Irreversible Entanglements | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
The High Key Portrait Series: Irreversible Entanglements
“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in recurring installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
This week, Irreversible Entanglements released their second record, Who Sent You?, offering five new tracks of Philadelphia poet’s Camae Ayewa’s urgent incantations, delivered against a scattered soundscape of frenetic free jazz led by Philly sax player Keir Neuringer.
It’s is the kind of music you sit with awhile, the kind that confronts and challenges, the kind you appreciate more each time you tune in to it and that comes together in new ways with each full performance.
Best known by her stage name Moor Mother, Ayewa’s roots in afrofuturism, jazz and hip hop, punk rock, slam poetry and political activism translate to a wild ride no matter what project she’s working on. The same can be said for Neuringer, whose work in this project and the Neuringer / Dulberger / Masri trio was described by our Alex Smith as experimental as well as experiential.
Back in December, Ayewa, Neuringer and co. — trumpet player Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart, drummer Tcheser Holmes — played a charged set for a crowded house at the Sittin’ In: Live Sessions series at the Kimmel. They spoke with us briefly afterwards, giving some love to Philly’s legendary monthly hip hop event The Gathering, and venting some earnest frustrations too about some of the challenges around honing craft as an experimental DIY musician in this city.
The Key: Camae, you came to Philly for Art Institute of Philadelphia, and Keir did you grow up in Philadelphia?
Keir Neuringer: No, I came here in 2012.
TK: Did you guys know each other before, or you met here?
Camae Ayewa: No, we met here.
KN: We met on the scene, [Camae] emceed for a Books Through Bars event, and I was organizing with Books Through Bars.
TK: What was your first memory of playing a show in Philadelphia, for a Philadelphia crowd? How did you feel that night, and where was it?
CA: First performance was in West Philly, on Penn’s campus, at this event called The Gathering.
TK: Right, at the Rotunda?
CA: No, it was before it was at The Rotunda, the original spot was on Penn’s Campus, near where the Kelly Writers House is, but right before you get there. They allowed us to have this event.
TK: You were performing solo — were you performing as Moor Mother at that point?
CA: No. I was in a group called The [Mighty Para]Docs, with me and my best friend Rebecca. The Gathering is a hip hop event where breakdancers come, and they have emcees from all over come and cypher. It was a very welcoming event, mostly people there were my friends.
TK: Is that how you broke into the Philly music scene or community? Did you have people who were involved that you felt could mentor you as an artist?
CA: No, it was just a bunch of us that were going to school here, and we found each other and we started working on music.
TK: So from the Art Institute, that community. How about you, Keir?
KN: The first time I really played here, there’s an organization called Fire Museum Presents, and it was a DIY show, I came and I played a solo set, saxophone, in an art gallery that’s no longer in existence in Fishtown. That was before I moved here, and then I moved here and I got in on sort of the experimental-DIY scene. Once [Camae and I] hooked up, we played a couple of duo shows . . .
CA: . . . at Vox Populi, at The Fire.
TK: What was the name of the project?
CA: It didn’t have a name, it was just our individual names, playing together.
TK: When you think about the Philly community, playing and creating in Philly, do you think there are any advantages to you as an artist to being in this city, and how do you feel it influenced you?
CA: I guess the advantage was, we didn’t have a place to play besides The Gathering. It was just me looking for a place to play, it was a whole group of us.
KN: You know, honestly, I find it very challenging. I think that there [needs to be] infrastructure for a scene. It takes a lot of energy to maintain a DIY scene in the absence of places where you can play — where you’re guaranteed a fee, or just places to try out your work, to be out and playing — that infrastructure’s missing, I find.
TK: Missing for promotion?
KN: I mean, across the board. I mean the scene’s changed a lot everywhere over the last decade or two. But what I mean is, you’re a musician and you want to present your work. And there’s really like a very underground scene, and then there’s like a really well-funded scene, and there’s not a lot in the middle — at least for the kind of music we’re making.
TK: Well that was gonna be my next question — what if anything do you find most frustrating about being an artist here?
CA: Lack of venues.
TK: For a specific type of music, or for . . .
CA: . . . everybody.
TK: Do you have any particular Philly artists whom you look up to, either artistically or who have helped mentor you as an artist?
CA: Well the whole Philly soul scene, and Patti LaBelle, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Billie Holiday, of course. Of people that I’ve met before, King Britt has been really supportive to me.
KN: Somebody that’s been really great to me is a saxophonist named Bobby Zankel, who’s kinda been an unofficial mentor since I’ve been here, and really encouraging. He’s Philly jazz royalty.
CA: Yeah, also Elliott Levin.
Irreversible Entanglements’ Who Sent You? is out now, via International Anthem and Don Giovanni Records. Grab a download or order a vinyl copy here.