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'This is our thing': Astralblak define the new Minneapolis sound in a gentrifying city

From z to a: This might look like ZULUZULUU, but it's actually astralblak.

From z to a: This might look like ZULUZULUU, but it's actually astralblak. Graham Gardner

Imagine you started a band with some of your most talented friends and family. You play some shows and release some music. It goes over well.

Let’s say you win a tastemakers’ poll from your local alt-weekly as the area’s best new act. You get booked for more shows, maybe an opening slot on a sold-out California tour with one of the biggest bands in your state. You’re gelling together and you ride that wave of momentum and good vibes into your new studio space to record your proper debut album.

This wouldn’t be the best time to start fresh and change your band name.

But that’s exactly what astralblak did last winter. Under the name ZULUZULUU, they’d released the powerful debut EP What’s the Price in the summer of 2016 and won City Pages’ Picked to Click later that year. After returning home from an opening slot on Atmosphere’s Welcome to California tour, they announced they were retiring the name.

“We were thinking about what our goals are as a band, and we have aspirations to play in South Africa. How is that it going to look when we go there?” says Mychal Fisher, also known as MMYYKK.

The band’s original name referenced the Zulu people, the largest ethnic group living in South Africa, in tribute to their history of anti-colonial militancy. Yet none of the members had ancestral lines they could verifiably track to the Zulu people, and so to claim any ownership over that word, they thought, lacked respect and authenticity.

From a branding and marketing angle, it was a genuine headache, says Greg Johnson, aka Greg Grease, but, he adds, “We hadn’t released a full-length album yet, so it gave us a little wiggle room.” He’s seated next to MMYYKK at an oversized conference table in the band’s northeast Minneapolis studio space, where they recorded the majority of that full-length. Seeds was released digitally on November 16; astralblak will celebrate the release of physical album with a November 24 show at the Varsity.

Thus began a brainstorm. “We made a lot of lists of words we liked, things we wanted to represent us,” says Kenichi Thomas, also known as DJ Just Nine.

A cackle of laughter cuts through the room from Grease’s phone in the middle of the table. “We had some funny-ass names too!” says Elliot Surber, on speakerphone from his home in Oakland, California.

A few of the names that were kicked around: Gumbo (“we didn’t want people to assume we had a country sound,” says MMYYKK), Free Food (“there were a lot of food related names, I’m glad that was taken already,” says Grease), and Ironblak (“that one was dope,” Surber says).

“We had the Astral Beat Theories, which were individual solo EPs we all dropped, and I think Grease was the first to say astralblak,” says MMYYKK. They latched onto the new name because it was perfectly unspecific. It represented the universal (read: astral) bond of the African diaspora (read: blak), while evoking the Afrofuturist aesthetics and philosophy of musicians like Sun-Ra and writers like Octavia Butler.

They chose lowercase letters as a contrast to ZULUZULUU, unintentionally nodding to a subversive Black literary tradition that includes writers like bell hooks, dream hampton, and jon a. powell. MMYYKK explains, “astralblak is something that everyone in the diaspora can relate to, whereas Zulu, it was this one specific tribe.”

This relationship between the specific and the universal in relationship to people of African origin brings to mind the British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy’s concept of the “Black Atlantic ” Gilroy writes of a population that is not solely American, African, Caribbean, or European, but “all of these at once,” with different modes of cultural expression pinging back and forth across the ocean.

“There’s always been that exchange,” says Surber. “Whether that’s Fela going to Los Angeles to record the ’69 Sessions, or Bob Marley working at a Chrysler plant when he was young and taking in all of that influence, or the Yoruba drummer Babatunde Olatunjii, who used to open up for James Brown. We’re just trying to follow along those lines.”

The album title Seeds, also the name of a song on the album, proves to be a metaphor of great durability. It can be understood as a broad exploration into the roots of their heritage, into the ways each member is growing out as their own branch, and of the cyclical nature of life.

“We thought of a seed turning into a fruit tree, the fruit drops off a tree, spreads seeds, and then becomes fruit again,” says Grease. “The seeds are the diaspora of the tree of Africa. Then also not being afraid of shedding something, I think the transformation of the band name perfectly aligned with that concept.”

“I think we were all kind of going through our individual experiences of letting go of certain things,” adds MMYYKK. “So sometimes you inadvertently sow the seeds that grow the tree. I could be eating an apple, throw the core out the window and plant a new tree without ever knowing it.”

“Or like how I used to take weed seeds and walk around the neighborhood tossing them out, hoping they grow,” jokes Grease.

“Did you ever go back and check though?” Just Nine asks.

“Yeah I definitely did, and they didn’t grow,” Grease replies. “But that’s because I didn’t go back and water them!”

The interview has turned into an astralblak extended riff session—which is, to hear them tell it, the initial basis of essentially all their creative output. “It’s very free form,” according to Grease. “There’ll be a saying that’ll make its way to us, and we’ll just keep saying it and saying and saying it to the point it becomes a melody, and then it becomes a song. We beat a lot of jokes to death, man.”

One of the highlights of Seeds is “C and C,” a cautionary tale that sounds fit for a Blaxploitation flick. “It started with [honorary band member] Trelly Mo. It was his grade school teacher, who did a program like D.A.R.E in his school,” Grease explains. “He would say: ‘Marijuana? Nah, you don’t wanna. It messes with your brain. Just like coolers and cocaine.’ We’re like, what in the fuck are ‘coolers’? Is he talking about wine coolers? That’s next to cocaine?”

They kept repeating the phrase on tour, until someone sang it, and then “Grease and Trelly just started writing it off top,” says MMYYKK, who takes lead vocals on the song. “One of them would come up with a bar, and we’d go around the room and ended up writing it on the spot.”

That communal writing process doesn’t come easy—it’s the result of well-earned trust between the members. Grease and Taylor Johnson, also known as Proper-T, are cousins. Grease and Surber have been playing in bands together since their teens. Just Nine has been Grease’s backing DJ for nearly a decade. MMYYKK is the only non-Minneapolis raised member, a transplant from San Bernardino, California, but you could hardly call him a new addition. He’s been a fixture on the Minneapolis music scene for more than five years.

“It’s like a potluck,” says Grease of their creative process, using an extremely Minnesotan analogy. “I’m not mad if someone doesn’t like my casserole, I can eat it as leftovers later.”

Their sessions might be a leaderless buffet, but (to pivot to another analogy) if astralblak were a basketball team, Grease would be point guard. As a drummer and the group’s resident rapper he brings the ball up the court, determines the tempo, and picks his spots to drop a couple bars if need be.

“Greg has court vision, he can see what’s going to happen four moves ahead,” says MMYYKK.

Proper-T, who sings and plays keys, is the fire-starting volume scorer, ever-confident with boundless energy. “Proper-T is fearless in exploration,” says Just Nine.

“Oh definitely, he’s going to shoot the three,” adds MMYYKK

“He might go for 50 points you know what I mean?!” says Grease. “Another thing I love about Proper-T and MMYYKK is that they reach out to the community, whereas I’m more of an insular guy.”

“We know where to find Grease. We don’t know where to find Proper-T,” says Surber, eliciting laughs around the table. “That’s why he’s the only one not here right now, but he’s an amazingly prolific songwriter.”

“Elliot is really good at conceptualizing ideas, especially in the visual realm,” says Grease.

“Elliot also has an ill singing voice on the low, but he don’t like no one to know,” says MMYYKK.

Surber plays guitar, bass, and synths, and occasionally contributes vocals. He’s the one you may not notice at first, but his intangible value doesn’t always show up in the box score.

MMYYKK, who contributes vocals, synths, horns, keys, and vibraphone, and is a talented cinematographer in his own right, is the do-everything, Swiss army knife forward who studies his ass off in the film room.

“MMYYKK is a master of synthesis, he knows exactly how to pull a song in a certain direction,” says Surber.

“I’d add that MMYYKK is super technically skilled,” said Grease.

“Just Nine is our Rubik’s Cube guy, being a DJ, he knows where stuff fits,” says MMYYKK. Just Nine is the steady, lunch pail type of player—making reads, calling out assignments, and setting screens to free up lanes for his teammates. During our call, he makes sure to confirm Surber’s flight departure time the next week.

“Just Nine is invaluable, he just holds it down in so many ways” says Surber.

“He holds it down like a stake on a tent,” adds Greae.

Every member produces on Seeds and, with the exception of Just Nine, every member is a vocalist in some capacity. To participate in the astralblak way of beating an idea to death, you might compare them to the 2004 Detroit Pistons: a group with no clear star player that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

If What’s the Price focused generally on external threats to the continued survival of black people, Seeds turns inward, to themes of balance and perseverance, self-actualization, and keeping your feet on solid ground. On songs like “Sand Houses,” Proper-T and MMYYKK duet, with lush vocals wrapping around and layering upon one another before Grease drops in for a quick, slickly rapped verse. It’s an idealized version of what ZULUZULUU were working toward—life lessons without judgment or dogma, over music that’s historically grounded but doesn’t cash in on cheap nostalgia. Then there are welcome new directions with dance-floor ready numbers like “Jerkin” and “Arms” that draw on the pulsating rhythms of house music.

As astralblak pull inspiration from an increasingly wider range of sounds, that speaks to the expansiveness of black musical expression. While globally minded, they also consciously pay homage to a regional lineage. Pieces of different Midwestern industrial hubs run throughout their music: the Ohio funk of Zapp & Roger, Bootsy Collins, Slave, or Ohio Players; the house music of Frankie Knuckles in Chicago; and the different eras of Detroit, from Curtis Mayfield to Moodymann to Jay Dee.

Obviously, one northern city looms largest over the band: their hometown, and its rich history of funk, soul, and hip hop. The continuity was made real when Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis reached out to the band to play at a concert they curated when the Super Bowl was in Minneapolis last February.

“They knew exactly who we were,” says Grease, in a tone that makes it seem like he’s still processing his encounter with the legendary producers. “I’ve always looked at that history on a pedestal, like ‘That was such an amazing time, it would’ve been so cool to be there.’ But it’s like wait, we are that! We’re the continuation of it.”

“You can get stuck romanticizing the past without realizing that we can take it a step further, because it’s been laid out for us,” adds Just Nine.

By building on the legacy of the Minneapolis Sound, astralblak help preserve a certain kind of civic cultural pride wanes with each additional luxury condo that shoots into the sky. “People come here because there’s something here that makes it special, and you know what that is?” asks Grease. “It’s us. It’s the people that are already here. The artists living the artist life.” His momentum builds with each sentence. “But you can barely do that shit anymore because we’re getting priced out. So it’s also an anti-gentrification thing too, like ‘Nah, this is what Minneapolis is about, this is our thing.’”

astralblak
With: Night Church
Where: Varsity Theater
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24
Tickets:18+; $10; more info here