An Interview With Greg Spero of His New Band, POLYRHYTHMIC!
Posted On 03 Aug 2016
The band Polyrhythmic is helmed by pianist/composer Greg Spero. Greg has performed with acclaimed musicians such as Arturo Sandoval, Corey Wilkes and Robert Irving III, co-produced tracks with Ski Beatz (Jay Z) and Shock G for hip-hop artists such as Murs and Mos Def, as well as written music scores for music and theater producers.
In January 2013, Spero received the Best Jazz Entertainer award at The Chicago Music Awards. In early 2015, Spero was recruited as the keyboard player and sound designer for pop sensation Halsey. They have completed 3 tours, including opening for Imagine Dragons and two headlining tours.
To form Polyrhythmic, Spero is joined by bassist Hadrien Feraud, guitarist Dario Chiazzolino, and drummer Mike Mitchell.
Learn more about the band in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! How’s 2016 treating the band so far? How’s your summer been going? What were some of the highlights of 2015 for you all?
2016 has been an amazing year considering it’s the first year that this band has been in existence. We played our first show at the beginning of 2016, so just about 6 months ago, and it has been a bit of a whirlwind since then. The band was very well received at our first show, we ended up setting up several other shows after that to premier to LA. And then another set of shows in Chicago again. And we’re getting a bigger audience at every show that we play.
The summer has been fantastic, it has been incredibly busy. We’ve been our working on our upcoming studio album, which will be the first actual album that we will have released. And we ended up also releasing a live recording of our show in LA because people kept asking for some sort of way to listen to us on their computers other than the videos that we put out.
My highlights of 2015, well, Polyrhythmic didn’t exist in 2015, so my highlights of 2015 were all ramping up to that. I’ve been composing for about a year while I’ve been on the road with Halsey, starting at the very beginning of 2015. So it’s been a pretty big ramp-up to the place where we actually started Polyrhythmic. The reason why I started composing this material was because every night I would play a show with Halsey, which is great music but it’s also very simple music. The melodies are very simple, there are not a lot of chord changes, and playing the same songs every night, it makes you want to expand into some other realms. So, I sort of started writing music, not exactly knowing where it would end up, but writing music that would be the antithesis of what I was playing every night. So, rather than the simple melodies, pretty standard chord progressions that I was playing, and simple rhythms, I started composing music that had very complicated rhythms and melodies that interwove in those rhythms, and that wove over various chord progressions that were sometimes different chord progressions over the same bass notes. Making a bass note into a different root. Sometimes I would use the bass as a 3 or as the 5, or as the 7, and then do some other weird super-imposed chord over that you can hear in “Tune 16” if listen to that. Because I wanted to explore what could be done if you really stretched the limits of rhythm and of harmony, and of melody over that rhythm and harmony. So that was really the highlight of my 2015 was writing this music in hotel rooms and in green rooms, on the bus as it was driving at night. So whenever I had a moment, I would composing and experimenting, and seeing what could be done over these different rhythmic landscapes that I was creating.
It was also really exciting to play with Halsey in arenas, we were playing in front of 15,000 people every night opening for The Weeknd, opening for Imagine Dragons, doing our own headline tour, so that was also very fun. It was a pretty fantastic dichotomy to do those sort of things and then jump into 2016 playing to a more intimate audience with Polyrhythmic.
Can you talk about how Polyrhythmic was first formed? Why do you think you all work so well together?
So, the way that Polyrhythmic was formed, like I said, is that I started writing this material that was supposed to be the antithesis of what I was playing every night. And so, at first, I didn’t really think about where it would end up, I just had this idea that I wanted to explore this complicated rhythmic landscape. And so I started writing these songs, and I got to tune, I don’t know, 18 or 19, before I even thought about who would be playing the material. I didn’t know who could play it. And I started playing this material, just with some local Chicago musicians when I was in Chicago, when I had some days off and my good friend, Mark Cavanagh, came up to me after a show and he said “This is extraordinary. This is some next level shit and you need to do something with it.” So I asked, “What do I do with it? I don’t really know, I’m just exploring, but I don’t know where it’s going to go.” He said, “Well, I’ll support, just tell me what you want to do. Who do you want to get? Who are your ideal musicians to play this material?”
And I thought to myself, who are the best musicians in the world that I can think that can execute this specific type of material? And the first person that came to mind was Hadrien Feraud, who I think is the best electric bassist who is working right now. And I’m very lucky to have played with him already and to know him personally, so I gave him a call and asked if he wanted to be a part of the project. Told him that we have support from Mark, and we’re going to be dong some really cool things. I sent him the material and he was very excited about it. So Hadrien and I talked about who would be the best drummer. And out of all the drummers that we could think of, there’s a young phenom name Mike Mitchell and he’s currently touring with Stanley Clarke. And is just one of the very best at 21 years old, he’s just destroying the game right now. And he has pocket comparable to anybody. And on top of that pocket, he has all the chops in the world. And that was very important to this project because it’s all based in pocket. Even though it’s in odd time signatures, the pocket, and the quarter-note pulse is very prevalent in every single tune, except for maybe “Tune 2” and “Tune 11”, that doesn’t really have an overlapping quarter-note pulse. But every other one has a very strong quarter-note that overlaps the polyrhythm.
So Mike was a no-brainer as the top drummer of who we would want. So I called Mike, he said “I’m in. Just where do you want me to go? What should we do?”
So, we started, by me saying, “OK guys, learn this material, we’re going to get together for a few days in Chicago and we’re going to premier this thing at FitzGerald’s Nightclub in Chicago.” It’s one of my hometown places that I’ve played many times, so we arranged the show at FitzGerald’s, Yamaha gave us support, they brought out an amazing CFX Grand Piano. Which, that’s one of the things is we will not compromise sonically in this group, at least in this iteration of the group. There’s going to be a Grand Piano at every show and Yamaha is being great about supporting us in getting their beautiful pianos out to everywhere that we play.
So we did the show at FitzGerald’s in Chicago, we filled it up, it was received amazingly, everybody there was like “This is exactly what you thought it was going to be. This is very special and we’re very excited to be a part of first performance here.” So we released a couple YouTube clips from people who were in the audience who took video on their phone, and they got thousands upon thousands of hits in the next couple of days after that because people were blown away by Hadrien’s playing and Mike’s playing. And it was just a really special beginning of everybody knew that this was going to be something that would have legs very quickly, even though it was a tadpole at that time.
And for those recordings and the first iteration of the group, it was Marco Villarreal on guitar, who’s a phenomenal guitarist from Chicago and one of my good friends, and he destroyed it as well. We all worked incredibly well together because we all listen. That’s actually the main reason why we all work well together. We’ve got the chops to execute the material and it’s very challenging material, and there’s no shortage of chops in this group, but the main reason why we work well together is because everybody huge ears. Everybody listens. We can make substitute changes and follow them immediately. We can tell when the other person is super-composing a different rhythm, a different polyrhythm, or subdividing a polyrhythm into a different way and latch on to it. Mike can pick up absolutely anything rhythmically. Hadrien can pick up anything harmonically. And we just hear each other. And that’s what Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter both told me on separate occasions. It’s not even about chops, it’s great to have them, but it’s about your ears, it’s about listening, it’s about connecting, and that’s what these people do. And that’s why we work so well together.
Growing up, did you all always want to be musicians?
I did, actually. It was kind of funny, so one of my friends from grade school messaged me on Facebook the other day and said “I found this thing that you wrote in 5th Grade” when the teacher asked all of the students what they saw themselves being in 30 years and what I had written down was “I will be a music star.” When I was in 5th grade, it’s kind of funny, I don’t even know what I thought a music star was back then. And I wonder what I would think of myself now if I looked into the future from my 5th Grade self.
But yeah, I always wanted to be a musician. My parents were both musicians. My dad is a great producer in Country and Rock and keyboard player, my mom is a classical pianist. They taught me as I was growing up and it was just always how I envisioned myself. I fell in love with music at a very early age and I know these other guys did too. When Hadrien was like in his late teens, early 20’s, he was already a star on the bass. He was already one of those child prodigies. He was just like killing the game, and he still is. And Mike, he’s only 21, it’s almost insane what he’s able to do at his age. I think everybody in this group has music as their obsession, and their love, and their passion. And that’s why I’m so excited to be able to have these guys around me. Because I’ve learned from them every single time that I play with them. And I’m always inspired by them, they are always pushing me to be better and to learn more, and to just study more. Just because they are so awesome. And they are so knowledgeable and understanding of music.
Where did you come up with your band name? What were some names that you were considering?
So, we didn’t consider any other names. The band name, it comes from a concept, like sort of self-explanatory. There’s a thing that musicians, especially jazz musicians, but also in a lot of musicians in other genres are exploring right now. And I even got a very sweet email from Brad Mehldau the other day that was very complimentary about the group and mentioned the band Meshuggah, who I’m a huge fan of. They are a death metal group and they do a similar thing, sort of to what we do, but in a totally different genre, where they have overlapping time signatures over an elongated pulse, an elongated backbeat pulse. But they’re like screaming over it. It’s kind of crazy to listen to and I really enjoy it. But, other people are doing it in the jazz world, you listen to guys like Makaya McCraven, one of my long time partners in crime from Chicago. And you listen to Gerald Clayton or any of the great young musicians right now, they all incorporate odd time signatures and polyrhythms into their music because it’s a way to develop greater interest in your material. And when I say interest, I don’t mean like other people being interested, I mean like making it more interesting. Because it gives the brain more to like twist around. And when you overlap in a way that is consistent, which that’s the thing that most people are not doing, is overlapping with consistency and at a consistent pulse. Then it’s very special and it creates this entire new landscape. It’s like a whole world to build a new environment of melody and harmony on top of. That’s why I call it Polyrhythmic because everything that we play is going to be polyrhythmic and it’s going to have this specific concept that we have been diving into. Which is these polyrhythms, but at a consistent way with overlapping elongated backbeats.
If you listen to popular urban music right now, like The Weeknd or Drake for example, whom I’m also big fans of, the thing that gives it this really amazing feel is often taking the traditional backbeat, where you would do the kick on one and the snare on three. Like “Kick-two-Snare-four, Kick-two-Snare-four” and making that elongated by a factor of two. So it’s like “Kick-beat-beat-beat-Snare-beat-beat-beat, Kick-beat-beat-beat-Snare-beat-beat-beat” or elongating it even more, so by a factor of 4, so it’s like “Kick-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-Snare-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-KICK-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-Snare-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-beat.”
Just a way for you guys to understand what I’m talking about because every song that we have, takes the polyrhythm and it fits that elongated backbeat underneath the polyrhythm somehow. Whether it’s 7/8 or 7/4, 17/16 or 13/16, all of those are odd time signatures that we explore with the elongated backbeat underneath included within the context of the consistent quarter note pulse.
So that’s how we came up with the band name Polyrhythmic, in that all of our songs consistently are polyrhythmic.
Polyrhythmic recently released your debut live album. What was it like putting out that collection? How long did it take to put it together?
So, I wouldn’t necessarily call this our debut live album, it’s more of a bootleg than an album. So we released these videos and gotten well over 100,000 views so far, just on the videos and people are spreading them more and more. And people were asking for something that they can download. So we decided to take our entire 2-hour live show that we did in Los Angeles and just put it up for download for $5.00.
We feel like that’s a pretty good deal. It’s not the greatest sound quality, but it will give you something to embrace our concept and embrace what we are doing before we are finished with our studio album. The studio album is going to be some next level shit. I’m really excited for you to hear it.
So, what was it like putting out that collection? It was very simple to put out this collection. We basically took the best takes from our three night stint in LA, and compiled them and released them on the website. It’s not available anywhere else but on http://www.polyrhythmic.com/
It did not take long to put together, it was pretty simple. But, if you like that, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for our actual album, because that’s the thing that we are really putting a lot of effort into.
How do you go about putting a song together? Where does the inspiration come from?
So, there are a few different ways. Sometimes I will just sit at the piano and let my fingers flow freely. Atonally through whatever they’re feeling. I’ll try to just separate myself from my hands and allow my hands to just have a mind of their own. And then eventually I’ll hear something that I really like and I’ll usually have a recorder going so when I hear that thing that I like, I can stop and listen to it and learn to repeat it, and then use that as the basis for what I’m creating. Whether it is a melody, or a riff, or a chord progression. And then build on top of that. And then once I have something that I really like, that I’ve improvised, that I can repeat, the rest of it sort of writes itself. It just starts like if I play a chord progression, then if I play it enough times, then a melody will create itself in my mind, and then I can continue writing the song with that melody. And then maybe that melody will cater itself to a different chord progression, and then that will create another part of the song. but that is very improvisational the way I go about actually using the material that I create to write.
There’s another way that I write, which is if I want to explore a specific type of polyrhythm, let’s say I haven’t done something 13/16 yet, so I want to do that. I will go on to Ableton and I’ll play a drum beat into Ableton using native instruments, the drum kit in native instruments, and I’ll just play a drum beat. And then make a beat that I think is really cool. And then loop it and listen to it, and then something will inevitably come to mind over it. That’s one thing that my mind does, is that no matter what I listening to, it creates more parts to it. So, even if I’m listening to a pop song, it’ll create an entirely new thing over the pop song. And it’s just in my mind, but the fun thing about writing my own music is that the thing that is in my mind can actually become the song, so, then what I’m doing in Ableton I’ll put that next part in that comes to mind, whether it’s maybe a bass line or maybe it’s a piano line, or a guitar line, and then continue to compose with that material. Use that as the basis, and then create from that.
I will often take the pieces that I create in that context, and use them as motifs. And develop using those motifs. So, it’s almost how you consider a classical composer composing, because then it’s all very specifically written out when I compose it in Ableton, and then I’ll make sheet music out of it and give it the guys and we’ll play it. However, there’s always an improvisation part that is completely undetermined and that is up to the band to really create on the spot.
Can you talk about going out on tour and opening for Imagine Dragons and being sound designer for Halsey?
So, we’ve done several pretty crazy tours. One of them was opening for Imagine Dragons, where we were first of three, but another was opening for The Weeknd, where we were direct support. These were both in 15,000 person arenas around the country. Then we’ve done tons of shows internationally and we did our own tour through the US and now we are on the final installment of The Badlands Tour in small arenas around the US as headlining.
It has been a wild ride since the beginning of this project. We started out playing in 200 person venues. Literally the first show that we played was for like 80 people in Los Angeles. And we’ve gone from there to we played to a sold out show at a 10,000 person arena a couple nights ago. Tonight we are playing another show at a big venue in Houston. And it’s been an amazing experience.
I have learned tons about sound design within the context of this. I’ve always done production and sound design for artists in various genres including hip-hop, electronic, and pop music. However, I’ve never done sound design for the context of everything from small clubs to huge arenas. It’s a very interesting world to dive into. I have to create, for example, the other day when we were creating a new bass sound for one of the songs, I spent a half-hour dealing with front of house engineer and dealing with the laptop, the main stage rig that we were going to be using on the laptop to model this bass sound so it would resonate the most strongly within the context of the speakers and the arena that we were playing in. That’s not something that you do when you’re just doing sound designer for albums. So every sound has to be specifically curated for the context in which it’s going to be heard. And things are heard very differently in arenas.
I’m a huge nerd when it comes to technology and I’ve had a really fun time experimenting with the Moog Little Phatty I’ve been using. And designing and main-stage use in various plug-ins like Massive and also using the Yamaha Keyboards and now the Montage 8, which I’m incorporating into the set, which is my favorite keyboard so far that I’ve used. Playing the keyboard parts has been fun as well, because I’ve been the sound designer for the live sound, I was able to pick as many sounds as I wanted from the record to play live. And being the nerd that I am, I decided to pick as many as could possibly play. So often I’m playing two different parts in my right hand and two different parts in my left hand, because they are pretty simple parts. So if they keyboard is split into 4 areas where I’m playing a pad that I’m holding out with the pedal in the left hand on the big keyboard and then going to the Moog for a bass line while I’m playing these two separate parts to the right hand. It gets very challenging because of the amount of parts that I’m assigned myself to play at the same time, which can be a fun and exhilarating experience night after night, especially when the stakes are so high when you’ve got 10,000 people watching you and Halsey fans know if you mess up a note because they are all so intimately into the music.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
My favorite artist, well, there are several different worlds in which I can name my favorite artist. I guess the artist that I would listen to the most, that are my favorites, are top pianists in the jazz world. Which I would consider Herbie Hancock at the top of them with whom I’ve been very lucky to studied with and who has been a mentor to me for about 7, maybe 8 years now. In addition to Herbie, there’s Keith Jarrett, who’s one of the greatest pianists living right now. I see him in concert whenever I can and he consistently inspires me. Some of my other favorite artists right now are, well in other genres, The Weeknd actually became one of my favorite artists in Pop after we were touring with them. Because listening to them play live night after night, I really intimately got to know the music and it’s very special. The styling and the production, and the pocket in that music is very extraordinary. So, I love that music. There’s also some fantastic artists coming up right now in jazz, including Makaya McCraven being one of them, he’s one of my favorite drummers. There’s Snarky Puppy, which is one my favorite fusion groups. And if you go back, Weather Report, they just released a live album from that was recorded when Jaco Pastorius was playing bass at just some club, and it had not been released before. And I just finished listening to that record, it’s like 4 albums that Weather Report was one of my favorites, “Return to Forever”, of course.
Who would you guys love to work with in the future?
Well, I think what we’re going to have to do is work with a pop artist. But not just a pop artist, somebody who can really understand where we’re coming from, which I think most people, if you are most vocalists, will not understand where we’re coming from. From a harmonic context, from a melodic context, and from a rhythmic context, because it’s very complicated. So the one person that comes to mind is Jacob Collier, who is a fantastic vocalist and we’ve been in talks with Quincy Jones, who’s managing Jacob, about what we can potentially do together. So I foresee that as a potential for the future, but we’re very open to ideas. There’s another singer named Andra Day, who I’ve worked with from the past, who is phenomenal. But, you know, Halsey herself is getting to intimately know her capabilities in music and vocal technique, and in melodic understanding. I feel like she could be one of the few people that would be potentially appropriate for singing over our very complicated material. She’s very young but has an extraordinary capability and an extraordinary understanding of music compared to other vocalists in her realm. So that’s a possibility too.
As far as people that I would love to work within the context of Polyrhythmic, it’s the guys that are in it, I don’t really need anybody else. These guys are absolutely phenomenal and they are the ideal musicians out of everybody in the world who I would want to be part of the group.
At the end of the day, what do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope listeners take away from your songs?
So, our music is very complicated and it’s very exciting for me and the guys group to explore these new landscapes that we are creating through rhythm, and harmony, and melody. Our passion for music drives us to dive as deeply as possible into what can be done, what is possible within the context of this music. The result of it, is something that is different from the means and from the reason for diving into it. The result of it, and the message of our music is connection. Music is meaningless unless it actually connects with you. It’s a language. It displays emotion. It displays intellect. It displays all of the various levels of our humanity, many of which are subconscious and cannot be expressed through words, it can only be expressed through art.
When I play this music for somebody, I want that somebody to feel me and be connected with me. And be connected with the person next to them who’s listening to it as well. The message of our music is universal connectivity. I want to open this tunnel of communication between one human being and another human being that shares the brilliance that we have as creatures on this earth. And shares all the layers that make us human. Doing that can open channels of compassion and empathy between people, it can bring together people from different cultures and different walks of life. It can motivate people to find the greatness within themselves, to explore whatever it is their passionate to explore. And find the brilliance within themselves. Because every single person is brilliant, it’s just a matter of finding how to manifest that brilliance into the world.
So I guess that can be the message, you are brilliant. I want you to listen to this and connect with us, and hear and feel this manifestation of whatever it is inside of us together. And then use that to explore whatever it is that you do to do that in your own life. And bring out greatness within the context of your own existence. Separately from what we’re doing in the context of our existence. And by doing that, we bring our existence together and we lift up that state of existence in this world. Because we’re connecting and we’re understanding each other and we’re sharing this amazing gift that we have as human beings.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourself and your music?
I say just stay tuned. Check out what we’re sharing on our website www.polyrhythmic.com
There’s a lot to come, we’re just considering right now who we are going to collaborate with as far as maybe management, label, agents, etc. to allow this music really become exposed on a higher level. And there are lots of other layers to what we have in store which I can’t really talk about in this interview, but you’ll see as the plot unfolds over the next year or so. You’ll see what we have to come. It’s going to be very exciting and it’s going to be very special. And that’s not just me talking, that’s some other people who really know what they’re talking about, so I hope you keep an eye on us and I hope to be in touch with you. I hope to see you at our shows, and I look forward to sharing everything I have to share with you.