It’s a balmy 60 degrees in the middle of a mostly frigid, tri-state winter on the day of my interview with Agent Zero, the Philadelphia-cultivated electronic ensemble juxtaposing intelligent dance music and psych-rock with mood and feeling. Frontman and producer Noah Selwyn’s at-home studio is in Fishtown, the Philadelphia neighborhood that always sounded to me like it would be the equivalent to New York City’s Meatpacking District. A stone’s throw from mainstay power venues, The Fillmore and Electric Factory, it’s the neighborhood locale to local music haunts, Johnny Brenda’s and Kung Fu Necktie, where I’d first seen the pair animate a room years before; Selwyn and I calculate the distance as we walk up.
Music posters paper a greater part of the Southwest corner in a precise grid, and I think that some of them must be just from attendance, but as the conversation goes, I realize they’re all from shows played. A table displays instruments I can’t place, one that looks like a clarinet, but is not. The desk is flanked with speakers, a soundboard up on the computer screen, still working. I consider this as I piggyback on Q&As from other interviews with the mushrooming band, often cited as taking Infected Mushroom as a heavy influence, looking for other angles to the origin story.
Selwyn, a dark head of hair in head to toe black on a neck adorned with wooden beads, had just returned from traveling to Connecticut, his home state, where he grew up and into the music that would compel him to move to Philadelphia in the first place. “Typical suburb town, outside of Hartford. Pretty standard suburban come up…was into metal for awhile, but then my friends got me into The Disco Biscuits.” Game-over, amirite? “Ate some L, went to some shows, and I was like, I didn’t even know music could be like this.”
Going to festivals, like Camp Bisco, led to the discovery of other bands such as StS9 and Lotus, but Selwyn soon tired of going to shows in Massachusetts and New York, thinking, “I need to go someplace where the shows come to me.” Working for nonprofit City Year, tutoring and mentoring inner city students, is how he got to the City of Brotherly Love (now Super Bowl champs — Go Birds!), but going to school for music production is what got the gears turning.
“I tried to go to school for jazz drums, because I came from a drumming background, but I didn’t get in, and my backup plan was community college. The guidance counselor said they had a really good sound recording program. And I did it, and it was like a whole world of discovery within music production that I had no idea about. And from then on, it was just over. Just started building my arsenal over the years and just kept making music for hours ever since, like, Fall 2010.”
Guitarist Jason Lubes, in lighter attire and attended by a cat named Vega, started out playing trumpet and picked up guitar in middle school. “My grandmom bought me my first electric guitar for my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13, then it was just starting bands with my friends and throwing shows through middle school, high school and college.” The full band includes Rob Potter on saxophone as Agent Zero Live, while Agent Zero Live Band is with a drummer; all iterations of the outfit are subject to vocalists, bassists, additional strings or performance artists, depending on the vibe.
“Rob plays saxophone and this really cool wind synth over here,” Selwyn says, picking up the clarinet-looking thing. “It’s like a rack of stuff, but this little do-dad right here, it looks like a clarinet, but it’s actually a keyboard, basically and actually has, like, the breaths of an actual clarinet or something, so you can get these wispy sounds off of it. But there are hundred of patches you can play into it, you can play guitars, drums, crazy shit on this thing…”
So, how’d you guys meet? “We met at the Blockley,” says Selwyn. Ah, rest in peace. “Yes, rest in peace. It’s a furniture store now…So the collective that I rolled with, PsyFi, were all living in South Philly and had a monthly that ended up at the Blockley and we hosted bands and stuff. And I think Adrian knew Timmy Dubs and Jay through the New Jersey scene and brought their band down to the Yakibato Get Down Party…” Quietly, here, Lubes says, reverently, “Exactly.”
“…and Jay was playing guitar there, and that’s how we first met. And they needed a drummer, they were just jamming out, and somehow we just kept on hanging out more. But I ended up playing drums in this small little jam band in Jersey, and that’s how we started getting close. And then I was like, check out some of these tracks, I could probably use some guitar on some of these tracks…”
Grinning into the end of this phrase, Lubes builds, “He would come to band practice with his laptop, and before we would start, he’d be like, ‘Yo, check out these tracks I’m making, check out these tracks…’”
“Ha, yeah…So Jay came through one day, and played a couple licks, I was like, woah, that was really cool…” At this point, Vega is now in my lap, taking steps around an outstretched hand holding my Pixel like a microphone, as if to gauge my attention, while the delivery of these next sentences build, staccato, with the unassuming momentum of the origin story.
“…and I ended up chopping all of his licks into a guitar solo, stretching some notes out, and made this song called ‘Dirty Game Cartridges,’ and that was the first one that we banged out, and it was dope, and ever since then we’ve just been working together. And it just started out with Jay jamming out to my tracks, but it has evolved into this really nice co-conspirator deal that we got going on. We’re just sitting here crafting tunes.”
“We’re like Lennon and McCartney, we’re like a little songwriting duo,” Lubes says, hands gesturing in mime. “It’s kind of like we’re sculpting, like a sculpture sometimes, where you start with like a formless thing and then over time…”
“I think part of what we do is bring ideas to the table (like, Jay will be like, ‘I’ve had this lick in my head, let’s structure some songs around that’), we’ve made a few really cool songs like that. And sometimes we’ll just randomly hit record while Jay is just noodling. Like the guitar riff from ‘Luna’…I dunno, I just hit loop and was like, ‘Oh shit, that sounds great,’ and it became a whole song. And same with ‘Cali Shores.’” “Take the line and fuck with them, and kind of craft the sound from there.”
The Agent Zero SoundCloud is laden rich with remixes, collaborations, reworks, live recordings, albums and EPs from the over seven years of music the band has produced as a group and as a solo production effort. But Selwyn, Lubes and Potter today grace the cover of their newly available vinyl pressing from the recording of their storied set at PEX Heartburn at the Fillmore Philadelphia, Valentine’s Day weekend last year.
“That was an absolutely insane night. It was sold out. I got to shout out Lee Mayjahs from PEX [The Philadelphia Experiment], who booked us. I sent him my music a few years ago, and he was like, ‘This sounds like Bluetech, I like it, and I’ll hit you up for some shows.’ Played Heartburn once before and another time, and a couple years later I told him I had this band, and we have seven members with three singers, and drums, bass guitars, and he was like, ‘Ok, what time do you want to play at the Fillmore?’ So I was like, ‘Oh, like, primetime, sometime?’ … And that night was sold out. Over 2,000 people, bottom floor and top floor were completely overrun by crazy burner people. There was something about that night, the energy in that room, it was so well received, and everyone was screaming and shouting, it just felt so surreal. That was definitely one of the best shows we’d ever played, so far.”
That’s a pretty good reason to put a set on vinyl. However, it is worth mentioning that the week following the interview was an Altered States night, headlined by Phutureprimitve (“high vibes, intelligent bass music, uplifting and dark at the same time, not the typically build drop stuff; it’s psychedelic ass bass music”), where Agent Zero was joined by Philly rapper, Acid Orphan, and acclaimed performance troupe ArcheDream for HumanKinds and William Street Common transformed by art collective Bangarang, which was transcendent — but I digress.
Agent Zero at the Fillmore was already recorded when the idea to launch a Kickstarter lead to the discovery of QRATES (new music platform for vinyl integrated with download, streaming and other digital solutions), which had deals through Kickstarter. The project ultimately raised over $3,000 to press the dual vinyl LP, which aligns perfectly with the DIY sensibility of the Philly music scene, a hotbed for talent and hometown for more big names than one would think with New York City so close.
“It’s great that Philly is getting the attention that it is getting. Its bass music scene is now getting the attention that West Coast (Oakland and LA) was getting 2011, with GladKill, Freddy Todd and Griz. Like Bassnectar is picking up artists from Philly, playing their tracks. PEX is here, the Coda people are also doing really cool things. It’s been a longtime coming I think, for this city, and it’s awesome to see that it’s finally coming out.”
Having played several festivals in New Jersey and New York, including a Mysteryland offshoot after party festival (“300 people, like a silent disco.”), the livetronica outfit recently stopped at Camp Bisco, the near 20-year-old summer music festival hosted by those famous sons of Philly, The Disco Biscuits.
“The official set first set was with Adam Deitch (Lettuce, Break Science), CloZee and a diverse amount of people. We were, like, the very first people to play, everyone was just ready. But the really cool part was Jay is friends with Raja Hologram from Laser Guided Visions, and he had this tent, right on the ground to the main stage and PA with subs and stuff. And we were right next to the Grassroots California tent, so it was a pretty cool rep scene.”
“So [Raja] was like, ‘So, when do you guys want to play [again later]? We’re right after Pretty Lights.’ And the row was a bottleneck; it was the only row to get to the main stage, so everybody had to walk by. So Pretty Lights was closing the night, and we went on as soon as they were done, and the entire 10 thousand person ground went right by our set, like walls of people at times, going nuts. That was the most exhilarating…Then we played a renegade set, in the RV camp the same night.”
To get the most out of the weekend, they played three sets in 24 hours, but that’s far from all. “But yeah, we got to meet a bunch of the guys from the Disco Biscuits that day; we hung out with them! This guy from Dam Right! really wanted to play bass with us. I was kind of like, ‘I dunno man,’ and he was like, ‘Do it man, it’ll be really awesome.’ I saw something, some kind of advantage with that, and I said yes, and he was like, ‘Oh, ok, cool, let me talk to Allen Aucoin and Brownie and I’ll be right back…Actually, come with me.’”
“And he brought us into the green room with The Disco Biscuits and people hanging out, and he was like, ‘Guys, guys, I’m about to play with Agent Zero. Brownie, can I borrow your bass?’ And Brownie was like, ‘Yeah, sure man.’ And I was like here, smoking weed, with The Disco Biscuits, and Jon [the Barber] was like, ‘Agent Zero, I like that name.’ They were one of the reasons I’d moved to Philly, so I was like, ‘Uh, this is ridiculous.’”
This band has shared stages with many grassroots juggernauts that head up the insider scene parties all the way up to the mainstream festival events that are the generating billions for the industry. A stacked calendar penciled in opening for Conspirator at the Ardmore mere months prior, and Pretty Lights on New Years Eve. “Now that we have the rep of like, STS9, Pretty Lights, Infected Mushroom, Conspirator, all those people, I def want to branch out, get the word out of the city.”
Talking dreams of Sermon, the world famous Brooklyn spot with a subwoofer for a floor, and Cosm (“It’s Alex Grey’s house, so he does all his art there and he has all these gatherings during solstice times. I heard it’s amazing.”), Agent Zero is on the verge of breaking through. With tunes that are at once nostalgic and futuristic, their sound is able to travel among audiences and move people with genre markers that connect and revel. So what’s next?
The newly released Nemesis EP is three solid tracks with collaborations between Selwyn and local artists throughout. “A lot of the songs were made in the summertime. This whole last year I’ve been stacking tunes, stockpiling, not releasing anything, so I’d been sitting on like, three albums. But Nemesis was an EP that was all of my darker stuff, and mentally I wasn’t really in a good place. But I had to figure my way out of that, and I ended up writing a song about it, and it was kind of like the turn around and release of that kind of energy that I needed to get out. That’s why Nemesis is a dark, dark album.”
In particular, “Bad Mouth,” — a dubstep track off the EP Selwyn recorded last November in New York, with world champion beat boxers Mark Martin and Kaila Mullady, during a stay at their house and Johnny Buffalo (who played guitar and beat boxed) — brought me back to the 2011/2012 warehouse EDM time signatures, themselves harkening back to an era of drum and bass most millennials can only learn about.
The next effort from Agent Zero is an album, The Awakening, slated to drop in April of this year. “Jay played a little bit of guitar that I sampled on Nemesis, so it sounds really weird, like, picky. But most of it was me on the EP, but the next one is going to be lots of guitar, sax…That’s like, the good shit. It’s gonna be like, six tracks, I think. But it’s all the crafted sound I’d been talking about, really spending time making every sound warm and fuzzy and huge.” Perfect for the springtime.
“We need something original and something different than the sample presets out in some producers songs, and that really comes down to toying with frequencies and making them sound good on your ears and mixing them all together and create something crazy.”
In an age of singles and the digitization of music where Spotify and SoundCloud don’t always encourage the consumption of albums in order, the question of the value of putting out an EP or an album is prevalent. “I find personally, listening to music on SoundCloud and stuff, unless it’s an artist that I really like or the music is blowing my mind, I’m listening to about two to three tracks at a time, because it’s just an endless trove of sounds to listen to,” Selwyn explains. “So I think EPs are good for buzz, and then you drop an album, and that’s the one. That’s like, the shit.”
Lubes waxes, “I love albums. They are an opportunity to present something as a whole, but everyones, (including my own) attention span is pretty short. So I think it’s not a quite a question of albums or singles: you need to be constantly (and for me as a music consumer) making and seeing new stuff from my favorite artists. Because there’s so much coming out so fast that I need something newer, sooner than I would have 10 years ago, where you’ll wait once a year for your fave artist to drop something. Now you can release a single, even as an independent artist on Spotify or SoundCloud so easily. So that constant flow is more important. I think that albums will always be the best way to put out music.”
With a touch of commentary on the bands own upcoming half-length, Selwyn picks up on that: “A full album is a statement by the artist of definitive sound. I think the two definitive sounding albums from Agent Zero have been Ones and Zeros back in 2011, 2012 and then Sound Sorcery, which was a nine-track album in 2014. Between those I was releasing four-track EPs and stuff, but those albums were a definitive sound where I was working with Jay heavy. So it was like, ‘Oh, this is bass music with guitar, I get it now. And saxophone too? That’s crazy! Ok, this is what Agent Zero sounds like, now.’ It’s a whole product and an image.”
Agent Zero touts TheAwakening as their masterpiece, in the etymological sense. “It’s a huge culmination of where we want to sound, and what we want to show people how we sound, next evolution of Agent Zero, it’s why we are calling it TheAwakening.” To market and promote the music, the band plans on doing packages and song accompaniments and building art around the release, including a video with Acid Orphan, the Philly rapper who contributes on the title track of the Nemesis EP.
“Like this EP that just came out, it’s like this dark stuff, and like, ‘What’s next?’ Well, up next is the definitive sound, TheAwakening album. So it’s all about strategy, which is the smartest way to do things.”
Monetizing and commodifying art in a digital age certainly takes strategy, but if it’s one thing millennials haven’t killed, it’s disruption and innovation. “As far as touring goes, getting cash in hand, selling merch, is still best way to make money. But ‘Pay what you wish’ on Bandcamp is great to generate, too — like, let just give this guy 50 bucks, because I like his music. That’s happened before.”
“The way that artist make money has been completely shattered,” echoes Lubes. “But the good thing is that people are finding a way, because there is no set way. For instance, there are a lot of subscription based models now, which is a new thing: you can pay an artist, $10 a month, let’s say, and you get all the fresh unreleased stuff, access to their entire discography, sound packs, and things like that. And people are getting creative with their merch and finding so many ways to commodity the music.”
“The light at the end of the tunnel,” Selwyn assures, “is that artists are finding their way. But you just need to find out what works for you. For us, pressing one of the best live sets we’ve had onto vinyl has given us success. The shows are good money. It’s tough out there. But you got to diversify, the money and the music. Right now the music industry is very…‘If it works, great. If it doesn’t, do something else, because there are no rules.’”
The thing about the number zero is that is isn’t a number at all. It’s imaginary, a concept invented to teeter between the positive and the negative, making things greater than or less than, depending on how it’s used. For Agent Zero, being on a mission to make you move is the narrative that carries them through and inspires the kind of dance music that, in space, brings people together and, at once, is singular.
Agent Zero’s limited edition LP, Agent Zero at the Fillmore and the Nemesis EP, are available now. The new album, The Awakening, is due out April 2018. For more information, please visit SoundCloud.com/agentzero or Facebook.com/agentzeromusic.