Tonight, the Beachland Tavern will be set ablaze with the high energy Afrobeat sounds of EMEFE. Despite being on the road, Miles Arntzen, took a moment to chat with us about his music and inspiration. If the electrifying pull of an incredible Afrobeat band wasn’t enough to get you headed to the Beachland tonight, perhaps a little further insight into the philosophy of this group will set the hook and pull you in to what is bound to be the best party in Cleveland tonight.
Danielle: So… you actually kind of created this group right?
Miles: Yes, very much so.
Danielle: What drew you to create this group?
Miles: Let's see it was about 4 years ago. I had just started school at NYU. I had known about Afrobeat music, but it was really in my freshman year at college that I discovered Fela. I had listened to him before, but for some reason there was just this moment and it hit me and I just immediately started diving into it and learning about it. It took over my life in a lot of ways, and then naturally I just started writing my own—my own music in that style. And without thinking about it, I just needed to play with other people… I needed to feel that connection. So it was kind of out of this need to share this music—it was so amazing for me, I wanted to share that experience with other people.
Danielle: I love Afrobeat music. I don't even know where I was introduced to it, but it is just something that always attracted me to it. Do you feel that you can define what it is about the Afrobeat music tradition that drew you to it?
Miles: A few things. First of all, the arc of the music. It's really hard to whittle it down to just a few things— there's so many elements going on—it's kind of like ear candy... especially for musicians. I've always been naturally attracted to music that makes you want to journey emotionally. Fela Kuti manages to take people… kind of grab them by their shoulders and wrestle them a little bit—show them what was going on in their own city, their own country, and in their own continent of Africa. That is kind of the effect it had on me, except in a musical and instrumental kind of way.
There's all these different elements going on—there’s James Brown in it, there's Jazz in it. I'm a drummer; so specifically it’s the drumming... the elements of Afrobeat are so diverse. Its crazy. You're both playing down in the grooves and holding it down at the same time. You’re the one that's truly improvising throughout a whole song. So, with drumming… that's why it's so attractive. But with songwriting, why's it so attractive is… it has a very diverse pallet of musicianship and composition—there are so many different types of music in it. Be it Classical or Bebop or Jazz… it all went into the music. And then just for the enjoyment perspective… it was the first music I heard that used guitars and basses as percussion instruments. It has this rhythmic bend going on for like 15 minutes… guitars and bass playing rhythms and percussion with the drums playing the same rhythm, over and over again… and with the horns playing very simple melodies. Ya know, it just works. It's just so original. I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying that it is ear candy.
Danielle: For sure. I like hearing you describe it because I can’t always define what it is that drives me to it, but from the very first time I heard that style of music I was just like… yes! So I totally understand! How do you say the name of your group?
Danielle: And does that stand for something? The actual name of the group?
Miles: Yeah. It stands for Music Frees All. EMEFE is the phonetic spelling of the letters M-F-A. So it stands for Music Frees All, which is basically my feeling of hearing Afrobeat for the first time—it just freed me of everything. It was very cathartic to listen to—that's how I got the idea of Music Frees All. That's what this music does. And our performances—the live experience—are very centered around drawing the crowd in and putting them on an equal level. All experiencing a mutual moment together… that kind of stuff… very interactive.
Danielle: That was something I found myself as well. Good Future was the last album that you guys did, right?
Danielle: Okay. When I think of Afrobeat music—yes, I listen to it recorded—but I feel like it is so much more an experience. How is it to record that type of music? Do you feel that the full impact of your music can be captured in a recorded form?
Miles: Yeah. The thing about this band is that there's 10 or 11 of us, usually, but we are all very close… we are about the closest group of 11 people I've ever heard of. (Except for maybe Antibalas back in the day.) Really, I brought the band together… but a lot of the guys knew each other already and there were a bunch of connections that were made among us. Then we rehearsed in my basement. One of the goals for me personally as a bandleader is to foster a feeling of warmth, friendship, and community—as opposed to rehearsing or doing work. Work is necessary obviously...but something about EMEFE is there's always been a spirit that we all noticed from the very beginning. There is a spirit that happens when we are all in the same room. Because that exists between us and we are able to draw it out, all we have to do is be there and it happens. So recording is a lot like what we usually do rehearsing in my basement and the energy is still there. Its not like we go to a show and suddenly we come alive. What we are doing at a show a lot of times is just how we are, normally. It’s just a spiritual thing… a spiritual connection that just kept growing over the years. Recording music… it can get hard, just like any recording. But if a band has a spirit… if that band has enough concentrated energy, they can do their thing wherever—in the recording studio, at a gig, anywhere.
Danielle: Definitely. I would imagine—myself, I have never been a musician, I've always been the appreciator of—but I would imagine that when you're on stage there's a lot of energy give-and-take with the audience.
Danielle: Do you find that you prefer performing? Or do you prefer recording? Or do you prefer just jamming out?
Miles: Performing. Definitely performing. I'm personally a performer. A lot of us are… almost all of us. We all love being on stage, that's why we do what we do. I personally just love the feeling of being on stage because I love showing music and playing music for people… having them enjoy it and getting a response out of it. I love sitting in my room and making music and recording music, but there's nothing like getting it out there, sharing it, and getting feedback. There's no other feeling like it. Being on stage is like meditation… when you're on stage you thinking about what you are doing in the moment so much, more then maybe any other time in your life.
Danielle: Do you have a message or a feeling that you hope to convey or to give to the people that are listening to or experiencing your show? Or is it kind of just hoping they have their own experience? I'm a photographer, as well. I come from an art tradition and a lot of times when people ask me what does a picture mean, I don't have an answer. My answer is that I want the viewer to take their own impression from it. Do you have something that you hope to express or hope to convey with your music? What do you hope people will take away from the music you create in your performance?
Miles: That's a good question.
The eventual goal of the band is too create a sense of “We are all here right now in this moment.” We are all forgetting what ever we may have had going on today or whatever we may have going on tomorrow. That's what we get from the shared experience of being there in the moment together. So a lot of music that I write has to do with building energy and release. All of the music I write has a lot to do with instrument release—from the smallest part to the overall spectrum of the song.
I'm not writing music with a political message. I'm not writing music saying our point of view about anything. It's a different kind of style… it's more about trying to give the feeling we have and sharing it with people. It spreads above any sort of direct message… any verbal message. It's more of a body message… more of a spiritual message. We're not like religious or anything, but there's definitely something to be said when everybody gets into a room together… We’re all in this room and I personally love breaking down the divide between the audience and the artist. We may be on stage but we're going to come down to the floor and dance with everybody, or the people that we are going to invite up on stage. We love playing house parties because we're all just there and it's usually a cramped room and we have the instruments but we're all just kind of playing together, ya know?
Danielle: The boundaries… they kind of melt away.
Miles: Yeah, exactly.
Danielle: So you as a musician, yourself… how did you first get into music? I mean this is where you've ended up now, but where did you come from? Where did you start in the world of music? How did you get drawn into it?
Miles: Well, I've been playing the drums since I was 6. My dad was a musician. My dad is a musician. I come from a family of musicians. It was kind of inevitable for me, personally. I would go and see my dad play… and naturally I eventually just realized what it was to play an instrument. To play drums specifically. It was never really a conscious thing. I have always just wanted to be a musician. I remember when I was 7; I used to ask my mom, “Am I going to be famous… like, by the time that I'm 10? Do you think you think 10 is a good age?” And my mom would be like, “Yeah, I think 10 is good.”
It's only now that I'm older and people ask me questions like this that I'm aware that being a musician… it's a choice people make. Most people make a choice… they think, “I'm going to make a go at music… I'm going to do music… I'm going to learn whatever.” But for me it just was… it was never a question. It is my life. It has been my life so far and it probably will be for a while. I don't know about everyone else, but that’s for me personally.
Danielle: You were talking about it a little bit earlier, but you have so many people in your band. It is a really large group of people… but from what you were saying, you guys just meld together. Do you ever run into conflict in trying to bring that many different people together… to be on the same page… the same feel?
Miles: Yeah, sure. I mean… logistically it can be hard to get everybody in the same room. I personally have been lucky. I think that I found good people and I have been able to create something that people want to be involved in. I have people that are genuinely interested in my vision… my way of thinking about music. It is very important, especially before shows, that we connect… that we all connect in certain ways. We have warm up routines; we have games that we play as a group. Before a show—sometimes we forget to do this, but—we all get into a circle and I just imagine that we're all bringing something new to the table from wherever we just were or whatever we have going on in our head and its floating there in the middle of all of us. We have an energy… a ball of energy that we all brought… we all add our little part to... and then we just start harnessing it. And just thinking, “This is here.” We're not going to throw away any persons energy… any persons vibe… we're going to put every single person into this… nobody gets forgotten. That's one thing I try to do because it can definitely be hard. Earlier on in this, we would all just show up to the gig and play. Then as I learned more about what it was to be a bandleader and what it was to have such a big band, I realized we need to make sure that we are all on the same page when we show up somewhere.
Danielle: Is this the first time you guys are going on tour together like this?
Miles: No. We've done a few tours. Just a few more extended tours like this. We've done a bunch of weekend run outs and stuff. We went out to Chicago and back about this time last year. That was our first major tour… and that was kind of a disorganized mess, but I think we're a little better at it. But this is our first time in Cleveland. So I'm excited about that.
Danielle: That's what I was just about to ask. Very cool… well, we are really excited to have you.
Miles: Yeah. I played at Beachland with Antibalas last year… I got to experience the venue then, it was one of my favorites. Also Revolution Brass opened for Antibalas back then and they're opening for EMEFE now… so, I'm just really psyched.