By Juliana Russell
Unbuttoned, based in Toronto, consists of Casey MQ, Kamilah Apong, Miles Gibbons, and Alexei Orechin. Black on the Canvas had the opportunity to talk with the wonderfully eloquent, intelligent, and insightful members Kamilah and Casey, through Google Hangout, from California to Toronto, where we discussed identity, expression, and the importance of overcoming challenges.
What is your band about? How did you get started?
Kamilah: The four of us have all known each other… Like Casey and I knew each other for a very long time. Casey knew Miles, Miles knew Alexei… And then, it just kind of formed into this, what we are. We’ve been playing together now for a few years, the four of us. Yeah, that’s about it. It’s not an exciting, sexy story. Musically, we all clicked, although at different times. Our sound has evolved quite a bit, and it kind of attracted people in at different stages. Alexei didn’t join right away, for instance. But eventually we started f**king with the music, and not that we weren’t before, but we started challenging each other in those ways, and now where we’re at, we’re all creating together. So it wasn’t like an instantaneous *pop!* that happened.
Casey: We’ve been doing it for, well not forever, but the band has been a formation since 2010, and Kami and I have grown up together—musical experiences, life experiences, and so both of us have been involved musically… Of course, different journeys, different paths, and different ways of getting there. Musically we’re at a very interesting time, an exploration period. We all love music, and sound, and there are not so many barriers. We’ve let ourselves embrace sound, and of course there’s always going to be societal context, and different sort of things become appropriated. But sound as a concept, I think we can all agree that we all love to just hear sounds, make sounds, make notes, make patterns, make rhythms, see what manifests.
Kamilah: And now that we’ve been together as a group—this formation—we all have this same goal of challenging each other musically and sonically. Now, like with this Suite, that was a result of the four of us in that particular formation. It’s been pretty cool to see how our relationship affects the music we’re creating—the more we get closer, the more that we get to know each other.
Casey: It’s a true sentiment to say that it’s an expression of frustration, and anger, and relief. I think there’s so many things that are being expressed that needed to be expressed, in order to get to where we are today.
Are you both in school? Do you study music?
Kamilah: …Nah. (laughs)
Casey:I mean, Miles and Alexei both went to school for their respective instruments. And Kami and I both did the Royal Conservatory of Music, so we did like classical training growing up. Most of it has been, for me at least, an exploration of trial and error, and learning, and trying things on my own time. And then of course, learning music theory and stuff has been great, but… It’s not the most important thing.
Kamilah: None of us are in school for music, but Alexei and Miles did study music in school. None of us are in school anymore.
Casey: I’m currently in a program, where I get the opportunity to basically create more things, and there are a couple of classes that come along with it, like orchestration, and that kind of thing. So it’s actually kinda nice to have that element a little bit back in my life, but it’s not heavy, or overbearing.
What are your main influences? Like how do you find inspiration?
Kamilah: Hmm… Life? Anything around me? The weather… My ancestors… My history… Sex, sexuality, anxiety… My friends… Casey, Miles, Alexei, my dog… Like… Anything and everything.
Casey: Inspiration to us and influence is a constant thing. I think it’s like… Our conversation right now is an influence in what I’ll do next. Not because I want it to be, not because I’m trying to… Just because this is life, and this is how we exist. That’s sort of like, that constant energy that’s coming at you is affecting your art, your everyday being.
Kamilah: The identities that you hold, the identities that are put on you.
Casey: Totally. The identities that are put on you is such a huge thing. When someone starts to identify you as something, you sort of feel like you’re supposed to be that, even though maybe you don’t want to be, or you don’t think you’re supposed to be. I think I’m actually kind of constantly trying to battle that, be like “Well, you can’t say I’m just this one thing, I don’t have to be.”
So, about “Suite in D Major”… How is it structured? Did you write each section separately, was any of it improvised? Like how much method was there to the madness? (laughs)
Kamilah: It was all madness at first, and then there was method. It was all improvised. It was all from an improv session. We were in Casey’s basement, we had jammed it, it was all improv, but then we spent quite a bit of time going through it with a fine-tooth comb in Casey’s studio, being like “Okay, we wanna shorten this section.”, “We wanna add strings here.”, but the original birth of it was all improvised.
Casey: I can remember it to a T actually, the day, and the feeling, and it was the summer in August… Our previous band member wasn’t able to attend, and we decided to make some music, and just jam. And that’s sort of how it already started to happen, just the four of us. So that happened, and we were really all very excited about it. And that lead to moving in that direction of sound. And being like, listen, we’ve created something together that is so unified, that could only be made by the four people, together right now. You’ll never get that. And that is what I think was so beautiful about the piece, is that the sort of unity. It sounds so true, and it sounds so honest, and it sounds so fluid.
There were some lyrics in there, right? I forget what they were exactly.
Casey: (laughs) Some lyrics stayed that we had wrote in the session, they were meant to be made. Some were rewritten in the process of songwriting.
How about “Hysteria”? Could you talk about that?
Casey: Yeah. That was a piece that was written by me, about just a day before we released our previous LP called “Planes”. Actually no sorry, that’s wrong. I had an incident that happened in my life, the day before the “Planes” release, that I had since reflected on, on my own. And I had a sort of therapeutic session about it for myself, and got some things out that needed to get out. That piece was just one of those moments where you’re just sitting at the piano, and start playing, and let your voice follow what’s gonna happen. I had a lot to say, I think, a lot I wanted to say.
So there’s never really any like, real structure. It’s just kind of… Transcendent, what feels right in the moment.
Casey: I find those are the best moments. The moments where, like you just said, this hand comes and tells you what to create at the right time. And of course, I mean there should be frustrating moments as well. But that experience was more of active… Just, letting it out.
Yeah, I totally understand that—I’m a composer as well! 🙂 All right, were there any particularly difficult aspects about producing either of those songs, whether creative or technical? Or I guess anytime, what do you do when there are any difficulties or challenges that you have to overcome?
Casey: Kami, what about the studio process for you, and Revolutions [the studio they produced the songs in], as a sort of production, technical, spiritual…
Kamilah: Mhm… Well, I mean, we’re all very different people. So, sonically, there are definitely times where we all kind of challenge each other on how something should be sculpted, and produced, or recorded, etc. But those times are some of the best times, to kind of work out new ideas, new things we can all agree on and feel good about. The recording process was difficult for me, doing the vocals in “Suite in D Major”. At first, it just felt very intimidating, especially to lead, because I haven’t lead much, vocally, on our past releases. It was kind of nerve-wracking, at first. But that’s also why it’s important to be in a group that you feel supported in, because your band mates will, you know, there’s that comradery, supporting one another. And even though I’ve been singing for quite some time… I even remember Alexei, when it was his solo, he was nervous, asking us like “Which one should we go with??” And I think those kinds of things will always show up. As much as you can be doing music, and recording, for like decades, you’ll still have times… Being an artist, half of it is about your insecurity. Like that’s where your work comes from. (laughs) So I wasn’t surprised that I felt that way, even though I’ve been singing for so long. So much about creating art is linked into insecurities and vulnerabilities. So I was super vulnerable. And I don’t like being vulnerable, even though I’m… Very vulnerable. It was tough, but it was really affirming after it was done. It was a good challenge. It’s always good to have those moments when you overcome them, so you remember why you’re doing it, and how good it feels when you affirm yourself about what you’re doing.
Casey: We had the opportunity to record the album, well, not opportunity, we made the decision to record the album at a larger facility in Toronto, called Revolutions Studio. And that was a big thing for us, because everything before then had been done in a smaller studio—it’s a great studio, and we still use that studio to do the other half of the production, but we did “Hysteria” and a lot of the Suite in Revolutions. And even though the song was composed at one time, by hearing the piece in these sort of, movements, we decided to separate them, and in the recording process, we recorded them each separately, so we found the perfect moments. You hear the first opening movement, and that is improvisation at its truest form. We didn’t know when we were gonna start, when it was gonna end, but we knew that this was something we were really focused on. That process was interesting, because we had done the… Sorry, now I’m just kinda reflecting on the first movement. We had done it so many times, and every single time it was different, and it will always be. There are things that happen that lead us to the next point, but in its essence, it’s sort of just this clay that’s constantly moving, that never shapes into a final form.
Yeah, I liked the sort of unnerving, playing inside the piano, the creepy atmosphere…
Casey: That’s cool that you caught that!
(laughs) All right, I was gonna ask about compositional process, but you already touched on that. Well, how about future plans? What direction do you see your band heading in? Or is it all just kinda… Wherever it goes is where it’ll go? (laughs)
Kamilah: It is and it isn’t. Unbuttoned never stops… Especially this past year and a half, since the Suite came out, we’ve been writing and jamming nonstop. So we’re already like halfway through our next album for 2016. It was kinda funny, when the Suite came out, we were like, “Great. We’re onto the next album.” (laughs) Like we’ve been writing the next album already. So I guess that’s one aspect. Musically, things go wherever they go. There’s no, like, “Oh, we need to keep it in this vein.” Sonically, it’s whatever the f**k happens is whatever the f**k happens. And career-wise, it’s… Just keep creating. Keep creating, keep playing, all the time. And always stay hungry, and I think that’s been a big sense of our direction, the hunger. To not want to stop. And all of us have been pretty into that drive. And it’s really clicked in this formation especially, we’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing.
Casey: And it’s impossible to stop. That’s what it really, to me, comes down to. Like to me, it’s like how can you stop creating music? That will never happen. I mean, maybe it does happen, I don’t know. I don’t know my life, I don’t know my story. But what I feel in today’s day, there’s no way we can give up, because that would mean…
Kamilah: Giving up expressing.
Casey: Yeah. And well, how it reaches, and how far it reaches… It would be great to get a wider audience, and connect, be able to travel, that would be great plans for us, to perform all over the world, and stuff like that, but it won’t deter us from creation. We will create either way.
Cool, awesome… All right, well that’s all I got. Do you have any parting comments, any final words?
Casey: I think it’s important to give a shout-out to Alexei for the string arrangement on the Suite, he made this beautiful string arrangement, the day before we had to go record it. I think it’s a wonderful addition to the piece.
Kamilah: Yeah, shouts to Miles and Alexei. They are fantastic, I wish they could have been in the interview, but since they can’t, we’ll say… We’re very fortunate to be playing with a fantastic drummer and a fantastic guitarist, and both fantastic musicians. And… Round 4 for life! That’s our label.
Oh, I meant to ask, what does your band name mean? Like how did you come up with “Unbuttoned?”
Kamilah: (laughs) That name was created before we even existed. Casey was looking for a band that I wasn’t yet in. And so, I based if off of his personality of being informal. And we tried to change the name, like “Oh, you should make it cooler.” But then it just didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel honest. And so it stayed as Unbuttoned, and now it’s Unbuttoned. That’s just… What it is.
Casey: And I think that’s the coolest thing with names. Like you become the name that you… It’s come back to that identity thing, like that is what this is. Like, this is Unbuttoned.
Kamilah: There’s no need to change it, because of external whatever. So… Based off of that, it’s just stuck! And now…
Now it can never be changed! (laughs) All right, cool! Thanks!!
Photo by Nathan Palacios