Up until recently Ekulu were sort of one of those mystery bands to me. Their debut release was only three songs and came out in 2018 and was followed up by two more songs in 2019. Without having a social media presence until earlier this year you had to get your detective hat out to find out more about this band. Back in June Ekulu released their debut full length “Unscrew My Head” on the recently formed Cash Only Records. The new album absolutely slams from start to finish and is hard to pigeon-hole as Ekulu are definitely bringing new ideas to the table while maintaining a sound that is still undeniably hardcore whether you grew up in 2001 or in 2021. This interview was done back in June with Ekulu’s drummer Mike and lead singer Chris. Lead photo by: Cam Smith with graphics by: John Franko.
IE: What's up guys? Where exactly are you right now and what would you usually be doing at this time if you weren't answering these questions?
Chris: How's it hangin! Good - my exact location is a front desk at an art and frame shop in downtown Wilkes Barre (PA) just stocking paints and paper part-time. My type of environment for sure, haha!
Mike: Yo! Thanks for having us. Chillin at home in Brooklyn today otherwise I’d be working on set (film/TV), working on the label or working on music.
IE: "Unscrew My Head" is the new album and starts off in an interesting way with "Becoming/New Life Jam" which is a three minute instrumental and is probably the most unique track on the album. Please tell us about this song, it's title and the placement of a jam type of song to lead off the album?
Mike: The seeds of the idea for this track started with Connor (guitarist/songwriter) and I wanting to open the album with something unique in relation to hardcore but still raw and hard hitting. We’ve always been interested in pushing the boundaries of what hardcore is supposed to be by exploring things like world music/jazz while still maintaining a cohesive style. The album’s producer had some nice roto-toms that we requested which was amazing for me to jam on throughout the intro of the track. Once we were in the studio it quickly took shape. Initially the track was supposed to be the intro to “Proven Wrong” but we decided it would be best as a standalone. Although Chris came up with the title, to me it’s about opening up a new chapter of the band - becoming a new version of what Ekulu previously was.
IE: Leading up to this album there were only five Ekulu studio tracks released between the demo in 2018 and the “Half Alive” EP from 2019. I have heard the term "hype band" used in reference to Ekulu before and for me personally there are hype bands that are deserving of the hype while others simply don't live up to said hype. I feel like with the release of “Unscrew My Head” it's apparent that the buzz surrounding Ekulu has been warranted. What's your take on all this? As a band member is the term hype band a derogatory remark even if it could be meant in a good way?
Mike: I try not to pay attention to that stuff because at the end of the day I’m interested in music above all else. But, it is cool to see that people are excited about the band after years and years of playing music that didn’t really get the same kind of love Ekulu has been getting. So I personally don’t take it to mean anything negative. I think also because of how much time we’ve all put into music, specifically Connor and I having played in 3 bands together prior, this was the culmination of that which I think resulted in the most refined version of our musical vision.
PHOTO BY: JAMES SCOTT
IE: With only 5 released studio songs how were you filling up your set lists back before shows got shut down?
Chris: We get shit for having long songs so that helps in our favor! Haha! I'd say it's a balancing act… we try to keep it pumping as long as we can. I know that “S.O.D.” ("Sanctuary Of Depression") is our longest song to date at five minutes and 13 seconds. They usually get faster/slower depending on the energy of the set.
Mike: Like Chris said, the long tracks help and also as a band just getting going I personally think shorter sets can be the best. We would usually range around 20-25 minutes tops which felt like just enough to keep us and the audience satisfied.
IE: Do you have any covers in your setlist and are there any others that you may be discussing within the band to cover in the future?
Mike: We’ve toyed with a couple covers throughout the span of the band but now we’re trying to figure how to play both new and old songs in a set without playing for too long. Maybe we’ll throw in a cover or two in the future but we’re honestly super excited to play the new tracks live.
IE: Tell us a little about the making of this album. The majority of the releases sent in to us here at In Effect are short sub 10 minute EP's but you guys dropped a whopper at 28 minutes and change.
Mike: This album was a long time coming for us and was always the plan after putting out the first two EP’s. The first track Connor and I wrote was “Proven Wrong”, which we had a voice memo of like almost two years ago at this point. After a short UK tour with a gig in Stockholm in late 2019, the plan was basically to finish writing it and have it out by summer 2020 so we could start touring. Then obviously the world shut down and that plan was put on ice for a minute. March to May of 2020 was a dead period for the band only because it was hard to get together back then. By the time summer rolled around Connor and I started jamming almost every week. He would come in with riffs/full songs sometimes and we would work. By late June/early July it got to a point where we were getting close to finishing the album and by then we had brought Cheddar (guitar) in to start working on ideas. Eventually our new bassist, Steve, entered the fold and he started learning the tracks. We then booked a session with Arthur Rizk in Philly to record in August. Once that date was locked in, Connor and I took a ride out to Kingston, PA where Chris now lives and we went through all the tracks with him, solidifying certain hooks, lyrical ideas and flows. I think we booked like six days but only ended up using four. We grinded out drums the first half of the first day and quickly moved on. Everyone else killed it and wasted no time. Chris would do a few tracks each day so he wouldn’t lose his voice which made a huge difference in the strength of his voice compared to earlier recordings. Throughout the process we crashed at an Air BNB that was like a kinda sketchy shared house with tons of guests. I guess it was cheap but we did our best not to be there too often. Overall, it was the most collaborative recording that the band has done to date. Everyone in the band left their mark on this one.
CLICK BELOW TO STREAM OR DOWNLOAD EKULU'S "UNSCREW MY HEAD"
IE: Can you give us an interpretation of the “Unscrew My Head” title and cover art? I read that Chris is an artist and drew the cover?
Chris: Yeah, sure! The title comes from a place where I felt a lot of people could relate to. Unscrewing your head could be blowing off steam doing what you have always loved to do… whether it's writing, skateboarding, moshing, making art, drawing, playing shows... it's the whole idea of letting stress go and finding your bliss. The chorus line "Unscrew my head -- been waitin’ all week -- let go of hardships -- some were just dying to sink" is just the antithesis of that. There's not enough music that I know of that encourages that. At least that's what it meant at the time when the title was being determined. It can take new forms of meaning as time goes on as does most things.
Regarding the record cover, I wanted to make something that could tie in the previous themes we've touched on artistically for the band. Our nameless Ekulu 'ying'yang' demons made sense to me to let this be their monument, almost the resting place for the early era we've crafted for ourselves. I wasn't sure where the art direction for a band called Ekulu would take us so like anything I just kind of went for what I thought looked timeless and cool. But the composition of the artwork has a lot to do with people I’ve lost in my life, a little bit of the construct of time, and how it's faded a lot of what we know and remember about each other. Blank picture frames, stone benches (actually referenced local church benches near where I lived), the pale blue women signified mothers, and how fragile life has gotten over the course of the past year or so. There was a day the band came through my apartment here in the WB area and figured out song titles, talked about lyrics, and then lastly what the art could potentially look/feel like. Connor drew something like a circle with "Ekulu – Fuck You" written around these stick figure demons and was like "Yo, this has to be the look." So with that motif I just kinda rolled with it from there. Also side note, that doodle Connor made is actually on the insert LOL so enjoy that.
CLICK BELOW TO WATCH THE "UNSCREW MY HEAD" MUSIC VIDEO
IE: Ekulu recently put out a video for “Unscrew My Head” the song. Can you tell us about the making of it?
Mike: So the idea for the video came from Connor and Chris. The vision was to just have our friends go crazy to the title track. No frills, no high budget, just high energy. It was shot at our practice space in Brooklyn with a few pickup shots Chris took in PA. We’re all pretty stoked about how it turned out, especially because there were basically no costs to make it. The week after the shoot I went out to Chris’ in PA and we spent a full day lining the clips up and getting it together. I think the entire process of shooting, editing and releasing took about a month and it was so fun to watch all the footage and also participate in the video. Connor really played the part of director and was upping the energy each time a new person entered the room. Toward the end of the night when it was just Chris, Connor and I we started coming up with a new video idea that we’ll likely do ourselves but that’s all TBD.
IE: With this new release comes the emergence of Cash Only Records which is a new label run by members of your band as well as Illusion. Do you guys view this label as a thing that will be used strictly to put out Ekulu and Illusion releases or are you looking to go deeper and sign bands you are excited about?
Mike: We want the label to be more than just our bands, and it’s already well on its way to being that. There’s a Big Cheese 7” that we already have approved test presses for, so that’s coming up right around the corner and it fucking slaps. We’re also working with Combust on their next release and have been loosely talking to another band that we all love. We want this label to put out quality hardcore while doing our best to help the bands we work with. Other than those things, Illusion is writing our LP so keep an eye out for that, likely sometime in early 2022.
IE: It's been only a few weeks since your first release came out and it looks as if all 1000 copies of “Unscrew My Head” have been accounted for. Have there been any surprises or things you weren't expecting (good or bad) considering before this you guys were just "the band" and now you are "the band" AND "the label”.
Mike: In all honesty, we were all pretty surprised that we sold out of the records so quickly. In retrospect we DEFINITELY should have ordered more but I guess it’s a better problem than having too many, especially because we’re shipping everything out of a tiny apartment in Brooklyn. For the most part, things have gone over very smoothly and the fact that we own the rights to all of our music and successfully self-released means more to us than any label doing it.
IE: Ekulu and lllusion are two bands who appear to be super tight having done a lot together in the past. Shining Life Press even put out a tour journal zine/book that was written by your singer Chris from that 2019 tour. For people like myself who Iove hardcore but have never been in a band can you describe what the feeling is like to get in a van and slowly make your way across this giant country with your friends?
Chris: You're practically in a house on wheels with your best friends completely cut off from your surroundings until you're in those places you're playing a really badass show at. There's a feeling you get when it's just you and those few you just so happened to meet at the perfect time in your life with. It's really special. And touring off of 5 songs? Sounds ridiculous in hindsight but it made perfect sense to hit the road with Illusion. It's damn near the same squad. I wouldn't have it either way.
There's a special time of night when everyone's out in the van and your shirt is soaked from the set you just played, you're chugging water and remembering you could've been stuck at home, working a 9-5, not taking advantage of these things. I look forward to doing that more. Catching cities we haven't been able to hit, and for fuck sake finally some new material to jam out - it'll be nice.
Mike: For me, that tour was my first full U.S. and the longest I’d been out on the road. When you first leave your area to be out for a month the feeling is euphoric. There’s so much on the horizon - new places, new people, new musical moments. As the tour went on, pretty much everyone had their periods of either being sick, annoyed with each other, or just exhausted. Without those moments I feel the beautiful ones wouldn’t have hit as hard. I remember puking after playing the Illusion set in Tucson, AZ then having to play the Ekulu set minutes later and feeling insane but in a zone where I was almost outside of myself, playing one of my best sets. There’s a time once you’ve been on the road for a couple weeks where the weight of it can be felt, physically and mentally, but the feeling of playing to excited unfamiliar faces makes it all worth it, as cliche as that sounds. In all aspects of life I think working hard feels amazing when it’s on your own terms and for me playing two sets a night was rewarding in all aspects of my life. Plus the tour was pretty much all DIY gigs and we came out on top financially which instilled confidence in the band and in doing underground shows as much as possible. I’m sure as the band tours harder my perceptions will change!
CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE EKULU & ILLUSION TOUR JOURNAL FROM 2019
IE: Outside of the music realm what were some things you did or experienced on that tour across the U.S. that will stay with you for years to come?
Mike: This was a tour consisting of at least 3/4’s of the squad setting sights on doing adventurous shit whenever possible. So we’d basically have spots to hit in every city. Not like coffee shops or museums but like swimming holes in the Northeast, bridges to jump off into rivers in the Midwest, waterslides in TX, national parks in CA and CO. We got heavy into playing wiffle ball in the park when we were in Canada and even had a little injury when the Illusion vocalist collided with our homie who did the tour with us. So funny and stupid but we were having fun. I think for me my favorite day was Vegas. Almost the whole tour went skydiving after driving overnight to get there and we all had a blast. Props to Daniel from The Answer who played guitar with us on the tour and really pushed himself to do it even being afraid of heights. They made him jump first! I won’t say who didn't jump but I will say they missed out. I also won like 400 bucks playing roulette at the casino after skydiving so I was riding high that day. Another highlight was stopping in New Orleans for like 3 hours on a night off and causing a little harmless chaos.
PHOTO BY: CARL GUNHOUSE
IE: What kind of music dominates the Ekulu van music? Are there any "no no's" in regards to what people will tolerate in the van while you are on tour?
Mike: The Ekulu van mix is eclectic so it’s hard to pinpoint a style. Rock ‘n roll, hardcore/punk, hip hop, jazz, etc. There were a couple songs that ruled the van though, with differing opinions about them. One of them was “Dirty Work” by Steely Dan which Alex from Illusion and I loved to throw on and sing along to. Connor was getting annoyed after a while so we made it a point to blast it as much as possible. Also this song called “Chicken In The Corn” by Brushy One String was a big hit. He’s this Jamaican songwriter who plays a guitar with one string. We would all just sing the song at random. It’s both hilarious and amazing.
IE: Outside of where you are playing on any particular night how much of your touring is planned and how much of it is just winging in in regards to basic things like food and where you are sleeping at night?
Chris: For the most part, the tour is planned pretty well, you just hope nothing bad happens along the way, but that's the thrill of it. From the van you rent, (or borrow) down to the direction you're headed, you pretty much figure things out as you go. Shows are usually good for us, but you can't have too many expectations. There's been nights where we play a show, and then have to drive 11 hours to get to the next city, so sleeping is on the contrary most nights. I usually get quick naps in for the sake of not having a license.
Mike: All the shows were planned very well but there’s some winging it as well. We had some ideas of places to stay in certain cities but a lot of nights were spent driving or staying at a random cheap motel we could sneak 10 people into. Shoutout to LaForge from Mil Spec for housing us in Toronto on multiple occasions while being a great host. Food can be shitty cause most of the time it’s eating whatever is cheap and on the way but sometimes we would get something nice/regional and I personally would always try to eat as many healthy things as possible.
PHOTO BY: CAM SMITH
IE: How does it feel to finally have some shows booked again? Please tell us what you have booked so far and what could be possible destinations for the rest of 2021.
Mike: The feeling of having shows on the horizon is incredible. I wish they were happening sooner. As of now we have our record release September 3rd at Gold Sounds in Brooklyn and a weekend of gigs a few weeks later with Fiddlehead/Blair in Boston, Philly and NYC. Shoutout to Move who’s opening the Boston gig and Worn who’s playing with us in Philly. We have an October gig in the Wilkes Barre area and also some Cali dates that are in the works. There’s still potential for more gigs that we might jump on. There’s also a big US tour for us that is likely happening in early 2022. Not sure when that’ll be announced but our goal is to tour as much of the world as possible off this record. We will do a follow up LP but that hasn’t even been much of a discussion yet.
IE: What's an Ekulu and where did the name come from? Were there other names being considered before deciding on Ekulu?
Chris: It originated from a trip to a comic shop in Brooklyn I went to called Desert Island. I came across this sick book of Ghana movie posters archived from years ago called “HOLLYVOODOO”. There just so happened to be a movie in there with the title Ekulu and it just stuck with me. I didn't know where the term came from until I discovered it was a river in central Africa. I wasn't set on a name yet before I had these songs… it was straight up the last thing we thought about since it was just a clear departure from anything. I wanted a name that could take on a new meaning, something to not necessarily redefine it, but add a visual/sound to the syllables of the word. Sepultura for example is a pretty exciting name, so with that in mind I was stuck to the name you could say. Also the letters look really sweet together.
IE: That's all I got. Thank you for your time. Anything else you want to add before we wrap this up?
Mike: Thanks so much for doing this interview. Shout out to my favorite hardcore band at the moment, Raw Brigade. Lots more to come from Ekulu, Illusion and Cash Only Records in the not so distant future.
PHOTO BY: CARL GUNHOUSE