Pharrell Williams: Battle of the Bands & Space Odyssey

I was to talk to and photograph Pharrell Willaims at Irving Plaza. It was a 7-Eleven/Slurpee Battle of the Bands event, and when I mentioned it to my crew, they went nuts. My gal pal, and every female in the clan, all begged to come along. You see, they say, Pharrell is the hottest. I took a real photographer, Tina Vaden, so I didn’t have to choose and disappoint, and got there early to catch the battle of the bands. I’ve been to Irving Plaza a zillion times. It’s a great place for a thousand people to see an act. Sound and sightlines, reasonably priced drinks, and diverse bookings have kept the place relevant for decades.

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The battle of the bands featured Burning Tree, Talain Rayne, and the Hollabacks. It must be insanely hard for young bands to play for a crowd that, most likely, was just killing time—and a few beers—before Pharrell. Short power sets left an impression. I really enjoyed the Hollabacks (out of Los Angeles), who were more polished and cosmopolitan than the rest. The openly gay lead singer told the crowd, “Just because you like our music don’t make you gay, it don’t spread that way.” He never stopped with the shtick and giggles, but proved to be talented, loose, and fun, and they got my vote. Talain Rayne’s lead got booed when he told the crowd they were from Philly. (Philly is the new Boston.) He was better than the others at shouting “How ya Doing New York” and other crowd pumpers. They’re sort of Matchbox 20—make that Matchbox 10—falling short of tight. There’s a point were confidence seems like narcissism, and he hit that point. The bands all broke down their own equipment and we slipped outside to sample Slurpees from the marketing truck parked outside. I loved the root beer and pina colada. They gave us fancy straws and a plastic guitar that could be filled with delicious beverages. We got our sugar rush on, ready to meet Pharrell. He’s everywhere: new albums and the music for Despicable Me. Girls die for him, men respect him, and here he was, doing a good deed. The PR dude told me:

“On the concrete side, Pharrell told us when he started working with the brand, that they entered this partnership with 7-Eleven because (in addition to the money) they care about helping out young bands. Pharrell even sacrificed most of his standard ticket price at the show for the cause—each ticket was just $7.11. N.E.R.D also wanted their fans to know there was a legit reason why a bigger band didn’t open up for them that night, and that was because they were showing support for the up-and-comers.”

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I loved the concept of the newbies opening for the national act. I waited in line with the real reporters for my 5 minutes with Pharrell. I wanted to ask him about Carl Sagan, as I read that he reads a lot about space— the last frontier, watches Star Trek, and even gives Spock’s “hand signal” to crowds. It got a little trippy, but we were just having fun. The real reporters were clamoring for their time so it was short, and as sweet as a root beer Slurpee.

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First off the 7-Eleven thing, we are here for the Slurpee Battle of the Bands, tell me how you got involved, what it means to you and why you are involved? I don’t know how it actually started up. I know me personally; I drank Slurpee’s all my life. And I’m not just saying that because we’re here doing 7 Eleven Slurpee event, you know, Battle of the Bands. I really think it’s always been one of my faves, so when I heard about the opportunity I just jumped on it.

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You are helping a lot of young bands. This could be a break for somebody new, these bands are out there playing their hearts out, I heard something about Teddy Riley giving you a break, at what point did you start to climb out of the masses and break out. How did that happen? One thing led to another. My first production outside of working with Teddy was this song called “Use Your Heart” by an R&B group from back in the day, called SWV, and from there I met Puffy and I did “When Boy Meets Girl.” Then I worked with Mase, and everything started to go from there.

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The rest is history. Yes sir.

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N.E.R.D, No One Ever Really Dies, does that mean art equals immortality? Is it true, does no one ever really die? What does it mean? If you think about it scientifically, everything is made up of atoms: we are all made of atoms, walls are made of atoms. If you ask scientists they will tell you that under the right powered microscope, atoms look more like wispy fluff then they are solid, so the fact that things are solid is pretty much an illusion. And the only reason we can’t really see it is because we have 3 dimensional vision, and 3 dimensional view. But if a 3 dimensional object would ask, I know I’m getting all deep, a 2 dimensional object what its like, he could never understand it. Its two dimensions. Its like a piece of paper. The only way a 3 dimensional object can exist is being, Carl Sagan said this as well, to a 2 dimensional being a 3 dimensional being is just as flat as it. It has no idea that it has a 3rd dimension. Right? Knowing all of that, we know that we are all atoms. And Einstein says that energy can only be conjured and utilized. But it can’t be created and it can’t be destroyed, it just goes somewhere. So if we are these mobile beings and we are filled of atoms and have these and are units of awareness, where does that go?

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We return to that primal order. Ya.

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I read about you and Carl Sagan, he was a genius, his particular talent he wasn’t a top tier scientist, he was up there. His true talent was as a teacher and being able to convey what scientists know to the masses. How much of the dreams of space and the infinite possibilities of it affect you and the way you walk around? Oh man. Space is so vast, and it’s also coupled with the possibilities of the vastness. It’s just so much. It could go into so many places and so many ways.

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