Earlier this year we caught up with Sage Francis about Epic Beard Men’s latest album, This Was Supposed To Be Fun. Now EBM are about to go on their European tour and we sat down with B. Dolan to get the other half of the story on how the album was created.
Having reviewed the album myself, I wanted to understand exactly what the process was like for Sage and Dolan, two outspoken fiery activists deciding to cut loose and just hang out together.
So first of all, how are you guys feeling about coming back to the UK next month? When we interviewed Sage he said that when you came to Edinburgh last time you really embraced it, going on walking tours and everything?
Yeah man, we had a great time in Edinburgh. We took those shows specifically to write this collection of songs together. We knew that if we shared an Airbnb and played the Fringe festival for thirty days, we could use that extracurricular time to get into some really creative shit. We wanted to bounce ideas off each other and the shows were just so much fun. Over the course of two years we got a feel for the Fringe festival and the environmental which is so great as a performance venue.
In the course of it we wrote these songs. The first batch was released as an EP and now we’re releasing the LP. So yeah, we’re super excited to come back to Scotland because that’s where it all began really.
That’s great, I didn’t realise you were at the Fringe when you created this album. Do you think that environment influenced the way you worked or what you wrote about?
Yeah, well neither one of us has ever taken a writers retreat. We’ve had a few weekends in a Vegas hotel where we’d kick about a few ideas but that’s about it. We’ve never gone anywhere just to write. People thought we were crazy for trying to use the Fringe like that but for us to do what we did at the Fringe is almost second nature now so it really didn’t require a lot of effort. It was mostly just fun and we were mixing with so many great performers of all types – musicians, magicians, comedians. People like Janey Godley and Barry Crimmins who has sadly passed away since.
We made lots of curious and weird friends in Edinburgh while writing the album. And I remember wandering around, continuously smoking weed and taking mushrooms and absorbing the vibe so yeah I feel I really have a special connection with Scotland now.
You and Sage have known each other for so long, why did it take until now for EBM to come together?
Both of us were on very distinct tracks at the time. Sage had his solo career, I was doing stuff like Knowmore.org and later other tours and solo releases. We just had our own careers I guess, even though I learned so much from Sage and he introduced me to a bunch of producers.
Also we’re both very intense solo artists. We’re both used to doing our own projects start to finish so when people said we should do an album together, it felt easy and obvious to everyone but us. From the inside, knowing how we both work, we knew it was going to be an intense process to combine the way he makes songs and the way I make songs. People group us together but we know that we have some fairly big differences in the way we work. There was compromise involved but neither of us like to do things half way so it was tricky to get it to all come together. And in the end it took three years to make it because of that, and another two years to tour it.
Yeah, I’m really interested in the creation process for this album. You’ve both got your styles as solo artists, so how was it collaborating on every track and going for a different vibe at the same time?
Yeah the vibe was the most natural part. The fun was the most natural part. The process for me involves a period of intense fun creativity – almost playtime – and then a longer period of rigorous editing and arranging. The playtime part was totally natural because when I’m on my own I can get into my head and my darkness but with another person, especially my best friend, it’s natural to just be funnier and be on some MC shit, trying to make each other laugh and impress each other.
We didn’t come up with the title first, it came out of the environment and the mood we had together. But then the editing process where we had to sit down and agree what the final mix was for each track, that’s where the work came in. I ended up producing over half the album, even though I hadn’t intended to. That’s just my requirements versus his. From me and my engineer DS2K exploring possibilities in the studio for over a decade, I just felt we could do more. We could bring in live violinists and horns. But yeah it was dope – both more fun and more difficult than other projects.
Yeah, there’s a lot of quirky concepts on the album, songs like ‘Shin Splints’. Was there anything that ended up getting cut or you decided not to go for?
Yeah ‘Shin Splints’ is the perfect example of how it was half fun and half hell. The concept came from a joke – we’d get caught up in these messed up situations all the time. Like, we have to change terminals completely or there’d be a wild sprint through an airport that only the two of us were there for. So for years we were like ‘we gotta make a song called shin splints that speeds up as it progresses.’ It was really just based on our conversations in airports in idle moments for years and so we finally said it was time to do it.
That song turned into a year of figuring out how to make that fucking beat. It ended up with us learning how to do totally new shit with our software. We first tried with live musicians and it didn’t work so we worked with samples but couldn’t really figure out how to speed them up in a way we liked. The production on that song was the longest I’ve ever worked on any track.
In terms of concepts, we pretty much got everything we wanted to do get done. There was one song about Vanilla Ice that Francis really wanted to do and I just abandoned it. I don’t want to talk about fucking Vanilla Ice. It’ll probably come out on a mixtape of his, he still really likes that song but I bailed on it.
Yeah, you mentioned a lot of the album came from you guys trying to impress each other. When I was listening to it, it really put me in mind of Felt a lot with Slug and Murs going back and forth on different tracks, trying to outdo each other. Was there a vibe like that, was it competitive?
At the time I don’t think there was but looking back on it I don’t know. I don’t think it’s about being competitive, it’s more that it keeps me honest, knowing that the other half of the track is going to be held down by Sage. Though he’s my friend, I’m also aware that this is Sage fucking Francis so I can’t phone it in on any track that I’m on. Not that I ever do that anyway, but it’s still an extra little bit of motivation. You gotta come correct and he’ll keep you honest. It’s why I think it’s a good duo album.
You’ve known each other so long, know each other’s styles inside out. Is there anyone else you could see yourself doing a project like this with?
Not like this. There’s so many inside jokes built in to this album that just come from how long we’ve known each other. Like people have no idea how many LL Cool J references there are throughout, they’re all lines that we’ve joked about over the years. So in that sense there’s a lot of layers to this album for me. I could do other types of records with other rappers but the landscape wouldn’t be as 3D – there wouldn’t be as many weird caverns or crazy characters like ‘Pistol Dave.’ I couldn’t make that track with anyone but Sage.
Yeah, when I first listened to it, the crazy amount of references to the golden era jumped out at me straight away. I probably missed a bunch but there’s Slick Rick, LL Cool J, NWA all getting name-checked. Is part of the This Was Supposed To Be Fun vibe also about that? That hip-hop was supposed to be fun and we’ve forgotten how to do that like the guys back in the day?
Yeah that’s part of why I like it as the title. It definitely applies to the hip-hop community as a whole. Rap is a lot of things and I’m glad for all of them but in times like these it’s really important to not lose the fun aspect.
I wanted to ask about ‘Hedges’ – for me it’s the standout track of the album but tonally it’s very different, very dark. It feels more like something from one of your solo albums so did you ever think about not including it here?
That one actually did start as a solo track of mine. I was trying to personalise some of the things I’d been thinking about and reading about around invasion of privacy and the weaponisation of security, the enforcement of more rigid borders – these are big ideas that it’s hard to communicate you know? Like we don’t get upset about Alexa listening to our conversations all the time and recording us. We don’t think about them and I wrote the song about that.
I got to the end of the first verse and from there it didn’t really have anywhere to go. It didn’t really work as a solo song. So I was performing it and so I asked Sage to play the neighbour and that’s what completed the song. Sage executed that verse perfectly – I don’t know many other rappers who could slide into a concept that deep and do it so well. So yeah, I’m really happy with how that one turned out and I still want to make a video for it.
So when I heard that B Dolan and Sage were forming a group called Epic Beard Men, I pretty much assumed that Scroobius would also be involved but he’s not. Is this a subtle dig that his beard isn’t epic enough for the group?
[Laughs] No, it’s not a dig about the beard but it is a dig about him not rapping! He’s doing his acting thing in the movie world and the podcast thing. We still talk all the time and we’ve been chatting about the movie business a fair bit too recently. I mean, I’m always looking for an excuse to work with that guy. I’ve told him, I’ve said, ‘I will produce beats for you, what’s it going to take to get you rapping again?’ So yeah, we need a public outcry to get that guy back in the rap game.
Yeah on the movie side, Vault has come out in the US already but over here it’s not coming out until September. You co-wrote the movie and did the score, can you give us a little bit about what that’s about?
Yeah, so this is the second movie I’ve done. Years ago I was asked to work on some scripts. The first was a low-budget horror called Almost Mercy which did really well for it’s budget, well enough for us to get another go around with Vault. It’s the story of a vault heist in Providence which was a real heist which members of my family were possibly, maybe tangentially connected to.
I’d grown up hearing about it, essentially this group of nobodies robbed $32m from the largest Cosa Nostra syndicate in America in 1975. It was a huge crime, largest in US history at the time. So we wanted to tell that story and so we made it a year ago. I was lucky enough to get the score gig and we’d originally talked about scoring it with break beats, or rather soul songs that became break beats which people would recognise. Then, when they came back and said they couldn’t clear $100,000 worth of samples, they asked if I wanted to write the music. I retain the rights to those tracks which is cool and so I might try and release it in a year or so when I’m allowed to.
And I’m in the middle of another one now. I’m even looking for a writing agent, just want to see where it leads. I mean I never tried to get into the movie industry, probably even bigger and more shadowy than the music industry but it’s a lot of fun man.
Cool, so more movies coming soon? More albums? What else can we expect?
All that and more I guess. I’m trying to do everything. Been talking about launching a Patreon and a podcast in the next year. And also thinking about being more transparent, letting people see the process and stuff.
I’ve got a bunch of interesting podcast ideas as well, I think we can do something cool and innovative with that format.
Okay, last question – OB4CL or Liquid Swords? Sage chose Swords, what are you going for?
As a writer, I’d go for Swords but as a producer I have to say Linx.
That sounds like you’re hedging…
[Laughs] Okay, if I have to go with one, I’m going with Swords because the production is so tight there too. But then Linx…man, this is tough. Ironman, my answer is Ironman!
Epic Beard Men will be on tour in the UK from the 30th of July – full dates here