Shawn Rosenblatt lives in a rap studio in Chicago. The artist, who goes by the moniker Netherfriends, is not a rapper, though. He didn't even discover hip-hop until three years ago. Fans tend to compare his music to that of Animal Collective: experimental, psychedelic, textural. But he's so over that. Mention his 2010 performance at Pitchfork Fest, and he'll probably grimace.
"I was a big fan of Animal Collective and a lot of the hipster bands Pitchfork likes," he says. "But I got burnt out on it. I realized I didn't want to be a part of it, the music or the lifestyle. With hip-hop, you can still do interesting things, so that's the direction I went."
So what else led to this sea change? To find out, I chatted with Rosenblatt before his May 25 performance at Mickey's Tavern.
Last time I saw you play, you were doing your "50 songs for 50 states" project. Where did that concept come from?
Part of it was that I didn't want to work a regular job when I stopped touring, so I just kept going. I came out with 51 songs, actually, because of Washington, D.C.
What's the most unusual state you visited on that tour?
West Virginia is kind of crazy. So are Hawaii and Alaska, the Dakotas and Wyoming. I went to places you're not supposed to go as a [touring] musician, like remote towns. My solo set is very hip-hop and beatbox-oriented. One girl thanked me for bringing "urban" music to Alaska, which I thought was funny.
What's one thing being on the road has taught you?
That I'm not special; I'm just like anyone else. As an artist, it's important to feel like you're doing something unique and exciting, so I learned that I need to be more unique and exciting. And you have to get used to playing for people you don't know. In a place like Madison, where there might be three or four familiar faces at a show, I've gotten to work on winning people over. Now I can kill it in front of complete strangers.
When and how did you get interested in hip-hop?
In 2010. I listened to my first hip-hop album then. It was Big Boi's Sir Lucius Left Foot. I found out about it because I played Pitchfork Fest and was like, "Maybe I should listen to some of the other artists playing here." I didn't dive into that album right away, but I grew to really love it. And people would tell me, "You're making beats; you should work with rappers."
Not a lot of people who play typical rock and pop music want to collaborate, but in hip-hop, people need to partner up. I don't rap, and I don't want to, but I like that when I team up with a rapper, we both feel like superheroes. When we put our skills together, we can do amazing things. And the rappers I work with have really boosted my confidence. One dude even called me a G.
What's next for you?
I'm shopping a new album called P3ACE. I created this hand sign for it that's like a peace sign with three fingers. The hand sign isn't original at all, but I like it. I've been Photoshopping a third finger onto pictures of famous people giving peace signs.
And I'm releasing a hip-hop mixtape called New CHI-t in June. I feel like there aren't any albums that portray what I want to do with music. I play a lot of piano, but there are hip-hop beats, and my vocals have this Harry Nilsson and John Lennon thing going on, so the mixtape is truly new shit.