Last week, the synthesizer innovators at Moog Music welcomed the ninth edition of Moogfest back to Asheville, North Carolina, with performances, workshops, and panels scattered in and around the Moog Factory. Throughout the five-day festival, Moogfest featured acts such as Janelle Monáe, Chic, M.I.A, YACHT, Egyptian Lover, and Saul Williams, as well as Bob Moog friend and collaborator Keith Emerson, synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and many more. Curators of the line-up included labels Warp, Movement Detroit, Ghostly International, DFA, RVNG INTL, No. 19, Software, and Driftless, as well as organizers of the Afropunk and Hopscotch festivals. Photographer Tonje Thilesen was there.
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Articles on this Page
- 05/01/14--12:00: _Interviews: Courtne...
- 05/02/14--07:20: _Photo Galleries: Mo...
- 05/02/14--09:00: _Paper Trail: The Hi...
- 05/05/14--09:15: _Update: Father John...
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- 05/07/14--08:15: _Rising: Ben Khan
- 05/08/14--09:30: _Interviews: Swans
- 05/09/14--08:45: _Guest Lists: YG
- 05/12/14--08:55: _Articles: Here Toge...
- 05/13/14--11:10: _Update: Fucked Up
- 05/14/14--09:20: _5-10-15-20: Marc Maron
- 05/15/14--09:05: _Rising: Shamir
- 05/16/14--09:15: _Guest Lists: Ben Frost
- 05/19/14--09:45: _Ordinary Machines: ...
- 05/20/14--11:25: _Starter: The Strang...
- 05/21/14--10:10: _Update: Robyn and R...
- 05/21/14--13:45: _Festival Report: Sa...
- 05/23/14--09:05: _Rolling on Dubs: Ga...
- 05/25/14--22:00: _Festival Report: Sa...
- 05/26/14--10:20: _Festival Report: Sa...
- 05/01/14--12:00: Interviews: Courtney Love
- 05/02/14--07:20: Photo Galleries: Moogfest
- 05/05/14--09:15: Update: Father John Misty
- 05/07/14--08:15: Rising: Ben Khan
- 05/08/14--09:30: Interviews: Swans
- 05/09/14--08:45: Guest Lists: YG
- 05/13/14--11:10: Update: Fucked Up
- 05/14/14--09:20: 5-10-15-20: Marc Maron
- 05/15/14--09:05: Rising: Shamir
- 05/16/14--09:15: Guest Lists: Ben Frost
- 05/19/14--09:45: Ordinary Machines: Take Back the Name
- 05/20/14--11:25: Starter: The Strange World of Library Music
- 05/21/14--10:10: Update: Robyn and Röyksopp
- 05/21/14--13:45: Festival Report: Sasquatch 2014: Playlist
- 05/23/14--09:05: Rolling on Dubs: Gangsta Sermon: Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era
- 05/25/14--22:00: Festival Report: Sasquatch 2014: Photos
- 05/26/14--10:20: Festival Report: Sasquatch 2014
Photos by Hedi Slimane
Even before she injected 1990s alt-rock with the femme-fury it needed and became a bedroom-wall staple for multiple generations, Courtney Love had the origin myth of a real, if unconventional, star. Her rocky childhood with hippie parents left her abandoned and eventually in juvenile hall, where she discovered punk rock by way of Patti Smith and the Pretenders. She cruised around Dublin and Portland with poetry books; stripped in such far-off locales as Alaska and Guam; acted as a "punk rock extra" in the 1986 film Sid and Nancy. At 24, Love took out a Los Angeles newspaper ad seeking comrades influenced by Big Black, Sonic Youth, and Fleetwood Mac. Hole was born.
"I wanna affect culture in a very large way," she said in the early 90s. "If I fuckin' die without having written two, three, or four brilliant rock songs, fuckin' I don't know why I lived." (See: "Doll Parts", "Miss World", "Violet", "Pretty on the Inside".) Twenty volatile years of ambition, contradiction, and loss later, Hole's definitive 1994 record Live Through This is immortal.
With its anthems tackling eating disorders, rape, and indie elitism, Live Through This bulldozed down all manner of female archetype. The record has now entered its oral-history period—and a reunion of the mid-90s Hole lineup, with drummer Patty Schemel, bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, and original guitarist Eric Erlandson, is highly likely. But revisiting this album feels especially purposeful given the devastating conditions of its release: Live Through This came out the same week that Kurt Cobain took his life, and, just two months later, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff died of a heroin overdose. Those of us who were too young to fully grasp that in real time (I was only 4) have had the privilege of experiencing these songs with less baggage and considering them for what they are: raw, poetic, undeniable. When I played the record on a recent Saturday night, a friend unfamiliar with Hole summed it up: "This sounds like it came out today."
After spending years in New York, Love is newly settled in L.A. when I call her late last week. The smeared-lipstick alt-rock queen who once proclaimed the absurdity of "worshipping at the altar of beauty" is now entrenched in the fashion world, having done campaigns for Hedi Slimane, Versace, and Diesel. "I have always been vain in some way," Love says of her relationship to image. "All women are dichotomies, with a beautiful, sensual, passive side, and a monster, sexual, aggressive side." Her own line, called Never the Bride, is in the works, as is a memoir, which may require more time (she recently rejected a ghost-written version). Meanwhile, she is toying with the idea of a musical about Nirvana, and filming a highly opinionated YouTube series called "#COURTNEYon". Her new double A-side single, "You Know My Name" b/w "Wedding Day" is set for release this month and, while in L.A., she plans to pick up the acting career she stepped away from after her Golden Globe-nominated performance in 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt.
As ever, conversation with Love is a roller-coaster, vastly amusing with the occasional feeling of derailed collapse. Her combustible personal life continues to serve a great foil to her wit and intelligence, and when she gets philosophical about feminism, identity, or success, it can still strike like lightning. But even Courtney Love, who turns 50 this July, can only bury the past so far—at a point, she laughs while calling herself a loner who "likes myself better on-stage than in real life." She's primarily blunt to the point of comedy, unabashedly musing on her highest-highs and lowest-lows. As her manager comes on the line to cut us off, he plainly declares, "OK kids! The party's over!" It sounds like a line he probably recycles often.
"To find your female scream and not withhold is so liberating. You can do anything then. It's like you can fly. It gives you superpowers."
Pitchfork: What have you been up to these past couple of days?
Courtney Love: I'm in my sunny rental in fabulous Beverly Hills, California, eating chocolate chip cookie dough and watching the last season of "Downton Abbey". I don't like reality shows. I have a friend in London who lets me stay at his house, a successful art dealer, and I looked at his TiVo list—he hadn't paid his cable—and it was all "The Real Housewives", and I was like, "OK, I can read a book, or I can watch 'The Real Housewives' of whatever." So I got stuck watching "The Real Housewives" of whatever. I tried all the different cities, and it was equally disgusting and awful each time. I can't believe these shows. It's terrifying. It's like, [Network screenwriter] Paddy Chayefsky was right, and here we are.
I did a video the other day, which might come out. It's typical stuff you would expect from me, directed by my friend Maximilla [Lukacs] —who does super high-femme, surreal videos—and it was total Miss Havisham. What am I wearing? A white dress! Of course! But you know what I'm not wearing? A flower crown. I have to tell you, I've never worn a flower crown, except once, in 1985, before you were born, right before Andy Warhol died. He decided I was going to be a star and put me in Interview wearing a flower crown. It was my first big piece of press. I saw pictures of Coachella and all these girls are wearing flower crowns from Urban Outfitters! Flower crowns have tipped. They might be a little bit done. Max's videos have a lot of flower crowns in them, and I said, "Max, no flower crown." For what the video cost, which was nothing, it might be good. It's not going to get 62 million hits, but it is what it is.
Pitchfork: Was there a specific reason you moved from New York back to L.A.?
CL: One was to be near [my daughter] Frances. That's the most important one. And the other is to be closer and more accessible to acting. I have a pretty big agent who's very passionate about me right now, so we're looking at film stuff. And Eric [Erlandson]'s here, so we can work on [Hole], which is a next-year, next-level concern. I'm not a theater rat, so I never got a theatrical agent [in New York] and did a play. I came really close though.
Pitchfork: What play were you going to do?
CL: I don't want to say because I might still get it. The chick won a Tony for it. It was an unknown, out-of-the-blue, very feminist—but sexual—piece. I came so close, and the producer wanted me. But the director had equity and he didn't want me. Not because of acting capacity—I was a perfect fit—but because of reputation. I really want to give a TED talk on "reputation." That is something I'm specifically equipped to discuss—how reputation can affect even your capacity to rent a place. Having good credit is irrelevant in the face of something like getting thrown out of court six years ago. I've really thought this out.
Pitchfork: Your new single "You Know My Name" references that idea.
CL: Yeah. I mean, look, it's not "Hallelujah"—I didn't write a lyric like, "I'm the little Jew that wrote the Bible." I'm not showing off the best of my lyrical capacity, but it's fucking catchy. This is a song kids are going to like a lot. I'm in the middle of writing a letter to a guy I have a crush on about this song, and how he's probably not going to like it because he's a grown-up. He's more of a Dylan type. The B-side is also fast. I think fast songs are harder to write—I set the bar really high for fast songs. We demoed 18 songs, and I threw them all out. I wanted immediate—boom—get in there, punch them in the face in under three minutes, get out!
Pitchfork: At first, I wondered why you released those songs as Courtney Love rather than as Hole, like your last album, Nobody's Daughter.
CL: Well, that was a mistake in 2010. Eric was right—I kind of cheapened the name, even though I'm legally allowed to use it. I should save "Hole" for the lineup everybody wants to see and had the balls to put Nobody's Daughter under my own name.
Pitchfork: So the Hole reunion will be happening then?
CL: I'm not going to commit to it happening, because we want an element of surprise. There's a lot of i's to be dotted and t's to be crossed. It's next year's concern, but we've hung out, we've sat down, we've met, we've jammed. There's some caveats, there's some things people need. We're older—we're all mainlining vegan food, you know what I mean? Nobody smokes other than me. No one's on drugs. Melissa drinks red wine, like me, and Patty's sober. I'd like to make sure that [my current guitarist] Micko [Larkin] stays along for that ride, because we're going to need an extra person if we do it anyway. He's been my guitarist for seven years, we have a good connection.
Pitchfork: If the mid-90s Hole lineup did reunite next year, what would playing with them again mean to you?
CL: It would only mean anything if we did something relevant. Listen, you'll love this conversation, given that you're from Pitchfork: We are the last to the dance. I saw Tom Morello the other night, and I thought Rage hadn't even [reunited], and he goes, "What are you talking about? We did a reunion from 2007 to 2011." I'm like, "Holy shit!" Then we got down to Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Someone asked me to go out with Alice in Chains, and I'm like, "I can't, Layne is dead." And my manager was like, "They've had three reunions." I'm like, "That's impossible! Layne's dead!" Apparently, they had three hits on alternative radio, which there's not much of in the States—in the Nirvana glory years, there were over a thousand stations, and now there's 42.
I would say the low point of my career was in Texas, at Pizza Hut Park, opening [2010's Edgefest] at noon, first on the bill under Limp Bizkit and 30 Seconds to Mars—I didn't even put makeup on. Jared Leto is standing there with his pink mohawk after our set, and he goes, "Hey, pretty lady." And I was like, "Jared, I know you're a rock star." And he goes, "We sold out Wembley!" And I'm like, "You're Jordan Catalano... I'm sorry. I can't stick around to see you play." My daughter isn't a fan. I go by what my kid says. Her boyfriend [Isaiah Silva]—my son-in-law—has an amazing band called the Eeries. It's Oasis-tinged, but so good.
Pitchfork: What would make the Hole reunion relevant?
CL: If we can get two killer songs together and then look at an album. We definitely would be looking at an album. I can't live on the oldies circuit. The band started talking about everyone who's done it. Patty brought up that Jesus Lizard had done it, and I'm like, "Wait, wait, wait—Jesus Lizard did a reunion tour?!" Then Melissa's like, "Yeah, Sunny Day Real Estate did it." And I'm like, "How did Sunny Day Real Estate do a reunion tour?" It's like anybody that ever had a Sub Pop Single of the Month did a reunion tour! I'm like, "Next you're going to tell me that the Dwarves did it." And they did! This is crazy!
I'm the last holdout on this. And the reason it's not happening this year is because I was too late to come to the conclusion that it should be done, and to find the manager we all agree on. To make it have some ass-kicking. No one's been dormant. Patty teaches drumming and drums in three indie bands. Melissa has her metal-nerd thing going on—her dream is to play Castle Donington with Dokken. Eric hasn't flipped—I jammed with him, he's still doing his Thurston-crazy tunings, still corresponding with Kevin Shields. We all get along great. There are bands who reunite and hate each others' guts.
Pitchfork: It does seem like everyone from Hole has been busy: I saw Patty's band Upset earlier this year, and I was at Melissa's venue Basilica Hudson in upstate New York last year, and I read Eric's book a couple of years ago.
CL: Melissa's a real avid Pitchfork reader. Patty knows every single thing that's still going on with Drag City and Razor & Tie and every little label. Brody Dalle from Distillers was telling me how there are lots of cool little labels, which I'm not up on because I don't read Pitchfork every day. I read Jezebel a lot. I've tried to tweet you guys and kiss your ass, but the dude in Portland just doesn't like me. So I'm like, "OK, fine."
CL: Isn't it based in Portland?
Pitchfork: No, we're in Brooklyn and Chicago.
CL: Oh! I see, I see. I mixed it up with "Portlandia".
"The low point of my career was in Texas, at Pizza Hut Park, opening [2010's Edgefest] at noon, first on the bill under Limp Bizkit and
30 Seconds to Mars—I didn't even put makeup on."
Pitchfork: You were recently at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction on behalf of Kurt, and you spoke with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic for the first time in 20 years. How was that?
CL: It was such a good night. I'm sad Frances was sick—she had a 102-degree fever, but then went to Coachella three days later? I was like, "What are you doing?" I went over and put eucalyptus candles out and rubbed her little chest. She really missed out on a heavy night.
To us, back in the day, the Rock Hall was cheesy. It's a place where Eric Clapton has been inducted three times. But somewhere in the aughts, Patti Smith demanded to be in, and then R.E.M. got in—either we all grew older, or it became cooler. The E Street Band definitely took over 80 minutes for their induction. [laughs] Unfortunately, there was my slip of the tongue ["My Springsteen problem is just that saxophones don't belong in rock'n'roll"], which was just a stupid thing blown way out of context. I had to write apology letters. I can't go pissing off big rock stars who I like, who are nice to me. But listen to [X-Ray Spex's] Germfree Adolescents—accidents are great in rock'n'roll, sometimes.
Pitchfork: Did you talk to Grohl and Novoselic?
CL: We did. On my way to the bathroom, I saw Grohl, and Grohl saw me, and he came up to me first—which really pissed me off, because I was going to go up to him first. [laughs] I wanted to beat him to the punch. I was like, "All right, no matter what happens, we're not going to be bitches." That was my attitude going in, and obviously his. Not much else needs to be said. We just both knew it was time to let it go, and we were ready to do it.
It's been 20 years—we didn't even talk at the funeral. None of us. And so, 20 years of me getting Yoko-bashed, and Dave bashing, and me bashing and making it worse, all that shit. The legal stuff, the trial. We just buried it. It was really deep. It brings tears to my eyes to even talk about it. There were certain lawyers who called me tearfully and said it was the most moving moment of the night. There were some hecklers who booed me, which was weird and off and scary. I ignored it. I just looked at who was on stage and was like, "Ah, fuck it."
Pitchfork: Did it make sense to you that Lorde and St. Vincent were there singing in Nirvana?
CL: Not at first. Initially, I thought it was sexist, and a little bit ghettoizing. But then I was like, "No, Kurt would have loved this." And there's reality to it. Apparently, no high profile dudes wanted to do it. It's interesting, isn't it? I mean, I don't know where Lorde is going. I like the St. Vincent girl a lot—I looked at some of her YouTubes and I like her look, her attitude, her whole thing. She was pretty cool, especially for being as nervous as she probably was. But I am telling you—the Kim Gordon moment was so punk. Kim gave the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would've approved of the most. It was the punkest thing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has ever seen. I was really proud of that.
She came out wearing a striped mini-dress and did this total panty-roll on the floor. She rocked it. It was totally flat. I swear to god, I was watching [Rolling Stone and Rock Hall founder] Jann Wenner's table, and their jaws were on the floor, because everything had been so in-tune all night. [laughs] It was truly a celebration of the spirit of what was subversive about In Utero and [Steve] Albini, and what remains punk about Nirvana. Me and Kim, we're not BFFs, but I was getting my hair done recently, and my hairdresser said, "Kim Gordon was asking how you were, she said to tell you hi." I was like, "Really? We don't really talk, but tell her hi." So we've kind of made peace through our hairdresser.
I went to the afterparty and, at that point, I was emotionally drained. There were people in the room who have stolen vast amounts of money from me. I couldn't have given a shit; I just let it go. Grohl said something good while skirting around the issue of us slamming each other for 20 years: It was just our way of dealing with the carnage we had to deal with. Someone suggested we go into the press room and hug it out, but I was like, "What? Nooo." We hugged privately. We didn't whore it out. It was genuine. I had this long speech, which I worked my ass off on, and then I saw it on the teleprompter, and was just like, "Don't even bother, just get this over with and bury the hatchet." It wasn't going to make great television, in terms of oration. I'm not getting a TED Talk because of a Hall of Fame speech, trust me.
"Kim Gordon gave the performance that Kurt would've
approved of the most. It was the punkest thing the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has ever seen."
Pitchfork: It's cool to hear you still screaming on your new single—does that feel as good to you now as it did 25 years ago, when you started Hole?
CL: Of course! I've never worked with Sky [Ferreira], but I've talked to her, and I'm just like, "You gotta scream more, man." Just find it. Find your scream! Even if you don't release it, find a scream. It's so liberating. You can do anything then. It's like you can fly. It gives you superpowers, to find your female scream and not withhold. It's not specifically Sky—just, anyone. I took Starred on tour, and told the singer, Liza, "You've got to scream in pitch." It makes you feel really good. It releases endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, antidepressants. I wake up in the morning and I'm a fairly happy camper, and I don't get that depressed, but I had the worst experience playing live while I was on normal antidepressants for a very brief period. I was onstage and I couldn't connect with anything, or anybody, or with the music. Nothing reached me. I was like, "These fucking antidepressants…"
I've worked with girls who I've tried to mentor. There's this rapper, Brooke Candy, and I'm on one of her songs. We hung out in Venice. I got a guitar out, and I was like, "OK, but scream." She's got a great little-girl pop voice, too. She's pretty subversive. She's a rapper now, but I think she'll end up singing. Sia is writing her songs. She's going to blow up in that way that they blow up. She has a major label throwing boatloads of money at her—a really intense, good Steven Klein video—but she's dark and twisted. So obviously, I liked her.
I was given this "Vinyl Suite" hotel room [in Venice], and we hung out there. Carly Simon's Greatest Hits was in there, [David Bowie's] Pin Ups, Marvin Gaye's Duets, and that was about it. There was this really good stereo, and I thought, "God, I want to start collecting vinyl again." I have Kurt's vinyl, but I put it in storage, because it's so precious. I don't want to sell it ever. It's such a weird collection. Pitchfork would love it.
Pitchfork: What's it like?
CL: This collection starts at age six and ends at age 27—it's like his soul in vinyl. Yes, there’s AC/DC, some Black Sabbath, the expected stuff. But it’s mostly novelty records like Dr. Demento, and true indie of that period. Maybe we can eventually make an app out of it. Those records are somewhere in London. I felt like Kurt's vinyl was so valuable that I would either start giving them away as gifts, or donate them to be sold for charity. The woman at Christie's said, "Oh, [the collection is] worth 60,000 pounds," and just to prove her wrong, I sold one record for charity, for Mariska Hargitay's rape kit foundation, and it sold for $135,000. It was Talking Heads—I don't think that ruined the collection. I don't know what it was doing in the collection, but I do vaguely remember a Talking Heads argument.
I also gave one record to [actor] Michael Pitt, who came over to my house to find me. I guess he had done a movie [2005's Last Days] with Gus Van Sant, where he acts like he's Kurt or something. I've never seen it. There were four copies of the record, it was a 7" on Kill Rock Stars. It was one of [Kurt's ex-girlfriend and Bikini Kill drummer] Tobi [Vail]'s bands. What were they called, OK Go or something?
Pitchfork: The Go Team?
CL: I gave him the Go Team record, but I didn't give him the one with Kurt's writing all over it. Do you think Michael Pitt understands the context of what that record is at all? I tend to give things away. I give my clothes away. It's not smart.
Pitchfork: Well, you're Buddhist, right? It's in your nature to let go of things.
CL: No, no. That has nothing to do with my religion. When my mother was trying to teach me how to make friends when I was a kid, she'd bring girls over to the house and I'd give them all my clothes. Nothing changes, I still do it. And then I wonder, "Where is that really nice Isabel Marant dress that I spent a fortune on? Oh my god, I gave it to Liza."
"If I were a little girl growing up right now,
there's a lot I would be angry about."
Pitchfork: I was reading the oral history of Live Through This that was recently published on SPIN and...
CL: I didn't read it.
Pitchfork: There's a moment when you're reflecting on why the album has become iconic, and you said that maybe it's because girls don't make angry records as often as they did in the '90s. This made me think of all the places girls could possibly be drawing anger from. Where do you draw anger from now?
CL: There's not a lot of people expressing anger in the culture. They're expressing a lot of hyper-exaggerated sexuality. Like I said, I don't watch reality TV much, but sometimes I'll be on the E! channel and see that show "Total Divas", about female wrestlers. It's like, fake tits are de rigueur. Nose jobs are de rigueur. Exaggerated asses are de rigueur. Twerking is de rigueur. If I were a little girl growing up right now, there's a lot I would be angry about. I have a daughter who's got some reasons to be pissed at the world. Frances is an indie-alternative person. Her favorite band was Dresden Dolls; she's really into Amanda [Palmer]. I respect it, but I don't get it. Anyway, there's a lot I would be angry about, just, uncertainty... the 90s was a better decade, the Clinton-era. How old are you?
Pitchfork: I'm 24.
CL: Oh god. You don't even know what the 90s were like. It was a better decade in terms of punk rock. There's still good music being made, I'm just not aware of it all. Matt Koshak from Starred made me this great playlist with what's new and cool. There was some good stuff on there, like this band Wolf Eyes, or something. Is that right?
Pitchfork: They're great.
CL: I should be able to have a fluid conversation about new music, but I forgot most of the stuff on that playlist. Because there weren't a lot of chicks! If I see a chick playing guitar, I'm drawn to that band immediately. I want to know everything, even if it's completely electronic. But you have to really get my attention if you're male. I can't help it. It's part of my nature.
"I think commercial success is really important—it means you're affecting the zeitgeist. If only a hundred people know
you exist, it's harder to get your message across."
Pitchfork: In what way would you hope these younger female artists are inspired by your music and personality?
CL: I'd hope they achieve some sort of mainstream success, so people start picking up instruments again. Because there is a reward for it. The beauty of the Nirvana moment was that it was a band succeeding on their own terms. The White Stripes have done really well on their own terms, and Jack White hasn't had to make a note out of place. I was inspired seeing Queens of the Stone Age had a #1 record in the U.S. I think commercial success is really important. It means there are more people listening, and you're affecting the zeitgeist more. If only a hundred people know you exist, it's harder to get your message across. Mainstream success is important—that's probably anathema to an indie publication like Pitchfork, but it's what I believe having experienced it personally.
There's something to be said for being PJ Harvey, too, where you can have a consistent cult following that stays with you, and you can do whatever you want. But early PJ Harvey is still what inspires me and makes me know I'm not there yet. I always knew she was better than me, and I liked that. I like knowing that there is somebody who is a better guitar player, who had it down lyrically, and kicked my ass all over town. That moment with PJ Harvey's first five records—up to White Chalk, and then I don't understand anymore. I mean, I get it: She's on a trajectory that's "cool." But I don't understand. Where is the rock? I need the rock.
Pitchfork: There is an interview you gave in the 90s where you tell girls, "Don't date the football captain. Be the football captain!" At what point did you realize you had become a football captain, that there were more women captains?
CL: I've discreetly dated a lot of people—I once dated a billionaire, mostly because it was fun to say, "I'm dating a billionaire," but we did not have the same taste in music, and it was doomed. Still, I'm a major feminist. There's a real politic in life, where I've been in rooms where real decisions are made, and it's a lot of powerful white men. There are women in those rooms, but not as many as there should be. For a little while, I got really disillusioned.
Bust had a party for Lena Dunham and didn't invite me, and I was like, "When did I get kicked out of the feminist club?" We called up Bust and said, "You're going to sell more copies with me on the cover." And Tavi [Gevinson]'s birthday is tomorrow! She's 18, and I'm going to her party. But tonight I'm going to [Dole Food heir] Justin Murdock's birthday party. Think about that dichotomy: a Murdock birthday party, and then Tavi's. I keep social with everyone because I want to know what's going on at every level. At the same time, if I'm not alone a certain amount of time per day then I'll go nuts, because I can't write and I can't think. I can’t deal with people all the time. I like being alone. I’m a bit of a cat lady in that way.
In terms of being the football captain—that statement was definitively about how there should be a sisterhood. I've been screwed by as many women as I have by men, in terms of lawyers. But lawyers don't count. If you take lawyers out of the equation, you have a more fair playing field. There is a sisterhood now, and it functions pretty well. So you have hope.
"Back in the kitchen of my family's Brooklyn housing project, I'd sit alongside my little sister, eat a bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal, and watch 'Soul Train'." So writes Nelson George early on in The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style. In describing this ritual, George is hardly alone: During its glorious 35-year run, from 1971 to 2006, "Soul Train" snagged untold millions of viewers in its net, and redefined dance, fashion, and music for generations. Sentiments on "Soul Train", and on the deep, dry baritone of its iconic host Don Cornelius, remain about as mixed as sentiments on fresh-baked cookies.
Explaining the "Soul Train"'s ubiquity, George writes, "This wasn't isolated exposure on a black radio station at the end of the AM dial, or a brief appearance by James Brown or Jackie Wilson on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' This was a regularly scheduled get-down, right in your living room, whether you were black or white."
The power of the show's look, sound, and dances, transmitted relatively unrefined into millions of living rooms, had a seismic impact on culture on a global scale. "[Singer and 'Soul Train' dancer] Jody Watley told me a story," George remembers when I catch up with him on the phone. "She went to Japan in the late '80s or early '90s, and some guy came up to her with four tapes that have every 'Soul Train' performance she’s ever been on."
Apart from being a loving history, George says the book is also “almost like a YouTube guide. I tried to describe the year and show number so people could go and find the video. Sometimes you have to dig deep. But most of 'Soul Train' is somewhere.” Below, a few choice clips, illustrating some of the show's most iconic moves, have been embedded to get people started.
Pitchfork: What inspired you to write about "Soul Train"?
Nelson George: Ironically, about two years ago, shortly before Don Cornelius died, I got a call from him about doing a book on "Soul Train". But I was really busy and didn't have the time to do it—we’re talking about 40 years worth of history. Then, after Don's suicide, my agent was contacted about doing a book on him. I was interested, but the challenge was that he’s dead. He’s the voice. He’s the throughline. It turned out that a friend of mine at VH1 had directed a "Soul Train" documentary, and there was an extended transcript with Don, so I used that as my foundation. So, ultimately, it was Don’s passing, tragic as it was, that inspired the book. I just wish he’d been alive to be a part of it.
Pitchfork: What are your personal "Soul Train" memories?
NG: I was a little kid when "Soul Train" came on, and I watched it on Saturdays, just like everybody else I know. But I really remember my first trip when I was in my twenties. I was a full-time writer and worked for Billboard at the time, and I got a chance to go to "Soul Train", which is crazy. One of my favorite memories was the mountain of Kentucky Fried Chicken they had—boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken stacked up for the dancers to eat in between shows. I’d never seen so much in my life.
Pitchfork: Did you find a clip when you were researching this book that you had never seen before and blew your mind?
NG: Somewhere in the "Soul Train" archives is a clip where Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin are at the piano together. A lot of people don’t know about this, but they were childhood friends. That blew me away. I knew they were from Detroit, obviously, but in all those years I’d never seen them perform together. That was special, to see these two kids who were neighbors now as icons sitting around at the piano.
Pitchfork: The lives of the "Soul Train" dancers almost feel like the real subject of your book; it’s a love note, in a way, to them. What drew you to their stories?
NG: Well, Don was obviously the most important person. But to me, the dancers were the next most important—more important, in a way, than the singers. Their job was really remarkable. I mean, it’s definitely a young person’s gig, I’ll put it that way. They recorded up to five, six, seven shows a weekend, so the energy in the dance room had to be looking fresh and excited. They did most of the taping on Saturday and Sunday, and these were long days.
It wasn’t the greatest environment, in a sense, for the dancers. It was weekend work, they didn’t get paid, and it was hard to get in there. But there were perks: Once you were a "Soul Train" regular, you had carte blanche at L.A. clubs. You’d get in anywhere. They were kind of mini celebrities, and in some cases they were able to travel and perform. So while the working conditions weren’t perfect, it was a platform. To this day, many of the dancers still travel the world, teaching the dances they did on "Soul Train" in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Pitchfork: Let’s talk about some of those dancers, since you devote several sections to individual dancers and the moves they perfected, like Tyrone Proctor, Damita Jo Freeman, and Creepin' Sid.
NG: Tyrone Proctor’s one of the guys who helped create waack dancing. One of the interesting things about going in to talk to people like Tyrone and Jody Watley was that there’s a strong gay subtext to the show. I never noticed when I was a kid, but a lot of the male dancers and some of the female dancers were gay. And some of the dances, waacking particularly, later on folded into voguing, which came out of the gay clubs in L.A.
And now he teaches waacking in China, can you believe it? He just came back from Argentina; he was in Russia last year; he got a trip to Hong Kong and mainland China that’s going to happen in the next couple of months. The dance has changed as Tyrone has changed. His hips are really messed up after all those years, so when he teaches it now he does all of the dances and motions waist-up, because he really can’t do the floor motions. It’s led to a really weird morphing of it, and a lot people think it’s only an upper-body dance. But back in the day, it was a full-body dance.
Damita Jo was the first real female star dancer on the show, and she's a classically-trained dancer who had really incredible body control. She could basically do a ballet move on one leg and it’d be funky. There’s this amazing footage where she dances with James Brown—and he spends half of his time on the stage looking at Damita Jo.
And Creepin' Sid, a member of a crew called Sam Solomon and the Electric Boogaloos, was doing backsliding on "Soul Train" years before the moonwalk. Jeffrey Daniel, another popular "Soul Train" dancer, who went by the name the Pop Along Kid, apparently taught it to Michael, and with Michael obviously—boom—it becomes phenomenon. There was interesting relationship between the show, the clubs in L.A., and pop culture.
The thing about "Soul Train" overall is that these mostly West Coast-based dances would get on the show and immediately go national, and then, through the bootlegging of videotapes, they would go global. And once they were global, they remained global. People cut up "Soul Train" footage and made videos for songs from Daft Punk's [Random Access Memories], and they got millions of views. These dances are still living.
Pitchfork: You write about how Rosie Perez had an interesting experience with the show as a dancer as well.
NG: Rosie's story about her relationship with Don is pretty complicated. It seems that Don wasn't comfortable with many of the dancers, he wasn't a fatherly figure in that sense. He was more of a distant authority figure. He wanted to recruit Rosie into a female vocal trio with [fellow "Soul Train" dancer] Cheryl Song and a white dancer-singer, but she wouldn’t sign the contract, so he took her out to dinner to try to convince her.
While there are a lot of stories about sex and people who hooked up on "Soul Train", I never once found any reference to Don with sleeping with any of the female dancers. If it happened, I couldn't find anyone that would cop to it. There's a number of couples who met through the show, but Don, to his credit, seemed to have a hands-off policy.
Pitchfork: Cornelius haunts the book, in an odd way. When people talk about him, there's affection but there's also a certain unease at not knowing the man or what he was thinking. You spent a little bit of time with him: Did you ever feel privy to his inner workings?
NG: Oh no, no. You always felt that Don was measuring you: "Who are you? Ok. What are you about? How smart are you? How savvy are you? Can I trust you, can I not trust you? How honest should I be or not be at this moment?" You’d meet Quincy Jones, for example, for five minutes and you’d think he's your best friend. Don was the total opposite of that. He totally had his own space. He was always respectful, but it was very formal.
In the book, I quote the testimony that he gave at Congress about rap music, and if you really read that testimony, there's a formality in how it's written. I feel that's an extended version of his public persona. It's one of the few instances where you have pages and pages of Don speaking his mind in a public forum. And it reveals a lot; he tries to be respectful to certain aspects of hip-hop but he's got an adult disdain that's really palpable. With the exception of his true Hollywood friends, very few people could say they felt they knew the inner Don.
Photos by Emma Elizabeth Tillman
There's a song on Fear Fun, the warm 2012 debut from former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman's Father John Misty project, called "I'm Writing a Novel"—and wouldn't you know it, that's exactly what the singer/songwriter is up to these days. "I see being a writer as my fourth act, or something," he tells me during an hour-long phone conversation, while he's kicking back at his home in New Orleans. "I don't know what the end game is, though. I have a feeling that the minute I tell myself I'm going to be more serious about it, the writing would immediately begin to suffer."
As Tillman describes the plot of his novel-in-progress, which he says is currently 50,000 words deep, it's clear that being serious isn't a notion that he's taking too, uh, seriously. "It's about this couple named Charles and Agnes Brimley, and Charles is an author writing this book about a herd of post-apocalyptic chihuahuas," Tillman explains, without a hint of humor in his voice. "They go to Salt Lake City, walk by a funeral home, impersonate another couple, and order a '69' casket for themselves—a casket that you can 69 in. While Charles is writing his book, he gets into the casket and realizes that the voice of God is in there, and God’s name is Josh Tillman, and Josh Tillman divulges the secrets of Charles’ universe. I really like how the book is going so far." (His current working titles: Eureka Royale and Operation: Annihilate Pussy.)
Tillman has the tendency to come off as flippant or, at worst, slightly aggressive in interviews; at times, he sounds like he's intentionally blurring the line between where Josh Tillman ends and the ego-inflated, debauched, perfume-hawking Father John Misty guise begins. As the tales of shooting up heroin and dead grandparents from our last interview suggest, he clearly enjoys having fun with notions of persona and truth (or lack thereof), so it makes some cosmic sense that our conversation takes place on April Fool's Day, and he immediately expresses good-natured regret at not planning a series of pranks for the interview.
And, to be clear, Tillman hasn't gone full-blown novelist just yet, as he's also been spending plenty of time putting the finishing touches on his second record, which is due out early next year via Sub Pop. When we spoke, he had just returned from overseeing the mixdown process in Seattle with producer Jonathan Wilson, who also manned the boards on Fear Fun. When I ask him what the new album is called, he demurs, but pointedly clarifies, "It's not called Annihilation Pussy."
Talking about the recent mixing sessions, he says, "I didn’t realize how embarrassing it would be to sit in a room listening to these songs. They're very intimate, but only lyrically. I had more license to indulge this time around, so I was throwing string sections at shit and putting 100 ideas in a song where four would normally do." He makes a point of nothing that "there aren't any real country tunes on it, but it’s got a lot of soul. It's all over the place—people will either think this record is great, or easily the stupidest thing they’ve ever heard, which is my strike zone." When I press him further on the album's sound, he backs away; a few hours later, he tweets me a description that is, if nothing else, illustrative: "If you put Kiss make-up on the cover of [Simon & Garfunkel's] Bookends. That's what it sounds like. I had to come to the coffee shop to tell you." (Tillman currently doesn't have internet at his home.)
Speaking on the album's themes, he's a bit more forthcoming. "It's a concept album about this guy, Josh Tillman, who's engaging in a lot of very prurient, despair-ridden encounters with females," he offers. He recently married filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman—who played a dominatrix in the video for Fear Fun's "Nancy From Now On", and whose short film The History of Caves featured a score written and recorded by Josh—so the semi-autobiographical exploits detailed on the LP are a catalog of a time when Tillman "had too much time on my hands two years ago and was on a crazed trip. Things that reek of despair are typically funny—if not to us, than to God, or something. Any time you listen to an album, you’re like God watching little human activities transpire underfoot."
Wedded bliss is as much of a throughline in the new material as past misbehavior. "Conventional wisdom is that when it comes to interesting songwriting, love is a dead end," Tillman muses. "For me, though, it ended up being a pretty insurmountable topic without having to resort to clichés. It’s a very funny, very sad, kind of uplifting album about love—there's nothing about isolation because of technology or anything like that." Other thematic material explored on the album takes a more (let's say) specific focus: "There's a song where a dog bites my dick. It's great."
But, seriously: Tillman's ability to crack wise is matched by his ability to speak intelligently and at-length on many topics, including how the highly performative conceptualism behind Father John Misty's presentation juxtaposes with his ever-growing fanbase. "The live show has been this satire of rock show artifice over the last couple of years, which was very satisfying and fun, but I don’t even know where I’m going with this," Tillman admits, ruminating on the limitations of his fame-debauched, at-times incredibly funny stage persona. "I definitely want my audience to have some kind of cathartic experience, so I’m not being particularly precious when I play shows. It raises interesting questions for people."
Although the folk-indebted sounds of Tillman's music may cause some to hear his tales of taking shamanistic psychedelics and "smoking everything in sight" with reverence, it's hard to imagine large crowds of people getting their daily gospel from a guy who once suggested that he was coming out with his own line of toilet paper during a show. Nonetheless, he fears that the drug-addled Father John Misty character might not be going down exactly how he planned: "Every now and then, I lock eyes with someone at a show, and in my soul I'm just like, 'Oh, no.' There's a total disconnect, which is really freaky—in someone else's mind, I'm just a total abstraction."
Potential mischaracterizations of intent aside, Tillman is increasingly in the air lately, whether he's opening shows for Lana Del Rey, backing up Beck during a few recent late-night TV performances, or collaborating with T. Bone Burnett on the song "The Angry River", which soundtracked the season finale of HBO's twisted buddy-cop drama "True Detective". "While I was recording my vocals, T. Bone's dog ended up eating a bunch of weed-laced Tootsie Rolls and had to be taken to the hospital," Tillman laughs. "They had to take their dog to an emergency veterinarian, so that really broke the sanctimony of things. The dog was OK in the end, but it was a gold mine for jokes, like, 'This dog has never heard music like this before.'"
Even as Tillman manages to stay busy, one obstacle continues to stand in his way: the notoriously difficult Sunday crossword puzzle in The New York Times. "Fuck that," he says while talking about his downtime hobby, which he says he indulges in while "stroking a cat" at night. "When I get to the Saturday puzzle, I'm usually guessing words," he confesses. "Really, you have to cheat. If the two options I'm presented with are 'cheat' and 'give up and cry', I'm going to cheat."
"Any time you say 'I really should be writing songs' before you sit down to write a song, you’re going to write some really terrible shit."
Pitchfork: You moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans five months ago. What are the differences between the two cities, in your experience?
Josh Tillman: Nobody works in New Orleans, everybody’s on their own time table. The pace initially gave me a bit of an existential crisis—when I lived in L.A., it was like, “I’m going to go to the post office and get a coffee,” which ends up taking nine hours. And then I go to the bar. That would be my day. In New Orleans, there are just so many hours in the day, so I end up being like, “I really should be writing songs.” But any time that sentence comes out of your mouth before you sit down to write a song, you’re going to write some really terrible shit.
Tillman at Avast! Recording Co. in Seattle
Pitchfork: Part of the Father John Misty image involves embodying a lothario persona, but marriage limits how far you can take that persona in real life now.
JT: I can see how monogamy can be synonymous with marriage—conceptually, they're mirror images of each other—but marriage increasingly doesn’t mean anything, especially because it's a secular institution. It’s a blank medium, and you do what you want with it. Maybe there are evil patriarchal parameters that have been handed down through the ages, but I see marriage as a form of creative expression. Personally, I enjoy monogamy—humiliation and sex are more synonymous that way.
I have this self-destructive streak, it's just the way I'm wired. I’ll be walking down the street and see a guy sitting behind a dumpster drinking and I’ll be like, "That looks great." There are elements of my songs that make them be perceived as anthems for a certain attitude or behavior, but it's more nuanced than that. It isn’t political—I'm not like, "I have the right to behave like this, so I’m going to behave like this, and everyone should be free to do whatever." They're just accounts.
Pitchfork: As your audience grows, do you feel pressure to tailor your own artistic vision to please the masses?
JT: When you're writing songs, everything blacks out. Then, when you’re recording, you’re thinking, "I just want to do the best I can for my little song babies." For this new record, more so than Fear Fun, the material feels dead until it reaches the audience. It’s a different album in that I want to give people certain feels.
I hesitate to say it because it's sounds so magnanimous, but I really do love my audience. If this album doesn't do what I'm hoping that it does for people, I'm willing to call it a failure—I won't be like, "you imbeciles!" There's different things that I've set out to communicate this time, and the album is less one-dimensional as a result. It's a minefield to try to address love in a way that is moving without triggering all of the pre-conceived notions, and the subject is so riddled with societal ambivalence. I'm just trying to hold somebody's hand through this thing that I've experienced.
"I have a theory that often books are published on the verge of the moment their arguments will go out of date," writes critic Carl Wilson in the afterword to a new version of his 2007 book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which dissected ideas of modern taste through the lens of Celine Dion's biggest album. And while snobbish so-called rockism—which Wilson put in question by hinging hundreds of probing pages upon a critically disregarded artist and album—has fallen further out of favor over the last seven years, the book's main points about knowing your subject, always being wary of your biases, and prioritizing open-mindedness over knee-jerk conventional wisdom are as pertinent as ever.
So the recently updated Let's Talk About Love—cheekily re-subtitled Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste and bundled with a host of excellent accompanying essays from the book's admirers including Krist Novoselic, Nick Hornby, Ann Powers, and James Franco—is a welcome excuse to revisit the main text in light of our current state of hyperspeed discourse. It's also a good excuse to catch up with Wilson, who continues to be an essential voice in the rock writer community while serving as Slate's music critic.
"The book was challenging the idea that there is a canon of great albums," he says, "and considering the ecumenical, YouTube-style listening that's become more and more dominant since it was first published, that established canon is much less important now than it was in the heyday of the rock magazines." But rather than looking at those dissolving totems and seeing diminished critical power, Wilson views the open playing field as a possible boon for original thought and fresh perspective. It's an optimistic idea that's backed up throughout the book, which, ironically enough, has quickly become canonical in its own right.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like writing Let's Talk About Love had a genuine impact on how you write about and listen to music?
Carl Wilson: Absolutely. The book got tied up with a process that my writing was already going through, but the deeper I got into the questions the book raises, the more universal and radical they started to feel. At the end of it, there was a period where I felt a bit paralyzed in doing my normal music reviewing gig, because that kind of judgment wasn't that useful to me anymore—particularly, I became more wary of the critical tendency to describe something seethingly. I wanted to find a different voice, and it took me some time to feel like I could synthesize the approaches that I talk about in the book with the job of reviewing records. Now I feel comfortable doing it again because I always start from establishing a world in which the music comes from, and also the world in which I'm receiving it.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like it's become more difficult for you to write a really negative review now?
CW: It's just given me stronger professional ethics about that kind of negativity and made it difficult for me to be dismissive and knee-jerk and uninterested—and I was all of those things before I looked into it more deeply. I try not to dismiss entire categories of music wholesale anymore. That's part of the job description for good criticism now: Nothing should be out of bounds. That doesn't mean you have to like everything you hear, but rather to avoid saying, "That's not the kind of thing I can like" before you've actually reviewed it.
Now, if I'm going to write negatively—or positively—about something, I feel a stronger obligation to have spent time thinking it over and looking into its context, so I can make judgements with all of that knowledge there, rather than a quick gut reaction. Because our gut reactions are a little bit programmed by world history and personal history—how I've identified myself, what I've known, and the things that I've felt different from. If I don't have a goal in why I would want to make a negative argument, then I'm less interested about writing about something; maybe I thought being an argumentative intellectual was a cool part of my personality when I was young, but it's now something that I'm very wary of—I'm very concerned when people suggest to me that I've been arrogant or that I haven't listened to what someone is saying.
Pitchfork: Probably like you, I follow a bunch of music critics on Twitter, and I'm often surprised that some of the more experienced ones still fall into that "argumentative intellectual" mode at times.
CW: [laughs] It's a smart community, but it's a critic community. Especially among the guys, there's a competition to be the biggest smart-ass. I try to not feel tempted to win that game.
"Maybe I thought being an argumentative intellectual was
a cool part of my personality when I was young,
but it's now something that I'm very wary of."
Pitchfork: Would you say that it's a good exercise for music critics to explore sounds that they might not think are for them, or that they have never had an emotional reaction to?
CW: Yeah. For a critic, that's one of the bootcamps that you should go through in order to do the job. It's not that you can't do useful things without it, but if you want to make that a big part of your intellectual enterprise, then you ought to be giving things a chance that you aren't necessarily inclined to. It often ends up being a fascinating experience; there's a lot of pleasure in it. Because how we interact with art is a microcosm of the way we interact with the world. It's not that different than traveling, or making sure that you've known and talked to people who come from different backgrounds than you. All of us say such things about being open-minded and knowing enough about the world to be able to understand it, and the aesthetic version of that is equally valuable. It's something that everybody should do.
Pitchfork: Have you recently tried to listen to something that you didn't think was for you and then ended up having an appreciation for it nonetheless?
CW: I actually have an ongoing struggle of trying to wrap my head around K-pop. A lot of people I know are very into it, and I'm still kind of a stranger there. I'm definitely not immediately attracted to it, and I've never really done the big immersion that I think I would need to get a sense of what's going on, but I'm intrigued by it.
In some ways, these things are cyclical, so I'm finding myself challenged to get what's going on with a lot of younger indie rock bands these days. I'm in that stage where I often hear things and think, "Oh, that's just a rehashing of X,Y, and Z." But one of the things I often challenge myself with is thinking, "No, they're probably doing something different, and you should stop yourself with those first impressions and actually try and get what they're about a little bit more." A lot of people have hit that point of dismissing indie rock as "white kids just doing what white kids do," but I'm starting to stop myself from falling into that camp.
"How we interact with art is a microcosm
of the way we interact with the world."
Pitchfork: Some of the book deals with this idea of art that has the potential to reach the widest possible audience—do you think social media has made music listening more centralized, or more diverse?
CW: I don't think social media in itself is making things more centralized. There's an opposite gravity in social media where it's quite possible to hide yourself out into a smaller category than before. Depending on how you set yourself up, you can be talking to people who think like you, or you can do the opposite. The thing that's driving it more toward centralization is streaming services' recommendation engines and the iTunes genius program—things that pull you towards more of the same. The aggregate of that, which is starting to become clear, is that blockbusters are bigger than ever, and in some ways the so-called long tail is smaller, because people who are already successful can become more successful through those channels. There's a study that I talk about in the book where some social scientist created all artificial cultural communities online and got obscure songs to put on playlists for them in different communities. They found that whatever caught on early in any group tended to become bigger and bigger. That's an effect we can see: popularity attracts popularity.
Pitchfork: As far as the internet and taste, what do you make of someone like Lorde, whose acceptance of different styles of music is a given at 17, whereas that kind of outlook wouldn't have been as likely for previous generations.
CW: The availability of all kinds of music at all times means that tribes aren't forming in the same way; if kids hear something that intrigues them, they can immediately explore it, and that creates a whole different process. Also, there aren't these generational rivalries about musical tastes like there are about other kinds of tastes. In the past 20 years, it seems like kids haven't grown up defining their musical taste against their parents' taste. They incorporate the past and extend on from there. It's a different social model, and that allows for more fluid and eclectic listening as well.
Pitchfork: Do you think the fact that musicians are more readily accessible online nowadays also makes it harder to be openly critical of them?
CW: Yeah, there is the sense that anything you say about an artist could really reach them, which makes people cautious with the tone of what they're saying. It kind of makes all artists local in a way—usually, when people are writing for a local paper, they know that the person is in the same town, and it probably stamps down the tendency to be flippant and insulting. Maybe social media makes all artists more like a local band.
"Once we're trying to remove these biases against pop, we're still
left with the question: How do we say that something is
more lasting or important than another thing?"
Pitchfork: In Jason King's accompanying essay, he suggests that the "anti-rockist" ideas you espouse in Let's Talk About Love may have gone too far in the past few years: "At its worst, anti-rockism becomes a poor excuse to relativize musical content and to celebrate the mediocre as if it were indeed artistically transcendent." What's your take on that?
CW: In the last chapter of the original book, I started to address that problem about how once we're trying to remove these biases against pop, we're still left with the question: How do we say that something is more lasting or more important than another thing? It's still something I think about a lot, and in some ways it's an unanswerable question—you want the discourse about battling it out to be part of what determines [importance] in the long run. But I hope the pendulum swings back around to some degree, but I also hope it doesn't bring back with it that old set of unexamined biases. And one of the things that concerns me at the end of the book is how you don't want to become a Pollyanna about these things and be unthinkingly trustful, because then you'll fall for anything—but I don't think you have to become that in order to not be a dismissive jerk.
Though his handful of spiked minimalist funk tracks have racked up more than two million SoundCloud plays in the last nine months, Ben Khan says he's “not big on living my life out loud.” Indeed, detailed information about the 21-year-old Londoner has been scarce; he's on Twitter and Tumblr, but only to drop cryptic koans (“patterns emerging”) and trippy images of fancy guns and fire. When I connect with him over Skype, he doesn't have an embarrassing user handle—just his name and a number.
The first thing I think to ask is whether he was a shy dude in high school. Though he moved to the city from the Oxfordshire countryside when he was 12, Khan admits he “was probably one of the more popular kids.” He says being a skater helped, but most likely it was “just because I was the new kid on the scene—people thought I had something to say.”
So at least he understands the appeal of novelty and how that might factor into the intrigue behind the vibrant pop songs he puts forward on his debut four-song EP, 1992. After all, he’s most frequently compared to fellow R&B mutant Jai Paul—another guy who's not exactly itching to be in the spotlight. But as I talk with Khan about adolescent crushes and selling weed, it becomes clear that he's about as purposefully mysterious as the average dude enjoying a pint at the pub; describing his 21st birthday celebration, he says, “I just got standardly drunk with a bunch of mates. I love going to other people’s birthday parties more than my own—less responsibility, no pressure.”
Unlike most artists of his ilk, Khan’s primary instrument is guitar, and he claims listening to “mostly old-school” artists like B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac, and, um, Nirvana (he is 21) helped him develop his bluesy chops. He then turned to hip-hop (Earl Sweatshirt, Pusha T, and Danny Brown are current favorites), making beats on an MPC after hearing J Dilla, and putting them online. (“I had a couple of friends rap on those beats," he says, “but if Wu-Tang were there, they would've absolutely killed it.”)
Dilla is a certainly a clear influence on Khan’s humid, stuttering production style, but most of all he respects how albums like The Shining and Donuts made you rely on the music to get to know the guy behind it. "Those records fully let me in to see the scope and the breadth of the artist," says Khan, "so you could really understand so much more than the music.”
Pitchfork: Have you ever performed in front of an audience?
Ben Khan: I played some gigs just when I first started writing songs. I usually got a pretty warm reception, but that's probably because people are trying to be nice to a 12-year-old.
Pitchfork: What kind of songs were you writing at that age?
BK: Probably shit about girls that I had crushes on—the standard mind of a 12-year-old. My first and only instrument that I can really do anything on is guitar, so I was just writing nice guitar music. It was bad!
Pitchfork: Did you ever have plans to have a career outside of music?
BK: I had a job when I was down in Guildford. I say a job—I was selling weed, to be honest. [laughs] I didn't get busted, but my parents kind of knew I was smoking way too much. I stopped all that quite a while ago.
Pitchfork: You’ve talked about your father being an artist in Kashmir, did he ever give you advice or warn you about what you might come across?
BK: He probably used to get up to shit, but he doesn't really talk about it. He's a born and bred Kashmiri, so he's not some crazy dude out there running out and fuckin' crazy bitches and smoking all the drugs. It's a bit more of a reserved society.
Pitchfork: You’re most commonly compared to Jai Paul—how much of that do you think is based on heritage?
BK: Having an Asian name, basically?Yeah, I don't think there would be any comparisons if my name was Blake Johnson. But it’s just completely natural for people to do that. If you want to understand something, you naturally want to associate it with something else.
Pitchfork: When you’re out at bars with your friends and people ask, "What do you do?" do you tell them, "I'm a musician"?
BK: No, I lie. [laughs]
Pitchfork: What’s the best lie you've come up with?
BK: One time, I said I was a zookeeper. It's just whatever hits the mood, man, when you're wasted. It's whatever's going to interest the girls.
Photo by Jennifer Church
The Seer was the kind of record that seemed impossible to follow up. The nearly-two-hour 2012 LP nailed a deeply transcendent mix of drone, noise, and blues; songs that stretched to 20 and 30 minutes never felt excessive or overdone. It was my favorite album that year by a mile and contained some of the best music of Swans long career. And the band, led by eternal badass Michael Gira, hasn't given up on any of their widescreen ambition on new album To Be Kind, which is even longer than The Seer—and quite possibly better.
To Be Kind has a bluesier feel than its predecessor, with a heftier dynamic range aided by deep horn blasts and almost-shimmering production from John Congleton (St. Vincent, Baroness); 34-minute highlight “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L'Ouverture” features the sounds of galloping horses woven into its mix of cinematic drone, pummeling post-rock, and bloody incantations. The group has sounded this massive live, but never on record.
Photo by Matias Corral
The album features the core Swans group of Gira, Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Thor Harris, and Christopher Pravdica, along with guest turns from St. Vincent's Annie Clark, Little Annie, Cold Specks, Gira's fiancée Jennifer Church, Bill Rieflin, and others who add to the violently bacchanalian atmosphere.
Gira is now 60 years old, and the drawn faces of babies that make up To Be Kind's artwork suggest a kind of agelessness. When I connect with him via Skype, he's in his home and in good spirits; he makes a point to note that he usually doesn’t turn his computer's video camera on, and that I was witnessing a rare thing.
"I don’t feel complete or alive unless I’m making something."
Pitchfork: To Be Kind strikes me as an unusually positive record for you—it ends with the line, "There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes." How did this happen?
Michael Gira: If you're looking for a religious conversion, it's not here. [facetiously] Yes, I decided to give up alcohol and convert to Jesus. No, I discovered this sort of joy in the music when Swans reformed in 2010. Once we started touring, I realized the thing that was really worth pursuing was the bliss in it. I don’t feel complete or alive unless I’m making something.
Pitchfork: The live show is so intense, do you have to do any sort of training to physically prepare for a tour at this point?
MG: Oh, I’m just constantly fucked—I’ll just drop at some point. I’m not a physical fitness kind of person. I mean, I can dig ditches or shovel snow just great, but doing some kind of fitness regimen is really tedious to me, so the set itself becomes a regimen. It’s like a workout. It’s exhausting, certainly. We just work ourselves as deeply into the music as we can, and when it really works, it’s like going to church.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like it takes a lot to be committed to being in Swans? After a 10-hour practice, is anyone like, “I have to get out of here”?
MG: These days, the person who does that is me. But no, no one’s weakening. Everyone understands the full psychic and physical commitment to being in Swans because it’s not just reciting pop songs or learning how to play a song really great. It’s more like trying to find something that is immediate, but not improvised in the sense of jazz—it’s something that’s pushing a sound. I let the music go where it goes and I decide to have it end when I feel it reaches its potential. I don’t feel the need to constrain things into a song format at all.
Pitchfork: There have been a lot of bands that have come back to tour in the last few years, and a lot of have been horrific. I see Swans as a guide.
MG: Well, not naming any names, but I thought many of those bands were horrific to begin with. In fact, most of them.
Pitchfork: What do you think has made it possible for Swans to return and, in many ways, to make the strongest music of your career?
MG: I would say intelligence and talent. [laughs] And a need to do something with authenticity, to challenge oneself—all the axiomatic things one thinks about when they think of a good artist. I want to be a good artist. If others choose not to be, that's their prerogative.
Photo by Sebastien Sighell
Pitchfork: Why did you record this album with producer John Congleton?
MG: [Percussionist] Thor [Harris] worked with John through his old band Shearwater, and he recommended him highly. John was also contacting me repeatedly—obsequiously, I might say. He went through the proper ablutions.
Pitchfork: He sent flowers...
MG: Yeah, sent a huge black dildo. So I was convinced. He’s a nice guy, obviously super intelligent, and has worked with a lot of different people. Also, we got this great situation working at the Sonic Ranch in Texas through him, which was a godsend. He also brought Annie Clark to the table, which was nice. He actually introduced her to the music of Swans like three years ago, and she subsequently became what’s known colloquially as a fan.
Pitchfork: She ended up on four songs on the album.
MG: We had a good time. She’s incredibly disciplined and professional and has perfect pitch, it seems. I don’t recall that she missed a note ever. I was really, really impressed with her. I played her a lot of the songs that she wasn’t singing on, and she was kind of flopping around the studio in a very unabashed fashion, and I was really touched by that. She was just very open and American and friendly. She’s really cool.
Pitchfork: Were you familiar with St. Vincent’s music before working together?
MG: I checked it out on YouTube. It’s not the kind of music I listen to, but I think she’s incredibly talented, and watching her play guitar is quite a treat. It’s great to see a woman of her good looks and obvious potential for wide stardom being so intrinsically musically talented and totally in charge of the whole thing.
Swans during the recording of To Be Kind at Sonic Ranch in Texas. Photo by Phil Puleo.
Pitchfork: You have a pretty diverse cast of female vocalists on the album.
MG: I like having females involved. It levens our testosterone count, which is a good thing. If you can imagine, for instance, the song “Bring the Sun”, which is the gospel-y moment on the record, being sung with male voices, it would have been disastrous. There’s something about the female voice that opens up in the air more. And I like to use female voices inside of guitar tracks—you don’t really necessarily have to hear them, but they’re providing the sustain and maybe even some of the overtones in the way that they interact with the guitars. It’s something I started doing with Swans years ago, and it also provides a counterbalance to my choking futility. And I just love strong women. I posted something on my stupid Facebook last night about Nina Simone—she is the ultimate to me. She’s such a powerful musician, person, persona, goddess. Incredible.
Pitchfork: What's the meaning behind the album's artwork?
MG: Well, I was tangentially involved in the punk scene in L.A. in the late '70s, and I met this fellow there who was also on the outskirts of it named Bob Biggs. He was a conceptual artist who did this rather remarkable performance where he brought a full-sized heifer cow into the [L.A. punk club] The Masque, where it waltzed around, shat, and mooed, and then he walked it out and put it back on the truck and drove away. I was impressed with that, and got to know him further. Then I saw one of his baby paintings—or pastels, actually, which are actually drawn on black—and I was always struck with their enigmatic quality. I asked him if I could use one a couple of times over the last 30 years, but he always said no.
So when this record was done, a couple images popped into my mind. The initial one was a series of nipples—I wanted a different embossed nipple on each panel. But after seeing some closeup pictures of nipples, I discovered that they're really quite ugly. [laughs] So I couldn't use that. And then I thought of Bob's babies. But what you see in the depiction that's on the web is not really accurate because they're actually going to be printed on raw cardboard stock. The heads will be embossed and super glossy, so the contrast with the cardboard is really extreme. I still can't figure out what they mean, but I think that's what I like about them.
Pitchfork: I was reading the lyrics to "Just a Little Boy" and listening to the record, and I was thinking it all might suggest some sort of return to youth.
MG: I'm not a music critic, schoolteacher, or philosopher, so I don't think like that. I just write what I'm capable of writing. Plus, I have written a lot of songs and I am eternally grateful when I manage to, through theft or other means, acquire a song. "Just a Little Boy" is all id. I found that quality to be something that is shared at times with my hero, Howlin' Wolf. That's why I dedicated it to him. Though the one time we tried to do a specific blues rhythm in our current incarnation, taken from a Howlin’ Wolf song, it just failed miserably, and we could never get it because we’re just too fucking white. But we find our own way into it.
Pitchfork: Where did the galloping horse sound effects on “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L'Ouverture” come from?
MG: The horses were wrangled specifically for the recording. I must say though, I wanted them to be in the studio with us while we were recording, but that was quickly kiboshed by the studio owner, who happens to be a horseman and knows their qualities. He, of course, invested millions of dollars in the studio and didn't want to see anything broken. So we did the next best thing and recorded them nearby and put the sounds in the record.
That was conceived before going in the studio for “Toussaint”, which is a song that developed live over the course of a couple years. As I got words for it, the song became a biography of [18th century Haitian revolutionary] Toussaint L’Ouverture. He was a master horseman, and that’s one of the things that helped him win the battles against France, because he could go from one side of the island to the other in an impossible amount of time and completely surprise the other troops. It was a very bloody and cruel revolution, just unbelievably, psychedelically vicious, on both sides. I don’t want to describe the saw [sound] on that song, but someone will read the biography and see why it's there.
The Haitian Revolution is a subject that’s compelling to me, it’s the fulcrum of Western civilization: slavery, the idea of freedom and democracy, and liberation all come together in this big violent moment, and then Haiti becomes the tragedy that it is now. It’s an epic tale.
Pitchfork: Do you find that your influences are the same as when you started or have things shifted over the years?
MG: It’s hard for me to describe what the influences are specifically, because I certainly don’t sit down and hear other music and think, "Oh, I’m going to make music like that." Often films inspire me more than music; Melancholia by Lars Von Trier directly inspired the song “Kirsten Supine”, which is named after Kirsten Dunst. But the people that inspire me, like Nina Simone, James Brown, Fela Kuti, or Can might have something to do with the sound. And Led Zeppelin, of course. To me, Jimmy Page is the greatest rock singer ever—the way he plays guitar is like singing, it’s so lyrical and beautiful. All of the imitators that came after him are just complete imbeciles, because that style became this shredding thing. Preposterous. But yeah, I hadn't listened to them in years, but my fiancée plays them around the house. She’s considerably younger, so it’s a fresh experience for her. She also sings on the album, on “She Loves Us” and “A Little God in My Hands”. Her name is Jennifer Church, by the way.
Pitchfork: Is the love on the album a reflection of all this love in your life?
MG: [laughs] Fuck no. Jesus Christ. After 30-something years, I think I'm capable of knowing when something is schmaltzy and when it isn’t. I do incorporate things from my personal life but I leven them with a bit of objectivity, so a lot of things go into the content of the lyrics, including books I’m reading, movies I’ve seen, experiences, memories, ambitions. Everything. But none of them could be specifically tied to autobiographical experience, because that’s the height of indulgence in my view.
Pitchfork: The song “Oxygen” seems based on such a basic premise, of breathing in and living, but it also seems more complex than that.
MG: Breathing and having a heartbeat are things that we’re completely not conscious of most of the time and take for granted. As someone who's had severe bouts of asthma, I’m conscious of what it feels like to not be able to breathe. I was hospitalized for it. And this song was written after a particularly severe asthma attack. But now that I stopped smoking cigarettes, hopefully that will be gone.
I had this event once when I was alone at my old house after my divorce. I was sitting, and suddenly I coughed, and whatever was in there lodged in my throat. I just couldn’t breathe at all, and I was by myself. I panicked. I really started to pass out and realized I was fucking going to die if I didn’t do something. So I just threw myself down on the ground repeatedly, and finally got a pinhole. I was slowly able to calm down and expand that pinhole and get oxygen. It took maybe 10 minutes. And then I lit a cigarette and had a beer. [laughs]
Guest List features artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Compton rapper YG, whose major label debut, My Krazy Life, is out now on Def Jam.
Dumbest Recent Purchase
I mean, I brought all the homies when I was on tour. I paid for that shit. Then I had to fly the homies back home. That shit was as expensive as a motherfucker.
I don’t know, bro. I ain’t into stuff like that shit.
I already worked with him: Lil Wayne.
Strangest Display of Fan Affection
There’s a lot of shit I can’t even understand. They be just going crazy, like shaking, crying, grabbing my leg. I was walking to the mall, and people started noticing me so they started following me—the whole mall was following me.
I check my emails, check my text messages, check Instagram, brush my teeth, wash my face. I eat breakfast most times.
Cap’n Crunch. I would eat it right now, but my teeth fucked up.
Favorite Video Games
Grand Theft Auto and Madden—I play with the 49ers.
Drinking alcohol. I’ve been drinking so much.
Favorite Recent Movie
Slumdog Millionaire. It was just grimy.
Dream Merch Item
YG condoms. They'd be red—lubed-out red.
Hand-outs. If they’re a homie, I’ll help ‘em out one time, but the next time I’m going hard.
Favorite Television Show
The Crocodile Hunter show. I used to watch that shit for real.
The population of Sky Rink—an indoor ice-skating venue overlooking the Hudson River and, just further west, the smudged shores of Hoboken—is comprised almost entirely of children under the age of 10, and yet the sound system is still blaring Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. Sharon Van Etten and I have done a couple solid loops—nothing fancy, but still, some good, propulsive work—when something goes wrong. It’s hard for me to say what happens, exactly, but we end up in a wiggly little heap on the ice, our limbs entangled, our skates kicking high in the air. Van Etten is laughing pretty hard. She is sort of on top of me. A couple young men in hockey gear glide over to help us up, gently brushing the shaved ice from our shoulders. They are after answers regarding our predicament, but we have none. “Dude,” is all we can say to each other, and to them.
With her big, almond-shaped brown eyes and easy grin, Van Etten is a warm, snickering presence, and, capering around Manhattan with her on two brittle March days, I get the sense that she’s amenable to most things, as long as they are fun. We spend a lot of time looking at each other and saying “dude”—either because something funny has happened, or because we’ve suddenly caught ourselves being, as she puts it, “so emo.”
Van Etten has lived in New York City since 2005, but she’s never been ice skating here. In fact, she has not been ice skating since she was a little kid—she is the third of five, the middle child—in Nutley, New Jersey, when she fell through the ice and her father had to fish her out. During a pre-skate breakfast, I tell her a story about how, just a few days earlier, I unexpectedly passed out at a film screening in Kentucky, and she immediately promises to get us both fully outfitted in all sorts of protective gear: helmets, pads, what-have-you. The idea of us not skating does not occur to her, and I get the sense, then, that she believes deeply in redemption and perseverance: in just getting the fuck up.
Since she released her debut album, Because I Was in Love, in 2009, Van Etten has established herself as a vocalist capable of imbuing every note with an astonishing spectrum of feeling, of crafting melodies that feel nearly unprecedented. She has always been an unguarded performer, but her fourth album, Are We There, is a kind of emotional apex: There is a line, toward the end, about washing someone’s dishes before taking a shit in their bathroom. She says this is a joke that merely stayed in place—the product of a very late and giggly night in the studio with her band—but her willingness to allow it to become permanent is telling. Van Etten isn’t particularly interested in obscuring or mediating the grand mess of being alive. “I sing about my fear and love and what it brings,” she bellows on a new song called “I Know”.
Prior to the release of Because I Was in Love, Van Etten lived for a stint in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she got into a relationship that warped, turned poisonous. She doesn't especially enjoy talking about that six-year stretch of time, but it’s clear that the implications of her life there—and the intensity of her disavowal of it—lingers. Her partner was derisive of her work, which she had to hide from him; she doesn’t say it, but I suspect, in a way that makes me queasy, it might’ve gotten darker than that.
“I literally had a bag of clothes and my guitar, and [a friend] drove me to the airport—she was one of two people that I told I was leaving, it was that intense,” she says. (“You chained me like a dog in our room,” she would later sing on “Love More”, a song from her second record, Epic). Van Etten was estranged from her family then, but she returned home on Thanksgiving Day, mended relationships, moved into her parents’ basement in Jersey, and found a job in a liquor store. She started writing and recording the songs that would become her debut. “I’m still a softie, but back then I was so defeated,” she says. “He told me I wasn’t good enough, and I really believed it.”
During a brief stopover in her West Village apartment, Van Etten shows me the photograph that’s slated to appear on the cover of her album. A print of it is balanced atop her dresser in a way that suggests it might also serve as a rune against certain indulgences—a reminder. She took the picture herself, from the passenger’s side seat of a speeding vehicle, and it features a woman—hair loose, sunglasses—sticking her neck out the window, wooshing past a stretch of farmland. Looking at it, you can imagine how good it must’ve felt, doing that: all that wind smacking your face, the sun on your ears, the push of the car as it tore toward the horizon. For a record that’s concerned with transitions—with trying to go easy into whatever’s next—it’s a telling shot.
“I had just moved back to New Jersey from Tennessee, and I was trying to get my life back in order," Van Etten explains. "I had a really good friend in Tennessee who I went to visit. We used to work together, and our ritual was to get Diet Cokes and a pack of cigarettes, and to blast music and sing at the top our lungs. We wouldn’t even talk, really—we’d just sing. That’s how we got our relief. We took turns screaming out the windows [of the car],” she says. At some point, Van Etten pointed her camera to the left and clicked.
“We both went home, and the rest of our lives changed forever after this moment,” the singer recalls. “She moved to Indiana and ended up having a baby—she has a family now—and I moved to New York and ended up doing this other thing. But this photo means a lot to me.”
Van Etten eventually found a community of supportive players in Brooklyn, including TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, who urged her to find a place in the city, to make a real go of it as a songwriter and performer. “I was doing a solo set at the Bowery Ballroom when Sharon introduced herself to me,” Malone remembers. “She gave me a CD-R with a few songs on it. At that time, TV on the Radio had a lot of attention and lots of strangers were giving me music—more than I could possibly have kept up with—but she seemed like she was giving me a gift. I found her again after I listened and we talked about her music and her writing. She is a kind person and a great talent—her voice cuts through the wall I’m constantly trying to build around my heart.”
There were other encouragements along the way. In 2010, Van Etten found out the National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner had collaborated with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon on a high, spectral cover of “Love More”, and she reached out to compliment their version. (“I thought it was badass that they put it in the original key and Justin had the balls to try it,” she says.) It was a fated introduction: Aaron Dessner ended up producing her third album, Tramp, which was released by Jagjaguwar, Bon Iver’s label.
“It’s amazing to watch her in the studio, because she can sing three, four, or five-part harmonies with herself perfectly on the first try," Dessner says. "It’s like this harmonic sense is hardwired in her brain.” By early 2011, Van Etten was opening for the National on their European tour. “All of a sudden we were playing in venues that hold 15,000 people, when we’d previously been playing for rooms of a hundred, two hundred, maybe,” she says.
Van Etten is a transfixing performer—her body relaxes, her eyes go soft and unfocused, and her voice sounds conjured, as if it is coming from somewhere else—but she still occasionally suffers from the hubris of it all: standing on a stage, expecting people to listen, to be changed. “I overthink everything. I’m just like, 'Wait, why do they want to hear me?' I start doubting myself. Other times, I’ll just get so emotional during a song. Sometimes I’ll cry while I’m singing.” She pauses. “It’s so weird. I’m such a baby.”
That struggle—to balance the solipsism of confessional songwriting with a life that, like all lives, requires some degree of selflessness and sacrifice to grow—has been hard on her. She is working, now, to find some sort of balance. “The dilemma I have is that everything I do at work is all about me, and at what point is that selfish? I’m just talking and singing about myself, or I’m standing on a stage and hoping that everybody likes me. Obviously it’s also about the music and feeling and connecting; I know it’s deeper than that. But on a down day, I’m like, ‘I’m a really selfish person.’ Half of my anxiety is about whether people are going to like me,” she admits.
Of course, that’s all anyone ever really worries about; it’s the origin worry, the worry that drives us. But there are more practical concerns, too—all the challenges of a life lived to the spastic specifications of a tour itinerary. “I love traveling, I love meeting people, I love performing, but it’s hard to be gone, and to not have a real life, and to just get the emotional love that you need from the people you’re traveling with,” she says. “The last two years, I’ve been figuring out how to balance my work and my relationship.”
Specifically, she’s been laboring to develop a partnership with a boy she loves despite the extraordinary demands of her job. He has always been encouraging, and she’s grateful for that. Van Etten remembers noticing him at an early solo show at the now-shuttered Sin-é on the Lower East Side, where he worked for awhile: “I was fresh from Tennessee, whiskey-drunk, and being super aggro—I just wanted to get shit-faced and sing these love songs. There were maybe eight people there, just a bunch of dudes hanging out, and I was like, 'Fuck it, I’m kind of a tomboy, I can deal with this.' I remember being halfway through a song, looking up, and the bartender was the only one listening. He supported me from the very beginning.”
Now, their relationship is changing. “It’s so hard to maintain a life and do this kind of work. It’s a struggle, but I also wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have this catharsis all the time,” she sighs. “You tour for a year and a half, and it sucks for the person waiting at home, feeling like you're left behind. Looking back, that’s what a lot of the songs are about. We love each other so much. But to really nurture a relationship, you need to be present,” she says. “Maybe right now the best thing to do is for us to step away—like, ‘You do your thing, I’ll do mine, and maybe one day we’ll find each other again.’”
I tell Van Etten the only helpful thing I can think of—advice stolen from a letter John Steinbeck sent to his teenaged son Thom in 1958. Thom wrote to say that he was in love; Steinbeck wanted to offer him some solace, some consolation, some sense of peace in the midst of the total tumult love incites. “Don’t worry about losing,” he wrote. “If it is right, it happens—the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
"I’ll just get so emotional
during a song. I’ll cry while
I’m singing. It’s so weird.
I’m such a baby.”
—Sharon Van Etten
Eventually, Van Etten and I attempt to take our big ice-skating ideas to Central Park, but when we arrive, a bored-looking woman in a ticket booth tells us that the rink is about to close so the ice can be smoothed. We retreat to the lobby of the nearby Ritz-Carlton—there’s something marvelously indulgent, we agree, about lounging in a fancy hotel bar on a weekday afternoon—descend into overstuffed leather armchairs, and order Manhattans.
Are We There is an expansive, nearly theatrical record, and more rhythmically complicated than anything Van Etten has done before. “I started hearing bass lines and drum parts before I heard guitar,” she says. Dave Hartley of Philadelphia's the War on Drugs contributed bass to most of the album’s tracks. “She has a way of just being herself, of truly wearing her own skin,” he says of Van Etten's work. “On her first three records, you could tell that the songs wrote themselves—it was as though they were beautiful by-products born through her experiences, like steam escaping. On the new record, there seems to be more purpose.” Hartley’s bandmate, Adam Granduciel, felt similarly: “Being in the studio with her, I witnessed a songwriter more interested in quickly capturing those fleeting moments of inspiration than anything else,” he says.
Are We There is also, as far as I can tell, about being unafraid in love—about seeing love as a kind of high-stakes trust-fall, and screaming at the other person to just fucking fall already; then, the concomitant feeling, the fear of falling, the way it paralyzes you. While there are bigger songs, “Tarifa”, a quiet, slow-to-unfold ballad named after a town on the southern coast of Spain, feels like the album’s emotional center.
“Tell me when / Tell me when is this over? / Chewed you out/ Chew me out when I’m stupid,” she sings over a muted swell of Hammond organ and bass clarinet. It is both euphoric and deeply, devastatingly sad, and it mimics the highs and lows of any love: When it is good, it is so good, but when it is over, it is everything. “Don’t fail me now,” Van Etten begs during one of the song’s final peaks, and her voice is nearly incredulous—it’s the way we sound (disbelieving, angry) when something we thought was true begins to falter.
“I’ve never seen him more happy or more at peace than when we were in Tarifa together,” Van Etten says of the song’s subject now. “We had this solar-powered house overlooking fucking Morocco, in the mountains. We could walk down this rocky coast. It was rugged and desolate and peaceful, and after everything we’d been through, it was exactly what we needed to reconnect. There was nothing else but us, and we were really happy.”
Photo by Dusdin Condren
For me, the love songs on Are We There periodically incite a kind of raw, unstoppable blubbering, a crying so outsize it becomes laughable, like when one of those ASPCA commercial flashes onscreen, unbidden, at three in the morning, when the bourbon has worn off and you are sort of crumpled there, hungry and too tired to sleep—it is a reminder that our hearts and bodies contain sorrows and empathies we didn’t even know we could access, or at least not so quickly.
“The key to writing is learning to differentiate private interest from public entertainment,” David Foster Wallace once said, and Van Etten is both cognizant and protective of that divide; she works hard to keep her songs open enough that they can be applicable to lives other than her own, can become a balm for different kinds of pain. Still, when she drifts into her mid-upper register—it’s that little upward swoop, as if something precious has just gotten away from her, like a toddler losing his grip on a helium balloon—it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else performing these songs, or feeling them the way she feels them. Even when she’s singing somewhat vague lyrics, she has a habit of choking a line off in a deeply counter-intuitive, non-idiomatic way, of pausing mid-thought, of making us wait for the denouement, “And here we are apart, but here together are”—wait, wait, wait—“our hearts.” These lines are suffused with so much investment it’s hard to hear them as nonspecific.
Drinks in hand, we talk—abstractly, and then less abstractly—about the worst way to lose someone, about what it feels like to know that your love is not going to be enough, that time or circumstance is triumphing. (“I love you, but I’m lost,” is how she puts it on Are We There.) I tell her that I believe these are the most brutal kinds of endings. The ones where you think: I’ll come back from this, but maybe not entirely.
Eventually, we are both hunched over in our big stupid chairs, crying. Van Etten pulls some tissues out of her bag. We start laughing. Those are the poles: despair begets joy begets despair begets laughter. Want begets want begets more fucking want.
But still, Van Etten is hopeful. “I think everything makes you better as long as you don’t have any regrets. Find some love in whatever’s happened in your life and move forward,” she’ll shrug later on. “I’m overly optimistic sometimes. My favorite movie as a kid was Pollyanna. There’s no point [in negativity]. Yeah, I’m upset, but it’s love. Everything is love, right?”
Ultimately, Van Etten is writing about how to reconcile all the different things a person might require or want—and, moreover, about the struggle to determine what can be endured and what needs to be excised in service of the work, the spirit, the self. This is not simple math. The parts that feel good and the parts that feel bad aren’t always so easy for us to identify, let alone untangle. “You like it when I let you walk over me/ You tell me that you like it,” Van Etten sings in the chorus to “Your Love Is Killing Me”, until her voice gets subsumed by the clamor of her band, and it sounds, for a second, like she’s drowning.
It’s the part on the record that I end up playing over and over and over again, listening, through the thrum of organ, drums, guitar, for the moment where she reemerges.
Sometimes I hear it.
When we finally pull ourselves together and leave the Ritz-Carlton, a cold, vigorous rain is falling on New York City. Van Etten suggests we go play pinball, which seems like a particular kind of salve; it is a pastime that eludes tragedy. She knows a place on Third Avenue where you can pay by the hour. It turns out to be a bare-bones operation: there’s no beer, no snack bar, no air hockey, no noise beyond the sound of steel balls thwacking plastic.
We throw off our coats and hit the classics: Star Trek, Kiss, Metallica, The Addams Family. I become temporarily preoccupied by a game called Dr. Dude, wherein I ascend—and I am proud of this—to the level of “Major Dude” while Van Etten looks on, occasionally high-fiving me. When we finally gather our things to leave, one of the employees, an older man with a gentle face, stops us. “You guys play league?” he asks.
We are trying to figure out a reasonable place to eat dinner—she is due at the Bowery Ballroom in a few hours to see the War on Drugs and especially to watch her guitarist, Doug Keith, open with his own band—when we spot a storefront psychic and decide it would be real funny to go in on a half-deck Tarot reading. We press a plastic doorbell and huddle outside, pulling our knit hats low, shrinking from the rain.
“What do you think she’ll be wearing?” Van Etten asks, and I am halfway through describing an extravagant turban when a stout, dark-haired woman in a beige turtleneck appears in the window and unlocks the glass door. I stop talking immediately. Her bottom lip is bleeding. “Yes?” she says.
We mumble our request. She invites us in, opens a small gold box on her desk, and removes a stack of cards. When she sees me digging my audio recorder out of my coat pocket, she sneers and delivers a look of livid, lingering disbelief. “You can’t record this!”
I turn it off and hold my hands up, like a burglar nabbed mid-heist. Pressing a wadded-up tissue to her lip, she commands Van Etten to cut the cards, and what follows is surprisingly intense: an unflinching evocation of death, heartache, and lost equilibrium. There are direct echoes of conversations Van Etten and I just had—which are maybe the conversations everyone has, about where they’ve been and where they’re going and who they love and why—and periodically we look at each other, like, “dude.” The essence is that she wants Van Etten to be tougher, somehow. To believe more selfishly in the work she can do.
A few minutes later, after the psychic has been paid and we have pulled our coats back on, we re-emerge into the rain. It’s getting dark.
We are quiet for a minute. “How about a drink?” Van Etten asks, and we walk off.
Fucked Up, from left: Ben Cook, Jonah Falco, Mike Haliechuk, Sandy Miranda, Damian Abraham, Josh Zucker. Photo by Brendan George Ko.
“We all get replaced, retconned, and upstaged,” sings Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham on his band's latest single, “Sun Glass”. “Life turns a page/ When we turn away, the kids just aren’t the same.” There are several lines like this on the Toronto sextet's upcoming Glass Boys, which depicts a band wrestling with what it means to get older in the world of hardcore. If their last proper album, 2011's David Comes to Life, revolved around a group of fictional characters, this is a Fucked Up record about what it’s like to be in Fucked Up. So when I speak with Abraham and guitarist Mike Haliechuk over the phone, they both say that being replaced by newer, younger artists is inevitable. And they’re OK with that.
“With hardcore bands, you're not supposed to do it for more than a couple years,” says Haliechuk, who helped start Fucked Up 13 years ago. “If you've done it right, you have a good decade, and then someone else does it. That's the way it should be.”
So while they may be past their own expiration date, it's not like these guys are quietly bowing out. Instead, Abraham and Haliechuk—who split lyric-writing duties 50/50 on the new LP—are using their massive sound to tackle complementary themes: age, the role of commerce in art, what it means to become a successful band in a traditionally underground genre, and the realities of living your teenage rock’n’roll fantasies. Though the two don't hang out much outside of the band anymore, Abraham says their lyrics still fit well together because, when they were teenagers, he and Haliechuk studied the punk zine Slash and talked on the phone every night about hardcore bands. “We’re coming from the same place,” Abraham says. “This is going to sound so terrible, but we started this journey together.”
That said, they initially disagreed on what direction to take with the new album. Following the rock opera that was David Comes to Life, Haliechuk wanted to prove that they were “a normal band” who could do “a normal-sized record.” Meanwhile, Abraham wanted to do another double album—one LP written by him, the other written by Haliechuk. “Luckily for me, Mike and [drummer] Jonah [Falco] saved me from myself, because that would have been really fucking self-indulgent,” Abraham says now. Instead, Glass Boys looks a lot more like what Haliechuck had in mind: 10 songs at 43 minutes—over a half hour shorter than David.
As is custom with Fucked Up records, every individual part on Glass Boys was recorded separately in various studios and ultimately pieced together by Haliechuk and Falco. This time around, an added emphasis has been given to the drums—Falco did four simultaneous takes, and some of the extra percussion will be featured on a limited vinyl edition. This one also features a series of guest vocalists: Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, and Alexisonfire’s George Pettit.
I talked to the guitarist and singer separately—Haliechuk was taking a break from working in the studio with the young dream-pop band Elsa while Abraham had just finished a show he’s doing with Food Network Canada—and edited the conversations together afterward.
"I remember going to an awards show in Canada
and thinking, 'Wow, I really sold out. I’m surrounded
by people I’ve hated my whole life.'" — Damian Abraham
Pitchfork: There are some songs on the new record that seem to be about the power money can have over art. Do you feel like Fucked Up was negatively affected by money and success?
Damian Abraham: I don’t think so. I love everything that’s happened. I’m able to live out my fantasy. 1991: The Year Punk Broke was the movie that got me into punk music. As a kid, I would watch that movie and fantasize, like, “One day, it would be amazing to be on tour with Dave Grohl,” or, “Ah, Dinosaur Jr., if only I could meet J Mascis," or, “I’d love to meet Sonic Youth,” though that didn’t go so well for me in the end. But I definitely love the way everything’s turned out.
That said, I remember going to an awards show in Canada after David Comes to Life came out and I was like, “Wow, I really sold out. I’m surrounded by people I’ve hated my whole life.” I felt guilty because what got me into that situation was hating the situation. How do I reconcile who I am now with who I was? How do I find some peaceful coexistence? It was also becoming apparent how this world I’m in can go away at any second.
Pitchfork: Is being replaced something you think about with Fucked Up?
Mike Haliechuk: A little bit, because our experience in music is so nuanced. We started out as this very specific kind of hardcore band—we wanted to sound like the Germs and we wanted our records to look like Dangerhouse singles. Then we just ended up here. When your creative output is so nuanced and meant to be so small, it's very weird to end up at a place where it's your job. There are millions more bands now, so it's like: Are you going to get the slot in the festival and pay your bills? But that's what culture is—hopefully you affect it, and then it gets passed down to the generation that comes after you.
Pitchfork: So there's no bitterness there?
MH: It's not bitterness. As an adult man, it's more like confusion. And it's not just about music, it's about everything. That's what getting old means. When you're surrounded by young people and you're not one of them anymore, it gives you new things to think about. Especially since we're in a young man's game. Being a musician, being a punk, being in a punk band—it's a weird spot to be in when you're past 30.
Pitchfork: So this record is more about the inevitable cycle of being in a band?
MH: Yeah, I tried to put it in the context of what it means to be in a band for 13 years. I didn't want it to be all about my personal thoughts on growing old, because who gives a fuck? It's hopefully positive for people because it's more about acknowledging that there is a continuum and just recognizing that we're past a particular point. But we still have an engagement with the generation that came after us—and the generation that came before us, like the Melvins and Dinosaur Jr.. So it's about trying to link it all together.
Pitchfork: J Mascis sings on this record, how did that come about?
DA: Well, I’m kind of insecure, so every time I write a song, it’s for someone else’s voice. In my head, there are two vocal parts for ["Led By Hand"]. The part I sing would’ve been Bob Mould and the J Mascis part would’ve been J Mascis. I got to sing fantasy-baseball style—I don’t like sports, so this is my fantasy baseball. And J is someone that I consider a friend, like somebody that I talk to on a regular basis, so it’s not like, “I’m calling up J Mascis to work on the record,” even though it truly is like, “I’m calling up J Mascis to work on the record.”
Pitchfork: Glass Boys is obviously a lot shorter than David.
DA: I was super against it being shorter. I was the guy at first who was like, “It should be longer—there could be a Mike album and a Damian album.” I always thought the best Oasis song is “Acquiesce” because it sounds like Liam and Noel are writing to each other on that song. I was like, “This could be an entire ‘Acquiesce’ album. You and me giving our different perspectives on this band and where we are.”
Pitchfork: Do you each have different writing processes?
MH: Damian is more of a passionate person than I am; he’s sort of the classic charismatic frontman. I would talk to him in the van and he’d be writing shit, putting stuff into his phone, always thinking of ideas and doing it on the fly. He’s the kind of guy who writes lyrics for an entire LP in a couple of days. I’m a little more calculating; it takes me a lot longer.
DA: On this record, I was champing at the bit. I think a lot of it is finding ways to cope with anxiety and being able to focus again—I really had to force it in the last few years, being on the pills I was on and the side-effects that happened with me. They’re not happening with everyone, so I don’t want to bemoan the pills, but for me they were terrible. And being off them felt like, “Oh, I can write again. I can write forever.”
But I’ve learned more about Mike from his lyrics on this record than I have from years sitting beside him in a van. Mike put himself across in a way that I’d never seen him do on any of his other songs. I’ve had to have an intimate relationship with Mike’s words for a long time, and it’s always been a happy relationship, but I think these lyrics are his best stuff.
Pitchfork: You each wrote half the songs on the album, and the themes you’re both writing about seem similar. Did you have discussions about that?
DA: No, it’s completely by accident. The way Mike and I write is like Two Rooms, that Elton John [and Bernie Taupin] documentary—in complete isolation. I truly believe Mike is way smarter than me and I will fuck myself over for ever admitting this to you, because he will definitely hold it over my head forever. But he is an incredibly intelligent person.
Social skills are not one of his strong suits, however. In the studio, he can become a presence, so he wouldn’t really be in the studio when I was doing vocals this time. It was just Jonah, and then there were a couple of songs where Mike would tell me I could do better. I ultimately took his advice, and he was right. So, goddamn him.
MH: The similar themes are just because me and Damian have the same experience coming up through punk. There were 10 years—from 16 all the way to our 20s—when we were best friends and always going to the same shows, so if we're going to write about what it's like to go from being a young punk to a musician, it's the same story. There are obviously some different experiences—like he has a family and we ended up in different places a bit—but we're just so close that it's inevitable.
DA: Mike and I don’t hang out as much anymore, but that’s because he’s in a much more dance-oriented scene now, and I’m much more with the “my kids at home” scene, or in the record store, or in the vaporizer bar, or at work.
Pitchfork: Damian, on “The Great Divide”, you’re talking about things you’ve inflicted and taking the blame. What are you addressing there?
DA: It works on two levels, hopefully. One is about us as people on this Earth and trying to experience all we can and enjoy life as much as possible—but in doing so we’re fucking up the world for the next couple of generations environmentally and politically and ethically. And in the music sense, it’s the idea of being in a band, coming from a scene, and realizing that because of your actions, that scene changed. There’s obviously a selfishness in playing music in general, and exploiting it, on a certain level, to make a living—and there’s guilt over that. There’s this idea, like: Have you done right by the 23-year-old version of yourself that led you to realizing all your fantasies by 33?
Pitchfork: Mike, “Echo Boomer” seems like a song where you’re looking at your own life through the lens of your younger self.
MH: It’s a comic book trope to have this handshake across the void. I was just reading this comic Animal Man where he goes back in time to try to send a message to himself in the past. I was that 16-year-old kid who was so excited about going to shows. Music was my entire life, and I loved researching bands and collecting records. I don’t do that anymore, but it’s still there, because the experience of doing that made me who I am now.
Pitchfork: That song has the line: “I’m the reflection of a dream I had when I was 15.” So you wanted to be in the position you’re in now?
MH: Yeah, that’s the crazy part. When you start going to shows, you look up to these 35-year-old people playing music and you just think, “This person’s made it, they’re in a band, and I love them.” But you never think that there’s other stuff going on in their lives—like how being in a band is stressful, or the things they’ve had to do in the last 20 years to get there.
Pitchfork: Damian, you've talked about quitting touring. Is that something that you're still thinking about?
DA: Yeah, I'd love to. But that's really selfish. It sucks because I love playing the shows, and now that I use medical weed as opposed to taking anti-anxiety pills, if there was access to medical marijuana, I could tour no problem. Unfortunately that's not the case, so I do have panic attacks and freak out all the time. It's this weird, not-very-pleasant thing to go through, but also I just feel terrible for what I do to the people around me during those moments. I'd like to leave that behind. That being said, it's the best feeling on fucking Earth to be in front of people that know the lyrics to a song you wrote and are screaming them back to you.
MH: I don’t think we’re ever going to stop touring. It’s stressful for everybody; it’s not like anybody’s mad at Damian and forcing him to do something. Touring is not the best, but it’s just something you have to deal with. As soon as you get on stage it’s a different story, but the time leading up to it is not anyone’s favorite thing.
Pitchfork: Do you think about where you’ll be as an older artist?
MH: That's the big question, right? I don't think any of us wanted to end up as musicians. When we started, we certainly weren't coming out of bands because we wanted to go on tour and tell people about our ideas and be serious musicians—but now we are. I have trouble being like, "I'm a musician for a living." It's just strange to think about how you ended up at this place that you never hoped you would be, and you feel weird about it, but you also feel blessed and thankful. That's why there's always tension with us, like, “Are we going to do another record?” We're always sort of checking ourselves.
DA: It’s like a death clock: Would you really want to know when it’s all going to be over and people aren’t going to care about the band, or do you want to just keep riding the wave? I go into every record thinking it’s the last record I’m going to make. Any number of things could befall us, so I think that’s the best way to approach it. I definitely approached this record like, “If this the last thing I ever say, then I should make sure it’s something that I wanted to say.”
Photo by Leigh Righton
5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This time we spoke with 50-year-old comedian Marc Maron, host of the hugely popular WTF podcast, which features interviews with every comedian that matters along with some musicians including Fiona Apple, J Mascis, and Nick Cave. His IFC show "Maron" just started its second season, and his Netflix special Thinky Pain was just released as an album via Comedy Central Records. Listen along to Maron's 5-10-15-20 picks with this Spotify playlist.
Bobby Sherman: “Little Woman”
That would be 1967. I remember my family's red brick apartment building in Wayne, New Jersey. I remember humidity. I remember my grandmother's house and being scared of her basement. I remember my grandfather's appliance store. I remember seeing footage of the Vietnam War on television. I remember starting to realize what hippies were. I remember some weird local coffee soda.
I had one of those little portable record players and I remember having a Bobby Sherman record, of all things. Hold on, [types on his computer] Bobby Sherman... "Little Woman"... oh, look at that, let's see if we can listen to what that sounds like—yeah, I remember that song.
When we moved to New Mexico, there was a box of cassette tapes and some albums around. That was the first time my parents had stereo equipment and records. They'd taken a trip to Japan and they'd come back with a reel-to-reel, a Sansui receiver amp, and some large speakers. The box of cassettes was pushed aside when they got that new stereo, and it fell into my hands. I was very obsessed with the Beatles' second album [With the Beatles], and I was insanely obsessed with "Roll Over Beethoven", because my dad had the Chuck Berry record. I got very preoccupied with the opening riff to the point where I sought out other versions of it; I got Mountain's greatest hits album because they did a cover of it. That defined some things for me.
I inherited this Aiwa [stereo] that had detachable speakers on each side and I would make these long tapes to bring on the school bus with this big portable unit that was like a boombox. I very much wanted to impress the bus driver, this woman who I had a crush on, so I would show up with these tapes I made—I got very preoccupied with making cassette tapes.
When I was 15, I was tapped into music in a townie way. When the first Van Halen record came out, every car in the parking lot had the doors open, and "Eruption" was blaring out. My buddy Dave and I saw Van Halen on their first tour. I also saw AC/DC open for Journey, and sadly, I was there to see Journey. I ended up seeing Ted Nugent, like, three times. But I also worked next to a record store at a bagel place, and the owners of the record store were primarily R&B people. It was this couple, the dude was black and the woman was white, and they'd get all these promo records and give them to me. I remember getting Elvis Costello's first record, Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner, an Elmore James collection—that turned me on to a lot of stuff.
There was also an art-rock guy who worked there. He turned me onto Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, the Residents, Bowie. And there was another guy that worked at that record store named Jim who actually took me to his house, and we sat there and made two or three cassette tapes of old soul music. Those two guys and that record store really changed my life. But I also had this other side of me that was like full-on Tom Petty, full-on fucking Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Stones.
My friend Dave was a really great guitar player, and I was just really bad. We had this band but we didn't know what we were doing, and I didn't really have the discipline to learn. It was probably 9th grade, and the songs we were trying to do were "Tush" by ZZ Top, "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith, the Bad Company cover of "Young Blood", maybe some "Taking Care of Business", maybe some "Sweet Home Alabama"—anything that was easy to play. I auditioned for a new wave band called the Philistines in Albuquerque, and they were like, “Why did you even have us come over here?” They were really snotty and pompous. I played Chuck Berry for them, and it did nothing.
I had just changed schools [to Boston University] and I had a roommate, Lance. We were playing a lot of Bowie, a lot of "Heroes". He turned me onto Iggy Pop through Lust for Life and New Values. And Avalon [by Roxy Music] and Another Green World by Eno—those are good fuck records.
The scene in Boston was pretty vital. I saw Steve Albini. There were local bands like the Dogmatics, the Del Fuegos, Scruffy the Cat. I got into the Velvet Underground. Some of my roommates were Deadheads, so I did a little Grateful Dead-ing, saw a couple of shows. There was a lot coming at me. The best thing that came out of college was realizing that there were bands doing great stuff that nobody knew about and that the Velvet Underground existed.
Buffalo Tom: Buffalo Tom
That was when I really started working as a stand-up. Outside of listening in the car, I got a little detached from music. I missed the hip-hop thing. But I still remember getting a lot of Sub Pop releases, being involved with that. I was listening to everything that I could.
I really dug Buffalo Tom's first record, that J Mascis produced. When I went back to Boston, Dave Cross was very into music. He turned me onto fIREHOSE, and I remember going to see them with Dave. It took me a while to get them. I was just doing comedy and drinking and living that life. I went underwater for a while.
I had left New York in a panic and got to San Francisco, and my life was all comedy. I was living with a woman and another couple, and that dude was involved with a group of guys that were in a band called Dieselhed. They were a bunch of Humboldt County guys—kind of a laid-back, groovy, hippie, hillbilly-ish kind of thing—and that got me back to some roots music. But yeah, it was not a big music time for me when I was in San Francisco.
I listened to the shit out of Nine Inch Nails' Downward Spiral in the '90s though. I got really hung up on that album. I thought "Hurt" was just a masterpiece. I listened to it when I ran a lot. I'd smoke weed and then go running. I had a lot of things going on.
I had the CD player, and I was constantly listening, taking shit in, but I just don't recall [music] being an essential part of my life at this time. I started missing things. Your life gets complicated. I was getting married for the first time. I was struggling as a comic. Then, a few years later, my marriage was falling apart. I had just gotten sober and I was divorced. I don't remember music helping me a whole lot. I remember a woman helping me, but not music.
When my wife left me, I don't know if music was big enough to help me. You know, that's not true, though, dude. During the marriage falling apart, I had a mix CD that I made, and I played some of that stuff a lot. Like, you know that Maria McKee song from Pulp Fiction? That killed me. During the breakup, I remember thinking, “I understand why the blues are important because I have them, and this is making me feel better.” [laughs]
I was financially fucked up and my career was in the garbage. I knew I did OK on [Air America radio], so when the shit hit the fan, it seemed like [podcasting was] the place to go. I didn't really listen to any podcasts, but I wanted to keep talking. We didn't have any expectations, and I was not in a good place at all. We started doing it, and we made a commitment to do two a week and, over time, the show has evolved into what it is now.
Between 45 and 50, I decided to engage in this vinyl midlife crisis. I have music going all the time since I decided to buy the tube amp and the good record player and start replacing all my records from childhood and buy new ones. I was very intent on getting all of the ZZ Top records, Van Halen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, filling in these townie gaps that I had when I was 15. Now I'm sitting on almost 2,000 records that I've amassed over the last few years. It's very rare that there's not music playing in the house now.
It's gotten to this point where, at 50, I very blatantly talk about vinyl. I tweet about vinyl. I listen to vinyl. I'm listening to bands that I never really appreciated because I missed them, like Fugazi. I just got my first Fall record. All this stuff I'm experiencing for the first time as a 50-year-old man, on vinyl, and it's pretty astounding, because no matter how late you are to the party, music that has teeth and legs is pretty essential.
Someone sent me a bunch of Arctic Monkeys stuff. I got Spiritualized, Spacemen 3. I really like this guy Mark Mulcahy's solo album Dear Mark J Mulcahy I Love You. Old Fleetwood Mac records—Peter Green Fleetwood Mac. I started amassing Frank Zappa vinyl because I wanted to understand Zappa and Beefheart. I just got the War on Drugs album. I've got a bunch of Pavement on vinyl, I just got Budgie's Squawk. I go to Permanent Records, and they turn me on to all this weird hard rock. I spent some time with Ty Segall, and he told me what moved him. Right now, I am more involved with new music and understanding music that I may have missed than I ever have been in my life. There's no end to it.
“I was inspired to make music since I was 7, because my aunt is a songwriter,” says 19-year-old singer Shamir Bailey, who's sitting in his family home near Las Vegas. He starts giggling. “I’m sorry, I’m laughing because my mom is right here, and she’s like, 'Why do you always credit your aunt?' I’m like, 'Mom, it’s not like you’re a musician! Calm down.'”
To talk to Bailey—and to follow along with his fun, free Twitter feed—is to take stock of a millennial marvel, a self-taught sonic omnivore whose bedroom-pop duo Anorexia once made the trip to SXSW in the days before he started experimenting with a Dr. Groove drum machine. The first dance song he ever worked on eventually became his first single, “If It Wasn’t True”, a raw-but-promising track that properly introduced the singer's thin and cutting voice that’s part untrained Nina Simone, part extraterrestrial siren song, and part Michael Jackson singing “Ben” as a 14-year-old.
Last October, he reached out to Pitchfork contributor Nick Sylvester’s Godmode label after taking note of the imprint in a track review for Brooklyn industrial rockers Yvette, and by January, Bailey was on a plane to New York, where he and Sylvester recorded “If It Wasn’t True” and the plain, striking ballad “I’ll Never Be Able to Love”. Though the two tracks explore different atmospheres, the charm they share—that voice!—is unquestionably upfront.
“When I first started singing, it was like, Don’t quit your day job,” says Bailey, who currently works at Topshop. “But I’m a person you can’t tell no. So I begged my mom for a guitar, and she got me this Epiphone and a Guitar for Dummies book and was like, 'I’m not paying for lessons.' So I taught myself, which was a curse and a blessing.” The blessing was that his learning process was a little more unstructured, which suits him. The curse, though, was that he taught himself to play the guitar upside-down: “I don't know how else to play it!”
Bailey's debut EP Northtown, named for his home, is out June 12 via Godmode and features two new originals—the uptempo "I Know It's a Good Thing" and the fluorescent "Sometimes a Man"—as well as a cover of country singer Lindi Ortega's 2013 track "Lived and Died Alone". With his mom closeby, Bailey talks about his plans for performing live, how his unique singing style came to be, and what shape his next release will take.
Photo by Dale W. Eisinger
Pitchfork: How did you develop your singing voice?
Shamir Bailey: I always surprise myself with my voice. A lot of people don’t get it and they’re like, "You can’t sing. Stop. What are you doing?" And it’s funny to hear a lot people say I sing in falsetto because it’s not falsetto—that’s my voice. [laughs] My mom is over here laughing.
I had a point in high school where I lost my voice completely for a good two weeks, and I was scared because I thought I may never be able to sing again. Then once my voice started coming back, I was like, "Oh snap, my voice finally dropped!" And then eventually it just started going back to its natural state, and I was like, "What just happened?" But during that time I also gained a lower register. Vocal coaches have told me how you literally have two different parts of your voice that you can control, and one coach said that I just have to work on blending them more, which I'm trying to do. It’s like I have two voices. It’s so weird to explain or even understand because I don’t even understand it.
But I’ve pretty much sounded like this literally my whole life, even before adolescence. That’s just like the deal with my voice. As far as influences, I listen to a lot of people like Nina Simone and other androgynous voices, almost to make me feel like I’m not alone.
Pitchfork: What do you have planned for your live show and future releases?
SB: The show is a work in progress, just because this all happened so fast. But within the next year or so, I'll definitely be working on my LP and trying to tour and get a couple festivals for the summer. As far as long-term goals, one of my favorite artists ever is Tegan and Sara, because every single one of their albums sounds different. Or Beck. I want to be like that, because I come from so many different types of musical backgrounds.
For the longest time I was doing country, and then I had my punk band, and now dance and house music is super new to me; like, I have a country cover on this new EP of all dance music. So that’s just something I always want to show. Even for the LP, I want to have a song that’s like a Scratch Acid song, stuff that shows my punk background. I still don’t feel like there are too many artist around my age that are being very diverse with their music.
Most of all I’m just happy to perform. With my band, there was only two of us, so I would have to sing and play guitar and program drums with my feet, so I really couldn’t move—it was just all about the music. But now I have Nick and Matt [Morello] from Nick’s band Mr. Dream, and we have two backup singers who’ll sing and dance. There’s going to be something very free flowing, where I can just perform and go crazy and not have to worry about playing something. I’m just a performer now. It’s a great feeling.
Photo by Börkur Sigthorsson
Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Iceland-based producer Ben Frost, whose latest album of intense experimentalism, A U R O R A, is due out May 27 via Mute/Bedroom Community.
Dream Merch Table Item
I looked into having rape alarms made. We played this show once, and someone complained that it was louder than a personal attack alarm, and I was like, “That’s a great idea.” I found these people in China who could do ones with a customized sound, and it’d be like 130 decibels, but they required a minimum order of 10,000, so it seemed a bit ambitious.
I was also thinking about selling more basic elementary products as merch, like, wouldn’t it be great if I just sold fish that I caught? But then you get into all this weird red tape of importing regulations. It’s funny, if you try to sell fish or cheese, you get entangled in all these rules, but if you have t-shirts made by 4-year-old Bangladeshi children, you can sell and buy them wherever you like. It’s a weird place we live in.
Strangest Display of Fan Affection
I once had this guy come up to me with a backpack full of my records, but they were all counterfeit, laser-printed, pirated CD-R copies. He had 40 and he wanted me to sign all of them so he could then sell them in stores. Of course I agreed—on the condition that I could have a copy—because that's kind of amazing to see your work as this commodity of capitalism, you know? But then he insisted that I pay him for them. [laughs] The balls on that guy, man.
Favorite Athletic Activity
Does fishing count?
Least Favorite Song of the Past Year
[laughs] For me, that's most music, to be honest.
Favorite Karaoke Song
It would depend on the point in the evening. There'd definitely be some Bon Jovi involved in there—it doesn't even matter what song, it's mostly about the yelling.
My first instinct is that it would have nothing to do with music. I'd start with [biologist] Craig Venter, the guy my song “Venter” is named after. It would be about getting some face time with the guy who literally synthesized life—he made life. It just makes me feel so small and insignificant. There’s something fundamentally wrong with our society when somebody like me gets more notoriety than someone like him.
Historical Era You Wished You Lived In
The fetishizing of the past is something that seems to happen more now than ever because of these perceived “dark times” that we're living in. People say, "Oh I'd love to go back and live in France in the '20s" and romanticize rubbing shoulders with Hemingway or whatever. But do you want to die of fucking influenza or tuberculosis? Or, if you're black or gay or any other minority that was not acceptable in that time, is that really a place you want to be? I'd rather live in the future. Who doesn't want infrared vision? To have hearing that goes beyond 20 kilohertz to 20 hertz, like a dog. An immune system that's like a tank, breathing under water. Eternal life. Weekends in Europa. To me, that's infinitely more interesting than going back.
Favorite Music Video
I always loved everything Jonathan Glazer did, and I think it's telling that he's turned into a pretty remarkable filmmaker. His video for Radiohead's “Street Spirit (Fade Out)" was such a simple idea, but quite powerful.
I swim every morning—but in a pool, the oceans around here are hardcore. You don’t want to be in the ocean in Iceland unless it’s a really warm day, and even then, I don’t know. But I swim until it hurts and then spend half an hour exchanging emails, checking NBA stats, discussing the fucking dismal state of Australian politics with my friends. Then march to the studio, fucking drink coffee, and hate everything that I do for eight hours. Then I go home.
Favorite NBA Team
Back in the day it would have been the Chicago Bulls, for sure. But I’m so removed from fandom now. I feel like what I enjoy most about the NBA now is the intimate detail and infinite information that is available. It’s far more of a longform science project. To me, who’s even playing isn’t relevant. It’s almost post-human in a weird way. I find the level that everything’s happening at now is really above and beyond anything I would have foreseen as a 12-year-old obsessed with Jordan and Pippen. That time just feels so long ago.
Favorite Current NBA Player
It's got to be Blake Griffin. He plays basketball the way it used to be played, back when you could lean into someone and slam it down and not be called for charging. All these offensive fouls now! There’s a brutality to him that’s missing in a lot of dudes—he’s like Shawn Kemp or Latrell Sprewell before he went rogue. But he doesn’t come with this crazy, male aggression. He’s not staring a guy down when he’s lying on the floor, no high-fiving, none of that masculine bro shit. He’s just doing his job. In a weird way, that’s what I look for in music as well—something that is fundamentally not wrapped in cotton wool, that isn’t so pristine.
On July 10, 2013, when Justin Timberlake announced the name of his new single, I thought I was going to be sick. I’m not exaggerating. As I watched the short teaser released online in advance of the song “Take Back the Night”, my hands got clammy, a wave of nausea rippled through my body, and for a second I thought I'd have to sprint into my office bathroom and puke. In this light, the song's lyrics took on a darkly ironic cast: "Come on use me up until there's nothing left/ Dizzy, spinning, sweating you can't catch your breath."
Before it was a Justin Timberlake song, Take Back the Night was the name of a foundation that, since 1973, has been raising awareness about sexual violence, mostly through nighttime rallies held on college campuses, where survivors of abuse share their stories. I haven’t attended one of these events myself, but I'll never forget the first time I heard the phrase: I was in my late teens, in a room full of people who had gone to one of the rallies the night before, and they happened to mention that someone close to me had spoken publicly there for the first time about her sexual assault.
I stood there, stunned. I had no idea this person was a victim of assault; she'd never talked to me about it. Up until that moment, words like "rape" and "sexual violence" had been vague and distant concepts to me—which means that I had been improbably lucky. One in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, so it's highly likely that you know at least one victim, whether or not she or he has revealed this experience to you.(And given the culture of silence and shame surrounding sexual assault, and that as many as 80 percent of these crimes go unreported, it’s very likely they haven’t.) For me, hearing about this person’s courageous speech at a Take Back the Night rally was the moment these statistics became flesh and blood.
When I hear the phrase “take back the night,” it’s connected via a series of invisible marionette strings to this moment, and a lot of subsequent moments in my life: Every time I’ve changed my course when walking home late at night to prove to myself that the man walking behind wasn’t following me; every gross come-on someone has hollered at me on the street; and some other things I probably won’t ever tell you. For me, this phrase is a mild form of what’s come to be known in internet parlance as a “trigger,” something that brings up emotionally overwhelming memories or traumatic flashbacks. Which is the best I can do to explain the overwhelming feeling that came over me that July afternoon at work, the moment I saw a fedora-clad Justin Timberlake give the camera a seductively deadpan glance and flick back a title card that revealed the name of his new single. I remember feeling some combination of upset, helpless, and ridiculous—I knew how difficult it would be to convince people why I was so upset, that I wasn’t “overreacting” or, of course, acting like a “feminist killjoy.” So for the time being, I shut up.
Luckily, my friend Rebecca did not.
If the two uses of the phrase “take back the night” are a Venn diagram, Rebecca Armendariz would be the bull’s-eye in the center: a self-avowed JT superfan who is also a former counselor at the DC Rape Crisis Center. “My jaw dropped,” she tells me when I ask about the moment she first heard the name of Timberlake’s summer single. She’d just shelled out for a ticket to an August date of his Legends of the Summer tour with Jay Z, but this odd news made her feel “conflicted” about her purchase. “FEMINIST DILEMMA!” she posted that day on Facebook. “Come on, JT, I love you but didn’t you Google it?”
I have no trouble believing that Justin Timberlake was not familiar with Take Back the Night, but on the internet, with great access comes great accountability, which means that for most people, being "unaware" of an organization's existence is no longer an excuse.
Not long after the single was announced, lawyers from the Take Back the Night foundation contacted Timberlake's team. "Everyone at Take Back the Night is really shocked, because normally, we get asked when people want to use the name," the foundation's executive director Katherine Koestner said in an interview with RadarOnline. When the production staff of The Devil Wears Prada referenced TBTN in their movie, they also made a donation and contacted the organization to make sure the use was in keeping with their ethos. When “CSI” filmed an episode featuring a Take Back the Night rally, they not only donated, but also made sure to provide viewers with information about the foundation’s work.
Timberlake didn't do anything like this, but perhaps more damagingly, his single had an immediate effect on the foundation’s web presence. Suddenly, the #TakeBacktheNight streams on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram were flooded by Timberlake fans. "We have some big concerns," Koestner told the press. "For example, all of a sudden on Wikipedia, Take Back the Night has a different definition."
Two days after Koestner's comments, Timberlake issued a public apology, claiming that he hadn’t known about the organization before, but that he “hope[s] that this coincidence will bring more awareness to this cause.” And… that was it. "He really did nothing," Koestner tells me over the phone seven months later, in February of this year. "He had his lawyer call us and tell us that it was a mistake, and that was it. But the fact that he did nothing beyond that was disappointing, to say the least.”
"I was appalled by his apology,” Armendariz agrees. “I hope this coincidence will bring more awareness to the cause... obviously it would only distract from the [original] meaning of the phrase!” Timberlake’s (or at least his lawyer’s) tepid public statement only made her feel more conflicted about her fandom. So, as Armendariz says, “to absolve myself of the fact that I would still be attending his concert, I began tweeting at him every day.”
Undeterred by the controversy, Timberlake's team went full speed ahead with a viral campaign to market the song's "interactive video." On July 30, they announced that if you tweeted "#TakeBackTN," you would receive "access to various 'exclusive' levels of an 'interactive map'" of New York City. (Lucky you!) Later that day, Timberlake released the full, six-minute video for "Take Back the Night", which finds Timberlake—wearing what I can only describe as a very rich man's tuxedo t-shirt—gliding through the nocturnal streets of New York with moonwalk-esque ease. In the world of the video, darkened city streets are a place of whimsy, choreographed dance moves, and precociously pop-locking children. The fluidity with which Timberlake moves through the video is an expression of privilege—though others might perceive this as a space of potential danger, Timberlake floats through with a slick, carefree grin. “Give your body some direction, that’s my aim,” he sings.
Controversy has a way of sliding right off certain public figures—and more often than not, these people are clean-cut white men. Remember the video shot for Timberlake’s wedding to Jessica Biel, which tastelessly mocked L.A.’s homeless population? Probably not; the story evaporated almost instantaneously. And in our curiously selective cultural memory of the Wardrobe Malfunction Seen ‘Round the World, more people would rather believe that Janet Jackson popped her own pastie off via some kind of impressively choreographed muscle spasm rather than consider Timberlake an active agent in the whole thing. When his lawyer was trying to put out the TBTN fire, he is reported to have protested, “Justin’s a good guy! He’s a family man!”
Co-written by Timbaland, J-Roc, and James Fauntleroy, “Take Back the Night” was not one of Timberlake's most successful singles, failing to crack the Top 20 in the U.S. and UK. Many reviewers took issue with how its accompanying album, The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2, felt like discarded bonus material from its predecessor. (It was also reported last year that both albums were made rather hastily to fulfill a touring contract with LiveNation.) And yet, no critics that I read took issue with the fact that a handful of the songs on 2 of 2 feature references to sexualized violence that feel not just corny and lyrically lazy, but also mind-blowingly tasteless in light of the TBTN controversy. I mean, there is a song on the album called "Murder" with the cartoonish lines: "With all of that below your waist girl, you know the next scene is murder/ Maybe you need to watch out, something might go down, girl your body's gonna end up under the ground."
“#The2020Experience #2of2 is making my breakup with @jtimberlake easier than expected,” Armendariz tweeted when the record came out. “Still,” she adds in an email to me later, “just because The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 SUCKED, it doesn't mean we should discount its reach… I absolutely think Justin has a responsibility to compensate the organization financially, after corrupting the meaning of their entire message, which is meant to empower survivors of sexual assault.” When she went to Timberlake's show, she was particularly struck by the sight of young girls holding up “#TakeBacktheNight” signs—a depoliticized version of the powerful images she’d seen at the rallies. This sight motivated her to keep up her unofficial viral protest; she kept tweeting at Timberlake throughout the summer and into the fall.He never responded, and he has still not donated to the organization.
In the flat, often acontextual, and increasingly consequential
realm of the internet, there isn't really a difference between
an organization and a song—they're both competing for
the same search terms, hashtags, and SEO real estate.
The most common question all of this prompts is the one Armendariz voiced in her initial Facebook post: "Come on, JT... didn't you Google it?"
On the internet, with great access comes great accountability, which means that for most people, being "unaware" of an organization's existence is no longer an excuse. I have no trouble believing that Justin Timberlake—who has been safely encased in the bubble of celebrity since he first appeared on "The Mickey Mouse Club" at age 12—was not familiar with a foundation that most people first learn about on college campuses. But around the web, there was a chorus of surprise that no one on Timberlake’s extensive PR team bothered to Google the term before launching the single—and more egregiously, a viral marketing campaign centered around a unique hashtag. “Do you not have Google, buddy?” Ann Friedman asked in her online column for New York magazine. “Another thing JT doesn’t know,” Dodai Stewart of Jezebel quipped, “You can Google or ask Siri for sunrise and sunset times.” (This is a good a time as any to tell you that no one from Timberlake's camp responded to my interview requests for this story.)
More and more, musicians are starting to think about search engine optimization (SEO) at early stages in their creative processes. When I interviewed the Scottish band CHVRCHES last year, they told me one reason they chose to spell their name unconventionally was so their fans can Google them more easily, a strategy employed by many bands nowadays. (On the other hand: In an interview with Complex last year, the profoundly SEO-unfriendly band fun. kind-of-joked that an even more important milestone than their first #1 song was when they beat out “go-karts and porn” to become the top search result for the keyword “fun”.) There are also many articles—like one on SEO blog Verve Search called "The SEO of Band Names"—which give as-yet-unnamed artists tips for coming up with a Google-able name. Justin Timberlake’s Take Back the Night controversy is, on some level, a story about the sudden value of SEO and “Google-ability”—and what happens when it goes awry.
But as much as I’d like to consider it a cautionary tale, I’m not sure it is. He got away with it.
By the time Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience had been crowned the highest selling album artist of 2013, the Take Back the Night foundation had decided not to pursue legal action against him. Timberlake’s team only concession involved making sure that a Wikipedia search for "Take Back the Night" auto-directed to the organization's page, not the song's. Supporters of the organization might consider this small potatoes, but the truth is that—however good their intentions—the foundation would have had a difficult time winning a trademark infringement suit.
As Kevin Bankston, the policy director at the non-profit Open Technology Institute explains to me, "They’d have to demonstrate that customers would likely be confused by the defendant's use of the mark, e.g., that customers think he is offering their service, or that they endorsed his song, or the like—and [in this case] that seems highly unlikely." Trademark infringement pertains to cases in which the two parties in question are offering competing services; if Timberlake had tried to start a charity called Take Back the Night, of course, this would be a different story. In this case, though, it would be hard to prove any "confusion" over the fact that an organization and a song are two separate entities.
And yet—as I scroll through the "Take Back the Night" search results on the web and social media—I wonder if the sudden premium on "good SEO" renders this part of trademark law outdated. In the flat, often acontextual, and increasingly consequential realm of the internet, there isn't really a difference between an organization and a song—they're both competing for the same search terms, hashtags, and SEO real estate. When you search “#TakeBackTheNight” on most social media platforms, it’s now a hodgepodge of Justin Timberlake publicity photos, selfies and concert pics taken at The 20/20 Experience World Tour, and photos taken at Take Back the Night rallies—and due to the nature of these images, there’s some confusion over what you’re looking at. Timberlake’s single has compromised the online identity of Take Back the Night, but is it possible to quantify this damage? In the near future, will this alone be grounds for a trademark suit?
Jason Schultz, an associate professor at NYU's School of Law, isn’t convinced. "In some cases, Google SEO is like the old problem of newspaper headlines, advertisers, card catalogues, phone book directories—people would get confused all the time," he tells me. "But [even when it’s trademarked] you don’t get to control all uses of your phrase. If you start regulating [SEO], then you’re going to have millions of disputes every moment of every day over who gets control of certain words and phrases."
One potential bright spot for the TBTN foundation: There’s a concept within trademark law called trademark dilution, which occurs when “the owner of a famous trademark forbids others from using that mark in a way that would lessen its uniqueness.” Should they choose to pursue it, TBTN might actually have a case here, particularly in a sub-branch called tarnishment (“a weakening of the mark” through associations counter to the mark’s message). But the foundation would have to empirically prove in a court of law that they are "famous"—not just “liberal-arts-college famous.” It's another unfortunate instance of might being right: At this writing, Timberlake has 31.8 million Twitter followers, while the organization has just under 5,000.
It occurs to me that it is a free country. That Justin Timberlake can call his song whatever he wants, even if it happens to be the name of something that already means something else to a lot of people. That if I chose to boycott every artist who did not donate to every organization I support and whose politics do not align perfectly with my own, I would have no more music to listen to. That the world would be a tyrannical and stifling place if things were only allowed to mean one thing. I think of something NYU's Shultz says at the end of our conversation: “Because we have a First Amendment in our Constitution, we actually encourage confusion in the marketplace of ideas and information. Even when you have a trademark, you don’t get to control all uses of your phrase.”
I suddenly wonder if my anger about this whole controversy has been excessive. I decide to re-read my draft, to see if there is a good place to stick in the requisite, “Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of Justin Timberlake’s music.” But then I see it, the second sentence in this piece: “I’m not exaggerating.” And I’m sickened all over again by my need to justify my experience, by my worries that you won’t feel that my concern—and nausea—is real. But at that very moment, I finally realize why I have been so bothered by this story. It replicates a larger dynamic in our culture—the way those affected by sexaul assault are too often bulldozed over, made to feel small, or crazy, or hysterical, or unreliable, or asking-for-it, or just flat-out wrong. Even in the amorphous "confusion" of the internet, the hierarchies already present in our culture repeat themselves, and chaos too often reorganizes into familiar patterns. Marginalized voices are drowned out; those with power, privilege, and ignorance are free to moonwalk through the world without a care.
And yet, I find some hope in Schultz's idea that confusion can be a positive—and maybe even liberating—thing. If Timberlake’s cooption of this phrase means that images of his concerts now mingle with images of the rallies, then that opens the possibility for someone searching for footage of Justin Timberlake to come into contact with Take Back the Night. But more than that, this impossibility of regulation means we can do whatever we want with “Take Back the Night.” Let us be as cavalier with the phrase as Timberlake has been. We can be like Armendariz, riling something up and tweeting at Justin until he notices—or, if he doesn't, until someone else does (and writes an essay about it). If no one entity can truly own this phrase—not the Take Back the Night foundation, not even Justin Timberlake—maybe social media does bestow the ultimate power on the individual. Maybe the burden—or the opportunity—to take back “Take Back the Night” is on us.
Starter offers introductions to artists, scenes, styles, or labels of the past, plus a playlist.
The history of pop is rarely written by the background players—and even today, when film composers, session musicians, and freelance songwriters eventually get their due, there's still something a bit mysterious and dusty about the field of library music. In short, library music (aka production or stock music) is music recorded in a multitude of contexts and styles by work-for-hire musicians, owned by music-library labels, and lent out to commercial enterprises in TV, radio, and film. Sometimes this music sticks—for instance, the themes for both "Monday Night Football" and the UK sports program "Superstars" were both sourced from “Heavy Action”, a 1974 recording on the KPM Music label. And sometimes they're revived as period-piece fodder, like the Adrian Younge-sourced soundtrack to the blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite. For the most part, however, their influence comes through after they've been repurposed and recontextualized even more than their creators ever expected: To take one example, the works of drummer and composer Brian Bennett have been flipped by everyone from Mike Will Made It to Kanye West to the Alchemist.
Typically relegated to crate-digger curiosities for their role as sample fodder, library music records of the 1960s and '70s tend to hinge more on utilitarian mood-setting than distinct personality. Composers could labor under multiple pseudonyms, artist names were frequently relegated to the back sleeve, and some labels—particularly London's KPM, which released almost every single one of their LPs in the same olive-green sleeve—thrived while putting their own brand over a musician's particular identity. Call it the other side of poptimism: Just as the super producers, TV talent-show alumni, and focus-grouped songwriters of the Hot 100 are capable of making transcendent songs from their so-called “assembly lines,” so too were the under-attributed composers and studio orchestras of previous eras, whose biggest hope was for their work to find its way into the score of a low-budget sci-fi film or a two-season cop thriller. (Or, more infamously, in a porno—that stereotypical “whock-a-chicka” cue had to come from somebody.)
Library music gives us a picture of the
way day-to-day music sounded decades ago.
With those roles in mind, library music frequently fell into three modes. Some records were approximations of Top 40 and dancefloor sounds, left to be picked up by TV and film producers who didn't feel like shelling out for the genuine article. More common were variations on the trendy jazz or funk-laced orchestral scores crafted by the likes of Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, and Isaac Hayes. And in some notable cases, music libraries would facilitate mad-scientist works that often touched on avant-garde synth, ambient, and musique concrète in ways that experimental artists are still looking up to today.
The problem persists, however: Where do you even get this music? Since library music is often built on the imprimatur of labels instead of artists, there have been a number of good-to-great label-centric compilations that focus on a grab bag of artists united under some loosely thematic concept. Strut's Music for Dancefloors series has focused on a few of the more notable UK labels like KPM, Bosworth, and Chappell, while Music De Wolfe—arguably the most widely-sought-after label in beatmaker circles—has released two compilations dubbed Bite Harder. Offerings from continental Europe are trickier to get ahold of, and the best records on France's Editions Montparnasse 2000, Italy's Gemelli, or Germany's Selected Sound are mostly exclusive to the collectors' circuit. Every so often somebody will wrangle a fascinating cross-section of library music: Luke Vibert's Nuggets compendiums, the short-lived Cinemaphonic series that originated on Emperor Norton, and the numerous self-titled compilations put out by Italian reissue label Easy Tempo all stood out at the height of library music's lounge-revival-adjacent rediscovery in the late '90s and early '00s. But with such a niche interest, many of these albums soon go out of print, if they're ever reissued at all.
Maybe that's how it's meant to be. If there's such a thing as ephemeral music, this is it—recordings that were meant for a certain moment and usually filed away when that moment has passed, when Hammond B3s make way for synths, or disco rhythms turn passe after the rise of new wave. They give us a picture of the way day-to-day music sounded decades ago, outside either the bounds of pop-chart aspirations or the critically-acclaimed underground.
The Mohawks: “The Champ” (1968; Pama Records)
You know this song—or at least a few seconds of it. The groove has been a breakbeat staple since those early Bronx block parties in the '70s and, for hip-hop producers, cutting up “The Champ” might as well be as fundamental to the art as studying Citizen Kane is to filmmakers. That's how a vaguely Meters-esque semi-instrumental from a Leeds-born session musician named Alan Hawkshaw found itself rubbing elbows with James Brown in the crates. Recorded with a number of fellow session players under the pop-friendly name the Mohawks, 1968's “The Champ” technically isn't a library record, but it was cut by a man who'd become one of the biggest names in the industry soon after. Hawkshaw's characteristic flair with the Hammond organ is in full force here, and he would later carry on to KPM, De Wolfe, and Themes with his contributions to albums like 1969's The Big Beat and 1973's Black Pearl. Hawkshaw's brush with commercial pop didn't end with “The Champ”, either: Under the Love De Luxe banner, he notched a #1 dance hit with the 15-minute disco marathon “Here Comes That Sound Again”—itself interpolated in the intro to Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper's Delight”.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was founded in 1958, two years after Louis and Bebe Barron's soundtrack for Forbidden Planet became one of the first major examples of electronic music in pop culture. In less than a decade, the Workshop expanded the possibilities for what could be done in that field, creating the theme song and incidental music for the sci-fi hit "Doctor Who"along the way. Much of that work was the responsibility of Delia Derbyshire, whose appearances on the 1971 BBC Radiophonic Music compilation are particular highlights. This piece was at home as both the theme for a 1967 episode of BBC documentary show "The World About Us"focusing on the Tuareg people of the Sahara, and the incidental music for fan-favorite 1970 "Doctor Who"episode “Inferno”, and its origins in the found-sound foundations of musique concrète—including the oscillator-filtered reverberations of a metal lampshade being struck—made it an ideal piece to score both ancient ways and futuristic fiction.
Deep in the phone-book-sized discography of Ennio Morricone is a series of collaborative free-improv recordings with the avant collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, just some of the work that gave him nearly as much esteem in contemporary classical circles as it did among film buffs. (Just ask John Zorn.) And while it might seem strange to consider Morricone part of the library music canon—a soundtrack written without a film in mind is a singular oddity in his catalog—it's also a good entry point into his avant tendencies. Contro Fase was released in the midst of a repertoire of early '70s soundtracks that stretched Morricone's compositional mastery through the context of suspense thrillers, crime dramas, supernatural horror, and the last wave of spaghetti Westerns. Its ominous string section is like Morricone's permutation of the motifs in the theme to Psycho, which is the kind of thing most people don't know they want to hear until they know it exists—but the album also seems at home alongside the orchestral minimalism of Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet.
There's a little user's guide on the back of the otherwise generic sleeve to Ron Geesin's Electrosound: “I present some tunes, untunes, anti-tunes, delightful and undelightful sounds for all sorts of purposes and state that: The pieces herein displayed may be combined with themselves (as much out of sync as possible) to achieve thicker diffuse atmosphere, and playing things at different speeds would not be wrong!” This playful approach to experimental electronic music seems fitting from a man whose early collaborative work with Roger Waters on the biomusic experiment Music from the Body led to his involvement in orchestrating and arranging Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother. Electrosound has this loosely scatterbrained feel to it, but by design; the rhythmically disorienting yet propulsive cut “Syncopot” has all the feeling of a loosey-goosey precursor to Dark Side of the Moon's more intense “On the Run”.
French-Montenegrin pianist Janko Nilovic had a hand in so many singles and library recordings in the '60s and '70s that he's practically lost count—especially given how many pseudonyms he's used over the years. (A few of the more colorful ones: Johnny Montevideo, Emiliano Orti, and Tonton Roland Et Ses Pianos À Moustaches.) His 1974 LP Rythmes contemporains is his most appreciated (and most attainable, what with it being on iTunes for a mere $5). Here, Nilovic and an ensemble cast of musicians—more than two dozen are credited on the album—tackle the bristling, uptempo, funk-informed phase of soul jazz, complete with gong hits, palpitating congas, reptilian guitar shredding, and charging-army horn sections that seem primed to drop into the climactic scene of a Shaw Brothers martial arts classic. That could be the production music bias at work, though—it wouldn't be out of place in the soul jazz catalog of early '70s Blue Note, either.
Bernard Fevre's Black Devil Disco Club has always been one of the weirder recurring echoes from library music's more pop-minded corners of the late '70s, as Fevre's Eurodisco sound has run the gamut from canny Moroder-isms to fluffy kitsch. It's the work he did before the initial 1978 Black Devil LP that placed him among library music's more intriguing weirdos—a weirdness that was self-aware enough to make The Strange World of Bernard Fevre both his highest profile library record and the source material for a 2009 re-recording. “Molecule Dance” is one of the more low-key tracks on the record, which aims closer to ambient and eerie incidental mood music than the dancefloor material he broke out with. But there's still a chunky, bottom-heavy groove under all the quirkily catchy plastic-future analog synthesizers.
There are two well-known instances of this song being used for its intended purpose of providing background music: an appearance in Radley Metzger's 1976 porn-with-a-plot comedy The Opening of Misty Beethoven, and a 1979 spot for the British-market aftershave Denim. The funny thing is, for a song that's been used to accompany scenes of both explicit and implicit sexuality, it's also something of a big, lumbering, stoner-doom beast—it takes some kind of cinematic visionary to hear this and think it's arousing instead of sinister. The track works fine when it's cut-up and looped to emphasize its sleazier qualities, but as a full experience it gets remarkably visceral—metallic prog that hitches, creaks, crumbles, tears, and finally implodes in a minute-long crescendo of feedback and string-torture that comes across like the last moments of a jam session between Manfred Mann's Earth Band and Sonic Youth. (Richmond himself played bass with Manfred Mann in their early years, but his crowning work might be his sessions playing bass for Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson.)
America hasn't been known for spawning as many production music houses as the UK and Europe. In fact, some of the most well-known library themes to be used in '70s Stateside programming—from "This Week in Baseball"(John Scott's “The Gathering Crowds”) to "The People's Court"(Alan Tew's “The Big One”)—came from the UK. But one exception was the braintrust at NFL Films. Just as director Ed Sabol radically changed how professional sports were filmed, the composers and orchestras he pulled into the mix drastically shifted how it sounded, the war-like cadences and rousing melodies of marching bands put into a more intense, oftentimes funkier setting. “The Big One” (not to be confused with the Alan Tew composition) is a swaggering broad-shouldered bully of a piece, all heavyweight brass, disco-violence strings, and a guitar riff that sounds like it's played by someone with a motorcycle chain wrapped around his knuckles. Hear it, and it's instantly obvious how willingly it splits the evocative difference between a defensive line and a hit squad.
A personal favorite of producer Gaslamp Killer, who included it in his 2009 mix Hell and the Lake of Fire Are Waiting for You!, Klaus Weiss's “Survivor” is one of the finest examples of late '70s electronic library music you can find: a quicksand-groove dirge that sludgily oozes through the vacuum of space with nothing but the deliberate beat of Weiss' snare-heavy drumming to bolt it down. Weiss had a long career in library music, and a lot of clout with the beatmaking masses who appreciated his tendency to mix crisp breaks with chunky synthesizers, but he'd never get as spaced-out as he did here. If Black Sabbath beat Kraftwerk to Radio-Activity, this would be their “Ohm Sweet Ohm”.
The influence of library music lingers, and not just as building blocks for sample-based artists. Acts like the Advisory Circle, the Focus Group, and Belbury Poly—all of whom record for the UK label Ghost Box Music—frequently draw on the hauntological qualities of a previous generation's filmstrip and sci-fi soundtracks to concoct new sounds, playing with the relative anonymity of library-music creators to add another layer of mystery to their already eerie and enigmatic takes on electronic and psychedelic music. Of course, little these days is truly anonymous, but music meant to accompany somebody else's cinematic vision is always in demand—even if that vision belongs to nobody but the listener.
Photo by Kacper Kasprzyk
We know that it's generally not acceptable to fucking tell Robyn what to do—but when it comes to her friends cracking jokes at her expense, these rules change. "Are you in a brothel?" asks Röyksopp's Svein Berge when the Swedish pop singer noisily hops on a conference call last week. "Can you not hear me because of all the moaning?" Robyn shoots back gamely.
Truth be told, there's no audible lewdness on her end, but her cell phone headset is picking up entire conversations from strangers surrounding her: Robyn is at a Stockholm restaurant enjoying wine and sushi with a friend—an alibi that Berge, who's calling from Bergen, Norway, refuses to accept. "I'm fine with all the whoremongers in the background," he cracks.
Robyn and Röyksopp, which also includes Torbjørn Brundtland, just returned from Mexico, where they wrapped a video for "Do It Again", the spangly title track from the trio's five-song, 36-minute mini-album, which is out out May 26 via Interscope/Cherrytree. "It deals with forbidden fruits—which sounds really cheesy and makes me blush," Berge says, attempting to explain the concept of the video, which was helmed by acclaimed director Martin De Thurah. "It involves doing things where you know the consequences will perhaps be frowned upon or lead to something that's not good for you, physically."
The inspirational hedonism of "Do It Again" was inspired by a particularly wild night that the trio shared in Bergen—but everyone's definition of partying is specific, and to hear them tell it, Röyksopp and Robyn's idea of a good time doesn't exactly involve slamming a few Lime-a-Ritas. "Sometimes, we don't even go out," the 34-year-old Robyn explains in a patient, sincere tone that she maintains throughout our 45-minute conversation. "We just have a party in our studio and listen to music." Berge adds, half-jokingly, "We high-five until our palms bleed."
Do It Again features a mix of club-ready pop and techno along with two atmospheric 10-minute tracks that are reminiscent of the ambient stretches on Röyksopp's last LP, 2010's Senior; closer "Inside the Idle Hour Club" barely features Robyn's vocals at all. "We tried to leave behind any plan for what we were about to do," Berge says, talking about the EP's experimental nature. "We just wanted to embark upon something that was unique to us. We tried to make it deliberately not sound like Robyn, or Röyksopp."
The moody opening cut "Monument", with its stretched-out saxophone outro and burbling synths, was inspired by the work of sculpture artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite. "She took these two big blocks of clay and dug into one from underneath and dug into one from the top," Robyn explains. "Then she poured more clay into the holes and made the holes into sculptures. It stayed with me—the idea of how time is created by movement or action. It’s not something that’s there all the time, it’s something we make. That was really interesting, because while we were working on this music, I was thinking about life and death and who and I am and who I wanted to be."
As for the most ever-pressing element of time—the future—Robyn and Röyksopp are gearing up for their forthcoming tour, and Röyksopp plan to release a new album this fall. For those hoping that Do It Again would signal a proper follow-up to Robyn's last LP, 2010's Body Talk, well... not so much. "I haven't had a single good idea in six months," she laments, saying that she may start working on something after the upcoming tour. For now, she's focused on collaborations, and has spent recent studio time with Kindness' Adam Bainbridge and Swedish producer Christian Falk.
Pitchfork: "Do It Again" sounds like an empowering anthem to me, a rallying cry for the nightlife crowd.
Robyn: There's a lot of music being made right now that's really loud, and, for me, "Do It Again" is an exercise in making a song that's loud but still possesses an element of bitterness to it—something that turns the idea of "going all the way" on its head. When you go all the way, there's something that might go really wrong—you don't know where it will end up. The song's empowering, but there's a darkness to it as well.
Pitchfork: Because of the EDM boom, dance music's now more popular in the U.S. than ever.
R: It's great that America has finally embraced dance music, because it was invented by Americans. It started in Chicago and Detroit and it was never accepted, then disco came around and changed music history forever—but it wasn't accepted either. The '90s in Europe were all about dance music, and the rave scene was the youth culture of that time. As we all grew up on it, dance music was still considered something kind of dirty and bad in America, so to come back to an American culture that embraces dance music is a lot of fun.
Svein Berge: The success of [Daft Punk's Random Access Memories] was certainly helped by EDM. If the current strain of EDM has reached its peak in terms of commercial appeal, it still opens up the playing field for other singers and artists who are doing something more narrow or not as commercially accessible. But all those artists who came before are the ones who gave us inspiration when we were teens.
R: That's not to say that we are against any form of music—every genre has its place, and whatever music makes people dance is really cool.
SB: Yeah, there's nothing wrong with EDM at all. I like it. It’s just something that’s too rotund, too big. I like things when they’re sort of on the verge—before they break. That’s when they appeal the most to me.
Pitchfork: Svein, Röyksopp have had a penchant for wearing costumes and masks in press photos, and the Do It Again cover shot of the two of you and Robyn is no different.
SB: We've always had a reservation when it comes to to being exposed as people, but it’s not that we want to be enigmatic. It’s just how we chose things to be. It goes back again to the early '90s rave scene; you'd get 12” vinyl, and the only information you would have about the music would be whatever was written on the inner sleeve. There would be no pictures, no nothing, just the name of the artist. To us, the music was given extra meaning because there were no faces, which gave us the liberty to just focus on what we heard.
That’s stuck with Torbjorn and myself as Röyksopp: Let’s keep ourselves away from this and put the music first. But when it comes to the specific picture [on the cover], the masks and all, the idea came from two Swedish designers called [Sandberg & Timonen], who wanted to hint at some sort of eastern aesthetic, with the ropes. It gave it a rugged, almost-S&M look, but without going whole hog with chains and whips. I just thought it was striking without making Robyn into some sort of object that was tied down, because she’s a really strong person.
R: [jokingly] I'm actually just a monkey in a human suit.
This year's Sasquatch Festival is going down this weekend, May 23-25, at the picturesque Gorge Amphitheatre in Quincy, Washington. Gear up for the fest with this playlist featuring many of the acts scheduled to play, including OutKast, the National, Queens of the Stone Age, Haim, M.I.A., Neko Case, Tyler, the Creator, De La Soul, and many more.
The mid-90s saw the release of an incredible number of important hip-hop albums—Rolling on Dubs revisits these records around their 20th anniversary, and retraces the past through a contemporary vantage point.
Bachelor parties hosted by Dr. Dre shouldn’t run out of music. But in late 1991, the gilded stethoscope was slipping. In a Los Angeles hotel suite, the chronic sacks were fluffy, the Tanqueray was ready to sip, and the strippers poised to strip. But only the stash of cassette tapes was bare.
Had Warren G been absent that night, the khakis of the G-Funk space-time continuum would’ve forever ceased to crease. Stop for a moment and conceive an alternative history in which Dre never rolls in his '64 with Snoop Dogg—a “what if” scenario as universe-skewing as Archduke Franz Ferdinand eluding assassination, or the Portland Trail Blazers selecting Michael Jordan. Nate Dogg might have been robbed of the opportunity to mentor the gangsta-rap generation on daily weed smoking and polyamorous love. It’s a world minus that one little fight that made the Fresh Prince’s mom ship him to his auntie and uncle in Bel Air. Remove the nail, and our cultural scaffolding collapses.
At most bachelor parties, the best-case scenario is that no one contracts scabies. At this one, the G-Funk Era began.
Life became rhythm when the night's ad-hoc DJ asked Dre's stepbrother Warren Griffin III, aka G’d Up, if he had any music. Tossing a friend the car keys, Warren told him to dig the 213 demo tape out the car—quick. 213 was Warren G, Calvin “Snoop Doggy Dog” Broadus, and Nathaniel “Nate Dogg” Hale, lifelong friends from Pop Warner football and the streets of eastside Long Beach.
It’s hard to imagine hearing Snoop’s aftershave sneer and Nate’s bloodshot gospel for the first time. Maybe it was like being at the Atlanta soda fountain when the ex-morphine addict who invented Coca-Cola rolled up to offer the initial fix—complete with the tonic’s namesake secret ingredient. It was refreshing and addictive, and people began dancing.
Lumbering in from the next room, Dr. Dre asked: “What is this shit? It’s banging.”
If Dre and Snoop were mythical Gin and Juiced
Robin Hoods, Warren G was the laid-back younger brother
in the sweatshirt—less intimidating and eager to pass the blunt.
“I’d been scared to play our music, because Dre had already shot me down a few times,” Warren G remembers, calling from his Orange County home. “He was like, ‘Y’all need to get your shit together before you do what I do.’”
Over the previous three years, Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren infiltrated cornhusker America with Compton gangsta rap. N.W.A.'s influence was so pervasive that even people in Brooklyn (occasionally) rocked Raiders caps. But as the '90s began, the first wave was crashing. Dre was amidst an acrimonious split from Ruthless Records. Within months, he’d officially launch Death Row with bodyguard-turned-prince of darkness Suge Knight, who extricated him from his previous contract through lead-pipe diplomacy.
In the weeks preceding the bachelor party, Dre covertly auditioned rappers for what eventually became The Chronic. After hearing 213, the producer told Warren to come to Hollywood’s Solar Studios—and to bring his friends. “Hearing that Dre loved it was one of the happiest moments of our lives,” Warren G says. “He was my brother, the guy who I looked up to and learned from as a kid. All I wanted was to work with him.”
But Warren G and Snoop Dogg were barely speaking that month. Underground mixtapes and local shows had only yielded minor notoriety. Ducked penitentiary chances and bullets outnumbered record deals. Nate Dogg survived a stint in the Marines. Warren G toiled at McDonald’s, El Pollo Loco, and, eventually, a fire lookout gig at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Snoop shrugged off a short bid in County.
“We’d stopped selling drugs and tried to make a go at music,” Warren G says. “But it wasn’t working. We had to go back to the streets to survive.”
Until that zodiac-blessed bachelor party, sharks circling Snoop told him to go solo. But collaborating with Dre was 213’s collective dream, so much so that Snoop remained skeptical even after Warren broke the news—only believing it after Dre personally invited him to the studio in a three-way phone call.
The chemistry was apparent from their first song. “Gangstas Life” found Dre reconstructing a beat that Warren G had originally flipped from En Vogue’s “Hold On”. Snoop snapped like a pit bull and Dre extended a permanent invitation. The project lacked a name until a weed dealer materialized in the studio one day, offering the latest horticultural advancement: Hydrochronic.
The fuel was mostly imported from Long Beach. Snoop brought his cousins, Daz and RBX. Kurupt was raised in Philly and Hawthorne, but linked with 213 after battling Snoop out front of The Roxy nightclub in West Hollywood—impressed, Warren G swapped information with Ricardo Brown and produced his demo.
“We knew that if we could make Dre more successful, then we’d make it ourselves,” Warren G says. “There was a lot of drink, a lot of smoke, beautiful women, chicken breasts from Popeyes. Anything that came to our minds, we wrote about. We poured our hearts out.”
For The Chronic, Warren G’s chief assignment was excavating samples. He mined Leon Haywood’s “I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You” from a Carson record bin, which supplied the strut to “Nuthin but a G Thang”. The non-Funkadelic plutonium mostly came from As the Record Turns, a collectibles emporium on Hollywood Boulevard—including the Donny Hathaway loop of “Lil Ghetto Boy” that Warren G originally intended to gift to Mista Grimm. The G Child was also immortalized as the caller in the skit that kickstarts “Deeez Nuuuts”.
“I’d sample on the MPC the way that [Dre] taught me to; then he’d re-do them, add drums, live musicians, and take it over the top,” Warren G says. “I’d never try to take anything away from what he did. He’s an incredible producer.”
It’s obvious that Dre was the director and the Long Beach kids (and the Lady of Rage) were the players. But while the would-be auteur went solo on the cover, The Chronic was a communal triumph. Upon release in December of 1992, it became the first gangsta rap album to earn ubiquitous rotation on MTV. The lyrics stoked the sulfurous anger of ash-smothered post-riot L.A.; the Remy Martin-and-soda pop production kept the party going till six in the morning—smoldering embers turned into Technicolor barbeques.
But Warren G reaped none of the harvest. Death Row refused to give him a deal and no royalties were forthcoming. His brother had become rap’s Asclepius. His best friend and former partner, the Snoopy to his Woodstock, was the industry’s brightest star. And back on the Eastside of the LBC, Warren G was 22 years old, flat broke, and crashing on the floor of his sister’s pad, essentially homeless.
If you’re reading this, there’s a 99.8 percent chance that you weren’t a Southern California adolescent during the summer of 1993. Should you fall into that auspicious demographic, the percentage is even higher that “Indo Smoke” sold you on the merits of fat chronic sacks to put in your jar.
That track earned Warren G a deal with Def Jam/Rush Associated Labels. Executives claimed to be unaware of his familial ties with Dre; all they knew was that Warren was responsible for the fragrant weed cloud keeping the Poetic Justice soundtrack afloat. On screen, 2Pac mugged as a mailman with a pierced septum named Lucky. In cassette decks throughout the 213, Warren G introduced the world to the G Child, a helium-voiced prankster who got the funk online as you pressed rewind. Mista Grimm earned top billing on the cassingle, but “Indo Smoke” is essentially the first real Nate Dogg and Warren G duet. In just four minutes, they undid all the damage caused by '90s “I didn’t inhale” fabrications. In the video, Mista Grimm hit strains so strong that he levitated.
With a marijuantra of “whatever you do, young brother, you best not choke,” Nate Dogg staked his first claim as the most formative hip-hop singer. Had he embarked on a non-secular path, the bowler-hatted Bodhisattva might’ve wound up one the great missionaries of history. Save for Too $hort, it's difficult to think of anyone who could make people lovingly sing such profane things. To a 7th grader growing up in the G-Funk era, the imbalance was obvious: Nate Dogg telling you to smoke weed everyday > D.A.R.E..
“Indo Smoke” peaked at #56 on the Billboard Hot 100, but looped constantly on Power 106, 92.3, and "The Box". It transformed Warren G from a prospective inmate idling around Death Row into a rising prospect. 2Pac became a fan. Searching for his own contribution to the Poetic Justice soundtrack, Warren furnished the future rap martyr with “Definition of a Thug Nigga”. That same session at Echo Sounds in Atwater Village also induced “How Long Will They Mourn Me?”
But nothing anticipated “Regulate”. It ran the summer of '94 with the sort of blockbuster rampage usually reserved for radioactive lizards. The multi-platinum ode from the Above the Rim soundtrack eventually reached #2 on the singles charts. It’s so tattooed into our collective memory that you can pick out any line (“It was a clear black night,” “If I had wings I would fly,” “Nate Dogg is about to make some bodies turn cold”) and the next rhyme is already in your head.
“Regulate” has an elegant simplicity, inasmuch as that’s possible for a song with a plot point hinging on a spontaneous orgy at the Eastside Motel. Warren stitched a loop of Michael McDonald white-linen soul with some whistling from an old jazz record by Bob “Nautilus” James. The cherry on top was the “regulators” speech from Young Guns. The rules were clear: No geeks off the streets, and only people who could earn their keep need apply. You didn’t need to understand the laws to know that they were ones to live by.
In essence, “Regulate” is Nate Dogg and Warren G’s version of “Nuthin But a G Thang”. The narrative revolves around a sliver of Eastside Long Beach: from the neighborhood hub at 21st Street and Lewis to the hourly motels on PCH. You’d have to scrap the entire conceit if you wrote it today, though—Nate Dogg and Warren G wouldn’t need to swerve solo in search of one another, they could just text. But in Motorola pager days, serendipity was possible through Nate catching his best friend in a dice game gone awry, using his marine skills to terminate every attacker, and play seductive Good Samaritan to some curvy girls with a broken car. He said it himself: It went real swell.
By its June 7, 1994, release date, Regulate…G-Funk Era ranked among the year’s most anticipated albums. Most teens didn’t even realize it wasn’t an official Death Row release. I always considered it the last in the Holy G-Funk Trinity, a smooth Sunday cruise to the hydraulic drive-by of TheChronic and Doggystyle. If Dre and Snoop were mythical Gin and Juiced Robin Hoods, Warren was the laid-back younger brother in the sweatshirt—the rap version of Mitch from Dazed and Confused, less intimidating and eager to pass the blunt.
Warren G’s debut received two Grammy nominations, was certified triple platinum, and finished as the year’s fourth most popular rap album—behind Doggystyle, Salt-N-Pepa’s Very Necessary, and the Above the Rim soundtrack (which inevitably sold a million strictly off “Regulate”). During a period where Def Jam and its sister company Rush Associated Labels faced bankruptcy, Warren G’s sales kept the company solvent.
This spring has been flooded by commemorations of Illmatic at 20. But for all its genius, that album's immediate impact was largely confined to hard-core, East Coast-centric hip-hop heads. But when you turned on MTV that summer, you saw Warren G in rotation, alongside Weezer, Green Day, and Beck. In the seminal hip-hop doc The Show, Dr. Dre is asked about his brother’s ascent. He seems proud but slightly taken aback—clearly concerned with how the tables had turned.
“I wanted Snoop and Dre on the album, but Death Row wouldn’t let anyone from the label be on it,” Warren G says now. The bitterness is long vanished, but a lingering vapor of what could have been remains. Warren won’t say it outright, but it’s evident that a Suge Knight fiat was behind their absence. The club-wielding dictator was reportedly so incensed by Def Jam’s infringement upon his domain that he tried to ban Nate Dogg from the “Regulate” video.
“Snoop sang the original hook on 'This D.J.' but had to be taken off,” Warren says. “Someone quoted me saying that I built Death Row. I didn’t build it, but I definitely brought all my people there.”
There’s an innate nostalgia to the classic G-Funk records. The authors are all inner-city kids whiplashed by growing up too fast. Self-medication is the recipe for fun and the remedy for stress. So when the '64 Chevy’s stop rolling, there are meditative moments. Dre had his “Lil’ Ghetto Boy”. Between WBallz interludes, Doggystyle had a skit where Snoop told his teachers about his plans to “grow up to be a motherfucking hustler.” But Regulate…The G Funk Era was the most wistful of the trio. If summer is the most sentimental season, it’s fitting that it’s when Warren G snatched the sun.
“Do You See” finds Warren lamenting aging and reminiscing about when 213 was a group. He worries about his mom, who wonders if he’s a Crip. He considers a return to slanging dope. His other Top 10 single, “This D.J.”, saw the road-not-taken within a bus to Cal-State Long Beach versus chilling with the Voltron Crew. There’s no “Murder was this Case”, which mirrored Snoop’s real-life murder trial. Instead, Warren offered a slightly neurotic rags-to-riches story, with the occasional Gil Scott-Heron blues oration inserted for gravitas.
After studying Dre during The Chronic and Doggystyle sessions, the younger brother terraformed the funk to his own ends. He conscripted live keyboardists, percussionists, and even a horn player, but mostly leaned on quiet storm and funk samples from the early '80s: Mtume, One Way, Midnight Star, Cameo, the immaculate coif of Michael McDonald.
The love extended beyond populism. Spin lavished him with a three-page spread, rare for a rapper at the time. In a 3 ½ mic review, The Source highlighted Regulate…G Funk Era’s “musical mosaics that’ll go perfectly with the summer season’s drop-top convertibles and barbeques.” The chief gripe was that the lyricism didn’t match the production—a valid complaint, but one that negates none of its charm. Summer records aren’t supposed to be philosophy; they’re supposed to be fun. And Warren G captured the feeling of chilling at Kings Park or in the Shack, locations specific to Long Beach, but universally accessible to anyone who misses the teen luxury of squandering days without consequence.
Twenty summers have elapsed. Dr. Dre boasts about becoming hip-hop’s first billionaire. Snoop Doggy Dogg dropped the Doggy, and then became a Lion and a Zilla. Nate Dogg is no more. But Warren G remains the same Warren G, popping up for spot dates, the occasional beat placement, and recording every day in his Orange County studio.
There are tentative plans to drop an EP in August. It might be called This is That Summer Music,or maybe Regulate…The G-Funk Era, 2014. But if you live in L.A., no specific date needs to be attached. On any given hour, you can flip on K-Day and listen to Warren G’s legacy. Not just “Regulate”, “Indo Smoke”, or “This D.J.”, but deeper cuts like the Twinz’s “Round & Round”, “I Want It All”, “Game Don’t Wait”, or “So Fly”—the latter from The Hard Way, the 2004 album that finally reunited 213.
Recriminations are easy for rappers in their forties. Unless you’re Jay Z or Eminem, the industry’s shoals are particularly jagged. Nor does Warren G harbor any love for his first recording contract. He’s well-off, but not quite set-for-life, and he's aware of how many millions he’s directly and indirectly made others. But none of those things bother him. He’s more concerned with his rightful spot in history—the crucial ligament that allowed G-Funk to jump off.
“People try to erase history,” he says. “All I want is for everyone to know what I’ve done.”
 The stereo controller wasn’t just some random party-goer, it was L.A. Jay, an unsung hidden hand of '90s L.A. hip-hop and R&B. The keyboardist, producer, and session man was collaborating with Dre at the time, but achieved a Forrest Gump-like ubiquity. During that era, he worked with Masta Ace, the Pharcyde, Brian Austin Green, Tony! Toni! Tone!, and Vanessa Williams. We need a memoir.
 There’s a separate article waiting to be written about his experience with 2Pac in the studio. It involves Warren G showing up with a .45 on his hip, wary that he was being set-up. But once he realized the session was legit, he played Pac some beats, smoked some blunts, and told him about being broke, hungry, semi-homeless, and desperately trying to make it in a cold industry. 2Pac soaked all of it in, then went into the booth and translated it into “Definition of a Thug Nigga”.
It went over so well that they decided to make another song. But before round two began, 2Pac invited eight girls to the studio, rolled some more blunts, and proceeded to embody your greatest expectations of a 2Pac recording session. A studio phone interrupted the reverie with the information that Pac's friend Kato was murdered in Detroit over a set of Dayton Rims. The devastated rapper immediately scribbled the lyrics to “How Long Will You Mourn Me”. Warren G cued up a beat and called up Nate Dogg to croon the hook. And that’s how one of the rap’s greatest requiems came to be.
Sasquatch Festival took place just outside of Seattle, WA this weekend. Featured acts such as OutKast, Haim, M.I.A., Deafheaven, Waxahatchee, and many more. Photographer Angel Ceballos and assistant, Rachel Robinson, were there to take portraits of the artists and snap a few shots of the performances.
Check out a photo gallery from this year's Sasquatch! Festival by Angel Ceballos and Rachel Robinson, as well as a review of the fest by Molly Beauchemin.
The Sasquatch! Festival took place this past weekend in George, Washington, and if you ask any attendees about their experience, they’re just as likely to talk about the music as they are to gush about the majestic view. Sasquatch takes place on a hilly set of stages at the gorge overlook on the Columbia River Basin, a site that a friend once described as “the Hollywood Bowl on the Grand Canyon.” The music draws people in, but the gorge is what elevates the experience, its sumptuous panoramas lifting even the most rudimentary performances.
The festival was founded in 2002 in celebration of the unique music culture of the Pacific Northwest. It lacks the cosmopolitan industry vibes of SXSW and also feels apart from the celebrity culture and internationalism of Coachella—its crowds still consist largely of people from Oregon, Washington, and western Canada, and it was perhaps no coincidence that the outfits were practical, the footwear functional, the people unhurried.
Sasquatch is a relatively small festival—28,500 ticket holders compared to Coachella’s 90,000—and this capacity coupled with the fest's remote location makes it feel like a wilderness experience: You have to climb a hill to get to the main stage, it’s hot during the day, freezing during the night, and cell reception is limited. There’s a palpable feeling that you are in the middle of nowhere (and you are), but despite the visual emphasis on unchartered territory, the 2014 lineup felt unadventurous.
All of this year’s headliners have been around for more than a decade: OutKast, the National, Queens of the Stone Age. For every daring booking like French producer Gesaffelstein or blaring noise rockers Deafheaven, there were three times as many safe choices. The tendency towards convention stood in blunt contrast to the musical legacy of the Pacific Northwest: On the way up to the gorge, you pass Sleater-Kinney highway (after which Sleater-Kinney named themselves) and the Kurt Cobain statue in Aberdeen. Sub Pop records and college radio powerhouse KEXP are also just a short jump away in Seattle. And while institutions of local music rarely factor into festivals of this size, you couldn’t help but feel like the area's music scene was slighted by what is supposed to be a “regional” festival; local bands like Tacocat and La Luz were largely confined to afternoon slots on small stages.
This isn’t to say that the marquee performances were boring or conventional. On Friday night, OutKast performed for nearly two hours with high-octane enthusiasm—a notable improvement from a Coachella set that some critics suggested was poorly planned. There were no guest performances at Sasquatch, but Andre 3000 sported a white wig and a mechanic's jumpsuit that read “Everything Is Temporary”; the duo stayed close to their hits (drawing heavily from Stankonia and ATLiens), and with each new song, the crowd positively lost their shit.
The following night on the same stage, the National’s Matt Berninger ventured into the crowd, stretching his microphone cord 200 feet across the amphitheater, walking in a taut semi-circle (and close-lining tall people in the process). He also smashed a drinking glass on stage and randomly threw a house light after idly picking it up—not bad for a singer known for his lyrical emphasis on existential dread. Earlier on the same stage, M.I.A. played the intro to "Paper Planes" before transitioning into Lorde's similarly spare "Royals", though it was unclear whether the gesture was meant as an endorsement or a call-out.
EDM and hip-hop were the festival’s big successes: Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi, OutKast, and M.I.A. drew some of the weekend’s biggest crowds, and Major Lazer (who closed the festival), Classixx, Rudimental, and Chet Faker were much-discussed and well-attended. The festival felt very young; college insignias abounded on T-shirts and parked cars, and on Friday, when De La Soul’s Posdnuos kind-of-creepily asked if there were any “17 and under” people in the audience, a majority cheered to the affirmative.
Age might not be the reason why electronic and urban music performed so well at Sasquatch, but it definitely affected turnout: Chance the Rapper played the Bigfoot Stage, and his audience spilled over into the walking path as he performed a cover of the theme song from the PBS cartoon "Arthur"; nearly four hours later on the same stage, Mogwai played to a crowd one-fourth the size. Tyler the Creator, meanwhile, drew patrons away from the National’s headlining Saturday night set, and Princess, a Prince cover band fronted by "SNL"’s Maya Rudolph, was one of the weekend’s big surprises, pulling off a legitimately amazing cover of “Purple Rain”. Pop and rock acts like Yelle, Haim, and Band of Skulls also drew huge, enthusiastic crowds, while indie rockers Waxahatchee and Parquet Courts had very small (albeit passionate) audiences.
On Sunday night, fans were faced with the same dilemma that every festival-goer must address: Who to see last? Queens of the Stone Age, Major Lazer, and Gesaffelstein were all playing at the same time. In the rush to get to Major Lazer’s Sunday night blowout—complete with fireworks and spontaneous nakedness—a large group of people stopped short at the ridge. As they stared out at the gorge, Queens of the Stone Age fans continued to blow past them, but the group was unfazed. That slight pause was a fitting reminder of what makes Sasquatch endearing: No matter how crazy the music gets, there's always time to enjoy the view.