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Thunderheist

Lightning in a Bottle: After a whirlwind run, Thunderheist cools down.

By Reyan Ali
Posted // November 4,2009 -

Graham Bertie wishes that he hadn’t missed the rise of YouTube. When the video-sharing site was rapidly ascending to cultural ubiquity in the mid-to-late ’00s, he was too swamped with touring to revel in the rare tracks and concert clips as they were uploaded. The same goes for Discogs.com, an encyclopedia for music personnel. “I’m upset because I used to buy old vinyl and that was the only way to figure out who works with who,” laments the DJ. “Stuff like that didn’t exist five years ago.” When there will be time to spare, he’ll relax and take it all in. “I just need to stay home for a while and rediscover everything.”

What Bertie has been busy with for so long is Thunderheist, an electronic-dance music project composed of him and vocalist Omalola Isis Salami. Graduating from a pair of online buddies to a constantly performing group with a song in a major movie, the journey has been improbable. Next year will be the first that the Canadian duo has spent apart since their 2005 formation. After the all-consuming Thunderheist dramatically upset his status quo, a simple diversion like catching up on Websites has become Bertie’s respite from the new norm.

Four years ago, Bertie quit his job as a programmer for a subsidiary of video-game giant Ubisoft. Nearing 30 and burnt out on his old line of work, he had to seize his ambitions of being in the music industry ASAP if he wanted to see anything come of it. Fortuitously, he was in touch with Salami online at the time. He was stationed in Montreal, she in Toronto. “We basically didn’t have much personal interaction, just like an Internet friend,” he tells. They collaborated on entire tracks remotely: she’d record a capella, he’d craft a beat to go with it, and the two would exchange feedback. “It’s a weird way to do things but I think that’s why it worked,” Bertie says. “We didn’t have any preconceived notions about the other person. It’s just, ‘You wanna work? I wanna work.’” After settling on a moniker (and modifying their own names to Isis and Grahm Zilla), they uploaded the finished songs to MySpace. Compliments poured in. The momentum built quickly and, via positive buzz and a connection, Thunderheist—a group whose members had met only a couple of times—were almost last-minute additions to massive music festival Pop Montreal. “It didn’t actually end up working out,” notes Bertie of the festival slot but, when it came to the music itself, “I knew that I was doing something right.”

Within two months of starting the project, the group had their first show. They rehearsed together for eight hours, blowing out Bertie’s equipment. No matter: they recovered in time for a concert that was “total gangbusters.” Says the DJ, “There was so much natural interest. It was shocking.”

What made this unlikely couple—a sultry black female firebrand singer and a laid-back, white, male audio oper ator—successful was the alchemy of their efforts. On Thunderheist’s self-titled full-length (which was released in March following a handful of singles and an EP), Isis’ delivery alternates between rap swagger and a smooth, singsong style, explaining the tale of a “Little Booty Girl,” sweetly apologizing in “Nothing2Step2,” or imploring you to hit the floor, “dust it off and jerk it,” (from “Jerk It,” a track also heard in 2008 Mickey Rourke flick The Wrestler). Zilla adds to the dance frenzy by providing greased electro pulses, bouncy claps, stomping fuzz, and, most importantly, decent drums. “I’m kind of a drum Nazi,” he mentions. “If the drums sound shitty, I can’t deal, even if everything else works.” Aside from the drums, he wanted the overall album to be punchy enough that he’d enjoy hearing it all the time. “I wanted to make it so that I would want to play it, and I have stringent requirements.”

Looking back, he has figured out much about his work since getting so used to it. “I feel like the next album will be a lot more focused,” he tells. “This was a snapshot of that time for us. It’s a really different way of doing music. It’s kind of mind-boggling. I honestly don’t remember the past three years. Most of it was on the road. Decision-making when you’re in that situation is different. You learn to just go with stuff. We didn’t over think any of this.”

While Thunderheist has officially pre-pegged their 2010 status as MIA, Bertie bristles at the idea that this hiatus is anything more than that. “We’re not outright breaking up, man,” he says. “It’s more turning down shows.” Instead, the two will stay busy with side and solo projects. Bertie admits feeling bad when he hears from new Thunderheist enthusiasts nowadays. “People are like, ‘Please come to this city!’ We’re like, ‘We’ve played there ten times.’ As sympathetic as I am with our audience—and God bless ‘em, because we have a really good fan base—if they want a second album, we need to do this,” he asserts. “It’s good to let stuff breathe sometimes, y’ know?”

THUNDERHEIST
W Lounge
358 S. West Temple
Wednesday, Nov. 11
8 p.m

 
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