Last weekend, tens of thousands of music fans once again congregated at Chicago's Union Park for the ninth annual Pitchfork Music Festival. This year's edition featured sets from Beck, Kendrick Lamar, St. Vincent, Danny Brown, Grimes, Earl Sweatshirt, and many more. Photographers Jessica Lehrman, Tonje Thilesen, Kristina Pedersen, Matt Lief Anderson, Ebru Yildiz and Tom Spray were there to capture all the action.
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- 07/10/14--08:05: _Update: Christopher...
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- 07/10/14--08:05: Update: Christopher Owens
- 07/11/14--08:50: The Out Door: Labeling the Future
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- 07/15/14--11:20: Secondhands: Our Own Private Saturns: Future Music Now
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- 07/21/14--15:01: Photo Galleries: Pitchfork Music Festival 2014
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- 07/24/14--12:05: Electric Fling: Sketches From Ibiza Island
- 07/28/14--09:55: Articles: Wax and Wane: The Tough Realities Behind Vinyl's Comeback
- 07/29/14--09:55: Update: Zola Jesus
- 07/30/14--12:40: Staff Lists: Steve Albini's 10 Best Records
- 07/30/14--15:00: Festival Report: Lollapalooza 2014: Playlist
- 08/01/14--10:35: Update: Perfume Genius
- 08/04/14--15:00: Festival Report: Lollapalooza 2014
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- 08/06/14--12:10: Ordinary Machines: Everything Happens So Much
Christopher Owens has a folder on his computer called “Dates and Titles”, which lists the 153 songs he has written thus far, along with when, exactly, they first came to be. “These are the keepers,” he says, counting them up while on the line from his San Francisco apartment. He’s got handwritten manuscripts and audio demos of everything, too—an exacting organizational habit he picked up while frequently moving around the world as a kid in the Children of God cult. The 30 or so songs he recorded with Girls are in the folder, along with the ones from his 2013 solo debut, Lysandre, and the dozen tunes that make up his forthcoming record, A New Testament. Which means he’s got about 100 songs that have yet to be properly recorded, that are not quite ripe yet, that still need to live up to the sounds swirling in his head.
Until recently, one called “Overcoming Me” was in that pile. It was written on January 3, 2008—a solid year-and-a-half before the release of Girls’ debut LP—and it will finally be let out into the world on A New Testament, the song’s dreamy vibraphone, swelling organ, stop-start drums, layered backing vocals, and pleading lyric culminating in a warm mini-epic. “Overcoming Me” isn’t the only holdover from Owens’ past, as the new album also reunites the singer with keyboardist Danny Eisenberg, drummer Darren Weiss, and guitarist John Anderson, all of whom played on Girls' final and best record, 2011’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost. But A New Testament isn’t just a self-conscious throwback following the relatively minor, tepidly received Lysandre; along with moments that harken back to some of Girls’ more soulful songs, there are recently-written tracks marked by gospel, rockabilly, and old-school country influences that Owens has only hinted at before.
“It's an American thing,” the singer says, describing the new sounds, which sometimes recall Nashville legends like George Jones. “When radio first popped up, all those early American genres—country, R&B, gospel—were separate from one another, and people like the Everly Brothers and Elvis rolled it up into rock’n’roll. But those are the roots of Americana.”
Another change: Though Owens made a name for himself expressing the kind of dark sorrow that’s hard to stare in the face for too long, A New Testament is his brightest statement yet. The mood swing makes sense when considering the 34-year-old is currently in the midst of his longest-ever relationship—“We're one of those couples that doesn't fight,” he says—and he’s also worked hard to put his well-documented problems with drugs behind him.
“That was very, very hard,” he admits. “Maybe I'm getting too cocky, but I really feel like I've beat the goddamn thing. I know it's something that requires vigilance and diligence, and I'm lucky to have people around me that have been through this before and are on the same page as me. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that I cannot see right now, and that's been abrupt, but it's life. One has to move forward.”
Pitchfork: A New Testament bears a strong country influence, what's your personal history with that style of music?
Christopher Owens: I write in moments of emotional overpowerment, and in those situations, I go back to my fundamentals. For me, the music that we played in the Children of God was very broken-down: three chords on the guitar, simple melodies. And those songs were so strongly influenced by country music. And after leaving the Children of God as a teenager, I spent years in Amarillo, Texas, around [eccentric businessman] Stanley Marsh, who’s a country boy, and he’d play Willie Nelson, and we'd listen to AM radio. Sometimes I wouldn't know who the hell it was, but I'd hear it. Most of the time, country songs are concise, to-the-point, honest, and emotional, and just about anybody can play them on the guitar. That's what appeals to me about them.
Pitchfork: This new record does seem more lighthearted than some of the music you’re best-known for. It sounds like you’re in a more contented place.
CO: I am happy. And if some of that came out on the record, that's good. I don't want to be afraid to show that. People like me for being this down-and-out character, but I’m sorry, I'm not your Jesus. Don't hand me that cross. I refuse to play along. I've got to say how I'm feeling when I'm feeling it. That said, the themes I’m writing about are the same, really. I could've called this album Looking for Love. I could've called them all Looking for Love.
The other day I played at a friend's small store with just a guitar. I sang some Girls songs, and I haven’t lost my emotional relationship with them. Now, when I sing "Ghost Mouth", from the first Girls album, it still describes how I feel because I've had to isolate myself from a lot of people that I used to spend time with. I do feel lonely in a big city again. Sure, I probably wouldn't have written that song if I didn't have the bad habits I did at the time, but it keeps coming back around, it seems, and I'm happy for that because I don't want to lose it.
Pitchfork: You’ve been with your current girlfriend for more than four years, does the stability of that relationship also contribute to your mindset now?
CO: Yeah, it's a relationship I can't place a value on. We're very different people: in upbringing, in habits, in the way we both cook, the books we read, the music we like. Maybe I see something in her that I think is wonderful and wish I could've been like that myself. At the same time, I don't. I'm not a person with regrets. But I can definitely see the benefit of having somebody like that in my life. I mean, I could've had somebody more like myself in my life for this period of time and been pushed along down my own paths, my own devices—if that was the case, Father, Son, Holy Ghost might not have even come out. From the beginning, she has kept me aware without judging, without ever saying, "This is an ultimatum," or, "You have by this date..." She’s never even been rude to me about it when my priorities were completely out of whack. From the beginning, we liked each other for who we were, and it's always been that way. As time goes by, we'll remain different people, but we'll remain essential to one another.
Pitchfork: The gospel-style track “Stephen” deals with your family history: how your brother passed away when he was two years old, and how your parents separated. You also sing: “We were Children of God, but all that we wanted was our father’s love.” Do you have any sort of contact with your dad now?
CO: Yeah, I've been working on my relationship with my dad. All in all, he's been a great guy and he's made himself available. He comes to shows. The fact that we didn't grow up together—that I was 23 the first time I actually spent time with him at his house—that's never going to change. He doesn't call me up and say, "Did you see the ballgame last night?" or whatever—I don't know what dads say. But we check in and we're polite and we respect one another. I don't want to write him off as a person. He is my father, and he is a country singer in Louisville, Kentucky. I have sat and watched him do shows in bars, and that has also contributed to my knowledge of country music.
My dad did call me after "Stephen" got put out on the internet, and he said, "I just want to know where you're at with me—I could listen to this and think maybe you're mad at me." I said, "It's something I had to write about, but trust me, there's no issues there. I've always accepted what happened and I don't have any regrets and I don't blame you." We worked that out. It was not an emotional phone call. He just wanted to check in.
The Children of God changed its name to The Family, and their idea of a family did not include marriage, and you called every adult "uncle" and "auntie," and they divided us into age groups. So I grew up with other kids my age and I didn’t see my sisters as much because they were older. And now, my sisters are some of the most distant people in my life, unfortunately. That's what I was trying to get at in "Stephen", too: The Family destroyed our family, even to the point of one of the kids having to die. I’ve always wondered what it'd be like to have an older brother, and I do latch onto older cool guys and follow them around. But can you imagine the regrets, the longing, and how much [my parents] would like to change that? I don't know what they're going through and I don't want to pretend like I do. They've been through a lot and they're good people. I respect them.
Pitchfork: What's your relationship with your Girls partner JR White like now?
CO: We're not at all nasty or fussy to one another; we both understand very clearly the ins and outs of our relationship. We see each other. Just the other day, when I played that little show, he showed up and did the sound for it. He tells me about the things he's working on, and they sound great. He and I are both doing what we want to do. At the end of the day, our relationship was very substantial, very deep, and when it slowly disintegrates in the way that, unfortunately, it did, there's a lot of time involved in getting back to anything.
At the same time, we text and speak to each other often. I've never had anything but respect for his skill. There are tricky things about the personal side, and it's not just between the two of us. There were a lot of people who came in-between, and the whole [Girls] experience was such a rollercoaster. The two of us had never been in a band like that before, never toured, never did interviews. There were things I had to learn on the fly. And Jesus, it's hard. And when you don't have George and Ringo there to keep it all together—can you imagine how long the Beatles would have lasted if it were just Paul and John? Like, give me a break!
In this edition of The Out Door, we delve into the world of experimental music labels, which remain vital supporters, curators, and archivers of all kinds of sounds. We talk to Jon Abbey of Erstwhile about why the duo remains his preferred mode of musical expression as his label's 15th anniversary approaches, chat with Jon Hency of Bathetic about the reinvention he found in a Southern mountain town, chart the trend-dodging arc of Students of Decay with owner and musician Alex Cobb, and explore the familial aspect of Immune Recordings along with the business approach of owner Erik Keldsen. (Remember to follow us on Twitter and Tumblr for all types of experimental music news and information.)
I: Erstwhile Records: No Place to Hide
Jon Abbey of Erstwhile at Experimental Intermedia, New York, 2012. Photo by Yuko Zama.
After 15 years and nearly 100 releases, Erstwhile Records is too big to summarize in a sentence or two. But something that founder Jon Abbey says as we discuss the label’s history sounds like a decent approximation: “I’ve found that if you put together people with roughly equal strengths of artistic personality, you don’t have to worry about how compatible they seem. They’ll figure it out and push each other to where they need to be.”
Most Erstwhile releases feature that type of collaboration—meetings between musicians who have never played together, at least not in the specific context Abbey conjures for them. The tactic is one he came upon early: Erstwhile’s third release, Fire Song, joined sax/synth player Earl Howard and “hyperpianist” Denman Maroney for the first time.
That record also helped set Abbey’s preferred format: the duo. The vast majority of Erstwhile’s releases have been made by pairs, drawn from a wide range of experimental veterans such as Fennesz, Kevin Drumm, Otomo Yoshihide, and Christian Wolff. Abbey likes the duo format because it makes artists try things they might not attempt on their own, yet, unlike in a larger group setting, “there’s no place to hide.”
“First-time duo” characterizes most Erstwhile releases, but the label is better known by a different descriptor: “electroacoustic improvisation,” or EAI. That term was just beginning to take hold when Abbey started Erstwhile in 1999, after over a decade working at TIME magazine (he used money from a buyout to start the label). “When I first heard jazz, I could hear freedom in a way that I hadn’t heard in music before, and that was exciting,” he recalls, speaking via phone from his home in New Jersey. “Then I found free improv, and that was even more towards that. And EAI to me is the most towards that.”
Keith Rowe, Jon Abbey, and Radu Malfatti in Vienna, Austria, 2010. Photo by Yuko Zama.
Erstwhile and EAI have become synonymous—one review called Abbey “a driving force of EAI, if not quite its inventor, to the extent that EAI without Erstwhile is unimaginable”—and while he has no problem with that association, he’s also wary of genre names. “Whenever you use a term, there’s so much discussion about it, it takes away from discussion about the music,” he says. “Of course you need these terms as placeholders, but I’ve always been more comfortable talking about a project or musician specifically, where you don’t have to get into these sweeping generalities.”
Generalities certainly don’t apply to the Erstwhile catalog. No two releases sound the same, and very often no other release by the parties involved sounds like what they create for Erstwhile. Perhaps the best embodiment of this unpredictability is Keith Rowe. The British guitarist (and founding member of AMM) is on 22 of the label's releases; Abbey calls his work with Rowe “the fundamental relationship with the label—documenting him is a big part of what I do with Erstwhile.”
Abbey admits Rowe was one of the few musicians he’s ever felt intimidated to initially talk to, but the pair hit it off quickly, meeting at a 1999 Australian festival curated by Yoshihide. Abbey continues to be impressed by Rowe’s search for new sounds. “In 2004, he got to the point where he had basically perfected his setup, so that he would give you this jaw-dropping, visceral set pretty much every time,” Abbey recalls. “It got too easy, so he dumped his whole setup. His work became weaker for a few years, but he couldn’t just keep going like that."
Rowe certainly possesses “strength of artistic personality,” which can make working with him a challenge, albeit an exciting one. “He’s strong-willed, but he’s also very good at the collaborative process, and giving up control when he needs to,” says Abbey. “He trusts me—we’ve done so many records now, and I think I have a knack for showcasing him correctly.”
Keith Rowe at TEMP, NYC, 2013. Photo by Yuko Zama.
Abbey takes a similar role in many Erstwhile releases. Besides helping set up most of the collaborations, he also makes suggestions about the resulting recordings and their sequencing. That’s a bit of a break from experimental “tradition”; in improvised music, the philosophy has often been that recordings should present a session exactly as played, with no edits or rearrangements.
“The idea was basically to recreate a concert situation: You get into a studio and play a set like it was a show,” Abbey explains. “But recordings aren’t concerts, and concerts aren’t recordings, and I think a lot of people fall down trying to make one equal the other. I also think pure collaborative improv in recording makes less and less sense these days. It can still be great live, in the moment, but as far as recordings, the boundaries of an improv session often kill it before it has a chance to start.”
Treating recordings this way means Abbey has to assess long pieces quickly and accurately. “I have developed the ability to keep this abstract music in my head and give input on how it should be rearranged, like, ‘Move this 20-minute track ahead of this 30-minute track,’” he says. “My memory’s not photographic per se, but a song will come on the radio that I haven’t heard in 30 years, and I’ll remember all the words. That’s part of what pushed me in this direction—being drawn to these long soundscapes that you could never sing by heart.”
Hearing music with a fresh ear extends to Abbey’s approach to Erstwhile formats. Though the duo is still his favorite setup, he’s created sub-labels for other situations: ErstLive, ErstSolo, ErstPop, and a new classical-leaning series, ErstClass. He has yet to join the recent surge in LP pressing, though; only one Erstwhile album (ErstPop001, by The Magic I.D.) has come out on vinyl. “I just never liked anything about vinyl—I have no romantic attachment to it,” he says. “Even when I was a kid, and there was no other choice besides vinyl, I would record LPs to 90-minute cassettes and listen to those.”
As the label’s 15th anniversary approaches, Erstwhile continues to charge ahead. His website currently lists 19 future projects, including a just-released collaboration between noise stalwarts Drumm and Jason Lescalleet. “I’ve been doing this long enough now that there are musicians in their prime who were influenced by early Erstwhile,” Abbey says. “Like Hong Chulki—he started doing this because he heard my Kevin Drumm record in 2000. That kind of thing is very exciting to me.” — Marc Masters
Three Recent Erstwhile Records We Love
Hong Chulki / Ryu Hankil: Objets Infernaux
Two key figures in South Korean sound art, the Seoul-based Chulki and Hankil have played in many combos together, but never recorded as a duo before Objets Infernaux. Its five pieces are deceptively minimalist—sometimes distant, even quiet, but always active on an extremely granular level. And their noisier bursts have a knack for sneaking up on you. “It took me a while to come up with the right word for this record: corrosive,” says Abbey. “But it’s still very musical. It’s not harsh for the sake of harshness.” Indeed, many sections on Objets Infernaux are less like a drill to the skull than a persistent tattoo needle, pressing until they make an indelible mark.
Michael Pisaro / Toshiya Tsunoda: crosshatches
An intense, expansive meeting between L.A.-based guitarist/composer Pisaro and Japanese field-recordist Tsunoda. With 90 minutes spread across two discs, it’s the kind of Erstwhile release that’s hard to digest completely—each track is its own world, and longer ones seem to contain multiple universes. Much of crosshatches has a naturalistic feel, but rarely a literal one—it’s more like the pair create a field in your head rather than replicating one outside. “Tsunoda has a discography stretching back decades, and his focus has always been on almost entirely unprocessed field recordings,” Abbey explains. “But as he worked on this project, he realized in the middle that the best way to proceed was to process his sounds much more than ever before, and it pushed him into all sorts of inspiring ideas—not just for this release, but for his subsequent work also.”
Anne Guthrie / Richard Kamerman: Sinter
The second release in the ErstAEU series (created to highlight the work of younger American experimentalists) pairs two New Yorkers, sound artist/acoustician Guthrie and electronic composer Kamerman. One of Guthrie’s main instruments is French horn, but for Sinter Abbey asked her to focus on her field recording instead. The result is a subdued-but-busy record that has a very in-the-moment aura—the pair’s envelope of sound feels like it’s happening right in front of you. Much of the music is built from small, repetitive sounds, but it can also go big and wide, as in the album-ending drone of “Several or Many Fibers”. “I thought [the pairing] would help push Richard into a interesting new area, and it did,” says Abbey. “It’s my favorite of his recordings so far.”
II: Bathetic Records: Found Hypnosis
Jon Hency of Bathetic Records
On a recent sunny Wednesday evening in the small North Carolina mountain city of Asheville, Jon Hency stripped to his underwear, covered himself with mud and smiled for the camera. He and his wife, Amanda, had volunteered to assist in a flippant promotional campaign for Transfigurations, the 10th-anniversary festival for the local label and store Harvest Records.
“They had this idea that we were shaman leaders, and we helped lead one of our buddies to find his ‘true’ self,” says Hency. “It was very bizarre.”
Jon and Amanda Hency have only lived in Asheville for four years, arriving after a short stint living on the coast of Maine. But in that time, they’ve turned into fixtures of the city’s thriving creative core, a hotbed of bands, visual art, food, and locally brewed beer. Together, they own the Mothlight, a music venue that holds 250 people and books a methodical mix of neighborhood parties, upstart indie acts, and fringe artists. A local newspaper called it “a kind of haven” when the club opened last year.
The energy the couple found in Asheville hasn’t only launched a small business; it’s also rejuvenated Bathetic Records, the label that Jon started in Arkansas around 2007. Especially during the last two years, Bathetic has emerged as a small imprint with a sprawling and personal vision, just as welcoming to the romantic misgivings of Angel Olsen as the beat-machine malfunctions of Form a Log.
The Bathetic brand has become a pre-emptive imprimatur for artists who’ve gone on to bigger stages and labels, including Olsen, King Dude, and Cloud Nothings. And with recent or upcoming releases from Appalachian-plundering guitarist Daniel Bachman and Mouthus outcropping United Waters, it’s become a reliably intriguing stable for musical adventures of several sorts. To wit, Bathetic recently issued an 11-cassette set of artists who collectively crisscross from saturated metal to diaphanous drone, from sound art to staggered synthesizers, from bucolic guitars to refracted pop.
“I want to be a reliable source for good music. Sure, it eventually fits together, but it doesn’t have to all be the same made-up subgenre,” he says before rattling off what he might listen to in a day, moving from singer-songwriters to death metal. “If I pigeonholed Bathetic to one thing, I’d go insane. I’d get bored with it.”
Most of Bathetic’s output links to Hency in this fashion. Though partners have come and gone during the life of the label, from eclectic sound explorer William Cody Watson to the label’s current graphics guru Omar Mashaal, Bathetic not only represents Hency’s variegated tastes but also his personal and rather redemptive journey through music itself.
“I used to play a lot of music,” he remembers of his salad days in Arkansas and Chicago, where he met Amanda. “But I wasn’t playing anymore. I needed a creative outlet, some way to have some output.”
The label has traveled with the peripatetic Hency. In Arkansas, it was a tape imprint, inspired by a winter spent living among the Providence, Rhode Island, noise scene. Bathetic Tapes, as it was known then, primarily gathered and issued the sounds of bands he found or played in himself in area basements. The goals were humble: Hency gave many of the tapes away at parties and managed to “scrounge some bucks” for a few. He thinks he might have had a Myspace page, but he can’t quite remember. He kept no catalog numbers, and he dubbed and assembled the material at home himself.
“I remember going to see my parents for Christmas one year and showing them the tapes: ‘Hey, look at what I’m doing.’ ‘Yeeeah,’ they said,” he remembers. “They thought it was interesting, but they didn’t think much would come of it.”
But something did start to come of it when he finished college and moved to Chicago, where he recruited several new collaborators. The ideas started to come quickly, as did legitimacy. The label got a website and began issuing a few au courant compilations—the witch-house boomer and “midnight black cassette” Dark as Night and the aestival garage-rock reverie Summer Bummer: Get Laid, Get Wasted.
That didn’t last. He and Amanda both worked in music venues, great spaces for finding new bands and learning how business might work, but not terribly restful.
“We skipped town,” Hency says, putting it softly.
They arrived in Maine, living well outside the island town of Bar Harbor, near Acadia National Park, in an isolated home on Indian Point Road. For months, they had no cell phone or internet service, but he still had an increasingly vibrant record label to run. So Hency would visit a library that was open just two days a week to manage his business; when the library was closed, he’d bike to a nearby service station, sit outside with his computer and write down information for releases and orders. It was tiring and tedious. What’s more, the sights on the island around him—coast and coves, Cadillac Mountain, and Thunder Hole—were more than mesmerizing. He and Amanda continued to explore; that’s what mattered, he reckoned. He flirted with giving up the label entirely.
Both by happenstance and a move toward town, he soon reaffirmed his commitment. While biking one day, he found a plastic bag ostensibly filled with garbage. Inside, though, there was a tape labeled “Hypnosis – Josh / 9-18-98”, a recording of a Bar Harbor doctor hypnotizing a patient. Hency dubbed it and released it in a tiny edition, calling it Found Hypnosis. It represented the label’s sense of possibility, an outlet wide-open.
“I could not put out nothing,” he says. “There were so many cool things I wanted to do.”
Cover art for Angel Olsen's Strange Cacti
One of those things was Angel Olsen’s cassette Strange Cacti, which Hency began to listen to on repeat during his 50-minute bike ride into work. He’d met Olsen in Chicago while working to assemble a compilation of area female musicians. He saw her live and convinced her to expand a single into the EP that became Strange Cacti. It became the soundtrack to that period of his life.
“Whenever you find something that has a huge impact on you, you’re not sure if other people are going to get it. But there was something special about that one,” he remembers. “I just kept listening to it.”
Above all, that now seems to be the ruling principle of Bathetic, which Hency continues to run out of a room in his home and which continues to get busier, though he seems to know better. The room only gets more full, and with the addition of the Mothlight, his time for it becomes more precious. But it’s what he has to do.
“Maybe I commit to too many things, but these things are just too good,” he says. “Coming home from the Mothlight, it’s Bathetic time. I can’t not listen to that Earn album or that Cough Cool album. It’s my saving grace." — Grayson Haver Currin
Three Recent Bathetic Records We Love
The debut LP from the Chicago trio of Mike Weis, André Foisy, and Neil Jendon, these six tracks shine thin rays of light—flickering rhythms, shimmering guitars, glinting pianos—into very dark spaces. The territory explored is similar to that of Foisy’s main concern, Locrian, but this group takes a more tempered and stately approach to its mesmerizing grimness. “That one was a total winter scorcher, and that even goes for the artwork,” Hency says. “It has winter hell written all over it, especially in Chicago.”
Various Artists: Dynasty at Ghost Town
Perhaps the most audacious project in Bathetic’s history, and one of the most intriguing large-scale sets of 2014, Dynasty at Ghost Town plunders the far reaches of Hency’s aesthetic. This 11-tape set reaches from synthesizer eruption to shoegazing doom, from guitar-based majesty to cut-up madness. Hency admits that compiling it was quite the burden, but the results, from the painstaking artwork of Simon Fowler to its almost-instant sell-out status, were rewarding. “I had the idea to do an old-school batch of tapes. That tape set—that was dumb of me, man,” he laughs. “A year went into that.”
Villages: Theories of Ageing
This exquisite 2012 LP pairs drones that push the limits of your speakers with gentle field recordings that test the lower barriers of your hearing. Gentle but giant, Theories of Ageing recalls the intimacy of Christian Fennesz and the grandeur of Tim Hecker, but Ryan Gentry adds an emotional depth to these sounds. It’s the sort of record you’d like to cuddle with, or at least, to. Gentry, like Bathetic owner Hency, lives in Asheville. “If Ross isn’t working at a coffee shop, he’s obsessively recording,” Hency says. “He’s a quiet, honest, upright guy, and that comes off in his recordings. But once Ross gets an idea for a record in mind, it can be difficult to go and get a beer with Ross, to have him come out and talk about silly shit. He’s busy recording.”
III: Students of Decay: Coherent Diversions
Alex Cobb of Students of Decay
“A lot of musicians don't think they need an editor,” says Alex Cobb, speaking on the phone from his home in San Diego. “Imagine being a writer and getting a manuscript printed by a press without an editor. It would never happen.”
Cobb runs the label Students of Decay, for which he considers himself an editor—or, more accurately, a producer. He doesn’t literally man the mixing board, but often suggests to artists which tracks to include, what order to put them in, even when to delete specific sounds he thinks don’t work (he recently asked one to remove some cricket chirps from a song).
“Artists might get prickly at that, but that's a good way for me to gauge if the artist is somebody I want to work with,” he says. “Can they accept criticism and be willing to work with the label? I think too many labels just accept records as they are. Musicians don't always know what they do best.”
Cobb’s approach could be why the music on Students of Decay feels so distinct, despite a roster with wide influences and backgrounds. From the extended noises of Natural Snow Buildings, to the acoustic guitar journeys of Danny Paul Grody, to the thick drones of Kyle Bobby Dunn, SoD funnels a wealth of styles into a coherent vision, often wrapped in simple, evocative covers.
Cover art for Kyle Bobby Dunn's Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness
“I wanted to make a label where somebody could blindly buy every release,” Cobb explains. “Even if one was a Takoma-style guitar record and another had field recordings or used no-input mixer or something. I wanted there to be a common aesthetic that the listener could identify.”
These goals were inspired by the labels Cobb worshipped in the late '90s. He cites Siltbreeze, Drunken Fish, and VHF as imprints he would “blindly buy” from the Forced Exposure mail-order catalog. Before that, he made his own music as a middle-schooler in Cincinnati. “A friend and I were discovering prepared guitar and half-thinking we were innovating,” he recalls. “I remember getting Kevin Drumm's first record, and it was much more poised and obviously a lot better—I was 15—but it was of a similar style. Then I got a Keith Rowe record and thought, 'Wow, these guys are doing stuff that I'm interested in doing.’ Before that, I didn’t know anyone was doing stuff like that.”
In 2005, while attending Xavier University, Cobb initiated Students of Decay with his first CD-R under the name Taiga Remains. The response it garnered—particularly encouragement from guitarist James Blackshaw—led him to pursue the label seriously. In 2006, he made SoD’s first professionally-pressed CD, the Molten Strings, Train Wrecks, and Birdsongcompilation featuring Birchville Cat Motel, C. Spencer Yeh, Zaimph, and more. It also included a track from the North Sea, whose Brad Rose (of Digitalis) helped Cobb figure out the logistics of a bigger release.
Anne Guthrie, whose debut full-length Codiaeum variegatum was released by Students of Decay
Since then, Students of Decay has released over 100 records, many of which feature front cover art devoid of names and titles. For Cobb, the ambiguity is appealing. “I like mystery with my music,” he admits. “For me, the crystallization of perfect drone was Pelt and Double Leopards, and the mystery of those bands appealed to me. Maybe it's a pre-internet thing, when everything was much less accessible and there was more absence in music.”
This love of mystery helps Cobb keep Students of Decay impervious to trends, though some recent movements have overlapped with his roster. The label’s ambient drones have at times been lumped in with the post-Emeralds New Age revival. “I don't want to sound like I'm dismissing that, because I'm not, but I think the stuff I put out is different,” he says. “That stuff is more expressly nostalgic—tape releases with triangles and crystals on them. It dovetails with what I've released, certainly, but the way it's branded feels different to me.”
Indeed, there’s little in the way of homage on Students of Decay releases, many of which mine territory between ambience, abstraction, and confrontation. That’s perhaps best embodied by Natural Snow Buildings, who’ve been involved in six SoD releases, including 2008’s massive The Dance of the Moon and the Sun. “That project was so huge, they have a penchant for excess and it kind of spiraled out of control,” Cobb says. “It ended up being five bonus discs in letterpress package, but it did well and got a boatload of press.”
Cover art for Alex Cobb's Marigold and Cable
Perhaps the way SoD releases explore these sonic intersections can be traced back to Cobb’s own music. That work continues to evolve; recent releases include the Taiga Remains compilation Works For Cassette on Helen Scarsdale, and Marigold and Cable(released under his own name) on Shelter Press. Yet he still struggles with the idea of being a musician. “When I've created something, I feel like I lucked out somehow,” he says with a laugh. “I don't think I'd feel that way if I was classically trained or more prolific. The record I made for Shelter—I have no idea how it came out to be a record that I can stand behind and actually like.”
When I ask if the work he’s done on Students of Decay has influenced his own music, Cobb says yes, but less in terms of sound than work ethic. “The inspiration and urgency to make music is rare for me,” he admits. “So if I work on someone else’s record, it’s a spark that says I should get back to making my own music. The label is a good supplement to that creative urge.” — Marc Masters
Three Recent Students of Decay Records We Love
Aquarelle: August Undone
Aquarelle: This is No Monument on SoundCloud.
When we profiled Ryan Potts three years ago, he had just released the excellent Sung in Broken Symmetryas Aquarelle. He’s since followed that with an even better work, 2013’s August Undone. Potts’ mix of gentle ambiance and building noise makes those extremes mirror each other. “I like the lack of digital processing in his work,” says Cobb. “His stuff has a romantic quality, and he's good at putting together arcs and motifs.” That might be the most impressive thing about August Undone: It’s collection of sounds feels natural, even uncontrolled, yet every moment is a logical step—a piece in a puzzle that continually reveals itself.
Ekin Fil: Ekin Fil
The music of Ekin Fil, aka Istanbul-based Ekin Üzeltüzenci, came to Cobb’s attention through Liz Harris (Grouper), for whom Ekin opened on a European tour. When Cobb heard her follow-up to her 2011 Root Strata release Language, “I literally instantly said, 'This is awesome,'” he recalls. “It gives me all those Jessica Bailiff and Flying Saucer Attack vibes. Beautiful, distant, melodic—kind of like shoegaze, but with no distortion.” The hypnotic quality of Ekin Fil’s music is buttressed by her haunting voice, but the effect is much more complex than that description might suggest. Her sounds keep a careful, beguiling distance, as if the original source of each note is less important than the echoing trail it leaves behind.
Anne Guthrie: Codiaeum Variegatum
Previous small-run releases by Guthrie mixed field recordings with finely-rendered instruments such as French horn and contrabass. “I said, ‘What if you did an album that was more airy and droney?’” recalls Cobb. “She sent me some stuff and we were going to do it as a tape, but I liked it too much, so I asked, 'Can you flesh this out and make a complete album?’” Across six tracks, Guthrie generates slow-burning sounds that still have the ability to surprise, even shock. Among the sawed strings and natural reverberations lie some hard-edged noises, as well as a fascinating sense that all possible sounds are within Guthrie’s purview.
IV: Immune Recordings: Strength in Smallness
Erik Keldsen of Immune Recordings
There are times when Erik Keldsen, the founder and lone part-time employee of Chicago’s Immune Recordings, will deliver a contract to a new act only to be greeted by great confusion. In the past seven years, Immune has issued nearly three-dozen titles of immersive drone, billowing electronica, broken folk, and phosphorescent psychedelics—small-edition stuff that’s generally not adjudicated with legalese and strict terms.
“In the realm of experimental, one-man labels, contracts are kind of rare,” Keldsen says, pausing to ponder that final word. “A lot of the artists, when I first speak to them about how I do things, say, ‘What are you talking about? I thought you’d just put it out and give me some records.’ But I want it to be fair.”
Keldsen, 34, works as the director of national sales and distribution at Thrill Jockey Records, the Chicago label that’s pinballed from exploratory jazz, to abstract Americana, to precise IDM, to bristling metal during the last two decades. In that post, he’s learned the importance of splitting profits from a release evenly with his bands, hoping to build both the label and the artist one sale at a time. He’s applied his experiences from the larger business to his own tiny upstart, a system that’s not only steadied his release pace but also retrenched the quality and control of Immune.
“There are always two parts: ‘As much as I love this record, is this something I can sustainably release?’ That’s constantly a question,” Keldsen says. “Being a small operation, I have to space things out—for cash flow and how much time I can manage to put in when I have a job.”
The output of Keldsen’s after-work endeavor feels cut from one piece, not necessarily in style but in spirit. The label’s best records are those in which the listener becomes suspended and swallowed, surrounded by the sound. In seven years, Keldsen has fostered a cohesive aesthetic by finding artists who reach similar places through different paths, whether the route is the seemingly ancient acoustic guitar ruminations of Micah Blue Smaldone or the great astral synthesizer expanses of Expo 70.
“Things that fit into the framework are what I can listen to on headphones and get lost in. It just feels right,” he says. “With things that are more drone-based or ambient-oriented, for instance, it needs to have some meat on it. There have been some Immune releases where I’ve spent a good 20 listens just making sure it feels right.”
Immune’s existence seems to be an act of unequal parts serendipity and inevitability. Keldsen grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, heading into the city as a teenager to see shows at venues like the all-ages Fireside Bowl. From his adolescent outpost, he slowly learned about music that, as he puts it, “wasn’t at Borders” but that was made or issued only a few miles east—Drag City and Will Oldham, Thrill Jockey and Tortoise, Kranky and Low. He continued his treks until he was 21, finally gaining entry into experimental meccas such as The Empty Bottle. That newfound accessibility opened catacombs of sound to Keldsen.
Despite his interest in Chicago labels and bands, he initially launched Immune—a handle taken from a shuffling beauty on Low’s Secret Name—as a zine project. After high school, he enlisted in community college to study photography and try to build a career as a freelance band photographer, whether that meant publicity stills or live shots for magazines. In the summer of 2004, he traipsed through the city’s clubs and photographed and interviewed acts like Black Dice, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective, and múm. They were going to be the basis for Immune’s printed debut.
“I would not say I’m a writer, per se, so I’m not sure how good the interviews were,” Keldsen admits with a laugh. “But the photos were cool. I kept thinking I would finish the zine, transcribe the interviews—and I just didn’t do it.”
But the idea for a creative outlet under that name stuck, and the next several years offered both insight and impetus for how Keldsen might funnel his enthusiasm into a label of his own. After an internship at Drag City, he began working at Thrill Jockey, not necessarily because he wanted to make a career out of record companies but mostly because he needed a job. Turns out, he found a crash course in how indie labels thrived.
“Working at Thrill Jockey became my education,” he says. “I started doing it, learning the different aspects of how a label is run, like the profit-share model. I decided I wanted to give this a try.”
His opportunity came quicker than he might have expected: While working in the Thrill Jockey office, some coworkers kept playing new music from Death Vessel, the tender vehicle of songwriter Joel Thibodeau. He loved the record, and in a perfect moment of fate, Death Vessel was set to open for Low, one of his favorites, in Chicago. After the set, Keldsen simply asked if he could release the new Stay Close on vinyl.
“He said, ‘Sure,’” Keldsen remembers. “It was easier than I thought.”
Micah Blue Smaldone. Photo by Hank Hauptmann.
Death Vessel proved to be a fortuitous starting point for Keldsen and Immune because it offered an introduction to the skewed world-folk scene in New England, particularly in Portland, Maine. Thibodeau, for instance, told Keldsen to listen to his friend, the stoic guitarist and singer Micah Blue Smaldone. He fell in love with his records and made Smaldone’s stunning The Red River his second overall release and his first that wasn’t a reissue. In the autumn of 2008, around the time he issued that album, Keldsen actually traveled to Portland to see the Time of Rivers Festival. He stayed at Smaldone’s house for a long weekend and met both Big Blood and the oud expert and Fire on Fire multi-instrumentalist Tom Kovacevic. Immune issued a split between Smaldone and Big Blood in 2012, followed by Kovacevic’s exquisite solo debut, Universe Thin as Skin, two years later.
“If they said to me to check out their other band or project, it doesn’t necessarily mean I would put it out. There was a time where that did occur—they sent something my way that didn’t fit into the label,” he says. “But those bands have all trickled down. It all falls into place.”
That systematic selection applies to the rest of Immune, too. Keldsen releases very few one-offs, meaning he not only sticks with certain acts for consecutive years but also works with their wider network of projects and collaborators. Immune has never released a Barn Owl LP (that’s the bailiwick of Keldsen’s employers at Thrill Jockey), but he has issued solo albums by both band members. And he’s become the stateside syndicate for august Swedish band Tape, not only releasing their LPs but also a collaboration with prolific bassist Bill Wells.
Immune seems, then, a little like a family but more like a tastefully selected coterie, a collection that Keldsen might say “just feels right.” — Grayson Haver Currin
Three Recent Immune Recordings We Love
Pulse Emitter / Date Palms / Expo 70 / Faceplant: 4-Way Split
If you’re looking for a summary of everything that’s great about Immune Recordings, this double-LP set might be the best start. Keldsen originally intended it to be a Record Store Day release, but technical problems made it late. Still, the pairings are tremendous: Date Palms’ wide-sky psychedelic drift versus Pulse Emitter’s synthesizer fantasies, Expo 70’s stoner-in-space rumble versus Faceplant’s delirious and demented beats. “I had been brainstorming doing something for Record Store Day, and I sat down at a bar one night and decided to do something crazy—four artists, and two split LPs,” Keldsen remembers. “I rattled off a list of bands and started reaching out, just all people I was really into at the time. The hard thing was making sure it flowed.”
This is the third record in a trilogy from Cleared, the duo of guitarist and noisemaker-at-large Michael Vallera and Locrian/Pan-American drummer Steven Hess. Drown cakes accessible themes and recognizable rhythms in sheets of sound and textures of bedlam, not unlike Mouthus thawing after a long winter. “Mike is an old friend of mine, and we lived together for a while. That was a situation where I tried to have a line of, ‘You’re my friend, but that doesn't mean I’m going to put out your record,” Keldsen explains about the start of his relationship with the duo. “But that’s one I spent more time with, and I made sure I liked it aside from being close friends with a member.”
Ilyas Ahmed: With Endless Fire
This 2012 album by Portland, Ore., guitarist Ilyas Ahmed feels like a series of seven sunsets, each arriving under different conditions but leading to uniformly strange experiences. “Every Minute of Every Hour (For JR)” is a pristine bit of late-fall melancholy, all traipsing acoustics and droning organ, while “My Mirage” hangs in an ecstatic and strange haze, like the last night of a hot summer’s lost weekend. “I discovered his music through Aquarius Records, his initial CD-Rs. I read the reviews and loved it as much as I thought I would,” Keldsen says. “I started tracking down all of his stuff, and he’s become a good friend.”
Ramones: Dee Dee, Tommy, Joey, and Johnny. Photo via the Ramones' official Facebook page.
Tommy Ramone died on Friday, and now, there are no more founding members of the Ramones. It’s jarring. Most of their contemporaries—the Clash, Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie—still have living members. Key players from forebears like the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the MC5, and the Velvet Underground are walking the planet. Beatles, Beach Boys, and Stones live. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis are still around.
And sure, there are living Ramones (Marky, CJ, Richie), but not the ones who made that incredible first string of recordings: Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and It’s Alive. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy—the men whose names are emblazoned on the Ramones crest—are not around anymore. (Even Arturo Vega, who designed that logo, is gone.)
The Ramones were palpably, undeniably cool—four skinny, longhaired dudes in leather jackets and ripped jeans singing songs about Burger King and sniffing glue. Their muses were horror movies and punk-rock girls with names like Sheena and Judy. Their subject matter—both the love songs and the more acerbic stuff about drugs, lobotomies, and shock treatment—paired perfectly with their Queens accents. They were like cartoon characters (which they played up big time in Rock 'n' Roll High School) who made badass music and didn't give a shit about what you thought ("I don't care," they sang). In every way, they were the polar opposite of a gawky middle-school kid wearing too-baggy clothes in the year 2000.
I still have the Ramones shirt I bought at Hot Topic as a seventh grader. It’s frayed and too small and there are holes in the armpits now, but I doubt I’ll get rid of it. It’s an artifact from a time in my life when I needed the Ramones. Back then, I was hit hard by a death in the family. I was sulking all the time. I hated school. Papa Roach and Creed were omnipresent. I took refuge in two CDs called All the Stuff (and More)—compilations collecting the first four Ramones records—and a barely-working (but plenty loud) boombox in my parents’ basement. These songs were catchy and loud, tough and fun. They made sense to me.
And while it's easy to pin the Ramones as the dominant example of punk's "anyone can play this stuff" credo, their appeal wasn't merely due to those utilitarian riffs. By taking cues from girl groups, bubblegum acts, and early rock'n'roll records, they made perfect two-minute pop songs and performed them with the intensity of the early Who, the MC5, or the Stooges. Live, they'd shave an extra 20 or 30 seconds off those tracks by playing them even faster. It was thrilling music, the sort of stuff that encourages kids to start bands, rip holes in their jeans, buy Chuck Taylors, and scour the world for that perfect black jacket. There are enormous bands who have cited the Ramones as an influence, from U2 to Metallica, but that's only scratching the surface when considering their impact.
The turn of the century turned out to be a heartbreaking time to become emotionally invested in the Ramones. Joey died of cancer in 2001, Dee Dee of an overdose in 2002, and Johnny of cancer in 2004. Just like that, the band's three biggest personalities were gone. Joey was the iconic face and voice—a swamp-man figure who could effortlessly command the stage while clutching a mic stand. Dee Dee was the charming-but-unpredictable character shouting "1-2-3-4!" from behind his bass. Johnny provided the unrelenting power-chord battering rams. By comparison, Tommy seemed like "the quiet Ramone," but his role as drummer was essential: He had to keep pace with Johnny.
Behind the scenes, none of them got along very well. Johnny and Joey fell out in the early '80s when Johnny began dating (and later married) Joey's ex-girlfriend. Dee Dee frequently struggled with drug abuse and bipolar disorder. They all treated each other poorly. Tommy quit in 1978 when he realized that he couldn't survive the road with the Ramones. In the documentary End of the Century, he said: "In a studio, I was in control and creating. And on the road, I was a passenger, basically being bossed around and not treated very well, actually. I felt like I was losing my mind, and I would explain to people, 'I think I'm losing my mind,' and they would find this amusing. So the choice was me staying on the road and becoming a vegetable, or helping them write the songs and producing the records—which I felt would be a little more productive—and bringing in another drummer."
It was a rational decision. Tommy wanted to focus on the part of the job that he liked and bring in someone else who could hold his own with the other guys and, as he put it, "beat the crap out of them" when they got out of line. When Tommy left, Johnny worried that they were losing the band's mediator, the reasonable one who kept everyone else in check.
Late in life, after producing records by the Replacements and Redd Kross, Tommy didn't look like a Ramone. Johnny always had the hair and the jacket, but near the end, Tommy just looked like an older man—gray hair, gray beard, glasses. He played dobro and mandolin in a bluegrass band. He did live acoustic versions of Ramones songs, smiling at the crowd.
In End of the Century, Dee Dee and Johnny are asked if Tommy was important to the Ramones' sound. They both say "no," essentially arguing that he was in the right place at the right time, that any drummer could've done what he did. And maybe that's so. But Tommy was the one who encouraged the Ramones to take Joey out from behind the kit and make him the frontman. He acted as their first manager and pushed them toward their uniform. He wrote their first press release, not to mention some of their most indelible songs (including "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and "Blitzkrieg Bop"). He co-produced some of their best records. Without Tommy Ramone, there wouldn't be the Ramones. Without the Ramones, rock'n'roll wouldn't be nearly as interesting.
When I was 8, my mom gave me and my brother a set of paints and told us to paint our bedroom walls however we liked. He painted outer space, which to a 5-year-old is basically a string of Saturns in different colors; I painted the bodega around the corner from our apartment in lower Manhattan along with our grandparents’ New Jersey home, paying special attention to the garden hose, which kept me cool in the summer.
Both were highly subjective portraits of the cosmos. Mine collapsed the world around me; his expanded it. He became a software engineer; I became a writer. He tends to talk about where things are going; I get stuck on the idea that there’s nowhere we haven’t been.
In July of 1962, NASA launched a satellite designed to relay radio, fax, and TV signals across the Atlantic Ocean. It was about 34 inches in diameter and looked a little like a robot Christmas ornament. They called it Telstar.
Five months later, a British group named the Tornados released an instrumental, also called “Telstar”. In 2014, the song still sounds like the future, or at least some quaint B-movie version of it. Hearing it reminds me that there was a time when space was something people got excited about. Having made it west, we hunkered down at IBM terminals and recalibrated Manifest Destiny for the stars. Mysticism crossed with science; people of reason brushed against the infinite unknown. The song itself sounds like an extra-terrestrial alarm clock, whirring and buzzing to let us know we’ve finally arrived.
Now when I think about space, I mostly think about how much time and energy we wasted getting there. Missions failed, people died, and the benefits to those on earth remain cloudy. It seems foolish and embarrassing—a huckster’s dream, the 100-percent certifiable hair tonic that will bring men back from baldness. In 2007, an internal investigation at NASA revealed that two of its astronauts had flown drunk, and my mind can’t shake the image of a single astronaut in classic tinfoil suit, tipsily floating through a starless sky, watching the place they sometimes called home.
When I go back to the so-called futuristic music of the 1970s, I’m surprised by how much of it points to the past. Kraftwerk, a band so cartoonishly invested in the future that they pretended to be robots, wrote songs about the grand nobility of the locomotive (“Trans-Europe Express”), the highway system (“Autobahn”), and the look of a city at night (“Neon Lights”)—all feats of technology that by 1975 would have been worn to the point of nostalgia. My favorite song of theirs has always been Radio-Activity’s “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, a melody so wistful it would sound old no matter what synthesizer you played it on.
So while the look of progress changes year-to-year, the feeling—that dizzying rush of pride and optimism—stays the same. Parliament-Funkadelic invoked science-fiction, but the Mothership was ultimately a symbol of primal togetherness—a vessel carrying us to a place where we could be equal. Electric Light Orchestra, a band that seasoned their music with novelties like the vocoder and their album covers with flying saucers, also recognized the lunar romanticism of opera arias and doo-wop ballads. The future became a place where you could experience a joy you hadn’t felt since the past.
Now and then, my wife will squint at the speakers in the corner of the room where I am auditioning some promo or another and ask me a simple question: “Do you think this is doing anything new?” My answer is usually “no,” followed by some apology for why I don’t think that newness—in the sense of a chilly, confrontational encounter with something I’ve never encountered before—is that relevant.
Put another way, newness is a personal experience. Yes: There was a time before smartphones when people used to stare uncertainly at each other from across the dinner table, lost in the starry freefall of the present. There was also a time when we used lead-based paint and lived in fear of wildcats tearing our camps apart in the middle of the night. History is on some level just the process of pinpointing the juncture where something that happened all the time never happened again.
When it comes to art, though, “newness” is a rubbery word, capable of being bent into whatever shape suits the user. A teenager hearing Frankie Cosmos and the Hotelier in 2014 might not realize that the 1990s were full of homespun, emotionally demonstrative bands that pretended synthesizers didn’t exist.
But even if they did realize it, it doesn’t matter. “New” is what happens to you now, regardless of what happened to other people before. Did you ever wonder why so many people joked about Rust Cohle saying that time was a flat circle in “True Detective”? I’ll tell you: Because it’s true. The longer I live, the older all these new things look.
What I think my wife is asking about, though, is whether the music we listen to suggests a future—whether it begins a thought that ends in ellipses trailing off toward the unknown.
A few contemporary examples come to mind. One is Daft Punk, another is Pharrell and the Neptunes; another is Missy Elliott and Timbaland, at least during their invincible streak in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. This may betray my age, but whenever I hear “Get Ur Freak On” I still feel as though the earth is about to implode. No doubt the day will come when I play it for my grandchildren and they nod obediently, then bring me a dish of milk and shoo the flies away from my ears.
Consciously or not, Missy and Timbaland have taken themselves out of the race, while Daft Punk and Pharrell have retreated into the warm bath of nostalgia. In a profile by Nitsuh Abebe for New York last year, Pharrell reminisced about pop music of his childhood, the mid-‘70s to early 1980s, when artists like Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, and Michael Jackson made luxurious recordings using the best players money could buy. This coming from a guy whose early productions were so stark that they had more space than sound, and who seemed to have learned most of what he knew about music from ice-cream trucks and girls playing double-dutch. When asked about embracing the past, he said, “I miss it.”
Daft Punk’s arc was similar: Tired of the sleek technocracy they helped build, they turned from laptops to analog tape, from samples to studio musicians, reminding people—rightly—that a fetish for newness is its own dead end. To be honest, I never even liked them before Random Access Memories. But with that album, I realized they had something to lose. Listening to it, I’m reminded of my brother and his Saturns, only with a Hollywood budget—two grown men trying to salvage a childhood fantasy they know is gone.
At the beginning of RAM’s last song, “Contact”, we hear a commander on board NASA’s Apollo 17. “It is a bright object and it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing,” the voice says. “It’s way out in the distance, certainly rotating in a very rhythmic fashion... I don’t know whether that does you any good, but there’s something out there.” The passage hints at something otherworldly. It turned out to just be a little bit of rocket trash discarded along the way. It was the last time people walked on the moon. In context, the audio plays like a eulogy.
In the last month or so I’ve been enjoying some quality time at my local YMCA with Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals, an album that takes pieces of songs you probably know and collages them together into an orgiastic highlight reel celebrating the last 50 years of pop music. It is dazzling and hilarious, and most of the time a little more exciting than I’m comfortable with.
In 2008, when the album came out, we called these curiosities mash-ups, a term already starting to take on the sweet, old-timey flavor of “Xerox” or “flying machine.” At the time, though, there was a great and widespread understanding that Girl Talk—whose birth name is Gregg Gillis—might be the sound of the future, a mirror held to the fractured and breakneck pace of life in the digital world and a sign that our attentions had been so degraded by advertising that we could no longer bear but more than five seconds of any stimulus without reaching comatose levels of boredom. And so on.
Six years later, I can finally accept Feed the Animals for what it is: a party record. First and foremost, Gillis is the incarnate of a good time you can’t quite remember. “It’s never like I had this great vision of the future,” he told Forbes in 2012.
No vision maybe, but a hunch. What strikes me about listening to the album now isn’t the way it was made, but the world it presents. Nowhere else will you find so many foul-mouthed, nasty-ass rap lyrics so artfully woven into songs your parents might have wept to, or so many songs of classic-rock consequence chewed-up like gum and spit out as soon as it loses flavor.
For Gillis, Pimp C is as legitimate a force as the Moody Blues, and Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” as powerful as Nirvana’s “Lithium”. Wittingly or not, this is utopia. Listen and you will realize that the horniness that both Rod Stewart and Lil Wayne feel is the same. Laugh now, but somewhere outside us, in the great interpersonal cloud we call culture, the needle has moved.
Which brings me to the idea that the future is always just a metaphor for something better than where we are now. For Gillis, this meant a place where his favorite jams are contextually liberated from the prejudices against them, whether racial, aesthetic, or otherwise. For Funkadelic, it meant somewhere less broken than Detroit, which in the late 1960s suffered waves of race riots culminating in the NAACP filing suit against the state for essentially perpetuating segregation. Space was just a stand-in for somewhere that probably felt just as far away.
Or there’s “Telstar”. The sound of the song is mostly attributable to an English producer named Joe Meek, who worked out of a flat above a leather shop where space was so tight that musicians sometimes crammed onto the stairs. One of the legends of the song is that its opening seconds—a strange, sweeping sound signaling transport to another dimension—was a toilet played backwards.
Accounts suggest Meek was a temperamental person, depressive and tough to connect with. He was also gay, which at the time was a punishable crime in the UK. What moves me when I hear “Telstar” is the idea that Meek dreamed of space because he had nowhere else to go.
In late 1967, he shot his landlord, then himself. Now we have male R&B singers and country queens writing about homosexuality like it was just another experience between human beings, which it is. Telstar remains in orbit.
Photo by Renata Raksha
Twenty-three-year-old Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg could have been a relic of indie rock’s past. In 2010, he and his band Avi Buffalo were barely out of high school when Sub Pop released their self-titled debut album, which was warmly regarded for its frisky take on AM radio rock. But instead of quickly taking advantage of their good fortune, burgeoning talents, and climbing momentum, Zahner-Isenberg and the band went silent for four years. “I've known a lot of people that rush into making album after album after any kind of exposure,” he says when we speak on the phone. “But I come from more of a musician background”—as a young teenager he took guitar lessons from an older bluesman—“and that makes me think you have to put a lot of time in in order to become good at performing or writing.”
Though his reasoning for the long layoff is sound, four years is a cultural lifetime, and the indie zeitgeist was turning away from guitar-in-hand, heart-on-sleeve songwriters even before Bon Iver was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” in 2012. So when Avi Buffalo emerged from hibernation in June with a new single called “So What”, it triggered a minor tinge of nostalgia: This band, in this year? But the song was a sweet surprise, as is their forthcoming album, At Best Cuckold, which infuses a dreamy 1960s rock sound with youthful ambition, evoking the past with a touch of dread. Nimble guitar solos flower from the mix and forlorn piano lines tug heartstrings while Zahner-Isenberg’s tender, breathy voice describes a world of demure emotions and generational anxieties. “Once again I'm charted in unknown lands,” he sings, sounding scared, but resolute. It’s a record attempting to find the sweet spot between leaning on what came before and pressing forward to make something new, a dilemma for any creative twentysomething.
The songs on At Best Cuckold were recorded over four years, as Zahner-Isenberg learned to play piano and bass, program drum machines, and showcase the conscientious enthusiasm of someone trying-out a college experience’s worth of ideas. “I tried to just scoop up a lot of information from different mediums—music, movies, books, people I met—and write from what I was really feeling, no matter how simple or complex that was,” he says.
Born and raised in Long Beach, California, he split time between there and nearby Los Angeles the last few years, living with musician friends. “Long Beach is great for meditative reasons,” he says. “You’ve got to work because there's not too much going on.” On the other hand, though, was “that L.A. vibe” and all its attendant magic, including a burgeoning avant-garde music scene he immersed himself in. The combination makes for a record born of isolation but not loneliness, one that’s playful but not superficial.
Before I get on the phone with Zahner-Isenberg, at least three people tell me they’ve heard he’s kind of a weird guy—an impression I believe when I follow him on Instagram and am bombarded with dozens of hastily sketched, vaguely pornographic portraits. But when we speak, he reveals himself as a deliberate personality, someone who’s at ease with not being at ease. “These birds seem so fucking free, they're nothing compared to me,” he sings on a new song. You believe him, even though he sounds thousands of miles away from anyone else.
Pitchfork: You were 19 when the first record came out and now you're 23—what have you been up to during that time?
Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg: I toured quite a bit initially and then just kind of hung out. I wanted to get more into listening and playing music. A lot of people I was around were in school, so I tried to expose myself to academia. So I could be working on music but then be stimulated by my friends at Cal State Long Beach or UCLA, trying to find out about what they were learning so I didn't feel like I was just wasting my time or living a pipe dream. I wanted to keep my brain active. I still have a lot of dreams about school.
Pitchfork: I’m struck by how diverse the album sounds without being too busy.
AZI: With a lot of the tone-seeking stuff, I definitely thought a lot about what I've seen my peers doing, whether it's going super hi-fi or super lo-fi. It’s a struggle for people to figure out how to do it right. I took a lot of cues from old analog-style recordings, not in the sense of using analog equipment, but more in a sense of preserving a sound from when you record through to the mix. Also, the beautiful thing about modern music is that you can record anything anywhere and use different environments and different machinery and different technologies to mix and match, too.
Recording is a really strange process. When I made that first record, I didn’t know anything about recording, so I got excited by hearing such a wide frequency range that I just put whatever on it. But then the result sounded kind of strained. My earliest recordings were really, really, really quiet. I would use Audacity and a computer microphone and get really up-close to the mic and get a really warm sound with my voice. With this album, being able to get a comfortable sound was my goal, to make something that fell well on the ears.
Pitchfork: The lyrics good job describing this enlightened, if not solitary, experience. A song like “So What” has the soul-searching quality of your first record, but there’s a more comfortable feel.
AZI: Everything I write is about my own experience. There's a lot of parts of that song that are purposefully abstract, but a lot of it is just collecting moods and emotions about everything you're feeling at once. There's a certain liberation you get from working on something by yourself. There’s also a sense of loneliness, but a lot of “So What” is about wanting to escape and feel pleasure and bliss as either a response to that lonely feeling.
Pitchfork: Were there any writers you were drawing from in your approach?
AZI: Growing up in the '90s and the 2000s, people my age are trying to figure out how to balance their influences and stay current, whatever that means. But for me, songwriting is an expression of yourself to yourself—using this channel to talk about anything that's coming to mind and writing it down and looking back and thinking, "What am I writing?" Because you're trying to creatively express yourself, you'll end up with something you wouldn't have been able to tell yourself otherwise. I learn a lot from writing cathartically or improvisationally and then drawing from that. That’s how I write songs.
Pitchfork: Do you think it'll be another four years before your next album?
AZI: I want to get into a flow where I can write and record in the same place, and I'm hoping that touring this record gives me a lot of energy and some new skills. But yeah, it depends. You write some things in 10 minutes, and some things in two days, and some things in two years. I'm still learning about sound. There's a lot of different things I want do.
Photo by Patrick O'Brien-Smith
Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Ishmael Butler, leader of the cosmic hip-hop act Shabazz Palaces, whose new album Lese Majesty is out July 28 via Sup Pop.
I have to say water. My friend got this charcoal filter called a Berkey—it’s got these two huge columns of natural charcoal inside this big-ass tube. And you pour regular water in there, and over the next couple of hours the charcoal soaks up all the bad shit in the water. It’s some next-level cleaning stuff. I call it gold water. You can really taste the difference.
Strangest Display of Affection From a Fan
One time with Digable Planets, we were taking pictures with fans. Some girl came up, and as we were getting ready to take the picture, she just grabbed my dick, man. She had a lot of authority and conviction in her actions, and I just had to go with the flow at that point. It was a Polaroid, too, and her facial expression in the picture was just kind of regular.
Then one time with Shabazz, this girl came up and said, "Can I give you a hug?" I said, "You don't want no hug from me 'cause I'm sweaty," because it was after the show. And she licked my face! Chin up to my ear. Somebody who you don't know licking your face is just bad.
Aiden Gillen, who plays Carcetti on "The Wire" and is in "Game of Thrones".
The Last Thing I Googled
I'm kinda old, so anything digital just feels wrong to me. I don't necessarily think it's wrong, but I don't have that automatic interface with computers that younger generations do. I got friends who look up every single thing on their phone: directions, definitions of words, who you’re talking about, pictures. I use Google quite a bit, but I’m not like that. My daughter is into her phone, but in a healthy way. And my son is on some Howard Hughes shit—he doesn’t even deal with his phone at all.
Book I’m Currently Reading
I’m always reading a couple of things. I read a lot of periodicals, too. Now I’m reading Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. It’s about a coronet player from back in the early New Orleans jazz days.
Favorite New Song
Eating full meals with snacks and dessert after 2 a.m. It just doesn’t make me feel good. Throws everything off.
Favorite TV Show
"Game of Thrones"
My Morning Routine
I get up, take a shower, drink some peppermint tea, and ride my bike either into Sub Pop or to the studio. When my kids were still in the house, I would get up before them, get breakfast together—most of the time it was oatmeal—make some carrot-celery-apple juice, and then wake them up as fast as possible, which was usually a chore. Then I’d try to organize who was going to be in the bathroom and for how long, and then get them out of the house in time. It was pretty military and a little athletic.
The Last Great Film I Saw
The Great Beauty. Keeping up with movies is damn near like keeping up with rappers or music, there's just hella shit everyday. I do the best I can. I run with cats that are into music and art, so I get a lot of assistance from my associates in terms of what's going on.
Best Birthday I’ve Ever Had
One time I was fighting with my then-girlfriend, and I was in the wrong. I hadn't talked to her for maybe three weeks and I was really sad and moping around. Cats were trying to get me hyped up to go do something, but I wasn't really into it. And then she showed up and we went to dinner and had a kind of reconciliation.
My Kids’ Favorite Music
Photo by David Burton
FKA twigs, the 26-year-old singer and producer born Tahliah Barnett, paces around her Manhattan hotel room on an evening in late June, impatiently refreshing her email on her iPhone. The Londoner is waiting for Nabil Elderkin, the in-demand director behind videos like Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and Nicki Minaj’s “Lookin Ass”, to send her the final cut of the visual for her new single “Two Weeks”. While recording her upcoming debut album, LP1, Barnett inched toward artistic autonomy, teaching herself how to use the software necessary to produce or co-produce many of her songs (alongside bold names including Adele collaborator Paul Epworth and sometime Drake hook manSampha). She paints herself as a goal-oriented perfectionist. “I have to learn everything there is to learn,” she says at one point. So she seems a bit unnerved anticipating Elderkin’s edit, tripping up when she tries to describe the video’s concept. “It’s really complicated,” she concedes.
In the clip, Barnett is outfitted like an ancient queen, sitting in a throne flanked by golden-skinned dancers performing acrobatics. She stares intently into the camera and uses the tiniest of hip shifts and finger flicks to direct the noise, asserting subtle control over a world she’s carefully trying to master. It’s a stark contrast to Barnett’s not-so-distant past, which found her dancing in the background of big-budget music videos. In one, for British pop star Jessie J’s 2011 hit “Price Tag”, she’s dressed like a marionette, complete with strings and a silly hat. It was a small role, but one that still haunts her interactions with strangers who recognize her as “that girl from the video.” She grapples with that experience on a new song called “Video Girl”: “All eyes on you now,” she sings on the roiling track. “What you gonna do?”
In conversation, Barnett retreats often, appearing weary and disinterested. But she resurfaces just as easily, growing chatty when she hits on the right topic, like her brief stint as a cabaret girl in London. Or her own self-destructive tendencies. Or her love of Jonathan Glazer’s recent artsy sci-fi film Under the Skin, which stars Scarlett Johansson as a violently calm alien seductress. “I loved her strength and then her vulnerability,” Barnett says. “There’s a moment when all of a sudden her power is gone and she’s just a scared little girl—and then she didn’t have a vagina. I was like, ‘Oh my god, girl!’”
It’s no wonder Barnett loved the movie, since there’s a similar interplay between passive and aggressive, human and alien, and calmness and terror running through LP1. The album builds on the slow-moving R&B signatures of her first two EPs—weightless vocals, bone-crack beats, plenty of moody, quiet spaces—and charges them with what sounds like a potent sexuality. Barnett can slip into a demure veil on “Pendulum”, whispering the line “I’m your sweet little love maker,” only to switch into a confrontational mode on songs like “Two Weeks”, where she sings, “I can fuck you better... motherfucker, get your mouth open and you know you’re mine.” But the way she tells it, the album isn’t as lustful as it seems on first listen.
“Some of the songs that people think are the most sexual are not at all to me,” she says. “Like when I sing, ‘If you want to touch me you can do it with the lights on,’ that’s a metaphor for letting certain people see the different, ugly sides of you that others won't be able to see.”
Pitchfork: Are you talking about yourself on the new song “Video Girl”?
FKA twigs: Yeah, I wrote that very shortly after I stopped being a video girl. When I got signed, I stopped dancing—I'd given up that part of my life. I would go out, and somebody would be like, "Oh, I recognize you!" I'd hope it was because they’d heard my music, but they’d say, “Are you that girl from the Jessie J video?” I'd always say "no," and they'd be like, "You're lying!" I'd say, "No! It's not me." They'd say, "You look just like her." And I'd be like, "I know. So many people say that! It's weird!"
I'm in so many videos. There was a period of about two years where I danced for everyone: Kylie Minogue, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Taio Cruz. It got to the point where my fees were double the other girls’, and I wouldn't even have to audition. They'd call my agent directly and say, "We want twigs to come in.” I had a reputation for being reliable. When the camera was on, I'd be the one-take wonder, so a lot of directors liked working with me.
Pitchfork: Does dancing inform the way you write your music now?
T: Not really. It's the final checkpoint. I'll make the music and then I'll have a little dance in the studio just to see if it feels good. But it's always the last port of call.
Pitchfork: When you stopped dancing in videos, did you stop dancing period?
T: I had a little break from it, but then I got immersed in this weird underground circus and cabaret scene—I’d be in the dressing room with a Romanian girl who'd run away with the circus when she was 11, and now she has an act where she shoots a bow and arrow upside down with her foot. Or a young trapeze artist who came over from Turkey when he was 16 and doesn't speak any English. Or with drag queens who would teach me how to put on false eyelashes. I'm really good at putting on false eyelashes.
Now, I feel fearless in my ideas and stage performance since I've been in front of really tough crowds, like a whole room full of drunk rowdy men who came to cabaret because they think they're going to see naked girls. But when they get there, they see bizarre fire acts, and me singing jazz, and a boy doing handstands. Then you have to be able to control that crowd, to hypnotize and captivate them on stage. So I always felt quite calm on stage, because I know that, when I do my own shows, people have actually come to see me.
Pitchfork: I imagine a lot of people have been trying to work with you as of late.
T: Yeah, but sometimes when people reach out to me I can just tell that they don't really know why they're reaching out to me. It's because Instagram, Twitter, or a link told them to. It's not because they have any interest or understanding about what I do, and I can read it straight away. I always flirt with the idea of working with someone big and famous, but it hasn't really happened for me yet. I’m still an underground thing.
Pitchfork: T-Pain recently said in an interview that you’ve changed his life. What’s your relationship like with him?
T: He kept on messaging my label, and it was always really heartfelt, like, “I don’t want anything from you, I just want to talk to you. I’m really interested in your process.” He seemed different. We spoke on the phone and he was really softly spoken. So I thought it'd be cool to go and hang out with T-Pain for the day. I went to the studio with him, and we made some sounds, just playing around. He played me some music, and I played him some music, and I showed him the instruments I work on. He's got a really beautiful voice. He should let people hear that. And he's got a great sensibility for chords. I was quite surprised. He's really musical, he plays piano really, really well. He texts me every now and then to check in and make sure I'm OK. He's always like, "If you ever need anything, just call me.”
"It’s hard for my stepdad to understand why I'm working so hard. Sometimes I have to ask him to put 50 pounds in my
bank account the same month I’m in Vogue."
Pitchfork: You’ve spoken about being a loner, though it seems like having a successful career in music could be at odds with that.
T: Yeah. My flatmate has been a good influence because she's a super sociable person and drags me out of the house. She’s restored my faith in humanity and in female friendship. But what makes me happy is having a really nice day out with my mum, or getting better at something I’ve been working hard at. Sometimes I’ll go to dance classes and I’m really bad. And I’ll keep going every single week and I’ll see I’m getting better. If a teacher comes up to me after class and notices, that makes me feel really happy. Or when my step-dad or my dad can really see what I’m doing and they love it—because what I do is a little weird.
Pitchfork: How so?
T: It's just hard for parents to grasp where I'm coming from—and it's not like I make any money. It’s hard for my stepdad to understand why I'm working so hard. Sometimes I have to ask him to put 50 pounds in my bank account the same month I’m in Vogue. I've got a video out with a million hits, and I'm calling him and being like, "I can't eat! Can you give me some money? I'll pay you back!"
I'd definitely like to be comfortable. It'd make things easier. I want to buy my mum a nice place and have her live somewhere really pretty. And I want to know that if I wanted to start a family I could, and it's not going to be really stressful. I haven't been on holiday in years. I'd love to just take my mum and her friend away on a holiday and not have to worry about it.
Pitchfork: The album is just called LP1, which seems to suggest that there may be some kind of coherent series to come.
T: Well, I don't know what I'm doing, so I'm not going to give it some sort of grand name. But on the opening song, “Preface”, I sing a quote by a poet called Wyatt: "I love another, and thus I hate myself." It’s inscribed into the vinyl. So it's called LP1, but, for me, that quote is the subtitle—you could apply that line to anything in my life for the past two years.
I love my music, so I want to produce, write, and serve my music. I've had to learn about EQ frequencies, and programming, and space, and clutter, and how to be a better piano or bass player, everything. You can have big aspirations, but then you realize your skill level or your insecurities are holding you back. So you start to hate yourself, because it's so frustrating!
Or it could also be referring to a lover: When you love someone you give them everything, but then they turn out to be a dick, and everything gets chucked back in your face. Then you're insecure, paranoid, and jealous, and you're obsessed over that person. It's one massive head game because you're like, “Who am I now?” You feel like this shriveled-up Gollum-like creature. And then you hate yourself because you're trying so hard and it's just not working. That’s what my album’s about.
5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. In this latest edition, we spoke with 54-year-old musical-parody legend "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose 14th album Mandatory Fun—along with its bevy of amazing videos—is out now. Listen along to his picks with this Spotify playlist.
One of the first things I remember listening to was “Boa Constrictor” by Johnny Cash. It was written by Shel Silverstein, who would later have a much larger effect on my life. It’s about a guy who is giving a step-by-step description of being eaten by a large snake—at the very end, you hear the snake belch. As a five-year-old, I just thought that was the epitome of humor. I listened to it over and over and over until my parents got completely sick of it.
Mason Williams: "Classical Gas"
I first heard Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" on "The Smothers Brothers Show", and it's one of the few songs I loved as a child that I still love to this day. I remember going to Wallach's Music City in Hollywood to buy it. Record stores are generally long gone, and Wallach's was one of the first to go, but it was a big deal at the time to go to Wallach's Music City.
That was the first of a lot of instrumentals that I really got attached to. Years later, there was “Space Race” by Billy Preston, “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter Group, and “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, and they were my favorite songs at the time—which I now find ironic as a guy who makes his living with lyrics.
Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I had pretty much every square inch of my bedroom wall plastered with Elton John posters and covers. I learned to play rock on the accordion by playing along with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In fact, when I went to college, that was what people knew me for: I was the guy who could play “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” on the accordion.
I almost ran away from home to see an Elton John show. My parents were really protective and they didn’t like the idea of me going to a rock show, but it meant so much to me to see Elton John in concert that I just got on my bike and pedaled as fast as I could to Montgomery Ward to buy those tickets.
At 20, I was probably more into music than I’ve ever been in my life, particularly new wave and alternative music. That’s when I got my first love of it. I was doing college radio [on KCPR, Cal Poly Radio], and that's also where I first got the name Weird Al. The '70s were a time of disco, and new wave and punk were a reaction to that, so I was very excited when bands like the B-52's, Devo, the Talking Heads, and Oingo Boingo came out, along with all of the power pop stuff I loved, like the Romantics, the Knack, and the Paul Collins Beat. I remember playing “52 Girls” by the B-52's on my college radio show and dancing wildly around the studio. I’ve always been a big music fan, but that was one of my favorite periods in music. I still love all those bands.
I had been out of college for about five years at this point but I was still very much into college radio music like R.E.M. and Camper Van Beethoven. And Talking Heads were still hitting it out of the park—Little Creatures was my favorite album in 1985. "And She Was" was this amazing track about astral projection with a video by Jim Blashfield, who I would work with later on a song of mine called “Pancreas”.
This was when I got into the Pixies and They Might Be Giants. I’ve always been a big supporter of They Might Be Giants—I loved the fact that they tread the line between rock and pop, comedy and alternative, and they were able to be quirky. I liked their whole attitude. I’ve always been a big fan of the Pixies, too, which is one of the reasons I do a pastiche of them on the new album. One of the biggest moments of my life was when, a few years ago, I was asked by the Pixies to sing with them at a benefit concert. I got to sing “I Bleed” off of Doolittle, and it blew my mind.
I was looking at the songs from around 1995 and at that point I was really into female acts: Elastica, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Veruca Salt, and Letters to Cleo were all doing this great alternative music. That was the year Presidents of the United States of America's debut came out, and that’s one of my all-time favorite bands. What an amazing album! They also tread the fine line between rock and comedy. I love bands that don’t take themselves too seriously and aren’t afraid to infuse humor into their music.
The Vines: Highly Evolved
This is my garage band era. This is around the time we saw the Hives, the Vines, the beginning of the White Stripes. In fact, I think that’s why I did my medley “Angry White Boy Polka”, not that I consider all of those bands angry white boys, but I wanted to nod to them. I just loved the rawness of it. I’ve always loved guitar-based music, simple instrumentation, and people just rocking out. That was a slice of time where people were really focused on that genre, so I enjoyed that period. I remember seeing the Vines self-destruct on "Letterman"—I was just watching that slack-jawed, like, What is he doing?!
My daughter was born in 2001, so we’re getting into a period where I haven’t been able to keep up with music as much as I’d like. I’m very aware of what’s going on in pop music because that’s part of my job description, but I’m not as able to seek out new favorite bands. But I loved Franz Ferdinand's “Take Me Out”, System of a Down, Weezer's “Beverly Hills”, Beck, and Death Cab for Cutie. The Caesars' “Jerk It Out” was a fun track that I heard for the first time on an iPod commercial. There’s another band I got introduced to from an iPod commercial... Jet! Put that on the list! I was reaching an age where, as a family man, I was getting exposed to a lot of music through iPod commercials.
At 50, I was listening to Justin Bieber non-stop, on a continuous loop. [laughs] Actually, there are a lot of bands I like that came out around that time, like Vampire Weekend, Black Keys, Muse, and Cage the Elephant, but mostly when I’m in the car I listen to whatever my daughter is listening to. Thankfully, she has really good, bizarre, eclectic taste. She made this mix CD with all of her favorite songs, and we’re listening to Glen Campbell's “Wichita Lineman” and "They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" by Napoleon XIV. I guess I must have raised her right!
A1 “Between Somewhere Beautiful”
The first face that welcomes me to the island of Ibiza is that of Dutch mega DJ Armin van Buuren, his teeth as white as the midday sun. As my eyes adjust to the intense light on this strip of land, the third largest of the Balearic Islands, other deputies of Ibiza emerge on massive billboards nearby: Steve Aoki, David Guetta, as well as super clubs like Booom! and Space. Judging by such signage, I could just as easily be in Las Vegas.
The electronic musician I’m looking for at the Ibiza airport is unadvertised. Mark Barrott, who a generation ago made music under the name Future Loop Foundation, has called Ibiza home for the past two years, and he promises to show me a seldom-seen side of the island. A tanned British man with collared shirt, cargo shorts, flip-flops, and wraparound shades, Barrott introduces himself, and soon we are off. As we leave the airport, a billboard promising a neon pleasure dome crowds our vision, and Barrott asks out loud: “What on earth does that have to do with music?”
No answer will be forthcoming. As Barrott’s car turns away from the central party town of San Antonio, that garish ad will be the last glimpse I have of the Ibiza of popular consciousness—the one that serves as short-hand for hedonism, ketamine, shirtless lobster-skinned kids on holiday, Molly, foam parties, Eurotrash cheesiness, and the incessant thudding of trance and EDM. Instead, the Ibiza I will experience over the next 48 hours is one of blissed-out quietude and relaxation. It will be the one that seems most like a dream when I try to explain it to incredulous friends back home.
For the past five years, Barrott has operated the boutique dance music imprint International Feel, which has released music pressed to heavyweight vinyl in limited editions from an eclectic assortment of producers like DJ Harvey, Gatto Fritto, Japanese DJ Gonno, and the Quiet Village side project Maxxi & Zeus. (Most of these tracks were compiled in the handy two-disc label overview, A Compilation, in 2012.) “Putting out the comp was also a line in the sand to give me some breathing space to decide what’s next,” Barrott tells me.
International Feel doubles as Barrott’s own vanity label, where he has released music under a dizzying array of pseudonyms: Rocha, Efeel, the Sonic Aesthetic, Bepu N’Gali, Parada 88, Boys From Patagonia, Young Gentlemen’s Adventure Society. The label specializes in nu-disco, but also highlights minimal techno, expansive ambient, dubby Afrobeat, house, disco, and more. Or, to summarize the sound in one word: Balearic.
At the moment, traces of Balearic are re-appearing in dance music: Tensnake’s “Things Left to Say”, Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time, DJ Koze’s remix of Mount Kimbie’s “Made to Stray”, the recent two-disc Is It Balearic? comp, new artists like Tornado Wallace and Tommy Awards, to name a few. I would say Balearic was having a moment, but that would imply it went away, when in fact Balearic came and never left. It may be overshadowed by billboards of current trends, but the spirit remains intact.
Balearic can mean many things to many people. To an American who has never ventured to these storied islands, it might mean a certain type of featherweight dance music that can’t seem decide if it’s synth pop, faux reggae, lounge, ambient, lite jazz, or acid house. But to those who have tasted the fruit of Ibiza, Balearic gloriously means all of the above. “Balearic by its very nature is about three things: melody, counter-culture, and proper personal freedom and individuality,” Barrott says as we drive, “and that defines my whole life.”
The 46-year-old producer was born and raised in Sheffield, in “a working class neighborhood that had two main industries: steel and coal-mining.” He came of age when the Human League were on the pop charts, and Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallinder were driving around the city center blasting their music out of the back of a van. He took piano lessons, and music quickly became paramount in his life. Inspired by the likes of A Guy Called Gerald and early Warp releases, he began making tracks as Future Loop Foundation in the late 1990s. When that project ran its course, Barrott and his wife Sara traveled from country to country, spending time in Berlin and Milan before striking out for Uruguay, then Ibiza. “Everything that Sara and I own fits in two suitcases,” he says.
With the cafés and boutiques soon giving way to open spaces, we drive out to the house he and his wife rent, turning down a road that leads past vineyards. “I prefer the quiet of the countryside to going clubbing,” he tells me. “All I can hear out here is birdsong.”
A2 “Sunshine Philosophy”
You can hear those birds on “Sacred Islands”, set at the end of Barrott’s new album, Sketches From an Island. The record was made during a creative outburst and rendered on the simplest of set-ups: MacBook Pro running Abelton 8 with some plugins and a little keyboard. The album ranges from the slinky funk of opener “Baby Come Home”, to the kora-laced “Go Berri Be Happy”, to the back half’s more winsome and ethereal moments. The CD sticker promises “Music From Ibiza,” and while listening to it in the city feels relaxing, hearing it at the source makes its melodies all the more resonant.
Barrott’s wife prepares a vegan meal for us. At dinner, she tells me that while the tourist industry of Ibiza focuses on clubbing, there’s a groundswell of visitors who now come for health reasons. The club kids from Germany, England, and elsewhere who ventured to the island in their teens and 20s to dose on MDMA now return in their 30s for detoxing, ayurvedic massages, and organic meals. She gives me a recipe for making my own oat cakes.
As the sun sets over the hills, Barrott tells me how they wound up here. While in Milan, he began a small music-consulting gig for a nearby hotel. But what started with one client soon exploded. “I put my hand up for being the guy that put chill-out shit out in every fancy boutique hotel around the world,” he says with a shit-eating grin. “It was a total accident.”
With Barrott traveling the globe for his clients, his own music was put on the shelf. “I was taking on average three-to-four long-haul flights a week, 50 weeks a year—today, that business turns over 20 million [Euros] a year and employs 60 people,” he says, calling it a velvet prison. Barrott knew it was time to sell his company when a Chicago client denied him access to their executive club because he wouldn’t wear closed-toe shoes at dinner. (He prefers to wear flip-flops year-round.)
The couple decided to get away from it all and relocated to Uruguay. While driving up the South American coastline, Barrott had an epiphany about Balearic music and began to feel inspired once more. “We were waiting for the shipping container to arrive and I wrote the first Rocha single, called ‘Hands of Love’,” he says. But he became frustrated trying to find a label to release it, so he took matters into his own hands, starting International Feel and setting the aesthetic for the limited edition imprint: “I wanted it to be bespoke with hand-drawn art and 180 gram vinyl.”
Barrott is an enthusiastic individual, speaking with great zeal about the music industry, the artists he is fortunate to work with, and how he perceives life here. In conversation, he worries that he uses the words “majorative” and “confluence” too often to describe things. He came to Ibiza originally to deal with a nerve disorder that no doctor in Uruguay or England could properly diagnose. When he learned that his diagnoses of multiple sclerosis and/or psychosis were at their root due to a B12 deficiency, he “became a world expert in B12 to the point where, just before I left Uruguay, I was advising their leading neurologist,” he says. “I know as much about B12 now as I do about synthesizers.”
The stars are in full array in the night sky while Barrott plays many classic Balearic tunes for me: Carly Simon’s “Why”; House of House’s “The Rough Half (Don’t Stop)”; Cocteau Twins’ “Pandora”; Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love”; Andreas Vollenweider, Chris Rea, Larry Heard. As I leave, he hands me a copy of Stephen Armstrong’s book on Ibiza, The White Island.
A view of the uninhabited island of Es Vedrà from the beaches of Ibiza. Photo by Andy Beta.
The next morning, I’m to meet José Padilla, one of the fathers of the Ibiza sound. I peruse The White Island beforehand and one passage strikes me. It’s about Tanit, the Carthaginian goddess of Love and War, holding an axe in one hand, her pendulous breasts with the other:
"Deep in the foundations of Ibiza’s towering cathedral—dedicated... to Santa Maria de las Neus, or Mary of the Snows, the patron saint of an island with over three hundred days of unbroken sunshine a year—a dark history lurks. The cathedral was imposed on the ruins of Ibiza’s largest mosque by victorious Catalan Christians… Beneath the fragments of the mosque that remain lies the dust of a Roman temple to Mercury… and beneath that ancient site lies a Carthaginian temple of unknown provenance that that belonged to one of the gods beloved of the island's favorite Carthaginian deity, Tanit."
Balearic speaks to a certain state of mind that’s on holiday from the strain and chilly climes of life on the continent—a mind slightly melted from the Mediterranean sun, a few glasses of wine, and, what the hell, a tab of E. Starting in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, Ibiza was where many Europeans came to escape. What codified Balearic music at the start were the sets of two DJs who were as important to dance music here as Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were in the U.S.: Alfredo Fiorito at Amnesia and José Padilla at Café del Mar. They were tasked with playing 10-hour sets starting in the day and stretching to the end of the night.
Filling a 10-hour set is no easy task, and the omnivorous appetite of these two DJs fed into what would ultimately define Balearic. If it sounded good and fit the mood—be it at 3 p.m., sunset, or 3 a.m., it worked. Drums need not be thundering; they could instead pad like raindrops on a broad leaf. “The Drop” is eschewed in favor of the weightless lift. While disco, house, or trance might take an existing hit and repurpose it in its own image, Balearic revels in pop’s inherent cheesiness. In much the same manner that Harry Smith soundtracked his Early Abstractions films with Meet the Beatles!, there’s an epiphany to be found in pop. And in the hands of Fiorito and Padilla, pop pabulum could turn into a psychedelic pill. Too slick, too cheesy hits—ranging from Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and Double’s “The Captain of Her Heart”, to Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love”—could transform into ecstatic moments if deployed at the right moment on the beaches of Ibiza.
Following Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, and Nicky Holloway’s MDMA epiphany on Fiorito’s dancefloor in 1987 (which served as “ground zero” for England’s subsequent embrace of electronic music), Padilla is responsible for the subsequent exporting of Ibizan “chill-out” music, not that it was like that in the early years. But as the music exploded, Padilla helmed a series of influential (if increasingly pillow-soft) Café del Mar compilations, before he and the club parted ways in the late ‘90s. But after many years away, this summer marks the prodigal son’s return: He once again has a residency at Café del Mar. He’s also returned to producing music, with a classic-sounding single “Solito” released on International Feel this month.
As Barrott and I drive to Padilla’s home, a winding road reveals hillsides of red dirt, tall grass, and knotted trees. There are stacked-stone walls and brief vistas of the Mediterranean Sea shining in the distance. Padilla welcomes us to his house, situating us in a palm-shaded veranda, and offers us iced tea. Later, he will show me his record room, which spills throughout the abode. He enthusiastically plays Mahavishnu Orchestra, Afrobeat, a new ILO edit, and the chill-out classic “Smokebelch II (Beatless Mix)”, which appeared on his first Café del Mar compilation. In the first year Padilla was at Café del Mar, he tells me, the DJ booth was set next to the espresso machine: “I was also serving coffee in addition to DJing.”
José Padilla at home. Photo by Andy Beta.
He enthuses about making new music with Barrott, both with the new single and an upcoming album. “Music is the thing I do best with my life,” he says. “Is there anything else other than the power and the love of the music?”
“I work in my living room,” Barrott says. “I think music is part of life and I don't want to work in a studio with no windows and no cats running around! You need light. You need to make a tea. You need to have a smoke.” Padilla agrees: “It’s Balearic. I don't know if we can do the same music in the basement.”
Sunset is a singular time on the island, a sacred occasion. For his most recent set at Café del Mar, Padilla enthused about playing Chromatics right as day turned to night. There’s a home video shot on the island in August of 1992 that takes in the sea and the wedding cake-like décor of Café del Mar. As the sun slides into the ocean, one can not just hear but feel Padilla’s mastery: the hand drums, the gentle arpeggios, the chiming bells—it all feels ritualistic. The erotic charge of day turning into night is thick in the air as the ocean gulps down the glowing tablet of sun.
Later that night, I think back to the passage about Tanit as I sit out under the night sky, stars visible next to a new moon. I can hear music in the distance. It’s the sound of a foreign female voice in the dark, a gentle wordless wail that just reaches me. I’d like to think it’s a paean to this goddess, her temples built and buried over the eons, yet still a presence on the White Island. The kick drum cuts through the distance and, in that instant, the voice clarifies: It’s Donna Summer purring “Love to Love You Baby”.
If we’re talking about vinyl in 2014, we have to talk about Jack White. In April, rock‘n’roll’s self-appointed analog evangelist celebrated Record Store Day by teaming up with United Record Pressing in Nashville to put out the “World’s Fastest Released Record.” At 10 a.m., White and his band recorded a live version of his new album Lazaretto’s title track at his own Third Man studios, then drove the masters to United, where it went immediately onto a 7” press, before ending up in fans’ hands at the Third Man store. From start to finish, the process took 3 hours, 55 minutes, and 21 seconds.
It was only the beginning of White’s latest streak of vinyl whimsy. In June, he packed the LP version of Lazaretto with all sorts of ear- and eye-candy including hidden tracks beneath the label; engineering side A to play from the inside-out; a matte finish on side B; a hand-etched hologram, and more. Fans were excited about the extras, which led to record-breaking sales: Not only did the album reach #1 on the charts, it also set a new high for the most first-week vinyl sales since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking data in 1991. White sold more than 40,000 copies of the Lazaretto LP in its first week.
Which is great news for the vinyl industry. Mostly.
“Every time I see a headline about Jack White’s latest gimmick, it’s kind of maddening,” one indie-label employee who declined to be named tells me. “While he’s making records ‘in one day,’ normal customers can go weeks not knowing the status of their orders.”
More and more people are buying vinyl; sales hit a record 6.1 million units in the U.S. last year. But as demand increases, the number of American pressing plants remains relatively fixed. No one is building new presses because, by all accounts, it would be prohibitively expensive. So the industry is limited to the dozen or so plants currently operating in the States. The biggest is Nashville’s United, which operates 22 presses that pump out 30,000 to 40,000 records a day. California-based Rainbo Records and Erika Records are similarly large outfits, and after that come mid-size operations like Record Technology, Inc., also in California, with nine presses, and Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records, which turns out between 4,000 and 5,000 records a day on six presses. Boutique manufacturers like Musicol in Columbus, Archer in Detroit, and Palomino in Kentucky operate between one and five presses.
“You used to be able to turn over a record in four weeks,” says John Beeler, project manager at Asthmatic Kitty, the label home of Sufjan Stevens. “But I’m now telling my artists that we need at least three months from the time they turn it in to the time we get it back.” Across the board, lengthy lead times that were once anomalies are now the norm. “They’ve been longer this year than they were even nine months ago,” says Nick Blandford, managing director of the Secretly Label Group, which includes prominent indie imprints Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans, and artists including Bon Iver and the War on Drugs. “We crossed our fingers and hoped that turn times would improve after Record Store Day in April, but they’re still about the same. We’ve just accepted this as the reality.”
So when it comes to the current state of the vinyl industry’s unlikely resurrection, everyone is happy. And everyone is frustrated.
Vinyl’s sharp rise began in 2008, when sales nearly doubled from the previous year’s 1 million to 1.9 million. The tallies have gone up each year since, and 2013’s 6.1 million is a 33 percent increase over 2012’s 4.6 million. (Those numbers are even larger when you account for releases that fall outside SoundScan’s reach.) The resurgent format’s market share is still far smaller than CDs, digital, and streaming—vinyl accounted for only 2 percent of all album sales last year, compared to 41 percent for digital and 57 percent for CDs—and no one expects it to regain dominance. But it’s more than a trend, and it’s not going away anytime soon. “Four years ago, maybe half our releases would get an LP option,” says James Cartwright, production manager at Merge Records. “Now every release we do has a vinyl format.”
Mounting today’s LPs side-by-side on a giant wall would offer a particularly kaleidoscopic display since a significant chunk of sales now come from colored discs. While some purists claim these sorts of limited-edition releases and Record Store Day exclusives are leading to the cartoonization of a format, it’s apparent after speaking with pressing plants, labels, and record stores that artists like Jack White are giving people what they want. As vinyl sales have climbed, so has the demand for exclusives. Musicol’s two-press operation in Columbus, Ohio, has been pressing vinyl since the 1960s, and though the place used to press about 90 percent black vinyl, color vinyl now accounts for about half of its orders. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s five-year-old Gotta Groove Records presses about 40 percent of its LPs and 45s on colored vinyl.
And White isn’t the only one upping the ante with quirky embellishments. On a recent tour of Gotta Groove’s operation, sparkling specs littered the ground near the 7” machine after a just-completed run of 100 45s were pressed on clear vinyl with glitter. Covering the walls of a listening room were more custom orders that ranged from impressive to confounding. One band pressed coffee grounds into their records. Another incorporated the ashes of an 19th-century Bible. And an upcoming order will include shredded cash. The plant has to draw a line when a client’s order includes bodily fluids. “At least once a month a band wants to press their blood into the record,” says Gotta Groove VP of sales and marketing Matt Earley, who always says no.
Now, you might think adding blood or coffee to vinyl is a sign that the format has officially crossed the line from cultural commodity to tchotchke—and there are certainly bands that would agree. In fact, Beeler at Asthmatic Kitty says some of his label’s artists are beginning to resist colored vinyl and other exclusives. But Asthmatic Kitty and others still do it, because consumers demand it, and those limited-edition releases drive sales. (These sorts of exclusive releases also often bypass distributors and record stores, driving sales directly to a label’s web store.)
“We are doing more multiple-color pressings than ever,” says Matt Lunsford, cofounder of Polyvinyl Records, whose roster currently includes Japandroids and of Montreal. At this point, Polyvinyl presses limited-edition “Early Bird” versions of releases, as well as picture-disc pressings, and a 7” subscription series—which this year sold out before the first month was mailed.
So who’s buying? Anecdotally, it’s a broad range. On a recent visit to Columbus shop Lost Weekend Records, owner Kyle Siegrist had just helped three customers who were purchasing vinyl for themselves and also for their dads for Father’s Day. The cycle seems to have gone something like this: Twenty years ago, diehard vinyl fans were still buying LPs and saying, “The kids don’t get it.” Then, about five years ago, the younger generation started buying vinyl, and their parents were flummoxed. Now, millennials and boomers are all together in the same stores buying LPs.
Marc Weinstein, the 57-year-old co-owner of California’s Amoeba Music stores, has seen many of his friends dust off their old turntables as vinyl sales at Amoeba have doubled over the last half decade. Simultaneously, young buyers are purchasing new releases alongside a handful of classics. (“College kids still listen to Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, and they probably will forever,” Secretly’s Blandford says.) Demographics can trend even younger than that: Teens are buying vinyl, too. “I coach a high school wrestling team,” says Dayton-based Misra Records manager Leo DeLuca, “and freshmen are buying record players and asking if we press vinyl.”
Vinyl buyers are unique in their purchasing habits. In the first week of June, just before Jack White stormed the charts and skewed the numbers, Sharon Van Etten’s latest Jagjaguwar release Are We There took the #2 spot on the vinyl chart, selling 2,115 LPs of the total 8,930 copies sold that week. Which means vinyl sales accounted for more than 20 percent of the singer/songwriter’s first-week sales, a number that’s consistent with most of Secretly Label Group’s releases.
The top 50 year-to-date vinyl albums as of June 1 included a mix of indie rock, alt rock, folk rock, and classic rock. So, yes: Vinyl is still very much a rock format. A few hip-hop releases are sprinkled in—Kendrick Lamar’s good kid: m.A.A.d city at #18, Kanye’s The College Dropout at #45, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) just beyond at #59—but even those are rap albums that have noted indie crossover appeal. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories makes an appearance, as does Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and radio mainstays like Justin Timberlake and Lorde. But the rest is dominated by indie- and alt-rock faves (Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, Arctic Monkeys, Bon Iver, Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel), classic-rock heavyweights (the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley), and all three of the most recent albums by the Black Keys, who have managed to corral both indie- and classic-rock fans. The chart reads like a required-listening syllabus for a course in indie rock of the recent past and baby boomer classics.
“Once the album is in the canon, it’s constantly being rediscovered,” Blandford says. This holds true not just for ‘60s and ‘70s essentials, but for newer touchstones as well. “If you’d told me when we put out [Bon Iver’s 2007 debut] For Emma, Forever Ago that we would sell almost 100,000 copies on vinyl, I would think that was just absolutely insane.”
Along with the success of Record Store Day as a reliable gateway for young vinyl buyers, record stores also point to the ubiquity of download cards that come with new vinyl LPs as a sales driver. The claim makes sense given another aspect of young consumers’ buying habits that stores and labels didn’t anticipate: Recently, London-based ICM Research found that“15 percent of those who buy physical music formats such as CDs, vinyl records, and cassettes never listen to them—they buy them purely to own.”
“Consumers who maybe weren’t analog, record-head types, but still want to support artists they love, were underestimated,” Blandford says. “They want to put something on their shelf that they or their friends can see—a physical signifier of their fandom.”
In the old days, when vinyl was the dominant format, Amoeba’s Weinstein recalls that everyone had an altar to their music in their homes—a stereo, speakers, and LP rack readily visible—and that altar has now come full circle for younger vinyl buyers. “It’s a topic of conversation,” Weinstein says. “You’re showing off what your tastes are as a way of defining what’s important to you.”
But in 2014, the trickiest part for record stores is keeping those LPs in stock. One of the dirty secrets of music retail is that most distributors allow record stores to return unsold CDs—but usually not vinyl. If shop owners buy too much of a particular release, they’ll end up marking it down and then eating the cost. Order too few copies, and stores miss out on sales. Plus, independent record stores are competing with the internet’s infinite warehouse; if a shop runs out of the new War on Drugs record (as many did earlier this year), chances are someone has it online. Once the shop gets the LP back in stock, potential buyers have often moved on. And because of the long lead time at pressing plants, it can sometimes take months, not weeks, for a store to get a new pressing of a record back in stock.
Making vinyl records is more art than science. CDs are duplicated, but an LP is made from scratch with PVC pellets and paper labels in a multi-step process that’s prone to error. When Vince Slusarz, the 57-year-old owner of Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records, tried to get his presses running in 2009, it took two weeks to press the first LP. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he admits.
Slusarz didn’t start out thinking he wanted to press records. A former manufacturing executive and corporate attorney, he knew he wanted to start his own business in Cleveland, but he didn’t know what kind. “I’ve always enjoyed music and, in late 2008, I saw my older daughter buying vinyl records,” he says. “That resonated with me.”
Slusarz began looking around for equipment but couldn’t find any. He’d just about given up, but as a last-ditch effort he emailed four pressing plants to see if they had anything for sale. Two didn’t respond. One wasn’t selling. But the fourth — Sun Plastics in Newark, New Jersey—was looking to get out of the business; in fact, the plant had to be out of its space in two months. Slusarz flew to Jersey, made an offer, and in March of 2009 the equipment was loaded onto four flatbed trucks to make the precarious journey to Ohio. (One press was dropped and damaged en route.)
Five years in, vinyl manufacturing is still full of surprises. Gotta Groove operates six presses and is currently restoring another that came from Cleveland’s famed Boddie Recording Company. Though the plant cranks out between 4,000 and 5,000 records a day, there’s no secret formula or process that ensures a perfect record every time. The same settings on the same machines don’t produce the same results as the day before, or even the hour before. Something as simple as a paper label can cause all sorts of problems—the paper has to be baked for about 24 hours to remove any moisture, which can gum up the process.
The learning curve isn’t just on the manufacturing end. Some bands and labels are releasing LPs and 45s for the first time. Sales and marketing man Matt Earley says he gets calls weekly from bands who think vinyl manufacturing involves pressing the music onto a blank vinyl disc like a CD. Or they don’t realize that the music should be mastered specifically for vinyl. Eventually, Earley came up with a special record jacket for test presses that explains the purpose and procedure of test pressings.
In Gotta Groove’s listening room, 33-year-old Tim Thornton drops the needle in several spots on a record to check for inconsistencies, then visually inspects for off-center labels, chipped edges, and color impurities, which is particularly challenging on the current batch of white vinyl he’s working on. Thornton repeats this process every 20 minutes for one pressing.
“We do a disproportionate amount of weird, ambient, sparse music, which has a worse track record for scratches because it doesn’t hide them,” Thornton explains. “If there’s a scratch in the middle of a heavy metal record, the only way you’d know it’s there is to analyze the waveform and find it, but if it’s a guy field recording crickets, you’ll hear it immediately. We’ve got a reputation for doing that thing well, so while we get more business, the records are harder to do.”
Gotta Groove is contemplating adding a third shift to press more records, but even so, the hands-on attention vinyl requires is a built-in hindrance, ensuring that as vinyl continues to grow, the time it takes to produce the final product is fairly static. “You can pay a rush fee for almost anything you want to buy in the world,” Earley says. “But when it comes to vinyl pressing, it just doesn’t work that way. It’s an old-world technology. Not a whole lot has changed in the past 60 years.”
Making vinyl is a labor- and time-intensive endeavor, but much of a record’s lead time is spent waiting in the queue. And though label reps I spoke with are frustrated, they also sympathize with pressing plants. “They’re doing the best they can” is the prevailing mentality.
Any specific complaints that do come up from record stores and labels tend to be lobbed in two directions. United does the highest volume of pressings and is not immune from targeted criticisms, especially when it comes to communication with clients. (United marketing director Jay Millar says the plant’s newly implemented computer system will give customers “more visibility to their orders,” and by the end of the year, the company plans to open a second location in Nashville with 16 additional presses.) The other targets of criticism are the major labels. As the majors repress more and more releases from their back catalogs—not to mention newer releases from top-selling vinyl artists like Beck, Lana Del Rey, and the Black Keys—they’re taking up more and more space on the presses. But while it’s tempting to derisively point to the deluxe, triple-LP edition of the Frozen soundtrack or a 180-gram reissue of Hotel California, blaming it all on the majors is an oversimplification. Everyone is competing with everyone to get their records made and, at this rate, there won’t be enough presses to meet demand for some time, if ever.
Back in the ‘70s, if you wanted to own music, you bought LPs or 45s. In the ’90s, if you wanted to own music, you bought CDs or cassettes. There were no other ways to do it. Now we have options. You can decide not to own music at all but still listen to whatever you want through a variety of streaming services. You can download audio files in MP3, WAV, or FLAC formats. You can buy CDs for your car and also rip the files to your computer. You can buy vinyl. Or all of the above. The decision to purchase LPs now is an aesthetic choice as much, if not more, than a sound preference. As Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson noted in his piece “Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?”, “Listening to an LP involves a lot more than remastering and sound sources. There’s the act of putting a record on, there is the comforting surface noise, there is the fact that LPs are beautiful objects and CDs have always looked like plastic office supplies. So enjoying what an LP has to offer is in no way contingent on convincing yourself that they necessarily sound better than CDs.”
So if it’s less about sound, then vinyl is a badge as much as a format—a way listeners can self-identify as true music fans. And when assessing the current state of vinyl, perhaps the harbinger of its eventual decline or plateau is the durability of that badge status: If enough music fans decide vinyl’s perceived authenticity has been compromised, will it become a hollow gimmick? And if vinyl fatigue sets in, will consumers be satisfied to stream or download? If they still crave something physical, will they revert to CDs? Or cassettes?
“Vinyl was a physical format that defied the baskets of CDs that you’d see at the mall or in record stores, but now you go into Urban Outfitters and there’s a whole wall of vinyl… it’s become co-opted,” says Beeler at Asthmatic Kitty. “It’s something that belonged to the independent music industry for a long time, but it no longer does. It feels like cassettes are now what vinyl was 10 years ago.”
The numbers don’t show cassettes catching on widely just yet, and CDs still outsell vinyl by a hefty margin. But the so-called vinyl resurgence isn’t a brief blip. According to Nielsen’s mid-year report, album sales are down 14.9 percent in the first six months of 2014, but vinyl sales are up 40 percent, to 4 million units. If things continue at the same rate (and they likely will), vinyl sales could reach a record-high 8 million units by year’s end—2 million more than last year. Despite the growing pains that come with high demand and fixed production, the resurgence is still surging.
“There’s clearly a ceiling on this market,” Secretly’s Blandford says. “But we haven’t found it yet.”
Photo by Jeff Elstone
You can't miss Nika Roza Danilova. Among mortals at a rooftop bar in Brooklyn, the 25-year-old singer who creates industrial art-pop as Zola Jesus appears otherworldly, like she just came from the set of a sci-fi film, or a relatively avant-garde runway show. Modish and futuristic, Danilova is wearing sunglasses that form a black box across her eyes, along with square-shaped earrings, thick silver cuffs on both arms, and rings that stretch a silver rectangle across her fingers. "Everything has to be hard-lined," she says. The geometry is sharp, dramatic, defiant. It suggests control in a world of chaos.
Throughout Danilova's catalog thus far, you can also hear a quest for order and precision, her sound morphing from the blackened noise of her 2009 debut album The Spoils, to the haunted goth of her breakthrough Stridulum EP, to 2011's metallic, luminous Conatus, to last year's spare orchestral release Versions. Those records were produced in quick succession, among a whirlwind of touring and collaborative projects with the likes of M83, Orbital,David Lynch, and Jim Jarmusch. "I've been making music my whole life, but I wasn't taking time to grow and make something that felt like a big transition," she says. "I needed to cut myself out of the equation and come to terms with myself."
To record her upcoming full-length Taiga—its title inspired by the forests where she grew up in rural Wisconsin—Danilova spent time across 2012 and 2013 on the island of Vashon in Washington state, where she knew no one. "I like the idea of being that separated from society and civilization," Danilova says. She rented a house with many glass windows overlooking the Puget Sound, and set up a small studio where she wrote every day for nine months, making hundreds of songs and allowing the best ones to slowly reveal themselves. "I was letting my surroundings inform me," she says of her solitude and connection to nature. "Being alone for that long, you start to think about the world in a different way."
Taiga's prevailing theme is one of confidence and fierce independence, audible on the record's peak—and perhaps the most throttling Zola Jesus pop attempt yet—"Dangerous Days". But despite the intensity of her self-imposed isolation, it was Danilova's learning to be less self-reliant that came to define the aesthetic of Taiga, a record she's hoping will bring her to new audiences and even maybe break the Billboard charts.
Along with moving from Sacred Bones to a bigger label in Mute, Danilova also worked with a co-producer, Dean Hurley, for the first time on Taiga. She says Hurley, who's best known for his collaborations with David Lynch, gave her the confidence to realize her ideas most fully. He produced crucial elements, like the cinematic swell and burst that concludes "Dust" (which can be heard in the record's trailer, above). And she worked again with her old opera instructor, taking singing lessons over Skype while in Vashon. "She would be like, 'Girl, you're trying too hard. You gotta just sing!'" Danilova says. She credits her childhood teacher with helping her to find her innate voice again after it had been marred by tension and anxiety. "I had to rebuild it, and I wanted it to be clear," she says. "I'm confident now. I know that I'm saying what I need to say."
"I feel like humans are a disease—
it's a hard thing to communicate in a pop song."
Pitchfork: Taiga is a kind of forest, and you're from rural Wisconsin—do you have especially vivid memories of forests from when you were growing up?
Nika Roza Danilova: My family still lives on the land where I grew up. It's totally raw. My parents built their house there, and my dad uses it for hunting and firewood. Other than that, we respect it and leave it as is—more than 100 acres of forest. I believe in evolution, so I like to think about my ancestors. My family came from a weird tribe of German-Russian farmers, and their sense of independence is still in my family today. That's why they live in isolation in northern Wisconsin. They've adapted to being Americans, but their soul is the same.
Sometimes I would experience freedom from going out into the forest. I felt like no one could hear me. I could sing as loud as I wanted. I could scream. And sometimes I would feel a sense of vulnerability, like my safety was at risk, because there were bears out there. It's a weird contrast, like you're a part of nature, but nature's against you, because you're a human. We haven't adapted with nature in a long time—we just conquered it, or found ways to live outside of it. I find that really interesting and I wanted to interpret it musically.
Pitchfork: Forests are some of the only places on Earth that people haven't completely destroyed. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about that?
NRD: It sucks, but I do. I feel like humans are a disease. It's a hard thing to communicate in a pop song. [laughs] I mean, who wants to hear that? We fight against the world and we're not trying to live within it. There's no progression without destruction, but this world was one thing and then we came, and it became another. It's going to become so uninhabitable. We're writing ourselves out of the world. But this isn't an environmentalist record. It's not about trying to save anything. It's about trying to understand why we're doing these things—to question how we view nature and why we feel so alienated from it.
"How exciting would it be to hear a pop song on
the radio that's actually saying something?"
Pitchfork: What was your biggest transformation on Taiga?
NRD: Finding confidence with my voice. My whole life is singing. The voice is my only true medium—it's what I can express the most clearly. It's primal. It's part of you. It's the only thing you have total control over. I can be standing in front of you right now and I can communicate a song to you perfectly. The voice to me is the only instrument, and I wanted it to be the most deliberate element of the record. At the same time, I was so afraid to sing in front of people. I needed to conquer that.
Pitchfork: Lyrically, it sounds like confidence is a recurring theme. You mentioned last year that you wanted to write songs about "overcoming."
NRD: With Conatus, I was writing songs about struggle—wanting, but not getting. All my music up until now has been bathed in vulnerability, doubt, maybe sadness. I just didn't want that anymore. You become sick of dragging around a little bag of fear everywhere you go—touring and going onstage every night and having to feel bad. I want to go onstage and feel ambitious. I want to feel excited and I want to empower people. I felt in the past like I was constantly digging myself out of a hole. But for this record, I've dug myself out of that hole, and I'm standing, and it feels great.
I want to console people and make them feel like they can create their Taiga. When I made this record, every time I doubted myself for being overly ambitious, I was like, "No, man. I got my inner taiga in me. I can do that. Who says I can't?" When I wrote the title track, I thought, "Come on, it's so dramatic." At the same time, it’s my opportunity to tap into something boundless. I want people to feel like they can access that world that's so feral and raw and ready. You can invent your own tradition at any time. You have full control.
Pitchfork: On the single "Dangerous Days", you sing, "It's dangerous to go and listen to what they say." It seems like it's about resisting what other people are telling you, and going with yourself.
NRD: This record is about figuring out your path and not letting anything get in the way of that. I'm going to sound like Oprah, but—you can dream. You can do whatever you want! People forget that. I forgot that for a while, too. And if you think you can't do whatever you want—that's a corrupt idea. It's a disservice to humanity to not do what you want to do. That's why I wanted to make such a big record. I wanted to synthesize these ideas and show that you can still make a big statement, and you shouldn't be afraid to.
"Dangerous Days" is about standing up for what you believe in and remaining skeptical about what a civil world is telling you. So many people assume the world is according to what they're told. I wanted to make a huge pop song that would break in and reach people I've never been able to reach, so I can tell them this. How exciting would it be to hear a pop song on the radio that's actually saying something? It's saying, "Wake up!"
Pitchfork: I was recently speaking with an artist about how, in the past, kids could get these kinds of messages from mainstream "punk bands" on MTV and on the radio, but there aren't really any of them today.
NDR: I have a 13-year-old cousin who I adore and I'm trying to mentor her—I keep feeding her Bikini Kill and Björk, but she's not ready for it. I want her to have a song that tells her these things I got from Fear and Minor Threat. Some people will never be ready for that music, but they still need to hear the things that Black Flag was saying.
Pitchfork: Coming from an underground noise scene, what is your relationship to mainstream culture like at this point?
NRD: I'm fascinated by the mainstream, and I want to conquer it, but I'm incredibly intimidated by it because it's not where I come from. The fact that it is this thing that hovers over society makes me so passionately curious—I will succumb to being extremely uncomfortable in a mainstream environment, if only I can understand it better. You've got to feel afraid in life. I'm not afraid with the music, so I've got to feel afraid in another aspect. That's one of the reasons I left Sacred Bones. They're my family. I felt comfortable with them and I needed to feel scared.
"This is my legacy. I'm not going to have babies.
I'm not going to mother anything other than this music."
Pitchfork: Do you listen to much Top 40 music?
NRD: I listen to as much Top 40 as I listen to noise tapes. Pop music—especially really popular pop music—is as visceral as noise. When a pop song comes on, you feel something. I was just in the car and that Eminem/Rihanna song ["Monster"] came on—[sings] "I'm friends with the monster that's under my bed!" I was like, "Whoa! Hold the car! Hold it!" My world was spinning. I couldn't see straight. It's the same thing when I'm seeing [noise artist] the Rita play in a basement in Vancouver. You're like, "What is going on? Where am I?" You go blind for a second. It's totally sacrilegious to put the Rita and Rihanna in the same sentence, but I don't care because they give me the same feeling in a different way.
Pitchfork: Is Rihanna your favorite pop star?
NRD: I love Rihanna, but she is not my favorite. I love Beyoncé because she is a perfectionist. She is trying to create order in her world. Lady Gaga is interesting because she's trying to attain quantifiable success. But, I really love Kanye. You can see him wanting and striving. He never said he was the best rapper, but he knew he would be. That's what I love about him. He didn't even have talent; he learned talent. It was all ambition, and he's failed sometimes.
Pitchfork: You recently told Billboard that you want this record to hit #1 on the charts. With those ambitions, was this record harder to make than others?
NRD: It was harder because I had way higher expectations for myself. But it was easier because I knew that I needed to make an album that fulfilled my vision, whereas, in the past, I felt like I had to make albums that were good enough for those moments in my life.
I don't want people to think, "She just wants to be Jay Z!" It's not that. Whatever you do in life, you should want to be the best and fulfill the highest level of order of what you're trying to achieve. I would never make music and be like, "Oh yeah, whatever, it is what it is." This is my legacy. This is my life. I'm not going to have babies. I'm not going to mother anything other than this music. You want it to grow up and be something that lives beyond you.
Pitchfork: You turned 25 this year—do you feel like reaching your mid-20s pushed you to be more ambitious? I feel like it's an age that people tend to set specific goals for, and there are some lyrics on the album about getting older.
NRD: My whole life I've wanted to be a musician. Having confidence in my fate has been a blessing and a curse—because knowing what you want is very powerful, but being ready for it is another thing. I've always wanted this, but I struggle with the responsibility of having to fulfill my dreams. Every time I make music, I have to fulfill the dream I had when I was 4 years old, or when I was 10 watching "TRL". Those moments in my life where I was like, "This is what I want to do. I want to be a musician. I want to change peoples' lives." That responsibility is terrifying! I needed to come to terms with that, and I feel like I have.
Age has definitely been on my mind. When I was 19, I thought I knew it all! That's the classic story. As you get older, with wisdom and experience, you start realizing that the things you were doing—which you thought were righteous—were actually your ego. That's the [Taiga] song "Ego". You thought you knew what you were trying to conquer, but it was actually your youth whispering in your ear.
Pitchfork: The lyrics to "Ego" sound more confessional than anything you've written—"I used to think humility was everything..."
NDR: "Ego" is the song where I'm like, "Look, this is how it is." There's no story, there's just truth. Being extremely humble is in itself an egotistical thing. I've been saying things throughout my career, but I started to realize that people actually couldn't understand what I was saying before. So I really felt like I needed to speak up. I feel like "Hunger" is the sister to "Ego", and that's what I'm singing about, how I've been doing this for so long, trying to say things without being heard: "It's been five years waiting for it to unfold/ Throat sore and swallowed whole."
Pitchfork: Are you referring to creative hunger on that song?
ZJ: It's all of it. Everything in my life is about wanting and striving. I've never completely gotten what I wanted. I've never gotten straight A's. But I've always been the type of person to stay up until three in the morning, as a 12-year-old, studying, and still get a B+. I'm always that person. That's what makes me who I am, the fact that I'm constantly trying.
For most people, “Hunger” is going to sound like a really intense song, but for me, it's the anchor—it is the record. The vocal is kind of like Rihanna—[sings] "I got the hunger!"—but it's a chaotic song about wanting, which I don't think would ever make it in a commercial world. I like the juxtaposition of something very mainstream put against something that would have to fight an uphill battle to exist in that world.
"Even if I get a #1 record or sell out Madison Square Garden,
I will not be happy. It's my personality. I will
always feel like I've not gotten there."
Pitchfork: You've been doing a film column for self-titled, and one began with the line, "I don't understand balance." This album definitely moves between extremes, from totally epic passages to moments that are completely a capalla.
ZJ: Anything that is great in the world is done in extremes. I have a hard time being in the middle. I can be extremely quiet, or very loud. Anything in the middle, to me, feels like you're not accomplishing anything. So many of the songs were a capella when I wrote them. And I was like, "Fuck, I've got to put other stuff in here." It felt fine to me, but I know I can't have six a capella songs on the record.
Pitchfork: You've collaborated with a lot of people over the past few years, like M83 and Orbital. Did these projects inspire you to want to work with other people and make bigger-sounding music?
NRD: Yeah. I saw that [M83's Anthony Gonzalez] had a greater vision for his record [Hurry Up, We're Dreaming], and he brought me in because he wanted a texture that he couldn't do on his own. That was so inspiring. When I listen to that record, I feel like it is something bigger than Anthony or any of the people he works with. You've got to work with people if you want to make something that is going to be a large-scale piece—he taught me a lot about that.
I've done so much in the past by myself. I wrote all of these songs by myself, but when you collaborate with people, you can create something that is transcendental—that is larger than what one person can create. There are ideas [co-producer] Dean [Hurley] had about how to interpret my idea, which I would never think of, or that I couldn't do yet in Ableton or Logic. Why would I compromise the potential to achieve my ideals for the record, just because I didn't do it myself? That's something I've had to come to terms with. Being so DIY for so long has made me sensitive to that—if I don't do it myself, I don't feel like I really did it. But I need to break away from that if I want to accomplish something that lives beyond myself.
Pitchfork: Was there anything else you learned from Dean?
NRD: He would see my insatiability and try to help me control it. Because even if I get a #1 record on Billboard, I will not be happy. Even if I sell out a night at Madison Square Garden, I will not be happy. Even if I achieve whatever musical greatness you can quantify, I won't be happy. It's my personality. I will always feel like I've not gotten there. He taught me that you need to learn how to be satisfied with yourself, otherwise you're never going to be. I want to think it's quantifiable. That's why I have things like Billboard and arenas. But it's truly not quantifiable, and that scares me.
The world is inherently chaotic—you've got to accept it, but humans cannot accept it. I cannot accept chaos. I know that that's my flaw as a human. So I need quantification because it helps me create order in my life. I know very well that there is no order, but still, you try.
Photo by John Bohnen. All photos courtesy of Touch and Go Records.
“Don’t curse me for my nature/ Don’t blast me for my wrongs/ Just a bad penny/ I always come back to you,” leers Steve Albini without apology on “Bad Penny”. The 1987 song is by Albini’s first and most groundbreaking band, the mechanized post-punk juggernaut Big Black. It’s also a comment on his well-earned reputation as a muckraker of the human soul. The piss-and-vinegar frontman of Big Black, Rapeman, and currently Shellac has spent the past third of a century not just pushing people’s buttons, but pulverizing them.
Calling one of his bands Rapeman is just the tip of the perversity iceberg. Albini’s lyrics have long reveled in transgression, degradation, and the repressed rot at the heart of Middle American existence. Accordingly, his music is not pretty. From Big Black’s drilling shrillness to Shellac’s blunt-force post-rock, his body of work has mutated slowly over the decades, but it’s never fundamentally changed. His head is full of worms; he puts them into song.
Watch an entire Big Black concert taped at New York's CBGB in 1986:
Albini’s notoriety grew exponentially in the 1990s, though much of it had nothing to do with his music. He worked on a handful of epochal releases in the late 1980s, including Pixies’ 1988 album Surfer Rosa and Slint’s 1989 debut Tweez, but it was his credits on Nirvana’s 1993 swan song In Utero that launched him into the upper atmosphere of in-demand producers. From that platform, he wrote an instantly legendary article for alternative magazine The Baffler that warned of the dangers of signing to a major label, just as the majors were in the midst of snatching up almost every indie band they could find.
Yet Albini himself continued to record major-label bands, a self-contradiction that became one of many. Some of his lyrics could be read as misogynist, but he maintained his only intention was to confront sanctimony and hypocrisy. At the same time, he held himself to a strict ethical code when it came to his dealings within the music industry. That idealism was starkly contrasted by the harrowing negativity of Big Black, which began as a solo project while Albini attended Northwestern University.
Inspired by Chicago’s up-and-coming punk powerhouse Naked Raygun, he soon enlisted two of that band’s members, Jeff Pezzati and Santiago Durango (with bassist Dave Riley replacing Pezzati in 1985), to turn Big Black into a full band. Instead of a drummer, Albini used a drum machine—a strange choice in the punk scene at the time, but one that helped give Big Black a distinctly cold edge.
Big Black’s scraping attack owed a lot to post-punk and industrial, especially Gang of Four and Killing Joke. Like Albini, though, the band’s sound pledged allegiance to nothing and no one. Guitars were sapped of all of recognizable warmth and plugged back into the apparatus, like a corpse drained of blood then refilled with embalming fluid. It was bleak, but it wasn’t all dour. Albini’s impish sense of humor surfaced in corrosive covers of Cheap Trick and James Brown. And unlike so many of the industrial/rock hybrids, then and since, Big Black reveled in its own nerdy darkness.
Watch Big Black's final show at Seattle's Georgetown Steamplant in 1987:
After the breakup of Big Black in 1987, Albini briefly played in Rapeman. Backed by Scratch Acid’s rhythm section, bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Rey Washam, the trio didn’t appreciably add to what Big Black had done—with the exception of the song “Budd”, an early template for post-rock—but it did give Albini some experiencing playing with live drums, which came in handy when he teamed up with drummer Todd Trainer and bassist Bob Weston in Shellac. That band hit the ground sprinting with 1994’s At Action Park, a thunderous debut that seemed obsessed with one-upping all the pigfuck and post-rock outfits that had sprung up in Albini’s wake.
From there, Albini has maintained an increasingly low profile, quietly plugging away in his Chicago-based Electrical Audio Studios. Shellac tours rarely and releases records even less often. And those albums have become more complex, oblique, and even meditative. A new generation of bands, from Metz to Yvette, has emerged in the past few years, all proudly owing debts to Albini’s prickly catalog. The severity and austerity of Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac has made his oeuvre as timeless as a scoured-clean skeleton, and just as ripe for reanimation.
Shellac’s upcoming sixth album, Dude Incredible, will be their first since 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound. Albini isn’t permitting any kind of advance promotion—his staunchly anti-commercial ethics at work again—so the world has no way of knowing how it will stack up against his past releases just yet. But it’s a safe bet it won’t be any kind of radical departure. Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac are distinct groups, but they’re also facets of the same gleefully contorted view of art, humanity, and the conspicuous subtraction of both.
Here are his 10 best releases as a bandleader from across the last three decades.
10. Big Black: Headache EP (1987)
Headache was Big Black’s first release for Chicago indie stalwart Touch and Go and it came on the heels of their acclaimed 1986 debut LP Atomizer. Expectations were high—and Albini responded by stickering copies of the EP with a caveat that read, in part, “Warning! Not as good as Atomizer.” He was right. But that doesn’t make Headache unworthy. Steely even by Big Black standards, it’s the most industrial release in Albini’s catalog. What it lacks in spark and twisted wit, it makes up for in sheer horsepower.
9. Shellac: Terraform (1998)
Like being lulled to sleep by the sounds of a meat-processing plant, listening to Terraform is a violently hypnotic experience. Shellac’s third full-length (counting 1997’s privately released Futurist as the second), this album is as full-bodied as Albini has ever sounded: The edges are cleaner, the math is more intricate. It’s not as memorable as Shellac’s best—barring infectious flashes like “Canada”—but its off-kilter drones and deconstructed riffs show Albini at his most rock-worshipping.
8. Rapeman: Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (1988)
There’s something anemic about Rapeman’s sole full-length—but that isn’t a bad thing. Tinny to the point of flimsiness, Two Nuns and a Pack Mule doesn’t do justice to the walloping contributions of Sims and Washam, but the songs themselves are unhinged and nearly tribal in their bloodcurdling abandon. Albini, no longer tied to Big Black’s drum machine, starts to wrap his head around rhythmic interplay—and while he’d already mastered the semi-ironic cover in Big Black, Two Nuns’ version of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” sets a new standard for shit-slop hero demolition.
7. Big Black: Racer-X EP (1984)
As with Rapeman, the name of Big Black’s 1984 EP Racer-X is drawn from manga/anime—only in this case, it’s taken from the mysterious masked character from Speed Racer. (That particular Albini obsession would also pop up in the cover art for Big Black’s 1987 LP Songs About Fucking.) But the Racer-X EP’s most notorious obsession is with misogyny, a topic Albini has probed mercilessly throughout his career. It’s unsettling to hear him sneer, "But I'm God's gift to women/ They always want my dick/ Except for that whore thinks I'm trash/ I'm God's gift to women/ Always want my dick/ Except that college girl/ I'll kill her," on Racer-X’s "Deep Six", and of course, Albini would say that’s the whole point. Not that the record’s razor-wire guitar and robotic beat need much help when it comes to being squirm-worthy.
6. Rapeman: Budd EP (1988)
Albini’s justification for his offensive predilections has always been, in part, that he’s just reflecting society’s repressed sickness back toward itself—which bears at least some merit, seeing as how he studied journalism at Northwestern. But there’s more than objective reporting to “Budd”, the title track of Rapeman’s 1988 live EP. The song dwells on the on-air suicide by Pennsylvania politician R. Budd Dwyer in 1987. What makes it all the more harrowing, not to mention innovative, is the vast amount of empty spaces and granular surfaces that the band works into the near-eight-minute song. It’s a brooding, abstract dynamic that would set the tone for much of ‘90s post-rock, from Slint to June of 44.
5. Big Black: Bulldozer EP (1983)
Big Black’s first serious statement of intent was Bulldozer. The band’s second EP is also their de facto debut, since Big Black’s 1982 EP Lungs was a solo Albini recording (and one he’s called his least favorite). Not only does Bulldozer add Durango and Pezzati to the formula, but also Urge Overkill’s drummer Pat Byrne plays a live kit on top of the drum machine, making for one of the most viscerally thrilling convictions on Big Black’s rap sheet. Albini used to set off firecrackers onstage to launch almost every Big Black show; similarly, Bulldozer is Big Black’s true big bang.
4. Shellac: At Action Park (1994)
Not every great, early Shellac song made it onto their debut album—the 7”-only epic “Wingwalker” being just one example—but At Action Park is no slouch in the power department. Albini has always sounded like he’s had something to prove, but here’s where he sharpens the chip on his shoulder and sets about performing an autopsy on post-punk’s corpse. “Crow” is one of many standouts, a boiling tar pit of a song whose precision is matched only by its bile-spewing acidity. Twenty years after its release, it remains a lurching, unkillable monster.
3. Shellac: 1000 Hurts (2000)
Motifs tend to repeat themselves throughout Albini’s body of work: violence, misanthropy, resentment, and revenge being four of the big ones. They all culminate in “Prayer to God”, the opener from Shellac’s 1000 Hurts—and the single greatest song Albini has written to date. It’s as if, almost 20 years into his career, he’d found a way to distill an ocean of venom into a single drop—a two-and-a-half-minute purge of unholy jealousy that feels like a Raymond Carver short story rendered as a ransom note. The fact that its murderous impulse is phrased in the form of a prayer, complete with an “amen” at the end, only makes it that much more cold-blooded. It’s also Albini’s tour de force as a vocalist, for which he never gets enough credit; here, and on the rest of 1000 Hurts, he’s a method actor taking on horrific roles, then chewing the scenery with filed teeth.
2. Big Black: Songs About Fucking (1987)
A hypodermic needle to the eye might be less invasive than Big Black’s majestically depraved second (and final) studio album. Jittery and astringent, it veers from the icepick post-punk of “Bad Penny” to the barrage of savage imagery that is “Colombian Necktie”. Albini, just months away from Big Black’s end, is in full control of his fury, portioning it out in chiseled slabs of sardonic hate. Covering Kraftwerk’s “The Model” is a stroke of weirdness that makes perfect sense as its warped, cyborg come-ons turn from geeky to obscene. Emotions become equations, but they’re just as unstable.
1. Big Black: Atomizer(1986)
Of Big Black’s two proper full-lengths, Songs About Fucking has commanded the most attention. (Having the word “fucking” in the title doesn’t hurt.) But Atomizer is not only Big Black’s best album, but also it’s Albini’s masterpiece. “Jordan, Minnesota” tells the story of an infamous child-abuse ring, and the song disintegrates in a fit of suffocated spasms. “Fists of Love” is a sadomasochist symphony. And “Kerosene” is the self-immolation anthem to end them all. Every inch of the recording teems with screeches, squeals, whispers, ghosts. In lesser hands, it might have been little more than grain-silo goth. Atomizer transcends the muck of existence by stripping naked and wallowing in it. Albini may not have always been the nicest man; his music certainly isn’t. But Atomizer is as much of an inoculation as it is a means of destruction.
Lollapalooza takes place this weekend, August 1-3, at Chicago's Grant Park. Prepare for the action with the following playlist featuring many of the acts scheduled to play, including Arctic Monkeys, Lykke Li, Nas, Spoon, Darkside, Duke Dumont, Lorde, and more.
Photos by Luke Gilford
When Mike Hadreas began work on his third album as Perfume Genius last fall, his sights were set on hitting it big. “Everybody was telling me that if I toned it down and made my pretty music more universal, I could break into the mainstream,” he tells me last week while we talk in a back office at his label, Matador. “So I wanted to write music that would be in a commercial—but pull it off with integrity while sounding at least somewhat earnest.” Driven by his desire to settle down with his boyfriend and collaborator Alan Wyffels, Hadreas got to work on a collection of material characterized by “simple language and chord progressions that were very 1950s soul.” But while working within those self-imposed limitations, he hit a wall. “The songs were good, but there wasn’t anything exciting about them,” he admits.
Stymied, Hadreas decided to switch it up, adding distortion to his piano and hopping over to Bristol, England, with Portishead’s Adrian Utley and engineer Ali Chant, who both co-produced Too Bright, due out September 23. The record is Hadreas’ biggest sonic leap yet, a divergence from the relatively straightforward songwriting of his 2010 debut Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It that dives headlong into nightmarish soundscapes, warped synths, and blasted beats (not unlike Portishead’s own game-changing third album from 2008, Third). “He likes to go for it, and that was what I was trying to do,” Hadreas says about working with Utley. “We would be having a lighthearted conversation, and then all of a sudden all the lights were off, and he's playing guitar with a nail.”
Hadreas once again enlisted the drumming skills of frequent PJ Harvey stick man John Parish, and Harvey’s influence looms over Too Bright. “I first heard her when I was a timid, lost teenager,” Hadreas says. “I heard her singing secrets very confidently, with no apologies. That was very powerful to me. I liked how strong and spiritual she sounded, while also sounding very female at the same time.”
Though it takes a certain strength to present songs as starkly as Perfume Genius has in the past, Hadreas’ brutal simplicity and quavering voice has caused some to mislabel him as weak. “It makes me mad,” Hadreas says, plainly. “My first two albums are very badass, very strong, and people should think of them that way, but they don't. They think this new album is strong because it's loud and in-your-face, but the two modes are really just two different versions of the same thing.”
More so than ever, anger marks the general mood of Too Bright, especially in lead single “Queen”, which addresses the concept of gay panic and how it feels to know that the very fiber of your being makes others feel threatened. “My boyfriend is always like, ‘Why are you still going on about this stuff? Things might not be perfect, but can we start getting on with everything else?’” he laughs. “I'm glad things are getting better, but I'm going to push and be pissed off until they're perfect. That will probably never happen, but I feel some weird duty nonetheless. Even though I can get married in Seattle, I could go to another country and get the death penalty just for being myself—I'm not making music just for fiancés in Seattle.”
The record’s most surprising left turn, “I’m a Mother”, barely sounds like what listeners have come to associate with Perfume Genius at all, as Hadreas’ voice is pitch-shifted down and surrounded by jet-black atmospherics reminiscent of Fever Ray. “My mom’s knitting clothes for my children already,” he explains, talking about the song. “She’s convinced that I’m going to have children, but I’m not really certain how I’m going to do that. It’s hard not to be ashamed of that, in a weird way—that I can’t have children in a natural way. It’s not like me and my boyfriend are just going to pop out a butt baby all of a sudden.”
So while it might not sound like simple ‘50s soul, the more focused and shadowy mood of Too Bright could still make the album his most wide-reaching yet—a notion that Hadreas has mixed feelings about. “There's not much hope in this album, which makes it easier for people to understand,” he says. “People don't like a lot of stuff at once: They see a French movie and they think there's too many emotions at once. I've had people tell me that I should just be sad and not joke around on Twitter, but they don't understand that joking and being deeply sad are very close to each other. I'll have a horrible memory that I find hysterical one day, and the next day I'll cry about it.”
Overall, though, he’s optimistic about the new direction, which zeroes in on the personal more than ever before. “I may have overshared a lot on the first two records, but when I played those songs on tour, I never really felt like I was performing them,” he says. “With these new songs, I’m telling people to listen to me. And if I do it right, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Pitchfork: While making this album, were you worried about alienating fans?
Mike Hadreas: There's so many musicians that do whatever they want for their third album, but it's at the sacrifice of the people listening. I want to be rebellious, but I don’t want to come across like I’m against everybody. The marketing for this record is going to try to sell it as so crazy, and I definitely tried to let loose, but there's still some plaintive moments. The whole time I was still thinking about how this'll make people feel, but no longer in a way that made me censor myself or feel nervous.
Pitchfork: Given the album’s overall mood, the title Too Bright seems ironic.
MH: One of the things that Too Bright refers to is how there's a lot of times where I see things that I could change that could make me more contented, but I usually just don’t make those changes because they seem new and scary. I just stay where I'm at, even if I’m miserable, because I'm familiar with it.
"If I could just be a lump, or a mist of smoke with eyes,
I probably would be that—just an energy, moving around."
Pitchfork: A lot of the lyrics on Too Bright are concerned with the human body—did your personal history with Crohn’s disease play into that theme?
MH: If you're sick when you're young, you become very aware of how you're feeling. I've been on so many medications that I don't even know what's going on. I don't know if what “bad” to me is “bad” for everyone else. I've always considered that the inside of my body is just fucked, so I might as well make the outside look nice. Whenever I'm anxious or freaked out, the outside of my body is a very easy place for me to focus everything on, because it's something I can control. I can pick at my face and it'll look better.
If I could just be a lump, or a mist of smoke with eyes, I probably would be that—just an energy, moving around. Young people now, they're drinking coconut water, and they won't eat certain things. I'm very different because I was not allowed to do a lot growing up. I wasn't able to drink caffeine, I had a rigid diet, and I was always in the hospital. So when I was on my own I was like, “Fuck it!” I went nuts and I haven't grown out of that at all. I like to have fun! And everything that's good for you is not fun, and that bores me.
Pitchfork: Some of your past work has featured very classic-sounding melodic songwriting. Have you ever been approached by other artists to write for them?
MH: A couple of times, yeah—no big-shots. I could’ve given the music I scrapped for this album to someone else, and that's why I couldn't follow through with it—there's heart in those songs, but it wasn't very much of my own. The problem with writing for others is that I don't know if I could write words without having something a little filthy in there, a little nasty. I don't know if I could write a pop song without at least a little touch of bite in it, and it's usually not a bite that most people would want to sing.
Check out a photo gallery from this year's Lollapalooza by David Sampson, along with Paul Thompson's review of the annual Chicago mega-fest.
You've pretty much got two choices at Lollapalooza: sit back and watch the melee unfold around you, or shrug, grab a Mang-o-Rita, and become one with the chaos. Despite Bonnaroo's (not undeserved) reputation for debauchery, Lolla may very well have become the most unhinged of all the large-scale American festivals, a three-day bacchanal with occasional music. Every Lollapalooza, I spend the first few hours watching the molly-water-guzzling hordes turning the shores of Lake Michigan into their own private slopsticle course, and I wonder what I've gotten myself into. Inevitably, five o'clock rolls around, I get a couple beers in me, and all those crazy kids turning all the way up to "No Flex Zone" start to look like they've got the right idea.
Of course, Lolla's not exactly some Burning Man-style free-for-all. It's a music festival smack dab in the middle of a major American city. Sadly, the big story out of this year's fest wasn't Blood Orange's note-perfect Friday afternoon set, but rather its aftermath, when Dev Hynes and Samantha Urbani were allegedly assaulted by a member of a private security squad Lolla claims weren't employed by the festival. What reportedly happened to Hynes and Urbani, while maddening, is not especially surprising: All weekend, this uptick in security was just about all anyone was talking about.
I certainly wasn't immune. In fact, I was barely five steps into Grant Park before my first run-in with Lolla brass, when a big dude in an earpiece and a grey polo shirt stopped me for having the audacity to try to walk into the box office to pick up my wristband. Minutes later, waiting for my wife at bag search, another gentleman asked me and a few others to take a step back from the security tent—and as he kept wagging his finger at us, three gatecrashers blew right past him. I certainly understand the motivation for maintaining order at a festival the size of Lollapalooza, but I've been to enough of these things to know the difference between being thorough and being hostile, and this was most certainly the latter.
Security concerns aside, Lollapalooza 2014's dominant feature was a healthy dose of déjà vu. Ever since 2011 saw Perry's Stage move into its permathumping enclave across Columbus Drive, one year at Lollapalooza is pretty much the same as the next: flower crowns, lobster corndogs, and, for some reason, the Kings of Leon. This was Lolla's 10th year in Grant Park, two more than Perry Farrell ever managed during Lolla's run as a traveling roadshow of alternative music and culture in the 1990s. But this Lolla—in form, if not necessarily function—felt pretty much exactly like the last one.
It's no wonder: Five of the six mainstage headliners have played Lolla in the last five years. (The sixth, OutKast, don't quite count, not having played anywhere in quite some time.) This year's bill was heavier on rap than usual, though: Eminem, Nas, and Chance the Rapper were there, as were Ratking, Run the Jewels, and Rich Homie Quan. Rock—of the mainstream, indie, and folksy post-Mumford varieties—loomed large on the big stages, and there was a lot of what I've come to call "festival music": rock bands with longish names making blaring, trebly songs that seems to operate in the cracks between genres. Metal was all but absent; ditto country. Lolla takes a lot of lumps for unadventurous booking, a rep it doesn't completely deserve: Any festival willing to make space for both Courtney Barnett and Rich Homie Quan is—for a little while, anyway—doing something right. But the further up you get on Lolla's bill, the fewer surprises there are.
Granted, only so many acts can feasibly take the big stage at a festival Lolla's size. And, by and large, the Lolla loyal aren't looking to be challenged by what's going on onstage—they're there to hear something they know, or, failing that, something they can dance to. Kids in Derrick Rose jerseys and daisy dukes skipped blissfully to and from Perry's Stage all weekend, arms akimbo, reveling in the bass armageddon. Credit where it's due: Lolla was one of the first major U.S. festivals to fully embrace EDM in its current form, and while dubstep still rules the roost, they've swiftly adapted to the Disclosure-led pop-house revival.
Last year, Perry's was an all-out drop zone; this year, the blitzkrieg was interrupted by the occasional breakbeat, diva-house piano, and, er, Iggy Azalea. (I dutifully put in my 10 minutes at Iggy's set, mostly wondering what Trina was up to at that very moment; I'll spare you my dissertation on cultural appropriation, but needless to say, 10 minutes was more than enough.) No matter who was up there, the movement was unrelenting. I spent most of the weekend with that Andre 3000 line from "Hey Ya!" rattling around my head: "Ya'll don't want to hear me, you just want to dance." Walking past Perry's, I overheard a group of kids making plans to check out UK dance producer Duke Dumont's upcoming set. "Yo, fuck Duke Dumont," one dissenter countered. But two minutes later, off they went to see him, naysayer in tow, roundly outvoted. Bet he had a good time.
And now, a rapid-fire flip through Friday: Courtney Barnett's streams-of-unconsciousness take on a Stones-y swagger they don't quite possess on wax. Blood Orange were just fantastic; for an eight-piece band, they're impossibly smooth, their slinky take on early-'80s R&B the perfect antidote to the madding crowds. Interpol were Interpol: sharp, slick, and just a little bloodless, an odd fit for the late afternoon sun. The bright, keening Chvrches charmed the sweat out of thousands at the Lake Shore Stage. Broken Bells were boring, because Broken Bells are boring. Lorde divided her time between singing and laying across the edge of the stage, just having a chat; it's hard not to be taken by a should-be headliner who just wants to hang out. I'll stop short of accusation here, but if Lykke Li wasn't lip-synching, her voice and her mouth have a curiously independent relationship. Not that it mattered much; she's a magnetic performer, backed by a dazzling band, and she blew through the hits—and, for some reason, a few seconds of Kanye's "Send It Up"—like an old pro. I missed Rihanna—and Eminem, I guess—bouncing back and forth between the wonderfully chaotic Phantogram and the very pro Arctic Monkeys. Rakish fella, that Al Turner.
On Saturday, Brooklyn scrappers Parquet Courts' afternoon set was nothing if not nonchalant; at one point, I'm fairly certain singer/guitarist Andrew Savage urged us to visit the signature tent across the field so "you could go get an autograph from your dogs." While Parquet cracked wise, Phosphorescent was across the park, making friends by the thousands—the shade-hogging, tallboy-guzzling dads flanking the field all have a new favorite band. Rich Homie Quan went on late, spit over his own tracks, and left after 15 minutes; save "Type of Way", the impossibly turnt up crowd gathered at the Grove seemed a lot less interested in Quan than DJ Fresh hitting play on "Fancy" and "Stoner". Quan's fans were trying; my wife called the group of maniacally drunken white bros to our left "the strongest form of birth control I've ever encountered." Nas stans, on the other hand, are a delight in real life; they know every word, follow every inflection, hardly minding that their rhyming hero had been relegated to a side stage. Spoon were just about perfect—with a fine new album and one of the sturdiest back catalogs in indie rock, they seem primed to become not just your favorite band, but everybody's. No one deserves it more.
Then there was OutKast. Early reports from this 20th anniversary tour had me sweating; Andre and Big Boi's supposed lack of onstage camaraderie made the whole thing sound less like a proper reunion and more like two solo shows happening on the same stage. But that wasn't even remotely the case Saturday night, when the duo proceeded to leave a crater in the south end of Grant Park. Oh, it was so weird and wonderful, from the first notes of "B.O.B." to the closing blasts of "The Whole World". I mean, Nas can string together an hour of hits, but he's not rapping "NY State of Mind" in front of a cow pasture the way these guys did with "So Fresh So Clean". Even a decade on from the peak of their powers, the music these guys made still sounds like the future. Unlike so many other reunions of recent vintage, not one second of their Saturday night set felt like a mere cash-grab. American popular music was a lot smarter and funkier and weirder with them, and we're lucky to have them back, if only for a little while longer.
The skies unexpectedly opened up Sunday, caking the beyond-exhausted masses in several inches of mud. You could see it written on the dirt-streaked faces: We, as a group, were trying very hard to pretend that we weren't over the whole thing. I spent most of the afternoon at Perry's, assessing the damage; everywhere you looked, people were passed out in their own juices, flanked by security guards and law enforcement agents of various kinds. For their part, Run the Jewels gamely battled the elements, flipped off the CPD, and made each other crack up; Rap Game Laurel and Hardy, those two. While Childish Gambino continued to act like a rapper and rap like an actor, Flosstradamus gave the Perry's faithful what they wanted: drops, mostly.
Lykke Li. Photo by David Sampson.
But the day belonged to Chance the Rapper, who—after a spirited-but-squashed set at Lolla 2013 and a year or so on the road—has returned to Chicago a conquering hero. Earlier in the day, Chance tweeted something about expecting 100,000 people to show up at Perry's for his set. If those numbers don't quite add up—among other things, that would've meant Kings of Leon and Skrillex played to crickets—then they're indicative of the young Chancellor Bennett's near-boundless ambition. It's inspiring, really; just a couple of blocks from the school he was famously suspended from and the public library AV center where he cut his first tracks, this funny, charming, self-possessed kid closed out one of the biggest festivals in the world. There we were, at the end of a long, trying weekend, standing in three inches of mud—sweaty and smelly and sick on molly water and various A-Ritas—listening to this dude from Chatham bleat out the theme song from "Arthur". Sometimes, you've just got to roll with it.
Photographer David Sampson captures offstage moments with Run the Jewels, Interpol, Warpaint, Lykke Li, Jhené Aiko, Chromeo, Flosstradamus, Chvrches, and other stars of this year's Lollapalooza.
Photos by Denée Petracek
Garage rock savant and human hurricane Ty Segall is dipping a toe into a frightening, unfamiliar way of life: He's taking it slow. When I call him, he's drinking coffee and just hanging out—the only plan on his horizon is a margarita brunch “in like two hours or something.” He's recently finished the longest and most labor-intensive album of his career, Manipulator, which took him 14 months to complete.
For an edifying comparison, consider how Segall spent a previous 14-month stretch: Beginning in May 2012 and running into September 2013, he wrote, recorded, and released four full studio albums. Each project did one thing very well: Hair, his White Fence collaboration, nailed disjointed, surrealist whimsy; Slaughterhouse, suffocating dread (and really thick fuzz guitars); Twins felt like a psych singles collection; and Sleeper was steeped in pained, smoky FM folk-rock. Each one felt like a piece of something larger, but none of them told a Big Story.
With Manipulator, Segall finally seems ready to change that. Every single thing Segall has ever been good at is here, refined and sharpened and polished until it feels like a platonic expression of itself. There are multiple guitar overdubs, fussed-over vocal takes, and even string quartets; it’s his bucket-list album. The lyrics immerse you in a universe of sun-warmed insincerity and dread, a colorful-but-creepy place that Segall's mind seems to draw towards. It is the stab at a defining statement that Segall has always seemed congenitally allergic to.
So why now? "It was just a self-imposed challenge," he shrugs. "Every other record I’ve done, I was like, 'OK, we’ve got these 10 songs? Let’s do this.' But this time, I wanted to have no time constraints. It’s really crazy because I got to spend 30 days straight in the studio and we actually had the time to do eight hours of vocals for one song, shit like that. It was very interesting to go so far deep into a pile of songs."
Segall talks thoughtfully about the careening path that led him here—to a spot in the music business with a small sense of security and a just-dawning belief that maybe, just maybe, he'll be around next year to make records, too. "I always rush things, but that was part of the plan originally—I wanted all of his stuff to be emotional first-takes. The grime was part of what made it cool and gave it a real quality. But this record was about finding out how to become a perfectionist while holding onto that rawness."
Pitchfork: Did something happen in your life or your career that made you devote so much time to one album?
Ty Segall: There was this mad dash of work that happened with me and my friends for a couple of years. Like, "Man, we’ve been given this opportunity, and who knows how long it’s going to last, so let’s make a ton of records.” Then, there just comes a point where you realize it’s going to be all right to take a minute and really focus. Honestly, financially, I never had the opportunity to make anything like this album before—modern music doesn’t allow for artists to work with independent labels to make crazy, expensive records. It just doesn’t happen. And I’m really lucky, working with Drag City, where we got the record done and were able to spend a little more money and time on it.
Pitchfork: There’s a hard, economic, practical reality behind the way you went about making music, which is something people don’t always talk about.
TS: I come from the we’ve-got-a-four-track-let’s-make-a-record kind of mentality. After you sell some copies, you think, "Cool, I can spend 1500 bucks on the next record to buy an 8-track." And then maybe that record sells a little more, and you’re like, "Holy shit, I can go into a studio for four days and use a 16-track." That’s how it works for people these days, if they’re lucky. Four-track records are some of my favorite records, and I would’ve been perfectly happy staying in that world forever. But when you have the opportunity to record in a classic sense, you have to go for it.
Pitchfork: You’ve always been hailed for your work ethic. It sounds as though you’re talking about this as an opportunity you earned, like you had to earn your way to be able to make a record for 14 months.
TS: It’s the only way I can justify having the opportunity to do it. If I’m going to go into a fucking studio for a month, I better write songs for a year straight beforehand and make sure I got some shit. I’m not going to show up in the studio with six songs and be like, "Cool let’s just make some stuff up!" I was very scared about that. Each project has a limitation to it, which is great. This is the record with no limitations, which is its own limitation.
Pitchfork: What is your personal definition of a "manipulator"?
TS: A manipulator is anyone who can hold something over your head, who manipulates the information to fit their needs. I have this idea that the manipulator is also very charismatic, and you totally can relate to them. This person is still a human just like anyone else. It could even be a rock star.
Pitchfork: Have you ever found yourself being a manipulator?
TS: Yeah, I’ve definitely manipulated—not for any maniacal or diabolical reasons though. But everybody manipulates people and things all the time. That idea floats through the album—there’s different characters that exist in the same world, or play different versions of the same role. But instead of telling a story directly like, “I picked up a book. And I read the book. And the book was sad.” The album is more like, “I found a book at a book store.” Cut. “I sold this book to this guy at this bookstore for eight dollars.” Cut. “I work at a recycling plant and I found this book and it was really sad.” Kind of like multiple perspectives on the same scene.
Pitchfork: Do you ever listen to your old records?
TS: Yeah, it’s kind of fun. I haven’t listened to anything recently, but six months ago I threw on Melted and was like, Whoa. That is really specific to a certain time, which is rad, especially for me, because I was like 21 when we did that. But I can’t listen to my music all the time. The older records can get pretty annoying to me.
In 2009, Ian Svenonius' short-lived group Felt Letters put out a single called "600,000 Bands"—a goofy, vampy song that skewered the then-ubiquitous idea of blog buzz and the many indie-rock doppelgangers trying to stand out in an increasingly crowded scene ("600,000 bands, yeah/ 50,000 sound like Can"). As the unhurried track slinks past the four-minute mark, it becomes its own kind of sly protest against the frenzied pace of the digital world. "Everybody wants you to listen to their [band]," Svenonius deadpans, slyly holding your attention hostage, "but you can't right now 'cause you're listening to this."
Jokey as it is, I find myself thinking about this lyric a lot, so perfectly does it capture the mindset of the modern listener. In the words of the infamous Twitter account Horse ebooks—and leave it to a human disguised as a bot to coin the phrase that best sums up the strange fatigue of digital life—everything happens so much.
When I first started regularly buying music in the mid 1990s, not quite so much was happening. In fact, almost all of my formative listening experiences were defined by scarcity, limitations, and a daunting obstacle course of potential barriers. If I wanted a new CD in 1996, I would first need to save up enough allowance, then convince a parent to drive me to the mall, and finally—perhaps most perilously—make it to the register without my mom raising an eyebrow at the cover or lyrical content of what I'd picked out (as she did one day when I selected a double-album that featured a song called "Fuck You (Ode to No One)"). Napster, which arrived when I was 13, was liberating, but only in comparison to what had come before. My family still had dial-up at the time, so I'd usually download singles rather than entire albums, given how often someone in the house would accidentally pick up the landline. Back then, if I'd known what the not-so-distant future had in store—high-speed wireless internet, pristine audio and video streaming, the ability for more than one person to be on the internet in the same house at the same time—I would have started working on my time machine right then.
Now that we're living in the age of instant access, though, why does it all feel… a little less satisfying than we thought it would? I really started wondering this late last year, after reading Alexis C. Madrigal's thought-provoking piece for The Atlantic, arguing that 2013 was "the year 'the stream' crested." "[N]ow the Internet's media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free," he wrote. "No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more." At first (2009 was the year that many platforms started presenting instantly-refreshing online content reverse-chronologically), this sense of infinity was thrilling. But by last year Madrigal (and anyone who’d been diagnosed with a case of FOMO) noticed a certain exhaustion, and even a kind of sadness, setting in. "Who can keep up?" he wondered. "There is a melancholy to the infinite scroll."
I know exactly what he's talking about. These days, my daily internet behavior is depressingly predictable: Every morning I'll click on more articles than I'd ever have time to read, clutter my browser with tab after tab after tab, and then at some moment every afternoon I'll finally admit my own mortality and close all the things I didn't get to. My listening habits follow a similar pattern, flitting restlessly between iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud—and there's that tab containing a YouTube video for a song a friend sent an hour ago, expectantly demanding some sort of reply. I'm sort of ashamed to admit that I have occasionally caught myself thinking, "I wish I could listen to more than one thing at the same time," but I know I'm not alone. Last week, I was talking to a colleague who had sent me some music by the mash-up artist Caddybay, and we discussed how his music feels like a response to the overwhelming “everythingness” of the internet. His full-length mixes edit together albums of two different artists—Gucci Mane vs. Boards of Canada, Puffy and Ma$e vs. Thievery Corporation—and the effect is the closest I've come to satisfying that 21st-century desire of listening to everything open in my browser at once.
Music used to be a commodity, but now—in a moment where the term "attention economy" often gets thrown around—that status is reserved for our focus and our time. Everyone wants you to listen to their band/side project/SoundCloud remix but you can't right now because you're reading this.
This past May, I spent some time in Berlin. For me, there's something about traveling to another country that also taps into that sense of everythingness, but in a way that inspires wonder and possibility instead of fatigue. When you travel, you commune with all the people you might have become, if circumstances were slightly different, if you lived someplace else. I stayed in Kreuzberg with a friend of a friend, a very kind American ex-pat who decided to grow a mustache shortly after moving to Germany. This mustache had never been documented on Facebook, he told us proudly, so when he came back to New York people sometimes did not recognize him. This sounded nice, I thought, not just to slip beneath the digital world's radar but also to transcend the need for your identity to be linear and cohesive and whole, just like this lovely, complicated, cracked-in-half city.
You know that moment towards the end of a great vacation when you vow that everything will be completely different when you come back? As the week neared its end, my travel companion and I recited a list of all the things we were going to change about our lives when we got back to the States. We would make ginger tea from scratch like they do in that one cafe. We would go to more museums and go out dancing twice a week and only drink espresso—never coffee and especially not Americanos—and experiment with making our own popsicles and drink Club-Mate instead of sleeping and grow our own digitally undocumented mustaches and listen to every piece of German music ever recorded.
There is also a moment after the end of a great vacation when that sense of possibility evaporates, and the souvenirs only serve as taunting reminders of that brief time you thought you could become something greater than human. It has been eight weeks since I got back from my trip. From my desk right now I can see two large, unused pieces of ginger and a German-language copy of Kraftwerk's Trans Europa Express on my turntable.
Before this summer, I'd never listened to a Kraftwerk album in my life. Before this summer, I might have also been terrified to admit this publicly; I figured it was the kind of statement, especially coming from a music critic, that prompts somebody to knock at your door, flash an important-looking badge, and step aside to reveal a crew of movers who've come to cart away all of your records, because you are no longer deemed worthy of owning them.
We all have our blind spots—yes, even critics—but before The Dawn of the Age of Everything it felt easier to justify them: Maybe that album was too expensive, or impossible to find on Kazaa, or out of print. But in a world where I can type "trans europe express full album HQ" into a YouTube search bar, what excuse do I have for never having listened to Kraftwerk? It's not like the jury's out on whether or not these guys are any good. Did I—a synth lover and longtime Daft Punk fan who writes a column about the uncanny relationship between technology and identity in music—seriously expect to check Kraftwerk out and think, Nah, not for me?
Shouldn't unfettered access to music mean we all have impeccable taste and an intimate familiarity with all records previously deemed Classic and/or Important? Maybe, but I have to admit that in the past few years I've noticed that the stream has had a counterintuitive effect on my listening habits. For some reason, it's made me jaded about greatness and even a little less likely to seek out Important Records—having all of them splayed out before me has reduced them to inherited experiences, foregone conclusions, boxes to tick off on a checklist. Too often I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by history, by all that I don't know. Everything happened so much.
Or at least I felt that way until this summer. When I got back from my trip and once again settled into my daily routine, I became single-mindedly obsessed with seeking out music that reminded me of Germany. It started with the sublime Autobahn, then onto Radio-Activity, then back to the Ralf und Florian stuff before moving to Cluster & Eno, followed by a long detour listening to Bowie's Berlin Trilogy (I'd always been more of an early-'70s Bowie person, or at least I thought so) and reading about the trouble he and Iggy Pop got themselves into there. Somewhere along the way, I realized that this is the way I used to listen to music—burrowing into a band or a scene or a moment, noticing unexpected connections ("From station to station back to Dusseldorf City/ Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie"), following some kind of story that reflected back something about my own lived experience.
In Madrigal's piece about the melancholy of the infinite scroll, he refers to a phenomenon he (pretty hilariously) dubs "narrative porn"—digital culture's recent fetishizing of anything with a beginning, middle, and end. Narratives "provide closure," Madrigal writes. "They are rocks that you can stand on in the stream, just to catch your breath." Maybe I'm just indulging in some narrative porn here myself, but there's been something refreshing, even comforting, about the summer I spent semi-monogamously loving Germany. I might not have believed this when I was a little younger, but I don't think I would have been a better music critic if I'd come to Trans-Europe Express a decade earlier, out of some sterile sense of duty. Something about the experience of finding it later, and loving it that much more personally, has made me more comfortable with the vast amount of things I don't know, and all the great albums I haven't heard yet. Some of them will eventually find me, and I’m also OK with the fact that some of them won’t. Life is long, but it’s not timeless. And thank god.
Read all of Lindsay Zoladz's previous Ordinary Machines columns here.