Seeing as how True Neutral Crew started as a solo project for Deathbomb Arc co-founder Brian Charlemagne Kinsman, but ended up as a sprawling collective including members of Matmos, clipping., and many, many more, we thought we’d make sense of their debut album by asking all those contributors to weigh in on a track-by-track commentary. Here’s the full breakdown, along with a complete stream of the Soft Rules LP that drops on Deathbomb today…
John Harrison:When we first got asked to do something with the Crew, it was pretty surprising. We’re always down to experiment with new stuff; we just didn’t know how well we would fit into the mold of the stuff we had heard from them. Being the anti kind of guys we are, we steered completely left of what I think the track was supposed to be, and sent through this crazy swagged-out rap verse, where I think they wanted something more poetic. The original beat we made just to lay the verse wasn’t really left field at all (at least not to us), so when we heard the final version with all the noise, we were super stoked at how well it worked out! I think that’s the best part about collaborating with other experimentalists; they were able to hear exactly where we were with it, and still fit it back into their universe.
BRIAN CHARLEMAGNE KINSMAN: Signor Benedick The Moor and I had this abstract piece that I thought could use a punctuation moment. I came up with the line, “I’m gonna shine like my car”, but both SB and I sound too geeky for it. The They Hate Change dudes got this Master Ace Inc. level of ancient cool going on, so I asked them to riff of it. They ended up making an entire song and then gave us access to the stems for our own. It’s a crazy ass way of making music, even for us, but I like it.
Margot Padilla: The instrumental I made for for Florence is inspired by Florence Avenue in South Los Angeles in the summertime. I imagine playing quarters with tip money on a wood table in the front yard. It sounds like the old gold Cadillac my family had when I was a kid. I sampled a ’70s kung fu movie soundtrack, recorded the rolling of a quarter on wood, added 808 kick samples, and cello synths.
Brian: This is my response to what I think of as weasel rap. All flex, no style. In previous bands I’ve done some pretty sympathetic songs towards teens, but here I fall directly on scathing. We all have conflicting feelings about the world.
Signor Benedick The Moor: “Partis” was originally much, much longer and stranger but we just couldn’t make it work. Then Brian was like, ‘What if we just cut it to 40 seconds and take almost all of the beat out?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, good idea. Haha.’
Brian: Boo Hiss had made this amazing beat for Shadi, but then Shadi decided to do all his own production for his forthcoming album. So we thought we’d salvage it. We failed. Our attempt to do something with it was ambitious, but just not working right. We stripped it for parts and got this oddball instead.
“MORE A KID (HARELD REMIX)”
HARELD: Whether I’m working with a sample—or in this case, doing a remix—t seems really necessary to draw a through line from the original to what it inspired. Whether that shows up in tone, title, or lyrics, I always want to show the math on where my ideas come from. In this case, I loved the line that gave the original song its name; it was simple, profound, and biting, like so many great lines are. So connecting that kind of warping notion of childhood to a warped version of children’s music was the starting point. I had an idea to use a children’s music box and when I found the right one, I thought its sweetness formed a nice dichotomy with the acidity of Daveed’s words—one that felt true to TNC’s music. From there, I just worked backwards making everything else.
Shadi: I know I wrote an insane amount of lyrics and it ended up getting chopped up because it was so much. In fact, what I recorded wasn’t even all of the lyrics. LOL. I improved a lot of the flow as well while recording, and there is a very high chance I was pretty fucking high while writing it. SO BADA BING BADA B00M.
Signor: Doctors was the soundtrack to the ill-fated Doctors tour, used in a trailer we shot at the park. it features sounds from a toy instrument at the park.
“WHEN THE SONG IS DONE”
Brian: This is my favorite song we’ve done. I wanted it to be as close to empty as possible, without losing its sense as a hip-hop track. In a way, it’s almost boom-bap, mostly because if we’re gonna use negative space so much, it made sense to have the few elements there immediately recognizable.
“GOD IS BORED”
Margot: The “God is Bored” instrumental is inspired by monotheism and how it’s terrifying. Also it’s really hilarious to think of a god that is like us. Or we are like them because then I just picture a wacky scientist and everything is going wrong that could. I imagine we are rats and we are just growing ears on our backs and we are becoming obese or having heart attacks because we are just being used as subjects in a series of weird experiments that is just to fill up the time of someone like us that is obsessed with power and bored. I could be wrong about my own inspiration I think this is what this is about? Recorded Brian hitting the toms, or maybe those were recorded elsewhere I don’t remember I recorded a session of his drumming but I don’t remember if this was the same session. The weird noises are synths mostly except the rattling that’s looped samples.
Signor: This song was inspired by mean girls. This is the last time I’ll rap in this style.
Margot: Brian handed this instrumental over to me. I laid out some choruses. The personality trait that I see at the forefront of god’s personality is domineering. I know it’s supposed to be forgiveness but I don’t get that. Relentless power and dominance over human lives is what I observe and get from the stories. Part of that dominance is god’s willingness to let human’s gain almost as much power as itself over other humans and then take it away and watch them beg and suffer and humiliate them in front of their followers. Google.
Signor: I was in the mood to rap my ass off.
Brian: Best hook I’ve ever written.
Yo!:Charlamagne has arguably been one of the most life-affirming and inspiring people I’ve ever met. We originally met under the auspice of putting out the BLKHRTS Dead Drops Vol. 1 12″, but on a whim I played him some solo stuff I was working on and the amount of genuine interest and excitement he showed for it really put the battery in my back to follow thru, and when BLKHRTS fell apart, he gave me a boost of confidence to see the silver lining. I already felt heavily in debt, so I leaped at the chance to reciprocate. There was a song he sent me as inspiration with no real mandate behind it other than to just see what i could do, It took me about a week to make and at first I had shown it Signor Benedick, and he must have in turn played it for Charlamagne, next thing I knew there were verses on it.
I’m genuinely awestruck by Signor’s wellspring of talent. He strikes me as a prototype for rap art of the future, and Brian’s ability to rap authentically to himself and the form is vital to creating new personas in the culture. I really like Signor’s intro verse because he drifts through flows and styles in this really schitzo way, but seamlessly; the final flow gives it the jolt needed to perk up ears. I also love Charlamagne’s bridge-like second verse. It kind of reminds me of like a Violent-Femmes-on-the-mic-type swag, which is sing-shpiel freshness that has a definite place in rap. Their live show is a thing of beauty and I’m geeked to see them play this.
Margot: This was the funnest instrumental to work on because it was like 10 minutes of just doing whatever I wanted. The only concept was ‘dark, powerful presence looming in the background.’ This was when we were actually called Monsanto as our band name and it was Brian, Melissa, and I and we were just going to be wearing cloaks and embody Monsanto. I can’t remember everything I did for this but lots of synths, and Brian’s drumming. We changed the name to True Neutral Crew and invited some collaborators. Recorded Brian and Daveed in a closet in my apartment which was terrible sounding! I had really shitty mics ended up using an Azden shotgun mic for them in this boxy sounding closet it was so weird. It was FUN!
Margot: Brian had an idea to use this Annette Funicello sample that I had never heard before but it sounded really sick! Recorded Brian’s synth guitar thing as the drone sound, his drums, and added some verses; it was wild and crazy and very fun to make. Brian was like, ‘Can you add some really beautiful soundscape that breaks up the gritty loops happening?’ And I was like sure! The verses were so out there I have never heard verses like these. LCKY came in with some really funky rhymes about sludge food and the city of industry and Daveed killed it of course.
Boo Hiss: Brian got in touch with me in Summer 2013 asking if I wanted to collaborate on his new project. We’ve been collaborating for ages and I was excited to hear his latest ideas. He came over to my hot Valley garage in the middle of summer armed with a floor tom and what he called his ‘special mics’. He wasn’t kidding. The floor tom sound we were able to get is one of the favorite things I’ve ever had on a beat. It just goes and goes. I had it even louder until mastering when we realized it had to come down a bit. I could listen to an isolated track of that thing and not get bored, but the complete track is even more fun!
Margot: I wrote my verse for this in response to Brian’s verse. It’s the light verse to keep it neutral.
Brian: Margot’s verse is way heavier than mine.
Daveed Diggs: SB is one of the best people to collaborate with because there really are no limitations on what he can create. He exists outside of genre, but not because he doesn’t understand it. It’s actually because he’s so fluent in so many musical languages that he can use them interchangeably. I’m always excited to see what he will do next.
Boo Hiss: We did this one in Spring 2014. Brian had just turned me on to Christian’s music and I was beyond psyched to get the three of us on a track. I had been listening to the great Soul Jazz Dancehall comp (highly recommend!) on repeat and told them I wanted to do something with inspiration from that and sent them some highlights and thoughts. I have never in my musical life ended up with a song that actually sounds like the style I was aiming for, but the thought process always takes me interesting places. We all took turns banging on drums and I worked in some trashy synth phrases from my OP-1, going for that ‘80s Casio vibe that makes some dancehall stuff so ridiculous and fun. I finished the instrumental later and sent it off, only to be blown away by the finished track they sent back. It was even more ridiculous and fun to me than the music that inspired it.
Brian: This beat was so good. I had to just write it about the producer himself, Boo Hiss.
“MORE A KID”
Robedoor: One spring evening in 2014 me and Alex went out to North Hollywood and set up our rig in Brian’s bedroom to record a song for the Deathbomb Arc digital singles club. It was hot as fuck so we had the AC blasting between takes. After a few decent but flawed passes, heavy with gong scrapes and stoned growls, Brian stopped us and offered some advice: “Try doing every section TWICE as many measures as your instincts tell you to.” That was it. We burned what was left, turned up the headphones, and locked into the best psychic chopping block doom lurch of the night.
A couple weeks later, Brian asked if we’d be down for him to edit the piece into a potential rhythm track and we were flattered and of course agreed. “More A Kid” is way beyond what we imagined it’d be: brutal and confusing and bizarrely structured, a weird arrhythmia of vocal flow and industrial plodding.
Margot: Brian had these lyrics already written out for the bridge of this track. I recorded my vocals and harmonized with them but I harmonized a weird chromatic scale with diatonic ones so it just sounds super weird.
Margot: This song is funny to me. It’s so compressed. It’s taking everything about a pop song and feeding it to itself and compressing it over and over again and making it louder until you can’t even hear it. I think I just yell/sang the hook, which is all you need basically.
S.R. Cano: I didn’t have any idea of what any of the other song elements were going to be. When I was asked for some synth I decided to take on the (imaginary) role of guitar soloist on a record called #PopPunk. I like to think of the lyric from the Tori Amos’ song “Northern Lad”: “I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars,” but replace pianos with synths. Yeah.
“CAN’T STOP LOVING YOU”
Margot: This song is super positive and heartfelt. The verse I did was more about being spiritual and spiritually connected. I still acknowledge, however, that we live in a world where spirituality is convoluted by corporations. I love the work of Algon Egipcio, who is from Venezuela. All of his music is beautiful; I hope to meet him in person some day!
Algodon Egpcio: When Brian first sent me the demo, the song was already titled “Can’t Stop Loving You.” It felt like a signal, because it was around the time I actually fell in love for the first (and only) time. I never really wanted to write a love song, at least on purpose, but it just clicked. The real trick was to do it entirely in Spanish, because things can get corny very quickly when you write romantic songs in the language; but I think it came out pretty.
The demo was very straight forward and didn’t feature anything more than bass, drums, and synths, so I wanted to keep just a single vocal take. But that thought wore off fast, and me being me, I doubled the vocals and recorded harmonies. I just couldn’t resist it. When the guys finally added the 808s and Margot’s rap on the bridge, it all came together beyond what I had pictured in my head. I’m proud of what we achieved.
“CALL ON THE HERD”
Brian: The first song to ever bear the True Neutral name, sans “crew” when I thought this project was a solo thing. Then I started working with Margot and Daveed and realized there is so much more possibility with collaboration. Still, this track sounds strong to me. It also set the tone for the group that we focus on hardware rather than software for making our music.
“A FEW LIGHTS ON THE WALL”
Brian: On a whim I asked Brian Chippendale to send me some drumming for a track. This is pretty chopped up in the end, but damn was it inspiring to work with.
Brian: This is just an improv that Margot and I did at Joel Jerome’s studio. I thought it sounded good, but we usually don’t operate this way. We’re usually super meticulous.
Margot: I sent Brian some vox stems for this verse and was like he can pick ones he liked but he just used all of them at the same time and it sounded crazy and I was like, ‘Aight, cool!’
Drew Daniel: When I was asked to contribute to a True Neutral Crew track I was stoked but also challenged because they wanted me to do a vocal for a posse track rather than beats/production, and I didn’t want to be the weak link in a posse track, so I had to think carefully about how to proceed.
To look at the rap skeleton in my closet, before I was in hardcore bands I made beats and did some rapping for King G and the J Krew (a project led by Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller of Rodan, Rachel’s, June of 44, Shipping News). I was called Deadly D; we put out a tape and played party shows in Louisville, Kentucky in the ’80s. So to rap again after decades of not doing that was kinda scary, as I didn’t want to sound lame. The more I thought about posse cuts, the more homoerotic they seemed to me, so I thought I’d play that up and wrote some aggressively faggy bars about group sex in a shower and threw that into “Squad Up.” And they were kind of enough to nudge me onto the beat. Never thought I’d be on a rap jam with Ned Raggett! Whoah.