December 01, 2021

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Cracking the Code: Sargeant X Comrade remain musically elusive on The Elephant in the Room

Apropos of their name, Calgary duo Sargeant X Comrade are elusive and cagey, reluctant to divulge their mission in music, not unlike a Cold War military operation.

Their social media presence would have you believe they're a soul food restaurant, and depending on the source, they've been collaborating since 2014 - or maybe 2009?

"We like to be pretty vague about stuff a lot of the time," says Evgeniy (Jay) Bykovets, the Comrade DJ to singer Yolanda's Sargeant.

Aptly titled, The Elephant in the Room, the duo's second full-length album, is about dark agents in dark rooms keeping dark secrets; about words unspoken and things unsaid; about nosy neighbours, hidden agendas and subliminal messages.

Unwilling to fit into any one box, the album is an expansive exploration of sound and an evolution in experimentation, picking up where their first album, Magic Radio, left off. It's entirely up to the listener to crack the code, to decipher the message in their medium.

"We like to make music that's multi-layered. Not stuff that's just one-off, but something that you can come back to over and over and find new things in the music. And sometimes that means it's not easy to digest off the bat, but the more and more you come back to it, the more you enjoy new elements of it, and the different layers of it," says Bykovets.

"The stuff we make is kind of multi-genre, but it has our own flavour at the end of the day."

2020's Magic Radio put Sargeant X Comrade on the map, earning them a Western Canadian Music Award and a spot on the Polaris Prize longlist - quite the feat considering the pandemic curtailed almost any live performances and promotion of the album.

A self-described fusion of "lo-fi soul," with "juxtapositions of nu-jazz and neo-soul" mingling with trip-hop anthems reminiscent of Tricky or Portishead, dreamy throwback vocal styling of Billie Holiday, and just straight-up funk bangers, Sargeant says the album was "something real. It was something different. It was an homage to the artists that we listen to - and listened to - growing up. That's why it's called Magic Radio. Because when you're a kid, you look at the radio and think it's magic. You don't know that it's someone sitting at a station, and that it's all being broadcasted."

And that may have been the very secret of the album's success - as pandemic restrictions meant listeners had time to return to the magic of modern day radio, time to savour each track rather than passively listening while stuck in rush-hour traffic.

"We were more or less at home during that time, and once everything started opening up again and we got longlisted for the Polaris award and the Western Canadian Music Awards, that's when we started to see the actual effect of the album," says Sargeant.

"We didn't even realize that it resonated with people until quite a bit after," adds Bykovets.

Meanwhile, with tracks intricately interspersed with funk basslines, as well as Paris café accordion, and smoky jazz bar horns, The Elephant in the Room pushes the envelope even further, with dancehall tracks, house-inspired hip hop, and even spoken word - represented in their own riff on Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

"It's adding to the flavour that we've already created, but pushing it further. We're a lot more diverse with the genres on this one. It's basically more of the kind of style we've been going with, just a little bit more experienced. We're growing as artists and it shows on this record," says Bykovets.

"As an artist, you should be looking to find your own voice," says Sargeant. "I think that by limiting yourself to genres, you're not really growing. Because music is something that's universal, and human beings, by nature, are nomads. So if we all kept moving around, the way we did in the past, music would just be music. It wouldn't be broken into genres.

"I think this is more or less discovering our voice. It's authentic to us, but it's different. It feels right though, doesn't it?"

The album's first single, "The Mountain" is a lo-fi jam featuring Edmonton rapper K-Riz, while their second single, "Stages," released in November, is a lowkey but empowering earworm with an Easter egg in the form of a slyly remixed sample of contemporary composer Abel Korzeniowski's "Evgeni's Waltz" - although Bykovets would never divulge that himself, keeping to the DJ's code of sampling ethics.

It all adds to the mystery of the album, part of the mission to decode and deconstruct. Every sample is a challenge, a clue, and part of the joy of listening is the sheer number of 'Where have I heard that before?' moments.

Sargeant X Comrade keep on the codebreaker's tip in "Secret Song (Number Stations Mix)," featuring an appearance from Blackalicious's legendary rapper, the late Gift of Gab.

Bykovets samples numbers station broadcasts on the track - weaving seemingly random dispatches around Sargeant's striking vocal styling.

Numbers stations were shortwave radio broadcasts heavily utilized during the Cold War era, used to convey military intelligence. A series of numbers using artificial speech synthesis would be repeated for codebreakers to decipher.

"There's a whole culture of people who go on the radio waves and try to find these things - transmissions and codes that get sent out. If you have the code to decode it, then you get the message," says Bykovets.

Helping to create the cryptic codes of The Elephant in the Room, Sargeant X Comrade recruited local and international heavyweights such as The Torchettes, K-Riz, Jamaican transplant Shampane Di Top Banga, and Rasheed Chappell to round off their already impressive roster of previous collaborators such as Kool Keith, Moka Only, Choclair and DJ WeezL.

Sargeant's mother, Jacinta Bonaparte Sargeant, even makes a cameo appearance on the album, with a voiceover in "Nosy Neighbour."

Their collaborations with a diverse range of talent inspired the duo to start their own music label, Mo Gravy Records, with an aim to showcase some of Calgary's underrepresented performers.

"We want to propel other artists and propel our city to higher levels," says Sargeant.

"Creating infrastructure that isn't really in Calgary to facilitate the different genres, to facilitate the soul. Kind of a boutique label that showcases more of an old-school sound."

The Elephant in the Room drops on Friday, Dec. 3, with an album release party at The Gateway.

"If we break it down to the simplest thing, I just want to be able to continue making music and continue sharing with people," says Sargeant.

"Based on the fact that we released (Magic Radio) during the time that we did and it came across, that gives me hope that we might be able to do that again."