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The Reminders experiment with new sounds on Out of the Woods 

click to enlarge The Reminders spice up a stripped-down sound on their new studio album. - ANTHONY CHAVEZ
  • Anthony Chavez
  • The Reminders spice up a stripped-down sound on their new studio album.

Anyone who's seen The Reminders live, whether opening for Lauryn Hill or playing more intimate venues like The Gold Room, is unlikely to forget them. With each passing year, the Colorado Springs-based hip-hop duo's stage presence becomes more confident and charismatic as their music becomes more melodically and emotionally resonant.

Singer Aja Black hails from Hollis, Queens, best known in hip-hop circles as home to Run-DMC, where she grew up singing Whitney Houston at the top of her lungs before discovering the more nuanced music of Billie Holiday and the Fugees. Partner and fellow military brat Antoine "Big Samir" Zamundu, who was still in high school when his family moved from Belgium to the Springs, was attracted to the more overtly political styles of Mos Def and Steel Pulse.

A decade after releasing their full-length debut Recollect, the duo has been touring extensively while finishing up tracks for their forthcoming third album Out of the Woods, which showcases increasingly virtuosic vocals and songwriting that cuts deeper into heart and soul. Elements of world music come into play on tracks like "Unstoppable," while the call-and-response vocals and accelerated beats of "Dust and Bones" suggest a rapid-fire response to Jurassic 5's "Swing Set."

In the following interview, Samir talks about the new recording, putting together a live band, and watching their kids dance onstage with Lauryn Hill.

Indy: The new album's title, Out of the Woods, does that have a specific meaning for you?

Samir: Yeah, it's about what we go through — as musicians, as artists, as just individuals — as we navigate our way through life's journey. It's about the setbacks and struggles that you have to get out of. It's like we've been surviving in the woods alone and having to figure a way out, and we're finally here, we're finally free, we finally know exactly where we are.

A lot of times people are waiting for a savior, to get you out of whatever situation you're in, when really you ARE that savior. And sometimes you just have to go through it to realize that.

So you're putting together a full band for these upcoming shows. How's that going?

Yeah, we actually had our first rehearsal a couple days ago — oh man, it went really great. To see the songs come to life with the band is just really fun. The last time we played The Gold Room was with a band, and once you grow a thing you should want it to keep growing.

Who's in the band now?

Jonny Jyemo has a band called Jyemo Club. We hired him as the musical director and he got most of the band members from his band, put them together, and here we are. So we're going to have a four-piece with drums, keys, guitar and bass.

Where did you record the new album?

We did it at a Chicago studio called Intercultural Music. It's owned by our friend Ronnie Malley, who we've done a lot of residencies with while we were in Chicago. We ended up in his studio jamming with a Qawwali band, and we just really liked the vibe in there. So we flew back there three or four times and just knocked out a bunch of songs. The difference with this new album is that the process has been to create songs from scratch, and not necessarily just write to instrumentals from a producer. Aja would just play a couple verses on the guitar, and then I'll come in and play the cajón. We'd just write the song right there from scratch, and then add different elements to it.

Did any of the Qawwali musicians take part in the recording?

No, unfortunately. We'd gone into the studio to meet them, because it was their last night in Chicago. We ended up jamming for two hours, and we captured it all on video and audio, so we'll be putting that out soon as well. But after that day they left, they went back home.

Would you say this album's overall sound is more stripped-down sonically?

It is, it is. And a couple of the songs have more of a world sound, but still having that hip-hop kick to it. There are certain elements — like with the 808 and the electronic drums — that just gives you that hip-hop feel.

You're going to start programming 808s now?

Maybe. We're just experimenting and just really growing. Aja started playing the guitar a lot more and I started playing the cajón. We were on CPR's Open-Air, and we played the song "Forever," which we had just written, and we just decided to do it live in the studio. Aja was like, "I don't know if I'm ready to play the guitar live like in front of people," but we ended up doing it. And I had to use different parts of my brain to play the cajón while singing and rapping.

click to enlarge "Big Samir" Zamundu: "We've just always done what we felt like doing." - AARON ANDERSON
  • Aaron Anderson
  • "Big Samir" Zamundu: "We've just always done what we felt like doing."

I've never seen you perform playing your own instruments. Is that something new for you?

Well, it's something that we've done in-house a lot over the past year or so, and now it's time to actually come out and do it more in public. With this new project, we're going to be performing with the band, but we'll still do performances with just a DJ when the occasion calls for it. And we'll do more stripped-down shows, with just Aja and I playing the instruments and using a Launchpad, which enables you to launch certain clips of the song and then play over it.

We're really experimenting and just having a good time. One thing we learned over the years is to be self-sufficient, and that's why we picked up instruments in the first place. We can produce our own sound and just be really comfortable with what we do.

Listening back to the songs themselves, are there any in particular that stand out for you?

Well, "Forever" is talking about the people that we've lost, because as we get older we lose more and more people, you know what I mean? And just surviving through that, and remembering the lessons you learn from these people, and also realizing how quick they left. I've seen my friends either lose their parents or go through other things that I can never imagine living through. Aja and I, thankfully, we still both have our parents, but we've seen some of our close friends pass away and it's really tough. It's part of growing up, it's a reality in life.

And "Coming Home" is the song that, every time we've performed it or any time someone hears it, people automatically gravitate to it. We performed with Digable Planets a month ago, and afterward, Ishmael was like, "What was the name of that last song again?" He was like, "That is a big tune."

That's quite a compliment coming from a band that I assume you were really into when you were growing up.

Absolutely. These are people we grew up listening to. So for him to say that after hearing us for the first time, that the song stood out to him, you know — that's big.

Digable Planets' music has always struck me as very understated and intense at the same time. And it seems like that's something the two of you have managed to do, as well.

I think it's also just doing what you do unapologetically. Like we never wanted to use us being a couple as a cliché, we never wanted to use Aja's singing and rapping as being the new Lauryn Hill. We never wanted to use me rapping in French as like, "Oh, he's the French rapper." Like none of that. We've just always done what we felt like doing, and at some point people get it.

So speaking of Lauryn Hill, what was it like touring with her?

Man, it's interesting. We just performed with Lauryn Hill again last week in Aspen and it's just incredible, because we're celebrating 20 years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which is hands down one of the greatest albums of all time. Since we were in Aspen for three days, we got to hang out with her, and were able to share with her that one of the first times Aja and I hung out, I played her unplugged DVD, and how emotional Aja got.

All those albums and all those songs affected us so much. And now, here we are, with our kids getting up onstage with her kids to dance for her finale. And that's how we ended 2018, which was really grand for us.

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