The side project isn’t a new phenomenon.
At a time in which more bands than ever are active, and there are perpetually more descriptors being placed either before or after genre-narrowing hyphens than the previous week, it’s almost more strange if a musician doesn’t have a hand in at least two projects at once. Will Rose can be counted amongst the glut of artists whose musical résumé has more overlap than gaps. Though the creative duality isn’t at all an unheard of experience, his particular case isn’t one of a guitarist shifting over to bass or a lead singer occasionally partaking in a tribute band on the side. Not even close.
Some might know the quiet complimentary drummer of harmonious female-fronted folk outfit, Calamity Janes And The Fratney Street Band. Others may be acquainted with Airo Kwil, the formidable rapper and producer with a smooth delivery, vast vocabulary, and penchant for diverse time signatures. Not many know they’re one in the same.
Rose, 24, says his initial exposure to hip-hop came in fourth grade from “Dr. Dre and Eminem, probably.” From there, he recalls being introduced to the music of Nas and Atmosphere, and others early on, and carried his ever-growing affinity for rap from adolescence to adulthood. While attending the University Of Wisconsin, Rose turned his hip-hop interest into involvement in the Madison hip-hop scene, rapping under the name Airhytmatic (pronounced “Arithmetic”) and releasing a some songs in both digital and physical formats. When he graduated last year, the Milwaukee area native returned to the city, shed his admittedly confusing stage name, and took on the moniker Airo Kwil (“Arrow Quill”). He also took on another title: Calamity Janes drummer.
“I hadn’t really been part of a folk band before, but I thought it would be an interesting way to sort of broaden my repertoire and explore something new as a musician,” Rose (who previously drummed with Madison indie rock band The Count) says. The unexpected opportunity came through a reference from Rose’s older sister Johanna Rose, who also happens to be the Janes’ upright bass player.
“He was kind of hesitant at first, but it’s worked out really well,” Johanna Rose says. “And it was perfect timing. Right when we decided that we wanted to take a step towards getting a drummer, he moved back.”
As the sixth and final piece of the band, his first year with Calamity Janes has been a subtle one so far. He’s mostly just added beats to preexisting material and tried to avoid disrupting the budding folk project’s course.
“Will kind of plugged into what was already happening,” Calamity Janes violinist Ernest Brusubardis says. “When we practice as the Janes, he takes the back seat, blending in, and popping out here and there. I think people are surprised when they see the Janes’ drummer—‘Isn’t he a rapper or something?’”
As the new guy contributing background parts to timeless folk and bluegrass ditties, Rose has a handle on his place in this particular project.
“You play different roles when you play in different bands,” Will Rose says. “Obviously, the Janes probably don’t want me being vocal and having to chime in between every song when I’m playing drums with them. That would be annoying as hell, whereas it’s more reasonable if I’m the front man.”
Still, his diverse musical background creep in to occasionally to add slight-yet-invaluable flare to otherwise straightforward, vocally-hinged numbers. Both Rose siblings point to the band’s Easier, Better closer “Dustadust” in which the rapper/drummer employs a hip-hop beat—albeit using wire brushes, instead of sticks or software—during a late-song breakdown.
“It’s cool to do that kind of thing,” Will Rose says. “I mean, obviously if there’s a soft, melodic part you don’t want to do it. I always want to be tasteful with what I do.”
Just as he occasionally allows elements of his rap persona to crop up in Janes jams when warranted, Rose also pulls from some decidedly non-hip-hop influences when writing Airo Kwil songs. He says others have compared Airo Kwil to everything from Eyedea and Why? to Death Grips and even Modest Mouse, the last of which seems to be especially accurate.
“I’d definitely say I have an indie rock influence to my stuff. I’ve sampled Modest Mouse before, a song by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and other songs that—if it doesn’t sample from it—it will make some sort of a reference to it. I think ultimately, my stuff is somewhat rhythmic and progressive. That in itself is going to align you with a lot of different genres.”
Advancing the genre-mashing stylistic blur even more is the eclectic cast of collaborators brought into the Airo Kwil fold. Johanna Rose plays upright bass for live shows and sings hooks, both live and on the recordings. Palmer Shah (Ugly Brothers, Grasping At Straws) also provides live accompaniment on electric guitar. Will occasionally will play drums, keep time on a floor tom, or make electronic beats while rapping live. His forthcoming Airo Kwil debut Dark Cinema—which Rose anticipates to be out in early 2015—features the above collaborators, as well as cameos from established Milwaukee rappers Klassik and D’Amato, among others.
Matias Mulvey, who produces music as Original Vision, has collaborated with Rose and is taken by his unique style and diverse musicianship.
“Will has a style like no other. I mean that,” Mulvey says. “I can honestly say that there isn’t a single other musician’s work I’ve heard that even remotely resembles his. Will is also an excellent writer, which I would say it his best trait as far rapping goes. [He’s] easily one of the most well-rounded musicians I’ve met, too. Not too many people I know get paid for drumming gigs, perform in a folk band, and rap and produce hip-hop music.”
But apparently not everyone in Milwaukee’s hip-hop scene is as taken with the drummer and rapper’s duality. Rose says he’s heard about or has been directly confronted with criticism regarding his involvement in a folk project from other rappers and producers.
“I think that kind of explores the delicate space between paranoia, trolls, and the proverbial hater,” Will Rose says. “There’s no necessity for any criticism that isn’t constructive. Even criticism that annihilates you, that can be useful in some sense too. But if some person’s humble opinion is ‘Oh, you’re trying to be a rapper?’ or ‘You’re trying to be a folk drummer?’ Well, fuck you.”
Whether keeping beat as the final piece of Calamity Janes or steering the show as the driving force and fearless front man Airo Kwil, there isn’t a crumb of novelty, a shade of irony or so much as an inkling to suggest Will Rose doesn’t belong in either of the disparate universes in which he enjoys dual citizenship. There’s no double life, but instead, one musician’s existence that just so happens to bridge a staggering sonic gap.
“I see myself as a person who is going to be creating in a lot of different avenues for some time to come,” Will Rose says. “Yeah, I play multiple roles, but ultimately I’m a musician, an artist, and a creator who happens to make a few different types of music.”
Airo Kwil headlines a Linneman’s Riverwest bill Saturday night that also features Lex Allen, D’Amato, and Eye Robot. The show begins at 9 p.m. and costs $5.