Analogue Music | Durand Jones & The Indications

Durand Jones & The Indications

By Matt Conner

In a way, their answers were predictable.

When speaking with Aaron Frazer and Blake Rhein about the music and mission of Durand Jones & The Indications, it's clear that the quintet is built upon a very strong foundation of implicit trust and mutual respect. Lyrical viewpoints are shared. Musical ideas are collaboratively shaped. It's a communal kneading of a creative dough with all hands involved.

The answers to our questions will surprise no one to anyone who has listened to Durand and company. The Indications are one of the most dynamic groups making music today, a soul revival collective that can reach into various genres and speak on subjects both personal and political. A band this excellent can't get away with not having those elements in play.

With the effects of a global pandemic lifting at least slightly enough to dream of touring again, we caught up with Blake and Aaron to hear more about the new album Private Space.

Analogue: I want to ask about the new music, but how are you guys coming out of the pandemic? Any reflections on what the space did for the music itself?

Blake Rhein: It wasn’t just the pandemic itself but being separated for a while gave us perspective to look at the career and be grateful for everything we have. Just having that time to rest and take our time made this album process feel more organic than being rushed and made in between stints of touring. So I’m grateful for at least that aspect of the pandemic and being able to slow down for a little bit and take our time with this one.

Aaron Frazer: I definitely agree with Blake, especially in terms of feeling really grateful. Throughout 2020, we had a lot of friends who are artists and musicians who had to put their artistic pursuits on hold, but we were able to do the things we love and want to do through 2020. That's something I will never take for granted.

For me, I put out a solo record in January. I debated whether or not to put it out at that time or if I should wait or whatever. Eventually it came down to knowing that these times of chaos are when musicians can do a lot of concrete good in people’s lives. Throughout our career in the Indications, we’ve heard from people that our music has helped them through a really dark time. We hear that from people pretty often.

So even though it can feel frivolous in a way, with all this political and racial chaos happening, to say, ‘Check out my love song!’ I think it’s good to provide some escapism—also mixed with a little bit of commentary. We want to meet people where they're at.

Analogue: Aaron, can you follow up on that? You mentioned the good times and the political commentary and they’re both present on your albums. How do you handle that tension or balance? It’s even hard to summarize or distill down an issue into a four-minute song.

Aaron: You’re right that there is some tension there, the need for there to be some economy of language. You see through Twitter that when people try to have political conversations via 150 characters or whatever that nuance is lost and people start fighting. It’s definitely tricky, but I think it’s something we’ve got better at over the years.

Writing music that addresses politics is something we’ve done since our first record, something we’ve though about a lot. I don’t know. Practice makes perfect. Making music is iterative, so I hope we continue to get better at it. I think people have it within themselves to be political warriors and also relaxed and feel silly or loving or whatever, and we try to reflect all of that on our albums as well.

"I think that kind of collaboration is built on a foundation of trust in each other to have good input and follow when somebody is pushing really hard." -Blake Rhein

Analogue: How intentional are your conversations about that balance and what goes into a new recording?

Blake: I feel really fortunate that I’m part of a band where our political views are very aligned, so it’s not like someone brings a song to the table and we’re like, ‘What are you saying here, brother?’

We talk a lot about this kind of stuff. When you’re driving in the van and we’re all together, insane events happen and we have to talk about it. I’ve learned a lot from Aaron and Durand both listening to them speak and their perspectives on political issues. Sometimes we’ll bring a song to the table and the lyrics will be there, and it’s not confrontational but we press a little, ‘What are you saying in your lyrics?’ If we’re saying something political, we want to make sure we’re getting our point across in a way that feels true to us.

On the flip side if we write something that’s a party song or something about going out and having a great time, I can feel a bit more that it doesn’t really feel like me. But I can also understand why other people connect with it. I like contributing to a song where there’s lightheartedness and it might not totally connect with my personal experience. There’s definitely a challenge to writing a party song; that’s not something I experience very often. So there’s both sides.

We don’t have set rules. We don’t need to have the lyrics embody all of us, but we definitely check each other’s math on the lyrics. Sometimes it’s making sure the rhyme scheme is tight or sometimes it’s asking if it’s actually cool. Sometimes the idea needs to be sharpened. It’s a little bit of all of that. I think that kind of collaboration is built on a foundation of trust in each other to have good input and follow when somebody is pushing really hard.

Aaron: I think a lot of our shared musical compasses had that balance on their records. I always come back to Curtis Mayfield, especially his self-titled record just because that reads like a greatest hits. The same goes for Gil Scott-Heron. It didn’t feel like it was ever, ‘Okay, this is a political record and this one is a party record.’ It felt like a seamless blend, so I think it’s been intuitive for us from the jump that there would be room for both of these things.

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Analogue: Beyond the thematic maturity and experience you mentioned, I’d love to ask about the musical side. What does this chemistry allow you to do musically that you couldn’t have done before?

Aaron: I feel like being around Blake and Steve and Durand and Mike, who is the newest member of the band, has pushed my music theory to a more sophisticated place. I’m a real paint-in-primary-colors kind of writer. [Laughs] For years I’d be like, ‘Oh man, what is this chord progression?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s a one-minor-two. That’s what you love.’

This time, I tried writing more on the keyboard. I’m not good at playing the keys, but I think in a way, when you sit at an instrument you don’t normally play, you wind up stumbling onto more complex chords. I can chase it from there. Then I can bring an idea with a bit more sophistication to the crew and everyone can help me take it to where it needs to be.

Analogue: You guys are known for this sort of great ‘anything goes’ kind of approach, but that made me wonder about the flip side. Is it really true that anything goes?

Aaron: Especially for this record but for the last record as well, we wrote more songs than were on the final track list. So you have songs that you finish and to create a record, there is a bit of push-pull to make a cohesive record that we all like, since we’re all eclectic writers and eclectic music fans. There are definitely songs that didn’t make the record that skew slightly more pop or country or Afrobeat, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good songs or even that they won’t be released. I think it’s about finding that balance on cohesion and range for the album.

Blake: When I try to write stuff for this group, there are times I try to push the boundary like, ‘What do you think of doing something like this?’ But I know what Aaron likes and I know what Durand likes, so when I’m writing songs, I think of it as a challenge where I try to write what I know they will like. That helps with my creativity. It’s a really good collective of people and, again, it comes down to trust.

I think “Sexy Thang” is a really interesting song, because it was an older demo. It was in the folder of potential ideas and Durand sang over it. It was older and I wasn’t sure. Durand said he thought we had something here, so it felt like a challenge. I kept working on it until it felt like something I did enjoy and it’s working for me. So I like that aspect of it.

Back to your last question about maturity, I think a younger version of me, if I wasn’t feeling it, I’d tell the guys to do their thing and I’ll go over here and chill. But now I might not feel super happy with something, but I want to feel happy with it, so let’s work together and make something that we’re all really happy with.

VISIT: Durand Jones & The Indications

Photo: Ebru Yildiz