When talking to kids half your age about music, it’s easy to become a disillusioned oldie or an impatient curmudgeon when faced with their lack of knowledge (how dare they not know the 1991 debut from Basehead?)
Or, you can become infinitely tired of the unreachable hope that youth will master pop music and save us all.
I will forsake the member from Stems who instantly proclaimed his desert island disc to be a selection from the Red Hot Chili Peppers—that’s just wrong.
But I suppose these are facts we all must live with.
Fortunately, for the most part, Stems know their roots, or have cut them, finding the spark of creation and invention that very few “high school” bands find when they are simply, and quite literally, experimenting in the lab.
At the Arts and Preparatory Academy (or ACPA) in Columbus, on-the-pulse, upstart bands are becoming a regular thing. In this high school, it’s a part of the curriculum that you start a band, book your own shows, and develop your own following. For Stems, the class known as “Band Lab,” (coincidentally enough taught by Corbezzolo’s Noah Demland), was an easy A—the class they couldn’t wait to become seniors in order to take.
“The first week of Band Lab you don’t play at all,” says Stems guitarist Mickey Shuman. “You brainstorm some names, and you have a couple of show-and-tells where you write about songs that really inspire you, and then finally you pick who’s in your band.”
But, knowing full and well about the concept of Band Lab, the kids in Stems already had their lineup preconceived. There was little thought into what it would become, just hopes that in spontaneous combustion a live hip-hop conglomerate would become an alternative to the norm. The very thrifty quartet, including Kendall Martin as emcee, Shuman as guitarist, Dante Montoto on bass and Zach Pennington on drums, knew their function from the outset. It just sounded like an airtight solution to stale ideas in the music world—an arena from which to be ambitious and actually think outside the clichéd box. And it worked.
“I think, as corny as it sounds,” says the band’s incredibly confident lyricist Martin (who moonlights on Soundcloud as Kid-Naps), “we knew we had something special.”
“The best thing about that class—because it’s a class—” remembers Shuman, “is you can’t quit your band. If you’re not into it you can’t quit your band because it was, like, your grade. You had to navigate through differing opinions to make something happen.”
Conceptually, Stems were unashamedly aiming to copy The Roots—hence the name Stems – though most of the members admit to never listening to The Roots before starting the band. Though the idea may have started in innocent jest, the execution was dead serious, a melding of bold riffs, jazzed beats, and abstract, backpack rhymes. It’s uncomfortable for those who aren’t ready for the unexpected; namely, very studied grooves interrupted by oblong lyrics, party-stopping refrains, surf-n’-Nerf, and long diatribes about dating Malia Obama.
“It was kind of wobbly, crinkly, and sometimes crusty,” says Shuman. “We didn’t really model it after anything. We just wanted to rip off what we liked, which are things that don’t go together. In the end, we passed the class. We wrote the songs and got the grade we wanted from Noah. He would give us a lot of constructive criticism though. To make what we were doing better. So it kept going.”
Nearly a year graduated from ACPA, the band has recorded and will release their debut, Out of Fear, this month. In all respects, it’s earnest, ambitious, and awkward at the same time – the essence of teenage/adulthood purgatory. For a moment, as on Martin’s autobiographical “Momma’s Crib,” it’s painfully honest, then it’s invigoratingly post-modern, in the Mac DeMarco-meets-jazzbo-meets-Rage confluence of “Fast,” and despite any green faults or minor-league mistakes, it feels like a step into the future.
“People wanted to call it jazz-hop, and there’s a lot of great jazz and hip-hop, but that’s not who we are,” says Martin.
The conversation then devolves into just exactly where Stems fit at the present moment. Jazz-hop? Bassist Montoto is headed to Northwestern in the fall on a mechanical engineering scholarship, the classically trained Pennington could easily sit in with combos the world over (and currently backs up Counterfeit Madison), Shuman is lamenting the on-again-off-again relationship of his once white-hot band Inner Mikey, and Martin just keeps writing. In a lot of ways, Stems feels like a stepping stone, or that lightning in a bottle that you have to cherish completely in the now. Then again…Stems just want to have fun—a mode where they can take it all in stride and call it whatever they want.
“I saw Kid Rock once,” says Pennington. “My dad went through a phase where he liked Kid Rock a lot, so I was there to support him.’
And such is the problem, or perhaps, the remedy that is youth. They know the danger, and it’s good for the common good to dream, and like Icarus, they are entirely alright with flying too close to the sun.
Stems will celebrate the release of Out of Fear on Friday, March 23 at Kafé Kerouac. Visit wheremyzootsuit.bandcamp.com for music and more information.