Kids These Days is a Chicago-based rap-rock-jazz ensemble built of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, trumpets, trombones and a lyricist—and that’s not even the coolest thing about them. The impressive outfit’s age range is on the younger side, to put it lightly (no one’s past 21 years), and the group, which could easily be perceived as a delightfully scrappier N.E.R.D. that can also tap into the Roots’ older, soulful cool, has already scored opening slots for the likes of Snoop Dogg and J. Cole, in addition to playing festivals like Bamboozle and SXSW (they’ll have a slew of gigs this year at the latter). Claiming the mantra “save money” (as opposed to motivating listeners to sporadically spend it, like most grown rappers on the scene), this set of motivated youths not only give the text-heavy, Glee-crazed teen generation an improved name, but they also can really, really play. We spoke to three members of the promising band, Macie Stewart (keyboards/vocals), Vic Mensa (vocals), and Liam Cunningham (guitar/vocals), about their musicial influences, the group’s natural chemistry, and working with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on their debut album.
THE BEGINNING: Mensa: We all met each other in high school, and a couple of the cats met at music school, and we all just started playing music together. We were having fun with it, and it evolved into something that people received well, so here we are. It was always natural in what it was, but it wasn’t always what it is now. We used to have like, 15-minute jam sessions for every song—every person would have a verse on the song, every person would have a solo. Things evolved from that when we started cutting shit down and compacting the music together more, figuring out how to put things together in a more efficient way. But we never sat down and thought about it—things just changed.
Stewart: I come from a classical music background, so I was used to playing with other musicians, but playing rock, jazz, blues and soul with all these super-trained jazz musicians was kind of intimidating at first. I remember at the beginning, I was reluctant to even sing and play anything-I didn’t even play keyboards [for the band at the time], and no one knew I could play. But the writing process was really natural from the beginning, because it was just everyone jamming, having fun with each other, and getting new information that way. It was pretty natural, I’d say.
INFLUENCES: Cunningham: Before Kids These Days, I was really into stand-up bass—I was taking lessons and in a bunch of programs and stuff. There’s a legendary jazz showcase in Chicago run by Joe Segal, and it’s sort of a safe haven for real jazz that comes through. That club gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of legendary jazz musicians—Benny Goldson, Jimmy Heath. Me and a couple of the guys, mostly Lane, our bass player, would go there once a week and listen to these guys play for three hours straight and our minds would just be completely blown. I’ve probably seen 100 shows at that showcase, and I think the mentality I approach being a musician with definitely comes from jazz musicians.
ELECTRIC SLIDE: Mensa: I had this girl who was a foreign exchange student from Spain staying with my friend, and I was all in love with her. She came back to my neighborhood with me for a second, and then I was bringing her back to [Chicago music festival] Lollapalooza to be with her friend again. Her friend wasn’t answering the phone and she didn’t really speak English, so I told her to go in and meet me at Buckingham Fountain in 15 minutes, because I’m thinking I’m just gonna jump the fence since I did the day before. But the fences were heavily manned, so I tried to climb over a bridge on Monroe Street, and go down a Metra train structure, and I got electrocuted by 1500 volts and fell mad far. It was fucked up. But a year later, we ended up playing Lollapalooza. I didn’t die, so it was all love in the end.
PARENTAL APPROVAL: Stewart: My mom has been playing since she was really young—she’s a professional musician now and plays and sings in restaurants around Chicago. She’s really happy with this direction—she wanted to start me in classical music because she wanted me to have more training then she did when she was younger. She was worried that if I did just classical music, I would be stuck doing only that, so when I was a little bit older, like 12, she started me in a bunch of different stuff—I played Irish music, I did musical theater for a while, I played with her in some clubs and restaurants. This is kind of a culmination of all of those things, and she’s really excited.
WORKING WITH WILCO: Mensa: Jeff Tweedy is an absolute musical genius—a twisted genius, like a mad scientist. He looks at things at a diagonal viewpoint that makes for amazing music. He took what we had and transformed it. It wasn’t like we were losing anything from our own creative and artistic input, but it was just being combined with him, on top of his ear and knowledge of engineering and sounds—it was the best studio experience that we’ve had thus far, hands down. To be able to work with someone like Jeff so early on was really just a blessing. He’s also just a cool-ass dude who’s mad funny. There was never really a moment when it the studio was just dead—it was always fun to be in there and talk to him. It was great.