Cannabis is an integral part of Ken Vasoli's life, and for the Vacationer frontman, few activities are more inextricably intertwined with that life than making music. Since his musical career began in earnest at age 16, Vasoli has been enjoying cannabis as a “creative lubricant”—a facilitator in his songwriting process that effectively shuts down his internal critic, allowing him to craft songs in a more liberated, experimental and curious manner. It was due in part to this lack of second-guessing that he was able to concoct the catchy, fresh and sample-based sound of Vacationer's new LP, Mindset.
Released June 22 on Downtown Records, Mindset combines the classic hip-hop aesthetic of chopped up samples with the airy, indie pop soundscapes featured on past Vacationer releases. In addition to showcasing the creativity-enabling properties of cannabis through the album's intriguing sound, as well as advocating an end to cannabis prohibition in songs like “Blue Dreaming,” Vacationer’s new album is tied to cannabis in a way that—at least for now—is novel.
In support of the album’s release, Vasoli partnered with California-based cannabis growers Cherry Kola Farms to create his own signature strain. Synonymous with his forthcoming record, Vasoli and Cherry Kola designed Mindset to be a hybrid that maximizes creative output. It remains to be seen whether musician-cannabis industry collaborations and signature strains will become a common trend. But for the moment, Vasoli's branding endeavor is yet another step towards the cultural normalization of cannabis as the plant hurtles toward widespread legality and acceptance.
Before heading out on a U.S. tour, Vasoli spoke to PRØHBTD about his experience as an artist with and without cannabis, the genesis of Mindset’s aesthetic and why he believes it’s time cannabis prohibition came to an end once and for all.
Mindset is built on a very sample-based sound. Where does that hip-hop influence come from?
In recent years, and since I started getting involved with the Vacationer process, I found out about instrumental hip-hop. The concept of an instrumental hip-hop record was something that was sort of outside my understanding. I wasn’t familiar with it.
I’m crazy about hip-hop as a whole, but [instrumental hip-hop] was a gateway for me to get into the culture of hip-hop. It helped me focus on the musicality and the rhythm of it, which I think is the real genius of it and what draws you in from the get go.
J Dilla was a wildly inspiring figure for me. From there, when I found out about Madlib, all the Madlib records just totally blew my mind. His attention to detail and how he just puts out dozens and dozens of tracks with all of these diamonds in there—that’s how I like to approach making music now, rather than the classic sit-at-the-piano-and-try-to-be-Paul-McCartney-and-write-a-song way. I like embracing the technology of sample-based music and then incorporating that more traditional style of songwriting. That’s a frontier that’s just on the verge of being explored.
When I found our current producer, Daniel [Schlett], he’d made this record with Ghostface Killah called 36 Seasons. I heard that record and was like, “Woah, this is crazy! This sounds organic, but it sounds sampled, and I don’t know what’s what.” That was one of the first things I wanted to ask him about. I told him I loved that record and asked, “Did you use samples?” He said, “No samples. We did everything in the studio.” I was like, “That’s what I want.” He suggested we use the studio like an MPC, and I was like, “Exactly!”
So now you’ve been patterning your writing style on Madlib’s maximalist approach?
Yeah. I think for creating, that’s the way to go. If something’s coming to you, if the inspiration is hitting you, just get it down. Daniel really had that spirit of, "Let’s just get a bunch of shit down." We ended up tracking and mixing 15 songs before we got the final 12. And before those 15, we had around 20 demos that we were messing with. Before that I had dozens and dozens of tracks that made it through various stages of demoing.
I think all of that’s important. Because if you have all of this material, it’s like you’ve been filming a documentary or something. You’re just capturing life. And then when inspiration really hits you, then you just take the best parts and have this concentrated thing.
How does cannabis figure into your creative process?
I had a sort of scientific experience that I went through to test the effects of how productive cannabis makes me. When I was heading down to Bonnaroo in 2015 or 2016 for a DJ set at the silent disco, I was with a friend and—long story short—we got popped by the cops, and they found all of our weed. I did the court date, played by the rules and I got put on probation for a year. I was a good boy, and I didn’t smoke weed or do anything that year.
I was like, alright, let me really put this to the test and see how addicted I am to this thing that I’ve been doing every day that’s now being ripped away from me. I had a little bit of trouble sleeping for the first couple of weeks, but after that, it was something I didn’t think about much anymore. But when it came time to be productive and try to make some music, I was having crazy writer’s block. I was trying to get something down that I was proud of and that I could listen back to and be excited about. But I kept being overly judgmental about every idea that I was putting down and nothing was getting past that first stage of being excited to the stage of me actually digging my teeth into it.
The year came and went, and when I did a tally of how many songs [I’d written that] were keepers and that were going to make it onto that release, it was three songs from that entire year. Which is not great for me. In the first month that I was off probation and able to start smoking weed again, I wrote seven songs.
It just blossomed from there. [Cannabis] took down some sort of wall that made me question and judge everything I did. I like to describe it as a creative lubricant. It’s not something that’s going to bring ideas to me, but it makes the ideas easier to get through. When it’s not there, I start over-analyzing. It makes [the writing process] a little more tedious and a little less fun.
What’s your response to people who think that using any sort of psychoactive substance is a “bad thing” on principle?
There’s all sorts of people in the world and all sorts of beliefs. It’s always been fascinating to me that so much of the world has a stigma about marijuana. I’ve started to learn about the paper industry and Big Pharma and why it has restrictions on it in the U.S. But why [is it only legal] in Amsterdam and a few other places? What is it about this plant? I can only begin to speculate that it’s just something about the human condition. That there’s this old-guard way of thinking and that it’s very much rooted in authoritarianism and people just wanting to stop free thought.
When I’m confronted with a person that is pretty much zero tolerance to cannabis and who sees it as drug use and doesn’t have the patience to learn about any of the benefits of it, I just look at them as these overzealous, overly dogmatic people who are taking misinformation and running with it. They have their beliefs, and they’re stuck in them. I don’t really spend lot of time trying to convince those people about the benefits of marijuana. I just try to be an example and a sounding board for the other side—all the positives and the benefits of marijuana to our civilization.
Tell me about your collaboration with Cherry Kola Farms.
My manager knows this guy who was doing promotion and publicity for Cherry Kola. So he was out there visiting the farm, and they just got to talking. Somehow a conversation came up about doing an artist collaboration with the farm, and I guess my name just came up.
They sent me a list of strains that they’re working on right now that they could get into production in a relatively short period of time. I started looking at all the strains and looking for the most important properties to me. I knew that I wanted to name the strain Mindset, so I wanted to combine all of the best mental effects that I could.
We settled on Headband, Pineapple OG and Banana Kush. Out of all of them, that combination seemed to have the most creative, happy and euphoric properties while still being low on the anxiety and paranoia and all that bad stuff. I didn’t want to focus on the flavor—which is what a lot of strains are named after. This one is just called Mindset, so you know off the bat that we’re advertising something that is going to help you out if you’re going to go up to [work] in the music room.
When I got a chance to go to Cherry Kola to check out the product, their level of horticultural expertise was just bar none. Everything tastes so delicious, and when I was smoking it, I could feel [the effects], but I was still so clear-headed. They’re pesticide free and all of that. The way they talk about it is all “terpenes” and “genomes” and all of these words flying over my head. They really have their operation together. They’ve been doing it for a long time.
Are collaborations between artists and growers a trend you think we’ll start to see more and more of as cannabis becomes normalized in our society?
I really hope so. You see all these bands that have their own IPA with a brewery or their own blend of coffee. They do things outside of just traditional shirt merchandise.
For me, this is really nice because I could talk about weed all day, and I’m not shy about letting people know that I’m a smoker. It’s important to me that people talk about marijuana culture in a way that they’re not afraid or embarrassed when they speak about it. It’s something that, at least in my experience, every time it’s integrated into a community, the majority of things seem to benefit from it. I like to be a champion for the culture.
Why do you think it’s important to end the prohibition on cannabis?
So, my girlfriend works in healthcare. She works in a family doctor’s office. And I hear secondhand from her what she has to deal with. All these patients come in with these laundry lists of things that could be covered so inexpensively and less aggressively if they were treated with marijuana instead of these [pharmaceutical] drugs.
CBD is something that I just want to be out there more. I’ve just been getting hip to it over the last couple of years, and my anxiety has dropped down so much since I started using it. I used to have issues with stage fright that it really helped with. Now I’m learning that it’s stopping seizures in people. It’s amazing. I want the attention to be put on what kind of solutions we can find from CBD and what other benefits could come from it. It’s exciting. It’s exciting exploration.
Photo credit: She Hit Pause.