You get the impression that this is the kind of question Injury Reserve live for. An off-hand request is made for recommendations in the rap/hip hop cannon, and phones are drawn like loaded weapons.
“Do you know this album? The first track... “KOD” by BandGang Lonnie Bands. He's like Detroit rap. And the Slauson Malone album...”. Producer Parker interrupts his bandmate Nathaniel, aka Richie with a T: “Oh boy, yeah. And this band Bodymeat are crazy. Do you know them? They're from Philadelphia... it's like Soundcloud rap but if Death Grips were doing it? Fully live drums. It's really good.” Emcee Groggs frowns in faux-disappointment when Nathaniel steals his Slow Thai recommendation. “The good thing about being with them is... I used to be a super nerd but I'm not as much anymore. They put me onto cool shit and I just go from there.” He glances appreciatively at the other two. “There's way less research I have to do.”
Indeed, there's something of the critic about Injury Reserve – in the way they talk about their Spotify libraries, but also in the way they talk about themselves. Parker, for example, describes the band's 2016 release Floss as a rebuttal to the notion that early noughties rap was just radio-friendly dross, adding with a laugh that he “tried to do stuff that the pretentious rap fans would think is lame but is actually really sick”. Those little-known leftfield influences show themselves in the chaotic diversity of the band's new self-titled debut: a contrasting work of clipping.-esque throat strikes and more modernist and introspective cuts of hip hop. Fittingly adored by critics – including long-time supporter/famously hard-to-please YouTuber Antony Fantano – they're still, somehow, not breaking the 1,000-capacity venue mark: in a few days, the boys will play a rowdy set to a modest crowd The Victoria in Dalston.
As we speak, Injury Reserve are midway through a whistlestop tour of Europe, and it feels like a certain weight has descended over proceedings. The recent acceleration post-album launch as thrown them into the expected tornado of showcases, writing sessions and promo – a far cry from their days spent kicking about as teens in Arizona. “It's funny because it's changed so much” says Nathaniel. “When we came into making music, we started out as friends, just fucking around. And to be honest and completely transparent, it feels like the complete opposite now. Now what keeps us together is the fact that we're doing business together, and being friends comes on top of that. Before we had our own lives and existence, we were going to school, playing sports, having jobs, y'know? And now... this really is the business, this is our life. It's a different dynamic.” There are murmurs of agreement from the other two. “One of the key things of our process working on music lately has been getting that slumber party, camp feeling going” smiles Parker. “It's trying to get yourself back to at least some level of the naive, 18 year old you were – like, 'Alright let's make something fucking creative'.”.
Nathaniel admits the pressure of the much-hyped debut was a lot to shoulder. “Obviously you have fun doing it...” he pauses. “But it didn't feel like we were there to have fun. The first two mixtapes, it was like... We'd had a space back home and people would just come by when they could come by and see what we were doing, and we were there basically every night. But once [music] gets really where you want it to be – where you can live off it – the vibe switches immediately and you have to take it seriously. So it's kind of trying to remove that.” The band explain they were glad to spend last night “just hanging out, making music”. “It's been valuable to make music before the album comes out” says Nathaniel. “Because there hasn't been any weight on it.”
Even with that pressure – and general irritability that must come with being in such close quarters on tour – it's evident the trio are close. They share glances and jokes, fist-bumping each other in agreement when we discuss their perceived problem with English breakfasts (they won't elaborate much on this, apart from repeating "the beans" with a strange ominousness). When I ask them if there's one member who tends to look after the others, and push things forward, Nathaniel offers praise of Parker. “Creatively, he leads a lot of our stuff. Actually, I think it general, Parker leads with most of it. Sometimes I find myself doing the … product management? Someone has to be like 'So how do we do that?' and it's easier when it's coming from someone in your group rather than from a manager, y'know? But most of our stuff is driven by Parker's ambition, which is a great thing,” he smiles.
Sampling is a foundational part of Injury Reserve's sound, even in the context of hip hop. On the new album, Parker crafts beats from thumb pianos, screeching car breaks and punches that sound ripped from Mortal Combat. Back when they were bairns, clearing what they ripped from elsewhere wasn't necessarily a concern ("We just... didn't do it", Nathaniel laughs), but having upgraded to a bigger label, the legalities have caught up with them. "Loads...ah man," Parker commiserates, when I ask how many changes they had to make to the album to avoid copyright issues. "The big one was GTFU ... JPEG[MAFIA]'s voice on it was originally a Pharoahe Monch sample from the song “Simon Says”, which he doesn't own the rights to because he sampled Godzilla and he didn't clear that. Soooo we basically didn't know what we were gonna do.” Parker's engineering skills came in to rescue the situation, says Nathaniel. “We figured out a way to recreate it and get that same energy. I originally tried to [redo the hook] and it didn't sound good because my voice didn't sound...” he looks to Parker. “It was literally just the way your voices broke up when you screamed at full volume,” Parker says, with a nod of reassurance. “One had more aggression, one was more playful.”
21st century digging is obviously very different to the digging of days gone by, where producers were limited to what they could salvage from analogue sources. For Parker, the internet has thrown open a treasure trove of samples and SFX. “For the foley stuff, there's FreeSounds,” he says. “Which is just people uploading the foley they've gone out and captured. And most of the time, that's public domain shit. There's, like, Sounds.com. It's so cool that people just offer it up for free.” I ask about the hook on single “Jailbreak the Tesla”: is “How to hack a Tesla car in under three minutes” an actual YouTube tutorial they stole the intro from? They all laugh. “Well,” grins Parker. “It was originally. But we didn't wanna clear it so...”. The trio explain that song itself fell out of a meeting they had at Apple Music a few years back. “Someone said the phrase and we were like, 'We're gonna make a song about that',” says Nathaniel. “Parker was saying he wanted to do a song where the hook was a one-shot – so one phrase or word just repeated. And we knew we had that phrase: it was just a case of building the song around it.” The rattling glass on the track was actually recorded by the band after a raucous late-night playback: “We were playing the song loud as fuck in the Airbnb where we were at,” says Parker. “And just captured it and put it in there.”
Their debut album hits hard sonically and, in its more introspective moments, emotionally. Single "Jailbreak the Tesla" and "Jawbreaker" catch the band on riotous, wise-cracking form, with the production mimicking their in-your-face, always-on vibe. But no effort is made by Nathaniel or Groggs to cloud the reality of their less party rap-compatible experiences: coping with death and managing alcoholism and depression, for example, are centred on "What a Year It's Been". Nathaniel also spits about his discomfort interfacing with fans who idolise him, something which he's not likely to reconcile.
“Those situations are a lot harder than people think they are,” he says. “Because people can have such a heavy emotional reaction to something you were feeling at just one point in time. It's basically like having a journal, and then your journal being released and scanned. And people get really attached to things you've said.”
Nathaniel clearly tries hard to navigate those situations, knowing that the person clutching the signed vinyl or the tshirt at the merch stand doesn't mean any harm. “And you don't want to take that experience away from them,” he says. “But you look at what you made as something that you made, y'know? It's hard to remove yourself from it. And those people are on the opposite side of the spectrum, and what they experience while listening to it, that's something else. We have very vocal fans, they're very passionate about music. And what we lack on social media, if we have a show, we go to the merch table and talk to every fan. So we basically hear … everything,” he pauses. “It's not something that makes us so uncomfortable to the point that we don't wanna do it. It's just …”. “...a head fuck”, sighs Parker.
At this point, Groggs, who's been quiet for almost all of our interview, pipes up. “One of my favourite things...” he says with a wry smile. .”..is sometimes after a show, someone will come up to me and be like 'Hey man, I'm struggling with alcoholism too... let me buy you a drink!”. The boys collapse briefly into laughter, the slight bitterness of the idea – a fan, however accidentally, trying to coerce the now-sober Groggs off the wagon – dissolving quickly. “That's real alcoholism” Nathaniel says. I express some shock: I'd assumed, in my ignorance, that interactions with fans around that subject would have mostly been validating. “Nope.” Nathaniel notes. “Sometimes, enabling.”
Another slightly bizarre revelation re touring is that fights sometimes breakout. This seems curious, not least because, in person, the trio are sweet, calm and decidedly not the kind of men you'd expect to find decking a stranger. They disagree about how many times this has happened (“Maybe three?” Groggs quizzes), but Parker wonders if it might be simply that some audiences think they could take on the guys and win. “I mean, De La Soul got into a lot of fights...” he shrugs. “And they got into fights because they were a soft rap group and people thought they could check them.” Nathaniel thinks that fights are mostly dependent on what “genre of human” shows up. “Just because we've done a lot of tours opening up for people when we're in between scenes,” he says. “Where's we're 'too rap' for heavy fans and too heavy for rap fans. We don't really have issues with heavy fans because they're often like 'Woaaah, this is rap I like!' but there are very pure rap fans who really don't like being yelled at in the face.”
'Yelled at in the face' is a strong summary of the band's live performances, and that soundclash of hip hop and heavier genres can draw out some curious subcultures. “We were on a specific tour and the people who gravitated to it were just grungy weird kids... not in a cool way” Nathaniel says. Parker interjects: “Lots of tie dye”. “Yeah,” laughs Nathaniel. “Not a good sign.”
I ask the band about their experience with less literal tussles, and whether that combative vibe has ever translated into 'beef' with other artists. “Not like on a real scale,” says Parker, with an inference of relief. “There's lots of local infighting and shittalking [in Arizona] but that's about it.” Having raised the subject of their hometown, I quiz the band for their thoughts on the health of its hip hop scene – something they've been quick to play down before. Nathaniel is suddenly fixed with a seriousness.
“There's a difference between there being bands in a city and there being a scene” he says. “You can see they're trying to make it a movement... but I think they can get a little too 'hold hand-sy', all 'we are the world-y' … just not competitive enough.” Dogged competitiveness may not be something the trio's fans would associate them with, given the generous streak of humour that runs throughout their harsher moments. But it seems, to a degree, that playtime is over. “I think things [back home] can get a little inward,” says Parker. “Like, 'Oh I fuck with you' and 'No, man, I fuck with you' and everyone feels... fucked with?” he laughs. Groggs adds: “And that's something we were never caught up in. We were always focused on ourselves. And moving forward.”
Talking of moving forward, we switch to discussing the new album, the band's debut on Loma Vista. The trio say they've moved past the post-recording, self-critical stage of the creative process, and are now mostly concerned with listeners 'getting it'. “I think people keep trying to pin to either side,” says Nathaniel. “Maybe it's more an American media thing....People over here seem to get it a little more. Over in the States, if it isn't fully JPEGMAFIA and not fully, like, poppy, the fact that it sits in between, people struggle with that.” Parker summarises this most charmingly: “If you're looking at it as if it's just that, it's going to fail to meet those expectations, because it has this too. And that's keeping it from being a fully successful.... that.”
“There was this comment that I saw [about one of our recent tracks] that said 'I wish the raps were as experimental as the beats,'” Nathaniel says with disappointment. “And I felt, 'Oh yeah, people aren't getting this'. Because that's the point – this is a rap song. We want this to be a digestible rap song.”
As for the critics, I wonder if the band see much value in the opinion of those employed (or perhaps not) to review them. We're barely weeks after Lizzo started a riot on Twitter by calling for journalists who weren't musicians to be sacked – a particularly spiky response to a lukewarm Pitchfork review of Cuz I Love You. “That was annoying, yeah,” says Nathaniel. “That piece was very, very thoughtful,” adds Parker. “It would be different if it was a hit piece but it really wasn't.”
“The only reason why I seem to care about criticism...,” explains Nathaniel “...is because, at least in America, we seem to be in an age where people have to be told to like something. And people want to be told, 'this is the next high brow, cool thing'. At the end of the day, we make music unapologetically. But we don't make shit for critics.” The trio share a little exchange, then Parker offers something almost philosophical: “Listen ... feel it... appreciate it. Just take things as they are.”
Closing up, my instinct is to ask what the trio are most excited for, but Parker says that trepidation is more tangible. “It's fear of what the next two weeks will look like, the fallout from the album and what the reaction will be,” he says. “I'm hoping this album puts us in a position where we can just make whatever the fuck we want. Where people will trust whatever we do.” Nathaniel feels that the band's fanbase has become a kind of community. “We've built that,” he says, proudly. “Our fans know that we're gonna bring something new to the table every time. Now we wanna built it more widespread.” I ask Groggs if he has anything to add. Following the sincere admissions of his bandmates, he thinks for a minute. “I'm looking forward to going on tour to Japan. Not for the music, just... Japan.” Again, the three-piece rattle with laugher, immediately turning to rib their bandmate for his response. Despite the fresh pressures that accompany their step up in the world, it's evident Injury Reserve may not have strayed as far as they may think from their care-free 18 year old selves.