When you’re one of Canada’s best live remixers and jam bands, have shared stages with the likes of Skrillex, and have been co-signed by dance household names like Diplo and Steve Aoki, how do you possibly take things to the next level? If you’re Keys N Krates, you burrow into a richer musical niche rather than attempt to further broaden that mainstream appeal. Today, the Toronto trio—comprised of drummer Adam Tune, keyboardist David Matisse, and turntablist Jr. Flo—release a new album, Original Classic, that forgoes trendy beat drops and mosh-worthy trap rhythms. This time, they’re focusing on balmy Brazilian melodies, vibrant Bollywood samples, and other such offbeat elements that should endear them to critics and discerning club crowds rather than the average festival goer. And yet, they still want to reach new listeners, and hope their collaborations with a number of talented vocalists will convert anyone disinterested by their earlier instrumental fare.
Below, Keys N Krates tell us more about working with rising rap empress Haviah Mighty, legendary dirty south MC Juicy J, and Polaris Music Prize winner and Grammy nominated Toronto artist Lido Pimienta; how they are shedding trap tendencies in favor of a more singular sound; how they contended with crippling equipment crashes at a New Year’s Eve gig, and more.
Tell us about the collabs on the album.
Jr. Flo: They all came about in different ways. We’re always looking to collaborate with vocalists that have unique and quirky tones. So if you look at the album, it’s a range of characters that are contributing. But we love them all for different reasons. Haviah Mighty is like the new Missy Elliot. Lido Pimienta has this incredibly epic voice, and having her sing over an emotional dance track was something new. Juicy J is such a classic guy, and we knew having his chant-y vocals would work with something house-y. Bibi Bourelly is someone we’ve always been fans of, and anytime we go to LA we enjoy working with her. We’ve made some ballad kind of ideas with her that will hopefully make it on her next record. But her feature on our record, “Take It Off,” was a real chance to make a dance record with her that we were very excited about, because her voice has such a unique tone.
Are you hopeful these vocal collaborators might help you, as a band primarily known for instrumentals, reach a wider audience?
Jr. Flo: We really hope so. We’re always trying to broaden our world, and bringing vocalists in certainly helps welcome listeners in. It’s nice to have vocal “low hanging fruit” for anyone who’s not instrumentally inclined. And we might not have gotten the emotions we were going for in instrumentals without vocals giving them context.
We’re trying to create fun, dance-y, emotional spaces with different tempos, styles and moods. And different vocals hopefully help cast a wider net in that regard.
David Matisse: It’s great because we started off as remixing, taking acapella and building around it. But now we’re often in the studio with vocalists, and crafting songs together.
Jr. Flo: We’ve also grown at crafting records before we meet vocalists. In the past we’d sometimes write tracks and just put vocalists on them. We’re being much more deliberate on this record. Not to discount inspiring accidents, because they’re important too, but this album marks our growth in conceiving of how to bring vocalists into this world.
The song “Pull Up,” for example, started with us thinking about Haviah right away, because she’s hard as shit and we knew she’d be perfect for it. So we tried to perfectly build it around her.
Adam Tune: Back around 2015 we were making so many instrumental tracks, and our demos sounded so full already that we couldn’t make room for vocalists. We’ve now changed our approach so that when a vocalist hears it, it’ll sounded unfinished and inspiring, and not too busy. In 2015 we’d keep wondering “Why don’t vocalists gravitate to our work?” It’s because it was full already! They’d probably just sit there and think, “Great finished instrumental you have there, guys.” [Laughs.]
“We wanted to make music that connected with us personally. We thought: ‘This is how we want to dance at a party,’ and made music for that. That’s what we like: musicality, emotional stuff, syncopation, big bass, and a tribal hypnotic feel.”
In what other ways is this new album a step forward?
Jr. Flo: Well, our 2018 release Cura was great because we explored new territory, but it didn’t feel like full-on dance music. And A Beat Tape For Your Friends [released in 2019] was more of an homage to vibes we incorporate. But now, Original Classic feels like us finding out our place in the dance music world. It feels tribal, moody, fun and light, orchestral—all these things. We hope that it’ll feel like a sonic universe.
A lot of the early demos for this project were very tribal sounding, like “Brazilian Love Song” and “Bollywood Bounce.” There’s stuff we were able to reference like Baile funk and Brazilian drumline. And we wanted to take influences from those styles, but do it in our own way that is undefinable, but hopefully moody and dance-y.
So how do you foresee performing it? More of a dance club vibe than a moshpit-y festival gig?
Jr. Flo: Absolutely. We’d see kids moshing at shows. And yeah, our origins were doing this instrumental trap thing. When we started it, it felt great and inclusive and fun, and a way to do dance music that felt at home for us. Then it sort of evolved into moshing music. Which is cool. But it’s not really us, we aren’t mosh-y cats. Maybe because we’re a little bit older. We wanted to make music that connected with us personally. We thought: “This is how we want to dance at a party,” and made music for that. That’s what we like: musicality, emotional stuff, syncopation, big bass, and a tribal hypnotic feel.
It’s interesting you mentioned the trap thing. It seemed like the media fixated on that, and you seemed to try and distance yourself from it. How does it feel move past that?
Jr. Flo: I don’t really know if it’s behind us. That’s just up to the audience to decide. And we’re frankly not ashamed of it, because it’s a lot of fun. Making that kind of music gave us the techniques that enable us to make this kind of music now. And some of that music—I mean, when you make things over a ten-year span, you won’t be happy with all of it—but at its best moments, you can hear the spirit of us in those trap songs, in this album we’re putting out now. We reached a point where we felt out of place at festivals. People were playing these big dubstep and trap sets, and we did our version of that, but it wasn’t sounding like what was going on more and more. And we started to resent that. But we mentally moved past that and had gratitude for what it gave us, in terms of ability of vibes. And we’re trying to bring the best elements of that into what we’re doing now.
Before you gained all that trap traction, how did Keys N Krates form as a band in the first place?
Jr. Flo: I met Matisse through a mutual friend, and Matisse and Tune went to music school together.
David Matisse: We were playing in soul-funk bands together for a long time as well. Jr. Flo was DJing a lot in Toronto, and all of us were doing our thing in the Toronto music scene. We came together for this project thinking we could say something interesting together, and Tune and I were interested in working with DJs, and Jr. Flo was interested in working with musicians. But during the first few rehearsals we just had to learn to speak each other’s languages, and we wrote out band notes and tried to figure out how to create songs together. I’d love to find those pieces of paper, where we created our language to jam. It started from there. We’d flip old hip-hop tracks that we were fans of, and tried to figure out new ways to play them live with just one keyboard and a set of acoustic drums at the time. It evolved up to now, just step by step, with things that were fresh and things that would keep us interested. We went from live remixers, to producers to songwriters. And we went through a ton of different genres at the same time, and it’s been a fun ride.
In terms of evolution, I saw a video where you talked about how Ableton was a game changer for you guys, and how before it you’d have a lot of equipment that would break. Being able to streamline things with Ableton sounds like a gamechanger.
David Matisse: I just keep remembering one New Year’s Eve gig, where I convinced the guys I’d found this miracle piece of equipment. Some box I bought that was an all-in-one synthesizer. It cost me $4000 or something, and I convinced the band that this was the product we needed and I could get rid of everything else, because it would never crash. Then on New Year’s, what happened? We bring this thing on stage, and of course it crashes. And we can’t do the show. I was livid, because I spent months trying to get this thing to work.
And from all that, there was a little voice in the back of my mind saying: “What about Ableton?” I had been using it for producing. And it dawned on me that Ableton could do everything this other product said it could do. From then on, we used Ableton, and there was an infinity of sounds we could use. Another major thing I remember: the Roland drum kit that allowed Tune to add electronic kick drum sounds, and add the 808. That changed everything for us live, because we could compete with DJs, and have this really big sound on stage that was actually louder than anything else. Those were the two things that made a big difference for us.
Adam Tune: Yeah, we’d play festivals before, and I remember Skrillex played after us once. We had this dinky little drum set. And Skrillex came on and just floored the place. [Matisse listens along, smiling and nodding ruefully]. We’d get crushed at festivals until we started using digital drums.
Was there any hesitation about going digital? Some musicians can be such puritans about tech. But others are nerds for gear and see so much potential.
Adam Tune: I kicked and screamed, because digital drums didn’t have the same feel. And I think Matisse was more like “Let’s try it, let’s try it.” He convinced me in baby steps. First the kick, then the snare. Then Roland reached out and offered to loan me an entire kit that was worth ten grand, and I didn’t even want to try it. They told me to just try it, and I did and loved it, obviously. From that point forward, the cymbals became the only purist part of my whole entire drum kit.
Could you see yourself using digitized cymbals at some point?
Adam Tune: No. We just got this new studio and I’m trying to get used to playing acoustic drums again. But I’ll never do digitized cymbals, I have a line, and that’s the line!
Stream Original Classic below.