Keith KounaIn October of 2017, Keith Kouna launched Bonsoir Shérif, a scathing affair that sees the songwriter being more corrosive than ever before, echoing the vibe of his recent stint with Les Goules (and their album Coma, released the previous year). His latest proudly stands out as a witness to troubled times, the story of a man experiencing the apparent loss of control of his society and community. “I mostly believe I did the album I needed to do at the moment I did it,” says Kouna.

Written mostly in the period between the French and American presidential elections in 2016, Kouna admitted, in Montréal daily Le Devoir, to being intoxicated by social media and the commentaries disseminated in various news sources. “It pisses me off, but I still tune in from time to time, because I need to remind myself that these people really exist.”

How does he feel now, a few months after the album’s release? “I’ve relaxed about it,” says Kouna. “I like to take a break from their existence.” Which isn’t to say he’s no longer lucid about the state of affairs. “I think we’ve just embarked on a long, bad dream,” he says. “I feel there’s a gaping social fracture, a kind of soft and hypocritical totalitarianism. And general indifference. These are complex and difficult times to gauge with any kind of precision, but let’s just say impressions and instinct are quite somber…”

Flirting with an immoderate temper, Kouna approached this social climate with an all-or-nothing approach. “I can get hyper-absorbed by current affairs, by songwriting – just as I also have long periods of fluttering, and complete disconnect,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a survival instinct, but it surely is a counterweight to my lack of moderation.”

This is reflected in Kouna’s many incarnations: songwriter, Goules frontman, or re-visiting Schubert in 2013’s Le voyage d’hiver. Ambition clearly isn’t an issue for him, and he masterfully manages his various, overlapping creative threads. “I know quite quickly what my direction will be with this or that project and, in the case of Bonsoir Shérif, although it’s not a personal or emotional album, it remains a personal position statement. Les Goules is more abstract, you could almost say more narrative. Keith could not have sung “Coat de cuir.” Just as “Poupée” would’ve sounded weird played by Les Goules. After that, there’s the state of mind… But there’s never anything definitive. This time around, with the release by Les Goules the previous year, I felt like sticking to this direction. That’s why there are similarities.”

Yet, he still feels a need to add some nuance. “I’m really not the type of guy who’s permanently in a writing phase,” says Kouna. “I can be quite lazy, at times. I still surprise myself! I work in periods of rushes, under pressure, and somewhat last-minute. Right now, I haven’t written anything in awhile, and I don’t feel too bad about it… But when I’m in the middle of it, I become just as excessive and obsessed – so much so that I can barely sleep. Plus, one thing for sure: I don’t like repeating myself.”

That’s why he challenges himself: to stay alert, and as far away from any kind of comfort zone afforded by success. “If I get into a project, whatever it may be, it’s because I feel like it,” he says. “And part of it is something like a desire for an anti-career. Taking side roads, pauses – it keeps the whole journey dynamic. There’s something anti-corporate in there that suits me. I think it’s beneficial for me to explore, and force myself to take different approaches: Composing with the Goules or Schubert in mind, or whatever the next project will be.”

And although he’ll hit the road in a few days in Shérif mode – and spend better part of 2018 there – he’s already started working on the next project. He’s discreet about it, since it’s all still embryonic, but what’s becoming clear is that it will share the same lofty ambitions as Voyage d’hiver… “Right now, I’m having ideas that are not unlike that ambitious, obnoxious project,” Kouna says. “It’s exciting to embark on such major projects. The Voyage experience was such an enriching journey. I’d embark on a project like that in a heartbeat.”

The most ambitious journeys: that’s all we can wish for him – and ourselves, for music yet to come.

Zen BambooZen Bamboo is a quartet from Saint-Lambert, on Montréal’s South Shore, that still rehearses in someone’s basement. Léo Leblanc, Simon Larose, Charles-Antoine Olivier and Xavier Touikan are tracing their own path as the proverbial and cliché “band from the ‘burbs” who dreams big; they feed the myth, and build their identities around it.

Their core audience, mainly young adults, frenetically consumes everything the band releases. “Some people are convinced we’re uber-cool, and that’s what surprises us the most,” says Simon Larose, Zen Bamboo’s lyricist and singer. Despite the fact that critics already foresee a future where big-name comparisons abound, the band members refuse any kind of pigeonholing, something they find “boring and unimaginative.”

After recording shoestring-budget demos last summer, the boys broke their piggy banks and cut 16 tracks with the help of producer Thomas Augustin (of Malajube fame), which they’ve since been releasing slowly. The four-song EP Volume 1: Juvénile, released last July, was followed last November, by the six-song Volume 2: plus mature, plus assumé – this time on the Simone Records imprint. “All the songs are from that one recording session,” says Larose. “So when we use the term ‘mature,’ it has more to do with the song selection than any kind of evolution between the two EPs.”

Maturity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you first meet the boys. All four are quite dissipated, and so deep in derision that you might think they’re making fun of you. To wit, they’ve all been saying for years that they’re all 19 years old, a claim which a quick Facebook search completely invalidates.

“If we’re going to argue about our maturity, I’d offer the fact that we drink less and three of us now attend university full-time, while Léo just got his Cégep diploma. Wouldn’t you call that wisdom?” asks Larose. “Plus, Volume 2 has a lot more reverb,” adds Charles-Antoine Olivier. “Normally, the more the reverb, the more the mature.” That’s not true of Mario Pelchat, we retort. They consult, not all entirely aware of who we’re talking about. (Mario Pelchat is a Québec crooner whose audience is mainly middle-aged women).

While a conversation with Zen Bamboo is more often than not chaotic, and frequently interrupted by buffoonery, their stage presence is seriously killer. The four members are clearly motivated by a desire to truly perform, so far convincing everyone that they have a bright future – to which they respond with laughter, convinced that their material is excellent, but that a wide audience is still not yet on the eve of materializing. “It’s that 10,000-hour thing,” says Simon. “If you do any task for 10,000 hours, you become expert at it. So, obviously, we’re getting better at it. If we kick ass onstage, it’s because we rehearse a lot.”

To them, “the switch is off” when they’re onstage. According to Simon, it’s the right place to think outside the box. If, for example, it’s not recommended to jump around and flail one’s arms on the bus, Zen Bamboo believes that it should be the opposite onstage. “I’m not about to start following any kind of etiquette onstage,” says Simon. “I’m not taking drugs, I’m not bungee-jumping. The stage is where I totally let go.” Their magic stems from such spontaneity. “The only time we tried to plan things was in Granby [at the Festival International de la chanson, in 2015]. We wore costumes, CAO [Charles-Antoine] wore a safari hat, and it was our worst show ever.”

Simon’s singing voice, at times nonchalant, at others high-pitched, but always unique, is at the centre of the band’s very precise arrangements – which reflect the amount of time spent rehearsing them. “I write the music and lyrics as a dialogue,” he says. “They’re mutually influential. Often, I’ll just spew words into my phone’s notepad, and later I’ll sit down and make sense of it all. It always takes a while before anything good comes out of it. I rarely like what I do. When I’m mulling over a song, I just get anxious.”

The band feels a need to come at topics from off the beaten path. “On ‘Si c’est correct,’ I like the fact that we talk about fucking from the angle of not doing it, in the end,” says Simon. “I like that fact that we’ve captured a sentiment that we rarely hear about. The one-night stand that doesn’t happen, people don’t talk about that.”

Releasing an EP every now and then is a curious approach, although it’s not uncommon to feel like releasing an album has no true meaning anymore. “We’re constantly recording,” Simon says. “I hate the classic Québécois circuit. I write two songs a week, I have 95 in the bank, making me neurotic. I have to get it out.” Zen Bamboo’s next goal is to play at every possible festival during the summer of 2018. “The festival of canned pork, of potatoes, of beets. We’re gonna play them all,” says Simon. “And we’re going to release music. A lot of music. Too much music. Very often.”

He sounds like a proud dad boasting about his young son, but there’s a poignant story behind a sampled line that appears on Cadence Weapon’s brand new, self-titled album. “If I don’t get you, my son will,” Weapon’s father, Teddy Pemberton, says on “Own This,” the first song on the Edmonton-born, now Toronto-based rapper’s record.

The elder Pemberton was a DJ at college radio station CJSR-FM 88.5 in Edmonton, where he hosted a popular show called The Black Experience in Sound. He’s widely credited with introducing hip-hop to the western city. “When I first heard that line I couldn’t believe it,” Cadence, born Rollie Pemberton, says. “My mom had a bunch of tapes of my dad on the radio and I was going through them, and I was like, ‘Mom, why didn’t you tell me about this?’”

Cadence explained that the sentiment he sampled speaks to a recurring theme in his dad’s life. “He had opportunities to be on more mainstream stations,” says Weapon, “but he wasn’t willing to make any compromises – whether it was the music he wanted to play, or how he talked on the air. I get the sense he didn’t achieve his promise in his lifetime, and I feel I’m doing that for him.

The rapper says his dad’s refusal to compromise and “go against who you really are” made a huge impact on him. And he’s been keeping that legacy alive ever since he dropped his debut album, Breaking Kayfabe, in 2006. The album was critically acclaimed and earned Weapon props for his smart, witty rhymes and experimental sounds.

Those elements are in full effect on Cadence Weapon, his first album since 2012’s Hope in Dirt City. You’ll hear phenomenal flows and colossal beats, from left field, on every one of the album’s 12 tracks. Explaining his six-year absence from the recording studio, Weapon says he’s never felt the urgency to constantly release music. Besides, he spent time writing a book of poetry (Magnetic Days), hosting weekly and monthly poetry events, and estimates that he deejayed 15 times a month in Montréal (where he lived in between his times in Edmonton and in Toronto).

Oh, and he also wrote about 100 songs in the space of four years. “It’s, like, a very cathartic thing for me,” he says, describing the process. “I just have to record a certain number of songs each month to make myself happy. I like to get the ideas out and I just follow the music.”

  “Basically, with Cadence Weapon, expect the unexpected.”

Over the length of the album, Edmonton’s former poet laureate waxes poetic on rampant consumerism, living as a black man in Canada, Toronto’s crazy real estate market, and micro-aggressions. Heavy topics, to be sure, but Weapon gets that folks don’t want to be beat down with rhetoric and polemic. He says he’s found a way to make the medicine go down.

“When you want to write about a social issue, the best way to approach it is not with blunt force, it’s with subtlety and humour,” he says. “And that’s what makes these songs work.”

Standing apart from his time
The potpourri of sounds on Cadence Weapon differs starkly from current commercial hip-hop. “It definitely feels like people found a sound that’s working and it became the sound of rap all over the world,” Weapon says. “But that’s never been a concern for me. I just like making the music I make, and I feel my approach benefits me at a time like today, because it really lets me stand out. It’s tempting to just rap about a bunch of cool stuff, but I feel that’s not what people come to a Cadence Weapon album for. Few people rap about these subjects or think about them the way that I do. That’s my strength, I focus on that, and that’s what I’ve done with this album.”

Songs like “The Afterparty.” “I wanted to do an extended metaphor,” says Weapon, “and I wanted to do something that was a recurring theme in my music: the ideas of after-parties. I jammed out on a few different themes, and figured out the flows. Once I started getting some stuff that actually sounded good, I’d replace the random sounds with words, and I’d start formulating them into rhymes and ideas.”

He says the song is about existentialism, and the after-life, and says it refers to “the big after-party in the sky. It’s me taking inventory of all the good and bad things I’ve done, and thinking about how important it’s been for me to be on the guest list for different events. But the question I ask is, ‘What about that final list? Will I be on St. Peter’s list?’”

Cadence says the jam is meant to be playful, “but it’s also serious, because I’m wondering whether I’m gonna get in or not, and whether all these concepts we have on earth even matter. I look at the All Lives Matter and the white supremacist movements, and it seems like everyone feels the world’s gonna end.”

He agrees when we suggest that Cadence Weapon is an album for our times: “Definitely. I wanted to make something that’s contemporary, but musically forward-looking. I didn’t want something that sounded stagnant, or tied to a specific trend. Basically, with Cadence Weapon, expect the unexpected.”

Which was the unwritten mantra of his dad’s radio show, The Black Experience in Sound. The name of the show captures the essence of what Cadence does, and he agrees it would make a great title for his next album.

“His show was similar to the record,” says Weapon. “You might hear some old-school funk, some Nas, the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie theme, some Jimi Hendrix. He was such a rule-breaker.”

Like father, like son.