Zak James: From Montana to Brooklyn

By Taylor Barrett & Max Wellman

Moving around and music have always been a part of life for rapper and Montana native, Zak James––they’re intertwined and innate within each other. Growing up, Zak moved 28 times and attended six different elementary schools in Montana. Born in Billings, Zak also lived in Butte, Great Falls, and Helena. Because of this, he told us he always felt out of place growing up, and sometimes a little socially awkward, but maybe that’s what brought him to the stage. Music gave Zak an outlet to express himself, a space that wasn’t given to him by the classroom, a space that allowed him to grow out of his introverted nature and transition into the hyper-extroverted music industry. He needed to be willing to speak to anyone and everyone––whether that was face to face or through the microphone.

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Zak started to hone his craft at a young age by writing poems about his hamster and about how much he hated eating vegetables, but since then his music has come a long way. Zak brings a lot to the table, his music is upbeat and positive, but it’s also contemplative. He told us that he just wants his audience “to feel something,” that he hopes to spread positivity and inspiration. And this makes sense because that’s exactly what Zak does in his own life. He told us that if he inspires someone to start “a taco stand” or a small business, he’s happy. 

Zak originally got into hip-hop in the sixth grade when he ran across an mp3 player that was lying on the curb. A lucky find that introduced him to several songs by Nas, songs that ended up inspiring him to start writing his own music and exploring the genre.

There was something about rap that resonated with Zak. Growing up without much of a father figure, he could relate to the artists that share their story of also growing up in a single-parent household. What inspired James the most was that despite the odds, these artists he respected and admired had confidence and were able to spread their messages––whatever they may be––through rap. Zak told us that at a young age this was empowering, and that’s when he realized he wanted to do something similar with his own life.

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Because of Zak’s deep connection to his Montana roots, he told us that he includes references to his home state in every project that he produces––giving a shout-out to the home and culture that helped shape who he is as an artist. Zak also credits Jesse Frohreich, a.k.a. Farch, with helping him refine his lyrics and put them into motion, mentioning that he had a lot of content, but Frohreich’s advice helped him toward finding his own style and voice as a musician. James also mentioned that Eddwords is currently one of his favorite artists out of Montana.

On a broader spectrum, Zak draws influence from some of the contemporary greats, including Mac Miller, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Joey Bada$$. He enjoys the fun-loving spirit of Mac Miller, the accessibility of J. Cole, the talent of Kendrick Lamar, and all he could about Joey Bada$$ was that he “is on another level.” All of these influences can be heard in Jame’s style and within the variety of musical genres that he dabbles in.

While Zak grew up in Montana and sees it as his home as an artist, he recently moved to Brooklyn, New York, following his dreams and trying to make a name for himself. And you can bet his songs aren’t about his pet hamster or his disdain for broccoli anymore, now they’re about who he is, what he’s done, and what he hopes to achieve.

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Moving to New York wasn’t easy. James had to leave his family, his friends, and his growing fan base behind, but, like a lot of people who move thousands of miles away, he finds comfort in social media and the fact that he can move across the country and still bring his music to his friends and fans back home. While it was hard to leave Montana, he told us that it was more of a celebration than anything else:  it “was like a big send-off,” with nothing but love and support from his home-state fans. He told us that this was something special about Montana, something he hopes he can also find in New York. He told us Montana has “a close-knit community where everyone cares,” and “people will go beyond themselves to support you just because.” 

Not only did the support from Montana help drive Zak to pursue a career in the music industry, but it also allowed him to refine a style that was separated from the standard geographies of hip-hop. Zak brought up that since Montana is landlocked and in a space outside of the East or West Coast, it was easier for him to acquire influences in a different fashion than you might expect. Rather than growing up in New York and being inspired by Jay Z, or growing up in Los Angeles and being inspired by 2Pac, he told us that artists from Montana have the ability to freely pick and choose their influences. As a result, he mentioned that in the Montana hip-hop scene, it’s harder to define what sub-genre is most prominent, instead, it’s just “all over the place.” And you can find truth in Zak’s insight when you hear his music and the artists that he collaborates with.

Zak works alongside Eric, a.k.a. Numerik the Scientist, Michael Graef, and Reid Graham. You will also see James collaborating with Montana filmmaker Colter Olmstead for a majority of his music videos, and bouncing song ideas off of Chloe Gendrow and Josh Edwards––helping him develop a creative space through the presence of his friends and fellow artists. 

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Music has helped Zak grow out of his introverted nature; it’s allowed him to unearth and manifest the culture of his communities and spread his story. But the biggest part of hip-hop for Zak is the freedom it allows him as an artist, saying: “sometimes, I just enjoy dancing and being goofy.” 

You will also find Zak creating in more arenas than just music. James has his own clothing brand alongside the help of his close friend, Oscar Fossum. Now in Brooklyn, Zak recently launched a new line of hats under their brand entitled, “Badmouth”, with the slogan, “Speak for Yourself.” In short, the dude is versatile.

Whether it’s writing lyrics, performing on stage, acting in music videos as multiple characters, or designing his own clothing, Zak’s charismatic personality is nothing shy of impressive. His desire to spread positivity, love, and a general passion for life is frankly wonderful, and as someone looking in from the outside, it’s easy to see that this is only the beginning. 

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Get a feel for Zak’s music and style with a trip through his music videos, the making of his first full-length album, and our interview with James himself.

Also check out Zak’s latest music video, “I’m Not Concerned”, produced by Jak Flames and Eric G. the Scientist, and filmed by Michael Graef, with assistance from Mick Pengilly.

Find Zak James on all major platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, SoundCloud, Amazon Music, and through the links below. Also, be sure to check out Badmouth Clothing and their newly released hats.

Follow Zak James – Instagram | Youtube

Badmouth Clothing: http://www.badmouth.store/ 

Tylo $mith – Bingewatch Album Review

By Taylor Barrett

Although you may’ve known him as Kid Wavyy, he is back with his debut album as Tylo $mith. Entitled Bingewatch, the concept of this album is quite unique, including song titles that are inspired by TV shows of various sorts. From “The Office”, “F.R.I.E.N.D.S”, and “Drake ‘N Josh”, to “Deal or No Deal”, it covers it all.

Starting out smooth, $mith offers a great variety of mellow beats and intricate rhymes on “Who’s Watching?” and “Pretty Lil’ Liar”, and also comes in big with songs like “Parks & Rec”, “Deal or No Deal”, and “F.R.I.E.N.D.S”, with deliberate verses and heavy trap beats. Frequently referencing characters and scenes of different shows, the concept of the album weaves between storytelling and real life similarities to shows on TV–the shows that we’ve all grown up with.

You can find the album Bingewatch through the universal link below including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Google Play, iTunes, and Tidal.

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Joe Knapp: The Man of Many Bands

By Taylor Barrett & Max Wellman

Joe Knapp, a Bozeman singer-songwriter, frequently entertains the many breweries, bars, restaurants, and venues in the surrounding valley, always accompanied by a plethora of original songs. From Pine Creek Lodge in Paradise Valley to Bozeman Hot Springs, Knapp is a staple of the local music scene––playing solo shows in the greater Bozeman area and appearing in several bands.

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But Joe’s status as a sought after performer and musician in the Bozeman area didn’t come without work. Joe learned to play piano at the age of eight, taught by a Ragtime piano player, J. Althea. He quickly picked up the keys and soon became enthralled with music, performing and composing. After learning to play piano, Joe began playing his first concerts when he was in grade school, but it wasn’t until he turned sixteen that Joe found his passion for guitar. Joe purchased his first electric guitar, a replica Stratocaster from Bizarre Guitars, while he was visiting his uncle in Reno, Nevada.

Growing up in Juneau, Alaska, Joe was always fond of the outdoors. Along with growing up in Alaska, Knapp also studied in Hawaii and Montana during a teaching exchange, inspired by his mother who was a literature teacher and his father who was a history teacher. Knapp became fascinated with all of these states––finding passion in the beaches of Hawaii and the mountains of Montana that ring with faint echoes of Alaska.

At 14, Knapp’s family moved to Bozeman, and he’s pretty much been here ever since. Joe said that he enjoys the simplicity of life in Montana––the fact that people aren’t as money or ego driven, that we have plenty of clean air, and possibly the most important: the “ridiculous” amount of talented musicians in the area.

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After transitioning to life in Bozeman, Joe committed himself to playing guitar, and his hobby morphed into an obsession. Originally inspired by artists such as Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan, Knapp’s interest in electric guitar was heightened by Guns n Roses, and even more so by one of the most influential bands of the twentieth century: Nirvana. Nirvana was hugely influential in Joe’s conception of what music is, and what it could be. He told us that he realized Nirvana was “more so art, than just music,” making him challenge his perception of music and dive head first into what would eventually become his career. After listening to Nirvana, Joe told us that “all [he] ever wanted to do was play music.”

As he continued to explore what music meant to him, Knapp became interested in artists such as Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix (after taking a break from the “louder stuff,” he told us). He was also largely influenced by local musicians, including Adam Platt, Ben Spangler, Paul Rose, Chris Donahue (aka “Donnie Evil”), Nels Cline, and Kelly Roberti. But Joe’s passion isn’t completely derived from the riffs of old, he also draws influence from the landscape of Montana, his home in Alaska, and one of his favorite places to visit: Hawaii.

The Dead YellersKnapp told us that “the amount of great and inspirational people” is a large reason to stick around Bozeman, but every once in a while, he still needs to escape and see more of the world. Joe has done extensive road tripping around the United States, traveled to New Zealand and Australia, and he toured Europe after graduating high school. For Joe, traveling and music are inseparable––bringing his guitar with him whenever possible as a way to absorb and reproduce the natural beauty and the myriad cultures the world has to offer.

And Joe has held true to the outlook acquired from his musical heroes and the places he calls home, from performing all over the state, teaching guitar lessons, and working for Music Villa, Knapp continues to devote his life to the pursuit of music and everything adjacent.

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Joe performs as Slomojoe, a solo act, duo, and trio act, and as Slomojoe and the Knowshows, depending on the atmosphere and venue, letting him cater to the crowd’s mood (or his). Joe is also a member of The Salamanders, The Dead Yellers, Kelly Nicholson Band, Dead Sky (Grateful Dead Tribute Band), and The Freakout Live Band. You can find Knapp playing everything from original songs to roots music to blues and country blues to psychedelic rock. In other words, Joe is a musician of many hats (and subsequently many guitars).

Joe also collaborates with a lot of local artists, such as Peter King, Chelsea Hunt, John Sanders, and Dan Ruggles. Knapp also mentioned several local artists that he admires, including Craig Hall, Rick Winking, Bill Dwyer, Dan Bearsford, Mike Gillan, the Rasmussen Family, John Usher, Jake Fleming, and the Kirchner Family––showing just how embedded Joe is in the local music culture of Bozeman.

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While Joe’s primary passion is performing music, his talents also manifest themselves into teaching others the tricks of the trade, hoping to help others realize there’s more to music than just notes in the air––music can also be a lifestyle or just a way to escape the tedium of everyday life. Whatever the reason is, Joe is just happy to see someone pick up a guitar.

Yes, Joe is a musician, a very talented musician in fact. And yes, he plays in a lot of local bands and has his hand in a lot of local projects. But for Joe, all of the work he does in Bozeman doesn’t end on the stage, it just starts there. Every time you see Joe perform, you’re seeing a little piece of himself, his experiences, and his community. For Joe, music is about sharing his philosophies with others, and one of his philosophies is that music can make Bozeman, and the world, a little more pleasant (at least on the ears).

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Check out some of Knapp’s original songs below (filmed by our very own Taylor Barrett, alongside Colter Olmstead) or find him around town playing in, well, a lot of bands.

Photos by Taylor Barrett and Steve Winslow

The Hyalite Sessions: Joe Knapp aka SlomoJoe

Follow Joe Knapp – Instagram | Facebook

Pirate Guitars: Luthier in the Mountains

By Taylor Barrett & Max Wellman

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Andy Armstrong, a local Bozeman luthier and founder of Pirate Guitars, originally grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. Andy is an interesting guy–he has a love for the outdoors, he is well traveled, and he builds guitars (an exceedingly interesting and rare pursuit). We often think of guitars as being mass produced in large factories, shipping from far off countries to grace the stages and concert venues we love so much. However, there is a market–no matter how niche–for custom built, handmade guitars, and we figured there would be no better way to gain insight into this mysterious business than to sit down with a luthier. We met up with Andy to talk about his passions, influences, and upbringing–everything that brought him to Montana to pursue the business of crafting instruments.  

When asked about growing up in Minnesota, Andy stated that “there wasn’t much for kids to do except play outside and be active… so [it was] pretty great.” At the age of 16, Andy moved to Stuttgart, Germany, after his Dad took a job abroad. For some of his siblings, this would be a trying decision: moving to a foreign land far away from their friends, family, and everything they knew growing up, but for Andy, this wouldn’t prove to be a difficult transition. Andy has always been keen on new experiences and he was ready for a change of scenery, knowing it would at least be an interesting experience to finish school in a foreign country.

After graduating high school, Andy decided to attend college in Europe. He applied to a university in Madrid, Spain, and studied there for a year before dropping out. After a few years in Spain, Minnesota beckoned Andy back to the states, bringing him to the Twin Cities to finish his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota. In Minnesota, Andy’s older brother encouraged him to pick up a guitar, a passion he wouldn’t put down.

Following graduation, Andy moved to Eugene, Oregon, for a change of pace, and life in the pacific northwest helped him find his passion for music. After picking up the guitar for the first time at 21, Andy grew ambitious about his love for music, playing anything from the blues, classic rock, jazz, folk music, to bluegrass. It didn’t really matter what he was playing, so long as it involved six strings and a melody.

Andy played his tunes and, like most musicians, realized that there was unavoidable wear-and-tear on his guitar that plagues everyone, but instead of compromising and finding his way to the nearest guitar store in search of a string change and minor repairs, Andy asked his friend, Steve Holst, to help him with the repairs. This utilitarian way to save a few bucks and learn more about his instrument would turn out to be a defining moment for Andy; after this, Andy shadowed Steve and began to learn the ins and outs of repairing guitars.

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Concert Ukulele – Redwood

Andy grew passionate about the inner workings of his instrument, and he realized that he didn’t have to stop at small bridge adjustments and tunings, instead, he asked Steve if he might build him a ukulele. But instead of building Andy a ukulele, he simply told him: “you should just build one.” These words would eventually bring Andy to where he is today: building his own guitars that he now plays and sells. Andy remained in Eugene for a while after learning all he could from Steve, but once again the urge for a change in landscape hit him–Bozeman was the next stop on the luthier’s journey.

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Concert Ukulele – Red Spruce & Mahogany

The aspects of Bozeman (and Montana in general) that appeal to Armstrong the most are the state’s laid back mountain lifestyle, and the “natural wonder in every direction.” Like a lot of Bozemanites, Andy enjoys being out in nature–whether that manifests itself in the form of hiking, camping, fishing, mushroom hunting, rafting, or snowboarding, he just appreciates having nature right outside his backdoor. The scenery of Montana and the local craftsmanship found in Bozeman is what really inspired Armstrong to hone his skills as a luthier. Armstrong mentioned that the opportunities that he found shadowing other luthiers is what made him want to stay in Bozeman, and he also stated that the presence of the Gibson factory also seems to resonate within the music community–lending passion to the musicians and artists striving to bring quality music and instruments to Montana.

After moving to Bozeman, Andy began looking into possible shops and luthiers that he could apprentice with and learn more about crafting instruments. He came across Kevin Kopp, a local luthier, and decided it wouldn’t hurt to shoot him an email. After sending that first email, Andy said it was a “hard no” from Kopp, but that wouldn’t stop him. After checking out the rest of the luthiers in the area, Andy persevered, restlessly sending emails and contacting Kopp until he landed himself a tour of Kopp’s workplace. After seeing the shop, Andy could only dream about building guitars in this very place, but there wasn’t any work for him, at least not luthier work; while Kopp didn’t need any help around the shop, he did need help designing a website. Maybe it wasn’t building guitars, but it was a way in the door for Andy and he quickly offered his assistance in exchange for some insight into Kopp’s building process.

After building a website, Armstrong then began building guitars alongside Kopp. Originally inspired by repairs, Andy expanded his craft into building guitars: “I couldn’t afford a handcrafted guitar, so I wanted to try building one.” Armstrong credited Steve Holst and Kevin Kopp for guiding him as he learned to build guitars and ukuleles, as well as some books and tutorials on instrument building.

It took some time, but eventually Andy started crafting instruments he was proud to play. Andy began building under the name of Pirate Guitars in 2016 and his style primarily relies on traditional shapes, including the L-00, L-1, OM, Slope D, and Dreadnaught. Andy draws a lot of inspiration from art, old guitars, the materials he uses, and what type of music the instrument will eventually play. As a musician myself, when I actually got the chance to play one of Andy’s guitars, I was thoroughly impressed with the quality and tone–these aren’t the campfire guitars you don’t mind getting wet during a camping trip.

Armstrong says he currently builds about 10 instruments a year, including 5 guitars and 5 ukuleles and he mentioned that he likes to use, if possible, Engelmann Spruce that is often hand-cut by his colleague in the local forests. Armstrong also prefers to use locally made tuners by Waverly Tuners out of Bozeman. Andy’s guitars are born of Bozeman, both crafted and sourced, and there’s something to be said of this process in an age of overseas-mass-produced instruments.

When it comes to customers, Andy mentioned that most of his guitars are custom orders, with a smaller portion being sold to local shops. When he began building in Bozeman, he would work his day job from 4:30am-12:00pm, and then head to the shop from around 1pm-6pm, working long hours so he could pursue the passion he has as a luthier. Andy still works approximately 12 hours on weekdays, and 8 hours during the weekend.

Although Andy says the hand-built market is competitive, he is slowly making a name for himself. While he humbly admits that “[he’s] still starting,” you wouldn’t have any indication of his supposed fledgling skills by looking at (or playing) his guitars and ukuleles. Armstrong mentioned that Bozeman is a great place for “make-your-own” type opportunities, showing the level of support that Bozeman has for locally owned businesses.

When asked about local Montana luthiers that Andy looks up to, he mentioned Kevin Kopp, Bruce Weber, founder of Weber mandolins, and Dan Roberts. While it may seem like a small community, there is a wealth of luthiers in Montana looking to hone their craft and produce quality, handmade instruments–you just have to know where to look.

When asked who he’d like to see playing a Pirate Guitar, he said Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, or Nick Perri. “I’d love to just give them a guitar and have them rip on it for a couple years just to see what they could do with it,” and maybe he’ll get the chance to do just that.

Looking forward, Armstrong has plans for several new designs, including torrefied wood, a possible 3/4 parlor guitar, as well as some new ukulele designs. Be sure to watch out for his guitars and ukuleles, and follow on Instagram. Contact Pirate Guitars by phone at (507) 206-1044 or email at pirateluthier@gmail.com

http://www.pirate-guitar.com

Andy plays the RJ – Sitka Spruce & Mahogany

Tylo $mith

By Taylor Barrett & Max Wellman

Rapper and singer, Jordan Smith, aka “Tylo $mith”, hails from Great Falls, Montana. Born in Las Vegas, Nevada, Smith spent most of his summers in Vegas, and the rest of the year in Montana.

Smith has lived most of his life in Montana since the age of three, telling us that the amount of space in the Big Sky State allows him to focus on what he is most passionate about: music. Because the atmosphere and pace of life seems to be slower in Montana, it allows for more creativity and imagination, and a lot of time to do so.

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Smith has been musically inclined most of his life, and had his first formal introductions to music in school. Smith started singing and playing music around the 5th grade, playing the saxophone and singing, quickly realizing that his talent and passion was geared towards his voice. Smith joined his high school’s choir and honed his skills as a musician, and following this experience, Smith decided it was time to take things in a different direction: “I just decided one day that I was going to try being a SoundCloud rapper.” He told us with a short laugh.

Smith told us that he was inspired by his success with choir and the encouragement from his Choir teacher. His love for music evolved when he downloaded production software on his computer and started to make his own beats. After his first successful attempt, he found that the next logical step was buying a microphone and jotting down some lyrics–turning him from just another kid in his basement with a laptop, to Tylo $mith.

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In the Fall of 2016, Smith took his passion to the next level and began recording his original music extensively. When we asked him: “Why hip-hop?” Smith told us that he chose the genre because it’s the “most lyrical,” lending itself to his own creative process. After writing and releasing a few albums, the young rapper from Montana began doing shows in 2017–performing around Montana nearly 10 times.

Although Smith stated that he feels it can be hard to break out in the Montana Hip-Hop scene, he has been well received on platforms such as Spotify, with over 40k monthly listeners. His new album “Blue Lens” dropped on November, 2nd, and has drawn nearly 100k track plays in less than a month. Smith also recently released a music video for “So Gone” and the title track “Blue Lens”, with the help of Bozeman filmmaker Colter Olmstead.

Tylo $mith’s production crew consists of himself and two producers, who make the majority of his beats. Justin Winkler and Kaden Mann make up JaiKae Beats, the producers for Tylo $mith. Smith mentioned that once he started working consistently with the same producers, it made his sound more cohesive throughout his projects, bringing a new form of clarity to his albums. He told that out of all of his mixtapes and albums, “Blue Lens” is by far the most well-rounded and cohesive album, and we can agree.

Although Smith appreciates the atmosphere of Montana, he tells us that he plans to move to Los Angeles, California in the near future–a city with a larger audience for his music and a more conducive music scene.

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When asked about any Montana artists or rappers that have inspired him, Smith told us that Montana rapper, Zak James, has been a big influence. The two met at a show they played together a few years back, and Smith said that they have been great friends ever since. He mentioned that not only is James incredibly talented, but that he’s always fun to be around (whether or not music is involved).

Smith’s broader influences include Big Sean and Tyler, the Creator, telling us that he really admires Big Sean’s flow and attack, and how Tyler, the Creator says just about anything he wants– influences you can hear in Smith’s music.

Be sure to check out the new album, “Blue Lens”, as well as the music video for “So Gone”, and the title track “Blue Lens”. Smith is also in the process of working on an accompanying mixtape, so be sure to follow him for future details. You can find Tylo $mith on Instagram, and his music on Spotify, Apple Music, and SoundCloud.