Artist You Need to Know: Too Free Dance Toward Liberation - Rolling Stone
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Too Free Dance Toward Liberation

Washington, D.C. trio makes anthems for getting loose and imagining a brighter future

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Victor Llorente for Rolling Stone

It was Memorial Day weekend 2011, and Awad Bilal was twerking in front of a thousand people.

Bilal was a touring dancer for New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia at the time, and the band had rolled into a university-organized festival in Hartford, Connecticut, where they’d be opening for Snoop Dogg. Freedia is known for putting on a fabulous spectacle of a show, surrounded by a cadre of young, athletic dancers throwing their asses to cult hits like “Gin In My System” — and as Bilal recalls, the audience of “weird young teen white boys” who’d shown up to see Snoop wasn’t having it.

Almost immediately after Freedia took the stage, the bottles started coming. “They threw bottles at us,” Bilal says. “They were, like, not here for it. We had only been on stage for 8 or 10 minutes, and Freedia was like, ‘All right, we don’t have to do this.’”

So they cut the set, left, and moved their party to a local diner, where Big Freedia, her DJ, and her dancers made sure the twerking didn’t stop. “It was a whole shake-it-off kind of vibe,” says Bilal. “At that point, nobody had ever thrown bottles at Freedia on stage, ever. In all the years of playing everywhere in New Orleans, all over this country, no one had done that. And here we are at this diner in Connecticut, living our best lives.”

For Bilal, having fun after “being chased basically off the stage” was an influential moment in his persistence as an artist, and a lesson in building a tight-knit community. “There’s still such a strength in being with your crew. And now that I have this crew, now that I have Too Free,” explains Bilal, “we’re unshakable in our energy and in who we are and what we’re presenting.”

Too Free — Bilal, 34, on lead vocals, Carson Cox, 33, on programming, synth, percussion, and vocals, and Don Godwin, 49, on programming, bass, and vocals  — are an electronic dance group that opens up Nineties vocal house through more modern sounds. All three of them are based around Northwest D.C.: Bilal lives in and grew up in Petworth, a black working-class neighborhood that Cox (along with many other artist types in the city) recently moved into. Bilal’s grandmother has been in the same house since the 1950s, with a large extended family scattered nearby. His father was born in Libya, his mom in D.C, and he is one of five kids.

“Growing up in the city and seeing it dissolve around you and shape-shift into something a little less recognizable, but still distinctly D.C., has been a journey,” says Bilal, who is the only member of the band native to D.C. The three musicians come from different musical backgrounds, too: Cox has spent a decade as the lead singer of the Florida post-punk band Merchandise, Bilal made drone soul music in his project Vasillus, and Godwin has a long and eclectic resumé, from spacey indie trio Callers to Balkan horn troupe Zlatne Uste. They are also all members of a D.C.-based punk band called Clear Channel.

Cox and Bilal initially met on a drunken night at a bar where Bilal worked when they were both living in Brooklyn. They started writing and recording the music that would become Too Free’s debut LP, Love in High Demand, in November 2018, rehearsing in a basement at Cox’s former home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a $100 interface and a Radio Shack mic, let’s make some music,’” Cox recalls. “I can’t stress enough how budget everything was. It was like, ’Let’s just plug all the gear in and make sounds.’”

The duo bounced around ideas, with Bilal singing and playing melodies on different synths or keyboards, and Cox adding samples through Ableton Push. The next step was calling in Godwin, who spends his daytimes as a recording and mixing engineer at Tonal Park recording studio, a 10-minute drive from D.C. just beyond the Maryland border. (One act he’s worked with there recently is Crystal Waters, whose sound is a clear influence on Too Free’s.)

Now a trio, the group sent ideas back and forth, working on songs together even before Bilal and Godwin actually met in person. “Carson wove both Awad and I into some musical ideas he had,” Godwin says. “He’s just like, ‘Do whatever comes to mind.’ I would play a bunch, we’d hang out and then a couple weeks later he’d send a bounce. I was just like, mind blown at what he put together out of our jams and our spontaneous creations.”

Too Free demoed four tracks that would make their eventual debut LP —  vocal house banger “ATM,”  atmospheric R&B track “Gold,” the Seventies guitar nostalgia of “Elastic,” and the swaggering groove of “No Fun.” They played their music for friends, including their long-time collaborators at D.C.-based indie label Sister Polygon Records, run by members of the now-defunct D.C. rock band Priests. Soon they had a contract, and Too Free hit the road with Priests.

“We were asked to go on tour before we had ever played a live show, or even really rehearsed.” says Bilal. They played as a two-piece (Bilal and Cox) in Birmingham, Knoxville, and Nashville, before debuting as a full band at SXSW 2019 in Austin.

Those shows proved to be instrumental in the band’s sound coalescing on record. “Playing them live is what finalized a lot of songs on the record,” Cox says. “It wasn’t until we were in front of an audience that we were like, ‘This works, this doesn’t work.’”

Love in High Demand, which they recorded at Tonal Park after those shows, is a bass-heavy journey, bouncing sounds and samples off of soft, sultry blips of lyrical hope. “Cover me in carpet, cover me in principle,” Bilal sings on one track; on another, he imagines “a twist of fate, to simulate/A desert lake, to hold your weight.” There are slow synth jams as well as turn-ups, with the record sounding at times intentionally crude, at other times elegant, but always cohesive.

Too Free played their first hometown show at a neighborhood bar in Petworth called Jackie Lee’s where “my uncles used to go, way back in the day,” says Bilal, whose grandmother lives down the street.

 “Awad’s whole family was sitting down in the front row,” recalls Cox.

“It looked like they were going to Buckingham fucking Palace,” says Bilal. “My dad looked like an actual outtake from Coming To America or something.”

For the Jackie Lee’s show, Too Free brought in their own soundsystem, and booked black artists they admire from D.C. to fill out the bill. “It’s very intentional, how we set it up in terms of how we present ourselves, especially live, when we get the chance to,” says Bilal, “making sure that we’re not playing with all white dude indie bands.”

“Reflecting our own lives,” says Cox.

“And the city we live in,” says Bilal.

Cox saw a glimpse of indie fame before Too Free with Merchandise, a downer-anthem band with heavy Depeche Mode vibes. The group, which is not currently very active, consists of childhood friends from the Tampa Bay hardcore punk scene; they released music first on their own Cult Maternal label and then Brooklyn boutique punk label Katorga Works, and eventually with slicker production on big indies like Sub Pop and 4AD.

The band’s 4AD era, roughly from 2014-2016, meant a lot of time on the road in the U.S. and Europe, which felt markedly different from the years of “get in the van” punk jaunts that had preceded it. “A large percentage of the audience we were being sold to I was just like, ‘I have no connection with this,’” said Cox. “Touring was a double-edged sword. You just get into unhealthy patterns.”

In November 2016, after performing at The Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, England, Cox collapsed. “Everything greyed out and I woke up on the floor,” he says. “I’m like, ‘what’s everyone looking at?’ I was reaching in the back of my mouth and pulling out parts of my teeth.”

Cox was a month and a half into the tour, skipping meals, missing sleep, and drinking some beers during and after the set. He soon found out he’d broken his jaw after falling. “And the next day, Trump got elected,” Cox says. “It felt like the world had ended. It was just a nightmare.”

The rest of that tour was canceled, and Merchandise stayed at a 4AD flat in London for a week. Cox returned to the U.S. and moved to the D.C. area, eventually shifting his focus onto new artistic endeavors.

“You kind of feel a conveyor belt with a lot of music stuff when you’re doing it professionally,” he says. “You start to see a pattern and it takes a lot of the excitement out of it. Whereas Too Free, we’re able to have a sort of elasticity with how the band works and what we do.”

Cox classifies Too Free’s ethos as “beyond DIY.” Bilal calls it “true community.” Godwin says, “it makes us forget capitalism for a fucking beautiful moment.”

Walking into their Love in High Demand record release show at Trans Pecos in Queens, New York, this February, on a cold Thursday evening a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., the sense of community was thick in the air. With one solo performer opening (New York by way of Florida act Horoscope), there was very much a friends and family feeling to the show.

Too Free took the stage for their sixth show ever as a full band, with pink and blue gel-filtered clamp lights in front of them, and a disco ball above them. Bilal’s presence felt larger than life as he bounced back and forth to the beat and cooed at the audience, “engulf me, engulf me.” The intimate room lapped it up.

“I love dance music,” says Bilal. “I go to raves with my partner a lot. There is something about that music that gives back to you as you listen to it, that gives you power. Being able to have that kind of control is magic.”

Their show is powered by Bilal’s magnetism on stage, which he feels might be different than what people would expect at first glance. “I like showing this different side of what masculinity can look like, and owning that. Showing this softer, more generous side,” he says. “I’ve always prided myself on having my queer identity, my black identity, my family life, my friends, my love — all of it is in this bubble, this circle. You can never separate them. I think that’s the key to being your most authentic self, and really knowing who you are, and living it.”

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