A Madison thing we’re listening to: Thatslife’s “21•25” EP

The Janesville producer and future UW-Madison student’s debut release took shape in the wake of a tragic injury.

The Janesville producer and future UW-Madison student’s debut release took shape in the wake of a tragic injury.

Producer Max Rammer sings that his “life is on the line, day after day, night after night,” on the chorus of “Night After Night,” the first track of 21•25, the debut EP from his project Thatslife. These words, and the track’s woozy, hip-hop-meets-confessional-pop production, are a literal response to a year that Rammer spent in hospitals and rehab centers, adjusting to a new reality and enduring one medical crisis after another.

Rammer, 19, grew up in Janesville and was about to start school at UW-Madison in August 2017 when he went to a pool party at a high-school friend’s house. At one point Rammer dove into the pool the wrong way and sustained a major spinal injury that paralyzed him, leaving him unable to walk and with only limited use of his arms and hands.

“I just jumped in and I just knew immediately what happened,” Rammer says. “I don’t know why. A lot of people say that they don’t realize it or they’re in denial for a while, but I just knew immediately. I was like, ‘Oh, well, now I’m paralyzed.'”

Paramedics airlifted him to UW Hospital in Madison for surgery, and from there he was moved to a rehabilitation center in Chicago, where he spent four months. The next stop was an eight-month stay in another rehabilitation center in Omaha. Before his injury, Rammer enjoyed skateboarding and snowboarding, and occasionally dabbled in music. He took a music production class in high school and making his own tracks with the music software program Logic. But the physical and mental ordeal of becoming paralyzed and the ensuing treatment—from grueling physical therapy to a major infection that stemmed from the spinal-cord injury—pushed him to take music more seriously, using it to process his experiences and cope with the ensuing depression. Rammer stayed in room 2125 at one hospital, so that became the title of the EP.

Max Rammer.

Max Rammer.

He now lives back in Janesville, and will start at UW-Madison in the fall of 2019 instead. He’s planning to study business and is looking forward to living among a bigger pool of potential contributors on campus. He’s already made at least one musical connection here: Madison-based artist Son! has a feature on the EP’s third track, “Given Up.”

“When I was in the rehab place, I was in a pretty dark headspace, as you can imagine, after an accident like this,” Rammer says. “[Music]  just relaxed me got my mind off things. I think a lot of people that do music would probably tell you that anyways.”

With help from a music therapist who worked at the rehab center in Omaha, and a fellow patient who made trap beats, Rammer figured out a configuration of MIDI controllers and a trackball mouse that he used to manipulate Logic’s drum-machine software and composition tools. At this point in the recovery process, Rammer imagined that he’d make an album of indie-rock instrumentals and get a different guest vocalist to sing on each track, with a sound somewhere between Frank Ocean and Bon Iver. But he also admired hip-hop producers like Knxwledge, Madlib, and Mndsgn, so he ended up making some sample-based beats (which he’s kept to himself) and experimenting with composing his own synth lines and drum patterns. The latter approach became the basis for 21•25‘s songs.

Rammer also didn’t want to sing at first, but he began experimenting with it, turning on the microphone and improvising vocal melodies on top of his instrumentals. He ended up enjoying it, so his vocals—often a falsetto with a lot of warbly, glide-y processing—also became central to Thatslife. On “Stay Inside,” that Bon Iver influence really comes through, as Rammer subjects his singing to a lot of electronic manipulation, but still lets a vulnerable humanity come through.

After returning to Janesville, recorded guitar parts from his friends Nate Traynor, Michael Cullen, and Noah Kolak, then chopped the phrases up and integrated them into his hazy sonic palette, most effectively on the EP’s instrumental closer, “Gdbye Outro.” He learned about Son!, real name Daniel Kaplan, through a friend who wrote about music for The Daily Cardinal, and reached out to Kaplan with an Instagram DM. Kaplan’s vocals are slightly deeper than Rammer’s, and both have a wounded-sounding delivery that slides fluidly between singing and rapping, so there’s a pretty natural affinity at work on “Given Up.”

For a first musical outing, 21•25 feels pretty cohesive and mature, in part because Rammer has managed to pare most of the tracks down to a few essentials: beats, a few overlapping synth phrases, a couple of vocal hooks. The mood throughout is definitely bittersweet—Rammer never sounds like he’s in the depths of despair here, but he definitely creates the sense of someone working through a great deal of pain and trying to maintain a tenuous hold on optimism. There’s a mix of tragedy, acceptance, and cockiness in lines like “I can’t even walk, yeah, and I’m still running through your mind,” on “Given Up.”

Not that disability should entirely define a disabled artist’s work, but Rammer does see his ordeal as pretty central to this record. He credits the process of making it with getting him through the past year, and the music here suggests he’ll have more to offer as an artist as his life goes on. “It sounds so cliche, but it’s given me like a feeling [that] I don’t let the disability really limit me,” he says.

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