In December 2009, rock nyc writer Robert Sciortino and I conducted the first ever Shinobi Ninja interview in the basement of Santos Playhouse (read it here), lead singer DA (Dave Aaron) mentioned how the band were broke and living off food stamps and how he had never been happier in his life. How the possibilities were endless for Shinobi Ninja. Six years later DA is explaining the video game NBA 2K12, released October 4, 2011, which features the Shinobi Ninja song “Rock Hood”.As of April 2012, sales had reached 4 million units.: “When you get paid for something like that you get a good amount of money. Which buys you a good amount of time. And so time is a very important commodity.”
That’s what years in the business did for one of the greatest live bands you will ever see, the six piece rock, funk hip hop conglomerate Shinobi Ninja.
In 2008, Shinobi Ninja were formed from the remnants of the twin brothers Dave and Mike and DA’s Stalley & The Wax Machine, they worked together at a rehearsal and recording studio in The Film Center Building where they met DJ Axis, the since departed bassist Jonny On The Rocks (current bassist Alien Lex was at the Ninjas first gig and began life as a fan) and cut their teeth on an eight song demo which became the heart of the live shows for years to come. The twins high school buddy Steve became the bands manager. In 2010 they released their first album and last year released a double and a mix tape. On January 13th, Artistic Visions dropped.
Maniak Mike: “There is a lot of stuff we did to make it to the stage and that takes time man, like to be on the stage and to do these things that we do took us constant work and thought. constantly mulling about it in our minds trying to record, trying to write it ya. Being in Shinobi Ninja, the embodiment of the band, is obviously when we are onstage: we exist as something that moves all six of us but it doesn’t just happen. If we wanna be there for the next show and we want to be there for each other, it just takes so much work for us to get there.”
I reviewed Shinobi Ninja’s fourth album, the excellent Artistic Vision, two weeks ago and DA got in touch, we hadn’t spoken to the band since Alyson interviewed them in 2011 and he suggested we have a sit down at their recording studio on West 23rd and so there I was last Tuesday afternoon with two thirds of Shinobi Ninja. DJ Axis Powers didn’t make it to the interview and neither did the other singer Baby G, but DA was there, as were the twin brothers guitarist Mike and drummer (and rock nyc writer) Dave. Bassist Alien Lex arrives late.
The studio is a little scruffy and very lived in in, it looks like a place where people work very hard crafting music and having a blast. “Iman, you’re a buddy, come and sit here” DA says, The band shares a joint and we get started with “Amped To 12” -the song that played during the closing credits of the Wayans Brother’s “A Haunted House 2”
Terminator Dave: “We love the Wayans Brothers, I think between the three of us we probably have seen all of In Living Color most of the Wayans Brothers movies like ya know. The movie had some cool stuff in it- it made me laugh my butt off myself, I was a little embarrassed sitting in the theater with my fiance’ and her sister and we’re both looking at it like woah this is awesome crazy. He,” pointing to Mike, “Went to go see it with Mom.”
Mike: Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, she’s very proud. Loved all those crazy ass jokes but the ghost doll… the ghost doll was a little rough!”
So after six years of hard work, the “Amped to 12” -a great proto-Shinobi rocker, their third big break didn’t break em big. Mike: “When you get paid for something like that you get a good amount of money. Which buys you a good amount of time.”
In 2010 there was a lot of momentum surrounding Shinobi Ninja, Rock Hood dropped, they had a very popular game released, their manager Steve Sternschein seemed to have them ready to break big time and they were touring the country and then for four years they spun their wheels. Dave knows the perception but disagrees with my understanding that they just lost their way a little. “I dont know man we had a lot of things going for us but at the same time when you’re trying to push Shinobi Ninja into the mainstream, a lot of people were telling us to take a lane, pick a style, and do it. We also stopped working with our Steve. ”
DA: “Around the middle of 2012 friction had really started with Steve and within all this stuff we were trying to stay releasing music and make that jump from independent to major.”
Mike: “Ya know it’s a big thing when you ask a group of six people that make music with no boundaries to now define boundaries and also everything you put into this now you have to change it to be part of this main stream. And i think that was a shock to us, I mean we may have wanted to be be big but we didn’t want to give up who we were. So i think it took us a minute to like figure that out and to figure out what we really wanted to do with our new music.”
It took the band till last year to give us Rock Hood’s follow up, a double released in two parts.the first of which included two great songs sort of lost in the shuffle, “Gloom Doom” and “One Time For The Radio”. Its best song, “Genuine” is surprisingly left till the very last track.
Dave: “While we had made Escape From New York and Return From and took a few years to get it out we still found the most beneficial way for us to release it was independently, doing what we were going to do and not have it being tainted by anybody.”
DA:”The best thing to do is describe to you by October 2011, we were having a lot of friction with our manager and he kinda told us like ya know its a wrap for this Rock Hood stuff, its time to make new music but we weren’t prepared at the time, with any music. It wasn’t in our evolution at this point, we were still like in Rock Hood, like what is this album gonna do? And at that same point is when we ended up in the video game and it sold 4 million copies which was the highest point for us but it was also the point where we stopped which is not a good recipe.
“Its not even conceptual , it was totally what the fuck . Like we said, when Steve told us that that’s a rap for Rock Hood we couldn’t push that no more we need new music, that was the point where we just wrote music. from November 2011 all the way until we started recording in March 2012. and we recorded from march 2012 til beyond. He said he wanted 50 songs, which i thought was just like…”
“We finished December 2012, January 2013 was like how we gonna release this? It took a year and a half until we released it ,we did a video, another video, we didn’t know what the fuck we’re doing. ya know? Its very good to understand that. Like musically we do know what the fuck we’re doing, but for all six of us come to an agreement on anything sometimes it can take incredibly long periods of time. As time has passed that period of time has become much shorter, Now we know a bit more about what we’re doing,”
Mike: ” I mean you can look at it like we did everything we knew how to do, we were running so fucking hard and we were like we’re going to release this fucking record and maybe we did it a little too early maybe we shoulda waited ya know to the end or uh somewhere in the middle of all that “Rock Hood” hit, yeah we didn’t, nobody saw, that coming man. You can’t live by the woulda shoulda coulda 20/20 vision looking back at the past.”
So they dropped their debut, toured for two years, had “Robin Hood” break huge, wrote and recorded 21 songs, toured again, lost their manager, and in 2014 recorded the follow up.
Dave “You said something thats very important though, that I don’t think a lot of people realize within the music industry and as you have been interviewing us for literally the last 7 years which blows my fucking mind in the first place, you said that releasing music nowadays is isn’t like releasing music even seven years ago. This is also an internal band discussion we’ve had: what Are We Going To Do Next? What is an album, what is a release? You can literally go to youtube and listen to all of our music cuz its out there. You can go to Spotify and listen to our whole fucking catalog. You dont have to buy any of our music, so if you want to listen to Shinobi Ninja you can listen to it and you can listen to alot of it. So if you’re a fan and you’re like you know you’re trying to check us out, dude you can check us out without prejudice.”
Translation: there isn’t much money in recording, and there is good money in licensing, and touring is where it is at. Good news for Shinobi Ninja who come completely to life on stage. If Robin Hood was good but not as good as the stage, and Escape and Return, hard bluesy and downbeat but needed quality control, then both The Monster Van Album and the recorded live in the studio Artistic Visions are their best recorded moments, and Shinobi are still better on stage.
“We’re like gladiators man they throw us in the middle with some lions and shit”
Lex (who has just walked in): “Ha ha ha yeah like gladiators but sometime it really works, let me tell you man we go through times when we’re live and it pays the bills and we’re out there touring like all of 2012, uh half of 2013 and and most of 2014 we were on the road and we did so many gigs.”
Dave: “So I guess if you go from February 2013 to September 2014 we’ve done like 150 shows although that’s a little less than we did, a little less touring than we did with Rock Hood. It was so much more informed ,so much more sharp, we honed our skills. We put the tours together for ourselves.”
“Steve helped us alot on our marketing and when he was around he put together a lot of the touring, like in the beginning, it was him me and our dude Woody.” rock nyc writer Woody Fuller. “But ya know we were doing it ourselves. Pick up the phone, call up “we’re a great band from New York City this is what we got going on, fuckin , let us have a show. Most of the time it was no but when we got to yes we blew it out of the water and grabbed as much promotion as we could. The next time around it was like well we know where our fans are lets go to them and do great shows and sell tickets and sell merch.”
Mike: ” But that was a long time coming it took all the work that we have done since 2010 to actually put ourselves on the road and drive the miles and just like understand that kind of business. If you took 5 years in a new business and you were like well, your business is either going to survive or its gonna die. And ours is gonna survive because we keep growing. It went from literally nothing, and we’re losing money on the road to all of a sudden we’re breaking even to then we’re coming back with a few thousand bucks you know and then by 2014 we said to ourselves we’re gonna go on a full national tour and we’re going to book it ourselves. And we did it!”
Artistic Visions was recorded live in the studio and then went through an extended producing and mixing: “We had an ideas to make a live album and everybody plays. DA birthed it. He envisioned artistically, he birthed the concept to its completion and he’s the only parent.”
“When the double done after a whole year of just doing that we were like let’s go freestyle in a room for a week, and every day we’ll just come in and make fresh music that didn’t exist for four hours and then tomorrow we will push record and do it again, we’ll do that for five days next week,we’ll come back we’ll freestyle just the vocals on Monday next track on Tuesday and done. We did like 4 hours each day and we just basically had everything plugged in in that room and all the mics were up live at the same time. So you can’t really do a lot of edits to a lot of stuff, because it’s all live and stuff like that. So all the stuff and like mics are bleeding everywhere and shit. So producing and mixing it in the end actually took… Much Longer ha hahh. So incredibly long compared to the creation process of the album to make it all sound coherent and to make it come out and breathe well and stuff cuz of the way it was recorded. So it was you know, a process …”
This year, the Ninja’s are putting together another national tour (they should really get to the UK). If you have never seen this band live, you really should. They could blow any band off stage, tight, energetic, fun. Unbelievable. Lex agrees: “People think Im crazy when I tell them that cuz I used to be a fan before Johnny. I handed him the first joint on stage, like I used to come to 70% of the shows maybe and so I told them that bands are scared of them and you know this guy looks at me like I’m crazy when I say that and Mikey too especially. It really is a problem. ”
Mike “People are afraid we’re going to eat them man, I cant see any reason why we can’t hang out man. We’re all about love. If people are throwing us shit if that their fear of aurasness. energyness, then thats up to them you know what Im saying? We are always love, its just its just its just about music man.
“If you’ve got fans it means youre doing something right. If we can come over for you its a good look for us.”
Look at it this way: Biggie said spreading love is the Brooklyn way, Shinobi Ninja spread love through the joy of music. It’s what they want to do and it’s what they want to do and we here at rock nyc love them for it.
(My thanks to Helen Bach for transcribing the interview and apologies to the band for any mistake in appropriating quotes -IL)
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