Post-wave R&B babe, Dan Keerak talks about his bedroom project, Martyrs, the influx of white dudes in R&B, his ‘dreamy’ upcoming zine that classics kids will fawn over, why he won’t tour and his love for R-Kelly.
I wake up frantically with one name in my head. Dan. Shit. It’s 10:00 pm and I fell asleep around 4 pm. I know, how embarrassing, though, I’m mainly freaking out because of the 3 hour time difference between us. It’s already 12 am over where he is and we didn’t exactly set a specific time to sit down and talk about his project, Martyrs.
I log on to Facebook and start to apologize profusely like I’ve been transported back to the times of being a flakey, middle school chick and wait for his response. Serious Lizzie McGuire vibes. ‘Dan is typing…’ shows up, this either a good thing or a bad thing. My stomach is turning. ‘How about 30 minutes?’ A sigh of relief. Perfect.
Dan Keerak is the name behind Martyrs, a post-wave R&B project that falls in the veins of such notable artists like ‘How to Dress Well’ and ‘The Weeknd’. An unquestionable talent, the Edmonton-based musician and co-label owner talks about the history behind Martyrs, the influx of white dudes in R&B, his ‘dreamy’ upcoming zine, why he isn’t touring and his love for R-Kelly.
TPZ: When and why did you start Martyrs?
DK: I started doing it right after I got out of high school. Prior to that, I sorta had a shitty, narrow range of music that I listened to only skramz, emo and hardcore. But, then I started listening to R&B and Gospel music and sort of had this realization that that kind of music, which is a lot less alienating can create the same kind of emotional response. So, Martyrs is like, an attempt to create a sad, isolated feeling, while keeping to pop music structures and instrumentation.
Ah, well, I guess that kinda rolls right into my next question: How would you describe your sound?
I think that most of what I’ve released is trying to capture the same aesthetic. I use distortion and lots of compression, and I fuck with the fidelity to make it feel like it has been eroded. On pretty much everything I’ve released up to this point, I run my vocals through either a guitar amp or distortion and reverb. I initially did that because I was fairly insecure about my falsetto, but at this point I just really like how it sounds–it seems to complement the music. I’ve been playing around with cleaner vocals though, so new stuff will probably be less processed. But it’s really just R&B. I think of it more as weathered pop music.
Weathered pop music?
Yeah, sure. Something that started out as pop music but became broken down and sad.
Oh, I think I see. That kind of relates to topics that are talked about in R&B.
For sure. I think the majority of it, lyrically, is about love. And probably mostly failed love. Or at least a lot of R&B that I idolize.
Who are your influences?
For Martyrs, musically R Kelly, The-Dream, How To Dress Well, James Blake and Frank Ocean.
Yes! This leads to my next question: Do you like R-Kelly? You gotta love or have loved (at least) R. Kelly’s music if you love R&B. Who hasn’t terribly sobbed to ‘I Believe I Can Fly’? ‘Step in the Name of Love’ is an anthem and Chocolate Factory? Simply amazing. So, on a scale of 1-10 would you fuck to R-Kelly?
Haha, R Kelly is either a genius or completely insane. I really dig his sad jams. Definitely a 10 for the specific experience of melancholy love-making to the tune of ‘I Wish.” Also ‘Trapped In The Closet’ is amazing from start to finish.
‘Trapped In The Closet’ is iconic. It can never be repeated or imitated. It is truly amazing.
It seems lately, that more and more white dudes are getting into R&B or at least being noticed such as Autre Ne Veut. Do you enjoy it? Have these guys also been influences on you putting out music? Does it seem any more or less authentic than acts such as Marvin Gaye or Babyface?
I do dig most of it. My favorite of those guys is probably How To Dress Well, but I think it is something a lot different than what Marvin Gaye did. I mean, Marvin Gaye learned to sing and to love music from going to Church, and formulated what he did later in life from practice in gospel and doo-wop. I’d say he’s more of an authentic artist in that way, just because he was moved to create something new. This new wave of R&B artists seems to be more of an imitation than Marvin was. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it does make them less authentic.
Could you explain what you mean by ‘more of an imitation than Marvin was’? Acts like ‘How To Dress Well’ seem miles away from any type of imitation of Gaye.
Not an imitation of Marvin Gaye, specifically, just of older R&B artists. I mean, these guys didn’t live the life that the founders of that genre did. They take the beauty of that form and sound and sort of apply it to a new framework. I mean, I think they can be just as genuine and emotional, but it’s not as much of an authentic expression of self as I think that Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke, or anyone on Motown in the ‘60s. That sounds like I’m bashing these new guys and I’m really not, haha. I just think it’s a different thing.
So, I’ve been told that you’ve been asked to tour with some bands (who have escaped my memory, so, please refresh it) but, you’ve declined. Is there a specific reason why?
Ha, well, I’m not sure specifically what this person was referring to. Last summer, my friend Nathan (Moons), GrayScreen, an artist from Calgary and myself were going to do a mini-tour. But, that fell apart due to laziness and bad planning. Honestly, I really don’t care much for playing live. The entire idea of the social experience of music terrifies me, so when I do play shows I’m usually terrified and waiting for it to be over. When I write music, I really conceive of that experience being between me and the person with their headphones on. I’m not sure it translates well into live situations. But I try my best.
Damn, so, you’re strictly staying as a bedroom project for now?
I think so. Or at least a bedroom producer who will sometimes begrudgingly venture into the great beyond.
Haha, probably more neurotic.
I have to mention, your artwork is really interesting for each of the songs on your Bandcamp. Are they mostly inspired by the music? For example the twinkling sounds in ‘So Sweet’ have a kind of East Asian sound, it reminded me of a xylophone. And your artwork seems to reflect that with mountain ranges, clouds and catheads.
I try my best to make the art be somewhat complementary to how I think the song sounds. It probably worked out the best with ‘So Sweet’, the art for that was a collaborative effort between my friend, Nathan and I. He’s like, a real artist.
While talking about art, I see that your label, Pho King Tapes, is described as a D.I.Y art label too. Is that primarily the art that goes into the tape covers or are there separate pieces? What projects are you putting out in the future?
So far the only art we’ve produced has been that of the tapes. But, right now actually, we are working on two real art pieces. When we started the label we had planned on it being fairly evenly split between tape releases and art. Nathan is drawing and screen-printing some prints, and I’m working on a zine. It’s a compilation of dreams. Well, some of them are real dreams; some of them are invented narratives. It won’t be explicit which are ‘real’ and which aren’t. I got the idea from Plato’s dialogue “Charmides.” That sounds vague, it’s really not that complicated though.
You Classics kids, shit.
Yeah, that occupies a bunch of my life, haha.
I find that in most interviews at the end the interviewer chooses a song for the readers to listen to, but, I think that can be good or bad. What if I choose a song you’re not particularly in love with anymore? What if you want to put up a new one? It’s up to you!
I think I’m probably equally uncomfortable with every song I’ve made. It’s the combination of them being fairly personal, and also unfinished. Never quite good enough. But, I recently released a really short track, a project I spent a lot of time on then gave up on.
I think you’re too humble.
I definitely don’t have a lot of confidence in anything that I make. It’s probably a deep-seated character flaw, but maybe it keeps me grounded too.
They write books about people like you.
Haha, lucky for me. I like most of those books.
Get to know Martyrs and the Pho King Tapes alumni on