Chicago Castles, A Down Dance Journey
or: The Evolution of Appleby and Elias abid
The interview with singer Appleby and producer/multi-instrumentalist/part-time vocalist Elias Abid begins before I ask a single question. I meet the two collaborators, who have just released their debut EP, Down Dance, in Uptown, not far from the lake, at Elias' apartment, where he lives with Quinn Cochran and Aura, two artists who make up the duo Iris Temple. They are the only features on the album. Although it's Elias' home, Appleby greets me at the door; he's sporting a big smile and wearing an Allan Kingdom shirt. Walking up the stairs to Elias' apartment and Appleby and I are already talking music. When we enter, Elias is preparing a salad with seasoned chicken, offering me a plate.
To rewind for a quick second, I interviewed Appleby (a moniker which originates to his mother's maiden name) back at the end of 2014, with snow on the ground, holed up in Classick Studios. It was his first interview, and despite him hiding his face (which he will continue to do until his first performance), he was incredibly open, talking about his days of tennis, surfing in Florida, his brief history (at the time) recording into a microphone, and his constant scrolling through SoundCloud and YouTube in search of instrumentals. Around that time, Appleby only had a handful of tracks available to the public, but with co-signs by Pigeons and Planes, as well as Maxim and manager/curator Amir Abbassy aka Blame the Label, the buzz was undeniable.
Fast forward to the spring of 2016. Appleby is just as open, his buzz is bigger, and he has more content available for comsumption. He crafted a smash hit in 2015 with “Bitter Boy”, along with a significant appearance on “Woman” by UK duo Litany.
Then Appleby met Elias Abid, a Chicago (by way of Kansas) producer who, at the time, had been working with Telana, Ric Wilson, Monte Booker, Smino, Jabril Power, Chai, Beach Jesus, and more, as well as assisting with Stefan Ponce. The two instantly crafted a song called “Turn Out the Lights”, a song that will never see the light of day (there's a pun to be had here), but a song that was a sign of their chemistry, a blending of upbeat electronic instrumentation beautifully contrasted with sorrowful, emotional lyricism. This formula resulted in Down Dance, a four song monster, but also a movement, an idea, a genre. Like Tree with Soul Trap and Chance with Acid Rap, Down Dance is a sound; it is a melancholic party, inward yet energized. If The XX met Adele and it was drizzling outside. Appleby talks about the moment he thought of the name “down dance” and texted it to Elias, who was right next to him at a restaurant.
“Is that the name of the genre? Is that the project name?” Appleby reminisces on the text Elias sent back to him. “Yes, yes. It was instant freakout. Much bigger than that moment because it's something tangible we can look at and understand. [Elias] will always be able to provide that electronic energy and dance energy, naturally. And I'm predisposed naturally, as it currently stands, to write lyrics that aren't necessarily happy, but it makes it easier to listen to because of the matched energy next to him.”
“There was almost like this transition from old Appleby to new Appleby,” Elias continues, “especially for me. I had this perception that this guy does way more dark R&B. There were songs like [“Drinking”] that were kind of tipping, and I think eventually we figured out we were more excited about the new shit (like “Overdose”) and we just tipped all the way.”
When they speak on their music, they talk about journeys, they talk about road trips. Like the lead single from Down Dance, “Castles”, for example, which Elias describes as being in a fantasy realm. “People want to be in a fantasy. They want this surreal experience. Upbeat happy, but sad at the same time. It's kind of confusing but people are confused.”
The music these two are making, this Down Dance style, didn't exist in Chicago prior to their creation. As a result, they were hesitant about how Chicago would perceive their sound. “But seeing the immense positive feedback-” Elias says, “-it makes us feel like we're part of Chicago now,” Appleby finishes. “I think before Down Dance I didn't feel like part of this scene. They're embracing the sound, they're embracing that it's different and they're claiming us as Chicagoan. Now we're peeking into the scene.”
Yes, it allowed the door into the Chicago music scene to be open for them, but Appleby and Elias didn't enter into that room. Instead, the room expanded into where they stand strong, unchanged, with the city walking over to them to become a part of their creative space. A cultural expansion, a neighborhood addition.
How fitting to reference location because to spend time with Appleby and Elias is to spend time hearing of travels and experiences. It's obvious that they connect through music, through trips. High school meant traveling with mom for tennis matches (Appleby) and visiting dad in France for the summer (Elias).
“Traveling became engrained in my system because of tennis,” Appleby says. “The idea of me getting up and going somewhere feels amazing.” They talk about their recent trip to New York, where they stayed with Elias' aunt who happens to be a high-end freelance designer for prop creations. This trip led to finding inspiration in a warehouse, a place where they took over for a few days and recorded music. “Him and I,” Appleby begins, “long beforehand, had talked about the idea of creating music in a museum. Working in an open space like that. And the place we ended up staying at just had this open area vibe. It ended up being a place where we could actually record so there wasn't a necessity to hit up a studio.” Even on the plane to New York and in Central Park, Appleby mentions how he was recording vocal ideas into his phone.
Continuing with the travel, this hero's journey, this all began, more or less, with Appleby initially going out to L.A. and later convincing Elias to join him, meeting up at a Hippie Sabotage concert, with Elias having Uber'd straight from LAX with his keyboard and his gear. “It was the perfect setting for us to be in LA for the first time ever,” Appleby says. “[Hippie Sabotage's] upbeat energy and the tempo really shifted our mindset. The reaction was very electric. The next day, we woke up without any plans, and made 'Overdose'. That song validated the entire trip.” In regards to “Overdose”, it is a progressing, evolving pop number, one full of various flows and breakdowns, with one hell of a reverb-coated hook. “As a person,” Appleby says, “I hate structure, so we'll just freestyle something or riff a melody, and next thing we know we stretch it out to eight bars.”
“The process of getting a lot on the table first,” says Elias, “and then kind of reducing and refining it has been the best way. Lately, I've been trying to take inspiration more from pop music in a way of it being simple and refined and strong. Not trying to do too much, but still have enough character to where it feels like a solid composition.”
The creative process hadn't always been like this for Appleby. Almost two years ago, Appleby started making music alone in his bedroom after watching the video for Corbin's “without u”. Known as Spooky Black at the time, the teenage artist from Minnesota later met up with him while he was touring with The Stand4rd, which should now make more sense to the reader as to why Appleby is wearing an Allan Kingdom shirt. Although Appleby was gaining connections and being inspired by fellow artists, he was still digging for instrumentals alone, arriving at the studio alone, recording alone. No gang in the stu, just an engineer (Kawaakari) and his lonesome. “These past four to five months have been some of the most exciting times for me, musically and personally, and it just made me realize how alone the creative process I was in pre four or five months.”
“That feeling of being alone,” Elias adds, “I feel like that's shared with a lot of artists.” Upon learning the craft, Appleby had to reassure himself and/or be his own critic, choosing his own path. Now, he has a team, a squad, a group: Elias and Iris Temple. Three talents all hailing from Kansas and all living together on the north side of Chicago. The four friends collaborated on the track “Random Love”, with vocals from Aura and Quinn, as well as a gnarly guitar solo from Quinn. Again, the only way to describe the sound is down dance, one they all have helped to form. The four artists are inseparable, acting more as a healthy family than a handful of roommates and artists.
Having a different history with music than Appleby, Elias tells me how he's been making music since he was twelve, first with guitar, later with piano and computer programs. He was in a band called Illusion with his current roommate Quinn. “We were 12 and we were killing it. I was making more money when I was 12 and 13 than I am now. We would play on the street at little art festivals and make like $200 a night. It was crazy. We would get gigs. We were wild. I'm trying to go back to my 12-year-old income.”
By fourteen, he was learning GarageBand on his mom's computer. At his brother's 18th birthday party, he gave rap group Newport Fresh his beat tape. “I was 14, they were all 18, 19. And they liked it. It was cool. Shortly after, I went over to the main producer's house, and he gave me a bootleg copy of Reason.” From there, he started working with rappers in Kansas, making a home studio and recording booth with his stepdad at 16. “Once again, I was hustling, recording people and making money. I was also DJing for Les Paul. We opened up for Alex Wiley, ShowYouSuck, that's how I met Miranda, who was one of the main reasons I moved to Chicago.” Elias left Kansas and enrolled at Columbia. Quinn and Aura followed, eventually connecting with Appleby, finding their sound, and rising to #4 on the Spotify Global Viral 50.
“I have all of these homies around me.” Appleby says, “that are extremely talented and I never saw it coming and it's just validation that my choice to start making music was the best decision I could have ever made.”
While Appleby has his voice, one that he's utilizing and evolving, he's also a student, one who watches documentaries on Taylor Swift (“she's playing the game but also winning the game”). He speaks on Adele, on a David Geffen documentary, on how the music world is one big lottery. “You can study hip-hop all you like, but even the guys 15 year in are kinda disrespected.” The rockstars, the country artists, the musicians with a 40+ year career, those are the ones Appleby is researching. “It needs to be studied if you wanna succeed in your own realm.” He talks about being at the Grammys in 2018 with a firmly set goal and vision. To further the symbolism, he tells me he's reading a Stephen King book called 11/22/63 where the protagonist travels back to 1959 to stop the JFK assassination in 1963. “His journey of getting almost there, failing, and then trying to go back and spend another four years of his life trying to do the same thing.”
Elias, meanwhile, is also a student, a literal student enrolled at Columbia. He talks about a mythology class studying Jungian's psychology, learning about archetypes like the warrior, the magician, the lover, and the king. Speaking on Jung and mythology, and speaking on the buzz surrounding a recently released EP, Elias begins, “I had this dream last night. It was really weird. You're at this moment, can you seize it? Basically, I was climbing up this ladder of this huge house and it was really, really wobbly. I was looking down, so scared I was gonna fall off. It's kind of that feeling. You're climbing up this ladder. It's shaky. If you take the wrong step, you slip, you're gonna fall off. Subconsciously, it's super interesting. Down Dance was released and we're going up this ladder.”
As the dense and insightful conversation comes to a close, I tell them that I'm always a sucker for closing out my interviews by asking the subjects if they have any advice for artists working on their craft. Knowledge for the children, I joke. “Keep working,” Appleby says. “Keep figuring it out and just be honest with yourself and put out the content that you would fight for. Believe in you and everything else will work itself out.”
“Be understanding and considerate for the people around you,” Elias adds. “Be respectful, because you don't know where people are at, so take that into consideration. Just be a good person in general, I feel like that'll take you further than anything else.”
“Shout out to Chicago,” Appleby concludes. “Shout out to friends, homies, fans, everyone. That we don't know, that we do, we love you all, thank you for supporting. This is just the beginning. I can't wait to meet you all, perform, get these gotdamn Grammy's off. I'm excited for the future. Good or bad, just excited for the unknown.”