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Photography Chelsea Dacosta

EXUM is the former NFL player trading pads for dream pop

Antone Exum left behind his American football career with the San Francisco 49ers to pursue music – then, he flatlined during a heart operation. Here, he discusses literally rising from the dead and his upcoming debut Xardinal Coffee

Antone Exum will never forget July 10, 2020; a date that’s forever inked on his body and a date that, in his effort to signal that he’d gotten over a lifelong fear of death, he somehow predicted would happen.

Just a year before that date, the 30-year-old EXUM – as he’s known in the music realm – was a safety for the San Francisco 49ers, staying in a hotel with his teammates. He sat out in a rental car recording vocals on his phone for a song that would eventually become “Muffin Years in Lydian”, the closing track off his upcoming June debut album Xardinal Coffee. As someone who grew up scared of death, often crying in the backseat of his parents’ car to Ashlee Simpson or 2Pac’s “Life Goes On,” the lyrical touchpoints in the autotune-ambushed “Muffin Years” were his way of putting that fear behind him.

“In the song I say, ‘If I die, I’ll be back.’ Just basically shit about resurrection and all this death and awakening type of stuff,” EXUM says. “And then it actually happened.”

The former NFL star and secret pop phenom entered a hospital room for a minor heart procedure some months after writing those words. He was all too familiar with injuries and procedures during his six-year NFL career, admitting that there’s a 100 per cent injury rate in football, but this day was different. He flatlined on the table.

“It was some complications that went down. And then I came back, I rose. Easter just came. If Jesus can rise, I can rise. So that's what happened. When I woke up, I just felt a wave of love. I just felt so warm. It felt like some sort of like ego death in me.”

That day changed EXUM. It added another layer of importance to the leftfield pop project he had been pouring his heart into for over a year. And even more so, it reminded him that the work he was doing to build up ücke – the “art world” he’s created alongside producers  Erik Samkopf, Dex Barstad, his fiancé Chelsea and other young creatives – was necessary work.

“It’s like an ecosystem sort-of to speak, where we just feed off of each other artistically and spiritually from a distance,” EXUM says of ücke. “And I’ve just come across basically all the creative geniuses that I’ve come across while in my journey of making music and making visual art and videos and all that stuff.”

As EXUM knows better than anyone, Xardinal Coffee is an ambitious and rambunctious set of dream-like pop songs, kicking off with religious-themed rhymes on opener “Sage The Room”, working into pin-ball-like futuristic production on “Bad Chick Bad Dude” and channeling EXUM’s inner Lady Gaga on “Arrest the Dancer”. It’s certainly different, and he knows it’s fearless, but beyond that, EXUM has absolutely nothing to fear by believing in his work. Not even death.

“When I woke up, I knew I was doing the right thing. I knew we were making good music. I knew it was going to continue to evolve. I wanted to immerse myself in the things I loved. And you can hear that in the music to where it's just like this like freedom in the music to be fearless. I mean, if you know a n---a that died, bro, and he’s back now, what is there to be scared of? At worst, I’ll just die again.”

What’s your mindset with this record on the way?

EXUM: I’m doing absolutely splendid today. We went to his garden around the corner. Not far from my house, I guess it’s called Botanical Gardens or some shit. So serene and beautiful. Like all these different flowers and shit. Like it’s just so crazy because flowers and nature in general, like we’re all linked together. So you’ll see like, I guess remnants of a human body part, or something in the way that a tree is woven, or the way of flowers are made or some shit like that. There’s this one flower called a slipper orchid. It literally looks like a heart mixed with like a testicle. I might have a picture. And it’s so funny, because that’s just like, the divineness of everything.

Does seeing stuff like a testicle heart flower ever find its way into the music?

EXUM: It’s coming from everywhere. At this point in time, I wouldn’t even really be able to give you too many artists, I’d be able to just give you things in my life that are going on that are inspiring me, you know what I mean? Visiting their garden, or a movie I watched last night, or my personal growth.

Reading up on you and your journey, it’s interesting to see that music was never an alternate career path but rather something that’s been ingrained in your life. When did you first discover your love for music growing up in Virginia?

EXUM: Since like, when I was really little, I was always listening to music. Music is one of those things that you can split time with. I was able to play sports and pursue that. You don’t really need to put too much effort into listening to music, you can just throw your headphones on and be doing whatever, it’s all just feeding the subconscious. So I’m taking all this music in my whole life, and it’s just weaving what I’m going to end up putting out on a microphone later in life. I didn’t know that at the time. I even remember asking for pianos and shit when I was younger, but I didn’t know how to work them or save when I was making. So I was just like, let me go back out here and play basketball. But I had that drive to do music.

Similarly with skateboarding, bro. I was like a skateboarder for a little while when I was a kid and my shit went down the drain. But I was trying to do a kickflip or some shit when it went down the sewer.

“I feel like I went from listening to music to like, now I feel like I am music. I have to become whatever I do, I try to become it, so that it moves through me” – EXUM

I thought you meant metaphorically, but it actually went down the drain?

EXUM: My skateboard dreams kind of just ended abruptly right there. And I picked up my regular Black kid shit. But it’s just been a journey with music. I feel like I went from listening to music to like, now I feel like I am music. I have to become whatever I do, I try to become it, so that it moves through me. So football, I got to that point where it was just moving through me, it was so essential. I didn't really have to think about shit. And now that’s where I‘m at with music.

I know you mixed these two passions often. You freestyled during NFL practices?

EXUM: That was a little bit in Minnesota but a lot in San Francisco. We used to do it out in practice and meeting rooms, or on the bus, like if you’re one of those guys that’s always rapping and shit or fucking moving around to music, you become the guy that people look at when it’s time to do things like that. I was just having fun with it. But they didn’t know when I got home, I was taking the shit uber seriously. Right now I’m just like, at practice and shit rapping and we’re all just enjoying and having a good time, just like a lot of n----s do. When I got home, I was honing in on my craft.

So nobody had any idea?

EXUM: They didn’t know that until I released two or three songs. They kind of got an idea like, ‘Oh, OK, you really make songs.’

At what point did you link with producer Erik Samkopf? How does an NFL star find a Norwegian producer?

EXUM: Maybe 2018 or 2019. I don’t care about the years, I’m just here. Me and Dex Barstad – who has taught me so much about music and we make music to this day – got into a little tiff and I didn’t have a producer for a little while. I wanted to release music, I was kind of feeling a little bit marginalised because I was so engulfed in the football schedule. You know what I’m saying? So I couldn’t do everything that was in my head. And I found Pen Gutt, which is an artist. He’s a Norwegian rapper. I looked up the producer, and I was saying, long story short, I ended up sending fucking music to Sam. And he loved some of the songs, and he agreed to work on my first album.

As I listen to Xardinal Coffee, I feel like I’m being transported to your world – which is why ücke feels so fitting. Talk to me about it.

EXUM: ücke is basically my art world. I don’t want to call it a label because I feel like that kind of just closes us to just music when I have no idea what I mean, I could be designing dresses or something for Dries Van Noten in a couple years or something like that. Like that’s like a dream of mine, or creating cleats or something for Nike or Adidas, but like. We’ll all be a part of that.

When did you collectively start working on this project?

EXUM: It was like a compilation of songs between like two years, I was working on a lot of other shit as well. I’m always working on multiple things. I was making a lot of demos when I was in another situation and I got hurt in San Francisco. There’s a 100 per cent injury rate in football. So like n----s get hurt. That’s just what happened. Whenever I would get hurt, or I would have free time, that shit was so inspiring to me. I was like, ‘OK, now it’s time, now I can put with my head down, release that into the world, and continue to craft my sound.

Reading what inspired you here, I’m seeing everything from blue balls to religion. But something that really stood out to me was the last track, “Muffin Years in Lydian”. Would you mind elaborating on this near-death experience you had?

EXUM: For me, it was just like a moment of enlightenment and just an awakening of some sort. And I had this really minor heart procedure. It wasn’t that serious. I was supposed to go home the same night. And I ended up flatlining on the table. It was just some complications that went down. And then came back, I rose, Easter just came. If Jesus can rise, I can rise. So that’s what happened. And when I woke up, I just felt like a wave of love. I just felt so warm. It felt like some sort of like ego death in me. So it was a really, really great thing to happen. A lot of people hear me and go, “Oh, I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.” And I’m like, “Oh, like it was really cool.” In “Muffin Years in Lydian,” I’m talking about how I’m so scared of death, bro. When I was younger, I used to sit in the backseat listening to Ashlee Simpson or some shit and just be crying.

The second you start crying to an Ashlee Simpson song… 

EXUM: Or that other joint, there’s one by Tupac, too. That sounds like I was fighting for street cred. I said Ashlee Simpson, then I said, “Nah, there was a Tupac song, too.” It was “Life Goes On.” I was just so scared, I couldn’t fathom that people that I love would one day not be with me. And then, I had an enlightenment. I lost that fear of dying. That song is me losing that fear of death. The crazy part, I made that song two years ago. I say something like, “If I die, I’ll be back.” Shit about resurrection. Death and awakening stuff, and then it actually happened. The song meant so much more to me and Sam. Even the record meant more to us after that happened. 

And what do you hope listeners can learn about you from this record?

EXUM: I hope that this project scratches the surface for people as far as them getting an understanding of like, you can’t box me in. I don’t like being compared to one particular thing. I wanted them to experience a lot of different sounds so that, six albums later, when I’m making electronic orchestra music or shit like that, nobody’s shocked. We already knew that this guy could transform into anything he can transform into and he can do it seamlessly and 100 per cent and it would be believable. Because I’m rooted in god, I’m not rooted in my mask.

Xardinal Coffee is out June 4 via ücke