When you’re literally willing to take a bullet for your art, chances are you’re dead-serious about making a statement—either that, or you’re just plain loco. Singer, poet, author, actor and political commentator Sage Rader is probably a little “all-of-the-above,” but where such an apparent contradiction in emotional states might throw the average bloke into a helpless freakout, Sage seems to thrive on it as just another empowering duality. In his world, demons and angels co-exist on an equal footing, all that is beautiful can easily turn hideous and everything you ever believed can fly out the window on the wings of betrayal. In the quite otherworldly aural experience of Ready Fire Aim—Sage’s latest beat-laden collaboration with DJ and producer Stakka (Shaun Morris)—music is the medium that communicates all this and more with the finality of a death-dealing weapon.
Sure, it sounds a little heavy-handed, but This Changes Nothing (Expansion Team Records) is the kind of album that commands such attention and RFA is the kind of group that comes along just when it seems like the blahs have completely overtaken the underground. Melding sensibilities rooted in techno, synth-pop, art rock, avant-classical and straight-up indie electronic dance music, RFA have come up with a stealth concept album that conjures shades of Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, The Postal Service and even Pink Floyd, but with a twisted, hyper-processed and hypnotic sound that truly sets them apart. And you can dance to it.
“Both of us are really very much into sound,” Sage observes. “I tend to go with the emotion of a sound, where it’s like, ‘Here’s how I’m feeling—how does this feeling sound?’ and Shaun comes from a place that’s a little bit more clinical, like a technician or someone scientific. His approach is, ‘What would sound good here with what we’ve already got and what are the exact processes that I need to get there?’”
History lesson: Sage first got into music through the violin, which he picked up as a child while living in London. Then in high school, he studied violin performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, under the tutelage of Stephen Clapp, now the Dean of the School of Music at Julliard, before chucking it all to roam the earth. Along the way, he became a poet, (he was reviewed by The Guardian as the “Michael Moore of poetry”), writer and actor, grabbing a choice role in the film Beyond the Ocean (nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize), publishing an illustrated confessional called Sex Drugs and Sunday School and performing his poetry and political standup in venues around the world. He now lives in Brooklyn and taught himself programming on Pro Tools over the last few years.
Meanwhile, Shaun “Stakka” Morris came up in Brighton, England, where he began DJing at an early age. As a fan of everyone from Jean-Michel Jarre to Just-Ice, he developed a wide-ranging palette and eventually got into making beats of his own just as acid house and big beat were giving way to London’s hardcore rave scene and, eventually, drum ‘n bass. He adopted the name Stakka and teamed up with Keir Tyrer to produce a string of progressive dance tracks for the Liftin’ Spirits label (as Stakka & K. Tee), while also working with Nathan Vinall under a litany of aliases. After moving to New York in 2002, he and DJ DB began collaborating as Ror-Shak and released an album, Deep, in early 2007.
“I met Sage at an art opening in the meat-packing district,” Stakka recalls. “I gave him a copy of the Ror-Shak album and he did an interesting little sketch with violin over one of the tracks. We stayed in contact, and he brought some rough tracks ‘round my studio that he’d been working on—this was before I knew he could sing. So we started brainstorming that it might be cool to do a project. We did one track, which didn’t actually make it onto the record, but it was the stepping stone to finding what the mutual ground was between what we were both into.”
The two soon began working together in earnest, trading demos back and forth before finally getting into the meat of recording what would become This Changes Nothing. From the creepy opening strains of electric violin—squeezed and squelched through a phalanx of effects pedals—on “End of Over” to the Reznor-esque clipped beats and crackles of “Lush But Dark,” the album is a raucous journey through electronic beat styles and modes of signal manipulation, often harking back to ’80s Brit synth pop, but also conjuring the dystopic dreams of a music from the future.
“I’m a big fan of processing, even to the point of extremes,” Stakka says. “I mean, when the mix was near completion, we were recording big chunks of the actual record back into samplers to mess around with it. It could be something simple at the end of a track, like a whole beat section sinking into a filter or going through a bit-cruncher—there’s some crazy stuff that can be had out of that. If you keep that processing mentality going, you can get to an interesting place, I think.”
Vocally, Sage runs the gamut from gravel-voiced romantic with a dark secret (“Happy Love Song”) to caterwauling champ who could give Perry Farrell a run for his lucre (“I Would for You”). Lyrically, he tackles topics ranging from relationships long past their prime (on the club-funky anthem “Beautiful Thing”) to backroom jockeying for power (the rocked-out “Laff It Up”).
“I really disdain lyricists who write under the pretext of trying to be cool or hip,” Sage intones, not without a slight tinge of irony. “Personally, I’m influenced a lot by Ginsberg and Dylan and the idea of telling a story in rhymed couplets. I’m not about trying to be particularly hip or edgy or clever with the lyrics. I just want to convey the emotion that I’m feeling in that moment, to try and tell a story.”
One story in particular surrounds the making of the video for RFA’s attitude-heavy single “Wannabe Your”—which brings us back to the idea of being ready to get snuffed for what fuels you creatively.
“I have a buddy out in the world,” Sage begins, “— let’s just say he gets paid not to miss. I have crazy ideas and I just run with them and one of them was to go buy a hundred dollars’ worth of colored liquid, mustard, ketchup, eggs, fruit—whatever the f*ck—and stand in front of my friend while he shot high-velocity machine-gun rounds at my head while we filmed it, as I lip-synched the words to ‘Wannabe Your.’ What’s better than that? After the third or fourth shot, I just locked into the zone. It gets the point across. The idea is Ready Fire Aim, but also, there’s nothing I won’t do for my art.”
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