"I knew I wanted this to be an exploration," says Ben Willis, recollecting his first year in music school and admitting his motives may have been different from those who were predominantly focused on technique or theory. Willis is one of four multi-instrumentalists comprising Saajtak, a certifiable Voltron-like convergence of virtuosos who each share that resolve, that embrace, of exploration. The band is one of 200 artists to be featured throughout the seventh annual weekend-long Hamtramck Music Fest, taking over 23 venues across the city, the culmination of entirely volunteer-run coordination and community support.
Willis (who's on bass) met his bandmates Alex Koi (vocals), Simon Alexander-Adams (electronics), and Jonathan Taylor (drums) when they were all studying in the U-M School of Music back in 2012. Alexander-Adams says Willis was the "missing piece," who joined just after this group's first few months together, when Saajtak was a trio. The word "explore" continually comes up in our conversation, and it couldn't fit the band's aesthetic any better: Saajtak utilizes each instrumentalist's training in jazz and improvisation to arrange transfixing suites that sound invigoratingly untamed, like seven-minute odysseys through experimental electronica, post-rock, trip-hop, and cosmic opera. The band has released four EPs in four years, including If You Ask, from the late summer of 2019, featuring an acoustic version of one of their songs, a cameo from Ann Arbor emcee Kadence, and a remix treatment from Jonathan Snipes of the band Clipping.
"As avant-garde as we come off, this is actually the most commercial band I've been part of," Willis says. "To me, I think [Saajtak] is like a rock band." The band credits its strength to its omnivorous musical habits: "By listening to a lot of very diverse music and musicians, you start to more rapidly understand different structural languages," Alexander-Adams says. Taylor says that a strict digest of challenging music can wind up being enlightening — to where, after consistent listens, something can spark, "and suddenly, this dense, incomprehensible cloud suddenly has clarity."
"There's something so interesting about an artist who shares their true, authentic self through their work," says Koi, who called in to this interview, as she splits time between Detroit and New York (more on that later). "Something about fringe art, especially fringe music, really captivates my attention because often times you'll hear people taking risks in order to convey essentially what they're really feeling. Avant-garde music and art very much gets at the root of something and is about peeling back layers and looking at the thing — as it is, as it's existing. That's always been something that, naturally, I want to do with my music."
Koi credits supportive parents who encouraged her from a very early age to pursue her vocal talent. "It's a gift that I don't take lightly," says Koi, who recently performed at a gala event honoring Laurie Anderson, a pioneer in modern experimental music. She also auditioned for and joined the cast of an opera piece by Toshi Reagon adapting Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. Meanwhile, as a solo artist, she just released her debut single, "Last Goodbye."
Each member has interesting and noteworthy projects on the side of Saajtak. Alexander-Adams specializes in interactive media development, programming projections and visuals, and recently had the opportunity to design a light show for a large-scale LED adornment in Shenzhen, China. He says he was exposed to an eclectic range of music in his youth, but that acts like Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Portishead really had an impact. When Alexander-Adams got his first digital audio workstation, it didn't occur to him to try any YouTube tutorials, and instead "explored everything about it until I understood it." He grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota — crediting, like Koi, an upbringing that was very supportive of music and creativity. It led him to "be very open-minded about music, and art in general."
Taylor grew up in Ann Arbor, expressing gratitude for a band director in school who, as it happened, "was really into very percussive-heavy pieces."
"I was exposed to lots of music from my brother, which ranged from The Who to Method Man to Charles Mingus, and had some very forward-looking friends that got me into the ECM label (Edition of Contemporary Music) and weird metal," he says. While Taylor played in the genres of rock, jazz, metal, and even marching band, he said that, as a drummer, he felt frustrated before he got to college, as he was eager to find a means of taking "all of these different (musical styles) I was pulling from" and find "an outlet for all of them to be filtered through. I didn't understand why they all couldn't just communicate with each other."
Taylor leads several other groups, including Teiku, which reframes his family's ancestral Passover melodies in a creative music setting, and he's developing a new project flourishing his curiosity with (and inspiration from) the natural world, particularly the way that root systems of plants exchange nutrients and information.
Willis says that it can sometimes be a struggle, but also quite a strength "that we're all doing so much outside of the band. We all come to the table with so much more because of that." Willis, meanwhile, just wrapped up recording a new album with Madison, Wisconsin-based jazz group Lovely Socialite (in which his membership predates Saajtak). He has a solo performance piece he's been adapting for the last five years called "Subatlantic Songs," a featured piece in the Ann Arbor Film Fest (a music video for local punk-rock auteur Throwaway), and he's developing his composition for four double basses, "Bonewater," into a short film.
As Saajtak, Alexander-Adams says, "most of our ideas emerge through improvising. We're working on streamlining our process so that we can write something that has complexity and depth, but do it faster." As Koi puts it, with poetic urgency, "Everything happens simultaneously ... but we've gotten faster at completing the songs."
It's the tricky balance of thinking, unconsciously, like a composer, and having a keen sense of structure, even in the midst of explorative improv. It evokes an analogy to the careful but hurried art of throwing clay into shape while it's on a spinning wheel. "Earlier in the band, we may have tended to throw the clay on the floor and take time figuring out what to make," says Willis, embracing that comparison. "Now, the process is very much, 'Let's make a pot! Let's make a jar! Let's make a vase!' ... We have a language of our own now."
Saajtak performs on Friday, Feb. 28 as part of the Hamtramck Music Festival a the New Dodge Lounge, 8850 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck; 313-874-5963. Full schedule can be found at hamtramckmusicfest.com.
11 other acts to catch at Hamtramck Music Fest
Starting Thursday, Hamtramck turns into an odyssey of live local music. Thursday’s kick-off festivities will be hosted at Bar/ter and High Dive, and then the Hamtramck Music Fest expands to more than 20 venues, each hosting four-band lineups. Purchasing a wristband will get you all-access to various venues throughout the weekend; you can find a list of locations selling wristbands at hamtramckmusicfest.com (or follow HMF on Facebook or Instagram). You can also pick up your wristband, will-call style, on the night of the kick-off party, tomorrow, at Bar/ter. Late to the party? You can stop by HMF headquarters (at 10023 Joseph Campau) on Friday or Saturday evening to grab last-minute wristbands. Proceeds from this grassroots/volunteer-powered event go toward the purchase of music and art equipment for local public school students.
Along with Saajtak, we’ve got 11 more can’t-miss acts for Year 7 of HMF:
Thursday, High Dive, 9:30 p.m.
Recently featured in MT’s Artists to Watch in 2020, this solo project by songwriter Austin Carpenter combines surfy riffs, new-wave, and electro-pop.
Thursday, Bar/ter, 10 p.m.
Maiyana Davis will supercharge the kick-off festivities with a fiery blend of garage rock and blues. There’s grit, moxie, and mightiness in both her impassioned lead vocals and the face-melting capacities of her riffs and solos.
Friday, Whiskey in the Jar, 9:30 p.m.
Girl Fight is punk rock that gets right down to the point: forthright lyrics, fierce vocal delivery, primal drum pounds, guttural guitars, pure adrenaline tempos, and status-quo shattering urgency.
Friday, Painted Lady, 10:30 p.m.
Brothers Tino and Rolando find a universal strand of musical DNA that’s shared between punk and mariachi — as awareness-spreading, fiery folk music.
Friday, High Dive, 12:15 a.m.
A solo artist known from the last decade’s worth of recording and performing with hip-hop group Clear Soul Forces, Ilajide has a powerful stage presence, with bold, defiant, and socially conscious lyrics threaded through conceptual metaphors.
Friday, Ghost Light, 12:15 a.m.
An adventurous and experimental ensemble with grand space-rock ballads that forge funk with free-jazz and their own signature psychedelia.
Saturday, Outer Limits, 10:45 p.m.
This punk-rock power trio gracefully balances grit and volatility with tight hooks, solid grooves, and anthemic harmonic blends of two lead vocalists threading inventive progressions and melodies throughout stormy and intensive dynamic shifts.
Saturday, Ghost Light, 10:45 p.m.
Jump on the proverbial bandwagon right from the get-go when you see this debut performance from Raazzz: this newer group’s comprised of longtime local players who just put out their first album combining melodic alt-pop, twangy country, and raucous garage rock.
Saturday, Polish Sea League, 11:15 p.m.
This legendary local soul and R&B trio was founded back in the late ’60s, running its own label (Ultimate 1999) and releasing singles like “Mountain of Love.”
Saturday, Whiskey in the Jar, 11:30 p.m.
Ypsilanti’s soul-rock songstress leads a fantastic ensemble of players keenly capable of conjuring a dreamy, cosmic vibe.
Saturday, Ghost Light, 11:30 p.m.
A tremulous duo unleashing an intense post-rock thrash-up of mathy arrangements and punk-metal energy.
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