Around this time of year, many of us are looking for a dose of warm sunshine. Look no further than LA producer Teebs, AKA Mtendere Mandowa – one of Brainfeeder’s quiet superstars who specialises in emotionally charged and uplifting left-field beats, and who’s bringing the good vibes to Sydney in August.
I feel like a dick when I realise my phone call has clearly interrupted something for Mandowa – the chatter in the background is the sound of his Friday night kicking into full swing. “There’s a lot of musicians,” he laughs. “A lot of friends. Mind Design and Knowledge are here. They’re watching something. Footwork videos?”
The man deserves some downtime – it’s been a busy year for him so far already. Teebs’ sophomore release E s t a r a was released only a few months ago via Flying Lotus’ esteemed LA-based imprint Brainfeeder, and the response has been immense – a lush, sun-soaked haze of beats, it’s hard not to find it utterly intoxicating.
“I’m definitely excited,” says Mandowa in response to all the positive feedback from critics and listeners alike. “It’s good to know that people are listening to it and into it. A lot of this album comes from where I was living – the title of the album was literally the street I lived on and me trying to represent what it was like living there and how it affected me, and the roommates I had, all really talented people – that kind of hazy LA feel. So the feedback’s really awesome. It was such a gorgeous place; my room faced the sunrise so tonnes of light poured in every morning, kind of forcibly waking me up, so I had to get to work. It was great. This was after we disbanded and left this last house… it got kind of weird there!”
He’s referring to living with fellow Brainfeeder regulars Flying Lotus and The Gaslamp Killer, among others on the label that serves as one of Mandowa’s major musical outlets and an endless reservoir of inspiration. “It’s a very big part of how I developed and did what I want to do. On that first album, I was pretty much done before showing those guys everything, all the material, but the camaraderie and being around really talented individuals on a consistent basis, it really helped me stay inspired and want to stay with music because it was so exciting. And these guys are great people. I think LA has a really strong community vibe and it’s like, you’re on this label with these guys all of a sudden and it’s like, ‘Wassup? I guess you’re my brother now, let’s do this!’”
It’s when we turn to the topic of music-making that Mandowa really perks up. He’s more than happy to discuss his set-up both in the studio and live, and it’s hard not to be swept up in his enthusiasm.
“I have a bunch of random gadgets and little noisemakers and keyboards,” he explains. “I record a bunch of sounds, or I sample stuff, then I play over it and record that. After I make all these sounds I like, I dump them into FruityLoops on my old dinosaur PC – it’s a ’95, I can’t believe it’s still running. It’s a tower. It’s as big as a car! I like to just let the sounds I’ve made myself or things I’ve sampled play themselves the way they feel like playing themselves out. Sometimes they want to go a little off-time. I’ll sometimes do the melodies first and let the drums sit in where they want to sit. Letting it be a structure in the beginning.”
His freeform philosophy to creating music carries over to the stage as well. “I use a soundboard, it’s pretty straightforward,” he says. “You can’t put too much into it, it doesn’t have that much sound or memory or space. You just bounce a bunch of loops all the time – it’s like juggling, memorising where all your buttons go. I have specific chunks of time and it’s a matter of the feeling of the moment – if it feels like we should go one way, we try it. If the audience is responding with it, I’ll know I have at least a good ten minutes memorised! And it goes into a build – ‘Where do I want to go from here?’ Lots of ideas.”
Mandowa will spend the next few months translating those ideas into creative energy, albeit in a different context – he’s just as renowned for his work as a painter as he is a musician, and the former is taking up much of his focus at the moment.
“[I’m] working on an art show for next year, which is pretty big for me. Right now I’m continuously updating my website with this year-long art project called Ante Vos, that’s always happening. The new one coming up is with New Image Gallery in LA. They do a lot of great shows … They’re just really nice people, and I respect their whole ideology and craft, it’s great. It’ll be a mix of stuff – I’ve never worked with them before, so I want to give them a little bit of everything. Some record sleeve stuff, some large-scale paintings, print work – I really like doing prints – stuff of that nature.
“I see art and music as tools to communicate, like different languages. You pick and choose which one best tells the story you’re trying to tell to people. I think they’re the same – it all comes down to communication.”