Main Image: Sam Gehrke
Words: Mina Suder
Earlier this month, we premiered the video for Crumbs in Every Bag, the latest single from the Epic Beard Men’s album This Was Supposed To Be Fun. Ahead of the UK leg of their The Chill Is Gone Tour, which kicks off in Southampton today, we spoke to B. Dolan and Sage Francis about the group’s conception, their creative process in making the album, and the element of fun in their music.
Each with a hefty back catalogue as solo artists, a dedication to activism beyond just music, and a healthy beard (epic indeed), your union seemed to be an organic and inevitable one. Was this the case?
B.: It was suggested for a long time by a lot of people to us, as we travelled and toured together. And it was always really obvious to other people, but also to us, it was obvious why that was a big undertaking. We didn’t step into the actual making of this collection of songs lightly. We waited until there was a big opening in both of our schedules and we had both finished solo records, and there was a time where the writing could happen. I mean, it was intuitive in a way, and took a lot of work in another way.
Sage: What comes most naturally, ‘cause we had toured together for so long, we kind of had an idea what kind of stuff can be performed live, and how to work off of one another. We wanted to translate that into an album, but also that’s not how we write. We don’t write for the stage. But I think the fact that we knew that we could work off each other on the stage no matter what we record, gave us a freedom to just go at any type of subject matter or style for the album.
The Epic Beard Men was conceived during the pair’s appearances as solo artists at The Fringe Festival in Edinburgh in 2016, where the writing also happened. The first fruits of that labour was an EP released in 2018, Season 1; and now with the LP This Was Supposed To Be Fun, released in March this year.
Did all the writing for both the EP and the LP happen at The Fringe?
B: Yeah it’s really all one collection of songs to us. It all started at the same time at The Fringe, and then we came back the second year at The Fringe and refined it more. Certain songs came a little later, but for the most part, there was one big collection of about 24-30 song titles, demos that we started at The Fringe and finished over a course of 2 or 3 years after that. And then released over the course of 2 years as the EP and LP.
This Was Supposed To Be Fun is rich in content and topics, through an array of formats like story-telling and intricate narratives, filled with interesting characters and contemporary cultural references. The lead single Hedges has Sage and B. portraying neighbours seemingly with domestic disputes, but also opposing worldviews, and Pistol Dave featuring Slug of Atmosphere and Blue Raspberry is a detailed character study through humorous story-telling. Elsewhere, Man Overboard pokes fun at the disastrous Fyre Festival and Shin Splints offers an account of the frustrations with rushing through airports.
Did you have a vision for how the album was going to form altogether? And perhaps capture a moment in American life?
Sage: On one hand, we wanted to flex on fools, and show off what we can do as emcees and song writers, and just educate people, and be like “look what can happen in hip hop, why are you guys all doing the same type of song, fuck you!”.
B: [laughs] Yeah, basically that, and also, to make each other laugh. As we were rolling out ideas in our heads for the first time, in front of each other, either make you do something like “oh wow”, or makes you laugh, I guess making a two person album provided me with an instant, very close audience, for every idea as it was first tested. So it is more conversational, and it does wander in more directions, and take in more things, more points of view probably.
Sage: Outside of Shin Splints, which was B.’s concept, I feel like I filled the absurdist role a bit more, where we would come with really dumb ideas. And I would dedicate myself…and say “we can make this so that other people can appreciate how funny and dumb it is”. Where most people would just throw it away as just a dumb idea that only we can enjoy. Like when you’re in a car or a van together, and you develop upon a dumb idea, and you say “oh this could happen” most people would just leave it, and say that’s just a dumb idea”; no, I will dedicate myself to that dumb idea, and make it reality.
Hence the title of the album! With “this” in the title, are you referring to hip hop? Making music? Or life in general?
Sage: It’s all-encompassing. It refers to pretty much everything. Capitalism was supposed to be fun!….It’s not![laughs].
As much as it is funny, and fun, you still retain the seriousness of the messages you want to convey. Particularly considering both of your previous work, how do you address the balance between the delivery of serious messages in a fun way?
B: It was really in one way, as easy as setting out to do it, and the results are just are what they are. Sage kept on saying “this was supposed to be fun” but I don’t know why he was saying that, I didn’t understand it. I mostly ignored it [laughs]. But nah, I mean, throughout we’re talking about fun, and we’re thinking about fun, but neither of us are particularly fun guys. We’re capable of fun, but the idea of us, like us, of all people, experimenting with fun, was the fun of it. And the result is the record that is not..well if you think Miley Cyrus is fun, then this shit is not fun at all.
“We’re capable of fun, but the idea of us, like us, of all people, experimenting with fun, was the fun of it.”
If you think…you know…that’s what you’re looking for, that stuff is a part of who we are, so it’s never going to be absent from our music. So it was almost a gag, in one way, at the time, like “okay, this is supposed to be fun” let see, you know, really with the way of the world is on you, and you’re still living and experiencing, even if the group is epic beard men, then you keep saying “this is supposed to be fun”, when you write about fun and you try to manifest fun, if you are aware in the way that we are as solo artists, it’s going to be a different type of fun. It’s going to be a specific type of fun.”
Sage: I wanted it to be like a circus fun, I wanted us to make the kind of music that we could at least make one song that would get us booked on every festival for the next 25 years. I wanted the Chumbawamba hit [both laugh].
A lot of your solo work has been political. As artists, how much responsibility do you think you have, to speak your truths, but also to speak for marginalised groups, which you both have done in the past?
B: I don’t think there’s a responsibility for every artist to do that. I think artists can do that, and probably should do that, in situations. But, given the time, and given that we’re called Epic Beard Men, and we’re making a record called This Was Supposed To Be Fun, it did also feel appropriate for us to focus on fun. Because, like 5 years ago, most of hip hop was really just concerned with being as cool as possible. And we were the political outliers, who kept bringing up things like LGBTQ issues and trans rights, and difficult things that people didn’t want to talk about, or anti-fascist actions, or anti-racist actions, or corporate money and politics, we’ve been talking about all of this, me since 2005, and Francis since before that.
And so now in this moment, where everyone is collectively realising these things, and also there’s more room for marginalised people to speak for themselves, in hip hop, and in every form of media. For us, whose record is pretty well known, where we stand up for things…yea, focusing on fun was probably what no one else was going to do this year. It was the lane that was open. And the thing we could do came naturally out of the nature of our group. I don’t think we disqualified any very political thing, or made a conscious move in that direction. That’s where we kind of drifted I think.
Sage: Having a group is also a terrific reason to veer off from what you would typically address in your personal music. Where you’re a bit disconnected from your very personal issues, and even the political stances where you’re collaborating with someone else, to be a bit more inclusive overall, and there’s compromise there, and it gives you a reason to address different subject matters, and approach it differently, than you would in your solo music. Why else would you have a group? There’s no reason that me and B should get into a group and then just make solo music together. This was our excuse to veer off and do different stuff. I felt like both of us needed that. [B: yeah for sure].
“Having a group is also a terrific reason to veer off from what you would typically address in your personal music.”
I mean, the craft that we dedicate ourselves to is still prevalent in the music that we make as a group. But, if you know our history, you know our stances, maybe that helps you to understand the humour, in the music that we make. It’s not like there are joke songs, even You Can’t Tell Me Shit isn’t a joke song, there’s commentary there. But you know, it’s a subtext. If you go into Epic Beard Men blindly, I wonder really how you process it, but hopefully a hip hop head will hear it, and be like “oh yea damn, I get this, I like this”, even if they don’t fully understand our personal histories, or our solo catalogues.
The production on the album is very rich, encompassing a variety styles of hip hop production. Was this the intention?
Sage: We wanted a variety of sounds, we wanted to show how to approach music, and hip hop in different ways, within the context of one album, and have them all worked together as a unit. And it’s not something that most rappers are able to do these days, and I feel like, that was our special way of flexing on motherfuckers.
B: Yeah, I definitely wanted to, on the production, I wanted to update on a lot of sounds people were ignoring or not able to use because they don’t know the breaks, like a lot of producers were not aware of, and a lot of producers have shy-ed away from, because replays are hard, and certain techniques on the album were really difficult, processing of things, it’s hard to get stuff to sound, like samples to sound older, or sound a certain kind of way, especially if you don’t know where that sound came from in the first place. But we are some people who are still making rap music that have that knowledge, and have that edge. And also, that can work with modern engineers, and producers who can show us shit about dynamics, or how to make shit really bang in modern ways. So yea, we’re trying to combine some old school ethics, and breaks, with some new school mixing and engineering. The result is pretty cool. We’re pretty happy with it. And it goes a lot of places and references a lot of hip hop.
Sage: Also, it’s the kind of thing where a lot of people, the general audience, doesn’t fully recognise. It’s not like they’re cognisant of what’s happening in the music, it’s just how often do you hear an album that sounds like this, you know, in 2019. Why does it sound or feel different? And special? It’s just the kind of things that there are minor details that we paid a lot of attention to that others don’t, and you can’t quite pinpoint what it is. But that shit took work.
A lot of your videos are very fun, and creative. How involved are you in the process?
B: Pretty involved, yeah, we’re like CC’d in on everything, identifying the artist we want to work with, and just trying to bring it all together. We had this Epic Beard Men idea we wanted to approach in a real psychedelic way, so we used a lot of illustration. And all the early singles, the album covers, it was all illustrated, and yea, just keeping it real psychedelic, on the visual tip.
So the European tour; there are a lot of dates in the UK. Do you have a connection with the UK and enjoy being here? It seems you follow the politics here quite closely, is this the case?
B: Yeah, my music in the past and my solo tours especially connected me with a lot of activists as I’ve travelled to the UK, and I was over there when the occupy movement was kicking off, and was visiting occupy spots. So a lot of fans that come to shows, and people have been activists, through the movements in the past decade, coming out and making me aware of stuff when I visit. I’m not day to day updated on the progressions of parliamentary procedure, I still don’t quite understand how the hell you just call elections, I still have friends try to explain things to me, but I’ve also watch the current rippling wave of nationalism travel from country to country; before even UKIP was just a few guys on a talk show looking stupid, there were Nazis in the parliament in Sweden and Norway, and then it popped up in England. I follow it as I travel, and talk to people.
Are you excited to tour this album? How will it different to your previous tours together?
B: Yeah, this is the culmination of the Epic Beard Men material as presented live by the two of us, for the last time, for the foreseeable future, and definitely for the year. So we’re going to go hard, and expecting all the shows to be packed, hype and it’ll be a pretty continuous set of the Epic Beard Men material, Season 1 and the new album.
Sage: Yeah, I would say, once in a life time folks. I mean, you’re going to come and see us perform this material that we’ve dedicated ourselves to for the past three plus years. We’ve done the full US tour, actually twice we’ve done the full US tour, but now it’s fully Epic Beard Men-centric, and it’s a very special circumstance. And I think the people who know what that means, and what we are as artists, what this means to us, those people continue to make a great effort to come out to the show, and fucking have a good time with us.
I will see you at the Manchester show, on the last date of the tour!
Sage: I have a special surprise for the Manchester date! B. doesn’t even know about it yet.
Can you give us a hint about it?
Sage: I can’t! But I promise you, people are going to enjoy it.
B.: We’ve hired a driver named Dave for the tour, you’ll have to come to the Manchester show to see if he’s still with us…