Late last year, the folk-pop act Mutual Benefit toured through Ohio, where band leader Jordan Lee grew up. The familial trip included a stop at Lee's aunt's house, where the singer learned about his musical heritage, as well as an opening set from Lee's father at an Athens show. Fittingly, Lee's sister Whitney chronicled the trip in the following gallery.
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Articles on this Page
- 02/03/14--09:15: _Interviews: Mark Ko...
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- 02/04/14--22:00: _Guest Lists: Hiss G...
- 02/06/14--11:40: _Photo Galleries: On...
- 02/06/14--11:45: _Show No Mercy: Slou...
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- 02/11/14--11:45: _Update: Avey Tare's...
- 02/12/14--12:10: _Paper Trail: Experi...
- 02/13/14--11:00: _Rolling on Dubs: Bl...
- 02/14/14--09:55: _Guest Lists: Evian ...
- 02/17/14--10:55: _Articles: St. Vince...
- 02/19/14--08:20: _Starter: Todd Terje...
- 02/20/14--10:20: _Update: Linda Perhacs
- 02/21/14--09:05: _Rising: Isaiah Rashad
- 02/24/14--12:50: _Update: Duck Sauce
- 02/25/14--09:30: _Update: EMA
- 02/26/14--08:40: _Overtones: Word Is ...
- 02/27/14--07:55: _Articles: Real Esta...
- 02/03/14--09:15: Interviews: Mark Kozelek
- 02/04/14--09:00: Interviews: Gesaffelstein
- 02/04/14--22:00: Guest Lists: Hiss Golden Messenger
- 02/06/14--11:40: Photo Galleries: On Tour With Mutual Benefit
- 02/06/14--11:45: Show No Mercy: Slough Feg
- 02/07/14--08:25: The Out Door: Genres of One
- 02/07/14--10:50: Photo Galleries: CTM Festival
- 02/10/14--13:30: Articles: Massive Nights: Ten Years of the Hold Steady
- 02/11/14--11:45: Update: Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks
- 02/12/14--12:10: Paper Trail: Experiencing Nirvana
- 02/13/14--11:00: Rolling on Dubs: Blind Date: Odd Squad's Fadanuf Fa Erybody
- 02/14/14--09:55: Guest Lists: Evian Christ
- 02/17/14--10:55: Articles: St. Vincent: Reckless Precision
- 02/19/14--08:20: Starter: Todd Terje: 15 Essential Rarities
- 02/20/14--10:20: Update: Linda Perhacs
- 02/21/14--09:05: Rising: Isaiah Rashad
- 02/24/14--12:50: Update: Duck Sauce
- 02/25/14--09:30: Update: EMA
- 02/26/14--08:40: Overtones: Word Is Bond: Black Hippy and the Power of Repetition
- 02/27/14--07:55: Articles: Real Estate: Suburban Dreams
Mark Kozelek's work has felt important since he began recording with Red House Painters in the early 90s. I have clear memories of discussing my favorite "sad songs" with my friends during that period, and focusing on a few lines from Rollercoaster's "Katy Song": "I know tomorrow/ You will be somewhere in London, living with someone/ You've got some kind of family there to turn to/ And that's more than I could ever give you." But while he wrote songs that felt deeply personal and resonant, Kozelek was still a shadowy figure—I knew very little about someone whose music I knew very well.
Years of listening to his music and learning about his background didn’t prepare me for Benji, Kozelek's self-produced sixth album as Sun Kil Moon. From the opening notes and words of the record's spare entryway, "Carissa", you know this is new territory; the song is about his second cousin—a mother of two—dying when she takes out the trash. Benji is filled with material that finds Kozelek stripping away metaphor, painting vivid pictures of family members dead and living, innocent children killed in school shootings and serial killers who die of natural causes. As easily as he can shock with gruesome subject matter, he understands nuance, and you end up feeling like you, too, know each person who shows up in these songs.
In the end, it's all about Kozelek and how he got to where he is today, but he gazes everywhere except his own navel—characters and details show up in different places, and from different angles. He'll examine the effect of re-watching an old favorite movie or the feeling of seeing a younger friend's band perform. He creates a patchwork of references from far and wide, alluding to boxing, childhood playground fights, Led Zeppelin, the Postal Service, Edgar Winter, mercy killings, cancer, old friends and their scars, David Bowie, and Panera Bread. The lyrics are unadorned and carefully wrought, as is the music, which is mostly Kozelek with his guitar or xylophone. (He gets some vocal help from Will Oldham, Jen Wood, and Keta Bill, while Steve Shelley and a few others add some guest instrumentation.) The production's crystalline; you feel like you're in the same room with the players as they construct a world around you.
Benji is such an emotionally raw record that I was surprised Kozelek was willing to answer questions about it. I pooled the below questions from various members of Pitchfork's staff—it felt like the Kozelekian thing to do. He responded via email.
"Yes, a few of my relatives died from aerosol can explosions. Strange things happen within families, in small towns... For the most part, this record is as real as a bad car accident."
Pitchfork: You've written personal songs in the past, but Benji takes things deeper. The music is stripped down; the lyrics feel like diaristic reportage. What took you in this direction?
Mark Kozelek: I suppose I've run out of metaphors, and when you get older, you're bothered, or inspired, by other things in life than a girl breaking up with you. Things get heavier as you get older. At 47, I can't write from the perspective of a 25-year-old anymore. My life has just changed too much and my environment around me.
Pitchfork: I suppose people are curious if all of this really happened. My sense is that it did. How much is real, and how much is fiction or embellishment?
MK: I can see how some of these incidents would sound odd, to say, a British journalist, or someone who is very young, or sheltered, but yes, a few of my relatives died from aerosol can explosions. Strange things happen within families, in small towns. I fudge a few facts here and there in the name of getting a song out of the way, or to protect the living, but for the most part this record is as real as a bad car accident.
Pitchfork: Did you change the names of people involved? Do you worry about people trying to Google Jim Wise and Katy Curland and Billy Brislin and what being mentioned by name could mean for them?
MK: Katy Curland is not an actual name—nor is Jim Wise. Jim Wise is a very real person who is close with my dad, only his name's not Jim. But Billy Brislin was my dad's best friend—a boxing enthusiast and a wonderful man. He passed away, and this song seemed like a nice place to pay tribute to him.
Pitchfork: Has Brett's wife or Micheline's parents or Carissa's kids heard these songs?
People are grieving and they'll hear my music when they are good and ready, if they want to. I don't check in on that. It's not a priority for me. I make music to process—because I have to, not for praise or accolades or reactions.
Pitchfork: Do you hope that the kid you beat up in "Song Remains The Same" reaches out?
MK: No, I've processed that. Right now, here is what's on my mind: my ankle hurts like hell, I need a new mattress, I'm missing an adapter for a Roland keyboard, I'm hungry, my girlfriend was supposed to be here an hour ago, I can't wait to see the new episode of True Detective tonight, and sadly, I just learned I'll be in Helsinki during the Pacquiao/Bradley rematch.
Pitchfork: With all the references on the album, why did you name it after the movie Benji, which is mentioned in passing?
MK: I have this light, nice memory of going to see the movie Benji, at a Los Angeles movie theatre when I was a little kid, visiting my grandparents. This record is filled with so much darkness, I wanted to give it a light title, for contrast. Benji is a great movie, one of my favorites.
Pitchfork: Which of the songs did you write first? How did the idea for the interconnected songs come to pass?
MK: "Truck Driver" was written first. I offered it to Desertshore for [collaborative side project] MK and Desertshore but they passed on it. It was soon after that my second cousin passed away. I wrote a song for her, and I guess that spiraled and one song led to another.
Pitchfork: Each song could get the extended treatment you gave "I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same" in the piece you recently wrote for the New York Times. You also wrote a couple of other similar pieces. How much do you want to decode for the listener?
MK: I don't enjoy talking about my songs, but at the same time, I'll do it in the right context.
Peter Catapano, an editor at the Times, talked me into the first piece. I was reluctant to do it, but my dad was so touched by that piece about him and his brothers (the song "Brothers" from MK and Desertshore) that I found it rewarding and wanted to do a little more. Overall though, I'm a fan of letting the listener make their own connections. I'm a fan of making music, more than talking about it.
Pitchfork: What were your parents' reactions to hearing "their" songs on Benji?
MK: The Times piece on "I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love" came out on my mom's birthday. She told me it was the nicest gift she ever got. My dad still hasn't heard "I Love My Dad" and I'm sure he'll say something like, "It's good, but I love your version of 'Little Drummer Boy'!" My dad loves my live albums—he's obsessed with the live version of "Little Drummer Boy", for some reason.
Pitchfork: The personal details on the album are offset by some bigger, more historical subject matter like the Newtown school shooting or Richard Ramirez' death. How do those songs function in connection with the others?
MK: You have to remember, I was a kid in a basement watching TV when the Jonestown Massacre happened, or when Dan White used the Twinkie defense. But this song ["Pray for Newtown"] was triggered out of letter I got from a fan in Newtown, after that incident happened. It brought me back to all of these places where I was when these shootings happened. James Huberty is from my hometown—he's the guy who killed all of those people at a McDonald's in Southern California, so it tied in.
Pitchfork: The closing track, "Ben's My Friend" feels like an epilogue—it's a more upbeat track that brings us into the present. It feels like you coming out from this intense experience and living to see another day. Is that how it's supposed to function?
MK: It really wasn't that thought out. I just felt like the album needed another track, so I scribbled down some stuff, vented a little about The Postal Service concert or whatever was on my mind that day. I presented it to Steve Shelley in two different ways, a slow version and a fast version. He liked the faster one and we went with it.
Pitchfork: What's it like playing these songs in a live setting?
MK: Audiences react differently, depending on venue, how much they've had to drink, or depending on whether English is their first or second language. Most Americans I play for are clueless as to who Richard Ramirez was, so you can imagine how audiences in Portugal react. I'm not saying they don't enjoy the music, I'm just saying they're a little lost on some references. Some audiences bust up with laughter at "I Love My Dad" and some take it very seriously. It depends on venue, and other elements.
Pitchfork: The album is self-produced and sounds great. Have you ever considered getting out of songwriting and into production?
MK: I appreciate you saying that. I feel like when the songwriting slows, I'd love to help others with their records. If it's something I really believe in, it's worth the effort.
Pitchfork: Are you working on new material? You've always been prolific, but it's hard to imagine you following this up.
MK: Right now I'm working on my taxes and accounting for last year, but ideas are coming. The next record will blow your fucking mind—trust me.
Just hours before New York City rings in 2014, the frenchman born Mike Lévy is not in celebratory mode. He shuffles around his room in Manhattan’s trendy Standard Hotel, groggy and moody, wearing transition lenses that have tinted slightly despite the relatively dark lighting. He is almost cartoonishly French, sporting tailored trousers, an expensive-looking grey sweater, and a dark mop of perfectly disheveled hair.
When he reluctantly sits down to talk, he alternates his focus between a pile of cold room-service French fries and a Marlboro Light. (He smokes like a chimney, especially during his live sets, and there’s a stack of fresh packs on the table sitting next to a bottle of Comme des Garçons’ Odeur 53.) It doesn’t really make a difference to him that he has to work on a holiday when most people will be enjoying themselves. He wouldn’t have had much fun, anyway: “In Paris, it’s the worst night of the year,” he explains. “All the parties are shit, you know.” He appears disgusted at the mention of any sort of pedestrian activity.
It’s probably this kind of strong will and distaste for the everyman that helped Lévy craft a debut record as bold and chic as Aleph, released last fall under the artistic moniker Gesaffelstein (he combined the German word Gesamtkunstwerk—very loosely translated as “aesthetics”—and Einstein). The record pushes beyond the boundaries of industrial electronic music and traditional techno to evoke a propulsively minimalist underworld characterized by violence, addiction, paranoia, and rage. His music is intense and direct enough in its vision that Kanye West came calling during the creation of Yeezus and asked Lévy to join the collaborative vortex of his now-fabled studio in Paris. Lévy’s work landed on the final record on both “Black Skinhead” and the pulverizing drill anthem “Send It Up”. (A mutation of the latter appears on Aleph in a song called “Hellifornia”, a dark twist on a traditional hyphy sound.)
After just a few minutes speaking with him, it was easy to understand why West and Lévy made successful collaborators: the two share a particular hunger for ideological purity and artistic boundary-pushing that can easily be construed as delusional snobbery or arrogance. Still, Lévy is not so standoffish that he can’t be pressed to talk about his values and his art, both of which he’s plainly passionate about.
"Look at cinema—let’s say, The Wolf of Wall Street. When you meet Leonardo DiCaprio, he's not like Jordan Belfort. It's just a game he's playing. He's acting. For me, music is exactly the same."
Pitchfork: Do you come from a musical family?
Mike Lévy: Not at all. I grew up in Lyon, in the South of France. It’s a boring city. I fell in love with music when I was 16, but I was not looking to be a musician. It was just a hobby. And then I discovered the synthesizer and year after year, I tried to experiment with my sound. I made an EP with friends in 2007, and then released an EP in 2010 called Variations. And it became my job. It’s pretty simple.
Pitchfork: Did you ever study to do something else or work in other industries?
ML: Nope. It’s not really that interesting. I have a normal life. That's all.
Pitchfork: Does the intensity of Aleph reflect your temperament?
ML: Of course not. People are like, “If you are doing dark music, you are a dark person.” But look at cinema—let’s say, The Wolf of Wall Street. When you meet Leonardo DiCaprio he's not like [his character, Jordan Belfort]. It's just a game he's playing. He's acting. For me, the music is exactly the same. I create something and I love that. I'm comfortable with this role and I try to develop something in this role. It’s me, but it's not me as Mike Lévy.
Pitchfork: Electronic music has become the music of frat culture in the U.S. Is there something similar happening in Europe?
ML: No! I understand why it's so masculine in the U.S., where EDM is new. It's music for farmers here. There’s nothing sexy so the girls are not into it. They're into hip-hop because it's more sexy and they can understand that. There is nothing romantic about EDM here. But in Europe it's completely different. If you go, just to Paris or Barcelona, Berlin, everywhere, Belgium, you can go to a party and you have DJs playing house and you have, it's a 50-50 [gender ratio].
Pitchfork: DJs here have massive contracts at big Vegas clubs.
ML: Those are bad. I've only been to the Champs-Élysées two times, to go and club there. It's exactly the same if you ask your friends to go to a party in Times Square. But Brooklyn is the worst. I don't want to meet hipsters in the streets. Have you seen Star Wars? Have you seen The Clone? They are the same.
Pitchfork: What if someone offered you €100,000 to play one of those clubs?
ML: I'd say no. I don't need to sell myself to play in shitty clubs. If I say yes for that, I'll say yes for everything, so I can't. And I don't consider myself a DJ. I do DJ because it's a way to share my music with people, but first of all, I'm a producer, a musician. I'm not like David Guetta. That’s not my job.
Pitchfork: How did you come to work on Yeezus?
ML: Kanye West works with a lot of people. He has his team. Somehow he heard my track "Viol" and he was a fan of it. His team contacted me and we met at his apartment in Paris.
Pitchfork: Was it your introduction to the world of hip-hop?
ML: Yes. If a rapper had asked me to do a classic hip-hop beat, I would have said no. When I was with Kanye, he wasn't like, "Do something hip-hop." He was like, "Do what you want." For me, it's not hip-hop. I just want to mix ideas. I try to be open to the world of hip-hop now because I think we can change a lot of things in this music. I just want to work with people who want to change things. Now, it’s always the same beats. Yeezus was something different. It’s electro—and when I say electro, it's closer to the first wave from Detroit. For U.S. people it's something crazy, but in Europe, this kind of song is classical electro from Detroit.
Pitchfork: Which came first, “Hellifornia” or “Send It Up”?
ML: I did "Hellifornia" before. The process of "Send It Up" it was pretty different from the way I work normally. Usually I work alone—but it was pretty easy. We did it in about two hours. With “Black Skinhead”, we tried different versions. If you watch the "Saturday Night Live" performance, you will see that it’s not the same at all. It’s more punk, it’s more industrial. We tried a lot of things and we did a lot of tracks, more than just two.
Photo by Harlan Campbell
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. Today, we're speaking with M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, whose Bad Debt is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.
I've been saying Matthew McConaughey for years, but now he's all over the place and people are saying that they love him. I can't think of a time I've felt more vindicated in my life. I feel like I've been walking a little bit taller. I mean, I stuck by the guy. I had to deal with a whole lot of bullshit conversations.
Here's my thing with McConaughey: he is a confident man and he seems like he's having a good time. That's more than you can say for a lot of actors. I mean, there are a lot of ways to be an actor and he's always appealed to me because he seems like he's having a good time. I've seen the first two episodes of "True Detective" and I love it. He hasn't put the weight back on that he lost for Dallas Buyers Club, so he just looks totally intense. It's great, man! I feel for Matthew McConaughey the way people feel for their favorite basketball team.
Favorite McConaughey Role
You might just wanna go check out a little movie called Surfer, Dude. That's Surfer "comma" Dude. That is Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson together basically making an art film in 2008. And I would say that it had something to do with his career renaissance because it's a weird, bad movie that probably didn't deserve to be made, but maybe needed to be made by him for artistic reasons. It's an odd one.
My Morning Routine
I generally get up with my wife when it's still dark. If the kids are still asleep—I have a four-year-old son and a seven-month-old daughter—I will have a cup of coffee. And then the kids wake up and all hell breaks loose.
Best Thing You Bought in the Past Year
A house. It's a brick ranch-style house with a huge finished basement, so there are a lot of little corners and hidey-holes in this house. I have an office now, which I use to write, record, practice, and smoke pot.
Era of History that You Wished You Had Lived In
I am content with the here and now. I don't buy into the sort of discourse where people say, "I wish I lived in the 60s and 70s when all my favorite music was being made." I am very content to live in the fucked up times we're living in now with a perspective on those other times.
First Record You Ever Bought for Yourself
Probably T.S.O.L.'s Change Today, followed quickly by Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full.
Favorite Piece of Furniture
I have a lot of connections with a lot of furniture my parents owned, like a brown leather chair with brass hardware that my dad had. Now, I would say the kitchen table, not because it's particularly fancy, but because it's a place that we gather everyday just to eat and hang out. It's an old, vintage table that's maybe three by five.
Among the dead, Karen Dalton or Curtis Mayfield. Among the living, Sharon Van Etten, Cass McCombs, the War on Drugs.
Dream Merch Table Item
A poncho, a signature chef's knife or a vaporizer. I like things with utilitarian value.
Favorite Kind of Pie
I like an apple pie. I love a berry pie. I made, for Thanksgiving, I made a honey pie, which was basically a cheese pie with lots of honey and some salt. It was a salty honey pie. It was insane.
Chicken or shrimp?
I prefer them both! If I could have a stew, tomato-based stew with chicken and shrimp, I'd feel like I had done pretty well for myself. I'm that kinda guy.
Mike Scalzi formed Slough Feg as The Lord Weird Slough Feg (the name of a villain in a British comic book series) in Pennsylvania in the late 1980s, but the group’s most associated with San Francisco, where Scalzi relocated to in 1990, and where he’s been a member of Hammers of Misfortune, among other bands. Also a philosophy professor and a writer, Scalzi has an ear for the heroic canon (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest) and the hooks of Thin Lizzy, but he’s just as ready to bring up D.C. hardcore, old punk, and folk metal. He follows a particular classic metal/heavy rock template, then tweaks it: His listening and reading consumption is vast enough that he can offer endless variations on the theme of “true metal.” He also has an uncanny knack for lighter-lifting anthems.
Digital Resistance, streaming now in Advance and out on February 18 on Metal Blade, is Slough Feg’s first album since 2010's The Animal Spirits. (If you're new to the band, my personal favorites are 1998's Twilight of the Idols, 2000's Down Among the Deadmen, 2007's Hardworlder, and Animal Spirits.) I spoke with Scalzi about the record, contemporary metal, what technology is doing to our brains, day jobs, and the heavy metal version of “Don't Stand So Close to Me”.
Pitchfork: What's the meaning behind the title Digital Resistance?
Mike Scalzi: It's an Orwellian perspective, like, "Jesus Christ, technology is really going to fuck us up as a species." We're losing our sense of history, of who we are, where we're going. The 50s science fiction that I used to read predicted the future pretty well, saying that people were becoming mentally flabby. For example, this friend of mine who teaches English did this really scary experiment in his class last year where he said, "OK, I want you to write one page on such-and-such subject and hand in your notes on it in an orderly fashion." A week later, he tested them in class by giving each person a quote from their own writing and asking them to explain it. Only six out of 25 students could actually explain it—they were just looking online and copy-pasting. Being a teacher, that scares the shit out of me. It's not like I'm trying to make some grand academic statement about what technology is doing to us psychologically, or what we're becoming, it's more about everyday experiences and how we're becoming stupid.
Pitchfork: You used to write a column called Bullpen Bulletins for the metal site Invisible Oranges, and in one of them you talk about your music values being formed in part by hardcore, and the title Digital Resistance sounds like an old hardcore record, too.
MS: It's not political like a Dischord band from the 80s; the name is not joke, but there's humor involved. After nine albums, I'm really sick of coming up with titles, like, [stoner voice] "Hey, what are we going to call this one, man?" So I just have fun with it. I was having a conversation with these guys about a VCR, and a friend of mine said, "Aw man, you're still part of the digital resistance, aren't you?" And I was like, "That's pretty funny." But it's also because I actually feel like I want to be part of the digital resistance in a sci-fi way.
I went onto a subway train a couple of months after that and I was talking on the phone, and I suddenly said, "As a member of the digital resistance, I think I'm going to scare people if I don't stop this conversation right now." And all these people stared at me. They thought it was some terrorist thing for a second. I thought it was hilarious!
Pitchfork: What’s the story with the opening track title: “Analogue Avengers/Bertrand Russell's Sex Den”?
MS: Apparently Bertrand Russell had all these affairs with his graduate students at one point in his life. So I was walking with a friend past some house with this adjunct little bungalow thing on it, and I was like, "There's Bertrand Russell's sex den." And that guy's like, "Oh, are you going to make a Slough Feg song called that?" I said, "Yeah, that's a good idea!" When I finally wrote it, I was like, "This is like a heavy metal version of ‘Don't Stand So Close to Me’ by the Police."
At this point, every record I've made has been primarily my responsibility, and I just put off the lyrics until the end. And not only do I have to write the lyrics, but I have to sing them all. It takes a shit load of time. It'd be great if I was in a death metal band and I could just go in and [makes death growl sounds] and then say, "Oh, I said this!" and make up all this bullshit and that takes two seconds, no problem. But that's not what it is.
"Even though you don’t want to say money is a consideration, it is—not about the kind of music you make, but maybe about
wanting to have health insurance when you’re 60."
Pitchfork: You're coming up on the band's 25th anniversary, how have things shifted since you started doing it?
MS: I started the band in 1990, and I was still living near Penn State, where my dad worked, and I wasn’t doing shit. I had just turned 20 and I was like, "I’m going to leave town, but I don’t have any money, so until I get my shit together, let’s just play around." We thought it would be fun to play metal, which was a weird thing to do back then, because it was the exact time when everybody else was switching from metal to other things.
I moved to San Francisco in October 1990 and my sole purpose for the next 10 years was Slough Feg. I’d come home from some shitty job and practice every night in an old basement of a tenement building that we lived in on Haight Street. The four of us in two rooms, just being total dirtbags. It was fun. I mean, we were 21 years old.
Around 2003, reality kicked in and I went back to college. I wasn’t very interested in the idea of becoming some old burnout guy, so I had to get it together. People who go to college when they’re 32 don’t fuck around. You’re super serious because you’re scared. You’re like, "I’m going be 40 and working in a fucking warehouse—I don’t want to do that." So I started busting my ass.
When I graduated a few years later, metal was starting to get more popular. I was in Hammers of Misfortune, and we were touring, and I was like, "Damn, what if this had happened 10 years ago?" So then I went to graduate school, and metal got even bigger, and we got more attention and were able to tour more. I was very fucking anxiety-ridden, I couldn’t just sit around and write songs.
Now, I teach at a community college. And after so many records, you want to try to branch out into different areas. People might not want to hear this, but when you’re in your 40s and you’ve already toured Europe and America a bunch of times, and you’ve made records, and you’ve already had these experiences that are awesome, then those things aren’t as exciting. You want new frontiers. And you want to be compensated in some way for your efforts. It’s like: "I can either go to South by Southwest and play a couple of shows and come back with no money or I can go work at a bar on Saturday night and make $300." Even though you don’t want to say money is a consideration, it is—not about the kind of music you make, but about spending all your time on music when you know you’re never going to make anything from it, or maybe wanting to have health insurance when you’re 60.
"I want people to play our songs on an
acoustic guitar and still make it sound good."
Pitchfork: In one of your columns, you said that sub-genres tend to legitimize shitty music.
MS: They do!
Pitchfork: As far as what you guys are doing, it’s just heavy metal? No sub-genre tags attached to it?
MS: I mean, you can call it whatever you want, but I’m not going to sit under a banner. We’re not really "true metal," whatever that is. When your entire goal is to not go outside of certain boundaries and just stick to traditions? That’s definitely not my philosophy.
Pitchfork: A few years ago a friend and I had this metal DJ night at a bar in Manhattan, and as the nights got really late we’d always end up playing Maiden and Slough Feg, because that’s when people were really drunk and would sing along. So I always thought if there was a sub-genre for you, it would be for the things you play at 2 a.m. that everyone knows the words to.
MS: Yeah, sing-along metal. Honestly, that is something I’ve strived for—I want people to play our songs on an acoustic guitar and still make it sound good. The reason people wrote verse poetry or epic poems way back was because no one could remember an entire novel or symphony. But as far as songs surviving for a long time, hopefully someone could remember a Slough Feg song because it’s catchy and easy to remember, like a folk song.
In this edition of The Out Door, we explore the idea of music connected by something other than genre, and talk to three artists who have carved out categories of their own through their many projects and endeavors: Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist Steven R. Smith, Dublin-born guitarist Cian Nugent, and New Orleans-residing cellist and singer Leyla McCalla. (Follow The Out Door on Twitter and Tumblr for all types of experimental music news and information.)
I: Genres of One
Eva Van Deuran, aka Orphan Fairytale
There are so many musical categories, even the biggest genre-head would likely admit it’s easy to tire of them all. Recently NPR’s Bob Boilen posited an alternative: “Can you imagine a world where we describe music more for its emotional context than its origin or instrumentation?”
In practical terms, I think Boilen’s proposition isn’t feasible, since it would make something that is already pretty subjective hopelessly so. It’s hard enough to say what jazz is, but at least you can point to somewhat objective elements like song structure or approach to tempo. Replace that with immeasurable “emotional context” and genres would only mean something to the person describing them.
Personally, though, I like Boilen’s idea, because I often find myself having a similar response to disparate music. Often it’s simply that I’m reminded of one record when I hear another, because of the state both put me in. To figure out how and why that happens would require solving something far more complex, like the problem of consciousness. Still, it’s fun to contemplate these intuitive groupings, and think about what glues music in brains beyond stylistic cues.
Lately, some new records have aligned for me this way, and though no one thing connects them all, I can think of a few commonalities: many are long-form and free-form; sound open to any noises that may come along; mix the abstract and concrete such that no single meaning is clear, but many are suggested; dip in and out of rhythm at will; and conjure vivid images in my head as I listen.
Safiyya: The rejection and betrayal of Khairiah, the crone on SoundCloud.
The first record that sent me down this blurry path is Shareek Hayaat, the latest LP from the duo Safiyya. It’s a collaboration between Brad Rose of the North Sea/Charlatan (and the stellar Digitalis label) and Pat Murano, longtime member of No-Neck Blues Band who records solo as Decimus. It’s a varied record, but its two side-long tracks melt into each other so naturally, the diversity is almost invisible. It’s more like the duo is telling a complex story and need lots of ways to build sets and structure scenes without ever losing the plot. As drones drift around and shards of beat pass by, Shareek Hayat conveys an overwhelming sense of openness—of sound as an infinite space-field to fly around in.
Mike Bullock: Trompettes Marines on SoundCloud.
I hear similar openness in Boston sound artist Mike Bullock's Figures Without Ground. Its two 20-minute pieces are more minimal and distant, at times seemingly content with a single tone. Yet Bullock still sounds ready to take on anything, equally capable of receding into the horizon or blasting noise toward he sky. Baltimore-based Max Eilbacher evokes a similar stretched-out feeling with a more electronic, synthy pallete on his full-length debut Red Anxiety Tracers. He sometimes even bleeds into New Age ambience, but periodically cuts his clouds with lightning-like bursts.
Max Eilbacher: No Room for Breathing (excerpt) on SoundCloud.
Age Coin: Perceptions II on SoundCloud.
The Danish duo Age Coin create their expanding sonic universe on Perceptionswith the big bang of throbbing beats, albeit ones wrapped in echo and sonic debris. It’s a single-minded sound, hurtling through two 14-minute tracks with stubborn insistence on rhythmic regularity, yet somehow still creating the feeling that anything could happen. Perceptions is out on Alter Stock, the label run by Luke Younger of Helm, whose new EP The Hollow Organ also has a deep-space vibe, but a sharper one. At times Younger’s morphing tracks are so high-resolution you can feel the sounds shooting in one ear and out the other. His way of intimating drone and noise without locking into either reminds me of Greek collagist Jar Moff. His latest LP, Financial Glam, is a masterpiece of tonal shifts; one moment he seems ready to punch you with sound, and just as you’re flinching, suddenly he’s the one dodging and feinting, retreating into a dark distance.
Helm: Analogues on SoundCloud.
Jar Moff: Financial Glam on SoundCloud.
Speaking of distance, few commit to it the way Belgium dream-conjurer Eva Van Deuren, aka Orphan Fairytale, does. Her new double LP, My Favorite Fairytale, apparently reworks some material previously released in smaller editions. But whatever the source, Van Deuren’s ability to bathe all types of sounds—repetitive chords, rippling oscillations, thumb-piano loops—in an enticing haze makes her music feel eternal. Technically you could call her sound lo-fi, but I like to think of it more as closed-eye, the sonic equivalent of the ghostly images that stick to the back of your lids after they droop shut.
Orphan Fairytale: Neverending Waves (excerpt) on SoundCloud.
Brian Pyle aka Ensemble Economique
Ultimately, the winding path I’m mapping through all these excellent records may be an illusion. Perhaps all that connects them is that I like them; maybe each is a genre of one. If so, that would explain why my favorites in the bunch come from Brian Pyle, aka Ensemble Economique. Prolific and constantly searching, he’s rapidly becoming a category of his own, as each release builds on his past and adds something to his future. The three-song (no-thing-ness) EP actually echoes his 2010 masterwork Psychicalin its heavy beats and cinemascope tones, but there’s a new level of communication here, especially on “Dream Homes”, which manages to turn a drum-bass loop into a mountain climb.
Ensemble Economique: Dream Homes on Bandcamp
A more recent full-length, Light That Comes, Light That Vanishes, is perhaps the most upfront, legible Ensemble Economique effort so far. Yet I can’t quite pin down exactly what it’s doing no matter how many layers I peel. By the end, it actually morphs into techno-pop with female voices and a melodies that echoes, of all things, Spandau Ballet. But by then I’m so entranced by Light that Comes, Light That Vanishes that even familiar sounds are perplexing. Maybe that’s what Pyle and the rest of the artists I’ve been enthralled by lately have in common: They each transform sound into their own worlds, and if you hang around long enough, you’ll feel like you live there too. —Marc Masters
Next: The split personality of Steven R. Smith
II: Steven R. Smith: Split Personality
“It’s just fun to come up with new names and new artwork and a new aesthetic,” says Steven R. Smith, explaining why he’s adopted so many monikers for his music. “It’s like a new window that I can approach in a different way and not feel like I’m betraying this other thing that I’ve worked hard at.”
To date, Smith has worked under five different names: Hala Strana,Ulaan Khol, Ulaan Markhor, Ulaan Passerine, and simply Steven R. Smith. The sound of each is identifiable, yet they overlap enough that if you’re drawn to one, you’ll find something to like in all of them. They’re all primarily instrumental—most center on Smith’s guitar—and they all bear his unique combination of abstract soundscapes and cinematic songcraft.
If the lines between these projects are a bit blurry, that’s fine with Smith. He’s not out to reinvent himself with each one, just to stretch in new directions. “Someone could argue that this all could have come out under my own name, but it’s fun to have it all over the place,” he says with a laugh. “It’s confusing, but I’m not worried about hurting the brand. Fuck the brand! We’re having fun here.”
Ulaan Khol: The Known World on Bandcamp
Smith’s latest way of fucking with the brand is his new double LP Ending/Returning, a “split” release in which he plays the same seven pieces twice, once as himself and once as Ulaan Khol. The Steven R. Smith disc is gentler and more distant, accented with piano—an instrument Smith has rarely included on record—and deliberate string work. Ulaan Khol’s sides offer thicker, amp-driven textures, at times recalling Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack. But both have a contemplative sense of loss, desolation, and—eventually, on the bright closer “The Known World”—celebration.
On paper, Ending/Returning sounds pretty conceptual, but in reality it grew, like all of Smith’s records, out of spontaneous experimentation. When he first made a few pieces under both guises, he assumed he’d eventually settle on one or the other. “But then I got attached to both versions and thought, 'This is kind of interesting,'” he recalls.
Steven R. Smith: Goat Walking on Bandcamp
“To be honest, most of the time, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’m just trying things,” he continues. “My goal is to create a situation where accidents can happen—hopefully good accidents. There’s never perfection; I’m not looking for that. I’m just looking to get something that I didn’t expect. Because then hopefully people listening will hear something that they weren’t expecting. ”
Which means improvisation is a huge part of Smith’s process, even in songs that end up sounding pre-written. Often, he'll start a piece thinking about a few things he wants to do, but not knowing how he’ll connect those parts. “If everything’s written, it’s not so much fun to record it,” he insists. “If you already have this thing in your head of what it’s supposed to be, then you’re just setting yourself up for frustration—‘It’s not what I’m hearing in my head!’”
Smith as Ulaan Markhor
Smith’s preference for the unplanned goes back to his earliest musical experiences. During high school in Fullerton, California, he recalls frustrating bandmates by taking liberties with their songs. At the same time he met Glenn Donaldson, who shared his love of musical spontaneity. The two ended up in San Francisco, where they formed Thuja with fellow Fullerton classmate Rob Reger and sound artist Loren Chasse.
“We came out of punk rock, and when we were in college, math rock was in,” he recalls. “We had a band in college that did that, but eventually we got tired of it—that whole playing songs in crazy, regimented time signatures. Once we got to San Francisco we thought, enough of that, let’s loosen up." Thuja were so open to experimentation that they became known for using non-traditional instruments and even non-musical objects like branches and rocks. They also became one of the central bands in the Jewelled Antler Collective, started by Donaldson and Chasse and also including The Skygreen Leopards, The Blithe Sons, and Ov.
Smith moved to LA in 2000, only a year after Jewelled Antler began, but he still feels its effects. “I basically learned how to play music with those guys,” he says. “I learned a lot from Loren. The way he would coax sound out of the craziest objects really opened up things a lot, and I’m sure all of that still has play in my music.” Though Thuja is essentially finished, Smith still talks to his compatriots regularly. “I just saw Glenn last week, and we still pass music back and forth, trading ideas,” he says. “The influence is still happening.”
Smith's homemade spike fiddle
Perhaps the most concrete sign of Jewelled-Antler’s influence is Smith’s habit of making his own instruments. “It’s mostly out of necessity,” he says of the hurdy gurdies, violins, and guitars he’s built. “I can’t afford some instruments, and if you hear these colors in your head, you have to get them from somewhere.” He’s built a xylophone with spoons and a spike fiddle out of a gourd. “I’m sure a violin player would be appalled by [the spike fiddle]” he says with a chuckle. “But it’s been amazing for me. I use it on almost every record.” Smith also cites groups such as Einsturzende Neubauten and Art Ensemble of Chicago for inspiring him to craft unusual tools. “I’d see pictures of them where their stage was just littered with stuff,” he recalls. “I would think, ‘wow, I’d love to be on that stage. I want to handle all that stuff and see what noises it all makes.’"
Most of Smith’s hand-made instruments reside in the small recording studio he’s set up in a house he shares with his wife and seven-year old son. That’s just one benefit he’s found from moving to Los Angeles. “There’s an anonymity factor here,” he says. “It’s just so big and sprawling, you can find your little space and inhabit it.” As to whether his environment has a tangible effect on his music, he’s not so sure. A lifelong Californian, he doesn’t consider his work “desert music.” But his sounds do often have a open-spaces feel, and he has noticed that “on a lot of my album covers, there’s this kind of long-distance horizon imagery. That’s always stuck in the back of my head for some reason.”
Ulaan Markhor: Kites on Bandcamp
Distinctive album art has been just one of the ways Smith has been able to separate his various musical persona. The sonic differences grow stronger with each release, something that Entering/Returning accelerated. “It definitely helped define [the two projects] more,” he insists. “On other records I think you can hear more of a crossover, but this made things move to the left and the right. Louder guitars and fuzz organ on the Khol LP—big drifts of sound—and prettier, more song-oriented stuff on the solo record.”
Ulaan Markhor, on the other hand, is “more like a rock band." For that project, every track he makes starts with drums; often he’ll record hours of himself drumming and then sift through the results to find beats to structure songs around. By contrast, Ulaan Passarine is about arrangements. “A lot of what I do elsewhere is improvised, so Ulaan Passarine is an opportunity to work out different melody lines, and see how they layer over each other,” he says.
Ulaan Passerine: Side 2 on Bandcamp
Smith’s next two releases will be his second Ulaan Markhor LP on Soft Abuse and a Ulaan Passarine album likely via his own label, Worstward. Beyond that, Smith plans to continue to simply hit record and see what happens. “A lot of it is like painting,” he explains. “You’re putting colors on the canvas. You erase things and you put more stuff on. Sometimes you get lucky and the first thing you put up works… sometimes it takes longer.” —Marc Masters
Next: The many sides of Cian Nugent
III: Cian Nugent: Team Play
In December, the Dublin-born guitarist Cian Nugent asked his childhood hero to join a band he’d yet to start. Nugent was flatly rejected.
He’d gone to see Yo La Tengo at Vicar Street, a large venue in central Dublin. After the show, he was lingering near the merchandise table when he spied a familiar but aging face—a member of U2, he first suspected. But a friend corrected his rock star-spotting inability: “That’s fucking John O’Neill from the Undertones.”
Nugent, who admits that he’d had more than a little to drink, rushed up to O’Neill and confessed how much the Undertones had meant to him as a child. He’d listened to “Teenage Kicks”, the Undertones’ iconic first single, hundreds of times and cried. Even now, it remains one of his favorite tunes.
But O’Neill didn’t want to join his band. “I’m a fucking old guy,” he quipped. “Don’t start a band with me. Start a band with a young guy.”
Nugent, 24, already had started a band with a young guy—several of them, actually
More than a decade before, Nugent, then 12, met O’Neill when his mother took him to see the Undertones. O’Neill told the young, enthusiastic kid to check out the White Stripes, then on the precipice of international fame. The comment created ripples through the rest of Nugent’s life, setting him on a course where he not only pursued more garage rock but also explored blues and folk forms, thanks to hints Jack White would soon drop in interviews.
At present, Nugent maintains those broad interests in no less than five projects. He is best known as a young solo guitarist, whose interpretations of folk idioms both European and American run like ribbons from his six strings. But on two excellent records—2011’s symphonic-minded Doubles and this year’s more aggressive Born with the Caul—he’s constructed ornate compositions from those acoustic blueprints with the help of a full band, lately dubbed the Cosmos. He’s also in Desert Heat, a two-guitar trio with Steve Gunn, and the No. 1s, a lovable power-pop group formed with some of his oldest friends. He insists that his newest band, Cryboys, is his favorite.
I spoke with Nugent about what he calls “the incoherent range of the mess that is my musical career,” how he moves between his projects, and why Mick Jagger remains a distinctly European pockmark.
SOLO ACOUSTIC GUITAR
When Nugent first started recording his acoustic guitar tunes, he was a teenager influenced by a century or so of giants—from long-late elders Blind Willie Johnson to Bert Jansch and onward to the likes of Jack Rose and Jack White. The burden of such history was enormous, so Nugent worried whether what he did was of any value. To find out, he sent a collection of songs to Rose and Glenn Jones. When they responded favorably, he says, he reckoned he’d best keep playing.
I was reading interviews with Jack White. He would talk about Mississippi Fred McDowell or Robert Johnson, and through that, I got into the old American folk thing. I remember getting the Anthology of American Folk Music; that stuff was the most unfamiliar music ever, but it was strangely quite accessible as well.
There was a record shop in a town near mine, and I’d but records that looked interesting. I bought a record of Doc Watson. I knew he was a guitar guy, and there was a song called “Deep River Blues,” where he did an alternating-bass, fingerpicking thing. He plays it real slow at the beginning, showing the audience that this is how you do it. I remember thinking, “Oh, that is how you do that.” I felt I could figure out how to do that guitar playing—it’s something that you figure out how to do, and then you can just do it.
But singing is your own voice. You really have to have something to say. Almost all the music I liked was American, so when I sang, I was faced with the problem, “Do I sing in an American accent, or do I sing American music in an Irish accent?” Singing in an American accent is the most hokey thing ever. Mick Jagger spent 40 years of his career doing it, and it’s still embarrassing. But when I heard John Fahey, he didn’t sing at all. Up until that point, I thought it wasn’t really a song if you don’t sing.
Cian Nugent: Sixes and Sevens (album version) on SoundCloud.
It felt like a real ask of the audience to listen to just acoustic instrumental guitar stuff. Even now, five or six years later, I am still aware that it is a demand on the audience to ask them to just listen to instrumental acoustic guitar music. We grow up listening to songs. I love a good song. I love a good story. And we sometimes relate more to the words than to the music, and that’s the difference between instrumental music and lyrical music. I would argue you can still tell a story with instrumental music, but it requires more interpretation on the part of the listener. They have to tell themselves the story. Perhaps there is a narrative, but it’s not a didactic narrative. The story is the tone, almost.
ACOUSTIC GUITAR BACKED BY A FULL BAND, THE COSMOS
It’s not a novel approach for solo acoustic guitarists to augment their compositions with all manner of accompaniment. John Fahey and Sandy Bull toyed with electronics, and Jack Rose played with a string band. Nugent’s two LPs under his own name certainly key on his guitar playing, so much so that his band often disappears entirely. But on the new Born with the Caul, the accompaniment seems evermore essential, as though Nugent considers himself less an instrumentalist and more a bandleader. Especially on that record’s closer, “The Houses of Parliament”, that shift results in moments of total ecstasy.
There’s a great band in Dublin called The Dinah Brand—classic, really good songwriting rock. The bass player is named David Lacey; normally, Dave’s instrument is drums, and he does a lot of freely improvised music and homemade electronics. He also loves rip-roaring free jazz. I showed him the song “Sixes & Sevens”, and he started doing more abstract percussion—bowed cymbals, bowed bells, more unusual drums.
When we came to record it, I thought, “I’d love clarinet on here.” Another friend of mine, Ailbhe [Nic Oireachtaigh], was around, and we said, “Maybe viola would be cool here as well?”
Having different players’ voices changes the overall sound and tone, but the hope is that you find a place where you all match up. It’s like any band: You’re all looking for a spot where you can link. Dave found a way to lock into what I was doing that added things I would have never thought to add myself. He has a very different approach than me. When we’d be playing together, we’d lock in on the rhythms. We’d get into more repetitive, longer parts, where we were just focusing on the rhythm. I found that contrast really cool.
I got really excited with the group. There is this thing that happens when you’re playing with other people that doesn’t happen when you’re playing on your own: You all just link up to this one spot. I’ve become a bit of a junkie for that.
After doing Doubles, recording with a band for Born With the Caul felt more natural. We had an idea of how it would go. It was very exciting to have this guitar stuff and hear it turned into a band. When we do a band arrangement, you find all the elements that are there need more time to say their piece. We were working on a new song, for example, and I had a demo of it that was five minutes. Then we played it, and it was 12 minutes all of the sudden: “Where did that time come from?”
Under their respective names, Nugent and Philadelphia instrumentalist, songwriter, sideman and bandleader Steve Gunn released two of the more noteworthy guitar-oriented records of 2013. Nugent’s Born with the Caul and Gunn’s Time Off shared an important distinction in that they expanded the suspected aesthetics of both, too: Where Nugent leapt at times into outbursts that alternately suggested American string bands and the intertwining rock of Television, Gunn emerged as a new folk-rock auteur.
Together, Gunn and Nugent were involved in another of the year’s best guitar explorations: Cat Mask at Huggie Temple, their two-track debut as the ad hoc trio Desert Heat with drummer John Truscinksi, picked up threads of melody and followed them into valleys and up toward the atmosphere. It was Nugent’s proper introduction to improvising—and a sterling one, too.
Desert Heat: Chimay Blues on SoundCloud.
I met Steve Gunn at The Time of Rivers Fest in Portland, Maine in 2008. A year or two later, he said, “I’m coming over to Europe. Maybe we could do some dates together.” We didn’t know each other really well, so it was a bit of a gamble because we could have hated each other. Thankfully, we didn’t.
We were both playing solo, and at the end of the evening, we said, “Why don’t we just jam on some stuff together?” We had similar styles, but they were different enough that playing together was really interesting and exciting. He would do things that I didn’t do, and I did some things he wouldn’t do. Then, Steve and John Truscinski were doing duo sets together for a couple of days. I was blown away. A gig came up in Brussels in this bowling alley, and they said, “Have you got anything that you could do, the three of you?” We decided to give it a go. We were drunk enough that we were confident we could.
Solo, I’ve done bits of improvised stuff, but I’d never really gone in the deep end and had nothing planned. Desert Heat was the first thing that was completely improvised. When we were all playing together, it just worked. And it was super fun, being in a bowing alley with people bowling on either side of us.
I am not group leader in Desert Heat, so it’s less pressure. We’re all just a band. When I’m playing with The Cosmos, all the other players are good at coming up with parts and having input, but I tend to be the group leader who has to say, “This is what we should do.” We also tend not to play totally loose. I do enjoy playing improvised, but it can go any way. It can work, or it can’t work and be the worst thing ever.
Nugent sings during Born with the Caul, but it’s only brief and a bit hesitant, his voice bounced into the distance by reverb and echo. Remember, just a few years ago, he didn’t want to sing at all. But that’s progressively changing, as evidenced by a new folk-rock, singer-songwriter quartet that pairs him with a set of other accomplished Irish writers. They’ve got an album of songs prepared, and they plan to enter the studio to make their debut in the next several months.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been doing this song band, Cryboys. I believe it is actually a nickname for the Dallas Cowboys that we didn’t know about. I hope they don’t sue us.
It’s the opposite of Desert Heat—no improvisation at all, a total written-song band. I am doing that with Dylan Phillips, who is the singer in The Dinah Brand. Dylan, in my mind, is the best songwriter Ireland has ever produced, other than somebody like Phil Lynott. He really understands songwriting. I asked him, “Do you want to try writing songs together?” I’m loving writing lyrics, singing, doing vocal harmonies. It’s something that I’ve never done before, but it’s probably my favorite music.
THE NO. 1S
One of Nugent’s projects doesn’t share much with the other, and it’s The No. 1s, a Dublin garage-pop quartet that bounds ahead with hooks made for instant attachment. Or at least at first glance, The No. 1s might seem to be the outlier: Aside from Nugent, the bratty pep squad shares drummer Conor Lumsden with The Cosmos, in which he plays bass. Sharon, their three-song EP from late last year, is a perfectly bittersweet romp, bursting open with the title cut and drifting to a close with the sad-eye and relatively slow-motion “Girl”.
My big thing when I was a teenager was garage rock. My favorite band were the Gun Club. I was big into The Cramps, The Gun Club, The Gories. My first gig ever was The Undertones. At the sbow, my mother met the O’Neills’, from the Undertones, mother in the queue for hot dogs. She got to chatting to their mom. I was around 12 at the time. My mother came over with the O’Neill’s mother, and she said, “Do you want me to get the boys over?” John O’Neill came over, and he said, “Oh, you’re into music then?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, I love The Undertones. It’s so cool to meet you.”
He said that if I was into The Undertones, I should look out for The White Stripes. I hadn’t heard them. Within a few months, they became one of the biggest bands. I had the hot tip off John O’Neill, and I was an excited 12-year-old. I was at the perfect age to get into a really big band playing rock ’n’ roll. They introduced me to so much music I loved, from punk stuff to folk stuff. At that age, it was the perfect thing.
The No. 1s: 16 on SoundCloud.
The No. 1s is kind of going back to all the stuff I was into growing up—garage rock and punk rock. Eddie Kenrick is one of my oldest friends. He started writing songs, and he started playing with Seán Goucher, the other songwriter in the No. 1s. I said, “If you need a bass player, I’d totally be into being in a punk band.” We all love this kind of music.
I must seem stylistically incoherent to people. But if you love something, what’s the harm in doing it? I’d hate to think of a musician feeling like they can’t do something because it doesn’t make sense with what else they’re doing. —Grayson Currin
Next: The outward progression of Leyla McCalla
IV: Leyla McCalla: Classically Trained Creolo
Photo by Tim Duffy
Sitting on the street in New Orleans, playing Bach’s Cello Suites by memory, Leyla McCalla assumed the man taking her photograph was just another tourist. She was a young street musician, after all, situated at the corner of Royal and Conti streets in the French Quarter, between the fabled Café Beignet and a police station. And his family was with him. But when the man finally spoke to McCalla, she understood that he’d been looking for her—actually, he’d been sent to find her.
“He said, ‘You have a sister named Sabine McCalla who goes to Warren Wilson College and lives in Asheville, North Carolina,’” she remembers. “Who is this?”
The man with the camera was Tim Duffy, the manager of the pioneering African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit that locates and advocates for the country’s aging folk and blues musicians. At a Chocolate Drops show in Asheville, Duffy had met Sabine—a young, black fiddle student interested in string-band music. She piqued his interest as part of the narrative the Drops had been telling tirelessly for years, of how American folk music was a multi-racial form, not simply one of white provenance. She pointed him instead to her older sister, a classically trained cellist subsisting in New Orleans by playing Bach, folk songs and some tunes based around the poems of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. That’s who the Drops should meet, she said.
Duffy agreed. After that initial encounter in the French Quarter, they gathered later for drinks. McCalla gave him the four-song CD she’d made back in New York and told him of her plans to create a larger project from Hughes’ words. A few weeks later, he wrote to say that he wanted to manage her. He even asked her to come play on Leaving Eden, the follow-up to the Drops’ Grammy-winning major label debut. These ideas she’d had suddenly had new momentum.
“It gave me a focus about my work that I didn’t have. Before, it was, ‘Wake up. Get on your bicycle with your cello. Set up your little spot. Play,’” she says. “But he said this is great music. You should create what you’ve been wanting to create.”
Leyla McCalla: Heart of Gold on SoundCloud.
That conversation occurred in 2010, not long after McCalla had permanently relocated to New Orleans from her native New York. And at last, she’s done what Duffy suggested then, to finish her own project and start her career. McCalla’s debut—the stunning 13-song set Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes—sets Hughes’ poems, traditional Haitian numbers sung in Creole and a handful of yearning originals to the pizzicato warmth of McCalla’s cello. Her playing—on cello, tenor banjo and guitar—suggests a perpetual spring, giving these songs about losing innocence and finding death a vibrancy that fits their folk music function. Her voice is a velvety purr that’s both wise and bright, not unlike the surreal sophistication of Jolie Holland’s best work.
“I never saw the cello as, ‘This is what’s going to make me different.’ I know that’s a big part of what has shaped my ear and how I hear things,” she says. “But I’m focused more on expressing these songs than my cello technique, because there’s so much I can do on cello that I never do on stage. The songs that I play and the stories I tell are what makes me different. I think of myself as an artist first. These are my tools.”
Photo by Tim Duffy
At 28, McCalla’s life and musical education have been defined by a steadily outward expansion of her interests and approaches. She began playing cello in elementary school after a teacher handed her one as an assignment. She steadily grew her repertoire and honed her skills as a young classical musician. At home, her parents, both Haitian immigrants who’d arrived in America as children, mostly played the sounds of cultural assimilation—Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley, Paul Simon and James Taylor. They kept in touch with the sound of Haiti’s modern compas music, but the island nation’s traditional songs did not soundtrack McCalla’s childhood.
Instead, she found the trail of folk music through a friend’s mother, who sang old-time American songs and played guitar. When she was 13, McCalla began teaching herself to pick six strings instead of four, playing the songs she learned from the mentor, plus the Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins numbers she loved on the radio. Those very casual studies shaped a strange parallel to her more academic musicianship.
Leyla McCalla: Song For a Dark Girl on SoundCloud.
Though she eventually studied cello at New York University, she began to understand that the cloistered world of classical music might not be in her future. After all, she’d mostly put the instrument down after her family moved to Ghana for two years. (“There was no one to study with there and it put my conservatory hopes on hold,” she told The Guardian last year.) Back in New York, when she was 18, McCalla met the cellist Rufus Cappadocia, who dominated a five-string cello in a Haitian roots music band. He plucked and strummed and plundered the groove in a way that she didn’t know was possible. He became her teacher, and the possibilities of the instrument she’d played since fourth grade suddenly exploded. She worked as a cocktail waitress at the Williamsburg venue and restaurant Zebulon, too, an experience that further stretched her understanding of what music might become.
“I had my eye outside of that classical scene,” she says. “I don’t want to live my life with these people. I don’t even like being around them in school. I didn’t care enough about classical music to suffer for it. I have a completely different relationship with my own music now.”
Leyla McCalla: Latibonit on SoundCloud.
That relationship stems in large part from the two years she spent touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops after Duffy found her in New Orleans. That stint gave her surprising insights not only into the songs they played but into the strange social dynamics that playing them created.
“It was such a unique experience to be part of a folk band that was all black, even as a black person. It’s not like we all think the same thing about everything,” she says, laughing. “I don’t think white folk bands had the conversations that we had. And that’s the essence of the Carolina Chocolate Drops: They start conversations that a lot of other bands don’t go near. ”
However auspicious Vari-Colored Songs might be, it seems only like the beginning of its own conversation, a prelude for McCalla rather than an endpoint. She already seems to have pushed past its even acoustic keel and generally pleasant atmosphere, moved as she is these days by more lively Creole and Cajun tunes. And though she largely plucks the cello’s strings on Vari-Colored Songs, she’s working on new songs that incorporate more bowing and, overall, more ideas to stretch her set. And the cultural continuum between Haiti and Louisiana is something she hopes to share through her music. She wants to redefine the attitudes people have about the influence of the benighted country.
A cellist who sings Langston Hughes poems might seem plenty different to many. McCalla insists, however, that this is only her initial step.
“I feel like I have a few techniques that you might not have seen,” she says, “but I feel like there’s so much more I could be doing.” —Grayson Currin
Craig Finn heaves his whole body toward the crowd just as the chorus to “Southtown Girls” hits, nearly toppling into the front row. Five spent High Lifes stand on the drum riser next to a fresh water-cooler cup full of whiskey. Finn has that drunk gaze where things linger a second too long, and in that second anything can happen. He smiles like a fourth grader being told to “smile bigger.” He keeps throwing his body toward the fans who have come out from Greenpoint, Minneapolis, Chicago, and London to see the Hold Steady play their 10th anniversary show. This feels big. Hold Steady shows always feel big.
Up front: This whole "10th anniversary" business involves a bit of handy mythmaking. The Hold Steady played their first official gig January 22, 2003—11 years ago—in the same Williamsburg space where they played last Thursday. But even that’s not totally true. Their real first gig had them playing as a house band for an Upright Citizens Brigade comedy show.
“They wanted to have like a Paul Shaffer-type band to play a KISS song, a Cheap Trick song, a David Bowie song,” says guitarist Tad Kubler. "Craig was like, ‘Dude this is your fucking wheelhouse, you know all these already.’” Yes: The Hold Steady played their first show together as an unnamed bar band at Arlene’s Grocery in the Lower East Side.
“I’m sure I was 30 pounds heavier and fucking wasted,” half-remembers Kubler, a little bemused.
Finn and Kubler’s relationship stretches back to Minneapolis in the 1990s, back to when they were in the storied local band Lifter Puller, known throughout the hermetic Twin Cities scene as one of the best and most debauched underground acts around. After Lifter Puller dissolved, Finn relocated to New York in September of 2000 at the tail end of dot-com boom front-end of NYC indie rock boom courtesy of bands like the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol. While everyone else tried on Television and Joy Division, the Hold Steady dug up Thin Lizzy.
“We’d go in the practice space,” recalls Finn, sipping a clear drink in a tall glass in the rear of Lake Street, a bar co-owned by the band’s current drummer Bobby Drake. “And there’d be all that hi-hat—chk-a chk-a chk-a—and we were doing this riff rock thing, and were older, and we weren’t dressing the same as those bands.”
Their 2004 debut album Almost Killed Me came on like it was always two steps ahead of you. It was self-effacing but also so cocksure, with guitar solos drowning in cheap beer. It had the all the self-reflexive signifiers of indie rock and the bar-band exuberance of classic rock. When he started the Hold Steady, Finn knew he wanted to reach across the aisles.
“I was coming out of indie rock,” says Finn. “And I was a little bit disillusioned by things like obscure 7”s—it seemed a little bit like bullshit. I’d been into really indie stuff like Sebadoh, and it was like, 'You know, this is ultimately kind of unfulfilling compared to seeing Springsteen and feeling a part of something awesome.’”
“The first record was Craig and I in his kitchen just doing our thing,” says Kubler. “With [2005 follow-up Separation Sunday] I had just became a dad, and that was an emotionally heavy time for me. I remember writing most of those songs sitting on the couch quietly with an unplugged electric guitar.”
Those first two records thrived on the details of wayward Catholic girls and drug dealers in sweatpants. Finn constructed a world where idyllic archetypes of self-destructive youth live for killer parties. Ybor City and Penetration Park were put on the map, even if we didn’t quite know where they were. And there was this idea of a scene—down-trodden kids looking for something concrete in the fast-spinning hyperreality of millennial culture. It was something to be a part of, and something that never really existed.
Finn became the unreliable narrator you desperately wanted to believe in, no matter the consequence. On “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”, he sings: “And I’m not saying we could save you/ But we could put you in a place where you could save yourself.” The bender and rehab, the party and the hangover. Everybody under one roof.
“When I got to 30," Finn says, "I realized that it's more awesome being inclusive rather than exclusive.”
The guys and girls in the third row are singing every word; there’s some guys and girls in the first row who know every word so well that they only sing when they have to. There’s bro side-hugs. There’s shared kisses. There’s Wayne and Garth rock-out moments. Lines including “high as hell and shivering and smashed!” and “get hammered!” are shouted loud. Just after midnight, Kubler sips a clear drink from a plastic solo cup isolated stage left as his daughter watches a few feet behind him on the steps to the backstage.
Tad Kubler lowers his voice to me as we sit inside his two-story loft in Greenpoint. “There are so many layers to the relationships inside the band that no one’s ever talked about, and we don’t talk about it because we’re Midwestern men. We suffer and celebrate in silence.”
In October 2006, the Hold Steady put out Boys and Girls in America. With the mustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay and drummer Bobby Drake now full-time members, they skipped tiers from being an indie rock band who loved getting the Led out on the weekends to a fully lit-up E-Street vox rockuli. They still housed a case of beer on stage. They still plowed two bottles of Jameson a night. Close at Boys and Girls' heels came Stay Positive in 2008. The parties were still killer, adderall was now in the mix, and stakes were raised.
“The way we were traveling and writing, Boys and Girls and Stay Positive were made in the same blur,” says Finn. On tour, nights collided with the morning. It's something that’s scratched into the Hold Steady's DNA: We are a party band. The booze started before the shows and ended after the sunrise. Up until this point, Kubler had never been on stage sober.
“When Tad went to the hospital," says Finn, "it was a wake-up call for everyone.”
In the fall of 2008, Kubler was diagnosed with pancreatitis as a result of his years of drinking. The band canceled a European tour. A year later, in November 2009, the guitarist was hospitalized again for pancreatitis. Shortly thereafter, keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band.
“Pancreatitis is incredibly painful, and they had me on morphine and all kinds of other shit, and if you let that get away from you, it gets away from you quickly," says Kubler, trailing off. “I wasn’t sober but I wasn’t drinking either—you can fill in the blanks there."
Both Kubler and Finn say that the lead up to writing 2010's Heaven Is Whenever felt a little disconnected, the process a little rushed. Finn hedges and says simply the band needed a little break; Kubler says it was due to his own seclusion following his diagnosis, now that he was unable to drink like the rest of the band.
Kubler cleaned up in early 2010, just as the band was mixing Heaven Is Whenever, which debuted at No. 26 on the Billboard charts, a new high. But after spending years living up to his own ultimate drinking band code onstage, Kubler was now sober under the lights.
“It’s fucking terrifying,” says the guitarist. “And it can be really hard when the rest of the band is six drinks into the evening and you’re not. It’s like, ‘How do I feel like a part of what’s happening here when I’m not involved in that part of it?’ It took me a year to really get involved—I’m sure I was a miserable prick for a lot of that time too, because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
"If somebody's drinking that much and they have to stop, there’s an adjustment period of their personality," says Finn. "Tad came into the band as someone who was pretty rock'n'roll in his behavior and he had to go from being the most likely to be out until five in the morning to being the least likely. Our shows became less drunken, less crazy. It changed the culture of the band.”
Unbeknownst to Kubler at the time, Finn went to Austin to record a solo album after the Heaven Is Whenever tour wrapped. What was supposed to be a three month break for the band turned into a year-and-a-half hiatus. Kubler started writing songs on his own and with the rest of the Hold Steady, which now included guitarist Steve Selvidge. The music for their forthcoming sixth album, Teeth Dreams, was written completely separate from Finn.
“When the band first started, Craig and I spent a lot of time together, we just hung out and were bros," remembers Kubler. "It's weird because when I was in Lifter Puller, Craig and I didn’t have that relationship, because I had one lifestyle and he had another. Now, that’s kind of happening again.” As he says this, we sit on the couch in his Greenpoint loft, located just a couple blocks from Finn’s place. “I never see the guy.”
Selvidge stands next to longtime bassist Galen Polivka on stage right. The beer-soaked keyboards are missed in some songs, but the band powers through. With two guitars, their older material doesn’t sound bloated, just fat. The Hold Steady are a huge guitar band now. Near the end of the set, Kubler plays a bloozy eight-bar solo then trades it off to Selvidge, who does his own eight bars, a little more complex, a little more showy. Kubler’s lips read “damn” as he shakes his head and smiles at just how good the solo is. It is a really good solo.
For the brief tour leading up to their anniversary show, the band have been winding their way up from Tennessee, where they recorded Teeth Dreams. They’ve been doing radio shows at terrible hours of the morning. Kubler says he and Finn normally don’t do interviews together because he rambles on so much and Finn “doesn’t want to let anything out.”
“It’s hard for Craig to recognize other people,” says Kubler. “We were doing a radio show, and he says, ‘I’m really glad we got Steve in the band,’ and it’s like, 'Are you fucking kidding me?' I love Steve, but I still wrote the songs! It’s so hard for him to recognize anything like that. He loves to withhold. There’s humility with Craig, but I always wonder how genuine it is."
He’s sure to point out that there’s no animosity between the two, though. “We’re not like the Davies brothers,” says Kubler. “I fucking love the guy. It’s just… he’s a very, very complex person."
Finn dedicates the Stay Positive track “Magazines” to his girlfriend Angie in the balcony and points to her when he says, “I hope you still let me kiss you.” They play a new song called “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and it’s the first glimmer of the band’s new identity. The song is rowdier and raw live, a little sad, a little earnest. It’s so dense that Finn sounds like another texture between the rest of the sounds.
“Truth is a hard thing,” says Finn, still sipping on his drink across from me at Lake Street.
About a year ago, Finn’s mother passed away, which triggered physical manifestations of anxiety. He says he got a little help for it, never took any drugs, and that it has more or less gone away. The whole matter gave him “more empathy for anxiety as a crippling situation.” He also read Infinite Jest twice while writing Teeth Dreams, which would make any person a little anxious. David Foster Wallace’s themes about an “American sadness,” addiction, and anxiety color Finn’s words on the album.
“I had this theory about how we manipulate the truth through things like the internet," says Finn. "There’s this projection of the self, and then there’s the real self—and the space between causes a lot of anxiety.”
Back in Kubler’s loft, the guitarist plays a video of a tracking session for the new song “Spinners”. The playback shows him and Selvidge with Grammy-winning producer Nick Raskulinecz, who produced Foo Fighters' One by One along with the last two Deftones albums. The band loved working with Raskulinecz, though both Finn and Kubler admit that they’re pretty sure he had no idea who they were before he started working with them. But Raskulinecz’s ear was just what the band needed to try to get them out of their own heads.
“After six albums you don’t want to become a caricature of yourself,” says Finn. “If you make it really easy for people to do a Craig Finn impersonation, there isn’t much of a place for people to put their lives in that.” There isn't a consensus on what Teeth Dreams“means” for both Finn and Kubler. Both seem happy to just have made it this far, to be on the other side of uncertainty.
“I fucking love everyone here on stage,” says Finn while the band vamps on “Killer Parties”. The singer is beyond maudlin as he hangs on the microphone, spilling whiskey out of his cup while he thanks the fans. Heads are sparkling with homemade confetti. It’s time for the tradition, how Finn ends every show. “Some of you guys have heard me say this before, but man, I always say it, because it’s true.” He draws this preamble out, swaying, delaying. Finally, he throws his hands into the air: “There is so much joy in what we do up here.” He says it with ease.
Photos by Atiba Jefferson
When I last spoke with Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, he had just relocated from his longtime New York City home to live in Los Angeles before the release of Animal Collective's 2012 album Centipede Hz. "I'll see how this goes," Portner told me then regarding the move; two years later, he's settled in nicely. He now speaks excitedly about having time to garden and cook at his Echo Park home, enthusiastically rattling off a list of his favorite hiking spots. When it comes to L.A.'s taxi cab infrastructure, though, he's not as chuffed. "The taxi situation here is very scary and dangerous," he says with a nervous laugh. "I never feel safe." (And no, he doesn't use Uber.)
Since Animal Collective's extensive touring schedule in support of Centipede Hz came to a close, Portner's been up to more than just hiking and perilous cab rides: He's formed a new band, Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks, with ex-Dirty Projectors member Angel Deradoorian and former Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman. The group went on a brief tour last year, and now they're ready with their debut LP, Enter the Slasher House, out in April via Domino. The self-produced album was recorded by the band last year, fashioned out of guitar-based demos Portner had previously laid down to tape; although Deradoorian and Hyman's own musical signatures pop up here and there, the winding, squishy song structures and melodic phrasing are unmistakably Portner's.
"Any time you put too many restrictions on what you're doing, you stop experimenting," Portner says about his artistic aims with the new group. "It's easier to make abstract stuff with Animal Collective because there's so many different minds working on one thing. With Slasher Flicks, I wanted to delve more into the idea of one mic in a room capturing this live energy. We tried to do that with the last Animal Collective record, but it didn't turn out that way." Portner's recent love for 1960s garage rock shines through in Enter the Slasher House's first single, "Little Fang", a swaggering gem that's one of the most straightforward songs Portner's put to tape outside of his work with Animal Collective.
Elsewhere, the record is more complex and strident—although Portner doesn't necessarily see it that way. "Animal Collective's sound guy works with Slasher Flicks too, and on the last tour he said, 'It'll take me a couple shows to figure out what's happening here.' I was like, 'Really? It sounds so simple and minimal to me.' He was like, 'You guys always think everything is so simple and minimal, but it just sounds crazy.'"
Emotionally, Enter the Slasher House is a sharp left turn from his last solo effort, 2010's murky Down There, which was written while Portner was dealing with weighty personal issues, including a divorce from former múm member Kría Brekkan and his sister surviving cancer of the tear ducts. "I was sick a lot last year, so writing these songs had a lot to do with me trying to have some positive vibrations and getting away from feeling dark," he says. "I didn't want to dwell on that anymore. I wanted to find the medicine through music."
Along with a Slasher Flicks tour this spring, Portner is aiming to rejoin with Animal Collective and put out a new record "some time next year," and is thinking about a proper solo follow-up to Down There consisting of unreleased material that he tested out on the road while touring behind that album. But, true to his new project's name, he's still making time for his beloved horror movies, including recent highlights Insidious and The Conjuring. "I've always liked the campier, more fun side of horror, like those cheesy haunted house rides at fairs where there's sloppy effects and rubber figures jumping out at you. It's clearly meant for kids, but there's something endearing and cool about it."
Pitchfork: Apart from 1960s garage rock, are there any other types of music you had in mind when writing this Slasher Flicks album?
Dave Portner: The idea of the novelty pop song—like "Monster Mash" or "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!"—doesn't really pop up a lot anymore in music, but those songs have a fun, weird, pop-horror element to them. I wanted to make modern takes on that type of song.
Pitchfork: What's the difference between working with Animal Collective and working as a part of this new band?
DP: Animal Collective have a communal way of working together that we've all grown to understand. It's a comfort zone, so playing music with other musicians is immediately stepping out of that comfort zone. You have to be open. Animal Collective put a lot of time into recording—we spend very long days in the studio, which has to do with the fact that we're not really around each other a lot, so when are we really work. I don't think Angel and Jeremy come from that side of things.
I love it in the studio—I could spend ten hours mixing, easy. Other people are always like, "Man, we have to take a break." I'm always like, "Really?" Jeremy, Angel, and I found a meeting ground in between those two mindsets, which feels really good. It's been good for me to have some time off lately, too, because it's hard to keep sinking yourself into one record after another. That's not really what I want to be doing with my life right now.
Enter the Slasher House cover:
Pitchfork: Animal Collective's early performances were more impressionistic, but on the Centipede Hz tour, the approach felt more professional.
DP: Right before Centipede Hz came out, we made a conscious decision to put more old songs into our set. We have such a wide catalog that we can play around with at this point, and it's music that people like to hear. That decision has to do with how many people come to see us now, and what they are coming to see. In the past, I didn't think about being an entertainer so much. It was maybe a little bit more selfish of an approach, but I don't feel bad about it.
In the beginning, it was about what we could do to catch people's attention and draw them in. We wanted to cause a reaction and make people feel like they were seeing something new. We built up a community of people that understand Animal Collective. We're these close friends getting up on stage performing this really private ritual that people either can or cannot relate to, but it was our thing and it truly felt like it was coming from us. Now, we play for almost two hours every night, so playing the way we used to is just not possible. But it's still fun for us. Some of the shows we've played over the past year are our all-time favorites. We record all of them, so to listen back be like, "Man, we really nailed that," is nice. Before, it was more about the energy that went into the songs, but now it's more about how we wrote "My Girls", and that's a great song, and now we can home in on it and make it awesome live.
Kurt Cobain at the Piper Club in Rome, Italy, on November 27, 1989. Photo by Bruce Pavitt.
Bruce Pavitt learned from isolation. In the early 80s, he saw how punk and new wave bands in secluded scenes were producing some of the period's most original music, "like Devo in Akron or the B-52s in Athens," he says. This moment convinced him that contributing to the culture of local indie music was worth it. Pavitt focused on his own Seattle music world through his Subterranean Pop zine, his radio show, his record shop, and ultimately his record label, Sub Pop, which defined grunge.
In the fall of 1989, Pavitt was also a photographer. Along with Sub Pop co-head Jonathan Poneman, he spent eight days touring Europe with two of their bands, Tad and Nirvana. Pavitt captured 500 spontaneous and defiantly amateurish images with his simple Olympus pocket cam, some of which are collected in the new book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989.
Pavitt's photo journal captures the final leg of the now-legendary Heavier Than Heaven tour, beginning just in time to witness the dramatic near break-up of Nirvana in Rome—where a 22-year-old Kurt Cobain, feeling homesick and exhausted, smashed his guitar due to frustration with a hyper-masculine crowd made up of "the kind of guys who used to beat me up in high school."
At Nirvana’s show at the Piper Club in Rome on November 27, 1989. Pavitt says he wishes he got a shot of Cobain standing on a speaker stack and threatening to jump later on but was "too stunned to react." Photo by Bruce Pavitt.
But the narrative ends triumphantly at Sub Pop's LameFest showcase in London, where the bands opened for Mudhoney and NME anointed Nirvana as "Sub Pop's answer to the Beatles." The book is a micro-history full of logistical and emotional obstacles, rich with details of sightseeing and cappuccinos in Italy, a graffitied cultural center in Switzerland that blew everyone's minds, European fans clad in flannel and leather jackets, payphone calls to girlfriends at home, and an inexplicable tour-wide trend of Mardi Gras beads (apparently started by Mudhoney's Mark Arm). With grainy, active snapshots and reflective descriptions, Pavitt is able to make this piece of Nirvana history feel direct and unmediated; the story feels within reach.
The photos lingered on Pavitt's mind over the years, and Experiencing Nirvana was finally released as an e-Book in 2012. The hardcover version followed at the end of last year thanks to Brooklyn-based publisher Bazillion Points, now expanded to include a beautiful series of professional black-and-white photos from LameFest by photographer Steve Double. Although Pavitt is no longer involved with Sub Pop, he still keeps up—current roster favorites include Rose Windows, TheeSatisfaction, Thumpers, and Metz. His next book will be an anthology of his writings from his Subterranean Pop zine, with essays by music journalists Charles Cross and Ann Powers, Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy, and more. Pavitt recently moved back to Seattle after living on the Orcas Islands for 17 years, raising his kids; he was sitting in his car just south of the city when we spoke last month.
Pitchfork: As someone who didn't experience the rise of Nirvana or grunge firsthand, it was cool for me to see how young everyone looks in the book. How old were you all?
Bruce Pavitt: Jon [Poneman] and I were both 30, and the bands were in their 20s. I hoped the book would be an inspiration to young musicians, just to witness how it was possible to get over to Europe and travel as a young person. The Nirvana myth is a little overwhelming now, but to see how Kurt could go from a small logging town—from "living under a bridge"—to only a few years later traveling Europe seemed epic in its own right, but on a doable scale.
Pitchfork: The images themselves are pretty amateurish. Do you feel like that grainy quality contributes to the narrative of the story?
BP: It implies a resourcefulness and a respect for imperfection, which would be a very good description of those bands and how they performed. It was spontaneous; an insider's perspective. I rarely gave people a heads-up that I was taking their picture. Almost all of the photos were taken from my hip, or up over my head. There's an intimate quality, which is not something you would find flipping through your typical Nirvana rock-star book.
I had no real photography experience, thankfully. I consciously took a lot of crowd shots. I was influenced by Seattle photographer Charles Peterson, who always seemed to incorporate fans in his live band shots. I think one of the keys to Sub Pop’s marketing was the conscious decision to celebrate the fans as well as the bands.
"When people saw the energy of our bands, they were totally blown away," writes Pavitt, who took this shot.
Pitchfork: You mention in the book that fans want to feel like they are part of a social movement. Did you think about that a lot on this tour?
BP: Jon and I did think about how excited people were about the culture coming out of Seattle. People are hard-wired for tribal identity. Many of the seekers coming to the European shows walked away with our t-shirts, displaying alignment with the culture.
Pitchfork: You took 500 photos on the trip. Did you have a sense at the time that this tour was going to be historically significant?
BP: I absolutely did. I've never in my life taken so many pictures of anything. Three of the best live bands I had ever seen were heading towards the music-media center of the world, and Jon and I knew they were going to blow people away. We felt the show could represent a tipping point for Seattle. It's not really debatable whether the crowd went off or not at LameFest—the proof's in the images. When NME comes up with a quote like "Nirvana is Sub Pop's answer to the Beatles," you know as a record label you've pretty much accomplished what you set out to do, which is to gain international attention for the bands. That's the whole game as a record label—you help discover these acts, but you have to capture the public's imagination, and that involves the media. In the 80s, it was hard to get press attention in the United States. England was the key.
Cobain and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman. Photo by Bruce Pavitt.
Pitchfork: The bands were actively helping shape the narrative, too, not just with music but with what they said on stage about "the Sub Pop scene."
BP: People in the scene were creating myths. When Sub Pop first started, everything was larger than life. We were famous for hyping stuff. That was part of the fun. We were all building this myth and pretending that Seattle was going to be huge, and we just kept focusing on that, and the next thing you knew, it blew up. Method acting, I would say. People joke about how the Seattle scene was nothing more than a marketing concept, but it was actually about getting loose and letting go. It was inclusive and celebratory. The shows were insanely fun.
Pitchfork: There is a series of professional black-and-white photos at the end of the book. The juxtaposition kind of emphasizes how real the amateur ones feel.
BP: We were fortunate to have Steve Double contribute the incredible photos from LameFest. I love the dynamic contrast between the spontaneous shots and the more formal, pro-rock-star photos. You can see how once Nirvana steps into a media spotlight, their whole presence was exaggerated. That’s how the game works. You can see that in the book—it’s like, "Well, we’re just hanging out with these guys and playing some shows," and then you get to London and boom, instant rock stars. It has everything to do with the photography and the writing.
Bruce Pavitt stands behind Kris Novoselic at LameFest in London on December 3, 1989. Photo by Steve Double.
Pitchfork: Did you keep a written journal on tour as well?
BP: I didn't. The writing is like reconstructed diary entries based on my own amazingly good long-term memory. The photos are like Cliffnotes reminders of what happened, and I was able to tighten the narrative—in a few Nirvana books, they said, "The Sub Pop guys bought Kurt a new guitar in Geneva." Well, actually, no, we didn't, we purchased it in Italy, the morning after Kurt smashed his last guitar, and you can see that in the images. I was a history major in school. I review the past a lot and think about music history and how culture unfolds. I've been processing this trip for a long time.
Pitchfork: There was a huge gap of time between this tour in 1989 and when the book first came out in 2012. It seems like it would be overwhelming to process this piece of music history.
BP: The hardest thing was coming to terms with Kurt's passing. Every day I worked on the book, I was reminded that a friend of mine was dead. That's challenging. However, in piecing the book together, I said, "Wow, here's this epic Nirvana narrative, kind of a hero's journey, resulting in this triumphant showcase in London." It's a great story. It ends prior to a lot of drama [about Nirvana], which I think some people are burned out of thinking about—the stress and the tensions that accompanied Nirvana's success. It's hard to process. But here, we just have the band traveling through Europe and rocking London. It felt healing.
Cobain signs one of his first autographs at Rough Trade Records in London. Photo by Bruce Pavitt.
Pitchfork: It does feel like a rare instance of getting to—as the title suggests—experience the story of the band without a lot of the heavier context.
BP: It's Nirvana lite. [laughs] I had to ask myself: Why was that period of music history so exciting for me? I was a real indie activist in the 80s. I started a Sub Pop fanzine in 1980, reviewed thousands of indie records, and started my own indie record store in Capitol Hill called Fallout. I had radio shows. So, in thinking about the 80s, I had to appreciate how resourceful the culture was at the time—nobody had any money—and how cooperative the scene was. You'll notice in the book that everyone is wearing each other's t-shirts, for example.
It was a very different culture. Post-Nevermind, every band knew in the back of their minds that they could start out in a garage and wind up being famous millionaries because that model had been set. Prior to Nevermind, that just wasn't even part of the conversation. People approached music a little differently.
Pitchfork: You refer to the bands as "mutual admiration societies within a network of hobbyists." Was the idea of a career in music even floating around?
BP: No. Music careerists from Seattle would typically move to the closest media center, which was L.A. The idea of having an indie rock "career" while living in a remote backwater like Seattle was too ridiculous to contemplate. It was simply about having adventures, one day at a time, one song at a time.
Odd Squad, from left: Rob Quest, Devin the Dude, and Jugg Mugg
The mid-90s saw the release of an incredible number of important hip-hop albums—Rolling on Dubs revisits one of these records each month, around their 20th anniversary, and retraces the past through a contemporary vantage point.
All successful talent shows are alike, but each unsuccessful talent show is unsuccessful in it’s own way. The one held at Texas Southern University circa 1989 was a uniquely victorious failure. Its ashtray spawned Houston’s Odd Squad: Devin the Dude, Rob Quest, and Jugg Mugg. The raunchy stoners' only record, 1994’s Fadanuf Fa Erybody, was famously named Rap-A-Lot’s best release by Scarface. But first came the talent show fiasco.
For weeks, flyers touted Kurtis Blow as the celebrity judge. The winner was promised $500 and a contract to record a 12". But by showtime, the Bronx legend behind “The Breaks” had gone AWOL, and the college auditorium was completely empty, save for the participants and a few family members. The show's director shambled aimlessly, biding time for Blow.
Raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, Devin the Dude split his adolescence between Houston and railroad country, East Texas. After high school, he moved back to H-Town in search of a record deal and a '79 Seville. At this point, Devin’s dude archetype is as iconic in pot culture lore as Jeff Bridges. His solo catalog and hook on Dr. Dre’s “Fuck You” give him Rap Hall of Fame credentials. But in the latter half of the 80s, he was Devin the Fat Square Twista, a B-boy known for popping, ticking, and gliding like an extra from Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, and the talent show seemed like a legit chance in a city then lacking an established hip-hop infrastructure. So the excited teen made a stop-and-pause cassette tape of Roger Troutman instrumentals to rap over. But as soon as he graced the stage, the heckling began.
“There I am with my beat tape and my furry Kangol, and someone in the audience says, ‘Who do you think you are, Slick Rick?'” recalls Devin, wheezing his molasses laugh. He has the most photographic memory of anyone you’ll ever meet. He remembers gear details, dialogue, and the performance order from a talent show that occurred a quarter century ago, making him a one-man scientific study refuting claims that weed impairs your memory. (He also does impressions with pitch-perfect cartoon mimicry.)
“So I rap: 'It’s not Slick Rick, it’s this big dick Slim…' and start dissing him back,” Devin says, rapping the old bars. “He gets upset and keeps talking shit. It was the longest three and a half minutes of my life.” The judges weren’t impressed. The day would’ve been completely worthless were not for Quest’s performance.
“I want to get everyone’s attention, right quick,” the administrator called out to the yawning crowd before Quest got onstage. “Do you think it’s fair to let this guy participate in the talent show today?” He pointed at a hazel-eyed 17-year-old clutching his mother’s shoulder. It was Quest, afflicted by sarcoidosis, an inflammation of the liver, kidney, and spleen. The disease had caused slow blindness since his diagnosis at age 12.
“[Quest] didn’t look blind at all, so we were like, 'Why shouldn’t he be allowed to perform? What’s going on here?'” remembers Devin. “No one had a problem, of course—no one even know what he was talking about.”
“So his mom let him go, he plugged in that beat machine, twiddled with the buttons, pressed start on that motherfucker, and nearly blew the speakers out,” the Dude continues. “It was some hard N.W.A. or Public Enemy-type shit. He sounded like a mini-Ice Cube. I’m like, 'What in the fuck?' Everybody was tripping. And in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Yessir, I agree, he shouldn’t be allowed to compete in this talent show.”
Quest’s mom had forced him to sign up. Unable to play basketball or video games, music became a serious hobby shortly after the onset of blindness. Before meeting Devin Copeland, though, Quest never considered doing it professionally.
“Out of that whole roomful of MCs, Devin was the only one who talked to me,” says Quest, born Robert McQueen. Quest is at home in Houston, his voice several octaves deeper than his rapid-fire whistle of ‘94. The producer/rapper is in good health lately, after cirrhosis caused him to receive a liver transplant in 2011. “[Devin] wanted a beat and asked if I wanted to get a beer,” Quest adds. “I told him that I lived right around the corner, and he was like, ‘Cool, I got a joint too.' I told him, 'I don't fuck with any of that shit, but let’s go.' The rest was history.”
This plotline theoretically mirrors a Reagan-era after-school special: The cool break-dancing rapper in a Kangol (played by Doug E. Doug) befriends an insecure blind producer at a local talent show (a young Jamie Foxx). They both lose, but derive strength by bonding through the power of music. The reality was more R-rated, somewhere between Up in Smoke, The Weird World of Blowfly, andDancer in the Dark. “Until then, I was losing my sight and not going out much," says Quest. "Devin was the first cat to embrace me and adopt me like a brother, teaching me how to dress and fuck with hoes."
But the Odd Squad didn’t form that first afternoon. It took Devin a year to convince his partner Jugg Mugg to see the light. “Devin called me up the first day he met Rob and tried to get me to come over, but I was like, 'A blind producer? Get the fuck out here,'” says Jugg Mugg (government name: Dexter Johnson), who had been in various groups with Devin, including a breakdance crew called 3-D and the more politically minded KKK (Krazy Kush Kings). “But after I didn’t go, he told me again,” he continues. “If you know Devin, you listen if he tells you something twice. It rarely happens.”
Quest’s home studio became an unofficial hub of the Houston rap scene. Initially cutting records to cassette, the group quickly graduated to a four-track. With Devin’s encouragement, the visually impaired producer seamlessly absorbed the arts of inhaling and rhyming. On any given day, UGK, Big Mello, Big Mike, Ganksta N-I-P, and DJ Screw popped up at Odd Squad headquarters to torch swishers of skunk, drain 40s of Country Club, and freestyle.
It became Quest’s turn to take the initiative. After several years of crate digging, producing, engineering, and home recording, he told his Odd Squad partners that it was time to step it up. They got a bio written, took press pictures, and finagled their way into a local art institute’s studio to cut their demo. DJ Screw scratched and cut on the record, an artifact since lost to the Bermuda Triangle of the Rap-A-Lot archives.
Like the Odd Squad, Screw’s early sound genuflected to the East Coast Catholicism of Run-DMC, Marley Marl, and Pete Rock. But the Odd Squad’s lyrics and harmonies were closer to Southern Baptists gone to sin. The trio behind “Your Pussy’s Like Dope” and “Smokin Dat Weed” grew up singing in the church choir. Devin was conscripted to croon after repeatedly falling asleep during services. His punishment ended up being the group’s gain, with his filthy, wobbly hooks doubling as narcotic hymnals. “We’d smoke on some Indian tribal shit and start humming old slave spirituals,” Quest says, describing the genesis of the melodies. “We’d do chants for 10 minutes straight… almost like a trance.”
There’s nothing remotely surprising about rappers singing in 2014, but when Fadanuf Fa Erybody dropped in February of 1994, it was a fairly radical concept (lest you be deemed soft as P.M. Dawn.) Prior to the Odd Squad, Rap-A-Lot built their reputation on body-in-the-trunk gangsta rap; Geffen had refused to distribute the Geto Boys, deeming their lyrics “violent, sexist, racist, and indecent.”
Rap-A-Lot’s most famous album cover pictured Bushwick Bill, bloody bandage dripping from his shot-out eye, getting carted off from the hospital by Willie D and Scarface. By contrast, Fadanuf’s cover riffed on Ernie Barnes’ "Sugar Shack”, complete with psychedelic animations of Devin, Rob, and Jugg getting fucked up and freaking fleshy bow-legged girls. Rap-A-Lot signing the Odd Squad was like if Death Row released Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde.
But label founder J Prince was immediately a fan. Only days after label producer Crazy C passed him the demo, Prince popped up at the group’s place in the 3rd Ward offering a chicken lunch and a recording contract. It eventually turned out to be one of the most expensive albums released by his label, thanks to the trio’s tendency to write entire songs in rented studios. The Odd Squad’s odds of recouping royalties weren’t aided by the multiple shots fired at radio stations that never played them. Nor did it matter. Good luck finding an FM-friendly edit to the hook of “Fa Sho”: “When you're fuckin over yo fo-sho pussy/ Tryin to get some mo' pussy/ You'll end up with no pussy, no pussy.”
The chorus was a borrowed aphorism from Devin’s older brother's friend—a pragmatic seen-it-all army veteran. You laugh first, but on closer listen, “Fa Sho” becomes one of the best anti-infidelity rap songs ever written. Just a few months after Snoop Doggy Dogg and Kurupt sneered their tenet of “loving no hoes,” Devin and the Odd Squad offered the corollary: a lack of loyalty might also leave you lonely and celibate.
In Squad slang, weed was “coughee,” and they needed to have at least two or three cups in the morning. The code word came from one of Devin’s friends’ dads, who clandestinely “sipped coffee” on his porch. This is part of the genius of Fadanuf and Devin’s solo work: The subject matter rarely extends beyond smoking and sex, but the freaky tales and reincarnated wisdom make him seem part Too $hort, part Dave Chappelle, part glazed Buddha.
With two decades of hindsight, Quest seems like the group's secret weapon. But at the time, J Prince saw him as the centerpiece. The lone video was for “I Can’t See It”, a “Blind Rob” solo track that battled his disease with raps about self-independence, beat-boxing, and knocking peons out the box. If it were released in New York, it would have probably been a "Stretch and Bobbito" and "Yo! MTV Raps" fixture; in Houston, it was a regionally asymmetric curio.
“It’s definitely going to be something different if it’s on Rap-A-Lot,” said a disembodied promo voice on the album's intro track. This singularity is why Fadanuf holds up so well, but it’s also why it was impossible to market. It captures Houston rap in chrysalis—pre-codeine and Screw—amidst its shedding of East Coast influences for an indigenous Lone Star swang.
With a few assists from Rap-A-Lot studio alchemists Mike Dean and N.O. Joe, Quest’s beats merge boom-bap drums, jazz, soul samples, viscous Southern funk, and a live saxophone lick or two. On “Hoes Wit Babies”, he freaks the same Isaac Hayes sample that Public Enemy used on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, while “Jazz Rendition” bows at the altar of Cannonball Adderley and the Jazz Crusaders. Quest shouts out Showbiz and A.G. with beats hard enough to ostensibly qualify for Southern membership in D.I.T.C. while Jugg Mugg added a necessary roughness. Devin was the star who always abides.
Unless you were a collector willing to bid triple digits on eBay, Fadenuf Fa Erybody was barely heard outside of Houston until the dawn of torrents. The group’s only real promotion was a Midwestern Rap-A-Lot swing and three dates in Florida opening for Scarface. Even today, it’s a gem often overlooked in favor of Devin’s “Doobie Ashtray” era.
There was no sophomore album. Shortly after the Odd Squad began recording it, Scarface scooped up Devin for his fledgling Facemob. The Dude’s solo career sparked with 1998’s blunt-simple The Dude, but if you go through his catalog, nearly every one of his albums features at least one Odd Squad reunion. Both of his original partners remain integral members in Devin’s Coughee Brothaz clique.
“I didn’t know it back then, but I know it now: I was in a group with two geniuses,” says Jugg Mugg. “Rob was the brains, Devin was the heart that pumps the blood, and I was the body. We were friends first; the music was second. That’s why we’re still a group 20 years later, no matter what.”
Maybe that quote seems a little booster-ish. But I promise that when you account for two decades of bad rap-industry contracts and backbiting, it’s a miracle that any trio still records and tours together. The few who last are those with innate chemistry, who weren’t formed just to get ahead. Fadanuf Fa Erybody is the sound of friends making the party come to them: cracking hilarious jokes, reminiscing on the previous night’s debauchery, and sipping pots of coughee. The door is always wide open, and no one’s ever turned away.
Photo by Tonje Thilesen
Evian Christ: "Salt Carousel" on SoundCloud.
Guest List features artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with UK producer Josh Leary, aka Evian Christ, whose forthcoming Waterfall EP is due out March 17 via Triangle.
Best Birthday I Ever Had
Last year I was meant to be on a yacht with Rick Ross. I was in America playing a couple of shows and was planning on flying back to England to celebrate with family and friends. Then Then I went to this meeting with DJ Khaled and Rick Ross, just playing them beats and shit. Ross was like, "Cool, I got a bunch of different projects we can work on. I'm going to Miami for a couple of days, want to come out with me? You ever been on a yacht?" I'm just like, "No, I have never been on a yacht, Rick." But then it fell through, so I went back to England. So that definitely wasn't the best birthday I ever had, but it could have been!
I loved Pokémon for way too long, watching at a time when those days should have passed me by. You go to school and no one would talk about it, but on the low I think everyone still watched Pokémon—I would like to commission some research to find out if that's true.
My Dream Merch Table Item
There's a club near me where you can buy hot dogs and just walk onto the dancefloor. That is the pinnacle. My merch stand would be a mini-deli. You know how people say they made a piece of toast with Jesus' face on it? I could do that kind of shit, with my face and logo. That's my dream scenario in 2014, and that should be the dream scenario for clubgoers all around the world.
Dumbest Thing I've Bought in the Past Year
I was drunk recently in New York and went to this spot called Crif Dogs and bought two bacon-wrapped hot dogs with baked beans and sautéed onions, and started eating that, then fell asleep. That ruined the rest of the next day for me.
Favorite Music Video
The collective works of Busta Rhymes. "Fire", "Gimme Some More", "What's It Gonna Be?"—all incredible and super high-tech for the time with all that CGI. The money they used to spend was insane. I understand that investment in music videos died because television wasn't the main outlet anymore, but now you can monetize that shit on YouTube. It's amazing to me that record labels aren't piling money back into it. The bit in "Break Ya Neck" where Busta goes, "you want to ram with me?" on this weird overdubbed kung-fu film—it's just beautiful. I’m really passionate about that era of Busta videos.
My Karaoke Jam
It's a very controversial subject. In my life, I've never sung karaoke and I've never seen anyone partake in any sort of karaoke in the flesh. Recently, I got invited to a dive-y karaoke bar, so I was thinking about what I was going to do and I realized, "I have absolutely no idea what this looks like." Karaoke exists in this strange void, it's like The Matrix to me.
Ideal Selfie Positioning
I'm not that experienced, and I had my selfie debut (left) on a very public scale. I see people going for dramatic angles, but I figure full arms-length at nose height is the classic approach. Straight and true. Mine came out slightly crooked though, I was in a rush. I'm sure Burial spent weeks perfecting his, but I wasn't allowed that liberty.
Honey Nut Loops
The Best Thing About Being on the Road
The best thing is also the worst: the way you consume food. You give yourself free reign because of the scheduling and you're working hard, so you go, "Fuck it, I'm going to buy whatever crisps I want, some huge chocolate bar, and I've never seen this ice cream before—let's see what it tastes like!" It's amazing for five days, then you pass a point of no return, and it becomes an ingrained habit; you feel like you're dying. That's the gift and the curse.
Favorite Trance Banger
[awed gasp] Ah! System F's "Out of the Blue". In those pre-teen years, my stepdad was a trance DJ. I remember sitting and listening to Belgian trance via early-stage internet radio on RealPlayer, through dial-up: The most euphoric music on the most mind-blowing technological medium. Perfect music for a 10-year-old.
Let me think, because [emphasised slowly] I… hate …most… stand-ups. To me, there's something inherently unfunny about someone whose job is to stand around, waiting to make you laugh. But I like Steven Wright a lot.
First Record I Bought For Myself
The CD single of "My Name Is" by Eminem. A lot of shit came after that, and it could have so easily gone the wrong way. Part of me must have known I was going to be asked this question in 15 years time. Looking at Britney or whoever and thinking, "The picture's incredible, but think of the future!"
Dinosaur I Most Closely Resemble
Pterodactyl. It just flies around eating shit.
Most Bizarre News Story I've Seen Lately
Last Album I Downloaded
E+E's The Light That You Gave Me to See You off Bandcamp.The music is completely insane: He does really amazing drone ballads. There's one which is this six-minute long, bizarre, completely free-form ambient cover of "Take Care":
Last Great Concert I Saw
Wolf Eyes at one of the 285 Kent closing shows:
At the beginning of her fourth album as St. Vincent, Annie Clark is running and sweating and naked and alone. Well, not completely alone. There's a coiled serpent closeby, shaking its tail—hence the running. "Rattlesnake" would be a perfect, panicked creation myth—a shock of metaphor and imagination—except for the fact that the song is based on utter reality.
While visiting a friend's remote cattle ranch in West Texas last year, Clark decided to step outside for a quiet walk to nowhere. There were no signs to mark her progress as she continued down a little dirt pathway, no cell phone service, nobody else around. Sensing a Walden Pond moment, she thought, "When am I ever going to be in nature like this? I want to release—I'm just going to take off my clothes." As she kept walking, her whole body exposed to the Texas sun, she noticed small holes on either side of the path. Then she heard something.
"I thought it was the wind blowing, but the wind wasn't blowing," she recalls. "I turned and I saw a snake and I just took off." With adrenaline pumping, she ran the mile or so back to the house. Then she had a shot of tequila. Then she wrote "Rattlesnake". Clark calls the song "a new mythology," one that's not based on thousands of years of Adam, Eve, and Eden, but rather the blunt physical truths around us. "I didn't come from anybody's rib," she says. "I'm just fucking terrified by a snake." Here, she laughs a sharp, no-bullshit laugh.
But "Rattlesnake" is not a frightened song; it's playful, funky, commanding. And during its climactic guitar solo—the kind of wet-socket jolt Clark has become known for over the last seven years—it's as if she's using her fear as a weapon to squash anything and everything in her way. All across her new self-titled album, Clark harnesses her existential woes until they become empowering strengths. The 31-year-old singer has become an expert at navigating these sorts of theoretical schisms—turning depression into triumph, or fiction into reality, or calmness into brutal force—so much so that it can be impossible to tell where one ends and the other starts, which can be a source of intrigue, or bewilderment, or both.
"Are you sure you don't want a seitan spider ball?" Clark asks me with a knowing smirk as we sit in the back of Angelica Kitchen, an organic eatery near her apartment in Manhattan's East Village. She picked the place because it's quiet and not necessarily because of its vast array of gluten-free selections. When I ask if she's a vegetarian, she scoffs at the thought while shaking her head no. "I've tried being one," she says, "but since I don't cook, I would just warm-up the veggie patty and call it a day. I didn't feel like I was actually getting the benefits of not eating meat."
Slouching against the wall, Clark is casual chic in a black Margiela jacket, toothpick jeans, baggy sweater, and a grey hat that barely contains her mess of dyed curls, now the color of an overcast sky. She's soft-spoken, halting, judiciously eloquent. Her pronunciation is crisp. Based on her one-on-one demeanor, you might guess Clark was an especially fashionable second-grade teacher, not someone who made a nightly habit of throwing herself into the crowd and screaming her lungs dry while touring her last album, Strange Mercy.
St. Vincent live drummer Matt Johnson, who's played with Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and many others across a 20-year career, had a unique vantage point for Clark's off-stage excursions, which found her crowd-surfing during the unhinged punk menace of 2012 single "Krokodil". "It was kind of scary," he admits. "I always thought she might fall on her head and break her top vertebrae or get her finger broken and not be able to play guitar, but she knows what she’s doing."
"High stakes in art are essential, and setting up an expectation and then having it defied is what's interesting to me," says Clark, intellectualizing her most primal onstage behavior. "I wanted to risk something… like my limbs." This is not hyperbole. While most of her intense trips into the audience went off without incident, there were indeed a couple of close calls. Like when she jumped down into the crowd from eight feet above (in heels) at Oakland's Fox Theater, breaking her left foot. Or when the 5'6", 115-pound singer started moshing with a crowd of "hulking, corn-fed tough dudes" in Indianapolis.
"As I jumped in, I remember immediately thinking, 'This was a terrible idea,'" she says, laughing, before quickly turning serious. "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw I this little girl at the front of the stage doubled over, just being crushed. And then I started to suffocate myself. I was like, 'Oh god, this is bad, this is bad, this is bad.'"
Johnson likens these extreme moments to "primal scream therapy—the idea that through convulsive catharsis you can allow some inner part of yourself to become exposed. During shows, sometimes she’ll turn around, come back to the drum kit, lock eyes, and just start screaming. It rips through your body because you’re facing somebody who is literally embracing the process of pulling apart at the seams, in public, for the purposes of what that can do for a performance."
More often, though, Clark's artistic self is marked by an almost-unnerving serenity. It's there in many of her videos and press shots as she stares into the camera, looking like she might know a secret that could kill us all—but isn't telling. It's there as she erupts into a wild solo onstage, seemingly putting in no more physical effort than an office drone. While some have interpreted this attitude as aloofness, the reality is more complicated.
"I spend a lot of time trying to make things that aren't effortless look effortless," Clark says. This makes her think of a blowout basketball game she watched recently, where a bunch of rookies were thrown on the court in the meaningless final minutes. "They were expending all this extra energy—it was like they weren't just playing basketball but performing playing basketball," she says. "It takes a certain amount of athleticism to go on tour, and when you're young, you want to thrash around to prove that you're working hard. But people in their prime just make everything look effortless. Confidence is like leaning back. It becomes a grand sleight of hand."
Annie Clark's poise has only gotten more resolute over the course of her four albums, but her musical life began years before her 2007 debut, Marry Me. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she moved to Dallas following her parents' divorce when she was three. Including step- and half-siblings, she has four brothers and four sisters, though she mostly grew up with her mom, stepdad, and two sisters. "It wasn't like 'The Brady Bunch'," she quips. Though she's loath to talk about her family with a recorder on—"That's not anybody's business"—Clark offers the following when asked about how her childhood may have affected her later accomplishments: "Pain and feeling unworthy is just as good a motivator of success as feeling like you're entitled to everything."
At the start, she wouldn't play guitar and sing unless her family was talking amongst themselves in another room, though that shyness ended quickly. She played her first show around age 15 in Dallas, performing Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary". Standing in the shadows near the back of the room were two musical virtuosos who flew in just for the occasion: Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart, aka world-touring guitar-and-vocal jazz duo Tuck & Patti, aka Clark's uncle and aunt.
"Even at that early age she was able to go into an all-or-nothing performance mode," says Andress. "She was no more ridiculously outgoing than the average person, but when she was on stage she was like a fireball, even that first time."
Watch an old video of Andress playing an entire band's worth of parts just with his guitar, and his influence on his niece's fingerpicking style and posture (and swirling hair) is instantly apparent. (One YouTube commenter enthused, "He's the fucking bob ross of guitar," which probably isn't too far off.) But while Andress' sister let him know that Annie was following in his footsteps early on, he stresses that he never went out of his way to guide Clark's hand. Instead, he and Cathcart invited Clark to help them out on a Japanese tour less than a year after that first Dallas show, so she could see what the life of a musician was like up-close.
"She would be sitting in the dressing room playing guitar," remembers Andress, "and these Japanese rock stars would walk in and their eyes would open wide when they saw little Annie just tearing it up." Three years later, before heading off to Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, Clark road managed one of her aunt and uncle's European tours, handling everything from security, to press, to the equipment onstage.
"I was just in awe of their musicianship," says Clark of Andress and Cathcart, whose original songs and covers of hits like Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" could reasonably be described as easy listening. "My tastes were more rock or pop-leaning at the time, but it's unpretentious music and it moved people to tears every night. It's far too easy in this culture to dismiss someone's life's work with arrogant snark, but it's like, 'What have you ever fucking done?'"
Clark's education on the road would arguably prove to be more enlightening than her time at Berklee, where the self-taught guitarist struggled with the school's more pragmatic approach to becoming a musician. "Berklee's primary responsibility is to make you competent and employable, not to learn how to be more creative or more yourself," says Andress. "Annie found that side of it off-putting." After three years, she dropped out.
On the subject of her own startling aptitude on the guitar, Clark can be strident ("I'm an actual musician—I didn't start playing guitar yesterday") and also somewhat proudly ignorant ("I can't read music"). She bristles at the idea of being a "trained" musician. "I feel lucky that when I put my fingers down on a guitar I'm not 100 percent sure what's going to happen," she explains. "Knowledge is something to fall back on if you get stuck, but ultimately the goal is to play with abandon."
St. Vincent keyboardist Daniel Mintseris, who's studied various types of music since childhood, backs up Clark's philosophy. "More than most educated people I've met, Annie's able to use her education selectively, so she develops a language of her own," he tells me. "In some aspects she really can point out a specific step in the scale or a chord, but that doesn't come up all that often. Usually we're able to communicate musically directly—we don't need too many words."
That semi-spontaneous alchemy is on display throughout St. Vincent, with songs flitting from style to style—from the Who-style lizard-brained riffs of "Regret", to "Huey Newton" and its Parliament-meets-Sabbath back half—while always remaining distinctly Clark-ian. Gone are the superfluous flourishes and self-conscious cleverness of Clark's first two LPs, replaced by svelte arrangements and point-blank lyrics that beam with certainty. Take one look at Clark's quizzical expression on the cover of Marry Me and her steely "near-future cult leader" glare on St. Vincent's sleeve, and her artistic evolution becomes that much clearer.
"I have more of a clear sense of what's right for me musically now," says Clark, who also switched over from legendary indie imprint 4AD to the one-year-old Universal subsidiary Loma Vista for St. Vincent in an effort to "shake things up." It's a testament to her individuality—and perhaps the ever-shrinking divide between majors and indies—that the album betrays no trace of compromise. For Clark, who admits she was "never necessarily the easiest sell," control over her own work is paramount. Very paramount. "You have to stick to your guns, otherwise you're truly lost—and I mean in the fuckin' Dante sense of the word," she says. "I could've made different choices in my career to step more into the middle of the road and cross my fingers, but if I don't have the music, then I may as well fucking die."
Even so, she's well aware that, no matter how much she believes in her own work, music as a medium is having a tough time capturing anyone's imagination in 2014. To this end, Clark spends hours upon hours thinking about how to "elevate" her live show, how to cut through the monotony of another rock band on a stage. One of her ideas involved enhancing the audience's experience through subtle smells piped into each venue, though it was scrapped due to pragmatic concerns. "What it would take to execute would be so expensive and potentially annoying," she says, "and people have allergies." But the one-time theater kid is incorporating some theatrical body movements into her sets now, partly inspired by the dance-friendly tour for her 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne, Love This Giant. It's all in an effort for both her and the crowd to, as she says, "suspend disbelief for an hour and a half."
Naturally, the biggest enemy of disbelief-suspending at modern concerts is the smartphone, and on new single "Digital Witness", Clark takes on the voice of information-age propaganda—"I want all of your mind"—as strutting horns fight back amidst a gloriously human groove. "We have this feeling that we're being watched, and our psychic response is to make ourselves transparent," Clark muses. "The real currency in the future will be privacy." If she's right—if our worth will result from how much we can keep hidden from prying eyes and bright screens—Clark may become a secret billionaire. Because even with all of her striking visuals, she still doesn't like her picture being taken. Though her songs are ripped from her heart, she prefers not to talk about the personal events that led to their being.
"There have been things in my life that were super heartbreaking, and I could've made that fodder, but I don't want to do that," she says. "It just makes me feel weird, and it doesn't really help anybody else. I mean, I don't take selfies. It makes me feel empty inside to take a picture of myself at an event, like, 'Isn't my life cool?'" Clark refuses to Google herself, too, for good reason. "The last time somebody showed me something on there, it was some fucking freak ejaculating onto my Actor record cover," she says, still grossed-out. "I'm just like, 'I really didn't need to see that.' I have enough actual things to worry about other than the conjecture."
Besides, she says, it's all there in the songs, some of which she describes as "absolutely literally autobiographical." Though her nonplussed attitude under the lights, along with the disparity between her pitch-black subject matter and put-together personality offstage, can suggest a distance between Clark and her music, she makes clear that there's "no pretense or big mystical aura" surrounding her lyrics. The new album bears this out. Weary slow-burner "I Prefer Your Love", which recalls the very best of Madonna's 80s ballads, is an ode to her mother; "Regret", which could be her most straightforward-sounding track to date, is that rare breakup song that faces the morning after with a puffed chest and a trembling lip; and while the soulful "Prince Johnny" seems to describe the type who snorts coke in bathroom stalls, Clark calls it a "very bare song." "I mean, I don't do a lot of drugs because I don't have time to do drugs," she adds, with a chuckle. "I don't have a moralistic stance on it. I'm just really busy."
The album ends with "Severed Crossed Fingers", a song about finding hope as a performer when an endless stream of gut-spilling and spleen-draining constitutes your existence day-to-day, year-to-year. "I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done," Clark says. "That's me." The track has a similar dramatic arc to David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" but there's still no mistaking it: This is a St. Vincent song.
"We live in a postmodern age when it's pretty hard to come up with anything new, especially on a fundamental level," Clark's uncle tells me, talking about how his niece has managed to become such a unique voice, how she's cut through years of history and reams of static with her dignity intact. "It all got blown out at an earlier point—John Cage destroyed a piano and Jimi Hendrix burned the guitar onstage long before Annie was born. There's always someone playing faster, louder, more distorted. So you can't really go anywhere except into yourself. All that's left is to figure out who you are—because that's what's going be believable to somebody else."
Photo by Christian Belgaux
Starter offers introductions to artists, scenes, styles, or labels of the past, plus a playlist.
Nearing a decade on from his earliest singles, Norway’s Terje Olsen is finally readying his debut full-length, It’s Album Time. But in the dance music underground, Olsen is better known for his releases under a string of cheeky nom de produce, be it Tangoterje, Chuck Norris, Pitbullterje, Wade Nichols (a reference to the birth name of 70s porn stud-turned-disco crooner Dennis Parker), or—in deference to New York house master Todd Terry—Todd Terje. He built his reputation on the strength of a dizzying, shadowy portfolio of singles, remixes, and unofficial “disco edits” that have powered dancefloors from New York to Norway, Tokyo to Slovenia.
The expert craftsmanship found on Terje's original productions is a result of all those years spent splicing together disco edits—isolating and reveling in a track’s finest aural treasures and extending them to infinity. Or, as disco edit maestro Prince Language once put it to me, the edit fulfills “the wish you always have when you hear something great: you want it to continue, you don’t want it to stop.”
The disco edit has been around as long as modern dance music itself, with the man who helped invent disco, producer Tom Moulton, carefully splicing magnetic tape on master recordings of Philly Soul in the early 70s in order to isolate the most body-moving moments of a song. The greatest DJs of the disco era, from Larry Levan to Francis Grasso to François Kevorkian, all used their own personal edits of popular dance tracks to stamp the music with their own sensibilities. And that tradition carried on to the 80s, with house/acid/techno DJs like Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, and Carl Craig all tweaking and whetting their favorite dancefloor weapons to a sharp edge. Yet the edit fell out of fashion soon after, replaced by remixes and the like.
In the early 2000s, though, the technique once again became a DJ’s best friend on the strength of disco edits from the likes of Theo Parrish, Moodymann, DJ Harvey, and the Idjut Boys, enchanting a new generation of dancers. In the hands of a master like Todd Terje, the recognizable was suddenly rendered mysterious. Yes, one might trainspot a song by Michael Jackson or the Bee Gees, or snap to that "Knight Rider" synth line, but was that labyrinth of echoing percussion in the original? Did that sweet stab of symphonic strings really go on and on? Were those telltale vocals always that trippy and psychedelic? Can just four bars of an old disco song become as body-melting as a jacuzzi soak?
In its finest expression, the disco edit is disinformation, a way to scramble the signal of the familiar into something uncanny, a means by which to mis-remember the past, to pull a switcheroo on memory, to suggest parallel dimensions to its dancers. And no one was better at tweaking tracks both known and obscure—or applying such skills to his own remixes—than Todd Terje. Around 2010, he started to focus on his own productions more and more, moving on from the disco edit, perhaps never to return. But the following is a selection of choice Terje remixes and edits from 2004-2009.
Terje’s start seemed auspicious enough: His debut “Eurodans” single was slated to come out on the Soul Jazz imprint in November 2004. But there was a fall-out along the way, and the single was pulled, with only a handful of promo copies entering into the world. While the A-side saw release the next year on fellow kosmiche-disco countryman Prins Thomas’ label, the B-side “Reinbagan” only cropped up on compilations. With a slow, cavernous metallic beat, Terje and Thomas screw down the hen’s-tooth-rare disco single “Don’t Let This Rainbow Pass Me By” and overlay a melodica line, suggesting a sweet spot in-between disco, dub reggae, and highly melodic pop that Terje would continue to inhabit.
The first time Terje appeared on wax was on this 2004 split with Akwaaba, remixed by Prins Thomas yet again. Already, so much of Terje’s template is in place: that disco-stomp beat, a bassline limber enough to touch its toes, Copa Ca-bananas amounts of percussion, even a dubbed out Robert Plant mewl at this track’s caramel core.
Bee Gees: “You Should Be Dancin” (Todd Terje Edit)
When the DFA celebrated their 12th anniversary last year at Brooklyn’s “distinctly elegant” Grand Prospect Hall, James Murphy’s set waltzed through crowd pleasers of the early 21st century, reaching a peak when the fidgeting upstrokes of guitar and filtered synths of this ecstatic edit of the Bee Gees’ Studio 54 screamer emerged in the mix. An outright classic in its own right, Terje proves the beauty of a great disco edit: He holds back the falsettos, instead letting the bass, symphonic strings and incessant rhythm sway in open space, only letting the hook creep in after nearly four minutes.
Chris Rea: “On the Beach” (Todd Terje Edit)
Todd Terje’s penchant for smooth jazz verges on the “step-dad” variety, as evinced on his edit of UK silk sheet guitarist Chris Rea, whose licks are for folks who find the likes of Sade to be too edgy. Hailing from Norway, there’s always this sense of Vitamin D at the base of Terje’s productions, as if they might radiate sunshine during the darkness winters. Here, the producer takes the supremely Balearic title track from Rea’s 1986 album, gently pulls at the parameters, and makes it perfect for a hammock in a Corona commercial.
Double: “Woman of the World” (Todd Terje Tangoterje Edit)
The elegant 80s Swiss pop duo Double may erroneously scan as one-hit wonders stemming from their inescapable 1985 single “The Captain of Her Heart”, but the year prior, they released an Ibiza staple in “Woman of the World”. It doesn’t really need any major surgery, but Terje’s scalpel is deft and playful. He loops “don’t you play that conga” as a slurred trombone slides around the hand drums, before swan diving into the track properly.
KC & the Sunshine Band: “I Get Lifted” (Todd Terje Edit)
No matter where you are in the country, turn on any Golden Oldies station and KC & the Sunshine Band are almost certain to be on at that exact moment, with hits like “(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty,” “Get Down Tonight”, or “Boogie Shoes” acting like a trepanning device on your evening commute. It’s rare to hear their version of the George McRae hit “I Get Lifted” though. Again, there’s seemingly not much that the song needs, but at only three minutes, its groove ends right as it gets going, so Terje teases the guitar lick and organ riff, loops KC’s “chk-ah-chk-aaaahhhh” into a mantra, and lets that shuffle go on for twice as long, making it a floor-filler.
Michael Jackson: “I Can’t Help It” (Todd Terje Rekutt)
A deep cut on an album that sold more than 20 million copies, the dreamy Quiet Storm of “Can’t Help It” might be familiar to even the most casual of MJ fans. Audition Todd Terje’s expansive edit and it might even seem just like the original. But was there that alacrity in the tempo? Did its electric organ always feel this weightless? Did the snare and high-hat have that slink? And was there always a corridor in the middle section that led into a cavernous wonderland of clanging, ecstatic, echoing drums? Or is it all just a disco dream?
Isaac Hayes: “Zeke the Freak” (Todd Terje Rekutt)
Terje’s love of spidery, hurrying funk organ knows no bounds (there are at least three Terje edits celebrating Stevie Wonder’s left hand). He accentuates both the church and brothel tones of it on this melted-butter disco from Hayes. Hear how Terje brightens everything with the horns, a precursor to the upward shifts of singles like “Inspector Norse” and “Strandbar”.
Paul Simon: “Diamonds Dub” (Todd Terje Tangoterje Dub Remix)
The same week that Paul Simon fanboys Grizzly Bear released Yellow House in 2006, Terje also paid tribute to Rhymin’ Simon. Or rather Rhythmin’ Simon. This edit turns the Graceland single into an epic as shimmering as the diamonds themselves. A career highlight, Terje skips rope through a rainstorm of dubbed-out Afro drums and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s celestial voices.
Chic: “I Want Your Love” (Todd Terje Edit)
Five years before a pair of robots hitched their wagons to Nile Rodgers’ sleek inverted chordings, Todd Terje took an upstroke or two from this well-known Chic hit and dilated it for over seven minutes (though he has no Grammy to show for his work). Running that guitar riff through every sort of FX imaginable (showing a lineage that runs from François K.’s early 80s dubs through Kenny Dixon Jr.’s playful and funky edits), Terje then uses that angelic vocal of “I can’t kick this feeling when it hits” as a garland. An exceptional rework of a disco classic, like adding a mink interior to a Rolls Royce.
Canned Heat: “Wanda Rode Again” (Wade Nichols Edit)
Using the surname of Wade Nichols, Terje contributed this cheeky disco edit to RVNG Intl.’s Rvng of the Nrds vinyl series. One side has him doing little more than adding a kick to America’s “Horse With No Name” (perhaps the most intentionally lazy yet oddly effective edit ever) while the flip reveals that this droning, skuzzy roadhouse chugger from Canned Heat could move the shiny-shirt crowd at New York’s Cielo, too.
Gichy Dan's Beachwood No 9: “On a Day Like Today” (Todd Terje Edit)
The suited swagger of Todd Terje owes a great debt to the zoot-suited disco stylings of August Darnell (in addition to the tropical feel that permeates even the most Italo of Terje’s beats). Perhaps it makes sense then that Darnell has spent the last 20 years living in Scandinavia, as his sunshower-infused tracks are revered in the hinterlands of Norway. Whether it was as a member of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band or as Kid Creole, Darnell re-imagined 70s disco and 80s pop as a 40s musical with Carmen Miranda front and center, and Terje pays tribute to his faux-tropic roots with this edit/remix, a swaying track that emphasizes those joyous kid choruses.
José Gonzalez: “Killing for Love” (Todd Terje Brokeback Mix)
This early remix for Swedish-Argentinean folk singer José Gonzalez shows how the nu-disco don could take almost anything and run it through his Balearic Machine to sublime effect. As the gentle nylon string guitar gets a bit more muscle and the subliminal bass and hand percussion is pushed forward, the concise tune turns cosmic, dialating to three times its length. The coup is how Terje recasts Gonzalez’s Cat(nap) Stevens vocals as if he’s a lost member of the Alan Parsons Project.
Studio: “Life’s a Beach” (Todd Terje Beach House Mix)
While the Swedish duo of Dan Lissvik and Rasmus Hägg made but one album as Studio before parting ways, they nailed a crepuscular-yet-mid-afternoon beach vibe on their West Coast album from 2007, equal parts Sade, the Cure and Ashra. For remixing “Life’s a Beach”, Terje conjures, yes, a beach—albeit one abutting cliffs, everything bouncing and echoing to the point of mesmerism.
Dølle Jølle: “Balearic Incarnation” (Todd Terje’s Extra Doll Mix)
With a beat less than a mile away from the one on Chris Rea’s “On the Beach”, this edit finds Terje once again soundtracking how a change in latitude means a change in attitude. For remixing his friend Jørn Georg Sannes Knutsen’s lone track as Dølle Jølle, Terje resorts to his usual tricks: the synched handclaps and closed hats, the synths that are echoplexed and stretched like taffy, giving the backdrop an increasingly psychedelic swirl, allowing the melodies (and those ethereal wordless voices) to carefully waft higher and higher. There are many such Terje remixes that move similarly—between Italo-disco and house, between Balearic and disco—yet something intangible gives this track a truly sublime feel.
Linda Perhacs: "River of God" on SoundCloud.
The Inn of Seventh Ray, an establishment in Southern California's bohemian mecca of Topanga Canyon, seems like it was built with Linda Perhacs' mystical psych-folk reputation in mind. When I sit down with the singer/songwriter in the "woodland restaurant" adjacent to a nature preserve, she almost seems sheepish about how on-the-nose the spot is.
But our meeting quickly turns into a session of show-and-tell fit for the setting. She's brought along an entire book of compositional notes for The Soul of All Natural Things, the follow-up to her 1970 debut Parallelograms. At 70, Perhacs views everything through the same lens of new-age spirituality she did in the peak of Laurel Canyon folk hippie-dom. The compositional notes are all rendered synaesthetically: "A high flute has colors like this in reality—that wavelength is yellow." She also shares a collection of press clippings and tour photos, Newsweek articles that inspired certain songs, and books she picked up from L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. She consistently references texts relating to mindfulness, like Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi.
But at times, it feels like Perhacs is intently chasing a spiritual sunlight to escape a very real darkness. She’ll spend five minutes explaining how she thanked a sunset for songwriting inspiration and then casually shift to tales of how her neighborhood in Laurel Canyon soured in the 1980s, how "heavy money" and drugs "brought a darkness into an area that had been very love-based.”
Perhacs' unorthodox musical career has also had its fair share of serendipitous lightness and subsequent darkness. It began in a dentist’s office: While working as a hygienist in the late 1960s, she met a patient named Leonard Rosenman, an Oscar and Emmy-winning composer. Perhacs had been dabbling as a songwriter, but their connection was incidental. "One day after I'd known him for maybe 10 appointments, he just looked up and said, 'I can't believe this is all you do,'" Perhacs says. "And I said, 'Oh no,' and gave him a toothbrush."
Rosenman would go on to produce Parallelograms for Universal Music, which turned out to be a disaster in disguise. "Universal sent me my first pressed copy. I played it and they had taken the highs and the lows of the songs off, to squeeze it into AM for hit material. But it was FM material from the beginning," she says. "They destroyed it. They made it wooden.” She was right—Parallelograms remained in near-total obscurity for years, and Perhacs continued working as a hygienist, a job she holds to this day.
But she’s picked up some unexpected and important fans in the 44 years since her debut record. Mikael Åkerfeldt, lead singer of Swedish prog-metal band Opeth, recorded a cover of Parallelograms' title track, and his friend Michael Piper began surreptitiously printing and circulating a CD version of the album through his label, Gates of Dawn, in the late 90s. Parallelograms eventually became a cause célèbre in the New Weird America movement of the early 2000s, finding fans in contemporary experimental folk stars like Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and Sufjan Stevens. Perhacs eventually collaborated on Banhart's 2007 record Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, and gave her first live performance in 2010.
The Soul of All Natural Things arrives on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label on March 4 and features a host of contemporary kindred spirits including Julia Holter, Banhart, and Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel. The album blends pastoral sounds and Aquarian imagery with sometimes-polemical sentiments, but Perhacs still creates out of kindness: “I want the world to be healed, so when I write music, am I going to give them hate? Am I going to give them something that’s so dissonant and annoying that they have to turn it off? No. I’m going to want to send out the love and help them.”
Pitchfork: How does your day job as a dental hygienist influence your art?
Linda Perhacs: If you do nursing or that type of work long enough, you become a healer in your own thoughts. You’re cycling love, so you can stay a little more sane in the midst of it. It’s a one-on-one in your own room, so naturally you’re going to be relating to them on a pretty deep level. When you’re working with vibes like that, the music comes right in. The blend is perfect. So to me it was never a mismatch. It was actually pretty complementary.
Pitchfork: Was there any point when you regretted not having those years of experience making music and being on the road after Parallelograms?
LP: Yes. But unfortunately, I did not feel ready at 27. I felt that that world was too big for me and I might make some total mistakes. I was a little afraid of going on the road. When you’re that age, there are so many handsome men around, and for me, love is first. That shallowness had already knocked me really bad, and I didn’t need any more of that.
Pitchfork: How have you seen the Laurel Canyon area and the folk scene in general change since Parallelograms?
LP: Love was really a high priority. You could drive up this road and there’d be open doors. You could actually walk in as a stranger and they’d invite you for a meal. I just remember there was one rule: If you’ve got faults, we expect you to be working on it. And we are here for you. People would welcome each other then. We don’t do that anymore. We don’t care.
Pitchfork: What has it been like to work with young artists who've come out as professed fans of Parallelograms?
LP: I love to work with Julia [Holter] because our voices have a similar timbre, and she's very unique. She finds very avant-garde harmonies that I adore. Devendra too. They’re not catering to executives or a high budget. They’re writing because it’s in their being to do it. That's the common denominator.
Devendra asked me to do a harmony for his song “Freely”, but the band said it was too feminine. So for years I held onto it and I said, “You know, I really want to do something with this.” So we put it together and used it for the album. Julia’s prominent on “Prisms of Glass”. We talked on the phone and I said, “Julia, I’ve got just the right song, because you were using all of those foot pedals and stuff and I’d like to learn what you were doing.”
Pitchfork: Was there any temptation for you to modernize the sound of this new record after hearing the contemporary takes on Parallelograms?
LP: When I heard We Are the World do a techno version of one of my songs, I didn't know the word techno, but I said, "That percussion is astounding, will you help me do a piece?” Nobody said, "Techno isn’t allowed for you.” If it works for the piece of music, I’m going to use it. I don’t want to be limited any more than Dylan wanted to be limited by not using an electric guitar. When I showed it to people like Mikael Åkerfeldt he said, “Linda, too much techno.” I said, “What’s techno?”
And then my two young producers, Fernando Perdomo and Chris Price, had to explain to me that there’s a division right now between the two sides. They took three living, breathing percussionists to do the beats on the song "Intensity". We’ve got all kinds of layers, because I kept saying we didn’t get all the beats. If you hear a synth, it’s because I put my foot down. But I had to fight for it because they wanted it all totally organic.
Pitchfork: “Intensity” is the only song that sounds like it’s addressing modern concerns rather than timeless ones. What inspired it?
LP: I was working in Mission Hills, which is a little tougher environment [than Beverly Hills] and this fascinating young man in his early 20s came in with a vibe that was so intriguing. I knew there was a story, a mystery, that I wanted to bring out. I said, “I have a feeling you might know some of the people in that long Iraqi march right now.” And he said, “My brother’s there.” He said all he has is a gun, a backpack, and a few grenades, and he’s all by himself and he has nobody to help him, no back-up. They go in alone.
Before he left, I said, “I’m concerned for your brother. Would you allow me to have his name, at least his first name, so I can put it on my prayer table at home?” And then this young man said something that really got me. He said: “You pray, I dance. I’m Southwest American Indian.” I said, “Ah, you dance to give empowerment, to give protection.” And then my next question was, “Do you combine the native dance steps with the current things like breakdancing?” He said, “I’m in a world-class breakdance competition in Europe right now.” I said, "OK, when you dance, I’ll pray." “Intensity” has that little line in it: “I dance for my brother.” I got to see this man one last time, and his brother came home without a mark.
Isaiah Rashad: "Shot U Down" on SoundCloud.
"I like to write in the car," says Los Angeles-via-Chattanooga rapper Isaiah Rashad, whose new Cilvia Demo EP is named for a busted '95 Honda Civic he used to drive. "I like to be able to yell. I like to be able to hear my voice." He hasn't gotten a new car since moving to L.A. this year. "I try writing while I drive, but it's so hard. I can't do it out here. I carpool."
Rashad, who is the most notable new signing for the Black Hippy-repping Top Dawg Entertainment clique, approaches TDE's signature West Coast sound through a Memphis lens. Cilvia Demo is a smoky cocktail that packs heat like "Shot You Down" and the Master P ode "R.I.P. Kevin Miller", effectively sounding the arrival of TDE's next chapter. While the EP, which was recorded in spurts over the past two years, doesn't exactly signify a sonic leap from the works TDE is most famous for—Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city or Ab-Soul's Control System, among others—the 22-year-old's voice is its own vehicle, marrying Tennessee bounce with Death Row haze (plus a dash of 'Ye-circa-College Dropout flow).
Right now, Rashad is posted up in TDE's studio compound in Carson, California, but it's not quite the creative commune you're imagining. "I’m the only one at the house," Rashad says, alluding to the place's businesslike vibe. "Nobody wants to comes to hang out." Cylvia was recorded in a much lazier atmosphere: "Me and my homies were drinking and smoking a lot when we were recording it," he says. But Rashad, who is also a new father, seems ready to leave that irresponsible period behind, not unlike the busted ride that still sits in front of his mom's house in Chattanooga.
Pitchfork: I've read that you grew up wanting to be a preacher. Why?
Isaiah Rashad: When I used to go to church when I was little, I liked the way the preacher would excite people. He'd get a rise out of them and make them feel good at the same time. I fucked with that. But then my step brother introduced ATLiens to me during a trip to see my dad in Nashville, after he got remarried. Listening to [ATLiens] was one of the ways that I just chilled out when I was feeling uncomfortable. It's funny—I listened to a lot of the stuff that I loved as a kid kind of blindly, but that's still what I prefer to listen to now if I'm looking for something with purpose or meaning.
Isaiah Rashad: "RIP Kevin Miller" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: Outside of OutKast, what else did you listen to?
IR: Master P made me want to be a rapper as a kid, and Lil Wayne made me want to be a rapper as a teenager. Master P always had a fleet of dudes, and everybody was with him—I like the idea of some unity type shit. And I fucked with him cause he had Mia X, who is probably, besides Missy Elliott, one of the hardest female rappers ever. In high school, I'd listen to a lot of rap tapes, and Louisiana music was my favorite.
Wayne made all the best music we listened to in high school, across the whole four or five years. That’s the heyday of rap for me, some teenage shit. I was also into Late Registration, The College Dropout, Graduation, Jeezy. I started listening to the Gorillaz, who got me into a lot of different stuff. I started listening to Cee-Lo for whatever reason.
Isaiah Rashad: "Brad Jordan" [ft. Michael Da Vinci] on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: You seem like you're very deliberate about how you develop your sound. What are you recording now, and how is your style coming together?
IR: I want my stuff right now to be a little more upbeat. And cloudy. More... in the air. I figure out ways to describe things to myself, and it makes sense to me, but I don't really care to make sense to anyone else. If you worry about the next shit, you don’t appreciate what’s going on right now. You’ve got to appreciate everything to the fullest.
Photos by Jonathan Mannion
The biggest surprise of last year's Governor's Ball festival in New York City wasn't anything headliner Kanye West said, or the impossibly shitty weather. It was a duck. Specifically, a giant inflatable web-footed creature in a bomber jacket—the Duck Sauce mascot—being tugged through the East River.
"It was a vision—an apparition," laughs Alain Macklovitch, known to the general public as fedora-sporting producer and Fool's Gold co-founder A-Trak. "We wanted to do something that we could talk about years later, like, 'Remember when we put that duck in the water?' It goes into our spirit of being goofballs and following the ideas that seem ridiculous to everyone else. We like going where the laughter is."
After releasing a string of singles over the last four years, A-Trak and NYC house legend Armand Van Helden are finally ready with their debut Duck Sauce LP, Quack, due out in April. Sitting in the Lower East Side's Flux Studios, Macklovitch is sporting his personal uniform: leather jacket, silver chain that just extends above his collarbone, sparkling white Yves Saint Laurent sneakers—and yes, the hat. Van Helden, who Macklovitch later refers to as "the Buddha of my circle," arrives carrying a bag from Pret a Manger and sporting a knit cap, fresh-looking Nikes, and a vintage Kacy's World Colors "Positive History" T-shirt; his hulking, jovial persona stands in contrast to Macklovitch's politely thoughtful demeanor.
Within minutes of Van Helden's arrival, the duo are cracking up at pretty much everything, like how Macklovitch commonly refers to his friend Kanye's 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It all underlines Duck Sauce's overall M.O.: "The best thing we can do is to turn off our brains and tap into whatever our instincts are, which allows ourselves to do ridiculous stuff in the studio and keep what sticks," Macklovitch explains. "The Duck Sauce rubber duck toys fit into that mindset, too. We're like, 'Should we do this? Ah, fuck it.' Then we do it and our friends are like, 'You’re stupid,' but they go along with it anyway. It's about making a career out of brain farts."
Macklovitch and Van Helden first met around 2007 and became fast friends. The pair would get together once a year to bang out a few songs, choose one as a single, and then make a video for that track—a process that yielded the duo's most successful song to date, 2010's so-annoyingly-catchy-it's-kind-of-great "Barbra Streisand", which topped dance charts in seven countries. "Armand once compared it to the Champs' 'Tequila Song'—just a riff and a word," Macklovitch marvels. "Penetrating culture has always been appealing to me, and somehow 'Barbra Streisand' turned into a song that people would play at bar mitzvahs and weddings. What are the odds?"
Despite having a real-deal hit under their belts, Macklovitch and Van Helden nonetheless strived to keep the project's freewheeling ethos in mind as they worked on Quack over the years, finishing the record last June and taking three months to master the LP just right. "When it comes to sonics, we're super-picky," Macklovitch says, and on Quack, it shows: The record bursts with tons of energy but doesn't batter listeners' ears into submission.
Duck Sauce's popularity with the furry-boots festival crowd is well-established, but aside from the squeaky Dutch house motifs of whistle-while-you-twerk single "It's You", Quack sounds like little else in mainstream dance music right now; it blends the bright chords and disco affectations of French Touch auteurs like Daft Punk and Alan Braxe with a joyful goofiness that recalls 90s big-beat producer Norman Cook's work as Fatboy Slim. "It's the tone and sound that separates us," Van Helden says. "When we play festivals, the lineup is usually some dubstep guy, then us, then Diplo. There’s nobody else doing our thing. As a term, 'disco house' is an abomination—disco is house, so it doesn't make sense—but amongst the other genres out there, 'disco house' is a great place to be in."
The sound of Quack may explicitly resemble dance music proper, but its spirit is rooted in classic hip-hop: "We listened to Paul's Boutique a lot," Macklovitch explains, talking about the album's sample-delic tendencies. Adding to the CD-era rap aesthetic are many skits that riff on everything from Chinese takeout to Wu-Tang Clan's classic Enter the 36 Chambers skit "Torture". Along with Macklovitch and Van Helden, comedy personalities Fabrizio Goldstein (aka The Fat Jew) and Lord Sear from the 90s hip-hop radio program "The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show" crack wise between tracks. Macklovitch claims it's all an attempt to be "the Beatnuts of dance music."
Dance culture has never been too friendly to the notion of proper albums, and Macklovitch acknowledges that a "singles project" such as Duck Sauce releasing a full-length represents a risk. "This album was definitely something we didn’t need to do, but we had a statement we wanted to make. From the top-down, it's is about entering the duck land." It's also about paying tribute to the rich musical and cultural heritage of New York City, as Macklovitch points out with a sly grin: "Even the name Duck Sauce makes us think of New York, because there's the culture of Chinese takeout here. New York is important for duck sauce."
Pitchfork: It was refreshing to hear you guys bring skits back on this album, though they can sometimes carry the reputation of being funnier in concept than they are in execution.
Alain Macklovitch: Yeah, if you're making a rap album with skits, people just say,"OK, you guys are just trying to do some old Dr. Dre shit." But juxtaposing hip-hop-styled skits with house songs feels funnier and less expected. There’s nothing serious about Duck Sauce—nothing. We don’t have the slightest idea what people are going to think of this album—we’ve just made the album we always wanted to make. If you listen to Armand's old albums, he had hilarious skits where he was making fun of trance music, and fake rap skits. There’s a magic to his approach that makes me feel like a kid in a candy store.
Pitchfork: At the end of the track "Ring Me", there's a skit where The Fat Jew calls a Chinese restaurant to try to buy an enormous amount of duck sauce. Is that phone call real?
AM: That was very real—we had to debate whether it would cause a lawsuit. The funny thing with skits like that is it was originally six minutes of long of awkward conversation, and you're waiting for those nuggets of gold. My stomach was in knots listening to the actual phone call.
Pitchfork: Armand, as a NYC dance veteran, how would you appraise the state of the city's nightlife in 2014?
Armand Van Helden: It just won’t quit. I was around when Rudy Giuliani was mayor, when he shut down [former NYC clubs] Limelight and Palladium, and the press was saying, “New York’s gone to shit. Everyone's just laying around in the streets, they don’t know what to do with themselves.” I was like, “What?" The reality is that this is a humongous city with endless amounts of nightlife, and it's very good, and very underground, and it has nothing to do with five Walt Disney nightclubs being shut down. That was the only time over the last 20 years that I’ve heard people talk about New York nightlife being dead, and I lived through it—and I was out more then than I ever am now.
Pitchfork: How often do the two of you go out these days?
AM: We hit the town once in a while.
AVH: We used to hit the town once in a lot. In those early days, [Macklovitch] would hit me up all the time—he’d be in the loop, and I’m lazy. He’s quite the networker. We have a little generation gap, so he knows I’m completely fascinated with staying current and being on the scene. He’s always plugged in, while I’m in a plug-in-and-plug-out kind of guy. We actually haven’t gone out in a bit now.
AM: And when we do, we don’t stay out for long, like 20 minutes. [Van Helden] calls it the “swim-through.”
AVH:The big choice when it comes to the "swim-through" is left or right. You get superstitious, because you go, “Man, I did the swim-through to the left, but I bet you if I went right I’d have gotten more shorties." I’m serious! If you start to linger, all the girls' radars go, “Oh, that guy's been here, he’s wack.” The first run-through is when all the magic happens.
“I’m just 22/ I don’t mind dying,” Erika M. Anderson sang on “California”, a smoldering tone poem off her 2011 debut Past Life Martyred Saints. She was not, in fact, 22—the line was a reference to Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”—but she delivered it in the sort of hushed-secret voice that made people assume it was confessional.
“Everyone thought that line was about me!” she laughs when I ask her about it on an unusually sunny Friday afternoon at the beginning of February. We're in the New York office of her new label, Matador, and Anderson—clad in a white shirt with a picture of Slimer from Ghostbusters hand-drawn in Sharpie (“We had a T-shirt-making party at my house,” she explains)—is still jet-lagged after flying in from Portland the night before. But she becomes noticeably animated whenever I ask her about her favorite topic of conversation: lyrics. (Hers, or anybody else’s.) “Half the time you know that people are just saying words either because they rhyme or sound good,” she says. “Like that Katy Perry song [“Roar”] that's just a bunch of horrible clichés? I mean, I was almost into it until I listened to the lyrics. So whenever people think my lyrics are confessional, I take that as a compliment because people are like, ‘She’s telling me the truth.’”
Anderson grew up in South Dakota before moving to California, where she was involved in the noise scene and played with Ezra Buchla in the drone-folk outfit Gowns. Even in the underground, she felt like an outsider. “One thing that was interesting about the [West Coast] noise scene at the time was that it was trying to break a bunch of sonic rules,” she says. “But in a lot of the places I was in, there was another rule: Lyrics are not involved. So they’d ask Ezra to play, but they wouldn’t ask me to play. ‘No sing-songy shit.’”
Past Life Martyred Saints was a personal revelation. It drew upon the influences of her past (“You were goth in high school/ ...I’ve got the same scars, you see,” she sympathized on “Butterfly Knife”) without adhering to the rules of any particular genre. Her forthcoming record, The Future’s Void, also pulls from a wide variety of influences: The second track, “So Blonde” is grunge-pop in the vein of Linda Perry, while the corrosive lead single “Satellites” is a nod to the industrial music she loved as a teen. But while Past Life Martyred Saints felt at times almost jarringly confessional, Anderson describes The Future’s Void as “more guarded.” And with good reason. Much of the record meditates on the way that the internet has altered the way we see ourselves, and considers the value of privacy in a world where we’re constantly being watched. “I don’t want to put myself out and turn it into a refrain,” she sings with weary defiance on “3Jane.” “It’s all just a big advertising campaign.”
“Guarded,” though, is a relative term with Anderson. She’s still pushing boundaries—and maybe none more forcefully than her own. “I’m not allowing people to be in a comfort zone when they listen to my lyrics,” Anderson says. “And sometimes that makes me really nervous. I’m like, 'Can I say this? Are people going to think this is really fucking lame?' But if you feel like you’re not supposed to do something, that just means you’re bumping up against a rule. And if you never examine the rules, then what’s the point?”
Pitchfork: There’s a lot of paranoia on this record. Where is that coming from?
Erika M. Anderson: I was talking to my friend about "Satellites", and he was like, "This song's almost too topical." And I was like, "Fuck! I know!" When I was writing the record, I was almost ashamed to be writing about all this shit, because no one was talking about it. This was pre-NSA, pre-Snowden, pre-Steubenville. So I didn’t set out to make a topical record that was going to be “about” the internet and surveillance, but it accidentally happened.
Pitchfork: I get the sense that you’re exploring a lot of gray areas here—you’re implicating yourself in the culture you’re critiquing.
EMA: Yeah, it's not attempting to be a didactic record or this dystopian, "the internet is bad" type of thing. It's just trying to look at the good and bad parts of it. But also, stylistically, it’s pretty pro-internet because it's so diverse. It’s me being like: “I like this, I like this, I like this.” Whereas in the past, it used to be like, “I’m into punk”; peoples' record collections had maybe one or two styles. Now they have things from every decade and genre on their iPods.
Growing up, I used to walk around in a shaved head and combat boots and people would be like, “You fucking tree hugger.” And it’s like, “How am I a tree hugger? I’m wearing a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt.” But that’s the thing about South Dakota. All the freaks hung out together, so I got into a lot of different styles of music.
Pitchfork: In a way, the aesthetic of this record feels pro-internet, too. There’s lots of degraded digital noise, and processing on your vocals that sounds almost pixelated. Was that a particular vibe you were going for?
EMA: I just wanted some harsh tones on there. I was bringing it back to West Coast noise shows that I used to go to. I was so into that for a while that it became like, “Ugh, I never want to see this again.” But then after being on a totally different circuit [touring Past Life Martyred Saints], I was able to go back and appreciate the noise scene for what it was.
Pitchfork: A lot of scenes like that can be pretty macho. Did you meet any resistance to your music because you were a woman?
EMA: It was funny because when we moved to Oakland, some people saw a woman singing words you could understand and were like, “It’s not real!” I remember the first show we played, people were pissed because I was singing music with lyrics! That reaction scared me a little at first, but it was also kind of cool. Because these people who had invested so much of themselves into these rules—into this one idea that something is "correct"—were threatened by me in some way.
In South Dakota, I came up in a really macho scene and it made me tough. For a lot of ladies in the noise scene, the answer is to try and be even tougher than the guys, but that just wasn't me. I don't really like bad horror movies. It was really freeing when I was making Past Martyred Saints to be like, "I'm going to take take what I've learned from [noise music]—some of the concepts about space, about electronics, about structure or anti-structure—but I don't feel the need to follow these rules forever." It's actually really good that I was not accepted, because I was like, "Fuck this, why am I going to bother to be part of this thing that is already rejecting me and I don't even think is that cool?"
Pitchfork: Like Martyred Saints, you recorded all of The Future’s Void at home. At some point do you think you’ll record in a studio?
EMA: I am still not ready for that. I got help mixing the new record, and even that was really scary. I sat by that person the entire time and was like, "I don't know, man. Let's try some Tremulator on it. Turn down that 5K. There's too much compression on this." I needed to walk away and stop micromanaging. I can see why people go into a studio, but I just can’t. That’s probably why it takes me so much longer to do everything.
But also, the way I write, I like to have it available to me. Like, with “Dead Celebrity”, I just went downstairs one day, wrote it, played it. A lot of the stuff on the record is one of the first few takes. There's good and bad with that. I like it because it has a certain spontaneity, but then people who are playing with me are just like, "Why isn't this on a click track? Can we do this again? You're timing is crazy." And I'll flub a word, it'll be off pitch. I like that.
Overtones is a column that examines how certain sounds linger in our minds and lives.
The first cellular bits of rap music I loved were phrases: "Wine and women and song and such"; "The rude Redman rip backbones and hips to bits"; "My vocals exact, like rack and pinion in a Jag." Growing up, I didn't argue about these lines, or write them down, or think about why they worked as well as they did. They just broke off from the surrounding air and claimed me. Suddenly, there were new voices muttering in my ears. They wouldn't leave me alone.
Rap music does this to people. Constantly scribbling over itself, scuffing out the marks made before, it is an inherently repetitive art, and thus a Petri dish for cultivating obsession. Repetition and obsession are intricately linked, and when I try to prize them apart I start to feel dizzy. Visual artist Richard Serra said that "repetition is the ritual of obsession," which feels about right—obsession is the belief, repetition the daily prayer.
This is part of why the act of loving rap music can feel so anxious and sharp: Music love is needy and grasping to begin with, built on something we can't see, something no two people can agree on. But rap, built on loops that keep restarting, presets that go on into infinity, and vocalists who are constantly reworking their language on the fly, digs into deeper neural grooves. Take ad-libs, for example: rappers cultivate them for practical reasons, so that we identify them the moment they appear on a track. For them, it has as much to do with hip-hop's roots in graffiti as with the dictates of personal branding, but for listeners, these tics function as the smallest observable units of a rapper's aura. The really good ad-libs propose an entire worldview in a syllable (Gucci Mane: "SKRRT! SKRRT!" Pusha T: "Egchk!”), and hearing them repeated from track to track stimulates the portion of our listening brain that knows how to differentiate the 4 a.m. hum of our kitchen from someone else's.
As humans, we are hardwired to crave this kind of repetition, especially when it varies slightly each time: Technically speaking, we seize upon similar clumps of raw sensory data in a process called feature extraction and then bundle them together in a process called perceptual binding. When we recognize a powerful phrase dancing from place to place in a rapper’s catalog—the same each time but in a different context—we are pleased on a subliminal level, in part because we are recognizing our own hard work. The pattern may have been there already, but we discovered it. When a rapper repeats a phrase for the thousandth time, it stirs all three zones of memory at once: echoic, which is parrot-level memory; short-term; and long-term. This is a profound sensation, and the artist who triggers it for us ends up looking pretty powerful by association.
In music, we tend to group aura and charisma under intangibles—just another god-given gift doled out unfairly to a select few at birth, like talent itself. But they aren't just given. They are built, painstakingly, through repetition. When I think about Nas' earliest freestyles, when he was just a kid with a demo tape, I think of just three words: "Son of Sam." He repeated them so many times that when they appeared on Illmatic, they felt like a catechism to the people who had been paying attention. Repetition triggers our "there's a puzzle here" sense; things accrete in significance as they echo.
"The way Black Hippy pass resonant phrases from one member to the next suggests an alternate universe with its own logic and laws."
Black Hippy—the crew, or movement, or something, that Kendrick Lamar heads along with Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock—have invested a lot of energy into this sort of pattern recognition, and it accounts for a lot of their mystique. You can trace this behavior back to their earliest records, before the world was paying attention. The way they passed resonant phrases from one member to the next suggested a shared philosophy, an alternate universe with its own logic and laws. On "Hell Yea", from Ab-Soul's 2011 mixtape Longterm Mentality, Kendrick Lamar sang, “Motherfuck the government, motherfuck the system/ Motherfuck you, I’m just livin’ how I’m living." This powerful line reappears one year later, on Ab's "Bohemian Grove" from Control System, this time repurposed as a playful chant.
Tricks like these pop up everywhere on Black Hippy projects. “What’s your life about/ Enlighten me/ Is you gonna live on your knees or die on your feet?” Ab-Soul demands on Section.80's “Ab-Soul’s Outro” and then again on Control System’s “Track Two”. Schoolboy Q's "bet I got some weed," "you gon' get some dick tonight," and "Figg, get it, get it" chants pop up on both his Setbacks and Habits & Contradictions albums, little breadcrumbs linking one project to the next.
What these phrases have in common—save, maybe, for Schoolboy's "you gon' get some dick tonight”—is the suggestion of the value of power accrued through wisdom, a notion linking Black Hippy back to Wu-Tang Clan, the Ur-cult of rap. Like the members of the Wu, Black Hippy appear on each other's projects, but judiciously, careful to keep a safe aesthetic distance from each other. Occasionally, their guest appearances feel like little jokes: On Jay Rock’s “Bout That”, from 2011's Follow Me Home, Schoolboy Q raps exactly one bar with no fanfare and never reappears. On “Still a Regular Nigga”, from Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality 2, Jay Rock mutters only one word: “Nope.”
This leaves resonant phrases as the only concrete evidence that Black Hippy are, in fact, a group. (Schoolboy has teased, after all, that there will never be a Black Hippy album.) In some ways, these phrases are the group, the common energy crackling between them. This only becomes clearer as the members stray further from each other, pursuing distinct careers. On Schoolboy's new album Oxymoron, there are a few remnants of the old word game—Kendrick introduces his verse on "Collard Greens" with a quote from his "Backseat Freestyle"—but for the most part this is Schoolboy’s solo bid. On the one hand, Schoolboy has never sounded more like his own artist: On powerful autobiographical tracks like “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron”, he paints a world vivid enough and deep enough for us to get lost in all on its own.
Still, listeners are loathe to relinquish those perceptual bonds, especially ones that have been built up slowly over time, and Schoolboy's spell suffers in the transition. Radio bids like like “Man of the Year” or “Hell of a Night” are about as far from “mysterious” as you can get, and while neither song is bad or offensively banal, both work like neurological stop signs for anyone looking for traces of Black Hippyness—it's hard not to miss the powerful implication of something larger at stake. As listeners, we crave these hidden worlds, the promise of something coherent and tantalizing darting beneath the surface. We never want to see all of it, but we live for the suggestion that it exists.
How chill is too chill? For Real Estate, the band that's spent the last five years redefining the meaning of "laid-back," the breaking point is precisely 21 degrees Fahrenheit. "How is it not heated up here?!" guitarist Matt Mondanile wonders as we reach the fourth floor of The Golf Club at Chelsea Piers, an outdoor driving range buried within a gigantic warehouse on the edge of Manhattan's West Side. On this frosty January afternoon, the band is set up to swing more than 200 dimpled balls into the nether regions of The Golf Club's expanse—a goal that seems increasingly unlikely as they shiver underneath a lonely heating lamp in the tee-off area.
Still, they soldier on. Frontman Martin Courtney steps up and sails one into the distance—a commendable effort. "This is my first time holding a golf club," he says sheepishly. Slightly more experienced bassist Alex Bleeker cuts a few solid shots, at one point nailing the ball collector. But it's Mondanile who proves to be the strongest hitter, a trait he picked up from swinging as a kid at New Jersey's Montclair Country Club. After about 50 balls, they head inside to thaw.
Befitting their mellow rep, everyone's dressed in some comfy combination of flannel, Mister Rogers sweaters, casual footwear, spectacles, and baseball caps, and talk turns to their imminent third album, Atlas. Bleeker is excited about the prospect of hiring a Steely Dan cover band called Pretzel Logic ("They do a killer 'Peg'") to play an upcoming release party, and when the bassist eventually fetches his car, it's a gigantic red van that seems perfectly suited for, say, following Phish on tour. They've nicknamed the van "Reality", which doubles as the title of a 2010 Real Estate EP that contains what might be the ultimate Real Estate lyric, one that perfectly encapsulates the real-world-skirting, suburban-summer mindset this band is known for: "If it takes all summer long, just to write one simple song/ There's too much to focus on, clearly that is something wrong."
The simplicity of Real Estate's music has simultaneously proved to be a boon and a minor thorn in the band's side since they wafted into indie-rock's consciousness five years ago, recalling fellow New Jerseyans the Feelies' jangly, elliptical mantras as well as Yo La Tengo's patient elegance. (In 2012, Courtney and his wife chose Yo La Tengo's "Our Way to Fall" as their wedding song.) "There’s something that’s kind of nice about our music," Mondanile says during a phone conversation from his apartment in L.A.'s Highland Park. (The rest of the band still live in Brooklyn.) "It's lackadaisical and less intensely emotional than, say, Radiohead. Our music possesses an ambient quality similar to electronic music—it's pleasing to have on in the background."
Fittingly, there are several Real Estate songs that sound as if they were made specifically for unobtrusive, vibe-setting TV syncs; over lunch at Greenpoint comfort-food haven Jimmy's, Bleeker jokes about how Atlas' featherweight first single "Talking Backwards" would work as opening-credits music on a CW teen drama. In actuality, the band is judicious when it comes to extra-musical opportunities, recently turning down Mountain Dew's Green Label Sound but going ahead with a private performance for the employees of winter-wear company Patagonia—"I got some money and a winter coat out of it," says Courtney.
But what's elevated the band's work thus far beyond mere ambience, then, is its ability to use an unpretentious sound to casually stir memories and emotions. Similar to spiritual forebears the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie, Real Estate write the type of warm, yearning tunes that soundtrack the small complications that dot young people's lives while reminding older listeners of when they were still gaining a sense of large-scale perspective. On Atlas, the band stands right at the midsection of those two points.
A lovingly intricate album reminiscent of noted influence Television's own six-string fantasias, Atlas solidifies Real Estate as a rock-solid guitar-based indie band at a time when the phrase "guitar-based indie band" can seem antiquated. The group's leap in sound quality is partially owed to producer Tom Schick (Ryan Adams, Low), who worked with them in Wilco's Loft studio in Chicago. "That place is filled with amazing gear—Jeff Tweedy has nearly 100 guitars," Bleeker marvels. "The guys at the studio were like, 'We tell his wife he only has 12.'"
Apart from its three core members, a different lineup of accompanying musicians has arrived with every Real Estate record; for Atlas, newcomers include drummer Jackson Pollis and former Girls keyboardist Matt Kallman. Joining a band with such a tight-knit history as Real Estate's can prove challenging, but Kallman says that Courtney, Mondanile, and Bleeker are exceptions to the rule. "They're like brothers, but they've never made me feel like an outsider," he says. "I don't think their relationship would ever dissolve to the point where they couldn't work well together. They're just the nicest, coolest, most mellow dudes."
Improvements in fidelity and personnel aside, it's still impossible to mistake these songs as coming from anyone except this band, adding fuel to detractors' arguments that Real Estate's consistency doesn't make for particularly interesting music. The band is aware of these complaints, and although it seems like it would take a serious infraction to truly anger these unassumingly affable guys, the arrows sting nonetheless.
Bleeker cites Domino Records labelmates Animal Collective as a reason why Real Estate sometimes face unreasonable expectations. "They changed the American indie landscape by radically changing their sound on every record, which is the trend in underground music now," he says. "When people are like, 'You guys aren't really changing,' I'm like, 'We're an indie rock band. What do you think is going to happen?'"
"Kids these days, they're all goth—or into house music," 28-year-old Courtney says with the befuddlement of someone twice his age. "I don’t even know what you'd call the kind of music that kids are into. When I was younger, guitar music was still the thing and had been forever, so I'm happy when people say that we're the band that still plays guitar music. We play the music that we liked when we were younger, and it’s great."
Courtney, Bleeker, and Mondanile all grew up together in the small, quiet Northern Jersey suburb of Ridgewood, a place that up until recent years was more known for its absurdly large houses and top-rated public schools than its music scene. (I should know: I too grew up in Ridgewood and went to high school with some members of Real Estate.) Courtney and Bleeker, in particular, carry history that dates back to a tee-ball-league meeting in the third grade. "He called me a 'ho' for some reason," Courtney chuckles while recounting the first time he met his future bassist. "I was like, 'You just called me a garden tool.'" Five years later, the two became friends near the end of middle school, and the following summer Courtney met Mondanile through a mutual acquaintance. "Martin had just came back from Warped Tour and he'd dyed his hair blue," Mondanile recalls.
Seldom a moment passed in their high school lives when one of them wasn't in a band. There was the Courtney-fronted ska group Fletcher and the Sticky Wickets; Paperface, a noisy project Mondanile was involved in that took its name from an obscure Weezer B-side; a bevy of covers bands with names like Hey There Sexy and Emerson X-Ray Solutions; and most notoriously, the Annexation of Puerto Rico, fronted by a fellow classmate whose spoken-word performances were often drowned out by his bandmates.
After a couple of years, Mondanile was taken out of Ridgewood High School by his parents and put into a Massachusetts boarding school called Buxton, where he honed his guitar skills. They all eventually went on to attend what Bleeker refers to as "grade-less hippie colleges"—Mondanile to the Northeast free-spirit enclave Hampshire College, Bleeker following suit to the nearby Bennington, and Courtney to the Pacific Northwest's Evergreen.
While at Hampshire, Mondanile became interested in Amherst's thriving noise scene, while Courtney and Bleeker continued writing songs in college, too, trading off their latest compositions between the three of them. After graduating, Courtney and Mondanile found themselves back in Ridgewood, and they laid down a few songs to tape for what would become Real Estate's first release, the "Suburban Beverage" 7". The single was put out in 2009 by Underwater Peoples, a label funded with money that one of the band's friends raised selling weed in college, according to Mondanile. (Underwater Peoples, for their part, refute the weed part.)
Inspired by the modest successes of local Jersey acts Titus Andronicus and Vivian Girls, Real Estate decided to pursue music as a full-time concern. "These other bands literally sprung from the same exact background as us," says Bleeker. "They made becoming a working band a tangible goal." For now, the boom of bands from Ridgewood is less representative of a thriving scene and more of a self-contained phenomenon, the by-product of friends that grew up with common interests, disposable income, and easy access to nearby New York City that provided opportunities for cultural enrichment. "We were extremely sheltered, but not sheltered from culture," Bleeker says. "That kind of safety encourages growth and exploration." Katy Goodman, formerly of Vivian Girls, puts it more succinctly: "Kids have been making music in the suburbs for decades. It's our favorite thing to do."
So much of what Real Estate do is reliant on their own personal histories, both as friends and as suburban-kids-gone-grown-ups—and as a former Ridgewood resident, it's especially hard for me to listen to their music without conjuring idyllic images of freshly-cut lawns, the sticky haze of summer, or the nocturnal symphony of crickets. But on Atlas, Mondanile claims that Courtney steered clear of dwelling too hard on the past: "He got sick of being nostalgic and so did the rest of us—you can only take that feeling so far."
There are moments of nostalgic reflection on Atlas, such as the chiming "Past Lives" ("I cannot come back to this neighborhood/ Without feeling my old age"), but, largely, the lyrics reflect Courtney's new life as a married man. "Had to Hear" and "Talking Backwards" concern themselves with the importance of communication and the yearning feelings that come with being miles away from a loved one; the easygoing "Crime", meanwhile, represents the sweetest love song Real Estate have put to tape yet, a moony-eyed devotional where Courtney asks, "If I may be so bold/ Will you go straight with me?"
"For Atlas, I was trying to write more about the my current life in Brooklyn, which was a little uncomfortable for me," says Courtney, "but it was good because it made me realize that I don't really like Brooklyn and that I keep writing about the suburbs because I want to go back there." The singer has ample reason to yearn for a quieter life: His first child is due this spring.
"Amongst my friends, I'm pretty young to be having a kid," he says. "I've got anxiety issues, and ever since starting this band I've always thought: 'I hope this lasts.' Now I've got the lingering fear of being a career musician and making the decision to fucking bring another life in the world, and hoping I can step up to the plate."
With his personal concerns out in the open, Courtney's tone changes from contemplative to excited. For a few minutes, his perspective shifts away from the golden-hued past and the placid present to the promising uncertainties of the future. "This could be the best year of my life," he says. His face momentarily carries an overwhelmed expression, as if he's trying to wrap his head around the incoming realities rushing toward him. He looks happy.