Braving the Waters with Koral Reefer

Photos by Natalie Murao
Photos by Natalie Murao

With the rise of cloud rap has come a local Vancouver crew with a knack for innovative sampling, catchy lyrics, and furious onstage energy: Koral Reefer. Fronted by rappers Isaiah Lehtinen and Isaiah Dobbs and produced by Jacobs Sexmith (Jade Statues) and Schwinghammer, Koral Reefer quickly sent ripples through Vancouver’s music scene after Lehtinen (under his solo alias Hermit) and Sexsmith opened for the all-ages Yung Lean show at Chapel Arts Centre in July.

“Nardwuar made an appearance backstage, and was very supportive of the whole act” said a smiling Lehtinen. “It was easily one of the best experiences of my life.”

In lieu of a coffee shop or anywhere moderately normal, the group asked me to meet them in the gardens of Dr. Sun Yat Sen park in south Chinatown. Lehermin wears an Andrew Jackson Jihad T-Shirt—his favourite band. Dobbs, dressed in worn jeans and a teal-marked coat, looks like he came right out of the 1980s, and Schwinghammer is inexplicably wearing a raincoat hood. Sexsmith, the only absent member, is usually seen in a flowery T-shirt. Against the background of pruned trees, painted bridges, lakes teeming with koi and turtles, and lost tourists, the group stands out like a platoon of clowns at a funeral. Overall, it’s surreal. Not many people can say they’ve interviewed a cloud rap group in a Chinese Zen garden.

“Surreal” is pretty much the operative word for Koral Reefer. The rap crew is the closest thing there is to a teenage supergroup. Dobbs and Schwinghammer are both members of Funk Schwey, one of the most popular rock bands in the city, Sexsmith is the leader of Mountainous Collective under his Jade Statues alias, and Lehtinen, the groups de-facto leader, has oodles of material under his solo alias, Hermit. Together, the group produces tracks that blend improvised lyrics, obscure samples, and gorgeous synths into something the fills the spaces between weird and brilliant. The group might make one track that samples a weather network jingle, and then produce another thats completely piano-based. Such is the madness of Koral Reefer.

Lehtinen attributes the diversity of the group to the different styles of Jacobs Sexsmith and Schwinghammer, its producers.

“My homie Big Dolph (Schwinghammer) here is classically trained in piano, so he relies very heavily on synthesizers and creating his own melodies, while Sexsmith is much more sample-heavy.” he explains. “They both have their own beautiful styles of music, which they create with their styley-styles.”

Koral Reefer, much like Funk Schwey, is definitely not an overly serious operation. They pose for photos with donuts hanging out of their mouths, call Schwinghammer a “dolphosexual”, refuse to answer questions unless I address them by their aliases, and are generally just bloody hilarious.

But beneath the humour is a passion for music and performance. Within 16 minutes, the group touches on everything from Japanese punk music to the theatrics of Lady Gaga. This is a group that is just beginning to test the waters of the music and performance, both as individuals and as Koral Reefer. But underneath the gazebo of Dr. Sun Yat Sen park, they talk with a confidence that suggests they’re ready to dive in headfirst.

Alright Koral Reefer, introduce yourselves.

ID: King Kaiju.

JS: Big Dolph.

IL: Hermit.

So, what’s up with Koral Reefer right now?

IL: We’re doing a show on September 4th at Astorino’s, and we’re readily preparing for that. It’s gonna be dope. We’re also recording our debut EP.

What is Koral Reefer?

IL: Greasy teenager ocean-rap. With some influence from the Backstreet Boys.

JS: Dolphins.

Everyone in the band has a project outside of it—can you fill us in on your alter egos?

ID: I’m King Kaiju, and I like to rap. About girls. I’m also Isaiah, the lead bassist of a very popular up and coming band Funk Schwey.

JS: I’m Big Dolph, but my friends call me Jacob, and I’m also a part of Funk Schwey. I make beats like, every day.

IL: I’m also part of a solo project that I do with Jacob Sexsmith under the name Hermit. We just opened for Yung Lean, and it was beautiful.

What was opening for Leandoer like? How was he?

IL: Yung Lean was a shy young man. He didn’t really speak to anyone backstage—none of the managers, or the sound people or anything. We had brief conversations with him, me and Sexsmith. He’s a nice guy, but not very talkative. He was drinking cough syrup of course, straight out the bottle. He mostly just conversed with the Sadboiz. His friend Bladee was very nice to me, and Nardwuar made an appearance backstage and was very supportive of the whole act. The crowd was 10/10 amazing, and it was easily one of the best experiences of my life.

Did you get a chance to talk to Nardwuar at all?

IL: Yes, definitely! He was apparently supposed to have done the interview at the Fortune Sound Club gig, but I met him behind the Vogue at Mac Demarco and stopped to ask for a picture. After that, I mentioned that me and Jacob were going to be opening for Yung Lean, and he got really excited about it—it was really cool. He showed up to Chapel Arts, and the rest was history.

JS: If Nardwuar is listening or reading, a life goal of mine is to be interviewed by you. Funk Schwey! Come to one of our shows!

ID: August 24th! And September 4th, please come out to Astorino’s, it’s gonna be a blast

Within Koral Reefer you have a pair of Jacobs who produce and a pair of Isaiahs who rap. Can you talk about your roles within the group?

ID: I love forming new words and sentences with my lyrics—I aim to inspire. That’s pretty much what I do within the group—inspire and create.

JS: While his role is to create through words, mine is through sonic frequencies. That’s how I push my philosophies onto the world… as I’m not good with words.

IL: I have about a fourth grade reading level, so mostly what I do is listen to different Kanye West songs and string verses together hoping that no one notices. [laughter]

Kanye West is a big influence, but I think I know another album you like. Finish the name: “Hello Everyone. Nice to Meet You. We Are….”

IL: MIDORI! Oh damn! You just Nardwuarded… Midori is a Japanese jazz punk band, and they’re one of the first bands I ever really got into. They’re so cool. That’s one of my favourite albums of all time. It starts with this soft acoustic ballad that repeats the word suki- Japanese for love. Then it cuts out into a really loud and abrasive strong that just destroys. It’s an amazing album. Mariko Goto, their frontwoman, follows me on Twitter. She’s really cool, super into anime. She’s pretty.

Shoutout to Mariko Goto. Is the group as a whole into anime or cartoons?

ID: I just really like Spiderman.

IL: My favourite anime is probably Evangelion. I like big robots.

ID: Naruto!

I know Jacob Sexsmith likes to use anime samples in his beats—other Jacob, what kind of stuff do you sample?

JS: I’m a big jazz player, and I like synthesizers.

Going back to Isaiah–

ID: King Kaiju. Do not call me by my birthname.

[laughter] Alright, Mr. Kaiju. Isn’t it true that a couple years ago you were in a punk band called Iguana with your younger brother Jarah?

ID: What? Oh, uhh…

I also understand you both had dreadlocks.

ID: Word. [laughter] I’ve always loved to play music, but never had anyone to play music with when I was younger, so I asked my brother to form a band. He rapped and played the drums. It wasn’t really punk though.

That makes sense, since another birdie told me you went to the Sarah McLachlan school of music.

ID: True that. Screw Sarah McLachlan.

What hints can you guys give me about the upcoming Koral Reefer show?

IL: I recently went to see Lady Gaga perform, I had a pair of floor seats. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen. I’m heavily inspired by her theatrics.

ID: And her butt.

IL: Shoutout to Lady Gaga’s squat trainer. So we’re really trying to step up our theatrics right now. We want lighting and stage presence.

Are we talking fireworks and crazy costumes?

IL: We really want to, but I think Safe Amp would arrest us.

JS: There would be too much goat blood on the stage.

IL: I want to break down the walls with chains like Suicide does, but I don’t think that would go down well with Safe Amp.

What would happen at the perfect Koral Reefer gig?

JS: Everyone would be dead.

ID: I’ve been trying to let Safe Amp let us use a big old machine to blast everyone. Whenever a high hat gets hit—BRRAP—there’s a gunshot.

JS: We want to achieve the tempo of a AK-47. We want to turn it into Unsafe Amp.

IL: We want the stage to be a giant iceberg. And everyone will freeze to death.

What’s the crowd like at a Koral Reefer show? Your beats are uptempo, but the lyrical delivery is more classic cloudrap.

IL: At our last show, no one was really dancing, but there were definitely people getting into it. Sexsmith—who was not part of the group at the time—was moshing throughout the entire set. He whips his hair back and forth.

ID: That show was our origin. Everyone was kinda standing around, but we got the room bumping.

IL: Brittney Appleby played before us, and she plays way darker kinda drone-ambient music. We walked in halfway through her set, and people were standing completely still while swaying as she whispered into a microphone with lots of reverb on it. It was incredibly spooky. And then we got onstage and just wrecked it.

King Kaiju and Big Dolph will know this question, so it’s for you Hermit. Before you became Hermit, what’s the worst name you’ve ever played under?

IL: I still use it, actually. “Yung Whitesaiah”. I still use it a lot—it’s a good rap name. I’m white—

ID: Euro-Canadian.

IL: And King Kaiju here is Afro-American, if you would. So among our friends we’ve kinda coined the terms Whitesaiah and Blacksaiah to minimize confusion.

How do you minimize confusion between the Jacobs?

IL: We just call him Big Dolph. We tried to get all the teachers at school to call him Big Dolph.

Did it work?

IL: It’s on his record. There is no Jacob Schwinghammer.

JS: That’s the great thing about political correctness. They’ll call me whatever I want.

IL: His gender is actually dolphin. A dolphosexual. They have special bathrooms just for him with a big tank in it.

JS: The tank was really gross by the end of the year though. [laughter]

IL: Shouts out to the janitor.

Speaking of Big Dolph, what’s the difference between the production styles of the two Jacobs?

IL: My homie Big Dolph here is classically trained in piano, so he relies very heavily on synthesizers and creating his own melodies, while Sexsmith is much more sample-heavy. They both have their own beautiful styles of music, which they create with their styley-styles.

JS: It’s not a competition though. Me and Sexsmith? We’re homies.

Finally, what’s next?

ID: September 4th, we’re playing a rocking show at Astorino’s!

JS: I’m planning to release a Big Dolph EP. You may hear some similarities between Koral Reefer and the EP, so get excited for that.

IL: The Snow Temple EP, which I’m producing with the homie Jacob Sexsmith and the buddy Big Dolph will be coming out soon. It’s well on the way.

Koral Reefer plays Astorino’s on September 4th with Sol Speech, Relaxation Sounds, and Neon Connex. Checkout their song “Iodine” here.

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