Ahead of their impending UK Tour (coming to a town near you from next week… full tour dates at bottom of the page) we were privileged to speak to longstanding Strange Famous Records collaborators Sage Francis and B. Dolan. We talked Rhode Island origin stories, leaving spoken word behind, the Epic Beard Men creative process, new LP This Was Supposed to Be Fun and the EBM home remedy for shin splints….
So as a good place to start, as a way to situate things for people over here, who don’t necessarily know, can we talk a little bit about Rhode Island? Because for people in the UK its kind of a mystery, we don’t see it in movies or on the news, so for people who listen to your music here we know it through Strange Famous references but otherwise it’s a bit of a grey area…so in a nutshell, as if you were explaining it to an alien…
Sage: Wait so you guys don’t get Family Guy out there?
Oh Shit, yeah we do get Family Guy
B: Rhode Island is like a huge hub. Its a super important place, its basically where all technology and fashion come from in America.
Sage: I mean the birth of hip hop to start with.
B: Yes Rhode Island is where hip hop began. As most people know. I mean, its nothing secret that Rhode Island is really the nexus of American Culture…
No its not. Its a tiny little state of the union. People don’t even know it exists. People drive through it in 45 minutes. It’s right in between Boston and New York.
Sage: Yeah with Connecticut in the way.
So is there something that you would say is remarkable, or even something unremarkable about how the place has led to the Strange Famous formation and sound?
Sage: Well… I’ll give Rhode Island its props, we are a microcosm of the entire country. As small as we are we have a variety of different.. I don’t know… types of living spaces. We have country, we have city, we have ocean, we have sand dunes and… It’s a place where a lot of companies experiment their products. We’re used as Guinea pigs to see what type of demographic will take up on their products. But the fact that we are on the east coast and we’re inbetween Boston and New York means that we were privy to all the hip hop that was popping off back in the day and even with the tours that would come through, because there was not a lot of hip hop touring in the 80s. So, we were fortunate enough to have access to those kind of shows and the mixtapes and get radio frequencies from Boston and New York. Specifically college radio stuff. They would play the more obscure material outside of just ‘Bust a Move’ from Young MC and shit like that.
So you kinda had the early culture trickle in but in a quiet enough zone to fully focus on it?
B: In a specific zone that is, so densely populated that there’s only a few circles of people and everybody bumps into everybody and that’s kind of what Rhode Island does offer and is unique about it. For a small state we’ve had a lot of interesting and weird music and performance come out of it.
So yeah there’s a concentration of people in a small geographic area maybe.
Are you both from there originally?
B: Yeah we both grew up about 10 minutes away from each other but didn’t know each other.
So when did you guys first link up? Presumably through Strange Famous… Or was it before then?
B: It was by chance at a poetry show in Providence in 2002 after both of us had separately moved to New York, then back from New York to Providence. We met in 2002 and we just kinda knew of each other for a couple of years. We worked together on a project called Knowmore.org in 2005. That was where Francis eventually… he tricked me really. He hijacked me and brought me on tour to be his merch person and showed me the circuit of underground clubs and venues where he was performing round the world and that there was an audience and appetite for the outsider, weird shit that we were making, that I had previously decided was going to have no place in the music industry. That I was going to make things but never show anyone. Or never sell them, just hand em out. You Know. All that kicked off around 2005 I guess.
Sage: Also as for how being in Rhode Island informs our sound; Like New York had to have a specific sound and I feel like Boston always felt like the little brother of New York. Like maybe even the step brother, so it wasn’t treated very well and respected. So Boston created a thing where it was also East Coast but had to have its own thing. In Rhode Island we were Boston’s shitty step brother. So we were so far removed, we didn’t have to adhere to any particular style or sound.
So just a fuck it write your own rules mentality…
Sage: Yeah I mean we were open to whatever was dope. I mean personally I was, like when the whole East Coast versus West Coast shit was popping off, I was certainly all about east coast stuff and I was stuck in the boom bap shit for a while but then I opened up to you know Freestyle Fellowship and a lot of other interesting things that were happening on the west coast. Then working through the cats who were part of Anticon, they exposed me to things that just helped develop me as an artist not just as an MC. Then also the poetry stuff where i think both B and I involved ourselves in that because it wasn’t like there were a hundred hip hop venues for us to utilise. There were open mics, to do spoken word. So then that’s how we would explore certain subject matter that wasn’t entirely accepted within the hip hop crowd. Honestly how the Strange Famous.. I guess essence and style overall came about, was just being free from obligations to sound exactly like anything specific.
I was going to actually ask about the Slam Poety, because that’s something… you guys share a lot of common ground as people who didn’t meet until you were already doing your thing. One shared trajectory being that you both did Slam Poetry at the start of your careers. Is that a book that’s closed for both of you now?
Sage: Oh yeah.
B: Yeah. I mean maybe one day I’ll go to one and sit in the back.
Sage: Nah I mean, if they want to hire me to do a feature or something.
B Yeah I mean I can be hired as well. Nah I mean like as Sage said, I think that was more a product of what we were into and how there were fewer outlets for it at that time because at that time hip hop was probably the dominant culture but it was still somewhat, like Jay Z was still wearing jerseys. He wasn’t yet like a billionaire. So hip hop wasn’t yet everywhere, it wasn’t as assumed as it is now. So spoken word venues were places where if you got on stage and read something that had a hip hop rhyme scheme, they would go “Oh you should be in a poetry slam” which is how we probably both ended up there. Because there were just fewer options at that time.
Sage: Also the thing is, I’m a bit older than B… and there was a time where… when i first started doing the spoken word stuff and the poetry slam stuff, hip hop wasn’t even really accepted at that time. It was still brand new that when you did it you were kind of a novelty act within the slam community and I wish it was more like that these days. Like you know everyone is just going up there doing rap verses and shit and they got like a battle rap bravado about them.
B: We originally bonded because we would both get hated on by Boston poets. These very academic Boston poets who would look down on us because we were into rap. We were abnormal within the poetry community.
I’ve just noticed that the times already flying by… I had a load of geeky questions to ask you guys about your early careers but I guess its probably best to move on to some questions about the newer stuff, which is presumably why you’re doing interviews, so lets get on to Epic Beard Men…
Both of you as individual artists have always had a dark to ridiculous humour present as a facet of your work but i think its safe to say the Epic Beard Men project is the most overtly silly, did this just sort of happen naturally as a result of what happens when the two of you hang out and write together or did you plan it that way from the outset?
B: I think the name pulled it in that direction. From the moment we chose that name, but even before, that name arrived with the song ‘2bad’ as I’ve thought about it. We never called ourselves Epic Beard Men til we made that song and ‘2bad’ is not silly, but its already like the feel and style is loose and fun and the name Epic Beard Men made sense. The vibe is lighter because its our conversation and our friendship together that is basically like what we’re writing and what we made and what we’re performing on stage. Or a version of it. And that’s fun. That like lightens me up. That makes me feel better.
Sage: Personally I was missing that aspect… both of us do very heavy, heady, emotional or politically charged music in our solo material. So, to have an excuse to flow on a creative level in a way where it wasn’t just being emotional heavy or political heavy was great.
For you, particularly for your sound, I guess through your actual albums the tone is a bit more sombre but with the ‘sick of’ mixtapes you got crazy-ridiculous with it at points and it kind of sounds like you get to use EBM now as an outlet for that version of Sage I guess…
Sage: Yeah totally true, because I do have that part of me that doesn’t necessarily fit into Sage Francis albums, and that’s also why, and I think the Non Prophets album was more absurd than what Epic Beard Men is. You know there was just more… it was much more lighthearted and just absurd. Epic Beard Men as a whole, if you consider the EP and the album, I think have much heavier moments than any of the other stuff outside of the Sage Francis albums, because we do tackle actual topics.
That actually directly leads on the next question… There’s obviously a bunch of food for thought and politically relevant stuff to digest in there as well, but sometimes that’s also comedic. For instance ‘Hedges’, that’s a song that’s got the humour, but then there’s also something very dark and serious about society right now underneath it. So like in a way is the ability for the EBM sound to be kind of ridiculous, is that a vehicle for parodying how ridiculous society itself has got now? If that makes sense?
Sage: That makes total sense. You’ve summed it up beautifully because that’s even the sense you can make of the album title itself, and yeah ‘Hedges’ I think encapsulates all of that.
A couple quick questions because we’re going to run out of time…. When you’re listening to each other write… on This Was Supposed To Be Fun; One lyric for each of you that when the first time you heard the other one say it, you were just like whuuuuuut?
B: Yeah it was “I like my girls like I like my coffee. With a convoluted background story”
That’s a bar.
B: I remember hearing that one and just knowing the song was going to be great.
Sage: Well B would come with full verses and then I’d always have to reciprocate somehow, so those were always pains in the ass for me. So ‘Hedges’ was one of those where it was almost a song all onto itself, so I had to be like OK lets turn this into a concept piece where we’re playing different roles in the song. There are a lot of songs where he had a verse where it sounded like it could have been a complete song all on its own and I had to find my own place in it, and that I guess is how a group works. Who the fuck knows?
B: There was a time where we shared a bathroom in a hotel and I would go in the bathroom for like hours at a time and i wrote in the tiny little hotel bathroom. Shin Splints, we wrote that.
Sage: Yeah. That was the biggest pain in the ass for me actually. B spearheaded that whole track with the lyrics and then I had to be like man I’m not being fucking like “from a shuttle to a tunnel to a shuttle to a”…
To me that’s the one song where I’m like I don’t think that’s got a hidden meaning. Is there an obscure meaning to ‘Shin Splints’?
Sage: No that’s actually just a straight up actual account.
B: No no no. That’s like Samsara. That’s like the cycle of death and rebirth that all souls are trapped in. That ones about all of existence and how (Sage cracking up in the background) you’re continually running for a plane that you never catch.
I can’t even tell if you’re taking the piss now.
Sage: Well it makes sense so…
To be fair I suppose that does. So… as a human being who (this is no word of a lie) literally has shin splints… Firstly, do either of you or both of you have shin splints?
Then secondly, what’s the Sage Francis and B. Dolan advice for dealing with shin splints?
B: Take all the beard oil that people give you as you tour. Save it. Ziploc bag. When you get shin splints, rub all the oil into your shins immediately. Stop. Open your bag, cut your pants into shorts if you have to, just get as much oil all over your shins as you can.
Sage: The moral of the story literally is travel lightly, erm… the world is not your runway.
Sage: Leave you’re baggage at home motherfucker and just get to the show.
B: Get in the fucking van.
That makes a lot of sense that I’d not even thought about. Soo… We could probably end on some sensible stuff but before we get to that… ‘You Can’t Tell Me Shit’. Do you find yourself constantly adding new rhymes for every show you do?
Sage: I mean I try to but I was overloaded with all the original ‘You Can’t Tell Me Shit’ lyrics. It was originally about an hour long. We had to cut it down so it would be an appropriate length because you get tired after a while… like OK an hour of you telling me “you can’t tell me shit”… Its not really gonna fly. BUT the energy i was tapping into there was every type of person who has a certain mantra of their own that is such bullshit and they probably truly feel it like, “I have an NPR Tote bag, you can’t tell me shit.”… Or that probably doesn’t translate well in the UK, You don’t have NPR there do you?
Sage: B you know the UK, whats the NPR equivalent?
B: Ah.. I mean it’s all BBC, BBC owns everything right?
Sage: Yeah you guys are weird. Anyway its like “I listen to educational radio. You can’t tell me shit.” You know stuff like that.
Yeah its basically an infinite mine I suppose.
Sage: Yeah there were wonderful lines we had to cut out. Like “I have a Nazi collection. You can’t tell me shit.”
B: A Nazi collection??
Sage: Yeah like “I have Nazi memorabilia. You can’t tell me shit.”
B: I thought they were collecting actual Nazi’s. I collect Nazi scalps you can’t tell me SHIT.
Is there anything on the album that’s intentionally hidden in there that’s so obscure that no-one will ever notice it but you guys know it’s there?
B: There’s a couple private jokes that only the two of us could know probably, they don’t come to mind immediately but there’s a couple turns of phrase that mean something to us that don’t mean anything to anyone else. Then there’s lots of Easter eggs that both of us sprinkled throughout that reference hip hop and other stuff. There’s a lot.
Sage: Something that people in the US don’t know but you might, just because you’re kind of in Europe, is (on ‘Shin Splints’) the WeeFee line. when I say “Ask for the code for the WeeFee”. So you know in Europe, in a lot of parts of mainland Europe they call WiFi “WeeFee” and those are like the little things we hold onto and use in a song. Like most motherfuckers in the U.S. have no idea what the hell we’re talking about when I say “Ask for the code to the WeeFee”.
I won’t hold on to you guys for too much longer as I know you’re busy, we’ll plug your tour dates anyway but anything you’d like to say to anyone who may get the chance to see you in the UK this time round?
B: Last chance motherfucker! Epic Beard Men!
Sage: Yeah I can’t see myself doing a full tour through the UK until I’m 60 years old and have learned acoustic guitar. So, if you want to come see us in our fucking prime and as Epic Beard Men and to see a show that’s truly above and beyond what you would expect from a hip hop show, come on out and if you end up feeling like I’m lying.. tell me to my face. Get smashed.
We’ll be catching Epic Beard Men live at their London show at the Jazz Cafe on the 31st July. They’ve gone in on covering as much of the UK as possible for ‘The Chill Is Gone UK Tour’, so no matter where you are they’ll be coming to a town near-ish to you. SEE BELOW FOR FULL TOUR DATES: