Instrumental Inversions: Brasstracks Interviewed
“LA feels too easy. Where’s the challenge?” Spoken like a true New Yorker, Ivan Jackson is wedded to his city. One half of the instrumental-forward production duo Brasstracks, the other half is New Jersey native, Conor Rayne. With Ivan on the trumpet, guitar and keys, and Conor on the drums, Brasstracks have created a niche for themselves, both within the NYC community and internationally.
The duo originally met at the Manhattan School of Music, but left early to take their careers full time, having become disenchanted with the rigidity of jazz education. Both influenced heavily by their experiences in New Orleans brass bands, Ivan explains why they create and perform their own arrangements of popular tracks, such as XO Tour Lif3, “To connect to people and to artists that aren’t using lyrics, it’s helpful to get them singing with you, and then they’re with you the whole time.” Nowadays the duo make and perform less of these tracks, as their following has swollen.
Speaking of the musical context in which they work, Conor praises the widening accessibility of production, “I feel from 2008 through to today, it’s been a growing thing of producers who are doing everything on the laptop, which is awesome.”
However, Conor and Ivan start a session with instruments, instead of a computer, which they work with later using Ableton or Logic Pro. This inverted process can be intimidating for some collaborators, “It can cause confusion when someone has gone in for five years with just laptop producers, and we’re like, ‘We want to set up drums’.”
Ivan describes their positioning plainly, “You hear the sounds on the radio, you have artists that want to make popular music, and then you have us.”
This process won them the 2016 Best Rap Performance GRAMMY on producing ‘No Problem’ for Chance The Rapper. However, the award led to a series of unfulfilling ‘copycat’ requests, “We were frustrated because there was an influx of recording sessions that wanted a ‘No Problem’, which isn’t really the way it works. We create in the moment and not for any reason but to create.”
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The year following was tricky for other reasons too. Receiving a GRAMMY so early in their career was bound to make an impact on the pair’s mindset. Ivan honestly acknowledges that, “Probably for about a year afterwards, I had an inflated ego. I’ll admit that I had to walk some of it back.”
Conor reflects this sentiment and the deeper calling they both feel, “Recognition and praise, those things wear off, and you’re not doing it for that...It’s a weird dissatisfaction where you’re like, ‘I just need to keep doing this, I don't know why but it’s in me’.” Not helped by simultaneously receiving their first ever publishing deal, the attention, success and money all culminated in the duo having to reset.
Three years past this point, Ivan describes what a studio session looks like these days, “It’s never a full Brasstracks session unless you have both of us there,” alluding to the fact that himself and Conor work as solo artists too.
He continues, “We’re polar opposites in a lot of ways, so you get that interplay... I don’t think we’ve ever gone to a session together where we haven’t walked out with a song.” This energy is why since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Brasstracks have been rejecting requests for Zoom sessions, “I [Ivan] work off other people’s energy. There’s a part of me that has that producer/client relationship...and the only way to really get there is learning about a person and understanding them on a human level.”
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Luckily for them, the duo completed an album named 'Golden Ticket' before lockdown, which is now being released. Brasstracks held themselves accountable by naming their preceding EP Before We Go, which was to say, “‘This is a collection of songs before we go make an album’.”
Ivan explains the whimsical album title and what it means to them: “In ‘Willy Wonka’, the golden ticket is meant to be this wonderful, magical thing and then there’s a dark side to it. Is this actually the golden ticket to success? What does the golden ticket look like for us, so why overthink it?”
The 12-track album is a either a perfect introduction to Brasstracks, or a perfect celebration of them, depending from which direction you’re approaching. With a packed feature list, you’d be forgiven for missing the collaboration between EQT label mate Masego, and the legendary Common.
Named after the project, Ivan and Conor can hardly believe ‘Golden Ticket’ exists. “We’re still like, how the f**k did we get Common on this album?” After Masego was locked in, he suggested Common for the second verse, and miraculously manager-lawyer emails were effective. For Ivan, it’s a dream come true, “I grew up listening to Common, I can rap full Common verses, not that you’ll ever hear me do it.”
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With a discography that spans at least 128 tracks, including solo work, the pair have collaborated across the musical spectrum, with the likes of Anderson .Paak, VanJess and S’natra. They are no stranger to working with icons, most notably Mark Ronson and Robert Glasper: “There was a year where we worked with Mark Ronson pretty frequently.”
Conor describes the impact that working with Ronson had on his outlook, “He’s such a master blender of ideas... I remember him specifically kicking my ass in gear into realising the importance of always listening to new information.”
Knowing that Glasper similarly works with a “wide knowledge of history and respect for tradition’, each became powerful forces in Ivan and Conor’s relationship with music. Ironically, these influences were at odds with each other: “Robert Glasper helps push us as jazz musicians to become producers and not worry about the rules that jazz music was putting on us, and Mark Ronson inspired us to go back to those roots. It’s really weird how they both affected us super heavily but in vastly different ways.”
It’s clear from how Conor and Ivan express themselves, who they work with, and how they carry themselves, that Brasstracks are in a committed relationship with music. They thrive on making fans happy, working with people they’ve admired for years, or only just discovered.
With an eye on legacy, Conor is re-evaluating what it all means, “The tangible thing that lasts is how you affect others. It’s hard to reprogram the alternate message of the world, but I’m doing my best to do that.”
Ivan shares this frequency, with his own version of success, “Doing what you love, being able to support yourself and your loved ones with it and leaving the world a little bit of a better place after you’re gone.”
If they don’t already do that with their music, they’re trying to by speaking out on social injustices, using their platform for palpable change. You can now listen to Brasstracks’ latest single, ‘Hold Ya’, featured on the upcoming album. 'Golden Ticket' will be available everywhere on August 21st.
Brasstracks would like to say, uncategorically, that Black Lives Matter. This interview began with a discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement, an edited transcript of which is below to make their thoughts and feelings clear...
Conor: I really strongly feel that it’s important as a human to be speaking out on these things... It’s up to me to acknowledge how I’ve unwittingly benefitted from a system and now use it as a tool to fight against evil... I grew up in an education system that skirted around the issue, and didn’t really reveal hard truths about America and the founding of America. Media fed into that delusion and perpetuated the myth that false message.
But I was really lucky to have an immediate environment that came to my rescue, and pointed out the evil of racism. What I'm trying to do now is acknowledge the reality that there are people out there who didn’t have that environment. They grew up in an environment that encouraged violence and intolerance against Black people, and POC.
Racism is a problem of ignorance and fear, so I'm doing my best to speak out where I can on the issue, and amplify the voices of Black people so that I’m not amplifying it back to them, and not back to the people in my life that know that racism is wrong.
Ivan: There’s not much nuance to this. It’s us versus racists... As far as New York goes, you can cut the tension with a knife here. I live in the Lower East Side, you walk ten blocks out of my apartment and you’re at protests. Curfew has never been instilled like this. It’s a police state. I wake up angry everyday. [Curfew was active at time of interview].
Conor: Trying to be accountable for your actions is a process, it’s not an overnight thing, it’s a lifelong journey. I need to make sure that everything I say about it, I mean.
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Words: Nicola Davies
Photography: Shawn Jordan
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