KIMI ZARATE-SMITH talks to JOHN FM about generating music out of observations, his relationship to Detroit, the state of America, and the urgency to express as much.
John FM is not a preacher. His music pulls together observations on human nature, whether overt or under the surface. American Spirit EP is John FM’s latest project, self-released on Bandcamp in 2020 during the first half of the pandemic, and re-released by XL Recordings in 2021. The EP plays with the idea of perception and doesn’t shy away from pulling influence from the musical legacy of his home city, Detroit, whilst remaining uninterrupted by any pretence. The variation of sounds running through the project pays homage to deep house, techno, hip-hop, and finding everything in-between, but is never entombed by genre.
The EP strikes a balance between playing with the ambiguity of middle grounds, of free, unrestricted lyricism that is left to be discerned, being forthright without sermonising. The tension between directness and obscurity allows the music to exhibit how freedom and hostility breed, grow and eventually clash. Calling in from snow-covered Detroit, we talked over how multiple environments bleed into his creative practice, and about situating oneself within these landscapes.
I’m excited to talk to you about your EP and your music. I’m also interested in talking about Detroit, out of curiosity — the city plays such an important role in the music I listen to, and so much contemporary music is propelled by Detroit’s musical legacy. I see the city, with my limited perception, as a kind of energy-centre. By that, I mean so many musical trajectories are spewing out of the city and its history.
Detroit is a very musical city by trait. There are four things to do here: either you’re working in the factories, working with [GM Financial] and all the car manufacturers that are neither here nor there anymore, or you have music, or you have crime. I live on the outskirts of the city. In that environment, I am able to live both in and out of the city at the same time.
Does living on the periphery, being able to step in and out of this structure, allow you to observe more?
I’ll give an example. My Filipino friend – the toughest dude I knew, funny as fuck – his family came over here from Redford [Michigan], four of them living in a basement with a newborn and their mom. His ideas changed, it seemed, from having that playful childish mentality. As soon as he came, he started selling Amway, a pyramid scheme. I bring that up as an example because what he was trying to do was to find stability in a place that didn’t have much. His goal was to make as much money as possible, which is oftentimes the goal of somebody in Detroit: we are a very money-orientated, flashy type of city historically. So, when I think about the rap scene here, and my own ability to make protest music, I don’t necessarily expect Young Thug to rap about the socio-economic climate of Black people in America right now. I do expect him, however, to try and get as much money as he possibly can. What’s he looking for? He’s looking for stability.
When I was able to look in and out of these scenarios, being more observatory and trying to take that into my own life and my own experiences, I could look back on how minorities have been fucked around in this country, especially with Detroit being the blackest city in America. It tells of a larger and more upfront prediction of the country. Even with the little things that I’ve done to make what I am forming around the idea of protest, it has helped me to have both sides.
So your relationship with the city generates a certain approach towards what you’re making and saying.
I don’t want to be heavy-handed with anything that I say. My idea around protest music is to get people to observe what is actually going on around them and let them come to their own conclusions. I feel like once people get preached to, you start to lose an audience. People just want catharsis in the club, they want to cry in the club and they want to dance and feel like there is some value from the night. I’ve always tried to just let it flow out of me.
There’s an interesting dynamic that comes out of this, that protest music can be danceable. That feeling of losing oneself in the club… it’s like a final release: to be there, dancing, so many pathways, interactions, and existences had to happen for this moment to exteriorise.
In terms of the legacy of Detroit, there are also many middle grounds between these moments. For example, there’s a middle ground between techno and house in the 80s, which became colonised. When hip-hop came around, ghettotech became this interesting, lost, sleeping giant to keep that connection between techno and hip-hop. Those hard, almost pornographic, weird lyrics keep that kind of music prominent. Whilst not everyone will dance to every song in the club, there will be a song that every Black person will jit to – like ‘Sex on The Beach’ by DJ Assault – because it’s like, ‘okay, we’re doing this now!’
American Spirit feels simultaneously like a demonstration and a deconstruction of genre and middle grounds, as though you’re waking up this sleeping giant. Does the EP speak to what develops out of the history or the musical legacy of Detroit?
Yeah, though not as an immediate thing. The EP was made over a period of five years with some breaks in-between. It made sense to release it during the pandemic at the time. It speaks to rioting, urban warfare, to cries and screams: we were always in those spaces to make this kind of music. Everything that I did for that record, it was straight up. It was an amalgamation of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.
I was taking note of some of the shadiest after-hours on the Eastside, which is very much cut to having those dance floor riffs. And then took note of the art-house music that was happening. Remembering those things and purging it all out. The EP’s narrative told itself because it sort of fell in place. The art works in a weird way.
The record wasn’t really a response to music culture, it was more of what I was absorbing. Take ‘Lockjaw’ for example, which is a bit of a hip-hop/electronic song – that type of song was very much not what was happening in Detroit at the time.
The art does work in a weird way. You observe and absorb what’s happening, but also the primary, secondary responses that have come out of these spaces, and a prediction of what is yet to come. This explicit regard for your surroundings fosters the straight-up nature of the music. It’s the full picture.
I’m trying to stray away from guiding people too much. What I hate about some art is that they have some long-winded explanation of the piece, and it ends up explaining nothing at all. I’m kinda put off by artist statements. You don’t have to be so absolute. You can include the right sub-text to lean into and sync ideas with other people. Street rap in Detroit right now is burgeoning with all these new rappers coming out – street rap already carried those sentiments and sounds way before it started to emerge again in 2021. This is something that’s pretty consistent. What I’m making is not that different, it’s along these lines. It’s about the guttural, worst parts of ourselves, and how this is glorified in American music.
The difference is, it’s getting wild here. The myopic nature of American people has become apparent. I think people are expecting not to live as long, so they don’t think about the future in the same way. In one way it’s a good thing and on the other side is terrible. They don’t look to the past and as a result there’s no context. I get it, we want to be free after two years of a pandemic. But people are still dying, and not enough is being done about it. It’s a very clear message to me, and to others, to think subliminally about how it’s always money over lives. This isn’t a good place to make art out of, lacking empathy, love and communication.
Do you feel any pressure to avoid what seems like a cycle warranted by the state of America?
My stability is nice. I can properly think about better music or better art forms. Artistic, higher thinking is unaffordable, hard to access, and in tandem with greed it can turn into a deadly, Walt Disney scenario. My idea of success is having time to speak on a Monday afternoon, it’s having the freedom to think, or not think, about saving money. American Spirit was an art record first and foremost. I don’t take that for granted. Honestly, I was going to stop making music in 2020. I bought a motorcycle to work on for about six months.
What encouraged you to keep on? And how did you balance what becomes perhaps a moral question about making money off of a project that is principled by others as a platform for protest music?
I self-released the EP on Bandcamp, and it was very fortunate to be picked up by XL Recordings. They were able to see the range, particularly on the tracks with Omar S. It’s a tough thing balancing what could be seen as ethically correct in the stages of capitalism that we’re in, making and putting forward a message against these stages whilst still using them as a platform. I understand my music as having potential. My next record is pop-y as fuck, I’m not gonna lie! But that being said, I always want to play with ideas — I think the middle ground is giving people observed facts and letting them come to their own decisions.
Mainstream America is not ready to change so quickly. It’s incremental. If I’m in a place where I’m stable enough with my music, and I want to be a little less nuanced or more heavy-handed with the subject matter, it’ll probably come with the guise of Detroit house music. With this understanding and homage to what the roots are, what does Detroit house music represent? The anti-capitalism sentiment.
Getting it all at the same time is a difficult thing. With everyone scrambling around algorithms and streams, and record sales being at an all-time low, there is so much content coming at you constantly. I think that when I approach music, the money is always going to come second. Music is my child. There’s a pathway to that feeling, that’s what XL can facilitate.
What do you get out of playing around with more pop-y styles?
Working with Jake [Portrait], the bassist from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, we made some pop-sounding stuff. I was playing around with this idea, writing a song relating a bad breakup to the problems of gentrification.
It’s possible to do that: if you can get the average, middle class, white lady to bop her head to a song they think is about a bad breakup, but it’s actually about themselves, you’ve kinda won. You could be Eminem all day in a parking lot, like ‘Fuck Trump!’… I mean, okay, corny motherfucker, we all feel the same thing, we could’ve said that!
What I’m looking for is an artistic, cathartic release. You can acknowledge more things if you’re into the song enough. Right now, I’m writing about a break-up I had in middle school, because her parents found out I was Black, and they gave her the silent treatment.
There are spaces that allow people to come to a fun conclusion and turn to a serious tone when they actually figure out what it’s about. The André 3000 type of formula, with ‘Hey Ya’ or ‘Ms. Jackson’, takes that even further. I approach pop by pursuing a very agreeable, palatable subject. However, when you read between the lines or slip in a line or two, you ask, ‘what does that actually mean?’ Then listeners can say, ‘oh, he’s actually talking about racism’.
Dean Blunt’s really good at that. He’s not one to pull back the curtain. He doesn’t want to be the centre of attention, and I feel like that’s what is more important about the music. You have to let people come to their own conclusions. That just takes away from the magic. It strips people of their think-pieces.
Featured image source: Loud and Quiet. Photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans.