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Articles on this Page
- 03/01/13--08:10: _Interviews: Foals
- 03/04/13--07:15: _Hall of Game: Gray ...
- 03/05/13--08:30: _Interviews: Devendr...
- 03/06/13--08:10: _Rising: Kate Boy
- 03/07/13--07:15: _Update: Jose Gonzal...
- 03/07/13--07:25: _Guest Lists: The Men
- 03/08/13--09:15: _The Out Door: Imagi...
- 03/11/13--09:20: _Interviews: Phospho...
- 03/11/13--22:20: _Update: Katy B
- 03/13/13--13:45: _5-10-15-20: Nas
- 03/14/13--14:00: _Guest Lists: Jessic...
- 03/15/13--12:00: _Show No Mercy: Kylesa
- 03/19/13--10:01: _Afterword: Jason Mo...
- 03/20/13--07:40: _Interviews: Wavves
- 03/21/13--07:00: _Interviews: Harmony...
- 03/22/13--10:35: _Interviews: Mike Pa...
- 03/25/13--08:55: _Ordinary Machines: ...
- 03/26/13--08:30: _Interviews: The Knife
- 03/27/13--10:15: _Rising: Pharmakon
- 03/27/13--13:50: _Op-Ed: Alternate En...
- 03/01/13--08:10: Interviews: Foals
- 03/04/13--07:15: Hall of Game: Gray Matters
- 03/05/13--08:30: Interviews: Devendra Banhart
- 03/06/13--08:10: Rising: Kate Boy
- 03/07/13--07:15: Update: Jose Gonzalez / Junip
- 03/07/13--07:25: Guest Lists: The Men
- 03/08/13--09:15: The Out Door: Imagined Communities
- 03/11/13--09:20: Interviews: Phosphorescent
- 03/11/13--22:20: Update: Katy B
- 03/13/13--13:45: 5-10-15-20: Nas
- 03/14/13--14:00: Guest Lists: Jessica Pratt
- 03/15/13--12:00: Show No Mercy: Kylesa
- 03/19/13--10:01: Afterword: Jason Molina
- 03/20/13--07:40: Interviews: Wavves
- 03/21/13--07:00: Interviews: Harmony Korine
- 03/22/13--10:35: Interviews: Mike Patton/Derek Cianfrance
- 03/25/13--08:55: Ordinary Machines: Innocent Civilians
- 03/26/13--08:30: Interviews: The Knife
- 03/27/13--10:15: Rising: Pharmakon
- 03/27/13--13:50: Op-Ed: Alternate Ending
Photo by Nabil
Not so long ago, it wouldn't have made much sense at all for Metallica to choose Foals to play their music festival. But with Holy Fire, the Oxford band's muscular recent Flood and Alan Moulder-produced album, Foals stop noodling in the margins of rock and run headlong into its belly, blending the careening swagger of stoner rock with a sleazy funk thrust-- all without sounding anything like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, thank God. And within that hypnotic thrust, Holy Fire hits some restful-if-anxious points, too; "Providence", for one, dusts itself off with a vocal line from frontman Yannis Philippakis processed to sound like an old Lomax recording, as he explains when we chat by phone in early February.
While touring behind Foals' last album, 2010's Total Life Forever, Philippakis often appeared in quite battered form, turning up to interviews with yellowed eyes, a spotty tongue, a packet of quickly chain-smoked cigarettes, and on one occasion, a bottle of cough syrup. Certain stories made him appear in a harrowed, panicked place, a portrayal he now says was perhaps slightly exaggerated due to his willingness to let journalists into his troubled mindset. For now, though, "it's an era of contentment" for him and the band. "With this music malarkey, I used to bang my head against the wall, but now I've learned the way through the maze a bit better," he says. "I can still get lost, but my emotional equilibrium isn't as tied into it."
He makes himself subject to quite a tongue-lashing on Holy Fire, however, berating his unfaithfulness and bad habits in order to "feel uncomfortable" when listening to the new material. We spoke about the pitfalls of writing cryptic, self-referential lyrics that don't cop to much, how Flood and Moulder played tricks on them during the album's recording, and why he's recently taken up growing roses. Read the interview and watch the band perform Holy Fire outtake "Blue Bird" below:
Pitchfork: Parts of Holy Fire comprise some of the most aggressive music the band has ever made, but you're singing your most open and vulnerable lyrics. What provoked that?
Yannis Philippakis: I'm just worn down and weary of bands whose lyrics are cryptic and self-referential. I don't get any humanity when I listen to that, so I really wanted to avoid it. You can get into a comfort zone writing lyrics, like wearing a mask. But I wanted to feel uncomfortable when I was listening back to [the lyrics]; I wanted to squirm. I never want to listen to the songs in front of people close to me. There's an emotional honesty in that place where it's not earnest but it's vulnerable.
Pitchfork: You self-flagellate a lot over the course of the record.
YP: Oh yeah. I'm taking a bath in my guilt, but there's a redemptive purpose to that. It's not as if I'm endlessly throwing out a trail of images that can never be traced back to me; I can see the traces of myself, and I wanted it to be a cathartic process, to grow and work through the knots of my personality. Music was my friend when I was a teenager, and I would inhabit and take comfort in lyrics. That's how I want to write. I like simple writing. I'd rather read Hemingway than Burroughs.
It's a hard thing to do when you first start as a band. The lyrics on our first record epitomize a fear of being found out, or of being too known. You feel vulnerable and you want to hide it. But now I feel like a middle-aged woman who's just gone through a divorce, and she's looking in the mirror and is OK with herself-- I can get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and say that I'm a beautiful woman and believe it.
"We wanted to do something that felt like this sweaty, stickier thing--like an insect climbing into delta marshlands."
Pitchfork: Tell me about what's going on at the beginning of "Providence"-- your voice is captured in a way that makes it feel like an old field recording.
YP: On that vocal, I was definitely inspired by gospel music, or old-school R&B; I got into some Good God gospel compilations. I like the fervor of religious music, the zealous aspect-- that preachers can go from a conversational cadence into this passionate singing. And I've been listening to Alan Lomax's recordings for about five years years now. They've never failed to startle and move me, they're so skeletal and haunting that I can't see how anyone wouldn't be absolutely stunned by them. You realize how much power and emotion can come out of a voice. It was a sign that we didn't need to rely on gimmicks or crutches, or have a lot of bolstering sound.
Pitchfork: You wrote some of the record in Karpathos, Greece, where your father lives, and a few of the songs on the record appeal to a mother figure. Was your heritage on your mind?
YP: That's hard-- I'm definitely preoccupied by thinking I'm just a biological thing. I want to feel that there's more, but so often I'm reminded of how we're just like baboons, basically. The thing about Karpathos that made it such a good place to write lyrics is that there's no wifi, no cars, none of the pernicious side of modern or urban society. Instead, there's mountains and a feeling of timelessness, it's unchanging. I can feel my bloodlines there. I don't know how it creeps into the lyrics, but its definitely part of my brain structure.
Pitchfork: It definitely feels like Foals' most varied album from start to finish.
YP: When we started writing, we wanted to free ourselves from the shackles of keeping things harmonious. It was informed by a confidence in the band-- we feel we will immutably sound like ourselves no matter which producer we work with, or what palette the songs are written in, or what the medium is. The headspace was: "Let's not overthink it, let's not discuss it, let's just enjoy everything, and if things feel intuitively right, then be OK with it."
Also, Flood and Moulder really reinforced our belief that we should try and fan everything out. If we had two songs that felt like they were occupying the same space, we would consciously try and push them apart from each other as much as possible. This record is a myriad of colors rather than shades of the same.
"When you're making an album with people who made
your favorite records as a rebellious teenager,
it feels like you've achieved something."
Pitchfork: I read that Flood and Moulder double-bluffed you by saying you were doing practice takes, then telling you that they had actually recorded them.
YP: It was sneaky and genius of them. I don't know if it's plagued us more than other people, but when we became conscious of the red light going on for a take, it would somehow creep into the playing. There'd be something missing, or there wasn't the kind of feral energy that there would be in the live shows. That sleight-of-hand totally navigated that problem-- there was a charm to a lot of those takes, so we didn't need to do much more.
Pitchfork: The producers you've worked with previously have all essentially been your peers.
YP: And musicians in some way. Flood and Moulder are definitely not musicians, they're producers and engineers, studio men. And they come from that old tradition of British studios, it's almost like a guild. They understand that there's a line between the artist and the songs they've written, and their job is to convey that from the speakers. It meant we didn't ever really feel territorial about what was happening. It's an honor to work with them as much as anything. I grew up listening to The Downward Spiral and Mellon Collie; when you're making an album with people who made your favorite records as a rebellious teenager, it feels like you've achieved something.
Pitchfork: There was always a positive disparity between your records and the significantly heavier shows. Do you feel Holy Fire comes closer to capturing what you're actually like on stage?
YP: Yeah. It's not just the heavier songs, like "Providence" and "Inhaler", that have that sort of energy, but also songs like "Moon" and "Stepson", where me and [guitarist] Jimmy [Smith] were allowed to go in the studio and just play the same song for five hours without interruption, over and over 'til we were tired of playing it or the wine made our eyelids droop. Someone in the control room would capture it. The integrity of the takes remain.
"Inhaler" almost didn't make it on the record-- when we got back to Oxford after tour, it got extended and became a 27-minute-long beast. We had it on the back-burner, then had three days where we were like, "Let's just give this a go," and it came together, thankfully.
Pitchfork: I've always thought it would be interesting to hear you guys release something long-form.
YP: We'd like to do that. It's strange because there's a tension in the band that's almost bipolar-- if we were left totally to our own devices, we probably would just turn out these proggy jams without focus. But at the same time, there's a desire to make things that are concise and that communicate to the outside world. There's a special edition of Holy Fire that's got all the fragments and loops and jams that informed the actual album. It'll expose the process, show the skeletons.
Pitchfork: Was the stoner rock quality a sound that had always been a part of the band? What made now the time to make a record in that vein?
YP: I've always listened to stuff like Earth, Sleep, and Sabbath, though we didn't have a desire to actually go to that territory before; we don't need to put a little ribbon around what somebody else's idea of what we should sound like is and just adhere to that.
After touring Total Life for so long, we infinitely know the boundaries and parameters of what we had written up until then. Being given a new lease of life to go and write was exciting-- everything felt fertile and new. It's about writing the next sentence, and we got it in our heads that we wanted to do something that felt-- and I don't think the whole record feels like it-- like this sweaty, stickier thing, like an insect climbing into delta marshlands.
Pitchfork: Am I right in thinking you've taken up gardening?
YP: Yeah. My mum used to make me garden when I was younger, then I just stopped doing it. Then I got a craving to do something that felt like it was connected with the land, something that felt domestic. It was grounding for me. I started growing roses. I enjoyed the craft of it and that they're difficult to look after; they can provide joy. But I'm going on tour now so I don't know what will happen to them.
Pitchfork: You're about to go on the road for ages, but you recently tweeted that you wanted to make another album already as well.
YP: What we might start trying to do whenever we get a free day on tour is go into a studio and cut tracks, like how it used to be done; you'd cut a song and it'd be pressed and it would go out. A good thing about the industry changing is that it frees up the artist to disseminate music in various ways. One thing we're going to have to do in our lifetime is free ourselves from the shackle of making albums that are the focal point for everything for two years on either side. It's great in the sense that it's a big task and enjoyable to craft something from start to finish, but it's not natural. The way we write is compulsive, all the time. It'd be nice to have that direct outlet.
Influence can be a funny form of power, particularly in the creative world. It moves ideas and aesthetics but sometimes leaves the works that birthed them behind. Consider the late DJ Screw, who died in 2000 at age 30, but is arguably the most influential hip-hop DJ of this century. Even as the role of the DJ has been progressively marginalized in commercial hip-hop, the Houstonian's technique-- slow speed blends, chopped and doubled-up snares and vocals-- still bullied their way into the genre's evolving vocabulary. This was precisely what Screw dreamed of in life, when he was still a local icon (albeit a major one). In interviews, he spoke of how he wanted to "screw the world." It seemed optimistic at the time. And then it eventually happened.
But as his impact spread, DJ Screw and his music were both left behind in some ways. It'd be easy to fill this space by telling of the Houston rappers and pop megastars and Tumblr goths who have all borrowed and repurposed what can broadly be defined as the Screw sound in the 13 years since his death. Or how that sound has been inexorably (and somewhat inaccurately) linked to the popular rise of the drug that reportedly took his life. We could throw around words like "crawling" and "syrupy" and "psychedelic" to create an easy point of entry for readers who wouldn't otherwise give a fuck about a little old rap mixtape DJ from the Southside of Houston. But to do so would only further this disembodiment of a human artist and his work from his brand and mythology.
The secret about Screw that gets lost in the on-record shout outs and the hashtagged condolences and the godawful slapdash remixes that bear his name all over the internet is that slowness is not the pure essence of Screwness. It's a central element, to be certain, but just one of many. Screw was, after all, a DJ in a time where the role and reception of the DJ was dramatically different from what it is today. DJs made their names not just on account of their taste, but also their personality and craft. Screw was the rare triple threat on these fronts-- a true tastemaker, a masterful technician, and an out-and-out relatable human. His roots were in battle DJing-- transformer scratches and body tricks and beat juggling and all of that. When I interviewed Rob Quest of the group the Odd Squad, for whom Screw briefly DJ'd for, he described Screw's early style as "actually hip-hop-ish." I'd venture to suggest that everything he would go on to accomplish fell directly under that umbrella, even as he warped its dimensions sonically.
For a man so closely identified with all things slow, Screw moved quickly, releasing new mixtapes on a near-weekly basis in his prime. This pace imbued his tapes with an air of autobiography; they were a series of soundtracks for the life of a man whose life mostly involved making soundtracks for himself and his crew. When fellow Screwed Up Click members celebrated their birthdays, the party was handed down to listeners. When Fat Pat died, people felt the clique's pain. Mostly, though, Screw tapes conveyed the general joy of the crew's existence and success, particularly on the later ones where the SUC freestyles were more prominent and developed. History has often linked this work with darkness or drug use-- because that's the direction latter day interpolators have magnified-- but when you get right down to it, what you frequently hear are dudes having fun while rapping endlessly off the top of the dome. What could be more hip-hop?
None of this is to discredit the impact of the slowness. The crawl of a Screw tape was immaculate as well as earth-and-skull-shattering. Hip-hop has always been a genre of quiet innovations, and it makes sense that something as simple as slowing things down would prove to magnify the effect of its most instantly affecting component-- that bass. Screw didn't invent the idea of pitching down rap records to this end-- another Houston DJ by the name of Darryl Scott had been doing it prior, as had more than a few Miami DJs-- but he was the one who perfected it by pushing it to extremes that would've previously defied logic. Everything was slowed and everything had to be slower than it was before.
It was an immersive experience. Though his music is now mostly disseminated via YouTube fragments, Screw's primary medium was the long-form mixtape. Eight or 12 or 20 tracks stretched across a 100 or 120 minute Maxell XLII cassette. Gray Tapes. While full-length Chopped & Screwed mixes still make the rounds today-- acts like OG Ron C and DJ Slim K churn out freebee and sometimes-artist-sanctioned C&S takes on full lengths by everyone from Rocky to Frank Ocean-- they're usually released on the Dat Piff circuit and to very little fanfare. Meanwhile, fan-made single track mixes of recent hits still rack up YouTube views despite their obvious amateurishness. These tracks are tailored directly to neophytes, an audience that seems more interested in the idea of Screw Music than in its execution.
In life, Screw was largely protective of his brand, if not his aesthetic. "It's only a Screw tape if I Screw it," he told The Source in a brief 1995 interview. But there might be an even shorter explanation for why so many of the Screw-style mixes by today's adherents sound outright horrible: It's only a tape if it's a tape. Screw made analog music through and through, but it was the cassette in particular that defined his sound. Not just the thump of it but the warmth as well. And there was something almost poetic about this loyalty to the naturally decaying format. Even if he had never actively Screwed his tapes, they might've still eventually slowed to Screwed pace with time, as if by instinct.
His exact recording method has been obscured by myths over the years-- I've heard stories as abstract as him putting a screw on the face of the record, to loosening some sort of a magic screw inside the turntable (never mind that neither of these are actually things that would result in the slowing down of a record). In fact, the effect came much further down in the recording chain, having little to do with the turntables themselves but with a basic pitch shift effect that was common on multitrack cassette recorders (1200s also have pitch shift but they don't go to the extremes that Screw's stuff would end up at). This methodology lent itself to unique and complicated blends. He wasn't just throwing a ccapellas over instrumentals in the pre-mash up era, but playing records on top of previously recorded multitrack mixes to the point where he could be stacking three or four different records all at once, each with a new slight layer of hiss and humanity.
Listen to a real-life Screw tape alongside those latter-day acolytes and it becomes apparent how technology has colored-- and still colors-- the form. By the time the Screw aesthetic had fully disseminated, technology had seemingly caught up to his imagination, but only in the most superficial way possible. Now you can type "how to screw a song" into YouTube and find a bevy of tutorials, most of which don't even acknowledge the act of DJing. One of the few that does is entitled "The correct way to Chop and Screw using Virtual DJ" and features the following comment exchange below the video: "This is gay do not use this method it is too complicated for something so easy."; "This is the method DJ Screw used when he invented screwed music." (It isn't and it isn't.) But that's progress, I guess. This technological democratization has inverted the delicate balance of craft and slop that defined the classic Screw tape-- too polished sonically, too unrefined in terms of performance.
His successors are also lacking in what might've been Screw's greatest strength-- his taste. Like all true tastemakers, he was beholden only to his convictions. This meant banging Bay Area hard head B-Legit in the same space as British reggae stars Steel Pulse and then letting those influences trickle down throughout the scene. "We wasn't really worried about what was going on in the rest of the world," said fellow Texas legend Pimp C in the The Untold Story documentary. "When we did hear the rest of the world, it was cause DJ Screw was putting us up on it. We wasn't checking for nobody unless it was on a Screw tape."
And while Screw might've been brushed off as a regional phenomenon in his time, his taste in rap was anything but. Yes, he showed his city love and rightfully so-- dropping cuts from both local stars like the Geto Boys and Port Arthur ex-pats UGK and unheralded contemporaries like Street Military and Coppertone Conspiracy alike-- but he also reached well beyond his immediate borders. His usual favorites included gruff-voiced Sacramento goon C-Bo, under-heralded Los Angeles G-Funk pioneers Above the Law, and Chicago double-time spitters Do or Die; legend has it he was one of if not the first DJs to spin Cash Money records outside of New Orleans. At the same time it was not uncommon for him to bring contemporary superstars like Pac and Biggie or even critical darlings like Nas and A Tribe Called Quest into the mix. The slowness flattened their differences and highlighted the similarities of these disparate acts. He'd even drive that point home further by reaching back and dropping common 80s influences like Whodini or LL Cool J.
This geographical diversity was a reflection of the culture that produced Screw and artists like him. Hip-hop's largest markets-- New York and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles-- were so empowered as media hubs that they could sustain an internal dialogue in their rap scenes. So while those media hubs fortified their borders (and eventually feuded vocally), a national network of underground rap spread quietly. Memphis acts were blowing up Chicago, Bay Area rappers were huge in Texas, etc. The biggest of these artists-- the E-40s and Twistas and Eightball & MJGs-- were quietly selling hundreds of thousands of records while rarely earning more than a footnote in The Source or any play on "Rap City". Screw tapes might be the best standing document of this silent majority's interests.
But you don't hear them. This disconnect can partially be chalked up to a matter of practicality. Screw's catalog is a deep one to dive into. If he's not the most prolific mixtape DJ of all-time he's certainly the best documented one. Two hundred and fifty-six of these tapes have been reissued posthumously as double CDs in the officially sanctioned (though often shoddily produced and mastered) Diary of the Originator reissue series. Past that there are a few dozen piecemeal retail collections of varying degrees of legitimacy along with a countless number of tapes that have yet to be anthologized but are likely still floating around in shoeboxes and glove compartments or as ghosts in the Megaupload machine.
It's an intimidating catalog to parse, but it's definitely worth parsing. If only because it exists. Though we now take artistic sprawl for granted in hip-hop, that was definitely not the case in the 90s. Major-label rappers toiled away for years at a time making grand statements. The independent rap worlds-- and particularly those of the mixtape DJs-- were sometimes more generous with their output, but even then most of that has been lost to time. As such the Screw catalog is one of the purest and more expansive musical snapshots of small culture hip-hop out there. Hundreds of hours of recordings culled from one bedroom studio, breadcrumbs left over the course a decade by a group of friends and their leader tracing back every small step of their creative evolutions while simultaneously providing a running tally of hip-hop trends writ large. As fascinating as Screw's influence has been in the years since his passing, his output might be better used as a lens to the past that we lost with him.
 Strangely more notable-- and, in my opinion, competent-- second wave C&S artists like Michael Watts and Beltway 8 have abandoned the form or disappeared completely, perhaps failing to fully make the transition to the internet era.
 In a 2010 interview with Jesse Serwer, Screwed Up Click member ESG recalled how then rival Northside DJ Michael Watts was able to gain traction in the late 90s as he transitioned to playing CDs while Screw stubbornly stuck to vinyl. "Screw would not change," he said. "If Serato was out when he was living, he would not do it. It was strictly turntables."
 Screw himself maintained that the name had nothing to do with his mixing process at all but instead his rejection process. When he heard a record that he didn't like he'd take a screw to the grooves, rendering it unplayable.
 Admittedly, L.A.'s hip-hop borders were always more porous than New York's, particularly on the creative side of things-- there's an entire alternate history to be written about the direct influence that Texas rap had on the rise of Death Row, for example.
 Pimp C might've best articulated this division on his underground classic "Top Notch Hoes", a not-so-subliminal shot at vocally anti-jiggy Northeastern rap darlings the Roots and Jeru the Damaja: "They play they videos every day/ Sold 50,000, he swole/ Y'all bitches act like y'all don't know me/ Bitch I always go gold."
 The only other semi-accessible archive of that nature that I can think of are the dubs of Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito's legendary Thursday night show on Columbia University's WKCR that have floated around forever. Though the sounds and styles of the two communities are dramatically different, I see a lot of similarities between the WKCR recordings and Screw tapes. Both offer panoramic glimpses of dominant 90s underground rap scenes by way of a bunch of kids-- some of whom were or would become major stars-- spitting rhymes and playing records in a casual environment. The one major and unfortunate difference is that Stretch & Bob tapes are not available commercially, and the once obsessively-fan-curated .rar rips are now mostly buried in the RIAA's dead-link graveyard.
Photos by Ana Kraš
Devendra Banhart: "Mi Negrita" on SoundCloud.
When Devendra Banhart used to read interviews with his favorite bands as a teenager, he'd scan the articles looking for one question: What are you listening to these days? "For me, that was it," he says, sitting in his drawing studio, which overlooks Manhattan's Lower East Side, "I found out about so much music through them." And now that he's an interview-worthy artist in his own right-- and an absurdly sponge-like one at that-- he's looking to pay that sort of wisdom forward.
He played a random stream of songs from his iPod stereo during our entire talk-- often pausing the conversation to effuse about a certain track or musician-- and dropped the names of his favorites at a quick clip, including, but not limited to: Morrissey, Nirvana, avant-garde composer Harold Budd, Guns N' Roses, Kronos Quartet, Oasis, Yo La Tengo, Blur, the soundtrack to the 1959 Brazilian film Black Orpheus ("my number one soundtrack of all time"), Helado Negro, Robert Wyatt, Pulp, Julee Cruise, Orange Juice, Caetano Veloso, Scott Walker, Thurston Moore, John Cage, and Grace Jones ("I saw her show recently; she's in her 60s, in a g-string, and she says, 'I want to suck some dick tonight!'-- unbelievable"). His music fandom can even involve an element of foolproof fantasy. When I point out a couple of identical black-and-white press photos of famously gruff Yonkers rapper DMX on his floor, he lights up. "I love him so much," he explains, "and I like press photos because the joy is what you write on them, like, 'To Devendra, duh duh duh...' So often it's very disappointing when you meet your heroes, so this is my way of assuring that it's a fantastic experience, and that they send me off with a beautiful message."
Devendra Banhart: "Never Seen Such Good Things" on SoundCloud.
Cross-legged in a wooden chair with a chomp taken out of its back, Banhart says he's always wanted to be a "radio disk jockey-- introduce a song, give a little bit of history, perhaps a personal anecdote, say what the music reminds me of and then ask my audience, 'Does it remind you of the same thing? Why don't you call in?' That kind of communication. Sounds like paradise." That curatorial spirit extends to his new album, Mala, which features a heartbreaking tale of a two people waiting in line to see Suede, an acoustic-guitar tribute to late pro skateboarder Keenan Milton, and a surreal yarn about 12th-century Saint Hildegard of Bingen getting a job playing videos on MTV. The album was recorded in Banhart's L.A. home with longtime co-conspirator Noah Georgeson, and while it still skips from genre to genre like his last three LPs, it's also his most concise effort since 2004's Niño Rojo.
And while Mala is marked by songs about the aftermath of broken love, the 31-year-old seems to have reached a newfound peace. He shares his artist's studio with his fiancée, Serbian photographer and designer Ana Kraš, and several her vibrant, hand-strung lanterns are perched on a nearby table; at one point, in mid-conversation, Banhart casually cuts out a foot-wide paper heart and sticks it to the front of Kraš' computer screen. Mala, which is Serbian for "my sweet dear thing," is highlighted by a sly duet between the two called "Your Fine Petting Duck", where Kraš pines after a deadbeat ex, played with knowing humility by Banhart: "If he doesn't try his best, please remember that I never tried at all," he advises her on the song.
True to form, the two moved to New York City last year after Banhart read Tim Lawrence's book about Arthur Russell and the downtown Manhattan scene, Hold Onto Your Dreams. Turns out it's something of a triumphant return to the city, which didn't treat the singer so well 10 years ago. "Back then, I was living in an abandoned salsa club with fucking no electricity, no water, meth heads walking into my room in the middle of the night, and a rat trying to eat through my wall," he remembers. "So I thought I should give New York another shot, see what it's like in a different place in my life."
Banhart says he's more excited about the art studio and his sturdy wooden desk than the new album (for which he once again drew the cover himself), though when asked if he would rather do visuals or music for the rest of his life, he's more diplomatic: "I want to take both more seriously; I don't know if I like the music I make, but I certainly love making it."
"I think five percent of all songs can be love songs, and
another five percent can be miscellaneous or political,
but the rest should just be about medieval feminists."
Pitchfork: You got engaged recently, but instead of love songs Mala is filled with songs about the complexities of love and losing it and wondering if you're ever really going to figure it out.
Devendra Banhart: Well, I had a song about Ana-- a real love song-- but I thought it could have been more romantic, so we didn't put it on there. The almost-nihilistic, devoid-of-any-hope observations on relationships on this record have nothing to do with her. The record I'll be writing next would be more about the celebration of finding someone you really love. Still, it seems very boring to write a song that goes: "Everything's going so good/ We fight now and then/ But still, everything's going great/ Being with you baby is so good." [deadpan] Actually, now that I say that, I think it would be a great song. I like those lyrics. Maybe I'll do that.
But it just seemed more fun to write about relationships in this [pessimistic] way. And it's experiential. Quite often, it's just a composite of bad relationships, an amalgamation of awkward situations-- which I'm a magnet for. Really. This morning, this old guy came up to me and said, "Would you like a bag of goodies?" He opened it up, and there was a copy of the first Harry Potter movie on VHS and some other weird shit. Really creepy. "No, thank you."
Pitchfork: Do you think it's easier to write these negative love songs as opposed to more positive ones?
DB: The lines on the album about how we've just met and can't wait to fuck it all up are what's fun about writing a pop song. That's pop music, and a lot of these songs are also love songs to that genre. The song I sing with Ana, ["Your Fine Petting Duck"], is a love song to that type of love song, which often goes like, "Baby, I'm so sorry, take me back." So on this one, she's ready to take me back, but I remind her that she doesn't want to do that.
Pitchfork: I read that you asked Ana to marry you the first day you met her.
DB: I did. It's the first thing I said to her. It was not well-received, it really pissed her off. We met because she was supposed to shoot the interior of my house for this magazine called Apartamento, but she still hasn't shot the fucking thing. As far as the proposal, I thought, "If she says yes, this is going to be so cool if we do get married, and if we don't, who cares?" But she doesn't see how awesome and charming it is that we're actually getting married.
Pitchfork: Have you ever instantly proposed to someone like that before?
DB: [sarcastically] Yeah, I say that every time. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Well, why her then?
DB: I was just so shocked. I couldn't believe this person was in my house. She's quite stunning, easy on the eyes. So it just kind of flopped out, very casually. And I understand how it was a real turn off for her. I had to work hard to make up for that one. But she came to take the photos and she just stayed. We haven't been apart since that day.
Pitchfork: Was there a more official proposal later on?
DB: Yes. I took her to this place called Pocono Palace. It's frozen in time; it's still 1975 there. So horrifying. From the surrounding area, it looks like the place where you're either going to get raped or murdered, or raped and murdered. So creepy. But when you open the door, it's another world! It's so beautiful, but also tacky and gaudy. Totally charming. There are heart-shaped hot tubs in every room, giant champagne-glass hot tubs. There are comedians, air hockey, ping-pong, mini-golf, strip night-- which is actually a strip steak night-- and erotic bingo. There's a big sign that says, "Please, no guns allowed in dining room." It's a place where your aunt and uncle would go to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
Pitchfork: The Mala track "Daniel" tells an affecting story of a whole relationship-- the start, the end, and beyond-- in just a few lines. The economy of the songwriting is impressive.
DB: I'm so happy you used that word in particular-- "economy" has always been part of my whole thing. I look at the words like a food budget; I'm going to the bodega and I've got four bucks, how do I make a meal? I don't know if I have an economy of words, but that's the goal. I went through this shift. As anthropomorphic and surreal people have said my early writing was, to me it was really stock and almost banal in the sense that it was just description, the poetry of comparing: "Your feet are like A, and your eyes like B."
But now I've moved a lot closer to my favorite kind of poetry, which is Japanese poetry; it doesn't say what the thing is like, it just says what the thing is. One of my favorite haikus goes: "New Year's/ Stars in the sky/ Vomit in the streets." It's so perfect, it's an entire film. My favorite poem actually is by Oswald de Andrade. It's called "Amor"-- that's the title-- and the poem is: "Humor." A one-word poem. It's very full. It doesn't need more words. I've always wanted to write a song that goes, "I love you" and a book that goes, "Something happened." Something very direct. I have yet to do that, but now I'm trying to say the most in the least amount of words.
Pitchfork: Sonically, this album is more pared down than your last few; the overall presentation is more modest, like your earlier albums.
DB: I forget the old albums are just acoustic guitar and voice because, even on [2002's Oh Me Oh My], I still wanted each song to sound completely different. I didn't want to make a record that was just guitar and voice, that was just the technology available to me. At the time, I remember thinking, "I am making a Faust album." That didn't translate.
I would like to make another me-and-a-guitar album someday, though. I can't tell you how many times I've had a friend tell me, in this tender and discreet voice, "It's just you and me bro, and I want to tell you the truth: make a record of you and an acoustic guitar. Please. That's what everybody actually likes." That's so funny to me.
Pitchfork: Something I really enjoyed while listening to this album and going over the lyrics was looking up some of the musicians and artists you sing about. When you decide to say someone's specific name in a song, is part of it about spreading the things you care about?
DB: I would feel presumptuous saying that the only reason I'm writing about something is because I want you to learn about that person, but I certainly care about it enough to put it in a song. For "Für Hildegard von Bingen", for example, I just think all songs should be written about medieval feminists-- five percent of songs can be love songs, another five can be miscellaneous or political, and the rest can just be about medieval feminists. I was a fan of hers because Kronos Quartet had recorded some of her music, and they choose incredible composers, so I looked for her biography, and it's unbelievable. She's a saint! I thought it was a worthy subject.
Pitchfork: When you're making music, do you ever wish you weren't into so many different things?
DB: No. I try to listen to as much as possible. I know some people really try to avoid music when they're writing and recording, but I am very inspired by so many different musicians, and I need to learn. I sit around and try to play along to certain songs that I really love. It helps you explore new territory. I don't think I listen to enough.
Kate Boy: "Northern Lights" on SoundCloud.
Even after hearing Kate Boy's neon-streaked 2012 singles "Northern Lights" and "In Your Eyes"-- all white-heat hooks and warping plastic production-- and taking a look at their shadowy cover art, it wasn't really clear who "Kate Boy" was-- a singer? A producer? A band? The answer's a little complicated.
"We basically do everything together," Hampus Nordgren Hemlin says of his three bandmates, Kate Akhurst, Markus Dextegen, and Oskar Sikow Engström. "We all write and produce everything together, and play each other's instruments as well." So when it came time to name the still-untitled band they formed last year in Stockholm, Sweden, they decided to create "Kate Boy" as a fictional fifth member that reflects their egalitarian songwriting process. (They consider it "this androgynous person, almost like a character," Akhurst explains.) If it sounds confusing, the video for "Northern Lights" offers a sleek visual metaphor: all of their silhouettes continuously blending and morphing into a single, slightly eerie composite face.
Taken apart, the members of Kate Boy are a geographical hodgepodge-- vocalist Akhurst is originally from Australia, while the rest of the band members are Swedish. And musically, they're interested in updating the classic 70s/80s sounds of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush with what today's technology has to offer. Following their recent Northern Lights EP (which also features an excellent, slow-mo remix of the title track by fellow Swede Taken by Trees), Kate Boy have spent time prepping some more material and planning the visual component of their live show, which they hope to bring Stateside later this year. "Everything we touch turns to gold," sings Akhurst on "Northern Lights"-- a hell of a declaration to make on a debut single. But as Kate Boy look forward, they're hoping to make good on that promise.
Pitchfork: Kate, what brought you from Australia to Sweden?
Kate Akhurst: I've always loved the music that came from Sweden. I started out as a songwriter in Australia and got my first publishing deal there when I was 16. Then, at 21, I moved to L.A. for five years before coming [to Stockholm] for the first time in October 2011. I met the guys the last two days I was here. Someone from [another recording session] was like, "You should meet these boys, I think you're really going to like them." So we met up for a drink, and then decided to go straight down into the studio and start working that very first night. We had this instantaneous connection; we couldn't even wait until the next day. I felt like I found my people, like, "I've been waiting all my life for you! I can't wait another minute." We actually wrote "Northern Lights" on that first night we met. After that visit, I wanted to come back straight away. So I went back home and got a visa for the UK and Sweden and now I've been here the past year.
Hampus Nordgren Hemlin: "Northern Lights" came as a bit of a surprise-- it wasn't anything I thought we had in us. It just came through us, and then we liked it, and we've been developing it since. It's been a learning process to be able to recreate what we did.
Pitchfork: What do you think it is about Sweden that makes it such a pop mecca?
KA: L.A. is really, really pop too, but the thing I love about Sweden the most is how they do pop music with a twist and an edge to it. I haven't really heard that in other places. A lot of the times, everyone's chasing each other's tails and trying to do the hottest sound.
HNH: Sweden is a pretty small country compared to others in the music business, and everybody sort of knows everyone, so it's easy to collaborate. And since we have seven months of darkness and winter, you've got to be creative. In other countries, you go out with your surfboard and chill on the beach, but we have to do something else-- there's no beach to go to.
Kate Boy: "Northern Lights" (Houses Remix) on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: You produced "Northern Lights" and "In Your Eyes" yourselves. As you move ahead, is it important to you to retain that DIY approach?
KA: Our vision is so clear that it doesn't matter who we bring on board, or whether we're left on our own. We can execute it ourselves, luckily, but we do want to expand.
Markus Dextegen: Instead of going around, talking to people, and getting money to do it, we just made it ourselves. It may have taken longer than it would have doing it the other way, but at least it became what we wanted and not what somebody else wants.
Photo by Karla Andreasson
Junip: "Line of Fire" on SoundCloud.
Jose Gonzalez is the type of musician you might expect to wax poetic about the limitations of technology and the dangers of ubiquity. A Nick Drake acolyte who works with little more than fingerpicked acoustic guitar and his soft voice, Gonzalez doesn't have much in the way of an online presence. (I'm willing to bet a good portion of his fans don't know what he looks like, or that he's from Sweden.) And he produces new music at at a pace that's positively tectonic; it's been nearly six years since his last solo album, the haunting In Our Nature, with no timetable as to when its follow-up might appear. But there's the more pressing matter of his revitalized, kraut-inspired band Junip, which picked back up after 12 years of dormancy in 2010 for an exquisite EP, Rope & Summit, and a follow-up LP, Fields. By comparison, the three-year wait for their self-titled sophomore album, due out next month via Mute, is a turnaround time worthy of Bob Pollard.
Gonzalez's patience certainly manifests on Junip. Its roomy, slowly unfolding songs, like first single "Line of Fire", subtly expand on Fields, showcasing a band that's figured out what it does best while confidently exploring all it's capable of. Tracks that might otherwise might have been spare Gonzalez songs are bolstered with airy jazz textures, Brazilian rhythms, and German motorik. As Gonzalez took a break from geeking out to Dan Snaith's Daphni project and evaluating cover art options for Junip, we spoke about the new record.
"It can be a bit frustrating to always get the soft-rock stamp."
Pitchfork: From an emotional standpoint, how do your Junip lyrics differ from the ones you write for your own songs?
Jose Gonzalez: I let the music set the tone of the lyrics and, this time, I allowed myself to write more about relationships and emotions, in a girly way almost. [laughs] But it's not always personal; it's about making the music emotional or big.
Pitchfork: What sonic ideas or stylistic tendencies did drummer Elias Araya and keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn bring to this album?
JG: Tobias is really into melodies and more traditional pop songs-- he's the analog-synth nerd, and he likes to play with distortion a lot. Elias has the most patience for moody or weird music-- so he's got the more artistic side. And, with the style of his drumming, he's the one who makes most of our songs so repetitive and he adds a crowded element without too many fills. He hasn't studied music, so whenever he does percussion or keyboards, he just hits the black keys and sees what happens, it's more from an artistic side than an entirely musical side.
Pitchfork: Are the band members more comfortable playing with each other now as compared to the first album?
JG: Yeah, there are a couple of examples of that, like "Line of Fire", which is more orchestrated and traditional-sounding than many of the Fields songs. And with a song like "Baton", we did these additional jam sessions acoustically with one mic, forcing everyone to play very softly. It was us taking a different step in how we work together.
Pitchfork: What about a song like "Villain", which is less than two minutes and pretty loud-- is there ever a temptation to really rock out with Junip in a way that might not be allowed with your solo work?
JG: Yeah, definitely. All three of us have a history in louder music, so when we did that song, we felt like it would be nice to add some of that element. It can be a bit frustrating to always get the soft-rock stamp. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Who are your influences when you're looking to listen to something louder and more aggressive?
JG: We always get back to old soul singers like Nina Simone, and how her recordings sound. Also new music like Tobacco, or people that use a mixture of analog and electronic music.
Pitchfork: What's the influence behind the song "Your Life Your Call", which takes on an unusually synthetic tone?
JG: I guess the 80s, which is sort of a new step for us. We had a version that sounded really different, but then Tobias, who's been listening to a lot of New Order, put some programmed drums on it. Writing lyrics for that one felt a bit like trying on new clothes for me.
Photo by Kevin Faulkner
The Men: "Electric" on SoundCloud.
Guest List features our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things as well as other random bits. For this edition, we spoke with Brooklyn guitar destroyers the Men: bassist/vocalist Ben Greenberg, guitarist/vocalist Nick Chiericozzi, drummer Rich Samis, guitarist/vocalist Mark Perro, and lap steel player Kevin Faulkner. Their latest record, New Moon, is out now via Sacred Bones.
Rich Samis: In high school, my friend and I had a band together and we got kicked out of my parents' house. We needed to find a place to play, so we went to this alleyway down the block from my house in East Meadow, on Long Island. We went outside and put all our equipment in shopping carts and plugged into a power supply in the back of this Radio Shack. We were just playing music outside in the middle of suburbia for like five hours, and no one did anything. So my favorite venue is that alley behind the Radio Shack.
Favorite TV Show
Ben Greenberg: I was only allowed to watch PBS when I was a kid, and they would show one music video after every episode of "3-2-1 Contact". In a lot of ways, that was my introduction to mainstream pop music. The first music video I ever saw was AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" at the end of an episode of "3-2-1 Contact". I was five years old and it totally fucking blew my mind. It's on PBS, on a children's show, but when you think about it, what's really bad about that video? They just rock really hard.
Favorite Video Game
RS: My cousin had this arcade game in his basement called Satan's Hollow. On the side, it had this huge demon with extended wings holding a globe. In the game, you're in a spaceship and you shoot these goblin things and the goal is to build this bridge to this castle. And after each level you fight this big demon character that is manifested in different names for the devil. So in one round you fight Beelzebub and another would be Lucifer and another would be like Mephistopheles. They scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.
Mark Perro: I used to go to this Hibachi place, Shiro of Japan, every year from ages six to 13. They would put a little samurai hat on my head and take a Polaroid of me. So I have like 10 Polaroids of me with a little samurai hat on smiling ear to ear with hibachi food in my face.
Weirdest Display of Fan Affection
BG: Someone brought a little wooden sword they had carved and painted "The Men" on it and gave it to the band. It had some lightning bolts. It was a pretty epic little gift.
BG: I fucking love water. It's the only thing I drink that keeps me alive without killing me.
Dream Merch Table Item
BG: Denim jackets
MP: John Wayne. I heard that when he died he had 30-40 pounds of impacted shit in his intestines.
MP: My all-time Knicks team would be Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, Walt Frazier, and Phil Jackson. Currently, Carmelo Anthony's my boy, he's a clutch shooter.
Favorite Purchase of the Past Year
Nick Chiericozzi: The guitar that I played on [New Moon]. It's a Gibson L6-S, and I bought it because my go-to Les Paul broke in Europe-- I'm gonna write the hell out of that off [on my taxes]. My second favorite thing would be a 12-string electric guitar that I bought for the next record that we're making.
Kevin Faulkner: In the van we'll watch VHS tapes.
MP: The one we watch the most is Uncle Buck. [laughs] It's been viewed at least 10 times.
In this edition of The Out Door, we talk with father and son Yoshi and Tashi Wada about the politics of reissues and the divide between composition and improvisation, dive into the "the abyss of 78rpm record fascination" with Robert Millis of Climax Golden Twins, and explore the varying styles of solo cellists Helen Money and Julia Kent. But first, we explore the idea of "imagined communities" through the lens of a new, fascinating compilation. (Remember to follow us on Twitter for all kinds of updates on underground and experimental music.)
I: Imagined Communities
Lynn Fister aka Aloonaluna; photo by Micah Keith
San Francisco's Lynn Fister runs micro-press and label Watery Starve Press and makes music as Aloonaluna. The latest release through the label is Taxidermy of Unicorns, a book/double cassette package that features words, art, and music by four different women. In an essay included in the collection, Fister explores the "immediate feeling of a collective consciousness" between herself and other female artists, working in very different musical forms. She clarifies that this doesn't mean she can relate to all females, or that she can't relate to males, or that any two individual experiences are ever the same. But still, as she puts it, "There's something about the female experience that feels shared, no matter how imaginary it may be."
Packaging for Taxidermy of Unicorns
I'm struck by that use of "imaginary." It suggests that if we admit that classifications exist only in our minds, we can discuss them without boxing people into them. And we can define and control them ourselves rather than vice versa. Fister found inspiration for this idea in Benedict Anderson's book Imagined Communities. "His idea was that all these communities are formed and imagined," she tells me, speaking on the phone from her home. "They're not real-- we create those divisions. But they have real consequences because people believe them."
"I feel that I connect to female artists not just because of gender, but that gender does help me connect-- and I don't know why," she continues. "I think it's the way people learn to interact in whatever kind of group they are classified in. Somehow a commonality develops, and I feel I can understand it even if I've never met the person."
Part of what makes Fister's perspective compelling is that she acts on these ideas through her art. Taxidermy of Unicorns is the perfect representation of her approach, filled with singular female voices expressing themselves across the boundaries of artistic media. All four participants work solo, and the release itself is highly individualistic-- Fister hand-packages each copy so that no two are exactly the same. (Mine, pictured above, came with some string, wool, and a bird feather.)
Various artists: Taxidermy of Unicorns sampler on SoundCloud.
More importantly, the work on Taxidermy of Unicorns is varied and personal. Birds of Passage (aka New Zealander Alicia Merz) offers patient music that at times seems to stand still-- yet, as Fister puts it, "it leaves so much room for the listener, [and] it makes you think about so much else." The contribution of France's Felicia Atkinson, who works as Je Suis le Petit Chevalier, bubbles and rolls in intoxicating waves. "It's really elegant and primitive at the same time," says Fister, "which is a really strange combination, and I love it." Spacious, outward-bound sounds come from Rachel Evans' Motion Sickness of Time Travel, whose prolific output continually impresses Fister. "It's never redundant," she insists. "It keeps on expanding, and it's not nostalgic, not sad, not angry... I don't know how to describe it."
The five songs that Fister herself contributes as Aloonaluna deal in drone and abstraction-- she cites the work of Inca Ore as a prime inspiration. But they also make generous use of steady beats, a rarity in this type of music. Often experimental artists seem to fear the constraints of regular rhythm, but Fister finds ways to make it sound expressively open-ended.
"I try to make beats that are adrift even though they're structured. I often will loop a beat so it's a little bit off each time [it occurs]," she explains. "The idea of repeating something over and over and making it slightly different each time has a kind of expansive truth to it. Also, I listen to a lot of drifting music, but also a lot of pop and hip-hop, so that plays into my own way of making music."
As we continue to discuss women's experiences in all those kinds of music, I suggest that talking about this is necessary to get us to a point where we don't have to talk about it anymore. "I wonder if we'll ever get to that point," Fister replies with a chuckle. My immediate thought is that she's right, and that I'm being naïve.
But later I realize that's not necessarily what she means. Perhaps she's saying that even if discussing gender solved all these issues, that would be no reason to stop. We'll still want to explore commonalities, share experiences, and acknowledge or embrace whatever imaginary community we each choose to be a part of. "Knowing how someone got to where they are is so important," she says. "I think it's good to talk about it." --Marc Masters
Watch four videos from Taxidermy of Unicorns here.
Next: Pushing the cello's limits with Helen Money and Julia Kent
II: Resonant body: Solo cellists Helen Money and Julia Kent
Left: Helen Money, photo by Travis McCoy. Right: Julia Kent, photo by Fionn Reilly
There are specific labels associated with music for solo guitar, piano, synthesizer, and vocals, but no such obvious home exists for solo cello music. Consider Arriving Angels and Character, respective new albums by two cellists with extensive resumes and catalogs, Los Angeles' Alison Chesley and New York's Julia Kent.
Kent offered 2011's resplendent Green and Grey through Important Records, a syndicate of the furthest reaches of the avant-garde. But the Leaf Label, a British imprint with a long history of pressing against the boundaries of indie rock with acts like Caribou and Efterklang, delivered Character. Likewise, under the name Helen Money, Chesley issued 2009's In Tune on the now-defunct experimental stable Table of the Elements. But for Arriving Angels, she's made the unlikely switch to Profound Lore, a Canadian metal label better known for six strings of tremolo rather than four strings and a bow. Despite the surroundings, both Kent and Chesley feel strangely and happily at home; taken together, they offer a compelling snapshot of the variety of sounds, processes, and approaches possible with the strings of a cello and some carefully controlled accessories.
Helen Money. Photo by Travis McCoy
"I don't see myself as being experimental, and Table of the Elements tilted more toward that. I don't really see myself as a metal artist," explains Chesley. "But somehow I feel like I have a really strong connection in that community. There's something about metal music that likes what I like. It's visceral, and it wears its heart on its sleeve. I feel like I'm coming from the same place."
On Arriving Angels, Chesley-- a classically trained cellist whose former rock band, Verbow, released two albums on Epic Records-- gets a little help communicating that idea from Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder. Suggested by the record's producer and Chesley's longtime friend Steve Albini, Roeder plays on several of the album's tracks. "Beautiful Friends" finds Chesley looping several passes across the cello, a long and tense melody backed by distorted swipes at the strings. She pauses, dropping suddenly into a darkened sustain that recalls the foundational drone metal of Earth. That's when Roeder makes his grand entrance, drumming a circular pattern with his tom-toms. He goads Chesley to escalate the tempo and the aggression and, ultimately, to pick a barbed rock riff from her distorted cello.
"I don't know why I like dark music, but I like music that takes me to a dark place in a good way," she says, noting that her relationship with rock music started when her brother introduced her to the Who when she was in her early 20s. Punk and indie rock soon followed, and then she joined Verbow. "I never thought I'd play it on my cello, but I ended up playing very aggressive, rhythmic parts on my cello. And that was okay with me."
Chesley originally wrote all of the drum parts Roeder plays as loops and sent them to him to see if he'd be interested in recreating them at Albini's Chicago studio, Electrical Audio. When he arrived, he ended up replacing part of the loop on "Beautiful Friends" with his own ideas. In the brooding and building "Shrapnel", Roeder's drums completely supplant Chesley's loop. That's how she prefers her collaboration: In the past, Chesley's played on records from bands such as Russian Circles, Broken Social Scene, and Bob Mould; those roles are best, she says, when there is a back and forth between the band and the guest instrumentalist. It influences not only the piece she's getting paid to record, she says, but her own music, too.
"I'm always inspired by the music that those people have worked on," Chesley says. "It gives me enthusiasm for the music I'm writing."
Indeed, Chesley serves as something of an ambassador for the cello. She enjoys the thrill and labor of working with a team in a studio to make records, though since moving to Los Angeles last year, she's done much less work as a support player. Instead, she's been writing her own music and teaching cello to children, making sure they learn their fundamentals before they chase her lead of effects pedal chains and extended techniques.
She also relishes her distinct mix of formal classical training and casual rock education, especially the flexibility it provides. When she was recording with Japanese post-rock band Mono, for instance, Takaakira Goto walked into the room of classical musicians playing the string parts and explained that he wanted them to sound as though they were a cloud drifting through the sky. Some instrumentalists rolled their eyes, Chesley remember, but her background allowed her to understand his lack of technicality.
"He's just trying to express in words what a lot of people would put into dynamics," she reckons. "But it impressed me that he cared so much about evoking an image or a feeling."
Julia Kent.; photo by Pedro Anguila
Kent is a bit more reserved with her cello, both in composition and collaboration. Kent is also classically trained, though she put the instrument down for a number of years before joining wild-eyed group Rasputina after moving to New York. Where Rasputina and Chesley sometimes push the instrument until its sound only vaguely resembles the general perception of a cello, Kent's records interweave familiar tones in novel ways, with long tones intersecting lithe melodies and loops of plucked strings adding accompaniment beneath bowed shapes.
It's telling that Kent records her music in the isolation of a cluttered spare room of her New York apartment. (Kent described that space in our 2011 interview.) From there, she's able to balance the city outside with her own environment inside, a dynamic equilibrium that has helped inspire the blend of cello, found sounds, and fields recordings that define both Green and Grey and Character. "The energy of New York City is always present in whatever I do," she toldDummy Magazine earlier this year, "even when what I am doing is attempting to block it out."
Green and Grey, as its title suggests, attempted to find a balance between nature and New York, an idea not too far removed from those of Antony Hegarty, the singer that Kent has helped back for the better part of a decade. For that record, Kent wove recordings of cicadas into a fade of gentle pizzicato cello, the babble of a hyperactive brook into agile themes. But Character is more internal, both in its motivations and its sound sources.
"Rather than using field recordings of external atmospheres, I tried to bring the walls into the music. This is a much more self-contained record," Kent explains. She recorded pedestrian events such as lighting a match or wine glasses clinking and then processed them to create intriguing new textures and rhythms within the songs. "Those turned out to be some surprisingly interesting sound sources."
The field recordings of Green and Grey often served as distant bookends or background canvases, but the added elements on Character are much more present throughout each piece. The racing melodies of "Tourbillon", for example, reflect off of distant background percussion, a simple and quick click-clack rhythm affording the strings gravity. The pings (those wine glasses, perhaps?) that flit throughout "Salute" provide a delicate bell-like effect beneath Kent's steady, solemn drones. When the piece lifts in its third minute, growing louder and brighter, those samples serve as the springboard. The record is better for the shift, with the pervasiveness of those smaller samples tying together each piece and, in turn, these elegant and intricate 10 tracks.
"With the field recordings, I was trying to introduce other sounds to what was primarily cello. And now I'm becoming much more free in my approach to doing that, to using found sound and percussion and electronics," Kent explains. "I've been listening to a lot of electronic music, and that's been inspiring in terms of the variety of sounds that are out there and possible to be create. But that's also daunting, because of the infinite possibilities." -- Grayson Currin
Next: Robert Millis on his obsession with 78s, and two new Sublime Frequencies compilations
III:Robert Millis: The Spirit of 78
Robert Millis is obsessed with 78rpm records. He admits as much in the liner notes to Scattered Melodies: Korean Kayagum Sanjo, one of two collections of music from 78s that he's recently compiled for Sublime Frequencies. "Hearing this Korean music," he writes, "was the precise moment that I fell down the abyss of 78rpm record fascination that will be my doom."
The music he's referring to is known in Korea as Sanjo, an improvised style developed in the 1890s and played on a string instrument called the Kayagum. On Scattered Melodies,Millis collects Sanjo tracks from the 1920s up to the 1950s, and they're all oddly transfixing. The playing is often subdued and sparse, yet there's a fiery unpredictability to each performance. Even the softest notes leap out from under the scratchy surface noise of the 78s.
The other new 78rpm collection Millis produced, The Crying Princess, is not focused on a single style. Instead, it compiles music made in Burma as early as 1909 and as late as 1960. Heart-bursting harp-and-voice ballads sit next to piano-led pop and winding melodies crafted on electric guitar. Particularly fascinating are pieces by Po Sein, a Burmese legend whose troupes toured the country performing plays and songs, which Millis calls "the popular music of Burma before radio and TV."
Millis' interest in 78 rpm recordings and non-Western music informs his work as a researcher-- he's traveled to many countries in search of 78s-- producer, ethnographer, and musician. Alongside his other Sublime Frequencies compilations (such as Harmika Yab Yum: Folk Sounds from Nepal), he's made films in India, Southeast Asia, and Thailand. He wrote a book about 78rpm records, Victrola Favorites, for the Dust-to-Digital label. All these pursuits have influenced his own work in the long-running duo Climax Golden Twins with Jeffery Taylor (who co-authored Victrola Favorites).
Millis is currently in India on a Fulbright scholarship (pictures from his journey can be seen on his blog). He spoke to us via email about how he seeks out 78s, how time saturates their grooves, and how their sound is "the death cry of tiny insects."
"There is a beautiful mystery in these early recordings-- who were these people? How did it work? Who invented it? Why was it invented at that time?"
Pitchfork: How did you first became interested in 78rpm records?
Robert Millis: Many things one finds out about are an accident and then when the accident happens you think, "Why have I never heard this before? It is familiar, it's like coming home... and I never knew it existed until right now." When I was in high school, accidentally, somehow, in between the old Neil Young and Beatles records I was listening to, I heard a compilation of 1920s recordings by Jelly Roll Morton, and I loved them. There are some great spoken moments on those Jelly Roll records, and the sound of the human speaking voice, coming through this haze of surface noise, sounded like I was being spoken to by a spirit from the ancient past. [And] you can hear the joy they have in working together, feel the heat in the old crowded "studio" as they gathered around the single microphone.
Po Sein and Ma Kyin U: "Romantic Duet" on SoundCloud.
Years later, again accidentally, I heard the Korean music that is featured on Scattered Melodies,and it sounded like I was tuning into a radio station from 10,000 years ago or from a distant universe. Another accident: I found some Chinese Opera 78s in a junk store with beautiful labels that seemed to be whispering "buy me." There is a beautiful mystery in these early recordings--who were these people? How did it work? Who invented it? Why was it invented at that time? I have always loved music and records, loved recording, so here was the origin of that love-- how could I not help but be fascinated?
And then there is the design from that era, pre-Depression: the hand lettering, the typefaces, the illustrations. Even further, 78rpm records have an immediacy. There were no studios at that time-- barely microphones-- so there is very little in between you and the musician except shellac.
Pitchfork: How do you hunt for 78s? Do you contact people before you travel, or do you start looking once you get there?
RM: A little of both. It's nice to have a purpose when you travel, a goal. At the moment I am in India, traveling around meeting musicians and talking to collectors. In two days I am going to visit and stay with a collector who lives outside of Kochi, Kerala. He has such a thick accent I can barely understand him. I am sure the bus ride there will be confusing. He lives in the county, in the middle of the woods, in India. But he has over 30,000 78s and many old players and gramophones. I have no idea what to expect when I get there, or what to expect from getting there, but no matter what happens it will be a wild ride, and the food will be good.
"Shellac is created from the secretions of certain insects, so 78s are not vegan. That surface noise is a steel needle dragging through the effluent of millions of tiny insects. It is their death cry."
Pitchfork: You've written about your fascination with "how sounds are mediated through the equipment used to record them." How does that manifest in 78s?
RM: I have a strong interest in the resonance of objects-- literally in how sounds "sound" when played back through unusual materials or devices. Part of my interest in the 78rpm era is focused on this-- the effects of using shellac as the material from which old records are made and the surface noise this creates. Shellac is created from the secretions of certain insects, so 78s are not vegan. That surface noise is a steel needle dragging through the effluent of millions of tiny insects. It is their death cry. But perhaps I am getting carried away and the insects deserved to die for the shellac.
Also, I love how the old "talking machines" sound. They were designed to be acoustic playback devices-- electric speakers were a long way off in the future-- and so they have interesting resonances. They vibrate, they transmit sound. These early record players were extensions of the techniques of instrument building, and as someone who plays acoustic instruments I am fascinated with this.
"I am interested in the passage of time-- how time accumulates very obviously in the surface noise and wear and tear on records. And less obviously in our accumulated cultural references."
Pitchfork: What do these records say about the times in which they were made?
RM:With my 78rpm research I am not particularly interested in discographical information, or in calculating history scientifically. I am interested in the passage of time-- how time accumulates very obviously in the surface noise and wear and tear on records. And less obviously in our accumulated cultural references-- how we hear old music, nostalgia, and how newer music has appropriated (and improved or ruined) the melodies and harmonies. How imagination and hearing works. How memory works. How memory associates and layers, how we remember, why and what we remember. Music is often very colored by this, and culturally by similarities in song structures and progressions and scales. Architecturally such thoughts are easier to see: old building facades with additions, decay and damage caused by weather and time, new paint jobs on old, etc.
St. Gun Khin May: "Shan Village Part 2" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: Do you think it's possible to hear history in the grooves of the 78s you've compiled?
RM: It is possible, but it takes years of ninja training and specially re-constructed earlobes. Both compilations span so many years, from some of the earliest recordings made in Burma (roughly 1909) up well into the 50's. For Scattered Melodies it is perhaps more obvious, as all the tracks are essentially one solo style. Whereas The Crying Princess encompasses so many styles-- theatre, popular, Western influenced, modern. I try to point to some connections, between the Burmese harp playing and modern electric guitar for example, the connection with the Western piano. However, I don't want to be heavy handed about this-- I am no academic and frankly, this is a huge question. You have the history of two countries to contend with in the answer, not to mention the history of the recording concerns that made the recordings, not to mention the history of the music, the history of the musicians... if you want I could write a book about it. But I suggest just listening and it will be fairly obvious. Listen to the Burmese trio on side 1 of The Crying Princess. Is there anything more beautiful? Who needs context when confronted with music like that?
Pitchfork: Do you think there are any modern parallels to Po Sein and the touring troupes of Burma?
RM: Sun City Girls.
Pitchfork: Sanjo music sounds quite experimental, almost avant-garde. Do you know if it was perceived that way at the time?
RM: As far as I know it was perceived this way, though we shouldn't forget that it is not a folk music or urban music style. It was conceived as part of a tradition, as part of the existing court music of the time under royal patronage and developed by an established musician. However, it quickly grew into one of the primary musical styles of Korea. There is a slight comparison here with American blues music or even rock n' roll, which started out as outsider music, and is now more mainstream than [the] mainstream ever imagined it could be. But we shouldn't make too much of that because as I said, it developed under royal patronage as court music.
Shim Sang-Gun: "Chungchungmori" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: What do you find fascinating about the Sanjo style?
RM: There are several things I love about this music: it is very textural, it revels in the snaps and pops created through a very visceral style of playing, the vibrato goes on even after the tone or the musical note has died away. The string bends are very deep and exaggerated yet so precise. I love that it is in part improvisation, with shouts of encouragement from the accompanying drummer.
Pitchfork: How has your interest in these older musical forms influenced your work with Climax Golden Twins?
RM: My interest actually grew out of the work I have done in CGT. Initially I and my good friend Jeffery Taylor, with whom I founded CGT, collected 78s together. We used 78s in several CGT compositions; records were broken over each other's heads at some shows. We also cover songs from this era-- mostly American hillbilly and blues numbers. Our record from 2004, Highly Bred and Sweetly Tempered,is completely a reaction to all the music from this era we were listening to, absorbing, and collecting, especially Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. It might not sound like it, which is as it should be, but it is.
Pitchfork: How did you put together the Victrola Favorites book?
RM: It grew out of the Victrola Favoritescassette series Jeffery and I had been working on. The cassettes were loosely themed collections of 78s played on an old Victrola. After Dust-to-Digital offered us a release we began scanning labels, recording tracks, and working with a fantastic book designer named John Hubbard. It was a slow process-- improv book design, you could call it. Right from the beginning, though, it was conceived as a way to create two separate narratives: one of the imagery, the paper ephemera, the sleeves, labels, photos, etc, with the music being a separate yet connected thing unto itself. So many people expect the two to correspond, but they were never meant to. It was a celebration of the era, of our collections, of the act of collecting, of discovering new (old) music, and of design.
Pitchfork: You've designed covers for Sublime Frequencies and Dust-to-Digital. How do you go about making those?
RM: I have not designed much for Dust-to-Digital, just a few things, or things in collaborations with others (such as "…i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces" in collaboration with Hubbard and author Steve Roden). For Sublime, half the things I have designed are for my own projects. For the rest I draw inspiration from 1960s and 70s LP designs, or work with the great photos collected by the compilers themselves. I do not really consider myself a designer, though. People like John Hubbard are "real" designers. Also Jeffery Taylor has a natural design aesthetic, and of course Alan Bishop [co-founder of Sublime Frequencies] has a great visual style as well. I just learn from them and from keeping my eyes open. --Marc Masters
Next: Yoshi and Tashi Wada on EM's reissues of Yoshi's seminal drone works
IV: Sound reproduction: Yoshi and Tashi Wada
In the last five years, the whimsical and venerable Japanese label EM Records has taken up the task of asserting Yoshi Wada's role as an eminent and innovative drone pioneer through a series of reissues and archival releases. At best, this music originally had an audience of listeners lucky enough to secure original copies of his very few and very limited releases. At worst, however, this material was heard only by the handful of attendees at Wada's performances two or three decades ago.
"I was an ignored guy," Wada says, "an unknown guy."
EM has spared little expense in the effort-- each of the label's four Wada releases have resembled library books. Earth Horns With Electronic Drones captured a four-person ensemble playing the massive steel pipe "horns" Wada built in the early 1970s. Its high-powered and immersive drones came carved into three LPs, accompanied by an essay from Wada, photos depicting the horns in their monolithic glory, and a promotional poster from a subsequent 1975 concert by Wada's "Lip Vibrators", featuring fellow traveler Rhys Chatham on "20' pipe horn." At the time, Wada, an early Fluxus member, wasn't interested in releasing records, diminishing the memory of the work he'd done. These new packages represent that work and reaffirm his place in conversations about drone, minimalism and, quite simply, the sheer power of sound.
The fifth and latest such release is Singing in Unison, which captures Wada's singing trio from the late 70s delivering a series of similarly distended and enveloping vocal drones in the legendary performance space the Kitchen. These pieces were inspired by various folk traditions and the work of two Wada mentors, La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath.
The artwork for Singing in Unison
Somehow sinister and gorgeous, the performances presented by Unison are a testament to Wada's pursuit of sustained sound through whatever mechanism seemed most suited. Over the years, he's used not only instruments made of plumbing equipment and creaking voices but also bagpipes of his own construction, the innards of large buildings, and nautical horns to explore systems of musical sustain and decay and, mostly, the magic that happens when those properties are no longer a binary.
We spoke with Wada in San Francisco, where he has lived for more than a decade after spending the bulk of his career in New York City. He talked about his newfound legacy status, the perpetuation of his music, and the divide between composition and improvisation.
"Some of what I did in the past, I don't think people appreciated. And now, people are appreciating the body of what I have done. They feel the value of it."
Pitchfork: The release of Singing in Unison is part of a larger operation to archive many of your works that, outside of their performances, have never been heard. Why now?
Yoshi Wada: I wasn't so interested in merchandising through CD or whatever form. I wasn't really so aggressive about promoting my own work. I had my recordings from the past, but I never thought someone was interested in releasing it. But then EM Records and other people were asking, "Let's do it." I'm a laidback, lazy guy, so if somebody wants to release it, I will agree. That's how it happened in the last five or six years.
I have a DVD project. EM Records is interested in releasing some other recordings, but that's frankly not my interest right now in life. What I am interested in is the DVD form with sound installations. I am working on an archive in a way.
I do have more recordings, but I have to go through them and think about what to release. I don't want to release things too similar to each other. I've been working on selecting something different from my other work. If a piece is still valid today, I will release it.
Yoshi Wada: "March 15 - Part 1" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: What makes a piece valid for you two or three decades later?
YW: At the beginning, I felt sort of reluctant about my music from my past. But in the last couple of years, I felt good about what I did in the past. The way I see my work, time passes from the time I performed or recorded a work. When I look at it now, 25 years or 30 years ago, if I see that it has value today, I will agree to release it.
Some of what I did in the past, I don't think people appreciated. And now, people are appreciating the body of what I have done today. They feel the value of it.
Pitchfork: Have you been surprised by the positive reception for these releases?
YW: I'm an old guy. I'm 69. I was surprised, frankly. I was an ignored guy and have been for many years. But I suppose I became well-known after being ignored. After the release of the CDs and LPs, especially the LPs, people like it. I was impressed.
Pitchfork: Singing in Unison emerged as a synthesis of many of your interests and influences, including folk singing and the music of La Monte Young. Can you tell me how the piece came together?
YW: In the early 70s, I studied with La Monte Young, which was more like electronic music. Later on, Pandit Pran Nath came to New York. What he taught me was to be in tune and about intonation. I would sing myself with a tambura and just regular a cappella singing and practicing. I did that around 1973 and 1974, and I finally developed my own style of singing.
The turning point around that time was that I went to an Ethnic Music Expo in Queens, New York. There were Macedonian women singing. It was a small group, and they were singing in unison and in a very high pitch. It was a really piercing and traveling sound. I couldn't understand the words, but it didn't matter anyway about the meaning of the words. What impressed me was that they weren't trained musicians. Rather, they were like farmers and peasants in the region. The meaning came from everyday life.
Yoshi Wada: "March 15 - Part 2" on SoundCloud.
After I heard this singing, I organized a three-man choir. Prior to that, we had a Macedonian woman singer showing us what to sing. After that, we developed our singing in unison. It was all improvisation. It wasn't easy to synchronize because we weren't trained singers ourselves, but slowly we got into it. This was based on my own notation, but still it was improvised completely.
Pitchfork: Listening to the music, the singing presents a strange mix of feelings. It seems mournful and strangely ecstatic, too.
YW: I didn't understand the words, but I don't think it matters because it was much more a sound study. The Macedonian women singers sometimes sing farming tunes, something they have when they're working. I guess they were happy about singing and working at the same time. I wasn't working and singing, but it was a great feeling as a group activity. You're in tune with other people, singing.
Pitchfork: Similar to Macedonian singing, another of your strong interests was the drone of bagpipe music. You moved to New York after being born and going to school in Kyoto, so how did you first discover bagpipe music?
YW: I heard the bagpipes in 1976 or 1977. I went to the Scottish Games. It was outdoors, of course. It was a competition and demonstration, and the first time I heard the whole thing was such a great experience. At the time, I met a bagpiper, Nancy Crutcher. She lived in New York, and I started taking lessons. I went to weekly bagpipe sessions in a church basement in Manhattan. I wasn't interested in marching band music, but I had to focus on that. Then I got into one of the Scottish classical styles called piobaireachd, which is a very old music that started around the 1700s or something. I really got into this music. After that, I started to compose bagpipe music in my notations. Then I started building bagpipes by myself, and then I started to perform with the instrument myself in the 1980s.
Pitchfork: What appealed to you about bagpipe music?
YW: For a long time in the 1970s, I was experimenting to build musical instruments and use them. I did a lot of ethnic music studies and other things, like electronic music. Making homemade musical instruments and performing was my major activity from the time.
Scottish bagpipe has two tenors and one bass-- three drone pipes-- and then the one chanter. If you put bagpipes together, it creates such a fine sound. I had been working on the overtone series from the beginning, so it made sense to me to follow the bagpipes. I felt it was the way to go with the overtone series. I also made a brass reed instrument to go with the bagpipe, and I was also singing with it. After that period passed, I got back to playing Scottish pipes with other people.
Initially, when I was making the bagpipes and reed instruments, it was different from the other instruments. In terms of sound itself, it may not be different, but in performing with it, it was a necessity to build it if I was going to perform and make scores with it. By making the instruments, it helped me compose the way I want.
Pitchfork: You also famously built your Earth Horns, massive pipes that produced low and long notes. What inspired that?
YW: That started in the earlier 70s. I was actually in construction, doing plumbing work to earn money. One day, I picked up a pipe and blew it, and it made an interesting sound. I had to get a much larger size pipes and begin experimenting. It was an unknown thing. I ended up with gigantic pipe instruments called Earth Horns. It was a really low pitch, a very extreme range, like a sheep demon being created. It was 30 to 60 Hz.
I organized an ensemble. It was quite interesting, because nobody had that kind of idea of building such instruments. The title of the piece was Earth HornsWith Electronic Drone. Some of them I had to give up because they were so heavy-- steel pipes, after all. At one point, I couldn't carry them around anymore, so I stopped. The Emily Harvey Foundation in New York has a couple of the instruments, and I have a couple of them in San Francisco, too. In 2009, I did perform at the Emily Harvey Foundation with the Earth Horns.
Pitchfork: With many of your pieces, there is a slight line between composition and improvisation, if any. There seem to be parameters for what will happen during a piece, but the terms of the performance itself seem very fluid. How do you distinguish composition from improvisations?
YW: I don't think I differentiate between composition and improvisation. Improvisation could be a large part of a composition. To me, even for La Monte Young himself, improvisation is composition. It's different from the earlier pieces, but I do think most of his music is improvisation. Most of my music is improvisation, and composition is improvisation. Even if I have a score, it is improvisation. Now that I'm thinking about it, I made score for Off the Wall. I had notation, but improvisation is part of it.
Pitchfork: You've lately been making music with your son, Tashi. Did you ever expect that this music you make would become a part of your family?
YW: At the beginning, I didn't know he was going to do the things I do. He wasn't doing it! It's been about three or four years. He knows much more in musical terms, and he was helping me three or four years ago. We can communicate well, and it's easy for us to perform together. He himself is a very good composer.
In 2010, Tashi Wada released Alignment, a stunning debut that used bowed strings to create waves of microtonal phosphorescence. Wada followed that release last year with Gradient, a similar study that proved that his music is not far removed from the orbit of his father's cohorts in the early 70s. We spoke with Wada about the influence his father has had on his own music and its place in the world.
Pitchfork: When did you first begin to understand the sort of music your father makes?
Tashi Wada: My early associations with my dad's work aren't specifically music-related. I suppose his work had a way of blending in with our family's life in New York City: his loft on Mercer St where we lived, his studio/workshop in the basement, the variety of artists in the building and SoHo in general, Fluxus, his jobs in construction, etc.
But I knew he was up to something. I remember, in elementary school, being asked what my father does and not knowing how to answer. When I asked my mom what I should say next time, she replied, "Just say he's self-employed." I love that.
I began to make sense of what he was doing, and how it fit into the world, as a teenager after we moved to California. Eventually, I ended up going to school at the California Institute of the Arts to study with James Tenney, who happened to be an old friend of Yoshi's. Everything really started to come full circle.
Pitchfork: When did you first perform with your father?
TW: The first time my dad and I performed together was in 2009 at the Emily Harvey Foundation in New York City. Taketo Shimada asked Yoshi to put together a performance of his piece Earth Horns With Electronic Drone after seeing some of the instruments in Emily Harvey's collection. Yoshi no longer had the electronic drone system, so I played the part on reed organ and sine waves. Since then, we've performed together a handful of times. We like to joke it's a family business, but there's no money.
Pitchfork: Many of your father's pieces were specific to the moment and the setting, which make them strange fits for physical media. Do you think the sound-only aspect of a CD or LP diminishes the experience of his music, or is it more important that these records exist for listening, buying and understanding?
TW: I associate Yoshi's music with building and sculpture. He trained as a sculptor in college. Each of the sounds is specific to the thing making it. It has to do with physical presence.
The recordings tend to highlight more of the compositional aspects of his pieces, how things are structured, etc. I approach Yoshi's CD and LP releases primarily as a form of documentation. Most of the recordings weren't made with the intention of releasing them. They aren't the work itself, but they give you an idea of what the work is like.
That's why Yoshi, Koki Emura of EM Records and I have made an effort to include things like photos, scores and notes. We're currently sorting through videos of Yoshi's installations to have them transferred for some kind of release.
Pitchfork: What influence has his music had on your own music?
TW: When I was just getting started making my own music, my dad said, "You should think about art, but also anti-art and non-art."
It's difficult for me to single out the ways my dad and his work have influenced me. There's an unusual emotional quality to his music, which I understand. It isn't so obvious; it's very personal. --Grayson Currin
Photos by Dusdin Condren
It's a rainy afternoon in December, and I'm supposed to meet Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck at a rundown Greenpoint watering hole called Palace Cafe. One problem, though: It's closed, ostensibly because most drinking establishments don't expect weekday patrons before 4 p.m. I text him to see if he'd rather just talk at his apartment-cum-recording-studio nearby, but that suggestion is shut down. Instead, we walk in the rain, searching for a bar that's willing to serve us.
Ten minutes later, we enter local beer garden the Keg & Lantern, and Houck addresses the bartender in a manner that suggests he's been here a few times before. We grab a beer and start to head out to the heated patio in the back, but he stops suddenly. "Can I get a shot of tequila, too?" He offers me one. (I decline.) At the end of our interview, he decides to hang around, since he'd made plans for a friend to meet up and knock back a few more.
There's little doubt that Houck, a professed road warrior, lives hard; a particularly despondent cut from 2007's cracked-blues opus Pride goes by "Cocaine Lights", and much of his new album Muchacho addresses how hard living-- illicit substances, infidelity, and the like-- can affect personal relationships in nearly irreparable ways.
Born and raised in Alabama, Houck has lived in Brooklyn for about six years now. He lived in relative isolation in the borough's Navy Yards area ("If my environment encourages me to become a hermit, I'll do it") until he was evicted in 2011, decamping to Greenpoint, studio gear in tow. Shortly after that, Muchacho was recorded over the course of a year, with production handled by Houck himself, mostly in his own home. "It's not so much a 'studio' as it is a junky practice space-- no professionals would ever walk in there and be like, 'Whoa.'"
Far from the sullen type, Houck is warm and gregarious in person, but when it comes to talking about the contents of his music, he can be reticent-- which is ironic, considering that Muchacho is the most straightforward record of his decade-plus career, from the ragged Neil Young burn of "The Quotidian Beasts" to "A Charm/A Blade"'s Soft Bulletin-esque sway, to the meditative elegance of first single "Song for Zula". The record's welcome warmth may suggest an artist preparing for his close-up, but in conversation, Houck's still more willing to recede into the shadows.
Pitchfork: You're on the road a lot. Do you like touring?
MH: It sounds really bratty to bitch about being able to travel and play music for a living, but touring is a damaging and destructive way of life. There’s a kind of mental blankness that being on the road encourages. You have to shut down a few things in your mind, or you’ll go crazy. If you’re touring at my level, you’re not touring in a comfortable bus. You’ve got to get up at a certain time of the day and then shut yourself down for six hours while you’re driving. It does something to your mind and your spirit. It’s not like you can do much that's productive when you’re crammed in a van, except read a book or listen to some tunes. It makes your mind lazy.
The last time I was on the road, I thought, "Just a few more months, and then I’ll go home and tend to everything." But when I got back, everything was too far gone to fix, so there was fallout. Losing my place [in the Navy Yards] was a big deal. It’s a big space, and over the years I acquired a decent amount of gear. New York is a beast, man, it’s hard to find a place to do music unless you’re going to soundproof it. Relationships are tough when you're on the road, too-- my girlfriend would come on some of the tours, but it wasn't easy. Drugs and booze were involved. So I lost the place, lost the girl, and lost my mind.
Pitchfork: Some artists write songs that sound incredibly personal, but then it turns out that they're more fiction than representative of personal experience.
MH: It's impossible not to draw from your life-- that’s all you’ve got. Even your imagination is instructed by what you know. It’s very interesting to hear what people come up with when interpreting my lyrics. There are lines that are so personal that I'm mortified that I’m even singing them.
Pitchfork: This record sounds more well-produced and labored over than your previous albums.
MH: At this point, I’m just better at making records. In the past, I was just stabbing in the dark. I needed to make those records, but I didn't care about how perfect the sound was. For Muchacho, I had the luxury of building a studio and playing around with sounds for an entire year. I’m really into that. The act of producing records is really interesting to me right now. I'd love to produce for other artists, but I'm always so busy. It'd be nice to not have to worry about the songs themselves, though.
Pitchfork: Muchacho is also more sonically varied than any of your other albums. Did you draw from any specific influences in the studio?
MH: "Muchacho's Tune" was the first song I worked on, and the production was inspired by Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. That record sounds very moon-bouncy to me, and I figured that sound would couple well with some Mexican cantina-type stuff, to my ears at least. I got the underwater floatiness that I wanted there. I'm really proud of that song.
Pitchfork: Besides recording in your own home, you did some sessions in Manhattan's Electric Lady studio, too.
MH: I made friends with their studio manager, so I spent a day in there with Father John Misty's Josh Tillman. We were just goofing around, and I thought, "This is great, I want to record here." But after three days, I realized that I just wasn't organized enough to make the record there. I can't be like, "These are the hours we have, let's go in and cut a song." I don't work that way, so it would've been a waste of time. I’m bad about being productive-- it takes me 15 hours of lolling around until my chemicals get right and I can get to work.
Pitchfork: Why is the record called Muchacho?
MH: If you see someone who is getting uppity, you might just say to them, "Hey, muchacho, settle down." I was in Mexico, by myself, feeling pretty raw, and I remembered a line in a Neruda poem somewhere. I can’t even remember what it was, but it was something like, "This is how it is, muchacho." That kept resonating to me-- like, "You better handle it. This is how it is, muchacho."
Pitchfork: Your music is often sad-sounding, but there you are on the cover of this album, smiling. You look happy.
MH: I am happy, but I write terribly sad songs. It’s hard to reconcile those things for me; I don’t feel like a sad wreck of a person, but I write from the perspective of a wreck of a person. Also, I wouldn't call that album cover "happy." There’s a messy desperation going on there. It shows that you can be happy when you’re a wreck.
Katy B and Jacques Greene: "Danger" on SoundCloud.
If there’s a single dominant archetype in media and art right now, it’s the flailing, recession-era millennial. We live in a culture infatuated, to an absurd degree, with jobless college graduates postponing their adulthood by living at home with their parents or struggling to make ends meet on a barista’s salary. But what happens when the wayward 20-somethings manage to actually settle into grown-up lives, complete with satisfying careers, apartment leases, and health insurance? It’s a question that Katy B, the 23-year-old UK vocalist born Kathleen Anne Brien, is trying to answer for herself on her forthcoming second album, due out in late spring.
Since her excellent 2011 debut On a Mission, which cemented the singer as a talented negotiator between niche UK dance scenes and pop, Katy has burrowed into the rhythms of adulthood. She’s been living on her own for the first time, taking cooking classes, and partying much less in recent months; we agree that there’s a strange and jolting moment when hangovers suddenly become debilitating, when a couch becomes the most appealing weekend option. It seems a bit silly, certainly, to pine for youth at 23, but the transitions are making Katy more emotional than she’d expected. And if her excellent late-2012 Danger EP is any indication, she should be able to translate her quarter-life unease into a subtle and seductive sound that transcends the dance floor.
"When I was 18, I’d be out four nights a week-- I want to have that energy again but I’ve found I’m a bit old and ready for retirement."
Pitchfork: Both On a Mission and the Danger EP do a great job of evoking the image of a nightclub that can be very forlorn. What inspired the lyrics to your new record?
Katy B: On a Mission has a certain innocence to it, but the new album has a lot of songs that I cry to-- songs that run really deep. I’ve gone through a lot of changes in the last couple of years and had a lot of realizations that come through on the album, too. There’s a song called "Take Me Back" about my best friend-- she sings on it, and I get very emotional listening to it.
Pitchfork: What’s that song about?
KB: I have these memories of my ex-boyfriend’s house, where my friends and I used to stay up all night and chat rubbish and draw weird pictures and stick them on this wall. There were all these young musicians coming in and out of there, playing the drums or singing their little hearts out. Now, I walk past the house and we’re not in that kind of place anymore-- especially me and my best friend. Everyone I know is moving out of their parents’ house, and getting jobs and real-world responsibilities. Things are getting a bit heavier. When I was 18 or 19, I’d be out four nights a week. I want to have that energy again but I’ve found I’m a bit old and ready for retirement.
There’s another song on the album called "Crying for No Reason" that’s inspired by a friend who recently had a breakdown. She was in her car at a traffic light and she just broke down crying. She and I spoke about it, and she realized she was so upset because she’d just gone through a breakup where she hadn’t had much empathy for her ex. She felt guilty about it, and I used that experience to write about my own guilt about certain things in my life.
"Destiny’s Child literally taught me how to sing."
Pitchfork: Are there any big sonic shifts this time around?
KB: I wanted to put more emphasis on songs this time around, rather than it just being one beat. I’m working with Geeneus, who produced quite a lot of On a Mission, again and I’ve worked with Diplo, Al Shux, and Fraser T Smith, who did [Adele's] "Set Fire to the Rain". I'm hopefully doing some more work with Jacques Greene and Joker as well.
Pitchfork: There’s a resurgence of early-2000s pop stars now-- Justin Timberlake, Destiny’s Child. Was that era influential to you?
KB: Oh my god, yes. When I was about 13 Justin Timberlake was touring the Justified album-- I went to go see him in Wembley and liked it so much I wanted to go back to see him again, so I queued at five in the morning to get tickets. I was obsessed with Justin.
And Destiny’s Child literally taught me how to sing. At one of my first-ever studio sessions, the producers were like, "What do you want to record?" I said I wanted to do my own version of "Say My Name". And then I literally couldn’t keep up with the verse-- I remember thinking, "Oh god, I need to step my game up."
Katy B: "Got Paid" [ft. Zinc and Wiley] on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: As someone with dubstep roots, is it funny to hear a drop in a song like Taylor Swift’s "I Knew You Were Trouble"?
KB: It’s not so weird for me because dubstep has been big in the UK for years. I quite like that song, and as long as it’s done well, I’m fine with hearing a dubstep drop in any song.
Pitchfork: By the same token, does the mainstream appropriation of those sounds make you want to move further away from them in your own music?
KB: It does. The reason I started doing music like that in the first place was because it felt fresh and different. Whenever I’m making something, the challenge is always to create something that’s interesting for me to listen to. So when I hear the same formula being used over and over, I get bored. Just as huge pop artists have taken inspiration from things that are happening at the moment, I do the same with my music. But I’ve never really compared myself to anyone who’s a big star -- I’m not trying to be a fashion icon or get famous.
Katy B: "Aaliyah" [ft. Jessie Ware] on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: How did you come up with the concept for "Aaliyah", your recent collaboration with Jessie Ware on your Danger EP?
KB: When I got the beat, in my imagination I was catapulted into this club where all the boys and girls are looking hot and wearing amazing clothes, and there’s this girl dancing and looking better than me. My boyfriend, who’s a character in the song, is a DJ and he’s going to this club every week to play for her. He wants to watch her dance. I love writing songs where the name is the title-- I looked on my iTunes and Aaliyah was at the top and I thought, "That’s perfect."
This girl I want people to imagine looks like Aaliyah and moves like Aaliyah and has her kind of aura. And I knew I wanted to do an EP of collaborations and thought it would be sick to get Jessie on this tune, so I tweeted at her. She came down to the studio on her day off-- I think her boyfriend wanted to kill me. I felt so lucky. She’s such a great girl.
Pitchfork: Do you see yourself as a representative for women in typically male-dominated, insular music scenes?
KB: I hope so. If there was a girl who wanted to be involved with this music and was intimidated by it, I hope she would see me and realize she could do it. I’d love for that to be true. But then, in a sense, when you’re surrounded by people, the gender lines become less important-- you think of yourself as a person rather than just a female. I’m excited about representing my gender, but at the same time it doesn't matter. I wouldn’t say my gender has been a disadvantage.
Photo by Matt Salacuse
Nas began his career looking back. Even in his earliest material, you could hear nostalgia for bygone worlds. Last year’s Life Is Good might have been the most valedictory record of his career, opening with a weepy overture of piano and strings surrounded by the sound of cheering crowds-- very much the prelude to a champagne-popping, gold-watch retirement speech. Nas obliged, filling Life Is Good with verses that ran their fingers lovingly over tiny details (“At night, New York, eat a slice too hot/ Use my tongue to tear the skin hanging from the roof of my mouth”) and dialed out to swallow entire borough histories (“A Queens Story”). It was a reminder that Nas’s observational eye is never as keen as when it’s backtracking to earlier times...
Hall & Oates: "Kiss On My List"
I don’t know remember much about five, but when I was eight years old, I loved the sounds of Joe Raposo, the composer who made the theme song for "Sesame Street". I loved Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, of course, and I loved the Police. One of my favorite songs was “Kiss On My List” [sings]: “Your kiss, your kiss is on my list.” Who made that? Probably Michael McDonald.
Rick James: Cold Blooded
I made my brother buy Cold Blooded for me; both of us could only buy one record each, so I picked a Michael Jackson album and I made him pick Rick James. My favorite from that album was probably "Ebony Eyes" with Smokey Robinson-- people didn't understand how bad he really was.
Big Daddy Kane: Long Live the Kane
Anything by Big Daddy Kane, or Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Kool G Rap. I could go word-for-word regarding any of the albums from ‘88. Big Daddy Kane was a teacher to me; he taught me how it’s supposed to be done. I learned a lot about the world from Big Daddy Kane. He had a big vocabulary: I learned a lot of words from rap music.
Dr. Dre: The Chronic
Doggy Style and The Chronic hit me off crazy. They felt like out-of-this-world music. It changed me. It was my day-to-day theme music. '93 was a crazy year. Illmatic was supposed to have wrapped by then, and I was waiting for it to be released. But that album was actually a part of ‘93, because it leaked. It was everywhere: LA, D.C., Atlanta, New York. It wasn't a leak in the sense of today, where its all over the world at once, but people had already talked about it so much, it felt like it was everywhere.
DMX: It's Dark and Hell Is Hot
That was the year DMX took over the world. He was a street-rapper back then, battling. A bad dude. I heard some of the stuff he had put out on mixtapes, and you could hear that he was coming for the throne, coming for everybody’s head. I was working with DMX on Belly right when it was beginning to happen and we became brothers on the set of that movie-- so I was lucky not to be in his path like that.
A lot of people will see X now and say shit about him, but they don’t understand where he’s coming from when he’s talking about the rappers out today. That’s always been DMX. Before people knew who he was, he always spoke his mind, he’s always been 100% street and never cared what nobody thought about him. His talent speaks for itself.
That was also the year that Lauryn dropped Miseducation. There was a guy who worked on Belly with me and DMX who'd heard the record, and everyday he would try to tell me how incredible this music that was about to come out was. I tried to get a description, like, “What do you mean?” And he just couldn’t say anything. He just kept saying, “It moves your soul.” He did not lie.
Nas: God's Son
When I made God’s Son, and the song “Made You Look” in particular, I felt that there was a lot of bullshit going on in rap. Without sounding cocky, I wanted “Made You Look” to bring “real hip-hop” back to the forefront. People get killed for saying that phrase, “real hip-hop,” because everyone uses it too much. A lot of people don’t know what “real hip-hop” is. I’m not going to try to explain that; I’ll just leave it open. I feel like rap needed a smack in the face. There wasn’t enough of that raw sound in 2003, absolutely not. When the beat cuts out and I’m rhyming at the end, I wanted to sound like the EPMD record where they had K Solo and Redman on it ["The Head Banger"]. My intentions were to blow everything else out.
I remember things being kinda cool, rap-wise. Maybe too cool. Everything felt safe and calm in my life. But I felt an underlying hypocrisy one going on, a disconnect between older people and young people, particularly when it came to hip-hop culture. I was coming off of Hip Hop Is Dead, and the Nigger Tape or the Untitled Album was my political version of Hip Hop Is Dead, the political side of that conversation. I started to remember what Public Enemy stood for, what Ice Cube stood for-- I was trying to be like N.W.A. and Public Enemy in one person. It was my salute to them.
Photo by Colby Droscher
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. For this edition, we spoke with Bay Area singer/songwriter Jessica Pratt, who is at work on the follow-up to last year's self-titled debut album.
First Record I Bought For Myself
My family went to Boston on a vacation and it was really insane for me because I was from a small town. I had a gift certificate to Tower Records and I got the first Spice Girls record. I was totally into them. I remember seeing their video for “Wannabe” on MTV, and I was truly struck with their infectious energy.
Favorite Spice Girl
Ginger was my favorite. I liked her color palette a lot. I really liked her hair and all the reds and oranges that she would wear. She seemed like the most well-rounded one.
My Morning Routine
I usually wake up with my cat on me and pet her for a while and then I make a cup of PG Tips tea and just kind of sit around for a while. It’s like a shitty English tea. I think it’s like the Folgers of England, basically.
Ariel Pink. I’m so obsessed with him right now, and it's pretty insane how limitless [his music feels]. He just gets really far out and it seems kind of effortless, but it’s such a range of different sounds from different eras. He makes me feel like I have a limited imagination sometimes [in comparison]. Personally, I don’t think that there’s anyone doing anything even close.
Last Great Film I Saw
Just last night, I saw Clifford with Martin Short and Charles Grodin. I think that’s a great film, but I also have a really weird crush on Martin Short, so it was, I dunno, it kind of fed into that fantasy. I mean, in his prime, if you could call it that. [laughs] I think it developed as a child. I watched Captain Ron religiously as a kid, for some reason.
Best Thing I’ve Bought in the Past Year
It’s a module box that allows you to input several instruments into a 4-track and run through your computer so it’s kind of like a mini studio setup. I’m recording actively.
Favorite Record Store
I have a sentimental place in my heart for Recycled Records on Haight Street because I used to live in like a basement apartment with this guy that worked there, Moses. We would just go down there four days out the week and hang out all day and listen to records. I also really like Groove Merchant when I’m looking to find a bunch of records that I can afford.
Favorite Song of All Time
“I Scare Myself” by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks. It’s got a really intense violin solo in the middle, and it kind of sounds like a song that a serial killer would write about somebody. But it’s really beautiful.
Last Album I Downloaded
I downloaded the entire Hollies discography. Mainly-- because not all of it’s good-- I was just trying to get Evolution and this other album, Butterfly, which came out one after the other, and they’re both super good. Those two albums are super hard to find on vinyl, which is super annoying, because it is by far their best stuff. All their greatest hits are way earlier, more Beatles rippy-offy kind of stuff, so it’s not as interesting. But Evolution is totally their psych record and it’s really varied but it’s very cool and it’s definitely Graham Nash’s best songwriting.
Genesis P-Orridge for just being a freak, if you want to be. I agree with a lot of his and/or her ideas about how you should live your life, for you, and stuff like that. It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s kind of like modern Buddhist ideas about serving yourself, which is cool.
Favorite TV Show
I love “Columbo”. I love “Black Books”-- it’s like a British comedy. It’s fucking hilarious. I also am totally addicted to this show on A&E called “The First 48”. It’s a show that is real time. A crime is committed and it usually takes place in Detroit or Houston or something and it’s basically just tracking the detectives in the first 48 hours after the crime is committed to track down the people who did it. There’s a lot of interrogation, like hidden camera things. It’s just really focused and there’s no fast-paced editing. It’s almost like zen.
Favorite Music Video
There’s a weird video for “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees that’s really cool. It’s shots of a strip somewhere that looks really shitty at night interspersed with these weird low-lit shots of the three Bee Gees standing and they’re singing and they’re lined up, tapping their foot in unison, like the same leg. They all look super dead and they’re not very enthusiastic and it’s really kind of awkward, but it looks really cool.
I really like the Great American Music Hall because it’s really beautiful and really historic. I kind of have a sentimental attachment to it. My mom used to live in San Francisco in the ‘70s and she told me this story about how she used to feel like she had this weird psychic connection with Van Morrison. She would have dreams about him all the time and she always felt like if she met him someday, there might be something there for some reason, which is just kind of crazy. She said she went to see him at the Great American and she was right in the front row against the stage and she was like, “Tonight’s gonna be the night, he’s gonna open his eyes and he’s gonna see me and he’s gonna know something.” But then she said he never opened his eyes the whole time. He never opens his eyes.
Favorite “Simpsons” Episode
Obvious choice, but the one where Homer gains all the weight to get on disability-- just so quotable, the whole thing. “I don’t want to look like a freak, so I’ll take the muumuu.”
Cereal, oh fuck. I have a lot. Honestly, I really like Special K. As far as a crazy ass cereal, I love Cocoa Pebbles. I just really like the texture, they’re all airy and weird and tiny.
I like the pacing of baseball. I find that it’s the easiest sport for me to become attached to the different people, which is the only thing that makes it interesting for me, because I don’t really like sports. I like being able to see people’s faces without a mask on. I feel like there’s a wide range of looks for a baseball player, like he can be tall or short. They’re pretty varied looking, which is interesting. You can be out of shape or be a tall freak who’s really skinny. It’s like the misfit sport.
I would actually be super into having a portrait tattoo, but the person is always changing. You see people with kind-of-good portrait tattoos but there’s always one detail that’s fucked up. If I could maybe meet some insane Japanese tattoo artist that could do photographic renderings of peoples’ faces, then there’s a lot of people I might consider getting. My friend has a tattoo of Brian Wilson, and it's cool, but it totally looks like Roy Orbison.
Kylesa's sixth album, Ultraviolet, is out May 28 on Season of Mist. It's the Savannah, Ga., heavy rock band's darkest, most atmospheric record to date. The collection, which features an array of subtle electronic elements, makes for an expressive, immersive listen that will likely find the double-drumming quintet a larger audience.
The 11-song LP was again recorded by guitarist/songwriter Phillip Cope, though fellow guitarist Laura Pleasants' presence is more readily felt via her increased vocal duties. I spoke with the two about the collection and the difficult period following 2010's excellent Spiral Shadow that led to it.
Pitchfork: Why the move toward a darker sound on Ultraviolet?
Laura Pleasants: Frankly, I was in a very dark place for a while and the only pieces of music I could write were ones with a darker content. Such is the twist and turns of life.
Phillip Cope: Same with me. The time period between Spiral Shadow and Ultraviolet was rough for both of us. I suggested the theme of loss for this album because I felt it was something both us would be able to communicate well with everything that had gone on over the past couple of years.
Pitchfork: Can you be more specific about this loss?
LP: I don’t think I’m ready to discuss it. It was hands down the worst period of my life and I don't really know how to express that publicly other than maybe through music.
PC: I think for the most part it is best to leave some of that stuff to ourselves; we weren't trying to write a "woe is us" kind of record. It is just that when things get really tough it helps to channel some of that energy into the music, but we try to do it in a way that is relatable to others.
Pitchfork: I've been listening to the lyrics-- words like "morbidity" and scenarios that feel like existential sinking: "You've lost yourself." Can you discuss?
LP: There were several specific instances. Some are harder to talk about than others. Although “You’ve Lost Yourself” refers to someone particular in my life, it generally has to do with losing your identity to years and years of outside influence and delusional thinking. But there are several themes to loss that most everyone can identify with: loss of love, life, family, friendship, fortune, hope, etc, etc. It’s how we deal with these things that make us human and hopefully through our music, it can bring about empathy.
PC: Each song has a theme based on loss that Laura and I had discussions on. Some songs are personal to each of us as an individual and some are just overall examples that aren't particularly based on us but experiences we have certainly been through. "What Does It Take" is about something I think most current musicians can relate too, especially in the underground. It is basically about how much you have to go through and sacrifice to be able to make a band work. In my case after almost 20 years of being on the road, living hard caught up with me, which included some scary hospital trips and some rough relationship problems. At one point during touring for Spiral Shadow I wasn't sure if I would physically be able to continue on. It was a really scary thought, as most of my life has revolved around playing music. I got myself in better health but the thoughts of how quick it can be taken away haven't left me.
Pitchfork: What inspired "Steady Breakdown"?
LP: I was thinking about the nature of free will and the paradoxes it presents. In this case, I am mainly referring to the will to live. The will to live is very strong in us by nature. To have life stripped from you in a manor where you can witness your own body and mind breakdown against your will, contradicts what we want to believe we are capable of.
Pitchfork: "Quicksand" includes the line "I'm choking on my own blood."
LP: I’m a very vivid dreamer and I always remember my dreams, and I tend to dream more when on tour. We did a European tour the summer of 2011, and I had this recurring dream where my teeth were falling out and there was always copious amounts of blood. I was trying to say something important to someone close to me, but I couldn’t talk because my mouth was full of broken teeth, bones, and blood. The song has a sorta poppy feel to it and I wanted to sing in that way as well. But I wanted the lyrics to juxtapose that vibe.
Pitchfork: "Low Tide" is a beautiful track. Can you discuss how that came about?
PC: This came about from a discussion I was having with my girlfriend around the time everyone was discussing whether or not the Mayan calendar would be correct. We didn't believe it would be, however we thought it might be nice to know the world was going to end so just for a little while all of the world's stress would be meaningless and you could just relax for a minute knowing none of it really mattered.
Pitchfork: You guys have a central sound that you modify, according to any particular record: two drummers, layered vocals, psychedelic guitars, a kind of forward thrust. But each album plays with that style and expands upon it. I'm curious how you found this specific new direction.
LP: I think you’re right. Although it can be risky to take such turns, Phillip and I were both interested in exploring new territories. Instead of hitting the listener directly throughout the album, this time we wanted to envelope them into an experience of textures and sounds surrounding the basic structure of a song, while still sounding like Kylesa. As it’s been stated before, we’re influenced by so much more than what is currently our said genre. I wanted to try to paint a picture with this music of what I had experienced the past couple of years without having to lay it out on the table. We both wanted to try to have the vibe and energy of the music transcend the normal linear nature of a traditional song/album.
PC: Also in a sense it found us. We certainly weren't thinking about this direction right after Spiral Shadow.
Pitchfork: The vocals are pushed back a little. The music sounds more foreboding and melancholic, less positive. Spiral Shadows had songs like "Don't Look Back", tracks that felt like uplifting anthems to me. There are certainly anthemic moments on Ultraviolet, but it's a different kind of catharsis. Were you reacting to Spiral at all? There's a lyric here about how everything comes around again-- a kind of idea that you do have to look back.
LP: Personally, I wasn’t reacting to Spiral Shadow at all. I just wrote. Had I kept writing without a deadline, the material may have come out a little differently...but you said it. This album is a different kind of catharsis.
PC I wasn't reacting to Spiral Shadow either. It is interesting that you point that out, but I still prefer to move forward.
Pitchfork: I'm interested in the electronic elements-- there's an undertow of blips and drifts and feedback. There's an almost new wave edge to some of the sounds; it's kind of cold wave. You get some at the beginning of "Quicksand" and then this great guitar part, which has a kind of Smashing Pumpkins tone to it. Also at the beginning of "Low Tide" on "Drifting".
LP: [Drummer] Carl [McGinley] started using electronic drums during the Spiral Shadow tour run. So by the time we were writing, he had a clear idea of how he wanted to incorporate some of those sounds into the new material. There are a lot more atmospheric and layered elements to this record-- Phillip played a lot of keyboards and other instruments to add those kinds of subtle “blips and drifts.” I love the sound a lot of the older new wave or goth records have. We’re fans of a lot of that stuff and I’ve been trying to craft those sounds for a while now.
PC: Cold wave was definitely an influence to me and I think we have slowly been adding those influences over time, this is just the first album where it was taken a bit to the forefront.
Pitchfork: Will you be recreating all these new electronic sounds in a live setting?
PC: Yes, we'll be able to recreate most of them, but some may change as time goes on-- sometimes live we can't always use everything we want to, but those elements will be there in some shape or form.
Pitchfork: I noticed that in some of the press photos for the new album it's just you two. Or sometimes you're pictured as a trio. Has there been a lineup shift?
LP: The core members of Kylesa are myself, Phillip and Carl. Eric is still in the band (although he is back on second drums), but lives in Miami so he wasn’t available to come up for the first photo shoot. He'll be in some of the others we have planned.
Pitchfork: Did going back and listening to the archives for last year's From the Vaults compilation influence the new record?
LP: Some of the guitar tones I got on “End Truth” and “Between Silence and Sound II” I really liked and knew I would use again, albeit tweaked a little.
PC: It helped me a lot because I was able to try some recording ideas out that I had been thinking about for a while. So I got to test them out and time to tweak them for the album.
Pitchfork: Laura sings more on Ultraviolet; those vocals feel "warmer" somehow, cutting against the darker, closer aspects. Do you agree?
LP: I hadn’t thought too much about that contrast, but I do agree with you.
Pitchfork: Either way, why the increased presence of your vocals?
LP: It wasn’t really a conscious decision on my end at all. I think it just sorta happened. Phillip took more of a multi instrumentalist approach on this record more than ever before plus he was the producer. I think he had his hands full and I had plenty of vocal ideas and lyrics so I dove into it.
PC: Yeah I did have my hands full. So I just handed them over to Laura and said do what you want with them vocally and when she came back with her parts I really didn't see any reason to add much more. We have never really had any stance where we feel we have to be even on vocals or anything like that. She was inspired, and I liked what she was doing so I focused on other areas of the songs. It could always change in the future. It just depends on what we are feeling at the time.
Pitchfork: How does the title Ultraviolet fit into, or evoke the album's atmosphere?
LP: In an abstract way, it fits perfectly. We understand that an ultraviolet ray of light is shorter than that of visible light and consists of higher frequencies than what we (as humans) recognize as the color violet. So, we know that this color exists but it’s not within our reach visibly. And, as humans, we are always reaching for the intangible; something that lies beyond our earthly reach.
Pitchfork: It's a more spacious record, too, than the last record. Songs like "Long Gone" have more meditative flows to them-- there are these discursive moments; less of a total forward push. So, darker, but also calmer?
LP: I think so, yes.
PC: I think it still has a few aggressive moments but for the most part I agree as well.
Pitchfork: At this point, how do you think you're perceived in "metal circles"? I like the comment about not following fads in the press release. Did you have something specific in mind when you said that?
LP: I did have something particular in mind but it’s kind of a moot point because we never follow trends; never have. In that sense, I think we stay ahead of the pack. We’re not followers; we chose our path long ago. Regarding “metal circles”, I think it depends on which circle you’re talking to. For some, we’ve never been “metal” enough and in other cases, we are welcomed with open arms.
LP: Journalists like to bring up Mastodon or Baroness when talking with us and I guess that’s fair because we’re all from Georgia. That said, their music has very little influence on us. What raises the bar for us (other than ourselves), are good records in general-- inside and outside our peer group. I think our goals revolve around longevity. This is our baby and we want to see it mature.
Since last time, we posted tracks from White Widows, Zozobra, VHÖL, Anciients, Intronaut, Woe, Batillus, Good For You, and Death Wolf. Currently, you can stream all of Inter Arma's new album, Sky Burial, as part of Pitchfork Advance.
Show No Mercy hosted a party at SXSW a couple of days ago. Here are some photos from it.
“It is slow going, but it is going.”
Jason Molina wrote those words last year in a brief, warm letter to fans, in which he described his treatment for alcohol abuse and recounted his various travels over the last few years-- from Chicago to London to West Virginia to Indianapolis. He had largely fallen off the radar in 2009, after abruptly canceling a tour with Will Johnson to support their recently released collaborative album Molina and Johnson. His absence was uncharacteristic, as he had been a prolific recording and touring artist for nearly 15 years at that point. His silence worried his fans, and that letter was the first most of us had heard from him in three long years.
It was, at the time, reassuring. Not only did Molina seem to be making strides toward sustained sobriety and renewed health, but he acknowledged both the impact his music had on listeners and the effect their generosity had on him. Perhaps we read too much into the note, too much of what we wanted to hear, but Molina sounded like he wanted to get back to making music again. “It is slow going, but it is going.” The statement was succinct and hopeful, as promising as a song lyric.
Tragically, it went too slowly. Ravaged by a decade of hard drinking, Molina died on Saturday at his home in Indianapolis. The cause was organ failure due to extreme alcoholism. He was 39. When I read the news, I was not surprised, and that made me sad and scared. It's what we expect from addicts, especially alcoholics. The disease can be a slow form of suicide, and painful for everyone involved. Molina did, however, manage to face up to his demons before he died, and that accomplishment should not be ignored.
Growing up outside of Cleveland, Molina was a heavy metal fan during his teens, and in his 20s, he started making music that tended toward fractured folk and damaged country. His first singles under the Songs: Ohia banner, released in the mid 1990s, were stark, scratchy tunes, and he would bear countless comparisons to both Will Oldham and Neil Young throughout his career. Nevertheless, his songwriting voice was distinctive and personal. If you’ve heard a Jason Molina song, you know he used music to express dark concerns about the nature of life and death.
And when I played some of his older material over the last few days, it sounded newly complicated, almost as though he was warning us of something. Sung in a broken croak of a voice, his songs were reports from a lonesome valley. He had scouted ahead and was haunted by what he saw. From his earliest days in Songs: Ohia, he referred to it vaguely as “the blues,” a term that took on new associations as his career progressed and his catalog expanded. It’s a loaded word, for sure, with great musical as well as psychological weight. It implies hellhounds and crossroads, the roots of rock and a specifically American angst. Molina’s songs were riddled with similar metaphors and allusions -- to literature, to history, to pop music, to folk beliefs, to Revelation monsters. Ghosts figure prominently in his lyrics, as does the moon. On “Memphis Moon” and “Spanish Moon Fall and Rise”-- two late-career highlights-- it is a source of reflected light by which Molina navigated the darkness.
Navigation is crucial to Molina’s music. While his songs often allude to specific places (Sewell Mountain in West Virginia, Shiloh battlefield in Tennessee), they are not necessarily about locations but the empty spaces in between. There is a sense of imminent arrival in his music but nothing so concrete as a homecoming, which makes his albums unsettling companions on long treks (preferably along a deserted highway, at night). When he shuttered Songs: Ohia and founded Magnolia Electric Co. in the early 2000s, he began indulging long solos and classic rock jams, but even at his sparest-- he frequently recorded by himself with an acoustic guitar-- he sounded like a man very far from home.
Molina wrote what he knew. Since his early 20s, he was on the road more often than not, although it remains unclear if travel inspired his music or if music inspired his travel. Perhaps there was nothing so simple as a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. And while it’s always tempting to re-read a musician’s work in wake of his death, Molina’s life was inevitably bound up in his art. That’s what gave his songs their troubling power. That’s what made us come along for the long drive.
Photo by Steve Gullick
Molina leaves behind a sprawling and unruly catalog that spans nearly 20 years. During that time, he recorded under both the Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. aliases as well as under his own name. He collaborated frequently and adventurously, releasing joint efforts with Scout Niblett, Oneida, and Glen Hansard, among many others. Here are 10 highlights from throughout his career:
Songs: Ohia: Songs: Ohia (1997)
Is Songs the band name? Is the album titled Ohia? The unusual punctuation and deliberate misspelling of Molina’s home state may have initially puzzled listeners, but the gorgeously frayed Americana within this album was filtered through an intriguing DIY aesthetic and sung in an oddball bleat. Known to fans as the Black Album (likely for its subject matter as much as for its cover image), it conjured a world that was much darker than Molina’s alt-country contemporaries.
Songs: Ohia: Axxess and Ace (1999)
This is Molina’s great Chicago album, featuring a who’s who of local musicians: Edith Frost, members of Pinetop Seven, Rex, Boxhead Ensemble. The arrangements were largely improvised in the studio, but the performances are inventive and rambunctious. The result is one Molina’s wiliest and most eclectic albums, with “Captain Badass” and “How to Be Perfect Men” showcasing a bleak sense of humor that we would catch only rare glimpses of in the future.
Songs: Ohia: Didn’t It Rain (2002)
The title of Songs: Ohia’s eighth full-length comes from a traditional gospel number about the Great Flood, but when Molina sings those three words at the end of the title track, it’s less a shout-out to Mahalia Jackson than it is a declaration of survival in the face of cataclysm. He worries over the apocalypse and seems to taunt Death Himself on “Cross the Road, Molina”, yet the most disturbing aspect of Didn’t It Rain is the production, which makes room for space and silence, as though emptiness was just another instrument in the mix.
Amalgamated Sons of Rest: Amalgamated Sons of Rest EP (2002)
This one-off EP with Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts was largely dismissed as a curio upon release. More than a decade after those initial expectations, it has gained stature if not notoriety in Molina’s catalog. The pacing is slow but treacherous, as though the songs are walking across slippery stones. Molina sings lead on “The Gypsy He-Witch” and the lovely “Jennie Blackbird’s Blues”, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sons is how he backs the other two up, playing a sideman instead of a bandleader.
My Morning Jacket/Songs: Ohia: Split EP (2002)
This one might be a bit controversial, since Louisville’s favorite sons have four tracks to Molina’s one, but closer “Translation” rambles to 10 minutes, eschewing classic-rock drama for skeletal country rock as Molina meditates on the promise and threat of change. It goes by surprisingly fast, with Molina humming to himself during the last three minutes as the song dissembles into a ragged coda.
Songs: Ohia: Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)
Consider it another split. Or possibly Songs: Ohia as covered by Magnolia Electric Co. Just as his original alias seemed poised to break out, Molina put together an actual band. This was the first sign that he had his sights set on something more accessible and arguably more ambitious than the indie Americana he had been making for the past six years. Magnolia Electric Co. was classic rock re-imagined as something more personal than populist, with emotions so heavy he needed a full rock band to lift them. It marked such a decisive change in direction that Molina chose that album title as his new moniker going forward.
Magnolia Electric Co.: Fading Trails (2006)
Magnolia Electric Co. sharpened their chops on the road and Molina refined his delivery as the years added new, lower textures to his voice. By 2006, they had it all figured out, and Fading Trails is arguably the Co.’s best album. Neil Young was routinely name-dropped in reviews as an obvious influence, not only on the quiet folksy numbers but also on the crunchier Crazy Horse-style rockers. Yet, Molina’s worries on “Lonesome Valley” and “Talk to Me Devil, Again” are his own, and those guitars sound endlessly sympathetic to his troubles.
Magnolia Electric Co.: Sojourner (2007)
Magnolia Electric Co.’s six-year tenure was uneven, marked by some powerful peaks as well as some self-indulgent lows. And yet, rather than a simple re-release, Molina curated his songs along new themes for limited-edition box set Sojourner: the occultic The Black Ram, the short Sun Session EP (four songs recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis), the gently countrified Nashville Moon, and the achingly lonely Shohola. In this new context, songs like “What Comes After the Blues” and “In the Human World” take on new life as Molina continues to map the American landscape as well as his own emotional geography.
Molina Johnson: Molina and Johnson (2009)
Four years ago, when I reviewed this album by Molina and Denton, Texas, mainstay Will Johnson, I criticized it for being long on atmosphere and short on songs. My reservations remains, yet over the years Molina and Johnson has revealed new depths and subtler forms-- in general, a finer sense of purpose. There’s something disquieting about the subdued hooks on “Twenty Cycles to the Ground” and the growled notes on “Now, Divide”, as though these matters are so private that Molina and Johnson are reluctant to invite you into the songs. Ultimately, it’s less about songs and lyrics than it is about voices. And their voices mix beautifully.
Jason Molina: Autumn Bird Songs (2012)
Molina’s final release should be only a minor addendum to his career. It is a short collection of scratchy acoustic demos, originally intended to accompany a book by artist William Schaff. These weren’t new songs, nor had they been developed from their initial lo-fi recordings, yet they’re full of disarming images, whispered confessions, and delicate melodies. In fact, a few of them-- “Enough of a Stranger”, “Heart My Heart”, and “No Hand Was at the Wheel”-- stand among his best compositions. Upon its release, it was tempting to hear something like renewal and recovery in Autumn Bird Songs, especially since it so clearly echoed Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain. But what we hoped was a new chapter turned out to be the final word.
Photo by Cat Roif
False rumors of a lawsuit from Disney. A personalized line of weed grinders (and an international drug arrest). A comic book, a video game, and a "guest composer" gig on an MTV show. A gig at Madison Square Garden. Corporate deals with Target and Taco Bell. Collaborations with Big Boi, Freddie Gibbs, and Fucked Up-- oh, and not one, but two hip-hop-leaning instrumental tapes, not to mention a steady presence on the touring circuit. It may have been three years since Wavves' last album, 2010's breakout King of the Beach, but calling 26-year-old frontman Nathan Willliams a slacker at this point isn't an option.
Next week, Wavves are back with a new full-length, Afraid of Heights, on new label home Mom + Pop. Technically, the full-time lineup's the same as it was with 2011's guest-laden Life Sux EP-- Williams and bassist Stephen Pope, who trade multi-instrumentalist duties throughout the album-- but after just one listen to these impressively produced songs, it's apparent that this isn't just the work of two guys bashing it out in a studio. In addition to Jenny Lewis contributing backing vocals to the swaying centerpiece of a title track, six other studio musicians kicked in contributions to the album, including a cellist. That's right: A cellist plays on the new Wavves album.
With big-ticket pop producer John Hill (Santigold, Rihanna, M.I.A.) in the booth, Williams self-financed Afraid of Heights' writing and recording over the course of a year, a move that, as he told me over the phone last month after catching an episode of ABC's cooking-show-cum-chat-fest "The Chew", was an attempt to make an album without being signed to a label. This resulted in a recording process that took a little longer than usual, as a few tentative announced release dates passed the guys by.
Our conversation took place just as Joel, Williams' brother and the other half of his beat-making Sweet Valley project, had arrived to work on new material. So even with an impending tour, Williams is still on his grind, with new Sweet Valley releases on the way and upcoming collaborations with Killer Mike and Bay Area rapper DaVinci, who's been making an entire album with Nathan and Joel. We can only hope that more innovative merch is in the works as well...
"While I was making the first couple of records, I was living
at my parents' house and didn’t have to worry about anything.
It's different now. I mean, I’m not old yet, but getting old sucks."
Pitchfork: Your old label Fat Possum's involvement during the recording process of King of the Beach threatened to derail that record altogether. Did that play into you self-financing the new album?
Nathan Williams: I felt like King of the Beach was under a magnifying glass. There were people who were giving us money to finance our record constantly coming in to check on the progress. These people have never written or recorded songs before. Previously, the only places I’d recorded were my parents’ basement and garage, so having people give opinions on stuff that wasn’t even finished yet was strange to me.
Also, the producer, Dennis Herring, didn’t want [former drummer] Billy [Hayes] to play on the record because he didn’t think he was a good enough drummer. They were going to try and have [veteran session drummer] Josh Freese come in and play drums instead-- he's a great drummer, but when somebody else is making decisions like that for you, it dilutes your original ideas as an artist.
So I stood firm that I was going to keep Stephen and Billy, and it became a standoff. There was a point where we thought the album might not happen. I didn’t have a manager or anybody at that point who could tell me to be reasonable. But I’m glad I stood firm. Eventually, the label buckled, and Dennis vouched for me too.
I'm still friends with the guys at Fat Possum and I hold them in the highest regard. I would've run into those problems at Matador or any other label-- it’s more common than anybody thinks. With Afraid of Heights, when I thought, "OK, I'll just pay for it myself," it seemed like a scary thought, but after having gone through what I did on a label, being able to actually do it that way was a purer experience.
Pitchfork: Self-financing your own album must've been expensive, though.
NW: I knew in the back of my head that if I spent this money and it didn’t work out, I was gonna be fucked. It still crosses my mind. I had already bought a house. After the album was finished, I knew that we could shuck it around to labels and get that money back in advance and that I’d never actually have to pay for it. When we were shopping the album around, one label took us to Cut, in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, and Criss Angel was sitting next to us. I was starstruck. But paying for the album myself was scary in the beginning.
Pitchfork: How so?
NW: When we started recording, John, Stephen, and I got so drunk-- everyone was nervous, but nobody would just outright say that, so nobody knew what was going on. During that time, I accidentally hit John in the face with a bat. I don't really remember how that happened. We were just fake fighting with bats, which was really smart.
I met John when he was recording songs for other artists, but it was never the plan to do something like this with him. It just happened. He cancelled a year of working with other artists like Rihanna and whoever the fuck to work on this, so once we realized we went two weeks and didn't have anything, we were like, "Fuck." But once we actually started working, things settled down.
Pitchfork: What was it like working with a pop producer like John?
NW: He was very straightforward, which helped. Especially after a few drinks-- you'd see him with a mug and you'd know there's Don Julio in there, and he'll buzz into the recording booth and say, "Nathan, you're singing like shit, get a glass of tea or something." Everyone's like, "Oh, John Hill's a pop guy." But he's a little fucking weirdo.
Pitchfork: You can certainly hear the studio polish on the album.
NW: That was the idea. With King of the Beach, we'd play our parts, and they'd say, "Come back tomorrow and we’ll show you what we did with the parts that you played.” With this one, it was: “Play your parts 300 times, with 300 different guitars, and 300 different amp combinations, then sit here and listen to every single one, and tell me what sounds good and why.” It became monotonous. I'd be like, “Do I even like this part? I think I do, but right now I’m just really annoyed and tired and wasted, and Stephen keeps grabbing my crotch."
Pitchfork: There's a cello on this album, which is certainly unexpected.
NW: About four or five times, when we were all drunk at the end of the night, I'd bring up using a cello, and we just shrugged it off. Then, we brought in the demo for "Dog", and John was like, “That’s going to be the song that’s got the cello on it.” The guy who did the cello parts for us, Phil Peterson, is this acid-head that would stay up at night, record it, and send it back the next day. It was opulent. We were like, "Wait, are we really going to do this? What if it sounds cheesy?" But with Weezer, and even a lot of Nirvana's stuff, you listen to it now and it's a little bit cheesy. But it’s still really good.
Pitchfork: What's the story behind the album cover?
NW: It's taken from Rich Mingin's overview of tattoos and people's attitudes towards them during the first half of the 20th century. There are a lot of really striking photos in there that have a "classic" look to them, which was what I wanted. Back then, having tattoos was almost like being a part of a club, or underworld. There's a photo of one guy from Siberia who had a bunch of scribbles tattooed on his forehead; the story was that he got a pretty bad fever when he was eight years old, so his parents called up a witch to come and cast a spell on him to spare his life. The tattoo on his forehead was to rid him of evil and sickness.
Pitchfork: The lyrics on this album are filled with even more self-loathing than previous efforts. Do you worry that people will perceive that as a gimmick?
NW: I hadn’t really thought about that, but that’s fine. Realistically, in the last few years, my life has got exponentially more complicated. It’s not a gimmick, it’s just what it is. Remember, while I was making the first couple of records, I was living at my parents' house. I had stability, I didn’t have to worry about anything. It's different now, but I’m sure it will be different in a couple of years, too. I mean, I’m not old yet, but getting old sucks.
Pitchfork: Have you ever been treated for any sort of mental illness?
NW: I went to see a doctor once, and they recommended I take something for anxiety and depression. I was put on something that was similar to Prozac for a little bit. I took maybe six or seven pills and got fed up with it [laughs], so I just stopped taking them. That stuff's not for me. There are probably things in my life that I need to figure out, and I’m not the type of person that figures them out by talking to someone I don’t know or taking prescribed pills. As long as it’s not prescribed to me, though, I’ll take it.
Pitchfork: At this point, do you find that alcohol and drugs helps or hurts your creative process?
NW: There was one night where I decided to drink King Cobras. Maybe I thought it’d be funny. But we didn’t get anything done, and I could tell everybody was like, “What the fuck? Why did you drink three King Cobras then try to sing?” After a while, it got to the point where we felt like we shouldn’t start drinking until after lunch.
But there were a bunch of nights where alcohol would get us to try something we normally wouldn’t. We'd be like, "Do you remember when we put something on the piano strings after we got drunk that night?" That one was a stupid idea-- terrible-- but there were other things that we did that actually did end up working out. Sometimes it’ll help if you're sitting in the booth all day. A couple of beers is nice to have.
I definitely feel it more now, though. I could stay up for two days when I was younger. I'd rage coke and pills, and then take a bunch of Nyquil and Xanax and come down. I’d wake up and feel kinda shitty, but I’d be OK. I definitely can’t do shit like that anymore. If I drink a couple of beers, I wake up the next day hungover. I probably should slow down, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
If you want a high-resolution snapshot of American youth culture today, go to a Skrillex show. His live performance is a traveling vortex where bleeding bass, glow sticks, and throbbing moshpit-like mobs congeal into a democratized mass of debauchery. It's the type of scene that could've easily sprung from the imagination of Harmony Korine, the veteran cult-film provocateur and scholar of all things young, sweaty, and morally misguided. Korine has been to a Skrillex show; naturally, he loved it. The director's latest film, the violent day-glo adventure Spring Breakers, throttles out of the gate with slow-motion, close-up shots of very drunk and very naked young people dancing on a beach to Skrillex's blissfully bipolar, genre-defining "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites".
"When I was a kid growing up, these dudes rode around in boom trucks, playing bass-- a thudding sound, no words," he says, before imitating the low-frequency pulse with his mouth while sitting in Manhattan's Crosby Street Hotel last week. "I remember feeling it in my stomach. It was like bombs going off. And I felt the same sensation when I heard [Skrillex's] music. That was something I was trying to translate to film-- this kind of guttural, physical bass. I wanted the theater to shake."
Along with music supervisor du jour and longtime Korine collaborator Randall Poster (the mind behind the music found in everything from Rushmore to Zoolander), Drive soundtrack composer Cliff Martinez, and Skrillex, the director strung together a booming soundscape for Spring Breakers. The movie eventually moves beyond boob-shots and dubstep, digging into a rumbling Floridian hip-hop underworld that pivots around James Franco's cornrowed, gold-toothed white rapper character, Alien, and his rivalry with the villainous traplord Archie, played by an especially gruff Gucci Mane. It's a dream of a nightmare, and a nightmare of a dream.
And there's rarely a moment of silence in it. Along with bass drops and trap-rap, its backdrop includes early-aughts chart hits (Nelly's "Hot in Herre", Britney Spears' "Everytime") and Martinez's dreamy orchestral compositions. What the film lacks in tangible plotlines it makes up for in adrenaline-pumping jolts of volume and color-- you can almost think of it as a very long, entrancing music video.
Pitchfork: Who was the inspiration behind James Franco’s character? For a long time, Houston rapper RiFF RAFF took credit, but then it was revealed to be a guy from Florida named Dangeruss.
Harmony Korine: It’s such a tricky thing. That character was never based on a single person. It’s based on an amalgamation of a lot of people I knew growing up in Tennessee-- riding the school bus with white kids in cornrows who used to rap. I’m friends with RiFF RAFF, and his style is definitely in there. I originally wanted him to be in the sequence next to [Franco’s character] on stage. I was trying to put together a white-rapper posse. We sent RiFF an email, but his manager saw it too late.
But Dangeruss is the person Franco spent the most time with when he went to St. Petersburg. A lot of Franco’s mannerisms and cadences-- the more regional aspects, the details-- came from Dangeruss. But there were a million influences.
Pitchfork: How closely do you track YouTube-era "outsider" rap like RiFF RAFF, Lil B, Kreayshawn...
HK: I think there’s something amazing about what RiFF is doing right now. I’m aware of all that stuff, but to be honest with you, I’ve never been into alternative, hipster rap music. I look at WorldstarHipHop in the morning, Bossip, Global Grind, and everything in between, but it's all so quick, I don’t even think about it. And I’ve never been a fan of lyrical or socially conscious rap music. I just like the bass-- the thud, the groove, the grimiest shit. I like it when it’s just choruses and rattling bass, and I enjoy a vocal tenor and swagger that usually is associated with the South. Rap is the only interesting music left-- it’s the only genre that’s still pushing itself, and experimenting in a way that I find exciting. All that Chief Keef and Young Chop shit that came out last year, that drill music from Chicago, I thought was terrific. Gothic bass music. It’s very similar to music that I used to hear growing up in Nashville.
"Gucci Mane is trap rap's Frank Sinatra."
Pitchfork: Why did you choose Gucci Mane to star in this movie as opposed to any number of Atlanta trap-rappers?
HK: Because he’s the best trap-rapper ever, without question. To me, he’s the epitome of trap gone weird. There are guys who are more macho and gruff, and I find that pretty boring. Gucci’s rhymes are weird; his metaphors are so strange-- his whole thing is next level. What makes Gucci Mane Gucci Mane is like what made Frank Sinatra Frank Sinatra-- it’s just him. He’s trap’s Frank Sinatra.
Pitchfork: What are the logistics of getting Gucci Mane on board with a film?
HK: Brett Ratner, the director, had worked with Gucci on a Mariah Carey video, so I asked him to hook me up with Gucci’s manager. At the time, Gucci was in prison, so we called him in jail, and I said: “I have a part for you. As soon as you get out of jail, I’ll be waiting, just make sure you don’t reoffend.” He was really excited. And he didn’t reoffend.
Pitchfork: Did he choose the women in the scenes with him?
HK: I knew he liked thick chicks, so I would try to look for more meaty girls. I was getting most of them from these crazy black strip clubs in the outskirts of Tampa. I would tell him to pick the ones he wanted, but he just didn’t care. Even in that sequence where he’s having sex with that girl with the huge ass, he fell asleep while she was pretending to fuck him! She was riding his dick while he was snoring. He would also do these crazy things, like we’d be in the middle of a scene and he’d say, “Oh, I gotta go do a show, I’ll be back in two hours.”
Pitchfork: As a filmmaker living in Nashville, how do you become familiar with underground trap culture in Florida?
HK: I spent a lot of time in Tampa and started to network there. Certain people, real trap heads, are living the life. You piece it together and try to make things as authentic as possible. Some of the people in one of the scenes, for instance, were part of Gucci’s posse from Atlanta.
I didn’t even intend to make a film about spring break. It’s more of an impressionistic reinterpretation of all those things-- a pop poem. “Spring break” is really pretty fleeting in the film; I was more interested in Alien’s world. And then it becomes more about the trap houses, the neighborhoods off the strip, the faded yachts. A kind of beach noir. I always felt that Florida had this strange, sinister, magic vibe, and that’s what I wanted to explore.
Pitchfork: What compelled you to make Skrillex's music a central piece?
HK: I wanted the film to have a physical component and to be closer to a drug experience-- something that had an elevation, a transcendence, and then disappeared. Trance-like. His music was representative of that. It had all these pop elements, but also this bombastic and brutal electronic aspect. He’s also of that culture in a lot of ways, and a lot of those kids [in the film] would be listening to his music. I thought it would be interesting to put him with someone like Cliff Martinez, who I’ve admired for a long time. I thought the two of them had something that made sense with the images. They created a liquid narrative.
Pitchfork: You chose Britney Spears as a thread as well, but her music really predates the teenage girls featured in the film. Why Britney?
HK: Britney was the forebear to this pop insanity that seems to have taken over, she’s the best at that. This might sound crazy, but there’s something much more complicated in her music. On the surface, it’s poppy and airless and morose and beautiful, but underneath, I always felt like there was a violence and a pathology.
Pitchfork: She's kind of a tragic American hero now.
HK: It’s weird, though. She’s more like magic now. I don’t view her as tragic. She’s almost more than a person-- she’s like an energy.
Pitchfork: On the other end of that spectrum, there's Beyoncé, who never makes a mistake. Did you watch her documentary Life Is But a Dream?
HK: Yeah... what are you going to do? [shrugs] And someone like Taylor Swift-- my four-year-old daughter loves her music. I don’t find anything offensive about her, but it’s not my thing.
Pitchfork: What are the logistics of putting you, Harmony, Skrillex, and Cliff Martinez together? Seems like a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
Randall Poster: My work with Harmony begins even before there’s a full script. We traced out some points of interest and then narrowed in. Harmony is very strong with music in terms of being aware of what’s bubbling up. We wanted there to be a hip-hop element by virtue of [James Franco's] Alien character, but he also wanted to bring urban reality into it, and then he had this notion of having the sound of Skrillex in the film.
If you find the music to be poetic at all, that poetry is in Skrillex’s unique and incredibly romantic sound. The remarkable thing about Skrillex is he’s not afraid of emotion. He’s like Harmony-- they don’t necessarily avoid the pop element. And because there’s so much film music in the movie, it made sense to have an experienced hand like Cliff Martinez as part of the creative team in terms of creating a complete musical tableau.
Pitchfork: As a result, there are hardly any moments in the film that have no music whatsoever. Did you ever consider pulling it back?
RP: We did pull back a little bit, but not much. In the film, you’re going back and forth in time, and a visual pattern emerges. The music gives you a footing in the editorial style.
Pitchfork: The girls break out in song a few times. Was any of that improvised?
RP: Yes. One day they just started singing Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”. During filming, I was sitting in command central monitoring when the girls were improvising songs, so I could make sure we could get the rights to it.
Pitchfork: There are a lot of songs that are in the movie that sound like they would be expensive to include-- like “Hot in Herre” or Britney Spears’ “Everytime”. I often think about the episode of “Mad Men” that used the Beatles for a quarter of a million dollars.
RP: I have to deal with the rights and the coordination of all that. Either the artists are going to embrace it by appreciating Harmony’s body of work and his point of view, or it isn’t going to work out. But the artists we reached out to were very supportive of the whole project. For instance, the Britney Spears camp was very supportive of the film, and the licensing of her music was not unreasonable.
Pitchfork: Did either of you go back to old footage of MTV’s "Spring Break" from the early 2000s for inspiration?
RP: Harmony has been collecting a lot of imagery from spring breaks for years and years, so he used some of those more mainstream, accessible images, too. He said he wanted it to feel like he was shooting the movie through Skittles. He was trying to capture that color scheme, that innocent reference point, but then he spins it.
Harmony doesn’t condescend when it comes to big teen-pop idols-- he really appreciates pop music and the power of those songs and those performers. It relates to the value of casting these girls who are teen idols today and pushing them into a more adult scenario. He doesn’t condescend to his audience. And he’s obsessed with teen obsession. Harmony is a really big fan of Britney Spears, he appreciates the potency. And he has a keen empathy for underdogs and outsiders. He certainly knows how to create sensation, but it’s always musically rewarding and exposes people to things they probably don’t know as well as they should.
When I get Mike Patton and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance together on a conference call a few weeks ago, it feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between brothers. They finish each other’s sentences, sketch in the details to each other’s memories-- it’s hard to believe they’ve only really known each other about a year. But when you consider their respective bodies of work, it’s easy to understand why they're on the same wavelength. Patton’s name has become synonymous with “genre agnostic”-- he’s fronted a number of impossible-to-define acts like Mr. Bungle, Faith No More, Fantômas, and most recently the experimental metal supergroup Tomahawk. Cianfrance’s career has taken similar twists and turns, moving from immersive documentaries (he’s shot profiles of Mos Def, Diddy, and Run-DMC), to impressionistic features including the searing, Oscar-nominated 2010 drama Blue Valentine, which starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Something about the rhythms of Cianfrance’s films feel lyrical, almost musical, so it comes as no great surprise when he says, "I always felt that music has taught me how to be an artist and see the world.”
And no musician has impacted his vision more than his longtime hero Mike Patton. Cianfrance has been a huge fan of Patton’s many projects for more than two decades (he used to cut his student films to Mr. Bungle songs), so it’s still a bit surreal to him that Patton composed the original score for his latest feature, The Place Beyond the Pines. Starring Gosling as a troubled stunt motorcycle driver and Bradley Cooper as an anxious cop, Pines is a multi-generational meditation on masculinity and lineage. Patton’s haunting score is the glue uniting the film’s three disparate sections and many different tones. His more visceral and industrial compositions effectively rise above the grumble of Gosling’s motorcycle, but it’s the quieter moments that linger. Patton’s piano-driven score is appropriately ominous, as though it gets to glimpse the danger around the corner just a few moments before the viewer.
Though their serendipitous meeting was two decades in the making, judging from the creative sparks flying between them on the call, Pines could be the beginning of a long collaboration.
Pitchfork: Derek, how did you first get into Mike’s music?
Derek Cianfrance: My older brother gave me a cassette tape of Mr. Bungle, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. I used to drive around Colorado in a Mustang II-- it was when they got away from the muscle-car Mustangs, so it was sort of old lady. I couldn’t go above 45 mph in that car, but I would drive around listening to Mr. Bungle.
Then in Denver, around 1991, I saw Bungle play, and it was one of those transformative musical experiences. It was the best show I’d ever seen. Patton was wearing, like, a bondage mask with horse blinders. Mike, I’m not making that up, right? You had horse blinders on?
Mike Patton: Yeah, I still have them.
DC: I was mesmerized-- I saw him licking some bald guy’s head in the front row.
MP: That I have no recollection of.
DC: So Patton became a hero of mine, almost to the point of obsession. I bought everything he ever recorded. Anyone in my life knew that Patton was the person I worshipped and wished I could be like when I grew up.
When I was living in Boulder, there were these two girls who lived underneath me who kept coming up to the house and bringing us food, which was nice. But I started listening to Patton’s music as loud as I could because I wanted to be left alone at that time. [laughs]
MP: That’s what my music is good for-- clearing out the house and being alone. [laughs]
DC: When I was growing up and as a film student, I’d always put his music to [soundtrack] my films. My images and his music felt linked. It’s a kinship, really.
Cianfrance, Gosling, and Cooper on the set of The Place Beyond the Pines
Pitchfork: So flash forward about two decades. How did this collaboration come about all these years later?
DC: I was at [talent agency] WME and an agent stopped me in the hallway and said, “Hey, I want you to check out this new guy we’ve got doing soundtracks, he’s really exciting.” And I said, “What’s his name?” And he says, “Mike Patton.” I stopped the guy in his tracks and said, “Don’t tell me another word.”
Two weeks later, Mike and I met up in New York and we talked about maybe collaborating someday. He had read the Pines script, but I had another composer attached to it at the time. Then I shot the movie, and it wasn’t meant to be with the other composer. So I called up Mike.
MP: Which really surprised me. I was like, “I gotta get my shit together.”
Pitchfork: Mike, tell me about the process of working on the score. Did Derek give you a lot of direction or did you pretty much have free reign?
MP: Derek would say, “I have this kind of scene, here’s the vibe, here’s what I want.” It wasn’t like I had to score to picture, which I’m not so good at. He basically allowed me the freedom. Even if the scene was 30 seconds, I would write a three or five or 10-minute piece. Maybe it’s not going to fit the film, but to me it’s more important to explore and be able to go up, down, left, right-- Derek approached me in a musical way, which was very respectful and enticing.
DC: In all my time making films, it felt weird hiring an actual composer to work the picture. It wasn’t a process I was familiar or comfortable with. So when Patton came on, I said, “I’ve loved your music my whole life. You know what the script is, you’ve seen the footage, you’ve seen some cuts, you’ve seen images. Just make your music.” And when his music started coming in, it was instantly part of the world these characters were in. It felt like their souls.
MP: The creative process for a musician is very different than for a filmmaker. I have an idea and I can pretty much execute it. As old as I am now and as long as I’ve been doing it, I can pretty much get it done in a week. Poor Derek has a great idea that should be out tomorrow, but he has to go through this process of getting financing, then selling it, then casting. I’ve always been in awe of filmmakers and their patience in realizing their vision because I could never do that. I would have given up on Pines as soon as the first person said "no." Derek and filmmakers in general have the thickest, most amazing layer of skin. I wish I had that.
Gosling and Williams in Blue Valentine
Pitchfork: Derek, you also worked with Grizzly Bear on the music for your previous film, Blue Valentine. Was that process very different?
DC: I felt like that movie was ultimately about about relationships. And in Grizzly Bear’s music, there’s all these duets between Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste. Their music felt very much like this interplay between the masculine and feminine to me. It fit. This movie is dealing more with issues of legacy and haunted pasts. Whenever I listened to Patton's music throughout my life, I always thought it was so cinematic. It was no surprise to me when I heard he was making soundtracks.
MP: I saw Blue Valentine after we got in contact, and I remember thinking, “Oh, you did that movie. My goodness.” I felt a similar sense of magnetism, like, “I know what this guy’s doing."
Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines
Pitchfork: Derek, do you have an overall philosophy about the role music plays in your films?
DC: Making a film is like making a mixtape. You’re collecting all this stuff and putting your favorite stuff into it: you have actors that you like, characters that you’re interested in, moments you want to explore, themes you want to deal with, music that you want to put in. It’s a pastiche of all these things that deal with how you see the world. You’re just trying to make a love letter, a gift. I feel similar to a lot of people. I don’t feel unique. So what I’m trying to do in my films is provide something for people like me, but also a collection of scenes that instigate.
That’s what I always liked about Mike’s music, too. It always felt like it was provoking something. Even at that Mr. Bungle show, the band played this version of “Time” [by the Alan Parsons Project.] It was so beautiful, but he was also playing to a crowd full of metalheads who didn’t always listen to that type of music. But that didn’t mean they felt it any less. Mike's never going to make music that’s not Mike.
MP: That’s all you can do. God help you if Hollywood gets a hold of you, but I have complete and utter faith that Derek is going to make his films the way he wants no matter what outside influences there are.
As of this writing, a fan-made video for the Radiohead song "Innocent Civilian" has been viewed on YouTube 27,639 times. The song's words appear on at least two dozen lyrics sites, and if you want to know the chords you can find a tab on Ultimate-Guitar.com that has been accessed 2,517 times. There is, naturally, a webcam video of a guy playing a serviceable-yet-unexceptional cover on YouTube (itself viewed 3,715 times), straining to do his best impression of Thom Yorke's shuddering alien falsetto when he hits the song's emotional crux: "What am I trying to hide?"
A couple of years ago, my friend Sepie was at work. He and his boss split DJ duties in the office, and on this particular day he'd put his iPod on shuffle and "Innocent Civilian" came on. His boss asked who it was. "Radiohead," Sepie said. Wasn't it obvious? His boss shot him a skeptical look. What album? "It's the last track on the special edition of Hail to the Thief," Sepie informed him. His boss was sure he was wrong, and for a few minutes they had that particular sort of High Fidelity-esque argument that can only take place between two passionately defensive music nerds before a quick Google search solved the mystery.
The song wasn't by Radiohead; it wasn't even called "Innocent Civilian". It was "Some Things Must Go This Way", a 2000 track by the Los Angeles alt-rock group Paloalto. For Sepie, conceding this argument-- and admitting that he’d liked a Paloalto song before realizing it was a Paloalto song-- was a matter of taste. While the band’s anguished power-pop isn't a far cry from Pablo Honey, and frontman James Grundler's voice is a classic Yorke doppleganger, Paloalto's positioning in the fixed constellation of indie rock cred is light years away from a band like Radiohead. To give you some perspective: Scott Weiland reps so hard for Paloalto that he covered "Some Things Must Go This Way" on his 2008 solo album.
"Looking back, there's something almost poetic about mislabeled
P2P mp3s-- inviting the listener to imagine cross-generational
mash-ups and back-from-the-dead collaborations, the titles themselves read like fan fiction in miniature."
Everybody has an "Innocent Civilian". Or at least everybody who has halcyon dial-up memories of staring at a Napster progress bar and praying that nobody in your house picks up the landline before your "NEW UNRELEASED RADIOHEAD" files finish downloading. Sepie had downloaded his "special edition" copy of Hail to the Thief from the popular file-sharing site Kazaa, which was infamously riddled with mislabeled mp3s.
I've been grilling people about their most memorable mislabels for this column, and when I broach the topic, all of their faces light up with recognition, nostalgia, and a tinge of embarrassment. Mine is pretty emo: In my early teens, I could have recited pretty much every song by the Florida pop-punk band New Found Glory, though I always told people (with a certain hoity air) that my favorite release of theirs was an untitled, unreleased EP recorded just before their original singer left the band. It wasn't until years later that I realized this "original singer" was Davey von Bohlen and that this "EP" was not New Found Glory at all, just a couple songs plucked from the Promise Ring's (excellent) 1999 album Very Emergency. Pitchfork contributor Jayson Greene had a similar experience: "In the spring of 2000, when I was a freshman in college, some wiseass posted Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted on Napster with bogus track names and the title BRAND NEW WEEZER," he recalls. "I was duped."
From Bill Amend's Foxtrot comic strip
On P2P sites, most things that seemed too good to be true actually were: SEO-baiting, fantasy-football remixes ("Big Pimpin' Remix [ft. Eminem, Dr. Dre, DMX, Nas, Biggie and Tupac"), "covers" that were actually just the original song ("You Really Got Me" by the Who turned out to just be the Kinks’ version), or painfully obvious amateurs uploading their demos and calling it, say, "Beastie Boys-- Intergalactic ALBUM VERSION." Plenty of mislabels were obvious as soon as you previewed them, so you could simply cancel the download in progress-- but this was still annoying. Considering that plenty of Napster and early P2P users had temperamental, slow-as-molasses 56k modems, these kinds of mislabels spelled nothing but frustration; they were wastes of all-too-precious downloading time. Looking back now, though, I find something almost poetic about them-- inviting the listener to imagine cross-generational mash-ups and back-from-the-dead collaborations, the titles themselves read like fan fiction in miniature.
But what I'm calling an "Innocent Civilian" requires belief. Now that we're older, wiser, and implanted with that jaded, post-Catfish, fake-until-proven-real brand of digital skepticism, it's almost impossible to imagine mistaking a Stone Temple Pilots rip-off for post-Kid A Radiohead, or Stephen Malkmus for Rivers Cuomo. But the early days of file sharing were uncertain times, and technology was rapidly expanding like a just-born universe; we didn't yet have our epistemological footing. And maybe because of this, I don't ever remember thinking too much about why there were so many mislabeled mp3s out there. Like Jayson, I either assumed it was the work of "some wiseass" playing a prank, or that a large swath of the music-uploading population was dumb enough to actually think "Melt With You" was a Cure song, and that the Clash did "Come On Eileen", and that Phish were this prolific, proto-Karmin force of evil behind every bad acoustic white-dude rap cover ever recorded.
But for at least some of the "Innocent Civilian"s that lingered in our libraries, we have the Fix Brothers to thank. By day, John Fix III and his brother Michael ran a hardware store in Eastchester, New York, but by night, the 12 computers in the back of the store were the headquarters of a hacktivist operation called the Cuckoo's Egg Project-- which aimed to be "a monkey wrench in the machinery of online piracy," according to a manifesto on their website. More often than not, we tend to think of hacktivists in the Anonymous mold-- merry digital pranksters advocating for transparency, free speech, and open access. But the Cuckoo's Egg Project was (with Lars Ulrich as its spirit guide) more about limiting access to music and other copyrighted media on P2P networks. Their motivation? Michael's wife Stephanie was a musician herself, and he was repulsed at the thought of people downloading her songs without paying for them. So with the intention of creating widespread confusion and distrust among Napster users, they came up with the idea of "cuckoo's eggs," mp3s that were tagged as popular songs but actually contained anything from white noise, bird sounds, barking dogs, fart noises, anti-piracy messages (which encouraged the imagined, suddenly-repentant listener to visit their website for more information), or different songs entirely. According to a 2000 New York Times story, when the Fixes closed the hardware store at six every evening, they left their computers on so they could "lay eggs" all night.
The Cuckoo's Egg Project wasn't the only operation of its kind. The artist and computer programmer Mark Gunderson was behind a movement to disseminate mislabeled, often politically-minded mp3s that he called "Napster Nuggets." Then there was StopNapster.com, spearheaded by a Bay Area band called the Tabloids. The domain is no longer live, but it's well worth a quick trip in the Wayback Machine to remember just how heated the Napster War's rhetoric got: "Audio file sharing software appears to be the digital equivalent of unsafe sex," the StopNapster homage warned beneath a blazing red skull-and-crossbones banner, "A disaster waiting to happen." Like the Cuckoo's Egg Project (which also offered a step-by-step tutorial called "How To Lay Eggs"), StopNapster tried to incite others to further the cause. There's an entire section of the site that explains how to make "Napster bombs" ("intentionally mislabeled file[s] masquerading as song[s] by a major artist") and "Trojan Horses" ("the correct song file with the accurate credits but [which] has been made useless by interspersing anti-piracy speeches randomly throughout the track").
I never knew any of this until I started digging around last week, and I was pretty astonished to find that something I'd always figured was either human error or a mischievous prank was actually a (semi-)sophisticated hacktivist ring trying to disseminate a clear political message. The Fixes' "How To Lay Cuckoo Eggs" tutorial is particularly illuminating. "Pick more popular songs for maximum demand," it instructs. "Remixes and duets are very popular downloads as are live recordings. Try and use songs from artists who've expressed disapproval of file sharing." This explains why Dr. Dre (listed just below Metallica in a StopNapster list lauding artists who oppose file sharing) made an appearance on every faux-rap remix, or why P2P sites were congested with fake "Phish" covers (while the band encouraged fans to bootleg and swap their live performances, StopNapster points out that frontman Trey Anastasio spoke out against other forms of file sharing: "It's important for people to know that what they're doing is stealing from artists.") Suddenly, it makes sense why Radiohead was such an obvious target-- not only were they one of the most popular bands of the moment, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a band whose stereotypical fan more vividly conjured the profile of "person who sits in front of a computer all day."
The irony of the Cuckoo’s Egg Project was that, as sanctimonious as its motivations were, it was just as illegal as Napster. So when a federal judge ordered the file-sharing service to be shut down in September 2001, the Fixes’ project met its end. “We have no illusions that we brought down Napster,” they write on the last update of their site, though the overall tone of the message is triumphant. The more politically-motivated Gunderson, on the other hand, was disappointed by the fall of Napster. “We wish [it] could have grown and flourished, rather than lose to the labels,” he wrote; for him, Napster bombs held the revolutionary potential to “inject a toy surprise in the mainstream’s Cracker Jack.” He saw disrupting the flow of file sharing as an act of culture jamming, which he hoped would start a widespread discussion about major-label beaurocracy, mass media ownership, and the nature of art in the 21st century.
I don’t know if I’d consider Gunderson’s attempts at culture jamming a success, since up until last week I-- and pretty much everyone else I talked to for this piece-- had no idea we’d been jammed in the first place. As the YouTube comments thread on "Innocent Civilian" attests, there's still plenty of lingering fallout from Napster bombs, though I don’t think it's quite as esoteric and philosophical as the discussion Gunderson hoped to inspire:
nimmrod1102: “this IS NOT radiohead…this fake version has been floating around online for years now”
minkaworks: “then why does it sound just like him”
ThelemicMagick: “This IS Radiohead…this song is actually Nigel Godrich’s favorite song of the pre-Kid A era…get your facts straight.”
noxxus39: “If you’re a doubter and still think that this is Radiohead go see for yourself. Search ‘Paloalto’ on Amazon.”
angeles flores cuevas: “es un cover !!!!”
Still, maybe what was jammed was that fixed idea of indie-rock cool-- that unspoken, dangerously immutable rubric asserting that Pavement is better than Weezer, Radiohead is better than Paloalto, and everything is better than Scott Weiland. In 2007, writer and Radiohead superfan Andrew Unterberger penned a thoughtful blog post about his belated discovery that one of his favorite Amnesiac B-sides was actually-- gasp-- a mislabeled Muse song. “Muse had always been something of a musical punchline to [me],” he wrote, “the palest of pale imitations." But being forced to come to terms with actually liking one of their songs by accident taught him a lesson about the politics of taste in the digital era. “Who created a song isn’t what’s important, what’s important is the way a song makes you feel," he wrote. "Or, failing that, at least always make sure to double check your Audiogalaxy file information.”
Photo by Alexa Vachon
The Knife: "A Tooth for an Eye" on SoundCloud.
Smack dab in the middle of the new Knife album comes a track called "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized". It consists of precisely 19 minutes and 22 seconds worth of ominous ambient drone. At one point, an antsy, step-like patter cuts through, sounding like it's running away from something awful. The clank of closing metal doors are dispersed throughout. Distant alarms beep in agony. The constant hum of queasy synthetic chords suggest nothing less than a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Play it in your headphones and it'll turn a routine subway trip into a terrifying existential journey. And, in a way, that is what the Swedish duo are trying to do with all of Shaking the Habitual, their first proper album since 2006's stunning Silent Shout. They want to question everything we use to put people into physical, psychological, and statistical slots: gender, race, class, sexuality. All of it.
"There are so many old ideas that are not realized yet: classless society, real democracy, all peoples' right to move and be in the world with the same circumstances, I could go on," says Olof Dreijer. And while the emptiness of "Old Dreams" doesn't exactly suggest a happy ending for these suspended visions, its existence shows that the Knife are unafraid when it comes to obliterating their own musical habits. Because Shaking the Habitual-- out April 9 via Rabid/Brille/Mute-- also dismantles what people expect from a Knife album: six of the double album's 13 tracks clock in at more than eight minutes, as Olof and his sister Karin Dreijer Andersson go from industrial-tinged techno, to doom-laden balladry, to unnerving tribal sing-alongs. "It’s nice to play with people’s time these days," says Karin during a recent conference call, talking about "Old Dreams"' extended running time. Both Karin, 37, and Olof, 31, are calm and careful on the phone, deliberate in their quest to, as Olof puts it, "not be misunderstood."
To that end, the album is also the pair's most explicitly political statement to date as it comments on monarchy, patriarchy, separatism, racism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism, and several other -isms. "Three years ago, when we started to talk about whether we were going to work together again, we wanted to find a way to combine our political interests with making music," says Karin. So they buried themselves in progressive gender studies and political theory books, and then tried to mirror those texts' structure-busting concepts with similarly innovative sounds. Many of the album's tracks came out of live, improvisational sessions between Karin and Olof, a new strategy for the duo, who were used to programming and constructing their songs via computer. For "Old Dreams", for example, they set up a PA and mics in a "big boiler room" and recorded hours of feedback before editing it down. The jam-based approach lends the album a distinct human-ness as the unorthodox, otherworldly instrumentation teases-out the imagination. "We are driven by curiosity," says Olof.
Pitchfork: The "Full of Fire" video questions a policy that offers tax deductions for wealthy Swedes who employ women as maids for little pay. And in the video, you guys play the yuppie couple who are taking advantage of the tax break-- you're poking fun at yourselves while taking on these larger political issues.
Olof Dreijer: We’ve been talking about the importance of making your privileges transparent in order to be able to say something political. It's something I learned from reading about intersectionality, which is a way to analyze power by looking at its different categories-- gender, race, class, sexuality-- and how they interact. Before we started making this album, after not having worked together for a long time, we were interested in getting deeper into feminist and queer theory. So we read post-colonial feminist and anti-racist theory, and with this comes intersectionality. It's important to see your own position on the scale.
Being brought up in a white wealthy family in a Western country, we were privileged. And we have a privileged position as people being able to make music and study and get asked about what we think about the general political situation. This brings responsibility. When we see people listen to what we have to say, it makes us think about how we can use this attention in the best political way and how we can change our own working process by thinking norm-critically when making choices about who we employ, how we work, what salaries we pay.
Pitchfork: How did you originally get interested in feminist and queer theory?
Karin Dreijer Andersson: It’s something I’ve been interested at least since I started playing music, when I was around 15. It has taken different shapes during the years, but I've always been interested in trying to understand power structures in society and why some people have a lot and others don’t have anything.
OD: In Sweden, there are a lot of mainstream drag people that have been quite important. And I looked up to my sisters, too. I was the youngest of three, and that had a certain impact. Early on, I got to know activist groups like anarcha-feminists, who were really inspiring. Meeting people who take their feminist theories into action has been really important.
Pitchfork: Were you worried about taking such a big step into the political realm with this album, or if people would think you were preaching to them?
KDA: I haven’t thought about that at all. This album plays around with questions and issues that we have been dealing with from the beginning, in a way, but it is much more on a structural level rather than a psychological level. The most commercial way of doing it would be to stick with a formula, and, musically, this album is quite far from Deep Cuts. But that was also something we discussed, like, "Should we change our name? Maybe we shouldn’t be the Knife anymore because we are doing something very different." But I think it’s really more important to keep the name and do something completely different.
Pitchfork: How did your research on gender affect the music of the album?
OD: We read so much, and all these ideas steered our choices when it came to sound and rhythm. We are interested in making sounds where you don’t hear their origin, sounds that are a bit in between acoustic and synthetic. We want to diffuse these borders-- you could say we are queering certain sounds. If we have a sound that we’ve heard in a setting that we don’t like so much, like a white male rock band, we try to make it different through things like alternative tunings. We learned about how you can play around with different scales and why a group of people have come to agree that one scale is more harmonious than another.
Pitchfork: The lyrics to “A Cherry on Top” reference a medieval Swedish castle, and its sounds are very decayed-- it feels like a monarchy that's falling apart.
KDA: Well, that’s good. [laughs] We were playing a zither and tuning it at the same time. And for the lyrics, I mean, Sweden is still a monarchy. We think about ourselves as a democracy but we have built our society upon this structure where the throne is inherited by blood. So when I wrote those lyrics and was singing them, I was thinking of one of the children in the castle. That is something that comes back a few times on the album-- castles and bloodlines-- because it’s insane and fascinating to build a society based on that kind of biological family, which I think is the most fragile construction in society. Within politics, we have the Christian Democrats and also the right wing who talk about how families are the best ones to decide upon how to raise children. But I think it’s very strange to leave so much responsibility to such a shaky construction.
Pitchfork: To many Americans, at least, Sweden seems like a pretty progressive place, but you're saying that's not necessarily the case.
KDA: It’s difficult. Because a lot of Swedish people think of themselves as so progressive, they also think that they don’t have to deal with anything any more. But Sweden has a huge problem with racism, for example. Ever since a few years ago, we have a racist political party [Swedish Democrats]. They talk a lot about “us” as white, Swedish people, and the “others” as everybody else, along with closing the borders and not having any more immigrants.
OD: They are pretty good at packaging it into something else, but often not so good at hiding it. They have some influential power-- in the polls at the moment, they have 8%. It’s quite severe. They affect the mainstream discourse. It has become more OK to be this public racist, but it's often put in the frame of claiming the need for freedom of speech. Many white people see no problem in using the n-word. It’s not so progressive. There are some progressions when it comes to equality between genders, but it only works for people who are white, middle class, have a good-paying job, and are happy with the gender they were born in.
Pitchfork: On “A Tooth for an Eye”, you sing, “I’m telling you stories, trust me.” So while you're pointing out how so much of our history comes from a very white, male viewpoint, you're also acknowledging that this album is coming from a specific perspective as well.
KDA: I actually borrowed that line from my favorite Jeanette Winterson book, The Passion. It's important to question my story and my way of telling it, too. It's good to ask questions instead of serving answers.
Pitchfork: The album takes aim at a lot of traditional values-- have you thought about what your idea of a perfect society or government would look like?
KDA: [laughs] That can be a long question to answer. But I believe that people would be happier sharing things and being much more of a collective rather than working from these neo-liberal ideas of just looking after yourself. I think people need each other.
Photo by Jane Chardiet
Pharmakon: "Crawling on Bruised Knees" on SoundCloud.
Pharmakon is the noise project of 22-year-old New York native Margaret Chardiet. I first became aware of her a couple of years ago through her incredible live show-- surrounded by electronics and possessed with an intense multi-octave scream, she alternates between staring audience members down and disappearing into her own head.
For four years, Chardiet lived in, and helped run, the Far Rockaway, New York, punk house Red Light District. (I organized a show there in May 2011.) In January, due to Hurricane Sandy as well as personal reasons, Chardiet relocated from Red Light to another DIY space, 538 Johnson in Bushwick. Following this shift, and a handful of CD-R’s and cassettes, she’s about to release her first widely distributed collection, Abandon, on May 14 via Sacred Bones. The five-song record is a journey into Chardiet’s all-consuming approach: across 27 minutes, she moves between industrialized clatter, amped-up death-rants, chilly power electronics, and harrowing apocalyptic soundscapes. At times she brings to mind Diamanda Galás, at others Throbbing Gristle, early Swans, or Prurient. (Listen to the Abandon track "Crawling on Bruised Knees" above.)
I spoke with Chardiet at 538 Johnson about the new album, while other members of the household were getting things ready for a black metal/punk show happening later that night.
Pitchfork: What is the meaning behind Abandon's cover art?
Margaret Chardiet: The artwork was conceived and executed by me, and photographed by my sister Jane. The concept comes from a very real experience where I was throwing away most of my belongings and going through old ephemera, and I found an old love letter. When I opened it, there was a pressed flower that fell onto my lap, along with a bunch of writhing maggots. They had been eating the flower. I had this sense of abandon and I just burned it all. I thought, "This isn't true anymore. I don't own this." And I just let it go.
I recently went through sudden, drastic life changes that were completely out of my control and not by choice. All of a sudden, there was no stability in my life; everything I'd viewed as constant slipped away. In this weird way, it became a catalyst for a drastic shift in my creative life as well. When the bottom falls out and you have to crawl your way out, when you get to the top, you’re alone-- and you're different than you were. If you let go and give yourself over to it, you’re lighter and freer, too. The album’s about fiercely holding on to what's true and unapologetically abandoning what's not.
"I've been going to punk shows since I was a baby-- my dad brought me to a Nausea show and threw my dirty diaper into the pit."
Pitchfork: You grew up in New York and you live in Brooklyn now, during a time when much of the area’s scene involves people from elsewhere. Did growing up in New York affect your approach to music-making?
MC: A huge part of my fascination with this idea of confronting people by being vulnerable-- forcing someone to look you in the eyes, to connect with you-- has a lot do with growing up where there can be someone crying or vomiting on the subway and it's rude to look, let alone offer help. Or you see a parent beating their kid in a bodega and no one does anything. I used to come home from elementary school every day and have to walk around this half-naked homeless woman who was constantly changing clothes. You’re surrounded by people to the point where they’re crowding on top of each other and everyone’s in each other’s faces all the time, but no one acknowledges each other. Everyone has their own little bubble. There’s a huge disconnect. And my desire to make people feel something and truly be present in the moment and connect has a lot to do with that.
Growing up in the city, you see things that most children don’t see. Your childhood is cut short. But it’s not all bad. You have so much access to culture. As a kid, I would go to the Met and spend all day there if I was bored. You grow up faster emotionally and intellectually, too, so you know who you are sooner and enjoy more of your time on earth.
Pitchfork: What are your parents like?
MC: Both my parents are punks; my dad's a guitarist and my mom's a painter. I grew up listening to Dead Boys and the Stooges, and going to punk shows literally from the time I was a baby. My dad brought me to a Nausea show and threw my dirty diaper into the pit-- that young. When I first showed them my music, they said, "Oh, you found the one thing more extreme than how you were raised." Not that it's about that at all.
Pitchfork: How did you arrive at your sound? Did you ever have a project where you were playing guitar or were you immediately drawn towards electronics?
MC: I’ve had a guitar since I was a kid. When I was 14, I started making these horrible recordings of myself in my bedroom. I wanted to do something new. I was making weird noise-y things that were basically bad punk songs with tons of distortion and keyboard. When I discovered noise/power electronics I was like, "This is what I'm supposed to be doing." And then I became really serious about making music.
Pitchfork: You were one of the people who founded and worked out of Red Light District, the DIY space out in Far Rockaway. How did that start?
MC: Me and my friends who played in bands with one another decided that we wanted to live together so that we could practice as loud as we wanted, and also have shows. There was really nowhere good to play in New York for noise and weird underground experimental stuff. I had already been living in Far Rockaway with my dad, so I was like, "There’s this neighborhood where no one wants to fucking live, so you can rent actual houses for cheap."
That was over four years ago. There's an underground network of amazing experimental sound artists across America who would tour and play our venue, and it became an important destination for noisers for a while. Unfortunately, due to Hurricane Sandy, there's no longer a subway going to Rockaway, so shows have pretty much stopped for the time being. But I hope, it will pick back up in the summer. I don't live there anymore, but I plan on staying involved, and all the people that comprised the Red Light are still my dearest friends. We’ll always be a clan.
Pitchfork: Something that impressed me about Red Light District was that people went all the way out there to see music. Especially in New York, where you can walk a block and be at a bar or walk to the subway and be at a show in 10 minutes, it felt special.
MC: Right. Because you had to take an hour and a half subway ride to get there, you didn’t get people who were at the show because they just wanted to party. Cultural tourists are not going to trek that far. Being a part of that community meant dedication. It was a very genuine, honest place.
Pitchfork: When we did the show with you and Peter Sotos and Yellow Tears in 2011, I didn’t see anyone on their cell phones.
MC: That's how it should be. Something is happening and people are actually experiencing it, letting it affect them, contemplating it afterwards, and letting it sink in-- instead of forming their opinion immediately based on what other people will think of their opinion or whether it will make a good post on social media.
Pitchfork: There’s something powerful about being able to forget things.
MC: Yes, because then the stuff that stands out-- the things you do remember-- holds weight, and the other things kind of float off into the distance.
Pitchfork: You don’t have an online presence. Is that intentional?
MC: Yeah. Because everyone is guilty of hearing about a band and then going online and listening to it on shitty computer speakers and thinking, "Let me form an opinion on this immediately." It becomes disposable. What I’m doing deserves to be listened to in a more real way than that. I don’t think it should exist in that internet realm because it can’t be properly understood if you hear it that way. I would prefer it for people to hold a record or a CD and be able to look at the artwork and read the lyrics and have the full concept when they hear it, or to see it live. YouTube videos are never really fully attached to the performance, but people know it’s a document of something else and view it as such, so that's OK.
"I don't want to appeal only to people who are cool enough to have all the right records to understand the backdrop of where my music is coming from. If it can reach the uninitiated, it validates the art."
Pitchfork: Abrasive music has found a bigger audience over the last few years. Do you see what you do as something that could potentially cross over?
MC: The music that I make is about connection and making people feel something, so I would hope that people would be able to latch onto those very raw, human aspects, and that it could appeal to their base inner nature. I’m interested in the idea of the art being valid on its own without context-- of not having to be initiated into experimental music or noise to appreciate it. I don't want to appeal only to people who are cool enough to have all the right records to understand the backdrop of where its coming from. If it can reach the uninitiated, it validates the art.
Pitchfork: Noise is a male-focused scene in a lot of ways. Do you feel like you have to prove yourself to people more because you're a woman?
MC: It’s really not something I think about much. There have been women making noise since the 80s. It’s a male-dominated scene but not more so than any other scene. Pharmakon is me, so I take it very personally. It’s the most sensitive part of my mind and my heart. When I put that out to someone and the only thing they can say is, "oh look, it's a girl screaming," I want to fucking kill them because I’m literally pouring my heart and soul out, being so vulnerable. If the only thing you can grasp from it is something so superficial as the fact that I’m a woman making noise, that suggests to me that you’re not listening very carefully.
Illustration by Michael Renaud
Boston’s weekly paper, The Phoenix, closed down this month, prompting a lot of soul searching and nostalgia here in town and at large about print media, the community it serves, and the end of an era. It's undeniable that something has ended-- but what, exactly?
The origin of The Phoenix, like many alternative newspapers, lies in the underground press of the 1960s. But that link can be misleading. Just as the underground music subcultures of the 80s morphed into the alt rock of the 90s, the alt weeklies of the 70s drew from the same pool of talent and readers as their more radical predecessors, but treated that community as a marketing demographic rather than a potentially revolutionary body. Information about drugs, cops, and music were replaced by articles (and ads) about food, the movies, and… music. The necessities for a drop-out life were swapped with the needs for a lifestyle dependent on free time (students), disposable income (young urban professionals), or both.
Which is not to say political coverage was left behind. On the contrary, alt weeklies like The Phoenix leave a legacy of shrewd political reporting. Especially at the local level, these papers may have offered more purposeful coverage than the scattershot global politics of the underground press (among The Phoenix’s numerous achievements in this regard was breaking the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston). What didn't translate to the alt weeklies, though, was the fundamental political gesture of the underground press as a model for life outside the mainstream-- most radically, a life outside profit and loss.
Alternative media, for all its efforts to promote ideas challenging enough to exist outside the mainstream, never presented an alternative to the dominant economic model we live in.
In 1969, at the height of the underground press era, “72% of underground papers reported [making] no profit whatsoever,” historian John McMillian points out in his book Smoking Typewriters. “Though they worked feverishly, most of them were jaundiced to the very idea of profit-making.” Many operated as collectives without owners, some without editors. “There wasn’t a hierarchical structure to what we were doing, so anybody could come in and get involved,” says a contributor to Austin's The Rag in the colorful oral history of the 60s underground press, On the Ground. “All the underpinnings were different than they were in straight society,” remembers one of the producers of Chicago's Seed. “There was a saying in the Seed, which I always believed: ‘Work is love made visible.’”
The alt weeklies, by contrast, always had a bottom line. Everyone in Boston knew The Phoenix as a business-- one that had expanded into radio, launching the alternative rock station WFNX (a powerhouse of the format, it was chosen for the world premiere broadcast of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991)-- and one whose balance-sheet ups and downs were easily traced in the expansion and contraction of its editorial pages. No ads, no articles; The Phoenix made the equation clear.
Owner Stephen Mindich got out of alternative rock first, selling WFNX to Clear Channel in 2012 for $14.5 million. Clear Channel rebranded it as WHBA, “The Harbor” (playing your favorites of the 70s, 80s, and 90s...). The first and last song played on alt rock WFNX was the Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed”, a lyric that surely sounded different in its initial go-round than in the wake of a Clear Channel deal.
So when Mindich gathered the staff members of The Phoenix together on March 14 and told them they were all out of work effective immediately (and without severance pay), it was a shock, but not exactly a surprise. “As everyone knows,” Mindich wrote in his statement that day, “between the economic crisis beginning in 2007 and the simultaneous radical changes in the media business, particularly as it has affected print media advertising, these have been extremely difficult times for our Company and despite the valiant effort by many, many past and current staff to attempt to stabilize and, in fact, reverse our significant financial losses, we have been unable to do so and they are no longer sustainable.”
Which brings us back to the question, what ended that day, exactly? Mindich is straightforward about it: a business, no longer sustainable from print media advertising. And WFNX, that pioneer of alternative rock? A business, no longer sustainable from terrestrial radio advertising. (Apparently, Clear Channel found its “adult hits” format no more lucrative. The station is now playing dance music.) In other words, alternative media, for all its efforts to promote ideas challenging enough to exist outside the mainstream, never presented an alternative to the dominant economic model we live in. It might even be said that both alternative rock and the alt weeklies did their part to reinforce that model by framing potentially explosive content within a conformist approach to the economy.
The underground-- past and present-- is not about
enrichment or impoverishment. It’s not about business at all.
Without romanticizing the politics of the underground-- I know first-hand there were participants in the underground rock scene of the 80s who were far from anti-capitalist, and the same was obviously true of the underground press of the 60s-- there is a stark difference between the pursuit of profit by alternative media and the goals of the avant-garde. Movements like the underground press coalesce around shifts in perception of daily reality-- “another world is possible,” goes one Occupy chant-- and take root in the imagination. That’s not a struggle for newsstand space or radio play. It’s a change that takes place internally for those who participate-- or witness others’ participation-- in a different way of life. It’s travel to a formerly foreign place, now familiar through experience.
The closing of The Phoenix and the sale of WFNX do not alter our imaginary landscape here in Boston. They do impoverish us as consumers, not to mention producers, of culture, but the underground-- past and present-- is not about enrichment or impoverishment. It’s not about business at all.
That’s what I found special about the underground rock scene of the 80s, when I first started playing in a band. It felt like we were participating in the invention of a different way of life, not a different way to make music. In fact, I never believed we made music in a qualitatively different way, which made the subsequent labeling of our “style” (take your pick: shoegaze, dream-pop, slowcore…) seem all the more cynical as the engines of the alternative rock business got underway. What I believed we were doing differently was never adopted by the major labels, promoters, radio stations, and media outlets that came to represent the "alternative." We were part of a community that seemed to be functioning without regard for profit. “What do you want?” asked the first record company executive who bothered to sit down with Galaxie 500, and began to offer us choices: a new car, our faces on billboards… As he got to the bottom of the list, he suddenly brightened and said: “Oh, I know. You’re in it forthemusic.” (He must have figured he was in for a bargain.)
He still wasn’t right, exactly. Yes, I’m in this for the music. But there’s something else that the alternative rock record exec would never get: I’m in it because, as the hippies of the Seed put it, this work is love made visible.
Alternative rock and the alt weeklies have lived and now largely died by the market. But the underground operates outside of the choices offered by that system. And I see it all around-- among many in music and the arts; in Occupy; in hacktivists who work for internet freedom; in the myriad uncalculated gestures we all make to one another in the course of a day. An alternative media mogul may not recognize the real value of these things, but they are real, and they live on.