Riley With Fire, the musical project of Baltimore native, Marcus Brown, is everything you would expect from a guitar playing Berklee grad: complex rhythm, magnificent synths, disco guitar, and fat hip-hop beats.
Brown has created a very original sound that blends the hipness of 90s R&B with the innovation of the modern rap and alternative scenes. Fresh out of college and filled with determination, you’re sure to hear a lot from Riley With Fire in the future. We had the pleasure of interviewing Brown this past week, he told us all about 90s R&B, Mac Demarco, Wendy’s 4 for $4 and much more. Check out our conversation below and be sure to give More Imagination a listen!
Let’s start with a fun question…You post about the regular show on your Instagram, and you covered a song from Space Jam on your latest EP, are you a big cartoon fan?
I wouldn’t consider myself like a huge cartoon fan. But I just really like the Regular Show and Space Jam just kinda hit my nostalgia. I really like 90’s R&B. I grew up listening to it a lot and “Basketball Jones” is classic 90’s R&B stuff. But yeah the Regular Show is just a great fucking show!
When you play a live performance, do you overlap tracks? Do you have live musicians that play with you?
When I first started doing the whole Riley With Fire thing, I was just trying to get ideas out. And then it just grew into this thing where I just started putting it out. After a couple months to a year of doing that kind of thing, I got a band. I had the band two years ago. And then I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I guess I changed my style pretty often. The last show I did was around summertime. I sensed the songs were hip hop based. But back when I had a band, it was more like rock music. I was really into Foxygen and all those kinda bands. So I was trying to do that kinda thing. Around More Imagination and APPLEHEAD, I started listening to more rap, trap, and Kanye and stuff like that. So those live shows, I would just hand my friend my phone and play instrumentals and sing over those. That was pretty much it. But I wanna have a band! I wanna find someone to mix both a band and instrumental tracks of my phone. I think that’d be pretty cool. But I haven’t really figured out how to play live yet. I’m not really playing live right now.
How did Berklee affect Riley With Fire? Was there any professor or performance that had a huge impact on you?
Not really, I guess when I first went to Berklee I wanted to be a guitar player, like backup guitar for somebody. I met cool kids and they showed me like Pitchfork, Fader, and all these cool like music magazines. And I started listening to cooler music. I started listening to Mac DeMarco and hipper bands. I kinda grew out of all of it. I grow out of stuff really quickly. I just want to find a new thing. I guess it all started when I wrote this song called “Camp” and this kid said it was cool. So that gave me the confidence to just keep going. But I started it my first year at Berklee, around the end of the first year.
So did you go on as guitar performance and switch?
Yeah I wanted to be a performance major. Then I switched to songwriting and then to pro-music. Because the songwriting major was weak. I kinda just found songwriting that way. I just kept practicing it.
Did you always picture yourself as so involved with all of the production in your music?
Yeah, I have control issues probably. I just like being in control of the sound and stuff. But it’s cool because it’s helped me develop the ear for production where I didn’t really have one before. It’s helped me get much better. If you listen to my first release, there are just terrible, terrible recordings. People thought I was doing lo-fi shit but I really just didn’t know how to fucking work a mic. I just didn’t know how to do it. I wanna get someone else to mix myself now. I wanna get more of a professional sound, be more accessible to people.
When you were young, what got you into music? Did you take guitar or vocal lessons?
No, I didn’t start playing guitar until two years before I came to Berklee. Yeah, I didn’t know music was going to be in my life until two years before Berklee. I was playing basketball. I was a basketball player, I just loved sports and shit. Then I got cut from the team. It was when Michael Jackson died. Michael Jackson died and they started showing all these videos of like Slash and Michael Jackson playing together and I was like what the fuck is that? So I started googling videos and that’s how it all pretty much started. Me playing guitar. Slash and Jimi Hendrix were the first guitar players where I was like, “oh shit black dudes playing guitar that’s fuckin awesome.” Until then I didn’t even think about music seriously. I was in marching band though. But even still I wasn’t thinking about music. I just got tricked into being in marching band.
Did you play guitar in marching band?
No, I played bass drum. This big ass bass drum.
Anyone in your family of a musical background? Do you remember what your parents would listen to growing up?
My mom isn’t musical. But she was the one who would listen to a bunch of Soul Music and R&B. 90s R&B like Sade and S.W.E is one of my favorite groups of all time. But she was the one who listened to more of the Soul radio stuff like Stevie Wonder. My dad was the musician. He plays bass and he’s been playing bass since he was a kid. He’s more jazz influenced. He loves George Stinson and Al Jarreau, all this smooth jazz that I fucking hated, but that I’m starting to like. I get it now. You can’t be closed off if you’re a musician. You gotta like everything. When I was a kid I just hated it. My Grandmother said I’m related to Aretha Franklin but I don’t really listen to that. But I tell people, just because it’s hilarious.
Were you playing shows mostly in Boston or Baltimore?
No I haven’t played anything. I just got back home. I’ve just been writing stuff for my future releases. I’ve just been trying to experiment with new sounds and stuff. But I’ve played at this college in New York, Bard College. It was pretty fun. I played there in this cold garage. There were a couple of people. It was pretty sick, pretty fun. Other than that I was just playing in Boston. I just got weird anxiety about playing live. But I gotta get over it. It’s kinda fun. It’s fun if you get really good at it. I just gotta figure out my setup.
Did you find it hard to get booked?
I haven’t really done it myself. When I played, I mostly played with other bands. I’ve just been on the bill with a bunch of other people.
As a guitar player?
No just mostly if someone needs someone to fill a show. I just do it with some rappers. Or I perform with another band.
Where are some of your favorite spots to grab food? Which is better Boston or Baltimore?
Definitely in Boston. Baltimore is pretty much the same kinda city. It’s a small, major town. I’m gonna sound basic as shit but I just really like Chick-fil-A. In Baltimore, that’s pretty much where I go. In Boston, I would just get the 4 for $4.00 at Wendy’s. Because it was cheap and I lived down the street. But I don’t know too many glamorous spots, but those would be the places I’d frequent. Like it came at the perfect time too. Like oh shit you get a meal for $4.00, like yes: what I need right now.
What’s next for Riley With Fire?
Right now I’m working on just becoming a professional. I’m trying to become more accessible to fans and get my music heard more. I wanna one day be signed to a label by my favorite artist. There’s this artist London O’Connor, he’s like cool Hip Hop. He’s not even Hip Hop, he’s like Synth Rap. I can’t even put a genre to it. It’s really cool. I reached out to him. He gave me some tips on how to make it in this business. But I’m just trying to be more clean. I’ve been working on new songs that sound completely different than More Imagination. It’s probably because I’m not smoking weed anymore. I’m just trying to focus. I’ll to do more shows. I would love to do more videos. That’s what’s next. I’ll probably just do a bunch of music videos for all of the songs. Just blow up and become famous.
That’s the dream.
(laughs) That’s the dream. As my friend JD says. I should just do a bunch of videos.
Would you put a genre on your music?
I would just say my perception of music is not like reality. What’d I would say is not what it actually sounds like. I would love for other people to kinda put a genre to it. Like that would help me kinda. My life is kind of removed from reality, so I need other people to help me be in touch with it. I think it sounds like Glam Rap or something like that but with singing. But I guess that’s not too far removed. I need to find a cool catchy name for it. I came up with Stadium Soul, that’s what I want to think it sounds like. That’s what I try to make it sound like.
Check out More Imagination below!