Little Shalimar Interview
by Nancy Woo
Torbitt Schwartz is a man of many talents. For years he's been a drummer in the band Chin Chin, a proficient musician of instruments galore, a record producer, a film scorer, a genre bender, a singer, songwriter and DJ, and now, the world should be happy to note: he has released his first solo album under the moniker Little Shalimar. He never intended to "write songs and then convince the world to listen to them," but it just sort of happened that way - and it happened during the winter of 2010 when he was stuck in a foreign apartment in Los Angeles ridden with pneumonia.
Happily, Online Rock took a few moments to chat with the now healthy Little Shalimar to hear about how his truly fantastic and groovy album The New Pneumonia Blues came to be. We found out a few interesting things about his spontaneous creative process, how he came to play a part in the music industry and what he thinks about artistry within the music machine. Read on for a jovial interview with the creator of 21st century groove rock, whom we are thrilled to note is already working on another album. And if you haven't already, stream or download The New Pneumonia Blues for free from his Bandcamp.
First of all, thanks so much for talking with me on behalf of Online Rock. It's a real pleasure! I have to tell you, I was simply astounded by how groovy and unique your album The New Pneumonia Blues is. I feel like I hear a lot of the same sorts of music all the time, but not this album - it's such an excellent intersection of so many different types of music, funk and rock and soul and even a little bit of electronic and punk. It's a treat all the way through, no two songs sound the same, but they're all composed brilliantly. And most of the time, I can't help but want to move my feet. In fact, I just finished listening to it another time through, loving it just as much as the first time.
Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. I'm glad it wasn't "Oh, I listened to it again and suddenly realized it's terrible." (laughs)
For our readers who may not be familiar with Little Shalimar yet, can you describe the style of music on this album?
(Laughs) Well, that's always a problem for me. I think there are a lot of different things in it, but to me it's essentially what I think of as a pop record, even though I know it's not really what pop means today. But to me, the main thing recurring in The New Pneumonia Blues is pop music. Jimi Hendrix is essentially pop, even though we don't necessarily think of it in that way. A Sly record is essentially a pop record. Or Beck - a totally different stylistic thing is happening, where he'll have a blues tune next to a crazy rock tune next to a laid back jazzy tune. To me, I just call it the good kind of pop.
I would agree. If it's pop, it's definitely the good kind.
The one thing is it's groovy. It's coming from the groove notion of soul music. That's the current that runs through it. Then there's a straight up punk song on the EP. The EP is super eclectic, a lot of different styles.
The next thing that I'm going to do is going to be a little more focused. I'm pretty well into the next record and it's a lot more focused. But sometimes what I think is focused ends up being a little weird for people (laughs).
In fact, this record didn't start out as a record. I was just writing songs. And I've been a musician for a long time, but I'd never fronted a band before, and I never intended to do so. But when I got back [to New York], I thought to myself, "this sounds like an album." And that's how this project came to be. The songs weren't originally intended to go together.
I write music for different artists, and I first thought, "Okay, the same person who'll do 'Winds of Wackness' can sing 'Melting.'" But I was never thinking "I'm writing songs for my album, songs that I'm going to sing and convince the world to listen to." (laughs)
Oh, I just thought of a name for it: 21st century groove rock!
Nice! I like that. It's fitting.
And if I am correct about this, what's even more impressive about this album is that The New Pneumonia Blues was written during the winter of 2010 while you were bedridden with pneumonia. Now that's just about blowing my mind. Can you tell me a little about how that came to be? You came to LA from New York, thinking you were going to have a blast in the sun and instead ended up confined to your house ill? What's the story there?
So I went out to California. I'm an east coast dude, lived there all my life - well, I lived in Kentucky for a little bit but that's much closer to the east. Anyway, I went out to California to investigate moving out there. I had enough friends out there, fellow music makers, so I figured I'd go out and do some work. Immediately, I got out there and got my weed card, bought a bunch of grass, started working and getting stuff together to take to friends, then immediately got super sick. Then, I was holed up in an apartment in a town that's not my hometown for two months in bed.
So what else was I going to do except write music and watch Netflix?
You say that so nonchalantly, but I don't know if most people would be so easily creating music while they've got pneumonia!
To be honest, for the first three weeks of it I didn't do anything. Literally, I laid in bed all the time. And then, once I got a little better, when I could get out of bed and walk to the next room, my friend Dave lent me a studio, and he brought over some really nice monitors and amps and equipment. I already had some of my own, too. So I set up a little room in this apartment, and I could then get out bed and saunter over in my bathrobe to my studio and work on stuff. And like I said, I had already bought all this really good weed, but I couldn't smoke it because my lungs weren't in such good shape. So I found a recipe for firecrackers - where you cook weed and make peanut butter sandwiches out of crackers - so I just ate weed all day and wrote lots of weird music.
I wrote some stuff I couldn't get away with. I definitely wrote the better part of a girl's R&B record. Some Beyonce-type stuff I'm trying to find the right person for.
So when did you decide it was going to be you making the album?
When I got back to New York, I took it all to the studio that I built 8 years ago with the bass player from Chin Chin. I got back and started fleshing out loose demos I had written out there [in L.A.]. And it was during that process that I just started finishing things, and I thought, "this really does sound like an album." I was attached to my weird demo versions, and I actually have a version of a song that another singer did, and it didn't translate as well. The lyrics were pretty personal and suited my style. Some of it wouldn't have felt honest coming from someone else.
I had the inkling that I might do this as a project for myself. I put together a band and did a show, had a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it.
I'm really interested in your thought process behind the songs and the movement behind them. It's kind of hard for me to imagine someone who's very ill creating this music because there is so much movement, so much variation and diversity, and definitely an overall upbeat, groovy, funk vibe. What was going through your head during those months?
Well, like I said I was in California, and I love California. I've only spent time there on tour, maybe one vacation here and a wedding there, but I really love California. I find that when I go somewhere new, where I don't know where all the light switches are, or where to get this sandwich that I always eat or where to buy underpants from this store… When I'm in places where I can't take those things for granted, I feel like I'm always more creatively fertile. Like where I don't speak the language, that's an inspiring thing to me. So even though I was spending most of my time in this apartment, I was still in a place that I didn't really know.
So when it got to the point where I could go for a walk in the daytime, a lot of things came from what I was imaging was going on out there. A lot of it was me wishing that I could go out. Another part of it is I was with the woman who is now my wife.
Thank you. I got married a couple weeks ago.
And I told her a while ago when I was on tour with Chin Chin that we should come here for the winter. So we went out there for that, and she applied for an artist's residency.
There are a lot of lovelorn lyrics on that record. That had to do with the fact that she had this whole life in L.A. while I was stuck at home. And then just my nature. I can be maudlin and dark like the next guy, but I just like funky music. I like a nasty groove, so I think even though the tunes are upbeat, lyrically, the album is dark. None of it is: "Everything is wonderful, let's celebrate." Even the party tunes are about the end of the world or perceived possible end of a relationship. So there's a little bit of a disconnect between the lyrics and the music. And that's on purpose.
One of the things I admire about this album is what seems like its purposeful execution. All the songs are different but it flows together really well.
If it is purposeful, it's because the production is purposeful. The way that I write and the way that I wrote this was very much jamming and stream of consciousness, as much as I can be jamming by myself. It's me playing everything. It all kind of "go with the flow," and very little is preconceived. The only one that was preconceived is the punk song.
Actually, that's just what I was going to ask next, too. The middle of the album has a nice little punk jam, "Real Estate," smack dab in the middle of 8 other songs filled with funky beats and tight grooves. Is there a story behind "Real Estate"?
This is the only one that's preconceived. I wrote it for my wife to do. We were looking at apartments, thinking we might move when we came back. She was in this artist's program, so I jokingly wrote it for her to do. I would have never imagined doing it myself. You know, Ween does shit like that. God Ween Satan: on that record, everything is kind of a caricature of another style; they always go so far over the top. You never know what's going to happen next on one of their records. I like that, that's exciting.
So it's purposeful in the production aspect. But the tune just came from being stupid. I wasn't trying to make an artistic statement at all. Just being silly. Goes to show, sometimes that's the right approach. Forget that you're trying to make it.
I've been doing this for a long time, playing and producing music for many years, so hopefully I'm now at the point now where things just kind of happen.
Actually, one of my favorite things from this new record is a song that's stylistically different from "Real Estate," but sort of similar. It's a doo-wop song, and I started doing it completely as a joke, then halfway through I realized I actually liked it. That's the way a lot of my stuff happens. I'll do things kind of flippantly and realize, hey that's kind of cool. Like, I didn't mean to fall down those steps with the shopping cart, but maybe I'll do it again.
And one more song question: "Love in LA," besides being probably my favorite song off the album, sounds like it would be perfect for a scene in a hot Hollywood movie - or a great indie film, whichever you prefer. You score films on top of your other musical projects, so was filmmaking going through your head at all with this song?
I was in L.A., bedridden during Oscar night, or around that time. My girlfriend at the time was ahead in life there. She was awesome and spent way more time taking care of me at home than she needed to, but she also had a life outside of there. She was going out and having fun, while I was watching movies on Netflix. I wasn't really thinking about a career or anything, I was just thinking, "This town is fucking weird, Hollywood is weird and I'm home by myself while my girl is out having fun."
In the case that this song or any other from the album could be paired with a film, do you have a director or writer that you would want to see it with?
Interesting. I've never really thought of that. Scorsese's songs and movies are always amazing. I could be in one of those montages where a bunch of people are getting whacked. But I'll just take it as it comes. If anyone wants me to do it, I'm down.
I'm working with a director Shay Nicholson right now in New York scoring a film called Downtown Calling, about the late 70s/early 80s New York music scene. I did the music for that, and I just finished scoring a movie called Rubble Kings. They're selling the narrative script to it now, but it's a documentary about gangs in the Bronx in the 1970s. Totally different music than my record. Though, I did start out doing some things for the documentary, then I was like, "Nah, I'm actually going to keep that one."
Oh, I know. Give me some Coen Brothers action.
Before the pneumonia - maybe you even segment your life into before and after, I'm not sure if it was that intense - but before the pneumonia, what were you doing, musically? Recording, producing, playing as a drummer and DJing?
I started playing music late in life for being a professional musician. I didn't start until I was 18. I went to college and hated college, but I had this stoner roommate who had a guitar. I knew a couple little things, but I cut school all the time and pretty shortly, I figured this is what I want to do. I dropped out of school, moved to Kentucky and started a band with my friend Jaleel, who's now in TV on the Radio. He shepherded me through the beginnings of becoming a musician. So I came back to New York and went back to music school. And I haven't had a non-music job since 2000. I've also been DJing since 2000. I was in a band called Pleasure Unit with Jaleel, we had a fancy manager and all that, and things were going well for that band until September 11th fucked up that band up. It kind of fell apart after that, threw a giant monkey wrench in that. That was the last time I had any bartending job. I've been purely making money off of music, DJing or film scoring or producing ever since.
And now after the pneumonia, you've got one kickass album out of it. Has that changed what you want to do in the music industry?
Sure, it certainly has. Doing something as a solo artist is a totally different thing. I've produced all the Chin Chin records and have a huge part in the writing of them, but it's a group, a band, and there are awesome things about it and really sucky things about that. Doing a solo project, likewise, there are some awesome things and some sucky things. In my position, I'm doing everything myself. Part of me thrives off of that, and part of me goes, "Jesus, can't I get a little fucking help?" (Laughs)
Honestly, though, I can't see it as changing my general relationship to the industry. I'm just trying to make good music and exist in an industry that's not really about that, you know? Because it's an industry. Art is not directly compatible with industry. They're just different things - one's practical and one's impractical. The best you can do is find a good medium, a good compromise between the two.
No matter what I do, or where I go next, it's all just trying to continue to navigate through a system that doesn't really care about quality, but I can't not care about quality. And that's not putting other people down, because I know most people get into it because they care about making music.
But it's sometimes like: who's the best at hanging out, who's the best at making people with money and power feel good about themselves? And that's not at all what I'm about.
And I really want to know - your real name is Torbitt Schwartz. How did you come up with the name Little Shalimar?
I came up with that name years ago. Years and years ago in the late 90s. During one of first 4 track recordings totally by myself, I just called myself Little Shalimar for some reason. It was completely improvised. It sounded good and I was probably super, super stoned. 19 years old. Little Shalimar just sounded like an awesome thing. I have a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of different nicknames. I think that's just kind of what happens when your name is Torbitt (laughs). But it just stuck and it's been my DJ name forever. Not sure exactly where it came from.
Well, like I've been hearing from you, sometimes it works best to just let yourself go with it and see what happens.
Yeah, exactly. In fact, the other day I did a DJ gig for a friend's band Red Baraat, and it's an Indian brass and dhol band. I opened for them playing mostly Bollywood stuff because I like it and hardly ever get to play that sort of music, plus it seemed appropriate. And then it occurred to me, the audience was probably 50% Indian, and here I was DJing Bollywood under the moniker Little Shalimar - people are going to think I'm either Indian or some weird fetishist. It never occurred to me before as being associated with Shalimar, the region. So sometimes you've got to be careful (laughs).
So final question, and I have to ask, especially since The New Pneumonia Blues is so genre-defying, fun and eclectic, you must have plenty of musical heroes, but what are some of your top musical influences?
I would say Funkadelic, the first five records. Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Sly for sure, Isaac Hayes without a doubt, Neil Young, and then there's a lot of hop hip producers. I'm never going to be an emcee, but the Bomb Squad who did Public Enemy Records, Prince Paul - and I'd say that's a pretty good list. I've really gotten into Dylan the last few years. I can't front, obviously the Beatles. That's actually the perfect example of pop. A Beatles record moves all over the place, especially once George Martin flexes his production chops. Completely different tunes.
I'm not comparing myself to the Beatles or any of these people. They have long canons of work and hopefully someday I can have a tenth of what any of these people have. But if you listen to a Beatles record, what is the genre? It's all pop, but all over the place. Abbey Road was one of my first musical memories. My mom played Abbey Road around the house, so I think I'm constantly subconsciously ripping that off.
The reason it's music is because while there's a lyrical component to it, I think one makes music because it's something that doesn't exist in word form. It's like, you can't say this thing but you can make the sounds, and then it becomes something you can't possibly convey in words.
Well, thank you for sharing your words with me. Please keep Online Rock updated on your next release! And if you ever come to LA, we'd love to see a show!
Thank you. It was my pleasure. And we'll definitely keep you in the loop.
To order a physical copy of the New Pneumonia Blues for $8 or to download a digital copy for free, visit his Bandcamp. For more information on all things Little Shalimar, visit the ever-entertaining website.
Interview Bio - Nancy Woo, managing editor at OnlineRock, studied Sociology, Literature and Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. A self-described "bohemian of sorts" she spends most of her time listening to music, reading, writing, freelancing in the world of journalism, tutoring writing, running, practicing yoga, attending live music and theater shows.