As the birthplace of hip-hop, be-bop, salsa and more, New York has always held a fascination for broad-minded musicians. Eliyah Reichen, aka Aphrotek, has made more of his obsession than most. The producer and multi-instrumentalist’s interest in the city first burgeoned when he started making music in the Swiss city of Basel as a teenager, where his combination of NYC-friendly jazz chops and electronic beats eventually resulted in debut EP Launch.
The quality of that EP turned out to be the springboard that would launch him into the Big Apple itself. Having managed to sneak it into the approving ears of such luminaries as singer Meshell Ndegeocello, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and bassist Tim Lefebvre (the latter duo also forming the basis of David Bowie’s Blackstar band), Aphrotek found himself heading to New York with drummer Dominik Burkhalter to record what would become his debut album Stories, which drops this Friday (May 25th).
The sessions saw Aphrotek collaborate with a host of artists including Knower’s Genevieve Artadi, hip-hop veteran Mike Ladd and Brooklyn rapper Taron Benson. Benson appears on one of Stories’ stand-out tracks, ‘With A Twist’, where her pacy, peppery flow is perfectly complemented by Aphrotek’s tempo-shifting beat and percolating synths.
It’s an enticing entry point into the album, and you can make that entry exclusively on MusicMap today. Hit play below, then read the accompanying interview with the man whose Stories prove so engrossing…
MusicMap: So tell us, how did a boy from Basel end up collaborating with some of New York’s most respected musicians?
Aphrotek: So, my musical focus has been very NYC oriented ever since I made the decision to be a musician as a teen. For different reasons I never ended up moving to NYC, mostly because Italy is so far away from NYC and I love to go to Italy any time I can.
Jokes aside, I still wanted to give my ideas and musical desires a chance to be realised, so I started to get in touch with musicians and artists from NYC that I met before or didn’t, and used my first EP “Launch”, from 2014, as an argument to try to bring some of the musicians the I respect most to get involved in this project. When Donny McCaslin and Tim Lefebvre agreed to collaborate, I could feel it’s gonna be bigger than me.
The album is a deep listen, both musically and thematically. Does it sound similar to how you first envisaged it, and what do you hope listeners take away from it?
It does sound similar and it doesn’t. I think it evolved and became something of its own during the process. Maybe it’s a bit like a writer who observes the main character in his book evolve and grow throughout the story that he’s writing, without really controlling who this character really is. I just went with the flow and let new ideas come in addition to the original ideas and, of course, throughout a project like this you start evolving as well. I learnt a lot about me, the music, the technique, the people I worked with.
I hope that people will sit down to listen to the album, open their hearts to the music and let it tell them stories, the story from featured artists and also the musical, non verbal story embedded in the notes, harmonies and rhythms. And eventually, I hope that the listeners walk away with some positive energy and inspiration for their own projects and dreams.
We’re loving the track with Taron Benson. How did that collaboration come about? And can you tell us a bit about how the track developed in the studio?
Yeah, Taron is amazing! So Marc Urseli, a very well known sound engineer and producer in the NYC recording studio scene worked with Dom, the drummer and co-producer of the album in the past and when he heard about the project he introduced us to Taron. She was very enthusiastic about the collaboration and we discussed cutting a demo of this track, I had a form and this groove was basically already there and we thought it would be nice to go with that old school vibe in the rhymes so she wrote the lyrics, I re-worked the groove a bit to make everything a bit crispier. Then I layered some keyboards to add depth and played that synth solo on top of it and that was it.
Taron was so good there wasn’t much to do with her vocals. Just make sure everything sits nicely around her. I really like how this track came out as well. It’s so punchy.
The track with Meshell Ndegeocello is also a stunner, and quite a departure for her stylistically. What was it like working with such a legendary singer, were you both keen to explore new territory together?
I grew up listening to her music, started to play bass because of her album The World Has Made Me The Man Of My Dreams. I loved everything she put out, so hearing back from her that she likes the music and wants to collaborate was amazing. I had lots of respect before, but once I was in the process I tried to forget about all of that and focus on making the track as good as possible, like I did with all of the tracks on the album. And I tried to get to some of that magic that I’m looking for in music.
So we talked about the track for a while and then Meshell went to record her vocals with her trusted engineer, Jack DeBoe. She was absolutely keen to new concepts and brought this idea of “chopped” “treated” vocals in the bridge, that add so much weight to the track, in my opinion. After the vocals were in the can, Donny’s magic came, and I then added some layers of sounds, the grand piano, and played with the space, the dimensions, by playing with the reverbs and delays.
The recording sessions must have all been incredible, but is there any one moment from the making of Stories that really stands out?
Seeing all these great musicians at work was amazing, and the energy that happens when people meet and create together is something absolutely unique and enriching. I could get addicted to these moments when you’re in the zone just flowing in the recording session and trying out ideas as they come, like we had with Mikal Lee aka Hired Gun or Phase One [see below] for example.
Maybe one of my favourite moments in the studio was with Donny McCaslin, seeing him doing these incredible one-take performances over these tunes. It was mind blowing. And his whole vibe as a person, so positive, open and creative. He’s a true gift for music.
Interview by Kier Wiater Carnihan