Arcade Fire kicked off the American leg of their Reflektor Tour in Louisville, Kentucky, last week along with openers Dan Deacon and Kid Koala. The band arrived at the venue in big bobble heads on a red carpet and greeted fans in the lobby before frontman Win Butler bought a cookie from the concession stand. During Dan Deacon's set, the audience took part in a dance competition, and someone tagged-in Win, who was wearing a mask. Photographer Ryan Muir was there to catch all the action.
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- 02/28/14--10:05: _Update: Pharrell Wi...
- 03/03/14--09:40: _Articles: When I'm ...
- 03/04/14--10:10: _5-10-15-20: Michael...
- 03/05/14--10:50: _Rising: Frankie Cosmos
- 03/06/14--10:10: _Update: Ramona Lisa
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- 03/13/14--11:35: _Rising: Viet Cong
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- 03/18/14--07:10: _Update: Owen Pallett
- 03/19/14--09:50: _Update: tUnE-yArDs
- 03/20/14--08:10: _Articles: Cloud Not...
- 03/24/14--11:35: _Situation Critical:...
- 02/28/14--10:05: Update: Pharrell Williams
- 03/03/14--09:40: Articles: When I'm Gone: Why Vivian Girls Mattered
- 03/04/14--10:10: 5-10-15-20: Michael Azerrad
- 03/05/14--10:50: Rising: Frankie Cosmos
- 03/06/14--10:10: Update: Ramona Lisa
- 03/07/14--09:35: Rising: Torn Hawk
- 03/10/14--11:35: Afterword: Robert Ashley
- 03/10/14--12:50: Photo Galleries: Arcade Fire's Reflektor Tour
- 03/11/14--09:05: Update: Fatima Al Qadiri
- 03/12/14--10:05: Ordinary Machines: The #Art of the Hashtag
- 03/12/14--14:10: Photo Galleries: Show No Mercy SXSW Showcase
- 03/13/14--11:35: Rising: Viet Cong
- 03/14/14--09:00: Situation Critical: Hannibal Buress
- 03/14/14--13:25: Photo Galleries: Festival NRMAL
- 03/17/14--08:00: Photo Galleries: Pitchfork SXSW Day Party
- 03/17/14--13:55: Photo Galleries: Pitchfork SXSW Showcase
- 03/18/14--07:10: Update: Owen Pallett
- 03/19/14--09:50: Update: tUnE-yArDs
- 03/20/14--08:10: Articles: Cloud Nothings: Silent Shout
- 03/24/14--11:35: Situation Critical: Kevin Drew
Pharrell Williams occupies the sideline of culture so compellingly that it often becomes its own unique stage. Since his 40th birthday last year—more than a decade removed from his heyday with Neptunes partner Chad Hugo—he's effectively pushed the most ubiquitous pockets of popular music toward a groove-fueled, nearly-adult-contemporary space. And though his evolving personal tastes have caused seismic changes to what we hear on the radio every day, he's maintained an uncanny ease through the years (along with a science-stumping agelessness). Whether he's vamping with Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk at the Grammys or slowly cruising down last year's VMA red carpet on a BMX bike wearing cut-off jean shorts and a stoned-looking smile, Pharrell's existence seems to boil down to two words: no sweat.
Given his malleability and impact as a behind-the-scenes star, it came as a bit of a surprise when he recently announced a plan to turn the spotlight directly on himself with a new solo project, his first since 2006's lackluster In My Mind. G I R L—an appropriate complement to the debonair nostalgia of Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience—sounds like a direct spawn of last year's expensive disco-soul pop takeover, filled with grand orchestral flourishes, impossibly catchy funk licks, and his trademark falsetto. It also includes his first-ever solo Hot 100-topping hit, the Despicable Me 2 track "Happy", which he'll perform for an audience of millions during this weekend's Oscar Awards. The song is an apropos breakthrough that highlights Pharrell's good nature, zen philosophizing, and ceaseless uplift, all of which carried through during our phone conversation earlier this week.
"Most of my company is run by women. There’s a certain sensitivity to what I want to express, so that’s what I want around me."
Pitchfork: You’ve such an impact as a collaborative force, particularly in the last year. Why a solo album now?
Pharrell Williams: If I was left to my own devices, I would not have elected to do it. But the people from Columbia Records were so nice and gracious—and this was before “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” had come out, but they’d heard “Get Lucky”. They just said, “Look, we know that you said you wouldn't do another solo album [ever again], but we know that you are going to change your mind, and we want to be the ones to change your mind.” They offered me a deal on the spot. I was so blown away and overwhelmed with shock and a wave of elation that I said yes. Is it flawless? No. But even the people who find flaws will feel my intention. I’m so proud of this work. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
Pitchfork: The record feels like a natural extension of “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines”. Did you want to capitalize on the popularity of that sound?
PW: I wanted to make something that felt good. “Happy” feels good. But the songs don’t sound alike. They just have the feel-good aspect in common; that’s the most important part. The album is for everybody, for human beings, from the vantage point of what I like. It’s about groove first. Its hands are open.
Pitchfork: Are you constantly in a good mood?
PW: I don’t think so, but I just like when stuff feels good. With a song like “Happy”, I tried nine times—nine different songs—and none of them worked for the scene [in Despicable Me 2]. I got really frustrated. On the tenth try, I asked myself, “How do I make a song that would work for a guy who’s generally mad and upset and in a bad mood, but he feels happy?”
Pitchfork: You got married last year, but the album speaks about women in broader terms.
PW: My wife is a direct inspiration, for sure, but when I decided to do the album, I instantly knew what the album was going to be a full-spectrum ode to all the women who have been so good to me in my career. Most of my company i am OTHER is run by women.
Pitchfork: Was hiring mostly women a conscious choice?
PW: For sure. I prefer a woman’s way of dealing with things. There’s a certain sensitivity to what I want to express and how I want to express it, so that’s what I want around me. I’m not saying it’s doomed or impossible to work with men [in my business], but it’s not what I prefer.
Pitchfork: “Blurred Lines” took a fair amount of criticism; some people thought the lyrics were sexually predatory. Did you have that in mind at all when you were recording this album, particularly the wolfish song “Hunter”?
PW: What would be controversial about it? In “Blurred Lines”, the Robin Thicke lyrics are: “You don’t need no papers,” meaning, “You are not a possession.” “That man is not your maker,” meaning he is not God—nor can he produce children or women, for that matter. He’s a man, so he definitely did not make you. There are three kingdom: the mineral kingdom, the plant kingdom, and the animal kingdom. As far as I know, we are related to primates. What I was trying to say was: “That man is trying to domesticate you, but you don’t need no papers—let me liberate you.”
But it was misconstrued. When you pull back and look at the entire song, the point is: She’s a good girl, and even good girls want to do things, and that’s where you have the blurred lines. She expresses it in dancing because she’s a good girl. People who are agitated just want to be mad, and I accept their opinion. I appreciate everything “Blurred Lines” became, and I appreciate the fact that it lifted Robin [Thicke] to a place where he deserves to be vocally. We got a kick out of making people dance, and that was the intention.
Pitchfork: Looking ahead, there have been mixed reports, but are you working on a new Clipse album?
PW: Not a Clipse album, but definitely a Pusha album. I mean, a Clipse album would be awesome, but what’s on the horizon in the near future is Pusha. He’s going somewhere else now. With Clipse, that’s up to Pusha and Malice. I'll be there, waiting.
Pitchfork: You don't rap on G I R L, but your verse on the new Future song “Move That Dope” is great. How did that track come about?
PW: [Producer] Mike Will played the beat when we were working with Usher. I was like, “Man, let me get a verse on that!” I told Pusha to hop on that too, and we started ripping and running. I was trying to get the hustlers who would be listening to a song like that to just pay attention. I wanted to illustrate that times are changing. I can’t really tell nobody what to do, but yo… like, there are drones. For over 20 years we’ve had satellites that can tell you what side a penny is on on a street from space. The line is: “All these drones/ While y’all smoke dro/ There’s an eye in the sky/ I’m trying to let y’all know/ Ain’t no standards/ I’ma set one, though.” I was saying: Man, the gun shit is not funny. It’s not a game.
And I say: “If you got two hoes, you got to let one go.” You’ve got to focus and get eye-to-eye with one girl and take it a little bit more seriously. And then, “You got two Lambos, you need to let one go.” Y’all can’t be flossing like that. We ain’t going to judge each other, but we need to start setting a standard and setting some goals. The running and gunning was the 90s, man. While the verse sounds cool, my intention was all medicine.
Vivian Girls: Katy Goodman, Ali Koehler, Cassie Ramone. Photos courtesy of Ali Koehler.
Mixed with overcast guitar thrash and three-part harmonies, the whine of a speeding subway car sounds very cool. That much was clear after dark in Brooklyn on Independence Day of 2009. Vivian Girls were playing an abandoned lot beneath the buzzing JMZ line against a backdrop of graffitied brick and fireworks, one of the final acts at a two-day festival from the young local labels Captured Tracks and Woodsist. The lineup was scrawled on a slab of cardboard: rustic pop rippers Woods; a full-band take on Kurt Vile’s outsider folk; West Coast psych-rockers Thee Oh Sees; unassuming Jersey pop chillers Real Estate; a charcoal band that had practiced but once, Dum Dum Girls. The bar was set up on a table that looked like it had been plucked from the trash. This was the shambolic epitome of the bicoastal late-aughts noise pop scene. And, as I recall, it was scorchingly hot.
Perhaps tellingly of that flash-in-the-pain indie pop era, when bloggers were all hungry for the next MP3 that would put them ahead of the curve, many of the festival's other billed groups would subsequently fail to scratch the subterranean cultural consciousness. But across three LPs—2008's Vivian Girls, 2009's Everything Goes Wrong, and 2011's Share the Joy—Vivian Girls helped to architect a scrappy Spectorian sound and spirit for this tiny musical world; with their richly harmonized love-punk, they fused the 1960s aesthetic of girl groups with fast-loud Ramones rock and the doomy Portland punk of Wipers and Dead Moon.
As many of their early peers have spent the past few years seeking grander reaches of ambition—Kurt Vile cracked the Billboard Top 50, Dum Dum Girls played "Letterman" in January—Vivian Girls remained almost completely inactive. Singer-guitarist Cassie Ramone played with her other band, the Babies, and recently tracked a solo album of dreamy folk-tinged psychedelia inspired by Elliott Smith and the Carpenters; bassist Katy Goodman focused on her solo project, La Sera; and drummer Ali Koehler began fronting a punk band, Upset, with ex-Hole drummer Patty Schemel. Now, following their final two shows in Brooklyn last weekend, Vivian Girls are broken up for good, fulfilling a collective desire to close one chapter and open the door to new ones as the ink of their story is drying. And while it's up for debate whether Vivian Girls were the most aesthetically exemplary band of the 00s noise-pop boom, it is without question that they were its most divisive.
"It is self-important to play final shows?" Ali Koehler asks in an empty green room at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg, where her band Upset are playing a showcase for their small New Jersey label, Don Giovanni. "We said fuck it though," she concludes, with confidence. "This is fun."
In the past year, Koehler's own music has revisited her and Goodman's shared roots in the inclusive Jersey punk scene, where they met in 2004 while attending Rutgers University. "The first time I met Katy, she was wearing a pink hoodie with a Minor Threat patch on it," Koehler recalls. "She was so goofy, sitting on the couch with a paper-plate mask in front of her face." Koehler was reading American Hardcore at the time, and the two bonded over Bad Brains, riot grrrl, and secret high-school affinities for Taking Back Sunday-style emo. Goodman and Koehler began their own surf-y punk groups, like Four-Way Milkshake and the Pot and the Kettle, covering Julie Ruin's "The Punk Singer" and Descendents' "I'm Not a Loser", and even playing a couple of basement shows with ex-Bratmobile singer Allison Wolfe.
Cassie Ramone, born Cassie Grzymkowski, was a sophomore at Ridgewood High School when she met Goodman, a senior, in the parking lot at a Weezer concert—both were fans of their hometown music scene, which included the guys who would form Real Estate and Titus Andronicus. Ramone played music with a high school band called Upholstery ("Beat Happening meets B-52s") before moving to Brooklyn, where she studied at Pratt and attended every show listed on DIY promoter Todd P's website.
Vivian Girls began in 2007 within the lofted rooms of a Greenpoint punk house called the Orphanage. It was there that founding drummer Frankie Rose asked Ramone to start a band. Early on, Ramone felt the foundation of Vivian Girls was oddly framed: "People would talk about us with Crystal Stilts and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who are awesome, but I always thought of us as a punk band." They rejected comparisons to 1980s British jangle pop; their raw ear-bleeding approach and dark atmosphere made even the radical C86 bands sound sort of fey in comparison. And while Vivian Girls were hardly the first band to fuse girl group aesthetics with rock—see Blondie, the Go-Gos, Cyndi Lauper's Blue Angel—their rocketfire love songs had grit and abandon. Their sonic formula is hard to decode completely, but it was Rose who introduced the band to a Holy Grail reverb pedal before leaving in mid-2008, tempering out their punk sound with walls of sound and those crucial high-harmonies. ("I'm trying not to give Frankie too much credit," Captured Tracks owner Mike Sniper tells me, "but she deserves it.") Learning to project backing vocals over gratingly loud guitars and shitty monitors, Goodman says Vivian Girls became "like harmony bootcamp."
Vivian Girls and Kim Gordon
Sniper was working at Williamsburg's Academy Records in 2008 when the Vivian Girls' debut 7" was haphazardly released unto the world (fellow Jersey punk Matt Molnar pressed it for his tiny label Plays With Dolls, but was overwhelmed when it sold out in three weeks). Sniper was struck by the single's immediacy and tangibility, and played it to death, ultimately signing Vivian Girls to garage rock outpost In the Red, where he was doing A&R. "It seemed out of nowhere," Sniper says, describing the crazed mad-dash response on message boards like Terminal Boredom, where people were raving and hating with equal fervor. "I thought I'd be able to talk to Cassie about all these garage-rock bands that I assumed she liked," he continues. "But she was like, 'What the fuck are you talking about? I like the Ramones.'"
There was a sea-change in the New York DIY scene, too—within a few months, the prevailing aesthetic shifted from Black Dice-style noise to reverb-drenched pop. Nationally, indie rock had grown polished and complex (think Joanna Newsom or Animal Collective) while over in the garage-punk scene, abrasiveness reigned with artists like Jay Reatard, Black Lips, and Ty Segall. "People were hungry for something more straightforward again, something more melodic and feminine," Sniper says, "but Vivian Girls' sound still had teeth to it."
Kip Berman, frontman for the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, looked up to Vivian Girls as his own C86-worshipping band started up soon after. He was enamored by their ability to balance DIY accessibility with a sense of being untouchable. "Vivian Girls caused the closest thing to 'mania' for an underground band that I can remember," Berman says. A tiny Vampire Weekend gig he caught at Manhattan's Cake Shop in 2007 offered contrast: "They were great! But with Vivian Girls, you had this sense that if you didn't get that hand-screen-printed 'Wild Eyes' 7", you would never have a chance to get one again."
With hesitance, Berman notes that it was "still pretty rare" to see a female band operating within the borough's male-dominated scene. "This shouldn't have been a big deal at all in 2007, but how many people in the bands or audience were women?" he says. "Certainly not the 52% that occupy the world." It seemed to Berman that, for better or worse, people simply cared about Vivian Girls more than other groups. "No band was polarizing in the same way."
Amateurism, poor production values, simplistic songwriting—all central components of the classic indie era, not to mention almost every DIY punk band that has ever existed—were at the core of Vivian Girls' divisiveness. "Going into a fancy studio to make a record was just never a part of our plan," Goodman says. They were not careerist, and Ramone was befuddled by critics who stigmatized their artistic decision to maintain the unadorned quality of their music; all three Vivian Girls cite Woods' 2007 home-recorded, Sebadoh-like At Rear House LP as the crown jewel of this era.
In contrast, Pains of Being Pure at Heart recorded their huge-sounding 2011 albumBelong with established producers Flood and Alan Moulder. Berman says he remains curious as to what a hi-fidelity Vivian Girls LP would be like—if they "distilled their essence" and grew their "heroic amateurism," like Black Lips or Deerhunter. "It would be fun to pair the immediateness of their songwriting with the kind of production that would get their T-shirt in Hot Topic and blow some minds at the Warped Tour," Berman suggests. Instead, Vivian Girls chose to keep with lo-fi as it slipped out of vogue once again.
The New Zealand-born Fiona Campbell, a long-time participant in the Brooklyn DIY scene, admired Vivian Girls since their first shows and became the band's third drummer in 2010. (She left in 2011 and now co-runs the Portland label M'Lady's.) "Their lack of self-consciousness sounded very New York to me," Campbell says, noting how their being an all-female band both distinguished them and shaped their narrative in disappointing ways, including fabricated "beefs" with other women-led projects. "If people could have gotten the fuck off square-one, maybe the scrutiny would have been worth it," Campbell says. "The amount of sexual, violent threats this band got will never be truly known or understood by anyone else. It would have been too much for some people."
And Berman is also quick to defend Vivian Girls against the deep misogyny directed their way by anonymous internet commenters and male critics at the heart of the hype-machine storm. "The hatred they endured was undoubtedly a result of the fact that they started a band with guitars and didn't have testicles," he says. "The unrelenting chauvinist vitriol levied at this band made me realize that there is nothing better about indie culture compared to mainstream culture. No one has taken more shit in the last five years than Cassie. Not Best Coast, not Lana Del Rey. Maybe Kanye."
Feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna echoed this in a 2013 interview, saying that reading BrooklynVegan comments about Vivian Girls made her want to cry. Hanna's own Vivian Girls fandom was rooted in how the trio governed their own work. "Most 50s 'girl groups' were singers who were put together by male producers," Hanna writes in an email. "Vivian Girls built on the rich sonic legacy of these groups, but were in control, playing and writing their own music—a move that looked to the future without shunning the amazing work of women in the past who had less options." Tobi Vail, who pioneered riot grrrl with Hanna as the drummer of Bikini Kill, played the first Vivian Girls show with her band, the Old Haunts, in 2007, and reviewed Vivian Girls in her zine Jigsaw. "When people write songs about their lives and don't polish it up to sound perfect, there is authenticity in it that we experience in our everyday lives, but is increasingly rare in popular culture," Vail's review read. "They are giving us something we need: an artifact that encourages us to tell our stories, to make our own records, to document our own lives."
January 22, 2014, was an emotional roller-coaster of a morning for Melissa Brooks, the 19-year-old front-girl for the Aquadolls—an L.A. band who released their debut through Burger Records last year. "I woke up and saw that Vivian Girls were breaking up and immediately ran to my record player and started crying and freaking out," she recalls. Brooks took to Twitter to report her feelings and write that Vivian Girls inspired her to start Aquadolls (who ended up opening Vivian Girls' last L.A. show on February 14, news of which meant more excited shrieking and tears).
It's this kind of potentially life-altering influence that gives Vivian Girls' music a purpose and necessity that trumps momentary concerns of authenticity and off-key singing and the cyclical nature of hype. Take, for example, the recent successes of Massachusetts band Potty Mouth, who opened for Vivian Girls' final show yesterday at Brooklyn's Baby's All Right. Twenty-four-year-old guitarist Phoebe Buckley Harris felt "encouraged" listening to Vivian Girls in college and called it a dream to play with them. Bassist Ally Einbinder grew up in a male-dominated punk universe, watching her guy friends record and tour with ease; around the time she heard Vivian Girls in 2008, the idea of playing music began to feel within reach.
Brooks, especially, speaks rapturously about first hearing the Vivian Girls song "Tell the World" on Sirius XMU in 2010, subsequently scouring YouTube for every performance and interview she could find. At 15, Vivian Girls' music helped whisk her away from pre-teen years spent shopping at Hot Topic and listening to screamo bands. Brooks was also inspired by Cassie Ramone to buy her first guitar, a Danelectro, which she learned to play by jamming along with Vivian Girls. "They had this powerful force about them," she says. "It completely changed me."
Photo by Haley Dekle
5-10-15-20 features artists talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This time we spoke with 52-year-old writer Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life and editor-in-chief of the The Talkhouse, which showcases music writing by musicians including Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig on Drake, St. Vincent's Annie Clark on Arcade Fire, Lou Barlow on Beck, and many more. Listen along to Azerrad's picks with this Spotify playlist.
The New Christy Minstrels: Land of Giants
This album came out in 1964, so I was too young to have bought it or called it my own. Maybe my parents told me to listen to it or played it for me. Or maybe I liked the colorful cover. But I listened to it over and over and over, as little kids do. It engrained these synaptic pathways in my brain for hearing music. It’s like the urtext for me.
New Christy Minstrels were like a pop version of folk music. [The Byrds'] Gene Clark was actually in this incarnation of that group. It’s a lot of old folk songs: John Henry and Paul Bunyan and Casey Jones. Just listening to those stories instilled a strong work ethic in me.
The Rolling Stones: Hot Rocks 1964-1971
My dad bought the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper’s the week it came out. He’d read about it in Time magazine and thought, “Well, I should investigate this Beatles band.” And I commandeered it. I was around eight. That was huge. I heard that record and I realized, “I’m a rock person. In one way or another, this will be my life."
For my 10th birthday, I got Hot Rocks, and that really solidified my identity as a rock person. I liked the Beatles a whole lot, but the Stones had this dark, forbidden quality. I could sense that there were some real naughty things in their songs that I wasn't really old enough to comprehend yet. The Beatles were something that the whole family liked, but when I put on the Rolling Stones, my mother would say, “Can you turn down that shrieking? That’s that guy that does the St. Vitus dance, isn’t it?” I had to look up what a St. Vitus dance was.
The Who: Who’s Next
I had gotten the Who's Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy when I was 14 and then saw the Grateful Dead open for them with a friend—my mom drove us out to Oakland Coliseum and picked us up later, which was very nice of her. I was galvanized the whole time, not just by the music, but by but the scene: stoned people dancing and having a good time and unbelievably loud, amazing music. I blundered into Who’s Next and Live at Leeds. Then the Who became my life. There was the aggression 15-year-old boys will gravitate toward, but also a great intelligence and sensitivity that really hit home.
A year later, I moved to New York. A friend of mine came back from a trip to London in the summer of '77 with a box of punk singles and posters, and my head exploded. After that, all the classic rock I was into went out the door. Punk rock—there was nothing else. The only classic rock band that I kept around was the Who.
Talking Heads: Remain in Light
When this album came out, everyone on my dorm floor was champing at the bit: “What’s it going to sound like?” We’d been hearing rumors that it was going to be spacy and African, crazy things. Then finally, this one guy managed to get a copy before anyone else, and we all jammed into his dorm room. There was this intellectual angle to the Talking Heads, but they were also a gateway to African music. Reading interviews with David Byrne, he mentioned certain groups—Fela Kuti, Sunny Adé—and I investigated them. That album was a portal to non-stop discovery.
Around that time, I was in New York City and I would see giants of new music: Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Glenn Branca, Laurie Anderson. They were making the music that made them legendary right then, and I saw them all. It was a great moment of New York cultural history, and I just happened to be right there. Remain in Light stands for that whole moment.
Sonic Youth: EVOL
By the mid-80s, I’d started writing for this short-lived music magazine called Only Music and I interviewed Sonic Youth around EVOL. Kim and Thurston lived on Eldridge Street [in Manhattan], and to visit them, you had to call up to their house, and Kim would drop the keys to the front door down in a spangly silver glove. They had a big dog and a bathtub in the kitchen. I interviewed Thurston at their dining-room table, and he was trying to describe the music and said, "We just try to make the most intense chains of riffs we can." I kind of tripped up and suggested it was like Live at Leeds—kind of a dumb thing to say. He stopped for a moment and said, "Yeah, actually, yeah!" I never forgot that. That was very kind of him.
I previously had been into post-punk, but Sonic Youth made homegrown, incredibly idiosyncratic, avant music that wasn't really based around skill so much as inspiration. I had been way into punk, and those people "couldn't play" either, but Sonic Youth invented a new way to play. That was a revelation.
You know how the cover of Who’s Next has that monolith on it, and it’s kind of a monolithic record? I think of Nevermind the same way. There’s not one crack in that edifice. It was really new and it expressed so much stuff that I’d felt since I was 10 years old. I knew Bleach, but didn’t really give it a chance. Like the other 10 million people who bought Nevermind, maybe I needed smoother production to get the idea across.
Later on, when I met Kurt, I hit it off with him in the first few moments that we even laid eyes on each other. He said the same thing to me, and I knew that was going to happen because I completely got that music. I understood it so utterly the first time I heard it. I’ve really never had that happen before, or since. [Editor's note: Azerrad's book Come as You Are and the film About a Son, featuring audio of his interviews with Kurt Cobain, are essential Nirvana documents.]
I was still reeling from Kurt’s death at this point. I didn’t really want to hear too much rock music, so I was listening to Portishead, Tricky, and Beth Orton. A lot of trip-hop. That was a pretty dark time, frankly. That’s just where I was.
The King of France: The King of France
I was in a much better frame of mind by then, but the music was really mediocre in 2001. If you look back at the Pazz & Jop poll, the stuff on that list is mostly forgettable. I was fed up with a lot of the hip bands that were just aping the post-punk stuff that I’d listened to in the early 80s. I found that not just incredibly dull but kind of depressing.
This is going to sound terrible, but the record that was really important to me around that time—it wasn't released until later—was the record that my band made. I was in a band called the King of France, and that was the most important band to me at that time. I focused all my energy on it. I started out in that band as a mediocre drummer, and I just willed myself into being good. Not great, but good.
Dirty Projectors: New Attitude
A friend of mine said, "I went to college with said this guy Dave Longstreth, and he has a band called Dirty Projectors that you should check out." I went and saw them at Glasslands [in Brooklyn], and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. But I didn’t get it. My friend insisted I see them again. So I did, and it clicked. It was a feeling of newness and discovery and excitement that I had been chasing ever since Hot Rocks, maybe. Just having my brain rearranged by music.
Every time they played New York I saw them. I finally introduced myself to Dave after a show and he said, "I know who you are! You’ve been coming to our shows!" After that, I started to open up to all of the stuff that had been going on in Brooklyn. Dirty Projectors restored my confidence in underground music. I got to be friendly with them and they introduced me to this entire constellation of bands: Delicate Steve, Deerhoof, Buke and Gase, tUnE-yArDs. If there was one band that literally changed my life, it would definitely be Dirty Projectors.
tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l
There's this avant-garde trumpeter named Jon Hassell who coined the term “fourth world music.” He called it classical music of the future, which blends digital technology and music from around the world. That’s what tUnE-yArDs does. The best music pushes you into acclimating yourself to embracing sounds or dissonances or rhythms that you previously may not have understood, and that’s been true since Beethoven up through Public Enemy and beyond. Merrill Garbus is a visionary. I love seeing where visionaries lead us.
Photo by Sam Clarke
Frankie Cosmos: "Birthday Song" on SoundCloud.
Greta Kline's affinity for the winking amateurism of K Records comes sharply into focus as I enter the Greenwich Village apartment she shares with her boyfriend and bandmate, Aaron Maine. The living room walls are dotted with original artworks—vibrant paintings by Maine, crayon sketches ripped from notebooks, a tiny needlepoint work—most of which depict Frankie and Ronnie, the alter egos that Kline, 19, and Maine, 25, devised for one another two years ago, which have also been recurring lyrical cross-references on their records. Instruments are cast about the room, as are cardboard boxes housing a just-arrived shipment of Maine's own 2013 album as Porches., Slow Dance in the Cosmos, on which Kline plays. Perhaps owing to their sharp New York dispositions, Maine and Kline's twee eccentricities never seem fey. They embody a clever, muted charm.
A small book of poems by Kline's spiritual forebear Frank O'Hara rests in clear view on the kitchen table, alongside a chessboard and just underneath a pinned-up Bowie record. Maine's deep singing seeps out from the bedroom as Kline tells me about the imaginitative musical world she's created over the past few years as Frankie Cosmos. On Bandcamp, she has posted upwards of 45 collections of sparse, home-recorded folk-pop songs that mine the little hurts of everyday New York life—a bus that splashes her with rain, a subway transfer that comes between her and a friend, a sleepy train ride. Songs are set in museums, at Grand Central, at the DIY Brooklyn venue Death by Audio. They capture intimate bits of sad awkwardness and biting self-loathing, fed by sharp, witty intellect; one of the earliest Frankie records was called much ado about fucking. "If your butt touched my butt, would you be like, 'so what?'" she sings on cult-fan favorite "Ronnie Ranaldo", "or would you think it was cool?" Given such lines, I am only slightly surprised that Kline speaks through consistent bouts of soft laughter—despite the fact that most of the misery-soaked songs on her 17-minute proper debut album, Zentropy, were written in 2012, the day after the passing of her beloved dog Joe Joe, who is immortalized on the record's cover.
Kline grew up in an artistic Manhattan household, the child of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. She was home-schooled for most of high school, and spent nights exploring New York by way of underground rock shows. It was just north of the city, though, in Westchester, where the supportive local scene of home-recorders felt most inspiring. The community surrounding Purchase College introduced Kline to the young men who run micro-label Double Double Whammy, which releases Zentropy this week. "When the label agreed to do it, I was like—'Guys, this is not economic, I only have 15 fans!'" Kline says, explaining her bewilderment that pre-orders of the record had recently passed 300.
In September of 2012, Kline moved into her current apartment (owned by a relative) for its proximity to New York University, where she was set to start studying poetry. After freshman year, though, recording and shows took over, and Kline is currently facing the decision of dropping out, going back, or figuring out a loophole while touring through spring and summer. "We're like, 'What's going to happen?'" she says of her bandmates, who are also struggling to decide whether to quit their day jobs to tour. "Are we going to, like, give up... life? We'll see!" She's quick to clarify that she's no slacker: "I'm very academic," Kline says. "I made the Dean's List." She says she would like to attend college as a cool 30-year-old "who stands out and is like, 'Yeah I'll buy you guys beer.'"
We discussed the meaning of her moniker, the similarities between Frank O'Hara and Beat Happening, and how to love New York while drawing from its infinite points of inspiration.
"I hope people hear my songs and realize that
writing music is kind of easy, or that taking your
sadness and turning it into a beautiful song is worthwhile."
Pitchfork: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
Greta Kline: My parents listened to a lot of James Taylor and Hall and Oates. My mom and I used to listen to Liz Phair and Indigo Girls a lot in the car, too. When I was 10, my dad taught me my first three chords on guitar, for "You Can't Always Get What You Want". And my older brother Owen was really hip—he showed me the Moldy Peaches and Jeffrey Lewis. The first song I wrote, in fifth grade, was totally ripped from Jeffrey Lewis. My aunt's boyfriend gave me bass lessons, and I played drums for a year in sixth grade. Around seventh grade, I got a guitar and forgot everything else. I played piano for a lot of my childhood and stupidly quit. I wish I hadn't—I could have been a great classical pianist!
Pitchfork: Your first songs as Frankie Cosmos were posted around the end of 2011. Before that, you went by Ingrid Superstar. What's the difference between Frankie Cosmos and Ingrid Superstar?
GK: The main difference was that I started dating Aaron. He was a big influence. Also, I found out that Ingrid Superstar was a real person and figured I had to change the name. Aaron made up the name Frankie Cosmos and I was like, "This is me." I immediately felt like I was going to have this name forever. It was a change in emotion. I was really inspired, and not so sad.
Pitchfork: What about Aaron was so inspiring?
GK: I've been listening to Aaron's music since I was 15. He made these great albums in high school, and the first time I heard his music I cried, thinking it was so good. I stole stuff from it and thought he was a genius. From afar and up close, I see that he is a real folk artist. I don't necessarily mean folk music. I mean like: It's our destiny to make this music. And Aaron is my first muse who I'm allowed to admit is my muse. Ingrid Superstar had a lot of imaginary boyfriends, but Frankie Cosmos has a real one. That's the main difference.
Pitchfork: The cosmos is infinite and limitless, and your discography can feel pretty expansive, too. Were you trying to imply a connection?
GK: It was more about how our love is infinite. We both came up with funny names for each other. Mine, for Aaron, was Ronnie Mystery. We immediately started dating and didn't know each other that well, but we felt like we did. There was this unending mystery to the other person, infinite things to learn about them. Our love is very cosmic, like a weird lightning strike. I don't know how to explain it. I feel like the cosmos implies mystery, or infinite secrets.
Pitchfork: Your name "Frankie" references the poet Frank O'Hara. What about his writing resonates with you?
GK: Right when we started dating, I bought Aaron this really big book of Frank O'Hara poems, so he started calling me Frank. I had a weird introduction to Frank O'Hara. I heard an audio clip of "Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Jean and Jean-Paul"—which starts "It is 12:10 in New York"—on some kid's website, and I remembered it and wrote it down. I was obsessed with this poem, but I didn't know who it was by. I never thought to Google it because I don't understand how computers work; I still don't have a smartphone.
A year goes by, and this girl I knew from an art class sent me a different O'Hara poem. It immediately reminded me so much of the other one—his voice was so distinct and strong that I recognized it. I finally Googled it and realized the poems were by the same guy, and immediately went out and bought this huge book of Frank O'Hara poems and was obsessed with him and read the entire thing front-to-back when I was 15.
Pitchfork: He takes really fine details from New York City life and incorporates them into his poems in a way that is romantic. I feel like your music does that, too. What do you want your songs to capture about New York life?
GK: All of his poetry was coming from a place of mundane New York life—he wrote Lunch Poems on his lunch break everyday—but there's so much more there. There's so much depth to the streets of New York. I'm sounding really pretentious here, but there are a lot of places you can go from just observing everyday life, which he does really well. I was thinking about New York today and realized how much I hate walking around in the winter and how much I dread getting on the train. When I was younger, my view of New York was really wide-eyed and excited. I've lived here all my life, but when I was 15 my parents were like, "Yeah, you can go on the subway by yourself, you can do whatever." Everyday I would get on the train and go somewhere to just walk around. My brother and I were like, "New York is so big! There are so many places we can go!"
My relationship to New York has changed a lot, but I try to preserve that attitude. I feel lucky to live here. A lot of times you walk through the city and don't notice that you're in a really beautiful neighborhood, or that you're passing a beautiful building. It's nice, as an exercise, to keep aware that you're in a really lucky place. Writing songs about it is a really useful way for me to love New York more, and stay observing it, and not just zone it out. I'm trying to do what Frank O'Hara did and remind myself there there's a lot of good stuff. I write about New York for my own mental health.
Pitchfork: Are there any other ways that growing up in the city influenced your approach to songwriting?
GK: I started going to rock shows at a really young age, and seeing other young people make music definitely influenced me. You meet a lot of people in New York who are different than you, and have different stories, so I see everyone as super individual. I feel like I can be infinitely inspired because New York is huge. There's always a new street I can go to, or a billion new people who I haven't met that I could write about. New York is very humbling.
"My music doesn't sound punk, but I see it as a punk action."
Pitchfork: There is a line on Zentropy where you sing, "I try not to be pretentious"—does that desire come from being around people in the city?
GK: I learned the word "pretentious" at a very young age. It messed me up. [laughs] I was like, "Oh no! I don't want to sound... pretentious!" My brother was 13 when people started telling me that he was a "hipster." I was 11 and thought it was so stressful, like, "How do you not be called that?" It seems like the kind of thing that doesn't happen outside New York. There are some people I've met and it's stressful just speaking to them, because they're really pretentious and I don't know how to talk to them without being pretentious back.
My new record is being called "indie pop," which is fair, I'm not going to deny that it's poppy—but [sarcastically] I see it more like French pop... just kidding. I like that people sometimes ask if I'm from the suburbs. It's a way better vibe over there; everyone is purely nice, there's nothing fake going on. I like to take on the folkie attitude. People's music. Stuff that's not glossy. My favorite musician is Michael Hurley. I don't know if folk and outsider artists are necessarily the same, but I see them as the same. Like, Bob Dylan is that. I consider myself punk, too. Obviously my music doesn't sound punk, but I see it as a punk action.
Pitchfork: I heard that you were also an intern for Showpaper, the all-ages show-listing newsletter that is distributed around NYC. How did that influence your relationship to the Brooklyn scene?
GK: Before I was making music of my own, in the summer of 2009, between ninth and 10th grade, I would hang out at the old [Queens DIY venue] Silent Barn five days a week with a group of my friends, all booking shows. Showpaper is awesome—we would roam the streets and find a Showpaper in a cafe and then go to a show that night.
Somehow, our motley crew of teen idiots got the job of funding the paper by booking all of the benefit shows. I do not know why they allowed two 15-year-olds and three 17-year-olds to do this, but it was great. We booked a Parts & Labor show at Market Hotel that was really good. At the time, the people who lived at Silent Barn were getting arrested a lot, and I learned how hard booking shows is. But it was nice to get an inside view of the music scene and see how it worked.
Photo by Allyssa Yohana
Pitchfork: K Records comes up a lot with your music, too.
GK: I started listening to Beat Happening and Calvin Johnson when I was 13 and freaked out. It changed my life! That was definitely a catalyst, where I thought: "I can make music!" I liked the idea that you don't have to be super well-trained to make great art. I read their chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life and learned about how they played on yogurt cans and I loved how they had this weird culture where they would wear pajamas and play with yo-yos. My friend and I started baking brownies and bringing them to shows, in total Beat Happening style. I realized music could be this fun thing and the whole point was to go to shows with friends and be supportive and eat treats and wear pajamas. I wore my pajamas almost every day of ninth grade. I was a weirdo.
Calvin and I played a show together at Purchase and he was exactly how he was supposed to be: weird and playful. I was so nervous. It's amazing that he is 40 or something and has the same attitude. The K Records attitude is a lifelong thing. I am into that. It's punk, but that's not punk music. Beat Happening will never get old. It's similar to Frank O'Hara—you can hear the voice so strong in the writing. That is really skillful—people who can write in the same voice for a long time but have each song be interesting and new.
"If I feel hurt by something that happened or vulnerable in a situation, and then I write a song about it and put it out,
I'm taking power over that situation."
Pitchfork: You use Bandcamp in a way that is pretty unique and diaristic. Is there anything in particular that you wanted to do with Bandcamp as a medium?
GK: I made the Bandcamp when I was trying to play shows, even though my music definitely was not ready. I had a friend who would pretend to be my manager and email Cake Shop and Death by Audio and be like, "Can Ingrid Superstar play?" But there was nothing for them to click on, and everyone said no or didn't respond. If you make a Bandcamp, you seem like a real band, so I made one and put up everything I had made, and pretended they were albums. I gave them titles and made weird art.
I didn't go into it being like, "I'm going to be super prolific!" I don't think I am. It's funny how that's the thing a lot of people are latching onto: "She has 45 albums!" I feel like only 12 or 15 of them are great, and it's the most recent ones. Everything before that is just weird noise music. I didn't have the attention span to write a song, so I would record notes I came up with and call it a song. It was such a bad idea, but it made people think that I'm really prolific.
Pitchfork: When you think about Frankie Cosmos, do you consider the focus to be more on individual songs and albums, or your discography as a whole?
GK: I definitely think about the body of work. I have an obsession with archiving everything. I have all these journals dated and numbered really particularly. I never tape over anything on my camcorder. I don't love some of the early stuff on my Bandcamp, but it's important for me to see the evolution of my writing. The individual songs and albums are all important to me, but together—that is a huge chunk of my life. The fact that it's public doesn't matter to me. I mean, I never thought anyone would hear it. I did it basically because I was scared my hard drive would crash. Every time I put out a Bandcamp album, I'm like, "This is the best one!" I plan on keeping it as a huge lifelong project.
Pitchfork: Do you ever feel like reluctant about the fact that there's so much personal stuff out there?
GK: Once in a while I'll change the names to protect the guilty. There's a lot of secrets in my life, and it's scary to imagine someone figuring them out. But I don't see it as a problem that they're personal. It's empowering. If I feel hurt by something that happened, or vulnerable in a situation, and then I write a song about it and put it out, I'm taking power over that situation. Writing a song is my way of dealing with my emotions.
"I love being healthy and getting enough sleep.
I guess that's dorky, but I'm not seeking out anything
harmful to my body at this point in my life. I want to stay sharp."
Pitchfork: You made up the word "Zentropy"—what does it mean to you?
GK: The definition I'm set on is: dissent into zen-ness. Accepting your surroundings and being one with them. I like zen as a concept. My parents really want me to take a Transcendental Meditation class. I know a couple people who have said it changed their lives. I'm a very neurotic, crazy person, so I think meditation would be good for me.
Frankie Cosmos: "Owen" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: A line that stood out to me on the album was, "All my friends are depressed." Why are all of your friends depressed?
GK: All of my friends went to college and were depressed because they hated it. I was also feeling a little jealous of Aaron's friends. They go out and drink and hang out. And I love my friends, but they're like me: They want to stay home and go on the computer and read a book and make art. They don't want to go out. So I was comparing the lifestyles of our various friend groups. In Porches., I'm the only person who doesn't drink; I love being healthy and getting enough sleep, I guess that's dorky, but I'm not seeking out anything harmful to my body at this point in my life. I want to stay sharp. I'm definitely not your average college kid who wants to get drunk, which makes me very uncool in a party situation.
Pitchfork: There's a line on Zentropy where you sing, "My dad is a fireman." What did you mean by that?
GK: Well, it's not true. My dad used to travel a lot for work when I was younger, so it would just be me and my brother and my mom. The year I wrote that song, he was gone for like eight months out of the year. I was walking down the street and I saw a little girl hanging out at the fire station with her dad, and I thought, "That is a really sad job for your dad to have, because you're constantly worried about him putting his life on the line. I used to always worry when my parents were on planes. I'm obsessed with my parents; I love hanging out with them. The song is just a story, but I felt like I related to it. I'm definitely a crybaby.
Pitchfork: I feel like my mom would be worried if I posted so many albums full of sad songs online.
GK: My mom calls me all the time and says that; she was a little concerned. But, when I first started making music, she was like, "Can I sing on it?!" She would sing harmonies and I would tell her what the songs were about. I'd be like, "This song is about how I don't want to go to Brown because it's really far away so I wrote this depressing song."
Pitchfork: Your music reflects so much inner sadness. But, ultimately, do you want it to be uplifting?
GK: Everyone on the internet is sad. Why else would they be on the internet? I mean, I'm not super-sad. That stuff is kind of tongue-in-cheek. Even if it's not uplifting, I think that for young sad girls on the internet to hear another sad girl their own age being really productive and making songs is a positive influence. Instead of just being depressed, do something with that depression. If anything, I'm hoping that I can inspire people to do that. I hope people hear it and realize that writing music is kind of easy. Or that taking your sadness and turning it into a beautiful song is worthwhile.
It's rare for an artist to bring their own voice recorder to an interview, but these days, Chairlift's Caroline Polachek is playing by her own rules. "I want to keep records of everything," she says as she places her recorder on the table between us, adjacent to my own device. We're drowning in deep leather chairs in the busy drawing room of Manhattan's Nomad Hotel; Polachek sips lavender tea throughout our hour-long conversation, bedecked in a slightly oversized black blazer and a necklace adorned with bells that intermittently jingle as she gesticulates.
Her debut solo LP under the name Ramona Lisa, Arcadia, due out in April, is indicative of Polachek's recent diaristic streak. She describes the album as "a document of being alone," and the experience of making a record apart from her main act was enriching enough that, at one point, she considered keeping the results to herself. "I uncovered a lot of things that I didn't want to face and found different ways of expressing them," she says. "That's something you can't do as fluidly if you're in a room with three dudes eating pizza."
As for the new moniker, Ramona Lisa is a name Polachek has used in private since 2005, and in the past year she's performed Arcadia's beguiling tunes under that alias and others (including Kimsin Kreft and Theora Vorbis) around New York City. "It's not about possessing multiple personalities," Polachek clarifies. "It's about reenacting dreams in different ways and finding connections. I'm often bored by what my real life is—there's nothing about it that I want to show people. It doesn't feel worthy of the subject of art. My emotions are my own, but it's much more exciting for me to abstract them into the most extreme version possible."
The project was conceived during an artistic residency in Rome's Villa Medici complex ("There's gardens there that people have been killed in, and the Rolling Stones took acid there"), when she started messing around with home recording software on her laptop in a studio previously occupied by late French painter Balthus. "I gave myself permission to make really bad electronic music on my computer because I thought that was the only way to get my feet wet," Polachek excitedly explains. "But the worse I'd allow myself to make things sound, the better they'd turn out."
A hushed, idiosyncratic lo-fi album that's reminiscent of Julia Holter's art-pop fantasias and inspired by British singer/songwriter Virginia Astley's work with experimental composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the entirety of Arcadia was written and recorded in hotel room closets and airport terminals during Chairlift's extensive touring schedule last year, with Polachek singing straight into her laptop microphone to provide the album's sleepy, ethereal vocal presence.
One song that didn't make the cut for Arcadia, ironically, was "No Angel", which Polachek gave to Beyoncé. "It got scrapped because once I started getting a picture of what the album was, I removed the songs that sounded anything like R&B," says the singer. While prepping the song for Bey, Polachek wrote the lyrics in the style of "a kind of sexiness that I don't think I could pull off on stage as a performer," but was surprised at how much of her original instrumental made the final cut: "I was sure that the toy-like quality was going to get replaced by something slicker, but they kept it."
As Polachek plans for a smattering of live performances as Ramona Lisa, she's also currently hard at work on the next Chairlift album alongside multi-instrumentalist and producer Patrick Wimberly, and they hope to release it later this year. The duo are self-producing the album in a Bed-Stuy studio they've outfitted themselves, a change from the London studio sessions with producer Dan Carey (Franz Ferdinand, Bat for Lashes) that birthed 2012's Something. "There was a party I went to back in the fall that totally changed my life," says Polachek. "Afterwards, I went back to the studio and was like, 'I need that kind of warmth and humanity to get into these grooves.' It's not about technology, it's not about technophilia, it's not about what's new. It's about what the most vivid way of expressing the best feelings we're capable of is. This will be our most human record."
Pitchfork: The video for "Arcadia" features cicadas hatching out of their shells, which is pretty disgusting.
Caroline Polachek: Aw, I love bugs! I used to work for the Department of Environmental Protection when I was a teenager—I was collecting, sorting, and labeling insects. I was also an entomologist's assistant in high school for a while, cataloging bees. I stopped seeing them as disgusting a long time ago. I'm totally fascinated by them. Cicadas are my favorite bug because they're underground for seven years, and when they come out, they're only out for the tiniest amount of time. They're such romantic creatures.
Pitchfork: Do you think that Arcadia is a more explicitly feminine album than your work with Chairlift?
CP: Definitely. Patrick's like my brother, and it's hard to be romantic or sensual if you're standing next to your brother—it's really easy to throw a party or wreck stuff or do something that is groovy, but in order to really open up about sensuality it requires either being alone or being with the person you're sensual with.
Pitchfork: A lot of the songs on Arcadia are pretty out-there, but the closing song "I Love Our World" is especially abstract, almost like a field recording.
CP: That track is supposed to represent a series of eight thoughts I had while lying on a roof in the sun. It was one of those very first tastes of spring, the first hot day when you fully feel the sun, and I wanted to capture the way the sun can feel. There's actually some field recordings of the birds from that roof that I stuck on there, too, but there's no vocals—I wasn't speaking in that moment. I was just trying to document how I felt.
Pitchfork: Was it hard to make an entire album on a computer?
CP: I mean, Skrillex makes all his records on his laptop, but we don't think twice about it because his music couldn't have been made any other way. When I was looking out the window in Rome, I wanted this type of electronic music to feel as organic as what I was seeing. I don't think any of the tools that I'm using are particularly new—a lot of the MIDI instruments have been around for 15 years—but the compositions make them sound less electronic, more mysterious.
Making this record definitely felt freeing. It was so portable and I felt zero responsibility—no deadlines, no one to answer to, no one to compromise with. But at the same time, you do think you're going crazy, and your relationship with your work is constantly changing. One day you'll think, "This is tits on toast!" and then the next day you'll be like, "This is really stupid and no one should ever hear this.
Pitchfork: Some artists claim that it's impossible for them to create on tour.
CP: I've always said that to myself too, but I stopped caring what anyone around me thought. I stopped caring if someone could read the lyrics on my screen or hear me singing into my computer in the airplane bathroom. That loss of shame and prioritizing my inner world over the exterior world was huge. All of a sudden, I felt like I could do stuff anywhere. That kept me going on the road, too, because it gave me something to do. Instead of sleeping all day, I'd get up and have three cups of really shitty gas-station coffee because I was really excited to get back into this organ part. Working on this record really made my life amazing.
Torn Hawk: "Born to Win (Life After Ghostbusters)" on SoundCloud.
Torn Hawk, the alias of Luke Wyatt, makes visceral and toxic music somehow feel sunkissed and melodic. His beats can sound as though they were programmed by William Burroughs, garbled and diced to the point of mesmerism. "I found a note I made a few years ago, urging myself to make 'music that sounds like out-of-time artifacts,'" he explains. As a kid in Charlottesville, Virginia, Wyatt's stepmother operated an indie movie theater, which instilled in him a deep respect for film. Today, in addition to his music, the 35-year-old also makes bizarre video collages combining footage from homemade go-go videos, 80s action films, and pornos, turning them into fever dreams. He calls it "video mulching."
Since Wyatt joined Brooklyn underground dance label L.I.E.S. in 2012, a wealth of Torn Hawk projects began to see daylight, each one expanding his sound palette a bit more. He creates tracks that could be slotted alongside the ambient guitars of Fennesz; others that sound like Throbbing Gristle, 90s trip-hop, or Krautrock warrior Manuel Göttsching. At times Wyatt can evoke an imaginary horror movie soundtrack, or the kind of fake reggae music gleaned in the background of an 80s teen movie. Other moments can sound like a lost minimalist composition. All of these styles can be heard on his new album for Not Not Fun, Through Force of Will, two upcoming four-song releases, Quadrifolio and Songs From Bad Kid School, and the many CDs, cassettes, and 12"s he's scattered out into the world already.
Torn Hawk: "'96 Galant" on SoundCloud.
One afternoon in January, Wyatt invited me to his loft space in the Hasidic part of South Williamsburg. When I got to his home, he ushered me upstairs to a room soundtracked by Slowdive demos, which Wyatt appreciated in part because they were “compressed four different ways.” He would later tell me that he "prepared" for the interview with "a One a Day Energy vitamin, a decent workout, and a little booze to bring things back down to a simmer." We chatted about his teenage delinquency, Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and life in Washington D.C. And then I got home and realized my recorder malfunctioned; the interview was lost. While undoubtedly frustrating, the technological glitch seemed oddly apropos considering Wyatt's way of screwing around with broken-down media. The following exchange took place over email following the botched interview.
Pitchfork: Why did you start playing guitar in the first place?
Torn Hawk: There is this thing I call the Gesture Disease that comes packaged with bipolar disorder. It makes you want to touch stuff, scribble on things; make a mess, then clean it up in an interesting way. For me, guitar was a beautiful and bratty way to channel this. My guitar teacher, Charles Bissell from the Wrens, was one of the only resonant mentors I’ve had in my life. My friends and I would go see them play at Maxwell's. I am sure, like all his students, I felt personally vindicated when they had such a success with The Meadowlands.
I was 13 and my friends were ordering Operation Ivy records, but I was interested in things that were more textural and expansive. Sonic Youth's Dirty came out. For me, this led to Glenn Branca, which led to New York composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and other thoughtful non-rock avenues. Lucky for me Charlie was actually into Sonic Youth. Though my lessons with him were far too few, he opened the door to improvisation with chord tones and scales and modes. As long as I knew what key a chord progression was in, I could scribble all over it.
Pitchfork: There's this thread to some of your song titles which leads me to believe you might have previously been a video clerk...
TH: My stepmom owned an independent movie theater in Charlottesville, Virginia, for many years, and the atmosphere of film literacy and enthusiasm around her and my dad rubbed off on me. My tastes tend to be unfashionable in both directions: I champion movies that aren't the top name-drops for either the hip or the square. Like, I really dislike Oliver Stone but was really moved by Born on the Fourth of July. William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie I like to have potential friends watch to make sure they are for real.
Appropriating B-movie content for videos often puts you in the position of making fun of people, but I hope that the context I deploy it in sets me apart from that kind of crippling ironic distance. My videos aim to be statements of deep sincerity.
Pitchfork: Do you perceive your "video mulch" to be of a similar discipline as the Torn Hawk tracks or do they come from different places?
TH: It’s just two different ways of telling the same story. I had made an intentional swerve toward making music that was more smeared and less delineated, like video. Andrew Morgan of the Peoples Potential Unlimited label out of Washington, D.C., asked me to do a video for one of his label's releases (Wavelength's "Funk Dreams"). This was just as I was getting a handle on incorporating VHS and glitch-management into my practice. That video went well, and he proposed the Video Party DVD series, which provided a platform for me to stretch out and basically define "video mulch" as a form for myself.
Besides aesthetics, I began to work with tape for my music because I was tired of so many choices in editing music on a computer. When I bounced a mix to tape, those decisions became locked in. When working with video, I like sending images I have honed in Photoshop, for example, to VHS, because it provides a sort of anti-sheen and flatness that smears your decisions. The key word is "inevitable"—beyond individual images, cultivating inevitability is about creating a sense around the edits and the sequence that there was no other way to assemble things. That this was something preordained that had always existed.
Photo by Joanne Savio
Robert Ashley composed operas for television sets. He assembled librettos taken from hot rod rags and Buddhist texts. He was a composer who was also a performer who was an improviser who also spent years formulating every scintilla of his work. He was one of the most quietly influential musicians of the 20th century. He died last week at 83, and still, no one knows quite how to talk about him.
The composer and longtime Village Voice critic Kyle Gann, who was Ashley’s biographer and most vocal proponent, offered helpful advice in a 1991 column: “Call them performance novels if ‘opera’ raises too many expectations.” Ashley’s works had multiple lives: They lived as albums, on the Lovely Music imprint; as television programs; as barely-staged theatrical works. He specialized in liminal feelings, ones that don’t have easy analogues in music or in language, so he cobbled together a unique toolset to express them. This is part of why his reach was so broad. He was simultaneously a pioneer in electronic music, in multimedia installations, and in “opera,” but that isn’t quite the right way to put it—Ashley didn’t compose operas so much as he filled the hollowed-out structure of “opera” with his own luminous, quizzical ideas.
Robert Ashley was not terribly well-known, but no one who felt the imprint of his sensibility thought the same afterwards. His work was jelly: sticky stuff with no discernible form. It was impossible to get ahold of, to find a spot for in your mind, but it coated you nonetheless. In tribute to his spirit, we’ve assembled a tapestry of artists who have felt themselves transformed by Ashley's work.
Drew Daniel (Matmos)
Part of starting my relationship with M.C. Schmidt—and our band—hinged upon listening to this composer that he was wild about: Robert Ashley. In awe Ashley's hypnotic drawl and the precision of the cadence behind it, one early unreleased Matmos song involved loops and manipulations of some of the cryptic, poetic phrases that stud the libretto of his hypnotic longform operas.
In 2008, we played two shows featuring our cover of “The Backyard”, from his masterpiece Private Parts at The Stone in NYC; we lost our cool when Robert Ashley himself walked in, sat down in the front row, and proceeded to conduct the rhythms of the piece with his hand, tapping out the patterns on his knees. Terrified, our first set was inhibited, kinda not-quite-there. It was too scary to meet him in person!
But when we talked to him afterward, he revealed himself to be an incredibly patient, kind, and generous man (though hearing him speak in That Voice was still jarring). He stayed for the second show (I wasn’t kidding when I said he was patient) and if I say so myself, we got it right, thanks in no small part to his encouragement and focus. Martin and I are scheduled to play in Paris this a month at the Presences Electroniques festival, at which Robert Ashley was originally scheduled to perform, and we intend to dedicate our performance to his memory. His loss silences a powerfully generative force in American music, but his recorded legacy is going to keep stunning and rewiring all who surrender to it.
I've always thought of Robert Ashley's work as a bridge between contemporary American poetry and new music. Actually, it was never his music that I connected with, so much as his use of language in it. Ashley's anti-narrative use of found sources—"normal" speech sentences rather than lyric—is a strategy I believe he shared with some of the most difficult avant-garde writers of his era, the Language Poets. Married to Ashley's consonant-yet-anchorless music, these devices somehow become more approachable than puzzling.
The flat tone of his TV opera Perfect Lives, for example, seems comfortably ironic in that late 70s/early 80s way, like the soap opera parody "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman", or Talking Heads. But it's way more strange than funny—and more disquieting than amusing, especially if you swallow the whole, 175-minute thing. Ashley's work doesn't skewer normalcy; it wallows in it until the strangeness of the world around you makes his operas not only long, but never-ending. We are all leading perfect lives. Get used to it.
Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never)
Robert Ashley showed me that language and music aren't so different from one another. Neither are reducible, and both are much more elusive than they seem.
Robert Ashley is my best friend Steve Kado's favorite composer; "The sculptor has made the horse look stupid," was Steve's hook to get me into listening to Perfect Lives with him. Afterward, we had a debate about what it is to be "a composer." I took an anti-essentialist "no problem!" kind of bullshit stance—"Whatever Ashley wants to call himself, I will call him that"—but pointed out that, functionally, what "I, composer" did on a minute-to-minute basis was a world away from what Ashley did. I used compromised terms like "word opera,” and Steve was incensed: "You should thank Robert Ashley for expanding your possibilities as a composer, he is a gift to your practice."
What followed, for me, was the Greenaway movie [Four American Composers], the videos, the subsequent investigation into all Lovely Music releases, and the glorious frustration those albums have created in me. My generation, the worst generation, unable or unwilling to react to, or to expand upon such subtly beautiful and powerful music, idiots debating the semantics of “what is composing?” instead of allowing ourselves to shaped by Ashley's innovations, re-shaping our own voices. I called Steve when I heard Robert Ashley had died, and we sat on the phone in silence. "I knew he was dying," he told me, "I just didn't realize how soon." Ashley makes me and Steve and every composer who follows him look stupid. We'll always live in his shadow.
I think Automatic Writing is one of the most gorgeous pieces of art about sleeplessness and living in a city ever. It’s an obsessive piece but one that captures precisely the claustrophobia of being in a small space, alone with one’s thoughts and the (slightly horrifying) noises internal to one’s body.
Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire)
The loss of Robert Ashley is the loss of that rarest of birds, the Truly Unique Composer, one who was unafraid to invite some of the chaos of his own body's involuntary actions (in this case, Tourette's syndrome) into his idea of what composing could be, and to use whatever and whomever he could find to make something beautiful that no one else was making. What else can we ask of a composer? With his absence, a special piece of the horizon disappears from the landscape of contemporary composition.
I remember studying Robert Ashley's innovative use of electronics in school, from when he was head of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills in the late 60s. Even as a student, I remember being impressed. As for his operas, I sadly never got to see one of them performed live. But his deeply original work was always intent on breaking new ground, and in a tradition that so steadfastly looks backwards, Ashley was one of few voices stewarding "opera" into the future as a living and vital art form.
Ryan Lott (Son Lux)
Robert Ashley was a composer whose diligent work in near-obscurity led to fundamental changes in the way music is made. Those of us who make music with synthesis and electronics have many like Ashley to thank for both our tools and the ideas upon which our tools are based. The pioneering voice is usually the quietest, but reverberates the longest.
My introduction to Robert Ashley was on a mix tape made by my friend Darin Gray—the piece was "Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon". I was shocked; the chilling account was unlike anything I had heard before. The eerie music and disturbing story made me rethink a lot of things and ask many questions. I had no idea modern composition could be so unorthodox, brave, and out. It definitely made me think in broader terms of what was possible in music.
R.I.P. Robert Ashley. Thank you for the wonderful work. Always innovative, pioneering, and so influential to me and many others. He will be missed.
Tim Miller (head of NYC experimental performance space The Kitchen)
Robert Ashley is one of the most radical innovators of his generation. I can think of any number of people who he’s influenced, but there is no one comparable to him. In his reconceptualization of opera, his ability to collaborate across disciplines, to straddle popular and classical worlds—and that’s even setting aside his experiments in electronic music, which had an enormous impact as well—someone without whom a place like The Kitchen could never truly have existed. I think his music will be discovered and rediscovered for years to come.
The last piece he had performed The Kitchen was a restaging of That Morning Thing, which was originally composed in 1967. What’s remarkable about that piece is its incredibly deep relationship to the organization of culture and all the inter-relationships of disciplines. His ability to get at classical themes at the same time as what was happening in the culture was matchless. He could be both incredibly humorous and philosophical at the same time. I probably had three really long conversations with him over the years, and what struck me was how he was both incredibly elegant as well as wryly whimsical.
Photo by Valeria Cherchi
As a child growing up in Kuwait in the 1990s, Fatima Al Qadiri had the kind of utopian access to global entertainment that still seems out of reach in the West, even in today’s golden age of boundless media. Thanks to Kuwait’s lenient piracy laws, she and her sisters were able to beam in cartoons and versions of MTV from every corner of the globe, absorbing a glut of information that instilled her with a worldly curiosity and a sensitivity to foreign culture that informs the expansive work she does today as a visual artist and producer.
Rather than share the media-saturated days of her childhood in a maximalist outpouring, however, Al Qadiri crystallizes her rogue education into precise, refined works. Following a trio of EPs—Desert Strike, Genre-Specific Xperience, and WARN-U, an homage to Muslim anthems that she recorded as Ayshay—she’ll release her debut album Asiatisch through Hyperdub on May 5. The record, which toys with Western perceptions of China in pop culture, is both Al Qadiri’s most conceptually ambitious and cohesive release yet; she’s taken her trademark minimalist bass sound and delicately woven in uncanny references to Asian culture as filtered through a deeply American lens.
On “Dragon Tattoo”, for instance, she sings lyrics that subtly spin lines from Lady and the Tramp’s highly recognizable “We Are Siamese” into a R&B ballad. Another track, “Wudang”, is named for the mountainous region that inspired the kung fu-obsessed Wu-Tang Clan. The song uses a warped vocal sample of an ancient Chinese poem called “Peach Tree Tender”, conveying something eerie and intangible but perversely melodic and accessible nonetheless. “I envisioned it to be a Chinese mall in the mountains of Wudang, manned by these ancient Chinese robots,” Al Qadiri tells me about "Wudang", laughing a bit at her own hallucinatory imaginings. “It’s a really evil song.”
We’re sitting in a high-ceilinged private library/conference space at MoMA PS1, where the seed for the record’s concept was planted during a collaboration with an art collective called Shanzhai Biennial. The 32-year-old, who splits her time between London and New York when she's not traveling elsewhere, is calm and elegantly professorial, sporting an aqua-blue sateen Starter jacket over a white t-shirt and clicking her long, translucent nails together for conversational emphasis.
Pitchfork: How would you describe the overall concept behind Asiatisch?
Fatima Al Qadiri: I wanted to make a record based on this idea of the presence of Asian motifs in Western music, whether it’s in rap, classical, TV, cartoons. I feel like I’ve been listening to and soaking in these Asian motifs in Western music for a long time, so this record is like a virtual road trip through “imagined China.” It’s not the real China. I’ve never been to China. I only know what the West is telling me about China.
One track on the album is called “Szechuan”, which is the colonial spelling [of the type of Chinese food]. The current non-colonial version of it is “Sichuan.” I spelled it the colonial way because that’s how it appears in Chinese restaurants across the world. And it’s my Chinese-restaurant track. There’s this idea that Chinese food in China is different than the Chinese food that you find in the West. There’s an illusion—you know what Chinese food tastes like, but then when you go to China, you’re shocked. You come to terms with reality.
Pitchfork: There’s a tendency for artists to handle foreign culture sloppily or insensitively, but you seem to do it very delicately.
FAQ: I only have a Bachelor’s Degree but I’ve had professors who have instilled this kind of academic rigor in me where I don’t make any generalizations or closed statements. There always has to be room for interpretation. This record is about this idea of: What is Asian? I am Asian. Kuwait is in Asia. But it’s also not. I want to ask the questions: Why have I been exposed to imagined China for all these years? Why is no one talking about imagined China? That “We Are Siamese” song in Lady and the Tramp is undisputably racist. But that somehow has come full circle over the years, and stereotypes become more and more dislocated from their original venom.
I also had a story-telling mother; she’s written novels and short stories. So I feel like maybe I’m staying alive by telling tales. And I want to instill some kind of rigor in the ideas behind this music. There’s a very corny idea that music is cinematic somehow, but that’s what I’m trying to achieve. My music doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a script and there’s an actor and it’s about to come together.
"The first question [American college kids] asked me was,
'What state is Kuwait in?' They thought Kuwait was in America."
Pitchfork: You grew up absorbing all sorts of different cultures as a kid in Kuwait. How do you compare that to today’s situation in the West, where kids have everything at their fingertips because of the internet?
FAQ: I still think you people need to be curious [in order to absorb the culture]. You need to search Uzbekistani pop music. There are comedic things that go viral all the time, but you have to have a vested interest in exploring the world online. I’m sure that a lot of my friends—even though they’re curious about the music of nations that are not on their radar—still don’t know what Kuwaiti music sounds like.
Pitchfork: What brought you from Kuwait to the United States for college?
FAQ: I got a scholarship from the Ministry of Education in Kuwait, and I ended up going to several colleges: Penn State for one semester before going to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., then I transferred to the University of Miami, and then NYU. I went to University of Miami for all the wrong reasons, but I feel like I got my first real taste of Caribbean and Cuban culture while I was there. I have quite a sizeable Cuban vinyl collection from Miami thrift stores.
Pitchfork: What was your first impression of American college kids?
FAQ: I mean, the first question they asked me was, “What state is Kuwait in?” They thought Kuwait was in America. This was 1999, so it wasn’t that long after the first Gulf War. But at the same time, I understand that a lot of them were only kids when that war happened, so they didn’t know better.
One thing I found very amusing: When I was at NYU I had an etymology class, and there was a geography test. You had to pair the language with country, and I was one of five out of 100 people who passed the test, which just proved to me how little Americans are taught geography. There was a mutiny. The class protested to the professor so much that he dropped that grade. I was like, “Wow, you should come to realize that you don’t know where anything is.” I feel like there is an emphasis against teaching geography in American schools. Americans don’t say, “I’m going to Germany.” They say, “I’m going to Europe.”
"There are very few pop people I’m interested in working with. "
Pitchfork: Do you get approached by mainstream pop stars or big labels to do writing and composition?
FAQ: That hasn’t happened. I’ve had people ask me to go on tour with them or do a gig for them. I’ve been approached by very well-respected people to do all sorts of things for them, but I’m not very good with that. But I feel like [side project] Future Brown is more likely to go in that direction because our work is basically for vocalists. We’re not really interested in making instrumentals—we would like to work with major rappers and major R&B vocalists. We’re about to sign a record deal with a bigger label, which is very exciting. But for me, that's not at the forefront of my mind. I feel like I’m still a cult person. There are very few pop people I’m interested in working with.
Pitchfork: What are you working on at MoMA PS1 now?
FAQ: I’m one of nine artists from the Gulf region in an art collective called GCC. We’re installing our first show in America. GCC is based on a Gulf Arab government body called the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is like the European Union; calling an art collective the GCC is like calling it the EU or NAFTA. We’re exploring the invisible aspects of Gulf society that are not present online in a way that’s accessible to outsiders. It’s about documenting invisible rituals as well as exploring the hollowness of diplomatic exercises. A lot of our inspiration comes directly from the official GCC website—their lingo, their press shots.
Pitchfork: When you say you’re exploring invisible aspects of Gulf society, are you drawing on things you experienced growing up in Kuwait?
FAQ: Yes. There is a congratulatory culture in the Gulf. From birth onwards, there is a culture of giving people trophies as markers of achievement for making it through society. It’s cementing allegiance to authority at a very young age. Every single family in the Gulf has trophies to the ceiling for so-called achievements. But this art is also about awards, the nature of awards—the way that awards are about institutions validating their own taste rather than honoring genuine, important achievements to mankind.
Pitchfork: Did you watch the Oscars?
FAQ: Not this year. But the most disturbing thing happened at last year’s Oscars when Michelle Obama gave the Best Picture Award to Ben Affleck [for Argo]. It was the most orchestrated political exercise for a film about American hostages in Iran that wasn’t even filmed in Iran. Ben Affleck has never been to Iran. There was a whole mess of problems with that situation.
Time moves quickly on the internet, so we are already overdue for a moratorium—and a subsequent nostalgic reflection—on something that happened 10 months ago. You might remember the summer of 2013 as the summer of hashtags in song titles or, depending on how much time you spent outside, the summer of internetthinkpiecesabout hashtags in song titles. In hindsight, the timing makes sense; crowning a Song of the Summer is a fun-but-shameless pageant, and the list of hashtag hopefuls reads like a parade of contenders waving the flags of their own built-in PR campaigns: Mariah Carey and Miguel's "#Beautiful", Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull's video for "#LiveItUp", Miley Cyrus's "#GETITRIGHT", and Busta Rhymes' "#Twerkit", to name a few. The ever technologically overzealous will.i.am doubled down, releasing a single with Justin Bieber called "#thatPOWER", off his record #willpower.
The hashtag as we know it dates back to July 2009, and early uses of the symbol centered around uniting niche communities and political organizing, like the Arab Spring protests. In short order, advertisers and network broadcasters caught on and began placing omnipresent hashtagged "bugs" in the bottom corner of screens. Musicians are some of the most popular Twitter users, and tweets have been influencing rappers' cadences for years (Kanye West, Drake, and Big Sean have each claimed to have invented “hashtag rap,” while some argue that the flow is as old as rap itself), so it's almost surprising that it took until last year for actual hashtags in song titles to trend.
I do not think we will ever see a summer like the #SummerOf2013 again, because this experiment didn't exactly work—none of these songs became huge hits. (Ironically, the eventual song of the summer, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines", knowingly parodied hashtag mania in its video.) There were early warnings that hashtag song titles lead only to annoyance and confusion. Take synth-pop act Cobra Starship's 2011 single "#1Nite"—while the song's trend-friendly title was ahead of its time, a hashtag preceding a number wasn't the smartest idea, and many perplexed fans and radio DJs took to calling the song "Number One Night".
Many of the 2013 hashtag songs lead to similar dissonance, probably because their would-be trending topics were too vague and too common. When you search #willpower, you do not see throngs of fans tweeting their love of will.i.am's latest album, but instead people evangelizing the virtues of e-cigarettes and complaining about how hard it is to give up sweets for Lent. The "#LiveItUp" stream is awash with Twitpics of mani-pedis and YOLO-esque musings on the transience of youth ("high school will be done before you know it so #liveitup"); quite predictably, the star of a "#Twerkit" search is not Busta Rhymes. These songs have now outlived their trending moments (if they ever had them to begin with), which makes something about the hashtags that permanently affix their titles feel desperate and sad. They have an air of Gretchen Wieners, forever trying to make "fetch" happen.
The oddest and perhaps most tragic case is "#Beautiful", the best song in the bunch. Most of these other #2013 songs sound cloyingly of-the-moment, but Mariah and Miguel's breezy Motown homage feels timeless—it's the kind of song that a wedding DJ could easily segue into "Build Me Up Buttercup" or "My Girl". Twenty years from now, it'll sound every bit as great as it sounds this afternoon, but thanks to its bad tattoo of a title, "#Beautiful" is forever doomed to show its age.
If you have any doubt that the hashtag is a frighteningly powerful tool in our modern vocabulary, imagine a person you care about texting you that song's title line out of the blue: "You're beautiful." Now think of the same person texting, "You're #beautiful." The second one is jokey, ironic, distant—and hey, maybe that's what that person was going for. But it also hammers home that point that the internet too often asserts: You're not as original as you once thought. "Beautiful" is analog, unquantifiable, one-in-a-million. #Beautiful, on the other hand, is crowded terrain. Ten more people have just tweeted about something or someone #beautiful since you started reading this sentence.
And yet, I feel compelled to defend the hashtag, if only for the selfish reason that I've noticed it creeping into my thoughts, my speech, and my non-Twitter vocabulary, and I want to believe I'm not crazy. (Or the punchline of a Jimmy Fallon skit.) Seems like I'm not alone, at least: "The hashtag," D.T. Max wrote in a recent New Yorker profile of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, "has become so popular that people often insert jokey ones into their emails." Guilty as charged. My text messages to friends are now dotted with goofy, unclickable hashtags, and right before I sat down to write this I dashed off an email to a friend with a link to something we'd been talking about earlier, with the subject line: "#relevant." Why not just "Relevant"? Well, for one thing, "#relevant" feels more casual, more intimate, more knowingly ironic—like you're shrugging off any claim to profundity. You aware that you're not one-in-a-million; you're in on that cosmic joke.
A common complaint used to be that there was no way to express sarcasm on the internet. Half a million people belong to a Facebook group called We Need A Sarcasm Font, and I'm sure a much larger number than that has experienced some kind of fight, misunderstanding, or needless worry over something someone said to them online that they read the wrong way. We're working on it, though.
As more and more of our daily interactions become text-based—people preferring texting to phone calls, workplaces that rely heavily email and instant messaging—we're developing ways to stretch our written language so it can communicate more nuance, so we can tell people what we mean without accidentally leading them on or pissing them off. Periods have become more forceful, commas less essential, and over the last few years, the hashtag has morphed into something resembling the fabled sarcasm font—the official keystroke of irony. Putting a hashtag in front of something you text, email, or IM to someone is a sly way of saying "I'm joking," or maybe more accurately, "I mean this and I don't at the same time." This is why the comedically oversized "#THICKE" that fills the screen in the "Blurred Lines" video speaks the language of the hashtag better than the comparatively earnest #willpower or "#LiveItUp". #THICKE knows its own absurdity, and it knows that you know its absurdity, but on some level it would still very much like you to tweet about Robin Thicke.
Irony gets a bad rap thanks to ugly mustaches and unfunny t-shirts, but it can actually be liberating—a playful freedom from the straitjacket of always meaning exactly what you say. It can also be an expression of dissent. As quickly as companies realized that they could use the hashtag as an advertising tool, Twitter users realized that they could use sponsored hashtags as a way to talk back to the whole idea of being sold to. As far as culture-jamming goes, its revolutionary potential is admittedly mild—the less risky and more legal equivalent of graffiti-ing a subway ad. But it's heartening to see that pretty much any major ad campaign's hashtag gets hijacked by people complaining about how dumb that ad campaign is. My personal recent favorite was KFC's #IAtetheBones, a slogan for boneless chicken wings quickly that devolved—or evolved—into a stream of sexual innuendo and jokes about cannibalism. The latest instance of this is Sprint's campaign for their new “friends and family plan” which hawks the hashtag #framily; most of the tweets in the #framily feed make fun of the ad executives who are desperately trying to make “#framily” happen.
Hashtags open up the potential of allowing the consumer to influence the ad campaign—or the TV show, or the song. But it’s also worth asking if this is this necessarily a good thing. Since the great failure of the #SongoftheSummer2013, the next experiment might be to make songs out of hashtags that are already popular, in attempts to make surefire hits from focus-grouped sentiments. Will this year's hopefuls be more like R&B singer Rico Love's "Bitches Be Like" (inspired by the popular #BitchesBeLike hashtag), or Pharrell's new duet with Miley Cyrus "Come and Get It Bae" (a wink to a favorite online term of endearment)? On the internet, we tend to talk about "connection" as something unequivocally positive, but constant connection can also stifle creativity and originality by making artists too self-aware, too concerned with metrics, too eager to please.
If there's a sweet spot between being obliviously disconnected and desperately hashtag-crazed, nothing has hit it with more precision than Beyoncé. In a world of SoundCloud mixes and Bandcamp pages, the surprise album is more like a sponsored Tumblr post—a sleek, unabashedly expensive-sounding record that speaks the internet's language without ever pandering for likes. The Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche TED Talk in the middle of "***Flawless", for instance, appears with sudden and delightful incongruence, like an artful photo Tumblr reblogging a dense block quote.
I will admit that something about "***Flawless" bothered me the first few times I heard it. Coming right after Adiche’s critique of the different social expectations we hold for women and men, the quotable refrain “Ladies, tell ‘em, ‘I woke up like this’” struck me as a mixed message. It felt unwittingly conservative, the way that the “Single Ladies” chorus (“If you liked then you shoulda put a ring on it”) paid lip service to empowering single women but in the end just felt like an endorsement of eventually “putting a ring on it.” The Beyoncé we see even in her most “candid” moments (or the song’s comparatively unpolished video) definitely did not wake up like this. For Beyoncé to deny the effort it takes to look like Beyoncé seems like another way of keeping those unrealistic expectations about femininity in place. How can you quote a speech about the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes one moment, and then shrug off the invisible but very real labor that goes into looking hot?
My initial read of the song, though, was too literal. As #WokeUpLikeThis has become one of the record’s most popular memes, I’ve come to appreciate the phrase’s irony and complexity. (The exaggerated, imminently gif-able way she delivers the line in the video gives a hint she doesn’t want us to take this statement too sincerely.) #WokeUpLikeThis is a perfect instance of “I mean this and I don’t at the same time”—a way to both point towards the tyrannical digital-era expectation that women should always be camera-ready, while at the same time celebrating the art of looking (and feeling) so goddamn fine. These are not contradictions, but the complexities of a feminism that comes from lived experience rather than hollow, you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us sloganeering. Beyoncé’s perspective reminds me of something the writer Joan Morgan called for in her 1997 hip-hop feminist manifesto When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: “a feminism brave enough to fuck with the grays.”
The ubiquitous hashtags that Beyoncé has spawned—#surfbort, #flawless, #wokeuplikethis—now feel inevitable, but they weren’t screaming “tweet me!” in our faces the way “#LiveItUp” and #willpower were. We had to dig them out, so in a way, we completed them. (Enter Soundboart.) The #WokeUpLikeThis meme feels like a genuinely collaborative effort—an example of how a hashtag can enrich a song’s meaning rather than cheapen it. Beyoncé reminds me of something else Morgan says in Chickenheads, which was written more than a decade before the hashtag but somehow captures its slippery, collaborative spirit. "Trying to capture the voice of all that is young black female was impossible," she writes. "My goal, instead, was to tell my truth as best I could from my vantage point on the spectrum. And then get you to talk about it. This book by its lonesome won't give you the truth. Truth is what happens when your cumulative voices fill in the breaks, provide the remixes, and rework the chorus."
Pitchfork kicked off its string of SXSW gigs with the Show No Mercy showcase at Mowhawk in Austin last night. The lineup included Youth Code, Indian, Gnaw, Kylesa, Primitive Man, Power Trip, and many more. Photographer Trent Maxwell was there.
Viet Cong: Matthew Flegel, Scott "Monty" Munro, Michael Wallace, Danny Christiansen. Photo by Jared Sych.
Matt Flegel and Monty Munro were staying with a guy named Ziggy in Wetzlar, Germany, when they started talking about starting a new band. It was 2011, and the Calgary natives were touring as part of singer/songwriter Chad VanGaalen’s live act; both men had previously been “side guys” in other indie-rock groups—Flegel played bass and sang in Women, Munro was a guitarist in Lab Coast—and they had several ideas floating around. But they didn't act on them. A few months later, their friend and Women guitarist Christopher Reimer died in his sleep. At the time, both Munro and Flegel had been talking to him about collaborating on new projects. It was wake up call.
“It was like, ‘Shit, we're going to die, fuck,'" says the 32-year-old Flegel. "'Let's do something before it ends.’” So they recruited Women drummer Mike Wallace, along with guitarist Danny Christiansen, who was playing in a Black Sabbath cover band alongside Flegel and Wallace, and began toiling in a jam space.
While it's easy to simply brand Viet Cong as “ex-Women,” this quartet is more enigmatic. Their tour-only cassette from last year features crooning post-punk vocals, distant-sounding harmonies a la Nuggets-era psychedelia, noise-addled punk, and Blade Runner-style instrumentals. (Mexican Summer is set to reissue the tape soon.) And their forthcoming proper debut album—recorded at a barn-turned-studio in rural Ontario with Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh and due out in the second half of this year—boasts elaborately constructed arrangements that span a diverse soundscape. Viet Cong do many things, and they do it all very well. (Listen to a rough mix of an expansive new track called "Bunker Buster" above.)
Flegel and Munro say the band's biggest test thus far was when they all stuffed into a Toyota Echo for seven weeks for a tour across North America last year opening for fellow Canadian art rockers Freak Heat Waves. Long-term tour chemistry is not necessarily a given—a fact that Flegel knows all too well, considering he made headlines alongside his brother Pat when the two brawled onstage at a 2010 Women show. But Viet Cong got through the tour unscathed, and then worked together to write and record the upcoming album.
I talked with Flegel and Munro via Skype as they drank beers in Munro’s Calgary basement, aka Viet Cong’s makeshift studio. They’d both just gotten off work from their day jobs—Flegel doing flooring, Munro delivering cupcakes.
Pitchfork: You mentioned that the first big Viet Cong tour last year was a test for the band, were there any hiccups along the way?
Matt Flegel: Generally it was OK. There was 10 days of total bleakness, though. Just total desperate failing. We definitely didn't have a plan, no money, it was a last-minute tour that we were asked to go on.
Monty Munro: But it wasn’t bad. Danny and Flegel slept in the car, and me and Mike slept outside on the grass from Texas through New Mexico.
MF: By the second day, I knew that anytime we stopped the car, Danny was jerking off in the bathroom—no matter where it was or what had happened.
MM: This feature should be called "Viet Cong: Hard Truths for Danny". [laughs]
Pitchfork: Obviously, you’re going to be associated with Women. How do you guys feel about that?
MF: I'm OK with it, as long as people aren't expecting us to sound like that band.
Pitchfork: Matt, you and your brother Pat infamously fought onstage while touring with Women, how are you guys getting along these days?
MF: There were some issues there that were fairly public, and he got through that—he hit some lows and hit some highs and evened out. He's doing really good right now. Other than those couple of shitty days, we've never hated each other.
Pitchfork: Is it refreshing at all to be in a band where none of your bandmates are members of your family?
MF: Yeah, I guess so; it's definitely nice to not have any blood family in the band. When I talk to my parents from the road, they're not like, "Are you looking after Pat? Is Pat doing OK?" They don't even ask if I'm all right because they already know I'm all right.
Pitchfork: You have two records finished already. Do you have plans to keep recording?
MF: Yeah, that's what we've been doing. Especially in the winter in Calgary, [recording] keeps you sane. It's one of the things where we'll work on music for a few hours, and I'll go home and feel OK about the day and just fall asleep.
MM: In disappointment?
MF: Yeah, just dreaming of the noose. [laughs]
Photo by Constance Kostrevski
With Situation Critical, we present people with various life situations—some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre—to find out what music they would turn to under those specific circumstances. This time, we spoke with comedian Hannibal Buress, who's currently starring in Comedy Central's great "Broad City" and has a new stand-up special, "Live From Chicago", that will air March 29 on the network. He's also will appear in the upcoming movies Neighbors with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, and Flock of Dudes alongside Eric André and Hilary Duff. Check out Buress' current stand-up dates here.
You're in the bathroom stall in Target and there's no toilet paper...
"I'll Shit on You" by Eminem and D12. That'll give me the motivation to ask somebody outside the stall. I remember that actually happened when I was working [as a writer] at "30 Rock"—my stall was out of toilet paper, but I could hear that my boss was in there, so I had to be like, "Hey, Robert, it's Hannibal. Can I get some toilet paper, man?"
You're in the middle of a 16-hour plane ride...
I'm watching movies by then—you can't be fucking with music that long. But for the sake of the interview, I might play some shit that I don't normally play, like Uffie's "Pop the Glock".
Your girlfriend just broke up with you via Twitter...
You just got home on Friday night and you're super drunk...
Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane's "We Be Steady Mobbin'" is always hype. They played that at an afterparty for a Janelle Monàe concert in 2010, and when it came on, she was just so live. I'll never forget that, because she was still in her black-and-white tux. It stuck with me.
There's a funny video of Lil Wayne performing it at a DJ Khaled birthday party. All these people are on stage—Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross, Wayne—and Khaled's, like, two feet away—texting. [laughs]
You got drafted into the military...
You're headlining your biggest show ever and your name is misspelled on the marquee...
That still happens. Maybe I'd try to play something to relax, calm myself. Some smooth shit. Probably "Surfing on a Rocket" by Air.
A meteor is about to destroy Earth...
That's rough, man. Earl Sweatshirt had this weird-ass beat that kind of sounds like the end of the world on his track "Stapleton". The beat is so weird! And he just raps over it like it's regular and shit. Rappers can't break the rap fourth wall, or whatever.
Kanye West calls you on stage to perform a song with him...
What's my favorite Kanye track is that he doesn't really do live? Did you see the video of him at the Odd Future Carnival? They did "Late", and he didn't know the words because he hadn't done it in so long. "Late" is a dope track. Shit, this is tough! I have a lot of favorite Kanye songs. Goddamnit. "Stronger"! No, that's too typical. I like "Paranoid", but I wouldn't want to perform "Paranoid". Actually, "All of the Lights"! Because, on the Yeezus tour, he performed "All of the Lights" with fireworks on the mountain and everything, which was pretty crazy. So I would do that track just for the production of it.
You're performing open heart surgery...
It would be fun to do a goofy-ass song, like that mushrooms song from the first Eminem album, ["My Fault"]. Let's do that one just for fun!
Pitchfork's annual SXSW day party took place at Austin's French Legation Museum last week and featured performances by Future Islands, Fucked Up, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, Sophie, Classixx, Ex Hex, Speedy Ortiz, Lunice, the Range, Mutual Benefit, Perfect Pussy, Kelela, and more. Photographers Trent Maxwell and Erez Avissar were there to catch all the action on stage and off.
Last Friday, Pitchfork had its official SXSW showcase at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, featuring acts including Real Estate, Mark Kozelek, Forest Swords, Mas Ysa, EMA, Angel Olsen, Hundred Waters, and more. Our photographer Tonje Thilesen was there to shoot the performances as well as take portraits of the artists.
Photos by Peter Juhl
Unlike fellow Toronto-raised musician Drake, interviews are not like confessions for Oscar-nominated arranger/composer/conductor/songwriter/compulsive violin looper Owen Pallett. Instead, they are spirited debates with lofty goals in mind: The 34-year-old is adamant that he'll "do anything within my power as a gay, white, Canadian male to assist in improving the relationship between creatives and consumers.” This diplomacy appears to have carried over to his latest baroque art-pop album, In Conflict, which replaces the sci-fi and RPG-based subject matter of his previous work with what sounds like more autobiographical themes. But when I ask him if he has role models in terms of confessional songwriting, he snaps back: “I have a problem with your choice of the word 'confessional.’” Considering the new record's title, I guess I should expect the occasional counterpunch.
It’s not the process of self-disclosure he finds issue with, though; Pallett cites early Tori Amos as a major influence on the often brutally candid, first-person narratives of In Conflict, which leads him to clarify, “I hate the word ‘confessional’ or ‘cathartic.’ I think those terms are vaguely misogynistic and always applied to female songwriters. And it's like, 'Well, what do men do? Do they have something they need to get off their chest?'”
Still, Pallett claims In Conflict is no more personal than his previous records, one of which was called He Poos Clouds(under his former moniker Final Fantasy) and included songs inspired by Dungeon & Dragons, The Legend of Zelda,and The Chronicles of Narnia. And then there was 2010’s Heartland, which told the story of an “ultra-violent farmer” named Lewis and his creator named Owen, all of it taking place in an imaginary realm called Spectrum. Even so, he holds firm. “The only real difference between this and the other records is I don't die at the end," he says. (He prefers not to discuss the details of his lyrics because "that’s kind of like talking about the color of my crap.")
In the four years since Heartland, he's continued his work as Arcade Fire's longtime string arranger (Pallett's 2005 debut Has a Good Home features a track called “This Is the Dream of Win & Regine”) and has offered his talents to obvious indie A-listers (the National, Grizzly Bear, Beirut), Hollywood visionaries (he created the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s Her with Arcade Fire), and Billboard heavies (he arranged strings on Taylor Swift's Red track "The Last Time" and Linkin Park's "I'll Be Gone", from their 2012 LP Living Things).
That said, when I call him, he's mostly interested in killing time until “his band” (which includes members of Arcade Fire, who he will be soon joining for an upcoming tour) arrives at his Montreal home to indulge in the meal he’s been preparing for the past few hours. “I have a really good dal that that just needs to be heated up, and a leek and mushroom soup," he says. "I’m making some eggplant salad, and there’s also red peppers too.” Listen to his work or watch Pallett perform live—micromanaging his violin and vocals through a battery of looping pedals—and this kind of grand spread doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Pitchfork: After the fantastical constructs of the past two albums, did you feel like you had to go in an opposite direction?
Owen Pallett: I started writing in late 2009, when I was on tour with the Mountain Goats—it was crazy to see how quickly John [Darnielle] was able to transform run-of-the-mill, weird events that just happened in his life [into songs]. The best example I can think of is we were walking down Hollywood Boulevard and we come across Liza Minnelli's star, and he was like, "Oh, get a picture with me on this thing!" Four months later, I'm visiting him, and he played me this song that would end up being “Liza Forever Minnelli". So I ended up writing songs by taking stock of all the different events in my life, but all those songs were bad—only a stanza from those 15 songs that actually survived to In Conflict. I just started to get a deeper sense of dysphoria; it was like I wasn't writing about these events that happened in my life like I was a man. Which isn't to say that they were gender dysphoric, but they were coming from a place of really deep discomfort.
Pitchfork: Are you concerned about disclosing so much of yourself on this LP?
OP: So much of the currency of modern bands seems to revolve around the vacuum of availability, so I wanted to preemptively make myself as available as possible, so it would be impossible for anyone to form the wrong impression and make me uncomfortable with the way they were digesting my music.
Pitchfork: There’s a good deal of imagery regarding physical conflict and violence on this record—particularly "pick up the bayonet, run it through the stomach of your brother," from "Soldiers Rock".
OP: That was instigated by a book that my brother gave me: The Five Habits of Successful People, or something like that. It's basically like, "Here's how to make money," and it's all great advice, until you get to the last one, which basically says, "You need to take advantage of everybody every chance you can." So what better metaphor for the subliminal state than capitalism? This whole notion that you're trying to do good and make things good for the world, but at the same time the reality is that you have to eat other people to end up on top.
Pitchfork: There’s a line on “I Am Not Afraid” where you claim that you won’t have any children. Do you think that the generation after us is going to inherit a shittier world than the one we have?
OP: It depends on which article in The Guardian I read this week. What's the name of that 92-year-old dude [James Lovelock] who wrote the How to Survive the Apocalypse books? He's the guy who posited the Gaia hypothesis, that the world is a super-organism. He just did this interview where he was like, "Everybody get ready, the world's about to end. But it's going to be fun! It's going to be like World War II, when everyone was looking out for each other." Then just two years prior he was like, "Oh, I may have been off with my estimates of when the world's going to end. I may have been a bit of a scare-monger." But "I Am Not Afraid" has nothing to do with any sort of global warming scenario. [laughs] I desperately want children. I want like four of them. But I will never have them, I mean at least with the current circumstances, living with my boyfriend in Montreal.
Pitchfork: On “On a Path”, you sing, “You stand in a city you don’t know anymore.” Was that line inspired by your move from Toronto to Montreal?
OP: I lived in Toronto for 15 years, and only just a year ago did I move to Montreal. The song is very, very much about Toronto, but I didn’t want to just be like, “Toronto is a shithole.” I wanted to figure out why I was not enjoying being in the city. Part of it is that Toronto is kind of a shithole. Every city is kind of a shithole. Except Montreal. Montreal is fucking great. And L.A., which is fantastic.
It’s also the disparity between being a 20-year-old in the city and being a 30-year-old in the city. Half of my friends that I had when I was 23 had left Toronto and were living other places, and a couple of people died as well. So I just found that every time I walked around the city, I was getting a little nostalgic, like, “That’s where I had a really nice meal like five years ago with a friend who now lives in Berlin.” Getting kind of drunk on the sweet nectar of your memories, as Jens [Lekman] would say. It was difficult for me to create new experiences. Everything felt like a vague facsimile of something that had come before.
Pitchfork: There’s a mention of not wanting to listen to the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead on “The Passions”, is that a similar remark about how you’ve outgrown certain things that seemed so vital in your youth?
OP: No, Morrissey is one of those amazing songwriters that changes as you age. He gave me stuff as a teenager, and he gives me new things every year, so I’m constantly listening to his music. I don’t even consider myself a fan, personally. I have this weird thing where all the artists that I find myself engaging with the most are the ones that I have a bone to pick with. All the music out there that I just love is just kind of like “boring!” because it’s just like, “Yup, you guys did it. That’s made exactly the way it should be made.” Where with Morrissey, it’s like, “Ah, I have so many problems with you!” In fact, I probably shouldn’t say anything about him, because every single time that I’ve tried to say something about Morrissey, I’ve gotten in trouble. [laughs]
Pitchfork: As someone who’s both inside and outside of Arcade Fire, how did you react to seeing some of the criticism of Reflektor’s massive rollout?
OP: I read the [negative] review in The Washington Post and thought it was hilarious. I think him mixing up congas and bongos [the review stated that "Reflektor" features bongos when it actually contains congas] was horseshit—I don’t know if he was using "bongos" to be derogatory towards the percussionists, but that’s kind of how it evolved. So fuck that guy forever.
And it’s kind of interesting to see people so frustrated with "how long the rollout was." I don’t think those guys wrote a press release. All they did was update their website. But the overzealous fans and music-journalist community were writing articles based on everything that happened. I just feel like the record came out without a lot of commentary from the band, so it was really interesting to see how many people got it wrong. But I’m not a spokesman for the band. Even if I was, I don’t know whether it would be a good look to go around correcting everybody. There were very few articles written about that record that made me feel anything other than impassive and stoic.
Pitchfork: With both Reflektor and Her, there was a lot of criticism that centered around the idea these were both painfully “white” pieces of art.
OP: Well, the talking about people’s skin color is a very uniquely American thing. And with Arcade Fire, the whole white/black thing tumbles down, because Regine is the white daughter of black people. Her hands are both dark pigmentations. Her sister is dark-skinned, and the situation is that… I have to stop. I haven’t signed any non-disclosure agreements or anything, but it wouldn’t make anybody happy if I finish this thought.
Pitchfork: How about Her, then?
OP: I have a private list of things that I love about Her and things that I disagree with about Her, that it’s not my place to really discuss. If there are any articles talking about the problems that are created by the movie, I would be really interested in reading them. But all my inlaws were crying when they saw it, so whatever.
Photo by Holly Andres
As Nikki Nack, the joyously fearsome new album from Merrill Garbus' tUnE-yArDs, cartwheels along, one primal line surfaces: "Oh my god, I use my lungs!" The sentiment is archetypally tUnE-yArDs—a rebel yell that's exultant, thrilled, and terrified at the same time, like the look in the eyes of a person who's discovered how loud she can scream.
“Speaking up, speaking out—that's a theme that will always be there for me,” Garbus tells me in a New York City cafe one brutally cold recent day. "But I still have that hesitation: Can I really tell you the truth?” She's just stepped off a West Coast red-eye and is due back on a return flight in a few hours. But despite working on four hours sleep, her eyes are alive and eager; three years after the release of her brilliant 2011 album w h o k i l l, she’s ready to leap back into the fray.
Nikki Nack contains some of the catchiest music she’s made to date, a fact she’s clearly proud of. There is a harsher digital edge to the percussion—the result of some dedicated woodshedding on Garbus’ part—and the songs are both wilder-spirited and more contained. The chaos is still there, but instead of allowing it to trample over the edges of her songs, Garbus is riding astride it.
Pitchfork: To me, this album sounds much catchier than w h o k i l l. How did that shift come about?
Merrill Garbus: I really went all the way back to square one: I walked into an open public library and checked out Molly-Ann Leikin's  book How to Write a Hit Song. I learned that the chorus should hit in the first 30 seconds. That was a big one. And just a lot of really nuts-and-bolts stuff: "You need to respect your writing time, make a date with yourself and keep it." And she has great exercises for brainstorming: "Picture a red schoolhouse. Now write everything you can describing that red schoolhouse. Is there a boy playing basketball outside?" I really needed to unlearn everything I had done so far.
Pitchfork: Why the reverse-engineering?
MG: I got kind of sick of myself. After hearing so much about yourself and your own music, you say, "I know it's not all about me, so what is it all about?" I had to go and figure that out. And I took voice lessons last spring—just learning about belting and how to do it healthily. My voice sounds different to me on this record. There’s a new song called "Hey Life" that actually came out of one of the exercises I was doing.
I just felt so energetically depleted after the w h o k i l l tour. I’m still adjusting to the fact that this is my job. I don't get to just goof around with my looping pedal and everything's fun and rosy and then there's applause. The applause stopped when we stopped touring, you know?
Pitchfork: How did you kickstart the recording process after that revelation?
MG: At the beginning of last year, I basically said, "Oh shit, I have nothing. I should pretend that I have an actual job." Which, it turns out, I do. Starting the first week of January 2013, I went to the studio Monday through Friday, basically like a nine-to-five, and told myself every day: "Just do two musical ideas."
That first month, I had a series of parameters. The first week was only drum machines: I learned a lot about analog drum machines and digital ones this time around. The second week was no drum machines, no electronics whatsoever. So I was using a little frame drum with some sticks, trying some of the Haitian drumming I'd been studying up to that point.
"Most artists I know, no matter their medium, go through depressions, ups and downs, serious self-doubt.
I definitely questioned my abilities."
Pitchfork: Where were you recording?
MG: The studio in Oakland was literally a shipping container. It's in this neighborhood called Fruitvale—as in Fruitvale Station Fruitvale—and it's pretty nitty-gritty. There's always a lot of drug drama, shouting, cars driving by and blasting music. We're in the middle of that, [tUnE-yArDs bassist] Nate [Brenner] in the practice studio and me in the little shipping container next to it, banging on drums. I literally baked in that shipping container all summer.
Pitchfork: Where did the name Nikki Nack come from?
MG: Sinko was the initial title, and then it was Find a New Way, which is the title of the opening track—that was my dad's idea actually. Bless his heart. He was like, "You're really finding a new way here, we should call it that!" But it seemed really cheesy.
So my friend and I were reading all of the lyrics to the album, and he picked out the phrase, "Nikki Nack." There's something about it that's tUnE-yArDs-y in an onomatopoetic way, but there's also a "nick nack paddy-whack give a dog a bone" thing. Nikki Nack also shows up as a character in one of the songs, and that felt appropriate. It feels like the album was named after somebody. It had its own personality.
Pitchfork: One of the earliest lines on “Find a New Way” finds you saying that you should never sing again. Did you actually consider that?
MG: All the time. It sounds absurd now, but most artists I know, no matter their medium, go through depressions, ups and downs, serious self-doubt. I definitely questioned my abilities. I don't have a degree in composition that helps me start at A and get to B and then C. I don't have training—that's why I took voice and drum lessons. I went and took dance lessons, too. But you can only take so many lessons, you know?
And I feel older. I actually am older, but I also feel older, which is different from the last record. There's a lot of addiction around me; heavy, heavy stuff within my community that really shook me in an adult way, where I said, "Wow, I'm almost 35." That was an adult moment that I had this year.
Historic levels of frustration swept the U.S. last October, as the federal government shutdown put the nation on pause. It was then, in Hoboken, New Jersey, that Cloud Nothings were holed up in the no-frills Water Music studio, honing their own brand of pummeling catharsis. The studio is scattered with art and books that look plucked from a thrift store; the band jokes that it feels haunted. They are not far off. A year prior, Water Music came face-to-face with potential defeat when it flooded during Hurricane Sandy, giving its name an eerie edge. And after the recent shuttering of legendary indie club Maxwell's, Hoboken itself seems like a musical ghost town, its tree-lined streets filled with strollers and businessmen and Starbucks. The trying conditions all befit this Cleveland band, which has spent the last few years staring down nostalgia, expectation, and the noise of daily life, and then unleashing a palpable inner-turmoil through guitars and drums and throats. Cloud Nothings always sound like they are fighting, even if it is not exactly clear what they are fighting against.
Frontman Dylan Baldi, 22, bassist TJ Duke, 31, and drummer Jayson Gerycz, 27, are working a final eight-hour day to finish their fourth album, Here and Nowhere Else. Cloud Nothings are all endearing smart-asses; they've spent a portion of their studio time dialing prank calls to Ken Tamplin, a vocal coach who advertises "the world's best singing lessons." Studio talk ranges from Metallica's recent film Through the Never—"What did Kirk's hair plugs look like in 3D?"—to the possibility of heading to rebel rapper Danny Brown's show that night. (Baldi and Brown once toyed with the idea of making a record together.)
For the moment, though, Baldi sits quietly, as usual, hidden under a black Pierced Arrows hoodie while alternately scribbling last-minute lyrics or glancing down at The New Yorker. "I've ignored almost everyone for a whole week," he says, proudly. "It feels good."
The bored-looking singer is recording vocals for what will become the gloomy track "Giving Into Seeing". He scratches his head and ruffles his hair for the duration of his honestly-frightening scream session, repeatedly growling the word "SWALLOW" over an anxiety-laced riff. The song could have come from the band's 2012 Steve Albini-helmed Attack on Memory, the record that found Baldi rejecting his past as a lo-fi bedroom-pop prodigy for a visceral rebirth, morphing Cloud Nothings into an abrasive full-band effort that evokes early emo along with the introspective doom of the Wipers. He reads his lyrics from a sheet of graph paper; the words are written straight and neat.
"Can you sing it wilder?" producer John Congleton asks from the control room. "Make your voice not sound like a voice."
In January, Cloud Nothings are at the slick Brooklyn venue Baby's All Right to perform the entirety of Here and Nowhere Else—a total grayscale sonic assault with some of their most thoroughly anthemic moments—on a stage backed by the glow of inset gemlike lights.
"I don't understand New York," Baldi says that morning, at a nearby cafe. "Big cities confuse me." He prefers a place that is calm, less expensive. The frontman recently moved into the first Cleveland apartment of his own. "The landlords are freaked out," he says, "because I don't really do anything and I leave late and come back late, and my apartment always smells weird and I get a lot of packages."
But Baldi has hardly settled down in the Midwest; he prefers to wander and drift. The singer repeatedly looks down and apologizes for staring at his phone; he's texting his girlfriend, who lives in Paris, where he has spent most of his off-tour time as of late. The all-consuming Attack on Memory world trek had him flying from Europe, to Australia, to Israel, and his most vivid memory came at Japan's Fuji Rock Festival, performing for more than 10,000 people. "They knew all the words, and it was terrifying," he recalls with an appreciative laugh. "It was the first time I realized: Oh. I'm in a band. All right. Cool."
Cloud Nothings collectively agree that it's a miracle they made it to Attack on Memory at all. The years touring in support of the simple guitar-pop songs of 2010's Turning On and 2011's Cloud Nothings became brutal. "We played for two years where nobody came to our shows, and no one liked us," Baldi says. "On those early tours, I was so broke it was unreal," says Duke, who found work as a janitor and was on food stamps at one point. "So it was a relief to make Attack on Memory—I had been chomping at the bit to make more aggressive music from the beginning."
For Attack, Baldi claims there were no grand realizations, and that it was inevitable that their pool of abilities would coalesce into something more ambitious. (Duke formerly sang in an agitated punk band, while Gerycz played in a harsh improv duo called Swindlella.) "It's hard to change on purpose," Baldi says. "It would sound fake." Indeed, there's nothing insincere about the throat-scraping howl he used to get his point across on Attack. His bandmates had never heard his scream before that album's studio sessions. "We were like… 'Whoa,'" says Gerycz. "'He's really going for it. He's going to hurt himself.'"
Baldi, the son of two retired school teachers, blames his genes: "I'm continuing the family tradition of yelling at kids."
"People are uncomfortable
with silence, but there are
a lot of people who I wish
would shut up."
Growing up, Baldi's father performed in a cover band and had an extensive collection of rock CDs—the Clash, the Who, AC/DC—while his mother listened to classical. As a kid, he had at least four XL-sized AC/DC shirts, and in elementary school he performed "You Shook Me All Night Long" at a talent show, to the dismay of his mother. (Baldi still likes AC/DC.) In the fourth grade, at a school assembly where students were required to describe their career dreams, he declared his interest in becoming a professional skateboarder. "I was always looking for something to do that was a little bit different from everyone else," he says.
As a quiet intellectual type, Baldi was a rarity in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake, and he never fit in with a particular group at school. Though Cloud Nothings' four albums have drawn influence from a wide range of punk rock from the 1970s through the 90s, he never identified as a punk himself. He had friends, but was a musical loner. School seemed like a waste of time. By the end of senior year, he'd skip class to play piano in the school's practice rooms. He played banjo in a musical, and guitar with the choir. "Focusing on songs helped me when I was in high school," he says, "because I didn't really like anyone."
The first time Duke met Baldi was at a show starring the singer's high school band, Ponyta—a squeaky, technicolor rock duo named after a Pokémon character. The music spoke to Duke emotionally; he picked up one of their burned CD-Rs, which featured a unicorn with rainbows shooting from its eyes on the cover. "He was this really skinny kid screaming his head off through some pedal, and I was like, 'Please, can I have your phone number?'" Duke recalls. "It was more far-out than anything I had seen."
In 2009, the first Cloud Nothings MP3s garnered interest from Baldi's Myspace friend, Kevin Greenspon, the mind behind bedroom-operation Bridgetown Records. Greenspon asked Baldi to do a Cloud Nothings tape and CD-R, which became his debut Turning On—each one hand-assembled, cut, glued, and burned—and then watched as he was rushed onto the hyper-speed internet music freeway. "He didn't let opportunities roll off his back," Greenspon says. "A lot is talent, a lot is luck, a lot is timing, but he struck a chord with all these variables and didn't crush under the pressure."
Still, there were shaky moments. At the band's first-ever show—opening for Real Estate and Woods in Brooklyn at the end of 2009—Baldi recalls being overwhelmed. It was his first time in New York City, the show was sold-out, and the band hardly knew the songs. "When the promoter paid us," Baldi remembers, "he was like, 'Don't get used to this.'"
They soldiered on, oftentimes driving through the night after a gig to get back to some shitty day job. "Being where I'm from, it's just inside of you that if you want something, you have to work for it," Baldi says. Being in a touring band meant buying a van and getting inside of it. "I wanted to be successful," he says. "I just didn't want to do anything stupid along the way."
Here and Nowhere Else continues where Attack on Memory left off, but veiled beneath the blitzkrieg thrash are more positive angles. "I still have no direction, but now I'm more comfortable with it," Baldi says. He's been working to avoid pointless bouts of negativity stemming from confusion and self-doubt. The title is meant to promote a zen-like sort of empowerment. "It's about relying on yourself to make your own happiness," Baldi says.
But while there is hope on Nowhere Else, there are also the remnants of a mean streak that defined Attack and the best of Cloud Nothings' early material (see: "Forget You All the Time"). "Music that is 100% happy is terrifying," Baldi says. "I would kill myself if I had to play that every night." He's trying to strike a balance, breaking away from the notion that Cloud Nothings is just a forum for angst and depression. "If music is one constant emotion, then it's not real," Baldi says. "But if you include the positive and negative and everything in between—which I don't think we do, but I'm learning—that's what makes it feel real."
Baldi writes lyrics by the rule of first-thought, best-thought; the words on Nowhere Else were penned the day before he sang them in the studio, an attempt to tap into something genuine by not over-thinking. Silence, as a theme, recurs on nearly every song. He's keeping to himself, imagining a simpler life, trying to suppress his pinging mind. "People are uncomfortable with silence," Baldi says, "but there are a lot of people who I wish would shut up." These new Cloud Nothings songs lack grand gestures, but hold quietness and privacy as virtues. "There was a period when we were touring a lot and I was going crazy," Baldi says. "A simple life seemed very strange, but also like something to aspire to." He began to sell off his belongings, including his record collection, and got an apartment.
Considering what silence can mean today, I mention the fierce UK post-punk band Savages, and their manifesto-towing debut album Silence Yourself. Baldi laughs. "We don't take it that seriously," he says. This lack of pretension seems purposeful in its own way, but when I later ask the songwriter about the only lyric on the new record that could arguably be tacked as political—"New creeps gonna rule the nation/ I don't like that sound"—it turns out to be a mere oversight. "Sorry to bum you out," he says, "but that was a placeholder lyric that I kept in. It doesn't mean anything to me."
Baldi is a cautious interviewee—his friends agree that he's a pretty guarded person in general—but in conversation he does not put up a cold facade of distance. Throughout our exchanges over the course of a few months, he consistently appears more forthcoming and at ease discussing anything but himself. Of the many cultural tips I pick up are the work of 19th-century comics artist Kate Carew and Belgian coldwave band Isolation Ward. The same goes for his bandmates; when Duke tells me that he recently made a drawing of the radical beat writer Amiri Baraka—"I try to make people beautiful, but they [end up] hideously ugly"—I feel bad informing him that the poet just died.
"It makes me uncomfortable to talk about myself, and the band is an extension of myself in a very real way," Baldi says. "It's the way I was raised—being where I'm from, if you talked about yourself all the time, people hated you." Baldi likes artists with mystique: a record you pick up and can't find anything about online. He mentions a 1967 album by the enigmatic Charlie Nothing, and his favorite record of 2013 was from a band called Naan, who he also knows nothing about. "Our goals are not to be on the radio," he says.
A few days later, Baldi writes me an email from Paris to explain how jazz influenced his use of space on the new album—a topic we'd touched on when he mentioned primal free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. "The energy in the music that I like is derived from the space between the notes—actual silence, as well as the way the chords themselves are formed," Baldi writes. "There are a lot of spots where a drum fill from Jayson interacts with a chord change or melody in a way that makes me feel good, which is something I generally only notice in jazz or classical music."
From a compositional standpoint, he cites Duke Ellington and Kind of Blue pianist Bill Evans. "I tend to approach guitar more like piano," Baldi explains. He's played piano all his life (that's his playing at the beginning of Attack's ominous "No Future/No Past"). Baldi also played the saxophone from a young age—he can "shred"—and briefly majored in sax during a short stint in college. "Rather than just playing big power chords, I tried to make things complex and move around in a more interesting way," he says, "like each of my fingers was a different instrument."
And perhaps these potential psychic complications are why he often aims for something instinctual and direct in his art. "Over-thinking is the most dangerous thing for me, because I'm definitely capable of it," he writes. "If I start with something very simple and build on that, the result is much more true to myself. And being true and real is the most important thing to me."
Photo by Norman Wong
With Situation Critical, we present artists with various life situations—some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre—to find out which songs, albums, or bands they would turn to under those specific circumstances. This time, we spoke with Broken Social Scene leader Kevin Drew, whose new solo album Darlings is out now via Arts & Crafts.
It's the middle of the night and you can't fall asleep...
I used to live alone in the top-floor turret of this Edward Scissorhands-style house that overlooked the highway a few years back. It was a cauldron for me, a beautiful little cocoon. When I couldn't sleep, I would sit by my window and watch the cars. I started playing a game called "No One's Going Anywhere", where I would count out the stretches when no cars were on the highway whatsoever. Maybe it would be 20 seconds, and then 30 seconds, and suddenly you're at a minute. But I wouldn't get back to sleep because my heart would start pounding, thinking that no one's going anywhere. And while I would do this, I was obsessed with Jónsi & Alex's Riceboy Sleeps.
I set a goal for myself where I wanted to reach over a minute, which was very hard to do. But one night, when I was about to move away from this apartment and was upset about it because I really loved it, I reached two minutes and 47 seconds—no one was going anywhere for two minutes and 47 seconds. Along with the sense of peace that I felt with that record playing, it was a wonderful send-off from this place that sheltered me for a while.
You're in the car with your grandmother...
Because she was a lady of the Lord, I would play Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir's Like a Ship... (Without a Sail). She was religious in a way that she understood that there are all kinds of other religions, but the church gave her a community. She was a terrible singer, but she was in the choir for 20 years. The priests were like rockstars to her, and she would really try to get a VIP pass to their lives. I never made fun of the Lord when I was around her.
I did two songs with my grandmother: That's her and her boyfriend on Feel Good Lost's "Stomach Song", and then we did a song together called "Apology", because I always feel so sorry for so many things all the time. I sort of wrote it for my ex-wife, for the idea of splitting up and not being able to make it; there's always these things that haunt you because of the 70,000 films and songs and books and opinions that you have to take in everyday when it comes to being in relationships. It puts a pressure on your mouth and eyes and fingers, and it's an undertone that you can't even really call out. I did a little interview with my grandmother and mixed it into that song, and she said, "Love is love, nothing alters it. Just because you go from here to there, you don't forget the love you have for someone." I thought that was so simple and beautiful, just recognizing that that's the truth, even though we all want to fight it and change it and make it work to our advantage and have it justify everything. I admired her for that. I miss her dearly.
"People are beautiful and people suck.
You have to choose which side you want to be on."
You're awaiting results from an important medical test...
I would dwell in the anxiety. Stars of the Lid's Brian McBride made a record called The Effective Disconnect, that I've listened to 197 times. I like music to invoke emotion in me, and I do believe that sadness can be a wonderful thing—I've always believed that everyone has it inside of them, and you have to make an extreme effort to be happy. The first time I heard I heard this record, it moved into my stomach. It gives you the ability to have some time with your thoughts without all the static, which dominates now, like, "Who texted? Who called? What's going on? What's happening? Check your phone. Brutal news, brutal news, brutal news—aw, adorable little cats!—brutal news, brutal news." And all your friends who you thought were quiet have massive opinions and they're going to town on them! There's a cheapness to it. I don't discredit anyone's opinions, and everyone should have a platform, but it's interesting to see the power that some of the people feel with it. As I've always said: People are beautiful and people suck. You have to choose which side you want to be on.
You're doing a CrossFit workout...
I've worked out to Explosions in the Sky's The Rescue more than I can tell you. There's an emotional side to pushing your body as far as you can; when you're trying to go to the limit, it's dramatic. Exercising is necessary for me because of the lifestyle I lead. I live at the drinks table—and my credit card and my liver and the people who helped me get in the cab the other night could show you that I live at the drinks table. But I'm slowly finding myself there less and less, which, obviously, is called growing up.
You're at the bar right at the very end of the night...
You want to hear the anthems: "Better Be Good to Me" by Tina Turner, or "Heaven" by Psychedelic Furs, or "Move on Up" by Curtis Mayfield. Or New Order, or Grateful Dead, or the Pharcyde—if you end the night with hip-hop, you'll go to bed happy.
You've just broken-up with somebody...
I got a box set for that! [laughs] Not really. But a profound record for me is Dirty Three's Whatever You Love, You Are. Anything that has a soundtrack quality to it—that has a sense of sadness and joy within it, which most instrumental bands carry with them—works with any sense of mourning. When I was a kid, I would go buy [The Cure's] Disintegration on cassette and give it to anyone who got dumped.
But I can't help but look at the women I have been with and be so grateful for every single one of them. Sometimes things don't work, but the core of why we were there always remains, and you can't lose that friendship, admiration, and respect. The love doesn't really go anywhere.
You're having a dinner party with everybody in Broken Social Scene...
You've got to play reggae. You got to! A go-to of mine is Sly & Robbie Meet Bunny Lee's At Dub Station. That just sets the tone. It's the most positive universal music out there.
Also: Good Vibes by Horace Andy, who is a king. He's done a lot with Massive Attack, and we played a festival with them in Croatia, and Horace Andy was there, and I was starstruck. So I'm in catering talking to myself, "This is it! You get to meet Horace Andy!" But I thought, "No, no, no, he's eating. Just be cool, Kevy, come on." Then, we were about to go on, and I realized I left some piece of gear in our dressing room, so I ran back to get it and came tearing out of the dressing room... and I just floored Horace Andy. I knocked him down. And this is not a young man. He was not happy. I started to say, "Oh my God!" and he just looked at me and was like, "Get away, it's fine, continue on with whatever it is that's so important." I was heartbroken!
You're running away from home as a teenager...
I actually did split one time, when I was 16. I was like, "I'm going to stay at my girlfriend's! I can't handle this anymore!" And next thing I know my mother was giving me food and my dad was driving me to the subway, so I thought, "This is not as dramatic as I thought it was going to be." I had a case of CDs, and J Mascis was dominating at the time.
But I couldn't stay away for long. My mother made an outstanding risotto, so I was home in about three days. I just needed a break. And quite frankly, I think they needed a break, too. There comes a point where you get tired of yourself—you feel isolated and you can't explain it. You're your own worst enemy and you're causing more problems than you need to. Then you realize it's just a waste of time. I admire my folks and I love them very much and I try to make them as much a part of my life as I can to say thanks for the crazy years: "Sorry about running away and doing all those drugs, but here I am. It's good, we're good."
You're setting your alarm with music to wake up to in the morning...
Mornings are something that I've discovered in the past two years. I don't really stay up that late anymore. When it's 4:30 in the morning and everything is still, that's the best time. At that hour, you don't have the distractions of everybody's shit.
After my friend bought me a record player as a housewarming gift, I got really obsessed with all the orchestrated polyphonic stuff from the 50s and 60s, anything that said "RCA Victor Stereo Action". There's something beautiful about waking up to Hawaiian music, like Leo Addeo and His Orchestra's Hawaii in Hi-Fi. And for some reason Burt Bacharach didn't mean anything to me until I got over the age of 35 and thought, "This guy's absolutely incredible!" Anything anything with bongos, flutes, guitar—that's what I like to wake up to.
You're a music supervisor for a soap opera and you're trying to increase the drama on the show...
Maybe I would take Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", put it in reverse through a looping pedal, shove it through a reverb unit, and we're golden!
A meteor is about to hit the Earth, wiping out all humanity...
I probably wouldn't be listening to anything. I'd just want to grab the ones that helped me become who I am and say thank you one last time.