With 20 years, multiple releases and many 40+ date tours under their belts and beards, independent rappers Sage Francis and B.Dolan are successful artists in their own right. This collaboration as Epic Beard Men doesn’t lose any of that, and has brought newfound variation and energy.
Their music covers personal struggle and political resistance with a lyrical talent to unravel the complexities of life and over-thinking, and as Epic Beard Men none of this is lacking. The new album ‘This Was Supposed To Be Fun’ overflows with enthusiasm, an exciting variety of beats and hooks to draw you in to the storytelling, social commentary and the unique blend of humour that has made their name. Ahead of their upcoming Brighton show at Patterns we sat down with them both, via the power of Skype, to talk about writing music together for the new album, their influences, Brighton memories, vinyl and their relationship with their fans.
How did the Epic Beard Man collaboration come together?
B.Dolan: It came together lovingly. It took time. I never felt lost, it just was a lot of work.
Sage Francis: We spent so much time together on the road, and that allows for a lot of bands conversations, a lot of song concepts to just arise out of them. Sitting in hotel rooms and, you know, building off of that and creating the songs. We tour enough together, so let’s do some official project work together as a group and not just two solo artists. That was the inception.
Is the new album ‘This Was Supposed To Be Fun’ a reminder of the fun to be had in creativity?
BD: Reminding ourselves at this point in life, music, careers and responsibilities that there is still fun in this thing that we’re doing as we circle 40. A thing that came from us as young kids, this was their idea [laughs]. So we might as well be honest to that. There’s always meant to be fun in our approach, and the results of it are supposed to be a party.
SF: I’ve never had a party. I bypassed the party part, when I saw there was any kind of possible career I put my head down and ran forward. Took every opportunity I could to make sure I never lost that opportunity. With that comes a lot of work a lot of dedication and discipline and no parties and not hanging out with friends and not playing video games. It really was desperation. This is what I know I can do, this is what I’m good at and finally other people are appreciating that and I wanna make sure that I don’t lose this. So I’ve been doing that. I didn’t even know that was possible until about 1999, so it’s 20 years of me being on the edge of my seat hoping that this shit never goes away. Even though there’s no fun involved.
BD: We rock parties. We still party.
How was writing together after so many years writing solo?
SF: That collaborative process was mostly in the van, and then anything that came after was us in different rooms and recording under different circumstances. And then coming together with afterthoughts and notes on how to fix things until we would come together, sometimes in the same studio together. I recorded most of my parts in my house and Bee wrote all of his inside a bathroom.
BD: During one panic attack in Montana. [laughs]
Did you discuss what the album was going to be about?
BD: We came to an understanding pretty quickly about what Epic Beard Men would be, what would be right from both of our types of songs for collaboration. There was like a beginning time where we just pulled together a bunch of song concepts and beats. We had an understanding because of a couple of songs like ‘You Can’t Win’ and ‘Too bad’, things we had released early on before we set out to make this collection of songs that turned in to ‘Season 1’ and ‘This Was Supposed To Be Fun’.
How do you stick to deadlines working together?
SF: We weren’t really good on deadlines. Bee was wrapped up in a lot of movie stuff when we were approaching our own deadline. And then I ended up in a personal shitstorm that took me away from EBM duties. Eventually we got what we needed to do so we could tour the material.
BD: Also it took a long time for a lot of things to be mixed and replayed. We recorded a bunch of stuff in Brooklyn and then came back to Rhode Island to put it all together over the course of a couple of years with producer DS3K. So mixing deadlines and writing deadlines.
You both cover social struggle and politics, anything you felt needed covering in this album?
SF: Political rap can be too on the nose. It can be cheap in how you pander to a certain political base or ideology and I think both of us are really good at not pandering to one thing, but also fighting for values that we believe are important. I think Bee is more straightforward than I am in his approach, where he’s just like ‘This is what’s up, fuck everybody else’. The track ‘Hedges’ is the perfect example, we’re not saying what you’re supposed to think. We want you to experience the paranoia we all exist in and how certain sides can come with their perspective, why these clashes happen and why we feel more separated than ever despite all the connectivity.
Has talking about mental health opened conversations with fans at shows?
BD: People reach out and have all types of things to say and have all types of connections with the art you make, and we just talked about the zone we’re in when we make it is a pretty self-absorbed zone. It’s really about ourselves, what are we trying to say and do and what we sound like. And then it goes out and people become attached to parts of it. I guess it’s a privilege to have a window into someone’s very personal self as a result of something you did. And it feels like a responsibility.
SF:It’s important you do what’s good for yourself and others and trudge forward. That’s why I make music, so please, if the music helps you that’s an honour. I’m happy to know the music somehow helped another person’s situation, but there comes a point where I can’t literally address everything that you’re dealing with. I also hate the idea that what I say may be make or break for a person, ya know? We are not professionally trained psychiatrists, we will talk as friends but I also don’t like to talk to people so that’s a me problem not a you problem. You have to tread lightly when you get in to that type of stuff because we do talk about some very heavy subjects and I know it attracts certain people who are going through incredibly tough times yet we have our own lives.
It’s important that those things are covered in music and art, not hidden away.
SF: It’s sorta like a gangster rapper kind of invites people to shoot them, in a weird way. [Laughs]
BD: Emotionally. [Laughs]
SF: We take that on. We’re the emotional gangsters who bring on people who are gonna fucking shoot us with very difficult situations and we have to help.
What are you listening to right now? What influenced you when writing the album?
BD: During the writing process I was also working on the film score, so I was listening to a lot of soul music from the 70s and trying to deconstruct a lot of that music. I was very focused on grooves and basslines. There’s a lot of good new hip hop I hear, there’s a lot of very technical good writers, there are great producers. I wouldn’t say I’m really camping on anyone’s catalogue at the moment. There’s a rapper Worldwide coming out of Houston and I’ve been listening to J.I.D, but I’ve been listening to our shit.
SF: I run Strange Famous Records, the most music I listen to is our artists and trying to help them put together songs or albums. Also going through all the demos that get sent to us, and after all that I really don’t want to sit down to listen to any more hip hop or music at all. Fuck all the other rappers, I don’t personally care. B.Dolan does enjoy more hip hop than I do these days. Sometimes he hits me with stuff that I can enjoy as well but overall I really don’t give a fuck. I’m not trying to seek out new cats, we came up with the best motherfuckers.
We’ve seen you play Brighton, when you think of this city what comes to mind?
BD: I have a couple! My first time in Brighton was a Dan le Sac and Scroobius Pip show, I remember that one. And Brighton was just immediately… I was like wow this city is wild. I hadn’t encountered an audience quite like Brighton anywhere else in England.
SF: I just like hanging out on Brighton beach after everything has closed down, where just the bad people are chillin. That’s what I remember. And I remember the Slush Puppy on the pier. I love that, everything is so weird and it just closes down and you feel like you’re not supposed to be there. I like the hang out on the beach and just staring at the dead world of stuff that comes alive once the sunlight is there.
BD: Brighton was the first hotel room I stayed where you could order a sex toy off a menu. Seems like that was easier to get than a good pizza. [Laughs]
You’ve got a big UK and European tour on – do you feel crowds in the UK are different to those in the US?
BD: There’s always differences in energy, city to city. The UK has always been super supportive from our first tours out there. There’s a great response immediately with pre-sales and all that, which is noticeable. That said, turnout wise or with like who we meet in these cities, Bristol is always one that sticks out in my mind. We’ve had great shows in weird places like Milton Keynes. The UK is always up for it and ready to throw down at a show, that’s the main thing I like about it.
SF: I’ve never had a show in the UK that comes close to the worst shows I’ve had in the U.S. I go in to the UK with confidence, I go in to the US tour kinda wondering how many people are gonna show up at certain points. You know how the UK adopted Bob Dylan early on? They kinda adopted even Neil Young, well I’m sorta like them. [Laughs] Bill Hicks, Bill Hicks! You guys like really great shit. Certain stuff takes off in the UK that the US is slow to adopt.
What has kept you hungry making music? What is driving you?
BD: For me at this point it’s probably collaboration and doing things I don’t exactly know how to do, challenging myself in some new way. I kinda hope that keeps me from getting too stuck in any one place. So this record, the challenge was to split it in half ya know? It’s not your record anymore, even lyrically, as a frontman or personality. Split it in half 50/50 and do all the things that are possible when you’re two guys and work that in as many musical directions as you can, which presented a whole new bunch of things we can do. That’s what keeps me sharp.
SF: It’s a tough question. I feel like the main thing that keeps me going is that the funnest part of what we do is writing and recording. That’s the funnest thing that I do, pretty much, in my life. So to get in to a studio and surprise myself or challenge myself to write a song that I want to hear that no-one else has ever made, that is something I’m proud of. You get a boost, you get a dopamine shot from it. I like to impress or out-do myself and make stuff that I like to listen to and I’m not hearing anywhere else. See where the fire takes you man, if you’ve got a burst of creativity and you’re able to actually execute something with it, that’s a privilege. I don’t take that lightly.
Did Scroobius Pip’s application for Epic Beard Men get rejected? Or are you still processing the paperwork?
SF: Oh he has a more epic beard than we do! He did actually send an application before we were doing anything official. We have a video of it. At the same time, we knew we were gonna tour a lot on the states and he’s very scared of coming to the US. We had to consider that when bringing people in to the crew.
You mention this album coming out on vinyl, how important is that to you? What was the last album you physically bought?
SF: We’re record collectors, both of us, but Bee has been on a vinyl binge. I don’t know if I’ve been to a store to buy something new though, I don’t even have space for any new records.
BD: I just reached for the nearest stack and the last record I bought was the original movie soundtrack to Where The Buffalo Roam, which is the movie in which Bill Murray plays Hunter S. Thompson. It’s got ‘All Along The Watch Tower’, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ and it’s also got a bunch of clips from the movie which is why I bought it. A lot of Bill Murray dialogue that I wanted.
It only takes your internet to go down to realise streaming has its limits.
BD: Yeah, my record collection is too big right now, I’ve got so much dope shit in here to chop up that I don’t even have time to do it. I’m hoping when this tour is over I can spend a long winter just chopping samples and breaks in here. I definitely love vinyl and am a student of vinyl, I appreciate lots of different packaging through the ages, styles of vinyl and the finality of vinyl. I don’t feel like a record is real until I hold the vinyl, especially when we’ve made it.
Epic Beard Men, Patterns, Wednesday 7th August 2019
Words and photos by Mike Tudor