One of the unexpected highlights of last month's Pitchfork Music Festival,
the New York quartet Professor Murder is something that's become
increasingly rare on the music scene: a band whose primary goal is to make
"I know exactly what you mean when you say it's not really cool to say
you're a dance band anymore," keyboardist and percussionist Jesse Cohen
says. "But at the same time, I think we don't really look at it that way.
Kids do still like to dance, they're just not going to hear bands anymore;
they go out to hear people like Spank Rock [rapper Naeem Juwan and producer
Alex Epton] and Girl Talk [DJ Gregg Gillis].
"I was thinking after seeing Girl Talk play at Pitchfork that it used to
be bands that made people freak out like that; now, it's a guy who's playing
music off his computer. I actually think it represents a kind of
sophistication, where people are more open-minded to artists who make music
in a way that may be a bit less tangible than a band. But I'm not surprised
that we've played with Girl Talk a bunch of times -- it makes a lot of sense
Indeed, with its polyrhythmic grooves, chanted choruses and layered
electronic melodies, Professor Murder ultimately was every bit as
entertaining at Pitchfork as the hyper-energetic Gillis, whose show had to
be shut down early because it drew so many fans. And the band's 2006 debut,
the "Professor Murder Rides the Subway" EP, was just as strong, as well as a
rare example of well-warranted Pitchfork hyperbole. ("I love music that
covers big ground in small time without feeling rushed or overambitious,"
reviewer Sam Ubl wrote. "It's like the 'Star Trek' fantasy of traversing the
universe on a button's push.")
According to Cohen, the group, which took its name from a sketch on the old
HBO comedy series "Mr. Show," came together almost by accident.
Tony [Plunkett] and [keyboardist-vocalist] Michael [Bell-Smith] went to
college together and started playing music, and Professor Murder was one of
these kinds of college bands that may not have even really existed; they
were just two guys who played music and were big friends and then moved to
New York." There, they recruited another friend, drummer Andy Craven, and
started out as a melodic punk trio with a guitar/bass/drums lineup in the
mold of the Jam.
"Then they bought this little synthesizer and decided they wanted to try
to do something else with their music," Cohen says. "Since I was living with
Mike at the time, basically I came in to play that, and then Mike stopped
playing guitar, and things really started to shift around from there.
Everyone sort of agreed that the music they were making didn't really
reflect anything they were listening to, which was more dance- or
beat-oriented music, like rap and techno, electronic music and dancehall.
There was definitely a conscious effort to get to the point where everyone
in the band sort of treats their instrument as a percussion element."
Cohen says the band's songs come together via another word that's become
anathema in the hipster underground: jamming.
"We practice and we jam a lot; we'll record ourselves and take pieces
that we like and basically start combining them. No one is a songwriter; no
one ever comes to practice and has a whole song written. It's more like,
'Have you heard the keyboard line in the DJ Khaled song? We should totally
do a keyboard line that sounds like that!' "
The group is gearing up to release another 12-inch single (the track,
"Dutch Hex," is already posted on its MySpace page at
www.myspace.com/pmurdermusic), and a second EP likely will follow this
"We don't really feel any pressure to do anything except projects that we
think would be fun," Cohen says. "I think we all kind of have an attitude
about the band where this is a way that we can do interesting things, like
going out to Chicago or some other city, with the purpose of playing music
for people we don't know and meeting them and talking to them. If music is
the way that we get to do things like that, that's great."
And if people dance in the process, well, that's even better.
Fest keeps reggae real
Speaking of great dance bands, nothing gets a crowd moving
better than a real reggae groove (as opposed to the ham-handed rhythms
hammered out by countless clueless bar bands), and the right riddims are
sure to be in evidence Saturday at the inaugural Chicago Reggae Festival at
Union Park at Randolph and Ashland.
The music starts at 12:30 in the afternoon and runs through 10 p.m., with
performers including Morgan Heritage, composed of five children of the
renowned reggae artist Denroy Morgan; the vocal trio Culture; singer Queen
Ifrica; global chart-topper Junior Kelly, and Chicago resident Kofi, a
founding member of the Roots, Stems & Branches Band in his native Caribbean
nation of Dominica.
Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the gate, and children 12 and
younger are free with an adult admission. To purchase tickets and for a
schedule of the performers, visit www.chicagoreggaefestival.com or
call (773) 868-3010.