EMEFE's Miles Arntzen on What Makes a Good Bandleader

It took more than two years for Brooklyn-based EMEFE to record its self-titled debut album. Bandleader Miles Arntzen calls it a labor of love, stressing the word “labor" more than “love." It isn’t easy to orchestrate an eight-piece ensemble, after all — especially if you’re sitting behind a drum kit. Personal dynamics, musical vision, and technical preferences threaten to compromise the entire production. And with EMEFE’s complex, nearly freeform style, individual expression is essential. “But there needs to be a leader,” says Arntzen. “Someone has to have the ultimate say.”

Even in our interview, Arntzen is careful with his words, taking time to consider each question, sometimes repeating it out loud as though he’s mediating an argument between inquiry and response. “It’s the manner by which the leadership responsibility is handled that makes all the difference,” he says. "There are so many voices in a big band, and all those voices have opinions, and all those opinions are equal." But if all those voices talk at once, nothing is heard and nothing gets done. It may take restless years of diplomacy to finish an album. "On a logistical and social level, you have to manage opinions and voices and make everybody feel heard,” he says, “but you also have to make their voices heard in the best way.”

As EMEFE worked its way through the group's debut album, Arntzen began writing new tracks for the band to perform live. These songs were never intended to appear on the LP. They weren’t exactly an addendum to or evolution from the album either. Instead, they became something of therapy for the bandleader, who eventually rolled them into the Time EP, which will be released this May. Arntzen calls the tracks “snapshots” into an intense and anxious period for the band. The album was nearly done. There was occasionally down time. And Arntzen, perhaps exhausted from all his cautious diplomacy, decided to power forward with the new work. 

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“On the self-titled record, I embraced everyone having a say and being inherent to the process,” Arntzen says. "It was a beautiful thing, but it took a long time. With the EP, I wrote the songs. I knew what needed to happen on them, and I decided to be the director.” He may have been the director, but he claims he wasn’t a dictator. “I’d create frames for people to play in, then give them the freedom to express themselves."

Control – or lack thereof – is a running theme on the Time EP. The title track revolves around time’s omnipresence. The track “Torture” musters up the will to power pleasure into pain, and “Confess” finds the narrator realizing he’s capable of keeping a secret like everyone else.

"I am someone who likes to be in control of my music,” Arntzen says, “but EMEFE has always prospered because of everyone else’s voices and what they do with music. And when there are other voices, I obviously have to give up control to let everybody have some flow of creativity.”

In addition to his work with EMEFE, Arntzen plays drums for Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas and tours with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler. In both roles, the EMEFE bandleader says he’s able to express himself freely despite the sheer number of performers and specific vision of someone like Butler. These gigs have helped him better manage his role as a bandleader. "As much as you want to be in control, ultimately, if you’re working with other human beings, they have the power to take your music higher than it could have been. EMEFE has always been a collective of musicians, each with their own voice. That’s what makes it beautiful."

TransAtlantic Festival with Beirut, Kazoots, EMEFE, and more. Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9, at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $22 to $53 via eventbrite.com.

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