Poetic Memory: Alan Wilkis (List)

Alan Wilkis

Brooklyn’s Alan Wilkis calls himself “a sponge type of listener” who is “influenced by many different artists, genres, and time periods” and it’s easy to tell from his music. His new EP is called Pink and Purple, and it’s a blast. To describe his taste, Wilkis says, “One day I might be listening to some death metal, next day it’s 80s hip-hop, then Bach fugues, and then it’s Elvis Costello all weekend.” His style will take you by surprise, but it’s a good thing—and it’s plain that he writes for sheer enjoyment.

We described his last album, Babies Dream Big, as “reminiscent of anything from funk to deep soul to something like the soundtrack to Ghostbusters,” and Pink and Purple operates in a similar dimension. Given last week’s passing of Michael Jackson, it seems only appropriate to publish Wilkis’ list of influences, which he readily admits is “a little 80s funk-heavy.” Below are Alan Wilkis’ top 10 influences.

Poetic Memory is a regular Owl and Bear feature in which musicians disclose their influences—whether it’s albums, songs, artists, or something random. If you’re interested in being featured here, send us an email.

1. Michael Jackson: Unless you’ve been living in a barn with no contact to the outside world for decades, chances are you are acquainted with a large quantity of MJ’s music. I certainly am, and chances are you felt the effects of his loss.

As is the case for so many musicians before me, Michael’s music has been a major influence. Listening to Thriller with my parents at age 5 is my first musical memory. I loved it then, I love it now, and I most certainly will continue to do so for years to come. I could go on and on, but I’ll try to pinpoint a few things that hit me hardest. One major lesson I took from MJ was his knack for working with exceptionally talented people in the studio (Quincy Jones as a producer, for example). I am a one-man band in most regards, but I have a lot of old friends that are, simply put, monster musicians, and I tried to bring them along for the ride whenever possible. It’s so much fun to work with them, have one over for a guitar or horn solo here, or a little drum break there. On my song, “Snuggle Up to Nail Down,” for example, I had my friend Ryan play a total shred-guitar solo, a blatant homage to Van Halen in “Beat It”, and I credited him in the liner notes with “Van-Halening by Ryan Ferreira.”

The other big thing from MJ—something that I kind of joke about but is also completely accurate—is that my entire “thing” is derived from the song “PYT.” It’s a total powerhouse pop song, so catchy, so danceable, but musically intelligent at the same time. I strive for that aesthetic (and obviously don’t even come close, but you gotta aim high, right?). Also, specifically on the choruses of that song, those little synth jabs that come in between lyrics, like, “I got to love you/P-Y-T/Pretty Young Thing [in comes synth jab].” That call-and-response to vocal melody is a huge part of what I do, and I owe that to Michael Jackson.

2. Prince: Who doesn’t love Prince? Do I even have to say anything? Seriously? My new EP is called Pink and Purple, and clearly Prince had something to do with that. I’m not sure what I love most about him; he’s a timeless and unbelievable songwriter, an uncompromising artist, performer, guitar player, producer, and (like me) also one-man band.

One thing I perhaps love most is his use of playful synth sounds, played so skillfully, but frankly if anyone else were on the keys without Prince at the helm, a lot of those sounds would come through as cheesy—like on the intro to “I Feel For You” for example. Try making a song with those sounds and it will not be cool. I can almost guarantee that, but give it to Prince and it’s just magical.

If I had to pick a Prince album, it would definitely be Dirty Mind. It’s so short; maybe 30 minutes total. So dynamite, so concise and to the point. There’s no filler whatsoever. And it’s really that perfect combo of funk and rock that only Prince can pull off. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the album is his original demo recordings from his basement, and he played all the parts. You wanna talk about ridiculous do-it-yourself-ing, look no further. Badass.

3. Rick James: Rick James is another artist I could expound upon for quite some time. I think that a lot of people don’t take him as seriously as he deserves, most likely because of his bravado and ridiculousness, but Rick James was the man. Unreal songwriter, unbelievable producer (of his own music as well as of others), amazing singer/performer/persona/virtuosic bassist, etc. Check out a song he produced called “Candy Man” by the Mary Jane Girls – if you’re not smiling and feeling happy within the first 30 seconds, I will send you a free download of Pink and Purple. (Seriously, email Owl and Bear and we’ll make it happen.)

4. Dazz Band: The Dazz Band were incredible, specifically Let It Whip. I believe they at times had as many as 11 people on stage at once—synthesizer heaven, top-notch musicianship, full horn section, great guitar-playing. They’re another example of very intelligent but very fun pop music, with so much soul. Let It Whip is an especially big one for me. It’s intense, and just forces you to dance. It’s impossible to resist. And I love the whip crack that happens with every other snare drum.

5. Frank Zappa: I’ve been a pretty devoted Zappa fan since high school. Such an absurdly prolific dude with a twisted sense of humor and complex songwriting and arrangements. He was a true master of style. It’s for me to pick a favorite song or album, but definitely one of them is the live recording of Village of the Sun from the Roxy and Elsewhere record in the mid ’70s.

One of the many things that I admire and respect about him is his utter megalomania—not to say that I’m as harsh or strict as he ever was, but I do about 99% of the playing, writing, recording, producing, and mixing of my music, and Zappa was probably the one who taught me that it’s okay to be that way (sometimes).

6. Tortoise: Tortoise is one of my favorite bands in current existence. Their ability to combine so many decades and styles of music into seamless recordings is astounding. I often describe listening to their music as “the soundtrack to my imagination.” They touch on so many different musical memories for me—for example, at any given moment, I’m entranced by a certain repetitive beat of theirs, and then they throw in one little guitar line that takes me straight to a Spaghetti Western soundtrack a la Ennio Morricone. And then, a Reggaeton drum beat drops in and I feel like I’m back in Brooklyn. Every listen is truly an adventure to me, and their newest album, Beacons of Ancestorship does not disappoint. I’ve been waiting for it for five years!

7. Wilco: Wilco is another favorite in current existence for me. As songwriters, they are just top-notch, and Jeff Tweedy’s voice is so fragile and powerful, it really shakes me to the core. The thing I love most about Wilco is that their albums always grow on me. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all, only that on first listen, I’m never overwhelmed or shocked by anything. It feels comfortable and familiar already, and I keep coming back to figure out what makes their music is so special. By the 3rd or 4th listen, I’m just in love with it. I feel like I’ve known the songs for years, as if they’re classics already. Layer upon layer of subtleties and nuance, and just damn-near perfect old-fashioned songwriting. That is a rare thing to achieve.

8. Raphael Saadiq: I adore Raphael Saadiq as a producer (D’Angelo), band member (Lucy Pearl, and yes, even some Toni Tony Toné), but as a solo artist the most (especially Instant Vintage and the newest record, The Way I See It). The man is a master musician, songwriter, and has a voice from another universe. So much soul! And as a producer, he just kills it. He’s equally comfortable making hip-hop, R&B, hardcore funk, and 100% faithful, sophisticated, updated Motown (the new record puts Motown throwback records to shame, Amy Winehouse included). Another awesome thing about him is that he puts out his own records, owns his own stuff. He probably has some distribution set-ups etc. with major labels, but the man is on top of his business and in control, and immensely successful. Very inspirational as a musician and businessman

9. Jimi Hendrix: Hendrix is akin to MJ and Prince in that obvious influence sense, but Jimi was single-handedly my entrance into more serious guitar playing. Until I discovered him as a teenager, I was noodling around with Green Day, Nirvana, more basic popular rock stuff like that. Jimi opened my eyes to the true power of electric guitar, feedback, noise, giant solos, whammy bars, and all the good stuff. I spent countless hours learning the solos to “Red House”, “Purple Haze”, “Little Wing”, and the intro to “Castles Made of Sand”. ‘Nuff said.

10. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Okay, this is a weird call, and I can’t say that I love their music, because I don’t. However, they were the first artists that are roughly my age who more or less “made it” doing everything on their own. They self-released their first album, had barely played any shows anywhere—no more than 10—before a couple write-ups in the right places (such as Pitchfork), and suddenly they were selling thousands of albums. They were the first band I experienced in my adult life to really break through and become very popular without the help of a label, and that was inspiring to me. I am self-released, self-published, and I’d like to believe that it’s at least possible to reach more people than my immediate friends and family without label help. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is part of the reason behind that belief.

That’s pretty much it. Hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings, and I hope you get familiar with some of these artists!

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