy Ylvisaker. He’s the guy who plays guitar in Carbon Carousel and also has his own band, Alpha Consumer. Actually being friends with him has been a bigger influence on my music than anything.
How long have you been friends?
When we started playing together really is when we [started hanging] out. But you should check out Alpha Consumer. That’s some of the best music in the world to me. His guitar playing, his singing—he’s the whole thing. Great writer, he’s funny, he’s sarcastic, he’s really sweet. Just a sweet writer. Sweet is really the only word that I have. He has this song called “Storm’s Coming.” Actually, I covered it at [Kristoff Krane’s record release show]…I just love the way he writes. It’s about death, but it’s so prominently about love because it’s about death. Really when you talk about death, if you’re not just talking about it for the sake of trying to sound dark…You’re talking about love, ’cause you’re talking about an appreciation for something. He does that perfectly. Just trying to figure out why all my favorite songs are about break-ups, and death…It’s like, do I get off on that? And that’s what I realized: no, ’cause I like the things that are about love. ‘Cause I like John Lennon, too.
So many people have their idea of what hip-hop is. What does it mean to you? Is it rigid, or is it more open to interpretation?
I think once you call anything something it becomes rigid. ‘Cause once you admit that you’re doing a specific thing, you’re responsible to people, you are responsible to the purists in a lot of ways. So it becomes rigid once you call it something. But inside of that rigidity, there’s a lot of room. There’s Slug, and there’s Aesop Rock, and there’s Triple 6 Mafia, and there’s Face Candy even, or Subtle, or Beck, or Why? All that stuff is hip-hop to me, and so is KRS-One and Public Enemy. There’s a lot of places it can go. But I think the real danger is when you start to define it for yourself. So I just choose to not think about that. I like to think about what I can do to most effectively help myself grow and think in better, more positive ways about the condition of human beings, really, and how can I express that more effectively and more deeply connect with fellow human beings through the art that I do. And that’s where other things like Face Candy come into play. I can’t do what Face Candy is without a band. I couldn’t do it with anybody except those four guys. If anything ever happened to any one of those guys, I would quit. I would never even try it again. I’m sure I could find something else to do, but…The freedom in that is something that’s really important to me. And it’s important to have Eyedea & Abilities, too, and Oliver Hart, and Carbon Carousel. Because they’re all just vessels for these ideas that are screamin’ up here, you know? And the real main thing that I’m trying to do, if I’m honest, is just feel connected with people. And if worse came to worse and for some reason I couldn’t do music anymore, I’d probably just write books or movies or paint. It’s still kind of all the same thing to me. Or you know what I’ve thought about the past couple days—I’ve thought about this a lot in my life, but—there may be some point in my life where I go to school to be a doctor. I just think about how amazing it must be to save someone’s life. It just has to be in the moment, especially. When someone’s bleeding to death and you’re putting them back together, in that moment it seems like more than anything you don’t exist anymore, and you’re just part of some bigger thing. That bigger thing is the hope…Someone you don’t even know, could be a wife-beating, fuckin’ pedophile junkie. You’re there to save their life, and forget about everything and just save them.
A little different than someone coming up after a show and saying, “This song saved my life!”
Well, you know, that’s really important, too. I think I’ll always make music if I can. But there’s definitely a lot of other ways…That’s why I really like Chris [Kristoff Krane], because he’s a teacher, too…He does things with the teaching profession, but what I’m saying is, he’s a teacher…He just is that.
What would you give as advice to the younger, emerging generation of hip-hoppers?
I guess the best advice I could ever give anyone is have an open mind…Don’t be a purist. Be a pure person, and have an open mind about things. Especially in a lot of ways, your own destiny…Understand that you as a person are a lot more than you think you are. You have a lot more power as a person. And I mean power in a good way. Power to be connected. Power to uplift. Power to make people smile. Power to find out how to smile for yourself. All that is in all of us, and I think what’s important is to learn those things, discover those things. One of the best ways to do that is to attempt to quiet yourself enough to understand human suffering. Understand your pain. Understand your jealousy. Understand that all the things that you despise, you are. You are war. I have a friend who’s not interested in politics, really not interested in everything, and he’s kind of a selfish prick. He’s one of my best friends. We were driving by Macalaster [College] one day, and you know sometimes there’s people up there on the corners protesting, you know, bring home the troops. And he just yells out, “Fuck you, fuckin’…” Just screaming at these people as we drive by. And I’m like, dude, what are you doing? And he’s like “Oh, I’m just trying to see how many people I can get with peace signs to wanna fight me.” ‘Cause that’s the whole thing: you are a human being that is in conflict. You are suffering, and you are part of this whole thing that is human suffering. You are also part of joy, and the escape from suffering, which is pleasure—the things that we find that block us from dealing with suffering. But I think it’s really important to just sit down with yourself sometimes and understand that you’re not angry, you’re experiencing what it is to be anger. And that’s what everyone has, that’s why we kill each other. And how do we ever stop killing each other if we always are escaping from killing each other, [escaping] from the problem. We Band-Aid it, we candy it up. We run from it. We say, “I don’t want war,” so we protest. But are you not still in conflict, is the big question. Maybe you’re not, I don’t know; there are people that aren’t. But when somebody steps on your shoe and you feel threatened and you feel violated, you understand what war is. You understand it at its core. If you’ve ever felt like you wanted to hurt somebody or punch somebody…You understand it all. That’s what people in power are: just human beings. It just so happens they have a bunch of power and the ability and wit to manipulate other people. But so do I. That’s all in me, too, see. So I think it’s really important, if we’re ever going to get past this current way we live as people, we have to look at it. That’s the biggest thing. I have to say, I am sad. I am jealous. I am angry. Not these people are, and that’s wrong. Not even I am, and that’s wrong. ‘Cause when you bring in “that’s wrong,” that’s when you start escaping: [saying] I shouldn’t feel sad, I shouldn’t be angry about this. Sit down with anger, with your suffering, and look at it and understand what it really is…And that’s how you get beyond it.