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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Brian Ellis on Synthesizers and Playing Modern Funk with His Newest Group, Reflection

Posted By on Thu, Sep 4, 2014 at 12:19 PM

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Growing up in a musical family where electric guitars and classical piano co-existed harmoniously, multi-instrumentalist and producer Brian Ellis knew from a young age that music would be at the forefront of whatever career he chose. Today, he is the lead guitarist for psych band Astra and keyboard player for '80s hip-hop/electro legend Egyptian Lover, as well as a collaborator with groups like Free Festival, Psicomagia, and Birdzilla. Recently, he's been focused on his newest project, Reflection, a record and live group with members Adam and Jordan Chini that blends together his talents with drums and synthesizers to create dancefloor-friendly jams. We caught up with Ellis about his favorite musical machines, Reflection, and their upcoming LP. Reflection plays live this Saturday, September 6, at Underground SF.

How do all your projects manage to have such creative names and titles?
Ha! Thanks for thinking so. I tend to think of projects in a conceptual way first and then start to put everything together. It's always important for me to make my records somewhat of a package with cool hand-done art, a title that represents the sound, etc., and not just a collection of songs. I like an album to be able to tell a story before you even hear it. I've discovered so many records I love just from buying things in discount bins based on the artwork. I love seeing cover art that makes me think, "What is this?" and I always strive to create that effect for people when they discover one of mine.

What was the first music-making machine you discovered?
We had a few cheesy keyboards growing up, stuff like Yamaha Portasounds and Casios, but it wasn't until I read about analog synths that I really became interested in electronic instruments. I was around 13 or 14 years old and Korg came out with the MS2000. It looked so cool to me; all the knobs, buttons, and lights. It was way out of my price range as a kid but one day I came across an Akai AX-60 synth at a local music shop and it was about half the price of the MS2000. Somehow I convinced my parents I really "needed" it. I didn't know it at the time, but I lucked out getting the Akai instead of the Korg since it's a true analog synth from the '80s and the Korg is just an analog emulation. It was so much fun to manipulate a sound wave and really create your own kinds of sounds from scratch, as opposed to just picking a preset and being limited to whatever it produced. I still have and love that synth to this very day.

How did the your newest group Reflection come into play?
I was online one day and Dam-Funk had posted a link to the Voltaire Records Private Function compilation they released. Dam-Funk was pretty much the only new guy out I had heard at the time doing something with electronic music that I felt a very strong kinship with, and then out of nowhere was this compilation full of guys I'd never heard of (XL Middleton, K-Maxx, Night School, Loose Shus) making really killer tracks. After the first listen I thought, "This is a label that would 'get' my music," and sent them a demo. I guess I was right because about a month later I got an e-mail from them saying they wanted to do a record with me. I had been making these tracks mainly for my own enjoyment so it was really exciting to start working on them more seriously with a 12" in mind. I played a few shows as a solo act that were fun, but I definitely felt limited by what I could do on my own and didn't like having to rely on a complicated MIDI setup for sequencing all my hardware. I wanted to put together a live group and immediately thought of my longtime friend Adam Chini and his younger brother Jordan. Both of them are extremely talented musicians. Adam and I had played in different groups since high school and I had actually taught Jordan guitar lessons when he was around 12 years old. Things clicked really quickly and after the first couple rehearsals we all knew we had something special going on.

What does the title of "Reflection" mean in regards to your new endeavors?
It means a lot of things to me. I went through a really hard time a few years ago and it's sort of the representation of coming out of that ... acknowledging the past and looking to the future, making sure to improve every step of the way.
Since you guys are always armed with an array of drums and synths, which would you take into battle with you?
I think my favorite synth I've been able to play is the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. It's so intuitive and capable of such a wide palette of sounds. I could make an entire record with that synth alone.

If the group was stuck on a desert island, what would be the song to unite you guys and not drive you crazy?
Probably anything off of Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. We're all huge MJ fans and I can't imagine ever having a bad time with that record on. It's just perfect.

Tell us about your upcoming LP.
We're working on a LP as the group Reflection. The sessions have been going extremely well! The three of us work so easily together in the studio. Because we can record a lot of the material live simultaneously, it not only makes the process much faster, but also much more organic because there are just little bass fills or leads that come out of improvising on a part together that no one person would ever create just tracking on their own. We're aiming to having the music done by the end of 2014 for an early 2015 release.

What are you most excited to share with us this Saturday at Underground SF?
Everything! I love S.F. and haven't been in way too long! Can't wait to perform "Electric Body" live with K-Maxx again. He's the man and he completely nailed the vocal duties on that track. Hope everyone brings out their dancing shoes on Saturday!
Brian Ellis performs this Saturday, September 6, 9 p.m.- 2 a.m., at Underground SF (424 Haight), admission is  $6.
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