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In Conversation with L’Rain

By Rayna Holmes

Nov 21, 2019

In 2017, Brooklyn-raised multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and tape manipulator Taja Cheek used the moniker L’Rain to release her first eponymous album on Astro Nautico Records. Though this project was dedicated in name and spirit to Cheek’s mother Lorraine, who passed away shortly before its release, the material on the album has gone on the take many forms and now takes shape through live performance as a three-piece band. Alongside her bandmates, Long Island-native Ben Chapoteau-Katz and Buz Donald, who moved to New York from LA five years ago, Cheek constantly breathes new meaning into the compositions.

Individually, the members of L’Rain have been a part of Kitchen programming in various ways over the past year, in performances and L.A.B. programs. Now, on November 21 L’Rain will take the stage as part of a double bill with Roland P. Young at Public Records. The Kitchen’s Rayna Holmes sat down with the band ahead of their show to discuss new music, their band’s history, and the ways explorations of identity unfold within their performances.

The name “L’Rain” for many people has so many different iterations: it’s a reference to your mom, a moniker for Taja for the people who don’t know your name, the name of an album, and also the name of the band. How do you navigate all of those different meanings? Buz and Ben, what does the name mean to you?

Taja Cheek: I feel like that’s kind of evolving. It started out being very tied to my mom, but I didn't really realize the consequence of calling the band L’Rain would mean that people would think that’s my name too, so it became an alternate name for me. It also refers to a very specific part of me physically–my forearm tattoo that reads “L’Rain.” Some people don’t even know that it has anything to do with a person that existed, [and it’s kind of true that it doesn’t] because that wasn’t her name. So it’s kind of like a fictionalized version of my mom and also of me, combined to be a version of us. I am always really insistent that it’s not [entirely] a solo project. I don’t really think it exists that way. The group, I hope, is collaborative in many ways in which it wouldn’t be what it is without the people that are in it, so the project also is a band. It evolves and it kind of has to. They are compositions that I wrote, but then they become something else.

Ben Chapoteau-Katz: It’s true that we’ve become a band and we’re collaborative, but it is all of Taja’s art and all of her music. I’m trying to support what she’s doing. So as far as the naming goes, that’s a part of her vision, to me.

Buz Donald: I mean, it looks like a band, but I think it’s more of a situation. My interpretation is that someone had a vision, someone had an experience, and I’m listening. I’m just there to listen.

How did the band come together?

TC: I’d already made the record and was at a large institution in New York where another musician was rehearsing, and Ben was a part of the band. He asked me if was a bass player, and I said, “how do you even know who I am, I have no idea who you are!” It turned out that we had a friend in common. [Later], I was looking for someone to play saxophone and was talking to our mutual friend, who suggested I talk to Ben. We started playing together, and then Ben recommended Buz.

BCK: Me and Buz had a jam session two years prior, [but] probably hadn’t played since. Then I played a couple rehearsals with Taja and thought, “I know a guy that I feel would get into this.”

TC: Ben lied at first: he said “I really only play sax” because that was what I was looking for. But I was [also] looking for someone who was a synthesist or who knew how to play keyboards. So Ben later said, “yeah I can do that too!” And then he went out and bought a synth and taught himself how to do it.

BCK: I mean, I heard the music and wasn’t just not going to be a part of the project. You only get so many opportunities to do this in your life—to do something that really resonates with you. I was like, “I’ll learn how to do whatever you need me to do.” So yeah, sorry I lied.

BD: Before L’Rain, I was trying to figure out what I was doing in New York. I [was] going to jazz jams trying to figure out how to play jazz, [because] those were the only open forums around here for people trying to get [into the scene]. And then [Ben] recommended me for [this group] and when I got there the music was super hard but super heartfelt. And I was like, “man this is something I could get into.”

Curator Matthew Lyons told me that you guys might be performing new music at Public Records. I’m intrigued because I remember reading an Instagram caption from you, Taja, that read something like, “I’m never making new music, this what [L’Rain is] doing.” That sentiment has really framed how I’ve seen you perform in the past—I see it as you taking something that exists in this permanence and making it something that lives in a new way every single time you perform. How does the fact that now there is new work feed into the project’s root in a specific moment? How does it change or contrast with that?

TC: The question of what is new is something that I’ve been grappling with because a lot of the material that’s on the new record is material that I wrote maybe ten years ago—so it doesn’t necessarily feel new [even though] it is new to a lot of people. It’s such a weird thing to have something that’s been such a part of my life for so long finally just now becoming public, in contrast with things that I wrote in about twenty minutes.

I wouldn’t say the instruments I perform on now I ever studied seriously. So, in that way I feel like everything is new to me all the time. I never really liked singing; I don't really “know” how to play the guitar; I’m playing this weird bass pedal thing. So the only rules end up being questions: “how do I make this as musical as possible?” rather than “am I playing my instrument right?” There’s something [valuable] for me about not having any technique at all.

Whatever we end up doing for The Kitchen will be something that we haven’t done before, but it will be informed by all the experiments we’ve been doing. There will be material that’s not on the last record, for sure, so that will be new.

In terms of your performances, do you play based on how you’re interpreting the project on any given day? Or is your set based more on how the songs sound on the record?

BCK: [When we play,] I think all we need to know is when things change. Everything else is up for interpretation. We barely rehearsed for like a year and a half. It keeps us on our toes: we’re listening to each other because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know what’s going on, but we know the music, [and] when it feels like time to do the next thing, we know what the next thing is. That’s why everything always sound[s] a little bit different; it is the energy.

TC: [Before,] we were in a mode where we were playing the same set every single time we played. But it kind of ebbs and flows. We can play the same set multiple times in a row and it will feel really different depending on where it is, who’s there, how we’re feeling, and even what the weather is like. The music is something we really tap into, because a lot of it is about feeling uncomfortable and feeling very bare. There are parts that are improvisatory, and there are also parts that aren’t intentionally improvisatory that become that way because of stuff that happens that we didn’t anticipate. [All laugh] With the live show, I’m definitely leading it, but we don't really know how it’s going to work out until we’re in the room like, “okay, let’s try it more like this.”

BD: During the performance everyone performing is just as vulnerable as everyone else who is listening or spectating. It’s the exact same set, and maybe it isn’t. It’s not so polished. For me, it’s [about] really being dialed into Taja’s performance. She’s steering a ship so I gotta pay attention to that, but in the same breath she also gives me the liberty to do me: [to listen] and [be] comfortable and honest enough to just do me and know that it’s contributing to [our performance] as a whole.

Do you have any texts, other artists, or non-music influences that contribute to how you approach your process?

BD: I definitely do. I don’t really get a lot of time to practice so I try to listen to a lot of stuff—something like osmosis where I'm taking things that I'm learning and spewing them out [as a way] to digest them. I don’t really consider myself a “drummer” because there’s so much discipline—not that I don’t have [discipline], but I can’t really man that kind of discipline right now. I have a daughter so living life, the things that I experience, and the things that I create in the relationships that I keep [are] really how I approach [playing] more than anything.

TC: That’s crazy. We’ve never talked about that but I feel really similarly. The work happens when you’re not doing the work in [your] head. When you’re just kind of just experiencing life, that’s when all the material is being compiled. And then when you actually go to sit and write something, then it just kind of happens.

What are you listening to?

BD: The latest thing—other than 21 Savage’s newest single, which is incredible—is Polygome [by Piotr Kurek]. It’s all arpeggiated synth for 58 minutes—nothing else happening but polyrhythms and synth.

TC: I’m listening to a lot of the Clark Sisters. It’s really crazy all the different influences they combine and how they think of harmony. And, their arrangements are completely insane. There’s something about gospel that I feel is a real entry point, especially for Black women musicians.

BCK: I feel like I’ve been listening to the same fifteen to twenty records over and over again for the last five years. There’s this Miles Okazaki record called Mirror that I listen to all the time; it has a lot of crazy interlocking rhythms that get the brain juices flowing. Something that’s the exact opposite of that that I listen to all of the time is this Ben Monder album called Amorphae with Andrew Cyrille. Peter Rende, and Paul Motion. I always try to listen to new records when they come out, but I always end up listening to stuff like One Down, One Up, late Coltrane—the same records that I was listening to when I was 18.

I listened to Live at Merriweather Post Pavilion [by Animal Collective] three times in the past few days. I definitely listened to it twice before our last show. It does something for me. It just reminds me of not having expectations for what I’m supposed to do. It’s like a time before I went to music school.

Do you feel like music school hindered how you experience the music world?

BCK: There are a lot of really good things about music school. But...

TC: I’ve never heard anyone say that. [Laughs]

BCK: Well, you meet a lot of people and it’s literally people who have mastered the thing you might be trying to do, teaching you how they did it. [But] it’s tailored to make a bunch of people at a level that will represent a school well, instead of solely working on a person becoming a better artist. When I was there I put myself in a headspace where [I was focused on] need[ing] to do as well as this or that person instead of putting myself in a space where I focused on being as good as I can be. It’s a stupid trap that I fell into. [I’m] trying to get out of that headspace that I was in for years, because it’s really not what [music] is about. So that’s why I listen to Animal Collective. [All laugh]

The Kitchen is a space historically interested in how layers of artists and artistic culture can develop, change, and morph through process, often aiming to highlight the dialogue across practices. In contrast, I often think about this 2002 James Stinson (of Drexciya) / Liz Warner interview on WDET-FM in which, when asked about his influences, Stinson said, “It’s almost like a phobia. I don’t want to pick up other people’s ways of doing things and the music and so forth because I don’t want it to come into my world, into my music, and make it un-pure.” Does this sentiment resonate with any of you? Is it productive for you to acknowledge influences, or are there other ways you think about your work in relation to wider networks?

TC: I do sometimes feel alone in that sense, in a good way and in a bad way. I think there is a lot of short-hand that people use to try to characterize [us]. Sometimes that shorthand is jazz, because of the players that make up the band and because we’re Black. I kind of like that—that what we’re doing can be shorthand for referencing a history of the first Black-American musical form. There is something about jazz more so than other Black musical forms that gets at the root of that or feels most visceral even now, which is crazy considering how many other Black musical forms have emerged since then! So I like that we can get at that core, like a code that can be both referenced and also subverted. Then sometimes people think that we’re a part of this indie rock community, which is also a part of it. But we’re definitely subverting that. [Laughs] There’s also the singer/songwriter bit where it’s like, “There is a Black woman singer, so this is R&B?” Like that anime meme.

BCK: I feel like that one happens the most.

TC: The other mode is the experimental, improvisational world which is very freeing in a lot of ways. I guess that’s kind of where I feel most at home because there [are] less rules and also less of a need for [pretentiousness] because there’s no expectation to play big audiences or to do anything, really, other than what you want to do.

Rubbing up against all of those genres is completely intentional—in order to have conflict happen, you have to be in a larger conversation with those things. But sometimes I feel like I’m not even in conversation with those [labels]; people just place them on me. [My approach is] in part hiding and in part being unapologetic doing what I want to do—really leaning into self-determination—and then also in part agreeing to be in conversation, but only so I can subvert what is expected. When we’re an all-Black band in a white space, or the weirdo RnB band with the other RnB bands, it’s freeing to pervert those symbols that we’re also playing into. I like being able to expand definitions of who we are as individuals by virtue of the music that we’re playing.

When re-composing the album into a multi-person performance, was the combination of “synthetic” and “traditional” instruments a part of that? 

TC: For me, that’s just a continuation of the sounds on the record. I like using archaic, ineffective modes of recording, because I feel like they have a certain kind of urgency or immediacy. I record vocals on iPhone earbuds. People think about electronic music being [just] keyboards and synths, but [for example] guitars—that signal ends up being electronic and digital at the end of the chain. Mostly everything we’re listening to at the end of the day is electronic, actually. [Laughs] It’s just not really thought about that way. All the things we think of as electronic and digital and future [also] have counterparts that are very analog. There’s always a real world component for all of these things that are thought of as completely digital.

Can you speak a little bit about how you curate or manipulate the spaces that you perform in?

TC: It’s become a question of how to set the tone in each of those environments. The first few moments of any performance are the most important, because that’s when the audience and the artists understand what the rules are. A lot of them are usually like I’m not going to talk; I’m the boss; and you have to operate in the ways that I’m telling you to. It’s a very weird, complicated scenario, but it makes it easier to just be upfront about what the expectations are, because every performance is an agreement to be in that space and to either accept certain ways of being in that space or not accept [them]—like how to be supportive, how not to, when to clap, how to clap, how loud to be.

That’s kind of the point also, to make a bar not feel like a bar, or to make a certain kind of environment feel like the exact opposite of whatever [it] is supposed to be. It’s an interesting exercise for me to figure out how to do that without telling people verbally. Sometimes I’ll stare at people while I’m on stage, and it’ll take them a while, [but] they’ll eventually feel my energy, start looking back at me, and stop what they’re doing. I’m still trying to figure out how that works.

Ultimately, because it is so communal and a lot of our set is so quiet, we really are talking to the audience all the time—even though it’s not a verbal thing. [So] it doesn’t really work if people are distracted. People will laugh and be like “who are you to tell me what to do? I paid money, I’m going to do what I want to do in this space.” [But] right now, I am telling you what to do; I will not do anything until you do what I’m telling you to do, and the only thing I’m asking of you is that you’re present so that I can communicate with you. I need [the audience]! [The show] can’t happen without them.

BD: It’s so funny, every time I’m sitting behind the drums and we’re all on stage, I look at the people, and I look at Taja, and I watch her tell people to be quiet with her gestures. For me it brings back the super sacredness of an altar, or the experience of any supernatural. Whether you want to believe it or not, there’s something supernatural about presenting itself as omnipresent. So whoever is spectating [has] to submit, regardless of what you believe, what you’re drinking, who you came with, and what you expected. It’s not malicious submission; it’s holy submission.

TC: And then there’s all the gender and race dynamics. [All laugh]

BCK: That’s the first thing that happens, that informs everything that happens.

In our LAB discussion last winter, Taja, you mentioned “sound as a representation of something that was” as a concept you think about a lot, which for me highlights the necessary difference between something created in the past versus present and future iterations. Considering there will be new—well, new for audiences—material performed at the upcoming show, is there anything in particular you want audiences to take away? Or particular ways you want them to engage?

TC: I’m out of a record cycle right now, but I am still thinking about my music, and approach it, in phases. I’m still in the remnants of the first phase with the first record, [and I am] still hoping for the same things from audiences and the music that we’re making.

I want people to feel uncomfortable and to be confused about how they feel. I want to [create a space where people] can channel their own experiences; [where one person] can be immediately transported to something really great that happened to them, and someone else can be transported to something really traumatic (not that I’m trying to inflict trauma on people) and reflect on it or have a new perspective on it. [Most importantly, I want to allow] those [feelings to happen] simultaneously. That’s also the way we operate as humans. We have all of these conflicting emotions, [but], especially [for] Black people or any sort of marginalized people, you aren’t really able to feel one way and indulge that feeling; [we have] to juggle all of those emotions at once all the time. 

[Often I] feel overwhelmed dealing with a lot of things on a societal level, on a personal level, and on the level of how those levels intersect, and then [I] also have to go to work and put on a face. Black people being complex and feeling complex feelings— that in it of itself, unfortunately, is a rare thing to see in public, [but] we deserve to feel that and to live in that. It’s really easy to package #Blackjoy, [but] that's not the only way of being Black. You can feel that [#Blackjoy sentiment] really intensely and also be going through a lot; you can feel joy and pay attention to the news and feel the weight of that too.

Do you feel like you’re in a different moment now than you were at the beginning of joining this project?

BD: Definitely in a different place. It’s a whole different experience being a musician in New York when you make the commitment to join a band versus doing your freelance thing. There are just moments of realness that I want to impart [and] put into anything I’m [a part of], and with this [project] it’s just always been that. I didn't know how to [accept] that because I didn’t think that it would be as easy as going out with [Ben], kicking it, and then him recommending me for something that would transform me as a person. I thought I had to pay all these dues. [All laugh]

BCK: That’s what they tell you!

BD: But now, it’s been so life-changing to play Taja’s music: to create with her and to contribute to this [project] on such a deep, crazy level. [Even when] we were playing the first set, we learned it for a very long time [and] I [felt], “damn I don’t really want to play this song like this anymore.” But [the process] was still something that was constantly transforming me as a for real human being, you know what I’m saying? So it’s really deep and really dope.

BCK: Just that, all of that. I can’t say it better than that.

It’s fascinating seeing how perceptions change. I feel like you guys do this in a very open way, where you allow people to have different ideas about who you are, what you do, and why you do them. That aspect of connectivity is something that The Kitchen is thinking about a lot too as we near our 50th anniversary. We’ve done all of these things that are associated with our rich history, and we’ve also produced a lot of work just in recent years with so many incredible artists. For us, all of that is in conversation—it’s a part of a continuous focus on process and boundary pushing and things like that—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people who receive [the work] see it that way.

TC: To summarize everything that I was saying about how I consider us to be kind of “anti,” I feel like there is a community of Black artists thinking about sound that are basically in the same boat. We’re still having a lot of conversations about what it means to make Black music and be a Black artist. We see ourselves in a lineage of lots of other Black artists who were making work in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, not only sound artists [but also] artists in many disciplines who were and are thinking about sound in challenging ways: Terry Adkins, Julius Eastman, Ione, and many others. Black artists that are making work that is Black [and] “challenging” but isn’t necessarily explicitly in [the] RnB [or] melodic jazz realm. 

[We still encounter] people who say “oh, you’re doing something weird, Black people don’t do things like that, Black people don’t bleep bloop.” And we have to bring up all of the receipts and show all of the people who were making work in that vein. It’s [both] complete erasure and historically incorrect [to say that]. That’s why archives are so important. Visibility is a trap but it’s also very important. You have to know that people were there doing the work.

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