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Articles on this Page
- 06/13/14--10:05: _Rising: Total Control
- 06/16/14--10:30: _Photo Galleries: Pi...
- 06/16/14--11:35: _Update: Jessie Ware
- 06/16/14--15:20: _Festival Report: Bo...
- 06/16/14--15:50: _Photo Galleries: Bo...
- 06/16/14--15:50: _Festival Report: Bo...
- 06/17/14--09:55: _Cover Story: How to...
- 06/19/14--11:40: _Ordinary Machines: ...
- 06/20/14--11:00: _Update: A Sunny Day...
- 06/23/14--08:40: _Photo Galleries: Be...
- 06/24/14--08:50: _Interviews: Black S...
- 06/25/14--09:10: _Update: Mykki Blanco
- 06/26/14--11:20: _Starter: Footwork: ...
- 06/27/14--08:40: _Electric Fling: Rat...
- 06/30/14--11:00: _Update: Duke Dumont
- 07/01/14--11:40: _Starter: Sun Ra: 10...
- 07/02/14--12:20: _Interviews: United ...
- 07/02/14--22:01: _Staff Lists: Overlo...
- 07/07/14--08:35: _Overtones: Mozart M...
- 07/09/14--10:01: _Show No Mercy: Pall...
- 06/13/14--10:05: Rising: Total Control
- 06/16/14--10:30: Photo Galleries: Pitchfork at Northside 2014
- 06/16/14--11:35: Update: Jessie Ware
- 06/16/14--15:20: Festival Report: Bonnaroo 2014
- 06/16/14--15:50: Photo Galleries: Bonnaroo 2014: Photos
- 06/16/14--15:50: Festival Report: Bonnaroo 2014: Photos
- 06/17/14--09:55: Cover Story: How to Dress Well: Soul to Keep
- 06/19/14--11:40: Ordinary Machines: Pretty When You Cry
- 06/20/14--11:00: Update: A Sunny Day in Glasgow
- 06/23/14--08:40: Photo Galleries: Before the Storm: Trash Talk Offstage
- 06/24/14--08:50: Interviews: Black Sun Rising: Ten Years of Hyperdub
- 06/25/14--09:10: Update: Mykki Blanco
- 06/26/14--11:20: Starter: Footwork: 10 Essential Tracks
- 06/27/14--08:40: Electric Fling: Rattling Hum: Ambient Music's Alternate Realities
- 06/30/14--11:00: Update: Duke Dumont
- 07/01/14--11:40: Starter: Sun Ra: 10 Essential Tracks
- 07/02/14--12:20: Interviews: United Nations
- 07/02/14--22:01: Staff Lists: Overlooked Records 2014
- 07/09/14--10:01: Show No Mercy: Pallbearer
Total Control, from left: James Vinciguerra, Zephyr Pavey, David West, Mikey Young, Dan Stewart, Al Monty. Photos by Karl Scullin.
Total Control’s forthcoming second album Typical System, which follows 2011's very good Henge Beat, is a strong synth-pop record with a palpable undercurrent of darkness in its vocal delivery and lyrics. And while that tinge of dread, courtesy of frontman Dan Stewart, separates this band from others in Melbourne, Australia’s punk scene, it also has the potential to be their undoing. Their current SoundCloud bio reads “WE CAN’T TOUR SORRY,” and it’s not a joke; during a conversation via Skype, drummer James Vinciguerra confirms that “the likelihood of touring is slim-to-none.” He’s hesitant to elaborate, just saying that “certain people don’t really want to [tour].” From the sound of things, following the album’s June 24 release via Iron Lung, they just might slip into a hiatus.
But that shouldn’t discount the music they’ve made thus far. If anything, the apprehension toward hitting the road is a reflection of just how seriously Stewart, in particluar, considers his own work. The singer explains that this band can’t operate the same way other bands do. “Total Control is quite an emotionally demanding experience for me,” he says. “I love being on the road and traveling, but a lot of the songs [on Typical System] were written out of troubling, traumatic experiences.” He doesn’t go into detail, but the record’s abstract lyrics, which read like poems, are undeniably bleak. Take “Black Spring”: “So the rot set in, green turned grey and dead/ And now you know you’re to live, thrive, and lick.”
Stewart, a 32-year-old student of philosophy who runs his ownzine, started the band with guitarist Mikey Young in 2008. He is very well-read. The lyrics for Henge Beat came after a summer spent reading Friedrich Nietzsche and “a lot of post-Nietzschean French guys.” He says his preoccupation with the philosopher was “a pretty unhealthy obsession.” Stewart uses that word—“obsession”—a lot. “I don’t think I can really live without obsession,” he confesses. While writing Typical System, he pored over the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, the French writer Maurice Blanchot, the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, the Melbourne poet John Forbes, and the controversial neo-folk outfit Death in June.
But Total Control aren't just about stone-faced philosophical solemnities. They’ve clearly got a sense of humor, too. Vinciguerra helped put together the album’s artwork, which includes his funny, stream-of-consciousness manifesto, written “in a manic state,” that begins with an email from his dad titled “In the Land of Nose Jobs”. There’s a portrait of one of the guys in the band sitting next to a dog, with the caption, “Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow in happier times.” There’s a huge picture of two slugs mating. Stewart even argues that the album art, a majestic photo of birds, is “really funny.”
True to Australian band custom, Total Control's members are all embedded in the music scene there and involved in other groups. Stewart is the frontman for the hardcore band Straightjacket Nation and plays in the absurdist rock act the UV Race. There are members of Dick Diver, East Link, Lace Curtain, Russell St Bombers, Ooga Boogas, and more. Vinciguerra has started working on solo material.
I talked to the Vinciguerra and Stewart separately, then edited the conversations together.
Pitchfork: Do you feel any regret about not touring behind Typical System?
James Vinciguerra: Generally, yeah. I don't want to be too dramatic, but I have to say that Total Control has really helped me a lot. When we do play live, there is this synergy, and that’s the thing I really love. For me, it's a real physical outlet. It's cathartic. I'm sad that I don't have that outlet. I also really enjoy spending time with the people in the band as well. It does bum me out that we don't play too much.
Dan Stewart: I don’t really regret it. Sometimes if we’re playing a show, it fills me with anxiety and makes me feel a bit sick. It would be difficult for me to tour on some of the songs on this record just because it’s still quite raw. Even hearing the record is a raw experience for me. I feel quite nervous at the prospect of hearing it. I can’t really move on at the moment. I feel a bit stifled by it, to be honest.
Pitchfork: That makes me think about how other songwriters must have to detach from the trauma and darkness behind their lyrics during live shows.
DS: Absolutely. I don’t think anyone would write a song specifically attempting to relive or revoke those experiences over and over again. I naïvely decided to sing for Total Control simply because I loved writing lyrics. I was in a hardcore band, which was a really good way to experience certain strong emotions and physical acts—really sadistic behavior can be experienced in a very ritualized manner when you’re playing in a hardcore band. You can be involved in horrific acts of cruelty towards people that you know or don’t know. There’s a level of acceptance for obscene behavior that comes with that music. You can do such brutal things and such brutal things can happen to you that you can become quite callous in your day-to-day life. I was very aware that I was in danger of just beating any sensitivity that I had in through doing hardcore so much.
So I wanted to experience another side of being a singer, and Total Control is completely removed from that in a lot of ways. But I still do that hardcore band. It might not really be a healthy thing, but it is something that I need, that violent ritual.
Pitchfork: Dan, it seems like you’re drawn to writings that challenge you and suddenly alter your mood.
DS: I have a submissive relationship to writing in that I just want it to overpower me. This might have come from just having gotten into punk when I was a teenager and experiencing it as almost an entire rewriting of character—punk and hardcore completely gave me a code to live by and a way to think about the world. I was looking for that, though I probably could’ve found it in something else. My reception to things is to allow them to crush me.
Pitchfork: What’s next for the band?
DS: I have no idea. It’s really hard for me to project into the future at the moment, which I suppose is one of the reasons why I really want to just travel for a little while. Each time I do try and project a year ahead, it just seems like I’m looking into this horrible mess. I’ve spent far too long expecting for some significant catastrophe to happen. It hasn’t happened.
JV: I don't think it's the end. It's just a different chapter.
When I last spoke with Jessie Ware two years ago, her debut album Devotion had yet to chart in 10 different countries and whirl her around the globe on tour. “I'm just having fun and trying to pretend I'm a pop star, really,” she said then. When I call her this time, at the end of May, the British singer is in a styling session for the season finale of Poland’s version of the singing show “X Factor”. A few days later, she performed a classy duet of her hit “Wildest Moments” with a nervous contestant and gamely grinned through the judges (Polish) comments in an understated black suit and white blouse. There was nothing pretend about it.
And the workaholic singer’s forthcoming second album, due out later this year, has the potential to bring her modern take on smooth soul to even bigger audiences. The as-yet-untitled record has her working with a stacked cast of songwriting and producing collaborators: along with Devotion co-conspirators Dave Okumu, Julio Bashmore, and Kid Harpoon, Ware also enlisted Miguel, Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford, Toronto’s Nineteen85 (who co-produced Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home”), along with go-to songwriter Ed Sheeran, who’s helped write singles for Taylor Swift and One Direction. But the record’s most prominent co-stars are the executive-producer team BenZel, aka London electro expert Two Inch Punch and one-time Dr. Luke protégé Benny Blanco, who helmed about half of the new album, including first UK single “Tough Love”, which is officially due out in Ware’s home country on August 3.
The crystalline ballad, which brings to mind Prince at his minimalist ‘80s best, features Ware venturing to the top of her vocal range, and she says its representative of the greater variety of singing styles she employs on the forthcoming LP. “I’m a bit more comfortable as a singer now, so I'm having more fun with my voice,” she says. “I'm so proud of Devotion and I have such a romantic memory of how it was made, but I didn't really know what I was doing then. I was scared. I doubled my vocal quite a lot; I almost didn't want people to hear too much of my character. But my vocal is more laid-bare on this one. I'm definitely not belting the whole way through, but I branched out more—hopefully I'll be able to sing the bloody album live.”
“Tough Love”, which was recorded during a rare two-week touring break last spring, is marked by a deep sense of longing and inspired by the trails of maintaining a long-term relationship while jumping from continent to continent. “It's not always easy being away from the person that I love so much, but I’m also doing something that I really, really love,” she says. “It's realistic that it's not always real easy.” As is the trend with Ware’s life nowadays, though, there is a happy ending to this story: She is set to marry her longtime boyfriend on a cobblestoned Greek island later this summer.
"If more people know me, that would be lovely, because it
means the music is getting out there. In the meantime,
I've got a wedding to plan and shit to do."
Pitchfork: I was pleasantly surprised that this first single is more of a downtempo track—it draws you in rather than demanding your attention.
Jessie Ware: I can't go more downtempo than that. I had just finished a busy American tour, and I was hanging out with BenZel for two weeks in New York last spring to suck it and see what happens. So we ate loads of Momofuku—fuckin' love that place—went out, had fun, and wrote some songs that cemented our relationship with this record. BenZel are like family now, they're like my brothers and I'm their annoying sister, and we want to kill each other, but we adore each other. You'd think that it could've been one of the most daunting groupings, because Benny is ridiculously successful, but it was the most fabulous relationship I've had with two producers. Not intimidating at all. Which also has to do with me understanding the artist I want to be.
"Tough Love" has that mood of us feeling relaxed and not trying to do anything in particular, like an uptempo number that would probably do more on radio. There was no agenda with the song. It kind of dictated the rest of the album, and we indulged a bit with sonics and seeing what I can do with my voice. It's definitely in a higher register than I usually sing in. Actually, I sung the whole song an octave lower, and then one of my producers was like, "Go and try the higher up,” and I was like, "Nah, I can't do it up there," and he's like, "Just try it!" And I did. Moving it up to a higher octave definitely gives it this other character. It's fuckin' high! And I'm telling you, I'm scared about singing this one live, I'm not gonna lie.
Pitchfork: In our last interview, you said that singing onstage felt like you were playing a role sometimes, do you still feel that way?
JW: I definitely don’t feel so much like I'm playing dress up, like, [dramatically] "Tonight, I shall be Jessie Ware.” I've relaxed into it. But I still find it very weird. I'm absolutely petrified about singing again because I've had a couple of months of not performing. I've been in trainers and jeans for a while. So now I'm starting to get the fear of, like, “I'll need those hoops and that polo neck and my hair up and then I'll feel better.” But it doesn't so much feel like make-believe now. It feels real and still kind of scary, but fun.
Pitchfork: Thanks to the success of Devotion and the hitmaking caliber of some of your collaborators—like Miguel and Ed Sheeran—on the new record, it seems like you’re in a good position for gaining an even bigger audience. Does that weigh on you? Would you want that?
JW: I mean, I'm fucking lucky that I get to do this as my job—and it definitely feels more like a job this time around, no doubt. At first I was like, [child's voice] "Oh my God, this is great! Sing to people! Having a band!" And now, touring is a job—but it's a wicked job and I love it. I just want to be able to do another album. And if more people know me, that would be lovely, because it means the music is getting out there. In the meantime, I've got a wedding to plan and shit to do, so while this is always going to be an amazing job, I'm very realistic about it.
"I am definitely going to try and copy KimYe's 'just married' photo."
Pitchfork: How’s the wedding planning going?
JW: Well, I didn't kill my mother this week—I can't help but put all my nervous energy into stressing about a wedding! I'm getting married in Greece on an island that I've been going to since I was little. So yeah, I'm going to be a wife, which is probably going to be no different than being a girlfriend, but we'll have a good party. The schlep for people to get there is unbelievable, so I'm very lucky anybody is bothering even coming.
Pitchfork: How would you compare it to the photos from KimYe’s wedding?
JW: I loved their photo booth! I am definitely going to try and copy their “just married” photo. I just need someone to bring me those leather jackets in the schvitzing heat in Greece in August. I love Kanye and Kim Kardashian so much. But there's no bloody flowers in Greece at that point, so we definitely won't be able to have a wall of peonies. [laughs]
We’re going for something relaxed and simple, but with a touch of a Fellini movie, because we're getting married at the end of the day, and I want a really nice black-and-white picture of us walking through the cobbled streets. And I really want to go on the back of a Vespa, because that's how we travel around there, but my mother doesn't think I'll be able to do that with my dress. That's what we've been negotiating. I've been like, "Come on, mum, let me," and she's like, "I don't want you to."
Pitchfork: What was your boyfriend’s proposal like?
JW: I nearly ruined it. It was in Greece, where we're getting married. The first time he tried to do it, we went to the beach and there were loads of wasps on the island, and I was like, "Babe, I can't fucking stay here. This is pissing me off." And he had this ring burning in his pocket.
And then we were going to go to this romantic spot high up on the island, but we had to walk up all these bloody stairs. I'm already schvitzing. It's hot. I don't want to take the stairs. And he's like, "We're taking the fucking stairs." And I'm like, [gasps] "OK." Bless him. He had a ring and he proposed. I don't think he even got to propose—I snatched the ring out of the box before he even asked. I was like, "I'll have that." It was gorgeous and sweet and kind of perfectly imperfect, and that's probably how we are.
Like any festival its size, no two Bonnaroos are the same: not just year-to-year, but person-to-person. There’s the perennially shirtless bro with the moat of Natty Light cans around his tent; those nice gals up from Alabama with the daisy chain crowns and the Lionel Richie "Hello"-face tees; that older Nashville couple, in for the day, stoked on Elton John and the craft beer expo. You spend an entire weekend-and-change within a couple hundred yards of these people without ever seeing—or ingesting—any of the same stuff. Bonnaroo's a big thing: four days of just-about-nonstop music and lights, 8 a.m. Buckaroo Banzai screenings, and kale mac'n'cheese. And—despite this year's non-sellout crowd—this one felt like the biggest yet.
This year was plotted in such a way that I felt like I spent most of the last four days running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Friday and Saturday especially were just brutal: If you wanted to catch Chvrches and Vampire Weekend, or Ice Cube and Disclosure, or Lauryn Hill and Cut Copy—and why wouldn't you—you had to hustle. Plus, the comedy lineup was nearly as stacked as the music: “Broad City”, Hannibal Buress, T.J. Miller. They had World Cup going at the Kalliope stage, sustainable food workshops at the Bonnaroo Academy, and god-knows-what inside the Christmas Club barn. No matter who you are or what you're into, this year's Bonnaroo lineup was an embarrassment of riches: Elton John's first U.S. festival show ever, Kanye's big return to the Bonnaroo stage, an underpublicized Mannie Fresh DJ set. Overstimulation can be fun for a while. But after a couple of days, it's hard not to feel as though this Bonnaroo was, as the kids say, doing too much.
Thursday's lighter load—and spectacular weather—made for a nice little ease-in to the frenzy. Cass McCombs' late-afternoon set was fine and mellow; as on last fall's Big Wheel and Others, he's never sounded looser, and while his whole vibe is just a tad too subdued to compete with the Tennessee sun, the constant flutters of pedal steel and his hand-drawn "Prisoner's Right to Vote" shirt mostly got across what his subtler songcraft couldn't. Like Cass, Real Estate kept things leisurely; they've got a bonafide #Roovian in bassist Alex Bleeker, who teased "Turn On Your Lovelight" and asked the crowd if "ya'll still bring glowsticks to this thing?" (Of course they do.)
Straight-up indie rock is always hit-or-miss proposition at a place like Bonnaroo—with all those options on offer, immediacy is king. But Cloud Nothings were as good as I've ever seen them, unspooling their eight-minute post-grunge nerd-dirge epics to a wildly receptive crowd that never stopped growing. But Vampire Weekend, so dazzling on record, still seem a bit bookish for the big stage, although Ezra Koening was dressed for the occasion in camp cargo shorts and a one-size-too-big white T-shirt. For the people who love them—and there seem to be more of us all the time—Neutral Milk Hotel's scrappy set was a triumph, messy and weird and cathartic. Dreamboat weirdo Ty Segall handily smashed the weekend's stagedive records; the kid's got a real gift for melody, one he occasionally tramples with a little too much punk-informed scuzz. When he gets the balance right, though, you wonder why he's not a bigger deal.
At my last Bonnaroo in 2012, straight-up rockers like Ty seemed to have taken a backseat to EDM. This year, Skrillex played twice—on his own, and as maestro of Saturday night's Superjam—and Kaskade and Zedd both had big late-night to-dos, but the overall balance seems to have shifted back in the other direction. Jack White's headlining set Saturday was chockablock with "return to rock" signifiers: the video screens flanking the stage showed vinyl being poured and old-timey TV tubes, reminders of the durability of the rock'n'roll era to which White so frequently harkens back. His set was strong, if a little scattered; he's not the most natural banterer, his solo material doesn't have the same bite as the White Stripes songs he peppers his set with, and he's very into living in Nashville, which translates to a lot of hit-or-miss country-boy affectations. Still, that man-out-of-time routine is very much his lane, and he thoroughly owns every inch of it.
Kanye's late-starting performance at 2008's Bonnaroo stands as the single most notorious set in the festival's 13-year history. I wasn't there, but I do remember officially-sanctioned anti-Kanye graffiti all up and down the walls near the Bonnaroo arch the following year. All day Friday, idiots could be found toting "Kanye is a gay fish" signs from tent to tent; clearly, all is not forgotten.
Still, there he was, out on the big stage, performing a scaled-back version of the much-ballyhooed Yeezus tour setup, his two-hour timeslot largely unopposed on the other stages. From where I was standing—not quite halfway back, towards the right of the stage—the mix was spot-on, but the volume was pathetic; Jack White, from the same spot the next night, was easily twice as loud. Not only did the Bonnaroo faithful not seem to want him back, but the festival itself seemed to be working against him. So when he started to outline the reasons for his return—to "piss all on the port-a-potties" people had tagged with anti-Kanye screeds—he elicited all the boos people had clearly been waiting to unload.
Thing is, I stood and watched those same people rapping along to "Good Life" not seconds later. Hating Kanye is a sport for some people, and when he dares to push back, they rub their hands with glee. The set wasn't without its problems: the sound, the long silences between songs, the comparatively spartan setup. But the real problem with Kanye's set had nothing to do with Kanye comparing himself to Henry Ford, or running "Blood on the Leaves" back a few too many times. Bonnaroo prides itself on its community vibe, but that vibe can quickly turn ugly when that community finds a common enemy to turn on. Here we have the most important musician pop music's seen in ages, a guy whose sonic ambitions and emotional openness almost singlehandedly reconfigured rap music. But he was kinda late to his set at Bonnaroo one time, and the loyalists just couldn't believe that the grudge they'd been holding onto for six years might turn out to be mutual. Lisa Simpson said it best: Why would they come to his concert just to boo him?
Trend-watching is tough at a place like Bonnaroo: See enough Hendrix tees between passing whiffs of sidestage blues-rock, and you'll have yourself convinced you've got a bead on the thing, but really, the sprawl keeps any one aspect from dominating. I did seem to see a lot more R&B-influenced acts than in recent years, most of them good, some of them phenomenal. Janelle Monae turned in what was probably Bonnaroo's single-finest set; as the theme from 2001 played, her bandmates dragged her onstage on a hand-dolly, Hannibal Lecter-style. While her two fine albums occasionally let the concepts run roughshod over the songcraft, everything comes together onstage: the boundless energy, the hot jazz, the Afro-futurism. The whole thing works on about 50 levels; you could dig on the constant appeals to self-expression, or you could get up and shake it to "Tightrope", and it's nice to have the option.
I didn't realize it until Friday, but Sam Smith is already a star; I'd worried his constant falsetto might turn squawky in the heat, but he's got remarkable vocal control, and the songs to back it up. Meanwhile, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Frank Ocean was up there all by his lonesome, the weight of the world on his shoulders; his music's expansive, his voice pure and honest, and he's saying things about Gen Y's class anxieties and identity politics with an empathy nearly unmatched by his peers. Alt-R&B up-and-comer Banks had the tent going, but I remain unconvinced; her smoky hooks and her band's slinky Portishead-isms just can't quite rouse her actual songs from the dead. Lauryn Hill went on rather late (naturally), but once she started, the delay made perfect sense; her crack band's got to get everything right just to keep up with her. The rapid-fire reggae and latin jazz-inflected reconfigurations of Miseducation classics would've left a lesser MC breathess, but Lauryn—even after all these years without a new record—is still one of the best we've got.
Exhausting as Bonnaroo's scheduling can be, for the discerning listener, the booking is a delight. They don't just book a couple token metal bands, they book really good metal bands: Mastodon, Meshuggah, and Deafheaven, who I can only imagine scared the corndogs out of a few chemically-suggestible sorts.
The rap bookings were every bit as solid, too. The always-great Danny Brown was in his element, giggling manically while running down his post-set chemical regimen. When he's not mired in cliched "fuck that side" rap show boilerplate, A$AP Ferg was a hoot; he and A$AP Somebodyorother spent half their set in the crowd, stopping only to offer prayer hands (he is, after all, the Trap Lord). Chance the Rapper turned his shove-happy, post-politeness crowd into fast friends—"This is my show," he instructed us to repeat, before plunging over the photo pit.
Jam bands were few and far between; no moe., no Widespread, nobody from the Dead diaspora, just Umphrey's McGee in the middle of the afternoon. The jam kids have turned to dance music, and well-attended sets from subtler dance fare like Disclosure, Classixx, and Darkside suggest America's interest in electronic music is far from a passing trend.
I'd worried that a mostly unfamiliar crowd might see Omar Souleyman as some kind of curio. But at Bonnaroo, he's just another guy making dance music in a cool-ass robe. Blown up on speakers that big, the wriggle-and-thump of Rizan Sa'id's keyboards prove at least as danceable as anything else on the Bonnaroo bill. Not two songs in, the two of them had the rapidly swelling crowd eating out of their outstretched palms. It was spectacular, one of the sets people will be telling their co-workers about all week.
Skrillex's set, meanwhile, was pure deja vu. Sonny Moore played roughly the same Saturday a.m. slot at the very same stage atop what seemed to be the very same spaceship two years back. He's an ambitious kid, but his ambitions are often outpaced by his eagerness to please; for every slippery dancehall-informed sliver from this spring's Recess, there'd be 20 more seconds of "The Circle of Life". After a while, the constant drops feel less like a reliable thrill than a crutch.
Elton was Elton; he's got the power and the delivery, but his tone's all-over-the-place. Still, there are few people on the planet better prepared to drop a greatest-hits set than him, and nobody could've walked away from that set disappointed. And that's the thing about Bonnaroo. From a distance, the dozens upon dozens of options on hand at any given moment seem to provide an opportunity for happenstance, for spontaneity, for stumbling into something surprising. But really, what most people want to do is sit around their tents and drink a few pre-noon beers, meet up with their friends, see the shows they were hoping to see, maybe grab a quesadilla. In 13 years, Bonnaroo's gone from a jam-heavy free-for-all to a slicker, more eclectic weekender. But, no matter who you'll see or what you've snuck past security in your hollowed-out peanut butter jar, Bonnaroo's the same for everybody: a couple days in the country, away from it all.
Photos by Erik Sanchez
Mere minutes after wrapping a set filled with songs about the hanging spectre of death, the impossibilities of desire, and the impending extinction of humankind, Tom Krell is crowd surfing in the back of his tour van while the obliterating trap anthem "Turn Down for What" rages from the speakers. As the gangly 6-foot-3 singer valiantly negotiates the small space between his bandmates' outstretched arms, the van's bucket seats, and the unforgiving ceiling above, a wash of pure elation rips through the car. After a tedious, sometimes tense day of driving down the East Coast at the end of March, Krell unspooled his most vulnerable self for 500 rapt strangers at Washington, D.C.'s subterranean U Street Music Hall, and this humbly ridiculous celebration is his way of keeping that performance high alive. It also serves as a bit of a comedown. "I am covered in bruises from head to toe," he deadpans, slightly bewildered following his bumpy trip through the upper reaches of the van's atmosphere. As we roll past the Washington Monument, the eerie patois hook from Kanye's "Mercy" pulses from within the vehicle's tinted windows: "It is a weeping/ And a moaning/ And a gnashing of teeth."
As How to Dress Well, Krell is chasing enchanted states—trying to lose control and get outside of his own head before inevitably shuttling back down to earth. When he performs his increasingly sophisticated and powerful music live, the 29-year-old's eyes are shut tight, his skeletal frame leaning on two separate standing microphones—one dry, one soaked in effects—as if they were crutches holding him up. "I get rid of my self-consciousness and my personality when I'm singing," he explains. "If I think about trying to look cool or cracking a smile, I can feel myself slip out of the song very quickly." It's a wholly internal approach, and it's engrossing to watch; even if you can't quite understand what Krell is wailing about in that androgynous falsetto of his, you know it means everything to him. And then, perhaps, to you.
But while his cries from the void may suggest a deep self-seriousness, Krell isn't afraid of puncturing his own intensity. Even during shows, he lightens the mood with casual banter; in one instance, he admits that his mom thinks a new song sounds like Ashlee Simpson—and while he doesn't necessarily agree, he takes it as a compliment. "An ancient Greek tragedian said that tragedy in excess falls flat," Krell tells me, talking about these moments of onstage levity. "The music can be so sad and heavy, and people can get overwhelmed by that. But it's OK to have this profound experience and then to come out and get a breath. It's a delicate balance." So while Krell will excitedly sing along with Roger Troutman's talkbox ballad "I Want to Be Your Man" in the back of the tour van, as the song fades out he'll also mention the not-very-fun fact that the funk icon was murdered by his own brother, who then killed himself.
One-on-one, he's loose and inquisitive; during our Skype conversations for this piece, he's either munching on Honey Nut Chex in his Chicago apartment or lounging in a hotel bed, his bottom half still underneath the covers. With his tour mates, he'll crack stir-crazed jokes about the likelihood of a reboot of the alien-on-Earth sitcom "Mork & Mindy"—with Ashton Kutcher playing both roles—and rattle off eerily on-point impersonations of rappers like Young Thug and Migos. He regularly uses words like "hella" and "bro," and drops loving references to pop-punk heroes Alkaline Trio as well as ratchet auteur Ty Dolla $ign. He also uses words like "anthropocene" and "simulacra," and regularly expounds on his appreciation for Belgian art-house realists the Dardenne brothers and 18th-century German thinker Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi; along with being a pop experimenter and wide-eyed cultural sponge, Krell is currently working on his Ph.D in philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago.
His dissertation is on nihilism, a doctrine that looks upon meaning-making powers like God and nature with an intense skepticism, instead offering the possibility of a world based on chaos and nothingness. "To me, nihilism is an omnipresent threat," says Krell, doing his best to translate doctorate-level theories to a layman. "For us moderns, God is dead, and yet we nevertheless go on making music, painting paintings, falling in love. So I want to give a description of how values and meaning and sense are not only possible but, in fact, actual—it's about trying to make some true meaning in the face of its apparent impossibility."
Krell says his studies are separate-but-complementary to the music he makes, and the tension between the two acts as its own creative force. With philosophy, he's trying to suss out the framework of life as we know it, to break down the mental gymnastics popping off through his brain into words on the page. With music, he's forging headlong into the unknown, embracing immediacy, letting himself get lost. He describes a moment of musical bliss that occurred near the end of a recent show in New York, where he freestyled a tribute to a troubled friend mid-song, his emotions and voice pouring out unencumbered. "I just snapped, and it felt amazing," he says with a spacey look in his eyes. "But it also felt like something I didn't really have control over." Seeking a release—and a path back to reality—he followed that dalliance with ecstasy by stepping off stage, winding up, and blasting his fist into a wall.
To listen to the songs Krell has released as How to Dress Well over the last five years is to observe an unveiling. When he started posting short, abstract, home-recorded tracks online at the end of 2009, he had moved away from his longtime girlfriend to Cologne, Germany, to work on a philosophy project. "I just felt very disoriented and unsettled," he recalls, his designer-sweatpants-clad legs squeezed under a Brooklyn cafe table in March. And that uncertainty is smeared all over his debut album, 2010's Love Remains, which orbited around the worlds of R&B and lo-fi noise like a distant sonar blip. Even though his voice was slathered in obfuscating fuzz and reverb, its melancholy shot through. "That album was unintelligible in certain ways," says Don Deere, a close high school friend who also now studies philosophy at DePaul, "but it was trying to grasp something at the limits of intelligibility."
"It was really important for me to sing on Love Remains and just have the emotional content come out," says Krell. "I was testing the water there, like, 'Are you going to be able to love me, listeners?'" While the album drew in curious fans and critics—Pitchfork's Mark Richardson called it "the biggest breakthrough in home-recorded lo-fi in years"—the attention coincided with sudden catastrophe. Krell's best friend Ryan Hitchon passed away in his sleep just a few weeks before Love Remains' release. He was 27.
"I went through a period where I really didn't know if I was going to make it—I just couldn't wait to sleep when I was awake," says Krell, who responded to the tragedy with a period of living wrongly. "My mother describes me as a very tight-knit child, but that year I just had this will to fuck up, to disappoint. I was grieving and I wanted people to know and be like, 'He needs us right now.'"
Considering the singer's string-laden aural memorial to his late friend, 2011's Just Once EP, featured three songs entitled "Suicide Dream", I ask him if he ever seriously thought about ending his own life during this time. "Self-murder is a very vexing and weird thing," he says, matter-of-factly. "I don't think it's wrong, per se, it's just not for me. I do think that there are worse things than death, but I have an incredible love for life."
"Watching my best friend die so young made it really important for me to try and figure some things out," he continues. "This desire to save my soul, whatever that means, crossed my whole life."
That mix of weary hope and sorrow marks 2012's Total Loss, which, in hindsight, bears all the hallmarks of a transitional record; while more direct and understandable than Love Remains, it sounds tentative compared to Krell's new album, "What Is This Heart?", which takes the kernel of experimental pop confessionalism the singer has toyed with thus far and explodes it into brilliant, unexpected forms.
Krell recorded much of the new album in a sunny Berlin studio last summer with his Total Loss collaborator Rodaidh McDonald, whose wise, minimalist approach has also helped to steer acts including the xx and King Krule. Krell says the soft-spoken McDonald is like his director of photography, knowing exactly how to refine his tumbling, disparate references and ideas into a fathomable picture. Originally, Krell was intent on leaving his demos for the new record largely raw, a la Total Loss, but McDonald convinced him otherwise, pushing him toward something with more clarity and sonic depth.
To that end, "What Is This Heart?" starts with a hushed, acoustic-guitar plea, before blossoming with festival-ready sing-alongs, Whitney Houston-style dance pop, Spiritualized-indebted balladry, screwed-down hellscapes, skittering modern soul, and one track that turns a sample of AT&T's hold music into something legitimately sensuous. And what's more, Krell's words and vocals are no longer cloaked in echo or diminished by mumbling cadences. Laid bare, the real range of his gifts—and pain—becomes shockingly apparent.
"It's hard to see how much of our social fabric is
made up of a radical refusal to love people."
One of the album's biggest revelations is Krell's disarmingly open lyricism. His choice to be more transparent can be traced back to the a cappella encores he performed while touring behind Total Loss, during which he sang an achingly bare ode to one of his older twin brothers, whose middle name is Blue. The lullaby describes a life full of rage, frustration, and hurt, and ends with the lines: "And now I sing Blue, I feel your name in my fate/ And I sing Blue, I feel your pain everyday/ And I sing Blue, but I can't wait for you to die/ And I sing Blue, but I never wanted you to cry."
Both of Krell's brothers have Asperger syndrome, a form of autism marked by insular behavior and difficulty communicating with others. "My whole life has been touched by mental disability," says Krell. "It's one of the core features of my entire character, my personal experience of life, everything." (His mother, who worked in post-cardiac care—"she would often come home having pumped a human heart with her hand"—also suffers from depression.) And while Krell stresses that he takes a tremendous amount of pride in his brothers, he also admits that he "felt alone from a very young age—these people were supposed to be my closest relatives, but I couldn't connect with them." Just as his brothers felt ostracized from society, Krell felt ostracized from them.
This isolated upbringing incubated a twisting mix of pride and shame deep within him, along with a heightened sense of empathy. When an elementary school music teacher once asked about his brothers, Krell made up a story that had them competing in a national dance competition. He remembers falling into a ravaging sadness every time he saw this one disabled stranger on the street while studying literature and philosophy at Iowa's Cornell College. At age 20, he worked with the Center for People with Disabilities in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, though the experience scarred him. "It was this hero thing where I was like, 'If anybody can change the diaper of this 76-year-old non-verbal guy born with lesions on his brain, it's me,'" Krell says. "But I just couldn't do it without digging the fork in the wound in my heart."
He talks about how his brothers are caring and opinionated, and imagines a world where disabilities were more understood. "By and large, the social order is still at the level of an elementary school playground, and the bullying pushes them out of the social fabric and creates an intense frustration—which actually could be a largely avoidable symptom of their condition, and not the condition itself," he thinks out loud. "Who knows what they would be like if they weren't brutalized by society? It's hard to see how much of our social fabric is made up of a radical refusal to love people."
All of Krell's familial psychodrama plays out on "What Is This Heart?" opener "2 Years On (Shame Dream)", which puts his quavering voice in a stark spotlight as barely-there guitar strums and trickling piano swirl, then disappear. Based on an actual dream, the lyrics read like a surreal diary entry where his mother is brokenhearted, his father is both terrible and truthful, and his brothers are "no different than you or me or any other guy" but also "never just all right." It's all there—the guilt, harsh truths, denial, realizations, honor, and sadness of a household grappling with mental disability. Nobody is indicted; this portrait is tender, and resilient. The song is so candid that Krell had second thoughts about putting it on the record, though several people close to him, including his therapist, told him he deserves to be able to release it.
"Growing up, I developed an intensely separated and personal world, and I still feel trapped in that space so much," he says. "But now, I really want to be acknowledged and known by my loved ones better, and particularly by my partner."
Across the album, Krell takes on an especially thorny topic: modern love. He currently lives with his longtime girlfriend in Chicago, and many songs sound like they're being sung directly to her. "Repeat Pleasure", the straight-up catchiest song of Krell's career thus far, is, at its core, a love song. But it's also a How to Dress Well song, which means it's a bit more heady than most of the effervescent '80s pop it recalls. Instead of promising endless affection, the track breaks down the endlessness of longing, of want. "If you want it once you'll want it more baby," he sings, "but once you got it you'll want something else."
"The contemporary social order makes it very difficult for us to love," he tells me in the cafe, donning his professorial cap. "And pop music presents us with these amazing images of love, but they're unattainable because they're just banal and stupid. Obviously, my music is pop music, so it's about the idea of trying to navigate those simulations in the direction of something authentic. That said, there are times when the simulation is what does it—sometimes 'Baby' by Justin Bieber is actually the love song that you feel rings through."
While Krell is extremely forthcoming with in-depth explanations of his own songs, he's not the type to slave over a notebook, editing lyrics and concepts for days. In fact, he prefers to let his songs come to him; his usual songwriting process involves letting an instrumental demo play in his apartment and then freestyling sounds and melodies and, eventually, words—whatever he feels in the moment. So when he tells me about how "Repeat Pleasure" hints at the ideas of German philosopher Georg Hegel, he laughs a little bit, as if he just realized the connection himself.
These songwriting realizations can also be harrowing: While demoing vocal ideas for the self-lacerating "See You Fall", it dawned on Krell that he was singing about two former girlfriends, one of whom had an abortion while dating him, and another who had a miscarriage during their relationship. "In both cases, I learned about what happened after about a year," he says, "but I felt like my responses were inadequate—at 17, I was just too young and dumb and naïve and misogynistic to appreciate the gravity of the situation. We don't really prepare people for life because we have this whole myth of childhood innocence. I wish we had more public discourse about complicated emotional things."
Krell's infatuation with creative spontaneity dates back to his time wasting days and nights in Boulder, a one-time bohemian utopia-turned-gentrified tech town. Though most of the city's free-thinking havens have been replaced with designer shops, Krell would regularly hang out with his friend Don Deere during high school and college breaks, reading and drinking coffee at a Beat bookstore called the Trident until it closed at 11 p.m., and then heading to Denny's, where they'd write poetry all night. So when Krell opens his mouth to sing while thinking up a song, he's got Allen Ginsberg, Immanuel Kant, R. Kelly, P.M. Dawn, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony—to name just a few—swirling around in his brain, ready to offer inspiration.
Also on that list of kindred spirits: one-time Warped Tour regulars like Saves the Day, the Starting Line, and Alkaline Trio. Like so many '90s teens, Krell began his musical career getting his angst out as the frontman for a high school emo band, called A Far Away Place. "He had the same desire to express emotion, but it was being channeled differently," says Deere, who played guitar in the group. "There was some screaming involved." Deere remembers his friend pouring his lungs out into a microphone 10 feet away during a recording session, already searching for ways to warp his own voice.
"I played music in high school because I was extremely unhappy," says Krell. "But I didn't have the courage to go up to my friends and say, 'I'm going through something.' So instead, I was like, 'You want to play some songs?' Nobody ever asked me if I was OK, or what I was writing about. Even then it was a way to immediately get at something that I wasn't able to metabolize in my day-to-day life."
That latent emo influence is found on a few "What Is This Heart?" tracks, including the throbbing "A Power", which Krell describes as "extreme philosophical poetry that stemmed from meditating on Taking Back Sunday." Meanwhile, the electric guitar-stung "Childhood Faith in Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay the Same)" was originally put into motion when Krell revisited a 2002 track by Philadelphia pop-punk band the Starting Line called "Best of Me".
"I thought about what music like that meant to me as a teenager, how I was moved so intensely by this schlocky pop punk like it was fucking fine art," he says, smiling at the memory. "For me, the most important thing about music is immediacy, which is part of the reason why I have such broad listening habits. I'm pretty shameless about it: I was playing the Starting Line in bed the other night, and my girlfriend was like, 'What the fuck?! Turn this off.' But that song still completely thrills me."
The wider span of musical touchstones found on "What Is This Heart?" is a more accurate reflection of Krell's tastes than previous How to Dress Well releases, which have been lazily lumped in with so-called alt-R&B acts like Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and Miguel. "This record has very little to do with R&B, and that’s a very conscious decision on Tom’s part," says McDonald. "Alt-R&B is kind of an ugly term, I feel, because it’s often not that good."
"I'm flattered when someone compares me to some super-famous artist, but I'm just not doing what they're doing," explains Krell. "Like, I love Miguel and his music, but there are some things he sings that I would never sing: Asking a girl if she wants to have sex with you because you don't want to waste your time is a little crass. The music I want to make is somehow slightly more holy than that."
Still, he's not afraid to engage with more mainstream artists if the opportunity arises, like the time he "fucked around" in a New York City studio with arena-filling neo-soul veteran Maxwell after a show. "I was singing over a beat and he was smoking blunts and going, 'Woo! Woo!'" Krell recalls with excitement. "He always DMs me, like, 'Hey, keep it up, brother.' He's a cool supporter." Krell was also tapped by Kanye West and Jay-Z's camps to contribute ideas for Yeezus and Magna Carta Holy Grail, though nothing came of either situation. (For the record, Krell says How to Dress Well "would not be possible" without West's 2008 emo&B opus 808s & Heartbreak, adding, "I can't fucking believe that that wasn't the most universally praised record of the decade.") And last spring, he laid down some ad-libs over a demo of Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap cut "Chain Smoker", and while his voice didn't end up on the final track, if you listen closely, the high-pitched loop that runs through the song certainly sounds like something Krell would do.
"With How to Dress Well, I was one of the first people to start a trend that is now completely dominating independent music, which is the interrogation of independent music's relationship with pop music," he says. "But some people missed a step in this process—while everyone was praising the underground and the overground coming together, somehow that turned into there not being any underground music, which is a little disheartening to me. I want my music to be pop, but not populist—I want to be #1 on Billboard, but I want to do it on my own terms."
Whether on the very public spectrum of the pop charts or within his own private life, Krell is ready to be known, and he's finally coming to terms with—and embracing—what he can't control or explain away. "I'm way less unhappy than I've ever been, which is cool, I'm into it," he says, quietly, as if not to jinx it. "I'm not saying that I never want to be sad—that's impossible, particularly given my life and who I am. But I learned to let a lot of what I presupposed about life linger as questions; I've always wanted things to be extremely definite, but one of the blessings of me doing my art is that it allows me to let things stay unsettled."
Back in D.C.'s U Street Music Hall, Krell and his band are nailing the night's closer, "Set It Right", an elegy that has never sounded more exultant. In the pregnant pause between the song's yearning bridge and crashing climax, the singer lets out a completely perfect and unrehearsed yelp. Afterward, he humbly marvels at the fresh glow of that moment: "I never did that before." And he'll never do it again. Not like that.
A few months ago, an unfamiliar man working in my office came up to me and said, "Why don't you give us a smile, honey?" What I gave him instead was a confused look, followed by a belated, radioactive death-scowl directed at the back of his head as he silently walked by a few of my male colleagues on his way to the door. No one's default facial expression is a smile when staring at a computer screen; anyone who has ever opened PhotoBooth by accident and been unexpectedly greeted with their cow-eyed "I am on the internet" face knows this to be true. But, as the unimaginative cat-caller’s refrain of smile for me, baby too frequently reminds us, society would still prefer women to lacquer on a happy face. Well into the 21st century—in the professional sphere ason the street—too many people expect women to be warmly smiling Stepford Wives emanating sunbeams from their every pore. If you’re not happy, at least learn how to fake it.
When I was growing up, it felt like this was true in music, too. From my early-to-mid adolescence, I listened almost exclusively to music made by sad boys. Like a lot of turn-of-the-century emo kids, I started out on Pinkerton but soon hit the harder stuff: Brand New, Saves the Day, Thrice, the Get Up Kids, Taking Back Sunday—power chords, primal yells, and bruised, brooding male hearts. Like goth before it, this music reflected back the operatic extremes of our teen angst, but its gender politics left something to be desired.Although I knew quite a few girls who listened to emo, it was implicitly understood that this was music made by boys. (When five of my best guy friends started a band, they asked me to be its official photographer, even though I took guitar lessons and studied music theory and had never so much as touched an SLR.) In the emo scene, boy sadness was accepted, normalized, and aestheticized; the girls' perspective was absent. There was a much-discussedlegend—the Iliad of Long Island emo—that the lead singer from one of our favorite bands had stolen the girlfriend of the singer in another one of our favorite bands, so every song that both of these bands wrote was about the same, elusively mute girl.
Then, when I was about 15, Rilo Kiley's The Execution of All Things came into my life. In the early 2000s, Rilo Kiley were outliers: They were technically considered "emo," but their bright, twangy songs didn't sound like any of the other emo bands I knew; they were part of Omaha's booming Saddle Creek scene but hailed proudly from L.A.. And though the band was fronted by not one but two former child actors, Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis, it was clear to anybody listening that Lewis was the star. I've tried in recent years to make sense of the impact that this record had on me (as well as some of my peers; Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield has its cover inked on her arm, another friend of mine is currently considering a tattoo of one of Lewis's lyrics), and the only explanation I can come up with is maddeningly simple: It was the first record I loved on which a woman sings in vivid detail about being sad.
Listening to her was liberating. I knew guys who liked Rilo Kiley, but I knew a lot more girls who loved them. I remember thinking Lewis was like the older, wiser, elegantly jaded older sister I didn't have—a kind of indie rock Dorothy Parker. She was a comfortingly mortal combination of vulnerable and strong, usually within the same song (like the band’s great ode to carrying on in the face of depression, “A Better Son/Daughter”). But her brand of melancholy seemed a little different than the boys'. It had an air of weariness, disillusionment, and above all things an awareness of being looked at. "I've become just like a terrible mess," Lewis sang in a wilted lilt, "tracing the lines in my face for something more beautiful than is there." She seemed to subtly say something that my friends and I knew but couldn't quite articulate yet, that the deck was stacked differently if you were a girl. Because to be a girl is to be seen, even in the moments when you wish you could disappear.
To me, Rilo Kiley are inextricable from the proto-social media era—my early days on Livejournal and Myspace and AOL Instant Messenger, when I was first learning the ins and outs of crafting a persona online. My favorite Rilo Kiley song at the time was a seven-minute slow-burner off their debut album, called "Pictures of Success". It is a song about lying around the house, waiting on an inattentive boyfriend, daydreaming about dying or else moving west; it's a song about being so terrified by the expectations the world has set for you that you wish you could run to a place where nobody has ever heard your name. For a while, near the end of high school, my (stylishly overwrought) away message was often a lyric from that song: "I'm a modern girl, but I fold in half so easily when I put myself in the picture of success." Looking back now, I'm not sure I really understood what it meant—maybe something vaguely related to SAT scores and geometry tests and the looming burden of a bright future—but I just loved the way she sang it. It sounded so perfectly gloomy.
On June 16, 2006, a 16-year-old girl who called herself Bree uploaded her first video diary to the 16-month-old website YouTube, under the username lonelygirl15. "What you need to know about my town is that it's really boring, like really boring," she told her webcam in the video, which has now been viewed about 4.8 million times. "That's probably why I spend so much time on my computer." Over subsequent videos, more details about Bree's "life" emerged: She was home-schooled, her dad was overbearing, she couldn't be with her crush because of her… vaguely occult religious beliefs. Then, some savvy viewers uncovered the truth: The videos were a hoax—miniature short films scripted by some imaginative (male) filmmakers. "Bree" was really a 19-year-old actress named Jessica Lee Rose.
In the eight long years since lonelygirl15 catfished millions of people, "feminine sadness" has developed into a full-fledged internet phenomenon. The writer and artist Kate Durbin has called this the "Tumblr teen-girl aesthetic." "[Girls] can teach us something about what it's like to always be seen as a thing, as less or other than all that you are, and what you can do with that position of abjection if you are brave," she writes. The aesthetic is at once purposefully campy and disarmingly earnest; artifice and vulnerability bleed together until you can't tell the two apart. The quintessential example is perhaps one of my favorite Twitter accounts, the dryly hilarious @sosadtoday.
Some might find this voice insensitive—a recent Rolling Stoneinterview with the anonymous writer of @sosadtoday cited criticism that the account makes light of mental illness and depression—but others have found something de-stigmatizing and freeing about it, too. The rise of the teen-girl aesthetic (which, it should be said, is embraced by plenty of people on the internet who aren't teen girls) coincides with this moment when the separation between our online and IRL selves is blurrier than ever. Maybe embracing this style has something to do with self-preservation. For girls who are aware that our culture expects them to be benignly happy, shiny objects—smile for me, baby—there can be a defiance in not only embracing sadness online, but cultivating a kind of ambiguity as to where the performed feeling ends and the "genuine" feeling begins.
Enter Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence—a record which seemed to emerge fully formed from this aesthetic. In almost every way, Ultraviolence is the most provocative thing Del Rey has done yet; when they were released in advance of the album, the song titles alone—"Sad Girl", "Fucked My Way Up to the Top", "Pretty When You Cry"—were enough to cause a minor internet sensation. Del Rey's 2012 debut, Born to Die, was sometimes criticized for glorifying a seemingly retrograde stance of feminine passivity, weakness, and empty titillation (her legion of diehard internet fans will probably never let me forget that I compared the record to "a faked orgasm" in my review). Rather than shrink from these criticisms, though, Ultraviolence finds Del Rey embodying all of these controversial qualities more fully—so much so that there's something unsettling and even brazen about it.
"They say I'm too dumb to see," she coos in a campysexy-baby voice. "They judge me like a picture book, by the colors like they forgot to read." Is this exaggerated? Is it "real"? The joke's on anyone who insists on asking those questions—the whole point of Del Rey is that it's impossible to tell, and that perhaps there's even a strange power in that ambiguity. Ultraviolence has an air of "HI HATERS" drizzled out in gasoline, and an immaculately-manicured finger flicking a cigarette in slow-motion onto the ground.
Beginning with the languid, almost-seven-minute "Cruel World", the album is saturated with sad, its tempo rarely accelerating above "rolling tumbleweed." Del Rey often trails off mid-lyric and sometimes seems on the brink of disappearing; there's a moment in "Shades of Cool" when a guitar solo literally drowns out her words. Wistfulness, longing, and morbidity are present in every croaked note, but in its most genuinely poignant moments, Ultraviolence seems to suggest how unfulfilling it is to embody a male fantasy. I have become the perfect American girl just like you wanted me to, Del Rey seems to be saying, and I'm so lonesome I could die.
Regardless of how you feel about Del Rey, it's clear that her sound and persona are more realized on Ultraviolence compared to Born to Die, which often came off as thin and undercooked to me (I mean, do people actually drink Diet Mountain Dew?). At the time Born to Die was released, I wondered who, exactly, it was for. But it found an audience—and any record that sells 7 million copies probably tells us something about the cultural moment into which it was embraced. So it’s worth asking: In a time when "empowerment" is considered such a virtue for girls, why has Lana Del Rey become an icon? The best answer I've found comes froman essay by the French writer Catherine Vigier: "[Lana Del Rey] is representing and speaking to a contradiction facing thousands of young women today, women who have followed mainstream society's prescriptions for success in what has been called a post-feminist world, but who find that real liberation and genuine satisfaction elude them."
Over the past two decades—beginning with the Spice Girls—"empowerment" has been the default aspiration of the female pop star. (Think: pretty much every hit song ever recorded by Beyonce. Or Kelly Clarkson. Or Pink. Or Ke$ha. Or…) We tend to use this word like it is an unquestionable feminist virtue, but, just like any word, formulaic overuse can make it feel hollow. Empowerment-pop's shark-jumping moment might have come last year, when Katy Perry's self-affirmation anthem "Roar" topped the charts. I like the song, but I also sort of feel like a Pavlovian dog for liking it; a kind of exquisite corpse of already-proven stadium bangers, "Roar" feels like it was drawn up from focus groups and genetically engineered in a laboratory for the sole purpose of *EMPOWERING ME*. One writer even proposed a conspiracy theory that its chorus was tailor-made to appeal to as many popular high-school sports team mascots as possible… although it seems this approachmay have backfired.
"Roar" was one of the biggest hits of 2013, and it was the perfect soundtrack for a year in which Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was advocating her own bland definition of feminism and telling us that everything would be OK if we only LeanedIn™. But just as the least-common-denominator pop of "Roar" left me feeling a little empty, Sandberg's high-heeled-capitalist message that you are a good feminist if you're a good worker rang false to many young debt-saddled girls graduating into an economy where they can barely find jobs, let alone believe in their futures.
Ultraviolence, then, is the anti-"Roar", and I do think it reflects a certain disillusionment in our culture right now. In some ways, it’s a fantasy of leisure: The people in Del Rey's musical universe do not strive or believe that things will get better, they lounge around all day manicuring their nails and then drink and smoke themselves into a glamorously inert stupor by night. This has been true from the jump; as Vigier writes, "The success of Del Rey's 'Video Games' video must in part be related to the way it portrays a carefree past—in which young people are not performing or striving, but simply larking around, at the swimming pool, skateboarding, or riding motorbikes."
When Del Rey does sing about striving to acquire power, it’s usually by fighting exploitation with more exploitation (“Hallelujah, I’m gonna take men for all that they’ve got,” she sings on the sumptuously menacing “Money Power Glory”). Ultraviolence is poised to be a huge hit, and I think part its appeal is how boldly it flies in the face of the previous generations’ values; songs like “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” seem tailor-made to troll the kind of parents who told their daughters that they could achieve anything the boys could through hard work and self-respect. And while there's something dismaying about Ultraviolence’s vacant, defeatist worldview, it also taps into a genuine fatigue that a lot of young people—and girls in particular—have when it comes to "achievement." Not that this is anything new; this fatigue is just a part of being young. After all, isn't this the same thing that spoke to me about "Pictures of Success"?
I realize now that it wasn’t exactly “sadness,” but a particular kind of strength—one that allows the contradictions, complexity, and emotional range of a lived experience—that I was responding to in Jenny Lewis. And that dynamism is what I still find lacking in Del Rey. Maybe the answer is to glamorize neither strength nor weakness, sadness nor happiness, but search for the many alternatives in between. Ultraviolence is a record I'm sure I'll put on from time to time when the mood strikes, but something about its universe feels stiflingly monochrome. It's good to embrace your shadow, but you can't paint a lifelike picture using only shades of grey.
We’ve all been there: deep into a convoluted email chain that could probably be reduced to a three-minute conversation if everyone just talked it out in person. Still, you think you’ve got a sense of when to pay attention and when to tune out—and then, all of a sudden, the tone shifts completely (were you not CC’d?!) and you’re scrambling to catch up. Do you go with the flow or backtrack to make sure your voice is heard?
To hear guitarist and de facto band boss Ben Daniels tell it, this is basically what it’s like to be a songwriting member of A Sunny Day in Glasgow. “I’m kind of a legend on email, and the rest of the band is like, ugh.” Singer/lyricist Jen Goma agrees. “We would have 17 versions of a song where the only thing that’s changed is the type of reverb,” she says, talking about the protracted exchanges that resulted in their fourth LP of uncanny psychedelic pop, Sea When Absent (which is out June 24 and now playing in full via Pitchfork Advance). To put a finer point on the ASDIG decision-making process, Daniels says that while he tries to keep things democratic, final calls often rely on “whoever writes back.”
This goes a long way towards explaining the strange dream logic that ASDIG songs tend to follow. The splintered interaction is a necessity as the band’s six members are spread out across Australia, Brooklyn, and their original home base of Philadelphia; when Daniels, Goma, and I connect on a conference call, it’s 8 a.m. in Sydney, 3 p.m. in Los Angeles, and 6 p.m. in Goma’s Brooklyn. (Needless to say, ASDIG requires its members to be multitaskers and keep strange hours.)
Daniels is the one constant since the group’s 2006 debut, The Sunniest Day Ever EP, and his off-balance production has resulted in him being tagged a “mad scientist,” which is somewhat literal. Self-described as a “kind of Asperger’s, sort of autistic, crazy, math-type,” Daniels works as a biostatistician in Australia, where he most recently “created an algorithm to analyze chemotherapy drugs.” Meanwhile, Goma was a featured vocalist on the latest Pains of Being Pure at Heart album, and also sings in the wiry, indie rockers People Get Ready. But both Daniels and Goma consider bassist Ryan Newmyer’s job as a prop assistant to be the most interesting of the lot. According to Goma, “If Victoria’s Secret is doing a photoshoot, Ryan has to go pick up all those roses and chaise lounges and set them up.” Daniels chimes in, enviously, “He’s hung out with, like, Madonna and Richard Branson.”
In fact, there’s a good chance Newmyer’s hung out with actual celebrities more than the other members of A Sunny Day in Glasgow—there was not a single moment of Sea When Absent’s recording when the entire band was in the same place at the same time. Fortunately, ASDIG made a prescient decision to enlist their first outside producer, Philly mainstay Jeff Zeigler (Nothing, War on Drugs, Purling Hiss), to institute boundaries on the band’s overload of ideas. It’s resulted in their most extroverted, collaborative album, both in terms of music and personnel, and has given this previously overlooked band an unprecedented amount of traction. As far as how ASDIG might capitalize on Sea When Absent, Goma shrugs: “That’s never the topic of an email thread.”
A Sunny Day in Glasgow, from left: Adam Herndon, Ben Daniels, Jen Goma, Annie Fredrickson, Josh Meakim, Ryan Newmyer. Photo by Adam Herndon.
Pitchfork: Was there a protracted effort to make Sea When Absent more of a singles-focused album than your last record, Ashes Grammar?
Ben Daniels: When Ashes Grammar came out, I thought it was a really loud rock record for a year, and then a friend was like, "This is really chilled-out and ambient.” So I don't really have any perspective on the new record yet, but I try to start with a declaration of principles, a mission statement. Your question made me dig up the original email I sent to the band back in October 2011, when we first started talking about recording. It's very funny to read this now because so much of it didn't come true. The big things in this email are "SIMPLIFY" and "CLARITY," and then I say that I shouldn't mix the album because that's usually where simplicity and clarity die. Inspirations I cite include Rhythm Nation 1814, Enya, and The-Dream. Then I say that drums and bass should be very prominent, with vocals being the most important thing, and maybe very little guitars. I conclude by calling for no songs over five minutes and saying that I'm sure we'll fail at anything like what I describe, but hopefully we'll do that in an interesting way. Plans never work!
Pitchfork: What was it like working with an outside producer for the first time on this new album?
BD: To be honest, I don't know what 90 percent of the stuff that [producer Jeff Zeigler] did was. He had a mixing board, he's got equipment from the 1940s, I don't know what he's doing with that.
Jen Goma: I love pitch-shifted things, and Jeff had a thing that could very instantly slow down anything that had just been recorded. Just for a laugh he would slow down the take that we just did, especially if there was a fuck-up in it, because it's that much funnier when it's in half time. But a bit of that actually made it on to the record.
BD: At one point, Jen had the flu and was just hacking her lungs out in the bathroom, so Jeff recorded that, and then he pitch-shifted it down. He then recorded Jen laughing at that pitch-shifted coughing, and that's at the end of "Double Dutch".
Pitchfork: Ben, have you ever considered producing for other people?
BD: I would probably try to talk them out of it. Actually, there was this website—I was told it's like the Russian Pitchfork—and they had some contest for Eastern European bands where you could win a chance to work with some cool indie band. And I was one of the prizes. There were real people too—Arcade Fire was in there. I think the grand prize was you got to work with Diplo. So I worked with this band from Belarus on a song.
Photo by Zoe Jet Ellis
Pitchfork: Philadelphia has become an epicenter for indie rock over the past few years, do you feel like you're missing out on the artistic community there?
BD: No. I am pretty antisocial and have difficulty communicating with other human beings. I know that if I were in Philly I'd still mostly be hanging out in my apartment reading books and playing with synthesizers. That said, I grew up in Philly, went to college in Philly, lived in Philly afterwards for a while—almost every formative experience in my life has happened in Philly. Whether I like it or not, Philly is all over everything I do for the rest of my life.
Pitchfork: What are intraband fights like in A Sunny Day in Glasgow?
BD: There's definitely a familial dynamic in ASDIG, and the fights are just as stupid as most family fights usually are.
JG: Some of my favorite stories are of me and Ryan disagreeing about a chair, or the origin of some inane “Simpsons” quote. There is also one of us who didn't watch “The Simpsons” growing up and they really hate it when we speak only in quotes from the show.
BD: It's funny, in 2012-2013 [guitarist/keyboardist] Josh [Meakim] and Ryan each went on tour with other bands, and they had a blast doing that, but they each separately told me how they missed this "support" aspect of ASDIG. [Vocalist/keyboardist] Annie [Fredrickson] just reminded everyone of our old tour blog, and I recently looked through it for the first time since 2010. I know we had loads of fights on those tours, but it mostly made me miss everyone and want to get in bed with everyone and watch That Thing You Do! at 2 a.m. in a motel.
Though best known for their raucous, limb-spewing live shows, L.A. hardcore band Trash Talk aren't always kicking faces in from the lip of a stage. The following gallery by Brick Stowell—who's also Trash Talk frontman Lee Spielman's best friend and roommate—captures the band during moments of relative calm while hanging around Los Angeles during the release week of their recent album No Peace.
Few labels—electronic or otherwise—can claim to have stamped as indelible an imprint as Hyperdub over the course of the past decade. To remain ahead of the pack in a scene that prides itself on rapid mutation is no small feat, and while others have sometimes surged ahead, the London imprint has been able to boast an unparalleled consistency at the nexus of forward-thinking dancefloor culture, tying together strands of contemporary club music in unexpected ways.
After launching with a single by head honcho Steve Goodman—aka Kode9—in April 2004, the label gained international notice thanks to the dubstep symphonies of William Bevan, better know as Burial. To say Burial’s shadow looms large over the label's history may be unfair—he’s far from the only artist on their books to mean something to someone—but the producer’s capacity to make people lose their fucking shit is unrivalled. Shrouded in even more mystique than the exalted shutaways of ‘90s IDM, it seems everyone has forged their own personal relationship with this most reluctant of posterboys; mine came at 16, finding solace in the swirling detritus and snatched vocal fragments on long journeys back to the suburbs. And while his 2007 album Untrue is perhaps Hyperdub's single greatest achievement to date, no label can stay relevant for a decade based on the talents of just one artist.
As covered in Larry Fitzmaurice’s review of Hyperdub 10.1—the first instalment of four 10th anniversary collections to come this year—the label has excelled in various bass-first UK styles in addition to dubstep, including grime, garage, and funky, oftentimes mixing them up to form something fresh. Indeed, the label's defining release of last year, DJ Rashad's Double Cup, proved to be a pinnacle of Chicago footwork, showing just how far Hyperdub has come from its dank London roots. When I spoke to Rashad last year, his entire demeanour oozed joy at having nestled snugly within the Hyperdub family; following the producer's passing in April, re-listening to those same contented words (“I don’t see myself going nowhere else!”) serves as a grim suckerpunch, but nevertheless Rashad’s quick assimilation into the fold speaks volumes about Hyperdub in the present day.
Flush with new talent and exploring a wider palate than ever before—icily detached R&B and gunfinger-oiling jungle-juke hybrids making strangely harmonious bedfellows—Hyperdub is currently careening through a purple patch. Goodman seems comfortable, too. Some of his more esoteric proclivities remain, but having called time on his academic career for fear of being overstretched, any hint of his formerly offish persona has evaporated.
I sat down at his place in South London on a drizzly winter morning to discuss the label’s first 10 years in operation: filling in the blanks and mulling over the wider shifts. Boxed in by rows of maneki-nekos, racks of analog hardware, and stacks of lovingly crafted HYP10 chocolates from a Japanese mini-tour, Goodman struck a confident and excitable tone, intermittently rapping away at a color-coded Logic keyboard as ideas for fresh Kode9 material came to mind. With Goodman less interested in taking stock than couching out all manner of future plans, our conversation ran and ran while his defined vision sliced clean through the clutter.
Pitchfork: One wide change the label has undergone over the past 10 years is from under- to overground—not necessarily in terms of popularity, but a shift from dark environments and sonic dread to sleek vistas and a sometimes retrofuturist aesthetic.
SG: The change started to happen around 2006, when I started to feel suffocated by how suffocating our music was. It wasn't a big change in me, because I'd always liked a wide range of stuff, but it was about trying to nurture the label in a direction that would gel with more of my musical tastes, and not just one of them. It started to get bleepier, then brighter and more colourful around when Darkstar and Ikonika found their way. Gradually, it's become open, encompassing more than just claustrophobia and dystopian landscapes. Maybe now it's seeing the dystopian in these hi-res environments? That's what is fucked up about today, and for me that is a compliment: What appears to be a dystopian wasteland is also, from the other side of the mirror, a pristine software world.
Pitchfork: Is your audience more receptive to what would have been deemed “experimental” before? Does that remove an element of challenge?
SG: Certain releases I know will polarize people—really interesting, downright odd stuff should polarize people. It's an important part of doing something different. [Laurel Halo's] Quarantinewas one of those, but I loved the singing on that album, so why people gave it a negative reaction is beyond me. Rival Dealer—well, Burial does what he wants, and I've given up interfering with that; he understands his audience better than I do.
The releases that I've felt have been massively underrated have been rooted in grime and funky. Everything from Scratcha and Terror Danjah to single-only stuff from Funkystepz, Ill Blu, and Walton doesn't get nearly enough love as it should. It's partly because of a younger audience that don't necessarily buy music, and for some reason it just doesn't seem to grab journalists in the same way that, say, Hype Williams, Laurel Halo, and Jessy Lanza do.
Pitchfork: A dominant female presence has emerged as well, especially with the new artists who have come into the fold in the past few years.
SG: It's never been a conscious decision: we approached Cooly; Ikonika, Fatima [Al Qadiri], and Laurel approached us; Jessy co-produced an album with [Junior Boys'] Jeremy Greenspan, who is an old friend of mine, and I immediately latched onto her material. And it makes sense, because Laurel and Jessy have that similarly unnatural, cold melancholy about them. Fatima's stuff is a bit of a departure for the label, but even then not so much—I did a mix back in 2005 around Chinese-influenced grime, and Asiatisch is about 75% sino-grime, so it follows on naturally.
If anything, there's still not enough women in Hyperdub. It is changing, and there are more female producers getting signed, but there is still a huge underrepresentation. I sign them because the music's amazing. And the more women we release, the more send their music.
Pitchfork: It's always struck me as somewhat ironic that just as 2009's Five Years of Hyperdub cemented the label's status as a defined entity outside the UK, it entered a transitional phase. What's your reflection on that period?
SG: At that point, there wasn't any style that was grabbing me a lot. Funky was dying down, or being assimilated into other dubstep-type releases. House wasn't yet dominant in the way it is now. I only properly got into footwork around 2011, but only as a fan. But in the last three years, we've released more albums, seen more artists coming through, and hammered home the fact that we're all over the map and not just a dubstep label.
Pitchfork: There's been a shift with your own productions as well—what is it about the qualities of fast, 160bpm tracks and certain blown-wide-open U.S. hip-hop that appeals to you?
SG: Primarily the speed of the rhythm, as well as the anything-goes attitude to sampling. For me, the most interesting beats that I've been hearing in the last handful of years have been older footwork and juke, and Southern hip-hop. Snare rolls in triplets, triplets in the kick drums, triplets in the hi-hats. That's it for me: triplets. [laughs]
Pitchfork: How do you consider Hyperdub's impact on wider culture?
SG: I definitely think Burial has had a big effect on aspects of popular music—in terms of people imitating him, but also being more open to stuff that's dark, melancholy, and, most importantly, overtly emotional. He's definitely carved his own little space that people have flooded into. I'd hope we've opened the landscape a bit and made it easier for certain connections between styles that may not have linked otherwise—having Laurel Halo and DJ Spinn, or Dean Blunt and Scratcha, on the same line-up is a cool thing. It is an achievement.
Mykki Blanco: "Booty Bamboo" on SoundCloud.
When I call Mykki Blanco earlier this month, she’s just watched the first two seasons of “Game of Thrones” in as many weeks. And she’s got opinions: “A lot of the people on that show get on my nerves.” Talking about one of the fantasy’s heroes, the dragon-toting queen Daenerys Targaryen (aka Khaleesi), Blanco says, “I'm just disgusted with how she doesn't actually have anything but thinks she deserves everything.” The fact that a TV character’s sense of entitlement irks Blanco should not be surprising—as a gender-bursting artist in the still-macho realm of hip-hop, the rapper has had to earn every show, video, and small break while releasing a string of tracks and relentlessly touring the world over the last few years. It’s all leading up to her forthcoming debut album, Michael, due out early next year.
Blanco is in Copenhagen when we talk, and she sounds relaxed—but exhausted-relaxed, the kind you feel after you finish painting a house. She’s just finished a three-month tour, and is soon veering back into a London studio, where she’ll work with Tricky, one of her idols, before heading back on the read for the rest of the summer. She’s also put in time with a host of producers as of late, including singer/songwriter Woodkid, Berlin duo Amnesia Scanner (who produced “Booty Bamboo” from her recent EP, Spring/Summer 2014), and Bay area hip-hop producing duo Friendzone.
Now, all the pieces are coming into place. “I’ve figured a lot of shit out in the last two years,” she says. “I'm on my grind again and I know how to handle living on the road and taking care of myself—I know how to not take drugs and not drink that much alcohol, but still have a good time and get work done. Now I’m starting to reach the beginning of this next phase that's going to be everything for me—I've just got to release a shit-ton more music first.”
Pitchfork: How would you describe your progression over the last few years?
Mykki Blanco: I don't think I was that good of a rapper when I started. What I rapped about before came from this place of a lot of militant homosexual aggression and binging drugs. It had so much to do with my past, hanging out with a lot of train-hopping kids and queer kids in the Bay. It was grimy. Some of those raps were good, but there came a point where I had already talked about all that stuff. And I'm really not the kind of person that can rap about stuff that I haven't lived, so I needed to actually take a minute to fully live this lifestyle and internalize it. I came on the scene around July 2012, so now it’s been two years of me living this life. So I have a lot of new shit to talk about!
I’ll be honest: Because of the whole "gay rap" hype and fame that first came along, I thought, “If this is how it’s gonna be, then it’s gonna be corny, and I'm not going to do it.” But I see the things my straight friends who are rappers go through, and I feel a little bit privileged to be on the outside of that world, because it has a lot of competition that breeds crazy insecurity. I realized in these two years that it's best for me to not be boxed completely in hip-hop—being an international kind of punk hip-hop act has been to my benefit. If there are hip-hop offers, I’ll take them, but it’s good for me to play to indie audiences. I have to be an MC in that old-school way and just be able to jump on tracks with different people. I mean, I recorded a verse for fucking Basement Jaxx.
Pitchfork: What have been some of your formative experiences while on tour?
MB: At my show the other night in Paris, we met KRS-One, and he knew who I was! We were in separate dressing rooms, and my manager was like, "Do you wanna meet KRS-One?" I was like, "Yeah, but I don't know if he wants to meet me." And the manager was like, "Oh, no, he sent for you." I was like, "Oh, dope!" Also, I did those shows with Björk and Death Grips last year, and did a show with Tricky in Berlin.
Pitchfork: What’s the mood, or the feel, of the album so far?
MB: It seems that people who are Mykki Blanco fans like two sides of me: the very dark "I'm gonna creep into your room at night and put a sickle to your neck" side or the hedonistic-party club vibe. So while the darker side is probably going to win out on some tracks, there are songs for what I would call my artsy-girl side—songs that are gay. I would say that I've never really made gay music, but on my album I want to make at least two tracks that are going to be gay gay. That would be fun for me.
I don't want to make songs that are going to be universal pop things, but I do want to have the production be club-ready. I love when a song becomes a hit not because it's written like one, but because what's being said is so strong and the beat is something you’ve never heard before. I'll never forget that song “Break Up” that Bangladesh produced for Mario. The beat catches you. Or how " Mercy" was a hit—it's actually a weird song, but it has popular appeal.
Pitchfork: Since you’re operating on so many different levels, do you have a career, in any genre, that you aspire to?
MB: A hundred percent Death Grips, because they are so fully themselves. They genuinely do not give a fuck. Though it's not the not giving a fuck that I aspire to, as much as the fact that they have such a dedicated cult fanbase. That's something I'm working toward: People who really fuck with you and understand you. Because when you get that, then you never have the second thought of like, "I wonder if this song could be on the radio." It doesn't even matter. I want that kind of fanbase that really understands shit, so I can start taking stuff to the moon. So I want a Death Grips fanbase, an ICP fanbase, a [Marilyn] Manson fanbase. I want people to fuck with me like that. But I still have to prove myself a little bit more. A lot more. [laughs]
Traxman, DJ Rashad, and DJ Spinn. Photos by Erez Avissar.
Chance the Rapper posted a short video to Instagram a few months ago that illustrates the enduring legacy of footwork music and dance. Chance, who toured extensively with the late footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, holds a new box of shoes—Red Octobers, the infamous crimson high tops designed by Kanye West. Chance opens the box, smiles for the camera, then starts footworking. Rashad’s classic juke track “K-Swiss” thumps in the background.
Chance, who is from the South Side, knows footwork has long been written into the style, soles, and bodies of black Chicago. Like Rashad and Kanye, he grew up in places where dancers included footwork in their routines, where DJs played tracks at parties to instantly put dancers in “battle-mode.” Footworking (the dance) and footwork (the music) inspire each other, but the dance pre-dates the music. Chicago’s first footwork battle cliques formed in the early ‘90s, dancing to the sub-bass sounds of ghetto house originators DJ Deeon, Jammin Gerald, and DJ Milton. Things changed later in the decade, when DJs like Clent, Rashad, Spinn, and RP Boo shifted ghetto house’s four-on-the-floor template into a polyrhythmic grid: “I took what I did as a dancer,” RP Boo told me, “and turned it into a style of music.”
Footwork tracks are customized to incite footwork dancing. So-called “battle tracks” exemplify the genre because they emphasize drama—war-trumpet-like sounds rile up crowds; halftime rhythms make space for dancers to battle. Like most footwork producers, Rashad started out as first as a dancer. This cycle from dancer to DJ to producer is part of what has kept footwork vital as a culture and collaborative art for over a decade in Chicago.
A battle between footwork dancers AG and Litebulb vs. Charles and J-Ron:
In the late 2000s, largely because of YouTube videos posted by local dancers and videographers, footwork emerged prominently on international radars. Underground DJs and writers, like Dave Quam, Venus X, J-Cush, and Planet Mu’s Mike Paradinas, were among the first to pick up on the sounds, and book the DJs and release their music across the world. YouTube hit at the right moment in Chicago, too: Rashad and Spinn were on a rampage, holding court at informal venues across the city, often debuting new music at battles, surprising and inspiring dancers while training the next crop of DJs, including DJ Manny, DJ Earl, Sirr Tmo, DJ Taye, Boylan, DJ Tre, and others.
By 2011, footwork had migrated from a local Chicago practice at underground venues, parades, and talent shows, to an international business and creative global network. Artists who never left Chicago found themselves touring for the first time, in some cases after nearly 20 years of obscurity. Footwork originator RP Boo justifiably called his 2013 debut album Legacy to call attention to the shadow history behind his sound.
Though footwork music is form-fit for footwork dancing, not every footwork track is a battle track. And to understand footwork music, it is crucial to know that it is a DJ’s music—tracks are made to be mixed with other tracks. It’s a paradox Rashad negotiated well: He made songs that sounded extraordinary on their own terms, but when blended with other tracks from his crew’s extended family, a magic was enabled, a formula executed.
Some of the most important footwork tracks narrate the stories of the scene itself. These genealogies and histories are not just a matter of context—this stuff is actually on the tracks. DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, especially, maintained the tradition of calling out the names of collaborators, including DJs and dancers. These tracks weren’t like bonuses that come at the end of a record. For Rashad, in the tradition of ghetto house that preceded him, the names of his crew became instruments that he pounded against the minds and bodies of dancers: “Rashad, Rashad, Rashad, Spinn, Spinn, Spinn,” the samples iterate.
Even before Rashad became famous outside the Midwest, he inspired thousands to DJ and dance. Rashad’s music converted people into footworkers for life, and the impact was both similar and different when he started to play abroad. Double Cup, his critically lauded 2013 breakthrough, saw Rashad smoothing down some of the edges in his brackish, track-ish approach. This was less about him leaving the footwork dance floor behind, though, and more about his identity as an artist in motion. Rashad stood by the DJ credo: to make the crowd—any crowd—move.
Footage from a recent DJ Rashad tribute in Chicago:
To do this, Rashad often brought Chicago dancers and DJs with him on the road. As his friends and colleagues testify, Rashad always shared the stage and often split his fees generously with others. Double Cup especially included a surprising amount of Rashad’s protégés and collaborators with co-writing credits. This brotherly approach to music—rooted in all night studio sessions and the closed circuit between dancers and DJs—is part of what makes footwork a window into a world that’s much larger than what we might expect or glean from afar.
While the labels Hyperduband Planet Mu have rightly been celebrated for their footwork releases, it was 2012’s Welcome to the Chi, a 20-track treasure trove put out by a label Rashad himself co-founded, Lit City Trax, that best reflects the way DJs and dancers listen to this music in Chicago—as a data dump, as a .zip file, as “tracks.” Dancers and DJs keep hard-drives and USB sticks full of tracks—it’s big data housed in small, ephemeral archives across the city and world. There are just so many good tracks, so many kinds of tracks and unreleased tracks, so many collaborations and lineages to sort—it’s not surprising that footwork challenges non-native listeners.
The following selections offer a few guideposts for a new listener (and reminders of old favorites for the devotee) as to what characterizes Chicago footwork, and some tips on how to listen to and access the plenitude of information and artistry distilled into each track. Admittedly, this historical approach, though useful, is a somewhat contradictory gesture when it comes to appreciating footwork, a genre that has been about hearing the newest tracks, fresh from the basement or bedroom studios of young producers. Nonetheless, with footwork mutating so fast and in such far-ranging ways, it’s valuable to shine a light back on Chicago. (Listen to some of the footwork tracks mentioned below with this Spotify playlist.)
DJ Rashad: “Ghost”
If you ask footwork dancers and DJs to pick their favorite track, DJ Rashad’s “Ghost” will top many lists. The song’s title and lyric refer to “the ghost,” a footwork move developed in late ‘80s Chicago on the West Side. That move and the idea of that move—an emphasis on gliding, on ghosting, on dance that defies the eye—still defines footwork. “Ghost” hinges on a sample of a sample—Rashad sampling Kanye sampling Diana Ross. “I’m still dreaming,” she sings, an echo of an echo that Rashad grounds with a sample of his own voice: “ghost, ghost, ghost, ghost.” The meaning of “ghost” dissolves into the word’s texture, into the way it hits your body. Later in the track, Rashad recognizes four crucial Chicago dancers: “Poo, AG, Q, Litebulb,” he repeats. “That was everything to me,” Litebulb told me. “To get your name on a Rashad track and to be listed with those guys, that changed my life and helped me launch my career as a dancer.”
DJ Manny: “All I Do Is (Smoke Trees)”
In Chicago’s footwork inner circles, it’s a rather indisputable fact that DJ Manny—who is among the best footwork dancers in the city—also makes the coldest tracks, and he does it by the dozen. “All I Do Is Smoke Trees” is one sign of Manny’s genius, but most of his tracks—hundreds of them—have not been released. (This is one of many Lil Wayne flips from the footwork scene circa 2010, check Traxman’s “A Milli” for another.)
Traxman: “Footworkin on Air”
Traxman, a DJ for three decades in Chicago, has been through multiple generations of house music and he’s known for his deep crates—and especially what he finds in them. Here, he samples and elongates an mbira solo played live by Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire. In the mid-‘70s, White’s mbira symbolized his connection to Africa. On “Footworkin on Air”, Traxman takes the connection further, interlacing the mbira with the squirming, electric sounds of Chicago acid house.
Jody Breeze: “The Way I Move”
“The Way I Move” was instrumental in introducing international audiences to the world of Chicago footwork in the late 2000s, and Jody was still a teenager when he cut and customized this Sade sample. Like so many talented young Chicago producers, Jody was in and then quickly out of the footwork game, but “The Way I Move” was promiscuous, slipping into DJ sets and top ten lists of trendsetting artists from London to NYC, laying groundwork for footwork’s current global circulation and popularity.
DJ Clent: “3rd World”
DJ Clent—who recently released the EP Hyper Feet on Planet Mu—changed the history of footwork with this battle anthem. The trumpets echo RP Boo’s horns—they sound dissident, inside-out. Like RP’s “Baby C’mon,” “3rd World” is considered one of the first footwork tracks—it fed the competitive vibe on the dance-floor, and emphasized half-time rhythms that gave space for dancers to circle up and battle.
DJ Rashad and DJ Manny: “R House”
Chuck Robert’s “My House” provided the house community with perhaps its most enduring scripture, and Rashad and Manny tear it to pieces in “R House”, tone-poeming the much-remixed sermon into just a few bars: “I am the creator,” they re-iterate, wrecking the manifesto by proving the inclusiveness of its thesis: “This is our house.”
DJ Nate: "Below Zero"
DJ Nate made an impact in the footwork scene in the late 2000s, then quickly exited the game. Today, he puts out casio-toned hip-hop anthems that soundtrack bop dancing. But when Nate made footwork tracks, his cuts were among the most exciting—a youthful, sample-happy black experimentalism that channeled older Chicago track-makers and challenged the idea of what dance music—or any music—should sound like.
DJ Spinn: “Don’t Shoot”
This outlier opens a window into Spinn’s worldview as a kind of footwork filmmaker capable of mixing humor and horror, horses neighing and human screams. Spinn, like other producers on this list, is difficult to pin down because many of his best tracks have not yet been released internationally, including the juke anthem “Bounce and Break Your Back”.
DJ Rashad: “Feelin’ (2012 release)”
“I just had a brand new feeling… it came to me in the night,” this Roy Ayers/Sylvia Cox sample testifies. Hearing certain footwork tracks or sequences of tracks (like the excellently arranged opening songs on Welcome to the Chi, which begins with this version of “Feelin’”) can give you the exhilarating shock of the new—“a new feeling,” indeed.
RP Boo: “Heavy Heat”
“Heavy Heat” is a quintessential battle track. RP Boo told me about debuting it in Chicago: “It created an instant battle due to the energy the track held. It made footworkers do what they do best—release heat!” “Heavy Heat” followed on the heels of RP’s infamous “Godzilla track”—both sample the film’s menacing noir horn stabs—and the monstrous and the maniacal have played their part in the footwork story, especially in RP’s music. This type of track enhances the tension of the circle, elevating the performance so that it becomes more improvised and vicious. “You belong to me,” the sample intones, as if RP is simultaneously both the DJ behind the tables and the footworker provoking his opponent on the floor.
Electric Fling is a Pitchfork column about the world of electronic music by Andy Beta.
A1 “White Blur”
This week saw the circuitous release of a record old enough to be deemed “electronica”: Richard D. James’s 1994 album made as Caustic Window, which got as far as the pressing plant and five white-label vinyl copies before being shelved, the music itself only whispered about. You can read as to just how this item came into existence in the 21st century elsewhere, but while not exactly revelatory on its own, Caustic Window—taken in the context of James' ludicrous mid-'90s hot streak—marks 1994 as a prolific and wide-ranging year for the man best known as Aphex Twin. In one calendar year, James released the alien planet that is Selected Ambient Works Volume II, experimental techno and acid 12”s as AFX and GAK, as well as remixes and numerous other tracks, which appeared on comps like Artificial Intelligence II and Excursions in Ambience. At this point, the most interesting aspect of hearing Caustic Window—which is made up of idiosyncratic acid squawks like “Fingertrips” as well as elegant beatless explorations like “101 Rainbows”—is wondering how it would have slotted into the producer's formidable discography.
Able to do throttling as well as eerie (not to mention whimsical and step-uncle creepy), Aphex Twin brought together what might seem to be incompatible musical genres. But as Marshall Jefferson—the man who discovered the very sound of acid on Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”—told David Toop in his 1995 book Ocean of Sound: “Acid house was meant to be the capturing of moods.” It was not tethered to dancefloors, BPMs, or even to hardware. Electronic music could be both about the moving body and the still mind. Or as another genre-less producer, Arthur Russell, once put it: “Music with no drums is successive to music with drums.”
It was in encountering Aphex Twin’s music without drums that led me to the multitudinous forms of electronic music made with drums. Filling two minutes at the end of a mixtape a friend made for me, Selected Ambient Works Volume II seemed like anything but music to my teenage ears in 1994. Already a zealot for punk, grunge, hip-hop, alternative, and classic rock, when I heard this brief interlude (an untitled track that iTunes now calls “White Blur” when loading a scratched copy into the computer), I was mystified.
It was a music rendered out of the simplest sounds of everyday life: muffled conversations just out of earshot, the machinations of air conditioning, my aunt’s wind chimes. As woven together by James, these quotidian details seemed to reveal an alien sound world just beneath the surface of reality. Similarly, SAW II itself served as gateway drug to other realms of electronic music.
Eleven years ago, when reviewing Aphex Twin’s 26 Mixes for Cash for Pitchfork, I was startled by a track entitled “SAW2 CD1 TRK 2”, which re-imagined one of SAW II’s ambient études as an acid track. Rather than the ethereal dread of the original, it was now filled with furious hissing beats—“a delirious pleasure,” I wrote back then, one that made me wonder if all the original ambient works were instead “mere halves of their former selves.” Could the functionality of dance music just as easily double as ambient music if only the drums were left out of the mix?
In revisiting “White Blur”, I struggled to tighten my fingers around what aspect of the track mesmerized me so much as a 16-year-old; the electrified drones that seethed beneath its seemingly placid surface haunted me still. When I got to the section of Ocean of Sound in which James compared the music on SAW II to standing in a power station on acid, I had an uncanny sense of déjà vu. “You get a really weird presence and you’ve got that hum,” he told Toop. “You just feel electricity around you. That’s totally dream-like for me.” It evoked an old-high school memory of walking past a series of a fenced-off power transformers late one night when it seemed that all the world was asleep, the once-familiar and quaint suburban neighborhood suddenly set in a David Lynch movie, the invisible-yet-malevolent hum infiltrating my skull at a distance.
B1 “Just the Brain, in its Own Gross Juices”
Every winter, German label Kompakt puts out an annual compilation called Pop Ambient, which—after eleven months of relentless techno and dance releases—always feels restorative. Each iteration’s cover shows a flower in bloom, as if to give a brief glimpse of aural beauty amid the bustle of modern life.
In the past two months, two other dance imprints have also released compilations of such uneven ambient terrain, each one revealing the more contemplative sides of electronic music producers. The Japanese label Mule Musiq—which has released music from the likes of DJ Sprinkles, Mark E, and Optimo, as well as a series of fantastic deep house mixes entitled I’m Starting to Feel Okay on their Endless Flight imprint—released Enjoy the Silence 3, featuring European producers including Lawrence, John Roberts, and Roman Flügel. And the Rapture’s dance label Throne of Blood recently released Moon Rock Volume 1, a sprawling two-12” set featuring house-music craftsmen like Simian Mobile Disco and Juju & Jordash, along with L.I.E.S.-affiliated producers like Steve Moore and Jorge Velez (under his Professor Genius handle) offering up beatless tracks.
Both compilations stake out terrain not too far removed from the likes of Pop Ambient. By turns lovely and aimless, ambient clichés abound: “That Time I Dicked About on a Piano”; “New Age-y, Innit?”; “Kinda Cool Patches”. The opening tracks from Enjoy the Silence 3 sound more like experimental music gone awry (it makes sense then that John Cage was included in the second volume), but other moments stand out on their own. Terre Thamlitz’s epic remix of Primura’s “Nobody's in this Classroom (Nobody Mix)” is the standout track on Enjoy the Silence, with glissades of strings elegantly and slowly evolving across its 11 minutes.
Moon Rock may not have a peak quite that high, but it’s still a pleasing listen. Naum Gabo (a pseudonym for Optimo’s Jonnie Wilkes) offers “Dino”, a rare ambient track that almost has a stirring cinematic sensibility to it. Meanwhile, Lexx’s low-key submission, “A Place in the Haze”, is a dreamy wash of primitive drum machines and shimmering keys that could have wandered over from the Pop Ambient series.
Pittsburgh Track Authority’s Preslav Lefterov tells me about how his group’s Moon Rock submission “Choirtronic” tries to be inherently rhythmic—citing the influence of Detroit masters like Jeff Mills and Drexciya—even without a perceptible beat: “It was written on a grid, so when used in a DJ set, the rhythmic elements wouldn’t sound like a mess when mixed with other tracks.” Juju & Jordash’s “Stroop” wanders like some early experimental track, all oscillations, hiccups, and drones—a rhythm like a storm drain pipe dripping in an alley. On the topic of crafting ambient music versus a track made for the dancefloor, the duo’s Jordan Czamanski says, “Recording beatless music has the same exact process as recording music with a drum beat.” The biggest difference? “Time is slowed down.”
Czamanski says that each sound is given more scrutiny in an ambient track because “there is nowhere to hide, so every gesture has to be honest and full of intent.” In not speaking to the demands of the body, ambient music can attend to other parts. “We are servicing introspective musings—the brain at its own tempo, not fueled-up on adrenaline, anger, or overt sexuality,” he continues. “It’s just the brain, floating around in its own gross juices.”
B2 “El Segundo Power Plant”
Two other producers I’ve enjoyed recently seem to not so much straddle the divide between bone-in and boneless electronic music, but rather cross such borders from track to track. Suzanne Kraft and Jorge Velez meander back and forth over that illusory divide between beats and ambience with new EPs that delve into their more contemplative sides.
Three years ago, I became smitten by Suzanne Kraft’s Green Flash EP, which did chunky analog synth jams with a fine, ever-so-slant touch. The man behind the project, an Angeleno named Diego Herrera, says he became interested in making tracks via the influence of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada back in middle school. His 2012 EP Horoscope also did low-slung Balearic and gurgling analog, but on Missum he favors minimalistic drift over any notion of beats. A re-release of an early CD-R, Missum features seven untitled pieces of wafting keyboards: Junos, chord organs, and the like. The opening seven minutes—incidentally the only song with a title, “(In Pads)”—beats no drums but shakes, rattles, and loops long lines of saxophone, suggesting the levitation of spiritual jazz. A sigh rises nearly 15 minutes in, but voices otherwise approach subliminal tape levels of quiet. Approaching the 30-minute mark, a drum machine finally switches on... only to have the tape drop out.
Another track that makes me think of Los Angeles comes from New Jersey's Jorge Velez. While his submission to Moon Rock was a delirious Italo-tinged tearjerker, he’s pushing brooding atmospheres on his new L.I.E.S. release, Territories. The throbbing acid of “Festival Mounds” doubles as space distress signal, and opener “Blood and Bones” is all dread and Dead C noise. It’s tempting to conjure the metaphor of Jersey smog here, but for me, “Blood and Bones” wound up playing during a late-night drive through the South Bay, along the Pacific Ocean, and Velez’s buzzsaw drones provided the most foreboding soundtrack for moving through night fog. Just ahead loomed El Segundo Power Plant, its smoke stacks beaconing in the haze and blackness.
Photo by Sam Coldy
The sound of popular dance music in America might be entering a new phase. EDM is as strong as ever, but, entering the back half of 2014, radio and streaming charts are being infiltrated by a number of pop-oriented house tracks nurtured first by dance clubs: Disclosure's "Latch", Naughty Boy's "La La La", and Clean Bandit's "Rather Be". In the States, this trend is still just a trickle, but the return to more traditional house sounds is a full-fledged wave in Britain, culminating in a series of #1 singles this year by artists like Route 94 and Kiesza that make a direct line to the classic sounds of Chicago and Detroit.
Though history may one day credit Disclosure as the trigger, the house-pop dam fully breached last year with UK chart topper "Need U (100%)", from a then-little-known underground producer and DJ named Duke Dumont. The track was never a hit in America, but 31-year-old Dumont (né Adam Dyment) is something like a sensation in his native Britain. Follow-up "I Got U" also topped the pop charts there, and his latest single "Won't Look Back" figures to make a third run at the throne.
Though it's a more blatant throwback to the booming diva house of the '90s, "Won't Look Back" shares a bloodline with Dumont's two previous hits. All three songs are big, sweeping, open-hearted devotionals: "Give me 100, need you 100 percent," "As long as I got you," "Your love, it makes me stronger." Though Dumont says his success was initially accidental, given the current climate, he’s now making streamlined songs that seem tailored for success.
Duke Dumont: "Hold On" [ft. MNEK] on SoundCloud.
To cement himself, his forthcoming debut album must be nearly as good. When I meet him in a studio in south Brooklyn this spring, he is still sketching the record out. He plays me a handful of demos, including early version of "Won't Look Back” along with others that hint at a diversity that could reveal Dumont as both a skilled classicist and a pop craftsman. There are more banging house tracks, yet the best songs I hear are the outliers: a rippling instrumental that he compares to Toto and a stunning bare-bones soul track he wrote with How to Dress Well in mind.
We chatted about the sudden rise of "Need U (100%)" and the shift it helped create, as well as his newfound songwriting strategy, his expectations for his debut LP, and how his music has been shaped by memories of Daft Punk.
Pitchfork: A lot of people saw "Need U" as the moment when dance music that's not EDM really hit it big again on the UK charts. Did you feel that way?
Duke Dumont: "Need U" was the first house track to get to #1 in about 15 years, and that kind of set the ball rolling—for the good or for the bad, I'm not sure. But when you have a group of [like-minded] people coming through, there's usually not discussions behind the scenes, like, "Hey, Disclosure, let's put our minds together and try to take over." It's not that. As far as comparing it to EDM, it's supremely arrogant to say to someone, "Hey, man, you should prefer this." Certain EDM causes an emotional reaction in people that no other type of music can do. Fuckin’ hats off to them. But for me, the lights of Disclosure led the way to a change in the sound pallette on a popular level.
Pitchfork: It's happening slowly in the States, too. Disclosure’s "Latch" is finally a pop hit here, for instance.
DD: "Latch" is one of the best pop songs in the last 10 years; it's a pop song but it's not a throwaway. It's perfectly executed. Right now is the first time in a long time where a kid can still be living at home with their mom and dad, make a beat on a laptop, and get a #1 song. So I hope there's a legion of kids who are taking inspiration from what we do. We use the same equipment that all the kids use; everyone has access to the same stuff. When you get to a certain level, you can record live in a studio, and now I’m spending a lot of money on a studio to record live instruments, too.
But I like the pipe dream that if a kid in their bedroom who doesn't have many opportunities in life works hard and puts their heart and soul into something, they can achieve it. I don't come from money. I took out one loan in my entire life, and that loan was to get my first laptop to make music, and I made it pay off. I learned how to make music for like 10 years—if I had another job, I'd do it on the weekends. I never stopped.
Pitchfork: How did “Need U” come about originally?
DD: Three years ago, I wasn't reaching it with my music because I was procrastinating way too much. My threshold of quality was too high, and I was sitting on about 200 demos. So it was like: "OK, I actually can't pay the gas bill now, maybe it's time to start doing it."
I did this eight-minute instrumental track with a spliced-up vocal and then put it away. It was a house dub: big piano chords, big drops. My manager said, "I think this could cross over into commercial terrain, would you be willing to try more of these slightly-more-accommodating vocals?" I was like, "There's nothing to lose, let’s see where it goes." So I took that eight-minute house dub and turned it into a four-minute pop track. [Vocalists] A*M*E and MNEK jumped on board, and that's how the final song was done.
But the roots of it was purely for the club. It almost turned out as a mashup, but not many people heard the original, because I don't want to spoil the illusion of what it is. The original actually sounds really good.
Pitchfork: Was “Need U” the first time you worked with a songwriter?
DD: No. I worked with a pop act—whose name I'm not going to mention—who's had a little bit of success. That was quite a sterile environment. With record labels, it's all about confidence. I've seen producers who have all the confidence in the world but are really bad at making music. And I've seen some who are the best producers but lack confidence. I wasn't the most confident at that stage, but the irony is after having a #1, I got a phone call from the label saying, "Hey, that music you did was quite good, can we release it?" I was like, "Ah, OK, it's because you're not listening with your ears." I'm not one for the Wizard of Oz effect, where at the end it's the wizard with all the controls, and Toto runs over and pulls the curtain away, and it's a little old man and he ain't that powerful.
Pitchfork: I assume you get calls from so many music people and vocalists now.
DD: I got some today. But I just have to ignore it for the time being, because I’m working on my album with the best people I possibly can, so that I can make the best songs I possibly can, as opposed to the biggest songs. Because I could work with 10 R&B singers who might've been in certain girl bands, or whatever, and make really brash dance music. But I want to find the most soulful artists who can put their heart into it.
Pitchfork: So you don't find it tempting to use your power to get big names?
AD: Not at all. At this point, I'm doing OK. I do a lot of live shows, so for the first time in my life, I'm in a position where one day I might be able to buy a house, which is nice. Things are really good for me right now. I will never sacrifice good judgement because I could get this artist who has a billion Twitter followers. But saying that, if you get a big artist that’s also incredible, that's a win-win—I'd happily work on a Beyoncé album.
Pitchfork: Are there dance albums you're trying to model your record after? It can be hard for some producers to make that transition to a full-length.
DD: Dance albums usually suck because there doesn't tend to be a dynamic to them. All the songs can be quite similar. For me, Daft Punk’s Discovery is still the benchmark. Where Homework was basically a techno album, Discovery sounded like a punk record to me. And the techniques they were using were way more house-inspired than on Homework. Having Todd Edwards on the record added a lot of soul, too. Their approach to song was a master class. That was a huge inspiration—I still remember buying the CD and getting the Daft Punk membership card. I loved it.
Now, I'm just trying to put together a body of work so that in five years, I'll look back and have a lot of stuff that stood the test of time. I'm sure there'll be stuff I'll cringe at, too, but if I still want to be in the game in five years, I have to make music that's still going to be appreciated in five years.
Sun Ra would have turned 100 this year. Instead, he died in 1993 at the age of 79—though it can’t be said that the jazz icon didn’t make good use of his time on Earth. In fact, he also made good use of his time not on Earth. His catalog spans dozens of albums and singles (many of which were recently digitally reissued) that trace a pioneering path not only through 20th-century music, but through the vast cosmos he claimed to have explored.
Born in 1914—a fact not definitively confirmed until near the end of his life—Herman Blount grew up immersed in music, imagination, and self-mythology. At an early age, the Alabama native began playfully denying his birth name, and his precocity as a pianist was kindled by seeing performances by Duke Ellington, whose mix of big-band swing and lush, intricate composition helped guide Blount toward a career in music—and an aesthetic that would transform the face of jazz.
It wasn’t easy. Years of gigging with the Sonny Blount Orchestra and as a nightclub sideman culminated in nothing. Then, around the age of 23, he had an epiphany: a vision of visiting Saturn as an astrally-projected entity, where he met aliens and was made privy to a prophecy of both his life and of humanity. Armed with this occult insight, he threw himself into music anew. He made his recording debut in 1946 as the rollicking pianist on Wynonie Harris’ “Dig This Boogie” and played with one of his childhood heroes, swing-band leader Fletcher Henderson. A move to Chicago brought an increased awareness of the rising tide of black consciousness, and Blout legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra in 1952. By then he’d formed the Space Trio, which began expanding like a supernova, encompassing more members and engulfing Sun Ra in the aura of an extravagantly-attired retro-spaceman who drew from Ancient Nubian history as well as the inevitability of mankind’s flight to the stars.
This approach would come to be called Afrofuturism—and it’s embodied in Sun Ra’s first album, 1957’s Jazz By Sun Ra Vol. 1 (later reissued as Sun Song). Billed under the name the Arkestra, which reflected both his big-band roots and his eschatological worldview, the album became the opening shot of a dizzying array of releases. Like swarms of neutrinos, his songs began penetrating the jazz world without the jazz world much noticing—but as the Arkestra’s size and scope grew, its gravitational influence began to pull on others. “You can’t have anything without its parallel, without its opposite,” Sun Ra said in the 1980 documentary A Joyful Noise. True to that idea, his music grew alongside bebop in the ‘50s without crossing over with it—even as Sun Ra’s angular approach to the keyboard rivaled the better-known bop innovations of Thelonious Monk.
Instead, the Arkestra—known also as the the Solar Arkestra, the Myth Science Arkestra, and the Afro-Infinity Arkestra, among other variations—offered an alternate ideal of musical liberation and celebration, a sound awash in mysticism, ritualism, and purpose. Much of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s was inspired by Sun Ra, and members of the Arkestra—most notably trombonist Julian Priester and saxophonists John Gilmore and Pat Patrick—would also play with everyone from John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, to Monk and Sun Ra’s beloved Ellington.
But Sun Ra was destined to innovate in another way. In the mid-‘50s he was a pioneer in the use of electronic keyboards and synthesizers in jazz, at a time when those instruments were considered novelties. The unearthly textures and harmonics of these devices broadened Sun Ra’s palette; before long, the Arkestra’s conceptual and archetypal sprawl had taken on galactic proportions. By the time of 1973’s Space Is the Place—followed a year later by Sun Ra’s definitive cinematic statement, a feature-length film of the same name—the Arkestra had come to fill the liminal space between free jazz, post-bop, future-funk, and African polyrhythms. Although a generation older than Fela Kuti and George Clinton, Sun Ra was a kindred spirit and guiding light; science fiction author Minister Faust called Clinton “the Afrofuturist Neo to Sun Ra’s Morpheus.” And like Kuti and Clinton, Sun Ra let his stage shows and costumes grow increasingly elaborate. Rather than being some theatrical distraction, they served as an integral part of the Arkestra’s concept of total cosmic immersion—with an ultimate destination of release and transcendence, a sharing of the soul-altering epiphany Sun Ra had experienced as a young man.
Like the posthumous big band of one Sun Ra’s closest contemporaries (in spirit if not in sound), Charles Mingus, the Arkestra still exists and tours without its founder. And that’s as it should be. If there’s one thing Sun Ra’s shimmering, multidimensional, alternately dense and spacious music seeks to teach, it’s that time is what you make of it.
“Sun Song” (1957)
While getting the Arkestra ready for space travel, Sun Ra and his fledgling group did whatever they could to fuel the ship, up to and including moonlighting as a juke-joint R&B backing band. And much of that earthiness seeps into Sun Ra’s early work, including “Sun Song” from the Arkestra’s first album, Jazz by Sun Ra. There’s a gritty feel to the leader’s Hammond B-3 that tethers the alternately floating and fiery brass of Priester, Gilmore, Patrick, and company—sort of like Jimmy Smith organ-jazz gone iridescently celestial.
Recorded in 1958 and ’59 before finally being released in 1966, The Nubians of Plutonia is a fine example of Sun Ra’s burgeoning sprawl. With hints of both bossa nova and Mingus evident in its elephantine sway, “The Lady With the Golden Stockings” (changed later to “The Golden Lady”) crosses over with the then-current style eventually known as exotica—but rather than serving as the soundtrack for a space-age bachelor pad, it’s a space-age launch pad into proto-funk syncopation and music-of-the-spheres ethereality.
“Ancient Aethiopia” (1959)
As progressive as “The Lady With the Golden Stockings” was, it sounded almost quaint compared to “Ancient Aethiopia”. A stand-out track from one of Sun Ra’s best and most epochal albums, 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette, the nine-minute opus opens up the Arkestra’s vistas with languorous tangles of horns, deep-space pulses, and a particularly inspired, semi-abstract solo from Mr. Blount himself—not to mention a hint of the ritualistic chants that would come to play a larger role in his quest for Afrofuturist synthesis. The same year that saw the release of Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Mingus' Mingus Ah Um, and Coltrane's Giant Steps, Sun Ra was there with his own formative masterpiece at the ready.
“Lights of a Satellite” (1965)
The elasticity of the Arkestra’s setup and sound is never more striking than on “Lights of a Satellite”, from the album Fate in a Pleasant Mood (recorded in 1960 but not released until 1965). The song eschews the encroaching length of Sun Ra’s compositions in favor of a tight, even snappy three-and-a-half minutes—but in that time the band lays down a haunting, skeletal framework that would serve it well as it became a staple of the Arkestra’s repertoire for decades to come.
“Outer Nothingness” (1965)
In 1965, Albert Ayler gave free jazz two of its defining documents with Bells and Spirits Rejoice. As if in synchronous orbit, Sun Ra did the same with The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume One and Volume Two. “Outer Nothingness” graces Volume One, and it typifies the Arkestra at its most coherent-yet-unchained: teeming with percussion, clusters of dissonance, and rich volumes of empty space, the song marks a pivotal moment in the evolution of Sun Ra—and also the point of no return. As with Ayler’s work, the spiritual blankness at the core of free jazz was being filled. But in Sun Ra’s case, he had a whole, homemade cosmology to use as prima materia.
“Strange Strings” (1966)
Although Sun Ra’s trajectory through the universe can sometimes seem smooth, he allowed himself tangents. On 1966’s Strange Strings, he beams down to a planet called Earth—specifically, to a back-alley pawnshop. Equipping the Arkestra with an array of second-hand stringed instruments from various nations—none of which they knew how to play—Sun Ra lets the group lurch and saw its way through a thicket of prickly improvisation, which was then slathered in fathoms of reverb. And on “Strange Strings”, it goes on for 20 minutes. The most challenging release in Sun Ra’s oeuvre, it’s also one of his most symbolic—an overview of humankind from a clinical distance, with all distinctions between races and cultures smeared into a blurry whole. (It also makes John Cale’s concurrent viola-scraping in the Velvet Underground seem silky by contrast.)
Sun Ra hit is orchestral free-jazz peak in the late ‘60s, just as free jazz itself did. But there’s something far more narrative and archetypal to the self-titled track from the Arkestra’s 1969 album Atlantis. Opening with pulses of some kind of subaquatic—or perhaps subatomic—Morse code, the 22-minute song evokes the ancient mythology of the lost continent it’s named after. And Sun Ra’s electric keyboard—the overwhelmingly dominant instrument—is probed from every point of entry imaginable. That “Atlantis” is a live recording only underscores the tingling anticipation of unlimited possibility and uncharted territory that lie at the heart of Sun Ra’s ‘60s work.
“Space Is the Place” (1973)
Space Is the Place—not to be confused with the soundtrack to the Sun Ra film of the same name, although the movie is an experience unto itself—is as good as ‘70s Sun Ra gets. Now openly embracing the more obvious signifiers of Black Power, the Arkestra settles into an avant-jazz-meets-Afrofunk groove that’s both warmly inviting and dauntingly potent. “There is no limit to the things you can do,” chants a circle of singers in an intricate fugue. Nothing more effectively sums up Sun Ra’s core belief, an ethic that supersedes human consciousness and might as well apply to quantum reality.
Cymbals is one of the “great lost Sun Ra albums” (the other being Crystal Spears) that had been originally intended for release on Impulse! Records, before the vaunted label decided to simply reissue previous Sun Ra albums in the ‘70s. Yet Cymbals tracks like “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” are more than just Sun Ra arcana. An organ-driven, boppish blues that harks back to early work like “Sun Song”, “Thoughts” is a manifestation of Sun Ra’s playful sense of circularity and unification; the Arkestra never voyaged from Point A to Point B, but in many directions all at once.
“Theme of the Stargazers” (1990)
Latter-day Arkestra recordings tended to verge toward the tamer and safer, but that’s only on a relative scale. Even in 1990, Sun Ra was pushing into the deepest reaches of eternity, both present and past. Mayan Temples is a mystique-shrouded meditation on anachronism and interconnectedness that boasts a reinvigorated dialect between the leader and a young crop of sidemen, including the brash, thrilling duo of trumpeters Michael Ray and Ahmed Abdullah. As Sun Ra explains in A Joyful Noise, “All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation. Everything else comes from outer space, from unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends upon the unknown.” Near the end of his life, Herman Blount faced infinity with an unswerving conviction in his own revelations—and his own secrets.
Photos by Jesanne Rechsteiner
“Everything in my life has been fantastic this year,” Geoff Rickly says at the start of our phone call. “I can't believe it!” And while it may be hard for anyone to fathom this brainy, angsty rock singer best known as the frontman for the deadly serious post-hardcore pioneers Thursday in a state of utter bliss, Rickly’s disbelief feels genuine—especially when taking into account his hellish recent past.
First, there was the sudden dissolution of Thursday in 2011. “The whole thing came crashing down in two days and I wasn't even in the country,” he recalls. “When I got home I basically didn’t have a job anymore, or any experience doing anything else.” Soon thereafter, as a 32-year-old college dropout, he’d work retail, break up with his girlfriend, and have a comically futile experience writing a screenplay he describes as a “younger Star Wars spiritual.” And then there was his despondent 2012 solo mixtape Darker Matter, recorded in his apartment during Hurricane Sandy. And the subsequent cross-country tour, where he played house shows and slept on floors. And then last year, he got robbed. At gunpoint.
So Rickly took his problems to the United Nations. The cartoonishly aggressive hardcore guise was familiar to Rickly’s fans, but as more of a rumor, concept, or art project than an actual, functioning band. The singer originally started the group in 2005, after Thursday’s major-label debut War All the Time. “I wanted to write the first UN record as the next Thursday record,” he says now. “I had all this super grindy, blasty stuff and I was just like, ‘Let's completely disconnect from melody and try and get off a major label.’” At the time, he met serious resistance from the rest of Thursday, who sought to go in a more accessible direction—and thankfully, they won out: the resulting Dave Fridmann-produced A City By the Light Divided still stands as that band’s finest hour.
Still, Rickly didn’t give up on the more aggressive music rattling around his head. United Nations released a self-titled album in 2008 and the “Never Mind the Bombings, Here’s Your Six Figures”7” two years later, but the shadowy band was more known for its legal troubles than its music. The actual United Nations requested that Facebook remove the United Nations band page and sent a cease-and-desist letter. “It has 30 people listed on it because it's anybody who has ever been speculated to be in the band,” Rickly snickers. “I just think about the day-to-day life of a legal clerk at the UN having to listen to Converge and I think, ‘Aw, I wish that could've been avoided.’”
Rickly and guitarists Jonah Bayer and Lukas Previnare are the only publicly named members of the band, but it also includes members of Converge, Glassjaw, and Pianos Become the Teeth. After numerous lineup changes, United Nations solidified to record their upcoming multimedia boxed set The Next Four Years, headed by the ferocious single “Serious Business”. An incapacitating blast of what Rickly calls “screamo power-violence,” the track has the singer playing off his image for jokes about white privilege and careerism. He says it was inspired by how he “was married and totally blew it by being on the road all the time and not even examining myself at all.”
Weirdly, United Nations doesn’t seem like serious business at all to Rickly, but rather a lark that happens to be attracting attention in the midst of so many other projects. He’s launching a label called Collect Records along with Norm Brannon from emo heroes Texas Is the Reason (Weekend’s Shaun Durkan is also an employee). He’s also the new frontman for the very early 00s alt-sounding No Devotion, a merger with former members of UK rockers Lostprophets (whose ex-lead singer was sentenced to 29 years in prison after pleading guilty to child-abuse charges). “[No Devotion] has a whole international press campaign about to go out, and they're totally livid that UN is getting so much hype right now,” Rickly laughs. “But it's sort of perfect that when you stop caring so much, things just work better.”
Pitchfork: The Next Four Years is the most aggressive music you’ve made—how does that square with being in your mid-30s and “not caring” as much?
Geoff Rickly: We stopped caring about what anybody thinks, but there's still some really shitty things going on. Like, half the band lives in fucking Baltimore—I mean, no drag on Baltimore, but that's not easy. [laughs] Meanwhile, leading up to being mugged last year, I was really sick and in the hospital for half the year, getting treatments for this rare thing that I've had since I was a kid. And I had [temporarily] split up with the girl that I totally love and am living with now. Everything sucked when we started making this record, and it was the only thing I had that was even worth caring about. The commitment in it comes from there.
"What we get in punk these days are layers of 'anti-', and so
many of them are so self-serving. It's not about larger freedom."
Pitchfork: What did you learn about yourself after transitioning from playing big venues in Thursday to giving away your solo album and crashing at houses across the country on tour?
GR: People see musicians on a huge stage playing a festival for 80,000 people and are like, “Oh, they have such magnetism,” but it always embarrasses me more than it makes me feel proud. I'm still totally going out and sleeping on people's floors so I can play a house show and give away music. Of course I would. That's how I started. All that sort of stuff reminds you to stay true to the essence of what art is about.
So when we made [The Next Four Years] a boxed set, it’s supposed to be a critique, because I truly thought: “If our ‘career’ doesn't matter, let's make a piece of art—something that actually says something new and interesting.” My idea is that punk is no longer a subculture or a counterculture in any way. It's totally just a small reflecting mirror for the same things that go on in larger culture. So I had this idea that not only should we be critiquing punk rock, but we should be doing it from the inside—we should self-examine and talk about things like our own white privilege and these phony senses of being an artist.
Pitchfork: What specific parts of punk culture are you critiquing?
GR: It's maybe 10 different layers of hypocrisy: everything from a Minor Threat T-shirt being $28 at Urban Outfitters, to that being a thing where somebody would set up a whole set of ideals to combat the $28 Minor Threat shirt, to the fact that Minor Threat accidentally started straight-edge in the first place. There's so many layers to what's wrong with that. What we get in punk these days is the “anti-anti”: Someone comes up with something, then the next generation is against that, and then the next generation is against that, and then that thing becomes a problem. There's these layers of anti-, and so many of them are just so self-serving. It's not about larger freedom. Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! are one of the only punk rock things I've seen in years. And that's what [The Next Four Years] is about, starting with "Serious Business" as a joke about careerism and privilege and how blind we all are. All these songs are set up as jokes, and the punchlines are actually incredibly sad.
Pitchfork: How have your views on careerism and white privileged been shaped by Thursday’s history in the Warped Tour, which many claim as being an incubator for both of those things?
GR: I got married in Vegas on Warped Tour on July 4—that's how crazy my life has been. Believe me, I know how absurd things can get. I've had years where I've had questionable things going on in my life. I've had a warrant out for my arrest for something stupid like a parking ticket, and a cop has stopped me and been like, "Yeah, you don't seem like trouble." It would be totally absurd for me to deny that that's privileged and also that I haven't fucking exploited it every time that I could because I don't want to go to jail for something fucking stupid like parking tickets.
GR: I can't tell you how amazing that is. Sunday morning with my lady, we put on Majical Cloudz, we put on How to Dress Well, we put on all the mellow shit. And to have them DM me about how much they loved Thursday back in the day, that's wild, man! Because maybe for the last five years it was super uncool to admit that you ever liked Thursday. So it's good to have a bunch of people be like, "Yeah! That's the shit." And Deafheaven are like little bros to me—[guitarist] Kerry [McCoy] told me one of the first parts he ever learned was "Standing on the Edge of Summer”. I hear it when he's playing and I love it.
"The future of punk rock has nothing to do with guitars. Everything interesting that I've heard in years has been nearly all electronic."
Pitchfork: The timing of this aggressive United Nations music is interesting since you published a Talkhouse piece about paying $2,000 for xx tickets and lauded electronic labels like Ghostly and Tri Angle as the vanguard of pop.
GR: The future of punk rock has nothing to do with guitars. Everything interesting that I've heard in years has been nearly all electronic. I think HTRK, which is like a dub band, is the closest thing to rock music where I've thought, “Hey, this is interesting!” I like Lower, I like Fucked Up. Is it interesting? I don't know. It's good! It reminds me of stuff that I grew up on.
That's why I wanted to approach UN as an art project rather than just a band. Because as a band, it's just me trying to please my own basement-hardcore sensibilities that I grew up with. It's not actually the future of anything, it's totally nostalgia. Yet we approach it with all these different twists and turns, having it be like a philosophical thing. And all the artists we've aligned ourselves with are electronic! Like, James Cauty, who did the artwork for the first record with the Beatles on fire, is a member of the KLF, who got in so much trouble [for early sampling], and that's a huge touchstone for us. And then the art for "Never Mind the Bombings, Here's Your Six Figures" was by Ben Frost, who’s amazing.
We’re not a band that's going to just grind out these tours and play music and try and claim to be progressive in any way. That's not the be-all end-all of the project. It’s the lyrics and the art and the fact that we have this unfolding drama across the legal system about what art is, what it's allowed to do, what it's allowed to borrow from, and whether art ever crosses the line where it's dangerous. The United Nations are claiming that we are a dangerous thing because people will come seeking our assistance instead of the real United Nations, which seems absurd, right?
Pitchfork: How does the actual United Nations tell a band that they need to take down their Facebook page?
GR: We were really lucky that we never put copyrights on any of our songs, so we never registered ourselves as the United Nations. We, personally, have never pressed anything, and we've never distributed anything except for having somebody sell records at shows. So the UN actually couldn't serve us, because our names weren't attached to it. So our record company got served, our merch company got served, our publicist got served, and the cease-and-desist letter is actually the cover of the cassette in the boxed set—we actually wrapped it around all the cassettes, which is probably going to get us into a lot of trouble.
As much as the band is a joke, I do think that it's really important that people who make art are actually protecting the human experience of just being alive and not having to be crushed all the time. Art is the one thing that’s the universal virtue that you can have in any class. There's definitely privilege in the upper classes, but as a whole, music can be enjoyed by anybody who can gather around a radio. So I take it super seriously that we're protected at all costs. So when people say, “If you don't get copyrighted, you can't get paid for it,” well, nobody's doing it to get paid. And if putting our names on it is going to get us dismantled, then I'd rather just be a thing that we get to make and a set of ideas that people get to talk about. That's why I love criticism, too! So UN is a chance to do both: play and write about music at the same time.
Pitchfork: One of the most clearly audible lyrics on the record is "please don't take these things too seriously." Are you concerned that people are going to miss the jokes?
GR: I hate trying to make it explicit that certain things are jokes, but I feel like people do misunderstand. I've worked with [producer] Dave Fridmann a lot, and one thing he says is, "You can't be explicit enough. People aren't really paying attention when they're listening to your record, so unless you're shouting exactly what you want them to hear, they don't pay attention." So I do think some of the jokes get lost, and that's too bad because humor is an important part of presenting serious matters. Without it, there's almost no contrast. That's why I love somebody like Kanye West, because everybody either hates or loves him. He's a complex human being. Sometimes he's saying really interesting stuff and sometimes he's being a total piece of shit. That is what it means to be a human.
As is our tradition, we're taking this space over the holiday weekend to highlight some very good records you might have missed. None of these releases received a Best New Music designation and not all were rated above an 8.0, but all are records worth revisiting. Read, listen, and click through for the full reviews. We'll be back with album reviews on Monday.
Alex G: "Harvey" on Bandcamp
Wobbly four-tracks, cassette labels, pitch-shifted vocals, major-key melodies covering for minor breakdowns on bad vibes and good-enough drugs—once used by home recorders to twist pop cliches, these have all become cliches themselves. There's nothing inherently original about Alex G's isolated weirdo guise, so why DSU and not another of the hundreds of records on Bandcamp that you could find this minute that sound something like it? Well, it's because Alex G is probably the least gimmicky of them all; unlike Ariel Pink or Jackson Scott or Bradford Cox, there's almost nothing creepy about his run through the annals of '90s indie rock. In fact, Alex G is most notable for his quality control, a mundane and important strength that ensures every song, every melody, and every lyric is given its proper due. This isn't a restless creative, but a songwriter, and you sense that if you asked him to crank out a pop-punk or folk or chiptune rather than something in the mold of Pavement and Built to Spill, he could do that too. Of course, there are quirks—the unnerving guitar solos, the muffled keyboards, dubious vocal tricks—but they never sound like he's fucking around. They're just like the NCAA Football Create-A-Team cover art and its creator's quasi-anonymous namesake, something that makes the familiar just unfamiliar enough. —Ian Cohen
Oren Ambarchi / Stephen O'Malley / Randall Dunn
Shade Themes From Kairos
The core members of Sunn O))) have never been afraid to collaborate; they've opened their main drone gig to a number of outside musicians and personalities, as well as playing in various extracurricular non-Sunn setups. Stephen O'Malley has been especially prolific in that regard, churning out solo and group projects across genres and in the visual art and live drama realms. But his trio with producer/musician Randall Dunn (who mixes Sunn live and has recorded them in the studio) and Australian guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/occasional Sunn regular Oren Ambarchi feels like a legitimate band. The group recorded Shade Themes From Kairos five years ago, then took their time releasing it. The songs were composed to unedited footage from Kairos, the film portion of a multimedia project by Belgian artist Alexis Destoop, though you don't need to know anything about Destoop or the work to be sucked into these 60 minutes: Across five expansive pieces, O'Malley, Dunn, and Ambarchi meld fiery psych rock, gurgling electronics, spooky feedback, hand-drummed jazz smoke-outs, mind-swirling trance, and gossamer hums, among other things. There's a dusky loner folk piece with brushed drums, gently plucked guitars, and spacey electronics fronted by whispering Japanese vocalist Ai Aso that'll make you stop in your tracks, and that moment of calm is followed by "Ebony Pagoda", a 21-minute drone fest that sounds like a glistening, early-morning Sunn O))). Though these are "shade themes," there's often something bright just outside the dark patches. —Brandon Stosuy
Amen Dunes: "Lonely Richard" on SoundCloud.
Over the past five years, Damon McMahon of Amen Dunes has built a reputation in underground circles, writing and recording explicitly lo-fi songs that showcase sticky melodies buried under layers of obscuring fuzz. His early records, including his Sacred Bones debut Through Donkey Jaw from 2011, showed promise while suggesting that his “thing” might be too niche for a wider audience. But this year’s Love blew such notions out of the water. Featuring contributions from members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Iceage, Love is such a shocking about-face for McMahon that it’s initially hard to tell that this is the same artist who made those earlier records. The textures are airy, the presence of noise takes on a form of soft drone instead of static layers, and, as the title implies, there’s a romantic naturalism to these shamanistic tunes, like Van Morrison if he was raised in an ashram. McMahon taps into a roughly hewn yet oddly beautiful wavelength on Love, an intimate work of mystery. —Larry Fitzmaurice
Container: "Slush" on SoundCloud.
In recent years, more producers are finding ways to blend noise with techno. Ren Schofield, who records as Container, is one of the best at both respecting the music's history while simultaneously pushing it to its limits. Across two albums titled LP, two EPs, and assorted splits, he's been digging out and discovering his own sound. This year's four-song Adhesive is his most fully realized and fleshed-out effort; on it, he creates a splay of distorted, decaying dance bits that remain crystalline and clean-sounding despite their decomposition. They're joyful, even if dark and topically fucked up, with Schofield mixing in strains of motorik, overdriven post-punk, goth funk, lo-fi industrial, and minimalist techno to create maximalist dance-noise that can barely be contained in the EP's 20 minutes. —Brandon Stosuy
Home, Like NoPlace Is There
The Hotelier: "The Scope of All This Rebuilding" on Bandcamp
After a few years where guitar-driven indie rock receded from the spotlight, the genre has been making up for lost time. You can’t call it a comeback (even when guitars aren’t the central focus of the conversation, they never really disappear from view), but records from Real Estate, Parquet Courts, Perfect Pussy, White Lung, and others have stood out as strong entries in the genre—and you can count Worcester outfit the Hotelier in that esteemed group, too. The band’s second album, Home Like NoPlace Is There, packs an ambitious, raw tunefulness into 36 perfectly paced minutes. The Hotelier channel the angsty burn of Jawbreaker, Titus Andronicus’ feel for ramshackle compositions, and Les Savy Fav’s precision-wound riffs into music that brims with personality.
Home Like NoPlace Is There is stuffed with standouts—the throat-shredding intensity of “Life in Drag”, the sweeping rise-and-fall of “Discomfort Revisited”—but its greatest strength is its overall cohesiveness, a flow as impeccable as any rock album in recent memory. “An Introduction to the Album” is exactly that, and you couldn't ask for a more declarative opening salvo; figurative centerpiece “Housebroken” turns an anthemic mid-tempo sway into a rollicking breakdown, and “Dendron” serves as an excellent smash-and-bash to round things out. Coupled with lyrics that conjure frustration, confusion, and loss, Home Like NoPlace Is There is an impressive statement from a group of relative unknowns, as well as one of the most surprising breakout records of the year. —Larry Fitzmaurice
[Top Dawg Entertainment]
Isaiah Rashad: "RIP Kevin Miller" on SoundCloud.
"My daddy told me how to drink my pain away/ My daddy told me how to leave somebody"–Isaiah Rashad is plainspoken and conversational in everything, especially with his pain. Schoolboy Q is more unpredictable and flamboyant than Rashad; Ab-Soul more poetic; Jay Rock is harder; and Kendrick more charismatic. But Rashad is an effortlessly honest artist, and his music mixes up eras and memories: He's from Chattanooga, but his production gestures at Aquemini and The Love Below while his choruses quote Master P. The Cilvia Demo might not have attracted the attention or widespread acclaim of early Top Dawg projects like Section.80 or Habits & Contradictions, but like those albums, it offered you a mood, multicolored and inviting, to sink into. With Cilvia, Rashad built a corner away from the rest of rap, a muttered album that feels private even when it's playing at a party. —Jayson Greene
Twenty-seven-year-old Thailand-via-Japan producer Ryuhei Asano started out as a rapper before switching to production; in the first quarter of 2014, he released three full-lengths of intriguing sound-collage instrumentals, including highlight Shine. Lee name-checks Madlib and Flying Lotus as influences, like a lot of bedroom beatmakers, but he still manages a unique sound. It's a warped approach to the Books’ mix-and-match tendencies that finds equal room for dub textures and Drake samples. “Sometimes I play music on iTunes randomly before I go to sleep, then when I hear a great song, I wake up and think, ‘OK, I can sample something,’” Asano told us in a Rising interview earlier this year, and Shine is the type of hazy, in-between-spaces beat music that dreams are made of. —Larry Fitzmaurice
Music for the Uninvited
Emerging house producer Leon Vynehall has had an enviable career since he first appeared in 2012. He's worked with hotly-tipped dance labels like Will Saul's Aus Music and George FitzGerald's ManMakeMusic, releasing confident and versatile EPs that dabble in vintage aesthetics, ornate instrumentation, and sinewy club grooves. Last year's ubiquitous "Brother" single found Vynehall operating at his most hedonistic and immediate in a slyly satisfying way, but in retrospect, it feels like he was ultimately setting us up for the curveball that would be 2014's breathtaking Music for the Uninvited.
The Brighton DJ/producer's first foray into long-form is still deemed a "mini-album," but to consider Music for the Uninvited as anything less than a fully realized LP would be selling it short. From the billowing orchestration and jazzy rhythms of opener "Inside the Deku Tree" on through "It's Just (House of Dupree)"'s jacking beats up until the plush, wistful chords which close out "St. Sinclair", Leon Vynehall infuses classically-minded house with childhood memories of borrowed cassette tapes and engrossing video games. The resulting seven tracks make for deeply personal and dreamy electronic music—most of which is perhaps best suited for quiet nights in with a hot cup of chai. And yet it's unlikely that you'll find a more tuneful and invigorating dancefloor album released this year. —Patric Fallon
Madlib / Freddie Gibbs
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: "Robes" ft. Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt on SoundCloud.
Despite Madlib’s well-deserved reputation as a living legend of hip-hop production, it’s rare that he finds a worthy foil. In Freddie Gibbs, he’s met his match. If Madlib is a director then Gibbs is a documentarian, capturing harsh situations with the weary eye of the local newscaster who’s been doing his gig far too long. On Piñata, Madlib casts Gibbs as the hero of a street-level spaghetti western, surrounding him with retro-soul samples, tightly-wound snares, and paranoid piano interplay. The production teases out the understated maturity of a line like, “Maybe you's a stank ho, maybe that's a bit mean/ Maybe you grew up and I'm still livin' like I'm 16," on “Deeper”, about an ex who gets pregnant while Gibbs is in jail. On “Harold’s”, he turns his regular order at a local chicken joint into a metaphor for the unchanging rhythms of his everyday life. Gibbs can still rap like an unrepentant goon, and there are moments on Piñata that’ll make you blanche if you’re simply tired of hearing someone talk about how much he got his dick sucked. But this is a cinematic look at life in the shit, warts and all, rendered with such vibrant detail it’s easy to overlook—and even get swept up in—the ugliness of what’s going on. —Jeremy Gordon
[Run For Cover]
A million bands have smeared their songs with boring old teenage angst, but Sweden’s Makthaverskan take a dreamier approach than “I’m sad, I’m mad.” On II, singer Maja Milner addresses her feelings by attacking them, knifing through pillow-soft guitars and somnolent bass lines with bruised fury. “We like really simple music,” says guitarist Hugo Randulv. “We are simple people.” It shows in their insistent songwriting, in the wistful way they bite the “Be My Baby” drumbeat on “Drömland”, in the way Milner spits “fuck” at former lovers (desperately in the soft hum of “Antabus”, lovelessly in the Kraut throb of “No Mercy”) . On “Asleep”, Makthaverskan are as darkly romantic as the Cure ever were, summing up their agony in one line carried with clarity through Milner’s piercing vocal: “It’s not me you’re dreaming of.” It’s the sound of being stuck with your thoughts, repeating everything over and over while trying not to go insane. That’s the problem with being fully awake: You see everything. —Jeremy Gordon
Millie & Andrea
Drop the Vowels
It's hard to think of dour producers like Miles Whittaker and Andy Stott making music with a sense of humor. The Manchester residents and Modern Love label fixtures tend to paint their dubby, esoteric techno purely with smears of charcoal black and splatters of milky white, letting the grey sludge collect where it will. When listening to the pair's Drop the Vowels LP, though, something that resembles a wink and a nudge bubbles underneath the soot-covered jungle-isms and slimy low end.
Maybe it's because Whittaker and Stott can both remember a time when using the Amen break wasn't "old-school," or maybe it's because they've been writing dank, sinister soundsystem music for over two decades combined, but the first Millie & Andrea full-length sounds like two masters of their craft playfully toying with producers who've only just discovered how perennial rave genres, noisy techno, and industrial music can intertwine. They unleash intense, monolithic slabs of overdriven club sounds to loom over their peers, bludgeoning the listener with music so grim it's almost comical. Drop the Vowels isn't a funny record, but the way it deftly accomplishes what many other artists have only been able to hint at makes it seem like the macabre conclusion to a well-kept inside joke. —Patric Fallon
Where We Come From
Popcaan: "Everything Nice (Remix)" [ft. Mavado] on SoundCloud.
“Everything is nice,” goes the hook from Jamaican singer Popcaan’s pleasant single “Everything Nice”, and that’s certainly not the worst way to describe his 2014 LP Where We Come From. The record—warmly produced by Popcaan’s wingman Dre Skull—wears its “dancehall” tag lightly, favoring space and Popcaan’s ear for melody over pure energy. Where We Come From is a cohesive and single-minded record in a sense—it feels very satisfied with itself, but not at all in a smug way. It’s a record I play a lot when I don’t know what else to play. There’s never a tremendous feeling of urgency to tracks like “Ghetto (Tired of Crying)” and “Cool It”, and even though the album is Popcaan’s biggest star look thus far—Popcaan and Drake are rumored to be working together—Where We Come From only contains one feature (from Pusha T). It all sets up perfectly for Popcaan’s confident charisma. Sometimes it pays to be nice. —Corban Goble
[Beating A Dead Horse]
Posse’s first album featured rock’n’roll songs that were fast and loud. Their new one takes its sweet time, which is a very good look for this band. Soft Opening was written during sessions that took place after each member of the band got off work, and it shows in the minimal, somewhat subdued indie rock. Nobody ever steps on a fuzz pedal and rips into overdrive, and the guitar interplay between Paul Wittmann-Todd and Sacha Maxim stays fairly reserved. Meanwhile, the lyrics are all about coping with stilted relationships: ”You’re going to talk through this,” sings Maxim, unsure why she’s even bothering to engage. “I’m gonna try and get a haircut, a shampoo, and a shave, and shut up,” sings Wittmann-Todd, looking for a petty way to cheer himself up while struggling through a communication breakdown. It’s an unassuming record, for sure, but one that quickly reveals relatable sentiments and genuinely funny moments as Posse’s smooth, warm melodies help push their narratives forward. —Evan Minsker
Under Color of Official Right
Protomartyr: "Come & See" on SoundCloud.
Everything feels a little sickened on Protomartyr's Under Color of Official Right. The sour, detuned guitars groan and wheeze more than they roar. The lyrics are full of shabby characters populating sad spaces—schlubs at home watching daytime judge shows, deadbeat dads in sports bars on weekdays. On "What the Wall Said", frontman Joe Casey sings of a plaster interrogation room lit with "sodium" lighting. The poor victim in the room ends up "laughing out of every hole." Everything is either shit-brown, smokers-yellow, or bile-green, and no one is happy. The longer you spend with Under Color of Official Right, in other words, the more subtly implicated you feel in its vast, all-consuming jaundice. It's a subtly addicting record, one that leaves a chalky, alkaline coating in your mouth that you grow to love over time. —Jayson Greene
Shamir's music moves as Shamir does, with a hypnotically beautiful lack of self-consciousness. The androgynous, flute-voiced 19-year-old singer, who arrived recently in Brooklyn from a tiny town outside Las Vegas that gives his EP its name, sings lyrics that are plainspoken and oddly elliptical at the same time. When he sings "I'm kicking and screaming and having a cow," you're not entirely sure those words mean to him what they mean to you. They feel like placeholders for other feelings, ones that the proper words haven't been invented for yet. His coolly mysterious voice, paired with dance beats that feel they're being made with a single pinky finger, feel intimate, designed for an audience of three or four at most. —Jayson Greene
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything
Thee Silver Mt. Zion have spent the past 15 years as a "character actor"-type band, relied upon for minor variations of a specific and narrow role: in this case, Godspeed To-Go, serving as a foil to the grandiosity and gravitas of GY!BE by channeling their big ideas into portable things called "songs" with lyrics and a frontman. And with Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything, Mt. Zion is stealing more scenes than ever from its more renowned label boss; it's their most potent and compact album yet and, not coincidentally, their best because it focuses on giving you the one thing their label benefactors never can provide: fun. A party at ground zero rather than an awed awaiting of the apocalypse, Fuck Off is the kind of freewheeling, crescendo-happy politicized disco-funk-punk that Reflektor could've been if their fellow Montrealers actually knew how to let loose. —Ian Cohen
“Darkness prevails through eternity,” screams Tombs frontman Mike Hill at the end of “Echoes”. That’s pretty much the sentiment on Savage Gold: the album is packed with existential questions about what happens before and after death, all of them cloaked in dark imagery. Accompanying those nihilistic lyrics is unrelenting, jackhammer percussion work by Andrew Hernandez II, which keeps the LP consistently muscular and exhilarating. But then, in the album’s final moments, the fury has subsided in favor of some quiet astral beeping. In his conversation with Brandon Stosuy, Hill discussed being unconcerned with his band’s subgenre and said he admires Michael Gira and Swans for never limiting themselves sonically. Neither do Tombs. Savage Gold takes some unexpected turns, and when it goes for a burly, heavy metal attack, it hits the target beautifully. It's one of the best metal records of the year. —Evan Minsker
Overtones is a column that examines how certain sounds linger in our minds and lives.
Can music help you? Does it hurt you? People care deeply about these questions. Until recently, however, I did not. I live with music—it occupies my free time and my work time—and yet, I've almost never thought about this.
On the rare occasions when I have, though, it's always with bone-deep certainty: Of course music can't hurt you. Like anyone who hasn't thought hard enough about something, I took all the evidence that I needed for this from my own life. I grew up listening to tapes of Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, Ice-T, Ice Cube, N.W.A.—when I was nine years old, my favorite song included the line "most motherfuckers don't give a damn." My mother certainly didn't approve, but she also didn't yank away a tape I had already memorized. We talked about what was wrong with calling someone a "mother effer," why it was an ugly word. The tape stayed with me, and the conversation did too. And now, I’m a generally respectable and decent adult human (or at least not visibly warped).
The reason I'm currently probing these questions is predictable: I am the father of a 14-month-old girl, and becoming a parent re-sensitizes you to your environment in fresh ways. Some are helpful, but many—most—are mindless, reflexive, and fearful, requiring occasional correction from the pre-parent brain. The world didn't grow more dangerous, in other words, I just momentarily grew more fearful of it.
Anxiety has an ability to draw the ear towards half-truths—studies on rumors, urban legends, and conspiracy theories have shown that the more anxious the disposition, the more susceptible a person becomes to hearsay. And I sense free-floating anxiety at play whenever a public figure worries about what music "does" to us, whether we can figure out how it "works" in our brain. The infamous "Mozart effect," which still spurs sales of classical music for babies in boutique toy shops, is a perfect illustration. The actual study, and the way it became willfully, eagerly misinterpreted, is a little opera about science and magical thinking.
The actual Mozart effect was so modest that it's difficult to believe it even became controversial—in a 1993 study published in Nature, Frances Rauscher demonstrated that college students who listened to Mozart for 10 minutes briefly scored higher on spatial reasoning tasks. The effect wore off soon after, and no other areas of test-taking improved. When the study was first published, the interest was modest—Adrian Bangerter and Chip Heath, who tracked the Mozart effect's journey through lay culture in a 2004 study published by the British Psychological Society, found that in the year the study appeared, it was only cited seven times. Further studies attempting to replicate the effect had mixed results, and by 1999, a review of these studies concluded that the effect, if it existed, was negligible.
However, a mysterious ball had been set rolling in the culture, one that would roll far, far away from science. In 1997, a music critic, author, and entrepreneur named Don Campbell published The Mozart Effect for Children: Awakening Your Child's Mind, Health, and Creativity With Music. It was an interesting title—the original study was not done on children—and it appeared just as the study's initial results were proving most difficult to replicate.
But it didn't matter. Campbell's book soon built a massive, and massively profitable, cottage industry that you can still find the vestiges of today: Even in baby books purporting to rely entirely on proven studies and hard science, like Baby 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year, you can find helpful advice to play classical music for your child's developing brain. In 1998, the state of Georgia passed a law to distribute classical CDs to new mothers; that same year, Florida passed a law requiring state-funded daycare centers to play classical music for their children every day. One year later, Houston began playing classical music to its prison inmates, and Korean researchers played Mozart for germinating roses.
The irony and astonishment of all this furious activity, of course, is that no one actually said anything about babies (or roses) in the first place. This willful misunderstanding is what Bangerter and Heath term a "scientific legend": a widespread belief derived from science that differs widely from the beliefs of actual scientists. The Mozart effect was fanuted, as French Montana might say, from a temporary effect on adults to a permanent effect in infants, via the transitive property of people's wishful thinking. The notion tapped directly into our collective queasiness about what Jerome Kagan, in his 2000 book Three Seductive Ideas, called "infant determinism," or the belief that the first two years of a child's life maps their subsequent path. In this way, Mozart became just the first of a child's many test tutors.
As a person who has gazed, helplessly, at his mute baby's head, wondering frantically what I already wasn't doing to help develop the brain inside it, I understand the underlying fear: It is a panic I can practically taste. I have played my baby Debussy (string quartet, third movement), along with Schubert, Bach and, yes, Mozart. I don't think any of it made her smarter—most times, she never even looked up—but I did it anyway, because it provided a slight easing in my chest. For new parents, at least, the Mozart effect is very real.
I sometimes wonder about the racial coding of all this: I'd like to see a serious study on whether playing Queens rapper Cormega for one-year-olds enhances their understanding of the rhythms and cadence of human speech. As for studies linking rap music or heavy metal to violence—those, thankfully, seem to have receded somewhat. The last widely reported study was in 2006, when researchers attempted to find the link between hip-hop listening and alcohol abuse. Media concern (or concern-trolling) about the societal effects of rap violence continues unabated, but the science has, for the most part, piped down, for the same reason the Mozart effect studies tapered off. The research showing that violent music makes you violent is about as unreliable as the research proving that Mozart makes you smarter.
The truth is, no one knows what music does in the brain. We know that musical training has observable benefits, just as we know that listening to music can have a powerful effect on people with certain cognitive disorders—aphasics, for example, or people whose short-term memory has been impaired. But when it comes to tracing the penny of music as it rolls through the vaults of an average brain, we are still basically helpless.
Partly, this is because music activates so many disparate regions at once. But more broadly, it's because music itself is a notoriously leaky container for agendas or specific ideas. Melodies and rhythms, once free of their creators, make their own place in the world, serenely unconcerned with the aims of who sent them there. Utopian music can be warped to pernicious ends, as it was in Hitler's Germany, just as violent, antisocial music can serve as a beacon of hope and consolation. Violence itself, like joy or beauty or ugliness, is entirely in the ear of the beholder: I find the compression of pop records, which transforms every moment into one long scream, to be more violent than, say, a well-recorded metal album, with a sense of space and distance between instruments in the mix, though I wholeheartedly accept that this is an aberrant view caused by the idiosyncrasies of my chosen profession.
Circumstances around music change how it works, too. If there is no sexual chemistry between two people, putting on D'Angelo's Brown Sugar while they are alone in a room will do absolutely nothing to change that, and they will stare at each other awkwardly. If two people have a latent desire to tear each other's clothes off, the same album will probably encourage them to do that. If a room is full of tension and frustration and simmering grudges, playing the Lox's "Wild Out" could very well lead to someone breaking a bottle over someone else's head. If you play it in a library on a Tuesday afternoon, it likely won't have that effect. We help and hurt each other all the time. Occasionally, music is playing.
The Arkansas doom metal band Pallbearer’s 2012 debut LP Sorrow and Extinction was a very good metal record that “people who don’t normally like metal” ended up liking, too. In some ways, this was surprising: The collection consists of five songs that stretch to just under 50 minutes. And while the guitars are gorgeous and varied, it was the voice of guitarist Brett Campbell that turned out to be the real hook. In my review of the album, I said of Campbell: “Imagine if a young Ozzy had the ability to transform into Geddy Lee.” Two years later, Pallbearer are set to return with Foundations of Burden, a dense, majestic collection that tops its predecessor and finds Campbell in even finer form.
On Foundations, out August 19 via Profound Lore, Pallbearer are a much bigger band. They have a new drummer (Mark Lierly), and guitarist Devin Holt and co-founder/bassist Joseph D. Rowland (who also handles pianos and synthesizers) add their vocals to Campbell’s to create vintage doom metal choirs. But the biggest upgrade is the quality of the sound itself. The quartet recorded the record in Portland, Oregon, with producer Billy Anderson, who was also at the controls for touchstones like Sleep’s Jerusalem and Dopesmoker, Jawbreaker’s Bivouac, High on Fire’s The Art of Self Defense and Surrounded by Thieves, and works by Om, Mr. Bungle, Neurosis, the Melvins, and Unsane. But even with that stacked resume, Anderson told Pallbearer that he’d never worked on an album with so many layers of guitars.
I caught up with Rowland while Pallbearer was driving to a show in Houston, where they were opening for Deafheaven. (In October, following a European tour, they’re heading out on a headlining North American trek with Tombs and Vattnet Viskar.) When I first rang, he asked me to call back in 10 minutes so he could get someone else to pilot the van.
Pallbearer, left to right: Brett Campbell, Mark Lierly, Joseph D. Rowland, Devin Holt. Photo by Diana Lee Zadlo.
Pitchfork: You guys have talked about how this album is less focused on death, and maybe more positive, in a sense. Then I started reading the lyrics and noticed that words like "ashes" and "dust" and "death" come up quite a bit. How is the subject matter different from Sorrow and Extinction?
JDR: Well, yeah, it's definitely not happy. But it's a different focus. Sorrow and Extinction was pretty heavily themed on mortality, but some of the songs here have more of a personal tint to them, and some of them are focused more on humanity's legacy. There's definitely an element of hope in the ruins of personal trials or humanity's downfall.
Pitchfork: You’ve talked about recent personal dramas elsewhere, but I saw your new press photo and I was like, “Man, these guys actually look especially healthy these days.” You look like you lost weight. You cut your hair. So even if there were struggles, you look in tip-top shape these days.
JDR: [laughs] Yeah, man, I went through some pretty difficult times in my personal life last year, and in the midst of that I took it upon myself to make some improvements, too. I've been trying to change some habits, trying not to kill my liver so bad. I feel like I've been making poor decisions for a while. I'm trying to be a little bit of a better person. Some of those decisions tied in with some of the new material—though there's definitely not any songs about exercising. Our third album will be all about personal fitness and not being an alcoholic.
Pitchfork: You recorded Foundations with Billy Anderson, and after listening to both of your albums, I thought, “Holy shit, it actually is a big difference.”
JDR: [laughs] Yeah, it's funny, once the album was done and mastered, I listened to both back-to-back, and I was really surprised at how much different they sounded production-wise. The new one is definitely way less murky with the guitars. It's considerably brighter and cleaner sounding, even though it's really heavy, which is something that I'm really into. Honestly, it's been a conscious choice we've been moving toward, because it has more clarity. There's more definition to all the notes instead of it being a muddy thudding sound, almost. Even before a lot of the material for the new album was in place we'd been cleaning up our sound a little bit, because a lot of chords are really complex, but there's a lot of movement. Basically, we've been moving to a sound that will allow for more complex styles to shine through. We're not one of those bands that just has three riffs per song. A lot of the chord structures are pretty complex.
Pitchfork: The vocal parts are more complex on this album, too.
JDR: Yeah, we're big fans of prog rock like Boston and Rainbow. And Brett really pushed himself, taking a focus on where he excels best in his singing range, and taking a look at what would work best live without having to strain his voice every night. We definitely put more effort into arranging and playing around with different vocal ideas this time, just trying to make it more stimulating.
Pitchfork: The songs are long and there's a sense of repetition, but it never comes off as overindulgent. How do you arrive at songs? Are they small kernels you’re building up, or longer movements you’re cutting down?
JDR: It depends. For a majority of the stuff, Brett and I will work separately and then we'll get together with everybody and start taking a look at how many repeat things feel natural until we feel like the song is exactly what it needs to be. What's funny is that every song is almost the exact same length on this album. There's three songs that are all 10-and-a-quarter minutes long, basically. They're all almost exactly three times the length of a standard pop song, almost to the second, so I decided that that's our version of writing pop songs.