An interview with All Star Opera — a fresh hip hop mix of distinction and familiarity

All Star Opera [Photo: Carla Bell]

All Star Opera will perform Sunday (June 3) on the third day of the Upstream 2018 music festival in Pioneer Square in Seattle.

Take Miles Davis and hope, Anthony Kiedis and a journey, Kahlua and cream and confidence, your best Nicaraguan cigar and slippers, a cozy, dimly lit corner booth, a soft rain Sunday afternoon and Weezer, a little heated massage oil and Black Thought and those hanging, beaded room dividers.

Now, pour that in your ear.

With a sound just that distinct yet familiar but also fresh, All Star Opera is like a new old friend.

Bohemian, yes, but more than that. The band is a spicy hip-hop personality, art and adventure, with surprising and eclectic influences of their own.

ASO opened for Devin the Dude last year at Seattle’s Crocodile cafe, and they have early ties to Toby Kuhn of Tangerine. Crowd-love for their 2016 release “Shifting States” led them to the Capitol Hill Block Party festival, which contributed to their title, Best Band of 2017, by vote of Seattle Weekly readers.

So, who are these guys?

Sam “Oz” Osborn is an MC and vocalist; Seth McDonald is the business of the band on keyboards, sometimes on vocals, too; Carter Gyasi “Flow Carter” Gilbert-Bass, a dreadlocked gentle giant, is an MC, vocalist and trumpeter; Will Greenburg, is ASO’s contemplative guitarist; Tylee Toyoda is the funkiest drum-beating sushi chef you know; and Keith Gledhill, on bass, somehow comes across as the father of the band.

Funny, since they’re all in their late 20s.

We chopped it up at Bedlam Café on May Day, just ahead of the band’s performance Sunday (June 3) at Upstream 2018 in Pioneer Square in Seattle.

Tell me about the beginning of ASO.

McDonald: We consider “Shifting States,” released in 2016, to be our debut EP. We’d added three members — Tylee, Will, and Keith. We were shifting states as a band and as people. This is almost like home-base for us here at Bedlam because “Shifting States” was recorded like two doors down from here.

The self-titled LP released in 2017 is our first project that’s 100 percent or own, as the band is now. We created, recorded, and produced everything with help from a couple of other artists and friends.

Osborn: We released “Tie Dye Brain Cells” in 2014. That was me, Flow Carter and Seth working on that. Within the next month or so it will disappear from the internet, you won’t be able to find it.

Half the band (as it is now) wasn’t involved with making it. The band itself has changed a lot. We’re fine with that progression. We love it, but it doesn’t feel like we created the project together. But if people have it downloaded and want to upload it to the internet again in 20 years, I’ll be fine with it.

What would you suggest to the young guy who’s tinkering around on machinery, putting his little money together to advance himself in music? The starving young artist.

Greenburg: As with a lot of things, when you grow up, you just get really jaded. I wouldn’t tell someone at age 15 to approach music in such a business-minded fashion, because I would hate music at this point if that was all I started with. Arguably for the first seven years I did music, I wasn’t taking it super seriously — the business end — but I had so much fun and really didn’t even think of the business part of it.

In music, there’s all these different ways to succeed, including, for example, writing just one genre of music. You can go really far but you probably won’t have a lot of fun if you’re not doing exactly what you want to do. At the end of the day, do it as much as possible, even if you’re having no success. That’s totally fine. Do it with your friends and hone the skills. Get better at guitar, bass, producing — but don’t strip yourself of that innocence.

Gilbert-Bass: Stack material. Have so much original material that you really want to push and feel strongly about.

When the serious nature of art gets ahead of the creative aspect, then you just might as well take a corporate job, right?

Greenburg: Yes, it’s so easy to start seeing how cut-throat and fake the music industry can be. There’s so many factors at play, but I would never just say, “Make pop music if want to make money.” If someone wants to play the accordion, they’re probably not going to make as much money as someone who wants to play the piano. But if you love accordion, do the hell out of it, man. Play the accordion.

So, do what you love, stack it up and keep doing it without a mind for the money.

Osborn: Yes. Gyasi and Will both touched on the fun, and honing that element of the creative process with yourself as a creative individual is really important for sustainability. I put college on the back burner. I’m a junior, credit-wise, but I stopped going to school because I was going to Western Washington U and I as making trips back and forth for the band. I was here every weekend and I was failing my classes and wasn’t doing well in the band.

Why do you think you were failing your classes?

Osborn: Because I wasn’t doing my homework. (Everyone laughs.) I was working on music.

At some point during college, did you realize, “Oh wait, I’m not at all interested in this.”

Osborn: Yes, right. With high school it’s a little different. In HS you’re still really young, and finishing leaves every door open for you, no matter what you want to do later in life. But those college credits are waiting for me if I decide that I want to go back.

Plus (in moving away from college and into music) I was getting to the point of stacking the debt higher and higher for something that I’m not even sure I want to do. I wasn’t even sure of my major but I was certainly sure about music. It as a natural progression for me to say to myself, “OK, this is what I value. It’s what I have more fun doing.”

What did that transition look like in your life?

Osborn: Before these fine folks were all involved with the band, Flow and I were working with other MCs and producers — Special T, Toby Kuhn Tangerine in L.A. but from Seattle. We made between 50 and 100 songs between the age of like 19 and 22. We were enveloped in the fun of the music, hanging out like six or seven of us at a time.

What we didn’t do at all was go to shows. We didn’t immerse ourselves in the local (music) community. It wasn’t until we started doing that that we really started making progress. And while networking in general can be overhyped like — “Oh, it’s just like the magic key to get everything done” — we wouldn’t be sitting here if I hadn’t gone to a (particular) show back in 2012.

That’s where I ran into Seth. He gave me his business card and told me to come record at the Purple Door, just a block away at the time. We went there for a session and started recording music and he was consulting with us on the business side. But he became more and more involved with what we were doing until he became part of the group. If I hadn’t ever gone to that show, then we wouldn’t be sitting here.

So, personally, in my own time line, I can credit networking. Everything good that I’ve brought to the table happened as a result of someone that I knew, or someone I met at a show that we played or one that I attended.

It can be a fun thing, too, just going to shows and listening to what other artists are doing and how they perform, and taking that as study material, just like you would at a lecture. That’s a big factor. You want to spend a lot of time on your craft, but then you also want to connect with your community and cultivate your roots. That’s crucial.

Gledhill: Words of wisdom would I give to a young musician: Be conscious of what you hear that you like, and what is it about that? Get to the root of what appeals to you and why. From there, it’s the lifelong pursuit of every musician — finding your own voice — not simply playing Charlie Parker or doing that person’s style.

People ask, “How do you go about writing?” and I answer, “I don’t go about writing.” It turns into “Louie, Louie.” (Everyone laughs.) I’d like to think that’s how we remain rooted in hip-hop style. Everything kinda comes from somewhere.

Osborn: Diversity of input. If I’d only listed to Kendrick Lamar, I’m going to end up writing something that seems like his cadences. Yeah, I love Kendrick, but I’m going to listen to lots of different rappers, but also a lot of different genres and force variety in what I take in so that while I’m being creative, it’s coming from a broader pool of material.

I struggle with not just listening to what I know I really like, but pushing my comfort zone. Whether it’s in networking, creating new music and listening to new music — in any aspect of your life — pushing is key for growth and avoiding cyclical patterns.

Even with great talent, around here in Seattle, it seems so cliquish. It’s almost as though an artist’s talent is an afterthought. What does it take to be noticed? How does that phenomenal band or individual reach the point of becoming the Best Band of Seattle 2017? What does it take?

Toyoda: Well, it takes the community that we have and built around ourselves. Really, it comes down to not what we can do, but what everyone else can do and how we connect with them.

Where we found most of our success is being able to communicate with those around us and bringing everyone together. Social media has been integral. Networking and bringing everyone together, and some of the social media stuff, too.

At the end of the day, it’s really about connecting with that person. It’s not about how good you are at your instrument — yes, it’s ironic — maybe that does help, but if you’re so good, but nobody listens to you, are you really that good?

There’s so much talent out there that we haven’t heard that it could populate a whole new world. That person who doesn’t have a band of six, doesn’t know producers, that average Seattlelite who wouldn’t really stand out: How does that person break through? What’s your advice to highlight that person?

Gilbert-Bass: I feel like you have to do something to stand out. We kind of, by default, do that a little bit because we’re a hip-hoppish band with so many different kinds of flavors and crazy ideas coming together. We do social media videos that are usually at least entertaining, which people say was hilarious. (Gledhill: “It didn’t mean to be hilarious.”)

We put on the first Seattle World Tour this year. People still come up to us with, “Yo, that was tight.” Do something unique, which is hard in this day and age, but stand out in any way. If you’re on stage, wear a weird ass feather in your hair.

Osburn: I’ll bring the feather back out next time we’re talking about stage outfits.

McDonald: Something that’s been in the forefront of my mind this spring especially, with touring outside of Seattle related to other work, is the importance of putting yourself in places where no one knows you, outside of your own community, where no one follows you on social media.

For instance, last April we played two shows in two weeks. One at Neumos with Industrial Revelation, a phenomenal jazz band, Stranger Genius Award winners for Best Jazz outfit. So, we’re playing in front of these musical savants, if you will. (“It’s worth mentioning that they don’t gig often,” Gledhill adds.) With that crowd, no one’s really even heard of us, but then just on the basis of our connection with that crowd, we gained new fans.

Then we go to the Crocodile and we open for Devan the Dude, a legacy hip-hop artist, in some people’s Top 10 or 20. We’re playing in front of a bunch of his fans who don’t know us, and we gained new fans there, too.

Playing in front of crowds where they don’t know you and have no preconceived notions can help any artist. Even if you can go to Tacoma, Bellingham, Portland, people are just going to take you for what you are.

On the cliquishness, we’ve all experienced that in one way or another, and we try to break out of that and bring people together. But if someone can just make their first impression off of what you’re actually doing, that’s when you start to gain a lot of followership. When they say, “I just love what that person did — right there.”

Osborn: Second-degree knowledge from online somewhere — this is something that we’ve done, as well as breaking into new communities. At the same time you’ve got to convince your direct community — your direct friends and friends of friends — you’ve got to win those people over. Gain the support of your actual community, which is different from the music community.

Once you have won them over and you’re able to bring your community out to shows, even if it’s just 5 or 10 people on a smaller bill, then you start making noise — even if it’s not a lot noise — but enough so that, if you have our community convinced, then you can start to convince people outside of your community, people that don’t know you.

It’s this weird paradox, where they both kind of have to start advancing together. And, like Seth said, you’re making waves outside of your community but also within your community. Only in the last six months have we seen the results of that. We’re getting more attention from the “in crowd.” We’ve never felt a part of that. We’ve always felt we were pushing and struggling against that like everyone else.

Like Flo mentioned, in the Seattle World Tour, we had 15 different bands in five days in a bunch of different genres. So, not only do we feel like we’re kind of struggling like everyone else, but we want to help open up the music community so that there’s more room for collaboration and bills with different genres.

The Seattle music community has a lot of room to grow and expand, as the city does as well, and kind of open its doors. That will be really important to the progression of the Seattle music community.

Who organized that Seattle World Tour, and will it happen again?

Osborn: It was Seth, with some assistance from the rest of us, but mostly Seth.

McDonald: We’re going to make it an annual thing, and just switch up the bands. This year we did headlining every night. Hopefully it gets to the point where we’re just headlining one night, but the entire mission is that we see the cliquishness, and we just want to bring people together for music.

Greenburg: Two things that have taken us really far — we’ve had a ton of luck. First, one reason why some people might have heard of us is that our name starts with an “A.” And second, it was sort of because Seth’s relationship with the people that were booking for Capital Hill Block Party last summer. We got signed up for that, and when The Stranger put out the event schedule, who was the first band listed?

Was that by design?

Osborn: No, the name was nine years old at that time, and we weren’t even going to shows, so we definitely weren’t considering alphabetical order of the band name. (Chuckles.)

Greenburg: No offense to 19-year-old us, but we didn’t have that kind of strategy in mind back then. However, we have always had a strategy. Around the time the six of us came together we started approaching things very much with a strategy and a project-based mentality around everything — with setting deadlines, and knowing month to month, week by week, what do we have to get done to get all the way there. It’s taken a strong cohesion and being on the same page.

We really have cultivated a pretty strong base here, thanks to Seth doing booking and seeing where we’re moving. We’ve been over to Spokane a couple of times — which is arguably he next big music hub in Washington, as well as maybe like Tacoma and Olympia. Its working out that way, but also we were really fortunate to tour with the Nomads.

McDonald: People don’t care what you do. They care why you’re doing it.

Toyoda: I’ve been involved in musical outlet since I was 5, with piano at first. From piano, I moved to violin and as I grew older, I started learning guitar because they were similar. From guitar, I eventually found drums, and through school at Western I also found things like audio recording. Things clicked and I understood that it’s not just about this or that instrument. It’s about the music.

Gledhill: I also started on violin when I was 4 or 5, mostly because my older sisters were doing it. The instructor was like, “OK, do you want to do this or not?” And I was like, “Not.” And they were like, “Well, OK, then you can leave.” From then on, I was cautious to get back into music, but would gig occasionally with my dad’s band.

Osborn: I must have been 7 or 8 when my brother gave me “Midnight Marauders” by A Tribe Called Quest. That really got me focused on hip-hop. Then, in high school, I started smoking weed — sorry, Mom — and listening to a lot more rap. My CD case was full of mixes and I would freestyle to anyone that would listen. (Seth interjects, “We met in a freestyle circle.”)

McDonald: My origin of music is probably a 180 from everyone else. I went to school for audio engineering before ever knowing an instrument. As a kid, I was definitely a hyper consumer of music. By fourth grade I knew every single hip-hop release, but I didn’t start playing an instrument until I was like 19 years old. In high school, I did spoken word, and I remember getting up and spitting this piece in front of like 200 people, and that was the most invigorating moment I’d ever had.

Gilbert-Bass: Friends Cedrick and Ju-Ju from Roosevelt used to freestyle, and they would encourage me to do it. I give them credit for jump starting my musical career. I was freestyling in my head, but they were like, “If you can’t do it in front of us, then who are you gonna do it in front of?” That broke through a wall a little bit.

What is it that you want your fans to know?

Toyoda: We want them to know that we’re all in this together. It’s not us without them, it’s not them without us. Be good to each other.

Osborn: Just the message of love, the message of unity and community. Music does that really well. We’re all really happy to get a chance share in that communal moment of creative energy, when someone listens to our music and comes to a show.

Gilbert-Bass: We’re all people with problems at the end of the day. We might be on a record, but we’re still real. We’re out here scrapping to get by, eating McDonald’s like everyone else.

Gledhill: There’s really no right answer. It’s wherever you derive happiness and purpose.

It’s the beating heart of this band that is its magnetism. It’s what you notice first about them. Go and see for yourself.

This story was first published at The News Tribune on June 1, 2018.