It’s hard to remember Richmond before Photosynthesizers stepped on the scene. Although I’ve never seen them live, ever since I can remember, I’ve heard nothing but good things. When both musicians and average citizens begin to pass around praise for a band, you can’t help but acknowledge that they must be doing something right. It’s easy to assume that it’s just the music, but there has to be something more than that to have lasted over three years as a rap/rock cross-genre hybrid. I’m a firm believer in the idea that participation should come well before product, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Samsun (Vox), Barcodez (Vox), MiKemetic (Bass), J. Bryant (Guitar), Wade (Keys/Synth) & Dr. Data (Drums/programing) shared the same perception. More than music, Photosynthesizers are based on an idea – one of unity, class, honor, etc.. The problem with ideology is that you must make others believe to achieve wholeness. I agreed to interview Photosynthesizers to see if I could get to the bottom of their plan to make believers out of Richmond residents.
How did you guys come up with the name “Photosynthesizers”?
BarCodez: Photosynthesizers came when we started to define our music’s philosophy. I was free-versing one day when the name came out. I thought, “Damn… Photosynthesizers.” We would later define it as turning light into sound. Photo is light, analogue, organic, earth: Wade, MiKemetic, SamSun. And the synthesizers is sound, digital, space: Joshua, Data, and myself. But we often like to play Musical Chairs.
What you mean when you say “Musical Chairs”?
BarCodez: Musical Chairs is when we operate as interchangeable parts. All the guys in the band can play multiple instruments and often we like to switch during practice. I was saying that SamSun, Wade, and Mike are like the Photo (light) aspect of our band and Joshua, Data and myself are the Synthesizers (sound), but that really depends on what song we are doing. You take songs like, “AstroBelts” and “Science of Circles,” where the whole band is functioning like the synthesizers (industrial) – even the way Sun and I are rhyming is very mechanical. While songs like “Crush” and “Roads” are more Photo (organic).
With six members, you all bring separate but exceptional talents to the table. Can you elaborate on how each member contributes to the band, on and off stage?
MiKemetic: I already had a good amount of experience with booking and promotions from the events I used to do in RVA in the late 90s, as well as from when I did a lot of music related events/projects when I lived in Philly from 2003-2006. When I joined the group in 2009, I made it a point to make sure that everyone knew who Photosynthesizers were. I was pretty relentless with booking shows, designing flyers, and littering Facebook with events, so that people would eventually have to say “Hey, who are these guys?” and come check us out. I also pushed the cosmic aspect of the band’s music philosophy by using a lot of space, alien, and intergalactic images in our promotions to solidify those as major influences on our identity. I also usually play the role of “Bad Guy” in trying to get all of our unique personalities in line and on the same page, so that we can continue to push forward, be productive, and stay relevant.
Samsun: Obviously, I play the chick. Codez and I are definitely the lyrics and concepts, but those concepts don’t come without the music. Josh will usually come in and say something like, “Hey, I had this idea.” He’ll play and we’ll feed off of it. Thats why we call him The Captain. To me Phil is like the control in an experiment. Always chill, always neutral. Mike is the mouth. Yeah, me and Codez are the vocals, but Mike has been the voice on the street.
Many people in this city consider Photosynthesizers to be the best Hip Hop act in Richmond. What is it about you guys that influence some to come to this conclusion?
DATA: We think that it is awesome that we were considered the best Hip Hop act in Richmond. We’ll take that title, since we’ve worked hard for it at every practice and every show we’ve performed. But I don’t think we’ve reached enough people in Richmond to be deemed the best. There are thousands of people and their friends and families that haven’t heard Photosynthesizers as of yet, and the goal is to get the whole city, nation, and the world to hear us before we can start living up to any titles. There are so many great artists in Richmond, and we recognize all of them. If we have influenced anyone in this city it is only because we’re just too damn cool.
I’ve got to be honest here and say I think that “Hip Hop” is too small and confining of a genre to hold Photosynthesizers. Do you guys see yourselves fitting into any other genres?
MiKemetic: From the time that I started playing with the band, I realized that our music was transcending most traditional boundaries of categorized music by blending many elements and simultaneously blurring the lines between them. I came up with the term “Tronic Soulschool Hip Hop,” which was a play on a term I had created in Philly, and started promoting the band under that description. Many times, artists try to define themselves by the similarities they have with other bands, saying, “Oh, we sound like this, or sound like that.” But to me, that’s counterproductive, as people will continuously compare you to those artists. I mean, people will do that anyway, but if you say, “Hey, we have our own sound. Come check us out!” you don’t put yourself in a self-imposed box by saying you sound like so and so. We’ve heard all types of comparisons but because we have emcees, people always put the hip hop category first, whereas if we were an instrumental group, I doubt anyone would categorize the sound as “hip hop.” People can compare us to what they want though, just come see us first. Then make your own opinion.
Photosynthesizers formed back in 2008. Being that you’re all from pretty diverse backgrounds, you must have an interesting story on how the band came to be. Tell me about that.
J. Bryant: It’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll try to give you the abridged version. Photo actually began probably back in ’06 as a collaboration between me and Maurice (Barcodez). I was producing and he was emceeing. We finally evolved to the point of wanting to perform live, and neither of us wanted to be another DJ/emcee combo. I have been in bands for most of my life, and so I called upon my musical brethren to create a group to do a show. We felt it was such a powerful presentation with live music, so Mo and I wanted to keep that going. That group fell apart, and we then picked up Data to DJ, while I played guitar and Barz emceed. Samsun was the only person we eventually got back from that first group, only we saw her potential to be much more of a contributing factor than the backups she originally did. Nick Tharpe and Wade Puryear came in to the picture at the same time, and Nick introduced us to Kemetic. Once Nick bowed out (gracefully), Data made the jump from turntables to drums. The unabridged book will be out soon.
I’ve listened to several of your songs but have yet to catch you guys live. How does the live experience differ from that of the album?
Samsun: There’s always a heavier energy, an intensity when the music is right there in front of your face. It’s got to be different for our audience to see the band play and hear it at the same time, or to see how we deliver our vocals. People see and hear the music and they see that we’re for real. They wanna get involved. We already believe what we’re saying but we feed off of a good crowd and we’re able to give more.
Why did you guys choose to use the biohazard symbol between Richmond and Virginia in your logo?
MiKemetic: It actually started as a semi-joke when I added it because I just needed something to stick between the two words. It’s not part of our logo per se, but I kept it even after I was done designing the EPK, which is when I first used it. Now it’s a bit of a metaphor, because we are toxic to the status quo. If you think of how biological agents effect the body, they effect you on a cellular level and can change your actual composition much in the same way that sunlight and/or music does. However, it’s only a hazard to those who are afraid or resistant to the change. That [explanation] was all determined after the fact though. I just used it because I like it.
Six members deep, you guys appear to cover the complete spectrum. Do you feel your sound/image is missing anything at the moment? If so, how do you plan to fill that void?
J. Bryant: I would never say we have a void to fill–more like a desire to feel we are living to the full potential of our capabilities. We are all such creative people by nature, so we have had to learn how to fulfill the needs of being a great band, whether in studio or live. We have naturally created music where one song may have nothing in common with the next. Therefore, we are able to cover the complete spectrum of emotion and take it from sexy to intelligent, sometimes within the same song. I, personally, am very proud of our image, and feel it represents the world we live in. There are no borders when we create. Maybe the only thing our sound is missing is some nice new gear.
Do you ever find it difficult to align your songs under an album that has a cohesive theme when your songs cover such a wide spectrum?
BarCodez: [So] far we have only released two EPs, Speakers In Black Holes, and The Nu Cool Edition, [an updated version of the first EP] which contains some bonus tracks. So as of right now, it’s not hard to bring songs under one umbrella. Photosynthesizers are conceptually-driven artists by nature, so we usually know where a project is heading when we get into it.
Based on your response to my initial offer to interview only Samsun, it’s probably safe to assume you guys have a lot of stock invested in the complete voice of the band. What’s the hierarchy to Photosynthesizers and why does that structure work for you guys and maybe not for other bands?
BarCodez: Well, I’m not sure that it doesn’t work for other bands. I think that is more in the marketing and promotions establishing the face of the band, which is mostly [based] around the vocalist. So often, the media gives most of the limelight (interviews) to those positions, but in our band our mindset is that everyone and every instrument is equally important. Look at it like this: in the game of football, the people scoring most of the points are in the back and along the sides, not in the front of the stage (the line of scrimmage). And yet, where would the back be without the line?
Point taken, but most people walk into the house through a door first, they don’t get lowered down through the roof with a bird’s eye view of the layout. You guys obviously feel that the general public perception has evolved, or you’re aiming to change the way people think. What changes do you want to make, and how does that fit into your plans for the future?
BarCodez: Well, I don’t think we are trying to change the way people think. The general public perception is broad. We really don’t know what the general public wants as a whole. Everyone is vastly different. I think we try to shape the general perception without our own magnifying glass. There are consumers that buy physical copies of an album because they want art and want to see who produced and wrote what tracks in the liner notes. You have some consumers that will just download the album, and they don’t care about that at all. The best thing we have in our band is our synergy of family and fellowship. So, when we do an interview, write music and perform, we are looking at it from an interest of the whole. How we view the group is a reflection of the future of Photosynthesizers.
One would think that having so many diverse minds involved in the creative process would get confusing. How do you guys keep from letting egos interfering with that process?
DATA: When it comes down to sharing ideas musically, everyone certainly has a say in how the music should be. We’ve grown as a group over the past few years, and we’ve learned how everyone acts personally, so we can react to each other accordingly. Most bands have leaders, but we don’t have anyone in Photosynthesizers that dictates how things should be creatively. We usually compromise well with each other. I believe that our minds are diverse, but we can agree on what good music is. No one individual’s ego can override the synergy the band generates while in the process of creating music.
Photosynthesizers have collaborated with many different artists, both as a band and as individual members. Who in the Richmond music scene would you guys like to work with next and why?
Samsun: Honestly I’d have to say as a band we haven’t collaborated with that many artists. The music scene here in Richmond is so big, I’d have to say a few rather than many. I believe as a whole we’d like to collab more with performing arts like dancing, the hoopers here in Richmond, flame throwers and fire spitters, DJs… I’d even love to collab with the kids that play the buckets in Carytown. We’re all very visual thinkers and we’re all about awakening the senses. To enhance the sound or the visual just might make people levitate… and that’s what we want! For me as an individual I get to collaborate with some of the best in Richmond every time I get with these guys.
Cool. You’re about to preform with Grammy award winning singer/songwriter Van Hunt at The Camel this Friday. I gather that you guys have a great deal of respect for what he has accomplished as an artist. Through my research I learned that after completing his album Popular, he was told that it would never be released. Hes now gone the indie route. How do stories like his influence what the future holds for Photosynthesizers, and what do you hope to ultimately accomplish in the future?
BarCodez: Most definitely. I have been rocking Van Hunt since his first album in 2004 and I am really excited about the show on Friday. It’s always a good feeling to play with artists that have inspired you. As far the album, I can only imagine how that would make me feel. When I hear stories like that, I have mixed feelings. On one hand I get upset because I’m an artist and I know how much energy goes into a record. And on the other, I feel relieved that there are other alternatives to get music out there without major support. As far as the future for Photo, we are going to continue to bring great music, artistic/entertaining showcase, tour, and practice good business principles. Ultimately, we want Photosynthesizers to be brand recognized globally, which in return could sustain the members of the band as career artists.