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“Who knows? If we had signed with another label things might have even been worse.” Basehead singer, producer, and founder Michael Ivey is trying to find the bright side of his group’s association with Imago Records. The statement isn’t uttered with much confidence, though.
Faith, Basehead’s third album of laid-back, hiphop-inflected funk, was recorded in April 1994, when Imago was funded and distributed by industry giant BMG. But in December 1994, BMG dropped Imago from its network of labels, and Imago’s future turned hazy. More than two years later, in May of this year, a now small and independent Imago finally released the album but made little attempt to publicize it.
Basehead, which began as a dorm-room solo project when Ivey attended Howard University, had, by the time the Faith sessions began, established a clearly defined group membership. Now, thanks in great part to Ivey’s label woes, no full version of the band exists. But other factors also play a role in this still-evolving drama. Ivey, who was heralded as a sort of homeboy slacker auteur at the time of Basehead’s 1991 debut, Play With Toys, has changed since then.
Toys was a collection of languid musical grooves and quietly enunciated lyrical takes, by turns droll, sophomoric, and emotional. To many listeners, however, Ivey was defined more by his humorous songs extolling the virtues of drinking beer and smoking weed than his more downbeat looks at heartbreak, violence, and racism. Now, Faith is the first Basehead record to reveal Ivey’s newfound devotion to Jesus.
When Imago, which is headed by former Chrysalis Records boss Terry Ellis, was dropped by BMG, Ivey thought the label had gone under. But “you just can’t stamp it out,” he muses. Imagoa word Linnaeus defined as an insect in its adult stagecrawls on. It’s got a horrible reputation; several noteworthy artists, such as Aimee Mann and Henry Rollins, have fled. (The label is suing Rollins’ new label, DreamWorks, for $50 million, alleging that Rollins still owes it six albums.)
Ivey also wanted to leave, angry not only at the Faith situation, but at Imago’s inability to turn his group’s critical raves and high-profile tours (first with the Beastie Boys and later with the Stone Temple Pilots and Butthole Surfers) into more significant sales for Toys and 1993’s Not in Kansas Anymore. “I’m just not interested in giving up my whole life to tour and do all that other stuff just to make money for Terry Ellis and other record company people to go around in limousines and live a decadent lifestyle with expense accounts, while [their] artists don’t have any money,” notes an irritated Ivey.
But since Imago had paid for the recording of Faith and Ivey could find no other labels interested in purchasing the album’s rights, he was stuck. Fortunately, the disc also completes Basehead’s obligation to the label. “I just wanted to get the record out. I wasn’t expecting too much beyond that,” Ivey concludes.
And he didn’t get too much. Selling records and getting airplay for a four-fifths African-American group that plays its own instruments and has been identified as both “alternative rap” and “black rock” is not easy. And admittedly, promoting Faith, a melancholy effort described by one critic as “avant-Christian funk” would be hard for any label at this point. But Imago has compounded the problems by choosing not to take out any print advertising for the record (“we didn’t think it would be effective,” says Imago’s Clay Farmer) and by sending out promotional copies basically only to college rock radio stations and then only when students were busy with finals and getting ready to go home for the summer. Although the label hired publicists to work the album for two months from its release date, Faith has generated few reviews and never placed in CMJ’s top 100.
Whereas Basehead’s first two records began with Ivey’s low-fi home recordings, with others later adding their parts, Ivey notes that Faith is “more of a collaboration with the live band.” Recorded in three weeks at Minnesota’s Pachyderm studio with Prince engineer Michael Koppelman, the album features the core musicians Ivey had toured in support of Kansas with (bassist Bill Conway, guitarist Keith Lofton, and DJ Clarence “Cope” Greenwood) plus drummer Jay Nichols, who had first worked with Ivey on the subsequent Bastard Youth of Basehead (B.Y.O.B.) side-project.
The group took full advantage of Pachyderm’s unique layout. Explains Nichols, “It’s a facility where you live there also, so you have access to the studio 24 hours. We did recording at both 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. We’d be, like, watching TV, and Mike would come up with an idea that he’d want to do right away, so we’d…go to the studio which was, like, 100 feet from where we were staying.”
While some of the songs were recorded live in the studio, on others, says Greenwood, who along with Koppelman is credited as co-producer, “Me and Mike [Ivey] would take whatever was good from jamming and loop it, with Michael [Koppelman] recording the vocals later.” No matter how the songs were created, the results are striking. While one could nitpick that Ivey’s distinctive whispered vocals occasionally lapse into a drowsy, wordy mumble, that a few of the compositions are insufficiently catchy, and that some of the lyrics are too didactic, the finest cuts are sui generis: Imagine a mellow Prince quietly declaiming over the late-night vibes of a cafe ensemble comfortable with jazz balladry, triphop, sadcore, and cutting-edge hiphop.
As always, the lyrics were written by Ivey, but their perspective is uniformly bleak. The album opener, “If I Were Superman,” begins with Ivey’s plaintive childhood dream (“I once thought I could do anything”) and ends with him waiting for Jesus, dejectedly mourning, “What if I could fly?/Why should I even try?/Always portrayed as bad guys…/’cause everybody knows that there ain’t no Superman.” Other songs focus more directly on biblical explanations of evil. Invoking Cain in “Spreading Germs” and Satan in “Lucy” and “Family Man,” Iveywhose home answering-machine message closes with “And may God bless you”doesn’t merely use the Old and New Testaments as sources for storytelling metaphors, he takes the texts very seriously. When Ivey tells me, “Satan doesn’t want people reconciled with God,” he’s not kidding around.
Although such a statement, when viewed alongside the CD sleeve’s heavy-handed questions (“Do you know how much God loves his children?”), New Testament citations, and lengthy thank you to “the lord almighty, the eternal and heavenly father, the alpha and omega…” may cause non-Christian eyes to roll, Ivey demonstrates in “Cold Outside” and “Ask Your Dad” his still-crafty ability to focus on more earthly aspects of life. Ivey’s fervent Christianity, which he says was not inspired “born again”-style from a single incident but developed gradually, hasn’t completely changed some of his other habits. In “Brand New Bag” he sings, “Some get me high, but God takes me higher,” and in “Betty Ford” he defensively queries, “Why ask why if I’m budded or dry?” Ivey says he still smokes marijuana, but “in moderation,” and says its natural origin means its use doesn’t conflict with his interpretation of acceptable Christian behavior.
Unlike most musicians, Ivey is more content discussing his lyrics than the actual recording process. When pressed for details of the Pachyderm sessions, Ivey becomes reticent, telling me that rumors about Imago’s impending downfall, along with festering differences within the group and his own struggles to define himself, made this a period he doesn’t enjoy reflecting upon. Ivey wasn’t the only member of his group who was preoccupied. Greenwood says, “I felt a cloud over the sessions that had nothing to do with music. Kurt Cobain had just killed himself when we were out there, and Nirvana had recorded their last studio album [at Pachyderm].”
Greenwood later had another problem with the session, one that ultimately led to his leaving Basehead and putting together a full-time version of his own side-project, Citizen Cope. “I had to fight [with Ivey] for my production credit on ‘If I Were Superman.’ I basically did all the music for that in my own house [and brought it out to Minnesota]. I did the bass line, piano, and drum-machine track. I should have gotten a recording advance from producing that track.”
Also suggesting that bassist Bill Conway had expressed unhappiness with the way bandmembers had been treated financially since the B.Y.O.B. album, Greenwood angrily adds, “We were always in a situation where we were hired guns, and eventually that had to end.” (Efforts to contact Conway, who has moved to Atlanta to be closer to his mother, and Lofton, who recently moved to New York to shop around his own enterprise, Color Breed, have been unsuccessful.)
Ivey insists he was fair to the rest of the group. He says that as the sole lyricist he took a smaller percentage of the songwriting credits than he was legally entitled to, and willingly gave Greenwood a co-producer credit for the whole album. He also noted that Imago’s situation was partially responsible for the cancellation of a planned Basehead/B.Y.O.B. tour, which snowballed into a lack of record sales that adversely affected the amount of money received by the group’s members. Finally, he argues that the group’s hard, underpaid work on various tours and records could have “laid the groundwork” for future success if Imago hadn’t imploded. Nichols succinctly states that Ivey has always been “straight with me.” In fact, over the last two years, when not backing a number of contemporary jazz vocalists in clubs around town, touring with acid-jazz group Fishbelly Black, or leading his own funk-jazz trio, We Three Kings, Nichols has continued to work with Ivey.
So what has Ivey been up to since the ’94 Faith sessions? After returning from Pachyderm, he and Nichols recorded a month’s worth of sessions at Springfield, Va.’s Bias Recording for a proposed double-disc Faith release, an idea later scuttled by Imago. Married shortly before the recording of the album to a woman he has known since before his Basehead days, sick of touring, and cryptically noting that he and the other guys were “never on the same page” when they discussed playing again locally, Ivey has subsequently spent his time at Recording Arts, a Fairfax studio he has established with emmet swimming manager Allan Stewart.
Though maintaining that the studio is for “fun not profit” and that it “would make logical sense for me to get a day job,” Ivey nevertheless has been spending a lot of time there on various endeavors he’s recording with Nichols. Among them is film soundtrack work and a jingle for the Bullets, neither of which Ivey wants to discuss much, as the projects are not yet finalized. More importantly, there’s a new Basehead album in the works, most of the profits from which Ivey plans on directing to community service organizations. Ivey matter-of-factly states that he’ll either issue the disc himself or find a label that will put it out on his terms. Nichols describes the album’s substance as a “Peter Gabriel kind of [spiritual] thing, though everything Mike does is Basehead-oriented, musicwise.”
Ivey, who says he’s listening to “old jazz and R&B (when musicians could really play), Cibo Matto, and Perry Farrell,” merely implies that the record will be even more Christian-oriented than Faith. Just as when recording Toys he was unconcerned by people saying his musical and lyrical methods wouldn’t work, Ivey is similarly unmoved by any suggestion that a more overtly Christian approach won’t have broad appeal. Once again eager to get a new version of Basehead together to play locally, Ivey re-emphasizes that people shouldn’t expect to hear some of his older material. Faith’s “a different vibe,” he says. “It’s [me] in a reconstruction phase. I feel the record kinda reflects my growth, and for me to sing those songs where I’m not at anymore isn’t being true to myself or the art. I find that folks who in their own personal life are trying to find something a bit more meaningful see what I’m now talking about.” CP