An Interview with Kiefer

Will Schube chats with Kiefer about working with Stones Throw, playing music at UCLA, and the differences between LA's jazz and beat scenes.
By    June 22, 2018

Photo by Eric Coleman.

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Kiefer Shackelford is stuck between two worlds. As he tells me over the phone, his jazz collaborators think he’s a beat maker and his rap heads think he’s a jazz musician. But the young pianist is more than happy to represent two styles of LA’s diverse independent scene. He’d be just as comfortable helming a Low End beat set as he would sitting in amongst the West Coast Get Down. He plays with Mndsgn and Jonah Levine, two ends of LA’s co-mingling and intersecting scenes. His two solo LPs, last year’s Kickinit Alone and the just released HappySad, are beat heavy sets with piano flourishes and unending head nods, a tribute to all the sounds he grew up idolizing.

While Kickinit Alone was a contemplative affair filled with lonely jams and existential wanderings, Shackelford wanted to add some joy and happiness to his second LP (his first for Stones Throw). The beats still knock heavy, the piano parts still effortlessly play off the grooves, but there’s a subtle optimism that pervades this work. Kiefer’s ability to make music that varies between a bright buoyancy and a drowning sorrow is all in his effortless blending of hip-hop aesthetics with jazz structures. That he’s able to retain an innovative sound while keeping this very specific style consistent over the course of two records is a testament to his originality. Kiefer’s effortless style remixes our notions of jazz, rap, and soul music. By trying to sound like everybody, Kiefer doesn’t sound like anyone else. —Will Schube

HappySad is more emotionally diverse than Kickinit Alone, which was a fairly downcast record. Was that something you intentionally set out to do—to create a wider spectrum of feelings—or did that come about as you were writing?

Kiefer: I wouldn’t say it was directly intentional, although every time I record I tend to do it the same way. I’ll journal whatever it is I’m feeling on that particular day. At the end of the year, when I have all these beats that are essentially journal entries, I put them all together and pick out the entries that best exemplify whatever story I’m trying to tell. This year, the album is about dealing with anxiety and being really ambitious. Those are the two major themes.

Does your ambition feed into your anxiety, of wanting to get as much done as possible?

Kiefer: Oh yeah, definitely. They affect each other. I put a lot of pressure on myself and that can sometimes lead to having anxiety. Anxiety can also slow down following your ambition. They affect each other in different ways.

If you’re doing these beats as journal entries every year, is your goal to put out a new album every year as well?

Kiefer: That’s how it’s been so far. But I am open to the idea of changing pace and doing less or doing more. With this one, I did intend to get it done by the end of the year. We’ll see about the next one, though.

Do your songs generally start as beats? Do you pull from a catalog of ideas?

Kiefer: I make two or three beats on any given day and it usually takes me thirty minutes to get the basic idea of a beat done, and then I put it away. Then, maybe a week or so goes by, and if I want to develop it a little more, I’ll go back and add a piano solo and a bunch of other layers. Then, I’ll put it away again, and at the end of the year, I have a couple hundred beats and I can just find my favorite twelve or so and turn it into an album.

I imagine that making beats every day is also a big stress reliever for you. How do you reconcile the drive you have with the anxiety it can cause?

Kiefer: It’s funny. Making beats doesn’t de-stress me while I’m making them. I put a lot of work into making my music. Something I’m working on—something I need to improve on—is that I get really, really worked up when I’m making music. I can get really anxious and when stuff starts sounding really good, I fully immerse myself and I become really exhausted. But after the fact, months and months later, I can reap the benefits of having recorded my emotions. So the stress relief or the therapeutic part comes much, much later, when I’ve listened to what I’ve made and suddenly I have perspective on all of my emotional ups and downs that occur over a few months.

Are you trying to figure out throughlines and themes as you make these beats? Or do you make them independently of each other and begin sorting when it’s time to make a new record?

Kiefer: There are some general themes I’m working on, but usually I just have things in the back of my mind as I’m writing about the things that are going on in my life. Every week or so, I’ll write about one thing, then the next, I’ll shift it, and write about something else. I’m the same person, so by the end of the year, there are gonna be some similarities with all of my songs in terms of the character behind it.

Can you talk about the music scene in your LA community and how that has informed your approach as a solo artist?

Kiefer: The scene out here is really amazing. I know a lot of musicians who are doing their own things and have absolutely no sense of genre and they don’t seem to care. They’re just making what they want to make.

There’s a scene that’s loosely referred to as the ‘beat scene,’ which I guess you could consider me to be a part of, and in the scene there are so many subgroups and subgenres and venues—all these cool things going on at all times. People are making what they want to make and mixing in electronic music with jazz, hip-hop, house, soul music, fusion, and everything else. It’s really, really cool.

When I was in college [at UCLA] Low End Theory was a huge thing. That was a big part of it, just going there and seeing these people who were making the wildest music possible. And yet, it was completely packed every Wednesday. That showed me that it was possible to have experimental, artistically ambitious music that people would support here in Los Angeles. It encouraged me to change my sound and not be afraid to do things in the way I wanted to do them, even if it didn’t necessarily pertain to a genre or tradition.

Was there that same fluidity at UCLA? Or were your jazz bands playing straight ahead jazz and your classical work isolated from any other genre?

Kiefer: The music scene at UCLA was very healthy when I was there. Anderson .Paak used to perform there when he performed as Breezy Lovejoy. Moses Sumney was someone I played with a lot, too. There were a bunch of cool musicians there as well who aren’t known yet but will be soon. There are a lot of people doing their thing, but it being a college, none of us had a fully developed sound. What I was hearing outside of the school was a lot more experimental, interesting, and adventurous. What I was doing in school was a little more in the box, but I was playing with really, really talented people who were pushing really hard to find their sound. It was a great place to come up.

Obviously there are varying degrees of success, but can you reflect on what it’s like seeing yourself and your peers—like Jonah Levine, Moses Sumney, and Anderson .Paak—all succeeding in big ways?

Kiefer: It’s amazing. We talk about it all the time. I didn’t really know Anderson .Paak personally, but I remember watching him perform as Breezy Lovejoy all the time. When he blew up, it was a really cool thing, like, ‘Oh, I used to watch that guy all the time. Look where he is now.’ With Moses, I remember playing with him during his very first performances ever. I would help him arrange tunes for his band. I’m really proud to say that I could instantly tell that he was going to be really special, even though if you were to ask him about the songs he wrote back then, he’d try to tell you that he hates those songs. But I could tell he was really talented. When he popped off I wasn’t surprised at all. That was a very natural progression.

With Jonah, he was my best friend at UCLA. We’re still really good friends. He’s just a musical genius. He’s one of the only musicians I’ve ever seen where you can put him in any musical situation, on various instruments, and it doesn’t matter what key, what tempo, what style…he can figure out how it works. If it’s in 17/8 with a 100 tempo and you put him on a piano, trombone, or drum set, he can figure it out instantly. He’s just a genius. I think everyone who knew Jonah knew that he was going to be successful. The talent is there. Looking back, I’m really glad to have known these guys and I was also very wise to observe their talent and try to emulate it.

Were you studying jazz at UCLA?

Kiefer: I was a jazz studies major on the piano, which is under the larger department of ethnomusicology. I had a concentration in jazz studies. I had to take a bunch of world music courses and music history courses. I didn’t like it much at the time, though.

Is that where you developed the idea to blend jazz with beat making and electronic music?

Kiefer: As far as mixing styles, that was something that I always loved about jazz, long before I went to school and started studying it. There are all of those clichés like, ‘jazz is a melting pot,’ but clichés exist for a reason and at a young age I would listen to jazz with my dad. He’d tell me that people were mixing jazz, like, way back when it was ragtime, but the blues were a part of it as well. As you move throughout time, people like Miles Davis were mixing it with funk and rock. Nat King Cole was mixing it with R&B. I identified that mixing of styles as a huge part of the jazz tradition.

As I started listening to more contemporary guys like Robert Glasper, or someone like Flying Lotus—who isn’t an instrumentalist in the way someone like Glasper is—I noticed guys in my era doing a similar thing. So I started brainstorming what I could do. I’m happy to say, the sounds I have now are pretty close to what I was hoping for when I was a senior in high school. I thought it’d be so cool if there was a guy playing piano over beats. Robert Glasper was doing that, but I wanted my beats to be a little more electronic sounding.

Do you view your music as a bridge between the LA beat scene and its jazz presence?

Kiefer: I do. I’m definitely keeping both in mind. I wouldn’t say I’m a hip-hop musician and I wouldn’t say I’m a jazz musician, but I’m definitely influenced by both. All of my jazz friends think of me as the beats guy, and all of my beat making friends think, ‘Oh, he’s just the jazz guy’ [laughs]. But I do agree with them. I don’t think I really fit into either camp. That’s fine, though. I don’t really mind it.

I know you play in Jonah Levine’s group. Do you ever have the urge to return to straight ahead jazz music as a composer?

Kiefer: I’m not really interested in making jazz records. In a few years, my live band is essentially going to be a jazz group. My records, though, will sound the way they sound—more electronic sounding and focusing on beats. I’m playing a show July 12th in LA for my album release, and that’s going to be like a jazz show.

Do you view your live show as a way to change the compositions and create a new side of your music?

Kiefer: The compositions will, in essence, be the same songs—the same melodies, the same harmonic ideas—but I think it’s more interesting than just playing a beat set. Look, a beat set is great. But any time you have six live instruments playing, it’s cooler than just me and a computer. I just thought it’d be the best thing to do. Because that’s what I really came from doing. I didn’t start doing live beat sets until a year and a half ago. Even though I’ve been making beats for longer, I just started playing sets. But I’ve been playing in bands for the last 11 or 12 years.

You do a lot of collaborating. I imagine making your solo music can become isolating. Is it important for you to refresh those full band chops every once in a while?

Kiefer: I’ve made a concerted effort, especially in the past few months, to work with other people. When you work with other people, it can be more fun and you can do more things. It’s also just a great opportunity to learn. Before I started my solo project, there was about a two year period where I was only working with other people—like Mndsgn, Jonwayne, and Swarvy. I’d go over to their houses on a near weekly basis and just watch them work to learn how I’d do my thing. Then I went solo for the past two years, but now I see myself spending as much time as possible with new people, people I intend to learn from, because I’m trying to develop a new skill set that I think will be really valuable going forward. And I’m always trying to make cool shit.

What skill are you looking to develop?

Kiefer: I’m trying to develop as a full-on producer. Not just a beat maker, but a producer who works with vocalists and makes songs. I want to improve my engineering and mixing skills, and just come back with a bigger sound that’s more versatile, a sound that’s palatable to more people.

Is that for your own solo music or for producing other musicians?

Kiefer: For both. I want to be a producer who lasts. I want to have a long career with many different parts to it, I want to always be developing. I don’t want to be the guy who has a novelty sound that comes and goes in a year or two. I’m going to spend the next year going out and developing a new sound, just working with new people who I can borrow techniques from.

Your music definitely has a wide audience, but do you think your solo records are unable to attract mainstream attention?

Kiefer: Well, I don’t know. I’m not really sure, and I don’t really focus on it too much. I just know that I need to keep developing either way. Maybe it will, though. Maybe I’ll become one of those acts that people like for a long period of time. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to make that my career for the rest of my life. But in the event that that doesn’t work and my skill set morphs and I’ll have to do other things and work with other people, play in other groups…That’s fine too. I’m just going to keep developing myself as much as I can and keep putting my heart into. I’m just gonna see where I’m needed.

You put your last LP out on LEAVING Records, a Stones Throw subsidiary, but with HappySad, you’ve moved directly to Stones Throw. What went into the decision behind that move?

Kiefer: When I put out Kickinit Alone, I had a few different labels in mind that I was considering, guys I had worked with and had relationships with. I ultimately chose LEAVING because it’s a label I love to listen to and it’s local. I know Matthewdavid and I really respect him. He helped my record a lot. It did really well. When they suggested that I sign with Stones Throw for the next record, it just seemed like the natural move.

I really like working with people who love their job. I do not work with people who don’t enjoy their job. That goes for photographers, musicians, videographers, publicists—whoever I come in contact with. If they love their job, I like them.

Stones Throw is a label where everyone is a Stones Throw fan. They love music and they throw these events where they all roll through. A lot of the guys that are working in the office are up there DJ’ing. It’s really inspiring. I just want to be in a place where I’m surrounded by people who love what they do and love music. It’s great. They also give me immense freedom. Everyone brags about how their label gives them freedom, but Stones Throw actually does. When I turned in my record, they okayed it before they even listened to it. They were just like, ‘Let’s do it. It’ll be great.’ They were just excited to put out whatever the hell I wanted to put out. What you hear on the record is what I turned in.

Did you have more resources at your disposal with Stones Throw?

Kiefer: It was similar. The only difference is that Stones Throw is a larger brand than LEAVING. That certainly helps a lot. It’s only been a week, but I’m already getting the feeling that this one is doing a lot better than the previous one.

How do you go about conveying emotional ideas and aesthetics without using words or vocals?

Kiefer: I can’t really put it into words. Instrumental music is completely abstract. There isn’t any sound that means anything in a literal sense. But, playing music and composing music since I was four or five, playing how I feel and improvising in the moment is a natural thing at this point. I don’t have to think about how I’m going to do it, I can just do it. It’s a tricky thing. It’s definitely practice to get there. Not having any lyrics or anything, I think a lot about being as melodic as possible, using harmonically interesting sequences, and thinking about rhythms that have a gesture or a certain cadence. I try to heighten every aspect of my musicianship as much as possible in my practice.

Is there anything you hope listeners take away from this record, either about you or your music?

Kiefer: I really want people to be inspired by someone who is experiencing the full array of human emotion and is doing okay. I’m someone who’s experiencing a lot of anxiety but also a lot of joy at the same time. Also, I’m somebody who’s absolutely in love with what they’re doing. I’m putting everything I have into it and I hope that inspires people, no matter what their occupation or passion is. I hope it inspires people to try things and be themselves in as big of a way as possible, to examine life and find beauty in it.

My job is to find beauty and display it to the world. Whether it’s an emotional idea or a beautiful harmony I discovered listening to Oscar Peterson, I like to find beautiful things, sew them together, and turn around and display them to the world. I hope that everything I do speaks to people in that way. It really is unbelievable, this whole thing. This world, you know? That’s what it’s all about.

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