The groudbreaking Bay Area trio is using music to connect global cultures.
SF Weekly (Cover Story)
I’m standing in the pit of the Fox Theater in Oakland on a Saturday night in December, waiting for the electronic world-fusion band Beats Antique to take the stage. The venue, with a capacity of 2,800, is packed with people wearing yoga pants, utility belts, sombreros, and crystal necklaces. Whiffs of weed, patchouli, and peppermint are everywhere.
It’s the kind of crowd where random high-fives are doled out, and I overhear clips of conversations about Renaissance Faire-themed weddings, the best stretches to do in the morning, and whether or not “these are drugs or just pills.” In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was at a Burning Man party.
The guy to my right, a techie from S.F. who’s wearing a zip-up fleece jacket, tells me he rode BART in to see the band, which he’s never before seen live but has been listening to since 2012. Earlier, I met a throng of women clad in flared pants and adhesive gold tattoos who had flown in from Boston just for the show.
“They’re my favorite band of all time,” one of them tells me, before being interrupted by a friend who brags about liking Beats Antique “since high school.”
Eventually, the lights dim and a hush falls over the crowd as a woman with long, dark hair, smeared eyeliner, and a gold bra with tassels on the nipples takes the stage. She’s Zoe Jakes, Beats Antique’s principal dancer, and she’s carrying a glowing golden ball of twine, just as she does on the cover of their most recent album, Shadowbox. The ball of light casts shadows across Jakes’ face as she dances in the darkness, and the beginnings of an Indian raga, created by the other two members of Beats Antique — Tommy Cappel and David Satori — peal throughout the room.
Ten minutes in, and Jakes is still performing, her gestures and movements mirroring the song’s changing tempos. As strobes of red light beam down from the rafters, the bass picks up, careening into a full-fledged gallop, and Jakes starts spinning in circles, the ball extended horizontally in front of her.
When the bass dies down, Jakes stops spinning and slips backstage while Satori addresses the audience.
“It’s good to be home,” the bespectacled musician says, picking up the violin. “We love you, Oakland.”
Using quick, decisive strokes, he launches into a zippy violin melody with an Eastern European lilt. Cappel, who’s on drums, joins in seconds later, and then Jakes re-emerges with a drum strapped to her chest.
Smiling, she pauses at center stage and raises her arms in the air. The crowd goes wild. Like animals, they’re hooting and howling and whistling and clapping with such ferocity that I have no doubt the walls of the Fox are shaking. Two girls in front of me embrace in a tight hug, and I realize I’m about to experience the camaraderie that the girl from earlier meant when she said, “Welcome home.”
THE BIRTH OF A BAND
“We’re the ultimate Halloween band,” Jakes tells me a few weeks before the show at the Fox. “Encouraging people to get weird and be weird is a big part of who we are as a band. We want people to feel like they can show up and fly their freak flag.”
We’re sitting in the band’s studio on Alcatraz Avenue in Oakland, where the group creates music and runs its label, Antique Records. There’s a room in the back that they use as a combination rehearsal space and dance studio, and they recently turned the storage room in front into a retail store called ShadowBox that sells locally made jewelry and clothing, as well as the band’s own merch and records.
Before Beats Antique existed, the members were each musicians — and in Jakes’ case, a dancer — for different local bands and burlesque acts. Over the years, they got to know each other through touring, Burning Man, and the underground music scene in Oakland. They’d occasionally find themselves performing for the same outfit — as Cappel and Jakes did in the early 2000s, when they each joined the Extra Action Marching Band. Satori met Jakes at a Bassnectar show around 2003, and the two have been dating ever since.
A few years after the turn of the century, Jakes, who grew up taking ballet but has been studying bellydancing for 18 years, joined the Bellydance Superstars, a troupe formed by producer and manager Miles Copeland. Wanting to find music to dance to that was exactly to her liking, Jakes proposed to Copeland around 2006 that she, her boyfriend, and a friend form a band and make music for the troupe. Copeland agreed, giving the newly formed trio a two-record deal with his label, Copeland International Arts, and helping them land their music in Barnes & Noble stores and in a commercial for Audi.
By the time Beats Antique released its third album, Contraption Vol. 1, in 2009, it had left Copeland’s label, opting to branch out as an independent act, relying on sites like Bandcamp, which it still uses today, to sell its music. A fortuitous friendship helped the band become an early inductee to Pandora Radio, and by 2010, the group was selling out multiple nights at local venues like the Independent. In the fall of that year, Beats Antique embarked on its first independent national tour, and it wasn’t long before the band began traveling the world, performing at a number of festivals and playing shows in far-flung locales like New Zealand and Costa Rica.
Today, Beats Antique has released 11 studio albums and played for crowds as large as 20,000 people at practically every big-name festival you can think of, including Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, Lightning in a Bottle, Austin City Limits, and Sasquatch. They’re endorsed by a slew of audio equipment and production companies, such as Abelton Live, Native Instruments, Universal Audio, Dunlop, Deering Banjo Company, and Steinberger Violins, and have plans to host a band camp, with music and dancing workshops for adults, as early as this fall.
Though their tenacious touring is part of the reason for their success — they average about two tours per year it’s their music and the performative aspect of their shows that is largely to thank for their popularity among listeners. Beats Antique culls sounds and styles from all over the globe — such as Middle Eastern bellydance music, Eastern European folk, Indonesian gamelan, Indian ragas and sitar tunes, New Orleans brass and jazz band compositions, and even heavy metal and combines them with electronic production and instrumentation, like thundering 808 drum machines, droning bass, looping, and distortion.
“It’s a complete ethnic smorgasbord of all these different cultures put into one thing,” Copeland says of Beats Antique’s creations. “And it works.”
Jesse Flemming, a co-founder of the Do LaB, which is responsible for events like Lightning in a Bottle and Dirtybird Campout, was an early fan of Beats Antique and one of the first promoters to book them.
“Those guys were the first people to really bring world sounds and live instrumentation to electronic music,” Flemming says. “At the time, it was one of the most unique sounds that anyone had heard, and I still think it is. I don’t think anyone is doing a Beats Antique-y sound. They’ve always been kind of unique and stood out in that way.”
In fact, Beats Antique is anything but normal. This is due not only to the performative aspects of the group’s shows, which can include as many as a dozen dancers performing choreographed routines onstage, but also to the small size of the band. Because the group lacks a lead singer and only has three members — who mainly play drums and strings — collaboration is an integral part of Beats Antique, which has performed alongside acts as varied as Les Claypool of Primus and the ’90s alternative rapper Lyrics Born.
And often, the way the trio uses instruments is also unorthodox.
“They transform and transmogrify a lot of the sounds that many instruments are traditionally known for,” says Chrys Johnson, the artist relations manager for Jim Dunlop Guitar Products. For example, even though Dunlop’s products are mainly for guitarists and bassists — “Dunlop’s main crowd is dad rock and metal,” Johnson says — Beats Antique uses the company’s pedal boards for non-traditional instruments, like the tenor saxophone and clarinet.
“To me, Beats Antique represents a modern band unafraid to experiment and try new things,” Johnson adds. “So it’s kind of this win-win, because they’re breaking ground and by proxy, we get to break ground with them by letting them use our products.”
Halfway into the show at the Fox, after four belly dancers clad in crowns and bra tops scuttle backstage, a large, rectangular white screen bordered in blue velvet is dragged out. The shadow of a woman in a long gown appears behind it, and a narrator starts reciting a story: “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a beautiful maiden met a glorious prince. And the prince, she was the most beautiful and strong prince in the land.”
By this point, the shadow of a second figure has appeared behind the screen, and though it is clad in armor, it is quite obviously a woman. A dragon intent on foiling the pair’s relationship enters soon thereafter, and the prince slays it with a scimitar.
Throughout 2016, Beats Antique performed this pro-gay marriage shadow play at every show in the U.S. — including in states with harsh anti-LGBT laws, like North Carolina. The dragon, Jakes says, “represents all the conservatives who are against gay marriage,” and the purpose of the play is to mess “with people’s perceptions of who can be a prince or a maiden or a knight.”
In fact, Beats Antique is far from shy about using its music as a soapbox, or as Cappel puts it, “tell[ing] them stuff we believe in … [because] we’ve got people’s ears open.”
Sales from the track “Le Refuge” off Shadowbox are being donated to a charity aiding Syrian refugees, and it’s not uncommon for the band to address current events at concerts. Beats Antique also has a reputation for making tour stops in countries that most bands would avoid. In 2014, while Russia was invading the Ukraine, the group visited Moscow, and it has also performed on multiple occasions in Israel, which Satori describes as “always a hotbed.”
“I’ve actually heard people say, ‘Why are you going to this country?’ ” Jakes says. “And it’s like, the people that live in that country, most of them are not supporting that conflict. And to deny them music or art because you don’t agree with what’s happening on a government level, well, that’s like basically giving the finger to a bunch of people.”
In 2012, during Egypt’s Arab Spring, they snuck into the country and played a show in front of the Great Pyramids that culminated in an improvised mass collaboration between Beats Antique and a slew of local musicians, bands, and even whirling dervishes.
“Everybody was telling us not go because it was crazy and unsafe,” says Flemming, whose company helped organize the event. “But we wanted to bring our community out there and mix it with the local musicians and performers. And it was pretty amazing. None of them had ever met before, and they didn’t even speak the same language, but music is universal, and [Beats Antique] was able to get up there and just jam out with the local musicians even though they couldn’t communicate.”
Unsurprisingly, Beats Antique’s music has a political bent. Not only does the band combine music from cultures that might be warring or in conflict, but, by taking foreign styles and packaging them into familiar sounds for Western ears, the bandmembers say they may be helping people to become less racist and xenophobic.
“We’re taking people of out this way of thinking of music as the religion or culture that it represents,” Satori says. “It’s actually just melodies, and Beats Antique is trying to tap into that and unite people around the music, and not the places that it comes from.”
“We’re trying to normalize different kinds of music,” Jakes adds, “especially because we have a lot of younger audience members who, because of their age, tend to be more malleable and open to new things and experiences.”
Given that the band is heavily inspired by Middle Eastern and Arabic sounds, especially Hindu, Sufi, and Islamic music, this is an especially timely goal.
“I would hope that someone who had Islamophobia or some issue with the Middle East might hear our music and be able to appreciate its beauty,” Satori says, “and maybe even learn how to connect with Middle Eastern culture in a new way.”
But there have been some who have found fault with Beats Antique’s mixing of genres, which you can witness not only in their music, but in their onstage dance performances and their choice of background visuals.
“I spent the whole time wondering if I was witnessing cultural misappropriation bordering on racism,” wrote one concertgoer in a review for the website Brightest Young Things in 2014. “I’m no ethnologist … [but when] the sources you’re supposed to be celebrating are costumes rather than people with histories and beliefs, it’s time to stop and reconsider if you’re really improving upon the materials with which you started.”
But both Beats Antique and Copeland, the producer who originally helped the band hone its sound, are quick to defend their art and describe themselves as innovators, not imperialists.
“The fact is, music appropriates,” Copeland says. “That’s what it does. That’s what Elvis [Presley] did. That’s what the Beatles did. So any artist that’s good appropriates. Because what else are you going to do? Stick yourself in a box? Say, ‘OK, I’m a White guy from San Francisco, so I can only use this number of chords and melodies?’ That’s horse shit. Appropriation is all about opening people’s minds to other influences, and to me, that’s the greatest tribute.”
MEANWHILE, AT THE FOX …
When Beats Antique last played the Fox in the winter of 2011, they wanted to go out with a bang and had hoped to shut down the street outside so that they could throw a big party afterward. That plan ended up being too expensive, so they dropped it, and it’s a good thing they did.
During their performance, Occupy Oakland protesters staged a march down Telegraph Avenue, and by the time the show let out, there was not only a huge bonfire burning in the middle of the street, but an entire sound system blasting tunes for an impromptu dance party.
This time around, there are other current events, like the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland in December, the election of Donald Trump as president, and California’s decision to legalize weed, that Beats Antique makes a point of addressing onstage.
More than an hour into the show, after a seemingly laborious dance routine from Jakes — who balanced a golden water jug atop her head while striking advanced yoga poses, like Bird of Paradise — the trio disappears backstage for a brief respite. The crowd applauds and cheers in the hopes of enticing the band to return, and I watch as five people form a massage chain.
When Beats Antique returns, Satori has folded his two hands into the shape of a heart, and Cappell is holding up a peace sign.
“Oakland, are you ready for a revolution?” Satori yells into the microphone. “Whether it’s going to be a protest against Trump or Standing Rock, let’s all do our part to make a difference.”
The sound of a pan flute rings through the air signaling the arrival of Jakes, now dressed in gold sequin booty shorts and black leather boots, and the beginning of the band’s last song for the night.
“Let’s have a moment of our loudest scream for joy!” Satori instructs us.
Strobe lights flicker and the tempo of the music perks up, whipping the crowd into a frenzy as we all jump in place with our arms raised straight in the air. Dancers clutching black-and white pom poms appear onstage, and before we know it, Jakes has dived face first into the audience, her arms stretched out in front of her with the confidence of someone who knows that when she jumps, she will be caught.