a.squared doesn’t just want to tell you what they’re doing; they’d rather show you. The little musical family includes six main performers and a whole host of production team members. Their YouTube channel allows viewers all around the world to watch as they use the computer program Ableton Live to remix a cappella, right as they sing it. When they’re not lovingly bickering over which roles they each occupy in the a.squared family (is DJ a father figure or more of an older brother?) or slyly avoiding reporters’ questions about their secretive post-spring break plans, they’re all happy to tell you that a.squared is the best thing they’ve done at Yale. WEEKEND sat down in the studio with music director Jacob Reske ’14, vocalists (and newly tapped Whiffenpoofs) Jackson Thea ’15 and DJ Stanfill ’15 and producer Emily Bosisio ’16 to hear all about it.
Q. Tell me a little about a.squared.
JR. We are a group that started back last February. It’s a group that I started, Emily Bosisio was the first person to sign on and then we got a couple of singers on the way. Our initial roster was five singers including myself — I don’t really sing with the group very much, I do beat boxing. They’re all still with the group and they’re all still awesome. I got really really lucky when I got them. We have a shtick, we have a thing. Everything we do is made with the human voice, and everything is live, but we make electronic music with our voices. So we remix a cappella, live.
Q. Is there an improvisational element at all or do you know exactly what it’s going to sound like before you start?
JR. We actually go back and forth between those two things. We start out by improvising. That’s our main go to. But once it gets into the program, it’s very, very precise. So it’s this weird dichotomy between the improvisatory nature of the beginning and at the end, when you basically have to be at a certain bar at a certain time when you’re doing a performance.
Q. What is your role in a given performance?
JR. On the project, I do all of the production. So I write all of the arrangements of the songs — and co-write a lot of them with DJ. Then I program in everything that has to happen in the song — like, at this bar, this effect has to switch on and this loop has to switch on and this person has to, you know. You just tell the program, line by line, exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. And then in the performance, I do percussion, which is really fun for me, and I’m in the back with this guy [gestures at piece of equipment]. With this machine you can control everything about the program without actually looking at the computer monitor. A way easier way of saying that is I kind of DJ the show and do some of the percussion and the beats, and then the singers perform the material.
Q. When did you start working with this combination of electric and a cappella? How did that come about as an interest for you?
JR. The second that this idea came to my mind was the second that my old choir director in high school told me, “You can’t do that.” I was in an a cappella group in high school and we wanted to make an album. I produced the album and I had no idea what I was doing, at all, and I actually did all the mixing in Ableton Live. This is a program designed for electronic music, it’s not designed for a cappella music — so I’m in Ableton and I’m adding an overdrive, or asking what would happen if you put a phaser on someone’s voice. And I sent it to my choir director, and he’s like, “What are you doing?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.”
Q. How did you come up with the name?
JR. Hanoi [Hantrakul ’15, an a.squared collaborator] and I were in linear algebra, and we were just kind of sitting around being like, “A? a.squared?” I can’t remember anything other than wanting an A in the name, because I have synesthesia, and when I think of this project I think of yellow, and A is yellow to me. Weird thing, it got retconned — like when the facts get altered after the fact. In the first article published about us, they were like “a.squared is Ableton and a cappella,” and I was like, “That was pretty clever.”
DJ Stanfill & Jackson Thea
Q. What are your roles within the group?
JT. Of the guy singers, I’m the tenor, or the highest singer. I’ve helped with some arrangements, but only inasmuch as running them through and kind of thinking about them during rehearsal.
DS. I sing the part right beneath Jackson, so of the guys, I’m the middle part. I’m on both sides of the process so I do a little bit of the vocal stuff and I do a little bit of the electronic stuff. But most of the electronic stuff and the arranging is left to Jacob, and I’m like a mirror for him to bounce ideas off of.
Q. So there are six of you total?
JT. Yeah, so of the singers it’s Paul [Holmes ’13], who’s the bass, Nimal [Eames-Scott ’15] who I guess would be the baritone, second lowest; then DJ, who’s second highest; then it’s me who’s the highest guy, and then Keren Abreu ’15, the girl, so she can sing higher.
DS. And a lot of us switch around parts. There are times when I’m above Jackson and Jackson’s below me, for whatever reason.
Q. How would you describe your genre?
DS. Well, considering our repertoire can’t be more than 12 songs at this point, it’s hard to say. But I think I would say — this isn’t what we’re going to be doing, we’re going to be doing different stuff, almost as a point, this semester — we’ve lived in this ambient, electronica, down tempo, chill, R&B vibe. If that makes any sort of sense.
JT. With a touch of EDM.
DS. Yeah, there’s a touch of EDM. There’s a splash of all electronic genres you can pretty much think of. I mean obviously not all of them cause there are thousands. But a lot of everything.
Q. Do you have any specific plans for the rest of the semester, song-wise?
JT. In terms of songs, we’re working on one right now, I don’t think we want to reveal it.
DS. Yeah, let’s not reveal it.
JT. [laughs] Sorry!
Q. What’s the most important thing for people to know about a.squared?
DS. The thing that I want everyone to know at least about a.squared is the fact that no matter what people think it is or what it’s construed as, it’s literally just five to six best friends making music that they like to make. And all of us just hang out. Rehearsal is literally just like — we’re brothers and sisters. We bicker, argue and spend half of rehearsal laughing — and the other half is spent making really incredible music, no matter the outcome. That’s the thing that not everyone might realize — it’s fully in the spirit of Yale. A full blown collaboration among best friends, doing what they want to do because they want to do it.
Q. Any specific favorite moments?
JT. For me, musical moments — there’s this one lyric in “Holocene.” It’s after the drop goes in. It’s at 3 minutes, 51 seconds. And we’re all just singing really loud.
DS. And Jackson sounds really good.
JT. It’s so fun!
DS. He’s belting an A-flat.
JT. It’s just one of those moments where everything melts away and you’re like, I am so happy. It’s cathartic.
DS. My favorite moments are every time Jacob comes in at the beginning of rehearsal and he’s like, “This changes everything!”
JT. Every rehearsal he’s like “[gasp] Guys I made this amazing new thing!”
DS. Since this shit has never been done before, it can be done in a multitude of ways. Jacob comes in and he’s like, I found these four new ways to have one person do an entire drum set with their mouth. You never know what to expect.
Q. What is your title, and what is your role in the group?
EB. My official title is executive producer — I actually joined the team with them last March and was just behind the scenes. Last spring I was doing scheduling, stuff with CPA [Creative Performing Arts] funding, OBT [Off Broadway Theater] and doing marketing stuff, Facebook and Twitter. All of that behind the scenes. Now we’ve expanded our team to where we have more people on the production side.
Q. How do you think a.sqaured fits into the rest of Yale’s musical scene? Do you think it filled a gap, or just invented a new frontier?
EB. I think that Yale does provide space for innovation. I don’t think a.squared necessarily filled a gap, but it created a new category. As far as how it fits in with Yale, these singers are obviously ridiculously talented. Jake is absolutely brilliant, and our creative designer Asher Young ’17 is absolutely brilliant as well. What I think a.squared does very well is bring in people from all different aspects of Yale, not even just the music culture, but in general, including the talent within this industry. It brought us all together which is really cool, because we all work in different areas.
Q. Do you have specific hopes or plans for the future? Long term, short term?
EB. We definitely have short-term things that are coming up. We have new releases that are going to be coming out within the month. We also have plans for the semester while all of us are here. As far as long term goes, we are really excited just to see where a.squared takes us. I feel like this project has a lot of potential, and we could be really surprised at what opportunities come our way.
Q. I know you guys have a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Has social media been helpful in this process?
EB. Social media has been insane in this process. Initially we just wanted to just have our presence online. We were expecting to connect within the Yale community via social media, but what’s really amazing about the Internet is we just put this stuff out there and we’ve had people from all over the world connect with us. We had a guy from the UK remix “Holocence” and post it online. We’ve had people in Colorado ask us about going on tour in Colorado. It’s just incredible the scope of how far our stuff has gone, which is really cool. We’ve also connected with TouchAble, which is the app that we use in the “Retrograde” video. The company saw us on Twitter and saw our videos and reached out to us. We have people from all over the country and all over the world following us on Twitter and waiting for our new stuff to get released. It’s just really exciting that the Internet and social media have allowed us to start creating a fan base and bringing them together.
Q. Do you have any specific favorite moments, either social or musical?
EB. The moment after our concert at OBT was absolutely incredible. It was one of those things where even the day before, we were like, “I’m not sure if this is going to happen.” And months before, I couldn’t even imagine what it was going to be. It was just so much work, and we all put so much work and heart into this thing. What was really cool about me not being a performer was that once that concert started, I just got to sit there and witness all of that hard work paying off, and it was just absolutely phenomenal. I cried at the end, because it was beautiful. That would have to be my favorite moment of all of us together so far. It changed the way I look at anything I do.