"They are split by electronics and such insane vocal harmonies. I’m telling you man, they are really amazing - even better live(!) and you can peep a few joints on their myspace."
School of Seven Bells was introduced to us with this e-mail from a fellow artist. At that time, Benjamin Curtis and his bandmates, Alejandra and Claudia Dehaza, were already established musicians. The group was fun, silly but serious about their craft. Signing them was a no-brainer.
On their exceptional first outing as a band at CMJ, they scored the front page of The New York Times Arts section and the following year’s SxSW. I can remember the ferocity with which Benjamin played, the ends of his guitar strings straying into the air. “Dead soldiers,” I think he called them.
His sly smile and easy hint of a drawl sat atop an intensity I haven’t seen in a musician before. His guitar tone was loud and direct. He was one of the best pure producers and engineers.
Their first album, Alpinisms (produced at home on a laptop no less), was a huge deal for us and remains one of Ghostly’s most beloved releases. Benjamin wanted to push the band further for the next release. He wanted to write directly with no obfuscation of meaning. Benjamin was the kind of musician who pushed every performance and sweated every song. It was always on.
A few friends and I went to visit Benjamin last month in the hospital. I regret not visiting him more. What struck me was what had remained after all he had been through. The wide cheshire cat grin. The humor and hope. Only his thin arms and shorn hair gave away his struggling health.
Benjamin said he stayed busy working on music, but joked that he was otherwise so bored from sitting in bed that his taste was in jeopardy: Any movie, no matter how schlocky, appealed to him. He also laughed his big, pleasing laugh when we said he should have been at the fundraiser his management had planned for him a month before, as there were plenty of beautiful women there.
Benjamin died at 35, in advance of his best work. What we have to experience is his music, and for those lucky enough to have met him, the evidence of someone who cared deeply.
To coincide with the release of our Huron River Roast, we asked Ugly Mug general manager Eric Mullins and roaster Alex Fesili some questions about coffee culture and what music gets played in the café. Alongside the interview, we’ve got a short photo-essay documenting the roasting of our blend. (Apologies for the out-of-focus shots, we were too excited to hold still.)
How did the collaboration with Ghostly come about? [EM] I think this mutual love affair has been ongoing for a number of years in one form or another. Osborne, a Ghostly artist, our neighbor, frequent collaborator, and fixture at the Ugly Mug made introductions. Many moons ago in some of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti bars and breweries, plans were spawned between us Uglies and the Ghostlies for this blend.
What music has been pumping through the cafe’s speakers lately? [EM/AF] So that’s a really interesting aspect of the Ugly Mug. Everyone that works here has the option to plug in whatever they want to listen to during the day so it changes quickly. The spectrum is vast in scale. For example, the other day we were listening to the new David Lynch album in the morning and then transitioned into a Beyoncé mega mix sometime in the afternoon. Music is definitely an important dynamic of the shop that shape shifts throughout the day in its own unpredictable way. You sort of just have to roll with it when Justin Timberlake gets put on right after Jon Hopkins.
Is there an intersection between music and coffee? [EM/AF] There’s definitely an intersection between music and coffee. I think that what we’re both trying to do is to bring a sense of artisanship of our craft in an approachable way without compromising a strong sense of aesthetic; I feel like that’s our common ground. You guys put out beautiful music and we put out beautiful coffee. We try our hardest to give an honest representation of all the farmers’ hard work at their farms much in the same way Ghostly is endlessly dedicated to putting out only the best music there is.
What is some essential coffee knowledge for the uninitiated (single origin vs. blends, fair trade vs. direct trade, sourcing vs. roasting, brewing methods…)? [AF] We try to keep things simple for the uninitiated. Buy your coffee from local roasters in small amounts at a time. Keep your coffee whole bean and grind before using. Single origins are great to really understand a singular coffee and its depth; blends are great for adding dimensions to the profile of your brew. For the most part, any shop that is an honest representation of the “third wave” of coffee, imports coffee that is fairly traded; the more important question to ask is - how transparent is the shop’s chain from farmer to brewer? Direct trade involves setting up communication with the farmer growing the plant and the barista brewing their coffee. That’s something that involves an intense amount of work, and it’s definitely something to take pride in facilitating. As for brewing we like to tell people to keep it simple. I feel like the biggest issue with home brewing is getting the dose right so we like to tell people use two grams of coffee for every ounce of water. That’s a great place to start for the uninitiated. [EM] A good example in a foodie analogy would be craft beer. You have your Buds, Millers and PBRs which is comparable to 95% of coffees out on the market (aka crap), whereas our coffee is much more in line with the Arbor Brewing Companies and Darkhorse Brewing Companies of the world, creating wholly unique limited release seasonal brews. Our coffee comes from directly traded, fairly traded, organic, and rainforest alliance certified sources, but we tend not to stick to these labels and tend to let the coffees speak for themselves.
What’s the process of making a great cup of coffee, from bean to mug? [EM] The coffee, with which the everyday person is familiar, is the final result of hard work, dedication and sacrifice by millions of people around the world. The brown coffee bean we all know and love is actually the roasted half-seed of a coffee cherry. This cherry is grown on the often mis-categorized coffee shrub, more commonly thought to be a tree. Although coffee originated in Ethiopia, it has become popular throughout the world. With hundreds of ‘varietals’ of coffee, the adversity that the average coffee farmer faces daily is beyond most people’s comprehension. The mature coffee shrub (which begins producing mature harvestable cherries in its seventh year) will produce an average of one roasted pound per harvest, but the labor on the part of the farmer to nurture that coffee shrub lasts year round. After harvesting, there is processing, exporting, importing, reselling of the greens, roasting, purchase by the consumer or coffee shop, and finally to the hands of a barista or another person preparing the coffee. With the coffee changing hands so many times, it is understandable that a person can rarely find a good cup in their home or on the go. In addition, this change of hands, unaccountable mishandling, bad roasting and/or mistreatment of the coffee, often leads to an unfortunate lack of quality experienced by the consumer.
What separates The Ugly Mug from other roasters? [EM/AF] The Ugly Mug is one of the first small batch artisan roasteries in the state of Michigan, and was among the first to introduce the true art of third-wave specialty coffee. We implement a combination of scientific theory and culinary execution to develop a sophisticated and complex cup, intentionally pushing for a sensory ‘experience’. The shop has always been this place that thrives independently on its own pulse. We definitely keep an ear to the ground of notable things in the industry and other roasters but for the most part we do things in our own weird way and progress at our own rhythm. We have a style that exists on its own terms and we couldn’t be any prouder of that idea. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; we’re just trying to appreciate it from a different angle that sometimes gets overlooked.
The Huron River Roast is an exclusive to The Ghostly Store. What makes it special? [AF] The Huron River Roast is definitely an interesting story. I spoke earlier about the shop not wanting to reinvent the wheel but looking at it from a different perspective, the Huron River Roast is a direct result of that idea. At the point of conceiving the Huron River Roast we were growing out of a previous skin and had chance to do things a little differently, specifically get fresh eyes on how the shop conceived the idea of a blend.
What’s the craziest or most memorable blend you’ve ever put out? [AF] Right now the staff is really into understanding the beer brewing process. Naturally we’ve been mixing beers and coffee to trying to accentuate both components in ways that we don’t feel always comes through in “coffee beers”. Needless to say the crew has come up with a whole spectrum of results, so who knows, maybe an Ugly Mug Brewery is somewhere down the road in the future…
Does the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area have any influence on your coffee, your shop, your company philosophy, etc? [AF] The Ypsilanti landscape definitely shapes a lot of aspects of the Ugly Mug. Ypsilanti is a place that takes on a new face and sense of rebirth pretty frequently and fearlessly, so it’s definitely inspiring for us to be a part of the community. Being a part of Ypsi gives us a strong conviction to move into the future without inhibitions or hesitations. The Ugly Mug itself has been through a lot of changes over the years but it has always pushed defiantly onwards and with good vibes, ultimately the structure of the community in Ypsilanti has a big part in that movement.
You’ve talked about an intuitive aspect that goes into roasting. How does the care taken in this process separate your coffee from a bigger company that mass-produces coffee? [AF] Roasting is a total mind game. The process itself is laid out in a pretty linear way: you put green coffee beans in, wait for them to turn brown, and then dump them out of the roaster. That’s the extent of the common ground we have with these companies that pump out coffee. The point of divergence for our process is the sense of nuance that comes with experience during the development process of the coffee profile i.e. how we feel that the coffee is best represented and how to interpret that in the roast process. After developing that profile for a particular origin of coffee we treat each batch with variance. There are a crazy amount of variables that change on a daily basis that can alter the roasting process, and we try to account for them to be consistent. In a nutshell, that’s the difference between us and them.
You’ve mentioned taking trips to farms that you source beans from. Why is this important to you? [AF] Understanding what happens at origin is important for us to understanding what we’re doing at our end of process when it comes to roasting and brewing. Transparency is key for us to really be able to tell a complete story and showcase the hard work that gets done in places that aren’t always visible.
How would you position yourself in the current “coffee scene,” — locally and/or nationally — if you buy into that sort of thing? [AF] Referring to an earlier question, the Ugly Mug thrives best when it’s grooving to its own rhythm. We’re not trying take over the coffee world at all if that means we can’t do our jobs with a lot of heart, care, and ultimately on our own terms. So it’s a hard question to figure where we exist on the radar of other people who have stock in that sort of thing. We never try to be the cool kids or hang out in the right scene; we just try to make great coffee.
What’s next for The Ugly Mug? [AF] The Ugly Mug is definitely at this turning point where things are about to get wild. We’re at a point where we are removing the ceiling of possibilities of work we can do and people we can reach by moving the roastery out to a bigger and more productive space. Needless to say we’re so pumped to move outwards and onwards to see how far we can go with this thing. At the heart of it we’re just guys who really love coffee, the culture behind it, and sharing it with as many people who want to try what we’re doing. Also, I’m personally stoked on putting up a basketball hoop in the new roastery and we just bought a hearse as a delivery vehicle so that’s all happening as well. It’s fair to say that the Ugly Mug is going in the right direction.
We recently chatted with Tadd Mullinix—Ghostly artist of many aliases, including Dabrye and JTC (whose new 12” Valley Road (We Are 1)is out now)—about some of his favorite haunts in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he has resided for a number of years. Michigan locals, be sure to let us know some of your favorites in the comments and dear reader, if you haven’t yet visited Ann Arbor, you now have a shortlist of cant-miss stops.
(All photos courtesy our good man David Riva, Ghostly Songs)
Favorite record shop Ha. Encore Records. I have to say, I’m a little biased but, honestly, Encore has the largest and most diverse used vinyl and CD selection in town. Lately Encore has been stocking excellent reissues and obscure new music on wax. The owners are super cool guys and once employees of the previous owner, Peter Dale, who has been a massive inspiration for me.
Favorite book shop Dawn Treader is a great used book shop. Unfortunately, after Shaman Drum closed, there haven’t been great browsing options for me in town. News broke recently that a new independent bookstore, Literati, will be open this spring. Sounds promising!
Favorite shop in general Biercamp is my favorite A2 shop in general. They specialize in cured deli meats, jerky, sausage, pate, and bacon. This small business is run by a couple from Traverse City. They serve excellent smoked pulled pork sliders during lunchtime which you can pair with local pickle flavored potato chips or specialty soda.
Favorite coffee joint Comet coffee is probably Ann Arbor’s best coffee. They find the best beans and you can choose from a variety of preparations like syphon and pour-over. They also have supplies for the home-brewing enthusiast.
Favorite restaurant / food joint Grange Kitchen And Bar specializes in farm-to-table and nose-to-tail dining and sustainable local ingredients. Some of my favorite dishes are duck scotch egg and duck confit putine but, seriously, one can’t go wrong. Chef Brandon clearly knows his stuff.
Favorite place to get inspired I love to cook so my favorite spot for inspiration is Zingerman’s Delicatessen. Here I find the most spectacular ingredients, hand picked by their informed staff. With imported oils, artisanal meats, cheeses, obscure spices and condiments it’s pretty easy to find great ideas.
Favorite street Huron River Drive is where I can cycle or ride and think. On a nice day people kayak on the river and one can see deer in the forest. It’s quiet and serene. Perfect for reflecting or listening to music.
Favorite destination for a day trip I love biking on the border to border (B2B) trail. It links some of Ann Arbor’s beautiful parks almost all the way out to Ypsilanti. There are a few canoe liveries that one can go to for a date and have a casual drift down the Huron river.
Best keep secret / unknown gem To me, a gem in Ann Arbor is the UM Law Quad. It’s breathtakingly beautiful architecture. I consider our public library to be a gem, too. They are always working on providing new things for us to borrow. A recent example of that is their musical instrument collection.