Are you ready for Dummerfest 2k15? If not Dummerfest organizer and Direct Hit! lead singer, Nick Woods, sat down with Juiceboxxx to get you amped up. Dummerfest will take place June 20 in Milwaukee, WI at The Metal Grill.
For the last 14 years, a guy from wherever (by-way-of-Milwaukee) named Juiceboxxx has been evolving. His story is an inspiring one for DIY performers, beginning at the age of 15 with just his voice and a backing track on a Discman in front of handfuls of enthusiastic friends in legion halls and basements. Since then, he's toured the world with an astounding range of artists including Public Enemy, Big Freedia, Jeff The Brotherhood and too many noise and punk bands to list here. His sound, once an amalgam of goofy hip hop and pop, is now a vexing combination of the highest-energy American music across many eras and styles. So it's surprising - perhaps to some even irritating - that despite all the accolades, all the growth, that he's still without a contract, a manager, an agent, or a headlining tour of his own.
Of course, that hasn't kept him from pushing his upstart THUNDER ZONE, functioning as a boutique label, energy drink brand, and art project under the same umbrella. That's all to say Juiceboxxx is probably my own personal definition of â€œpunk.â€ He's how this writer ends the boring â€œwhat does that word even mean?â€ conversation with a quick answer. And he's probably the one performer from my hometown I respect more than any other - possibly because I've been watching him since his first few shows. Juiceboxxx is also playing this writer's Dummerfest event in June, and agreed to sit down and talk for a bit about where he's been, where he is now and where he's going. You'd be stupid to miss Dummerfest, but you'd be even stupider to miss Juiceboxxx next time he's nearby - His new record Heartland 99 is out now and available for free download until early next month.
Nick: You want to go ahead and tell us who you are and all that good stuff real quick?
Juiceboxx: Wow, OK these are very general.
We're just starting out man, we'll get more specific as we go.
Ok good. Juiceboxxx. Performer and producer from Milwaukee.
We might want to keep this off the record in case you're not comfortable discussing it, but how old are you right now?
No, I'm totally fine talking about my age, that's never something I'm going to hide. I'm 28 now.
And you've been performing since you were 14?
Yeah. I started Juiceboxxx when I was 15, but previous to that I played in a punk band. You know about that band by the way?
The punk band I was in when I was 14 with Danny Friedman. [Ed. - Mutual acquaintance of interviewer and interviewee.] No, the only band I ever saw you play in was The Boolean Condition.
No, this is like pre-that. Pop punk, Hilary's Victims. This is some pre-Juiceboxxx history. We were all really young. Ben Foldy, the bass player was like 13, Danny was 15, and I was 14. Jesse was 15 I think.
Was that the first band you played in?
Yeah. We once opened up for that band The Juliana Theory. Let's just make this whole conversation about this pop punk band that I was in when I was 14, does that sound OK? Just kidding, sorry, continue.
I think it's probably accurate to say your music has evolved a lot since you were 14 or 15 years old. The first show I saw you play involved you in a jumpsuit, throwing fake money into the crowd and obviously the performance you do now, and the material you write is a lot different than that. I've heard your music referred to as everything from â€œgood rap rock,â€ to nerd rap, and I'm sure all those charges piss you off for one reason or another. How do you go about describing yourself to those who haven't heard your music before? And how do you describe the change you've undergone over the last 14-15 years?
I think the project was conceived initially as a reaction to the self-seriousness of punk and underground rap communities at the time. That was the music I was listening to, and those are the kind of shows I was going to, but I felt like there needed to be some sort of a counterweight to that kind of political, serious, gatekeeper energy. So it was initially supposed to be kind of pop-focused, and irreverent. That was directly a kind of contrarian move.
It's funny, a lot of people, they start making music when they're 15, and by the time they're 28 they've gone through four or five different bands that all kind of mark their development. But for me, it's just been one project. One way you can think of it is that instead of four or five different bands, I've gone through three or four different eras. The reason I keep the same name is that I think there's a common thread or spirit that runs through everything I do. But as far as genre, I mean, I don't know - I just consider it a new American music that's influenced by a lot of stuff.
How would you define those three, four different eras if you had to?
In high school I was doing Juiceboxxx purely as a solo act. And I was often the one non-punk thing on a bill. I would be the kind of weird outlier act on a show. As I got older, I got more into experimental forms of punk and noise music. But still, even within that context, I was the act that didn't fit. So that kind of happened throughout high school, but as I got into my older teens, I started to play more maybe eclectic shows, where I would play with one electronic act, and one punk band, and one rapper or something… That kind of happened between 2006 and 2011, but I was still playing solo at that time, touring Europe and Japan, putting out records, doing bunch of other stuff.
But the most recent era, and I guess I'm doing this in pretty broad strokes, the most recent era of Juiceboxxx I play with a backing band. It's very classic rock and punk influenced while still remaining deeply indebted to rap and dance music. I guess even in this era I'm still the weird outlier act. You know, if I'm on a rap bill - and I've toured with a decent amount of rappers at this point - I'm the most punk thing on that bill. But if I play a punk show or noise show, I'm still way more indebted to rap than the other acts. So I don't know. I feel like I still don't really fit in anywhere. That's positive. That's exciting to me. But it's made my life difficult, it's made my career somewhat difficult, because I'm always moving and changing, trying to find something else I'm excited about.
I've only seen you perform solo. Really excited to see you play Dummerfest because I haven't had a chance to see you play with a full band yet. How long have you been performing with a full band?
Since summer 2012. And the band has had a lot of different configurations, depending on what part of the country I'm in. In L.A., I've played with BJ from the band HEALTH, and Michael Vidal from Abe Vigoda. In Milwaukee I play with Willy and Tony [Ed. - members of Dogs In Ecstacy]. And I have different guys I play with in New York. I've played with probably five different drummers, three or four different guitar players, but Willy writes all the guitar parts for the record.
Does Willy do all your touring with you too?
Willy does most of the tours. And I play with a drummer now named Mike, who won't be at the Milwaukee show but is based in New York and does most of the longer tours with me now. He does solo music under the name D. Gookin. Right now, it's just about scalability because it's harder for me to tour since I have a band. Before I used to be able to jump on a Greyhound bus, or jump in a van to open up for a band, and that gave me a lot of freedom in terms how I could live my life because I could always count on doing these solo tours and making enough money to pay rent. The infrastructure was just so scaled down. Now that I have a band it's more difficult, but I'm so excited about the show that I have to figure out a way to make it work.
I've had booking agents in the past, but currently I do this all myself. I have a very specific idea of how I want to present myself and I'm aware of the constraints and practicalities that I have to work within, you know? So that's one reason why I have a lot of different bands on different coasts. It's kind of old school in a way.
Why did you decide to take a more live approach to your show and ditch the backing track?
It kind of happened gradually. There was a long period when Willy would come on tour and act as my DJ, and maybe play guitar on half of the songs, but there weren't live drums. But then we did a tour opening for Public Enemy, and they had a full band, and everything kind of just clicked with me. I've always had this kind of punk energy or rock 'n roll energy and that's always been such a part of what I do. And I've always played with rock bands. But I forever felt like live drums couldn't work with hip hop for whatever reason. That Public Enemy tour kind of shifted my entire line of thinking on that matter.
And also playing festivals, I did some shows in Australia, and I realized when you hit bigger stages you need that power. I mean, I'm not playing EDM music, it's still fundamentally a live show. So even the signifier of having a drummer onstage cues people into knowing that what I do is a rock show at its heart.
So has it been a goal of yours to achieve that sound or did you just kind of come across it on that Public Enemy tour?
I mean, I've had certain things I've wanted to communicate in my head for quite some time but it's taken a while to figure out how to externalize. I've always been a big Bruce Springsteen fan, and I've always tried to figure out how to translate some of that spirit or that energy into what I was doing. I've always loved punk. Since I started this, I've had a ton of influences simultaneously, and going forward, doing a band, I'm actually able to articulate those in a way that makes more sense to the rest of the world, not just in my crazy brain, you know?
Can you reflect on those shows with Public Enemy a little bit? How did it get started? I know there was a certain amount of negative energy directed at you at some of those shows. Can I get your perspective on the whole story and what you learned from it?
Well, firstly, everybody in Public Enemy was extremely gracious to me in a way I never would have expected. And that was such an incredible experience, just to be able to have conversations with these guys whose music has meant so much to me. Touring with Big Freedia in Australia, it was a different but similar thing where every night I would see Freedia just perform these transcendent shows and you can't help but be inspired by that and want to step your game up. So on that level, the tour was extremely positive.
But with that said, the shows were generally… It wasn't very different from any other larger support tour I've done. I'm a divisive performer, you know? That's never gonna go away. No matter who I'm playing with, there's going to be a contingent that doesn't like me. And I welcome that, because most of my favorite performers are divisive too. I don't think that's a bad thing. But that tour, there was a mix of heads, a mix of kids, that's ideal for me… I always just want to play for a very large mix of people. There is never going to be one scene or one community that's gonna embrace me completely, because I don't fit into certain molds, which not to disparage anybody that does… Any opportunity I can get to play on that level, I'm always up to the challenge, regardless of the situation.
Has it affected your ambition, or your zeal for touring at all?
Going back to the idea of scalability, to see Public Enemy play with a band, and have it be awesome and make sense, it made me think like, "I can take this and try to think bigger. I can assemble a band, and write music for the band, and it can be the same spirit I always operated with, but it can be on a different level, and translated in a different way." That was really inspiring.
What's production and songwriting like for you now? How do you put together tracks and get inspired?
Oftentimes, I start with drums, and then I play things on a keyboard, bass lines, then lyrics, and I usually have a song title in my head before the song is even written. I'm always thinking of song titles before the songs many times. I don't know if you do that ever? Having song titles or names for records before they're written?
I always think that's exciting, it's like fantasy camp or something where you've already created this thing in your head and you have to just try to make it. Then I bring in other people to help me, like I'll bring in Willy to play guitar, or I'll bring in additional producers or engineers. At this point I'm really interested in collaboration, with the germs of the song, the melodies, the drums, the lyrics, coming from me. The rhythmic feel is probably the most important thing out of any of this to me, as a vocalist. In some ways, it's very similar to the way I've always written songs but from there, I add more people into the mix and once again, scale it upwards and make it something that's bigger and badder than anything I've ever done.
You obviously write all your own material, but it was definitely striking to me seeing how after performing by yourself for 4 or 5 years, you started bringing in collaborators a little bit more. I think it was the record you did with Dre Skull that I first noticed it. It wasn't really just a straight-up rap project anymore. How do you make decisions about who you work with, and how do they contribute to your creative process?
Usually, but not always, it just comes out of friendship. Those records with Dre Skull, for example, came during a point when I was really interested in house music and so was he - 2006, 2007. I was doing a DJ night in Milwaukee playing music that kind of sounded like that, and I was having these really inspirational nights dancing.
One of the first nights I met Dre Skull, we went to this club in Baltimore called Club Choices, which is a really influential Baltimore club spot. We just had a really incredible night dancing there. And in some ways that solidified our friendship, and was the driving force behind our collaboration. You know, you go to a punk show and that energy inspires you to start a band. I'm always just looking for that feeling, whatever it is, with music. And when it comes to people who call my music rap rock now, it's just like, you know, I'm just looking to operate within a new context that feels exciting and full of possibilities.
What do you feel is your most important accomplishment so far, musically or artistically?
The most important accomplishment is just straight-up continuing to do something that gives me a reason to keep going every day. People can read whatever they want into the music I make, but it really just is an attempt at finding some sort of life force that continues to drive me. It's always been so important to me. And the next record after this record is going to be the best one. I'm working on it right now.
Do you think you would have done anything differently given the chance to go back in time?
I mean, of course. On some level, I've continuously sabotaged my career. But I've lived my life with some sort of purpose. Even if it's been ridiculous, it's still mine.