The hip-hop ensemble plays June 3 at the Terrace and July 27 at the Shitty Barn.
The hip-hop ensemble ME eN YOU bubbled up from UW-Madison’s First Wave program over the past couple of years, expanding to involve many artists in the program and musicians and writers in the larger UW community. Essentially it’s a large band—incorporating live drums, guitar, horns, keyboards, cello, and a lot of singers and rappers—that aims to be something more open, collaborative, and abstract.
Sometimes that manifests in sheer numbers, as when the band played last year’s Freakfest with a 17-member lineup on stage. Other times it’s about playing with format: At this year’s Line Breaks festival in March, ME eN YOU performed a theater piece called We Don’t Know What Love Is. In the piece, members Daniel Kaplan and Eric Newble play two characters simply called “Me" and “You,” who are seemingly born into a sort of void and try to explore the nature of identity and love through neurotic but strangely profound dialogues with each other. The show ultimately flows back into music, with the band kicking into a euphoric, circular chorus of “I wanna believe in love, I wanna, I wanna believe in love, I wanna believe.”
The past year has also seen the release of the three-song EP We Are A Mediocre Masterpiece. Now What? This and the earlier single “Drama King” are the entirety of the band’s recorded output so far. But even the four songs out there stuff in a ton of exuberance and imagination. “We Are” combines frantic verses with a gospel-evoking group chorus, all tied together with Nate France’s darting saxophone phrases. A November 2015 performance on Wisconsin Public Television incorporates some of the EP with a few as-yet-unreleased tracks. That performance begins with the whole band shouting “Hi, Mom!” to the cameras, capturing a bit of the smart-assed, slap-happy vibe that accompanies the earnest and turbulent music.
As the summer gets started, ME eN YOU will be writing new music, plotting new projects that might include a marching-band and a “field day,” and playing a couple shows. On June 3 at the Terrace, ME eN YOU will play a full set of its own material and a set backing up Milwaukee singer Siren. On July 27 at the Shitty Barn, they’ll share the bill with Madison avant-jazz band Lovely Socialite. I recently sat down with Kaplan, Newble, France, and MC/singer Eli Lynch. Here’s a few excerpts from our conversation.
Tone Madison: What have you been working on since the Line Breaks show?
Eric Newble: The spring is a weird time. Out of the winter, into the spring is always a very weird time for me, I feel like. And it seems like it happens like that for some of us consistently. I guess what we're working on mostly is figuring out how we want to work. That's my easiest way of saying it, aside from being like, "We have a lot of songs and we are working on a lot of music all the time." I would say that we're really trying to figure out a workflow that is conducive for us to just be alive and not hate it.
Nate France: From start to finish. Because finishing things is probably our next step.
Eli Lynch: There were a lot of challenges that we've found trying to work so collectively without having an individual be leader. There's no, like, John Lennon of the situation. Everybody in the group is very creative and I think a great artist in their own right, but there are such different energies. So trying to figure out how to meld them into one without there being a dominant stylistic or ideological voice has been—it's like just trying to capture a whole stampede at once.
Daniel Kaplan: I feel like also just working on being happy as people, I feel like a lot of people with these questions are like, "Check out my EP coming up and my mixtape after that," and I think that we've just been working on, or I as a part of this process, have been working on becoming the people that we want to be and not making sacrifices in our art to try and rush that process or get to a certain place and then forget where was home.
Eric Newble: With the whole workflow thing, I think a lot of that is figuring out the ways that we need to support each other better. It was really beautiful, the beginning of coming together and really just being, "Hell yeah, let's do all types of stuff together all the time!" We were doing that, and continue to do that, but a lot of us also live together, and there's so many things that play into the other side of art creation. When you're invested in the creation side of it, and also in the life side of it with people, there's no way to be able to successfully make anything if you don't know the tell-tale signs of, "It seems like something maybe is up with you today."
Eli Lynch: I think that in general, summer tends to be a very fruitful time for life in general. I think that some of us have found that creatively, the same thing is true. That's when there's a lot to harvest, or there's a lot that comes out.
Daniel Kaplan: Yeah, but, you know, check out our EP that's coming out and then...[everybody laughs] and then our mixtape after that and then just a bunch of music, a bunch of shows.
Eric Newble: After the Line Breaks show, I think that we were all exhausted from the amount of work that went into it, the stress that went into it, the lack of some support and resources that we needed that we were trying to make up for. All of that just drained us to the point where went for weeks when we weren't even playing music, I feel like. The first time we came back to just sitting down and improvising and playing music, I was just like, I feel more ready to consciously create things when I know that we can put ourselves in a space to kind of just noodle, even.
Eli Lynch: And I think that kind of also relates to balancing a collective artist that is also made of a bunch of people who are also artists in their own right. Even with the Line Breaks show, that show had been accepted into the festival really early on into the early stages of the formation of ME eN YOU, and at the same time there was another show that was being put on by one of the members that ended up drawing on a lot of the same people. So essentially, it was almost like there were two separate shows being written at the same time that involved everybody.
Tone Madison: And it sounds like it's hard to manage that whole collective aspect and also just keep things moving.
Nate France: And also separating some of the individual work from the collective work. Oftentimes it'll just be two of us that are working on an idea and trying to decipher whether that becomes, in the future, a part of the body of work that is ME eN YOU or if that's separate.
Tone Madison: How do you think the relationships and creative approaches within the band have changed over the past year?
Nate France: The first thing that jumps to mind for me is, at the outset it seemed like we were trying to rope in as many people that we really wanted to work with as possible. Almost one of the first ideas that we followed through on was our website, and that was initially supposed to be, in the grandiose scheme of things, a social network for artists to kind of come together. That was where we set our sights first. And then it was like, OK, we should be working with the people around us a little more intensely first. The next big thing I think of was the Freakfest show where we had 17 people onstage and we were just trying to cram all this energy into one moment and one place.
We also realized how difficult that really is, logistically, or just keeping people on the same page and achieving the goals that we've set up for this project. So then I think we kind of reined it back. For Line Breaks, it was mostly a core five us that ended up doing a lot of the initial writing and groundwork, and then we brought people in after that. I think now we're left to ask ourselves which [approach] works best, or how can we do both, and what is that going to look like now?
Tone Madison: It seems like your goals for this are as much about that whole interpersonal dynamic as they are about getting recordings finished and setting up shows.
Eli Lynch: If not more so.
Eric Newble: More so, I would say.
Daniel Kaplan: The way that I guess I think about it is, that's really our process of making art, is caring about each other.
Tone Madison: Do you plan to do more conceptual pieces like you did at the Line Breaks show?
Eric Newble: We've talked about taking the curriculum that we've worked on and kind of combining that with some of the more conceptual, experimental theater stuff and music, and we've looked at trying to do that at different schools, or different art spaces where people are looking to access information and have dialogue around identity and around accepting each other and around love and around whatever. We're looking at trying to go to different schools and basically have the show that you saw exist, but we come in a weekend before and interface with artists that are at that university already and already a part of that community, and bring them in so that it's localized everywhere that it goes. We also have partnerships with some of the high schools here in Madison that we're looking at trying to expand and do that show with them.
Eli Lynch: I think it's kind of a natural thing that would happen, because outside of being musicians, a lot of the people within the collective are poets and people who teach, professional educators, and people who work in theater and visual arts. I think it's relatively unique within the group for somebody's only medium to be music—and even if that is the case, it usually exists in a way that there might be someone who is a producer, a jazz musician, a composer...
Daniel Kaplan: Bro, stop talking about me. [Everyone laughs]
Eli Lynch: ...a saxophone player, a musical prodigy, a wearer of great pants...
Daniel Kaplan: Why are you talking about me? No, that was about Nate.
Tone Madison: How does working in this group dynamic push you as musicians and writers? It seems like something where, at least in theory, everyone can exercise different muscles.
Eric Newble: Sometimes our drummer plays keys, you know, like stuff like that.
Eli Lynch: I think in a way the Line Breaks show was a pretty exemplary of what has come out of the process. It was created and written so collectively from so many different angles. A lot of the initial ideas were turned into something completely different or came out of something that wasn't necessarily intended for the show, or came from one person but was then taken over and re-interpreted and developed into something by someone else. The lighting was all designed within the group, and the blocking and choreography, the monologues, the music—I think it was the most multimedia and probably collective thing that has come out. I don't think you could even come close to putting the name of an individual as an author for that show.
Daniel Kaplan: I don't really think that "push" is the word that I would use. When you think about the way that we learn stuff in school, it's all about holding people up to a cutoff point and a standard, and pushing them through that system, and then competition. I feel like [ME eN YOU] actually hasn't pushed me, but in the best way, because I feel like my worst is good enough. I don't feel like I have to get super good at this one thing because it's not about being good. That's not the point of the project or the music, to be good, as much as it is to care about each other, I guess. I've been able to grow, really, because I haven't been pushed.
Nate France: I know that I'm working hard, and I think we all really are, to just give each other and anybody that comes into this the space to do whatever they might want to do and make it easy for them to try something new, or that they're not initially comfortable doing. Even just within the people that are here now, I think that has been quite successful in a lot of ways and now we're all playing a lot of different instruments at different times and different shows.
Daniel Kaplan: In different ways.
Nate France: In different ways, absolutely. And just going back to Daniel, we have this collective understanding that it really is not about anybody being better than the other at a particular instrument or at writing or at whatever it might be. That's certainly not the point.
Eric Newble: I feel pushed in the sense that this motivates me, because I care, to push myself, because I don't feel the most capable guitarist. And I know that even out of the people that we play music with, I am not the most technically sound guitarist. But there are times where literally somebody has to play [guitar] because this person has to play bass and this person needs to play keys. It's more of an opportunity to step up, and an opportunity to really fill the role that you're capable of filling. I think a lot of times I will not give myself enough credit, or doubt my capability to the point where I don't let myself be the best that I can and support people in ways that I can do best. But I really have been fortunate to be around incredible musicians, people who have been playing piano since they were 8 years old and guitar since they were 4 and drums since they were 9. A lot of people in the band don't have any musical background.