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El Michels Affair Finds a New Groove

Rolling Stone logo Rolling Stone 3/26/2021 T.M. Brown
Carmo Dalla Vecchia using a laptop computer sitting on top of a desk © Yesenia Ruiz*

Three years ago, Leon Michels found himself enamored with a house in Rhinebeck, a bucolic town nestled on the east side of the Hudson River a little less than 2 hours north of New York City. The multi-instrumentalist and producer, best known for his work as the leader of the elegant retro-soul band El Michels Affair, had spent the majority of his life in the relentless churn of the New York music scene, and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to head to the suburbs. “We were sort of just messing around,” says Michels, 39. “Then we saw this house and we were totally seduced by it, and all of a sudden we’re moving our stuff up here, saying, ‘What have we done?’” 

The isolation was a “culture shock” at first. Michels had spent the better part of three decades as an industry fixture: playing sax with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings when he was still a teenager, becoming Raekwon’s favorite session musician, working with everyone from Beyoncé and Jay Z to the Black Keys. After a while, though, he settled into the role of upstate dad, ferrying his three kids to and from school, often with the music on the car stereo blasting a song he had a hand in creating. 

Covid upended that rhythm last spring. Suddenly, the kids were home 24/7, and Michels was looking for ways to fill the time while still finding ways to clock hours in the studio. He was also cut off from the close friends and collaborators who had been an integral part of El Michels Affair’s music and his own personal support system. So, one day last year as the snow was falling in Rhinebeck, he got out an old Yeti costume and decided to chase his kids around the yard. 

“That was my one shining moment of Covid homeschooling. The rest was a total f****** disaster. But that one I’m proud of,” he says, laughing in that smile-to-keep-from crying kind of way that every parent who has kids at home during lockdown will recognize. The snowbound romp became the music video for “Dhuaan,” from El Michels Affair’s latest album, Yeti Season. The album sees Michels breaking free from the obligations of producing for A-listers and creating something that is solely his, pulling joyfully left-field influences and making music that is profoundly personal.

Much of the LP was recorded in 2019 during an especially creative stretch: In addition to the sessions that would become Yeti Season, he also recorded his first album of new material in 15 years (released in 2020 as El Michels Affair’s Adult Themes), and backed up Freddie Gibbs and Madlib on one of the year’s most popular Tiny Desk Concerts

Yeti Season began a year earlier in 2018, when Michels cut two tracks with the vocalist Piya Malik of the Brooklyn bands 79.5 and Say She She. “Initially, the first two songs I did with Piya, it was a total one-off,” he says. “I had no intention of making a full record.” Those two songs — the kaleidoscopic funk western “Unathi,” which serves as Yeti Season’s opener, and the languid, psyched-out “Zaharilia” — became the scaffolding that he would eventually build the album around. But that process wouldn’t start until he finally let himself be selfish and step into the studio to make something totally his own.

El Michels Affair records have always leaned into Michels’ identity as a producer and composer. The group’s two best known albums, 2012’s Enter the 37th Chamber and 2017’s Return to the 37th Chamber, are both homages to Wu-Tang Clan’s best known productions, laced with Michels’ polyglot sensibilities as a composer and musician. In his hands, tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” went from the RZA’s icy boom-bap to the warm soul of Motown and Daptone, as if Curtis Mayfield was going to jump on the first verse instead of Raekwon. 

As he began getting higher-profile production gigs, original music from El Michels Affair became something of a rarity. Michels has released a few EPs and loosies over the last 15 years, but until Adult Themes, the project’s last full album of new material was Sounding Out the City in 2005. That lag wasn’t because he didn’t have the material — it was just that all his best stuff was going to artists like Aloe Blacc and Lee Fields. “I had a long period of producing a lot of other people’s stuff, and that was taking a lot of my time,” he says. “I would always get a couple tracks together and think, ‘Oh, this would be cool for a new El Michels Affair record,’ and then I would give them away to somebody else.”

Adult Themes marked an inward turn. It was the sound of Michels in the pocket, playing tightly composed jazz and funk compositions that sounded like the artist at his most comfortable. On the album’s second half, you can feel an off-kilter undercurrent ballooning, displacing the straightforward grooves with something weirder. That was where another album was looming, and it was wearing a Yeti mask.

Yeti Season bounds between influences without ever losing control. Michels says that he was listening to a lot of Turkish psych and folk rock from artists like Barış Manço and Erkin Koray as he was composing Yeti Season, which you can hear clearly on “Fazed Out,” a track that sounds like Madlib digging through crates of an Istanbul record store. The same goes for “Ala Vida” with its warmly funky bassline threaded with wispy synths that evoke SAULT. Throughout the recording, Michels embraced his own instincts instead of creating and molding his music to suit someone else. “It was complete freedom,” he says. 

The album also gave him a chance to speak directly to his community of friends and family, something that has been especially vital as Covid has rewired perspectives and priorities for many artists. Michels dug back into his formative years as a young jazz head, listening to a lot of Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk while making Yeti Season because, as he says, “I couldn’t focus on what someone else was saying when all this other s*** was going on.”

He was looking for comfort in the isolation, and realized that he was creating music that would provide an escape from the world falling apart around him. These days, he plays the album for his kids as they’re driving around upstate New York, all three of them humming along to the melodies. His mother is even making a children’s book, inspired by his Yeti suit, that will be included with deluxe editions of the album.

“I’ll probably never make another record like this,” he says. “I like the idea of El Michels Affair becoming just an outlet to do different s*** and weird s*** and stuff that interests me.” Michels knows just what he’s doing now, and it’s whatever he wants.

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