The big a-ha! moment came when Miles Arntzen decided to remove himself from his own band. Counterintuitively, while editing lead single “Same Thing,” the drummer, singer, and bandleader muted his drum section in a stint of experimental reconfiguration in the studio, and the results produced a spark.
“We took them out and it was like, ‘Oh my God, listen to all this music happening around the drums!’” recalls Arntzen. “When you take the drums out, you start to hear the rhythm and everything the drums were providing embedded in the other instruments around it. It sort of was the key that unlocked a lot of space in the music and allowed us to really be free in accessing what was going on.”
This notion of re-examining rhythm and the intricate ways it can be reshaped is touched on frequently throughout EMEFE’s self-titled record, which was self-released on May 4. Arntzen says he’s obsessed with these “magical rhythmic moments,” as he dubbed it during a string of tweets he sent in March when he wrote that a “deep alignment occurs where musical space & musical matter are perfectly tuned” and then specifically referred to a track off Kendrick Lamar’s record To Pimp a Butterfly: “0:41 in Kendrick’s ‘King Kunta‘ is a magical rhythmic moment between the bass, the beat, and the vocal echo.” When listening back to that brief section, you quickly hear what he means. The three elements combine to fuse an enticing moment that hits before floating away.
Arntzen says his goal is to make the ubiquitous nature of rhythm universally accepted and feels that there needs to be more of an emphasis on teaching it in music schools. He believes rhythm is not only something that a drummer is playing, but a wider concept of timing and space that exists in various facets of everyday life: in how we speak, walk, or choose to plan out the day. For Arntzen, this is all connected.
“Especially living and growing up in New York, we all move to such a repetitive rhythm without even realizing it,” says the lifelong Greenwich Village resident. “We all have our routines, especially when it comes to technology and how we use technology. It’s so easy to approach life with a glaze on everything. With making this album — it’s not like I’m trying to make a statement or anything — I’m just trying to point out that there are rhythms that work when you don’t even know it and maybe you are moving through life with a sort of static that all you need is a push or jolt and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is me. I’m present.’”
Arntzen founded the eight-piece ensemble (pronounced Em-eff-ay) as a freshman at NYU and spent the past six years evolving the band’s blend of Fela Kuti-inspired Afrobeat with dashes of Prince- and David Byrne-channeling pop orchestration. The band spent two years writing EMEFE and recorded the tracks at percussionist Javier Ramos’s family home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. After the bulk of the songs had been composed, Arntzen stumbled across the book And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran, a member of the French Resistance during World War II. The author’s account of having his remaining senses drastically heightened after he became blind appealed to Arntzen, as did Lusseyran’s comments on self-exploration: You either confront yourself and progress or fail to develop and become lost.
“I read that and it instantly made me think of my EMEFE songs, because half of them felt like songs where you’re going down to this area of yourself or your character and just wallowing in it while the other half of the songs felt like there was a resolve,” he says.
And There Was Light inevitably shaped the track listing of EMEFE: The first half, titled “the Tension Suite,” explores the descent into static emotions while the latter half, “the Release Suite,” offers a resolution. This two-part design also translated to how Arntzen and EMEFE structure their live performances.
“The shows naturally have this flow that we didn’t even really talk about; it just sort of happened this way,” Arntzen explains. “The first [parts] you’re sort of feeling each other out: The band is feeling out the audience and the audience is getting used to seeing this big band onstage. We would play our more reserved dance songs at the beginning. And as the show goes on, we sort of let loose more. By the end, it’s this total party, [but] you couldn’t start there. We never could start with that. It’s weird, it sort of happened naturally.”
Besides fronting EMEFE, Arntzen also performs in the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas and has spent part of this past year touring in Will Butler’s band, the multi-instrumentalist from Arcade Fire. Arntzen drew heavy motivation from Butler’s approach to live music and rendered the inspiration into EMEFE’s shows.
“EMEFE has always been a great live band, but we never even thought about what it is to sort of craft a show,” he admits. “We’re naturally energetic and naturally lively musicians, but once I saw [Butler’s performances] and put it into the EMEFE show, the shows have been above and beyond what they’ve ever been.”
EMEFE will kick off a month-long residency at Baby’s All Right on September 3, with performances following on September 17 and September 24.