BEFORE THERE WAS A PARTY or a record label or anything else, it was the music that got them together. There was Alinka – then of the electronic band Shuteye – and there was Shaun J. Wright – best known then as the soulful voice that shaped so many Hercules & Love Affair records. Steeped in Chicago House Music lore, a party called “Twirl” came first, and born from all of that came a collaboration and a label – one of the best to emerge in the last two years from the city we call home.
Let’s start with some basics, as the history here is pretty fresh. When did you guys meet?
Alinka: We met in 2012 through Scott Cramer who was my band Shuteye’s manager at the time. He knew I was a massive fan of Hercules and Love Affair and thought it would be a great collaboration so he reached out to Shaun to make it happen. I was obviously very excited as I was a big fan of Shaun’s vocals, and then upon meeting realized we have a ton in common with our musical influences and we became instant friends.
I first heard about you with Shuteye. I wanted to ask about your previous projects, so let’s start there. Was that an overall positive or negative experience for you?
Alinka: Shuteye was a two piece electronic band I was in with Elysia Hang-Fu. I think it was a positive experience in that I learned a lot as a producer and got to branch out to a totally different style of music than I was used to working on. It was also interesting to see the music business from a different perspective – I definitely learned a lot overall. I also realized I would much rather be DJing and making House Music so it kind of led me right back to my roots but with fresh ears and ideas. Most importantly I met Shaun out of it, and that’s obviously been life changing.
And Shaun I first heard as the voice in Hercules & Love Affair…
Shaun: That was a very exciting period in my life. I learned so much about the music industry, the grueling and rewarding nature of touring, and became a much more confident and knowledgeable performer. Playing to a different audience with diverse cultural backgrounds each night really teaches you how to read a crowd, how to connect with them when they are unsure of what you may be trying to offer. I also made lifelong friendships with the other band members.
What was the original “Twirl” concept? I could be wrong but I think the residency at Berlin came first? How long did it last? I recall there were a lot of guests that one ordinarily wouldn’t see booked in Chicago.
Alinka: Twirl started as a monthly party at Berlin Night Club. Shaun, myself, and Mr. White started the night with the help of Scott Cramer and his company Stardust. We really wanted to bring in guests that we love and ones we don’t see playing in Chicago enough so it was really a great opportunity to do so.
Shaun: The monthly residency at Berlin lasted approximately a year and a half. We intentionally invited certain special guests that wouldn’t normally play in Chicago as a way to differentiate what we were doing from other nights. We also really appreciated the aesthetic of each of the invited guests and wanted to show them our love and support.
Are the tracks we’ve heard so far from a single period or are you guys constantly working together?
Alinka: I think we’ve just kept working since the moment we started working together. We have a lot of music that’s waiting to be released and are constantly working on new material. The amazing thing about having the Twirl label is we now have full control of our release schedule so that’s allowed us to be more strategic and at our own pace.
Shaun: In that aspect, residing in the same city has worked in our favor. We’ve been able to work together in a manner that’s not very normal for me. I’m typically not in the same city for extended periods of time, if at all, with other producers that I collaborate with. Alinka and I have had a great deal of time and freedom to meld our sounds together in a way that I think you can only obtain with a certain amount of closeness.
If I remember right, you guys released a record on Classic, and then on your own – is that correct? Do you feel that enabled a smooth debut? Are you satisfied with the hustle of promoting your own tracks on your own label?
Shaun: Yes, our first EP of original material, Twirl Vol. 1, was released on Classic Music Company. That was a huge honor for both Alinka and I as we are such fans of the label. We can’t be certain how much that contributed to the debut of Twirl as there is no metric in place for us to gauge such a thing. However, we do know the Classic release definitely opened us up to new audiences and that for sure has been helpful.
Alinka: The advantage of having our own label is we have full control of how things are done, and though there is a lot more work and more hustle, the reward feels greater when you’re involved in every aspect of a release. When it’s your own music on the line it’s nice to know it’s getting the care and attention it deserves. We’ve been fortunate to work with a great PR company in London, Dispersion. They’ve really done a lot for us. We also have a great distributor in Paradise.
All of your releases so far have had a really solid (and always unpredictable) group of remixers. Are these simply friends you’re calling upon? Do you have a favorite that someone has done with one of your tracks that made you say “wow”?
Alinka: I’ve honestly enjoyed all the remixes so much! I don’t have a favorite but when Eli Escobar sent us his “Wait For Love” remix I actually teared up a few times so that’s the one that really got me a bit emo, haha!
Shaun: Thanks for that acknowledgement. So far, the bulk of the remixes have come from friends but we will be expanding beyond that in the near future. We really mull over who we want for each remix. We always want to select remixers who will push what we’ve done into a new space, into their own sound. Since we have only been releasing two remixes alongside the original, each track gets to stand out on its own merit. A perfect example of this would be the “Journey Into The Deep” remixes. Kim Ann Foxman and Stereogamous both did such an incredible job recreating what Alinka and I did, making their remixes fresh and very different from one another.
Chicago can be pretty brutal to young artists (I think New York & LA more aggressively try to crush young people’s dreams. Chicago’s just indifferent regardless of who you are.) Have you felt that sting of being “shut down,” for lack of a better term? And how did you/do you deal with that?
Alinka: I think the bar is just set really high here and that’s a great thing, same with LA and NYC or anywhere you’re going to have a large concentration of artists. When I started out around 1999-2000 most people I met were really nice and welcoming. I was really lucky to have such a big support system from Justin Long and Superjane and all the other local artists and promoters that gave me a chance back then. I had amazing opportunities from being based in Chicago but I definitely had to earn my place and work for them. It was also a different world back then with vinyl and etc., I think once you gained people’s respect they were pretty cool as long as you were a nice person and genuine about what you’re doing. I basically spent nearly a decade of my youth playing at SmartBar regularly with Justin and you can’t get an education like that in many other places. There were a lot of ups and downs but it led me to the present and for that it was all worth it.
I do feel like these days it’s a bit cliquey at times and people tend to support their circle of friends more so than the talent pool that exists here, but at the end of the day I think everyone has a lot of pride in this city and the music, and that’s what matters. If you get to create and play the music you love I think the rest just becomes noise. There is a whole big world out there outside of where you’re living. I think it’s important to remember that because being a local anywhere can get very frustrating at times and you have to move past that and see the big picture. I had to take a few years off to clear my head and regain inspiration, and it took me doing that to fall in love with House Music all over again and meet Shaun and create the music I’ve always wanted to create. Eventually you grow up and learn to just be yourself and let it happen. Chicago builds character!
Shaun: I’ve not felt the sense of being shut down in Chicago at all. In fact, I’ve felt a great deal of support. Unlike Alinka, I spent the early 2000s away from Chicago and only returned in 2012 so much of my time has been spent elsewhere in Atlanta, London & NYC. When I came back to Chicago I had the pleasure of forming such a strong and lasting bond with Alinka. I also receive major love and support from The Banjee Report, Men’s Room, and the lovely folks at SmartBar. The bottom line is that you have to prove yourself wherever you go. If you enter the space with a bit of cred or a good reputation then you still must do the work to sustain.
You’re both overseas, or about to be, as we’re doing this! Where are you being called to and what is calling you there?
Alinka: I’m going to be wandering around Europe all of Spring and drinking lots of red wine, eating food, and making lots of new friends. Very excited!
Shaun: I’m currently in Australia and have been here for the last few months. I’m here to finish up my solo ep, create new jams with Stereogamous, and most importantly, avoid the winter. To circle back to your last question, the most brutal aspect of Chicago is her winter. Miss Winter is the thing that shuts me down!
Photos for this piece by Tasya Menaker.