Though their band name might suggest otherwise, Marmalade and Dusty Melo—known to their grandmothers as Lee Napthine and Colin McCue—of emerging Sweatshop Union subgroup Pigeon Hole aren’t entirely easy to pinpoint. And frankly, the two MCs, who grew up together in Nanaimo, B.C., weren’t going for anything less than difficult-to-classify on their debut album, Age Like Astronauts.
Through experimentation with different instruments and technologies, the boys have come a long way since their days of looping samples through tape decks in high school. Having toured with acts like Blackalicious and Swollen Members and played prestigious venues like San Francisco’s Fillmore, McCue and Napthine are far from finished developing their music style and career. More than anything, the duo is dedicated to putting out something fresh, something that “hasn’t been done before”.
“There are always new developments,” the ginger-haired Napthine explains in a West Broadway coffee shop. “I’ve been with Sweatshop Union for a long time, and we’ve put out albums and toured as Sweatshop Union. I’ve never done an album with Pigeon Hole. I’ve never made an album that sounds like this. I’ve never shot videos before. I feel like as long as you’re constantly doing new things musically, you’re going to stay in awe of what you’re doing.”
The bandmates are on a mission to explode the boundaries of hip-hop, this emphasized by their willingness to try anything—like the time they played an acoustic set with Canadian pop-folk stars Tegan and Sara while an African drum group kept the beat. And the duo is hardly jaded by the rap game, noting that, even after 10 years in the trenches, they haven’t lost the surreal feeling of genuine excitement that can come with playing for a crowd of 10,000 people, or simply from standing four feet in front of jazz-rap pioneers De La Soul.
Among anecdotes of late-night, post-basement-recording-session 7-Eleven runs with his long-time pal and bandmate, McCue chalks up his undying awe to being able to look back on his younger self: “If I had told 13-year-old Colin that one day I’d be opening for Snoop Dogg, it’d blow his mind!”
“Sometimes you really need that shit-your-pants moment to feel like you’re accomplishing something new,” Napthine says, bolstering the notion that Pigeon Hole has yet to plateau.
“Working on an album, just the two of us, gives a lot more room to be creative,” chimes in the mustachioed McCue. “There are some weird songs we wouldn’t be able to get away with on a Sweatshop record, just because of the real estate on a Sweatshop record. You can’t get away with a ”˜Sea Tales’–type song with no drums. It doesn’t work on a Sweatshop record, but with the two of us, it works.”
Unlike their involvement with the local supergroup, the guys are doing more than lay beats and write lyrics with Pigeon Hole; they’ve been picking up instruments and incorporating sounds that are virtually unheard of in the hip-hop world.
“We play most of the instruments on this album,” Napthine says, noting, however, that they may play them poorly. “It’s still hip-hop music. It’s not a matter of playing it well, it’s a matter of playing it right. As long as you’re sampling, you could play for five minutes and only sample two seconds of yourself. You’ll be a virtuoso for two seconds.”
McCue reveals that the group of instruments used on the album includes ukulele, melodica, and Fisher-Price keyboards, a testament to the group’s eclectic tastes and talents.
“You can have a Fender Rhodes and you can learn how to play different things on a Fender Rhodes, but it’s always gonna sound like a Fender Rhodes,” he says. “No one’s been playing a Fisher-Price keyboard. That’s gonna be something that sonically has never been done before. At least in hip-hop music.”
Age Like Astronauts, a diverse 13-track disc, ranges from classic-sounding sine-wave synthesizers on “Voodoo” (think Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But A ”˜G’ Thang”) to the minimalist “Bleed” (about the duo’s hometown of Nanaimo).
One thing is certain: there’s no shortage of material, either musically or conceptually, on the friends’ first album together outside of Sweatshop Union.
“I think the whole concept was to challenge ourselves on every song and do something different every time—to just experiment through the whole process of making the record,” McCue says. While the guys are relatively open about the album’s content, they’re reluctant to spill the beans on the wretched tramp who’s referred to on “You Suck”, an unabashedly malicious stab at what would seem to be some reckless heartbreaker from one of the guys’ pasts.
Perhaps we’ll just have to wait for the song’s sequel on the next album to figure that one out. We haven’t heard the last of Pigeon Hole, with the two musicians planning to continue creating albums together well into their old age.
“We’ll be,” McCue says, “the Ray Charles of the rap game.”