EPIC Interview: Epic Beard Men
Epic Beard Men, aka Sage Francis & B Dolan release their long-awaited debut album This Was Supposed To Be Fun. They’ve worked together for more than a decade as solo artists, both with powerful political ideas and concepts which still run through their music as a duo.
Combining humour with sincerity, meaningful depth and superficiality they’ve created an unforgettable and relatable album. Jess caught up with them before their Bristol show while on the ‘TWSTBF’ world tour; where they talk Def Jam, Eminem, Slick Rick and racists wearing milkshakes.
SAGE: Epic Beard Men is a special union of different ideas and concepts. We’re three years deep into doing it together in the trenches rather than just a floating concept where we throw ideas at each other but actually hacking away at the mountain and coming up with the sculpture. Now we’re just touring to celebrate the sculpture. Tour is great, the crowds have been great as ever
DOLAN: Yeah it was pretty wild last night in Nottingham. There was a woman who came back to tell Sage his flies had been down when she saw him 9 years ago.
SAGE: I told her that was the fashion back then. I’m glad she didn’t tell me at the time, I would have laughed at her.
DOLAN: The crowd during the course of this world tour has been a big mix; it’s been a really solid tour so far.
SAGE: Yeah there’s an older portion of people who you wouldn’t see typically at a hip hop show. We do also have that contingent specific to white beards. Having a mix is one of the most unique things about us I think.
DOLAN: Becoming a group (EBM) was always suggested, for as long as we’ve been performing around each other. The Fringe happened to line up in both of our solo release schedules, previously I’d released Killer Wolf in 2015 and Sage released Copper Gone in 2014.
SAGE: 2016 was the first time we did The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then again in 2017. Both those month-long stints culminated into tonnes of song ideas and demo recordings.
DOLAN: There is one song on the album Shin Splints, took a year to create. We made at least three or four attempts at what the beat would be like, we had to find a beat that would fit every tempo. It was like an engineering project.
SAGE: EMB as a whole is a mood that we can’t really specify, we’d play a bunch of beats and be like that’s an EBM mood, upbeat and funky.
DOLAN: If it makes you smile and want to move is basically what EBM is. Although we ended up with songs like ‘Hedges’ and ‘Foresight’ which went in a different direction.
SAGE: Once it came to deviate from that approach there was no fighting that time. We were like okay, we’re making this kinda song now.. but this was supposed to be fun!
DAVE THE DOPE FIEND SHOOTIN’ DOPE
SAGE: Pistol Dave was an idea I’d been holding onto for a long time and I think it was one of the first verses I wrote for all the EBM stuff. The track heavily references Slick Rick’s Children’s Story; he was a big influence on me. ‘Dave the dope fiend shootin dope’, I would use that as like a kicking off point and keep returning to that phrase. Many people know a Pistol Dave so that’s kind what we wanted to touch upon, it’s a fictional character quote on quote, but we all know who Dave is.
DOLAN: I loved the idea of a country song about a legendary truck driver, so we added the hook that I could hear in my head on the truck radio being sung by Donna Summer longing for Dave in 1974 or some shit. I sung the demo and asked around If anyone knew a Blue Raspberry type singer and people told me to just hit her up and we got her on there. Then someone asked whether we should have Slug be Pistol Dave.
SAGE: For some reason it just made perfect sense.
DOLAN: He has a Pistol Dave-ness about him
SAGE: He was excited to get down with that verse because in his own music as Atmosphere, he’s very mature now. He needed an excuse to act like a fool, get to play a different person and have fun in the rap. We’ve all been friends for a long time so it was really nice for us to do a song together.
DOLAN: Hedges was originally there to try to communicate the personal threat made by loads of abstract ideas; like the invasion of our privacy or the way that people are marketed to fear and the type of mind state that it creates in society. These are big ideas that are really hard to reduce into anything you’d care about or wanna hear about or that could be personalised. If someone was stalking you or your neighbour was creeping you out, everyone would understand that threat or the immediacy of that threat. My character in Hedges is on some high-strung American mindset; the type of mindset that leads to violence and becomes a self-affiliated prophecy in small and big ways.
SAGE: It’s also the concept where we connected more than ever because of the internet so we were able to show the abstract idea of community. The people who live closest to you, you’re the most suspicious of because that’s how It just works.
SAGE: We first met each other once Dolan came back to Rhode Island from NYC. I had already been back for a bit, I left there in 1999. Dolan came back after 9/11.
DOLAN: Yeah a poet named Bob Holman told me to seek out Sage Francis he was like ‘ah you should go find that guy he’s the only real poet up there, so you should go talk to him.’
SAGE: He gets a big shout out in the album, no one’s ever asked about it but we give a shout out to Holman, he’s a pretty big deal.
DOLAN: Rhode Island at that time was pretty rough and rugged so the transition to Hip Hop wasn’t that strange. The attitude I felt when I heard rap music connected with me because it sounded like me and my punk ass friends; how angry we were and how down for some shit we were. People have said Sage and I are related for a long time but he doesn’t want to really look into that; he doesn’t want anyone to have his DNA, he has privacy concerns.
SAGE: They’re gonna like copywrite my DNA, they’ll find out about all my miracles and they’ll put me in a lab, dissect me under a laser and cut me into a million pieces.
DOLAN: I feel like they probably own you already, if they want you they’ll get you. You don’t think the second we check out of the hotel that they’re right behind us, taking the bedsheets.
SAGE: I sleep in my clothes.
DOLAN: They take the toothpaste from the sink.
SAGE: You’re the only one who leaves toothpaste in the sink. I wash everything, I scrub it clean, I’m not getting fucked over by this shit.
DOLAN: In NYC I started performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café where Def Poetry Jam were taping their pilot episode, I had some brief contact within the music industry. One that I thought I wanted to be a part of and had come to New York to find but I realised that it was something totally different than what I wanted or was willing to sign up for. From there I kinda just bounced totally out of the scene, stopped performing, bought a drum machine and a laptop. I tried to figure out how to make beats, record vocal and I’ve been doing so ever since.
SAGE: I went to New York twice actually first in 1996. I had no idea what I was doing so I had to get out of there, I was dirt broke. I was also dirt broke in 1999 too but had a mate who would let me sleep on this floor. I entered into rap battles and poetry slams in order to get money, I’d walk around in the street all day to get discovered, some-how. Fat Beats pressed my first record, they made me go to the factory and package all my own records to be sent out like they were doing us a favour, that’s how they were acting. No one knew who I was so I would do anything necessary. I’ll sweep your fucking floors if I have to; that’s exactly why I’m here. I had no idea how things worked so I was open to every possibility. Then things did start actually popping off thankfully through the internet, Napster n shit. I was fortunate with the right things happening at the right time. If your grind is good enough and you know how to work the angles from your own special circumstance then it’s possible, believe enough in your art then you will discover ways to get it out there.
FUCK THIS GAME
DOLAN: I would basically perform an acapella in a poetry slam.
SAGE: That’s exactly what I was doing to start off.
DOLAN: It was a weird detour that I wandered in and out of really quickly and that was at the same time as I encountered the Def Jam industry folks.
I started winning poetry slams and realised I really didn’t care about any of that and that it was gonna lead to more investment in poetry slam. All of a sudden they’re talking about time limits, rules and you have to figure out the strategy of this game and I was like, fuck this game!
SAGE: People were taking it way to seriously the fun part of it was out of the window once everyone got uptight, like calm down it’s a fucking poetry slam.
DOLAN: That’s when we actually became friends, I realised that Sage was the other person in the room who was dissatisfied and didn’t give a shit about the whole poetry slam thing we were doing. We started doing weird prop and costume things, absurd shit and just became pariahs of this thing that was the poetry slam community haha!
SAGE: When they were first trying to do the first pilot for Def Poetry Slam they were like, ‘Hey Sage we saw one of your poems’ I think it was ‘Mullet’. Which is a little history of Hip Hop tied in with how white people commercialised it and blah blah. ‘SOOO in one of these videos you got your Hip Hop gear on, you’re looking real fresh and then there was this other one, you had this big beard and a flannel shirt on, we’re just wondering, which Sage are we going to get?!’ I said I get It you’re going for the white Hip Hop kid but you’re probably not gonna get that if that’s what you want.
DOLAN: I had a similar situation with Def Jam they said yano, we like it when you talk real fast and act crazy like Eminem, the crazy white dude thing - you should do more of that!
SAGE: I know for sure that labels once Eminem broke they were all looking for the next Eminem so labels were sniffing around for every white MC that was making a bit of noise. A lot of them got signed to Atlantic. There was a lot of different labels but Atlantic sticks out for some reason. They signed a bunch of people and then shelved them because they were waiting for ‘the one’ which never really popped off.
DOLAN: This is what had me really and was my biggest fear. It was the moment that people were reaching for, you should say more stuff like this and less stuff like that and I was like, oh this is a nightmare.
SAGE: Yeah they try and mould you, this is what they warn you about.
SAGE: Had I been guided and moulded by other people, worried about a boss wagging his finger like ‘no no no, right now you’re supposed to be pro-patriot that’s what the crowds want’ I never would have made Makeshift Patriot, so it’s important for me not to have those overseers in my art. It’s a big reason why people in our situation will probably never break through the glass ceiling that is contained and protected by gate keepers who want to control the narrative. I shit a lot on Kanye West but at least he’s saying and doing what ever the fuck he wants. I don’t agree with most of it but it is true that he did get to a place by just saying what the fuck he wanted and got away with it.
DOLAN: You find the key to the door of hip hop and culture that you go looking in NYC for, but some of it was at the immediate price of your character. You have to compromise your voice, what you have to say and your experiences up to that point and leave them at the door. Will you become this architect that can be mass produced and sold or will you go the hard way and walk out of the room, walk out of the door and buy a fucking drum machine ?
SAGE: I’m grateful that things played out the way they did for me despite me feeling like I was failing at every other turn, sometimes getting statement shows and then I’m playing to 50 kids in Leicester.
DOLAN: It was a good show though, that was our sweatiest show! My first round of touring was with Sage as his opener and or merch guy. My first exposure, like a lot of people who Sage took on the road through the years, were made up of packed excited rooms challenging political and emotional content, performers who do outlandish shit and they would celebrate it. That was an incredible thing to walk into, it’s a vast industry and touring is only one component. Artists like Sage and labels like Strange Famous Records have managed to carve out a structure in a place with needy artists. It will test you and require you to deal with rejection and self-doubt all that shit, but keep your head about you.
SAGE: He comes from a different time than I do, when people are coming up in mid 2000s to late 2005-8, that’s when things became more difficult. People were buying less and less music, the economy tanked and people were just downloading for free instead. I came up in the era when people were buying a lot of music. The market was not as saturated and it was easier to get shows. I am very grateful for that but I understand as I run the label, other people trying to make it work for themselves. I just have to shake my head and put my head in my hands like – I dunno what to tell you guys it was different then!
DOLAN: The same thing doesn’t really work for two generations in the music industry, which is why it’s kind of the wild west. I started releasing records in 2008 and it’s like I walked into the perfect window, Napster stopped really benefitting people and the music industry had not yet got its head around streaming so there was this deficit of time for sure.
SAGE: Nothings been taken too wildly out of context. I’ve long had people think I’m writing about them though. People get upset at me and I’m like ‘Yo, I don’t even know who you are mother fucker, never message me again. Trust me this is not about you this is about me climbing a tree, some shit like that’ haha. The political stuff has been misconstrued too like ‘Makeshift Patriot’. People who don’t know how to listen to lyrics or don’t understand references, they think it was a pro war pro American song. When I’m speaking tongue in cheek their taking it as face value. When you put music out there you lose control of how people will interpret it.
DOLAN: For a long time, I had people talking to me about reptilian conspiracy theories because of a song I made and now I know all about them. It all kinda goes down the rabbit hole and disappears into objectivism. Anything could be true; all things could be.
SAGE: The moral of the story is who gives a fuck because you have real life in your face shit you don’t have to deal with reptiles.
NEXT FOR EBM
DOLAN: We’re going on an official break, a ‘hiatus’ is the official term I think, we’re just going to see what happens. Sage: We’ve got lots of things to attend to in our personal and music lives solo wise. I can’t tour as much as I used to. I will still do shows and stuff but I will put my energies elsewhere. I think as far as EBM is concerned, we haven’t discussed this yet, but I imagine a song idea will come up, we’ll record it and just release certain singles from time to time. I think that’ll happen over a few years until we’re like yano, okay do you wanna try this again?
DOLAN: ‘Make racists wear milkshakes again’ are t-shirts we’re selling on tour. it’s another one of those absurd rabbit hole concepts. We pressed up the hats and sold a lot, donating money to the Southern Poverty Law Centre and Black Lives Matter. Fast forward to now, politicians started getting milkshaked over here, (Nigel Farage) So that’s how we got the latest shirt. The movement is also like antifa and pride. Increasingly it’s a reference, of a reference of a parody. It could get more and more silly until like the words just don’t mean anything.
SAGE: I can’t keep up with how dumb and fucked up Trump is and how the system has had to twist and turn itself so he can continue being who he is. Right now, I’m focused on family activism, that works for me.
DOLAN: KnowMore.org (to raise awareness of corporate abuse) is about to relaunch, we’re working on it. I’m talking to Chris Frone who owns an independent journalism incubator is getting journalists who could staff the project and could really create original content for it. So, we’re just trying to figure out what it would take to bring it back to the internet in 2020 because people continue to ask about it, there’s a demand for it. I continue to see so many corporate scandals and they continue, all of which I think should be on there so yeah, work in progress.