Sometimes discovering new artists isn’t as easy as you might think. In the case of new musician Halapeño, my adventure finding him led me to Russian spies, fruit-covered clothing, and a *shocking* tell-all with the enigmatic maestro himself.
Photo credit to @grannymill
Way back in November, I discovered LA-based Halapeño on Spotify, when he first released Sorry, Mom! — an EP full of hilarious, satirical pop music. “Scarlett in My Ears” tells a story of ‘modern dating’ through Instagram DMs and Snapchat etiquette (and features a jazzy interlude). “Dude, That’s Sick Dude” is just a full minute of the title repeated in the form of a spooky Gregorian chant. (Not to mention the song about getting Donald Trump high.) It was music unlike anything I’d heard before; it was something I could seriously bop to and laugh at. You could say I was pretty excited about it.
Alas, I was not to enjoy it for long. Less than a week after I had found Halapeño, he disappeared. I don’t mean that Spotify deleted the songs from my playlist in a technological fluke – he was gone. All my searches on Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and even Amazon Music came up with nothing, not even a profile picture. Googling Halapeño only yielded pictures of vegetables (nice, but not helpful).
I began to form my conspiracy theories – perhaps he had fallen out of favor with a drug cartel, or maybe ‘Halapeño’ was merely a cover-up for a Russian spy. That anti-Trump song could have been what blew his cover! Eventually, I got a clue when I found a mention of what I later learned was his artist collective, “Mango Jacket,” on an Eventbrite link.
Searching “mango jacket” resulted in a fifteen-minute detour into fruit-covered clothing. (Strangely, there is a lot more of it than anyone ever asked for.) Finally, I took to Instagram, where the truth was revealed. Halapeño, AKA Grant Milliken, had been tagged in a @mangojacket post a few months back.
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When he told me over Instagram DMs that he had only taken his music down temporarily in anticipation of a stronger re-release under United Common Records in early December, I was relieved. Sorry, Mom! was re-released on December 1st, and I immediately threw the whole album back on my playlist. I suggest you do, too! One unexpected bonus was a music video for “I Was Hoping That You Were Coming to My Party,” which features a bunch of Milliken’s friends and collaborator Eva B. Ross at Milliken’s home in California.
But after all we had been through, I knew that there must be so much more to learn about Halapeño. So, I asked him if he’d be down for an interview. Luckily, he said yes.
We started out the conversation by talking about Providence’s Mafia-ridden roots (after all, a spy like him would know…) and he told me in true SoCal voice what a “trip” it was that I had found his music by just hopping around online. He was calling from his home outside LA, where he lives with eight other jazz artists of Mango Jacket, many of whom graduated along with Milliken from UCLA in 2016.
Given that his music has such a unique sound, my first question for him was where he got the idea for Halapeño – how had it all begun? Milliken explained to me that he sees himself primarily as a producer for other people; Halapeño is an “exercise in creativity” for him, a project where he can “take that first impulse that you have and not let the part of your brain that filters out bad ideas kick in yet.” The idea of sticking with your first impulses and just going from there, Milliken shared, is central to the ethos of Halapeño. “Each one of those songs probably took like max two hours and within probably two weeks I had five or six of them,” he explained about Sorry, Mom!
Milliken further explained the importance of limiting self-critique, saying about musicians that “we all spend so much time with music as this thing that we probably take too seriously, you know,” and that working on Halapeño and especially collaborating with other artists allowed him to “let go a little bit and not take [himself] too seriously – because I definitely do that and I think a lot of us do.”
The message that Milliken hopes to convey with his music is in line with the chill ethos of his creation process. “I think it would be cool if people heard that and were like, ‘Yeah, maybe I don’t need to take myself so seriously all the time.’ Or that you can make something or do something meaningful that’s not really serious,” he said. “Just go easy on yourself sometimes. With so many ideas that you have throughout the day, your brain instantly kicks in and is like, ‘No, that’s a shitty idea.’ But instead of always doing that, sometimes hearing out what your inner dialogue has to say, you know, and giving it a little bit of a break sometimes [is helpful]. I don’t know if music can fully convey that, but it’d be nice.”
Milliken brings in many non-standard musical elements to create Halapeño’s irresistible retro sound. One such element is a little drum machine that he said looked almost like a tiny calculator. “It has these really fat, quirky drum sounds,” he said. “I would just program a little, come up with a chord progression that fit whatever melody or lyric I had, and then dial in one of the little drum patterns that are on most of my songs.”
Collaborating with other artists, especially with other artists in Mango Jacket, is also an important part of the creation process for Halapeño songs. Milliken described that for the saxophone solo on “Scarlett in My Ears,” he brought in his friend Hugo. “I already had that section and knew that I wanted a solo there. And Hugo mostly plays tenor saxophone, but he’s almost too good at tenor sax, so I was like, ‘You should play alto because you’re not quite as comfortable with it and that way it’ll be a little more wonky.’ I think it worked out great – there’s a couple notes that he cracks, but again, it was just one of those things that was like, ‘Ah, fuck it, it doesn’t matter, this doesn’t have to be perfect,’ and it’s kind of cool that it’s all a little rough around the edges,’” he said.
Milliken also draws a lot of inspiration from the music that he listens to. For “Dude, That’s Sick Dude,” he said that he “was just listening to a lot of Beach Boys” and was particularly struck by one track from the Smile Sessions. “I think I made my own arrangement of that, and then I was thinking that it would be kind of perfect for Halapeño – like, what would it be like if Brian Wilson was kind of a fuckboy? And to just try to make something that sounds very beautiful and kind of churchy, but was just like a stupid, double-dude kind of thing.” On the “double-dude phenomenon,” Milliken further explained that, in classic west coast fashion, “it’s definitely a thing in California [to have] ‘dude’ at the front and back end of a sentence.”
On his other musical inspirations, Milliken said, “I’ve definitely always been largely a sucker for 60s/70s southern California kind of sound, starting with the Beach Boys and then Eagles, Jackson Brown, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell. I feel like that sound feels very true to me; it’s what I grew up listening to.” Milliken has an impressive background in music – he studied classical piano from first to eighth grade, played in probably too many jazz bands in high school, and went on to formally study jazz at UCLA.
However, as a kid who loved jazz, it wasn’t always easy for him. “In sixth grade, I started listening to way more jazz. I became a nut for Thelonious Monk,” he said. “For a long time, jazz kind of became my thing, which none of my friends listened to. And I was super self-conscious about it! In music class in seventh grade we all had to play our favorite song, and I didn’t know anything that was popular at the time. I had to go on iTunes and I looked for some rap song to play so that I wouldn’t stick out as much. Now I’m like, ‘Wait, no, that was tight!’ I should’ve played some old Hank Mobley tune or something. But, you know, it was middle school.”
When I asked him about the future, Milliken shared that for Halapeño he is “working on some new stuff now that sounds very different,” but that still retains the same “whatever-comes-to-mind, in-the-moment” spirit. “It’s much more 80s Bruce Springsteen kind of synth-pop, which is fun. I have like two or three songs.” Luckily for us, he hinted that this new bunch of Halapeño songs would hopefully be coming out in the spring and assured me that once he’s done, he’ll probably just put it out right away.
As we neared the end of our conversation, Milliken talked about the appreciation that he has for music and its importance in his own life. “Nobody ever gets sick of music, which is really crazy,” he said. “Almost everything else in life you kind of eventually get sick of, but even people that have had amazing careers in music for 60 years are still like, ‘I get to go to work every day and make music and it’s fucking rad.’ And I do feel like that, even though I’ve only been doing it for like three years as a career.”
With such a strong artistic foundation and a true passion for music-making, Halapeño will definitely be an artist to watch in 2019. His songs are a surefire pick-me-up and relatable in a way that makes us laugh at the idiosyncrasies of modern society. Most of all, Halapeño reminds us never to take ourselves too seriously.
Oh, and as to my conspiracy theories, there may in fact be some truth to one of them. When I asked him whether he’s a Russian spy, Milliken said, “I can neither confirm nor deny. I’m definitely not speaking to you from a prison camp. And that’s all I’ll say about that.”
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Halapeño does next.