Few debut records exude the kind of power and surefire smash predictions that Shamir’s upcoming Ratchet does, but here we are. The record is a colossal collection of upbeat dance-oriented R&B, that manages to channel LCD Soundsystem electro funk into a raceless, genderless world of free form expression. The man behind it is Shamir Bailey, a Las Vegas native who harnesses the electricity of the city with his every wail and coo. Likewise, the record’s instrumentation is a hook-filled joy ride with producer Nick Sylvester behind the boards as he did for Shamir’s promising 2014 EP Northtown. Now with Ratchet in the wings for a May 19 release on XL Records, the summer is about ready to begin, and it now has its soundtrack.
When I catch Shamir on the phone on the of the first warm evenings this year, he is cordial, although clearly a bit tired. He’s still pleasant as ever, and eager to talk shop, which was fun considering this is a record I’m pretty pumped about as just a fan, not just a music writer. Here’s what we chatted about.
NT: Hey Shamir, where are you calling from?
SB: Las Vegas.
NT: Oh, so do you still live there or are you just visiting family?
SB: Umm, not so much. Not really mostly, I’m just doing press stuff out here. I don’t live anywhere. I’m just like a gypsy at this point.
NT: We were supposed to talk at SXSW but there was a little bit of a scheduling SNAFU, but now having heard Ratchet in full, I’m even more excited to talk. How did this one differ from making the Northtown EP?
SB: It was pretty much made in the same vein, with me and Nick [Sylvestre] working together at a very fast pace, because we both know what we want these song to sound like. Northtown didn’t have a budget and that was recorded like under a rug, in a grungy [place]. So this was like more like a real studio, you know? It’s more cleaned up than the EP, but it still has an unfinished, unpolished quality to it.
NT: Did you make it in New York as well?
SB: Yeah, exactly. I made it in WIlliamsburg [Brooklyn].
NT: I had read that “On the Regular” was originally supposed to be more of a jokey interlude, being that it’s a rap and you typically make songs where you sing. Had you ever tried doing a rap song before?
SB: Yeah, rapping has always been a part of my life in a crazy way. Like my stepdad is a rapper, so we’d rap around the house all the time and give each other topics to rap about and then sort of freestyle them. And then when I had my band Anorexia, we would throw on a beat to warm up. So yeah, rapping has always been a fun past time for me. So we made the original music demo of the song, I kind of just sang over it, and was I like “I can’t sing over this.” So I tried rapping over it. And that’s pretty much how it came about. And I thought when I sent in a rap track, that [Nick Sylvestre] would be like “Let’s scrap the track altogether,” but he was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” And we sent it to XL and they were like “This has to be the single. I was like “really?!”
NT: What other song on the record do you think would have been the first single?
SB: Well, I don’t know, because a lot of the record was made after “On the Regular” came out. We didn’t really have much else. I guess we didn’t really have a choice.
NT: Off the top of your head, do you have a song in particular that you like the most?
SB: Yeah, “Darker,” probably because it’s the oldest song on the album, and it just means a lot to me. I just like the message and everything, and the sample in the beginning is from one of my favorite songs ever, it’s a Scratch Acid song, “Owners Lament.”
NT: Speaking of Scratch Acid, I had read that when you first started working on your record, that you wanted to make a punky song that contrasts with the rest of the R&B stuff? Did you end up making a song like that?
SB: Well pretty much the original demo of “Darker” was me singing it over that sample, so I literally just sang over a Scratch Acid song. But then it eventually turned into what you hear on the album, which I really like because it’s more simplified and more minimal. Like at the beginning, we kind of just would be singing that melody over these kind of harsh drums, and it was like really jarring, so this mix was really good and it gives it that feel.
NT: I think so far that “Demon” is my favorite on the album.
SB: “Demon” is everyone’s favorite! That’s so weird. Like literally every single person.
NT: That one really just clicks, and the vocal performance is really clutch. Your voice is obviously an incredibly valuable instrument — do you take vocal lessons?
SB: No, my manager is not more concerned than I am — I really don’t care. I took my first vocal lesson about a month and a half ago, but up until that, I didn’t have any training.
NT: Have you learned anything that you hadn’t thought of before about your voice?
SB: I kind of only went to the voice lessons to gain technique or whatever, but I feel like with just me singing, and the more that I grow as a musician, I become a better vocalist. I’m a way better vocalist now then when I recorded the EP. I really like being in a real recording process when I’m recording a vocal over and over and over again, whereas before when I’d be recording in my room, I didn’t care.
NT: So you really did a lot of these takes many, many times?
SB: I did [takes] a lotta-lotta times, because Nick is the most anal person who has ever existed. It could sound fine to everyone else’s ears, but his ears are way different than everyone else’s. Whereas anyone else would probably get really annoyed, I see it as almost like my vocal warm up. So if I’m in the middle of a song and there’s a bum note or something, I’ll start all over from the beginning as opposed to just clicking in. I feel like those recording sessions were my vocal lesson.
NT: It’s almost like memorizing choreography in a way.
SB: Yeah, exactly.
NT: You’ve covered a lot of sounds in such a short time. Your previous band Anorexia was lo-fi indie rock, and this record is hard to pin down but somewhere between the nu house and R&B worlds — what other sounds could we expect to hear from in the future?
SB: Yeah, I mean I’ve already been working on my second album, and I’m trying to get together the sounds for that. So, yeah that’s already in the works. I mean further down the line, who knows? It depends on how I’m feeling and everything.
NT: Have you been calling people back on the Shamir Relationship Hotline?
SB: No, I haven’t called anyone back yet. Eventually, I’m going to go through and pick the funniest ones and the ones that need attention, and ones that I actually, genuinely want to help. And then I’m going to do another video of me answering them.
Interview by Doug Bleggi