PILSEN — Sen Morimoto’s new album “Diagnosis” captures the frustrations of contemporary workers in a blend of hip-hop, rock, jazz and pop. The multi-instrumentalist and Humboldt Park resident has weathered the difficulties of the modern music industry with the help of the community he has established in Chicago.
With an expanded band of friends, Morimoto will celebrate his “loud music for quiet people” at his album release show Saturday at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St.
Morimoto was inspired to write about economic exploitation after witnessing the government’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.
“I was starting to get really cynical and jaded, and I felt that I had to write about it because I couldn’t write about anything else and go on,” he said. “I couldn’t take myself seriously if I wasn’t merging my concerns with my daily practice of making art.”
On the title track, Morimoto raps a vivid description of a routine trip to the gas station, a permanent consumer overstimulated by advertising screens and nicotine cravings, his flow as rapid as the live drums. He offers love as a possible solution to the ennui on the lead single “If The Answer Isn’t Love,” cautious optimism audible in a gurgling guitar solo.
For his first studio album, Morimoto re-wrote his demos for a band to record them at Friends of Friends Studio with producer/engineer Brok Mende, rather than play all the instruments himself or swap parts via emails.
Morimoto said the process of editing and re-arranging helped him appreciate his music more.
“You can’t show up to rehearsal and tell the band, who wants to be excited about it, that this song is dumb,” he said. “You gotta believe in it too or it’s not gonna work!”
The music videos expand on the album’s narrative, depicting an ongoing satire of an everyman, played by Morimoto, suckered into a record contract with the devil. Morimoto screened the videos as part of an album listening party in October at Pilsen’s drive-in theater ChiTown Movies along with the 1974 film “Phantom of the Paradise.”
Morimoto learned of the cult rock opera from his co-directors in New Trash, and he sees the thematic parallels as evidence of the cyclical nature of exploitation.
“There was a time when it was something worth discussing, and then decades later, I’m thinking about the same thing and we’re facing the same problems,” he said.
The musician said he’s grown disillusioned by the contemporary need to market music on the basis of identity or past trauma, a frustration shared by many of his peers.
“No one tells you when you put out your first project that you don’t have to share these details,” he said. “They’re just like ‘Is there anything more interesting about you? What bad things happened to you that we can sell some records with?’”
Morimoto has found solidarity with his fellow musicians since moving here in 2014 and performing in restaurants, bars and clubs. He became a co-owner of indie label Sooper Records in 2018, which has since released acclaimed albums by co-owner NNAMDI and Morimoto’s partner and collaborator KAINA, as well as other multi-instrumentalists with specific aesthetics. And he’s collaborated with local musicians across genres, like rap collective Pivot Gang and folk poet Kara Jackson.
Morimoto hopes his peers can help younger musicians maintain their own boundaries and establish sustainable careers. After a summer of widely publicized strikes by writers and actors, he’s pleased to see a growing public understanding of musicians as laborers who deserve fair conditions — though he does still hear inane suggestions for touring bands, such as cutting road costs by sleeping on floors.
“I’m pushing 30, my back is in bad shape, I don’t think I can just go sleep on somebody’s floor,” he said. “And I can’t ask a touring band of musicians to sleep on someone’s floor.”
Morimoto planned his Thalia Hall show as a meeting place for musicians and fans across several scenes. Opener Angèlica Garcia is a solo vocal performer from New York who uses extensive loops and is “one of the rawest musicians,” he said.
“Sen’s music resonates with us. His catchy melodies, groove, and experimentation are all things we’ve admired in his music,” the band said via email. “Sen and the SOOPER crew add so much to Chicago’s bustling music scene.”
Thanks to Morimoto’s extensive contacts, the “Diagnosis” release show will feature an expanded band behind him similar to the group he performed with at Pitchfork Music Festival in July.
“It’s pretty much the only place I’m gonna get to play as it is on the record, because we can have a full horn section, two guitars going, synths and all the stuff that, for touring purposes, is impossible,” he said. “I’m excited for the hometown show because it is in our community.”
“I’ve only done two shows with this new music, and so far it’s been cool to see it create a space where we can rage out together,” he said.
Doors open at 6 p.m. for Sen Morimoto’s all-ages show Saturday at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St., with Angélica Garcia and Neptune’s Core. The show starts at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $22 and are available here.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: