Some people ascend in the music industry through sheer pluck and sweat equity. Others hope to fall in the lap of a benefactor or enabler. Rapper-singer Forrest Day belonged in the former camp for most of his career. Only recently did fortune smile on him, in the form of Berkeley music venture capitalist Wayne Skeen, who took a liking to Day after hearing one of his demos. Their shotgun wedding ensured that Day's rather improbable hip-hop band — a jazz-rock quintet in which the frontman doubles as a saxophonist — would become one of the most promising music acts in the East Bay.
For Day, that's a real turning point, at least in the financial sense. The tall, broad-shouldered, bearded, red-haired, 32-year-old former bouncer at Blake's emailed Skeen on a lark two years ago when he was short on cash. He'd managed to record an entire album's worth of material by borrowing money from other people, but he didn't have enough left to mix it. "So I decided to go through all my business cards," Day said with a wan smile. "I found one that said, 'Opus Music Ventures: Wayne Skeen, music venture capitalist. I thought, 'What is this?'"
At that time, Day was already well-established in the Bay Area, even without the armature of a record label. He'd opened for Anticon artist Subtle at The Independent, released an EP on his own, and toured the country with his four sidemen. He'd also showcased his band in more ambitious iterations, sometimes adding a horn section. At one point the group was an eight piece. Although Day had never tried contemporary fundraising channels like Kickstarter, he'd managed to amass resources on a need-by-need basis, sustaining a project that seemed impractical by many measures. Live instrumentation might be necessary in jazz, but it's mere frivolity in hip-hop — not for nothing are tidy, machine-made sounds the dominant signifier in the genre.
But Day was never beholden to trends. A former school-band geek raised in Lafayette, he started playing saxophone at age nine, learned to improvise on a pentatonic scale, and eventually figured out how to play through changes. He attributes his facility for rapping at fast tempos to a childhood spent playing sax — Day says he learned to rap double-time by applying the same tu-ka tu-ka articulation he'd use on a woodwind instrument. As a kid, Day always had designs on being a singer, too, but he says that most people discouraged him from pursuing it. "Because I've always had a stuffy nose," he pointed out in a tone just two pitches higher than his rumbly singing voice. "Like I didn't get the part in the school play because they said I sounded too stuffy — I actually had a lot of, whaddya call it, negative reinforcement."
Ten years ago, Day decided he was going to sing anyway. He also decided to make beats, using a Korg Triton keyboard, and recording songs on cassette tape, with the jankiest microphone he could find (it had a quarter-inch cable that connected to the tape recorder). He occasionally shilled beats to local rappers on "bro" deals — meaning for free, with the vague promise of remuneration down the line. In 2006 he formed the original Forrest Day band with fellow alumni from his alma mater, Acalanes High School, and a couple hired guns. Guitarist Terrell Liedstrand and bassist John Sankey had both shared stages with Day since sophomore year of high school; keyboardist Nick Wyner was the boyfriend of another old friend; drummer Jasper Skydecker was the only Craigslist find (and only tangentially). Initially, the idea was to form a temporary combo for live interpretations of Day's beats — hence the eponymous band name — but the musicians hit it off so well that they just stuck.
Their music does, indeed, have the feel of a well-rehearsed band whose members used to jam together in their parents' garages. On the chorus of "Hyperactive," Skydecker taps his ride cymbal in time with Day's anxious, high-velocity rap lyrics, while Wyner plays the melody line on each verse — it's interrupted by a bizarre reverie from Day's mom, describing the artist's birth. "Everybody's Fucking with My Mind" is a clipped, up-tempo rock song with a sing-songy chorus, held aloft by the interplay of drum and bass. "Hoarders" is a melancholy ballad about consumerism, quilted by two-part vocal harmonies and a soaring string section. Midway through, it becomes a punk song.
In many ways, Day's music is familiar. It has antecedents in Nineties rock bands like Sublime, and the staff at Skeen's record label, Ninth Street Opus, fondly call it "suburban hip-hop." But it's also surprising, with chords that don't always resolve in a logical or satisfying way, and song structures that sometimes careen in every direction. Day says he prefers to write that way — "Hyperactive" is one of his favorite compositions because "it ends at such a different place than it started." His handlers at Ninth Street Opus concede that Day's music has antithetical currents. In one sense, it's juicy, melodic, and larded with addictive hooks. In another, it's completely eccentric. They say that's the bulk of his appeal.
At least, that's what stood out to Ninth Street general manager Sara Mertz, who helped persuade Skeen to ink a two record deal with Day. "I was driving to Tahoe one night and I had the record playing on repeat," Mertz said, recalling her initial bedazzlement. "I was just stunned."
Ninth Street Opus funded the mixing and mastering of Day's self-titled debut, which officially dropped in October — he's currently in the studio working on another album. It was a risky venture for the label, which had previously focused on American roots music, with bands like Blame Sally and The Real Nasty. It's since widened its niche, signing local producer duo The Rondo Brothers and launching projects with Angelo Moore of Fishbone. Still, Mertz acknowledged, signing a rapper — even a white rapper from the 'burbs — took Ninth Street Opus a little out of its comfort zone. "If you look at the roster of music we put out, he was a big departure for us," Mertz said. She and Skeen are still trying to figure out if it's accessible to a wider audience.
Day seems less concerned, in that respect. He grew up with the conceit that he'd ultimately become a jazz saxophonist, and possibly remain a pauper. Now, for the first time, he has a professional-grade home studio with sleek mixing boards and compressors and Apple software. He gets to do music full-time. Best of all, he was able to amortize all the bro deals for his last record, thanks to Wayne Skeen's largesse. This week he'll perform at Art & Soul along with a slew of other local artists (including labelmate Blame Sally), and tent-pole headliners Meshell Ndegeocello, Lalah Hathaway, Luce, Souls of Mischief, and Kellye Gray. It's an auspicious start to the artist's fall tour.