Makaya McCraven is a Chicago-based percussionist, composer, and producer signed to the perennially excellent International Anthem label. With early beginnings in an wonderfully musical family and with vast experience of all corners of the music industry, from DIY venue ownership, headsy avant garde performance through to the ins and outs of an MPC – he’s the rare musician whose art seems universal, weaving in the heavy influences of jazz greats into a modern tapestry of Dilla-esque beat-science and shimmering melody.
Ahead of his forthcoming spell-binding new release, ‘In These Times’, via his hometown label International Anthem alongside XL Recordings and Nonesuch Records, dubbed as the “album he’s always wanted to make”, Clash sat down with McCraven at the Total Refreshment Centre and discussed everything from his parent’s influence on him, his journey to Chicago, and the honest difficulties of trying to make a living as a truly innovative live musician of the modern day.
Makaya, thanks so much for speaking with Clash. I actually wanted to start by asking about your parents, because I’m really fascinated by your musical upbringing. Your dad is a fantastic drummer who played with a bunch of jazz greats – Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Max Roach, Yusef Latteef, Freddie Hubbard; the list goes on. And your mother is a Hungarian folk musician, right?
Yeah. She came up playing in a couple of groups in Hungary, like the group Kolinda. And she had a couple of her own records as well, where she was doing sort of Pan-Eastern European folk music and gypsy music, and then kind of took that and mixed it with jazz and other stuff.
So the music playing in your household growing up… It must have been amazing?
It was definitely interesting… and both of them have really influenced me. My mother was taking in traditional folk music and things that she was finding around her. And in her musical groups – whatever their message was – they were playing music that was spanning different parts of Eastern Europe, across borders but together as one, while also mixing in these other styles like jazz. And my dad was mixing more traditionalist jazz with some avant garde stuff, but he was also interested in rock and funk, as well as that Eastern-European folk music when he was playing with my mother. And he also worked with West African musicians.
So there was a bunch of different kinds of music in the house, but their overall approach – both were very open minded, and they would bring what they were coming from in their own background and mix it with everything that they were interested in. And that’s kind of how I’ve approached my music.
With such an eclectic mix of music growing up, were you even aware that these sounds were all technically from different genres and places?
I mean I was aware of genre, because we all need ways to talk about music with language, and without that language, it’s difficult to have a discussion. But I never felt bound by genre, like it was something that you had to adhere to in any way. And I think history shows that too – a lot of new music hasn’t always adhered to strict guidelines, and genres can evolve, or new genres can come about when rules aren’t so strict.
I’m curious, during that period, was there ever a point, maybe as a teenager, where you rebelled and pushed back against the fact that you were living in this household full of jazz and folk music – or you were always very integrated into what they were doing?
I was pretty integrated. But my dad was on the road a lot. And I think there was a point in middle school where I kind of said to myself – and I had already been playing a bit of music at this point, but I was still fairly young, and not knowing what I want to do with my life – there was part of me that was like, maybe I want something with more security. I recognised that our life was a little different. It wasn’t very contained. So I was questioning if there were ways to be more secure for myself as I was growing up. I didn’t know if I wanted to do this for life. And that continued even when I went to college, I wanted to study something different. I didn’t start out as a music major.
I also didn’t feel like going to music school because I felt like playing music – you know, you learn it through doing it, by practising, and by learning through oral traditions – and not by being in a classroom. So I showed up to college without a major, but I quickly got wrapped up in the music department anyways.
At that point you had already been part of a touring band, right?
Right, I was in a band that was working all the time. We were doing quite well regionally. I was also a side musician for a bunch of different projects around western Massachusetts. I was doing work gigs, restaurants and weddings and that kind of stuff. So by that time, I was already working pretty robustly both creatively, doing work gigs, as well as teaching some private students. So my music career was starting and rolling. But there was still a lot of stuff I could learn musically. I got to spend some time with a great drum teacher during that period, Bob Gullotti, and that was exciting – I definitely learned a lot from him and by playing in the university ensembles. But I just didn’t think that it was the best way for me to learn to be a career musician. I thought that would happen by doing it on my own and instead understanding better how to grow a career and how to gain security.
One thing that was a big learning experience at that point was I started to be a ‘musical director’ – that’s the title we ended up giving it. But we basically built a venue in Greenfield, Massachusetts in an old bank and put a studio on the second floor.. It was a bit like this – Total Refreshment Centre (where we are now) – except way less put together.
Do you still have recordings from that time?
Absolutely. That’s when I first started really producing records and doing a lot of editing in the studio. We were actually doing these creative music sessions with weird instrumentation, just because we had this space to record it in. I also learned a lot about the business by putting on shows there. There’s a lot that I did that wasn’t just playing. But during that time period, when I was in a band that was doing regional touring and hustling with a bunch of side gigs, plus putting on shows and trying to make records, all while trying to be a college student – I think that I stretched myself pretty thin and that definitely did not result in a successful academic career! But I think throughout I learned a lot and certainly gained a lot of skills.
And then you moved to Chicago sometime after that?
Right. Maybe around 2006, My wife had got a job offer at Northwestern University in Chicago. So I went out there and followed her. But I spent the first two years living in Chicago while holding down the whole career on the East Coast, because I didn’t know anybody in Chicago, I had no way to make any money. So I was still running the studio on the East Coast, and building another venue – I basically had to come back to the East Coast once a month, you know, just to make a little bit of money, and then fly back.
How did you get involved with Jeff Parker and Joshua Abrams of the Chicago scene, and with International Anthem?
Kind of by being intentional about it. In coming to Chicago I really knew I needed to find work. I didn’t have like a national profile or anything, but I was still gigging a lot on the East Coast. So when I came to Chicago, I had this very deliberate mission to meet everybody. I played with everybody I could, I shook a lot of hands, I found out every venue in town, I went to every jam session… I did a lot of research about venues. And then I would systematically hit those places up.
With Jeff Parker, you know, one of my best friends in college was a big Tortoise fan. I had never really checked the band out that closely, but my friend was like when you move to Chicago you got to find this guy, Jeff Parker. And I was like, okay, you know, like… I trusted him.. Jeff was doing a weekly gig at a place called Rodan, where he was playing with Josh Abrams, and they had rotating drummers doing the gig.
So they would mostly improvise, and sometimes play like maybe some Thelonius Monk tunes or something like that at the end of the night. It was kind of like avant garde music. And it was in a really nice Asian fusion bar with nice cocktails and it had this hip crowd. I was kind of blown away because you go in there and they’re playing this weirdo music that’s totally out there. Yet they had young, like, cool people who were interested in it. That was really inspiring to me at the time, this idea that this music that’s not accessible, or even abrasive maybe.. this old people music, for people who know about jazz or all this stuff, you know, that they were cultivating a space where that could be cool, edgy, and interesting. And even maybe interfacing with a more of a commercial kind of thing. I saw that and I made a point to introduce myself to Jeff and I just said, Hey, I’m so and so. He’s a sweet, sweet cat and maybe like a year plus later, he called me to ask me to play one of those Rodan gigs. And I remember telling me wife like, Oh my God! Jeff Parker just called! And you know, at this point, he’s since become like one of my closest friends. So it really worked out.
Do you feel like you cultivated a particular sound together in Chicago, alongside International Anthem?
It defined itself a little bit over time, I think. One of the reasons me and Jeff connected was because we had like minded ideas and sounds in our heads. I remember when I first connected with him, I went to his MySpace page – if you can remember MySpace – and he had all these beats up there. And I didn’t know he made beats! And It turns out we had both sampled Joe Henderson’s ‘Black Narcissus’, and we both had versions up of it on each of our MySpaces. And I was like, oh my God he sampled the same thing! So there was some like mindedness there. And when I made my first record with International Anthem, Jeff was on it, and getting him on a couple of those sessions was a big deal for us. And then he became part of my sound, so it worked out.
International Anthem is really this collection of musicians from our scene that make these different records, and while we do all know each other, I think the label is kind of defining itself over time, right? Like it builds slowly. That’s part of the reason that we’re so tight knit. People will ask me, ‘how’d you get signed with International Anthem or how did you meet these guys?’ And it’s like well at the beginning, there was no label to sign to! But Scottie (the label manager) was like, I want to do series and I think I’m gonna make a label and would you like to make a record and then off we went. And it’s grown organically to a point that now we’re working with a great British label like XL.
So, on that note – let’s talk about this new record, because I know it’s been several years in the making.
Definitely… in some ways the concept of the new record goes back to concepts I had from way back when on the East Coast, you know, but I was just kind of perfecting it. Because I had been coming up with certain odd metred music, being influenced by my mother and Eastern European rhythms and also these West African polyrhythms. And I really wanted to have a project where I was bringing together those fields to people in a more organic way. Because time signature can often feel like this really intellectual exercise, but I always wanted to make a record with those rhythms for the people. But it just wasn’t ready back then. And when I met Scottie and we ended up doing ‘In The Moment’ – that album took off, you know, and we started touring, and when playing live I was always playing some of this other, different stuff… Like the tune ‘Three Fifths of Man’ which was born out of an improvisation. That was a rhythm that I was actually working more for this concept. I had just kind of broke it out while improvising and it just formed into its own piece, but it ended up on ‘In The Moment’ instead.
The idea of like.. hard times, challenging times, difficult times – ‘In These Times’ – it’s really a concept I’ve been working on for a long period. And if you’ve seen me perform in the last few years, you would’ve seen me performing music that’s from this record but it hasn’t really coalesced until now.
I think you can definitely hear that it’s been a long time cooking, and that you’ve been kind of honing your process. Especially with all the re-editing and overdubbing processes that you’ve been perfecting for a long time. I feel like when I was listening to this latest record I almost can’t even the cuts and chops anymore; they’re totally imperceptible now. It just flows so well.
Especially on ‘In The Moment’, you know, I was figuring out that style. And I always liked where I could try to make it sound seamless or, on the other hand, sometimes I could make the chop more obvious, and let you in on the process. And sometimes it might have sounded like a loop but we just played it that way live. On this record we’re actually doing a lot more just straight playing it live.
One thing that stuck out to me was that the record begins and ends with what sounds like live applause, as if we’re listening to a concert, and I wanted to ask about that choice.
Just as with a lot of my music, a lot of this project was recorded live. After I did ‘Universal Beings’, which was a big success, we had opportunity to do these big concerts, one in Chicago and one in New York, with Red Bull. And I had basically the whole cast of the record on stage. So we went from being mostly just trios and quartets to one 12 piece ensemble. That allowed me to start doing larger group projects, right – where I’m able to have 12 people on stage in the right situation, and could actually get people to finance it. Eventually we got a chance to do Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis as well as the Symphony Centre in Chicago, which we ended up recording. I’ve used the applause sounds from those shows on the opening track of ‘In These Times’; some from the Chicago show, but blended with some studio recorded instrumentation, and a saxophone solo that’s actually from the show in Minneapolis. So it’s kind of a collage of different times and places all at once.
Going in out of different times spaces, and collaging that together to try put together a sequence that is one seamless experience. That idea is really present in this record, a bit more than just simple looping. But all of that took a long time. And then I was in the final stages, and the pandemic hit, and I just kind of moved into like a whole other headspace. It took a lot of work.
And Richard Russell and XL got in touch after you worked on a Gil Scott-Heron Record, right?
Right. Richard and XL got in touch after I re-worked the Gil Scott-Heron project. And we’ve just built a relationship since then; it’s been really remarkable and brilliant that everybody’s working together so seamlessly. I think that’s a testament to my label International Anthem as well. Scottie McNiece who runs it, and his intent, you know, he does well for the music and for the artists that he represents. He really cares. And I think that comes across, that he has good intentions. He does things a little differently than a lot of people in the industry, which is good for us as artists, definitely. He’s open to collaboration, and working with other people. So there’s this positive cooperation.
On that note of working with British labels and artists, do you feel like there’s a seamless exchange between the scenes of Chicago and London?
Sure, of course. But I don’t actually subscribe much to geography. I guess I do because I believe that scenes of people create their sound and geography plays a role in that and you have a rapport with you grow up with, so that’s important.
When I was doing my album ‘Universal Beings’, the record sides were actually split by city, but the idea was to highlight that there great musicians in all these places, right? I remember, around my first record, I felt like I was reading a lot of articles saying “Oh the new Chicago scene is the new big thing!” And then people were saying the London scene was like really big, talking about Shabaka Hutchings or Nubya Garcia, or maybe then you got an article about LA and Kamasi Washington saying “No, LA is really where it’s at!” And some older cats would get mad and say “No! New York is where it’s at, that’s the home of jazz, it’s always been New York!”
It’s interesting. I think we can celebrate regions. But one thing I’d like to do is celebrate other places that we don’t often talk about because there’s so many other scenes that are really strong all over the United States and Europe. It’s easy to overlook people who are living outside the epicentres of the music industry – where all the capital is, and where the businesses are, or where the press offices are. It definitely easier to be in London or New York. I definitely felt that from Chicago, which never felt like it had as robust of a music business industry; it felt very working class. It felt like an achievement to be up here and have recognition of our scene. People were interested in Chicago’s jazz history, but when we were coming up, everybody wanted to move to New York or move to LA to really make it. You would hear about what’s happening elsewhere and you think, how do we do that!
Because we’ve got so many great players in Chicago. Or you could go to Detroit and you find incredible musicians there.. And really everywhere. You don’t actually need the hype of this place or that place. Of course, musicians are going to coalesce to places where there’s opportunity to make a living. But you’ll find great musicians everywhere you look.
‘In These Times’ is out September 23rd via INTERNATIONAL ANTHEM, NONESUCH, and XL RECORDINGS.
Words: Louis Torracinta