On Friday, April 1 I had the opportunity to sit down with local indie hip-hop duo John Chuck & The Class, consisting of rapper John Chuck “JC” Stroebel and keys/guitar/production/vocals man Henry Donato–two musicians that have been making music together since middle school. We talked about their sound and live image, personal music tastes, and plans for the future.
GMN: I’ve seen you compared to Chiddy Bang and Twenty One Pilots. How do you feel about these comparisons?
Stroebel: In high school, like early high school, I loved Chiddy Bang and I still appreciate them and like them. They’re like, fun hip-hop and they don’t really ever venture off into a dark sort of vibe, and we also like having happier, lighthearted things that you can laugh about and be comfortable with. So I really like that about Chiddy Bang. And then Twenty One Pilots, I think that a lot of the comparisons are because there are some hip-hop elements in Twenty One Pilots and they’re two white guys as well, doing music. We also get compared to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and those are the two white guy duos that we get compared to.
GMN: “Church boy Macklemore?”
Stroebel: Yeah, there you go, yeah, church boy Macklemore.
Donato: I think the thing about what we’re trying to do, and about comparisons–I don’t completely mind them, because I feel like, you know, people are just comparing to whatever other production duo they might see. If one guy’s doing production and one guy’s doing the rapping or singing you’ll be compared. I think what we try to differentiate is our sound. I think that’s what anyone tries to do, is break away from being compared to other sounds. Sound like ourselves! That’s what we want to do.
GMN: Listening to “Business As Usual” I know that it’s hip-hop, but I also get an indie vibe. Is this a representation of your personal music tastes?
Stroebel: A million bajillion percent. I think hip-hop isn’t the main style of music that Henry or I listen to, I’ll let him speak for himself, but I obviously love hip-hop enough to be a part of it and to rap and I do appreciate hip-hop and listen to it often, but I think that I really, I don’t know. I like a good indie song. A good poppy, indie tune that gets stuck in your head. A lot of times rap doesn’t often get stuck in people’s head–I’m not walking around just reciting Kendrick Lamar lyrics in my head. But like, a catchy tune will always get stuck in your head, so I think that’s kinda why I like having an indie vibe.
Donato: Yeah, definitely, you know and I think the indie vibe kinda comes from trying to be unconventional. I think that when we were writing that song and when we write any song we’re trying to look for things that might catch people off guard, or they might feel that it’s kind of unexpected, like “oh I haven’t heard that from hip-hop before” y’know?– little elements, sounds, lyrics, whatnot, to catch people off guard.
Stroebel: Yeah and I think that, honestly, I would love to be equally called a hip-hop band as we are called an indie band. If people were describing us as an indie band that would be awesome. Because we do put in an effort to have a sound that isn’t like chanty call-and-response choruses–not that those are bad, but we just want to be different.
GMN: What are you listening to currently?
Stroebel: I just got this Miles Davis record that I’ve been listening to on repeat, I guess that’s the most current thing that I’ve been listening to. I really like Kendrick Lamar, like I mentioned earlier, as far as hip-hop goes he’s unbelievable. It kind of just then goes off into all of the different bands I listen to. I guess I really do like The Current and a lot of the stuff they play on there. Yeah, I don’t know, nothing like super specific.
Donato: Yeah, I guess a few bands that I know directly influence me and how I look at our music are Vulfpeck–I listen to them a lot–and James Blake are a few names–electronic artists–and also Vulfpeck being kind of a funk influence.
Stroebel: Tuxedo, that inspires me a lot, Mayer Hawthorne, so groovy
Donato: Yeah, that’s a good list.
Stroebel: That is a good list.
GMN: That is a good list. I saw you open for Time Atlas back in December,
Stroebel: Yeah, the mic feedback show!
GMN: You were really entertaining to watch. In your opinion, how important is stage presence?
Stroebel: Well I grew up doing theater and stuff since I was in like first grade, so it’s just ingrained in me that you gotta work the audience and play to what they want and I think that it kinda transfers into our performances. I mean, every iconic musician out there had their own unique stage presence. Like, if someone’s moving in a certain way you can be like “Oh they’re moving like Mick Jagger” or “that looks like a Michael Jackson move” y’know? It’s iconic more than just the sound, it’s the visuals of it too.
Donato: Yeah, I think ideally when you’re performing live you should be excited about what you’re performing and excited about sharing it with people, and that should just come across as you’re confident and you’re experiencing joy, you know? And however that looks on stage is just a part of it, it’s just like your image and what you see online and our music and whatnot goes together.
Stroebel: I think that just body language in general, like if you’re trying to communicate the lyrics in your song, it should match up with kinda how you’re moving. Our lyrics are about, like, dysfunctional white boys and so we’ll totally move like that as much as we can on stage.
GMN: Move like dysfunctional white boys?
Stroebel: (laughs) Yeah! Exactly.
Donato: Yeah, I try to imagine that before every performance.
Stroebel: Get in the zone just by, zoning in on what that is.
Donato: Pretty much.
GMN: This is the first show of Whosah’s WORK release tour. Have you toured before? What are you most looking forward to with this little tour?
Stroebel: I guess tour is…when you’re in like middle school and high school and you dream about being in a band, when you think “tour” you think like multiple months, flying places, being in a cool van… so like, touring, I guess I have toured if it means going out for like a week or so here or there. I haven’t toured with John Chuck & The Class, I guess we’ve driven to places that are far away and…
Donato: …played one show and came back, you know?
Stroebel: Is that a tour?
Stroebel: We were touring Michigan?
Donato: Touring is a loose term.
Stroebel: Yeah, I guess the answer would be no. I’ve never done a real tour.
Donato: I mean, you toured with a church group and I’ve toured with a couple different artists otherwise but not John Chuck & The Class.
Stroebel: This will be the first time we’ve had multiple shows lined up in multiple locations as John Chuck & The Class.
GMN: What’s with the signs you hold up at the beginning of your performances?
Stroebel: As you can see, during our performances, unless you count the tambourine, there’s never an instrument in my hand. Our intro is completely instrumental with sampled vocal tracks and stuff, so I’m not really doing anything. I think that it just grew out of me wanting to catch people’s attention. You know, trying to be theatrical but not over-the-top, and to the point where if you’re in a bar where no one came to see you and you’re just the band people will start paying attention just because they’re interested in what you’re doing. I guess it’s just an attention-grabber.
Donato: Yeah, I mean, that’ll evolve, we’re doing something different tonight for that, so we’re just trying to grab attention.
Stroebel: I think Henry and I creatively will just think of something ridiculous and try to execute it and the first thing we thought ridiculous was just like “what if you just throw a bunch of printer paper in the crowd at the beginning of our set?”
GMN: That’s definitely an attention-grabber.
Stroebel: (laughs) Yeah! I hope no one has gotten a paper cut.
Donato: I know! I’m wondering about that. After all these times.
Stroebel: Just, in the eye.
Donato: I’m glad we didn’t get sued.
Stroebel: Not yet.
GMN: I saw that you reached your kickstarter goal! When do you plan to start the work on that EP?
Donato: What’s going on with the EP is we’ve got four songs on it with the intro, “Grow Up,” “Business As Usual,” and “Where Have I Been All This Time?” they’re gonna be on the EP which is being mixed and mastered right now.
Stroebel: So we’ve kinda put in the first leg of it already. It’s already written, recorded, and mostly mixed. I guess the next step is working on promotional stuff and designing the CD itself but we wanna have it out by May, I think, if that’s realistic.
Donato: Yeah, that’s the goal. I’m pretty confident.
Stroebel: It’s kind of crazy–you spend like an entire month focusing so hard on reaching your goal that once you actually do it’s like “Oh, crap! Now we have to actually do what we said we were gonna do!” But it’s a good issue to have, I guess.
Catch John Chuck & The Class on the WORK tour through April 6, and keep an eye out for their debut EP this spring!