Eric Mayson is a tad uncomfortable with the idea of being a frontman. Also, he’s rather anxious about using solely his own name and image to market his own music. But based on the quality of his debut album, Detail, the ubiquitous and well-respected sideman should get used to the attention and the spotlight.
After moving from Mankato to the Twin Cities in 2010, Mayson initially made his mark on the local scene with the hip-hop group Crunchy Kids. His fresh style and sound soon caught the attention of a wide array of local musicians, which led to him playing keys for artists like Caroline Smith, Lizzo, P.O.S, Toki Wright & Big Cats, and Ashley Gold.
In addition to those gigs, Mayson does composition work for dancers at the University of Minnesota, Zenon Dance Company, Tu Dance, and Macalester College—work that’s further fueled his ambition to make music of his own. Detail is the focused combination of all of those creative endeavors, and Mayson and his musical cohorts are set to celebrate with a release show at the 7th St. Entry on Friday night.
The sonically diverse album plays like a well-curated mixtape, fluidly blending Mayson’s wide-ranging creative style—which stretches from minimalist electropop to smooth R&B, progressive soul, and straight hip-hop—while also drawing clear inspiration from J Dilla’s innovative beats as well as the impressive array of artists he’s worked with along the way.
“I was listening to Donuts on repeat, and I thought, ‘This format is so awesome,’” Mayson says animatedly about Dilla’s landmark 2006 album. “There’s no stopping point. There’s never a point when you’re like, ‘All right, that’s the end.’ I wanted to have something that was just continuous.”
After scrapping many of the recordings for a planned EP because he was unhappy with the results, a larger work started to form out of the fragments of music that Mayson deemed worthy enough to save, combined with the work resulting from two all-nighters spent in a flurry of creativity.
“It came together, like, lightning fast,” Mayson says of the finished collection. “I came to the realization that if something feels like a full idea, then it is one—and you can add it to the collection, and find out what order works best. The fun part was figuring out that if this part smashes into the end of this one, then what new meaning you can find in both of them.”
Detail is the first album from RiverRock Music Group, a new record label headed by engineer Eric Blomquist, head of RiverRock Studios in Minneapolis, where the album was recorded. Mayson, a multi-instrumentalist, played most of the music on the 19-song collection, which is meant to be heard as two seamless 20-minute segments—thus its simultaneous release online and on cassette.
After Mayson added his distinctive musical touches to the work of numerous Twin Cities musicians over the years, they warmly returned the favor on his new batch of tunes. Big Cats lent his production skills and other sonic elements to multiple tracks; Chance from the Crunchy Kids raps on the record; and Arlen Peiffer and Jesse Schuster, both from Caroline Smith’s band, play with Mayson both live and on tape. (In the photos below, Schuster is seen rehearsing with Mayson.)
Being the ringleader for this new group is something Mayson is still growing accustomed to, despite the fact that these new songs represent his fine-tuned artistic vision more fully than anything he’s worked on in the past.
“I love backing people up, and watching people’s work come to fruition. I’m really comfortable with collaborating,” Mayson readily admits, “but the past few months have been pretty bizarre trying to figure out what it means to be at the center of things. I’ve done a couple of solo shows by myself, and it’s really scary. I empathize more now than I ever have with the people I’ve been backing up and how difficult that is. In the future, I really have no interest in just being by myself on stage, I really don’t like that. I enjoy the group vibe.”
No matter how Mayson’s live show transforms itself in the future, he’s made a bold, assured musical statement with Details. It’s the work of a talented, inspired musician who has been striving his whole life to make something that sounds precisely like this, while also managing the rare artistic feat of not sounding quite like anything else in the process.
“Music really is my first language,” Mayson explains affectionately. “I can be much more accurate when I’m playing or thinking of things musically than I can when I’m speaking.”
Erik Thompson is the clubs editor at City Pages, and a freelance music writer in the Twin Cities.