“We like to take our time”: Why musclecars won't get caught up in the dance music rat race - Features - Mixmag

“We like to take our time”: Why musclecars won't get caught up in the dance music rat race

Brooklyn DJ and production duo musclecars, AKA Brandon Weems and Craig Handfield, take influence from New York's rich dance music legacy and bring it into the present with a genre-bending sound that's connecting on both sides of the Atlantic

  • Words: Jamaal Johnson | Photos: Anthony Jamari Thomas
  • 10 June 2024

It’s a warm spring evening in London Fields, and deep soulful grooves are floating through the East London air. The music gets louder on approach to the The BBE Store, and proceeding inside, the heat hits you immediately as you enter the dancefloor. Around 100 dancers bop, 2-step and cut shapes with a feverish energy, and eyes are drawn to the myriad of contrasting characters present.

Setting the tone, you have the old skool ravers - found in the midst of the dance, aged 40+ but moving like they’re still in their 20s, they’re energy-providers and house music lovers. They’re a motley bunch, but are united by a common groove and an undying memory of the glory years. Then there’s the young and fly model-types, who stand about looking simultaneously cool yet self-conscious, in exceedingly baggy jeans which swallow their Wallabees as they attempt to shuffle. Sticking to the walls there are the lonesome music appreciators, slightly older, often bald or donning a flat cap, and nodding their heads slightly at about 125 BPM in subtle gestures of appreciation.

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A quick glance around also reveals a handful of devotees from the UK’s house and jazz scene: Giles Peterson, Atjazz, Shy One, Last Nubian. Towards the back of the room, the BBE regulars and store-owners marvel at the scene, sporadically selling a record or two, but mostly taking in the beautiful sonics being omitted by their state-of-the-art soundsystem. The stage is set and the gaze is then cast towards the decks, where two characters move in casual synchronicity, one tall, one short, both completely embroiled within the music at their fingertips. They are musclecars, and tonight is their UK album launch party, a celebration of their carefully crafted yet adaptable sound.

Musclecars are a DJ and production duo based out of Brooklyn, with the aim of returning dance music in New York back to its ‘golden era’. Spearheading a resurgence in soulful house music, in true ’80s fashion they simultaneously traverse genres such as jazz, soul, R&B, and ambient, already taking the New York scene by storm and now introducing a new generation of people to the mesh of sounds that defined NYC nightlife for so long. Their scope of influences ranges from Louie Vega and Joe Clausell, to Daft Punk, and even 4hero, with this eclecticism having resulted in an adaptable and global sound that has seen them gain as much love in London as in their native Brooklyn.

Their debut album ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea!’, was released in May via BBE Music, and is a celebration of the lost eclecticism which originally underpinned early NYC dance music. It’s a demonstration of the creative power of an album in its truest sense; it’s meant to be listened through chronologically with “peaks and troughs”, equally perfect for the club as it is for the radio.

Speaking with musclecars (AKA Brandon Weems and Craig Handfield) on release day of their innovative album, we cover topics spanning from Brooklyn nightlife and gentrification, to their musical role models, creative process and making art at their own pace.

So tell me a bit about musclecars, who are you, how did you meet?

Brandon: We’re a production and DJ duo based out of Brooklyn, New York. We both met back in 2009 at a music festival — we met [first] on the internet, actually. At the time, I feel like dance music wasn't as big as it is now in the States. We were in high school, we didn’t have a lot of friends that were into the same kind of music as us, and we were both sneaker heads. We were on this sneaker forum where you would go to buy, sell and trade sneakers. There was a sub-topic for this music festival in New York, and we both reached out to each other because we were both in the same situation where we didn't have someone to go to the festival with. Since that day we would go to shows together, go see some of our favourite DJs together, and that's how our friendship started. Then, honestly, maybe four years after that is when musclecars was formed.

Wholesome! Where did the name come from?

Brandon: I wish I had an interesting story about it. I think we were 17 years old and it just kind of stuck. It was like an inside joke from some music video that just kept coming up with some friends of ours at the time. I remember we got a few gigs just as Brandon and Craig before that, then we just kind of went with musclecars - I think we just thought it was a bit silly and a bit humorous. And, you know, it maybe doesn't give away like the kind of music we play just by looking at our name on a flyer.

Craig: I think it's funny, because I feel like if you heard the album, and then somebody lifted a blindfold and you saw the name, it maybe wouldn't make sense.

Brandon: After a while people kind of forget about the name as much because they start focusing on the music - maybe at first it matters a lot. But look at like Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Black Coffee, I don't think anyone really thinks about the name as much.

Haha true, I’ve never actually thought about coffee when I hear that name …

Brandon: It’s just a cup of coffee! Like, if I would have thought about The Beatles without the context, it sounds like this grungy, death metal band or something. But yeah, I feel like if you get to a certain point, the music will kind of recontextualize what that name means.

So true. So Coloring Lessons was your first party, and it's a radio show and a label as well right? Can you tell me a bit about that?

Craig: The party started very small, with a few of our friends coming together to listen to the music we played. I feel like in New York, there’s sometimes this pretentious air surrounding nightlife…the bottle service clubs, and the VIP sections, the glitz and the glamour…all these things that get wrapped up in the culture that don’t really have anything to do with the music. I feel like it was a really good change of pace to just have it be focused and centred around the music. When we first got started, there were just a handful of DJs our age playing house music in New York, Which is funny to hear now, because of the city’s rich history surrounding dance music. Before the Giuliani era, there was truly an intentional way that the community interacted with each other, with dance floors, with the music - getting back to those roots is something that we have been privileged with doing for our generation.

Read this next: How to have the perfect 24 hours in New York City

So I’ve seen you guys talk about this “golden era” of NYC nightlife - what was it, and where did things go wrong?

Brandon: I would say it’s before our time, before we were even old enough to start going out. Maybe early ’80s I would say to early 2000s. We had parties like Body & Soul, which was a Sunday party that would happen at this club called Vinyl. It would be François K, Joe Clausell and Danny Krivit playing the entire party. And it was a Sunday party, so it was a daytime party and it was just purely about the music and about dancing. And, yeah, where did it go wrong? I think there's a few things, and I think one of them was the crackdown on nightlife with the Cabaret Law — you needed a licence for people to dance in your space.

Craig: I think when we speak to our peers, we hear about 9/11 too being something that really changed the course of nightlife. I think those two things combined kind of set us back, and put a wrench in the community element that we had.

Talking of community, everyone I speak to from places in Brooklyn, like Bed-Stuy, talks to me about the gentrification going on there and how much things were changing. I wanted to ask you guys, how do you think gentrification is affecting the music scene out there?

Craig: Gentrification is a big symptom of capitalism and it's not only happening in Bed-Stuy, it's happening anywhere you go; when we were in London I’ve heard it’s been a big thing there. But, yes, as somebody who's from there, I’ve seen it change and seen what resources we didn't have access to, and what infrastructure we didn't have that's now pouring in just because the faces look different. It is definitely something that's hard to wrestle with, I guess. There’s a disconnect within the community, because you have all these new people who are coming in - and the people who come in just don't always have a sense of mindfulness of the community or how to interact with them. You'll find a lot more instances of people maybe not knowing how to react to something and calling the police or, you know, making situations far more dangerous for people who look like us.

On that, do you have any favourite Brooklyn spots which are still authentic, where you guys can go and check out some real music and community?

Brandon: Nowadays is still one of my favourites. It's on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, in Ridgewood. Location wise, it's a bit of a trek to get to, so I think because of that, it's inconvenient for people who don't really want to be there to go out there.

Now I wanted to ask you guys a bit about your music specifically - there’s a lot of live instrumentation, it’s very musical …. did you guys grow up in musical families or have a musical background?

Craig: I definitely grew up tinkering because my dad's family came up in the church and were in church bands. I grew up hearing a lot and seeing people making music, and I wanted to be adding my contribution to it rather than just enjoying it for what it was. But yeah, growing up I tried out different instruments like violin, keyboard, piano or drums.

Brandon: I didn't grow up with a musical family. But I think it was just a byproduct of the music that we got played at home - my mom used to play a lot of neo-soul in the early 2000s. I'm half Puerto Rican, so there was also a lot of salsa from my mom, her girlfriend and my grandmother, so I think those things maybe subconsciously influenced me. I think in the moment, I thought some of the music was kind of boring, but I'm sure it had an effect on the music I enjoy today.

Talking about influences, I wanted to ask you guys a bit about the UK connection … obviously I saw you guys at the BBE store. Are there any UK sounds or artists you’ve been hearing and vibing with?

Brandon: I mean, there are a ton. I think, for me, a big one is Kaidi [Tatham] and Dego, and 4hero as well. I think musically, I just really love what they do and the levels of musicianship in their songs. But I also remember when I was a teenager listening to Joy Orbison, or Mala and dabbling with Scuba, with some of the dubstep stuff as well. I would say I'm very influenced by UK dance music as a whole. I've always been impressed with how the UK kind of took what the US was doing and just built on it, you know? And just created these new subgenres of dance music, like drum ‘n’ bass or dubstep, or broken beat.

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I wanted to chat to you guys about the album which has come out today. You’ve been doing loads of promo, listening parties, selling records. Which songs are you most excited about?

Brandon: There's a song called ‘I Don’t Remember the Last Time I Saw Stars’. I'm really excited for people to hear that one. That's also one we’ve been playing a lot at the parties, and it tends to be a set closer, and also ‘Water’ as well.

Craig: Yeah, I definitely have to agree. Those are my two favourites on the album. Also because they were the two tracks that took the longest to get right. Also ‘Ha Ya!’ too, it took quite some time to get it right. With writing ‘Water’ we were trying to figure out, OK, what do we want to say? And how do we say it in a way that makes sense? Or how do we express this emotion in a way that makes sense?

How long has the album been in the making for? It feels like a while.

Craig: Yes, three or four years. We probably first started in 2020 with demos and stuff. It's been done since 2023 but we just waited, sat on it for a year, because we wanted it to be out in the springtime. That was really important to us. It feels very much like spring, like blooming energy.

Do you guys have any thoughts on the creative process, and the value of taking time to create and finish your art?

Brandon: I think every artist, especially with the attention span that people have, thinks: “Oh, they're gonna forget about me, if I'm not consistently putting something out, or if I'm not consistently playing gigs.” Even with us and this project that we put out, we spent years working on it and actualising it, and it's still a very real possibility that in a month from now people are listening to a different thing, which is fine. It's just a part of how society processes information. We like to take our time with things. I think that we probably couldn't rush even if we tried - I feel we wouldn't be able to make work that's thoughtful by just trying to keep up with this rat race. Ultimately, whatever time it takes to make it what you want to make, is how much time it should take.

I saw somewhere that you guys record quite DIY in your home studio — could you paint a picture for me of your process of getting to a song, from start to finish?

Craig: Yeah, where I'm sitting right now is where it happens, which is so funny, because there’s like, you know, groceries on the floor and our luggage from wherever. But yeah, it's very much a DIY kind of thing until we have the money to afford to go into an actual studio or have a studio of our own. So right next to me there's some synthesisers, and I have a Rhodes in my bedroom. But all of the ideas start from, like, a voice note of just humming a melody or a bassline, or an idea that would probably sound like nonsense if you'd played it back.

Your sound is very eclectic, traverses a lot of different genres. I feel like you guys are perceived as being soulful house revival, but this album specifically isn't really that housey — there's a few house tracks, but quite a lot of them definitely don't have that 4/4 kick and aren’t at 120/125 BPM. So I wanted to ask, was that an intention? And does it mark a new direction? Or is it just part of who you are?

Brandon: Yeah, I think production and the music musclecars make is a bit different from what we play in the club.

Craig: I think that one thing that we’ve been mindful of is not boxing ourselves in, and I think with this album hopefully it'll be nice to break out of this box of house music or soulful house music — also keeping in mind that it's something that really drives us, that sound really inspires us, but in terms of making music I feel we can't really sit down and be like ‘I'm gonna make a soulful house record’ or ‘I'm gonna make a techno record’. It's kind of based on emotion and experience and what we're feeling that day. When we started writing this album, or even as we start to write our next project, we already knew it was never going to be linear like that. I also enjoy albums that are only one sound, but I could never make something like that— there’s so many influences and moods, that mould our productions and our storytelling. We came up on albums, full-length, you know, early 2000s and ’90s style; it was far less singles like we have now, it was EPs and more full projects. And we really enjoy this dynamic way of listening to music where it's not super linear and you have these peaks and valleys.

And finally, what’s next for musclecars?

Craig: We have a lot of tour dates… so in the midst of working on the next projects we’ll be travelling a lot too, and for me I'm curious to see how that affects some of the music that comes next. We have a few Coloring Lessons parties coming up that we’re super excited about, including our Coloring Lessons Juneteenth block party on June 16th. Some remixes coming out. There's so much, I feel like everybody in due time will see what's happening.

'Sugar Honey Iced Tea' is out now via BBE Music, get it here

Jamaal Johnson is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow him on Instagram

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