Toronto Electro Sensations Thunderheist Fight for Your Right to Party
Published Mar 26, 2009"I was super drunk in Norway. It was Norway right? With the blonde girl, the $20 table blonde girl? Remember the girl I left with that night?"
Isis, the fireball front-woman of Toronto's premier party-starters Thunderheist, is regaling me (and horrifying her soft-spoken musical partner/pseudo-sibling Grahm Zilla) with this tour anecdote mere minutes after we meet. Yes, it does wind up with her waking up, short a few memories, in a motel bed beside a strange Scandinavian lady. Albeit clothed.
"So nothing really went down, but it was really awkward because I didn't really know what had happened. Do I leave her $20 for a cab? I was just concerned about how she would get home. But I couldn't help but feel like a sleazeball."
Isis grins wide while saying this, for she surely doesn't mind a bit of sleaze, or waking up in a strange bed for that matter. (It's not the only amnesiac hotel room story I'm told over drinks and salmon rolls at west Queen west hipster haunt, the Drake Hotel). Though Isis, who rolled into the bar with her stylist and new pair of heels, says she's not the party girl she once was.
"We were having a good time, like kids in candy store. Now it's like, unless my roommate's going out, I'm staying at home, smoking a doob and watching a movie. When your job entails partying, you don't always wanna party on your off days," she says.
"I did it, though. I was 21 for a while. For about three years." The evidence, of course, is all there on the duo's self-titled, and terrifically long-awaited, debut album, a floor-filling collection of '80s-inspired, industrial-strength party anthems all set to bum-rush the electro-rap nation. For folks in Toronto, booty-rockers like "Jerk It" have been playing out on downtown sound systems for more than a minute, but the mainstream masses have only recently cottoned on thanks to the track's prominent placement in the award-winning film The Wrestler - during a strip club scene, no less - and an unexpected push by gossip queen (and wannabe music impresario) Perez Hilton.
"It's weird how him blogging about us opens all these doors when he doesn't contribute at all to society," says a bemused Isis. "This is our chance, right now, for one of us to OD so he can continue to talk about us!" Isis sips her coffee, her lips curling up into another mischievous smirk. Grahm sighs.
Despite their seamless sound, the Thunderheist partnership seems rather unlikely. Grahm Zilla, the offspring of a former Olympic wrestler, was conceived in the athlete's village during the 1976 Montreal Summer Games while Isis flew in from further afield. She was born in Nigeria, but moved to Toronto when she "was very young, like prior to ten-years-old young."
Both, however, got heavily involved in their local hip-hop scenes as they were growing up (though Grahm did bring up his high school talent show days doing Metallica covers). While building beats at night under the moniker Metrix, Grahm's days were spent programming for Gameloft, the mobile wing of videogame giant Ubisoft. "I was doing that for three years and was pretty miserable," he recalls. "The only salvation I had was coming home and making music after work until 2 in the morning, getting super baked and making this moody shit." Then in 2006, Grahm started spending more time at dance parties and decided to take his music in an ass-shakier electronic direction. His dubbed this new up-tempo, bass-heavy remix project Thunderheist - a previous partner had once accused Grahm of stealing his thunder - but because its booty-beat sound was so far removed from his usual J Dilla vibe, the cat kept it incognito. "I was part of a pretty solid hip-hop scene there," he says, "and I knew those guys were going to clown on me."
Grahm threw up some MySpace tracks and mailed demos to college radio, but posted no pics and kept his name quiet to see if he could pull it off without a built-in fan base. It quickly caught on, forcing him to answer questions. "And I go, 'uh, it's a band.' But it wasn't a band. It was just me. In my apartment," he says. "I also told him we were going to start performing in September. So I decided, I better find a band.
"Now the accident. This is where Isis comes in. This whole time I was not telling her about Thunderheist because I don't want her think I was like Tiesto or something. People are more open to it now but three years ago this whole dance thing for hip-hop people was kinda weird. So I didn't want to tell her about it."
Isis, who met Grahm a couple months earlier through a mutual friend, had a respected, if not commercially successful, rap career. ("I was freestyling with 30-year-old men on the block when I was 13," she boasts. "That's my roots.") Though she was also heavy into the poetry slam scene, the self-described prodigy enjoyed birthday well wishes from Kool Herc and, at 19, landed onstage at the legendary Apollo Theatre.
"Dude, I totally got caned," she says. "It was bullshit. Check it out. I got onstage, everyone was super-stoked. Then the sound guy played my instrumental at chipmunk speed. The people in the audience are people they randomly choose from outside. So you're in front of a crowd of angry black people - I'm sorry, but I'm black so I'm allowed to say that. This is Harlem. They just need an excuse to boo you. In the beginning they were like, 'she's dope.' But there was this one little fucker who started booing and then they all booed. And I got the cane. And I cried. For three hours."
Then she dried her face and rocked a show that night in Brooklyn, selling out all her CDs. Isis had found her audience. "It showed me how good I could be and was my first taste of what the industry could be like," she laughs. "Everybody's just a bunch of jerks."
Isis was working on a solo album, but was feeling trapped by constantly having to prove her hip-hop bona fides because she was female. Also, she was rapping over bootlegged beats. She sent Grahm some a cappellas to produce tracks for. So when his Thunderheist remix of a Spank Rock track hit her MSN messenger inbox, Isis thought nothing of it. Grahm had actually sent it to the wrong person by accident and didn't realize until she sent it back after recording over all the instrumental breaks. "I thought he was giving it to me!" she says. "I thought he was like, 'Yo check this out.'"
Having quit school to concentrate on music, but quickly tiring of the traditional rap scene, she soon found herself "super bored. It was perfect timing. I wanted something new, so immediately I was on it," Isis recalls. "This whole thing was really surreal. In some cases it seems like it was written."
About a month after meeting Isis, Grahm joined her on the unemployment line. On the cusp of turning 30, he realized his music would never be more than a hobby so he took his father's advice to follow his dream while he wasn't yet weighed down by responsibilities. "He was like, 'You don't have kids, you don't have a car, you don't have a house. This is your time. Do it.' So I quit.
"They wanted me to stay and offered me a job in the sound department to write music for games. I was so not into that. Why would I want to do something I love at work and then learn to hate it and not want to do it at home? I was like 'Fuck that.'"
Grahm and Isis quickly decided to join forces as Thunderheist and got down to cranking out music, recording their demo in a week and playing their very first show three weeks later. About half the new album was recorded during those first two heady summer months (though they soon caught fire online and hit the road for the better part of that last two years). Grahm mixed in his various influences, from National Film Board documentaries and Montreal's legendary Peer Pressure dance parties to '80s synth-pop and hip-house, while Isis adjusted her complex flow to better move bodies.
"The thing that separates me from the Kid Sisters - and shout-outs to her, too, because she's adorable - but the thing that separates me from these party rappers is that I am and was an MC first and foremost." Their first track to catch fire was "Jerk It," a barnburner with a thick analog bass line intense enough to knock a dude down. Released as an underground single on tiny label Nasty Mix in 2007, it soon spread across the interweb, especially after they launched a viral contest that resulted in a music video that even made Spin's 2008 year-end list.
"To be honest, when I made that I didn't like it," Grahm admits. "'Jerk It' was one of the early songs that she had recorded to somebody else's beat and it was wack. So she sent me the a cappella, I sent it back with just a temporary beat. 'It sucks, I'm making something brand new.' And she was like, 'Fuck you it's awesome.' We did it at Sneaky Dee's, at Fuckfaces, and everybody went ape-shit. So, maybe this could work."
"He's like a gatekeeper, nothing is ever good enough," interjects Isis. "I have to pry beats out if his arms."
"I'll tell you why I didn't like it, it was just so simple," Grahm says. "But hey man, the best things are accidental."
A couple months before their album drops, the city of Toronto book Thunderheist for an outdoor, all-ages midwinter show in Nathan Phillip Square. It is dead cold. An announcer screams "Are you ready to see Thunderheist?" prompting a trio of teenage girls to squeal back - "Yes, we so are!" - and charge towards the huddled hipsters at the stage. Isis and Grahm break into their Eurythmics-sampling "Sueños Dulces" while their troupe of multi-culti "swagger dancers" (and Grahm's mom!) move to the brain-melting bass and walloping digi-beats. (Once again, the city booked this). The duo dance, laugh and barrel through their catalogue, barking about after-parties, bigging-up little booty girls over woozy, crunked-out synths and convincing the crowd to forget their problems, forget the world's problems, forget the cold even, and just get down to the Thunderheist sound. Indeed, sweet dreams are made of this. For much of the past decade we have lived in dark times. Even after Obama's election, the financial meltdown has kept us on edge. So maybe what's required isn't political polemics but a night on the town, a workout on the dance floor, a little, no, a lot of fun. If so, Thunderheist is poised to deliver.
"You pay rent. You were there during 9/11. The recession. All that shit," rants Isis. "Party music is what everybody needs. Maybe not every second of your life, but we all need an escape. We all have shitty days and sometimes you need a song that's talking about absolutely nothing to get your minds off things.
"I don't think people should underestimate party music." Thunderheist have been making mainstream inroads - or what they sardonically refer to as their "Ben Mulroney level of fame" - appearing on ET Canada, doing photo shoots for Flare magazine, touring Japan and Isis will even appear on Jimmy Kimmel to perform "Bounce" with MSTRKRFT before hitting the road with the annual cross-Canada Exclaim! tour.
Up until Big Dada finally drops their album, Thunderheist's fan base has been predominantly blog-fuelled, a notoriously fickle scene constantly in search of the next cool thing. Still, the twosome aren't worried about losing their early adopters because, they say, they're already elsewhere. "I don't really see a danger because, like Grahm said, what you're going to hear on this album we wrote two years ago and so where we are now, I think, is where the crowd will be in the future," Isis points out. To wit, a number of their tracks, like their Moroder-ized "Space Cowboy" and "Nothing2Step2" heralded the disco revival while the album as a whole cooks up rap, R&B, electro-house and rock and then drenches it all in pop sauce. This, and Isis's rock star charisma, should help Thunderheist avoid being over-associated with any one movement after folks move on. But if you listen close you may discern the group's eventual destination.
"When I was doing poetry there were endless things you could say, but the more you say, the more pompous it gets. And then with rapping it's the same thing. You have all these words, but it just gets overdone at a certain point," Isis says. "But with singing, it's like haikus. You don't have to rhyme. You can say anything and there's so much more breadth to it. For me it's an opportunity to write less but say more."
Graham says the non-rapped tracks are pointing towards their future. "Any of the songs where Isis is singing, that is our shit. That's been the case for over a year." Graham says the next EP is set to be "strictly singing tracks, just to cleanse the palette. So that people aren't expecting an electro-rap album. Because we've done that, and just like the hip-hop stuff, we're over it. We just want to do other stuff. We want to evolve." Besides, Isis adds with a grin, "I don't think we're necessarily party music. Our music just works well in a party atmosphere. It works better when you're drunk. It's like really good sex - it's just better lubricated."
Where's the Beef?
Though Grahm did his damndest to shush her ("Let people be how they're gonna be and we'll catch up to them") Isis did manage to keep slipping in snipes against her fellow electro-pop stars.
"Lady GaGa? She's a complete product. It's annoying. Britney was falling apart, right, and they needed a replacement, so they found this girl. But she's just another dumb, ditzy blonde chick that has no goddamn talent whatsoever."
"Everyone wants to have Thunder in their name now. Like, Thunderpussy, whatever that's about. I'm just saying. I'm considering suing."
"[Crystal Castles"] come from the northern Ontario suburbs, they're not hardcore. At the end of the day people will catch on and see that their stories don't add up. It didn't work for Milli Vanilli, it's not going to work for you.
"This is about us, so fuck them."