Exploring Eugene: an Interview with Calvin Valentine
Interview and Images by Emily Berkey
Calvin Valentine is a drummer turned producer, turned rapper, turned singer, who recently unleashed his creativity in a project he calls Eugene, named after his birth city in Oregon (that’s the middle state on the left coast). His first release since signing to Portland based label, Eyrst, Calvin’s Eugene is a one-man show with the exception of accompaniment from his brother and girlfriend. Calvin wrote, produced, mixed, and mastered the project, which features him singing, rapping, and playing multiple instruments.
He’s produced for the likes of De La Soul, Nas, Illa J, Juicy J, and Bun B, and once upon a time Calvin toured with rock band Medium Troy as their drummer. Now, he’s found his sound and invited us in to hear it. Eugene is a pure and genuine nod to the town that raised him, and an intimate look into Calvin’s mind. I caught up with him at his house and grilled him about his album concept, his hesitancy to let people hear his singing voice, and what he’s got brewing next.
What inspired you to create this ten-track “love letter” to your home town?
Basically, it was just from moving from Oregon down to California and having thoughts of moving back and homesickness... I felt like this was my first project again... like a restart in my career because the first two albums I put out, I can’t listen to them. If people can enjoy them, great. I’m proud of what I did, but I don’t want to listen to them. So, I really wanted to make a record that was my first solo thing again.
Do you want to listen to this album?
Yeah… well not as much anymore because I’ve been promoting it so much… but yeah, definitely with this one I’m proud of it. I can show it to people and I don’t cringe. I did probably 20 records for it then cut it down to ten. I was falling in love when I was making the album and my idea with the Eugene title was so people who aren't from Oregon can listen to the record and think it’s either about a girl or a boy because it’s just a name, Eugene. Really only the people in Oregon are going to get that this about my hometown.
The only two people feature on this album are your brother and girlfriend, Danielle. Why did you choose to keep it so close to home?
It just made sense with the process of the record. The label was like, “Oh do you want to get a bigger feature?” But I don’t like to force things just because it could be a good look. So, it just felt natural that this happened. When I make my music I’m in the studio by myself a lot of the time, so usually I’ll just complete a song and won’t want a feature on it because I like to just get things done. So yeah, that was the idea around it, and to keep it close to home, especially with the title. My brother’s an incredible DJ and he really made the project a lot better and Danielle can sing way better than me and she writes really great songs so it made sense for them to come in and be a part of it.
Was it difficult for you to welcome your girlfriend into your home town with this album?
It felt natural. The toughest part was finding our balance of how we work in the studio. She likes K-Pop and really fun pop music and she writes really good songs like that… so it was kinda… molding her brain into what I want to do. [Laughing]
That doesn’t sound bad at all.
[Laughing] No, but it worked for this project.
And you found an upbeat track, “Supernova”, to put her on.
Yeah, I mean, that’s her song. She wrote Supernova on the computer by herself. I’ll be in the studio making beats and she’ll be on my laptop doin’ songs. She came up with that song then I flipped it, pitched her voice down, and made a whole beat around it. So, initially it was that little guitar line and her vocals, then I turned it into that joint.
You’re a drummer, producer, rapper, DJ and now you’re singing on this album. What gave you the courage to unleash your singing to the general public?
It’d always been a part of my solo music. I was tired of being just boxed in as a hip hop artist because I do a lot more music than just hip hop. I think people might think all I can do is flip samples and make hard hip hop beats. Really, all the solo music I’ve created I wanted to sing on, I just wasn’t talented enough to do it. With this record I was like, “Fuck it. Let me just push myself until I’m happy with how the singing sounds.” I’d love to sing a lot more, and initially it was gunna be a whole album with no raps, but then I was like well, I like rapping, and I didn’t want to hold myself back just because of whatever. I finally was just like “fuck it.” With this whole album that was kinda my mind frame. As long as I dig it, that’s all I really cared about.
You released a few videos for this project. I was really entertained by the “Your Drugs” video. How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t seen it?
I would say it’s an adventure into mine and Tim Slew’s mind because it was a combination of both of our thoughts and ideas that made it.
Tim Slew is a music video producer from Portland, Oregon, correct?
Yeah, he’s a director… He does everything involving video. He shot and edited that whole thing and put it all together. I had the idea of doing a green screen video and wanted to make it funny. I brought the majority of the outfits.
So those were outfits you personally own?
My brother does. The day of the video shoot, I woke up and was staying at his house in Portland. I was like, “Dude, I don’t even know what the hell I’m gunna wear in this video.” He was like, “Oh we got a box of shit downstairs from Halloween.” That’s where the chef outfit came from and the bee outfit that Martell’s [Webster] wearing. That made the video, too. I don’t know how I’d describe it to people because I don’t even know...It’s a trip man.
Was acid involved in the production of “Your Drugs”?
I don’t know what Tim was doing when he was editing it. I can’t speak on what he took. But weed was definitely involved in the whole process.
You use a lot of marijuana references in your art. Typically weed is stereotyped as a substance that makes people lazy and lethargic. You’re always working, always creating new material. How do you stay productive while doing the marijuanas?
Well, because the marijuanas, it effects everybody differently.
[His roommate enters the room and asks “What was the name of that weed place we went to that one time?” Calvin answers back and laughs.]
Perfect. For me, I don’t try to put drug references or talk about weed in my music to push it on anybody else. I think weed effects everybody differently. For me, I will be lazy as fuck all day, sitting around watching movies, then I’ll smoke a bong hit and want to get in the studio. It’s definitely like, it’s not the driving force behind my music, but it definitely doesn’t slow me down. It helps my creative energy. If I’m in a lull in the studio, sometimes all I need is a little weed and it’ll push me to the right direction. It’s my medicine.
You’re always changing your sound but whatever you make is always high quality. How do you assure your stuff is consistent when it’s always morphing?
Because I’m easily my biggest critic and I make a lot of music so it’s not like I just make one record and it’s really good. Like I said, for Eugene, I made about 20 songs then cut them down. I’m very picky about everything and I’m definitely the biggest critic out of anybody. If I don’t like it, I won’t put it out. I’ve put out music that other people dug that wasn’t my favorite, and that always kinda bugs me. I listen to a lot of good music, whether it’s hip hop or whatever, and that trains your ear to know what works and what doesn’t. It’s all about a feeling. If I get a feeling inside me that makes me go ehhh, or makes me feel good, then I know that’s gunna translate to the listener. That’s how I regulate it.
How do you get past your perfectionism when you feel like you need to release new tracks?
I think that’s where showing other people comes into play. I could be toying away on a new song forever by myself and bring someone else into the studio and even if they don’t say anything, I’ll vibe off their judgements. You can see by people's’ reaction or you’ll just listen to the track differently. All of a sudden I’m not listening to it like, “Oh, I’m tight!” it’s like, “Ugh maybe I’m not so tight.” That’s that fine balance of judging your music but not doing it to the point where it’s holding you back and I felt like I reached that point after the Red Eye Flights and Green Team stuff. I was judging my solo music to the point where I was like, “Nobody’s gunna like this, I don’t think I’m good, I hate my voice,”, and that can really hold you back because then I didn't put out a solo album for three or four years. That’s the give and take of being a super-critic because you get quality product but then you could also just never put anything out.
Let’s talk about the album art. It’s by Joe Baker, who’s from Melbourne, Australia. How’d you find him?
The internets. Instagram. I follow a lot of artists on Instagram because It’s more entertaining than just titties and booty, that’s all everybody looks at all the time. I started following his work and I dug it. Really, I had reached out to a few artists but we didn’t connect. I worked so hard on this album that I wanted the artist to do the art. A lot of the other people would be like “What’re your ideas? What do you want?” It’s like, you tell me what I want, you show me what I want. And he did that. I sent him the album and he wrote me a paragraph about how much he liked the record and all these ideas he already had so i was like it’s yours, man!
Is that your childhood home on the front of the album?
The blue house is The House of Records, which is the first spot i started digging for vinyl, and the other spot is Wow Hall, which is the first place I ever performed when I was six.
Yeah, I was playing the drums.
So those are basically your homes for music in Eugene?
What’s up with the bong in the forest?
Basically, you know, that’s what we would do before school. Someone would have a bong in the backpack, we’d hike up into the woods, take some bong hits, then go to class. I told Joe, “If you put a bong on there, that would be dope”. The back cover is Spencer Butte, and the bong is smoking all over the city. Then there’s Crest Drive, which is the street I grew up on, and Dellwood, which is the other street I grew up on. Those are on the album cover as well. There’s also a turntable, a mic, drums, little things representing all the stuff I’ve done. I actually brought the record into House of Records when I was in Eugene.
Full circle. Are they going to stock it there?
Yeah, they put one up on the wall, too.
You’re from Eugene and you moved to Portland, which is where I know you from. When I met you, you were super Indie. Even now, you’re really DIY. You can do everything that needs to be done on a record. How has the transition been from being independent to now being on the label, Eryst?
It was super easy because when they signed me I was very clear about what you just said. I was like, “I can do all this on my own.” Basically they were like, “If you need our help, ask us. Otherwise, just do you.” It was really great. Shoutout to them for doing that. They didn’t really know what was going to happen and neither did I. They just signed me. They were like, “Maybe you can do a beat tape for us.” And I ended up making Avocado High.
Avocado High is a beat tape on an actual cassette tape...
That’s the only way I wanted to do a beat tape is if it actually came out as a beat tape. I made that, then they [Eyrst] were like, “Oh, we don’t want samples,” so I linked up with Dart Adams from Boston and released it. Then I started working on the record for Eyrst and I was making a bunch of beats, started writing songs, and decided it felt better to just make an album. They helped out when needed and gave me the space when needed. It was perfect and I basically did everything.
Eyrst is owned by Martel Webster, a former NBA player. How is it answering to a former professional athlete when you’re a musician?
It’s fine because he’s a musician himself, so he understands the process and I think that’s why he allowed us to do whatever we wanted. I signed in January and he came over to the house in February and we had a good talk, he’s a really great dude. He was basically was like, “Hey, I’m not here to hold you back, I’m here to help you. Let me know what you need, let me know what you don’t need. Do your thing.” There’s other people on the label who I deal with on a more business base, so it worked out really well and I think he plays a really great role on the label. The fact that he’s willing to take time out of his busy life, his family life, to help out struggling artists, and artists in general, it’s amazing. It’s kinda what we all wanted but we never thought it would happen. Epp [of TxE] used to talk about that when we were TxE all the time. He’d be like, “I wish some dude would come by and give us X amount of money.” We were like, “That’ll never happen.” Then it fuckin did! It’s crazy.
What’s next for you? I know you mentioned you made 20 tracks and only ten made the cut...
Those songs probably won’t even come out because they didn’t make the cut. If they weren’t good enough for my album, I don’t see myself putting them out. There was one joint with Sam Trump that I dug and another I did with Illa J that was dope… so those two might come out. There was another track I did with Danielle but I lost the files to it, so I only have the MP3. It couldn’t make the album because I fucked up the files. So those three will probably see the light of day. The others will probably just get thrown in the trash. As far as the next thing, I’ll continue with Eyrst, do another solo album next year, probably a beat tape, then an album.
You think Portland’s going to be the name of your album next year?
No. I did this, so it’s done with. This is perfect because now nobody can ever say, “You don’t support the hometown!” or, “You don’t say anything about Oregon in your record!” I’ve got a whole fuckin record about Eugene, you can leave me alone for the rest of my career. With this next album, I’m way more open to collaboration. I’ve been working with two dudes who are multi-instrumentalists. We made a bunch of records and I started writing songs to them, randomly. I already have 12 tracks for the next album. That’s kinda the plan is to continue the pattern of releasing. Probably do a beat tape and another solo album amongst all the other stuff I produce for everyone else. Just got to keep the momentum going, keep shit movin.
I’m excited to hear what you have next. I know it’s going to be something totally different from this album, and that’s what makes it exciting.
Yeah, it’s already way different. It’s fun.