Chill/Unchill: Blackbird Blackbird's Harmony in Opposites

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Blackbird Blackbird

Right down to his vocal inflections, Mikey Maramag exudes the West Coast. He was born a couple thousand miles west of there in Hawaii, but since he was seven years old he's called the Bay Area home. He lives in Oakland now, where he moved from San Francisco a year ago and where he recently honed the tracks on his new record Tangerine Sky. Released June 3 on Om Records, the album is the first full-length he'll put out with the support of an actual label behind him.

”Don't call me chillwave,” he says over the phone. “It's like the worst word ever. I'm over it.” He sounds amused, though, and he'll tell me in a minute that he doesn't really care if fans slap the label on his music as long as they don't mean it as an insult. “I don't like genres in general. Calling anything tropical-wave-house is just…I don't fuck with it,” he continues. A close listen to Maramag's music, which he issues under the name Blackbird Blackbird, reveals that he leans much more steeply toward Caribou's Dan Snaith than Chaz Bundick, who came to epitomize “chillwave” as Toro Y Moi five years ago. To be fair, Maramag picked a contentious time to start putting out not-chillwave music. His debut, Summer Heart, came to fruition in July of 2010, exactly a year after chillwave's fabled peak. The subgenre was fading from the forefront of music news, and albums with the word “summer” in the title were passed over in favor of Beach House's glossy hypnagogia, Janelle Monáe's blossoming sci-fi, and Ariel Pink's ironic detachment.

But Summer Heart was never chillwave. It fit snugly beside Swim, Caribou's fifth LP released just months earlier, with bold, stacked beats and murky vocals. Instead of getting caught in the undertow of artists from the same side of the country using the same tropical signifiers, Maramag found his audience growing beyond his expectations. He threw the thing up on Bandcamp, and almost before he knew it he was touring Europe with other young, American producers who had made it across the pond on the music they assembled in their bedrooms.

“When I was touring Europe, it was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? I can't even believe that I'm here right now,’” Maramag recounts. “There was this tour I did with XXYYXX, Giraffage, and Slow Magic. We were in London at this venue called Koko, and that's when it hit me. We were all bedroom producers doing our thing, and then we all came together for that show. It was really amazing that people would come out to see that. It was a sold-out show and there were nearly 2,000 people there. I was just like, ‘Holy shit, this is going down.’”

Though it could be grouped comfortably with Caribou's past efforts, Tangerine Sky has plenty of the same DNA as Snaith's house side project Daphni. The title track opens the LP with a techno throb and nervously rising synth, while “Treehouse”, which made appearances in Maramag's live sets before he conceived the rest of the album, almost works as pure, undiluted house. Other songs, like “Darlin Dear”, feel too gentle and too pop to fit neatly under electronica's umbrella. Maramag knits this stuff together, but doesn't soften the edges of his sources. He makes subtle, high-contrast music.

Emotionally, the record also deals in extremes. Maramag doesn't hide his voice in reverb here like he did on Summer Heart, opting for a crisper sound by which his lyrics come across more readily. “I was originally going to call it 'Love Unlimited,'” he tells me. “The album is about love, and losing love, and past love, and also coming to terms with your past loves informing your current love. There's this dichotomy working between being elated about love and then everything crumbling. It's two opposites working against each other and together.” In his own lax, easy way, he gets hyped. “I really like working with a mindfuck of my own emotions,” he adds.

Unlike some producers who rely upon platforms like Soundcloud to connect with their audiences, Blackbird Blackbird is an artist who deals in albums. He's not a singles guy, though the web has ostensibly steered more and more young musicians toward the short-form. Ask him about it and he'll gush: “The album is my favorite format in music. I love albums so much. I think some singles are great and music is kind of moving in that direction, but for me, listening to albums that are great front-to-back is just the best thing.”

It's Tangerine Sky's inner contradictions that allow it to function as a 45-minute whole, to take the shape that Maramag struggled for a while to imagine. The record—and Blackbird Blackbird's overall sound—crystallizes on track nine. As far as I can tell, “Rare Candy” was named for an inventory item you can find playing Pokemon. There's a steady chug of electric guitar at its marrow, but it bursts with computerized embellishments. It's sunny, floral, and also dark. “Kiss me back—I don't want to be alone anymore,” Maramag sings along one of the record's catchiest vocal lines. For all its helium, the song can't shuck its lead.

Blackbird Blackbird doesn't make especially demanding music, but it definitely doesn't deserve to be called chill. It'll let you in as far as you want to go. Maybe it's best to call it passive music, the kind that won't steal you out of your world by force but will absolutely let you get lost in it if you choose. It's very West Coast.

Maramag doesn't mind saying that Tangerine Sky is probably the best example of his work. He's no bragger, but he's not above taking credit for a job well done. “I'm really excited for people to hear it,” he says. “I think it's probably my best shit to date. I'm really proud of it. I'm not shy of saying that.” In Blackbird Blackbird's world of compatible extremes, the way he says it still sounds like modesty.