Craft Brewz Music sits at the intersections of sound, coffee, and culture. The Honolulu-based songwriting and production company is run by Josh Stephens, Chaz Umamoto, and Josh Namba, and draws inspiration from each member’s background in the triumphs and challenges of playing music and observing the industry at large, as well as their own interpretations of popular culture, and the languages they heard growing up in Hawai’i.
We chatted with the team about thoughtful collaborative processes with each other and with the artists they work with, routines that make their work flow, and the vital importance of caffeine in getting the creative juices flowing.
Hi! We’d love to know where you are all currently located, and what coffee beverage you each had this morning.
Josh: My usual, Cafe Latte from Surfers Coffee Bar in Wahiawa, HI.
Chaz: I’m sipping a pour over brewed from the last of my Olympia Coffee Holiday blend of Guatemala El Templo & Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans at our home base studio in Kaka’ako, HI.
Namba: I’m writing from Aloha Cafe Pineapple near Diamond Head, HI and I’m drinking their house made slow drip cold brew.
How did you three meet?
Chaz: The three of us met playing in the local music scene. We would cross paths at different bars and local fundraisers, and we share a lot of mutual friends since we live on an island. They say that we’re all just one degree of separation away from each other.
After meeting, how did Craft Brew Music come to be, and what inspired you to create it together?
Chaz: Before moving back home from LA, Josh would keep in touch and would sometimes come to visit.
Josh: I had a lot of questions about music, as Chaz’s former band was thriving in LA and making a living, and my former group had just started to become a full time business. I also recall bugging Chaz a lot about what audio plug-ins and software based synthesizers I should invest in when I started getting more into music production.
Chaz: When I was still in LA, I saw a lot of music being made by teams of people like machine shops for songs. I also saw just as much music not getting cut or finished by my peers -– songwriters, artists, and producers alike. It seemed to me that songs are the basis of the music business’ economy, and I had a realization one day that as an artist we typically cut about 10 songs per 18 months. Doing the math, that’s 50 songs in 10 years — assuming you stay in it that long — it’s not a lot of content if you think about it. Honestly, I burnt out from being a performing artist because I came to the realization that I just wasn’t passionate about performing, but I absolutely loved writing songs and finishing them, so I set out to find other creators that were passionate about making music, but specialized in other areas of the process.
Josh: We both love writing songs, but as audio engineers I’m partial to mixing, whereas Chaz loves mastering. We’re the perfect match because we’re both involved in the final stages of completing a record.
Namba: And I do the intensive work of preparing the songs for mixing. Vocal production, editing, cleaning, labeling, re-tracking parts, all of the things that no one really wants to spend an entire day doing just for one song. If you were to total the amount of time it takes to finish a song from conception to final product, I think you would find a sum of 60-100 hours.
Chaz: And that’s the beauty of our work together — we each focus on our part of the final steps of finishing a record. It’s a true working machine, where we are able to give each other feedback and further sharpen our process. I’m really inspired by the Japanese art of Kaizen and how it takes generations of craftsmen to create artisanal goods. In the same way third wave coffee culture is super inspiring to me as well. I don’t bat an eye when I’m buying a cup of coffee or a bag of beans from a third wave retailer because I know that I’m not just buying something ordinary, I’m buying something refined and potent. That’s the inspiration for Craft Brewz Music. It’s that cup of coffee that you buy once, and keeps you going all day without the crash. I would hope that working with us would have a similar effect, and that we’re the type of collaborators who would be both enjoyable to be around, and also feel like we’re making something powerful, and not cheap sounding.
Are there any particular traits you look for in the musicians you work with, and what is the collaborative process like when you are working together?
Namba: Vibe. They have to be a good hang, and just easy to be around. When we’re together I think we’re keen to see what roles we need to fill in a session. For example, if the collaborator isn’t good with melodies, we’ll push more in that direction to balance out the ideas.
Josh: Yea we like to compete with each other for the best idea at any given moment. That conflict or even the editing of each other’s ideas often sparks the final refined version of whatever it is we’re working on. It’s nice to work with those who clearly show they care about their artistry more than we do. If they’re down to experiment and try new things, that’s a plus.
Chaz: Just being open to collaborating and sharing in the creative process is great for us. Since all three of us were artists in the past we understand the amount of vulnerability it takes for an artist to open up and allow others into their world. Ultimately, whatever we make together will have to be carried by them and that can’t be taken lightly.
Where do you gather your songwriting inspiration from?
Chaz: We can get it from anywhere — pop culture, the news, conversations, twitch streams. A lot of our lyrics sometimes come from vernacular we ourselves come up with when we’re joking around. It’s fun to come up with phrases that only make sense to us at first. I believe that’s the influence of the local pidgin that we grew up hearing and speaking here in Hawai’i.
When it is safe to do so, do you typically travel to where the musicians you work with are located? If so, what have been some of your favorite locations to visit?
Josh: Portland! I’ve made some of my favorite music in Portland. It would be cool to do a writing camp in Seattle sometime. Every year we go to the Hawaii Songwriting Festival on the Big Island/ Hawai’i Island, and there’s a writing camp we love to participate in that's sponsored by the State of Hawai’i Department of Economic Tourism’s Creative Industries.
Chaz: I would agree that there’s just something so magical and inspiring about being in Portland. Traveling to co-write with people and participate in writing camps is our favorite addiction past coffee. We love the pressure of having to do our best work in a short span of time.
What does routine mean to you, and do you have daily routines you like to engage in when you are working on music?
Namba: Especially with traveling for work it really helps keep some aspect of normalcy.
Chaz: I’m a creature of habit in all the other areas of my life so that I can put all of my creative energy into music. I start and end my days with a drink, and it’s always at the same time.
Josh: We make it a point to try to start our work days like an actual job. We clock in, and text each other at 8:30 AM most days, Monday thru Friday, and we end our day around 5:30 PM and get some exercise in.
Namba: And if we’re in a crunch season then we do what it takes to get the work done. Having the off season when we’re on schedule gives us enough rest to crank when we have hard deadlines.
How does the routine of coffee fit into your daily lives and songwriting work?
Chaz: There’s something meditative about starting your day making a cup of coffee. It’s better than looking at your phone or jumping straight to that morning NPR news report. Whether I’m making coffee for my family, my collaborators, or just myself, it’s always special. If I drink a pour over, or an espresso based drink, I can keep going all day. Songwriting without caffeine just doesn’t work for us. That’s why we have a never-ending well of coffee, espresso, and cold brew around at all times. It’s important that everyone on the team knows how to make a good cup of coffee because you never know when you’ll have a guest or collaborator who could use some.
What is one thing you are looking forward to in the New Year?
Josh: I’m getting more into raising money for charity through Twitch streaming. That’s what I do when I’m not working on songs.
Namba: Building my own home studio, and getting to travel with these two.
Chaz: We want to touch 300 songs this year, whether it’s co-writes, releases, or our own material. We’re also excited to be releasing our first official producer album this summer.