“I’m Not Going to Start Peaking Until I’m 35:” An Interview with Kiefer

Joel Biswas speaks to the Los Angeles beatmaker about Low End Theory, listening to more jazz, and meeting Dr. Dre at his house.
By    October 25, 2019

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When Kiefer emerged in 2017, the bittersweet boom bap of his first LP Kickinit offered a hushed and gleaming blue-green counterpoint to the heady, maximalist stylings of left-field L.A. producers like Flying Lotus and his good friend Mndsgn. Kiefer’s piano gleamed with sun-dappled textures and analog crackle, inviting the listener into hushed intimacies over grooves that felt spacious and lived in, like fragments of otherworldly Pete Rock or Dilla loops from our collective unconscious. It was a wordless song cycle about solitude and communion masquerading as a beat tape.

In an expanding universe of West Coast producers and musicians whose fevered re-imagining of the language of Black American Music is jazz in spirit, Kiefer is avowedly jazz in method. He’s been steeped in the idiom since birth, is an alumnae of UCLA’s celebrated jazz programme and spends more time teaching music then he does making it. And if the creative violence of late Miles Davis and fevered yearning of peak Coltrane are the fertilizer of an anarchic flowering of innovative music that can be traced back to the subsoil of the Low End Theory which Kiefer is a part of, his music is marked by restraint, craft and an unabashed love of melodic ideas.

His two releases in 2019, Bridges and Superbloom showcase the increasingly assured songwriting and compositional sense of an artist who is in continuous motion and right where he wants to be. Whether it’s making beats with idols like Pete Rock, producing for Anderson.Paak, stretching out heavy quartet grooves live in Japan or inspiring a growing online tribe of fellow “dope nerds” whose reinterpretations of his music are frequently breath-taking, Kiefer is a testament to the idea that good music will always find the audience it deserves and that what matters most in art as in life is devotion. — Joel Biswas

How has Superbloom been received?

Kiefer: It’s been great – a lot of people reaching out on social media, a lot of people actually playing along with the songs, which tends to happen around an album release with my fans – playing different instruments, maybe playing the bassline if they play bass, the drum part… In the last few days, a few fans started this challenge of playing various parts of “What A Day” which isn’t actually on the new record. It’s the nerdiest thing I’ve ever seen but it’s the best thing ever.

Do you collaborate with other musicians online?

Kiefer: Actually, one of the beats that Anderson.Paak used was sent over there via email. But in terms of people hitting me up – there is this bass player in North Carolina that I worked with once so there are a few instances like that but not really. Actually, are you familiar with that beat share thing that I do? There’s been four or five occasions where I let my followers know on Instagram or Twitter that I’m releasing three or four unreleased beats. I’ll take out certain parts – take out the keys, take out the drums part, take out the bass part and I’ll put charts up there too so people know the chord changes. I don’t want to give people stems but I’ll give them parts that you can record to. I’ll post on them Instagram and I’m not joking, hundreds of people will play along making beats that are inspired by my music in some way and post them on Instagram with the hashtag #kieferbeats – which is basically for my Dad so he can see everything and comment on everything. It’s amazing. So that counts too. That is collaboration I guess.

Your two releases in 2019, Bridges and Superbloom, feel like companion pieces.

Kiefer: In my mind, those two projects are basically an LP. I wanted to experiment with what a shorter record sounds like for me. I think that twelve songs with solo piano is a lot. We talk about attention spans being smaller. I just think that the quantity of information is insanely higher so we are much more stingy with our attention and rather than being cynical about it, I see that as an opportunity as an artist. In my mind, Bridges is the B-side and Superbloom is the A. I think “Be Encouraged” was probably everyone’s favorite but it was cool to see that people were listening to it more all the way through. I think it’s the style of the music – when have jazz harmony in your music along with it will come fanatics. A lot of my fans are musicians, producers and real music nerds – I don’t tend to attract people for that one song. I think a number of my fans recognize that I’m really doing this in an authentic way. I’m making music that I want to make. A lot of artists can say that but without being cocky, I think have this kind of take it or leave it attitude with it – I’m offering myself in a really big way.

The two releases sound like real step forward compositionally. How is your approach evolving?

Kiefer: Bridges is called “Bridges” because the songs have bridges. Every time I do a project I try to make one thing better at least. So the last two records, it was about structuring the music more, making tracks more like songs. The next record is going to be a studio album, my first one – so more live tracking and I’m going to trickling in vocalists. I’m trying to add one thing at a time. I think people have wanted me to do these things for a while but I think I have a good sense of time. I’m twenty-seven years old. In my mind, I’m not going to start peaking until I’m 35. I think that’s when most producers are at their best. So I am just adding one thing a time, understanding the process and being very, very patient.

Your music can have a kind of serene, meditative quality.

Kiefer: I think it’s a byproduct of my style. Because I think there is a lot happening, a lot of activity in my music – but it is understated and I think by doing that I unintentionally created this calming texture. I’m not trying to be in your face with it. One of really challenging things of using the harmony that I use, improvising, trying to have interesting rhythmic phrasing – these elements of the craft that I’m into – is that you can be too busy, play too many notes and sometimes get caught up in trying to show off and not actually communicate. That’s a really common theme in jazz – the balance between being yourself and boosting your own ego. I think I’ve done a good job of letting go of that desire to show off to people and in doing so I’ve led people to believe the music is “chill.” I don’t think it’s chill but I’d so much rather have that than have someone think I was trying to flex or intimidate or show off or put myself apart from others.

So how would you describe it?

Kiefer: To be honest, I don’t really think about it. But I do have an answer – it’s me and I am a very hyper-emotional, sensitive person – I think that is probably my biggest quality. I’m an extremely sensitive person. So I think my music is very sensitive, very emotional.

Are you prolific?

Kiefer: When I’m really on it, I make a beat every day. I usually take 20 or 30 minutes to get the basic idea. If I go another 30 minutes, I might put more layers or a bridge or a piano solo. But the basic elements – keys, bass, drums – take about 20 minutes. Usually I go with the first thing that pops in my head and make it and get it out of the way. Because in my experience, the most important thing for me no matter what I am working on – is to start. You can’t work out if you don’t put your running shoes on and go outside. That’s step one. It’s just getting there, that’s the thing. Just showing up. So I have a very low expectation of myself – I’m going to do 30 minutes a day. In terms of all the producers I know, I work on music the least in terms of time but the amount I make is a lot. I think my musical training helps. There are not a lot of producers who play an instrument as well as I do. The real work comes when at the end of the year there’s a folder with like 100 beats and I have to pick my favorite ten to make an album. Because that’s the part I’m not as well-practiced at – sound design, being an engineer. But I differentiate between working on music and playing music. Because I’m about thinking music all day. I’m listening to music constantly. I play piano all the time, I’m singing all day.

Who are your classical jazz heroes?

Kiefer: I’ve always listened to jazz. It was my default when I was five, when I was fifteen, when I was twenty. Jazz is normal music for me. As a kid, it was Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Clark. When I was ten to fifteen I was into Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock’s “Taking Off” album, I liked Ella Fitzgerald, Dexter Gordon. And when I started getting older I got into all kinds of shit. I started really digging into the history – started getting into Bill Evans, Mulgrew Miller. Now I have the records that I go to – I’m bad at listening to new stuff. There’s no beginning point for me with piano. I mean I started actually practicing when I was five or six. My father is a pianist – not professionally but he plays every day. But there was always a piano in the house and everybody played it. You walked by it every day, you played it. The top of the piano was never closed. Never. But me and my sister and my dad played every day probably since I was alive.

Who are your producer heroes?

Kiefer: I’d say that the dudes that I really admire fall into one of two camps. There’s the boom bap kings of the nineties like Dilla, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Madlib… Pete Rock who by the way I’ve had the good luck of making a few beats with. We’re buddies now which is great. I’ve met everyone except Dilla on my Mount Rushmore. I met Madlib once – he probably doesn’t remember me though. I met DJ Premier. And I met Dr. Dre which was pretty dope. And they had all heard my music and they like it. The only one where it isn’t confirmed is Madlib – but I haven’t seen him in like 6 years.

How did you come to collaborate with Pete Rock?

Kiefer: I met Pete Rock through Jazzy Jeff. He has the retreat called the Playlist Retreat – it’s bonkers. Actually, I think Pete Rock found me on Instagram first and Peanut Butter Wolf told me that Pete Rock had been texting – they’re on this like OG hip hop Whatsapp group – and on multiple occasions, he had sent my beats around being like “Who is this person!?” They had to tell him every time “Yo, its Kiefer, you’ve sent his music over before.” I don’t think he even realized it but he was posting a lot of my beats on Instagram – one from a song I made for a rapper called Ivan Ave. He has no idea that it was my beat and there was another beat called “Running Shoes” that I made with another producer called Like who’s really dope. So when I went to Jazzy Jeff’s house he was excited to meet me which was hilarious – I mean, he was not as excited as I was to meet him. We started sending beats back and forth via text. He’d send drums, basslines and I’d put keys on them and send them back. That was really sweet.

What’s it like being part of Stones Throw?

Kiefer: There’s obviously a lot of talent at Stones Throw and a lot of artists there who showed me how to have a career as an indie artist. Because coming out of school as a jazz pianist I didn’t really know that was possible to do that. I made friends with MndDsgn who was having a really stable and fruitful career with a small, niche audience and I felt like I might be able to do something similar to that in my own way. So a lot of the artists there provided the model I’ve emulated as far as making music. I want to make music with a ton of conviction, trying to challenge yourself to be creative and unconventional.

What was the significance of the Low End Theory to you? What was it like to be a part of that?

Kiefer: Low End Theory is the ultimate embodiment of the things I just talked about — unapologetically making music the way you want to make it and connecting with people that way. Low End Theory showed how all these different artists could do that – you could make music that wasn’t mainstream, get a thousand true fans and just ride with them. Showing others through your music why you love music. I think that’s what making music or being an artist is about – showing people why you love the music you love. When FlyLo makes music, he sounds like he’s showing you all these cool things you haven’t heard before. He’s showing what he loves about it. That’s what Low End Theory means to me. I performed there once or twice and I did the Low End Theory Festival playing with JonWayne and was really only in the audience a few times – not because I didn’t want to be there but because I have too much anxiety being in a room that’s that crowded and loud (laughs).

What contemporaries are influential?

Kiefer: Oh, so many. Mndsgn, Swarvy, Jonwayne, Samiyam, Knxwledge, Kaytranada. I love Tom Misch. I love Devin Morrison. Amber from Moonchild. I think she’s really dope. Lena Fornia. Matty J is really dope and is one of my friends now. DJ Harrison, obviously. It’s endless. Like I said, there are two camps that I am into – the OG 90’s rap dudes and my contemporaries.

How did you connect with Anderson.Paak?

Kiefer: The first beat I ever sent them was actually a beat that became “Yada Yada” – I made it at my house on my birthday two and a half years ago and they said “Take it off your Soundcloud, we want to use it” and I was like “ok”. So I emailed it to them. And the other two songs that I did, “Smile” was made with Callum Connor in the studio and a song called “King James” which I did at home after Callum Connor sent me the drums.

What was it like to hear the finished results?

Kiefer: It was extremely exciting. One of my big goals was to be a part of the next Anderson Paak. record so I was so pleased. But by the time a song comes out, I don’t care about releases. It’s funny- for me the celebration happens when we make the song and its finished and then six months go by and everyone is like “Congratulations,” and I’m like “We’re done.” I don’t like to celebrate results as much as I like to celebrate effort. Obviously with “Superbloom” coming out, it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the support. When the record comes out, it’s literally like any other day except that the important thing is that I am saying thank you to a lot of people. When the Anderson stuff was done about a year ago, I was super-excited and when it came out I was on tour, working, not even thinking about it.

Is this when you met Dre?

Kiefer: I met him out his house. They invited me over because they were using my song and he wanted to show me what the mix was like and I went over to his house and studio with a few people who were on the record and we listened to music all night. And he shook my hand like “Yo, Kiefer, I loved the beat.” I mean, he may have forgotten my name by now, I don’t care. Most of those cool interactions happen on the internet. I put up this educational video on Instagram explaining this music theory concept I kind of made up and John Mayer really liked it and ended up DMing me about it. And then there was Jazzy Jeff’s retreat where you get to meet Pete Rock or DJ Premier and find out they love your stuff, you know? But even Playlist happens because of the internet and this comes back to something I said earlier that social media can be an awesome tool. We shit on it all the time but it’s crazy. When it’s bad its crazy bad, but when its good its crazy good. I’ve certainly been blessed by that.

Do you think there is a jazz renaissance happening right now?

Kiefer: It depends on your definition of jazz even though jazz can’t really be defined. That’s what’s tricky. But if it’s what people are referring to as jazz, then yes. But I struggle to do that. I’m kind of over calling things jazz. I prefer the term Black American Music. It’s broad enough and accurate enough to describe what we’re making. I agree with Miles Davis’ view that it’s something else now even though he said that in like 1967. But there is definitely a huge upswing in Black American Music right now and it’s insane. I think “To Pimp a Butterfly” was a moment of jazz creeping into the mainstream in a meaningful way. I think artists like James Fontleroy have an incredible sense of harmony in the mainstream. Even people like Frank Ocean or Daniel Caesar have hip harmonies and they aren’t even close to jazz. But I think the upswing of jazz harmony in particular is starting to influence other more disparate mainstream stuff and that’s kind of cool.

Any plans to play straight-ahead jazz?

Kiefer: I play it every day but it’s more for me. I think when I perform for people, I want to speak to them. I want to speak to more people so I try to think of the music that I like and the music that they need like a Venn Diagram and I do that. Whereas straight-ahead jazz is a little more for me, over here and for the people I play it with. So right now there are no plans to play straight-ahead stuff but to be honest when I do play my stuff live, it’s a jazz fusion show. It’s pocket. I’m playing bebop lines and shit. We’re taking like five minute solos. It’s more intense. I think if people are buying the ticket they want to see you go all the way in and we go in. We have outstanding musicians in the band. We play simple music and really hard improvisations, but still trying to play beautifully. Whereas when I am making records, I’m trying to communicate very simply.

How do you choose a band?

Kiefer: I try to find collaborators who I don’t have to tell how to play. In my experience, if someone has to tell me how to play something and its outside of my strengths then you’re not gonna get my strengths. If I played in a mariachi or reggae band, I probably wouldn’t do very well. If you’re like “play it like a Joe Clayton thing” you should call Joe Clayton, know what I mean? So how they play is what I look for. A lot of times I’ll let guys write their parts because when you have stewardship and ownership over your part, you have fun. I want musicians who are going to be comfortable with the music first and foremost.

You’re also a teacher.

Kiefer: I teach about twenty hours a week. I have 170 active students in the last year – piano and beatmakers and some who do both. The most profound thing that has happened is that it has reinforced the fundamentals – talking technique of the hands, not scales – I am talking about the mindset. I am constantly reinforcing a positive mindset in my students and therefore doing it for myself as well. Understanding that the journey is one step at a time. Making sure you sit down every day. Making a habit of doing what you set out to do. Believing in yourself. Being confident while also being able to give yourself an honest evaluation of things you need to improve. I have to literally practice what I preach. That’s probably the most profound thing. When my students do those things and I see the improvements, that just reinforces the need to do those things myself.

What lessons have your teachers passed down?

Kiefer: All my teachers taught me different things. My Dad taught me what improvisation is. My teacher Jamie, my classical piano teacher, taught me how to curve my fingers even though I don’t really do it now. She taught me how to memorize a piece, how to micro-practice even though I didn’t really learn it until ten years later. My teacher Bob Holtz taught me about Bill Evans, about harmony, how to play a melody, how to have good voicing, how jazz harmony fundamentally works. My teacher Tamir at UCLA taught me one of the heaviest things – how to learn – how you could in theory learn anything – ask an expert, create exercises for yourself, how to practice in general, organise your time, be consistent. Abraham Laboriel taught me how to make music beautifully and honestly, from the heart for the sake of encouraging people. And Kenny Burrell taught me to never lose sight of the dream and to never give up and to make music with love. Music can be anything but for me it’s about encouragement. Even though I am not using words I think there is a way to project that and I’m trying to do that. There are enough artists that are out there trying to project something heady – my music is a real thing that I like and I want you to feel that when you hear it, that this is a beautiful life.

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