A & E MUSIC | Speaker Tweaker
Inside the mind (and studio LAIR) of THE MYSTERIOUS MotëmBY JAMES TENNANT
The item: an album cover. The setting: a shadowy forest clearing at night. Right of centre stands a small white statue, a classical female figure with arms folded across her chest. Left of centre stands the artist. He sports black, presumably acid-washed jeans, pink-framed aviator sunglasses, a straw hat and a white-collared shirt adorned with leaves on an ivy-like vine. In his arms he holds, improbably, an owl. A puzzling image. What is that statue? Is that a real owl? Why is he wearing pink aviators at night? What’s with the straw hat? If this is an album cover, how on earth does it reflect the music within? Who is this artist, and what does his music sound like? Good questions all, but we can only answer the last two. The artist is Motëm – also known as Slow Hand Motëm and GBZ, among other pseudonyms. As for his music, it sounds like… well, perhaps we can’t answer that either, except to say that it sounds like Motëm. No one else sounds the same.
Motëm, né Gregg Eberhard, is one of Hamilton’s most progressive, unusual, driven, respected, well-liked and honest musicians. He’s so true to his vision that most people, at first exposure, don’t know what to make of him. Like the photograph on the cover of his latest album, The Forthcoming Mixtape, his music is at once direct and cryptic.
Descriptors are futile. The Forthcoming features fuzzy, fat funky bass lines, low-fi beats, keyboards that squiggle and buzz around your brain cavity, and vocals both spoken and sung in Motëm’s distinctive tones. Yet none of this explains how the elements fall together in surprising ways, and how wildly distinct one song is from the next. Even the title itself is mysterious.
“It’s not really a mixtape,” Motëm confides. “It’s secretly an album. You can print that, I don’t mind.”
Motëm smiles. He is clad comfortably in a long-sleeved shirt of brown floral swirls, face tucked behind his omnipresent aviators, ball cap and scruffy facial hair. His speech is relaxed, with a drawl that is, somehow, not an accent; other than a brief school-related stint in Quebec, Motëm has always lived in Hamilton, so even his voice is enigmatic. His vernacular is lightly peppered with hip-hop slang. His turns of phrase are playfully oddball, and his sentences meander like children on their way home – they eventually reach their destination but always stop to explore new topics midstream.
It’s not that Motëm is unable to communicate; he just has a lot to say. He wants to talk about his recent, successful second European tour; his admiration for hyper-prolific hip-hop artist Lil B, whose blast-’emout- and-post-’em-online work ethic inspires him; his love of nature; his inability to keep still for more than a moment or two; his compulsive need to move forward creatively. “There are so many influences,” he says. “New friends, Internet, everything leads me to new stuff. I like to find new stuff, because I get bored.”
In other words, once he’s done something, he’s loath to do it again. As a result, his style evolves in almost quantum ways, changing even as he creates. Proof exists in numbers: Motëm has composed as many as a thousand tracks in his modest, but globally expanding, career.
“I have watched as the man sits down at my computer – which is not his home base – and composes a fully-formed and swaggin’ beat in under 20 minutes,” his friend and comusician Matt Baker elaborates. “I’ll pour myself a cup of coffee, and before I’ve finished that, he has finished the beat. It’s a bit mind-boggling.”
Greg Santilly, his friend and occasional bandmate, agrees. “When you work with Gregg, you are quite literally working in the moment. You have to be open to that, as the more structured something becomes, the quicker he’ll lose interest.
“While the tracks amass, others around him assist with the documentation. Various U.S., Canadian and European labels have released 12” and 7” vinyl records, and with the help of the Gebbs Steelo Boutique – an online boutique run by Motëm and a loose collection of like-minded individuals – handmade CD-R collections and download-only releases. “The business is secondary,” he says. “I’m not a businessman. I wouldn’t be doing such crazy music if I was a businessman. Then I would have gone more Rihanna.”
While other kids’ parents were listening to classic rock, the Eberhards were disco fans, pumping music in the car and heading to Detroit to soak up the scene at after-hours clubs. His musical obsession was seeded early, and at ten, he played the electric bass.
“It’s nice to have something to sink your teeth into,” Motëm says. “Bass was that. And funk music. Before that, Nirvana… that’s the artist that made me think I should just be me and do what I do.” In high school, he became a fan of Montreal-based DJ Kid Koala. Shortly afterward, he rescued an old turntable from his neighbour’s trash. Though he didn’t know how to scratch, he tinkered with avant-garde sounds, and the concept of Motëm began to take shape.
“Motëm was all the stuff that I couldn’t do hanging out with my friends,” he says. “Motëm is like the free bird, the wild man, everything like that. Frolicking. It was my slow cautious scratching style that birthed the name ‘Slow Hand,’ but I honestly don’t know where Motëm came from. Sometimes I just make stuff up.”
In the beginning, as Slow Hand Motëm, Motëm would record albums playing all instruments himself. Now, he plays one instrument: a Roland 404 sampler. The only other items on his stage are a microphone and, um, a candelabra, inspired by old Liberace videos and obtained from “this rare old Italian couple in Toronto.”
By the light of said candelabra, Motëm gently patters with his audience, exudes positive vibes, cracks sly jokes. Once the music begins, he is consumed, nodding his head and swaying as though immersed in liquid funk. Indeed, his arms and wrist joints behave as though they were fluid-based, flowing, more than bending, to the beat.
Motëm has taken his live show to Europe twice, where he is loved by small but growing pockets of fans in several countries, especially in Scandinavia. That country is home to an esoteric, minimalist style of instrumental synth-funk known as “skweee.” Motëm discovered skweee online, and soon fired off an introductory email to Swedish skweee label Flogsta Danshall. This prompted a response from label head Franz Carlqvist – and a remix offer.
“This is the first time anyone offered to remix – and he was from Stockholm,” Motëm recalls. “I was like yeah, cool.” Skweee artists like Carlqvist, as well as Randy Barracuda and Mesak from Finnish label Harmonia, have since grown from fans to collaborators to friends. “Those are my actual homies out there,” he says. “That’s why I like giving props to skweee, because we’re friends. But I was never really skweee – because I never follow the rules in something as stupid as genre. I can’t. It just goes its own way, I can never control it. It was the funk. The funk always takes care of me.” There are no rules in Motëm’s music, but there are some laws. The Funk is one: All tracks must be funky. Honesty is the other law. The occasionally cryptic lyrics, the unusual sounds, the fashion, the videos – self-directed and produced, low-budget and quirky – all of these are so curious that you often can’t tell if he’s joking or if he’s serious. Some audiences get it, some don’t. What matters is that what could easily be an elaborate oddball act is actually 100% authentic.
“Yeah, some people think it’s weird, but to me it’s normal,” Motëm agrees, simply. By taking all of his quirks and turning them into art, Motëm is being about as real and as raw as an artist can be – “real” and “raw” being words he frequently applies to his own music. He applies those words to his lyrics as well. In the world of music producers, it can be uncommon for the artist to write their own lyrics and perform their own vocals, as Motëm does. His lyrics can be simplistic and direct, more child-like than childish; they can be obscure and in-jokey one moment, simple and honest the next.
“Some people think it’s like corny to talk about feelings,” he says. “It’s like Drake vs. Soulja Boy… it’s either corny or it’s too hard, it’s super street. Somehow Motëm is beyond that. It’s not even a question anymore whether or not it’s corny or hard. It’s just beautiful. Motëm is, like, unique to the world.”
Sounds haughty, but Motëm is also beyond arrogance. It is, again, his honesty; he truly believes his importance stems from his rigid adherence to being himself. Of course, Motëm is himself on certain terms. He keeps the rest of Gregg Eberhard – the non- Motëm portions close to his chest, preferring not to talk about what he does for a living, preferring to keep a bit of mystery about his artistry.
“The music is forthcoming so I don’t have to be,” he says, explaining his philosophy and his album title in one sentence. Yet at that moment, he is being uncommonly forthcoming, having given Hamilton Magazine rare access to “the warehouse,” his apartment studio tucked away off Aberdeen Avenue. Outside the rain is torrential – “Jurassic Park weather,” he calls it – and thunder explodes beyond the window as Motëm, glue-gun in hand, assembles 36 hard copies of The Forthcoming Mixtape. All other copies will be downloaded, around the world, for free.
Motëm’s audiences are modest in size, and the phrase “super underground” still sums up his presence on the music scene. Yet fans continue to appear in new countries. Records are released in the U.S., and purchased in Tokyo. Each tour is more successful than the last. Motëm is fully aware of his strengths, and not afraid to champion himself assertively, even as he keeps his growing success in perspective.
“I’m just like a nerd at heart, right?” he says. “Even if Motëm blew up, I still want to maintain the realness because that’s what I like about music. I don’t take my friends for granted. I try not to take any single day for granted. I try and always make it count. I still remember what it’s like to be a teenager with no friends. That’s the pits. Why would you want to make anybody feel like that?”
Motëm believes his (seemingly limitless) energy is better spent on continuous motion and positivity. His friends and fans respond to it, too. Hours after the interview, The Forthcoming Mixtape sweeps across the Internet, prompting glowing praise on many blogs and websites – praise for the music, and praise for the man, often referred to in loving terms as “a true G.” All agree he is a bona fide original. He’s a soft-spoken, polite twentysomething who loves nature and often relaxes by walking in the woods; he’s also the wild man who pumps the funk in Stockholm clubs. His music isn’t influenced by money; he continually makes his releases available for free. His main goal is for others to hear what he’s doing, to document his career, and to be direct – in vision, in movement, in emotion, even in delivery of the music. From his head to his hands to the web to his fans, with few stops in-between.
“I keep it super real and I like to work with and have friends that keep it super real, too,” says Motëm. “I don’t see a reason to do it any other way. I like to keep it playful, like a kid. The music is like my fountain of youth. I could make that music until I’m an old man and still feel transported back to when I was, like, 16… but still growing, always progressing.”
And the music will always be forthcoming. Motëm knows no other way.