Jesse Fischer is a phenomenon waiting to happen. The Jersey-bred, Brooklyn-based keyboardist composes sleek funk, a la Jeff Lorber, but possess a delicate touch like Chick Corea, all while leading his agile road band, Soul Cycle. His chops behind the keys are only surpassed by his prowess as a producer, arranger and engineer. Having been a crucial force behind several of 2012’s surprise triumphs – Laura Izibor’s Brooklyn Sessions EP and Lakecia Benjamin’s Retox – the doors of his Eletrik Indigo Studio in Brooklyn’s DUMBO section are being riddled with dents from constant knocking, begging to be blessed with his celebratory sounds of the ‘70s. The 32-year-old Fischer is more than willing to share the wealth, but his latest masterstroke is soon to come. After dropping the infectious, diverse ‘Homebrew’ CD only a year ago, he’s ready to give us his fourth release ‘Retro Future,’ a 10 song electrical current with synth drenched solos, razor sharp horns and personal reflection (stream it here). Fischer recently sat down with The Revivalist to speak on his budding success, his influences and his new musical direction.
After self-releasing your first three albums, you’re finally signed to a label, Obliqsound. How did this deal come about?
I’ve always been very do-it-yourself, hands on, and I wasn’t really looking for a label. But it just so happened because with Homebrew I worked with Gretchen Parlato and Stefon Harris and I few other artists that were signed to labels. So as a courtesy, I reached out to those labels for clearance. After the record came out, I sent a copy to Obliqsound just as a thank you. The head of Obliq listened to it and he really liked it. He got in touch with me said he wanted to work on o record together with me. The cool thing with Obliq is I’ve been buying their records for so long, I kind of knew what they stood for and I really appreciated what they did musically.
Did you record your new album Retro Future before or after you signed with Obliqsound?
The funny thing is I was so happy with Homebrew and I’d worked so hard for so many years – basically putting out a record a year – I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m taking a year off; just gonna do my sideman thing; I’m gonna do engineering and producing and I’m not gonna put out another record.’ I had begun doing a lot of electronic music that wasn’t going to be a big production; without other musicians in the studio. I was working on other stuff, so when [Obliqsound] called I said ‘I don’t if I can do this.’ But the window of opportunity was so short because the touring band I’m used to recording with was only going to be around for a month or two. So, I wrote pretty much all the music, arranged it, and recorded it within a month from getting that call. Suddenly I have a deadline; I have to put certain concept together.
Now having to work within a deadline, did you feel rushed or pressured?
No, not at all. I work the best when I have a strict deadline and I have a specific project. Otherwise, I have so many ideas that I almost rather just keep having ideas instead of making one of them happen. That’s kind of my default.
You’re fast becoming a go-to producer/engineer on the New York scene. Who are some of the people who’ve influenced you from a producer standpoint?
There have been so many people who have inspired me, not necessarily only in music. Someone like Jim Stewart, who founded Stax Records and obviously Booker T. [Jones] who was the in-house arranger/orchestrator/producer, Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes who were staff writers. So, being able to found that organization with all these people doing different things, but doing them together – it’s really inspiring to me. Reading George Martin’s autobiography – the Beatles’ producer – he helped define what it means to be a producer, because he went from being an employee of the record company to really becoming an artistic force of his own. He had so much classical background and he was able to take all that classical composition and orchestration, and all these crazy ideas he had from all the comedy record he had [produced] and put it into this pop context. So, really just being open-minded and being able to understand what the artist is doing, but also seeing beyond that and think of taking ideas from so many different places.
Of course, Quincy Jones comes to mind, adding jazz and film scoring to a pop/soul context as well as knowing the right musicians for the right material.
Quincy is a huge inspiration because he had done so much big band. He’d done all those Frank Sinatra records; he did a lot of TV writing, which is very deadline based. I think that’s why when you get to Michael [Jackson], those records are so cinematic and they’re so emotional because he had all that background. Plus he knew how to play as an individual musician and how to arrange classical. He had all these different things. I’m not there yet, but that’s definitely the goal – to understand all these different genres of music but also types of arts outside of music; even things like studying – my background was computer science – so studying how Steve Jobs is able to lead his company in such a strong, firm direction but at the same time be open-minded to create what seems to be a crazy idea, putting a computer on your phone.
Does being a musician and composer help you in the technical aspect of engineering records?
Yeah, with me they merge in a way. When I was writing the music for Retro Future, I was thinking ‘This is an A-flat or this is a C-sharp,’ but I was also thinking, ‘I have to use this mic and use this effect on it,’ so it’s all sort of part of the same process; the composition, the production, the engineering. It’s like you’re putting together a musical, you have to think about words, music, blocking, costumes, but you can do it all in one vision.
You’ve been part of Laura Izibor’s road band. This summer you took a big step, arranging and co-producing her recent Brooklyn Sessions EP. How did that come to be?
This is one of those things that you hope for and then it comes true. It’s so gratifying because I’ve been in her touring band for about five years. In fact, “Gracefully” is the song I auditioned on, so she’s had these songs written for years and years, and she has hundreds of great pop songs written that no one’s ever heard. That’s a song we’d play on the road but it wasn’t ever recorded on her [album]. She actually hadn’t put out a record since she was 19, so it’s been a few years. Between label politics and her management, I really didn’t know what was going on on the inside. I just knew she had a lot of material and they were waiting for the right time to record the [follow-up]. She and Solomon [Dorsey], her musical director, and I have always been close – he plays on Retro Future. She found out that I had a studio; I’d been demoing some songs for her to pitch to other artists and we’d been working back and forth. It came time for an EP while the fans were waiting for her album. She said she really wanted to do something very live, representing what we do on tour. The way my studio is set up, we can replicate a live show. We set it up and we were all inspired by the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when people were even in the studio, people were basically playing as band and just getting that synergy when we all record together.
You recorded it with everyone in the same room? Did any individual tracking take place?
It was all the same room. The only person separated was Laura for her vocals. They weren’t really any overdubs. I played organ on the whole record, so I went back and overdubbed a little piano, there’s a few acoustic guitar overdubs. I did some glockenspiel and stuff, but mostly it was all live. The only production was the feeling you get from a live show, like when you’re in a small club. That was the feeling we were shooting for. Engineering-wise, it was just trying to get that sound like a Curtis Mayfield live or a Donny Hathaway live, which is not on a lot of records these days.
The official title of the Izibor EP is The Brooklyn Sessions, Vol. 1. So, does that open the door for a volume two and/or three?
I really hope so. This record, I was really just contracted as an engineer and a co-producer – Laura, Solomon and I co-produced. It’s up to her and her management. I know she has a lot more songs; in fact, we recorded a few more for the EP that didn’t make the EP. When the time is right, hopefully there’ll be volume two. I know we had a lot of fun recording it. Plus it’s getting great press, too.
Including your studio Electrik Indigo, Brooklyn’s home to a lot of homegrown studios like the Motherbrain, Daptone Records, Truth & Soul Productions, and you all seem committed to that vintage sound.
I think all of us are of the same generation, growing up with the music of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. A lot of people say that was the best time for writing and engineering, but then they go into the studio and do something very modern. Someone like Gabe Roth, the head engineer and producer at Daptone, he’s very specific about just using tape, just using 8-track and I haven’t learned how to do that yet, and I’d really like to. But, my studio is sort of a hybrid of digital and analog. The mindset is understand what music means and have good musicians in the studio and know how to create the right mood for the music as a social activity, as a group activity, and not just the right notes, the right pitch, the right quantization that people get so bogged on in.
Speaking of Gabe Roth, he seems to have mastered this aesthetic of old school techniques within a modern context. That’s something I’ve noticed in your music, both with Homebrew and Retro Future.
Retro Future is a step forward for me because it’s the first time I’m not consciously trying to be old school; I’m just trying to be me and part of me is respecting the old school sounds not just because they’re old school but because they actually represent a more emotional, communal approach to music. At the same time, I love very modern, electronic sounds, computerized sounds. I just like hearing a lot of crazy textures and new, sort of ambient noises that weren’t available in the ‘60s. If George Martin had access to them, he totally would’ve used them. Same thing with Booker T. It’s not that they didn’t use them because they didn’t fit, they just didn’t have access to them.
What was some of the equipment you used on Retro Future?
I lot of the sythns I used on this record are older, like the Juno’s from 1980, the year I was born. The Moog I was using is a new one but it’s built to the original specifications. It was actually the last one that Bob Moog worked on before he passed. So, a lot of this stuff is older but then I used Soft Sense and more modern sequencing – Logic, Protools, a lot of stuff that’s happening now, but I used them in a spirit of creating a texture that says something emotionally that’s not just about the technical end of things.
You have a knack for writing unique arrangements to cover songs on previous records. Retro Future is no different, with spacey covers of Jimi Hendrix, 5th Dimension and even Fleetwood Mac! What’s been your approach to covers in your career?
When I was a kid, I wanted to do the most obscure covers I could find as a way to show off that I know this song that no one else knows. The more I did it, the more I realized that doesn’t really work. The whole point of repertoire is to find the common ground between me and the audience, especially because my original songs don’t have words; it’s harder to do that with just instrumental music. So, that’s why I use covers as a way to provide a lyric content to my vision.
With each project I try to find songs that not only fit musically but play lyrically. It was tough for this [album] because I wanted to find something that fit with the overall concept of technology and change and how society is moving; for myself, entering my 30s, entering married life, how I’m changing and how I can keep up with the changes that are happening. “Electric Ladyland” is sort of about this Utopian future that’s very electronic based, even though it was written in the’60s it’s very current. Something like “Aquarius” is about a society that’s on the cusp of a change. Those sort of fit thematically. But even after the album was done, after those two covers, I felt something personal was missing. That’s why I added “Landslide,” which is a song about taking a sort of leap of faith into a new part of your life, and I really asked a few singers to sing it, but I made the decision to sing it myself because it was so personal. I ended up using the vocoder.
The songwriting on Homebrew was fairly eclectic and dynamic. Retro Future has a more unified sound, almost like modal jazz. Was that intentional?
It definitely wasn’t a conscious effort, but I do know, at least in terms of chords, I’d been listening to a lot of French piano music like Debussy. I think they were listening to really early jazz but also I think a lot of their chordal ideas reintegrated into jazz in the ‘50s. A lot of what Gil Evans was doing with Miles [Davis] with orchestration and moods and textures got piped through to Herbie [Hackcock]’s voicing. And a lot of that got into Dilla because a lot of the chords he samples come from that. So, there’s this line that you can draw from the Impressionistic composers all the way through A Tribe Called Quest with different types of chords that we were hearing when I was growing up, listening to hip-hop and then going back to the ‘60s and discovering what that was sampled from; then going back to the ‘40s to the big band music that that was coming from. I think that’s the lineage I was hearing when I was writing Retro Future. I don’t know if you’d call it brooding but it’s definitely impressionistic in a sense. I definitely wanted to have some serious moments and some lighter moments. It’s like a film.
Interview by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)
Jesse Fischer, piano, keys
Jean Caze, trumpet
David Linaburg, guitar
Solomon Dorsey, bass
Adam Jackson, drums
Special Guest Rachel Eckroth, vocals