With a wealth of musical knowledge ranging from Latin percussion to European Choral music, Will Freyman (aka Polyphonic the Verbose) has created a unique sound that's vastly different from the typical boom-bap of yesteryear. His combination of whimsical samples, rhythmic glitches and sharp kicks and snares has drawn comparisons to Prefuse 73 and even Flying Lotus, but it's his well-trained ear and insistent thirst for musical knowledge that has given this Champaign native a voice of his own. Polyphonic has had his hand in nine studio albums on the Audio 8 label including the highly regarded Abstract Data Ark. Two more albums will soon be seeing the light of day in 2009, including Terradactyl and Easy Listening for Empire Building. Centerstage recently caught up with him to talk tunes.
You've been studying music since an early age - and a diverse range at that. Who were some of your teachers growing up and what were some of the fundamental elements they taught you?
My piano teacher when I was a kid was Roger Shields, but it was really my dad who got me into a lot of classical European music. I grew up listening to Bach's piano works, Beethoven string quartets, and Mahler's symphonies. When I got a little older I made friends with Rodney George Peacock, a jazz musician and opera composer who introduced me to a lot of jazz like Sun Ra, Miles, and Coltrane. Loving all that music while at the same time soaking up hip-hop and rock from school friends taught me to be open-minded about music and culture.
As far as the diversity goes, what styles come out most in your music now?
I've been producing hip-hop and electronic music for over 16 years now, and there's still a lot I'm learning. The past couple years I've been studying Afro-Cuban percussion, playing conga, bata, timbales, etc. in a percussion ensemble. I'm still very new to it, it's very challenging, but it's opening me up to new rhythms and a deeper understanding of music.
Where did you grow up and is there any experience that stands out as pivotal in your creative maturation?
I grew up in Champaign, Illinois, but when I was 18 I dropped out of school and moved to Chicago to play music. I was broke, worked a night shift as a bagel baker and learned how tough the music business is.
Tell me a little bit about how your label, Audio 8, happened.
Back in college we had a band called Dolce Stil Nuovo. We wanted to put out an album, and starting our own label seemed the best way. It kind of grew from there – we put out our friends' projects – people like Flesh O.N.E., Nico B, Serengeti, Ben Lamar. Slowly it's grown into a real label.
How did you link up with theater innovator George Coates and what was that experience like?
I lived in San Francisco for a few years and my girlfriend at the time worked for George Coates' theater. He was putting together a production with this singer, Babtunde Garaya, and wanted some music. He heard some of the hip-hop beats I made and incorporated it into the production. The theater was a crazy non-profit with wildly creative people – super DIY attitude. It was a fun place to be around.
And what about "Sufi Lunacy"?
In 2001-2002 I was living in NYC and became friends with Ahmed El-Motassem – this intense poet/writer/actor/director intellectual. He was working on a film called "Sufi Lunacy" and asked me to produce some sounds for it. This was a pretty dark time, right after 9/11, the whole country seemed blood thirsty for war; the film and music I was working on was very politically charged. It led right into the Prostitute Karaoke album.
Where are you staying now?
I stay in East Village/Ukrainian Village area. I'm on the top floor of a building full of musicians and my studio room has huge sunny windows, so I can't complain.
Tell me about some of the projects you're working on now.
Terradactyl is the second collaboration with Serengeti; we just finished it up. We've got some great guest vocalists that we've wanted to work with for a long time, and we have a remix album of Don't Give Up coming out. Easy Listening for Empire Building is my second solo album. My first [Abstract Data Ark] was about half instrumental and half guest vocalists, people like Serengeti, Nico B, Ben Lamar, Psalm One. The new one is all instrumentals – more melodic and pretty. I'm also busy working on the new Juba Dance album with Ben Lamar; I'm playing more percussion on this one.
Windy City inspirations?
Chicago and certain Chicagoans like Pugslee Atomz, Psalm One, Record Playas definitely gave me a love for that classic boom-bap underground rap thing – the stories and the beats. And seeing the connections between the underground-hip hop and free jazz, people like Ben Lamar who move from playing trumpet with the AACM to writing graffiti and rapping.
What does 2009 have in store for you?
I want to travel to Alaska and learn to identify certain celestial bodies.