This balance between retrospection and progression seems to sum up the work of Columbia Nights — a production trio composed of three black men based in Washington D.C. The group members are Hayling Price, John E Daise, and Jason Edwards — aka Brother Spanky. They pull from many black genres of music, such as soul, jazz, and hip-hop to make songs that are multi-layered, but easy to enjoy. In 2012, they released an impressive project called Dawn | Dusk and their latest album titled In All Things comes out on October 9, 2015.
I recently spoke with Hayling Price from Columbia nights about the new album and the group’s backstory. Here’s what I learned:
Blavity: So to start off, I’d like to ask you to describe what Columbia Nights is as a collective.
Hayling Price: Sure, Columbia Nights is a production trio of three like-minded brothers who are all passionate about Black artistry and about our musical heritage. So for us, as you probably saw in our press kit, we’re really about pushing music — particularly black music — forward in an age when folks of our generation may not always be challenged by what they hear and may even be complacent in their expectations of music. We’re fans of, you know, the stuff we all grew up on – the classic ‘60s, ‘70s [music]. We do a lot of ‘80s stuff too, but we’re record collectors and we’ll often get together at my bandmate Spanky’s crib and we’ll just sit down for a whole night and go through vinyl. We read the liner notes, talk about things we hear from production techniques to dope solos and see who’s playing on what. We just lose ourselves and dive into the canon of great black music and there’s so much richness there. Everything we hear now is derived from that and, for us, our creative process is about being intentional in channeling those influences and hopefully creating something new as a result. I guess what we are is a group of young, creative folks who are passionate about honoring the legacy of black artistry and music in particular.
B: That’s what’s up man. So on top of that, could you give me some background on how you all came together? I think what I heard in another interview that you and [your band mate] John did was that the group was originally a duo.
HP: Yeah, so the three of us were bandmates in college actually. We all went to school in Philly. John and Jason went to high school together and I went to college with Jason, so he was the common link. We created music at the time, played on campuses around Philly as a hip-hop band sort of in the mode of the Soulquarians collective. John and I both landed in DC after college and Jason was teaching in Philly, so at the time when we first started producing Jason just wasn’t around. What happened then was, you know, a lot of bands have touring drummers and musicians, so when we started getting gigs, we’d ask him to fill in on drums. So at the time he wasn’t technically in Columbia Nights, but he was part of the fam and he ended up playing some percussion on the first album. From there, he became a member of the trio and it was seamless.
Another thing that sometimes may confuse newer listeners is that we take an approach where we’re production-driven and we have a hand in the theme and lyrics of the songs, but we work with a rotating cast of vocalists and do a lot of instrumental stuff too. It’s an approach that you’ve seen on Robert Glasper’s Black Radio albums. Our single features Vaughan Octavia, who happens to be my girlfriend. Vaughan is a vocalist on this one tune and happens to also play strings throughout the album and on our first album, so Vaughan is a really gifted musician and kind of our “fifth Beatle.”
B: You just led into another one of my questions which is about the expansion of who you all work with. On your last project, called Dawn Dusk, you guys featured one vocalist on several tracks named Sarai Abdul-Malik, but I believe there are more on the new album. Could you name some of them and explain how they were chosen?
HP: Yeah, we have Aaron “AB” Abernathy, who’s actually the musical director for the rapper Black Milk’s band and John and Jason play in AB’s band. Spanky’s place is really our home base, so it’ll be a scenario where upstairs I’m mixing a track and downstairs they’re jamming, getting ready for a gig. AB is a good friend and talented vocalist, so I’m sure we’ll work with him again. We have Diggs Duke, who’s a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter/vocalist who co-produced a song on the album. He’s very much in the Jazz tradition. And then we’ve got B.Jamelle, who’s a D.C. singer that has incredible chops. Her mother was part of a gospel group called the Smallwood Singers. Then we’ve got SiairaShawn, who we met through Vaughan, as well as Zayani Rose who plays flute throughout the album. She was in the space [during recording] and it’s interesting because Jason lives in a church.
He’s the musical director of a church and he has a one-bedroom apartment above the sanctuary with a baby grand piano and a bunch of old keyboards and synths. We often create there and a lot of folks come in and out of there. The cast of people took part in really an organic cipher.
B: For sure. Building off of that, the music seems to come from a fusion of the styles of everyone involved in the sessions and I wonder if that relates to what you mean with the term “soultronic.” I went to your website and saw that you describe your music as soultronic and the word gives me a sense of fusion driven by the sound of soul music. I’m not sure if that’s what it means to you all.
HP: Well, soul means many things and our music is soul and other influences as well. John is a guitarist that plays Punk Rock in another band, while Jason’s into older jazz, funk, and soul. Together, we all kind of live in that jazz fusion era. George Duke is the name we talk about all the time. And myself, I’ve produced for a number of MCs and I’m into a lot of down-tempo and the more organic elements of electronic music. I’m a big fan of Flying Lotus and other guys in the instrumental hip-hop space. When we set to make music, I think it’s natural that your influences will come through — from my synth solos to Jason being a very good West African drummer. And John – sometimes he sounds like Ernie Isley and sometimes he sounds like Eric Clapton. Each of us have things that come together to form something that’s bigger than the sum of the parts.
I mix all of our work, so I aim for space and clarity in what we do. Some stuff has more of an analog feel when we use older pre-amps. But we use digital recording mechanisms, so the goal is to make the music cohesive so that you can’t tell if that’s a live hand clap or drum or if it’s something that was programmed.
B: I hear you, man. I think that’s impressive.
HP: Thanks! We really just try to make the music we want to listen to. It may not be what a lot of people are itching for, but it matters most to us.
B: That definitely sounds like a strong vision for what you guys hope to achieve with the music. Building off of that, is there anything behind the title for the album, that being In All Things, as well as any changes to your sound?
HP: For sure. Most of our work is done in a church, so the title recognizes omnipresence and omniscience of the creator. And as I’m talking I realize that duality keeps coming up: analog and digital, live and pre-recorded. And being in DC, you can have a really gritty part and walk a block down to a really scenic area like Rock Creek Park. So on the album, you’ll hear lyrics about harmony between different things like us and nature. It sounds abstract, but we were intentional in how we frame that. The title also speaks to the synthesis we mentioned before. It’s about how to find a balance. We have those screw face, head-nodding moments, but at the same time have some soft, lush string arrangements.
B: One question to build from that is if there’s a scene that’s best-fit for people to listen to your new album? Or does it fit various things kind of like the title says?
HP: There are two that come to mind. One is the personal space – when people listen in headphones on the train or in the car and need to unwind. But the second is in company, something we miss often in headphone culture. I hope people put the record on turntables and talk about it. The vinyl comes out in the spring and I like the idea of listeners, who don’t all need to be musicians, talking about it to each other.
B: I like that idea, man. That hits home for me because I enjoy being able to share my enthusiasm about music with my friends, but don’t always get to do so.
HP: Yeah, man. It’s always nice to get emails from your boys like, “Yo, did you hear the bass line on this song?!”
B: For sure. Any last words for the people?
HP: Yeah, I think we tend to overlook how much love and labor goes into art and I hope that when people hear the album they see it as a labor of love. I hope we made something worthy of that.
Columbia Nights can be found on multiple sites:
[ Website ] http://columbianights.com/
[ Facebook ] https://www.facebook.com/ColumbiaNightsMusic
[ Twitter ] http://twitter.com/columbia_nights
[ Youtube ] https://www.youtube.com/user/ColumbiaNightsMusic
[ Instagram ] https://instagram.com/columbia_nights/
Make sure to listen to and support their new album In All Things on October 9!