Nearly two decades of musical training provided Californian duo Inc. with a priceless sense of timing.
Armed with matching boyish visages and an acutely of-the-moment take on soft and soulful R&B, brothers Andrew and Daniel Aged found themselves on the sharp end of a trend with the release of their debut album, No World, on 4AD last month.
But look past their well-timed entry into the divisive-but-blossoming genre of alt-R&B and you’ll find a pair of musicians who’ve been diligently putting in the hours since childhood, joining backing bands for enormo-stars like Pharrell, Elton John and Parliament and touring with personal heroes like Raphael Saadiq, all while barely out of their teens.
When they each tired of being “the only little white kid in the band”, the Ageds reconvened to form Teen Inc. (they soon dropped the inaccurate prefix), taking what they’d learned from the big boys to turn out the 3 EP in 2011, their own paean to funkified R&B and hyper-glossy New Jack Swing.
Nearly two years later, the sound of Inc. has matured dramatically. Melancholic yet warm, No World draws on the gloopiest of late night radio slow jams and the glistening post-coital heat of neo-soul (D’Angelo and Maxwell are both revered as demigods by the brothers), while the occasional flutter of double-time trap drums hints at a maelstrom of heartache lurking beneath Andrew’s buttery-smooth voice.
The result is an almost archetypal expression of – yes – alt-R&B, the genre the internet hates to love. But where their peers like How To Dress Well and The Weeknd use vocal gymnastics to lay their hearts bare, Inc. keep their cards close to their chest, burying vocals deep in the mix and forging a sound that complements their label’s legacy of misty-eyed dreampop.
The Aged brothers spoke to FACT about feeling like Jimi Hendrix, worshipping Saint Luther Vandross and stripping the blackness out of R&B.
Let’s start from the beginning. You grew up in California and started playing music from a very young age – what got you excited when you were growing up?
Andrew Aged: “I remember when I first picked up a guitar, there was something about the strings and the metal, I knew there was something in there. It was really on a gut level. There was a lot of sound around the house and our parents had a lot of records. And you know, MTV, Smashing Pumpkins, Jimi Hendrix, and our dad had a lot of ’70s jazz.”
AA: “From the second of picking up the guitar. It was the only thing like that, there’s never been anything like that. Instinct.”
In 2011 you released an EP, 3, that was deeply indebted to Prince and the funkier end of ’80s R&B. The new album is very dark and introspective in comparison – how did that happen?
AA: “I think it’s just how we were feeling. It’s like different sides of the coin. The EP was basically us and our friends, and it was fun, to us it felt like… sporty, it was a little lighter, you know? But we were entering certain places of ourselves on the album that were… yeah, darker energies to understand the lighter ones.
“I think we feel part of the struggle when we make music. Even the way we view the whole world – it ain’t perfect, we’re not necessarily pleased with the situation. That’s why we don’t really make party music – there’s enough of that in the world. We’re trying to dust some of the cobwebs from the corners that people don’t want to look at.”
Daniel Aged: “The music that we’re making, like the music that we’ve always been inspired by – black music – it comes from that struggle, and we’ve always connected with that and tried to stay close to that. We’re not just using some kind of sound or idea.”
AA: “Yeah, this stuff has a dark history you know? This music is not a trend, this shit comes from straight whipping and horrible, horrible shit, you know? We can’t just forget about that, we can’t just start calling this a trend. Like when people talk about [us being] session musicians – that’s what we were searching for, we needed to get it from the real people, and we’ll go to churches and hear the music too. We didn’t want to fake it, we never want to fake it. That’s kind of my struggle when I see stuff on the internet… You can’t remove the meat from the bone, it’s all part of it.”
DA: “You can’t take the light energy without the dark, you gotta take both of sides of it.”
Do you think the term alt-R&B is actually a way of taking the blackness out of R&B?
AA: “Yeah, it’s just taking the struggle out. I mean, there’s been all kinds of struggle – there’s black struggle, there’s been some white struggle, there’s been struggle around the world, and when we make these, you know, tags… that’s struggle’s real, and we don’t want to keep perpetuating it. We’re not here to just jump in the ring.”
DA: “I think you’re right about taking the blackness out of it, and that’s the worst part about calling music that name. We make black music, you know, we’re not trying to say that we’re making something else. We’ve always been touched by that music and that’s what’s gotten us out of some places, that’s what’s liberated us and healed us. We’re making music for that same reason – we’re not making it to be played in a coffee shop where everyone’s all happy, this is not for that.”
AA: “We’ve never even said that we are R&B. We’re just making our music. R&B is pretty much dead, rock and roll is dead – the only thing that’s left from this stuff is spirit. So that’s how we see it, it’s like a spirit, and when we need to get in our zone we put on Reverend James Moore. They’re all like saints to us – Luther Vandross is like a saint, and Prince and D’Angelo.
“And then on the other side, the poetry side, I look at people like Billy Corgan and that white energy is powerful too, I feel a lot from the white energy on a certain level – but that is a white energy and it’s different, and we can’t keep smushing it all together and being like, ‘yay’.”
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Traditionally R&B is all about the voice, but your vocals and lyrics are quite buried in the mix. Why did you do that?
AA: “When we do music we do every part – even the mixing we do ourselves. So it’s really on a gut level. To me the voice sounds pretty loud!”
DA: “Here’s the thing – we never called ourselves R&B, so for people to say, ‘you’re making R&B but you’re not putting the voice up’ – that’s not our problem. This is our own music so we don’t have any parameters for what we want to do.”
AA: “When Voodoo came out, if you read the reviews, people were like, ‘he’s mumbling’! You know, a good example is Terence Malick, the filmmaker. His movies to us are like divine breaths on film, but a lot of people really struggle with the lack of dialogue. Or Nirvana, that’s a great example – if you read the lyrics to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ it’s like, what did he say? None of the teenagers knew what the hell he was saying – it’s ultimately a feeling.
“But the lyrics are really fundamental. We’ll never write a song without the poetry of it. It’s kind of a guiding force, the mantra that everything fills in from there.”
I also noticed some trap drums popping up on the record. Are you fans of that sound?
AA: “No, we don’t listen to trap. But there’s a sound of today, and I think we considered that. Music today is tribal – not tribal as in an aesthetic, but like we’re all part of a tribe. There’s this rhythm that’s banging out of cars with low bass and hi hats, and that’s what our tribe does now.
“We also like to do things that almost anyone could do – anyone could make this album. We’re trying to make our vision clear, and we like to do things that are sort of standard so you can view our process clearly.”
In your previous life as session musicians you got to work with some huge names – Pharrell, Raphael Saadiq, 50 Cent – how did that affect your own musical aspirations?
AA: “We see it as a time that was almost incubative. We were going along for the ride and it took us down all kinds of roads, a lot of them very grounding. I know for Daniel, the touring he did was really big, sharing a bus with some really great musicians – one tour he did was with the horn section from Parliament.”
Was it difficult to find your own voice after playing other people’s music for so long?
AA: “I did a lot of writing with people, and we both would find that we always wanted to free things… We were always kind of weird to them, like when you see that video of Jimi Hendrix playing with the Isley Brothers. There was a part that you could see was there but that wasn’t allowed to flourish.
“I was the only little white kid in the band and I became really close to everyone. I think that was a big part of it, culturally – earning a blessing from those people. Daniel being called by Raphael Saadiq saying, ‘I want you to be in my band’ – we grew up listening to his music, so Daniel kind of earned a blessing from him.”
You’ve got a European tour coming up. Has it been difficult to move to the front of the stage and become frontmen yourselves?
AA: “Honestly, no, not at all. But we need to do it more and we want to get on a tour where we can be playing every night. But it’s not a challenge, we accept the role fully.”
DA: “That’s the reason why we started making our own music. If we didn’t feel like we wanted our music to be heard or we didn’t have something to say, then going to the front of the stage would be uncomfortable. We feel like we’re not doing it for ourselves, we’re just serving, working for this music and praying that it helps people. It’s an obligation, almost.”