As Injury Reserve took the stage, energy rippled through the crowd at Baltimore Soundstage. Parker Corey sauntered up to his rig, face obscured by a hoodie, and immediately flooded the stage with fog. A bright spotlight shone in the center of a red sheet behind him, mimicking both the desert sun of the group’s native Arizona and the exploding head on the cover of Injury Reserve’s new album, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. An enormous atonal drone rose up from the speakers, shredded itself into ribbons of white noise, and eventually bled into the opening synth bass of “Outside.”
On the record, an aggressive sample from a YouTube battle rap video prompts rapper Ritche With a T to rebut, “I’ve been talking to ‘em kindly.” In Baltimore that night, the sample was barely audible, drowned by the waves of distortion Parker conjured from his Ableton controller. Ritchie’s shadow appeared behind the red sheet, pacing back and forth. By the time he growled about his kindly conversation, the stage was fully, menacingly obscured like the slow dissipation of a mushroom cloud. The fashionable crowd of mostly 20-somethings stood wide-eyed, mouths, I assume, agape behind their masks.
For the next hour, Injury Reserve burned through the disorienting, deconstructed sonics of their new record. Almost every element of their songs, save for the recorded verses of ZelooperZ and the late Stepa J. Groggs, were further annihilated, all while keeping a certain groove intact. Once they got to an end suite of their early career, bass-heavy jams like “All This Money” and “Oh Shit!!!,” the crowd was putty in their hands. Unsure of whether to throw a fist up or sit down, the crowd filtered to the merch table, processing their incredible journey.
I felt the same way after listening to By the Time I Get to Phoenix for the first time. Having been familiar with their particular brand of left-field bangers, I was expecting something more along the lines of the Clipse-indebted Drive It Like It’s Stolen or the sardonic humor of their self-titled album. Phoenix is something else entirely. It’s a dense and psychedelic listen, bright and piercing as staring at the sun with dilated pupils. Though it’s the first project the group has released since the death of Stepa J. Groggs, the trio completed the album together. They took guidance from an experimental improvised DJ set during a 2019 European tour, purposefully unspooling their sound only to tangle it back into different shapes.
I was able to speak with Parker and Ritchie a couple of days before the start of their U.S. tour. During our conversation, the duo approached each question with the same eye for deconstruction they’ve been approaching music. They revel in ambiguity, making new connections on the fly. Ideas can take up multiple spaces at once; answers only lead to more interesting questions. For Injury Reserve, the journey is more important than the destination. – Dash Lewis
I understand that a lot of the direction of this album was informed by a specific improv set y’all did in the back of an Italian restaurant in Stockholm. How did that set come about and what did you learn from that process?
Parker Corey: We were touring with a bunch of lights. It was probably the 55th show or something of a 60 show tour. So it was pretty figured out—we had everything down on how we would come in, set up, breakdown. It was pretty smooth at that point.
You were tour tight.
Parker Corey: Yeah, this one was like—it wasn’t a stage. We had these three lights that each take X amount of watts so you have to space them out on certain circuits and we’re just in the back of a restaurant. We asked, “Do you know which circuits the sockets are on?” And they’re like, “Well, there’s one here. That’s for audio.” [Both laugh] What they did have was a package of CDJs—fresh, rented, ready to go. No one on the tour used CDJs; the tech rider said nothing about CDJs. We ended up using those with our shit and throwing together something else. We were working on a mix for KEXP at the same time, so we had a lot of random interesting audio files that felt like would be fun to play for people.
Did it end up being more like a noise set of sorts?
Parker Corey: It was kind of more, okay—I don’t want to hijack the question too much, but that opens up a really foundational question to me. I think that this improv DJ set was really experimental, but not in line with a noise set. There still are things that are able to be experimental within the world of noise music, but I hate that someone can do the noise equivalent of an Ed Sheeran song and it’s dubbed as experimental. I don’t know, noise music seems sometimes like everyone rushed to this far end of something and just lost all the music along the way.
That would lead me to think that you probably bristle at the descriptions of Injury Reserve as “noise rap.”
Parker Corey: I think we bristle at every description. [Laughs]
Ritchie with a T: I haven’t really gotten the noise thing. It always made a little bit more sense in regards to a live show when we would do certain things. I think we’re grown enough now where we just get what everyone’s trying to say and it’s all in somewhat good faith. You just kind of laugh at it and watch people argue about it and shit.
So you had five shows left after that DJ set. Did the live show change from that moment on?
Ritchie with a T: No, I wouldn’t say that it changed much in regard to a live show, but it definitely was sparking our interest off the stage, especially when we got back and really listened to the one-track. It’s funny, Parker was like, “Big ups to the YouTube copyright shit,” because we were just going to throw the whole set on YouTube. It got flagged a bunch. If it didn’t, it probably just would have been up and we wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But after a little bit of time, it became “Superman That” which the album was built around.
That was gonna be my next question: if y’all had already started work on this record while you were on that tour or if this was the catalyst of By the Time I Get to Phoenix.
Parker Corey: In the lore there’s this idea that “Superman That” was just randomly banged out on the spot. That would be a bit fictionalized for sure. It came together because it was a beat that I made like six months prior. I think Nate had written to it, at least the hook or something. None of us had fully tapped into it and it just happened to come together there.
Ritchie with a T: It’s also a lot better than the recording. [Laughs] That part is true: the production was done and I had done a reference tracking for it, which basically was the whole song except for the written verse. I mean the difference between [the recorded version] and the live version is what Parker is doing with the production—what he normally does live—and then the energy level of the delivery.
Like Parker was saying, it wasn’t like we were creating this entire song in front of X amount of people. But before that we weren’t working on the album. When we touched down we had kind of loosely been making songs. His production was up to par with the album level, but I don’t feel like what I was doing vocally was up to the level. I think it was that live version of [“Superman That”] that really honed it in. The intro song was also a standout. It was those two songs where we were like, “Well, okay, we found the direction for this album.”
Parker Corey: Remember the publishing guy? We had a meeting with some guy that was courting us for a publishing deal. This is like three days after we finally had solid studio demos of the intro and “Superman.” I think we already were like, “Damn, this is the first song and this is the second song.” We went into this and he’s like, “You guys like working on anything you want to play?” We’re like, “Yeah, we have these two songs that are crazy.” [Laughs] And what did he say?
Ritchie with a T: “This song’s gonna sound great on vinyl.” That’s all he said and we never heard back from him again.
Parker Corey: “Zero syncs” is what he heard.
What was the overall production process once you got in there and you had the time to capitalize on these ideas that’d been fomenting? What was it like to actually sit down and make this record?
Parker Corey: It was a lot of fun. You tend to like the newer stuff more than whatever you did before, but genuinely I do think that it felt fun to care about it again. It really felt like making music as opposed to trying to make the thing that would impart a certain step in your career. That’s how it felt on the album before; it felt way more fun this time.
It sounds like it was a process of sort of getting back to yourself, getting back to the root of why you like doing this?
Parker Corey: If anything it was more like a dissolution of the self in order to just get to music. It allowed for something that felt as exciting as when you’re 19 and you don’t know what you’re doing. So it’s fun in its own right, even if it is, perhaps, still self-absorbed.
Is there a way to make music that’s not an exercise in being a little bit self-absorbed?
Ritchie with a T: I’m trying to kind of articulate what’s going on in my brain about that. I just feel like I’ve seen people in positions that have made music that is missing self-absorption. They’re so lost in the sauce that it feels like they’ve lost the whole point. I’ve had people try to explain things to me and I just feel like, “You don’t even like this shit. You’re not even doing this for your own benefit; you’re so lost in the process of what’s expected.” I don’t know if that makes sense.
I think so, but we might be talking about different ideas of self-absorption. I think the creation of art, no matter what medium you’re working with, is about honesty, right? It’s about plumbing what you’re going through or your ideas about something in order to create a connection.
Ritchie with a T: I don’t know, I feel like there’s plenty of people doing things for all the wrong reasons. I would rather it suck and it be honest as fuck. It’s still good art to me at that point. I may not enjoy it, but…
Parker Corey: What keeps coming up in my mind with the self thing is [Fred] Moten always talks about this relationship between the ensemble and the soloist. I think the ensemble is somewhere in between his conception of a band and a much more general entanglement that’s always at play with everyone. For him, the self-absorption thing is more of a solo. There’s no islands, you know. I think that’s where I come from with this whole thing. I lose distinction—especially since our shit’s based on sampling. It’s hard for me to even get to the level of seeing a self.
My question was probably operating under the fallacy that everyone’s doing this for the right reason. When I create and the way it sounds like when y’all create, you’re searching for that connection, whether it’s a connection with yourself or even just with each other. The added bonus is that it connects with an audience.
Ritchie with a T: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that’s all I was saying. We’re now in the game enough where you’ll see things and be like, “Oh, fuck, that’s depressing.” You almost get sad for people.
Now, looking back at the last record, you almost feel sad for us. Because on this record—I don’t know if it was what each of us were studying or if we were just being more honest with ourselves—but I feel like we broke free. We had an interesting process where a lot of things were done very isolated, very individually. I needed a little bit of alone time when doing my stuff so that I felt comfortable doing things that I may be figuring it out as I’m going. It’s not the same thing that we’ve been doing for four or five years. I felt like if someone else was in the room, I would feel their pre-judgment before I’ve even fully realized what I’m doing. I would be insecure like, “This person’s hearing me figure this out and it’s going to stop me from getting from here to there.” A lot of this record was Parker doing shit, sending it over, and then me working on something until I felt like it was right and then sending it back. Then that’s when we start doing the recycling process where we’re really mixing shit up. We didn’t really get together. We were WeTransferring sessions back and forth.
This is what stopped me from being discouraged about certain things: now we’re at a position where nothing is pointless, you know what I mean? Some things may just end up being a workout. It may be like, “Okay, I’m figuring out this new approach that may help with something else.” But also, one day I may get a file from Parker and it’s this whole song that’s been rebuilt with all these vocals from another song. It’s like, “Oh, okay, that miss was worth it. Now it’s been reconceptualized and it’s way fucking better. He got what I was trying to do and maybe I just didn’t nail it on the head.” We did a lot of things individually which allowed us to really experiment on our own and not worry about the room while you’re in the process. You may blink and something could just be totally different.
Parker, would you be sending something more bare bones or something that sounds like it would on the record? And then Ritchie, would you have to find your way in the cacophony? Were there situations where things got built up from tiny little elements?
Parker Corey: There’s definitely a spectrum to it. Mostly they were like 70%-ish away from, let’s say just a BPM with a click track. It could go anywhere from 95% of the finished beat being sent to 40.
Ritchie with a T: Or like he’s sending 100% of a beat, I’m doing 100% of the vocals, and then this 100% beat is now gone. He’s making something totally new and putting these vocals on that.
“Wild Wild West” is a cool story because I had done those vocals for this band, Chinatown Slalom. They had sent this beat that was called “The Fastest Gun In the West.” I kind of freestyled this song concept that ended up being the “Wild Wild West” song. I sent it and was like, “These guys are gonna hate this. The vocals are weird, there’s no structural hook.” A lot of times, people will come to you for what they think they like you for—they’re not going to come to you for your mentality. Some people may not understand what you do fully; they may think that you’re one thing. I remember Parker saying, “I hope that they don’t like it because I want the vocals.” They ended up not ever saying anything, which was amazing, because then Parker built a whole different song which is just 1000 times better. That’s an example of a song where the vocals were technically for something totally different and he built something else kind of crazy and meta. It was really genius of him.
Parker Corey: That took, what, five versions to get to? We did the one in Future Classic where I was playing a guitar through Autotune because I don’t know how to play guitar. [Laughs]
Ritchie with a T: Yeah, it took a while but when it hit, it hit. It was crazy because of the sample. He did a lot of the production stuff that he does live to it and then I think all I had to do was drag the vocal. Sometimes the timing isn’t exactly perfect because a lot of the vocals that I’ve been doing lately have been kind of overlapping—stuff that’s a little off the grid.
For the outro (“Bye Storm”), we knew that we wanted to use that sample (“Here Come the Warm Jets” by Brian Eno). That’s another song where I had done those vocals to a totally different beat and it didn’t hit as well. The writing was really cool and the tone was a little different but still similar. It’s this weird juxtaposition where it’s this hopeful vibe. One day he sent it and he had [the vocal] on that sample and those crazy drums and we were just like, “Oh my god we did it!”
It’d been one of those things where you’re like, “This is just never gonna work out. What are we going to be able to do?” I’d heard it so much that I wasn’t ever going to have a genuine emotional reaction to it. It would be so calculated. Everything that we had done on this record was so emotional—not topically, but creatively. A lot of things that were happening were emotional and reactionary. I was trying to make sure that, most of the time, the things that you hear on the record are from the first time I heard the beat. Parker would be telling me about something and I’d be like, “Don’t send it yet. I’m not home.” I wanted to hear the beat when I had the mic on so I could react to it quickly.
For an album that’s a heavy listen and very emotionally charged, it sounds like the overarching concept y’all had was just to explore and have fun. Beyond the obvious grief that you were sorting through with the death of Groggs, was there anything that you felt like you needed to work out while making this record?
Parker Corey: There was definitely the most theoretically dense shit going on, at least in my head, while working on this stuff.
There was a kind review, I don’t even know which one specifically, but there was a review that discussed the social issues the album touches upon. I think that effectively meant the pandemic, climate change, and 2020 protesting. [Laughs]
Ritchie with a T: [Laughs] Sorry, that’s so funny. It’s just like, so I assume the three that they are speaking on…
Parker Corey: It’s the state that music criticism is in, right? It’s a very underpaid world, so it makes sense there’s not a whole lot of room for [interpretation]. They assume the readers are too stupid. It’s degrading, in my opinion, to think that people aren’t capable of dense engagement with things. If a reviewer does touch on the political implications—which is inherent in every single song—you usually have to state something for them to even bring it up. Like, “This is what I think about this,” as if that’s what our relationship to politics is.
Usually when they do, it’s just the most surfacey shit. In some of these reviews, the one that I have in mind, it’s literally just stating that something happened in the world. There’s just so little room for any critical engagement. Meanwhile, “Wild Wild West,”—even just between Nate and I it’s so relational. Sometimes I worry about being too forward or too open about what I’m getting out of it because I would hate to say something and come off like “this is the meaning of the song.” They’re his lyrics and I’m just feeling it. I don’t want to overwrite that.
But when I heard the piece that he sent to the other band, I’m thinking about all this acid Western, tech, minerals, desertification through a Silicon Valley route instead of a nostalgic manifest destiny thing, all this shit! And I think it’s really interesting. Coming through this Willie Smith character that Nate did leaves it the room to actually be interesting art instead of just a book on theory. You can approach things from way different angles. When I see “pandemic, protests, climate,” it just it honestly breaks my fucking heart.
Ritchie with a T: I feel like I would rather drop you in the middle of a discussion than tell you what to think. Hopefully with how ridiculous some things sound and feel, you’ll see where we’re leaning. The character thing was just a lot more fun than the way that I had talked about politics prior. Maybe it was just the only way that I could get through it. I just don’t really feel too comfortable explaining things anymore; it makes it less interesting. I’ll eventually articulate who certain songs are about, but I’ve kind of gotten to the point of just letting people have things for what they are. I could’ve written something thinking one thing and it can evolve. That’s what a lot of this record was and why we even felt comfortable releasing it.
The reality of the situation is all the grief that’s going on on the record, none of it, at least originally, was about Groggs. He was there for all of it. People think “Top Pick For You” is about him—that boy was alive and well when that song was made. Those were the types of things that were haunting us like, “Holy shit like this has now changed.” “Top Picks,” “Bye Storm,” these were all songs that he was right there in the group message like “Yeah, this is crazy.” But a lot of things do change form. You don’t even necessarily know exactly what you’re saying until you start to reflect on it. Parker will be like, “Oh, this reminds me of this, this, and this,” and the thing is, he’s right. Maybe I wasn’t 100% tapping into that, but also I was, you know what I mean?
Parker Corey: Yeah, that’s the other thing I fear when opening up certain dense shit to conversation. I always do worry that it’s trying to imply like—
Ritchie with a T: What you were thinking.
Parker Corey: Yeah, and that it’s not just this ongoing process of unpacking something.
Ritchie with a T: Which is so sick! I mean, it’s been the most fun part about the album and that’s why we were so stoked to release it. Things really were evolving. That’s the best part about making the type of art that we make. There’s this openness and things aren’t as direct. It gives you the most longevity in regards to releasing a record, because you often get really gassed out with the record by the time it drops, especially if you’re clearing samples and shit like that.
When we first made this, I was really worried about time. I was like, “If this doesn’t come out in the next eight months, we’re fucked. It’s going to be irrelevant.” It ended up not being the case at all. By the time it came out, it felt completely relevant. I think that’s because of the openness that we gave it.
What it sounds like you want people to take most is that it’s ultimately a record about trusting your instincts and allowing for that space to just unfold the way it will.
Parker Corey: There’s a lot of bad instincts that are trained. If the record’s about anything, it’s that pretty much everything is way, way more complex than the world operates as it is. The world sucks money and resources out of everything by trying to simplify it to a stupid degree. The album is just about, hopefully in good faith, thoroughly engaging with those complexities as much as you can. Which in our case is, I guess, difficult music. Trying to engage with a certain complexity of sounds.
So maybe rather than a record about trusting one’s instincts, it’s a record about challenging one’s instincts. Is that sort of what you’re saying here?
Ritchie with a T: Oh, I feel that.
I’m curious about the title, and I certainly don’t want you to tell me what it means if you don’t want to, but I focus on the word “phoenix;” I’ve been thinking about it as a verb. In listening to the record, it feels like it’s on fire, like this incendiary thing where you’re burning structure, you’re burning, for lack of a better word, tradition. An interesting thing about the title is that it’s half of a sentence. It doesn’t ever resolve. There is this triumphant feeling to the end of the record, but it doesn’t feel like the story is done. I’m fascinated by how this title relates to the music.
Ritchie with a T: I think what Parker has always explained really well is how, throughout the years, how refined and distinct and revolutionary the covers [of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”] are—to the point where the Isaac Hayes one is basically an original song. We were really into the idea of that. This is us doing the same thing with ourselves, if that makes sense. We were really into the evolution of the different covers, how there’s these different versions and some are bigger than the other ones. And then there’s Public Enemy doing “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” The history of this felt like we can relate it to the sound of Injury Reserve and what people were expecting.
Parker Corey: I’d never had this thought before—and maybe it was one that was really obvious to everyone else—but as you’re saying all this, it almost makes me think the album is a cover.
That’s a really cool way to think about it.
Parker Corey: I’m a sucker for love songs that are flipped into political [songs]. Obviously, it’s a love song of someone walking out on a bad relationship. I think that flip into something a little more broad is nice. That’s the critical part of it. That’s the dark, really borderline depressive parts that people hear in the album. The verb and the unfinished sentence is what I wish would be more the takeaway. “Bye Storm” is there with so much purpose and hope. I’ve even seen the term nihilistic. If someone gets a nihilistic feeling from the album, that’s really, really unfortunate.
There’s an ELUCID line from an Armand Hammer song (“Slewfoot”) where he says, “we’re bored of the apocalypse.” I don’t know how much of that was talking about critics constantly saying their music is apocalyptic, but as soon as y’all were talking about how much fun this record was to make, I kept thinking about that line.
Ritchie with a T: That’s a crazy line. I would hope it’s not about how people say it’s apocalyptic.
Parker Corey: The apocalyptic thing is interesting. What I think of when I hear something like that is what I was just moaning about: the pandemic, the 2020 protests. When the apocalyptic thing is brought up in that regard, it would totally make sense why it would be so frustrating and reductive. It’s usually an acknowledgement that as a state of the world, it’s almost always entirely futile. They act like the only way to not be futile is some naive Greta Thunberg-esque asking of world leaders to suddenly stop being everything that their entire life is predicated upon.
A certain type of apocalypse is the only thing that we can hope for. It seems like there’s not much space for that to be approached when people are calling music apocalyptic. If you look into it at all, you can tell that it’s from a place of love and care for people who the apocalypse would be most pointed towards. Sometimes people just assume that when someone does something it’s for an aesthetic effect. That’s what I hear when I hear “we’re bored with the apocalypse.” I hear boredom with the 30th time someone [says] it’s this fire with a tornado and a wave of sea. And that’s not what it is—it’s people starving. It will be hyper-militarized borders. It’s not gonna be this grand fucking thing. It will also be very boring and very dehumanizing in it’s boredom.