INTERVIEW: After hours with Young Egypt
It is quiet on this side of town – the roads and homes are dark and limitless and empty as far as one can see beyond the streetlights. The rain comes in bursts and the sidewalks glow. From a cloud of cigarette smoke on the porch we watch a pair of police cruisers roll from one end of the avenue to the next, headlights cutting through the rain and fog.
“That’s what the police used to call this area,” Phil Hawkins tells me between smokes. “It’s the oldest surviving ghetto in St. Pete and the cop lingo for this territory was like Zone 13. I read it in a history book about this area.” He laughs and sinks beside me into the couch. “Observe the bird,” he says.
A few blocks from the pulse of Central Avenue is where Jeff Skatzka and Phil Hawkins, the minds of Young Egypt, have settled in. Phil sits to my left and Jeff to my right, staring into the nothingness beyond the porch and letting their thoughts gather, drift, and fade out. Young Egypt is an entity with the dynamics of a collective far greater than the two men behind it – each release and performance is another mark in an infinite sequence of absolution. Years before, they produced The Screwletter Tapes, an exploration into poetic and sonic madness. Then, The Blue Tape, a two-song cassette tape of deep ambiance. And now, The Red Tape, a comparatively aggressive foray for the both of them – one that features songs they’ve circulated in live performances since as early as 2009. Behind each installment is nothing more than the raw will to create and act.
“I feel like it’s a democracy for our expression,” Jeff says.
In St. Petersburg and Tampa and beyond, the name is familiar – Young Egypt moves with serpentine ease, right beneath the surface of the music and sound culture. “We participate in it…we appreciate it, we support it,” Phil said. “We would like to see it grow more – but with our project, we’re thinking bigger than St. Pete. I think it transcends regionality or anything like that.”
Jeff would ponder the transcendence:
“I just think we like to create a pastiche of influences, the things that we read and hear – Young Egypt, for us, is a cathartic exercise. I don’t know. We live here, we’re from here, we have a connection to the city – but more importantly, to our friends within the community.”
On their place in St. Petersburg and music abroad, they laugh and grow skeptical. “I don’t think our presence in the local community is prevalent. And it’s not like we’re doing our own thing as if we’re different than everybody, it’s just like, people just don’t give a shit,” Jeff says. “It’s why I feel it’s weird we’re being interviewed, because I feel like no one gives a shit. It’s just funny, on the real, being real – it’s just funny.”
Jeff would laugh and sink deeper into the couch. He writes and speaks and has worked in education, living intertwined with literature and communication. “I just enjoy it,” he says on reading. “I enjoy reading poetry specifically. I started off studying music and transferred to the literature department and I enjoyed that more. I love to read, so – read a book, 2012,” he laughs.
In Young Egypt, the will to communicate and express comes through clearly. Live, Jeff speaks, sings, and shrieks like a poet both mad and spiritual all the same whilst Phil creates and destroys sonic atmospheres with synths and mangled guitar riffs – the catharsis comes through.
“For me and my interest in poetry, it starts with the spoken word and how spoken word evolved into its own thing and where poetry exists also, you know – flarf poetry and certainly some of the language poets – Ron Silliman,” he says. “I don’t think about music in the traditional sense, so I don’t think about writing songs in the traditional sense, or even writing a song at all. I really believe more in regards to music, in melody and the presence of the human voice – both the literal, the singer, and the musician, because Phil certainly has a voice that he brings to it.”
Young Egypt has a conscious relationship with pop music, at times in total opposition and others in close replication. The Scewletter Tapes was an abstract discourse in anti-pop, stripping itself of any traits often found, whereas The Blue Tape created and dwelled in atmosphere. With The Red Tape, there is aggression in place of singularity. But every chapter Young Egypt pens is a reflection of its authors and who they are and what they value.
“I dunno, we live in a pop culture – you can’t avoid it. We’d like to put up a mirror to that culture that we live in,” Phil says. “I guess our mirror is a little warped, because at the same time we’re a part of this pop culture, I don’t think we’re really replicating it or doing anything…we’re replicating it in its exact form. We’re emulating it and deforming it. We’re deconstructing it. I think that might be the better word to use.”
Online, Young Egypt buries themselves in warped images of street crime and corporate lifestyle, evolving aesthetically as internally.
“It’s like Zeitgeist,” Jeff says of their online image. “It’s funny.”
Phil leans forward and puts his cigarette at rest. “That’s pop culture, too. You see these stock images all over the place and us sort of going back and forth between these corporate images and these gang images, it’s trying to draw a parallel.”
“Like, with the corporate goon – there’s goonery that occurs there in corporate America. They’re gooned out,” Jeff says. “I’ve worked in a corporate job and Phil has too, and on the real, you know it’s like some goon shit. And it works very much like any other tribal thing. It’s just bullshit – it’s bureaucratic. And I think we just thought that was funny. We just drew these two parallels, opposite worlds, and to us it makes sense.”
The imagery, the sound, and the vibes of Young Egypt – all are connected and controlled. Jeff would reflect on them and where they now are:
“I think it’s more representative of our aggressive side, because when we play live we’ve always had, like…there was always a cathartic aggression that occurs. It’s completely earnest in itself – it’s as sincere as anyone can be: absolute sincerity,” he said. “I think that’s where a lot of appropriation of imagery came in – we just wanna do whatever the fuck we want, whatever that is. If it falls in line with the zeitgeist, that’s cool, whatever, but the intention of it is just to make art and that’s literally how we look at it. It’s why we try to handle every aspect of the image – with the tape we worked with a friend of ours who’s a painter, Timm Mettler, he’s in Chicago right now. He made the cards and artwork for that. We collaborate with our own internet aesthetic – it’s always collaborative. We believe one hundred percent in collaboration.”
Both live and in recordings, Phil Hawkins has sampled and manipulated sounds beyond recognition, with a fondness for the beats of West Coast and Southern gangsta rap. Like everything else, their sampling proves to be a warped reflection of the culture they operate within.
“We live in a sampling culture for the most part. A lot of the stuff on the radio, a lot of the stuff in the underground…it’s all sampled and to an extent if it’s not explicitly sampled it’s probably just another rehash of something else that’s already happened anyhow,” he said. “The cool thing about samplers is that it’s a blank slate – you can fill it with anything you want. You can manipulate any way you want. It’s kind of liberating to have that possibility, potential, for whatever you wanna do,” Phil said.
At the St. Petersburg venues and cultural centers Ramblin’ Rose Upcycle and The Venture Compound, I and others have listened as Jeff Skatzka paused in between tracks to dedicate tunes to pop singer Rihanna. When I ask him about it, he laughs and grins. “I love her. I love what she represents, he says. “I think she represents youth and star quality in our culture. I really appreciate her imagery and what she does with her music. She’s a beautiful woman.”
There is little reason to ask of Young Egypt’s future – it is more rooted in the constant present than anything. “It’s gonna go wherever,” Phil says with a shrug. “We’re dropping this [The Red Tape] but we’re preparing where we’re gonna go from that. Soon it’s gonna be going away from that. I dunno if I wanna be labeled as experimental or whatever, but there is an experimentation to our approach, which is more personal that genre specific. For us, it’s an experiment. To keep repeating the same experiment is…what’s the point of that? We’re taking the experiment in a different direction on a regular basis.”
“I look at Young Egypt as just one big body of work that we’re trying to compile,” Jeff says. “It is present and it’s future and it’s past.”
Phil nods. “I think you can really only understand us within the framework of our catalogue and each release is like a second of it.”
Though abstaining from the title, Young Egypt has found common kin in the expanding noise of the Tampa Bay Area.
“We play with noise people and noise acts – I think noise is a rad concept. I dunno if I’d wanna be labeled as noise, or experimental – I don’t think I’d like to labeled, really. But, we’ve done shows with noise people,” Phil said. “There’s a vibrant noise community going on in this area. Most people don’t know about it because it’s underground – you learn about it through text messages before the event, pretty obscure outlets for information.”
I ask him about his experience at the infamous International Noise Conference in Miami, a year or so ago. “I didn’t really play it, there was an open mic and I played the open mic there,” he tells me. “It was fun. It’s fucking crazy, man. Miami’s a wild town. And it’s in Little Haiti which is fucking really super wild. You have to go there – Little Haiti is wild. Vice City up in there, man – it’s like Vice City, a bunch of crazy motherfuckers, man.”
Almost synonymous with Young Egypt is the gangsta internet aesthetic and sound; freestyles slip into sets and the culture’s warped emulation is omnipresent – the roots run deep.
Phil goes way back: “Even our earliest stuff had some Southern hip hop going on, even when it was just weird and ambient whatever,” he says. “For instance, ‘Southern Blocks’ was a pretty hip-hop oriented song. We’ve also messed with chopped and screwed jazz breaks and stuff like that in our recordings. It’s been a reoccurring theme. We grew up listening to hip hop, that gangster rap.”
Jeff runs through his favorites: “That g-funk era: The Chronic, Doggystyle, Spice One, Killa Kali, Cypress Hill, even Kurupt and Tha Doggpound, Warren G, Ice Cube, NWA, Celly Cell – even now I like what’s going on out there with Main Attrakionz…just a bunch of dope shit going on out west.”
In between the cigarette smoke and banter, I recall conversations Jeff and I had had about street art in the alleys of downtown St. Petersburg so many months ago – we dig deeper. “I love graffiti. Street art, it’s really popular right now. But I’ve always loved what it represents, that sense of revelation and anarchy and shit,” he says. “Me, personally, I participated in it a bit, I did get caught, and I did get in a little bit of trouble. But I still love it. I still think it’s great. I might even still participate – nah, I’m just joking.”
He smiles and we explore his relationship with poetry and how it has come to shape Young Egypt.
“I think I’ve always…even when I was a little kid I was writing poems and I use to really, really like to write short stories. I dunno exactly when it happened, but I just became tired of studying music and I was becoming increasingly interested in poems and writing them and the performance art aspect of it, just the whole idea of just really focused self-expression – oftentimes it’s very empowering. It was interesting. I really enjoyed things like Piñero and the whole Nuyorican scene. When that occurred I just transitioned into poetry and still keep writing poems.”
Language – it and communication, both literally and in concept form a crux for the project. With the internet, Phil and Jeff both see it as something beyond technology, something that harnesses the power of the collective unconscious – something that can be both weapon and tool for art as they now do and will come to know it.
“I love the internet,” Jeff says. “I love the internet as this rhizome that just connects ideas and people. We did grow up with it – I just think it’s essential for us, for the fact that we wanna share the love that we create in our music with other people. It can take you away from being rooted in this physical sense, and you can transcend your place and expand yourself. It’s interesting. I use Twitter like it’s a writing device. It’s another form of expression for me. Anything that involves language for us is another form of expression.”
He diverges for a moment and meditates on both the internet and how it has shaped the hip hop culture since its rise: “I really like the Florida trill rap scene. It goes back to my appreciation for rap music and what it means to our popular culture at large. It’s a big influence; it’s, for the most part, an American art form – so why wouldn’t we appreciate it, especially from a musicianship point of view? A lot of it’s dope. I think people got respect for it, obviously. I think it’s transcending race, paradigms, gender paradigms, and the internet facilitates that too. Everything is just kind of fucking queer.”
Phil cuts in.
“The internet’s not the future, it’s the present.”
“It is the future too,” Jeff says from a haze. “And what’s more punk rock than the internet?”
“And I think Twitter,” Phil says, “the kind of shit you write up there is like the shit I would like to spray on some walls, doing some graffiti. It’s just throwing some shit up in caps lock, be loud as fuck, reference other things. It’s just text graffiti.”
The rain has changed, falling lightly in sparse beads. It is quiet and the lights are distant, save for rainfall and drags – only for a moment.
“Young Egypt, it’s a cathartic thing. That’s how we approach it,” Phil says.
Jeff nods. “It’s definitely not…our past in music, his past in music, my past in music…the only real thing that is relevant to now is that it led up to us doing this.”
“We’re philosophical people, spent a lot of time in academia – we’re both out in the real world now, with this information that doesn’t mean shit to anybody,” Phil says.
“I feel like exposing it to people,” Jeff explains. “They just don’t give a shit, man.”
“That’s just who we are, to a point,” Phil says. “I mean, we make a choice to bring several aspects into it, but it’s not somebody’s thesis or dissertation – it’s not our manifesto. We can’t spell it out. The project is this cathartic thing. I hesitate to wanna associate with the word, but there’s a performance part to it, because we don’t really practice this stuff. We come together and we try to get to this transcendent point. That’s the cool experience.”
Young Egypt is the ethoi Phil and Jeff, more of a transfer and concentration of energy than a band or collaboration.
“And that influences how we interact as friends, because everything we do conceptually is just as relevant to us as if we were in there [the house] playing a song over and over and over again. So we find that by having a discourse about our lives in general, we can function,” Jeff explains. “It’s never been hard at all.”
The conversation breaks up and Phil explains again why interviews make him feel cornered. I laugh.
“I feel like I need to sound intelligent or some shit,” he says.
“You’re gonna make him sound like Professor Phil,” Jeff says. “Phil doesn’t ruminate. We’re not brooding boys. A lot of what we do is intentional. Everything is intentional – it’s all very intentional. It goes back to the idea of sincerity.”
Young Egypt is the cathartic exercise they know it as – perhaps it thrives foremost in the unconscious.
“The point I wanna be is when I’m making this music, I’m not thinking – I’m not thinking about shit, it’s just the sounds coming out. I have some control of what the sounds are, and that’s what it is. I dunno, man,” Phil tells me.
“I’m just really hyped to be alive sometimes, and when you get to be yourself and be as sincere as you can possibly be, it just feels right,” Jeff says.
Though they may doubt their value in the greater music of culture of St. Petersburg and across the Bay, they identify some sense of place, even if its identification is served in ambiguity.
“We fucking live in the paradox. That’s one of the themes we try to embrace. We don’t try to do some academic or singular thesis with a singular thing,” Phil says. “The way that we see it, no one else is really seeing it anyhow. The author is dead! What we say about it doesn’t mean anything. Some of the stuff we have is like a joke to us – some people get the joke and some people don’t get the joke. There’s humour in what we do, even in our most serious moments.”
“There’s something queer to what we do,” Jeff says. “We’re kind of queer and what that means…there’s a lot of gravity in that term – it’s not just about sexual preferences.”
Phil explains part of the process: “Some of the fun for me comes from what we can get away with, what we can pass off – how weird we can get.”
“I don’t think there is ‘too weird’ anymore,” Jeff says. “Locally, maybe.”
I ask them what would be too weird for St. Petersburg and Phil smiles, saying “Nothing – nothing at all.”
Jeff stops mid-sentence to tell Phil a roach has crawled onto him – he swats it and we all stand and spot check each other, then sink back into the couch. Phil returns to the woes of interviewing.
“Don’t make us sound all academic, either,” he tells me. “It’s not the same – it’s two different universes that are projects.”
“And at the same time it is the same and it’s just tacit,” Jeff says.
“I get it,” I tell him. “You’re the string theory of music.”
Phil corrects me: “We’re the string cheese.”
“We’re the string cheese of philosophy,” Jeff says.
Then he goes further, delving into the implicit sense of liberation, community, and anarchy that remains part of what he and Phil do: “Honestly, Young Egypt for me is…I want other people to participate in this kind of energy. That’s what I really like and that’s what I really want, for people to know that they can be involved in expressing their own sense of self and what they want to be in their own dreams and that they can do that in a positive way, or a negative way – however the fuck they wanna do it. For me, that’s what I feel like is what we’re about: just everybody do some shit, everybody that wants to be creative, be creative, and participate and come have fun. This is a social art.”
My notebook filled with inane questions lies derelict on the coffee table before us with the cigarette packs and ashes. The rain has picked up, casting itself sideways onto the street. Another police cruiser snakes by and vanishes – always present, but often unseen.