PLAYING DETROIT: Sarkis Mixes Motown and Funk with L.A Sunshine on ‘Tangerine’

Gabe Smith has wandered far from his small hometown of Waterford, Michigan, but hasn’t forgotten the role that his neighboring city of Detroit had in shaping him as an artist and songwriter. After moving to LA in 2014, Smith spent two-and-a-half years touring on the John Lennon Educational Tour bus, helping students write/record original music and videos. Landing back in L.A earlier this year, Smith started working at Shangri La Studios in Malibu and recording his debut LP, Tangerine, under the name SarkisThe record is an amalgamation of Smith’s roots in the Motown sound, time spent traveling the country, and the glimmer of L.A. sunshine that seems to rub off on all ye who enter there.

While Smith says a small part of the album was written during his time on the Lennon bus, the majority was written and produced at Shangri La studios, with the help of his writing partner Tyler Bean and other friends that work at the studio. “I had a lot of guys playing on it and helping me record it and write it,” says Smith. “It was a cool collection of people from all over making music… that was kind of a whole other layer of creativity that I hadn’t had in any of my music before.”

This collaborative effort resulted in a sound that blends funk, hip-hop and soul. One of the most obvious funk elements is the presence of consistently strong bass lines throughout the record. “I played a lot of bass this year,” says Smith. “I’ve never considered myself a bass player but now I wish that I was a dope bass player – those (musicians) are the legends of funk.” Smith cites meeting Bootsy Collins last year as one of his most transformative musical experiences. “That changed my whole perspective of funk music,” Smith says. “He even listened to some of my music and that was a big moment for me – he is definitely a life-altering person to meet.”

Funky bass lines, bright vocals, and different musical textures characterize Tangerine, and keep it feeling bright and optimistic, even on “Messed Up,” a song about the disenchanting state of the world. “I always try and remain positive, so I try to put that into the music too,” says Smith. “The music itself is upbeat and trying to make people dance and feel good. Even on a song that’s saying ‘the world is messed up,’ I still want to have a positive twist on it.”

Smith also cites Stevie Wonder, Mac Miller, Ice Cube and NWA as influences on this record. He says he didn’t really start listening to West Coast hip-hop until he first moved to L.A. “The year after I moved to LA was when that movie [Straight Outta Compton] came out,” says Smith. “We saw Ice Cube at an IHOP or something and I was like, ‘oh my god.’ That was when I started listening to that music.”  

Smith’s recent hip-hop influence is obvious on the record’s kick-heavy, bombastic track “Dreamland” and on “Messed Up,” when he makes his first foray into rapping. “I think I wrote that right after Mac Miller died,” says Smith. “I listened to Mac Miller in high school and he was at the studio a couple months before he passed away… I was kind of feeling sad and he was doing this fast rapping thing on one of his songs, so I tried to do it on one of mine and I was like – I guess that sounds okay?”

While Smith takes cues from the artists he lists as inspirations, his music serves more as an homage than an imitation, putting a unique twist on funk and hip-hop and making it his own. For those enduring the blistering cold this winter, Tangerine serves as a light at the end of what can feel like a never-ending tunnel. And for people residing in sunshine-y states, it’s a reminder to appreciate what you have and try not to take life so seriously. You can stream Tangerine exclusively here today, and listen to it everywhere this Friday, December 15th.

Sarkis will hold a listening party for Tangerine at The Dessert Oasis (1220 Griswald St, Detroit, MI, 48226) on Friday, December 15. The party is free and open to the public.