Even though most people's music is technically "covered" by hardshell cases nowadays, there's still a desire for visual counterparts—images that hint at the music itself, sink into the tension, set the tone, complement the direction. And in a year when amazing covers were made for albums that don't even exist, animation was added to the classics, children interpreted their favorites, and designers offered remakes using clip art, cats, and tacos, it's safe to say that covers are evolving along with every other way we enjoy our music.
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Articles on this Page
- 12/05/13--13:55: _Staff Lists: The To...
- 12/05/13--22:00: _Staff Lists: The Ye...
- 12/09/13--10:05: _Photo Galleries: Ge...
- 12/09/13--13:25: _Staff Lists: The Be...
- 12/10/13--08:25: _Situation Critical:...
- 12/10/13--10:30: _Photo Galleries: La...
- 12/11/13--10:25: _Staff Lists: The To...
- 12/12/13--08:55: _Paper Trail: Facing...
- 12/12/13--09:30: _Photo Galleries: Da...
- 12/13/13--08:20: _Rising: Tessela
- 01/21/14--08:30: _Articles: Beyoncé's...
- 01/21/14--13:50: _Photo Galleries: 28...
- 01/22/14--10:55: _Update: Actress
- 01/23/14--08:35: _Secondhands: Anythi...
- 01/24/14--08:10: _Update: Angel Olsen
- 01/27/14--09:25: _Starter: John Fahey
- 01/28/14--07:50: _Update: Future Islands
- 01/29/14--08:20: _5-10-15-20: Dum Dum...
- 01/30/14--10:30: _Update: Slint
- 01/31/14--10:20: _Rising: Sevendeaths
- 12/05/13--13:55: Staff Lists: The Top 25 Album Covers of 2013
- 12/05/13--22:00: Staff Lists: The Year in Quotes 2013
- 12/09/13--13:25: Staff Lists: The Best of Pitchfork.tv 2013
- 12/10/13--08:25: Situation Critical: Tavi Gevinson
- 12/10/13--10:30: Photo Galleries: Lauryn Hill's NYC Comeback Show
- 12/11/13--10:25: Staff Lists: The Top Music Videos of 2013
- 12/12/13--08:55: Paper Trail: Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD
- 12/12/13--09:30: Photo Galleries: Darkside at Glasslands
- 12/13/13--08:20: Rising: Tessela
- 01/21/14--08:30: Articles: Beyoncé's Muse
- 01/21/14--13:50: Photo Galleries: 285 Kent Farewell Shows
- 01/22/14--10:55: Update: Actress
- 01/23/14--08:35: Secondhands: Anything But Quiet: New Age Now
- 01/24/14--08:10: Update: Angel Olsen
- 01/27/14--09:25: Starter: John Fahey
- 01/28/14--07:50: Update: Future Islands
- 01/29/14--08:20: 5-10-15-20: Dum Dum Girls
- 01/30/14--10:30: Update: Slint
- 01/31/14--10:20: Rising: Sevendeaths
What does the term "punk" mean in 2013? Is the internet enhancing our enjoyment of music or totally killing it at this point? How important are record labels? What did Francis Ford Coppola say when he watched R. Kelly's 'Trapped in the Closet' for the first time? Keep scrolling for answers to those questions and much more in this collection of our favorite bits from the interviews that ran on Pitchfork throughout the year.
"I stand by everything I’ve
ever said, apologies included."
"I'm not interested in punk as an aesthetic and I certainly don't give a shit what some hardcore kid thinks of our record. It's a fucking arm-wrestling match, and it's pathetic. My idea of punk is not being interested in what other people think of punk."
"Growing up, punk did something to my mind. It really spoke to me; it was mine. If punk hadn’t happened, I probably would have just had a job in a factory—quite a sad fucking life."
"In this day and age, 'punk ideals' are totally irrelevant. Not that it isn’t cool to have them, but times have changed, man.
"When you look at the way that people make decisions in their lives, whether they’re in art or music or industry, they forget that being unique is the answer—becoming yourself and finding an idea. People who make a good first record and then make a shitty second record are scared, they want to have money and security. But the people I look up to don’t give a shit about any of that. They just care about the people around them and about searching."
"Experiencing true organic change is not just vaudeville, like Bowie—it's very difficult to manifest. You need a sea change, as Beck would say. You have to hit a rock bottom or an epiphany, but I don't really run that way. I'm more in the 'know thyself' camp."
"If what makes you happy is getting good reviews, or how many people like your music, then you really have no control over your happiness. But if you love writing, recording, and making songs that you really care about, then you'll always be happy, because it's in your hands."
"I always have that awkward conversation at Thanksgiving, like, 'Why aren’t you guys on 'American Idol'?' If my sole purpose in playing music or in life was just to make money, I would have made a lot of different career choices—I definitely would not be in a guitar rock band in 2013."
"I love going on eBay and typing in random stuff and sorting by 'most expensive' and seeing the weirdest shit. I typed in Mrs. Doubtfire and there was a head mold from the movie and a signed picture of Robin Williams. It was at like $20,000."
"I have a problem with sweets. I have an inability to eat a just little bit. It's almost like I can't even enjoy chocolate anymore—I have to stuff it into my brain, cram it into my ears. I don't like that I have to look at cookies and have emotions about them; I'm depressed because I can't eat it, or I'm being secretive and just stuffing one in my mouth. It seems to control me more than I can control it."
"None of my friends have gotten married. I’m 32 and I haven’t attended a single wedding. My own wedding will be the first wedding I’ve attended in my adult life. Everybody’s just so progressive in terms of marriage these days. Dating for 25 years is like a new middle-class value."
"At first, I was like, 'OK cool, someone made a video to my song.' But it didn’t seem that funny."
"I find this kind of folk with guys in Wellington boots and washboards not good to listen to. That music is one step away from barn dancing as far as I'm concerned. Anyone under the age of 60 should not be wearing Wellington boots on stage."
"I never understood the theory of moving to New York or L.A. to make it—if you want to be noticed as a drop of water, why would you move to the ocean?"
"My delusion outweighs my talent by far and it always will, because if it doesn’t, then there’s no point in living."
Willis Earl Beal
"Every day I don’t Google my name is another beautiful day."
"The idea of listening to an album and tweeting about it as you go through it on your first listen offends me on so many levels. This is not how music is supposed to be listened to. Nobody wrote an album with that in mind. I’m not a huge internet person in that I find the sheer speed and updating of everything not good for the attention span. I don’t think it’s natural."
"Twitter is hilarious. It’s just funny to broadcast whatever the fuck. I don’t feel all that shit is important. I do realize that some people think everything you say on the internet is factual, like a documentary—but it’s the internet, it’s whatever."
"It’s really hard to even talk about the internet without seeming instantly corny."
"Nobody can look at me and say shit about my appearance or my body, which is all too common for women in music. It's like, 'Are you going to call me a cunt? Are you going to tell me I'm ugly? Well, here's my band name—do your worst, motherfucker.'"
"If a guy said the things I say, it would be considered a lot more credible: 'He's being a rockstar.' For me, they're like, 'Oh, she's having a meltdown, it's a publicity stunt.' Everything I do is an 'image thing'—but every band has an image, that's not new. It's been that way for 100 years."
"I asked myself, 'How can I talk about heartache without sounding like a damsel or a victim?' I want other girls to sing the songs and be like, 'That’s exactly it.' I don’t want you to feel defeated, like, 'Oh boy, why do you do this to me?' We have too many of those songs."
"As long as we've been alive, the world has been hugely tilted in favor of masculinity and is totally fucking itself because of it. That's nowhere close to being over, but hopefully, we're turning the spirits back on their axis to make it even."
"Technology has made music accessible in a philosophically interesting way, which is great. But on the other hand, when everybody has the ability to make magic, it's like there's no more magic—if the audience can just do it themselves, why are they going to bother?"
"I'm not scared of the fact that people are crying at our shows. It's strange to have that power over someone's emotions, but it's much better to communicate something than for people to just be like, 'Oh, this is cool.' You want people to feel something."
"I’m a terrible bet when it comes to time. But if I want to do something with my heart, then it will always happen at some point—and it always does."
"I believe that people would be happier sharing things and being more of a collective rather than working from these neo-liberal ideas of just looking after yourself. People need each other."
"I'm a weirdo, but I have a very strong moral code: Don't be a fucking dick."
"I have no problem with the idea behind YOLO—that you should live your life and do things you want to do. But it got so co-opted and homogenized and boring. People were like, 'Hey, I'm gonna go take a shit in that driveway—YOLO!' It's like, 'Well, no, you're just shitting on a person's driveway.' That's not really seizing the day. There's YOLO and then there's being a dick."
"He would have had a great career.
He would be on his own right now.
He’d be like Wilco, he’d be able to
do whatever he wants. He wouldn’t
need the business at all."
Producer Rob Schnapf on Elliott Smith
"I absolutely had to demystify the cult surrounding indie labels. I believe artists make their own success. No record labels are my heroes today."
"At their best, record labels are supposed to be about exploration of music. We felt like that was our responsibility. Once you establish yourself, then you continue listening and react accordingly. To this day, some people go, 'What happened to the days when you put out Soundgarden and Nirvana and Babes in Toyland? You suck now!' But culture is supposed to move, it’s supposed to be dynamic."
"One of the most interesting things about independent music in 2013 is the willingness of labels to sign on with somebody with a personal vision, regardless of genre. Labels are willing to take a chance on things outside of their scope of sound. You can only go so far with a genre-based outlook on music. Whereas with a vision-based outlook, you start seeing correlations between things like Annie Lennox and metal."
"My music has shaken hands
with the world somehow—
it’s a beautiful disease,
and I’m glad I got it."
"I watched 'Trapped in the Closet' with my father-in-law [Francis Ford Coppola] once and I remember him sitting there in silence for 10 minutes and then saying, 'This is incredible.'"
"There are a lot of amazing songs that were left off [Yeezus]—stuff that you might consider to be more melodic or in-line with Kanye's previous material—but rather than just going for the hits and having an album that nobody's going to give a fuck about in a month or two, Kanye intentionally sidestepped the obvious route each time. I think that's what will put it in a category of records that you'll go back to 10 years from now."
"Niggas can say they pop molly, but do you really? I doubt it. I can't imagine Kanye popping a molly."
"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."
"I don't care about sex anymore. It’s a headache. It’s hard to trust people. You talk to a girl, and then she screenshots a text message."
"When you’re young, you should think that the world is yours and you can do whatever the fuck you want with it. As you get older, though, you realize—and this is good news, but it's also devastating—that there will be love that will die and love that you can’t understand anymore. The more joy we feel, the more we know that there’s suffering in the world. It's the nature of reality, and it’s a motherfucker."
"I'm not old yet, but getting old sucks."
"I want to live in the year 3000. Think about that: What’s gonna happen?! Technology blows my mind. Do you know about the hyperloop? It's this train that they want to build that'll go from L.A. to New York in 45 minutes! If we can do that, what’s going to be possible in the year 3000?!"
The One Million Square Feet of Culture project is setting out to dedicate a lot of space to curated creations. In conjunction with the program, Pitchfork guest curated 10,000 square feet with a special one-night performance in Miami on December 5.
The event took place at the Wynwood Cigar Factory and featured performances from French producer Mike Levy (aka Gesaffelstein), Jacques Greene, and L-Vis 1990. Check out photographer Khadija Bhuiyan's shots from the show below.
An animated Waka Flocka Flame, a picturesque Beach House performance film, an opinionated Danny Brown, a look at the state of the vinyl business, a full Disclosure live set, and an hour-long documentary about Belle and Sebastian's classic album If You're Feeling Sinister are all included in the following roundup of highlights from this year's slate of Pitchfork.tv productions.
Photo by Tavi Gevinson
With Situation Critical, we present artists with various life situations—some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre—to find out which songs, albums, or bands they would turn to under those specific circumstances. This time, we spoke with Tavi Gevinson, the founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Rookie. Rookie Yearbook Two, a compilation of the best writing from the site, is out now.
You’re DJing your best friend’s wedding...
Taylor Swift's "Speak Now" would be a mean and funny thing to play at a wedding because it's a song about a guy getting married to an awful girl, and then the narrator of the song comes in and stops the wedding and is like, "No, I’m better."
I'm not sure if this is still true, but "Speak Now" used to be my most-played song of hers. It’s not my favorite by any means, but it’s just so catchy. I saw her live for a second time this August when [my boyfriend and I] were in the process of breaking up—it was drawn out for a few weeks, and then once it finally happened, [the break-up] only lasted 24 hours. But two days after we first started talking about breaking up, I visited [Taylor Swift] because we've met a few times and we talked about it. I was like, "If I have to be dealing with this right now, this is the best possible [person to talk to]." I'll have to write about that eventually.
You’re walking through a snowstorm...
I’m not a huge Animal Collective fan—I mean, I liked the purple album with the green dots as much as anyone else did at the time it came out, but it's not generally the kind of music I like. I never really pursued them. But then my friend put "Prospect Hummer" [featuring Vashti Bunyan] on a mix for me and I really liked it. I like to listen to it when it’s snowy in Chicago. A snowstorm seems so violent, but it can be really peaceful too. So this is a really nice song to listen to and be closed off from the world. It calms me down.
You’re in a bathroom stall at Target and there’s no toilet paper...
I have never actually had the square-t0-spare "Seinfeld" situation. But I thought "Summer Breeze" by Seals and Crofts works on two levels, because this song might actually come on in a Target and it’s also just a good song to relax to. You would just hear it and be like, “I’m fine. I’ll get toilet paper. I’ll be OK.”
You just got home after a date...
For this one I just looked at the playlist of songs that I listened to when I first met my boyfriend. "Where or When" by Peggy Lee is so sweet. It's not sad, but it sounds wistful. I remember listening to that [at the beginning of our relationship], when I didn't want to be getting full-on into the girl group stuff, because I didn't want to be too hopeful yet.
You’re at the beach with a boombox...
Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" sounds like going to the beach to me, and it could either work for resting in the sand or getting people to dance. Anybody can do a very easy twist to it because it has that cheesy rock’n’roll thing going on... I'm trying to describe it without singing it because I don't want to sing it for you. You know, [reluctantly sings] "Mehhhh/ Meh-meh-meh-meh-meh." I'm such a sucker for that kind of thing, even though it feels so wrong, like, "Elton, come on. You have other strengths." It makes me think of "The Muppet Show", because it was on one of my favorite episodes I remember seeing when I was little.
You just drank three cans of some energy drink in a span of 30 minutes...
I have no problem putting all other kinds of awful processed junk into my digestive system, but energy drinks just creep me out. It's just wrong. But "What a Way to Die" by the Pleasure Seekers would be a good daredevil song—having a lot of sugar is about as daredevlish as I get.
You just saw Russell Crowe in a Whole Foods...
I was trying to think of how I would feel in that situation where you’d be stoked in a small way, but there’s nothing really significant about it. Because it’s Russell Crowe. I would be psyched because it's weird, but he wouldn't be the ultimate person I would like to see in Whole Foods. So I'm going with "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" but I actually had to Google "Oh, What a Night" because it's the kind of song I didn't actually know. You just have it in your head from movie credits and stuff.
A meteor is about to destroy the earth...
Brian Eno's "Golden Hours" is a good song to reflect to. It’s good for spacing out and looking back—it has this weird, almost out-of-body-experience quality to it. There’s not a lot going on, and it’s not like there’s that moment where you’re like, "Aw, and then the guitar!" It's just really simple, but in a way that creates weird feelings down your spine.
You're packing your bags to go to college...
For a lot of these situations, I was like, "This is funny" or "This is goofy," but this one hit [a little closer to home], so it was a bit more of a commitment to figure out. I went with Big Star's "The Ballad of El Goodo", which is a good one for feeling like you’re starting a new stage. It’s a transition-moment song. Listening to it while packing for college and then taking off as you look out the car window would feel very cinematic, and then it would all feel less scary.
I'm a senior [in high school] now. I'll probably take a gap year first, and then I will go to college, hopefully on the East Coast. I hope when it’s time for me to make that transition, the spirit of this song is the one I can capture, instead of just anxiety and dread and confusion.
The following list of our favorite music videos of the year includes (but is by no means limited to): cursing little A$AP Mob disciples, a bizarro Last Supper, Drake's dad's moustache, Greta Gerwig dancing like nobody's watching, Danny Brown lip synching to Bob Dylan, a shredded Daft Punk, meticulous stop-motion animation, the dreams of a horny teenager, and, of course, incest. Here they are, presented in alphabetical order by artist.
Daft Punk: “Get Lucky” (Shredded Version)
Vampire Weekend: “Diane Young” [Director: Primo Kahn]
Throughout the 1980s, 4AD was both a record label and a mood. That number combined with those two letters signified music that was dark, dreamy, and decorous, its roomy reverb conjuring quiet drama of introversion. While the sound of Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and Dead Can Dance more or less defined the label, 4AD also made room for the combustible punk of the Birthday Party, the fractured rhythms of Rema Rema, and eventually the gritty American indie of Throwing Muses and the Pixies.
Nevertheless, the imprint quickly became identified with a very specific emotional bleakness. In his exhaustive new history of the label, Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, UK music journalist Martin Aston describes that mood as “beauty masking secrets, feelings buried, persisting in anxious dreams and suppressed fear, hope and anger; lyrics that don’t explain emotion as much as cloud the issue, penned by a carnival of beautiful freaks who didn’t want to be seen.” Aston covered many of these acts during the 80s and 1990s and spent an intense 18 months tracking down nearly every beautiful freak who passed through the doors at 4AD.
Ringleader among them was Ivo Watts-Russell, scion of faded aristocracy who co-founded the label in 1979 (its original name was Axis, after Jimi Hendrix) and steered it through the 80s and into the 90s. No businessman, he signed and funded acts regardless of their commercial viability. Some, like Cocteau Twins and the Pixies, became highly successful and proved incredibly influential. Others, such as Ultra Vivid Scene and His Name Is Alive, can be generously described as cult acts.
Just as Watts-Russell did not write them off for not selling hundreds of thousands of records, Aston similarly gives every 4AD artist their due, which means Facing the Other Way exceeds 600 pages. It’s a brick of a book, yet it proves generous in its scope and ultimately definitive in its detail. Its freaks are so colorful, so haunted, and so incredibly passive-aggressive that the repressed angst and barely-averted drama proves weirdly compelling throughout, whether Aston is recounting the rift between Watts-Russell and the Cocteau Twins or digging into the controversy surrounding M|A|R|R|S' unexpected one-off dance hit “Pump Up the Volume”.
Success at 4AD was often a fluke, yet it remains a highly influential label and the UK home to Bon Iver, Grimes, Spaceghostpurrp, and Deerhunter, among others. Still, during its heyday, the experience was harrowing for almost everyone involved, most of all Watts-Russell himself. He abdicated his position as 4AD’s guru and sold his shares in the label in 1999, then disappeared into the New Mexico desert. Years of therapy have helped him overcome depression and confront his memories of running the label, the aesthetic triumphs as well as the shattered friendships—all of which are brought to light in Facing the Other Way.
"Underneath the surface of these beautiful sleeves and this extraordinary music was all manner of dysfunctional relationships."
Pitchfork: In the book, you seem to give almost equal priority to smaller bands like In Camera and Rema Rema as you do to better-known acts like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance.
Martin Aston: It was a joy to go back and talk to members of In Camera. It’s a small part of the story, but it is the story. The story of 4AD is not just the bands that sold lots of records. On what basis would you leave bands out? It doesn’t make sense that they shouldn’t be in the book because they were all facets of one man’s maverick obsessive vision. But then Ivo would never claim that he had anything approaching a vision or a plan.
He loved the name 4AD because there was no aesthetic, no attitude. It was just music. He had no strategy. It was just things that he heard and responded to purely as a fan. He certainly wasn’t trying to sign bands that were part of a trend or would sell records. In fact, he often let the bands that did sell records go because it involved talking to them about what their next single was going to be or what kind of promo video they should make. He had no interest in that. He let Modern English go because he wasn’t interested in where they were going. He let Bauhaus go because they were putting out covers of T. Rex songs and he had no interest in that. It was never about the sales. It was about what Ivo liked. He just followed his nose.
Pitchfork: On the opposite end of the spectrum from Ivo is Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, who takes on a more antagonistic role as he descends deeper and deeper into a cocaine habit. There were so many extreme personalities associated with 4AD, yet no one is vilified in the book.
MA: It’s like a swan. Above the water you see it effortlessly move—but underneath, the legs are paddling away. Underneath the surface of these beautiful sleeves and this extraordinary music was all manner of dysfunctional relationships and the kind of strife that goes on when artistic ambitions are tied up in that. It’s messy, but I don’t think 4AD is atypical of that messiness. You could look at other labels, like Factory. There was a family atmosphere with 4AD, because bands knew each other and played on each others’ records. [Throwing Muses'] Kristin Hersh used to call Ivo and his girlfriend—Deborah Edgely, who was 4AD’s press officer—"mom and dad." There was a paternal/maternal quality to the way they nurtured these bands. Unfortunately, children grow up and there’s tension in the house. It’s safe to say that Ivo could never have talked openly about this stuff at the time. He said he would have needed a ton of therapy, and a ton of therapy is what he had years later, due to his fragile state of mind. It seemed the best way of doing something was to react in a passive-aggressive manner and then mop it up afterwards.
Pitchfork: When somebody did take action, it was usually a very extreme action, like cutting ties with the label completely.
MA: Ivo chucked the Cocteau Twins off the label. They were his favorite band and they had just put out what was and still is his favorite 4AD record of all time, Heaven or Las Vegas. The fact that he would drop them two months later showed the extremity of things at 4AD. It was in reaction to something that Robin had said in an interview, but it came after so many years of arguments. During the whole episode over M|A|R|R|S and “Pump Up the Volume”, there were feuds and lawsuits. A.R. Kane never put out another record on 4AD, and Colourbox never wrote another single piece of music. They weren’t kicked off the label. They never left. That’s an extreme reaction all round. It just so happened that Ivo worked with a lot of people who had problems dealing with aspects of fame—the expectations and the public personae. Any band that sold lots of records never seemed to do so in a comfortable environment. The Pixies fractured pretty quickly after that second record. Belly didn’t like it after their first record. In the Breeders, Kim Deal had terrible issues over selling lots of records, then what? Then she did the Amps.
Pitchfork: You talk a lot about 4AD’s collectability. Some fans would buy anything and everything the label released. Was that unusual at the time?
MA: What made 4AD so collectible was the record sleeves. They put such attention into the packaging and the production, and they had an in-house designer in Vaughan Oliver. I supposed you could say that 4AD and Factory were quite similar in the fact that people wanted to have everything on the label because it all seemed to follow a certain aural and visual aesthetic, though Factory had more bands that sounded like each other than 4AD ever did. Ivo had this thing about catalog numbers, and people used to want to collect all of them. Vaughan would designer calendars and poster sets, and every single one would have its own catalog number. When labels do that, it gives the items a certain cache. But you’re only as good as your last sleeve or your last record. Once the quality tailed off, which happened in the late 90s, people stopped buying every 4AD record. But for a while it was like a set of gorgeously bound books. You wanted the whole set.
Tessela: "Hackney Parrot / Helter Skelter" on SoundCloud.
Breakbeat music—bursting with high tempos and rowdy blare—has had an uneasy reputation within UK club culture for some time, and negative connotations of an aggression-fueled drum'n'bass scene, combined with the recent gold rush of slick, chart-bothering house, only seemed to solidify its outlier status. But over the past year, a steady trickle of attention has forced jungle through the barricades once more. Discussion about the motifs and implications of revivalism has followed in its wake, but Ed Russell—aka Tessela—isn’t coming from this angle. Although afforded early exposure to the tougher side of electronic music under guidance of older brother Tom, who has been plying his blown-out wares as Truss for years, at 24 he's too young to have firsthand experience. So he isn’t attempting to resuscitate faded memories by crafting pastiches, or cynically surf cresting hype. His music exists purely in order to dance.
That his overarching mission statement lines up perfectly with the slogan of 30-year-old Belgian dance label R&S is fitting (though he nearly missed their call-up, assuming the initial email to be spam). Following a remix to test the waters, September brought Nancy’s Pantry, an exemplary three-track EP of weapons-grade bombast. Russell’s music begins with a specific set of touchstones, taking clear influence from the early 90s, when ‘ardkore began mutating into a bastard form of proto-jungle; these signifiers are then upended and placed within a contemporary techno framework. The EP's title track is especially volatile, bringing a plunging scree of low-end careening across the mix into a delirious drum break, like a cartoon character mistiming a run and skidding into a wall.
Tessela: "Nancy's Pantry" on SoundCloud.
Before the EP, "Hackney Parrot", the first (and as of now only) release on his own Poly Kicks imprint, ran rampant across the past 18 months, teased-out extensively before being finally unleashed in March. By Russell’s own approximation, that track's squawking rave vocals and vague whiff of B-more silliness went down “much, much better than expected,” then given second wind by a screw-facing Special Request remix that proved potent all summer.
We link up on a bitter December evening in London, Russell finding time for a pint in between a session at his brother’s Soho studio and a meeting with fellow forward-thinking beatmaker Kowton. He is in high spirits, reflecting on the past year with an endearing sense of self-deprecation and expressing glee at having been booked to play alongside bouncy rave progenitors 2 Bad Mice in the coming months. After a period of realignment spent gaining confidence to properly do justice to his ‘ardkore dalliances without compromise, as well as waiting for the wider scene to play catch-up, he now has a clear idea which direction he wants to go: down the wormhole.
Pitchfork: Your music has a very distinct feel, when did that sound become a focal point?
Tessela: People often say that my music is jungle-informed, but I very rarely cite it as one of my influences. Hardcore is a much bigger influence for me. Although I was always aware of the whole scene, it was only about four or five years ago that I started looking backwards, digging up the old stuff and getting an idea of the lineage of UK music. I recognized a lot of the sounds from jungle and drum'n'bass, which I absorbed when I was about 15 through bad CD compilations and going to dodgy raves. But I don't really ever listen to jungle anymore—I find the couple of years that led up to jungle much more inspiring.
Lately I've been noticing my attention span getting shorter and shorter and have had to start actively avoiding all the constant drips of information that surrounds us on the web. But you're influenced so much by what's going on around you, whether you like it or not. And it's very difficult to judge where it'll go. I can see more localized sounds becoming increasingly appreciated: people seeking a sense of identity, be it a place or label or particular sound—anything with which they can define themselves. That’s been really apparent in 2013.
Pitchfork: How would you describe your style of DJing?
T: In a nutshell: all over the place. I've never really been one for sticking to one style or era and riding that out for a few hours. My favorite DJs are those that manage to piece together stuff from different places yet make it sound like its all from the same place. It's really important to be totally at ease if you want to start pushing boundaries, but until then it can be daunting. You have all these ideas of stuff you’re going to try out in the club and then you get there and your head turns into a nervous mulch, and it all goes out the window. Although I'm pretty new to the DJing game, I'm feeling increasingly comfortable behind those decks.
When I first started DJing properly last year, I was just taking on any gigs that were coming in and it meant nine times out of 10 I would be compromising the music I wanted to play. It was getting to the point where promoters would book me under a false pretence, then would come up and tell me I was scaring people off. It's mainly down to "Hackney Parrot" I think: A bit of mindless rave, but that's why it works. It wouldn't have worked if I tried to make it all weird and detailed. But some people have booked me just on the back of that, and it's not the best indicator of what my sets generally sound like.
Tessela: "Horizon" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: You've done a handful of live shows with your brother. Has that confidence to perform come from using more hardware?
T: We just sort of gave it a go after both being booked to DJ the same gig in Ireland. It's pretty much improvised. We have so much fun with it. I notice a different level of energy, knowing that the temperamental nature of the machines means it could all go wrong really easily. Having that element is really important, it makes for a more human experience. Also, seeing as me and Tom don't really know where we're going next, we'll often be shouting to one another: "bass in 5,4,3,2,1—go!" The crowd seems to enjoy that.
Pitchfork: I heard you played a hardcore record at his wedding?
T: I played quite a few! It was great, it turned into a rave in a pub in East London. We hung up loads of fluorescent string and fired lights through it so it looked like lasers, brought in a smoke machine. My mum was on the dancefloor with a glow stick in hand, full-on rave mode.
Pitchfork: What's your plan like for 2014?
T: I've hopefully got a second release out in March on R&S, which will be my most substantial to date, plus another few remixes as well. They truly are one of my favorite labels; when the offer came through, I didn't really have any hesitation. Then I really want to start to develop my label Poly Kicks, I've signed some really interesting stuff recently—if I can get two records out next year on there I will have done twice as well as this year. [laughs]
When Beyoncé's surprise self-titled album touched down last month, a minor mystery quickly shot out from the forest of the album’s liner notes. Among the usual suspects—Timbaland, the-Dream, Pharrell, Hit-Boy—someone by the name "Boots" was everywhere on the record. He wrote and produced "Haunted", "Heaven", and, perhaps most strikingly, "Blue", the song dedicated to Beyoncé and Jay Z's daughter. He sang backup vocals on and performed many or all of the instruments on several songs. In an interview, Beyoncé name-checked him as "an innovator," while a member of her creative team tweeted the only currently available picture of Boots, with the note that he had “co-produced 80 percent of the album.” Within seven days, the query "Who is Boots?" had racked up 452,000,000 Google results.
So who is Boots? When I meet him at a Brooklyn restaurant down the street from his apartment, I have already agreed to some ground rules: I can't ask about his real name—even though Complex, The Broward Palm Beach New Times, and now even his freshly-minted Wikipedia page identify him as Jordy Asher, a Miami-based musician who spent time in a number of rock bands, including Blonds. He doesn't want to talk about any of the projects he's worked on before now. And he's cagey about how, exactly, Beyoncé discovered his demo, saying only, "That's for Beyoncé and me to know.”
But Boots isn't trying to be coy, just practical: Turns out that having the celebrity-hunting industrial complex descend upon you en masse can be terrifying. “When the album came out, people were calling my parents’ house within days," he tells me. "A dude was trying to sell pictures of me—just crazy shit that I’m not trying to bring into my life. It got rabid for a second. I know the information is going to get out there at some point; I’m not stupid. But I don’t know that I want to be the one to just hand it over to everyone. It can become a weird world real quick.”
Later in the evening, after several cabs and bars, the conversation loosens, as it tends to. At one point, he pulls out his phone in the backseat of a car, starts up "Partition", and sings along to every word. He tells me he what a "beautiful person" Frank Ocean is. In fact, one of the night’s takeaways is that for someone who arrived with so much seeming mystery surrounding him, Boots is endearingly bad at anonymity. He tells me his real first name readily (adding that it’s off the record). And if you go to RapGenius, you will find Boots-verified explanations of his own lyrics. He also seems to lack the true introvert’s distaste for being spotted: When an overgrown labrador of a bartender leans over and asks him eagerly, “Hey, is your name Boots? I'm a songwriter/producer too,” Boots rolls his eyes at me when we walk away, but his glowing face and big grin tell another story.
As for his life pre-Beyoncé, he obligingly sketches out some details. He grew up in what he calls a "lower-middle class-type situation" in Miami. As a musician, he is completely self-taught, starting with making his own beats. His nickname came from the footwear he preferred as a young breakdancer. ("I couldn't glide in Nikes.") He spent years estranged from his parents and dropped out of high school at 18 in a fit of pique without getting a GED. "My parents instilled really good values in me, but the value was never ‘Go get yourself a really good job,’” he says, laughing.
“It was no one’s fault but my own, but my life instantly got super-miserable,” he remembers. “For four years I was virtually homeless and one year I was really, really homeless. I lived in a van. In Miami, it's really hard to stay asleep in a car for more than four hours before it gets wretchedly hot, so I would try to catch a few more hours in the bathroom of Walmart before someone banged on the door. I was too prideful to let anybody know what was really going on. I joined a gym; that was my rent money, and it's where I would shower." Of this experience, he says simply: "I learned real young that you can fuck your own life up, and I did, for a while."
The road from this moment to signing a publishing deal with Roc Nation last June is a murky one, but I don't push the issue, mostly because I am far more interested where he is now: At the center of the richest and best record Beyoncé has ever made. Boots is the secret ingredient of Beyoncé: In many ways, he embodies the album's distinctive sound—hooded and contemplative, lined with rhythmic trap doors, lonely hallways of space yawning open in the arrangements. It is moody and twilit even when it's exultant or carnal.
"'Haunted' was the first thing she ever heard from me, and she heard it in a very innocent and pure way, without any label heads or any of that," he says. "It was originally called 'I'm Onto You', and I'll be honest, I didn't get it at all at first. I was like, 'What is she hearing in this?' because it was just me sounding sad as fuck, singing by myself. I recorded the piano with my iPhone as a voice memo—and that shit made it onto the damn album, by the way. It was a loose idea, but the feeling was there. I had written a bunch of songs that could have been 'Beyoncé songs,' whatever that had meant before now, but she wasn't interested in those. There was something about what I had to say that resonated with her."
He singles out playing Beyoncé the stream-of-consciousness rap on "Ghost" as another early communion moment between the two of them. "When she heard that, her eyes widened, and she was immediately like, 'That's exactly what I feel like,’” he says. “She just started talking about her experiences in the record industry, people telling her what they think her sound should be. She got signed to a crazy contract when she was young."
Boots recalls writing the song after coming home livid from an infuriating meeting with a potential label: “The things people say in those meetings would take your breath away. After a while, I didn’t even feel like I was talking to people anymore, I was just talking to chairs. So I went home, it was five in the morning, and I just started typing shit out—everything I hear on the radio isn’t inspiring; I’m not inspired by anything I’m doing; these people have no idea what’s happening. It was just a stream-of-consciousness. I woke up the next day and realized I needed to do something with that. That’s what eventually became that rap.”
As far as the music on "Ghost", he says he "made the beat from a dreamlike, hypnotic place, because that’s where it began for me. I started with guitars, just building the layers until they resembled Aphex Twin soundscapes. And then I completely contained them within the beat. [Aphex Twin's] works like that are more floaty, more without than within, but I made mine grounded in that thumping beat, so you can't get out of that feeling."
He cites Aphex Twin as an early discovery that shaped his sensibilities. "His soundscapes and drum patterns always blew my mind," he says. "If he wasn't over-the-top technical with his drum patterns, he was really sparse and beautiful. It was like there was no middle ground. It was very either/or. That to me was so amazing. It took me a long time to figure out the 'sparse and beautiful' side of that equation. I was trying so desperately to achieve that feeling, but everything I did as a kid was really chaotic. It's easier to be chaotic."
He ended up working on nearly every song on the album. "Jealous" was "just some drums and that synth" when he got to it. He added the high melody—"if you're keeping your promise I'm keeping mine"—because "it seemed like a shame something more melodic didn't happen in the song." He is also responsible for many of the album's intimate, diaristic details: on "Blue", he inserted a recording of the birds chirping outside the studio into the mix. (You can hear them, faintly, in the last 30 seconds of the track.) "It was such a special day," he remembers. "Blue was talking so much—from the moment that I met that kid until then, the amount she said tripled. People were watching her making connections; she started telling everyone that the two dinosaurs she was running around with were mommy and baby dinosaur. The birds were like a stamp for the song; I wanted to remember that day."
Nonetheless, Boots makes abundantly clear that the only real visionary in the room was Beyoncé, who saw potential in scraps that bewildered him. He admits he thought "XO" was "average" at first, until producer Hit-Boy added his drums. "I loved ‘XO’ melodically; it’s so beautiful. But Hit-Boy brought something different to it. I remember hearing the finished song from the next studio over from where I was working. The chords sounded familiar, and finally I said, 'Is that ... 'XO'?! Because that doesn't feel like 'XO'." And when the creative team was casting about for inspiration for the "Jealous" video, Beyoncé sent along the clip for L.A. garage rocker Hanni El Khatib's "Roach Cock". “She said, ‘I'm inspired by how this feels—can you bring a little bit of that to 'Jealous'?" I was more than happy. So there’s this gnarly fuzz guitar ripping in the background. It was awesome to get a video like that from her.”
And she wouldn't leave "Haunted" alone. "She just kept saying, 'It doesn't feel like how I want it to feel like yet," he remembers. Her directive? "This shit has to knock harder than any rap album out there." More than anything else Boots worked on, "Haunted"—the second track on Beyoncé—seems like a key to the album's mood. "It's like that song is leading you by the hand, but you're blindfolded and you don't know where you're going," he says. "You're scared and you're not sure what to expect from it, but as the album unfolds, we take the blindfold off and you realize it's a surprise party for you."
Later on, he plays me something of his own that affirms just how distinctive his stamp on Beyoncé was. We are in a basement studio in the East Village, and the crowd is small and intimate. I ask to hear one particularly haunting track a second time; its chorus, which goes, "When I'm with you/ Who am I/ When I'm with you/ All through the night," closely resembles the "What goes up/ Ghosts around" section of "Haunted". Paired with a quaking low end and an off-kilter knock that brings to mind James Blake, it is soulful and chilly, intricate and fluid. Each fine-grained sound is separated by miles of distance. When it's over, Boots grins into the silence. Then, he cues up "Partition" again, and starts dancing wildly around the room.
Everywhere he is, Darren Cunningham hears music. The London producer behind Actress as well as the engaging Werkdiscs imprint frequently takes inspiration for his outré-leaning dance music from the world around him—2012's profile-raising R.I.P. drew from Cunningham's fascination with nature, with track names like "Tree of Knowledge" and "Jardin" (Spanish for "garden"). His voraciousness for drawing from the sounds of everyday life bleeds into our recent Skype conversation, when an ambulance siren blares down the street on my side of the call. "That sounds so cool," Cunningham abruptly exclaims, interrupting himself mid-sentence to ask me what it was. "I might have to record that."
The press materials for his fourth album as Actress, Ghettoville (out January 28) hint that the record marks the end of the project, but Cunningham claims differently, citing contractual obligations and philosophical notions in the same breath. "Actress is a character," he says, "and there’s an overall image that the character is there to portray, to keep me interested and help me visualize how the music is going to evolve." After R.I.P. and 2010's groundbreaking Splazsh were released on Damon Albarn's Honest Jon's label, Ghettoville is his first LP for UK electronic institution Ninja Tune, who also distribute Werkdiscs releases.
The new album is different from anything else Cunningham has done; more so than the abstract R.I.P., Ghettoville largely jettisons beat-oriented fare for low-slung drones, brittle soundscapes, and most surprisingly, pitch-dropped R&B textures. "When I came to London, I lived in Brixton for 13 years, and I’ve seen crack addicts and deals being made on the corners," Cunningham says, talking about the album's necessary roughness. "I’ve seen psychologically deranged people acting up and behaving in crazy ways. I wanted this record to sound brittle, as if you were an addict and you feel like the world is crumbling around you."
Actress' music has always thrived on intangible sounds, but Ghettoville is especially not the type of stuff that's designed to set a dance floor ablaze—at a recent Brooklyn performance, the endlessly clicking "Rims" practically stopped audience members in their tracks, causing a bystander to tug on my collar and say, "I thought this was supposed to be dance music!" I mention this to Cunningham near the end of our interview, and his response is brusque: "I don't worry about those things. I don't see why I should, really."
Pitchfork: You've mentioned in previous interviews that financial issues have affected your ability to create in the past. Is that less of a problem these days?
Darren Cunningham: When I committed to making music full-time, I made a vow that you have to suffer for your art. It’s always a struggle, because from album to album I always challenge myself to find new ways to push the envelope—not just in regards to my music, but also myself. I finished writing Ghettoville six months ago, and today I completely broke down the studio. I decided to get rid of equipment, reconfigure the entire set-up, and go through my computer and trash everything. I have a habit of purging stuff. It’s like tearing off a new layer, laying out a physical canvas to start the next phase of what it is that I’m trying to do as an artist. I try to unlearn certain things to move in a different direction.
But even though the conditions that I write within have changed, my rituals are the same. I’ve got a dog that I walk first thing in the morning, and I spend a lot of time walking around my neighborhood at night, trying to get the ambience and feel. I walk in the rain, when it’s hot, when it’s cold. What has changed is I’ve come into contact with more people and I’ve been in lots of interesting scenarios, so the darkness of human nature crept into Ghettoville.
Pitchfork: I've noticed that your album covers have always featured sharp, angled shapes.
DC: My vision's defined the shapes that I see, and sometimes they're extremely abstract. I'm into geometry, outlines, smudging, cubism, abstract expressionism, color fields. I approach what I do from a visual perspective, rather than a musical perspective. It's like I'm trying to paint something, but the palette is sonic. I'm not necessarily creating bass lines—it's more about perception than it is about what is actually being done.
Actress: "Grey Over Blue" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: As a listener, what were your first interactions with dance music?
DC: Back in the Midlands, the nightclubs tended to play a lot of American deep house—Tony Humphries, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk. And then going to festivals was when I was first introduced to Detroit techno. I saw Kraftwerk and Daft Punk live. The UK influence was much more on the drum-and-bass side of things, but around that time I was on the road to discovery. From that point onwards it was just about how a piece of music was made—it wasn't really about dancing. I love partying, but if I'm going to go dancing, I'm more likely to go to a house party. The fascination of how a piece of music was put together sent me on the path to wanting to learn how to do it.
Secondhands is a column that examines music of the past through a modern lens.
Connecticut, 1992: I’m 10 years old and lying on the floor of my bedroom, listening to a new age tape with my mom. The music on the tape doesn’t sound anything like Ride the Lightning by Metallica or Unplugged by Mariah Carey, both of which are on my short prepubescent list of The Best Albums of All Time. It doesn’t even sound like music, really. It’s more like how I imagine the desert at night: Some sparkly sounds followed by some windy sounds, then a little bit of flute. If my friend Pat Evans ever heard it he would definitely call it gay, so I don’t play it for Pat Evans, or anyone else. Instead, I keep it—and all the other tapes like it—in a soft black zipper case at the bottom of my closet that nobody knows about but my mom and me.
Fourth grade has gone badly so far. Lizzie Shine turns me down for the Memorial Day Parade then chews me out when I ask her best friend, Danielle. I cope by making fun of kids who are chubbier than I am. At night I stand in the corner of the kitchen eating Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix with a serving spoon, then go upstairs and lie awake for two or three hours trying to figure out what happens to your soul after you die. For reasons nobody can understand, my lips are chapped all year round.
At least I have the tapes. Happy is too strong a word to describe how I feel when I listen to them. Most of the time, I don’t feel anything, which in 1992 is exactly what I need.
Like “serenity” or “self-help,” “new age” is a term that can
conjure weak-minded people desperate to console
themselves for having somehow failed at life.
As with any genre, the boundaries surrounding new age are porous. Some of it sounds like hippy folk; some sounds like a de-cluttered version of what people generally call “minimalism”: gauzy, repetitive music that finds a nice place to rest and rests there indefinitely. Some is heavy on the synthesizer; some is basically slow jazz played at a whisper. For people who embrace the term, it’s a system of belief; for everyone else, it’s a slur.
Douglas Mcgowan, a record collector who recently compiled a three-album project called I Am the Center: Private Press New Age Music in America, 1950-1990, says he used to pitch new age music as “downtempo psych” but eventually embraced the term as a badge of honor. “Getting into new age was exciting because it was considered no good. Intelligent people all know that new age is an awful movement socially, and it’s intellectually devoid of anything, and it’s bad music.”
Mcgowan lives in the small college town of Eugene, Oregon, where he runs a label called Yoga Records. In 2014, he has plans to reissue albums by a Dutch musician named Enno Velthuys (who he describes as an acid-burned Brian Eno worshipper who lived with his mom) and a woman named Alice Damon, whose album Windsong II he found while buying out the leftovers of a folk-music distribution company that had been collecting dust in an attic in Vermont. (A hardcore collector, Mcgowan talks about his adventures with the embarrassment of a boy. “I don’t think this is anything anyone will find interesting,” he says, sighing. Then he tells me the story anyway.)
Like “serenity” or “self-help,” “new age” is a term that can conjure weak-minded people desperate to console themselves for having somehow failed at life. Even as a kid browsing the bookstore where my mom and I bought our tapes, I had the terrible feeling I was in the presence of losers. Yoga, alternative medicine, astrology, tarot, inter-dimensional travel, allowing one’s body to be a conduit for angels: The new-age spectrum that starts at self-improvement ends in what some people would still call mental illness.
Mcgowan’s relationship to these ideas is complicated. He avoids overtly spiritual terms and apologizes when they slip out. He refers to his life as a “search” and thinks that listening to new age can be a healthy way to detach from a culture that constantly bullies us. He fantasizes about what life would be like if new age was piped into American nursery schools or used to interrupt the broadcasts of late-night talk shows. “I think transformation is necessary,” he says, and when he says it, I take him to mean the transformation of the world, or at least the way we perceive it.
At the same time, he concedes that a lot of people looking for answers in new-age ideals—especially the community that cottoned to the music in the 1970s and 80s—were deluded and sad. “One of my problems with the new-age world was that there was no boogeyman,” he says. “There was no enemy. New age had no answer for what you do about the Koch brothers,” oil heirs who through donations to conservative political campaigns and advocacy groups have supported the kinds of interests liberals see as precipitating the apocalypse. “New age doesn’t believe in the idea that there are evil people in the world,” he says, “but there are.”
I Am the Center focuses on what’s known as private-press new age: music released on record labels so small and in such limited quantities that even calling them “record labels” seems inappropriate. For Mcgowan, who is 38, these mid-70s and early 80s releases represent the genre’s golden age, a time when independently minded people took the project of making music into their own hands.
In a way, these musicians—people like Iasos, Constance Demby, J.D. Emmanuel, and Peter Davison—functioned as punks: countercultural figures generally dissatisfied with the universe as presented to them by television, the government, public school, and other familiar systems of control. “I’m a staunch believer in the idea that the world is completely fucked,” Mcgowan says. But like any embattled idealist, he’s willing to try and work with the world anyway.
New age doesn’t stir emotions, it alleviates them.
Let me say that I am by nature an anxious person. I drink too much and often wake up in the middle of the night with a burning need to work. When friends come to me with problems, I bully them with solutions, like someone shaking an old TV set in hopes that the picture might get better.
New age helps. It dulls my edges and lightens my mood. When I’m working, I use it as a kind of psychological Drano, something to flush out the passages of my brain blocked by subconscious distractions about whether or not I left the heat on upstairs or whether, at 31, I’m too old to have kids.
New age doesn't stir emotions, it alleviates them. Most of the time, the less that happens on a new age album, the better. “You experience the quietude of a pine forest,” promises the 70s nature-sounds Environments series, “even though it will be anything but quiet.” This is the koan at the heart of new age music: Like bathwater, you feel good when you get in it but don’t really notice until you get out.
On some level I understand why people can’t tolerate this music. It’s the same reason people can’t tolerate when other people maintain eye contact too long. Society has conditioned us to treat any show of sustained gentleness with either skepticism or pity. We’re taught to thrive on drama, anxiety, and violence because drama, anxiety, and violence are more dynamic and easier to sell. Nothing is less interesting than inner peace. Try and tell a friend about a time when you felt completely at ease with the tides of the world and you’ll see what I mean.
This still happens, by the way. New age. Trawl Bandcamp in 2014 and you’ll find no shortage of coy, hip-looking albums with pictures of geodes on them. Many of these albums are bad. Some are very good. Some seem interested in new age as a kind of multilayered joke. Some aren’t categorized as new age at all. Lucky Dragons’ Publicity Reform is tagged “future,” “human,” and “life”; Greyghost’s Memoirs of Dementia is tagged “adventurous” and “spiritual,” though both could probably be called new age (and both are great). Some of the music Dan Lopatin records as Oneohtrix Point Never (especially some of his album Replica) could be, too, along with some of the artists on Lopatin’s label, Software. One of my favorite albums of last year, Bitchin Bajas Bitchitronics, is probably new age (whether Bitchin Bajas like it or not).
“Being into new age now is a reaction to punk,” John Fell Ryan says. Ryan plays in Excepter, a Brooklyn band whose sound encapsulates the history of weird Western music, from free improv to hard noise to dub-influenced drone. On the subject of new age, he's prankish and sly. “In my vision of the cosmos, you can’t just lay in the sun and let the waves wash over you. You might hear nature sounds, but nature turns out to be a dangerous place. Or there’s a beach,” he adds, referring to the Excepter album Black Beach, “but the beach is boring.”
For Ryan, new age is just like any other performance. Be entertained, be educated, return to the obligations and banalities of real life. (Douglas Mcgowan echoed the same sentiment, calling new-age pioneers like Iasos and J.D. Emmanuel as “lucid, savvy, down-to-earth people who are simultaneously connected to another world.”) I don’t see Ryan’s take as cynicism as much as a realist’s way of buffering themselves from cruelty. “Think about it,” he says. “There are teenagers now who have never known a time that wasn’t fucked up.”
Every Wednesday afternoon, Los Angeles resident Matthew McQueen drives west from Mount Washington to the studios of a Silver Lake radio collective called dublab, where he improvises a two-hour set of synthesizer music called “Mindflight Meditation”, live and on-air. The music is patient, growing from small kernels of sound into big waves that crash and dissolve into silence. “It’s healing music,” McQueen says. “It’s my mandatory mindscape vacation weekly take-a-break-from-the-stresses-of-everyday music.” It is, by some standard, new age.
McQueen, who performs under the name Matthewdavid and runs a small label called Leaving Records, is 29. He is the proud owner of a Himalayan salt lamp, likes to experiment with borscht, and believes that we as a culture are entering what some thinkers call the Age of Aquarius. He is an acolyte of Robert Anton Wilson’s 1977 book Cosmic Trigger, which posits reality as a “mutable” condition less like a brick or a baseball bat than a river or a dance (Wilson’s metaphors, not mine), and, along with the artist and musician Diva Dompe, parent of a month-old baby girl named Love.
He is, in short, a believer. He’s also self-aware enough to realize this and confident enough to not care. “People who are in it already know,” he says, referring to a loose community of artists, academics, musicians, “weird old freaks and new budding beautiful young hip kids” he’s connected with.
Like Mcgowan and John Fell Ryan, McQueen sees the new new-age community as a refuge for people who once might’ve identified as punks. “Transients, burnouts, weird desert hippie mamas,” he says, conjuring the familiar tableaux of losers who make up the new-age community in the popular mind. “That connotation is in the past.”
He grew up on rap and is generally associated with L.A.'s Brainfeeder scene: alternatively-minded artists like Flying Lotus, Ras G, and Samiyam, who make instrumental hip-hop cross-pollinated with hippie jazz, noise, and the spiritualist outer reaches of electronic music. Recently, though, he's started devoting more of his time to the kind of beat-free, introspective music he plays each week on air.
McQueen is, by his own admission, into what he calls “the freaky stuff: UFOs, OOBEs, DMTs, etc!,” but he sees his personal search as tangential to his artistic one. The term “new age” is only relevant until it becomes an argument that sets us at a distance from the music. What he does on air and at home with his wife and his newborn at his side, he says, “is a pure thing, an easy thing—it’s music we make to assist our daily living.” I could judge him but I have no good reason to.
Further listening: Peter Davison: Music on the Way; Iasos: Inter-Dimensional Music, Enno Velthuys: A Glimpse of Light; Jon Bernoff & Marcus Allen: Breathe; Joanna Brouk: Healing Music; Constance Demby: Skies Above Skies; Steve Roach: Structures From Silence; J.D. Emmanuel: Wizards; Brian Eno: Thursday Afternoon; Jordan de la Sierra: Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose
Photos by Zia Anger
Angel Olsen: "Hi-Five" on SoundCloud.
Late last year, Angel Olsen sat in a chair and sang for about 40 people in a low-lit pub in Brooklyn—a few audience members were sitting so close they could've been having dinner with the singer/songwriter. As dishes stacked noisily behind the bar, Olsen huddled over her first chords, tuning in on an inner transmission as much as she was tuning out the surrounding clamor. And when her eyes snapped up, she was six thousand miles away. Occasionally she smiled to herself, cryptically. Standing eight feet away, I felt both utterly irrelevant and totally gratified.
Olsen mostly sang songs from her forthcoming second record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, a fiercely independent document that is both her loneliest release yet and, coincidentally, her first with a full band. "The first two albums I did on my own, or with people that I knew," Olsen says. "I was afraid that in going from something really raw to something professionally produced, I would end up too crisp or calculated. So, with [Burn Your Fire producer] John [Congleton], I was really specific about everything that I wanted to hear." Olsen is open and talks easily, but this narrow-eyed protectiveness about her art—"The songs are like my children, so it's like, 'Back off my womb,'" she once told Pitchfork—circles around our conversation like a wary pride lion.
"People are always asking me what everything means, and half the time I am at that moment deciding what to tell them," she muses. "Later on I realize, 'Well, I can't really promise that that's the truth about it.'" I get the sense that what she is hunching over, and protecting, is the powerful mutability of her songs, their ability to freely roam unmarked territories. The album title's forceful declaration rings out, in this context, with a quasi-prophetic resonance.
Pitchfork: Do you remember one of the first songs you wrote that felt like it had your own voice in it?
Angel Olsen: I always wrote songs growing up as a kid, but I don’t think they count. “Safe in the Womb” is the second song I ever wrote and it's the first song I shared with people, and it was on [2012 debut album] Half Way Home.
Pitchfork: So you carried that song around for a while then?
AO: Yeah, I just wasn’t ready to put out a lot of that material at first. I held it too close to me. [2010 EP] Strange Cacti was kind of like, “Cool, I’m writing angsty songs, I’ll just put this out on tape and it’ll be fine.” And then everyone bought it, and I was like, “Why are you listening to this shitty tape?!” [laughs] The way that it was recorded, the reverb is super piqued—it was difficult for me to listen to in headphones because my ears would hurt. It’s interesting that people like that; people want to hear things that sound super old, and it’s cool—I always like to find every artist's raw album because that’s what happens before everyone gets their hand in and tries to change what a person does.
Pitchfork: How would you describe the tone of this new album?
AO: A lot of the material is excited and angry, but then some of it's quiet and collected—not quite resigned, but defiant. The attitude is, "OK, I accept this mind state." I relate those moods to patterns of grief, when you're going through rejection. You're just having that time where you're like, "It doesn't bother me, everything's fine." And then you're really sad and then you start to feel all these other things.
Pitchfork: Did anything significant occur in your life that affected the writing of this album in the last year?
AO: A lot of it was fueled from not taking chances and then feeling like other people were responsible for those chances that I didn't take. But eventually I realized that it was my responsibility. In any situation, in a friendship or whatever, you could blame the person for holding you back only so much before you decide to say, "Hey, this is my responsibility to not put up with certain things in my life and move forward."
Pitchfork: There are a lot of lyrics about standing apart from people, a quiet isolation of sorts that feels more independent than sad. Does that feeling stay with you when you perform the songs live?
AO: I'm sure that the meaning of the songs that I've written will change for me over the years, the same way that I can't even say what inspired some of the songs that I've been singing for a long time anymore. What's cool about performing is that after you've written so many songs, you kind of forget their circumstances. So if you're playing them with other people, they change, and you start to hear them differently.
I was playing a show the other day and I was nervous because it was the first time I was playing around certain friends in a while; I always get more nervous playing around people that I know because they know the real me. They see who I am and then they see me go out there and sing like I have some lofty thing to tell the universe. It's nerve-wracking.
So I'm sitting there in the middle of a song and thinking, "I write songs! That is so weird." How did I write all of these songs? I don't even know what they mean! And I'm singing them with meaning, sort of. I enjoy singing the songs a certain way, but I don't even know how the writing even began. To me, it's work that is kind of invisible; it's a weird kind of work to have because you're not working, but it's not not work. Formulating your thoughts and making a melody that's catchy enough for people to listen to what you're saying is really hard!
Pitchfork: Art-making can be funny work because everyone deems it unnecessary until it becomes part of their lives and then they can't imagine living without it ever again.
AO:It's a blessing and a curse. You know, the music business is a totally different thing than it ever was, and that’s something I’m realizing more and more. There were a lot of things that I wouldn’t respect about musicians and how they chose to make a living that I now understand. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and a lot of my friends are getting married and having kids and they need health insurance, they need to take care of themselves. There’s a very limited way that you can reap the benefits.
And once you've actually done something, people will say, "That was so great that you did that. What's next?" You just have to block that out and be like, "Listen, I've got to live my life." It's hard because if enough people are listening to what you're doing, they're going to want to know all about your personal story. They want to relate. They want you to keep making everything the same way you've been making it before, but that's just not how it happens because when you're living your life you change. In the music industry, it's pretty easy to make an album just because you want to keep going, like, "This is the formula." But the formula is your life. You have to live your life and you have to live it well—that’s the formula.
Starter offers introductions to artists, scenes, styles, or labels of the past, plus a playlist.
“I consider myself a classical guitar player, but I’m categorized as a folk musician,” John Fahey says ruefully in the new documentary In Search of Blind Joe Death—The Saga of John Fahey. In true Fahey fashion, he speaks humbly while taking Occam’s Razor to his own complicated place in music history. One thing that Fahey hits on the nose, though, is how his instrumental playing and composing over the decades never settled into a single genre. Instead it’s an interstitial sound, instantly recognizable yet spanning everything from folk, blues, and Dixieland jazz to gamelan, avant-garde classical, and ambient noise. What never wavers is Fahey’s core: a languid-yet-intricate fingerpicking style that drones, descends, dances, and does all in its considerable power to synthesize a new archetype of American music, one that consciously embraces the culture’s polyglot essence. More immediately, it’s gorgeous. Lonesome and ghostly, Fahey’s playing evokes absence, strangeness, and space with a hymnal intimacy.
Born into a musical household in 1939, Fahey latched into vintage blues and bluegrass 78s at an early age and made his first album, Blind Joe Death, at 20. As young as he was, his style was already well-defined: open-tuned, steel-string guitar plucked with the grace of his nylon-stringed conservatory counterparts, but with all the intuitive passion and aching snap of the blues. But Blind Joe Death, which wasn't recognized until years after its 1959 release, was more than just a milestone in Fahey’s life—it remains a DIY monument, paid for by Fahey’s gas-station paycheck. No label would touch his music at the time, so he simply decided to put his records out himself. The result was Takoma, the imprint named after his Maryland hometown, through which he’d release most of his output while launching the careers of Leo Kottke, George Winston, and others. It took him until 1963 to issue Blind Joe Death’s follow-up, Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes, but the downtime was worth it; in the interim, Fahey had evolved, and his work in the mid-60s reflects a growing restlessness.
Fahey relocated to California for grad school just as West Coast folk-rock and psychedelia were blooming. He shied clear of both, although he did play the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1967, jamming with Mayo Thompson’s fledgling art-rock ensemble the Red Krayola. The result is a raw, harrowing live recording finally issued in 1998 as The Red Krayola: Live 1967. It’s far from essential, but Fahey did absorb something from the association—namely the Red Krayola’s use of tape loops and noise. As a student of music, Fahey knew experimental composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Terry Riley, and he folded such avant-garde theories and techniques into an astounding run of four late-60s albums that mark the peak of Fahey’s vision: Days Have Gone By, The Voice of the Turtle, Requia, and The Yellow Princess. Not yet 30, he let the 60s counterculture seethe around him as he dived inward, downward, and outward again, bearing strange collations of samples, static, dissonance, and always that sure, circular guitar.
A blessing and a curse came with 1968's The New Possibility, an album of traditional Christmas songs that would remain Fahey’s bestseller by a mile. Of Rivers and Religion and After the Ball followed in the early 70s and saw him incorporate a broader range of influences, not to mention a full host of instrumental collaborators. Like all Fahey albums to date (save The New Possibility), they sold next to nothing. By 1975, he was back making Christmas albums, a relatively lucrative fallback that he’d rely on more and more as the 80s dawned. By then, he found himself alcoholic, diabetic, stricken with Epstein-Barr Syndrome, and reduced to lamely covering Eric Clapton’s “Layla” in a halfhearted bid for radio play.
But the 90s saved Fahey. Name-checked by Sonic Youth, glowingly written about by music critic Byron Coley, and worshipped by a legion of young post-rockers, Fahey crawled out of obsolescence to take his place at the head of the experimental-music table. In 1997, he made his official comeback with no less than four records, including the stunning Womblife, produced by Jim O’Rourke (who, not so coincidentally, was also helping revive the Red Krayola at the time), and The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, a rare full-band collaboration with post-rockers Cul de Sac. Reaching backward into his catalog of compositions while stretching ahead with brave explorations into the electric guitar, Fahey’s latter-day output is astounding in its scope and vitality—up to and including his swansong, Red Cross, recorded soon before his death following a heart operation in 2001 but not released until two years later. As ever, his self-coined genre of American Primitivism remains a subtle, minimal, hauntingly resonant style all its own. Listen to the selected John Fahey tracks below with this Spotify playlist.
Fahey’s first four albums, starting with 1959’s Blind Joe Death and ending with 1965’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, are of a piece. His career could have ended there and his immortality might have been assured; right out of the gate, it was clear he had a keen ear for both tradition and innovation. Updating a 1927 recording by Georgia bluesman Barbecue Bob—minus vocals and shrouded with an unspoken sorrow—Fahey places emphasis on the melody, which lurches and shivers against droning low notes that hint at the more mesmeric application of folk-blues tonality he’d eventually make his idiom. That he made this first step toward timelessness while barely out of his teens is only part of “Poor Boy”’s magic.
Of Fahey’s early albums, 1964’s Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes most clearly exhibits the guitarist’s growing infatuation with the Delta blues, particularly Skip James and Bukka White. It also shows Fahey’s increasing confidence of his own strength—and stamina—as he unfurls notes on “Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border”. Not unlike what Bert Jansch was beginning to probe in England at the time, the seven-minute song flexes Fahey’s sure, solid chops while offering a glimpse of the minimalist tangent and fluid modality to come. It also hovers like a gray haze over a mythic apparition of a once-and-future America.
If “Stomping Ground” exemplified Fahey’s growing immersion in a musical universe of his own imagining, “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California” draws him out—and sinks him deeper. One of the most enigmatically beautiful compositions in his songbook, it takes Fahey’s travelogue to hitherto uncharted places—namely his new home, the West Coast—to meditate on muted glory and spiritual abandon amid the mundane. Fahey’s intricate fingerpicking is his trademark, and justifiably so, but on “Portland Cement Factory” it's his mysteriously patterned chords and fluttering strum that truly shine.
“A Raga Called Pat, Pt. IV” (1968)
The first two episodes of the drone workout “A Raga Called Pat” appear on Days Have Gone By, and their sequels surface on Days’ follow-up, The Voice of the Turtle—and it’s the fourth installment that takes full flight. Opening with a sci-fi-echo gong, it resolves into a gamelan-inspired fusion of dissonant clusters, unnerving string-bends, and crackling ambience. Then the stereo panning comes in, presaging a period of Fahey using electronic treatments and studio advancements to repurpose his sound in anticipation of the scavenge-ethic of tomorrow. While the world went trippy, Fahey formed a parallel psychedelic dimension that was also manifested in his copious, semi-fictional, self-penned liner notes, which mixed serious musicology with a prankish smirk. (In 1997, Fahey would win a Grammy for his liner notes for the Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4, released in his own Revenant Records.)
“Requiem for Molly, Pt. 1” (1967)
Fahey’s brief sojourn on Vanguard Records—alongside fellow travelers such as Sandy Bull and stars like Joan Baez—brought him a burst of attention and legitimacy. Instead of dialing back his experimentation, however, he doubled down. His two Vanguard albums, Requia and The Yellow Princess, are remarkable documents of Fahey’s unleashed genius, as well as his quietly confrontational streak. More akin to Harry Partch than, say, Bob Dylan, the Requia track “Requiem for Molly, Pt. 1” pits Fahey’s sinewy picking against a collage of cranky loops and smeared samples—some peripherally recognizable, others utterly alien, and partly crafted by Barry Hansen (the man later known as Dr. Demento)—that coalesce into an eerie folk iteration of musique concrète. It didn’t have the same reach as the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”, released the same year, but “Requiem for Molly, Pt. 1” is just as much of an insurgency.
“Dixie Pig Bar-B-Que Blues” (1972)
From its die-cut, sepia-soaked cover to its otherworldly interpretations of Dixieland jazz and half-speed ragtime, Of Rivers and Religion—one of Fahey’s two albums for Reprise in the early 70s—is a new kind of Americana, then and now. Nearly steampunk in its anachronistic glee, songs such as “Dixie Pig Bar-B-Q Blues” mix downhome colloquialism with a wit and intellect that have always stood at the heart of even the corniest parts of the Great American Songbook. If Stephen Foster had composed for the chamber instead of the parlor, it might have sounded something like this. That said, “Dixie”’s tasteful arrangement and softly mournful air never takes itself, or its sources, for granted. Rarely would Fahey return to this specific sort of lushness, but it remains one of his music’s defining moments: What the skeleton looks like with a full coat of flesh.
“Christmas Fantasy, Pt. 2” (1975)
No Fahey playlist would be complete without at least one of his Christmas songs. The sheer perversity of Fahey playing Yuletide schmaltz is only strange at first glance; one of his heroes, Béla Bartók, had harnessed the intertwined folk and classical roots of the Christmas carol, and Fahey takes a similarly approach on albums like The New Possibility. But on 1975’s Christmas with John Fahey Vol. II, he lets loose. Devoting the final half of the disc to a sprawling, delicately tangled ode to the winter holidays that feels more pagan than Christian, he makes it clear that Christmas dwells in his work only at his whim. And that sometimes, even joy can be harsh.
Jim O’Rourke was the Rick Rubin of the avant-garde in the 90s, rebooting the careers of faded legends like Fahey—whose 1997 album Womblife marks not a return to form, but a new chapter. Awash with drones drawn out of the ether, “Sharks” is one of the album’s pulse-arresting cuts. At over nine minutes, it’s Fahey funneled down a wormhole, a slow-motion spasm of dilated spacetime that’s simultaneously one of the most minimal and maximal things he’s ever done. After his hard times in the 80s, Fahey found his footing again, surrounded by a young generation of visionaries who knew how to help him produce fresh context for his work—then feed that signal back into the effects box.
“The New Red Pony” (1997)
Fahey’s collaborations with other musicians were frequent, but they typically took the form of subservience—outside one-offs like his Red Krayola jam session in 1967, he rarely hooked up with existing bands. Thankfully he decided to take a chance with Cul de Sac on 1997’s The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. Rather than restructuring his sound, he let the Boston instrumental group pour it a new foundation, best heard on “The New Red Pony”. A version of the early Fahey staple “The Red Pony”, the song unfolds with dust-caked twang before the bass and drums kick in, a muscular swing that lends heft, dynamism, and dimensionality—not to mention an onslaught of monolithic distortion—to one of Fahey’s personal favorites.
Although Fahey’s final album, Red Cross, contains some of his most challenging compositions (including the throbbing, 24-minute “Untitled with Rain”), “Remember” is the one that captures late-period Fahey at his most emotional. With the strident picking of his younger days dissolved into something far wearier, the song wobbles yet never topples—flitting with surprising bursts of spryness across a poignant quote of “Amazing Grace”. But that lighthearted frolic thinly veils an aura of metaphysical awe in the face of redemption, memory, and mortality. Fahey didn’t live to see Red Cross’ release, but hopefully he knew what was plainly evident: In his 60s, renewed and redeemed, he was creating some of the most gripping, soulful music of his life. The slew of tribute albums that sprang up in the wake of his death—which include covers by everyone from Sufjan Stevens and Lee Ranaldo to Nels Cline and Canned Heat—speak to his influence, but his strings sing for themselves.
Future Islands, from left: William Cashion, Samuel T. Herring, Gerrit Welmers. Photo by Timothy Saccenti.
To quote pop music’s foremost egotist, Samuel T. Herring has played the underdog his whole career. Future Islands' last two albums, In Evening Air and On the Water were beloved by a devout few, but largely overlooked, and in most of the Baltimore band's songs, frontman Herring taps a bottomless reserve of resilience in the face of constant romantic failure, burnout, and disappointment. Their live show really confirms this image, lending a performative, wish-fulfillment element: When you finally see the man behind the unhinged, highly theatrical voice, he looks like the guy picking onions next to you at Trader Joe’s. Sporting a receding hairline and a neatly tucked T-shirt and jeans, Herring stalks the stage in front of his equally unassuming band members J. Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion, intensely glaring at you like you’re the only person in the audience, which is the entire point. “I physically work hard on stage to get mouths to drop, bring people in, and to catch them off guard," says the singer. "We come out and people don't really know what to expect—and then we launch into this big music.”
And now they're in a position where big things are expected of their fourth album, Singles, moving from the modest, revered Chicago imprint Thrill Jockey to indie powerhouse 4AD, which currently houses A-listers including the National, Deerhunter, and Grimes. The trio, who have been writing music together for more than 10 years, recorded Singles on their own dime and brought in producer Chris Coady, who's worked with TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear, and fellow Baltimoreans Beach House. They play Coachella for the first time in April and they’ve even supplemented their unorthodox vocals-bass-sequencer setup with a live drummer, Denny Bowen, from defunct Charm City noiseniks Double Dagger.
With Singles due out March 25, Future Islands are caught in a situation that most bands aspire towards but rarely talk about in plain terms: That point where you’re on the verge of playing to 1000 people instead of 350, where the TV appearances are expected rather than a nice surprise. "We haven't been working hard for years and years so that we could not do the big things," says Herring. As such, they’re thinking like careerists—a term that typically engenders a lot of ill will, as if bands shouldn’t be practical about their own livelihoods.
The negative connotation is not lost on Herring: “As music becomes a career more than a hobby, you have to respect that it is work and people count on you. I'm not just talking about it from a business standpoint, but fans want to hear what you're working on.” So this time out, he's thinking like an alpha dog instead of an underdog. While the band agrees that the title Singles can be open to interpretation, Herring boasts, “For me, it's a confident, arrogant title. Every single song's a single and can stand along on its own.”
Pitchfork: Considering the new label and the bigger stages, did you feel more pressure while you were making this new album or now that it’s done?
Samuel T. Herring: We didn't get the 4AD deal until the record was mixed and mastered a couple of months ago. We created it completely out of our pocket and the pockets of friends who helped out because we were running low on dough. We basically put all of our marbles in the pot and hoped for the best. So there was pressure going into the recording, but afterwards, I wasn't really concerned, because we created a great piece of work, the next evolution of what we've done for years. I just feel excitement now. I just want the stage. I'm ready to hit the road hard, hit the big stages, hit the small stages, the houses.
Pitchfork: Especially compared to On the Water, this album sounds more uptempo and focused on big choruses. Were you intent on making a “pop” record to fit your ambitions?
SH: We consider what we do to be pop music. It's our own twist on it, but we've always written songs about love and loss and nature, just real things—universal music that’s catchy and has strong chords. I definitely wanted to revitalize the live set, so there's some 80s R&B and punk influences on there, but the album also has some of those slow bangers that define our band.
Pitchfork: Singles sounds like it’s coming from a much more romantically satisfied place than In Evening Air and On the Water—were you becoming aware of Future Islands as having a reputation for making “breakup records”?
SH: Having a reputation for writing breakup records is OK for me. I don't have someone in my life right now, but I'm also just becoming a mature adult. When I was 18 on a college campus, an old curmudgeon came up to me in the park and told me that he wanted to see what I was writing. We shared a cigarette, and he just started making fun of me. He was a poetry major. He was probably about my age now—late 20s/early 30s—and he was just like, "This is all bullshit, one day you're going to be a cynical asshole just like me." I still don't want to become that. I want to hold on to those romantic ideals. Those are things that we believe in and work hard on in our music.
5-10-15-20 features artists talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This edition features the 30-year-old leader of hazy guitar rock act Dum Dum Girls, whose third album Too True is out now on Sub Pop. Listen along to her picks with this Spotify playlist.
Tiffany: “I Think We’re Alone Now”
In the 80s, we had these things called Pocket Rockers, which were essentially mini cassette players manufactured for kids. They made a bunch of different tapes you could buy, and I had one with Tiffany on the A-side with "I Think We're Alone Now" backed with a great Debbie Gibson song. I was obsessed. I had two other tapes, but they were weird and instrumental. Not pop music. I used to roller skate on my block in East Bay and do little routines with it. I would bring it to school—but I was a really good kid so I only brought mine out at recess—and we’d choreograph dances. These tiny songs were my introduction to the pop world.
Madonna: The Immaculate Collection
Madonna was my first big pop icon. Everything about her was so cool. I was raised Catholic, which was weird. My mom was Catholic and my dad was agnostic, and Catholicism was a really big deal to her even though she was very liberal. I spent maybe the first eight years of my life thinking that everyone went to church. When I was 10 I developed strong friendships with girls who weren’t Catholic—one of them was Mormon, one was Jewish—and I started realizing that it’s a choice.
I really liked the subversive stuff that Madonna would do visually and lyrically. My parents were pretty conservative in terms of looks, but I definitely tried to push the envelope in that direction, as age-appropriately as I could, in middle school. But I also was a goody two-shoes, so I didn't really create any waves. I was into dancing from a really young age—I danced Modern and Jazz for years, and I probably danced to all of the songs off that album.
Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow
When my mom was in college, she left Catholicism to be a Hare Krishna for a year and she did lots of drugs then—it’s a bummer that she’s not around now to talk more about that. My parents came to a show at the Fillmore San Francisco in 2007, and we were all just hanging out and getting kinda drunk, walking around, and my mom said: "Oh, wow. I haven't been here in forever. I think the last time I was here I saw Grateful Dead and I was on mescaline." I was like, “What? You've never admitted to smoking weed to me before. How can you drop that bomb on me now?” My parents were about 13 years apart, so my dad was really into what was considered oldies in the 80s, and my mom was into hippie psych-rock and early 70s stuff.
My mom had a very small but well-curated record collection from college that I took over: Beatles, Stones, Janis Joplin, Big Brother, Jefferson Airplane. I really honed in on [Jefferson Airplane’s] Grace Slick. Not only was she really arresting visually and probably my first brunette icon, she was a total power female. I hadn't seen that yet because I was obsessed with these bleach-blond 80s people. I became obsessed with her deep voice and monotone delivery and learned how to mimic it perfectly. I would sing it in the shower every night. I studied every little inflection. My first awful rock'n'roll band covered Jefferson Airplane songs and I got to live out my little Grace Slick dream.
Patti Smith: Horses
In high school, I thought I was going to go to UCLA to study library science or literature, but my parents took me on a road trip to visit all the UCs, and my grandmother lived in Santa Cruz, so we went to the campus there. I fell in love with it immediately—it's up on a mountain, really secluded. Something about the history of UC Santa Cruz as the alternative UC was intriguing to me. It’s broken up into different schools, and I ended up at the really arty one. I had lived my life to appease my mom, so I hadn’t done a lot of stuff that I wanted to. So when I moved into my dorm room, I was living with a girl who had a massive John Lydon painting and I thought, “This is going to be cool.” The next day she and I and our neighbor went and got pierced—I got my nose done. I didn’t do drugs or drink at all my first year of college, but I went off the deep end a little bit.
That year, my friend at school played me Horses for the first time, and that was the most impactful record that I’ve ever listened to, even to this day. Patti opens the record with the preamble that goes, "Jesus died [for somebody’s sins, but not mine]." That was another Catholic switch that flipped and I was like, "Yes! This is fucking amazing!" It's flawless. It was a huge, huge deal for me. The first song I ever wrote for Dum Dum Girls was "Catholicked", and the choruses of that song are actually the intro Patti did in the "Gloria" cover, which I don't think most people notice. I didn't know too much about the historical context of Patti Smith or her contemporaries, so it was really an out-of-left-field thing for me.
The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses
I moved to Southern California in 2005 with my old band, and we opened for [my husband] Brandon [Welchez]’s old band, and that’s how we met. About a year later, we both had super messy breakups with our respective significant others. We re-met and started dating and fell in love over a single weekend. It was pretty intense. While he was on tour he texted me, “Hey, I have to move out of my place. Can I move in with you?” I was like, “Yeah, of course!”
So he brought his 2,000 records to my studio apartment with a Murphy bed. All we had were records. He was was like, "Oh, have you heard Stone Roses?" And I was like, "I don't think so." He has this encyclopedic knowledge of music—he made me a mixtape after we fell in love, and it had “She Bangs the Drums” on it. I loved it. We both became obsessed with that record and listened to it every day for a week. When he went on tour again, I just left it in the record player and listened to it every day for a month. We got married in 2007, only six months after we started dating.
Rowland S. Howard: Teenage Snuff Film
I was super into bands like the Birthday Party when I lived in Santa Cruz in the early 2000s. I’m obsessed with Nick Cave. When I got a bit older, I started listening to the pre-Birthday Party band Boys Next Door, who have this amazing song called "Shivers"—Rowland S. Howard wrote it when he was 16. That turned me onto him not just as an incredible guitar player, but just as a true artist in complete form. Teenage Snuff Film stuck out. It’s really dark, slow, and depressing. He covers Billy Idol and the Shangri-Las. It’s just devastating. On the first song, "Dead Radio", he opens with: “You’re bad for me like cigarettes, but I haven’t sucked up enough of you yet.” When I heard that I was like, “Sign me up.”
We know what happened to Slint after their 1991 finale and masterpiece Spiderland. They’d broken up months ahead of its release, splitting up to focus on various side projects—each of them worked in some capacity with Will Oldham's Palace Music, David Pajo became a prolific sideman and frontman, and Brian McMahan led the excellent For Carnation. They eventually reunited in 2005 for a short run of tour dates, where their once-obscure music found a bigger audience than it ever had while they were an active band.
But what happened to Slint before the release of Spiderland—a steely, hyper-sensitive record that helped shape the blueprint of post-rock—is less certain. Were the members as dark and brooding as the music suggested? What was it about their middle-American roots that led to their singular sound? What musical Svengali put them on their particular path?
A forthcoming reissue of Spiderland, on April 15 through Touch and Go, helps pull back the curtains on the band’s genesis. The box set's 104-page book paints Slint as a group of friendly teenagers who liked to climb walls and paste crass flyers to the back of their makeshift tour van for their brief trips outside of their hometown of Louisville. They liked potty humor and loved hardcore music. Breadcrumb Trail, an accompanying 93-minute documentary by filmmaker and Slint zealot Lance Bangs shows the band's members as neighborhood kids who loved pranks, played their first show during a church service, and pulled a shotgun on Steve Albini. The reissue package provides an intimate look at and listen to a band that has meant so much but often said so little.
Pitchfork: There’s a tendency to look at Slint as a brooding band. But the book and the film show that you were goofballs. There were a lot of penis jokes.
David Pajo: We were pretty normal—suburban kids having a good time playing in bands. We were silly. We weren’t dark, intense, humorless people. Humor was one of the connecting forces among us. It was more like camaraderie. When we woke up every morning, one of our things was, “Let’s go put a new sign in the back window of the van.” Those are the different signs we had up in the back of our van, so that the people behind us could have something enjoyable to look at.
Pitchfork: Which produced more nostalgia for you: assembling the Spiderland box set or doing the 2005 reunion tour?
Brian McMahan: The box set layout was something that just hit me… it’s so incredibly simple, but it’s spare in this way that totally honors where my head was at when Spiderland came out. It was like revisiting the aesthetic and seeing how incredibly simple things were. That's the biggest source of nostalgia for me.
Pitchfork: Was the Slint breakup a fraught or a casual thing?
DP: It was pretty common to form bands that only lasted a few years. Slint was my favorite band that I was in at the time, and I didn’t realize that I was bummed out about it until quite a while later. But there was no bitterness. It was just a totally rational, common-sense breakup. It didn’t feel like losing a girlfriend. That format just splintered off, but it came back in different forms as the years went by.
BM: It did just seem like that’s what was going to happen next. Maybe I’m fatalistic. I don’t know if the monogamous relationship analogy is really a good one, honestly, for Slint. It may have been more of a casual relationship.
DP: We were pretty young, and I lacked quite a bit of common sense. I stayed a kid for a pretty long time, and the logistics of being in a band, I did not take seriously at all. I was into the music, but the idea of showing up places on time or having to tell people when you’re not going to be somewhere—that just didn’t even cross my mind. People like a story that has a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But I don’t think the Slint story really has that.
Pitchfork: During the last decade, a debate has emerged about old bands reuniting and touring only on old material, essentially cashing in on their past. What's your take on that?
BM: Do I find that distasteful, exploiting old material? Yes, I do. But any of these times that we’ve played together, it's only happened because a really hardcore group of people wanted it to happen. It was not something we had planned or were looking to cash in. People ask you repeatedly, and you finally start to get the sense that people would really like to hear this song performed live in front of them.
DP: On a musical level, I do find it rewarding. It’s not like I want to blow my brains out while I’m playing these songs from so long ago. I am still surprised by the way the songs are constructed—note choices, the way the arrangements are made, the way these songs are assembled. I’m still amazed at times.
Pitchfork: The look and the reach of indie rock have changed significantly since you made Spiderland. What was the experience of being in an indie band in Louisville at the time?
BM: I think of that time as a set of personal and geographic relationships. There was a strong Louisville connection with Chicago, which was the closest major city and five or six hours away. When we were making this music, you obviously couldn’t go online and hear almost any group that you possibly would have heard of for free or immediately. That was unthinkable. Connections made hinged on who had the deepest record collection, who had been where recently, who was talked to when a band passed through town, what news was brought through when a band came through town.
Even to the extent that fanzines existed, it was still a slow process. By the time you read those magazines, a third of those bands were probably not in existence. That’s how long it took to filter through, to get into people’s hands. A lot of the bands that we identified with or inspired us or formalized my conception of what could be done as a band during that time were bands that I had met personally. There wasn’t much coercion from afar.
DP: Most people found out about Slint in the mid or late 90s, but we were an ’80s band. We started in 1986 and broke up at the end of 1990. The majority of these songs were written in the late ’80s, and that was a pretty different time period for music and technology.
I found out about music through talking about music. I would say, “I really like Side Two of My War,” and somebody would say, “You might like these Swans EPs that just came out.” It was usually people that were able to get records or were talking regularly to people in New York and Chicago.
Pitchfork: Did that geographic isolation help Slint's sound and aesthetic?
BM: We were self-referencing our material: “Well, we did that, so it seem like it would be cool to do this next.” There wasn’t any outside influence. It was just to entertain ourselves, essentially, because we had next to no fans. By today’s standards, it was probably an unimaginably insular experience, playing in a band and writing music in Louisville, despite the periodic infusions of culture. Things happened a lot slower.
DP: Louisville was also good place for being able to make whatever kind of music you wanted to. You didn’t have to worry about renting a practice space or figure out when another band would be in there or worry about if your stuff is going to get stolen….
We made basement practice songs.To have them presented in such a huge fashion today—like at Primavera, where it’s thousands of people in a festival environment—is surreal. I never thought some of the songs would ever need to be projected at such a volume or to such a wide span of people.
A few years ago, Steven Shade found himself alone in a hotel room when church bells started ringing outside. Inspired by the chimes, he sat down at his computer and tried to recreate them only using the digital tools at his disposal. The result can be heard at the start "Concreté Misery", the title track from the 31-year-old's debut album as Sevendeaths. But whereas bell tones are usually open and uplifting, they turn corroded and staticy in Shade's hands, as if filtered through an empty phone line. The droning pulses were an apt reflection of the Edinburgh producer's lonely mindstate at the time, as he was drifting from faceless UK town to faceless UK town as part of his job as a software developer.
Soon after those fateful bells, though, Shade's wife became pregnant with their daughter Isla and he decided to put the ominous ambient music he was making on hold—it didn't match his refreshed outlook as a new dad. Still, he couldn't shake those forceful waves of digital drones he created on his laptop. So he returned to them, trying to balance the endless darkness of bands like Sunn O))) with a twinkling positivity courtesy of chirping synth oscillations.
And that push and pull can be heard throughout Concreté Misery's six overwhelming tracks, which recall the distorted sounds of artists like Fennesz, Emeralds, and Tim Hecker, but with a surreally exacting touch. The wailing feedback of each guitar comes through with an unnatural clarity, probably due to the fact that the album's "guitars"—and every single other sound, for that matter—were largely built by Shade from the ground up using an array of computer software and hardware. The sculptures he's chosen for Concreté Misery's art—pictured above—transmit the music's spare, hand-crafted approach.
"The whole musique concrète movement was about making music from real instruments, which was the exact opposite of what I was doing," explains the producer, talking about the album's sly title. "I set myself some early ground rules with this project: I could only use synthetic sounds but I couldn't use any traditional beats or drum machines. So I played a MIDI guitar to make some of it, which is a bit silly since it would have been a lot easier with a real guitar, but I like the daftness of that. On a technical level, it's interesting to put these constraints around things."
This self-consciously limiting philosophy is akin to Jack White's—minus the Luddite tendencies and old-fashioned sense of analog authenticity. And it works wonders for Shade, who grew up as a grunge kid playing Nirvana covers before discovering the work of artists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass and making his own electronic music in his free time. The admitted "geek" also played in a number of math-rock bands and is currently a member of the maximalist quartet American Men. Finally, though, Shade is learning to funnel his copious technical and musical chops in powerful ways with Sevendeaths. He can do it all, and now he knows he doesn't have to.
"When [my daughter] was really young, we were struggling to get her to sleep, and that's when our musical connection started... We ended up listening to these eight-hour-long YouTube videos of hair dryers or vacuum cleaners."
Pitchfork: What programs and equipment did you use to make this album?
SS: I built my own software arpeggiator where you can trigger it by using different elements. I'm quite keen on having random, computer-controlled sound and not having full control over them. It keeps it fresh—no two tracks will ever sound exactly the same. A lot of plugins offer you pseudo-analog type of sounds, but I tried to stay clear of that. I thought it was profound to build up my own thing for this album, and that's probably what gives it a different sound.
For example, "All Night Graves" has sounds from an arpeggio tool I'd built up and was triggering from this tool called the Tenori-On, which is good for making little minimalist sounds. I used it to trigger how long the notes would last, which results in these waves of octaves.
Pitchfork: Some musicians talk about today's music-making digital technology as a bad thing, but you seem to think the opposite.
SS: Well, certain technologies can make it very straightforward to make music, and the problem with using technology within music is it can offer too many options. You've got everything at your disposal when you're sitting at a computer: a string quartet, a jazz band, all these different drum sounds, beats, everything. It's all there. So it's useful to create some ground rules, which also makes the music more interesting.
Pitchfork: Have you played the Sevendeaths material for your daughter at all?
SS: She hears the slow process it took to get to the album—when I'm making music and she's listening to the same few seconds over and over, it's probably not very enjoyable. [laughs]
Pitchfork: This music could be a bit frightening to a child.
SS: Yeah, if I forced her to listen, that might be a little scary. She's into some drone music though. When she was really young, we were struggling to get her to sleep, and that's when our musical connection started. I would try and play really calming drone or chamber music, but even the small changes in that would wake her up. So we ended up listening to these eight-hour-long YouTube videos of hair dryers or vacuum cleaners. She now goes to bed listening to Stars of the Lid every single night. I don't know what possible effect that might have later on, but it's beautiful music.
Pitchfork: Do you think those vacuum cleaner sounds influenced this album?
SS: [laughs] Possibly.