November 12, 2010

Wallpaper blurs the boundaries between sincerity and satire

Wallpaper is a band that’s hard to put your finger on. You could say it’s an Oakland-based funk duo comprised of front man (and Berkeley grad) Eric Frederic and drummer Arjun Singh, but that’s not quite right, because Frederic never exactly goes on stage. In his stead, he sends Ricky Reed, his polyester-suited, gold-chained, Auto-Tuned alter ego and the man whose lifestyle has inspired songs such as “Fine GF,” “Freak Scene,” and “Text Me Your Love.” The lyrics are so over-the-top they sound like satire, but the performance is so earnest that you want to believe. Is it irony? Exaggeration? Autobiography? Tough to say.

Luckily, once Wallpaper takes the stage, Ricky Reed grabs the room by the lapels and shakes so hard you don’t have to think about all that anymore. Ricky’s outsized persona includes many things, but misgivings about his artistic talents are not among them, and he sings lines like, “I’m in the kitchen / Getting drip like a fish” and “My girlfriend’s always telling me / I gotta start paying utilities” with such bravado that the layers of irony fall away and leave behind only pummeling beats and knockout hooks. Wallpaper is self-conscious stupidity, the kind of music that brings U of C–style wallflowers to the center of the dance floor.

At least that’s one take on it. For another, the Maroon talked to Eric Frederic, the man who dreamed up Ricky Reed and brings him to life at venues all over the country, including at Chicago’s own Double Door tomorrow, November 13.

Chicago Maroon: So you started using Auto-Tune in 2005, before I’d ever heard of T-Pain. Can you guys take any credit for Auto-Tune blowing up?

Eric Frederic: I wish I could take credit for it. At that point people were referring to it as the “Cher effect,” because it was in Cher’s “Life After Love.” The beginning of Wallpaper was more of a pop satire thing, so I thought what better way to satirize pop music than make my voice as robo as possible…So I took Auto-Tune and cranked it all the way up, and I thought, “This is kind of sweet. This is my thing, no one else is doing it.”

And I was listening to the radio in 2007, and I heard this E-40 song featuring T-Pain, and my heart just sank. I thought, “This is it, some guy is doing Auto-Tune and it’s just a matter of time before this is the biggest thing in pop music.” And sure enough…so we’ve dropped it from our toolbox. I don’t like the way it sounds, it’s so grating, and it’s everywhere.

CM: I’d never heard of “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” until Pitchfork linked your remix of it, and suddenly your version was everywhere. How’d that song catch your ear?

EF: I was playing a show with Girl Talk in Las Vegas. We were in Girl Talk’s hotel room, and [Dan Deacon] was like, “You have to hear this song—it’s crazy.” So he played it, and of course we were all in stitches, and I knew the instant I heard it I had to remix it because it was just the weirdest song ever. At that point, Das Racist hardly had a MySpace, so they said I could remix it. We share a lot of the underlying ideas Das Racist has. Like using humor to subvert bigger ideas, that’s definitely what Das Racist does in their songs.

CM: I’m curious where the humor in your music comes from. Are there comedians who’ve influenced you?

EF: Wallpaper’s lyrics draw on very exaggerated versions of life experiences, good and bad. There are definitely comedians who I draw on: Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Mitch Hedberg, but I don’t know if the humor we employ is derived from those dudes.

[For the song, “I Got Soul, I’m So Wasted”], the idea for it was born when I was quite intoxicated after a show in Sacramento. I was dancing at the club where we played, feeling good, and I can’t say all the lyrics for that were written on that dance floor, but the concept was birthed there.

CM: You’ve done a lot to promote Wallpaper on YouTube, tumblr, and MySpace. I’m curious what you, as part of an up-and-coming band, think about the role of the Internet in the music industry. Are MP3s and file sharing the downfall of the industry, or is this a great new way for bands to get noticed?

EF: In some ways, the MySpace explosion was bad for the music industry, at first. If you signed up for a MySpace music page, you had a band. So there was an explosion of people that had bands but may or may not have had a real passion for music making.

Now that a few years have passed, there’s such an over-saturation that bands with good songs or good Internet branding do rise to the top, the way bands rose to the top back in the day.

The downside is, it’s hard to have the sort of mystery. You can shut yourself off, but it’s hard to maintain your fan base without having a constant content flow. Luckily with Wallpaper, the front man is Ricky Reed, and he’s happy to spew all kinds of personal bullshit on the Internet. That’s my way out of having to tell people what I’m having for breakfast.

CM: What’s the future of Wallpaper? Can you keep the humor? Does Ricky Reed eventually have to show a softer side?

EF: There are a lot of moments of vulnerability on our album Doodoo Face. There are admissions of loneliness and disconnection. With all the references to technology, we’re trying to deal with how our generation is hyper-connected and information-addicted. Ricky talks about chasing down girls on Facebook, and we all get an immediate sense of pleasure from that stuff, but ultimately we may be distancing ourselves from actions and real people.

That’s woven into the lyrics. It’s not on the surface, because Wallpaper is party music. But if we ever lost those ideas, then the music would be coming from an insincere place and the project would stop. And as we change and evolve, there are things about my personality that I dislike, and they come to light via Ricky Reed in exaggerated form.

CM: What’s Ricky Reed’s highest aspiration? When will he know he’s made it?

EF: He would probably have to have a small colony on another planet, with tens of thousands of virgins feeding him grapes and dark chocolate, and the latest SkyMall catalog delivered to him daily, and a fucking hybrid helicopter. It takes a lot to satisfy him.