The roots of Roots : A sit down with Alex Silas
By Fly on the Waltz
Today marks the release of the LP Roots: The Opera Of June Mañana by Alex Silas & The Subterraneans. A 16-track project split into two discs, titled Tiger Lily and Lotus respectively, the LP is Alex’s first full length project. I sat down with Alex a week before today to discuss how he went from Alex Silas to Alex Silas & The Subterraneans and the process behind Roots.
I’m here with Alex Silas of Alex Silas & The Subterraneans. For those who don’t know, who is Alex Silas & The Subterraneans?
Alex: Alex Silas & The Subterraneans is me, Alex Silas, and the Subterraneans would be collectively myself, my guitarist Liam Burke, and my DJ Jean-Francois Frenette AKA J2xF.
And how did you meet Liam and J2xF?
Well I’ve known them both for a while. Liam and I met when I was 16 he was 15 or something. We met a Loblaw’s pushing carts. And then we became friends through that. We used to ditch work and go play games at Future Shop or go to the O-Train tracks and put change on the tracks so it’d get flattened. And we became friends through that and then just hung out a lot and then as our friendship grew we started collaborating more and more on music. And even before the Subterraneans he was composing guitar for some of my tracks and was actually part of the first attempt at a live band setup I did a few years ago. So we’ve been friends for a really long time. And J2xf and I met at Hip-Hop Karaoke. He did a Jon Lajoie song and I thought that was funny. I did Big Pun something. And then Atherton mentioned something along the lines of, “How does a boy from small town New Brunswick get into hip-hop?” So JF comes up to me after and is like “I’m from NB too,” and I’m like “ Oh shit, no way.” We start talking, and eventually exchange info. A little bit down the road he asked me to jump on a track with him, a Lisa Leblanc remix, that we still do live sometimes. And it’s the first time (the only time) I’ve tried writing in French. We kept hanging out and eventually I had a need for a DJ so I was like “Hey man, how would you like to try DJing for me?” and he joined the fold and Liam joined the fold and now we’re the Subterraneans, the Subby Subs.
Do you remember your first show with Liam & J2xF?
I can’t. We’ve done a lot of shows together in the relatively short span that we’ve been jamming together. It’s been a busy year. But I think probably our first show as the Subterraneans, the lineup we have now, would have been I think last September maybe, at Babylon, with RockSteady Bookings. My first headlining gig too, really cool.
Let’s talk more about the man himself. Like you said, you’re not originally from Ottawa you’re from New Brunswick.
I am, I was born in Moncton. My parents split up at a really young age, so me and my mom moved to Fredericton and after a while we moved to Barachois, which is a community of 2,000 people. Actually Greater Barachois is 2,000 people. It’s a really small town, you know, the kind of place that has one church, one corner store. I lived really close to the beach, that was cool. Walking distance to the ocean, I miss that a lot. But I love Ottawa. I would say I’m from Ottawa, as much as the Maritimes are still very much in my heart and I consider that home, Ottawa’s home too and I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve grown a lot just being in Ottawa. It’s a great city.
What was your first taste of music? What was the first piece of music that really got you?
The Slim Shady LP. “Brain Damage” specifically. That’s probably what got me. I was listening to lots of stuff back then. There was a time where I really discovered and then fell in love with hip-hop and dove into it headfirst and for a while forgot about any other genre of music, anything else really. Slim Shady LP by Eminem of course.
Do you remember when you started writing your own rap music?
Yeah I was 14, in 9th grade. And I just didn’t have a lot of friends, so I was looking for something that would help me fit in or stand out or just you know something that I could be. Cause in high school you get the mentality that everybody is “that guy,” this is the skateboard guy, this is the pothead guy, this is the really smart chick, this is the preppy chick.
And you wanted to be a guy of some kind.
Right, I wanted to have some sort of social circle that I fit in and I don’t believe in any of that bullshit anymore, but that’s your whole world in high school. So funny enough I started out trying to make beats. I downloaded FruityLoops but I was so shitty at it that I was just like “Nah, I’m just going to rap actually.” Went from there. I mean I remember being in 9th grade and staying up nights and just writing, five, six songs. And they were shitty, but just to write them, just for the practice, just to get it out, just to get better at it, you know. Recording on my laptop, eventually to a booth and closet with a nylon sock on a coat hanger, that is the old story, that’s pretty much how every rapper goes through it.
If The Slim Shady LP is what got you into rap music, what is the music that makes you want to wake up every day and write another song?
You know I’d have to say it’s a blend of the new stuff I hear coming out and the old stuff that I hear or rediscover. You know sometimes you hear an old record and it blows you away. Cause I get inspired by old blues stuff like Billie Holiday and Muddy Waters. I go through phases with music sometimes, so I’ll spend a week just bumping Muddy Waters in my headphones. That stuff it inspires me, I think there’s a lot that’s still there that can be revived in today’s music. But then there’s also new music. There’s a lot of like really progressive, really game changing, really pushing boundaries music that’s out there. Like Childish Gambino, I was talking to my cousin about Childish Gambino the other day. He is one of the best new school guys out cause he’s doing really cool shit. The other day I was listening to Odd Future, and I never thought I’d be into Odd Future but it’s like damn, this is weird and it’s fucked up, but it’s cool. You know it’s different, stuff that’s different I guess keeps me going. A lot of what I hear coming out of the city. I do genuinely love the music that’s coming out of Ottawa, and I think there’s a lot of cool shit happening and there’s a few people that impress the shit out of me, keep me on my toes, push me to make something that’s going to stand out and leave a mark of the city, just be part of it.
Let’s talk about Roots, coming out today. Where did the title come from?
Originally when we finished working on Songs for Lovers and Fighters, which was my last EP, we were right back in the studio. There was a few working titles, like the Underdog EP, but then I had all these song ideas and I decided to make a full-length. And I wanted to really do something that I wasn’t going to want to jump right back into the studio afterwards. Not that I don’t still have creative urges, obviously I still do. But I couldn’t shake the feeling after releasing Catania and Songs For Lovers & Fighters that like I could of made it better and that I should of changed this to that. I didn’t want to do that again. So I took this project a lot more seriously. And I put a lot more into it. I put a lot more thought into the writing, I mean I don’t think there’s a song on Roots I wrote in one sitting. I lost count of how many times I wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote these tracks. I wanted it to fit together. There’s this Bob Dylan quote that I bring up a lot when talking about Roots. I forget how it goes every time, something about “When putting together on LP you need to take it seriously. You need to make sure that not only each song is whole, but that the LP, the album itself works as a whole.” So I really wanted to try to do that. I guess as a general theme, I thought about making the album about where I was from, where I was, and where I saw myself going, where I wanted to be going. Yeah that’s the long babbling on answer but the short is Roots is about growth.
And you recorded the album at Studio 169 with Bryan Ruckstuhl. What’s it like working with Bryan?
Bryan is the man. I mean Bryan is one of my best friends; he’s been a mentor. He’s been completely invaluable to the music I’ve been making. I really feel like, I’m trying to get the right word. I was going say something like if Roots is my baby, Bryan is…
Yeah! And Liam and JF would be the cool uncles. But yeah Bryan is great; I’ve been working with him since Catania. A little before that actually. Our relationship has evolved and grown into something really cool. We work really well together, we vibe really well together in the studio. I mean it’s even to the point where sometimes, we know what the other person is thinking, almost telepathically, like he’ll know what I’m about to say. He’s been a huge part of Roots. I feel like I’m learning more how to produce on my own, you know shape the sound. But Bryan has been and still is a huge part of my sound.
And how prominently do the Subterraneans feature on the recorded version of Roots?
That’s interesting too cause the Subterraneans formed, like Voltron, while I was working on Roots. So when I started working on Roots I didn’t have a band, I was working with my guitarist buddy Anthony Nahas, who contributed a lot on the project too I should mentioned. And Liam was going to contribute too, because as I said we were friends and we worked on music and stuff together. I mean a lot of his songs were songs that we had talked about for a while. Liam and I had been joking about doing a pub song for probably a couple years now and got together and did it for Roots. There are a lot of songs on Roots that feature a lot of session musicians, Liam and JF being among them. But then there are a lot of songs that are really just Bryan and I, we made a beat and I rapped or did spoken word to it.
And do you have any other collaborations on the album?
Like I said I got tons of session musicians, Brigit O’Regan on violin, Jordan Gauthier and Vince Karimi on drums, and Katie Bourque on ukulele and piano on a couple songs, and just sings like damn on “Mouton Noir.” That girl has a crazy voice. I did a song with Karolinka Kaminska, “Lions, Tigers, and Bears.” Karolinka features, Katie Bourque on Mouton Noir, kills it with the vocals. I got Poetic Elements and Eddie Quotez on a track. Just dope. Like I was saying, talking about people in my city who inspire me to keep me going.
The Adding Machine is also on the album.
Yeah, on “Zombeez.” That track was cool too cause it came together very last minute and I was very happy that we were able to put it on the album. That was kind of a late idea and I was worried we weren’t going to be able to come together and do it. But yeah everybody wrote their verses quick things, we got together in the studio, recorded it. I was actually writing my last four bars on the way to the studio. Tragic from Philly Moves is also on the record, on “Hip-Hop Hippie.” That was cool to get him on it too. We’ve known each other for a while, probably known Tragic for at least three years now. I first met him cause I was just a fan of Philly Moves’s shit, and I had opened for him once at some random show, but like the kind of show that has 15 rappers. And I had met up with him to buy a t-shirt and just you know wanted to pick his brain and stuff on how I should push my stuff. And he didn’t know me but he talked to me for 20 minutes about college radio and stuff like that and it helped a lot. So it was important for me to get Tragic on the record. Shaun Sullivan and I also co-wrote a spoken word piece about drinking that’s on there.
You also had a local artist do the artwork for Roots. Could you talk about that?
Mister Robbie Lariviere AKA Miner. He’s cool as fuck, man. I had been to Fall Down a couple times just to buy clothes. And I think I followed Fall Down on Instagram and then I was seeing all these pictures he was posting of his art and he has a really cool trademark style, he calls it party animals or something like that, and it’s these cool little animals and people drinking 40s and smoking blunts usually. It’s really cool. So I just reached out to him and was like “Hey, would you be interested in doing the back cover for an album I’m working on?” He was down, he showed me the piece and he blew me away. The idea for the back was that I wanted a bunch of animals playing musical instruments. I actually asked certain people what animal they wanted to be represented by. I’m a bear, Liam’s an owl, JF’s a gryphon playing an MPC in the sky, and Bryan’s a dragon. And I was having some difficulty with the front cover. So I reached out to Robbie again. He obliged and again, blew me away. It was cooler than what I had in mind or what I had described to him. And it’s cool it came together that way cause the back matches the front, thematically it all works together. I’m proud of it, it’s hanging in my living room right now.
Going into the release of Roots, how do you feel about the project?
I feel really strongly about Roots. It’s just the most that I’ve ever put into anything in my life; I’ve never put so much passion into any one thing. It’s a strong feeling; I wouldn’t even classify it good or bad, just a strong feeling. I remember as we were finishing the mastering though, pretty much during the whole finalization process, partly due to the fact that I was in the studio so much and still working full time, I was kind of running on fumes at some points. Like I said before I wanted to take it very seriously making an EP making a full length record, I didn’t want to just throw out a collection of 15 songs. I wanted to really make something, pour all of myself into something. And yeah it wasn’t always easy to do, and it wasn’t always fun to do.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I have one with my friend Fly On The Waltz called Synesthesia we’re working on. I’m also working on something with Eddie Quotez. Eddie Quotez and I have been talking about working on a project since we met. This project has always been called In The Morning. But it’s just always been hard for us to find time to sit down and work on it. But now might be the time for us to actually do it. In The Morning should happen soon. We’ve had a few writing sessions, and gotten some beats together.
I have some extra questions here for you. I’ll ask a question, give you some options and you choose one. First off, Goku or Gohan?
Goku all day, man.
Favourite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and why?
Raphael. I always thought he was the most relatable.
Stir fry or pho?
To quote my friend Aron The Alien, and I want this in the interview, “pho is the most overhyped shit I’ve ever had bruh.”
Tupac or Biggie?
Pizza or Poutine?
Jambalaya from The Daily Grind.
Beer or Liquor?
Liquor. Whiskey to be precise. Irish Whiskey to be extra precise.
Well thank you very much Alex. Do you have any final thoughts to pass on to the readers here at Ottawa Showbox?
Peace and love.
You can purchase Roots by Alex Silas & The Subterraneans at http://alexsilas.com/roots, or in person at their upcoming show July 16th alongside The Extremities, Notes To Self, Maya Killtron, Philly Moves, G. Grand, and King hosted by Rocksteady Bookings.