INTERVIEW: Alternative/Hip-Hop Artist Brian Howe AKA SIKES from SIKES & The New Violence
Melding electronic beats, rap and an alternative sound with hard-hitting lyrics, Brian Howe AKA SIKES and The New Violence’s debut album, “I’ve Seen Better” shows a lot of promise. Think Gorillaz meets Linkin Park with a modern twist and edge. The alternative hip hop artist and producer from Pittsburgh, PA and his backing band who he collaborates, with tackle and challenge issues about one’s self image and self-esteem, defying and bucking against stereotypes, testing the dangerous and sometimes forbidden waters of lust and the ensuing crisis of conscience that comes with it as well as the drawbacks of technology. SIKES has opened for Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Doomtree, Islander and Chon. The passionate and energetic artist also took 3rd place in the “Best Local Hip Hop Performer To Be The Next Mac Miller” Category in Pittsburgh City Paper’s Readers Poll. A Crowdfunding campaign through PledgeMusic for SIKES and The New Violence’s 2015 album release, “I’ve Seen Better,” reached 100 percent of his goal. SoCalMusicToday recently spoke to SIKES via email about the new album, his creative processes including writing, composing and producing songs, his influences and inspiration, and the DIY spirit he puts in everything down to the striking and original artwork.
Is SIKES and the New Violence a new project? If so, can you tell me how it came about and what was different from what you were doing before? What does the title “New Violence” represent to you and what message are you trying to put across with it to your fans?
I have been active as a solo hip-hop artist since 2007 but things took a turn in 2012 when I decided to put together a backing band for my live performances. The first year of shows performing reworked material I had already previously written was great but I realized that if I wanted to take full advantage of having this band I would need to get them involved in the writing process as well. I had collaborated here and there with different musicians on songs in the past but had never written full songs with a specific group of people before so it was a lot of fun seeing what everyone in my band brought to the table.
Giving the band a name was something that didn’t happen until a little later down the road. We were working on pre-production tracks for the new album, and once everything really started to take shape it became clear that we were no longer working on just a SIKES album. It was something much bigger. After some thought I decided that the best move would be to give the band a name and The New Violence was born.
“The New Violence” is how I would describe the sound that me and the band have created together because my main goal as a songwriter is to hop fences and cross borders; unapologetically and with force. As an artist, I never want to play it safe, and I don’t necessarily want people to feel safe listening to my music either. I want to get inside people’s brains and mess around with their feelings. I want them to question what we are doing and the things I am saying. I want to challenge the listener to a battle with me and my band but most importantly, with themselves.
Can you tell me how you chose the band members in The New Violence? What qualities did they have musically and creatively that drew you to them? Did they collaborate at all with you on the new CD?
Everyone who is in the band now is here because they all have tremendous passions for their crafts and at some point, expressed interest in what I was doing as a solo artist. I already had established relationships with so many talented musicians from being involved in the local scene so once I started putting the band together I just reached out to people who had already previously expressed interest in collaborating together. All of the pieces were there, and I just needed to put it together. It was pretty painless, honestly.
I feel really lucky to be working with the people I am because they are all so unique in their approaches to their instruments, which is definitely what drew me to them all in the first place. When the time came to write a new album I decided that it would for the best to have the band involved as much as possible so they all helped write the songs, and they all perform on the new album as well. It’s 100% a SIKES and The New Violence album.
How long have you been performing as a rapper and artist? What influenced you and inspired you to become one?
I’ve been obsessed with music since I was a child and got into making beats when I was around 14 years old. After a year or so I had this pile of instrumentals that I wasn’t doing anything with so me and my friends started just writing goofy raps and making these ridiculous songs together. There was no real inspiration for doing it other than the fact that we were bored teenagers, and we had everything we needed to make it happen. Even though the material wasn’t very “serious” I still was learning the process of composing beats, working with samples, writing rhymes and how to properly structure songs which I took very seriously. As I got older, my interest in creating music only continued to grow and eventually I decided that I should try taking a more serious approach to my lyrical content as well.
Have you toured or performed anywhere outside of Pittsburgh, PA at all in your career? Sara (YD Management) mentioned you may be coming to Los Angeles? Are you excited about showcasing your music out here?
I have performed along a good portion of the East Coast but have never anywhere on the West Coast. I’m always excited for the opportunity to share my music with fresh ears so it should be really interesting to see what the scene is like there and how they react to my material.
Based on your video clips where you’re performing, I can tell you are passionate and take your music to the wall, edge and go for broke. Would that be an accurate assessment? How do you feel when you are onstage and what do you want to give to your fans through that energy?
Performing is a release for me unlike any other. My songs deal with a lot of my personal struggles and when I am on stage I am genuinely working through some real stuff. I always push it to the limits. It’s really important for me to give the people who come to see us the best show possible because as an entertainer I have the responsibility to be entertaining. It’s kind of the whole point, right? I know that the music we make isn’t for everyone so even if you aren’t into it musically I at least want people to have a good time watching us. If I walk off stage and I’m not sweaty, dizzy and potentially bleeding then it wasn’t a good show.
What do you think sets you apart from other rappers in your approach and style?
I think the thing that really sets me apart from other people in hip-hop and music in general is how stubborn I am about not remaining within any specific genre or style. I am not afraid to be myself, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable. I also write, produce and record practically all of my own music so I have complete creative control over every aspect of the material I release. It allows me to do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want. Working with The New Violence has changed things a little but ultimately, they are still working under my direction, and I have the final say in anything we do.
“I’ve Seen Better” sounds like a hybrid of metal, rap, hip hop and electronic music. You seem to have a lot going on personally that you are struggling with in and around the world you live in. There’s a lot of anger, self-loathing, confusion and aggression in the music. Would you say you’re exorcising your demons?
I wouldn’t say I’m exercising my demons exactly. It’s more like I’m shaking hands with them and welcoming the conversations that most people typically avoid. The songs and stories are very personal to me but I feel like they’re also very relatable to anyone who like me, isn’t afraid to confront themselves and question the world around them. For some people, music is an escape from the real world and all of its problems but for me it’s a way to look under the hood, attempt to figure out what’s going on and just better understand how everything works.
Do you have a background as a graphic artist? Sara mentioned you design most of your artwork for your albums as well as promotional materials. Can you tell me about that process and where you get your ideas?
I’ve actually been drawing and painting way longer than I’ve been making music and when I was starting out as a rapper I didn’t know anyone who could help me with any design work so I just started handling all of it myself. It was great because I was able to teach myself so much and gain a lot of valuable skills outside of being just a musician. I’ve designed my own album artwork, album layouts, merch designs, promo items, show flyers and have even self-directed and edited several of my own music videos. Since day one I have tried to maintain control over every single aspect of anything involving “SIKES.” Over the years though, I have met a lot of talented people and worked with some of them on several SIKES-related projects. Most recently and most notably all of the work that photographer Hannah Altman did for our new album.
It’s hard to say where the ideas come from specifically because there is always so much going on and the inspiration comes from everything around me. My brain is on 24/7, and I’ll just always take notes of random ideas I get whether it’s for a song, a music video, a promo idea or whatever… I’ll always be sure to write it down. Then later on, whenever I need to put something specific together I’ll revisit the ideas I have written down and get to work.
SIKES Website: therealsikes.com
Tour Dates: http://www.bandsintown.com/Sikes!