Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Houston Cofield
Gavin Mays is the man behind the moniker Cities Aviv, a genre-bending industrial-hip hop project that Mays started nearly a decade ago.
Cities Aviv creates a feeling of digital melancholy. His beats lack the typical driving bass-centric rhythms associated with modern rap and feature an eclectic array of samples, all packaged in a purposeful lo-fi production. Mays’ verbal rhythm is more aligned with spoken word than commercial rap. Together the atypical beats, cerebral lyrics and non-conformant vocals create an ambient atmosphere that is somewhat elusive; however, undeniably elevated.
Mays grew up playing in bands within Memphis’ hardcore scene. This background explains the almost post-punk nature of the work. His most notable project prior to Cities Aviv was Copwatch. Mays, upon becoming increasingly frustrated by working with other less-dedicated musicians, began writing music on his own.
“I never like to have to rely too much on other people to make music happen; to make the expression happen,” says Mays. “ I mean it is cool when you can fully express yourself with a few different people and it starts melting together into something special. But sometimes the drive isn’t there. There are people who are motivated, but others are like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah… we’ll get around to it,’ They’re just not as enthusiastic. I just felt like doing shit on my own is just easier. I’m pretty controlling with stuff so starting a project where I have all the reins just felt the most natural.”
By working alone Mays was able to experiment more with songwriting and explore different sounds, sometimes by accident. However, those accidents would end up becoming an integral aspect to the sound and style Mays has developed.
“Another part of working primarily by myself is just wanting to fuck around, try things. Sometimes the imperfections that happen just work. They sound cool and become a part of the song. Doing stuff on my own just gave me the freedom to experiment with sounds. At one point in my life I definitely worked with producers and beat makers, but everybody has their own idea on what the beat or instrumentation should be, how it should be made and what it should sound like. Sometimes I just want to click random things with a mouse and see what the sphere of sounds become, you know see what happens and let that become the beat of the song,” explains Mays. “At one point I just feel like I cut out the expectation of perfection from other people and just went into my own headspace and the results were greater, more genuine.”
Though Cities Aviv is a rap project, it is a loose interpretation of what many would consider rap. As a body of work, it is very fluid, and the sound has consistently changed over the years.
“I feel like it fits within the context of rap, but at the end of the day it exists by itself. But that can also be said about pieces of music that people strictly refer to as rap music. Since the beginning of the genre people were fucking with drum machines and samples, it has always had industrial vibes. Maybe you could listen to this industrial tape and ask, ‘Is this rap?’ or listen to this rap track and be like ‘Is this industrial?’ At the end of the day it’s all sounds,” laughs Mays. “Personally, as far as genres go, I never felt indebted to it because I just want to hear what I make, and I make what I want to feel.”
According to Mays the name Cities Aviv implies more, and though he often works alone he adds that he looks at the project as more of an entity rather than a pseudonym.
“Truthfully Cities Aviv was just an internet handle that I had, and it eventually grew into my name. I’ve always liked that it gave a connotation that the project was greater than one person, even if it is ultimately just me. I’ve had good relationships with artists that have worked with me as part of Cities Aviv, so in some ways it is an entity. The name alludes to more,” says Mays.
At the end of 2017 Mays decided to branch out and began working on what would become Total Works, an organization that sits somewhere between an art house and record label.
“It was an idea I had for a long time. You could call it a label, but to me it’s more than that. It’s a house; a happening,” explains May. “By the end of 2017, I thought it was time to really activate it. Initially, I never wanted to put my music out first, it was more of a conversation with other artists. I wanted it to be a platform where I could just push my homies and people whose music we really respect. But it was building up inside of me so long I just had to let it loose. In 2018 I put out “Raised for a Better View,” which was the first Total Works release. From there it just snowballed. Now we’re like 14 releases deep and we’ve done a year’s worth of programming by bringing artists from all over the world to Memphis that otherwise wouldn’t come here.”
Mays explains that one of the reasons he, and others, started Total Works was because there weren’t any pre-existing conversations within the city about what he or his colleagues were working on.
“A lot of us sit outside of what a lot of people are familiar with. It’s all kind of being shoveled into other conversations, but that’s not what it is. So as far as us operating in Memphis and the people that are here, that are a part of Total Works, it’s a means for us to just do our own thing, something that people aren’t talking about. The people who truly get what we do, generally, are elsewhere,” Mays laughs. “But we do it here because it feels important. Also, we don’t want to be bored to death. We want to throw these ropes out, we want to build these bridges and we want to bring these artists, who otherwise would never come here, to Memphis . We just want to showcase music in a different way.”
Music out of the mainstream isn’t typically highlighted in the city, so Mays and company hopes to make Memphis a more open place to create, as well as a more hospitable city for touring acts who wouldn’t typically perform here.
Total Works plans on working towards solving these problems by introducing more programming that showcases musicians whose sound may be considered out of the ‘norm’.
“When it comes to the institutions there is this pipeline to oblivion. It comes down to the promoters, booking agents and talent buyers, assuming they even exist. The people that control the programming, the art institutions and the music venues, aren’t taking risks. It’s just oblivion; nothing. And so, when something cool does come through people are just so oblivious because there’s no one to translate the message. We’ve definitely had a lot of late-night discussions of what 2020 can look like for Memphis. There is infinite potential for this city. There’s a conversation that involves a fusion of avant-garde music and art, even just outlier sounds. That’s definitely where we come in and what we’re more interested in, but at the same time, going back to this pipeline of oblivion, we’re just holding our cards to a degree because we can’t just shell out all of our ideas and have some goofies running around with them,” Mays laughs. “In the past when I’ve interacted with people who do work with a lot of these institutions locally, and it seems like there is a lot of promise and potential, it inevitably falls flat because they just want to play it safe. There are ways to translate what we see and to make it palatable to more people, but at the same time I would rather it come naturally at the right time and fashion than to dilute anything just to make it palatable to people who don’t care about it.”
Mays believes that taking risks is an important part of music, both within songwriting and the industry as a whole, and that intuition is one of the most important tools a musician has. Ignorance, he explains, is sometimes even more valuable than experience.
“I think there’s a lot of power and freedom when you are kind of ignorant to what you’re doing. When you go in with nothing but your gut and follow your intuition. There’s definitely cases where I’ve gone into studios and you get in those rooms with the people who say, ‘ Oh I know this! A, B,C D, E….,’ you know whatever. ‘This is how music should be made.’ I just feel like it always falls flat when you have that outlook,” says Mays. “I would way rather listen to somebody who has just picked an instrument up and just started playing around on it. For instance, when I was living in New York one of my friends was homeless. He just made all of his music on his phone and slept in our basement, but his music sounded exponentially greater than when I would go into some prestigious studio session. A lot of the releases we’ve been putting out are from people who are just at home experimenting. People just toying around. A lot of my favorite music comes from people messing around. People who are unsure of what they’re doing, but are very sure that they want to express themselves.”
In 2012 Mays left Memphis to move to New York City, where he lived on and off the next five years. He explains that New York City is a great city, but there’s not much anyone can do to leave their mark on it. On the other hand, Memphis is in a position to become something completely unique, and we can all have a part in shaping what it’ll become.
“I mean it’s double edged. I’m definitely very critical of things that are happening here ,but simultaneously I like that there’s a lot of space to try shit out. I feel like in New York and Los Angeles, even though I love both of those cities, it’s just so crowded. They’re just cashed out. I mean they’re going to be great forever, just like Coca-Cola is going to be Coca-Cola forever, but there’s so much ground to be gained here,” says Mays. “This is a very important time in the history of our city. Even with Tami Sawyer running for mayor. She didn’t get it, but she sure as hell gave it her damn best. I don’t really give a shit about politics personally but just seeing her step out and saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ I like that. It’s just an important time for our city right now. It’s happening.”
He adds that we need to start appreciating the artists and musicians who are creating here. Much like creating a job market to attract and retain young professionals, we need to create platforms to attract and retain young creatives before we lose them to other cities.
“I feel like there are artists here that are well respected elsewhere, and we really need to let these people know in real time that we really appreciate what they’re doing. We need to give these people a platform to shine in the city,” says Mays. “The people with the best ideas get the least amount of respect, and the people with the worst ideas get tons of backing. I think it goes back to the pipeline of oblivion. Like you’ll have this painter who is amazing and can’t even get a damn solo exhibition and may never get invited to a panel discussion. Nobody’s picking their brain, but simultaneously you have this bozo who just throws their mural up on the side of a building and suddenly everybody’s talking about them. There’s just so much static and noise from these bozos that are prancing around, and people are just oblivious. They don’t know any better. And even if they saw something better, they are so conditioned it wouldn’t even hit them until years later, and they’re like ‘Oh! Wow!’ They’re so late to the party. It’s just sad. That’s the biggest problem in Memphis. I’m not saying there’s not a space for everyone, there is, but you have these people who are really trying to gain ground and nobody’s really fucking with them. So, they leave. Just speaking on my experience, when I first started out people received it really well. They talked about it and passed it around, but once I really got in my bag and started experimenting with sounds and growing older there was a loss of support from people in Memphis. People here just didn’t understand it. But at the same time, I met these artists from other cities who really dug it and saw it for what it was. People should give other artists chances. I just believe in sticking to your guns and staying true to your journey.”
As for the future of Cities Aviv, Mays says he’s planning on exploring a different sound and becoming more comfortable throughout the process.
“I feel like a big part of my musical journey was just becoming more comfortable and trying new things, which has been important to me since the beginning. Just being confident. It’s always about keeping the music as free as possible. To me it’s like everything all at once. I try to keep the music beyond rap, beyond punk, beyond noise. It is what it is. I was joking with the homies the other day and I was like man I just want the next shit to be just pop. Not to compare what I’m doing to what anybody else is doing, but when you open the window and you see what’s happening outside, everybody’s angry and screaming over beats or whatever. I’m just kind of like man, I want to do some pop shit now. But then again what does pop mean? I was talking to a homie about making some music together and then I was like, ‘Let’s do some pop shit.’ He was like, ‘What do you even mean?’” Mays laughs. “Anyway, that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. I’m just tired of screaming for screaming sake. It’s time to go somewhere else.”