Practically an unknown quantity at the start of the decade, K-pop is now a household name around the globe. In recent years, the Western media has all but overflowed with a rising tide of South Korean pop, from fashion spreads to viral ads, Lorde pull-quotes to Grimes tweets, music video analyses to industry think pieces (and, of course, the most popular piece of content on the internet). And yet, so little of this attention has paid much mind to the music itself. If K-pop seems like the fad that never ends, that’s probably because it never really started, either.
K-pop treats a song as just one of several interlocking aesthetic parts, which typically include corresponding choreography, a music video, novella-thick liner notes, the occasional corporate tie-in, and an overarching “concept” that brings it all together. These tend to be conceived in tandem to a much greater extent than in Western pop, so to divorce a K-pop single from its context is to engage with it only partially. For example, the absurdist satire of “Gangnam Style” wouldn’t make total sense even to someone living in Gangnam without its attendant video and “horse dance.”
At its best, K-pop’s package-product approach can result in concise, nonpareil pop music gesamtkunstwerks—but good or bad, they can cause sensory overload for the uninitiated. The intense rate of productivity in Korea, where taking even a year’s pause between albums can kill a career, also adds to the overwhelming feeling for casual fans and popstars alike; onstage fainting and use of IV drips for energy are commonplace.
Another factor is the highly micromanaged way in which all these complementary pieces are made and aligned. The Western media loves to fixate on K-pop’s “assembly line” methodology, and the industry’s de rigeur trainee development program indeed prizes performative excellence over any kind of creative aptitude. Considering the cost-intensive multimedia project that is the typical K-pop smash, it’s little surprise that agencies tailor these acts and their images to best court audiences that are most likely to reward their investment: obsessive teenyboppers. As such, both the presentation of the music and the “impersonal” way it’s made fundamentally disagree with most Western music fans’ Beatles-derived notions of authenticity. (The language barrier can be a roadblock as well.)
But the Korean music industry—for all its bright color schemes, plastic sheen, and frankly commercial raison d'être—has quietly produced some of the most intelligent, adventurous, and accomplished mainstream pop of the past few years. It’s a world where songs with whiplash tempo cuts, Punjabi-via-Korean lyrics, and irregular beats exist as hyper-realized pop commodities, but connect with audiences on a mass scale. The following list offers a modest introduction to the hugely saleable genius some of the world’s best songwriters, producers, and performers can achieve when working in close cooperation.
f(x): “미행 (그림자 : Shadow)”
Simply put, f(x) is the most reliably risk-taking act in K-pop. Created in 2009 by SM Entertainment, the multinational, five-piece girl group’s two albums from the past year mark an unmatched winning streak in a mainstream market more inclined toward singles and mini-albums (K-Pop’s clever rebrand of the EP). “Shadow” is one of the stranger highlights from 2013’s neon Pink Tape. Built around a jazzy discord of flats and sevenths, the song’s synth harmony and xylophone melodies have more in common with a Thelonious Monk rag than anything on most modern pop charts (it peaked at #6 on Korea’s national chart, despite not being an official single). Exacerbating the tonal wooze is a pitch-shifted sample of what might as well be a gaggle of fairies getting fumigated. Above it all, the girls of f(x) detail a dark diary of stalking an object of desire. The fraught confessional is set to an R&B melody that’s lullaby-sweet, seeming to temper the tension in the arrangement—until the lyrics register.
Ga-In: “팅커벨 (Tinkerbell)”
As the youngest member of the quartet Brown Eyed Girls, Ga-In uses her solo career to test the limits of both Korea’s mainstream music and morals. “Tinkerbell”, a coy invite to a midnight tryst, is introduced by a damaged, half-deleted Latin guitar and proceeds to synthesize wobbly LFO chords, compression-blown riffs that could deafen Sleigh Bells, violent jump cuts to millisecond silence, yawps like a young Karen O’s, surf rock guitar leads, a lone bebop trumpet interjection, severe glitch undertones, and a four-bar break that snaps off-grid altogether. The song opens Ga-In’s excellent Talk About S mini-album, which tempers this IDM pop opioid with the delightful Madonna throwback “Bloom”.
Orange Caramel: “까탈레나 (Catallena)”
Orange Caramel’s very existence is an interesting insight into the K-pop industry. The female trio is a subsidiary of the larger girl group After School—in the same way that Kia is a subsidiary of Hyundai. So while Orange Caramel release their own records and stage their own performances, they are deliberately perceived as an After School-brand group, a common tactic in the K-pop market (other examples include T-ara’s T-ara N4, Sistar’s Sistar19, and Girls’ Generation’s Girls’ Generation-TaeTiSeo). These derivations are typically meant to exploit the specific talents or chemistry of a subset among a larger ensemble, and Orange Caramel’s uniting concept is “Candy Culture”—basically, Korean aegyo cutesiness meets a lot of saccharine pastels.
Fortunately, this conceit has inspired some pretty fantastic pop. Orange Caramel’s best, “Catallena”, is a fluffy, filter-swept combo of ABBA-grade orchestration, ghazal folk samples, runny 1980s snare, Bollywood dyes, imitation Chic guitar, and a compression-lacquered coating of synth bass à la “Blue Monday”. The bright vocal frosting is piped preciously atop it all, flirting with an exoticized other and voicing bi-curious fancies—“She’s so great, I’ve fallen for her/ Even as a girl”—and they even sing some untranslated lyrics from the Pakistani wedding song that’s being interpolated. The holistic effect jars at first, making “Catallena” a common instance where the stickiness of a K-pop song’s video and choreography is crucial to its marketing plan. Unlike other mainstream industries, K-pop seems to romanticize the ideal of love at second listen.
CL, G-Dragon, Skrillex, and Diplo: “Dirty Vibe”
K-pop is home to a strange graveyard of gruesomely awful trans-Pacific collisions, including bewildered cameos from Kanye West, Chris Brown, and Lil Kim. But the four artists behind this track still dared to dream. The results, though buried on Skrillex’s Recess album from earlier this year, are historic: “Dirty Vibe” is visceral, exhilarating proof that K-pop and Western musicians can achieve unique things together.
G-Dragon and CL respectively hail from Big Bang and 2NE1, two of Korea’s biggest groups (both fostered by YG Entertainment, the nation’s most dependable charisma depot). Over Skrillex and Diplo’s stark trap-hall beat, the two MCs have plenty of space to flex their best; consequent boasts touch on past hits, strip clubs, Diamonds and Pearls-era Prince, and “your girl’s lesbian crush.” Further charging the 160 BPM beat with fluid bilingual modulation, a plunder of profanity, and a deeply gratifying demon’s harmony on GD’s voice, he and CL each turn in highlight reel performances. Skrillex and Diplo sound inspired as well, particularly in the thrilling anti-drop at the 48-second mark. Almost purely rhythmic, “Dirty Vibe” is as truly future-sounding as any of these four have been.
f(x): “첫사랑니 (Rum Pum Pum Pum)”
As the lead single for a blockbuster K-pop album, “Rum Pum Pum Pum” came shrinkwrapped in a blindingly bright music video. And its performances on Korea’s half dozen “Top of the Pops”-style battle shows—an exhaustive gauntlet all acts must pass to credibly promote a single—were all tightly choreographed, schoolgirl uniformed cheers. While these common tropes and marketing tactics often signify trivial music in Western pop, a peek beneath the surface of this track reveals a remarkable feat of songwriting. While retaining the familiar structure of a pop banger, “Rum Pum” makes unlikely esperanto of Middle Eastern funk guitar, clangorous samba polyrhythms, the Yuletide classic “The Little Drummer Boy”, exactly one bar of flamenco tap dance, and the ad-libbing knock of mid-aughts Timbaland. Then there’s the jazz technique of brushing circles around the beat during the bridge, about the most counterintuitive move one can make in a commercial medium where an explicitly stated beat is fundamental. The lyrics are equally intrepid, exploiting a bit of wordplay in Korean to make a love song all about wisdom teeth: “What to do? You probably expected one/ Who grew up straight/ But I’ll be crooked and torture you/ I’m not easy!” Virtually every moment of the song features a compositional quirk worthy of scrutiny.
EXO: “Love, Love, Love”
Former robotics engineer Lee Soo-man—founding chairman of the SM Entertainment empire, and the de facto progenitor of K-pop as we know it—is a mad scientist of the music industry. His modus operandi, dubbed “cultural technology,” involves the belief that information technology’s core principles can be applied to the composition and export of Korean pop music to the global market. The exact particulars of the process are confidential, but with SM revenue topping $260 million in 2013 alone (and hysterical fans as far as Brazil crying like it’s Beatlemania), clearly there is something to the theory.
Perhaps its purest expression yet is EXO, formed as a 12-piece boy band that divides into two: EXO-K(orean) and EXO-M(andarin). These teams of six are meant to be functionally interchangeable—performing the exact same songs, dancing roughly mirrored choreographies, and filming shot-for-shot identical videos—save for their respective languages. They release their music simultaneously, and promote it in their respective territories like local branches of a single corporate entity. In K-pop, the logic of economics frequently takes surprisingly literal form in the artists themselves.
EXO are at their very best on “Love, Love, Love”, the closer for this past spring’s solid Overdose mini-album. It opens with a vinyl-cackle cascade of New Age ivory, Orientalist synth pentatonics, and Afrobeat guitar accents, soon disrupted by individual track reversals and a crater-sized bass drop. A slowburn R&B beat traces a steady groove above the bedlam, like a tightrope upon which the EXO-K boys perform increasingly daredevil acrobatics. Even after the familiar trap hats slither in, the intrinsic weirdness of the arrangement only deepens as it progresses. Though moments like the interruptive guitar fill in the bridge wouldn’t feel out of place on, say, Dirty Projector’s Bitte Orca, the song remains definitively K-pop.
Infinite: “추격자 (The Chaser)”
Sweetune are among K-pop’s most beloved producers, and “The Chaser” is their masterpiece. The song deliberately employs traditional Korean elements, combining them with New Order guitar, militaristic horn-patch blasts, and a well-earned key change to forge one of the most virtuosic beats in the French electro style. (The instrumental is just as gratifying on its own.)
Notably, the definitive performance of “The Chaser” is a live take that features a full choir, orchestra, and rock band performing a completely new arrangement of the song to thoroughly revised choreography—all made to be performed just once. A showcase of Korea’s unrivaled performative standards, this version displays the precise way in which K-pop, at its best, elevates the disposable melodrama of teen pop toward something more like ballet.
TVXQ: “Honey Funny Bunny”
Hidden behind one of the worst song titles imaginable is K-pop’s most convincing R&B banger to date, a gymnastic triumph in layered harmonies and falsetto. As the only other essential production from E-Tribe—the duo responsible for Girls’ Generation’s mighty “Gee”—it’s also a masterwork of micro-detailed, pitch-bent pop, and a credible challenge to Timbaland on his home turf. FutureSex/LoveSounds would have been lucky to have it.
Girl’s Day: “잘해줘봐야 (Nothing Lasts Forever)”
Now a four-piece, Girl’s Day have been Korea’s most dependable purverors of dance pop sunshine since they were assembled in 2010. Their true gift, however, lies in proficient pop songs that go suddenly, beautifully mental in the second half. Their first single to do so was “Nothing Lasts Forever” (which was featured the following summer on Elite Gymnastics’ landmark mix, All We Fucking Care About Is Kpop Whitehouse and Our Cats). The driving verses and choruses recall Ace of Base-style Eurodance refracted through primetime Lady Gaga. Then, at the two-minute mark, there’s a filter sweep into a section built around mournful piano, a mantric choir line, mesmerizing analog arpeggios, and an almost eternal note held by lead vocalist Minah. Like a sunburst, the song explodes at last into catharsis, the girls repeating their pop philosophy refrain: “Nothing lasts.”
Girls’ Generation: “I Got a Boy”
Founded in 2007 by SM Entertainment, the nine members of Girls’ Generation comprise the most iconic pop group in Asia. Though having found their popularity through bubblegum classics “Gee” and “Genie”, last year’s #1 “I Got a Boy” demonstrates their aptitude in less comfortable territory. On or off the charts, contemporary pop doesn’t get much weirder: The song is split between at least five musically distinct movements, an equal number of staggering, 40-BPM tempo jumps, a spectrum of genres covering snap music to Italo disco, multiple bars of abrupt silence, and a theatrical narrative with nine different characters. It’s like an entire musical, or rock opera, scrunched into an especially pliable pop tune.
Sometimes the tempo changes announce themselves—“Don’t stop! Let’s bring it back to 140!”—but mostly they’re meant to blindside. It’s been speculated that all this jarring tempo play references Korean club culture, where impatient DJs might switch songs after barely a chorus. But in any context, “I Got a Boy” takes chart pop’s increasing ADD in a bold new direction, and is perhaps the most structurally variable mega-hit since “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Considering the song topped all charts in Korea—with a video that has tallied more than 100 million views—Girls’ Generation prove the adventurousness of K-pop’s listenership, as well as the storytelling potential available to Asia’s pop groups.
Ga-In: “Fxxk U” [ft. Bumkey]
Ga-In likes to challenge the norm in Korea, and this year’s “Fxxk U” is her crowning achievement as pop provocateur. Featuring bossa nova faux-guitar, a Casiotone beat, out-of-tune backing harmonies, and sharp stabs of arrhythmic noise undercutting the chorus, it refines the wild ingenuity of “Tinkerbell” into something subtler. But the hook leaves little to the imagination, ably delivering on its promise of the most explicit bonafide hit in K-pop to date.
Paired with its music video, “Fxxk U” breaks even fresher ground. Directed by Hwang Soo Ah, who studied film at New York University, the narrative explicates the discomfiting insinuation of Ga-In’s chorus (“Fuck you, don’t want it now...”) via an unnerving treatise on domestic violence and rape, with all the aplomb of the great Korean cinema. “Fxxk U” is one of the boldest singles of 2014, and reveals the dark depths K-pop is surprisingly equipped to interrogate. It’s an inquiry no one’s making in any mainstream pop elsewhere, let alone so artfully.
IU: “길잃은강아지 (A Lost Puppy)”
Lee Ji-eun, better known as IU, is one of K-pop’s few musician’s musicians outside the studio. As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, she is that rare idol who fulfills the roles more commonly demanded of acts in the West, while also ably handling the ones more commonly expected of Korea’s music stars: actor, television host, model, spokesperson, and on. Composed, written, and sung exclusively by IU, “A Lost Puppy” is a lament of astonishing hopelessness coming from a lighthearted 18-year-old icon.
B2ST: “Fiction (Orchestra Ver.)”
Pronounced “Beast”, this boy-band sextet is a product of the K-pop industry’s competitive cruelty. Comprised of reject trainees from big-league agency JYP (plus one ejected member of the now-super-massive Big Bang) B2ST barely escaped the purgatory to which 10,000 trainees are damned for every one star the system births. And when the group debuted in 2009, the public dismissed them as a “recycled group” made of better groups’ trash.
But B2ST’s Fiction and Fact stands as one of the best K-pop albums to date, quick to convert skeptics with its gargantuan hit, “Fiction”. The song’s morose tones, cinematic scope, and superbly poetic lyrics, along with the most effectively understated choreography in K-pop, left an impression on the market that still holds today. Even better is this elegant reimagining, which coaxes the song’s essential beauty to the fore. The ethereal arrangement of harps and strings even manages one of the unlikeliest accomplishments on this list: rap that works over a symphony instead of a beat.
2NE1: “그리워해요 (Missing You)”
Featuring CL, K-pop’s most beloved star in the West, this girl group recently released Crush, among the first full-lengths a K-pop neophyte should try. But “Missing You”, a standalone single cut from the album’s extensive sessions, is not to be missed either. Beating Lana del Rey’s “West Coast” to the punch by half a year (and without that song’s cop-out radio mix), “Missing You” is the rare band-format single that actually slows downs for the chorus. The song begins with a tense, guitar-based verse glossed in the kind of production glitz that forecasts dancefloor absolution around the bend. But instead, the tempo drops from 130 to a loose half time, all acoustic guitar, grand piano, vocal harmony, and falsetto melisma. Most remarkable, however, is the song’s whole-step modulation before an extended outro that introduces entirely new chord progressions, melodies, and lyrics. “Missing You” is one of the most vocally rich and structurally distinctive singles Korea’s ever produced, a strength 2NE1’s younger brother group Winner emphasized in their equally beautiful live cover.
SHINee: “1분만 (One Minute Back)”
Debuting in 2008 as SM’s most androgynous boy band, the five stars of SHINee have grown into some of the best singers and dancers in contemporary pop. Though characteristically hard-working in the K-pop tradition, the group had an especially ambitious 2013: three full-length albums, a seven-song EP, several standalone singles, a world tour, regular radio DJing gigs, lead roles in soap operas, and more. When they won artist of the year at the People’s Choice-style MelOn Music Awards, the group tearfully begged their fans’ pardon throughout their acceptance, apologizing for not yet truly deserving it—as succinct an illustration of the difference between the American and Asian celebrity mindsets as any.
The brightest diamond from their big year is “One Minute Back”, the pop prog centerpiece of their stellar Everybody mini-album. The first 90 seconds alone could flip Yes’ wigs, reconciling a battery of multidirectional beats; disruptive plain speech; a pre-chorus polyrhythm that sounds like Neil Peart went trap; a hellish descent into one very satanic, five-bar invocation; and at least one vocal harmony that’s as chordally ambitious as Queen’s daringest. The rest of the song doesn’t let up, either.
Brown Eyed Girls: “Sixth Sense”
The group that Ga-In calls home is one of Korea’s strongest vocal powerhouses, allowing Brown Eyed Girls to go places many their peers can’t. Their 2011 hit “Sixth Sense” is perhaps their most aerobic outing to date, a larynx-limber tribute to the Motown pop model whose influence in Korea is felt mostly in the boardroom. Splitting the difference between the bravados of classic girl-group R&B, early-action-film scores, and disco circa Gloria Gaynor, “Sixth Sense” peaks in a high-note climax many would envy in Korea and beyond.
Girl’s Day: “기대해 (Expectation)”
Last year, this single initiated Girl’s Day’s ascent in the Korean mainstream. It’s easy to hear why: Channeling a more steroidal strain of ‘90s Eurodance, “Expectation” is one of the most effective club bangers K-pop can claim. Sojin and Minah soar through dynamic, falsetto-peaking verses reminiscent of La Bouche, while the chorus —driven home by its now-iconic choreography—spoils with an even wilder abundance of hooks.
But again, the second half is where Girl’s Day truly shine. After Yura’s rap break in the Hi-NRG post-chorus, the song plateaus for an extended bridge that builds into a key change so effective it’s almost something of a riddle. Pop songs don’t end quite like that anymore; club songs never have.
Neon Bunny: “너여야 (It’s You)”
K-pop is a closed-circuit game. Considering the stranglehold grip just a few mega-monopolies have on the only distribution channels that matter—the ones on Korean cable—it’s all but impossible to be heard if you aren’t willing to play ball. The Korean mainstream is a carefully regulated monoculture; there are a small handful of rock bands that have gone rogue and lived to tell, but finding a genuinely independent voice of any quality or significance in K-pop is no mean task.
So Neon Bunny is a rare breed—writing the type of bedroom producer K-pop the industry is designed to expunge. This year’s “It’s You” is a particularly fine torch song, illuminating a warm space between French electro synths and the subtlest of glitch-hop fills and trap hi-hats. Her voice is imbued with a natural feeling not often found in the method-acted emotions of mainstream, trainee-bred K-pop, and the industry has much to learn from the brave few like her.
f(x): “Red Light”
Last year’s Pink Tape may be one of the best Asian pop albums of all-time, but f(x)’s just-released Red Light is no joke, either. Its chart-topping title track might briefly seem like little more than an expert trap beat, but it soon reveals a clever subversion: instead of a straight-ahead verse followed by a groovy, half-time drop, “Red Light” inverts the EDM formula to do the exact opposite. On first listen, the effect feels violent, even malicious—just as the five girls have primed us for some familiar wobble with their Melodyne-slick harmonies, what we get instead is more like a runaway freight train in reverse. But sometime during the motion-sick post-chorus it all clicks, and by the second go around the sudden vertigo is like a thrillseeker’s high.
Girls’ Generation: “Gee”
Modern Korean music’s comfort zone lies in unadulterated bubblegum pop, and this list would be incomplete without acknowledging its magnum opus. “Gee” is K-pop at its most mathematically reduced, radically pure essence—a pop song so formally irrefutable that, for one golden year, it overcame half a millennium of historical animosity to broker pop cultural peace between Korea and Japan. Domestically, it is the most popular South Korean song of its decade. And most international K-pop fans, consciously or not, owe their obsession to the butterfly effect “Gee” set into motion upon its 2009 release.
The idea of writing an original thought about “Gee” is, for the K-pop connoisseur, like trying to find a fresh insight in Abbey Road or The Great Gatsby. It’s hardly necessary; a tale of first love that transcends the language barrier, “Gee” speaks for itself. It was a flash of brilliance so bright that the production duo behind it could only sputter and fail from there. In a way, that feels appropriate: “Gee” is the greatest feat Korea will ever accomplish in traditional songcraft. From here, K-pop’s true future lies in the experimental, the experiential, and the unexplored.
From left: Joseph D’Agostino, Brian Hamilton, Matt Whipple, Andrew Dole. Photos by Eric White.
Last December, Cymbals Eat Guitars played a basement show in New Brunswick, New Jersey, about an hour north of where singer Joseph D’Agostino grew up along the Jersey Shore. And as the band watched 120 kids take in their repertoire of gnarled, mid-tempo guitar exercises, they started wondering what would happen if they made a song that actually fit that context—something written from a pop perspective and aimed at getting sweaty bodies moving.
They came up with “XR”, a harmonica-driven pub crawl of old memories that visits local record stores, still-active Myspace pages for dead friends, and subterranean Wrens shows—the kind of rambunctious sing-along that might inspire kids like them, Jersey boys raised on alcohol and self-reflection, to daydream about becoming an important band. It’s the thematic centerpiece of their third album, LOSE, which arrives three full years after 2011’s Lenses Alien, a lineup change—founding drummer Matthew Miller was replaced by Andrew Dole—and a new understanding of how they want to make music.
It sounds like such an obvious idea—writing songs that rock and bop!—but it works to make LOSE, which was produced by long-time collaborator John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr.) both accessible and complex, filled with starry guitar epics, piano-driven ballads, and hoarsely shouted hooks aimed in the right direction.
D’Agostino’s lyrics also began to explicitly acknowledge a formative personal event: the death of Benjamin High, a close friend who passed away as the band was initially building steam. “It was bubbling below the surface for much of the first two records, but I was being oblique,” the 25-year-old says. “But with this record I wanted to simplify and say something that was truthful to me—and I feel like, as an artist, I’m ready to do the subject matter justice.”
The frontman also tapped further into the mythology of New Jersey, peppering his lyrics with regional references to color his personal anguish into a bigger picture. Sprawling album opener “Jackson” ends with D’Agostino howling about not wanting to lose his life to a mythical evil, while “Child Bride” is about a childhood friend who wastes his potential due to a broken home. When D’Agostino tells me about some of these more direct, real-life inspirations, he averts his gaze and twirls his curly hair around a finger like someone half his age. It’s still a new approach for him. Luckily, though, that tentativeness is nowhere to be found on LOSE, which crashes through with an unrelenting widescreen confidence.
Pitchfork: With this album, you wanted to play something less complicated than the first two records. What was that born out of?
Joseph D’Agostino: "Warning" was the first song that was written for the record, about two-and-a-half years ago, and we just wanted to see if we could write something with a big chorus that didn't feel forced or dumb.
Matt Whipple: We had a really hard time with "Warning" and we went through multiple versions of the song before we felt confident with it.
JD: We tried to make it sound like Roxy Music at one point, which was a disaster.
MW: "Let's put saxophones on it!" Finally, we just had to come to terms with what it was.
JD: We were very insecure about having a song with that straightforward verse-chorus-verse thing, but, as it turned out, we were just being pussies. It's one of my favorites now.
Pitchfork: What's the story behind all the Jersey mythology on the record?
JD: I live on Staten Island,but I grew up in South Jersey, in Waretown, so I’m a Jersey boy through and through. We all are, actually, except for Andrew. All that Jersey folklore fascinated me in different ways. I use it for larger emotional points, in the Jersey tradition of songwriting [laughs]—like making New Jersey seem like a mystical, magical place.
Pitchfork: “Jackson” alludes to an urban legend of outlaw Native Americans.
JD: Yeah, the Ramapough Indians were a purported clan of misfits and albinos who lived near Jackson, New Jersey, which is close to where I’m from, and that reference is going for this non-specific presence in the woods as you’re driving through at dusk.
MW: We came to learn that the term “Jackson Whites” is actually really offensive, and we were conflicted about whether we were going to change the song.
JD: But we felt it was obvious that it’s not a hateful thing. And the song is like a combined mythology, because I also read this urban legend about an accident on the side of the road where the victims were laying on the pavement—and as people drove past and looked in the rear-view mirror, the people stood up. So I was thinking about having to drive through the woods in Jersey at night, which is what I spent a lot of my teenage years doing.
Pitchfork: As people who grew up close to New York City, do you feel any connection to the mythology that comes with being a New York band?
JD: When we were first starting to put this band together, rehearsing in Manhattan and all these different spaces, there was something mystical about that. In 2009, a lot of Brooklyn rock bands were happening, and it was an exciting time to feel like you were a part of something. But I don’t really feel like we were stylistically ever in line with anything that was coming out of Brooklyn. It’s always been an outsider thing for us. So we don’t really feel involved with New York. I like the Jersey myth better than the New York myth, personally. The Wrens are like my favorite band ever.
Brian Hamilton: I was raised on Talking Heads and Lou Reed and all that cool New York stuff, but you can’t try to be that. You have to be yourself. That’s how those people did it.
Pitchfork: The song “Child Bride” seems to be written to a single person. Is it directly autobiographical?
JD: Yeah. My best friend in middle school came from an abusive household—there’s a line about how “your mom slapped the living shit out of you,” and that actually happened one day when I was over his house. Shortly after that, I went to ask him to come outside, and the house was empty. That crazy, surreal thing stuck with me. Much later on, when I was 20, we were on tour and he came out to a show looking not-so-good. It took a while to sink in how sad that was to me, because he was a smart kid who was kept down by circumstances.
Pitchfork: That song in particular addresses this feeling of wasting your youth. Do you worry about that yourself?
JD: Yeah. It’s about him. It’s about me. That’s a universal thing. But I am feeling it now that I’m 25, which sounds silly, but you start to feel your age. That was written when I was spending a lot of time stoned much of the day, and I was thinking about different things that may have gotten by me while I was like that.
MW: Joe is the only member of the band who is still in his 20s and he's still super worried about losing them. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Thinking towards the future, do you see it being three more years until your next record comes out?
JD: I hope not. I don’t think there’s a luxury of waiting that long anymore. We went through a lot over the past three years, and spent time stuck in the muck and the mire of regular life, trying to hack it, making it work being in a band. I’m hoping that this record will make a leap. We hoped that Lenses would, but that seems a little funny in retrospect. That record is so psychedelic and knotty and crazy—we could have wrote three really cracking songs, really good singles. But instead we just put it all together, smoking a lot of dope at the time.
BH: We’re more clear-eyed now.
Check out a photo gallery from this year's Way Out West by Maria Louceiro, along with Larry Fitzmaurice's review of the Swedish festival.
“If you are seen crowd surfing or stage diving you will be asked to leave the festival.” That’s just one of the rules outlined on the website for Way Out West, which takes place in the clean, austere Swedish city of Gothenburg. Even in comparison to its European counterparts—nevermind the increasingly perilous culture that pervades North American music festivals—this three-day fest’s strong sense of social responsibility is unique.
Those looking to imbibe alcohol at Way Out West are cordoned off into large areas with a fine view of the stages; the food served at the festival is entirely vegetarian (“It’s what the young people are really into these days,” a PR rep for Gothenburg tourism tells me); and there’s a strong focus on environmental conservatism, to the point where festival employees were seen dutifully picking up litter throughout the weekend, even during the biggest performances. (It worked, too: I’ve never seen more pristine festival grounds.) Sometimes, when you see someone reclining on the grass at a festival, they’re in need of a trip to the med tent, but the first person I saw doing so at Way Out West was just vegging out, literally—she was eating a carrot the size of two corn dogs.
Way Out West is held in Gothenburg’s largest park, Slottskogen, which features a botanical garden, a giant pond, and, further away from the festival area, a free zoo. So wildlife was occasionally abundant, and the crowd featured as many typical park-goers as it did party-hardy young people. It was as likely to see someone thoughtfully reading a book while sitting on a beanbag chair as it was to witness more traditional forms of festival behavior, as Way Out West’s 30,000-person-strong audience remained almost unfailingly polite throughout the weekend.
Even though tailgating outside the grounds is not only permitted but encouraged—festival sponsor and beer company Norrlands Guld offered huge coolers of ice to attendees looking to have a boozy little picnic before getting their fill of live music—there was surprisingly little incident of extreme public intoxication. And when there was, it was stomped-out quickly, like a tiny brushfire: As I left the grounds on Saturday evening, a man amiably stumbled through the gates and was quickly apprehended by Gothenburg police, who set him in the other direction and followed him, at a considerable distance, until he was outside the gates again, not to re-enter. When I asked one of the officers the reason for the man’s quick dismissal, his response was quick, but delivered with a friendly attitude I’ve never encountered in a police officer: “He was too drunk.”
The capacity to over-imbibe, however, was more than present during the festival’s Stay Out West shows, a series of after-hours events scattered throughout Gothenburg that featured bands performing in unique venues—scruffy indie outfit Speedy Ortiz played at the roller coaster-stuffed Liseberg amusement park, while art-hardened techno auteur Holly Herndon did her thing at Gothenburg’s opera house. If you were an out-of-towner looking to get a taste of Gothenburg’s burgeoning nightlife, which has recently seen growth as more students have flocked to the city, this was a good opportunity, as well as a way to get a glimpse of locals in a rowdier state of mind. Before Real Estate’s late-night set on Saturday night at live music hub Pustervik, broken glasses and drunken stumbling abounded; the night before, at the jazz club Nefertiti, one young man took it upon himself to take an extended nap during Hessle Audio heads Ben UFO, Pearson Sound, and Pangaea’s joint four-hour set of bruising, battered techno.
All of which was in good fun, of course, as the festival attendees—and, by extension, the people of Gothenburg—remained impressively congenial and good-natured, even as a bout of rain hit the grounds on Sunday evening. As someone who attended the festival alone and spent most of the weekend taking in the performances solo, I was reminded that music festivals are, increasingly, less about the music and more about the social act of attending music festivals. This notion of music-festival-as-lifestyle-activity wasn’t the only element that Way Out West shared with other fests across the pond. Despite the increased focus on socially conscious behavior, branding was more pervasive than ever, from free (and intermittently operable) WiFi hotspots provided by Spotify, to booths touting the latest wares from Sony and Ben & Jerry’s, to the persistence of one of the most irritating trends in North American festival culture, the public-haircut booth. These unfortunate commonalities served as a reminder that, even as festival culture differs internationally, the way they operate will most likely stay the same.
Most Disappointing: “What are you here to see?” asked chef Johan Malm of Restaraurang Gabriel, the restaurant located in the upper level of Gothenburg’s Feskekorka fish market. (If you find yourself there, by the way, try the fish soup.) I told him I was most looking forward to Röyksopp and Robyn, who were headlining Way Out West’s final night, and he gestured towards the entire restaurant: “We’re all gonna be there, too.” Indeed, the pairing drew the biggest crowd of the entire weekend—but it was also one of Way Out West’s least enthusiastic. Röyksopp kicked things off with a 40-minute set of selections from their own impressive catalog, but the relative indifference to the intricate (and, admittedly, occasionally boring) arrangements suggested an attitude that was best summed up by a companion: “Where’s Robyn?” When she did come out, the crowd cheered wildly, and although her dynamic presence and fluid dance moves added some much-needed oomph to the performance, her own set was in line with Röyksopp’s moody portion, sticking to more atmospheric cuts before hitting the world-beating trio of “Call Your Girlfriend”, “Dancing on My Own”, and “With Every Heartbeat”. The added energy was felt, but it just wasn’t enough.
You Know You’re at a European Festival When: The first thing you see when approaching the gates is a boy-girl ukulele-melodica duo covering Beirut’s “Nantes”.
Number of Attendees Who I Mistook for the Frontman of St. Lucia: 5
Best Stomach Tattoo: The guy with a gun tattooed on his stomach
Most Surprising (Sort of) Beyoncé Cameo: Stockholm electro-pop duo Beldina & Bella Boo’s trappy, Ryan Hemsworth-core cover of “Baby Boy”
Best Opening Song: A rendition of “Gonna Fly Now”, aka the theme from Rocky, spun by Jamie xx
Most Perplexing: I didn’t exactly go to Way Out West to specifically see Yung Lean, but let’s say that when I realized he was on the bill, my interest was piqued. A quick primer: Yung Lean—or, formally, Jonatan Leandoer Hastad—is an 18-year-old Stockholm resident who, along with his Sad Boys crew, has remained a small-scale internet concern for the last few years off of two mixtapes, the most recent being last year’s Unknown Death 2002. His approach is pretty simplistic: English-language rapping about standard hip-hop tropes, along with the occasional faux-deep admission, over beats that sound like budget versions of what’s trended in American hip-hop over the past five years. But the zoo-like curiosity factor has attributed him a small-but-fervent online following, not dissimilar to the one Lil B continues to maintain and grow.
But that’s where the comparisons between the two end: While Lil B operates with a sense of try-anything-once ingenuity, there’s nothing new about what Hastad is doing. If anything, it calls back to the repulsive tradition of minstrelsy, even more so than other, bigger artists who have recently weathered similar accusations. Up close, hearing a Swedish teen shout “I’ma get a chopper, shoot that ho in the face” scans at an impossibly offensive level of cultural appropriation, even situated in a musical culture that’s played fastand loose with borrowing similar elements in the past.
Regardless (or, more likely, because) of these factors, Yung Lean has attracted U.S. press coverage on a fairlysizable scale, so I was curious to see how this micro-phenomenon was received in Hastad’s home country. While his audience was smaller than other Scandinavian acts booked throughout the weekend, what they lacked in mass they made up for in energy. “Let’s fuckin’ mosh!” a teen-looking Swede yelled near me, as the crowd turned into one massive pulsating force when Hastad and his crew took the stage; the whiteness of the audience was obvious, as was the age—as a 27-year-old, I felt about 50 while surrounded by kids too young to drink. And for the first time during the whole festival, the smell of weed was in the air, its scarcity due in no small part to Sweden’s harsh, controversial drug laws, as well as the fact that use of the drug is generally frowned upon in Swedish culture.
There is something specifically masculine about what Yung Lean does, but his audience included a healthy mix of both young men and women. Like many of the other Scandinavian acts I saw and didn’t connect with during the weekend, part of me chalked it up to a cultural remove—but part of me was a little offended by the whole thing, too.
Hat-Tip To: The food-stand worker who broke into an a cappella rendition of La Bouche’s “Be My Lover” while serving up tofu and chips
Funniest Song Intro: Mötorhead’s Lemmy introducing their set closer, the eternally classic “Ace of Spades”, by taking on a high-pitched register in a sing-song voice, “Boop boop be doop”
Surprised By: The massive crowd singing along to “Honest” during Future’s enjoyable Friday evening set
Most Worthwhile Upgrade: Despite not being the biggest fan of the National’s mortgage-rock, I attempted to watch their set on Thursday night but left quickly, feeling immeasurably bored. I then wandered over instead to Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s space rock-cum-progressive techno Darkside project, whose live set was a dynamic blast of psychedelia that remained engaging throughout. In the press area, there were no less than five signs within 20 feet of each other reminding photographers that there were to be no photos taken “WHAT SO EVER” during Darkside’s performance, and it’s understandable: the light show that accompanied their performance was fine for what it was, but more importantly, it’s hard to expect a picture to accurately capture such a visceral-sounding spectacle.
That’s My Shit: Soundgarden’s “Pretty Noose” blasting from a food truck outside the festival gates on Saturday afternoon
Number of Odd Future T-shirts Spotted: 1
Number of Flower Crowns Spotted: 4
There’s a First Time for Everything: “No one’s ever done that for me before,” punk journeywoman Brody Dalle beamed after an adoring fan threw a rose on stage during the tail end of her Thursday afternoon set. Dalle’s invigorating set of solo tracks and choice cuts from her former act the Distillers, enjoyed with polite fervor by a refreshingly non-mosh-prone crowd, highlighted her still-capable talents and reinforced the status of her latest album, Diploid Love, as one of the most underrated punk records of the year. (It also served as an excellent reminder that Coral Fang, the Distillers’ amazing 2003 swan song, still bangs hard.)
Deep Burn: Conor Oberst introducing his track “Governor’s Ball” thusly: “This song is about a music festival—not this one specifically, but they’re all pretty similar.”
Best Set: Swedish duo Icona Pop released one of the best pop albums of last year, a heady mix of female-and-friend-positive empowerment and cavernous mainstream dance, and their bombastic performance on Friday night threatened to blow the park to bits. There’s something that just feels good about looking around while Icona Pop’s Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo sing “we can do this all night!” and seeing groups of friends jumping around, doing silly dances, embracing each other, and giddily laughing into the sky.
The phenomenon underlined how emotionally impactful the duo’s music can be, and they know their own power quite well, stretching closer and forever-titanic anthem “I Love It” to double its length with breakdowns so garish they’d make Swedish House Mafia blush. As I left the grounds afterwards, feeling emboldened and alive, an overexcited Swedish man dropped all pretenses of abbreviation and yelled: “You only live once!”
I. As Luck Would Have It
Dedication is dragging an iron mask to business meetings. But there’s no such thing as halfway crooks, and no legitimate supervillain can strike terror in spectacles and a kufi. You need esoteric scars and an origin myth smothered in smoke. You need resilience to battle post-9/11 Homeland Security officials wary of black British nationals with Five Percenter backgrounds. You need a metal face, preferably one with an aperture allowing you to drink beer. Otherwise, you’re just weird.
The name on the plane ticket read: Daniel Dumile. It summoned the ex-Zev Love X from Atlanta to L.A. to meet Madlib. Dumile may have officially announced his villainy around the time of Clinton’s impeachment, but “DOOM” was what the kids in Long Beach, New York, always called him—a warning woven into the syllables of his surname. It became chilling prophecy when SubRoc, his brother and partner in K.M.D., was run over and killed on the Long Island Expressway in 1993.
Shortly thereafter, Elektra dropped K.M.D., partially due to album artwork that depicted a Sambo figure hanging from a noose. A half-decade of darkness followed. All we really know about these Sinai wanderings in Strong Island is that the originator of the gas face fathered a child, wrote dozens of raps that never saw daylight, and grieved over obscene quantities of malt liquor and jazz.
He eventually re-emerged with a morbid bent, cruller-shaped physique, and a Darth Maul Halloween mask (mercifully, soon upgraded and galvanized). After a series of 12”s on underground rap Masada Fondle ‘Em Records, he released Operation: Doomsday, which became a subterranean classic among JanSport zealots.
It also lodged in the belfry of Madlib, the Oxnard-raised loop digger, who had recently hatched an album of psilocybin-rattled helium raps, inhabiting an animated alter ego named after literature’s most famous hunchback. It was a union conceived in head shop heaven.
But the idea of Madvillain was as unlikely as it was inspired. Both men exhibited reclusive, out-of-orbit tendencies usually only found in Burial, Thomas Pynchon, and Himalayan glacier beings. And this was the early 2000s, before cell phones, social media, and email became appendages. The odds of corralling the duo in the same room were grim. Especially after Madlib became estranged from hip-hop in favor of Yesterdays New Quintet, his fictional fusion jazz band where he played every instrument. It may have been creatively emancipating, but his fledgling label, Stones Throw, was on the brink—and, save for a fluke hit that became a turntablist AK-47, Madlib was the imprint’s one-man business plan since its inception in 1996. Despite the sterling merits of his jazz forays, Stones Throw’s target audience didn’t overlap enough with the chill stoner grandpa demographic to sustain itself.
“I was looking to do anything to kick start his interest in hip-hop,” remembers Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, former Stones Throw general manager, founder of Now-Again Records, and co-founder of Madlib’s Madlib Invazion label. “We had the chance to do a reunion album of [Madlib’s first group] Lootpack. I got them weed, booked studio time, and it fizzled out.”
Stones Throw had recently moved operations from San Francisco to L.A., mostly to be closer to its hermetic star, whose own family members called him The Unseen. Lacking capital for an office, a rented house in the Mount Washington hills doubled as a nerve center and crash pad for the label’s staff: founder Peanut Butter Wolf, art director Jeff Jank, and Alapatt. An Eisenhower-era bomb shelter with 18-inch concrete walls became Madlib’s studio, and an implicit symbol for the subterranean enterprise.
But it’s tough to alter music history without money for caffeine and weed. Funds were so scarce that the coffee budget came from scrounging forgotten dollars from Madlib’s dirty laundry. And without more Madlib rap music, the label seemed fated to wind up like Fondle ‘Em, which fossilized in 2001.
Destiny dilated in a darkened aquarium in Long Beach, California, where a turbaned Madlib tripped out on a tank of phosphorescent sea dragons. He was there for a feature in the LA Times. When the reporter asked Madlib for his list of dream collaborators, two names came up: J Dilla and MF DOOM.
Madlib in Los Angeles circa 2002. Photos by Eric Coleman.
Machinations had already begun for what became Jaylib’s Champion Sound. But DOOM was entirely off the grid. After Operation: Doomsday dropped and Fondle ‘Em folded, the villain basically disappeared for three years, hustling back and forth between Long Island and Kennesaw, Georgia, an ex-railroad suburb of Atlanta named after the Cherokee word for “burial ground”—famed for a mandate requiring every resident to own a gun. It was the ideal enclave for a metal-fingered malefactor to conceal himself in plain sight.
By chance, an old college crate-digging friend of Alapatt’s happened to live in Kennesaw and had a passing acquaintance with DOOM, who had never heard of Madlib or Stones Throw.
“I told my friend that Madlib’s been making beats and I needed to get them to DOOM to get Madlib back into rap again,” says Alapatt, who promptly shipped out a care package of Madlib’s early work. Three weeks later, the friend called back: DOOM loved it and wanted to work. Phone calls and tapes were exchanged. An offer was made. One of several quasi-managers then orbiting the DOOM solar system demanded plane tickets to L.A. and $1,500 for three songs over Madlib beats. Stones Throw immediately agreed.
“She was playing hardball: ‘DOOM needs this, DOOM needs this,’” Alapatt says. “I thought it was all pretty stupid, but I agreed to it, even though we didn’t have any money in the bank after buying him the plane tickets.”
That’s how Daniel Dumile wound up with a steel face stashed in his luggage on a spring day in 2002. When the plane touched down in L.A. and Peanut Butter Wolf arrived at the airport to pick him up, the mask rusted at arm’s length, just in case a mass conqueror needed to get a little ruthless. By the time the car reached the Stones Throw citadel in Mount Washington, the shield was strapped on, the debt ready to be collected.
“The first thing his manager did was get me in my bedroom, which was also the office, and corner me about the 1,500 bucks,” Alapatt says. “I realized that if she was in here, then DOOM was with [Madlib], and the longer I kept up this charade with her, the longer they’ll vibe and maybe it all might work out.”
It became a scene straight out of a Bond movie. The longer Alapatt distracted DOOM’s henchwoman, the more time it allowed Madlib and DOOM to escape into a different dimension—or, at the very least, smoke a blunt and bob their heads to beat tapes. If she discovered they were broke, the jig was up, DOOM would be on the next flight back to Georgia, and the universe we live in would be 73 percent less dastardly.
But as Shakespeare wrote, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind.” And he was no stranger to strong smoke, masks, and the idea that audiences love to hate. The union of Madlib and MF DOOM was destined through hook and crook. As the tense haggling transpired upstairs, the instrumental from “America’s Most Blunted” bumped from the bomb shelter, its psych-rap rattle bleeding through the walls of the house. If you took a deep inhale, it was impossible not to notice the dank aroma of creativity being increased.
II. Bong Rips on the Roof on the West Coast
One hundred Madlib beats materialized in a matter of weeks. A bolt of inspiration ignited most of the stash for Champion Sound and Madvillainy,along with albums from M.E.D. and Dudley Perkins. In his atomic lair, the 28-year-old skinned his wax collection like the Native Americans used buffalo: equally reverent and rapacious. A commodity to be split into a thousand parts, nothing wasted.
“Everything was spontaneous,” Madlib tells me now. “We worked with whatever we had at hand. If you think about it too much, it won’t work. But shit usually works out when you’re with the like-minded. DOOM’s like my super-smart cousin. We trade books and records: Sun Ra equations, biographies of Charlie Parker. Some people are born off that same energy.”
Stones Throw foraged enough cash to rent DOOM a hotel, but most of his time was spent at the house in Mount Washington. Mask off, writing rhymes, demoing, drinking beers, eating Thai, and hitting a bong on the terrace. In his bunker, a solitary Madlib smoked stupendous amounts and feverishly kept pace. At one point, Peanut Butter Wolf threw a Super Bowl party, where attendees were star-struck by the supervillain scarfing chicken wings and watching Tom Brady knife up the St. Louis Rams.
“I’m staying in L.A. and trying to get back to my children... working as fast I can without sacrificing the quality,” DOOM recalled in a 2011 interview at the Red Bull Academy. (He declined requests to speak for this article). “[Madlib] would give me another CD, and I’m writing… We might stop, and he’ll burn one and listen to the beat, and that’s it… We hardly spoke. It was more through telepathy. We spoke through the music."
By booking DJ gigs, delaying a few royalty payments, and banking on a vinyl advance from Fat Beats, Stones Throw scraped together the $13,000 budget. A contract between DOOM, Madlib, and the label was written and signed on a paper plate. The villain got a $1,500 advance, with subsequent installments meted out on a per-track basis. Proceeds were split 50/50, upon recouping of expenses.
“I had the romantic idea that it was protecting the artists more—and I didn’t want to be a shady record label,” Peanut Butter Wolf says. “But there are so many different aspects of releasing a record that need to be spelled out. The hand-written anti-contract was a cute joke at the time, though.”
It reflected an established anti-establishment approach. Both Wolf and DOOM spent the early 1990s in rap groups on major labels. Both got dropped shortly after the crushing deaths of their partners. Madlib loosely apprenticed under West Coast heavies King Tee and the Likwit Crew before self-releasing the first Lootpack EP after no one offered a deal.
Stones Throw’s fulcrum hinged on nothing being too eccentric or commercially toxic. They were defiantly anachronistic without being overly sentimental or nostalgic; hiss and dust were necessary to a balanced diet. Then there was Madvillain, wandering towards the future through the wax portal of the past, warping to an alternate dimension where the reigning deities descended from Saturday morning cartoons, Blaxploitation cinema, Blue Notes, and psycho-tropic visions.
At the time, the label’s central priority remained the Madlib and J Dilla collaboration. Fresh off the success of Slum Village, the Detroit soul magi had a major label deal and production credits for the Roots, Erykah Badu, and Common. In comparison, Madvillainy was the cult comic too abstruse to be adapted. And its odds of success only decreased after it leaked on a trip to Brazil.
Booked to speak at the Red Bull Music Academy, Madlib spent most of his two-week sojourn trawling for Tropicalia and samba loops in mom and pop shops scattered across Sao Paulo. Hijacking the only room with a cassette player, he rigged it up to his SP-303 sampler and started to gut and fillet the fresh catches.
“We went to every little store we could find,” Madlib says, still lamenting the two boxes of records forever lost in transit. “I was keeping Brazilian time, sitting in my room smoking some terrible weed and sampling shit, while everyone else was out partying and getting drunk.”
Madlib and Cut Chemist shared a suite with adjoining doors; countless strangers carouseled through the rooms. The beats for Madvillainy’s “Strange Ways”, “Raid”, and “Rhinestone Cowboy” were birthed. And at some point, someone wrangled a near-finished demo cassette of the album, took it on a plane back to the United States, and leaked it on the internet—14 months before its official release.
“Those were the early days of internet leaks, and we thought it would completely ruin sales,” Jeff Jank says. “People were approaching DOOM and Madlib at shows to tell them how much they liked the album, so they were like, ‘Fuck it, I’m done.’ Madlib started on other stuff, and DOOM, well, you never know what he’s doing.”
Madlib's recording setup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, circa 2002. Photo by Madlib.
Nearly a year elapsed. In that span, Jaylib flopped commercially. DOOM snapped his hiatus with Take Me to Your Leader, a monster-movie concept album where he played a triple-headed rapping gold dragon named Geedorah. He also released Vaudeville Villain, playing teenaged Viktor Vaughn, a “young whippersnapper” and sometime rival to the metal-faced terrorist. The first Madvillain show also occurred at a Stones Throw Coachella set, but few saw it because Talib Kweli was playing at the same time. It was 2003.
It’s unclear why Madlib and DOOM started working again. The laws of their partnership are ungoverned by cycles of commerce, Gregorian calendar, or conventional reason. All that matters is that at some point that fall, they came back with thumbtacks and pop for the beer. The intent was to retain the raw integrity of the leaked Madvillainy while paradoxically refining it.
“On the original version of album, DOOM rapped in a really hyper, more enthusiastic voice,” Peanut Butter Wolf says. “Then he decided to rap in a more mellow, relaxed, confident, less abrasive tone. I think he did it to make it different from the all the other projects he dropped those years.”
The villain made minor lyrical edits, presumably for the purposes of posterity. A SARS reference switched to AIDS. A reference to 9/11 on “Meat Grinder” became “10/11.” He re-did every vocal and wrote what became “Accordion” and “Bistro”.
“I didn’t understand why he re-recorded his vocals,” says Jank. “I wasn’t crazy about the second version at first, but he was really just perfecting it as an album—he was very aware of the consistency from one track to the next.”
Between the leaked demo and the official release of the 12” to Money Folder/America’s Most Blunted, Madvillain cultivated a bigger buzz than anything Stones Throw had experienced. But the last stages of completion were fraught with complications.
The label asked Madlib to re-do a few beats, but he said he forgot the sample sources. Then DOOM demanded to alter some tracks. Everyone grew frustrated. Compounding the anxiety, Alapatt, the project’s chief A&R, realized it lacked a legitimate ending. With less than a week left to turn the record into the distributor, they rented DOOM a $60-an-hour studio. Selecting the beat for “Rhinestone Cowboy”, the villain smashed in timely fashion.
With the finale, DOOM slapped the white 10-gallon hat off Glen Campbell in favor of a black Stetson and silver skull. The diabolic sequel of “Rhinestone Cowboy” flips the original’s themes, similar to Madlib samurai-chopping samples. The Wichita Lineman crooned about a veteran troubadour who knows “every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway/ Where hustle's the name of the game/ And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain.”
It doubled as testimony to Dumile’s tribulations in his first music industry rodeo. Out of necessity, the mercurial chrome-masked man replaced the kind temperance of the rookie. After a dozen years of grinding, Madvillainy finally re-directed the lights towards DOOM.
The encore encapsulates the album’s runic brilliance. Madlib loops a millisecond from a Brazilian gem cut by Caetano Veloso’s sister. DOOM is the phantom of the Grand Ole Opry rocking parties and departing in a jalopy. The grimy slimy limey references Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and an arcane 1970s kids show in the same bar. He cryptically alludes to the leak and subsequent delay. The wordplay is opaque and dazzling. The beat is psychedelic and sinister. The villain has the last laugh, but not so loud that you can’t hear the applause.
Next: Why Madvillainy remains vital and the latest on its long-delayed sequel
III. Two Historical Figures, Outlaws, and Desperadoes
A villain rarely admits their immorality. A supervillain not only understands their nefarious tendencies, they revel in them. They are gloriously wicked, self-possessed and theatrical, one step ahead and smirking into the fourth wall: Ric Flair, Kobe Bryant (admittedly), Satan in Paradise Lost, Destro from“G.I. Joe”, Lady Macbeth, Mr. Burns, Heather Locklear on “Melrose Place”, and Madvillain all glimmer in the hall of cracked mirrors.
Rap has few supervillains. It’s a genre filled with flawed protagonists and faceless corpses. (Aside from Madvillain, the only true rival in unalloyed supervillainy is Eazy-E.) And unlike most great anti-heroes, Madvillain escaped unscathed. They are resolutely shadowy and esoteric, a hieroglyph with a translation open to interpretation. They are unclassifiable and unpredictable: a Saturday morning cartoon with Saturday night sensibilities.
By the time of their fusion, Madlib and MF DOOM had mastered the rules, understood when to break them, and knew how to forget their existence in the first place. Madvillainy is both unmoored from the gravity of its time and a product of its temperature.
DOOM in Los Angeles circa 2002. Photos by Eric Coleman.
For all the liberty ostensibly granted to independent hip-hop, the majority of records from the millennial underground boom followed a verse-chorus-verse approach. Beats opted for an austere boom-bap purity. Lyrics gravitated towards elliptical concerns about lyrics—either a rapper’s superior bars or a rival’s wack ones.
Madvillainy absorbed this ethos, but refused to adhere to an orthodox code of ethics. It’s the work of two men still enchanted by hip-hop’s possibilities, but exhausted by its tedious posturing. There’s a yellowing never-digitized article on “How to Spot a Wack Emcee”, cut out and hanging from the wall of Poobah Records in Pasadena. Authored by DOOM, it’s as close as you’ll find to a metal-faced mission statement.
The indictment lacerates rappers who lack showmanship, who refuse to edit their verses, who are vulgar to the point of silliness, who are too self-obsessed, who say “you” too frequently, who use excessive choruses, who scream too much, who are too fashion-obsessed, who pose half-naked (“When I buy the album, I want to listen to it, not take home soft porn.”)
His opus is the antidote to these aired grievances. The words seem absurdist and improvised, but reflect precise diction, alliteration, and internal rhyme. He embodies Mark Twain’s epigram that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and lightning.”
But Twain never described himself as “the worst-hated God who perpetrated odd favors, demonstrated in the perforated Rod Lavers.” DOOM breaks out into drinking songs about Drano. He plays the affable maître d’ at the Madvillain Bistro Bed and Breakfast Bar and Grill. On “Figaro”, he name-checks a character from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a Mozart comic opera. In the next inhale, the villain sips Olde English and sticks the head in.
The slang merges hip-hop stoner with Hanna-Barbera. This is the same heroic antagonist who sampled “Scooby-Doo” on Operation: Doomsday, and so Madvillainy may be the only great rap album with the phrases “silly goose,” “egads,” and “sheesh.” His lexicon conforms to the character. The villain speaks a certain way; he exhibits his own strut, his own sneer.
Hooks are practically non-existent. Song titles are mostly selected from a single line. Wildchild gets a track to himself for no apparent reason. It’s underground not strictly from convulsive reaction, but because it afforded the freedom to be fully raw.
The mask enhances the drama and mystery, but also nullifies conventional expectations. Looks and style aren’t necessarily synonymous. Your ears focus on the flip-book imagery and supernatural exploits, not the 30-something, chubby, balding wizard in the vocal booth.
When all narration follows a costumed third person, you are not shackled to notions of authenticity—a rarity in a period bookended by 50 Cent and chants to “keep it real.” Thus, the stories range from clever rap boasts about skills and money, to wariness of a girl with rancid breath, to an abstract meditation on war and religion.
No other rap album exists in the same constellation as Madvillainy; however, cosmic kinsmen do exist. Supreme Clienteleshares its elemental composition of cartoon skits, delirious vocab, and metallic alter egos. Both Dilla and Madlib inherited DNA from the holy trinity of Marley Marl, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier. Within hip-hop, you can trace the legacy of conceptual ambition and psychedelic experimentation back to Prince Paul and De La Soul (or Rammellzee, who one-upped the mask with a suit of robot-samurai battle gear).
Madvillain in Los Angeles circa 2004. Photo by Eric Coleman.
But if nothing is remotely like Madvillainy, it’s because there’s no one left like Madlib and DOOM. The producer controls the dial, scrolling through decades and sounds as easily as a scrapbook. He stitches together the tale of two supervillains from snippets of old cartoons, noir, horror movies. Instrumentals are inserted as interludes. Effects are spliced to add three-dimensionality: A phone rings. Tapes rewind. Redman yawps. Bong rips bubble. Dhalsim grunts “Yoga Flame!” DOOM coaxes maximum oxygen out of every beat, letting them build and breathe.
The Beat Konducta’s abyssal record collection contributes everything from Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa, the Whispers and Atlantic Starr, all the obscure Brazilian loot plundered from Sao Paulo. But its spiritual epicenter is jazz. Two masters joining forces for the sake of seeing what might happen. It’s the hip-hop cognate to Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman colliding on Free Jazz, one uninterrupted and fearless jolt of creativity.
If you asked Madlib, he’d inevitably admit the heaviest debt to Sun Ra, the patron saint of intergalactic flight. If there is a central artery to Madvillainy, it’s “Shadows of Tomorrow”, a re-interpretation of a gnostic spell from the late jazz explorer. In his Quasimoto guise, Madlib repeats a series of incantations about time and eternity.
Today is the shadow of tomorrow
Today is the present future of yesterday
Yesterday is the shadow of today
The darkness of the past is yesterday
And the light of the past is yesterday
It can be a jazzman’s lament, a sacramental hymn, or a Buddhist mantra. The Greeks believed in the concept of kairos,“the supreme moment,” the evanescent rotation in which all our stars align. To the early Christians, kairos was when God intervenes. In rhetoric, it was a “passing instant when an opening appears, which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” These are things that do not answer to temporal law or skeptical debunking. They are the skips in the record that you can’t explain. This is Madvillainy.
DOOM and Madlib in Los Angeles circa 2002. Photo by Eothen Alapatt.
IV. The Wisdom of the Future
Upon its release in March 2004, response was unprecedented and immediate. Among other raves, this website gave it a 9.4 and called it “inexhaustibly brilliant.” The New Yorker went one superlative further to say “Madvillain redeems the pretensions of independent hip-hop.” After two years of hectoring Stones Throw for making unsalable records, distributor EMI couldn’t keep Madvillainy in stock.
“Everyone was suddenly talking about it,” Alapatt says. “Def Jux was the indie-rap behemoth, and now we were being mentioned side-by-side. It kept the lights on at Stones Throw for years—until Donuts came out.”
Madvillainy has sold approximately 150,000 copies, making it the label’s best-selling rap album. The revenues allowed Stones Throw to finally open an office in nearby Highland Park. Most of the credit belongs to the music, but the cover artwork from Jank burnished the iconography.
If you’ve read this far, the image is already seared into your synapses. DOOM barricaded behind the iron mask, eyes like arrowheads, weight of the world in his retinas. The color scheme is sepulchral grey; the mask is scarred and battered, but stolidly intact. Jank envisioned it as a sly riff on King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and Madonna’s self-titled debut.
“The idea was, ‘Who the fuck is this dude walking around with a metal mask? What’s his problem? What’s the story behind it?’” Jank says. “When DOOM saw it, he just groaned. He didn’t want to see himself.”
Typical supervillain response. A more fitting impression came from Mos Def, who described picking up the vinyl despite not owning a record player: “I bought it just to stare at the album. And I stared at it and I just kept going, 'I understand you.'”
Its impact is incalculable. You can point to Odd Future, particularly Tyler and Earl, whose theoretical EarlWolf project is built off the blueprint—right down to the perpetual delays. Thom Yorke is an avowed Madvillain fanboy. New York’s Joey Bada$$ and Bishop Nehru could be DOOM’s illegitimate seeds. Flying Lotus’ Captain Murphy alias ostensibly exists to the fill the black-light void that Madvillain bequeathed.
Most of a Madvillain sequel sits in a hard drive somewhere in London. Maybe. Due to a never-fully-explained immigration snafu, DOOM now roams his country of birth. It’s unclear when he’ll be allowed to return to America. Then again, he could be here right now.
When the initial paper plate pact was signed, Stones Throw locked up a deal for two more albums. One was optioned. The last eight years have been spent trying to coax it into existence. For a while, DOOM and Madlib shared adjacent studios in a former Masonic Lodge in northeast Los Angeles. Some songs were recorded. None were released.
“I’m waiting on DOOM. He has the beats. I’ve done my part,” Madlib has said repeatedly over the last several years.
When Kanye West sought Madlib beats for what eventually became My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, DOOM brokered the meeting, hoping for a cut of the potential windfall. For hours, the three of them sat in that Masonic Lodge, shrouded in smoke, piles of records, and the smell of pan dulce from the Mexican bakery downstairs. At some point, Kanye fell out of a rickety half-broken chair lying around the studio. Madlib and DOOM laughed, as villains do.
In the interregnum, Madlib’s carved up a career’s worth of damaged psychedelic loops, free-jazz odysseys, and smashed Piñatain partnership with Freddie Gibbs. When reached by phone, The Unseen mentions an arsenal of stockpiled records with Scarface, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, and miscellaneous beat tapes and Yesterdays New Quintet reunions.
Earlier this spring, DOOM sent Peanut Butter Wolf an email. After a long hiatus, they’d recently reconnected about Madvillainy 2. The note read: “I’m just about done, doing some final touch-ups over the weekend, then she’ll be ready. Sounding really dope.” Wolf’s subsequent decision to post the message to his Instagram angered the sphinx. To date, no new songs have been sent.
This consistency of inconsistency is unrivaled and in-character. Whether sending DOOM imposters to his shows or refusing to reveal a single personal detail, expectations are there to be obliterated. A supervillain’s actions aren’t supposed to be understood or interpreted. Above all, the commitment remains supreme. The light is never to be invited in.
From left: Brandon Jagersky, Evan Redsky, Drew Thomson, Micheal Peterson. Photos by Ben Pobjoy.
Single Mothers: "Marbles" on SoundCloud.
While certain Germanic towns in Canada changed their name after World War II, the native population of Swastika, Ontario, ensured it wasn’t one of them. The dubiously dubbed mining hub plays an important role in the history of cynical snark-punk band Single Mothers. It’s where front-screamer and searing lyricist Drew Thomson moved around 2011 after quitting the band—which was based eight hours away in London, Ontario—to try his luck at gold prospecting. Yes: gold prospecting.
“My dad tricked me—he knew I was drinking too much and hanging with the wrong people in London, and he was like, ‘You should go up with your aunt and uncle, who are prospectors, and make a bunch of money,’” Thomson says, explaining the odd (and oddly “Fresh Prince”-like) turn of events. Soon enough, he says he was making $1,500 a day “just walking in the bush.” He learned geophysics, rubbed shoulders with ax-wielding crack addicts, and bought a house for $7,000. “I was going to go up there for only a couple months,” he says, “but I ended up loving it and stayed for three years.”
But, eventually, Single Mothers beckoned. Last year, he returned to London and solidified the band’s lineup to go on tour, effectively decreasing his daily income from $1,500 to $5. (But in times of need—like right now, as Single Mothers are about to go on a two-month North American tour—he’ll head back up to Swastika for a week to boost his bank account.) And after years of internal unrest, they also finally completed their debut album, Negative Qualities, which is due out October 7 via XL imprint Hot Charity.
The record is not a Decemberists-style concept record about Thomson’s time in the wild frontier (though he says he’s writing a collection of short stories about his prospecting days). Instead, the lyricist draws on his experience as a self-described “townie” in London, a city that nearly triples its size during the school year and provides an enormous amount of songwriting material for a guy drawn to dicing up snobby know-it-alls and clueless, drunken assholes. “I lived in an apartment directly across the street from the biggest bar on campus,” he explains, “so every single night there were kids throwing up on my front lawn, throwing rocks at skunks, and stealing fucking picnic tables from the park across the street.”
But while the people in Singles Mothers songs tend to be full of shit, Thomson doesn’t necessarily leave himself out. On new single “Marbles”, the 28-year-old frontman is bored to death by a McSweeney’s-hoarding book geek and indicts himself for how little he has to sink to get to their level. “I’m a hypocrite and I’m OK with it,” he shouts, “and I’m so self-aware it’s crippling.” Backed by the rest of his band’s scab-peeling punk, Thomson’s breakdown of the petty machinations of his college-town’s music scene are seething and laser-beam precise.
“Every scene's pretty much the same,” he says. “There's always character archetypes that exists within it, and most of these songs are just about hanging out at a show and having shitty conversations with shitty people.”
Pitchfork: Is there an American city to which London, Ontario is comparable?
Drew Thomson: What's the shittiest city in America? Maybe a smaller Pittsburgh. Basically, it's a moat you cross to get to Toronto. We have one university, two main colleges, and a bunch of other little schools spread around the city, so it's infused with the student population eight months out of the year. It's a weird little influx of a city, and that's entertaining. I used to rent houses to university kids before I did prospecting, so I immersed myself in that student culture. And as much as I love that culture, there's a lot to hate about it when you're a local in the city. You just feel shitty about being a townie in a place that you shouldn't be a townie.
Pitchfork: You skewer bookish types on “Marbles”—do you tend to avoid discussions about art in general?
DT: In university towns, you get a bunch of fuckin' full-chested English majors that have heard your band and think you're wordy and want to go up against you or rip on you because of your record collection or the book that you're reading. I get that a lot. I think I just have a general bone to pick with the infrastructure of “what's good and what's not.” I don't think anybody should be told something's bad or good, but I definitely think they shouldn't be judged on books they haven't read in their living room.
"None of my favorite bands are ones I care about because of the singing—even if Conor Oberst sounds like a donkey fart
half the time, his lyrics are really good."
Pitchfork: Do you shout rather than sing to fit the way you write lyrics?
DT: I can't sing. I used to play guitar in bands all the time but I was really shitty at guitar too. Lyrics are always first for me, and then I just fit them into the song as it goes. I always say that the band writes the music and I just ruin it.
Pitchfork: Who are some of the bands that helped you realized you don’t have to actually sing to be a frontman?
DT: Do you remember Bear Vs. Shark? A long time ago they played the Embassy in London, and that was the first time I was like, "That's exactly what I want to do." I started listening to the Hold Steady and I got more into the Replacements around the same time. And I love the Streets’ first two albums a lot. None of my favorite bands are ones I care about because of the singing. It's always lyrics to me. Even a person like Conor Oberst sounds like a donkey fart half the time, but his lyrics are really good.
Negative Qualities cover:
Pitchfork: There’s a line on the chorus of the new song “Patricide” where you sing, “I need God about as much as she needs me/ Something like an ongoing rivalry.” What role did religion play in your upbringing?
DT: My dad's family came straight from Ireland, and my grandfather was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism for my grandma, and they had to move because the IRA murdered his brother. Basically, half of my family is super religious Irish Catholic. But my dad had me out of wedlock and kept me a secret from his family forever, and I had no idea about all this crazy Catholic shit until I moved [to Swastika] and learned all these secrets about my family. I realized that God kept me away from my family more than He ever brought me closer to it.
Pitchfork: Drugs seem to play a major role in both Negative Qualities and your solo work, how do they affect the interactions you see around you?
DT: Well, gold prospecting was super interesting because everybody that I knew up there had some sort of dependency issue, whether it be alcohol or cocaine. Crack is really bad in Swastika—it's one of the first towns off the Quebec border, where the outlaws bring drugs. A lot of the guys that I was working with were doing coke on the job. We're in the woods with axes and they'd bring a 12-pack of beer, or an eight-ball, because they're making crazy money. Some of them wouldn't do any work and they'd sit under a tree and smoke crack for most of the day. It was mind-blowing.
But there's a misconception with me regarding lyrics. Guys that I've never met come up and drop pills in my hand at shows, and I've got to be like, "I don't do this stuff. Just because I write about my friends that are doing them, doesn't mean that I'm popping oxys or doing fucking lines off steak knives in the bathroom." I'm more of the observer of these things than the doer. One guy that booked one of our shows in Dallas dropped two pills in my hand before he even said hi and was like, "One goes up, one goes down."
Single Mothers: "Christian Girls" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: “Christian Girls” and “Marbles” in particular are songs that spiral into severe self-loathing after a conversation with a woman—do you find it difficult to talk to women?
DT: For sure, yeah. I do. [laughs] Not in a bad way. I'm intimidated by women a lot, but I love them. I was brought up with my mom and my grandma and my aunt all in the same house, so maybe I've got some weird thing. But if there's any negativity toward anything in there, I think it’s more situational rather than about a certain person.
Pitchfork: Do you feel that you’ve potentially locked yourself into a reputation of being an angry band?
DT: I try not to be so negative all the time. I consciously put an effort forward to be more open-minded. But I've never been so mad until we got signed! I was very happy before that. The more complicated things get, the more there’s stuff to be pissed off about. I didn't even realize how negative the record was until I listened to it in its entirety and I was like, "Holy fuck, maybe I should go see someone. There's not one positive song!"
I could pick up an acoustic guitar and write a love song to my girlfriend if I want to, but I'm not going to go pick up an electric guitar, find my band, and write a love song to her when I can get all my pissed-off shit out. Screaming into a microphone about negative shit is way more fun to me than saying, "Sarah, I love your kneecaps and your shoulder." I can do that on a different channel, but Single Mothers is my outlet and I'm going to use it to its full potential as long as I can.
Photo by Autumn de Wilde
Britt Daniel sings like a man terminally congested—someone with a ball of fog in his lungs—always teasing the mystery and allure of the half-hidden. On the phone from New York, though, he sounds more... regular. Over the course of a couple of hours, we delve deep into specific songs from Spoon’s discography, from the band's rough, punky early records through the ghostly studio puzzles of the 2000s, all the way up to this month’s They Want My Soul.
He had his picks, and, as someone who first heard Spoon as a suburban misfit in 1998, I had mine. A lot of our conversation pertained to the idea of accident—the filigree and details at the margins of Spoon songs that makes the band’s recordings unique. Many of the accidents I brought up turned out to not be accidents at all. The resulting chronological, track-by-track chat has been edited and condensed, as Spoon seems to like it it.
Soft Effects EP (1997)
Britt Daniel: I like Soft Effects quite a bit. The songs on it were originally supposed to be B-sides for singles for [Spoon’s 1996 debut album] Telephono. But after the [poor] reception of Telephono,it became clear there was no need for any further singles.
The rest of the songs on Sound Effects were recorded on a real tape machine, but “Mountain to Sound” was done on a four-track cassette—we were pretty tripped out on Guided By Voices at that moment. And when I came in that day, we had never played the song together—[drummer] Jim [Eno] didn't really know it when we hit record. That's why it sounds like a totally unhinged drum track. It was kind of magic. After we recorded the music, I thought, “Clearly, this is the best thing we've ever done.”
At this point we still thought keyboards were uncool, so for "I Could See the Dude" I put my guitar into a delay pedal that was then sped up, looped, and thrown through a wah pedal. It made the most glorious sound. And [Soft Effects producer and engineer John] Croslin said the line “as the crackers watch you take it off again” was real creepy, which made me proud.
When we made Telephono and Soft Effects, pre-production basically involved recording rehearsals on cassette. Later, it would get more intricate, and I would do various versions of songs, trying different approaches, different instruments. We were always looking for some kind of accidental thing to happen.
A Series of Sneaks (1998)
I don't like A Series of Sneaks as much as Soft Effects, but I think it's real good. It definitely had a style to it—it was really dry. We fought with [co-producer] John Croslin the whole time about keeping it totally, unnaturally dry, and not adding any reverb, and not having any room sounds. We were adamant about it not having any sweetness to it, maybe to a fault.
It was also the first time we figured out that the distorted electric guitar was something that seemed too used, too simple, too alt-rock, took up too much space. So a song like "The Minor Tough" had way more space than anything we'd ever done before.
My girlfriend at the time, Eleanor [Friedberger], didn't like A Series of Sneaks much, but I remember playing her ["Metal Detektor"] and her smiling. Finally there was one she liked.
When our manager heard the first rough mixes of Sneaks, he said, "Well, I'm not jumping out of my seat." And then, as we were going through the songs, he started reading the titles with disgust in his voice: [imitates bored, exasperated tone] "What is this, ‘30 Gallon Tank’? ‘June's Foreign Spell’?” He just hated it.
“30 Gallon Tank” was probably the weirdest tune we'd done to date at the time—and it might still be the weirdest. It's a song that never repeats a section, a landscape of different parts. We were intrigued by the wave of electronic music that was going on: Tricky, Aphex Twin, the first Daft Punk record. While I didn't like most of it, we thought the idea behind electronica was cool. So we made these fairly long, weird alternating drum loops for this song.
And the distortion sound in the end section—the wargh-gah-gah-gah thing—was an accident I did on a four-track. Later, we used that same sample on "I Turn My Camera On".
“The Agony of Laffitte” b/w “Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now” (1999)
Pitchfork: Given what happened with getting signed and then dropped from Elektra after A Series of Sneaks, what was your mood like at this time?
BD: I felt pretty beaten. We'd gone into our deal with Elektra looking out for the worst, trying to not be naïve, and doing things the right way so it wouldn't be a bad experience. But we were dropped less than four months after the record came out, and even in our worst fears we didn't think that was going to happen. But we also didn't think our A&R guy [Ron Laffitte] would completely fuck off.
He was the guy that sold us on that situation after I told him our concerns about major labels. He heard those concerns and then was a totally different guy once we signed the deal. I didn't hear from him anymore. He really fucked us over. Somehow we managed to survive and, in the end, I'm happy with where we're at. But back then I did not have any inkling that there would be any kind of success lurking for this band. It felt like it was all over.
Pitchfork: The lyric goes, “All I ever asked of you is a copy of Garage Days and to tell me the truth”—a reference to a Metallica EP of hardcore and early metal covers from 1987. Did you at least get a copy of Garage Days?
BD: I do have a copy of Garage Days, but I certainly didn’t get it from Laffitte.
Girls Can Tell (2001)
I remember seeing an old picture of my dad going to work in a dress shirt and tie—it was a look that I didn't see too much anymore. For “The Fitted Shirt”, I must have asked someone to bring in a harpsichord because of how into the Kinks I was in that moment. I found this website right when online sales of music were starting—maybe it was called CD Universe—but there was a flaw in their system, so as long as I entered a different address every time, I could order a free CD. So I ordered, at various addresses, the entire Kinks catalog. If it wasn't for that website, Girls Can Tell might have had a different attitude and sound.
Pitchfork: I find that one line in "Anything You Want"—“You know you’re the one, and that hasn’t changed since you were 19 and still in school, waiting on a light on the corner by Sound Exchange”—so moving. Did it actually happen?
BD: Yeah, it was a song about Eleanor [Friedberger]. It was a big-picture song, and at the end it zooms way into this specific moment. I could definitely see her standing on that corner.
Pitchfork: Part of the power of that line comes from the way the syllables get crammed in there at the end. It's like you have to rush the words out.
BD: And that's what's great about it, right? It originally wasn't like that. It was just regular syllables at the end, and the lyric was, "This is a song called fuck or fight, it's the same thing every night," but Jim suggested it didn't fit the mood. So I came up with that other idea, and [then-bassist] Josh [Zarbo] told me it ruined the song. But I thought it really made everything personal and unexpected. When we recorded, [co-producer] Mike [McCarthy] had me fade off the mic at the end of the line. It's totally personal and real. It rings true.
Kill the Moonlight (2002)
Girls Can Tell was all about trying to replicate this '60s R&B/pop feel—about finding a piano and reverb and being able to use them for the first time. With Kill the Moonlight, I thought, “Let's try to make it a little weirder.” And since Girls Can Tell was the first record where things actually felt like they started working for us, we wanted to put out another one real fast. I thought the way to do that would be to go off by myself, somewhere where it wasn't too hot and maybe close to New York City. So I went to New London, Connecticut. I didn’t go out. I would go to the video store and rent a few movies or occasionally go down to the Chinese restaurant and get lo mein, but that was basically it.
“Small Stakes” and "The Way We Get By" came right at the same time. “Small Stakes” was influenced by "I Gotta Walk" by Julian Cope—it's got the same sort of weird chord progression and then, for part of the song, it goes up a whole step, hangs out there, and then goes back down to the original chord. And that's it. That's the song.
We recorded “Jonathon Fisk” live with all of us in the room with Mike [McCarthy], who was making us do it again and again and again. We were all for it, but it just went on and on—just when you thought he couldn’t ask for another one, he would. And it's on tape, so we're recording the tracks over and over, and we don't have anything saved. We're re-recording over all the other tapes. And, finally, Jim and I got really angry and it started to affect our playing. When we started that one take that ended up being it, you can hear Mike say, "I like it!" at the beginning.
The first time I sang the chorus to “The Way We Get By”, it was just off-the-cuff, but I knew it was good. From that, I turned it into a glorified, fucked-up-relationship song about a scrappy couple getting high in the backseat, making love with the [Iggy Pop] song “Some Weird Sin”, seeking out people that don't speak very much. We believe in the sum of ourselves.
We played that song on a couple of shows, it was the first time we got on TV. Girls Can Tell was like the windup and then once Kill the Moonlight came out, everything sort of took off.
Next: Britt Daniel breaks down tracks from Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Transference, and They Want My Soul
Gimme Fiction (2005)
I had the idea for a title: "The Beast and Dragon, Adored". That was supposed to be the album title, actually. Since it was one of the last songs we recorded for Gimme Fiction, the idea was that I would go back and mention as many of the other songs on the record in the song. So it mentions “I Summon You”. “Learning my scene” was from "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine". In a way, it was also just a song about the making of the record, because we'd been away for a long time and I had gone down to Galveston, Texas, and done writing by the seawall. I had to find this feeling. It was a really hard record to make. I had writer's block during part of it. Maybe it was because it was the first time we'd really had some success. It felt different. Maybe I got distracted. There were a lot of late nights in Austin.
The beast and dragon were in the title of some French piece of art from the 16th century. They were signs of the apocalypse, and I had grown up hearing a lot about the apocalypse. My dad is Catholic, and my mom is non-denominational Protestant. My parents split up when I was 8, so I would go to the Catholic church with my dad and the Protestant church with my mom. Once I went off to school, I wasn't going to church anymore, but my parents kept me at it as long as they could.
I don't think “Sister Jack” is our best song or recording. It's all right. We didn't want it to be a single, it was too straightforward. I don't think it's a bad tune, but it's not one that I'm most proud of. It's not that I don't like it. Maybe I don't like it. I'm just not that interested in it.
I wrote “I Summon You” in an afternoon and, like a lot of the best songs, I didn't think I was really writing a song. I felt the same way about "The Way We Get By" and "Small Stakes", too, but somewhere toward the end you start thinking, “Oh, this is a song.” But at first I thought I was just coming up with something as an exercise. I was just trying to work on this really weird, impossibly long chord progression that I could never remember just from playing. It didn't seem like a normal song. It just seemed like a collection of chords. But then I went out for lunch and came back and got real lucky with words. They just came out on the spot.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
When we were mastering [Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga], the engineer said, "I don't think this one works as the second song." But I got off on putting "The Ghost of You Lingers" second. I just love it. I was real proud of it. It seemed like a totally inappropriate—yet totally right—place to put the song, because the first couple songs always paint the picture of the album. People probably call Kill the Moonlight minimalist because "Small Stakes" was the first song on it. If you're going to be labeled anything, I think “minimalist” is pretty cool. But I honestly never thought of the term until I started seeing it in the press, and then I thought, “We never really try to make things minimal.” It's just—the song is done, you know?
Pitchfork: At the beginning of “Black Like Me”, you sing, “I believe that someone'd take care of me tonight/ As I walk into Dorian's, can you see it in my eyes?” Is Dorian's an actual place?
BD: Yeah, that's in Portland, where I had moved by then, and it's where I would get my boots fixed: repairing the heel and all the things that you do if you have one really nice pair of boots and you're wearing them everyday. I knew I wanted to say, "As I walk into"—blank—"can you see it in my eyes?" So I went through a number of places that I go, and Dorian's made the most sense and also sounded the best. It just went from there: “My boots are on the mend…”
Pitchfork: Were these boots that you had for a long time?
BD: Yeah, they were really old, so they needed a lot of repair. At some point, the guy at Dorian's said, "It might be time for you to find a new favorite pair of boots." They eventually kind of disintegrated, and it took me a while to find another pair that I liked. Once I did, I bought four pairs—but one of them got stolen. I left it in a hotel room, and when I came back that afternoon, they were gone.
Pitchfork: So somewhere there's a bellhop walking around in some nice boots.
BD: Yeah, a really nice pair of boots.
I worked on “Out Go the Lights” for what felt like weeks by myself in my basement in Portland. Songs like this one are part of the reason why we decided not to self-produce anymore. It turned out well, but it was such an ordeal doing it by myself. I like collaborating.
They Want My Soul (2014)
This is probably my sentimental favorite from this record. It sounds different for us because the rhythm track is made of programmed beats, which we haven't done too often. We've used shitty drum machines, but hi-fi drum beat programming has a pretty distinctive sound. Originally, “Inside Out” was just this piano and vocal song, which was great, but I wanted it to have a little bit more to it and not just be some kind of silly ballad. I said to Jim, "Why don't we do it like a Dr. Dre song?" I was obsessed with Dr. Dre’s 2001 album and I wanted to do something like that. 2001 is a great-sounding record. There are so many great tunes on it. It's got a hell of an attitude.
To me, “Do You” feels like an Indian Summer afternoon. But the trouble with breezy songs is they can be a bit lightweight or boring, so you have to fight against that. We first tried “Do You” with a Kinks-y beat, like the beat to "Dead End Street". It worked, and the producer we were working with at that time [Joe Chiccarelli] loved it that way. It was more rocky and probably even a little more poppy. But then I said to the band, "Guys, we can do better than this. We've done this before."
I wrote the melody to “They Want My Soul” a long time ago and I thought it was quite good, but then I realized that it was basically a ripoff of this Toni Braxton song [“You're Makin' Me High”], so I set it aside for years.
It's a song about soul suckers, so I go through a number of types of them. It started out as being more of a rant against just religious pretenders, but then I opened it up in the second chorus to include musicians who might need some soul, too.
Pitchfork: How do you perceive soul in an artist?
BD: I don't know. How do you know that Marvin Gaye has soul and whoever else doesn't? You just know it when you hear it. Or when you don’t.
Photos by Jane Chardiet
Perhaps it’s due to the dark times we live in, or people’s ears getting accustomed to harsher sounds—think about Yeezus, for instance, but also Container, the Haxan Cloak, and a reinvigorated Godflesh—but Margaret Chardiet’s bold brand of industrial noise/power electronics has struck a surprisingly strong chord with listeners as of late. The 23-year-old New Yorker began bubbling up from the underground with the release of Abandon last year and has been converting (and confounding) an increasing amount of innocent bystanders ever since with her intense live show. Her style of performance, which will be on display as she opens for Swans in Europe this fall, offers a focused example of one person putting all they have into something—even if it seems like they may pass out as a result.
Now that there are more eyes on her, she’s dialed up the intensity. Her second Sacred Bones release, Bestial Burden, which arrives October 14, opens with the sounds of Chardiet hyperventilating. It also includes coughing and choking, and otherwise finds the artist pushing the instrumentation and her voice to the point of collapse. (To get that energy, she tapped into the spirit of her live set, recording some of the vocals with a group of people packed around her in the booth.) But it’s also a more spacious album, and finds Chardiet expanding her sound with some unexpectedly soothing results. Relatively speaking.
But even if you find yourself bobbing your head along to a particular patch of the album’s feedback, you can’t escape the subject matter: Bestial Burden, which Chardiet again recorded with Cult of Youth’s Sean Ragon, was inspired by an emergency surgery she underwent just days before Pharmakon’s first European tour last fall, one that left her bedridden for three weeks. The record’s six songs—with titles like “Body Betrays Itself” and “Autoimmune”—are specifically focused on that moment and its aftermath.
I caught up with Chardiet in the backyard garden of a coffee shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We discussed her surgery, the split between the mind and body, and the inevitable breaking down and death of that body while people around us stared at their laptops.
Pitchfork: As far as your surgery, are you willing to talk more about it?
Margaret Chardiet: I will say that I had no idea I was sick, but I had a 12 centimeter [benign] cyst forming that I didn't know about. It got so heavy that it collapsed one of my organs. They weren't sure what was going to happen, but when I came out of the anesthesia they said, "We couldn't drain it, we had to remove it—and remove the organ that it had attached itself to.” So I had incisions through my belly button and three across my abdomen, and they had to cut through the muscle in the abdomen, which is part of the reason why the recovery was so intense—you don't realize how much you use those muscles every day. Being treated like a piece of meat while in the hospital had a huge impact on some of these ideas behind the album.
And while I was there I saw a man dying next to me, and he was crying out for his daughter. She did not come. So it wasn't just about the experience of what happened to me but also about being there—going under anesthesia and not knowing what was going to be missing when you woke up. Not knowing what to expect on the other side.
Pitchfork: How does the album’s cover photo connect to your surgery and the themes of the record?
MC: The record is about the disconnect between mind and body, and when I was bedridden for three weeks after my surgery, my mind was in Europe, on tour, doing my music, because that’s where I was supposed to be. It took a while for my brain to catch up to the reality of what my body was doing. It created this separation between the two that resulted in me feeling almost as though the body had this separate will from my own—just this vessel I was stuck inside of. I started reading a lot of different books and thinking about this separation and I realized that it’s what makes us human and not animals. That's a huge theme for the whole project, always.
So the artwork came about through this desire to show the body as a lump of flesh and cells that mutate and fail you and betray you—this very banal, unimportant, grotesque aspect of ourselves. We have no control over what we look like and yet it's a huge portion of how people perceive us. I mean, we have some control, like being healthy, but essentially we have no control over what diseases we get, if we get Alzheimer's, or when we die. It's just aging and failing. We look at the body as being the eyes and face, but take the human aspect away and there's just these organs and flesh.
Pitchfork: What are those things on your fingers on the cover?
MC: They're chicken talons I got in Chinatown. I had to cut each one off and superglue them onto fake nails, and then put the fake nails on, so they're like little chicken-talon fingernails. [laughs] I also had to order some of the things on the cover off this website that normally gives fetal pigs to science classrooms for dissection. None of it is plastic. It's all real. But none of it is human, though!
Pitchfork: At this point, you've had a considerable amount of success for a noise artist—people who don't normally listen to noise have listened to you. Has it been interesting to have people who don't know about noise music at all to suddenly be like, "Oh wow, what's this person doing?"
MC: Yeah. The reactions I've gotten have been interesting and very intense, and I've learned so much from it. To re-contextualize your music and take it out from this very small community to people who have maybe heard of Throbbing Gristle—but missed the 20 years of development since—and suddenly force this upon them has almost been an exercise in cruelty. It's been very important to my music, and to the writing process, and for developing my ideas. It makes me look at the music in a different way and push it beyond the tropes of a genre into territory that's actually challenging myself. It's been very positive.
Pitchfork: Have you had any interesting interactions with people who have never heard this kind of music before?
MC: I'll never forget, at this one show, this girl just sort of became possessed and made these wild gesticulations, and was going like, "AARGH!!!" [waves hands around], just prostrating at me. It really seemed that she was speaking in tongues at that moment, and she came up to me after and was just freaking out. And I've had reactions from some people who come up and are like, "Wait, I don't understand. What was that thing that you were banging on? How did the sound come out of there? I don't understand the connection between this action and the sound.” That's always really fun. And I explain it in really plain terms, like, "This is a piece of sheet metal that I grabbed out of the side of a shed in the backyard, and this is a contact mic, and it's going into this pedal and that pedal, and looped, and that's how that happens." And they sort of look at me like, "Oh… OK …?"
Pitchfork: Considering that you're known for your intense live show, have you written material differently knowing that you're going to be performing these songs in different kinds of spaces?
MC: It's strange because the larger the space I play, the greater my desire is to cross that barrier between performer and audience. So I'm getting less and less traditional in terms of performative actions. The next stage is really going to push that into territories that completely break that idea down. But it hasn't changed the sound of the music. In fact, I think this record is definitely harsher than the last one, by far.
Pitchfork: I agree, but I also feel like it's somewhat soothing. Even the hyperventilating of the opening track “Vacuum” feels weirdly like yoga to me.
MC: Yoga?! Noooo! [laughs]
Pitchfork: [laughs] There’s this weird sense of preparation to it.
MC: Yeah, the idea of preparation does make a lot of sense because it is the introduction to the record. That track is supposed to be about that moment of feeling stuck, like, "Oh my God, I'm just in this private room inside of my brain, and wherever the consciousness exists, and I'm stuck until death, and that's it." And it's that moment of realizing that separation, and just being like, "Aargh!"
Pitchfork: Do you think that accepting the knowledge of the body's failings can be a positive thing?
MC: This record is definitely about the despair of this realization. Maybe in the future it'll be about the acceptance of it. But when does any human truly accept death? Is that real? Do people say that to seem noble? Who's really at peace when they die? By the time I can answer that question, I won't be around to tell anybody about it.
Mr Twin Sister, from left: Udbhav Gupta, Bryan Ujueta, Andrea Estella, Eric Cardona, and Gabe D'Amico. Photos by Erez Avissar.
Within minutes of meeting up with Mr Twin Sister, the Long Island-bred pop quintet formerly known as Twin Sister, I have some sparkles on my fingertips. It's past 9 p.m. on a damp August night—the kind where you do not want to leave the house—in the isolated upper-reaches of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The band is gathered at keyboardist Udbhav Gupta’s apartment, and bassist Gabe D'Amico and purple-haired frontwoman Andrea Estella are lounging on a sofa, painting glitter onto their nails.
Mr Twin Sister is that rare musical democracy that has actually worked despite being effectively leaderless. Since their first EP in 2008, all five members have voiced creative ideas through their songs, which have transformed from hushed dreamscapes into dynamic dancefloor creations. But this collective process has not come easy—especially after a harrowing 2013 that included an MS diagnosis for Estella; parting ways with their label, indie powerhouse Domino, which signed them for 2011's In Heaven; and, most devastating, a mid-tour car crash in Tallahassee that totalled their van and put them all in the hospital. D'Amico suffered worst, breaking both legs and a wrist: “I remember being in the hospital bed all drugged up and realizing, ‘Oh my God, any of us could be dead.’”
Following the crash, the band had no choice but to push their second album back, affording them more time to perfect the music, tracklist, and lyrics they had already spent two years agonizing over. Mr Twin Sister, which is out September 23 via their own newly-established Twin Group label and their manager Hunter Giles' imprint Infinite Best, was recorded between Gupta's tiny bedroom, Philadelphia’s Miner Street Recordings, as well as Brooklyn’s Gravesend Recordings, where they tracked string arrangements and vocals by members of Ava Luna. The record is meticulous—guitarist/singer Eric Cardona adds sax hints, Gupta provides intricate depth with his modular synths—and sounds "less cartoony," they say, than In Heaven, which the band now considers more of a learning experience in studio experimentation than a proper debut.
Until now, the band's greatest achievement was the wide-eyed stunner "I Want a House", an American Dream narrative you could imagine soundtracking the final scene in a picket-fenced romantic drama. But the new record’s black-and-white beats are culled from the gritty side of 3 a.m. club culture, miles away from suburbia. The group has always come off as relatively androgynous—it can be difficult to discern whether Estella or Cardona is singing—and this blurring of gender lines is taken to a new extreme onMr Twin Sister. "I am a woman/ But inside I'm a man/ And I want to be as gay as I can," Estella sings over the sparkling disco thump of lead single "Out of the Dark". And later, on the eerie, Cardona-penned "Twelve Angels", the troubled protagonist is dressed in drag. Nearly every track explores identity in some way: "Is there even a real me, or am I just a series of nights?" Estella sings on the shadowy slow-burner "Blush", which was written by Gupta.
The band’s five members are now scattered across Brooklyn and Queens, and their departure from Domino means they are back to working day jobs: Gupta is a programmer, D'Amico works for an eyewear company, Cardona and drummer Bryan Ujueta work at restaurants, and Estella is self-employed, making jewelry, clothing, and paintings that she sells online ("But I'm looking for work if anyone wants to hire me," she notes). D'Amico refers to the inner-workings of the band as "non-linear," and the same could be said of our winding interview, in which they playfully rag on each other when they’re not completing one another's sentences.
Estella offers comic relief, making crude jokes in a dramatic Lawng Island accent and broadcasting her excitement about next year's Comic-Con, where she plans to dress as the anime character Cardcaptor Sakura. Gupta is the oldest and most level-headed, displaying a family member's philosophy degree in his room. D'Amico and Ujueta talk a lot; Cardona is shy. Despite the day jobs, they are happy to spend less time on the promotional matters that a label like Domino requires, and more time focusing on music at their own pace. In fact, another record is likely to be finished this year—a batch of songs that have been in process in tandem with Mr Twin Sister, but are "brighter" and more "energetic."
"We aren't finished with this era, but we need to get it out of our system," Gupta says. "The two records are coming apart—like twins."
Pitchfork: Do you remember anything about your tour van accident last year?
Andrea Estella: I remember feeling super vulnerable. There were two ambulances, and they put me and [Ava Luna member] Becca in one, and the boys went in the other. I felt like an animal and went into survival mode. I was like, "These guys are going to take the women and rape us." Becca got morphine, and I was like, "No! I want to stay awake." I was plotting to kill this guy. I was like, "I'm going to go for that needle and I'm going to stab you." [mimics hyperventilating] I took a Vine so there would be something out there after these guys murdered us and threw us in the woods.
We would have all been OK if we had seat belts on—but we didn’t, so we went flying.
Eric Cardona: We had a divider between us and the equipment, which saved our lives.
AE: We didn't have one for the longest time, and if we didn't put one in, we could have just been underneath a bunch of amps. The gear completely smashed the partition, and it could have taken a head off. It didn't actually sink in until later how lucky we are that none of us died. I still have issues being in any vehicle, even just a short ride.
Pitchfork: To what extent did that accident impact the band?
Gabe D'Amico: It strengthened us in a way. At the same time, it reminded us that anytime you're on the road, you're taking your friends' lives in your hands.
Bryan Ujueta: It was shitty, but it was exciting in the sense that we all kept talking about music shortly after. It wasn't the end of us.
"We're the opposite of the band where the front-guy doles out the responsibilities to the hired guns—people fetishize the lone genius, but our strongest suit is definitely our chemistry as five people."
Pitchfork: After being a home-recorded group and then doing an album on a bigger indie label and now circling back to self-releasing, what did you learn about being a band?
GD: Being on a label felt like fulfilling a high school idea of what it meant to be a musician. It was a very conventional idea of “taking the next step.” But now we're embracing the idea of not being linear. We realized that cycle—"Put out an album! Promote the album! Go back to the studio! "—didn't work for us. We've gone back to the way we were when we started making music together, sprawling outwards in all directions. Sometimes fans or writers try to paint a story of a band going from Point A to Point B and becoming something, but our trajectory doesn't feel as straightforward. We're sorting things out at our own pace.
We have so many friends who have signed to labels, and it's worked out great. But it only works for certain personality types. We decided to go for it because it meant we didn't have to go back to our jobs. We got to take an advance and think about music all the time. But as it turns out, we had it right when we started making music together, because it was a much more casual exchange of ideas. We're a five-person band, and it can get really complicated. It takes a lot of experimenting to figure out how to finish something. Every song on this album had a different formula. We're the polar opposite of the band where there's the front-guy who doles out the responsibilities to the hired guns. People fetishize the lone genius, but our strongest suit is definitely our chemistry as five people. When it works, it works, and when it doesn't, it takes us twice as long to finish the song.
Pitchfork: What is it about your personalities that didn't work with the contemporary indie label system?
AE: It was probably the touring. I was an angry person. On the road, I wasn't making any visual art, I wasn't really making any music. It dried me up. I like to be at home.
GD: We weren't ready for the opportunity that was handed to us. And Domino thought we were going to maybe be immediately more successful than we turned out to be.
AE: The album wasn't trendy enough.
BU: We're not a hot shelf item. We almost did the opposite of what we knew they wanted from us. We were sick of hearing "dreamy, reverb, chillwave," and we were like, "We want it to be upbeat and bright and have no reverb." We were reacting.
GD: We're psycho, detail-oriented people—it took us two years to make a six-song EP, and then we made our debut album in four months. It was our first time in a studio, and the first time we were working with anybody other than the five of us, so it sounds like an experiment. Which is fine, but it was on somebody else's dime. So when it didn't sell that well, we had to talk about the next step. And they were like, "OK, maybe we should renegotiate your contract, because we were wrong about what kind of band you are." It was an amicable parting.
The thing with Domino was just a product of things happening at certain moments. We were figuring out who we were, and then we got tossed this opportunity. I don't think any of us had any concrete expectations. It was like, "Let's see what happens!" And that's what happened. And we moved on. When I think of our trajectory as a band, I feel like that was a detour from who we are, and now we've continued. The album we're working on now has more to do—ideologically and creatively—with what we were making before In Heaven. It's not to say we disown that album, but this new one really feels like the next thing that we want to say.
Udbhav Gupta: Our label thing is unfairly colored by the record we made there. We all thought we could make something better. It doesn't really have that much to do with being on a record label, or doing it ourselves, or whatever. It’s not like, "Well, I really like life better without Domino!" as much as it’s, “I like these songs better.” Now, all the money we make on tour goes into our recording fund. Our band exists only to make more records.
Pitchfork: Did you feel disillusioned at any point with the Domino situation?
UG: It's definitely disillusioning! But you grow up and you get over it and you're like, "This is not what's important. What's important is that we make shit together."
GD: Thinking that the band was going to do anything other than give us a venue to collaborate with each other was a fleeting moment that came and went. There was a very brief, naïve window of time where we were like, "Is this our job?" And then, very quickly, it was like, "No, it's something more than that."
BU: When we put out the first picture of us for the new record, I felt proud that it was the same five people as the first photo you'd ever seen of us, instead of some rotating cast.
Pitchfork: The new music is more based in electronics—it's sharper, more dynamic, more intense. What did you change?
GD: We've learned how to play to our strengths—whether its our chemistry, or the way we are more interested in groove than technical skill. We're not accomplished musicians, necessarily. We're just accomplished musical communicators with each other.
AE: For me, it was karaoke. It really opens you up. Especially living in Flushing, Queens.
Pitchfork: What's your go-to karaoke song?
AE: I love Alanis [Morissette]. It feels really good to sound like an idiot and let loose.
EC: I sung "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" this afternoon in karaoke.
AE: When we first started recording [in 2008], I did vocals in my ex-boyfriend's basement on Long Island, and I had Dev lock himself in another room. I was like, "Don't look at me!" And on In Heaven, I was so timid, doing vocal lessons and all of this shit—I was like, "Who am I?" But when we did vocals for this record, I had way more confidence.
BU: Andrea had a bottle of champagne.
Pitchfork: The record has a real club feel, and "Twelve Angels" is like dark industrial techno. Do you still find yourself discovering new styles of music?
UG: When you're a teenager, you hear something for the first time and think, "Oh my god, I didn't know you could make music like this—how does this happen?" But then you feel dead-ends approaching with listening habits: "How am I going to find this new thing that's going to blow my mind?" But these days, it's so easy to find some hyper-localized thread of music that happened 15 years ago—you can burrow into this crazy thing. Bryan comes up to me with labels from early '90s Belgium, but we can live that magic like it's happening right now.
EC: We chase those little teenage rushes—and I was shocked to find that there were so many more around the corner as I got older.
BU: Something I respect a lot about this band is that everyone is really interested in maturing and continuing their investigation of art in the world. I'm excited to be an old man in a band.
AE: I'm getting really good wrinkles in all the right places.
Pitchfork: The central line Andrea sings on "Out of the Dark" is impossible to miss: "I'm a woman/ But inside I'm a man/ And I want to be as gay as I can." It reminded me of that Grace Jones song, "Walking in the Rain".
GD: "Feeling like a woman/ Looking like a man"—Grace Jones is a gigantic touchstone. Her playful approach to gender is connected to aesthetics and fashion, but not in a shallow way.
BU: It's this evolving force—you're one type of person one day, and another type of person another day, and you don't have to call it anything.
UG: It's about empathy.
AE: I'm just like that. I think of myself as a very girly man. I'm a tomboy. I've always just hung out with the boys. I've had a lot of boyfriends who are now gay. Until maybe two years ago, I've only had friends who are boys, and I've just started making girl-friends. I never had that. I was always super awkward—kind of like a dude, making jokes that were too pervy, and people would be like, "Who are you?"
"Good pop music lets you draw connections, but it's not exclusive."
Pitchfork: The album clearly talks about gender and sexuality, and has this dark, nighttime aesthetic. When I listened closer, I started thinking the name change from Twin Sister to Mr Twin Sister might carry a trans narrative.
BU: It wasn't something we intentionally planned from the beginning, like a Hollywood movie. But as it rolled out, it made sense. I was frustrated—people were like, "Why the fuck would you change your name?" They thought it was a gimmick. And I was like, "You think we renamed ourselves Mr Twin Sister to get more popular?! You think that's going to sell records? Are you crazy?"
GD: We left the gender ideas at a simmering point on the album. I don't think any of us feel like we have license to talk about it in an authoritative way. The place it holds on the album is left open to interpretation for a reason. We're not trying to ride some hot-button talking point. It's just subject matter that interests some of our songwriters. It's not like, "This is our sexual-politics album!" That's for other people to project onto it. Good pop music lets you draw connections, but it's not exclusive.
Pitchfork: A song near the end of the album, "Twelve Angels", was inspired by the Long Island town Medford, and it makes that place sound pretty seedy.
EC: There's a seedy road there, Route 112. I was spending a lot of time working about a mile-and-a-half away and I would be driving up and down that road at night. There's nowhere for young people to go and socialize that isn't super seedy-looking there. I was getting ready to move out of that town, I felt so not a part of that place.
AE: When I started hanging out with Eric and Bryan, my mom wouldn't drive through Medford because it was so trashy. There have been murders there lately—a girl was found in the woods.
GD: It's like a strip with 20 car dealerships and parking lots—you could imagine some dark shit going on.
AE: Eric directed this short [in Medford] for the song, and my uncle came along because it was scary. It was late at night, and Eric was in full drag. It's a scary neighborhood.
BU: Walking around at night on Long Island doesn't feel good.
UG: It's not meant for walking.
AE: It's all driving.
BU: Someone pulls up near you and their window's tinted. Someone yells from far away and you can't tell if they're following you. You're at the gas station and the attendant's a dick.
UG: It's also amazing for all those reasons—the magic isolation. Wringing anything from that place is a miracle, and people do it all the time.
Photos by Samantha Marble
Admittedly, I don’t know too much about cooking. But I do know a decent bit about music, and Brooks Headley has drummed in more than a few notable—even seminal—punk and hardcore bands over the years, including Universal Order of Armageddon, Born Against, the (Young) Pioneers, Oldest, Skull Kontrol, and Wrangler Brutes. I wanted to interview him, though, because he’s also the Executive Pastry Chef at Del Posto, New York City’s only four-star Italian restaurant. It’s not often that people can reach the top of two very different games, but last year Headley won the James Beard Award—basically the Oscar for chefs—and his first cookbook, Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts, is out on October 21 via W.W. Norton.
And while the 42-year-old is now a celebrated chef at a very fancy restaurant (as well as a veggie burger innovator), he still makes punk and heavy music from time to time. He participated in the UOA reunions, he plays in C.R.A.S.H. with Dean Spunt of No Age, Cundo Bermudez of Wrangler Brutes, and Mika Miko’s Michelle Suarez, and he’s also in Music Blues with another food man, Harvey Milk bassist Stephen Tanner, who’s the chef at the Commodore in Brooklyn.
I visited Headley at Del Posto one afternoon to discuss his cooking, his book, and how he’s been able to continually navigate between the worlds of music and food.
Pitchfork: How did food play a part in your former life as a touring musician?
Brooks Headley: Most bands are obsessed with food on tour because you don't have a home base, so it's all about what you’re going to eat or where you’re going to eat it. Every band I was in was vegan or vegetarian, too, so the struggle of finding stuff was half the fun—sometimes the food aspects of being on tour were more fun than the actual shows.
For the first couple Born Against tours, we actually took a milkcrate with a frying pan, some olive oil, salt, and spices, because a lot of the time we wouldn't eat out. We would play the show and go back to people's houses and cook, or just go to the grocery store, because none of us drank or partied or hung out. The whole fun of doing the tour was driving for 700 miles, playing for 15 minutes, and going back to some kid's parents' house and making spaghetti. Food controlled a lot of the stuff we did.
Pitchfork: When did you realize you were good at cooking and that it was something that could pay the bills?
BH: I always cooked a lot and watched cooking shows like "Great Chefs" on PBS, or really early Food Network shows. Food television is really fuckin' terrible now, but back then there was cool shit. "Great Chefs" had these weird French chefs with fuckin' weird facial hair making this super weird French food. So I would watch stuff like that, but I never once thought that I would actually cook food for a job because I'd only ever done it for fun.
After graduating from college with a pretty worthless English degree, I was living in D.C. and I didn't have anything to do, so I got a job in an office—and I just hated it. I ended up complaining about it enough that my girlfriend at the time found an ad in City Paper that said, "Pastry Assistant Wanted." So, for some reason—maybe it was to spite her for trying to tell me what to do—I made up a fake résumé and cover letter and faxed it over. Maybe that was my English degree working—I was able to write them a decent letter to get my foot in the door even though I had no fucking idea what it was all about. It ended up being a job at the best Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C. at the time.
I worked for Laurie Alleman, who was the pastry chef at Galileo when I started. She brought me on as cheap labor and, after a couple weeks, she figured out that I was really into it—but also that I had no experience. But cooking in this really nice kitchen at this really nice restaurant for months and months and months didn't even feel like a job. I would bake bread in the morning and bring it in to her to critique, and all the other cooks would look at me like, "Ah, you're such a dick! Why do you like this so much?" I instantly loved it.
It's funny because even from that point, which was 1999, to now, I've only ever worked in fancy high-end places. For me, it's all about the uniform: a hat, the starch white shirt. A lot of times if I go some place and it's a dude in a baseball hat and shorts I'm like, “Argh.” It's like if you go record with Steve Albini, he puts on an Electrical Audio jumpsuit before he starts working; if you're at work, you have to be in uniform.
Pitchfork: As far as doing pastries specifically, was that something you had an interest in before you took that first job?
BH: No! I had zero interest in dessert. That was just the job I applied for. And at the time, I was vegetarian, so I wouldn't have wanted to work the line and break down ducks or cook with meat because I would've found that repulsive. With desserts, you're making stuff that doesn't exist, but you're using a bunch of the same stuff. You can take butter and flour and eggs and sugar and make 50 different things. It's about making something out of nothing: manipulating fruit or vegetables to turn them into something else is extremely gratifying. It's like mowing the lawn when you're a little kid—you would finish and it looks perfect. If you wanted to put it in musical terms, it’s like four people going into a practice space and then coming out with a finished song where the sum is greater than the parts.
Pitchfork: Did you have to prove yourself when you started at Del Posto?
BH: Yeah. It was difficult to find a staff. I have an amazing staff now, but for a long time, no one wanted to work here because if you go to school for making desserts, there's a lot of specific techniques that I don't do because I'm not physically capable of doing it or I have no interest in doing it. That's why it's funny that I ended up in such an opulent restaurant. But [executive chef] Mark Ladner, [and owners] Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali are making their version of Italian food in New York City in this day and age. They never really wanted technical, structural, architectural food—which is good because I can't do that anyway!
I know chefs that did everything the right way: did their internship as a teenager and then went to culinary school and worked their way up from peeling potatoes to being a chef across 15 years. And I'm not discounting that. But I never planned to do that because, when I was 15, I just wanted to be in a band that sounded like Joy Division. I had no foresight to know that, 25 years later, I would be cooking food at a restaurant in New York City.
Pitchfork: Recently, there seems to be more crossover between food and music, whether it’s black metal cuisine or a Radiohead-themed tasting menu. What’s your take on this trend?
Brooks Headley: A lot of it seems manufactured. When I started professionally cooking in a restaurant, it was the late 90s and I never once dared to talk about the fact that I had been in a band—or was actually in a band—as the years have gone along. So it seems a little strange that it's accepted now, so much so that the theme for the James Beard Awards this year is “music and food.” They've asked everyone to do a dish for the gala based on their favorite musical city. Even five years ago, people would have just been like, “That's sort of stupid.”
Personally, I find a lot of connections [between food and music], because it's so ingrained in who I am, but I try to not make it a focus. Because it's such a personal thing for me, I don't even really like listening to music while I'm cooking, even if I'm at home. I like to get in the zone of the sounds of cooking—the way certain oil crackles, or just a knife hitting a cutting board. It’s like Einstürzende Neubauten.
I also just tap incessantly and involuntarily on everything in the kitchen. I have certain “fuck I’m stressed” songs that get released through my fingers when the restaurant is really busy: the theme song to the first Police Academy movie, “Prescott (Homecut)” by Breadwinner, “Love Und Romance” by the Slits, and definitely “Ether Rag” by Man Is the Bastard. If I was to ever play “Ether Rag” for my sous chef Kim she would be like, “So that’s the fucking song!”
Pitchfork: Fancy Desserts is not not a typical cookbook—there are flyers, a foreword by Steve Albini, an essay from Ian Svenonius. The first photo we see is one of you holding a cake with the Misfits skeleton on it. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted the book to take this form?
BH: The book came about very organically. The final group that worked on it included [designer] Tamara Shopsin, [photographer] Jason Fulford, [editor] Chris Cechin, and myself. It was very much a collaborative effort. We all sort of hated each other at certain points but came together to make it work, just like being in a shitty punk band. Or at least most of the bands I’ve been in. My current band C.R.A.S.H. is the exception, we all really like each other.
Pitchfork: In his foreword, Albini writes: "They say all arts aspire to music, but that's a con. Music wishes it was food… No song, no painting can come close to a perfect meal with friends… It is the only art without which we die.”
BH: In the liner notes of the Reachout International Records cassette comp (The End of Music) As We Know It, Albini refers to Jad Fair of Half Japanese as “god, and therefore infallible.” When I read that in 1988 in my mom’s basement in Towson, Maryland, I knew that if I ever wrote a cookbook I was going to get Albini to do the foreword.
Pitchfork: The book's more of a memoir than a lot of memoirs I've read. You get such a good sense of you has a person, and with each recipe we find out more about you. Did you intend for it to also be an autobiography?
BH: I just wrote what I know. I also really wanted to tell the whole story, not just the “I AM SO AWESOME I AM A GENIUS CHEF NO ONE HAS EVER DONE THIS BEFORE” vibe you get from 95 percent of cookbooks written by chefs. That’s why I included failures, thieveries, embarrassments, and fuck ups. I also wanted to make sure to give proper credit to all the folks that work for me and with me. Restaurant cooking is a collaborative affair.
Pitchfork: I liked this insight from you in the book: "A large part of the joy of cooking is witnessing the perfection of nature." What do you mean by that?
BH: It’s my mission as a cook to source the best possible shit and then not fuck it up. That’s Italian, man. The less I have to do, the more I am stoked. When holding a perfect peach or tomato in your hands at the greenmarket—maybe there’s still dirt on it and it has a bruise because it is so fragile and has never been inside a fridge—you tremble and get all nervous and think, “What can I do to respect this thing and present it to a hungry stranger?” That’s working in a restaurant. That’s hospitality. I want every plate of food I send out to scream to the guests: “Holy shit, this is so fucking delicious, you gotta try this.”
Pitchfork: In your section on ingredients, you say that "the economic and social impact on source producers of chocolate is usually pretty devastating." Can you talk about this side of cooking—cooking responsibly?
BH: I believe that you cannot have listened to Fugazi’s “Burning Too” thousands of times and not source responsible chocolate and vegetables, and shop at places like The Strand and Kitchen Arts and Letters. I’m just doing what Ian and Guy told me to do.
Pitchfork: How did you decide on the recipes for the book?
BH: It’s all stuff I make at work, or at past work venues. The recipes in Fancy Desserts are not that important, honestly, even though it is a cookbook. Though they are all totally do-able. Georgia [Hubley] from Yo La Tengo saw an advance copy and she called it “infinitely entertaining, which is great because I have no intention of trying to prepare any desserts.” That made me very happy. I have many favorite cookbooks that I find totally inspirational but have never cooked from.
Pitchfork: In the introduction, there's a mention of that fact that fans of the music you made may never go to a place like Del Posto. What's it been like navigating both worlds, between an essay about a tour with Universal Order of Armageddon followed by a piece on olive oil?
BH: I’ve only ever worked in fancy restaurants, and, for the most part, high-end restaurants are where you get to learn cooking techniques that don’t exist elsewhere. But restaurants like Del Posto are inaccessible to the majority of the population, which, of course, totally sucks. On the other hand, Del Posto is cool because we have a $39 lunch that is the exact same food as dinner, so if you were to come in and just drink NYC tap water—which is totally delicious, I personally never touch bottled or filtered water in NYC—your bill is $39 plus tax. Which makes it accessible to normal people—though, if you talk to someone like Stephen Tanner, he’ll tell you $39 for lunch is highway robbery. He’s a fucking genius, so what do I know?
Pitchfork: In the book, the pairing of the red wine plums recipe and the cover of the Melvin's Bullhead is great. Do you often make those kinds of connections in your head while cooking?
BH: Bullhead is one of my absolute favorite records, and the cover just had to get photographed for the book. Fancy Desserts is absolutely inspired by a Melvins aesthetic. I saw King Buzzo play acoustic shows in July, and it blew my mind. Even without live drums it was terrifyingly heavy. And he told the funniest jokes in between songs. It was almost a religious experience. Plus, duh, there's fruit on the cover, and in the recipe.
Pitchfork: Will people who don't like the Melvins get your cooking?
BH: Doesn’t everyone on the planet love the Melvins?
Photographers Samantha Marble and Tonje Thilesen capture moments with Deafheaven, Tim Hecker, White Lung, Michael Chapman, Swans, Meredith Graves, Majical Cloudz, Julia Holter, and more at last weekend's Basilica SoundScape in Hudson, New York.
Foxygen: Jonathan Rado and Sam France. Photos by Cara Robbins.
Since the success of their brilliantly shaggy debut album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, Foxygen have gained a reputation as a band teetering on the brink of collapse. First, there was a SXSW set last year that saw frontman Sam France confronting a crowd member—exact quote: “Come on the fucking stage and talk to me about it, you fucking coward”—and then storming off. Then, they canceled a tour. And last summer, rumors of turmoil between France and co-founder Jonathan Rado popped up.
All of which might make you think the sessions for their forthcoming second record ...And Star Power would be rife with conflict and at least a few fistfights. But that would not be the case. In fact, the only moment of contentiousness they can recall involved a five-minute argument about the quality of a certain drum take and a thrown lighter—not exactly "Behind the Music" material. "As far as me and Sam working together as Foxygen, that was never a question," says Rado. France agrees, calling any and all breakup rumors "utter bullshit."
So while their internal drama may not reach Beatles or Fleetwood Mac levels, ...And Star Power still finds the band checking-off another slew of classic-rock tropes. Make a bloated double album? Done. Give it a concept that’s not entirely clear? Sure. Adopt multiple alter egos? Absolutely. Enlist special guests? Indeed, including members of the Flaming Lips, Of Montreal, White Fence, and Bleached. Still, the duo insist they are doing more than simply regurgitating what came before them. "People think we're really stuck in the past, but we don't really think of all this stuff as tributes to old classic rock and shit," says France. "Our philosophy is a little more liquid and modern than that."
Pitchfork: There are a lot of guests on this album, but did you write songs with other artists in mind who you couldn't get?
Jonathan Rado: We wanted the L.A. producer guru Kim Fowley on it, but it didn't work out.
Sam France: Stevie Nicks didn’t work out either.
JR: We tried to get Stevie. Early on, I wanted to get Paul McCartney to play drums on a song, but it didn’t work out with Paul.
SF: Our management did reach out, though.
JR: They just got an email back that said something like, "Paul doesn't guest star." As it is, Star Power is like the budget version of the album that it could've been if Paul McCartney and Stevie Nicks were on it.
... And Star Power cover:
Pitchfork: The liner notes list each side’s theme, and side one is called "Star Power, Side One, Part One: The Hits; What's the Hook?"
JR: [laughs] Yeah, that's the side of the album that I think casual Foxygen listeners will really like. "What's the hook?" is like the album's motto—while we were recording, we wrote that on the wall of the studio, and it was overlooking us the whole time. It doesn't necessarily mean "catchy chorus," but more like, "Why are people going to want to listen to this song?"
Pitchfork: How fleshed out is the Star Power universe? Do you have personas for the band, or is it more of a loose concept?
SF: It's a looser concept—it's just exaggerated ideas of me and Rado.
JR: Our live band right now is kind of like Star Power, so if there was a band that was Star Power, it would currently be Foxygen.
Pitchfork: You credit a Skip Spence song in the liner notes—is it important for you guys to give credit where it’s due as far as borrowing from other artists?
SF: Particularly in that case, yes. It's from a bonus track on Oar by Skip Spence, which is kind of obscure, so I definitely wanted to credit him. But other than that, I don’t think we've ever given too much credit. Our songs have always just been this changing amalgamation of things.
JR: Sometimes you realize you do it after the fact. Not that every Foxygen song is ripped off from other songs, but there were a few moments where it's like, "oops”. But if you’re not realizing it, you're warping it into something else that’s not that person's song anymore.
Pitchfork: Well, for example, when you made "On Blue Mountain", from the first album, were you aware that the chorus sounds like Elvis' "Suspicious Minds"?
SF: There was a point where I was like, "Yo, this is ‘Suspicious Minds.’" But we weren't really thinking about it.
JR: We don't ever go, "Oh, we're going to steal this part." We'll write something and be like, "Oh, maybe that's something else." But we still wrote it and it still came from an organic place.
Photo by Justin Lapriore
Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Dinosaur Jr. leader and overall guitar-rock icon J Mascis, whose latest solo album, Tied to a Star, is out now on Sub Pop. We recommend reading this with Mascis' famously laconic speaking voice and beyond-bone-dry sense of humor in mind.
Favorite TV Shows
I like "Legit", "Louie", "Curb Your Enthusiasm", and "Seinfeld". There's that one "Seinfeld" episode about bringing your own maple syrup to diners in New York. I actually used to do that, but I was paranoid and would hide it in a Ziploc bag. It was kind of messy. Some people have a real fear of maple syrup being all sticky in their hair and stuff—I can deal with it, but I have some friends who are mortified. Anyway, I never got caught at the diners; I was pretty sly. People were always like, "Why are you even hiding that? Why would they care?" But then I saw that "Seinfeld" where Jerry does get caught and thought, "That's what I'm scared of."
Most Useful YouTube Tutorial
I watched one about how to fix a speaker where the cone thing in the middle was pushed in. The guy took a vacuum cleaner and popped it out. So I tried that, and it didn't work as well as it did on YouTube, but it worked. Some rotten kid pushed it in—it wasn't my 6-year-old son, but he was there when it happened, so I don't know his involvement, exactly.
Favorite Thing About Being a Dad
Just hanging out, seeing what he says. I'm always surprised by what comes out of his mouth. My friend was saying that my son seems like a little midget and not really a kid—he comes up with a lot of wisecracks. He probably gets that from me.
I don't have any tattoos but I've thought about getting Ernie, from Bert and Ernie, on my earlobe. He made a big impression on me as a kid. And I have pretty big earlobes.
Strangest Display of Fan Affection
Sometimes people show me Dinosaur Jr. tattoos, and that always freaks me out. One guy had one on his forearm, and it looked like he'd just gotten out of prison.
Best Movie I've Seen Recently
I'm not a huge movie buff, but I recently had a bit part in one called The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg. I played a janitor and had a few lines but I haven't seen the movie yet, so I don't know what made it in. In the movie, Jesse Eisenberg is playing himself and this other double of himself, so you don't know which one is doing what. And in the scene I was in, I didn't know which one he was, and then I was like, "Oh, it's you. How's it going?" But it was actually the other one, or something.
My Morning Routine
If I'm at home, I might make some buckwheat mush and ride my bike. There's a bike path, so I'll go to Whole Foods, which is a five-mile ride, or to this cafe, which is 10 miles round-trip.
Best Celebrity Encounter
I got a picture with Dave Chappelle (below) when I ran into him in front of the Soho Grand in New York. He seemed a little surprised by me and my brother-in-law. Maybe we were too excited to see him. He looked really buff at the time, I don't know if he's still working out.
Photo by Philipp Virus
Favorite Record Stores
I like Vicious Sloth, which is in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. It's expensive, but they have everything. Locally, there's Mystery Train that's close by [in Amherst, Massachusetts], and Feeding Tube is in the next town. There's a lot of serious record nerds around here. When I go to a store now, I'll look around on the wall and see if there's anything interesting, or if there's an old records bin, or a punk section. I'm pretty impatient these days—I'll assess the store quickly and either walk out or keep looking around.
What I'm Reading Right Now
No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, an oral history about City Gardens, which was a club in Trenton, New Jersey in the '80s and '90s. Jon Stewart was a bartender there. I played there a few times. It includes stories about Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Bauhaus—there's one about skinheads wanting to kill Keith Morris.
Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and Sid Vicious
Favorite New Artist
"WTF" with Marc Maron. I was actually on that one, too.
Hitting bad golf shots. I started playing golf with my mom when I was like 5. I won some tournament when I was 9 and then I decided to retire. I didn't really play again until I was 23. It's pretty frustrating. I think I'm getting worse now.
Favorite Karaoke Song
"Here Comes My Girl" by Tom Petty, though I haven't really done karaoke since the '90s.
Dream Merch Table Item
Maybe skis would be cool, though they would be really hard to sell at a show.
Animal I Would Want to Be
I like manatees. They seem pretty mellow.
"Nice bit of porn!" Richard D. James says as he hoists a duffel bag off the floor, extracts a boxy black machine, and lays it on the table next to his empty juice glass. “That is a good piece of fucking equipment." I wish I could tell you more about the gear in question, but honestly, his mini-tutorial flies by in a blur, because, well: Aphex Twin is sitting in front of me, showing off his fucking drum machine.
James has never been known as a terribly forthcoming talker. For years, what few interviews he gave, he conducted only by email—and those could be almost painfully curt. Inone from 2011, for example, a reporter from Spain’s biggest newspaper asked him about his relationship with his public. "I hate them." What does he look for when he composes? "Nothing." How does he know when a song is finished? "When I'm sick of making it."
Even when he was in the habit of giving face-to-face interviews, back in the 1990s, he could often barely contain his apparent disdain for those asking the questions, or the very concept of journalism itself. Hence the extensive Aphex Twin mythos that developed out of his wild and essentially unverifiable claims: that he lived in a bank vault, drove a tank, shared the name of his dead brother, was sitting on a trove of a thousand unreleased songs. Over time, he grew into electronic music's very own misanthropic version of Paul Bunyan.
More importantly, the last Aphex Twin album, Drukqs, came out 13 years ago, putting an end to a prodigious decade-long run. It's not that he stopped making music since. In 2005, he released 11 EPs of gritty acid techno via his Analord series. A pair of 2007 releases by an artist named the Tuss, on James' own Rephlex label, were generally acknowledged to be his work. And he has continued to perform, including a string of live appearances in 2011 and 2012, along with a DJ set under his AFX alias at this year's Glastonbury. But as the years went on with no new proper Aphex Twin album, it became easy to wonder if Drukqs would turn out to be his last. Perhaps he preferred taunting his fans with all those alleged unreleased songs to actually releasing music.
But this year, all those guessing games went out the window. First, James’ legendary "lost" Caustic Window album finally found its way to the public via an ingenious crowd-funding campaign, apparently with his blessing. And then, almost as though all that hubbub had roused him from his slumber, Aphex Twin's long hiatus came to an end. A chartreuse blimp emblazoned with his logo was spotted floating over London; then came a tweet from his long-dormant Twitter account leading to an album title, Syro, and a tracklisting unleashed via the deep web. Finally, in late August, his longtime label Warp announced the album's release date: September 23. The next day, I find myself on an early-morning flight to London to meet up with James at a hotel near Charing Cross.
To be honest, I had my doubts that an interview would transpire at all—or at least, a traditional sort of interview. Given the surveillance trickery involved in the album’s campaign—visitors to a Syro website were shown a virtual profile of their own computer—maybe I'd be speaking into a one-way mirror. Maybe he would interview me. Maybe, if I was really lucky, I'd get to go up in that blimp. But no: As I’m ushered to the rear of the hotel dining room and sit down at a cluttered table, there he is—ponytailed, bearded, looking pretty much exactly as you'd expect—pulling his drum machine out of a duffel bag and rhapsodizing about the benefits of analog sound.
There is one twist to it all: His wife, Anastasia, is also at the table, sketching both of us as we talk. My impromptu portrait comes out horrifyingly wooly, but it’s definitely me; James looks even more like himself, though his lips are odd, like two white worms. ("Look at my lips!" he laughs, when he sees his wife’s finished work, pursing them in imitation.)
But what might be most mind-boggling is how relaxed James turns out to be—how friendly, copacetic, almost jolly. This is not the cantankerous Aphex Twin of the monosyllabic answers and intentional provocations. Instead, here’s a 43-year-old guy you could easily imagine sharing a beer with at a hotel bar—slightly neurotic, a little mischievous, mildly self-deprecating, sure, but generally pretty down-to-earth. He speaks openly about the new album, which features tracks recorded across the last seven years, and cheerfully indulges my questions about his listening habits, ‘90s rave culture, and what he’s got in store for the future. He even talks about his kids.
Pitchfork: How do you pronounce Syro?
Richard D. James: "Sigh-ro." It's just a made-up word my kid came up with. I don't know what it means, and he doesn't know what it means, either. But it means something. And it sounds cool. That's it, basically. [laughs] It's really funny, because if you make up words, then people project their own meanings onto it, which I find interesting. I looked at a forum last night, and there was already about 10 pages of people doing acronyms of Syro: "Sell Your Rotten Ovaries," or something. [laughs]
Pitchfork: What does the release of this album mean to you?
RDJ: End of a chapter. It's like, “OK, fuck that lot off.” Now I can now concentrate on some new stuff. And you can't quite do that unless you've released something. I mean, you can, but you can't properly. Because I've been making music and releasing it for so long, I've got that production-line thing in my brain: I can't do anything new until the last one's out.
Also, if you're making things at home, there is no structure—no end, no beginning. So releasing stuff is a really nice way to have dividers in between what you do, and giving yourself a kick up the ass and saying, “OK, that's the end of that period.” Otherwise, it'd be really hard to catalog it. But my filing system's really crap because I can never decide whether to sort things by studio, or year, or where I lived. So with an album, at least it's been set in stone and backed up 100,000 times, or however many copies you sell. Hopefully five million backups!
Pitchfork: What made you decide that either the tracks were done or you were ready finally to put an album out? What was the catalyst?
RDJ: It's because I finished making a studio in Scotland that I'd been building for about three years. It took so long. I had this engineer helping me wire all the patch bays together, and he was doing it for about three months, every day, and then he realized he was doing it all wrong and had to start again. That was pretty brutal. So it's kind of like, “OK, I've done that now, it's the end of an era.”
But then I realized I actually like making studios more than making music, because I like the possibilities of what you can do. I make these setups that will achieve some sort of purpose, so the way I've wired it together becomes the track in itself.
Pitchfork: Is rearranging the studio part of your compositional process?
RDJ: It's constant. When I look at commercial studios, I think, “Oh, they're all so nice and tidy,” but it's because they don't actually write music in them. They're just for producing stuff that's already been written. Whereas if you're writing stuff in studios, it's always changing, and you're always swapping equipment around. I just really wish I could bloody keep the same setup for more than about five minutes, because then I would actually get good at that setup. But I just get bored and swap things out. Fucking ridiculous.
If it takes you three years to set up a studio, and you've made one track with that setup, then the logical thing to do is not change anything and just do another one using the same set of sounds. Which I've done, and it's always really good because it's all ready to go. But I just can't keep it the same. I’ve always got to change something. All the tracks I’ve done in the last five years were made in like six different studios. It gets a bit complicated.
Pitchfork: Yet Syro holds together well. As a listener, I wouldn't think these were songs that had been made in different years and different studios.
RDJ: I suppose that’s good in one way. In another, I'd like them all to be totally different, because I've got all these different setups, so it should be really different. So it’s probably good for [the album], but it actually makes me think I'm pretty shit.
Pitchfork: Most of the track titles seem to reference classic hardware, like the Korg Mini Pops and the Sequentix Cirklon. Are those the machines you used on the songs?
RDJ: Pretty much. I actually made an equipment list that’s in [the limited-edition box set version of the album]. I've never done one of those before, so the fans will be like, “What? Really? Fuck me sideways!” I am so insane for equipment, so that story needs to be told. And the list is fucking massive. It is so stupid. It was really hard to do—I gave up about 10 times. I thought I would be able to remember what every bit of equipment was for each track, but I totally couldn't. I was like, "What is that fucking synth?" So I didn't put every single thing down, but I tried my best until I started going mad.
I used to be a bit secretive and didn't want people to know what I was using, or get too fixated and waste their money buying equipment, because it's not about what equipment you have, it's what you do with it.
Syro equipment list:
Pitchfork: One interesting thing about the record is how every song keeps morphing—I don't think there are two bars that are identical in any track. It’s like an organism.
RDJ: It can be quite impenetrable for most people, because you can't latch on to something. It sounds quite random at first. I'm a quite erratic person: From setups to actually when I’m doing a track, it's just turning and switching and changing all the time. But there is a method. People just have to take time to work it out.
Pitchfork: What was the thinking behind spitting back users’ own computer information on the Syro website?
RDJ: It came from wanting to show the audience rather than me at gigs, because I don't want them to see me. I wanted to do gigs where you've just got mirrors on the stage, and then you light the crowd so they look at the stage and all they can see is themselves. It's just like, “There you go, it's you, you cunts.” [laughs] But they couldn't do the thing with mirrors, so the compromise was filming the audience and doing face-mapping, so the audience is just looking at themselves, basically. These sites were just a continuation of that—you're looking at it and going, “Oh, that's my computer.”
Pitchfork: Were you in the Aphex Twin blimp that flew over London last month?
RDJ: No, but it would have been good, wouldn't it? Get a zeppelin and ride underneath it, DJing. Maybe next time.
"Forget all the equipment, forget the music, at the end of the day it's just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That's what's everyone's essentially after."
Pitchfork: There seems to be a lot of your own voice on this album.
RDJ: Yes, it's mine, my two kids, my wife, my mum and dad are on there in places. It's all chucked in the mix.
Pitchfork: I can't understand a word of it, but I like that it's in there.
RDJ: That's usually the intention. That's another way of withholding some details for yourself. Because you don't know what someone's saying, whereas I do. Not that I would expect anyone to care, but it's a way of keeping your privacy.
Pitchfork: I actually put one phrase into software and reversed it, because I thought that it had been reversed, but that just made it sound… more reversed.
RDJ: I was doing that. My wife's Russian, and it always sounds backwards when they talk. "Nyuzz-nyuzz-nyuzz." But if you reverse that, it sounds even weirder.
Pitchfork: I noticed the title of the last song on the album, the solo piano one, is "Anastasia" spelled backwards.
RDJ: Yeah, it's written for my wife. When I first did that, I did this installation-y art thing at the Barbican with a remote orchestra. [The song] was made on my Disklavier [controlled piano], which was swung from the roof at that gig, and there was this massive Doppler effect. It is pretty mental. There's a bad cameraphone version of it on YouTube, but in the flesh it's amazing. To listen to this piano swinging, you almost see all the notes stretching out, so it'll hit you at different times. I never knew if it was going to work, and everyone was like, “What the fuck is he swinging a piano for?” But when we actually got it going, we were just like, “fucking hell.” It was so extreme. My friends were like, “Are the strings stretching?” The pitch deviation is that big, it sounds like the actual frame is contorting. Maybe it is, I don't know!
Pitchfork: In most of your music, there's a lot of interest in detuned sounds and these very shivery, in-between sorts of harmonies. Do you remember when you first discovered those sounds?
RDJ: I don't know when I did, but I've always liked these weird scales and tunings. I've been using my own scales for quite a long time now, since Selected Ambient Works Volume II. It's got some scales I made myself, where I just make my own tuning and compose from that. I've got a weird balance problem as a human being, like I'm dizzy, and it's something to do with that. I'll fall over sometimes, just walk into walls. There's something wrong with my brain, it doesn't work properly! I can hear the same pitch in both ears, whereas for most people, if you listen to one pitch in one ear, it's slightly different in the other. That's how your brain works out direction. But mine's really close. I don't know what it is, something internal.
Pitchfork: Maybe that's your problem—your pitch is too perfect.
RDJ: Maybe. But it always sounds more right to me when it's detuned. When it's right in tune, it's like there's something slightly off. But at the end of the day, it's all about frequencies and what they do to you. That's the real core. Forget all the equipment, forget the music, it's just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That's what's everyone's essentially after.
"My 5-year-old's made loads of totally insane music on his computer, and I'm just like, 'What the fuck is that?
What have I done to him?'"
Pitchfork: Would it be fair to say that you're a sound artist as much as musician?
RDJ: Yeah. It is all about sound, but people forget that. They think, "Oh, I want to hear a nice tune." But what you're actually saying is you want to hear the combination of frequencies that make you feel a certain way. And more excitingly, it's about finding out the new ones. A lot of composers before me have been on this mission to change the world by getting off equal temperament, and I'm definitely one of those.
You're brainwashed in the West with equal temperament, so it's quite hard for people who like following rules to get outside of that and see what you can do. But for me it's easy because I don't work like that. I work intuitively. I actually prefer it if I don't know what I'm supposed to do. If you've got an equal temperament piano keyboard, then you know what you're going to get if you play certain chords. But I actually like it if you don't know where the notes are, because then you do it intuitively. You're working out a new language, basically. New rules. And when you get new rules that work, you're changing the physiology of your brain. And then your brain has to reconfigure itself in order to deal with it.
So if you hear a C-major chord with an equal temperament, you've heard it a million times before and your brain accepts it. But if you hear a chord that you've never heard before, you're like, "huh." And your brain has to change shape to accept it. And once it's changed shape, then you have changed as a person, in a tiny way. And if you have a whole combination of all these different frequencies, you're basically reconfiguring your brain. And then you've changed as a person, and you can go and do something else. It's a constant change. It could sound pretty cosmic and hippie, but that is exactly what's going on.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like you've changed?
RDJ: Yeah, you change all the time. Everything changes you. We're different people since we sat down here, aren't we. And it's all really subtle. You hear a horrible track and it changes you in a really horrible way. But I think things that are shit don't actually change you that much, apart from just getting on your nerves. That's the whole point—you've heard it all before. But when it's something different, it actually will change you. That’s what I'm interested in. That's the whole point.
Pitchfork: How has being a father changed you?
RDJ: You can't even begin to go into it. It's totally weird. They're like computer-programmed versions—clones—of yourself. They're making music now. My 5-year-old's made loads of totally insane music on his computer, and I'm just like, “What the fuck is that? What have I done to him?” He’s using Renoise. I didn't tell him how to use it, he just downloaded a crack off Pirate Bay. Age 5! He set up a Bandcamp, and he's published some tracks on there. I've since showed him how to record his voice and stuff like that. I just can't believe that's what's happening.
It's in his DNA. The way they treat computers is just mindboggling to me. He's got quite an expensive Mac, and he just carries it around like [waves book in the air]. It's like part of his body, swinging off his arm. It's so weird. That's kind of what I was always dreaming about, in a way. Like a cyborg. We're almost there, aren't we. Halfway there.
Pitchfork: Does having kids change your approach to music at all?
RDJ: Well, I made some music with them, actually. I played two tracks we made to the Warp people, and they said it sounded like a combination of Mark Fell and Holly Herndon. I'm trying to work out more ways to involve my children, because the way I do stuff is so anti-kid, it's really boring. It's not fun. It is to me, but not to them, because they don't even know what I'm doing. I’m just sitting there doing nothing as far as they're concerned. But sometimes I'll be working on a sound for ages, and I’ll say to my kid, "Sorry if it's too loud, I'll put my headphones on in a minute." And he’s like, "No, I really like it. I came in to listen to you doing that." And he just turned 6. It was like, “Really? Fuckin' hell.” He actually likes his dad working on one sound for four days. I think he finds it relaxing.
Next: Richard D. James on his own musical holy grail, why he prefers to remain anonymous, and what he's planning to do next.
Pitchfork: In the '90s, your music existed in a kind of dialectical relationship with rave culture. Do you miss that?
RDJ: Yeah, I do, actually. For years, I could listen to jungle and nick things from them, but they didn't know I existed. It was a separate world. But that world doesn't exist anymore. It's all merged into this global Internet world. It's a real shame. I really don't like that. But that's just globalization. It's got good sides as well. But scenes aren't allowed to develop on their own anymore. Everyone knows about everything.
The holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever. Or, even better, from lots of different planets. And the closest we got to that was before the Internet, when people didn't know of each other's existence. Now, that doesn't really happen.
I used to love jungle. I still think it's the ultimate genre, really, because the people making it weren't musicians. The best artists are people who don't consider themselves artists, and the people who do are usually the most pretentious and annoying. [laughs] They've got their priorities wrong. They're just doing it to be artists rather than because they want to do it. And a lot of jungle people were actually car mechanics and painter-and-decorator types, like, pretty hardcore blokes. I wouldn't want to get into a fight with them. I know a few people who were like that, and I don't think that really exists any more. Maybe those sort of non-musician types do some dubstep stuff, or grime. But it didn't exist in jungle for long. There was only a couple of years where people didn't know what they were doing, and you got all these samples that are just totally not related in pitch. I really hunt down those records. They've got this ridiculous mishmash of things that totally don't go with each other at all. Obviously, after they've done it for a couple of years they learn how to make chords and stuff, and it's not so interesting now.
Pitchfork: How did you feel about the recent success of the Kickstarter campaign to distribute your previously unreleased Caustic Window album from 1994?
RDJ: It was just really touching, the whole thing. Because I try to distance myself from my fans, but something like that is just so nice. And when they reached the goal on Kickstarter and it kept going up—people just wanted to give it money, even though they didn't need to do it, because they're just going to get a download from someone. It's like, “Oh wow, humanity is nice after all.” But it's totally weird, just thinking that people like your stuff that much.
Pitchfork: Why had you not released it in the first place?
RDJ: Just got forgotten about, basically. Just got shelved. I wanted to change one track and never got around to it. I just thought people would be like, "Yeah, it's all right, kind of average." But fans were just so happy to get it, fucking hell. I've got thousands more like that at home. I should release all that stuff as well. That's the thing, I did a lot of tracks for quite a few years before I released Ambient Works, so there's this whole other persona people don't even know about, and probably wouldn't even recognize.
Pitchfork: It's funny, because I've read so many interviews with you where you've talked about this enormous archive of unreleased material, and I always thought you were being cryptic, coy, or self-aggrandizing. But hearing you explain it now, I suddenly believe you.
RDJ: "It's probably true!" Yeah. Well, when it comes to my stuff, things totally go missing: I still lose them and erase them by mistake.
Pitchfork: You've said that you prefer to keep some of your music to yourself. Is it nerve-wracking to be sending it out into the world again?
RDJ: No. Basically, if I start doing something new, the reason for doing it is because I haven't heard anyone else do it. That's usually the main inspiration. So if I started doing something new today, and it's the first experiment, I get excited because I haven't heard anything like that before. But if I released that on the Internet tomorrow, then it would totally put me off continuing that experiment, because people would hear it and copy it, and it wouldn't be new anymore. I'll take something to its logical progression on my own, and then when I'm done with it, it's like, “OK, chuck that out there.”
But I don't think these [Syro] tracks are particularly innovative. Maybe in really subtle ways they are, for me, but there's nothing there that I need to explore more, so it's not going to put me off releasing anything. It just totally makes me want to not do anything else in that particular style.
Pitchfork: Is that why you've used so many different aliases over the years?
RDJ: Actually no—I've just done that for a laugh. And I might keep doing it, just keep being anonymous and doing different names.
Pitchfork: Since the last Aphex Twin album 13 years ago, have there been other things you put out that we don't know about?
RDJ: Maybe, maybe not! [laughs] I might keep doing that as well, because it's more interesting for me to stick things out anonymously. You get more of an honest reaction to what you've done. There's no expectation in what people say. But that changes from culture to culture. In America, it's quite admirable if someone's done well or been successful at whatever it is. Whereas in Britain, they're not. They only like it when you're the underdog. As soon as you get famous, they're like, "He thinks he's fucking God, that guy." So in Britain, it's good for me to be anonymous, because they just think it's a nobody. "Who is this guy?"
"It's more interesting for me to stick things out anonymously—
you get more of an honest reaction to what you've done."
Pitchfork: You seem to perform more often than you put out records. Is there a reason for that?
RDJ: Well, the last load of gigs I just did it for money, basically. I really didn't—I did enjoy it, but the good gigs are always the smaller gigs. The few I've done recently, just for fun, totally anonymously, were so much better than a normal gig: The soundsystem's usually shit, but it's really nice when nobody knows who you are. I did this normal gig at Glastonbury that was really good, and then I did one the next day, and only one or two people knew I was doing it. There was 10 people in a little bar in Glastonbury, dancing, when I got there. I DJ’d for about five hours, and by the end, it was just totally rammed. They slowly got attracted in. That was so much more fun.
Pitchfork: What were you playing at that smaller gig?
RDJ: Loads of different stuff, like weird disco or cosmic funk—stuff I would never play at an Aphex gig. That's like proper DJing, because when I'm DJing at a bigger gig, it's not really DJing. You're not like working the floor, and people are going to get into it whatever you play.
Pitchfork: But you've never been one to "work the floor," exactly.
RDJ: Well, at bigger gigs, I sort of know what people are doing, and I do react to them, but not in the same way as if nobody knows who you are. Because then you have to. You can't rely on the fact that people know you. At Glastonbury, when they all knew I was DJing, everyone was cheering even though they'd never heard some of the tracks I was playing before. Then I played the same tracks in this other place, and people are like, “What's so good about that?” They don't know what it is. You get the benefit of the doubt if people know who you are.
Pitchfork: What's living in Scotland like? How long have you been up there?
RDJ: About 8 years. It's just brilliant, living in the middle of nowhere, a small community. People are slowly getting to know that I live there, and that’s not so good, but they don't really care if you're famous or semi-famous or whatever. It's only interesting when you're from somewhere else, like America or Japan. The further away the more interesting it is.
Pitchfork: Do you get recognized much?
RDJ: Occasionally, yeah, which is a bit annoying, but it's usually at gigs or festivals or music shops. I got recognized in this vegan café the other day when I was with my kids, and they got so excited. There were these people at the same table as me, and they sat right there. Normally you can kind of run away, but we were stuck in this really close situation. And this guy was looking at me, like, "Oh, are you so-and-so?" I was like, “yeah.” We were waiting for our food before we could go, and I was just like, “oh, fucking hell!” And my son was like, "Yeah! I've seen somebody recognize you!" He was really happy.
"If you've got a stick hitting a drum and you're programming it on a computer, it's more interesting than a sample playing back—
it's something in the air, that's the magical ingredient."
Pitchfork: Have you been working on any other new music as of late?
RDJ: I've been doing loads of electro-mechanical stuff with drum robots and things like that. I've got four MIDI pipe organs and a Disklavier controlled piano and computer-controlled percussion. I've done loads of stuff with those, and none of that's on [Syro], that's all for other projects. That other material is maybe even better than—well, I prefer it to this album, but I don't think it's as accessible. But it's more unique. Maybe these [Syro] tracks are more pleasurable to listen to, but it's not that new for me. Maybe the composition's changed, but there's no next-level beats on there. I've kept it like that on purpose. All the other stuff, which is kind of uncategorizable, is waiting to be fitted into another folder somewhere.
Pitchfork: Are you actually building these electro-mechanical instruments yourself?
RDJ: No, I’m usually buying them or giving people instructions how to make them, and they go and do it. I'm not any good at doing stuff like that, or wouldn't want to, anyway. There was some crazy dude on eBay selling these MIDI pipe organs for people to have in their living rooms. They sound fucking brutal! Soon as I turned it on, I played some Christmas carol, and it totally sounded like—fuck knows—some Ligeti piece. I mean, the amount of time you'd have to spend getting it to sound nice would be ridiculous, but it sounds good to me straightaway, because it was all sort of bashed in.
Pitchfork: Is that like the stuff Squarepusher was working on with his recent Music for Robots album?
RDJ: Well, when he released that, I was like, “Oh, fuck, I've been doing that for ages.” But mine's totally different to what he did. And I was reading about one of the Autechre guys, and someone had said to him, "Have you done anything with MIDI robots?" and he was like, "Every cunt's doing that now." [laughs] But it's definitely a super interesting thing to do. Maybe people are doing it to be cool or whatever, but to me it's what you want; if you're controlling real instruments, it's better than a synth. You've got more to start with straightaway, so it's easier to work with. The practicalities are more difficult, but if you've got a stick hitting a drum and you're programming it on a computer, it's so much more interesting than a sample playing back, though it ends up kind of sounding like samples anyway. But it's real, it's something in the air, that's the magical ingredient—when something moves through the air, it's automatically going to sound more interesting. You can do that with samples, too. They call it re-amping, where you take sounds, stick them out through a speaker or guitar cabinet, and record it again. Then it's been in the real world and put back into the computer. It's a nice thing to do.
Photos by Niall Webster
Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee don't seem to sweat timing much, or at all. When they were recording their first album as the Vaselines, Dum Dum, they were a couple; when it came out in 1989, they had already broken up, and the band was over. Then, when Kurt Cobain covered them three times—with Incesticide’s "Molly's Lips" and "Son of a Gun", and "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" from Unplugged—they took advantage, somewhat. Kelly’s post-Vaselines band Captain America toured briefly with Nirvana when Nevermind was changing the tides of popular music and also levied the superstar’s attention into a major-label deal.
But the Vaselines are not a band about opportunity; they are a band about serendipity. McKee and Kelly only get together when they feel like it. So they waited until 2010 to record a follow-up to their debut LP—and they called it Sex With an X. They’re back again, only a few years later this time, for no greater reason than it seemed like fun. They have a congenital allergy to planning things too far ahead or taking things too seriously, which has served them and their off-the-cuff legacy well.
The new album, V for Vaselines, dips back into the well of sweet, smutty innocence that has kept Kelly, 49, and McKee, 48, feeling youthful. When I talk to them on the phone, they rib each other constantly, and McKee laughs her head off the entire time. They still feel like an open secret, somehow.
Pitchfork: How often do you guys see each other outside of the band now?
Frances McKee: [laughs] As little as possible.
Eugene Kelly: Only when a lawyer's allowed it.
Pitchfork: How far apart do you live from each other?
FM: Not far enough. [laughs]
EK: I think 10 minutes on a bike, isn't it?
FM: Well, if I'm cycling, it's about 15 minutes.
Pitchfork: You guys have known each other for so long now. Do you write about your own history, or is it so ancient now that you don't rehash it?
EK: I don't think any of the songs refer to anything in our past, in that way. There's history, but it's a different kind: We try to write about things or people we know.
FM: That was a long time ago, and I think Eugene's had at least one good woman since me, but I've had thousands of men, so it could apply to any of them! I've had to do a lot of dumping in my time.
Pitchfork: That's quite a pull quote. Thank you.
FM: Oh my goodness. Don't tell my children!
Pitchfork: This is going to be on the Internet.
EK: I think Frances sometimes forgets we're not just having a conversation.
Pitchfork: Eugene, do you have kids?
EK: No, never. I have a very hard time looking after myself, really. I have no pets and I have no plants. Nothing I can't walk away from in five minutes.
Pitchfork: Frances, does Eugene ever see your kids? Is he like their cool uncle?
FM: Yeah, my children do call him Old Uncle Eugene. He even made my little girl cry.
EK: It wasn't me. You made her cry!
Pitchfork: I've heard that a Ramones cover band helped inspire V for Vaselines. How did that happen?
EK: I was at a birthday party in a place in Glasgow called The Old Hairdressers, a loft-type place that’s quite New York-like. And the Ramones tribute band had people from different bands that had done this just for fun, and it made me really re-appreciate the Ramones' music again. I hadn't listened to them for ages, and every song was amazing. I just thought, "Wouldn't it be great to write really short, instant pop songs like that again?"
FM: I had my own Ramones moment, and it was a coincidence that we both ended up talking about them. One of my sons was getting really into the Stooges, and the other one was getting into the Ramones, so that music was getting played a lot in my house, and I had this sudden realization of how utterly unbelievably brilliant these songs are. There's nothing difficult about them at all.
Pitchfork: Was it hard to plug into that simple, primal place again?
EK: We had done that intuitively before, and it's really hard to go back. The more time you take to write, the more you start adding things and expanding, and before you know it, you've written all these four-and-a-half-minute songs and everything is so important, so you can't drop a part. It's hard to remember how to scale back. So this was our attempt at writing songs that were as short as possible while making them achieve the most. The longest song on the album is four minutes and that's the ballad.
Pitchfork: Do you feel that you're better than you used to be now?
EK: We know what we're doing a bit more. Before, it was kind of ramshackle. You can tell as you listen to the old stuff, there are odd things like songs with no chorus, or songs with just the chorus, or the guitar solo comes after the first verse. We didn't know what we were doing!
Pitchfork: Who inspired the lines "goodbye crazy lady, I'm over you" on "Crazy Lady"?
FM: That was one of the very last lyrics to go on the song, and it actually came the same week that Margaret Thatcher died. But it can mean lots of things as well.
EK: Lyrically, we're not really specific. Though, on the first record, I remember there were certain songs where I was thinking about somebody when I sang.
FM: Who were you thinking about? [laughs]
EK: Not you.
FM: I knew you were thinking about someone else!
EK: I was thinking about me. They're all about me, actually.
FM: I really wanted Eugene to sing that line [on "Goodbye Crazy Lady"] because I really like Lee Hazlewood and we had to channel that kind of voice for it. It can be quite serious, and then that comes in and makes it all less serious.
Pitchfork: Speaking of Lee Hazlewood, "Single Spies" has a melancholy, sophisticated vibe that reminded me of him.
EK: That tune was mine, but the lyrics are always a split between us.
FM: In the main, we'll pass the lyrics back-and-forth and see what takes hold. I'll write a chunk and then Eugene marks it with pen and changes them.
EK: I'm mostly just correcting her spelling and grammar.
Pitchfork: What do you do when you're not playing together in the Vaselines?
FM: What do you do, Eugene?
EK: I just tend to lick the window until Frances comes back to the house. I'm like a puppy dog sitting by the window waiting for Frances. Actually, I do some solo stuff. I've written a couple songs for theatre shows in the past couple years. And Frances does her solo stuff, and she supported Neutral Milk Hotel recently at the Barrowland in Glasgow.
FM: I’ve been teaching yoga for about 20 years as well. Way before it was cool! I taught yoga to a field full of people at ATP, and it was really fun teaching yoga to people that had been up all night doing drugs.
Pitchfork: Were you there, Eugene? Did you take the class?
EK: I wouldn't go that far. I showed up. I had to support Frances.
FM: He did well. He wanted to do naked yoga, but I said no.
Talking about his band’s desire to expand its sound beyond the roiling hardcore that initially gained them international attention, Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt told Pitchfork last year: “We're not there yet—and I don't know if we're going to get there—but ideally, Iceage should not only cover the emotions that come with a clenched fist, but everything that comes with living our lives.” And while their Matador debut, 2013’s You're Nothing,offered more shades of humanity than their austere 2011 album New Brigade, the quartet's forthcoming third LP, Plowing Into the Field of Love, truly broadens their scope in surprising—and affecting—new directions.
This openness is clear from the rambling, country-tinged first single “The Lord’s Favorite” through to the horn-accented drama of tracks including “Forever” and “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”, with reference points like the Gun Club, the Pogues, and Nick Cave coming to mind. It never feels like a stretch, though: When strings, pianos, and those horns enter the picture, they sound purposeful. “We've always wanted to make music like this, it just took a while to get there,” says Rønnenfelt over the phone recently. “We have less fears when it comes to taking on whatever we want now.” Yet despite the more expansive, even bouncy instrumentation, Rønnenfelt’s delivery is still as pained as the lyrics he writes—he sings about violence and destruction in a beautiful way.
Pitchfork: In the video for “The Lord’s Favorite”, you look straight into the camera and have a bit of swagger. The vocals are upfront, which is different from past work. Do you see this new album as more of a pop record?
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: No, I think it's still a rock record. You could say that we played the whole “lead singer” aspect up a little bit—that there's more of a narrative and a protagonist—and part of me wants to be a pop star. But it just made sense to do the video like that since the song is so overly self-confident. It's about megalomania and love.
Pitchfork: Is the protagonist in the lyrics you or was it created for the record?
EBR: It's all me, but I'm molding and crafting myself into this character. There's a lot going on in my life and I made choices about which subjects to dramatize and how to dramatize them. There's a great deal of romanticizing the more difficult aspects of my life.
Pitchfork: The lyrics are more understandable, and there’s real power to lines like, "I keep pissing against the moon,” or “bit into flesh much like my own.” It helps to be able to hear exactly what you’re saying.
EBR: That was our intention. I put more work into the lyrics this time around and I'm a more experienced writer. I'm not trying to hide anything. Also, I'm just better at English now.
Pitchfork: How does the cover art tie into the rest of the album?
EBR: Well, we were originally going to make a painting, so we spent all our money on a bunch of materials and started working on it. We got a bunch of feathers and gold leaf and colored them in black paint so you could see the texture. But during the second day of painting, it became more and more apparent that it was just a piece of crap that was totally unusable for a record cover. We spent one more day painting, but it just got worse and worse. Then Kristian Emdal, who did the last album cover, took a photo of it—we had a faint hope that it might look good in a photo—but it looked even worse. And it was really close to our deadline. We were panicked. We had one day to figure out a record cover and had no ideas.
We tried brainstorming, and the only idea was "high-heeled shoes." So we went and got a high-heeled shoe from the lady that lives upstairs. What else? That palm tree looks nice. OK. So we had a high-heeled shoe and a palm tree, which was not really anything, so the next question was, of course, “Who's gonna wear the high-heeled shoe?” We looked around [bassist] Jakob [Tvilling Pless] parents' living room and saw that his little brother was sitting on the floor playing with his toys. We all looked at him and asked, "Hey, would you mind posing for a photo in this shoe?" Of course, there's an irony to having the title Plowing Into the Field of Love next to a kid in a high-heeled shoe, but that's not really what it's about. I think it's a nice wrapping for this record. It doesn't have any big symbolism.
Pitchfork: The title track opens with an acoustic guitar and ends with these huge horns and vocals, and the chorus could inspire people to hold up lighters. It strikes me as the biggest song you’ve written. How did it come about?
EBR: I think it's a good song, though I had my doubts when writing the chorus, because it's almost like an Oasis chorus. The first draft of the lyrics were written in two weeks I spent in Berlin this January, and the song is a very nice summary of the days I spent there.
Pitchfork: This is an ambitious record, but there’s still a lot of anxiety and darkness in the lyrics.
EBR: Some people have mistaken this record for being more positive or lighthearted, but opening up the songs actually just enhances the yearning and the anxiety. We've never really been a band that's stated anything. We're only raising questions.
How the War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel beat back crippling anxiety and isolation to make one of the year's most inclusive—and best—rock records.
“This is not my safe place, I want to be in my bedroom.”
At the very end of last year, atop a mountain surrounded by miles of rainforest, Adam Granduciel felt the floor begin to shudder. The War on Drugs frontman had just eased his band into their afternoon set at Falls Festival, an annual New Year’s Eve gathering on a remote farm 15 minutes from Australia’s southeastern coastline. The song was a warm, bath-like meditation named “Best Night", and the views in every direction were both spectacular and serene, save for the overwhelming distance from the one place Granduciel had spent much of 2013. And then: “classic panic attack.”
As a subwoofer groaned beneath him, the vibrations in the stage forced his left leg to shake unexpectedly. His chest tightened, his mind shut down, and he grew so uncomfortable that he nearly stopped playing. “The weird part is, if you had filmed me and then had me watch it later, I don't know that I'd be able to tell,” Granduciel told me. “You don't wear it on your face.”
Or perhaps you do. Earlier that day, after the drive up to the festival site left him feeling increasingly uneasy—“in the middle of nowhere, where anything can happen”—Granduciel gave a brief on-camera interview that was later spliced together with performance footage. Onstage, he appears clenched. And when answering questions about Lost in the Dream, the album that he and his bandmates had finished weeks earlier, he looks at odds with the sunlight, like someone who hadn’t been outside for the better part of a year.
A month later, on a brutally cold January morning, Granduciel was standing in the kitchen of his Philadelphia home, peering out its frosted windows. A blizzard had just barreled through the Northeast and buried it in snow. The sky was heavy, the color of sheet metal. “When I moved in here 11 years ago, that was a landfill,” he said, pointing to a lengthy back lot behind the house, all of it submerged in white. “But now it’s a sweet garden. And every winter, when my gas bills are really high and the house is drafty, I say, 'Ah, I’m fuckin’ moving out.’ Then in spring, the perennials come out and I think, 'This is the best.’”
Inside, his refrigerator was clad in Bob Dylan magnets, his lonesome dining room adorned with a rare, imported promotional poster for Neil Young’s 1979 album Live Rust, hung strategically to hide extensive water damage. The walls weren’t insulated, the roof was failing, and five cats could be heard but not seen. Strips of blue electrical tape clung to the living room’s peeling cappuccino paint job, labeled and leftover from a distant recording session. Natural light seemed to fade the moment it entered.
Over the past decade, this three-story row house in the neighborhood of South Kensington has functioned as a practice space, barracks, and makeshift home studio where Granduciel would often work by himself. It has helped birth three albums of music under the War on Drugs moniker, and a number of recordings by friends including Kurt Vile, his former bandmate and creative sibling. “I was the guy who didn't get a cool little apartment,” Granduciel said. “I took one for the team. I liked having the place we could make noise in, the place that could be the center of the music. I sat down and calculated it one day, and over the years, I've had something like 38 roommates.”
“Do you keep in touch with any of them?” I asked him.
“Not a single one,” he said, sharply. “Except for the few that were my friends. I don't think I would have the friends I have if I didn't live here.”
Knowing that he wanted to finally move out this year, Granduciel chose to memorialize the house in the artwork for Lost in the Dream, an album that owes as much to his fractured state of mind as it does the small group of friends that rallied around him to finish it. In the grip of an anxiety and depression so severe he was frequently afraid to fall asleep at night, the 35-year-old endured a recording process so harrowing, all-consuming, and genuinely cathartic, it almost broke him entirely. Like its predecessors, Lost in the Dream places Granduciel’s oceanic vision of the American rock canon on full, psychedelic display. But unlike those early, relatively insular records, it is an outward, emotionally dynamic exploration of self and sound, full of anthems and comedowns, storms and lighthouses.
“Whatever has been said, whatever will be said, and whatever becomes the mythology of the record is insufficient,” War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley told me. “Because it was pretty crazy to witness: We as a band went from worrying about the record to worrying about the person.”
Though he hadn’t suffered a panic attack in weeks, Granduciel was visibly anxious that morning. Through fine, dark hair down to his shoulders, there were ripples of tension in his jaw. He spoke in clipped, circular sentences, many of which seemed to surprise and further confuse him. At Hartley’s suggestion, he’d been seeing a therapist, in an effort to make sense of what had happened to him, and was still happening. In less than 48 hours, he was due to board a flight to Amsterdam, for the first stop in a week-long press tour through Europe. The thought of dying on the plane had crossed his mind more than once.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I wake up in the morning and I pull the blinds and I get that feeling I still can't shake: Today is just going to be another long, shitty fucking day, and hopefully tomorrow will be better.” We stood quietly for a moment, the silence punctuated by the violent clanging of old radiator pipes on the other side of the house. “I may have been living with this my whole life,” he continued, “but I can tell you the day it really started.”
Photo by Dusdin Condren
A year earlier, on February 16, 2013, Granduciel walked to a Mexican restaurant not far from his home to watch some basketball and have a drink with Hartley. It was the day after the singer’s 34th birthday, a Saturday. The restaurant was mostly quiet and empty, and Granduciel joked with a few other bar patrons that he was “captain of the block,” a bit of a bon vivant around the neighborhood. As the night oozed on, the bandmates enjoyed what Hartley described as “a gallon of tequila.”
In the six months leading up to that night, Granduciel had been working at home on Howard Street. As was his routine, he’d get up each morning in his third-floor bedroom and come downstairs to his living room, where, amid a tangle of equipment, he would write and record for hours, alone. But on the morning of February 17th, he didn’t come downstairs. “I woke up,” he recalled, “and something inside my head had flipped.”
Granduciel experienced a “massive, crazy” panic attack, the first of many that would soon come as often as five times a day. He grew depressed and paranoid, and began feeling the physiological effects of his anxiety in the form of sudden electrical sensations in his limbs, excruciating tension in his skull, and frightening pains in his chest. What may have been a standard-issue headache felt to him like the beginnings of a brain aneurysm. What were likely palpitations or acid reflux were thought to have been the onset of a heart attack. Triggers would present themselves at indeterminate moments and places, be it in Whole Foods, in his van, or eventually, his own home. “The second I would step back into the house, I'd tense up,” he said. “I'd think the house was the source of great sadness or pressure. I knew it wasn't. I knew it was just where I lived. But I'd walk up the stairs and the second floor was just desolate. My old bedroom: empty. My old rehearsal room: empty. First floor studio: messy and empty. Middle room: broken gear everywhere.”
He retreated almost entirely to his bedroom, where he had moved everything he needed to both live and work. Days passed without him stepping outside of that room, the hours creeping by as he stared at his computer and his reel-to-reel recording setup, paralyzed. “In the course of two weeks,” Hartley recalled, “Adam quit everything he possibly could. He quit drinking alcohol and coffee, he quit smoking pot, he became a vegetarian, and he broke up with his girlfriend. He wasn't even really eating food—he was just drinking juice from a juicer he bought on an infomercial. It was like Howard Hughes.”
Increasingly concerned, his bandmates—Hartley and keyboardist Robbie Bennett— would come by the house on Sunday nights to eat Indian take-out and watch “Breaking Bad”, a show so relentlessly tense it would often send Granduciel reeling. Fortunately, he'd already booked several days of studio time in New Jersey and North Carolina, spread out over the first half of 2013, from late February to June. It was a reason to leave the house, albeit briefly. “I didn't know why I was second-guessing everything,” Granduciel said. “I didn't know why I was feeling the way I was feeling all the time. I didn't know why I was making my life smaller. I didn't know what was making me sad.”
At the first of those sessions, in Hoboken, just 10 days after his initial panic attack, Granduciel experienced a turning point. The band had just cut the basic tracks for “Red Eyes”, a future single that felt like it could last. “I knew it was going to be a great song,” he said. “I realized I really wanted to make something that was great, something that makes other people happy. I went to bed that night in the studio, thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope I don’t die before this record comes out, because I want people to hear that song.’”
A native of Dover, Massachusetts, 20 miles southwest of Boston, Granduciel grew up a self-described loner. He played guitar, but rarely in bands. He was a member of his high school’s varsity soccer team, but a goalkeeper. His parents were private. “My mom and dad never really had friends, never went on vacations,” he said. “We stayed home. And I see a similarity there: A general anxiety runs pretty deep.” After studying history and fine arts in central Pennsylvania, he moved to the Bay Area, where he hoped to emulate the work of mid-20th-century West Coast artists Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, both known for abandoning abstract expressionism in favor of more defined forms.
When he painted, he would listen to music: Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin. The more he listened, the more he felt compelled to start recording on his own. And once he began, Granduciel developed a decidedly solitary process, often working through the night in his Oakland apartment, sculpting and conjoining layer upon layer of guitar. In completing his first cassette, he labeled it “Granduciel,” a portmanteau and nickname given to him by a high school French teacher as a joke, a word-for-word translation of the English words in his real last name, Granofsky.
After returning to New England in 2002, Granduciel befriended a crew of musicians in Boston that included singer-songwriter Carter Tanton, who had recently finished an album he’d recorded on his own, in a studio he’d built in his childhood bedroom. “He was sleeping in his parents’ basement, playing every instrument, going through this breakup,” Granduciel said. “That was the first time I saw someone make music obsessively. I’d never seen anyone living inside of something, to that level. Within minutes of being introduced to those guys, I realized that this was the world I wanted to live in—I loved playing music, I just never knew how to connect with people doing it.”
“I don’t want to leave my house,
yet I want to connect with stadiums? I want to play huge festivals, but the idea of standing in line at Whole Foods sends me over the edge?”
The next year, he left for Philadelphia on a whim, and through pure happenstance he met Vile, a gregarious-yet-enigmatic guitarist as fond of fingerpicking and Fahey as he was. Together, they began playing guitar side-by-side, for hours, luxuriating and splashing about inside the classic rock songbook they both loved. Though Vile played on—and left the band shortly after the release of—the War on Drugs’ 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, his influence remains paramount. “I never really like to talk about it because it was such an important part of my life that I don't want to be reduced,” Granduciel said of his relationship with Vile. “It was that moment where you gain confidence in your work, when you finally find that one person that likes you as a musician, likes being around you, seeks you out, asks you for advice, and relies on your approval. I don’t want it to become a tiny moment.”
As musicians and songwriters, the two have, as Granduciel phrased it, “expanded on our original idea, but apart from one another.” As people, they differ in fascinating ways. Granduciel described Vile as a “very outward guy” who’s “always surrounding himself with people, his family.” In contrast, Granduciel—a former member of Vile’s live outfit, the Violators—would often come home from tours and revert back to working alone in his cavernous house. And as Vile slipped into the role of relatively traditional singer-songwriter, Granduciel became what he now likens to a producer, an architect whose exquisitely textured home recordings were open-ended enough that a band could help expand on them further, if not forever. As the two have ceased to tour with one another, each of their subsequent releases have been met with questions of rivalry. “It's competitive,” Granduciel admitted. “But I think that everyone needs that healthy competition with people you really respect and love. You want to show them that you're good, too. That's true of anything. All those crazy Impressionist painters in France were friends but they would write about how jealous and competitive they were. That's what makes good art.”
After a series of early touring mishaps left Granduciel in debt, he was forced to borrow money to finish 2011's Slave Ambient. Facing a deadline, he and local engineer Jeff Zeigler sifted through nearly two dozen songs—all built from hundreds of layers of experiments and amorphous sounds—without “any instance of mental breakdown.” Perhaps, Granduciel suggested, the relative ease of that recording experience was the result of “zero expectation—it was like, 'I love this, but it's for the 400 people who bought Wagonwheel, and a middle finger to the booking agent that dropped us.”
But Slave Ambient didn’t feature songs so much as vast weather systems. Granduciel had further developed a highly interactive way of writing and recording that allowed him to vaporize his influences—Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen—then move through them. To record collectors, it felt both prehistoric and completely modern: the romantic sweep of major American singer-songwriter fare wed to krautrock's hallucinogenic expanse. But not a single track featured a traditional chorus or distinct emotional center. And though its modest commercial success inspired his touring band to solidify around him, it also forced Granduciel to confront the nature and gravity of what he was doing creatively: The War on Drugs was becoming much more than just a solo endeavor.
“I loved it,” he said, of touring and leading a band of his own. “But I was also wondering, 'What is this really about? Who am I? What am I doing? Am I really contributing, or am I hiding behind these soundscapes? Am I hiding behind my fake last name? What are people connecting with? Are they connecting with an idea or are they connecting with the music?’ Because what I always connected with was songs.”
On that snowy day in January, we had dinner at the same Mexican restaurant where Granduciel and Hartley drank a year earlier: Loco Pez. It was full and loud and humming with the sound of young people as they slurped up house sangria and tore apart tacos. Granduciel ordered a glass of red wine. Bundled up in a shearling-collared, tan canvas coat, he said he’d been keeping six Ativan in his back pocket for nearly a year, but because he tends “to fight the pill,” to prevent it from taking effect, it was unlikely that he’d take one on the flight to Europe. Since his first panic attack, he’d only opted to medicate himself once: During the mixing of Lost in the Dream in Brooklyn last September, when, wandering the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint on his own, crushed by the enormity of what he’d just recorded, he started to shiver. “I had a total fucking nervous breakdown,” he said.
His approach to work had long been obsessive in nature. But Lost in the Dream represented more than just an anticipated follow-up record, or an opportunity to keep his friends on the road—it became the sublime and strangely symphonic response to existential questions that had been gnawing at him long before he saddled up to the bar that February night: Is what I’m doing of value? Am I of value? Perfect takes were cast aside in hopes of capturing pure magic, much to the frustration of his patient bandmates. Every monumental guitar lead, every seismic chorus, every breathless synth riff and titanic “woo!” had to feel timeless and transcendent. The resulting album is both a triumph and paradox, marked by song titles and lyrics that, held aloft by incandescent arrangements, hit like locomotives. If there is a moment of clarity to be found in its hour-long running time—insofar that it all but confirms Granduciel’s confusion—it comes halfway through “Eyes to the Wind”, on which he wails, “There’s just a stranger, living in me.”
In trying to better understand himself and his art, Granduciel said he’d “opened a door” to feelings and fears he hadn’t considered for the first 30 years of his life. “Who am I connecting with?” he asked himself as we ate. “I don’t want to leave my house, yet I want to connect with stadiums? I want to play huge festivals, but the idea of standing in line at Whole Foods sends me over the edge?”
I suggested to him that there was a reasonable chance that this album would allow him to make records for a long time to come, that it was a beginning.
“I hope so,” he said. “I hope it’s a long life. Because sometimes I’m convinced that it won’t be.”
Photo by Dusdin Condren
Several months later, Granduciel is sitting behind his house, carefully restringing his weed whacker in the August heat. After being away on tour for much of this year, his garden had grown wild. Since its release in late March, Lost in the Dream has spent more than 15 weeks on the Billboard Top 200, with sales that have already, in just six months, doubled those posted by Slave Ambient. Granduciel hasn’t moved out of his house and, in fact, he’s currently planning to have it re-carpeted, in preparation for a “nice couple” from North Carolina who are moving in while he’s away on an increasingly sold-out tour of large rooms across North America. “There's been so many animals living in this house, there are just years on the carpet,” he says. I ask if he’s chosen a color. “I don't think they make tie-dye,” he says, “so I’ll probably just go with a dark charcoal.”
His voice sounds lighter. Between tours, he’s been leaving Philadelphia for New York and Los Angeles, where—in a surreal twist—his new girlfriend, former “Breaking Bad” actress Krysten Ritter, both lives and works. A few days before we spoke on the phone, paparazzi had snapped them strolling hand-in-hand through lower Manhattan. “I wasn't naive about the fact that she was a well-known actress,” he says. “That was a decision I had to make.” But Ritter has also had a calming effect on him personally and creatively: “She’ll tell me, ‘Baby, you have to make life big.’ That's a beautiful thing. I don't know what I was so scared of before. But I want to start trusting my gut and seeing what happens when you let go a little bit.”
Though his panic symptoms have subsided significantly in the past seven months, he’s incisive when I ask how he’s feeling. “I feel the same,” he says, twice. “But I'm wary of the triggers. I have a better understanding of where some of my fears in life lie—sometimes I'll feel a little twitch, but I now know what that twitch is.” The pressure he’d felt wasn’t caused by making an album, but rather, “the pressure of committing to a life, a path.” Over the course of this year, he’s been moved by the positive response to Lost in the Dream, by the ways in which these songs are being received each night during performances, and how he’s finally connecting. “I want to be surrounded by good people all of the time,” he says. “I want to grow with this band. Playing with them in front of people is a really safe place. I fear most things, but that I don’t.”
Photo by Leon Chew
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 edition, we spoke with 43-year-old Richard Russell. As the head of London's hugely influential XL Recordings, Russell has released music by the Prodigy, Vampire Weekend, Adele, Dizzee Rascal, M.I.A., Radiohead, and more across the last 25 years, as chronicled in the new compilation, Pay Close Attention. He's also maintained an identity as an artist and producer for much of his career, making rave records in the 1990s and, more recently, working with Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack, and Damon Albarn. And though he runs one of the most renowned independent labels on Earth, he still finds time for his first love, DJing, including a recent mix for the BBC's Benji B.
My family was Orthodox Jewish, and we lived in a London suburb called Edgware, which was about 50 percent Jewish. These communities with extremely strong religious and cultural identities tend to be a bit insular and cut-off, and Edgware was the kind of a place where people live their whole lives. But I found that world stifling—I didn't want my life to be defined by a particular culture that I inherited from my parents. I had a stable upbringing and I’m appreciative of that, but music offered a potential way to escape from a background that I wasn’t going to be comfortable in.
My parents were second-generation immigrants, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My dad sold insurance and my mom was a primary school teacher. And though I couldn't see this at the time—because I thought of him as this conservative authority figure—my dad was a bit rebellious for the world he was existing in. Part of his rebellion was listening to things like Ian Dury’s New Boots and Panties!!, which he had on cassette. It’s really profane music, quite rude in a lot of places. Listening to that album in later years, I noticed there’s a song on it called "My Old Man", which is Ian Dury's song about his dad. It’s very genuine and heartfelt, and it squared a circle for me.
A few years ago, my dad and I went to see this play about Ian Dury called Hit Me!—and there cannot be a play in history that has more profanity in it than this play. It's only got two characters: Ian Dury and his bodyguard, Spider. There's one point when Dury says to Spider, "If you entered a cunt competition, you'd come second." And Spider says, "Why?" And Dury says, "Because you're such a cunt." Going with your dad to that sort of thing can be awkward, but I felt surprisingly comfortable watching it with him. He really loved the play.
When I was 10, my room was a shrine to Adam Ant. British pop music was very exciting in the early ‘80s, and Adam Ant had this bizarre mishmash of cultural references that he'd stolen and put together—African drums, Native American visuals, along with a very strong pirate fixation—and it was unbelievably exciting to me. If you grew up in a conservative background, seeing Adam Ant on "Top of the Pops" was pretty mind-blowing. It was like, "What the fuck is going on here? This is far from where I am." It was like seeing someone from outer space.
The song of his that I really loved was called "Ant Rap". He actually is rapping on it, and it came out in '81, so, weirdly, it was one of the first rap records to get made in the UK. There's been lots of ups and downs when it comes to British rap music, but before legitimate rap records got made here, you had pop artists making rap records, and not doing it badly.
I remember going off about Adam Ant to two of my older cousins, and one of them mentioned they'd seen him in concert. I was like, "What do you mean? You were in the same room he was in? How did that happen?" They explained to me that anyone can go to a gig and that you just have to pay for a ticket. That was absolutely a moment of realization for me—that these were real human beings. Up to that point, it was total fantasy. Later, I’d come to another realization: That you could actually make music yourself, too.
I was also really into the Jam. I was familiar with them when I was so young because all of their singles were going to the top of the pop charts in the UK, which I now realize was so amazing and inspiring. [Frontman] Paul Weller was getting out a message that had a lot of integrity to a lot of people. The last one of these singles was called "Beat Surrender", and at that point they were totally at the top of their game and probably the biggest band in Britain. But Weller decided he had enough of it. He didn’t want to do the Jam anymore. So they went to #1 and then they stopped. It’s quite contrary to how things tend to be done in music these days.
People are far too committed to the idea of success now, and there’s not enough subversion. The audience can sniff out when people’s motivations become questionable and when it's become more like a business endeavor. I don't consider myself a businessman. I’ve always tried to be artistic in how we do things at XL. Some people who are known as artists do appear to be more like businessmen, though.
"Beat Surrender" has this lyric that stuck with me: "As it was in the beginning/ So shall it be in the end/ Bullshit is bullshit/ It just goes by different names." I’ve thought of that recently, because you get people saying that things in music are bad right now because of Facebook, or Twitter, or EDM, or whatever. But it’s the same as it was 30 years ago. Weller was saying that there’s always a lot of bullshit around, but there’s still a certain way of achieving things with no compromise or dilution. That’s quite a useful and instructive thing.
By then, everything's happening: girls are happening, hip-hop is happening. There's a wealth of tunes that are incredibly evocative of the period for me, but "Eric B. Is President" is the one I'd pull out. Rakim's voice still has a massive impact on me. It still sounds completely fresh. "I came in the door, I said it before"—those words were such an incredible statement of intent, but the way he delivered them was so low-key that it didn't sound like he was trying.
In terms of what music was getting made in the '80s, when I was a teenager, I don't see how you couldn’t have had your mind blown by hip-hop. It was rock'n'roll starting all over again. I was feeling the same thing a lot of people were feeling, and that connection quickly became obsessional. I'm always meeting fellow '80s b-boy types, it's like being a part of the Masons or something.
Even though I was growing up in a Jewish suburb of London, I know I felt that music and what was being said. I didn't need to hear those records that many times to memorize every word. That connection happens to different people in different places all over the world mainly because of the authenticity of it—when something's authentic, you don't have to have had the same experience as the person saying it to relate to it. You just do. I've looked for that honesty and rawness in music ever since, because with that comes originality.
Around this time, I was starting to go to Groove Records in Soho and buying one import 12" single or album at a time: Public Enemy, Paid in Full, LL Cool J’s Radio. The roots of what my life would become were being laid down then, because that shop was owned by Tim Palmer, who started the City Beat label, out of which XL was born. Def Jam, as a label, was incredibly important—just seeing that logo. Record labels were quite noticeable on all those early hip-hop records: Cold Chillin', Wild Pitch, Tuff City, Next Plateau, Tommy Boy. The quality control of those labels was very good at that time, because there weren’t that many people making hip-hop records. They were run by people who were trying to make money, but there was a real power to those small independent labels in this era, before they started to be bought up by the majors.
The UK had its own breakdancing scene that was very vibrant, and I was a terrible—but committed—breakdancer. My friend and I actually won a competition when I was 12, but it wasn't a very big competition. We won one copy of Street Sounds Electro 2, a UK-made hip-hop compilation, and I ended up with it. That must've been so mean, but I had to have that record. My friend was actually a better dancer than me, too. But he never complained about it. He's still a good friend. These days, it doesn't take much persuasion to get me to show off a move—but it wasn't that impressive then, and it's a lot less impressive now.
"The Message" by Grandmaster Flash was an important record for me too, and I listened to it on my dad's hi-fi over and over and over. At one point, my dad came in and said, "What's a sacroiliac?" And I was like, "What? I don't know." And he said, "The guy on the record just said, 'I can't turn around, I broke my sacroiliac.'" I felt slightly embarrassed that I couldn't explain what that was to him, but I really got something from that—every word counts, and you’ve got to listen. Hip-hop wasn’t something my parents massively understood, but it wasn’t that much of a leap from Ian Dury either, in terms of something intensely lyrical and somewhat profane. It didn’t bother them that I listened to rap music or that I had a mixed bunch of friends—what bothered them was how I was obsessed with it to the exclusion of all other things.
I didn't go to college or anything. I had my first actual DJ gig when I was 16, and I started earning money from it a year later. But at 15 I was still learning and practicing. We basically lived between a freeway on one side and a neighbor who was completely deaf on the other, so my parents would let me play music as loud as I wanted. I learned proper hip-hop DJing, with two copies of a record, in my bedroom. I spent many thousands of hours doing that at enormous volume.
Going into music and earning a living from that was really unfathomable to my parents—it was as if I told them I was going to fly around on the ceiling. My mum now says that when I started bringing home money from DJing, she thought I was selling drugs, because she thought that was more plausible. I mean, I couldn't believe when I started to get paid to DJ either. I thought it was just extraordinary. I loved doing it so much. Every musician must have that moment when someone starts paying you—it's just out of this world.
The tune I picked for this time was on Shut Up and Dance, which was this rave label from East London, and it's called "The Green Man". The song is named after a really rough pub in the East End, which is now a really trendy pub, of course. Shut Up and Dance had this pirate rawness to it, this breakbeat sound that got all of us b-boys into rave music. They also had a punk ethic. Their compilation was called Fuck Off and Die, and they embodied the spirit of what was possible at that time.
I had run away to New York and worked in Vinyl Mania, which was an incredible record shop in Greenwich Village. I was really on my own, a fish out of water, but it was working because I was a bit closer to the music. After coming back to London, I was making rave and hip-hop stuff, and I took some demos to XL to try and get signed, and [XL co-founder] Nick [Halkes] said, "You should come and play these to me when they're finished." And I remember thinking, "They are finished!" But I never left XL because I liked the vibe. It was in a basement in Wandsworth; I always liked basements for some reason. There were only two people there, and I just used to hang out and make tea. It felt like that was something you could do. They'd give me records and test pressings, and I'd take them around to other DJs.
XL was very much a home for frustrated b-boys. It was hard to get that far with British hip-hop—no one could sell anything. So people started speeding up breakbeats, adding samples and synth sounds, and not necessarily bothering to rap. And suddenly, people were more interested in what we were doing. We kind of ended up making rave records and being a rave label rather than being on a mission to do that, but maybe there's an accidental coolness in that. I felt a little bit reluctant about it all at first, but then you saw the impact of it: We were transitioning into something much more original.
While I started working at XL, I carried on being an artist and put out records on a label called Tribal Bass. I've always thought of producing, DJing, and doing label things as equally important, and it was only when XL became a bit bigger and more grown up that I started doing label things more. For a time, making music faded for me, which was good for the label, but not that great for me, personally.
I've always been a huge Beatles fan. George Harrison is a bit obscured between the towering talents of Lennon and McCartney, but All Things Must Pass is probably the best solo Beatles record. It's very meditative and healing and unbelievably spiritual. Particularly on "Beware of Darkness", he's talking about using spirituality as way out of pain. It made a massive impact on me. I felt like I knew what I was doing as a teenager and then, in my 20s, I gradually lost direction. So that was a time of trying to work out who I was and where I'd come from. More reflective music became interesting to me, and I found real solace in that record. My mid-to-late 20s were a transitional time, as they are for a lot of men; women become more self-aware a lot earlier than men. It’s when you stop being young and start being something else. Some people come to that very early on. Some people come to it very late. Some people never come to it.
XL was a small label, and then we had this worldwide success with the Prodigy, who are incredible artists who have always done things their own way and totally provided the blueprint for everything we've done on the label. It was an incredible experience, but there was a considerable hangover from it for everyone involved—it was like I needed a George Harrison record to listen to after coming back from an MTV Awards after party in fucking Milan at Donatella Versace's house, where Bono was hanging out. That's never been a world that's interesting to me. Being exposed to it briefly was a reminder that you have to be deeply into the music, and that's what counts.
If you look at what else was going on at XL in the mid-to-late '90s, we didn't quite find our way again until the end of that decade, which was around the time I turned 30. The '90s were weird anyway—in British music, you had Oasis and the Spice Girls. It was the height of the CD era. The major labels were very powerful. It wasn't really our time.
Hearing "Tears Dry on Their Own" made me realize there was something very powerful and emotive in Amy Winehouse’s voice. She also came from this Jewish North West London background, and there was so much pain in her voice. I didn't know her, but I was extremely upset by what happened to her, such a disastrous thing to happen to someone her age. Obviously, it's a waste of life rather than a waste of talent, but she had a lot more things to say. She had the potential to be one of the absolute greats. Back to Black is up there with Lauryn Hill, Joni Mitchell, or Carole King—one of the greatest-ever female statement records.
There's this thread of amazing British female soul singers who are influenced by America. Adele is the modern embodiment of that, and it probably started with Dusty Springfield and Sade, who has been an unbelievably important artist—no one else has a career like Sade. With all these records, it's about the voice. The sound mainly needs to get out of the way. You're there to hear that person and feel that connection. With the records I have produced in the last few years—Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe, Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots—the voice is loud because that's the point. You definitely don't want the production to get in the way, because then you're not doing the job properly. A lot of music now is overproduced, maybe because the vocalists aren't special enough. I'm a bit of a minimalist.
I'm also a believer that the word "demo" has become very misused in music, because a lot of the records that we love the most, historically, could be called demos in modern terms; the idea of a demo comes from an era when singers didn't write their own songs, so the songwriter would demonstrate what the song would sound to the singer. When we started the recording studio at XL, it was quite small and basic, and people used to call it a "demo studio." But I was like, "No, it's not a demo studio. It's a recording studio. I don't care how small it is. We're going to make records in it—not records that are half-done, where we have to go somewhere expensive to finish it. That's not how great records get made anyway." If the performance of the song is good enough, that rawness can be just what you need.
In some ways I'm idealistic because I believe things that are truly original and executed well can reach a big audience. But the traps are easy to fall in. It can be hard for indie labels to be ambitious enough, because they might not have the resources. And major labels can be a bit too ambitious. It’s about trying to strive for a balance where you can have a sensitivity to the music but also feel like: If there's a door to be kicked in, we're going to kick it in.
Burial makes this evocative music that is like the sound of empty clubs. And that sound is really meaningful to me. I like being in a club the day after—when it's all still sort of reverberating and it smells a bit funny. There is something very magical about that, and the way he's captured it in his music is just brilliant. He's been very influenced by older pirate radio sounds, and I love all those sounds: reggae, rave, jungle, drum'n'bass, garage, grime. Burial is capturing that feel, but with this melancholy dustiness. I think Burial's music will be enormously appreciated 30 years from now—not that he's unappreciated now, but I suspect that it will last a lot longer than some of the things that are in the mainstream at the moment.
We're talking about my 30s now, but age doesn't mean anything when it comes to music. There's a spirit, and there's no question that people can lose the spirit, but some people never have the spirit in the first place. And some people can gain the spirit as they get older. Some people come armed with it; I mean, Dizzee Rascal made "I Luv U" when he was 16. When I heard that, I was like, "Wow, a lot of experiences have gone into this bit of music."
If you’re able to talk about emotional things in a way that means something, no matter what age you are, that's going to be really powerful. I'm better at being older than I was at being younger. I now appreciate how much of a gift it is to love music and make a living out of it. And the more appreciative you are of it, the more you tend to enjoy what you're doing. Whereas when I was younger, everything was incredibly fast-paced, and I wouldn't really reflect. But now I can be more helpful to people because I can listen better.
This is also around the time I started working with Gil onI'm New Here. He was quite a fountain of wisdom then, even though he didn't live his life in a way that everyone thought was particularly sensible. Maybe he knew he wouldn't be around forever at that point and he had a lot to impart. Every word was profound. He definitely was touching to be around. And you had to be very, very straight and direct with him. If anyone was not being completely honest, he would know about it in a millisecond. He demanded that people were truthful, and there was unbelievable integrity in that.
I met Jai Paul at XL on my 40th birthday, funnily enough. He had stuff out on MySpace, and everyone thought the same thing when they heard it—you didn't need to be a genius. It's just unbelievable from the first note. So original. He was shocked that we got in touch so early, and he said he'd been a big fan of three acts on XL: the Prodigy, M.I.A., and Basement Jaxx. He is clearly a wizard in doing something that could only be done by him. He makes it sound quite effortless, but, as another producer put it to me recently: How does he do that? There's so much charm to the music, and it's so melodic, as well as sounding like pirate radio. That's not easy to do.
He hasn’t put an album out, but what he has put out has had an enormous impact on people—"Jasmine" has had more impact than most people's whole albums. He's an artist who’s doing something totally different to anyone else and hasn’t seen fit to release material in the traditional way that the music business is used to. It doesn't really bother me that much. People should enjoy what is there.
I don't know what he’ll do next. I just want someone of his unbelievable caliber to keep making stuff, and, hopefully, we’ll hear it. The fact that people want to hear it so much in this incredibly overcrowded world of music is a testament to how special it is. I mean, we released very good one-off records early on in the days of XL, and he's beyond a one-off—he's already properly put out twothings.
XL doesn't put out many records at this point, and that is the key—it means people at the label are focused on what they are doing. I feel like it will continue to be like that. Meanwhile, artists can get themselves heard quite easily now, so if you don’t want to waste your time waiting around for XL or anyone else, you can just get on with it.
There's always some factor making things easier or harder when it comes to running a label, but in the end, you just don't know what's going to have an impact. You don't know what you're going to hear from day-to-day. You don't know what you're going to be listening to next year. You don't know what someone's going to make. It's exciting. I try and look at it all as a fan, which keeps things uncomplicated. There's no shortage of great music to listen to all the time, but I'm not necessarily trawling for stuff at this point. The good things find their way.
The folks behind Cologne, Germany’s Kompakt label have always privileged civic pride, so it's no surprise that they're fans of Kölsch, a specialty beer endemic to the region that comes with its own culture and rituals. Crisp and light-bodied, Kölsch is typically served in small glasses to ensure that it stays cold to the last drop, and waiters keep rolling them out on a round tray called a kranz, or "wreath," until patrons specifically ask them to stop. (Once you start drinking Kölsch, it's very easy to put away quite a lot of it.) So it's kind of a no-brainer that Kompakt would want to sign a guy that’s actually namedKölsch—Rune Reilly Kölsch, to be precise—who's fond of bright colors, bold strokes, and cross-pollinating under- and over-ground dance sounds.
A self-described lifelong outsider, the 37-year-old producer grew up splitting his time between anarchic Copenhagen hippie communes (which were sometimes infiltrated with junkies), his grandparents’ posh neighborhood in Germany (where he was looked down upon due to his long hair and leather jacket), and France (where he couldn’t speak the language). He went to his first rave in the early 1990s—“I danced so much I couldn't walk for two days,” he remembers—and started producing hip-hop and house tracks soon thereafter. “I started DJing, and people just didn't understand what was going on,” he says, talking about his musical beginnings. “I would play techno records in my school, and other kids were like, ‘What the hell is this shit?’ They all wanted to hear Oasis.”
But eventually, he managed to connect with his audience on a remarkably large scale when a loop-based experiment of his called “Calabria” turned into a worldwide hit thanks to a bit of luck and some clever A&R. Originally released under the alias Rune, the hypnotic 2003 single was first mashed up with a Crystal Waters vocal by sax-loving Italo-dance cornball Alex Gaudino, and that version became a Top 10 hit in several European countries; the track’s cheesecake video has racked up more than 25 million YouTube views. But that wasn't the end of it: In 2007, Kölsch gave the song a reggaeton-flavored update with new vocals, and that revamp, "Calabria 2007", went to #46 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Songschart. Thatvideo—again, with ample butt-cheek bared—has amassed nearly 32 million views, with 12 million more for a remix featuring one-hit rapper Mims.
All of which makes Kölsch something of an outlier on Kompakt—as well as the only artist on the label to ever have collaborated with mega DJ Steve Aoki. But Kölsch first came to label co-founder Michael Mayer’s attention based on his productions as Ink & Needle, a semi-anonymous project with a clipped, minimalist bent that betrayed little hint of his more widescreen leanings. And Kölsch's dual identity makes him all the more perfect for an imprint that has often made a point of attempting to bridge the worlds of pop and techno, mainstream and underground, camp and whatever the opposite of camp is.
And Kölsch's debut album for Kompakt, last year's 1977, proved almost uncannily aligned with the label's sound and vision, from the organ trance and breakbeats of "Oma", to the pizzicato string synths of "Silberpfeil", to the obligatory schaffel number, "Wasserschutz". It all comes together in "All That Matters", which isn't afraid to go for full-on sentimentalism, all chimes and falsetto warble; the track sounds like an idealized version of what Coldplay were going for with parts of their latest album, Ghost Stories, and Kölsch has since given that record’s biggest hit, the Avicii-produced “A Sky Full of Stars”, a gloriously extended remix that improves upon the original in every conceivable way.
Earlier this summer, Kölsch released a new single as part of Kompakt’s Speicher series, which finds him getting refreshingly weird. "Papageno" begins with three and a half minutes of drunken oscillations over a kick drum that bounces like a reflexologist's rubber hammer before turning into something like Bruce Hornsby covering Arthur Russell. Like most of Kölsch's tracks, it's relatively long at nearly eight minutes, and takes its sweet time getting going. It's not made for the quick, hook-heavy mixing of the EDM world; it's meant to be teased in and left to play at full length, plunging you deep into its off-kilter world.
Pitchfork: How did your track "Papageno" come about? It's such a strange song.
Kölsch: Papageno is actually from the opera The Magic Flute, he's the joker. When I was 7, we went to see The Magic Flute in Germany, and, as a kid, I didn't want to go to an opera. But I sat there, pretty well behaved, and this Papageno character comes out and he's running around, and it dawned on me in that exact moment that the whole higher establishment of the German upper-middle class were staring at me—and not at the actual stage—because I was this little hippie kid, and they did not approve of me being a part of their society. That was a big moment in my life, to understand that I was not like these people. So the song is about that frustration, married to these bittersweet vocals: "It feels good to be falling apart."
Pitchfork: Where did you grow up?
K: My mum’s German, and dad’s Irish, and they met each other in Christiania, which is a hippie freak town in Copenhagen; it's sort of a sovereign state. When you live there, instead of paying rent to the landowners, you pay it to the community. It's this anarchistic idea. It's quite an interesting place. It used to be a squatters' town in the sense that a lot of hippies broke in and made it into what it is today. They've just been there so long that the government can't really kick them out, even though they've tried quite a few times.
I stayed there until I was about 7. At that time, a lot of junkies were moving in, and we left because my parents didn't think that it was a fitting environment for a 7-year-old. We moved to this collective, which was also fantastic. It was this huge house with a huge garden, and we were these hippie kids running around, having a great time. I've always lived in Copenhagen, but I used to go to Germany every summer with my mum and stay there for the school holiday, alternating between that and going to France with my dad and his new wife.
Pitchfork: It sounds like an idyllic childhood.
K: It was very confusing, to be honest. And at times very lonely, because the friends I had in Denmark weren't in Germany or France. I invented my own world, which translates through 1977. Those songs are about these weird ideas and concepts I had on my mind at the time. That album marks first time I've let myself dig into myself. I've always done these conceptual things, but I've never let myself actually write music that relates to my own life in a real way.
Pitchfork: As you began producing and DJing in the ‘90s, what was the Danish electronic music scene like?
K: The scene was ultra-small, like 200 people, and I thought it was something very precious. I would play these crazy parties at squatters' houses with strobe lights and holes in the ground. It was kind of dangerous. But then, in '96, I went to [electronic music festival] Love Parade in Germany, and it dawned on me how big this was. I thought it was really underground, but then I saw a million people in the streets going nuts to the same music I was into. It was such a revelation to me.
Pitchfork: The dance music scene has been so globalized for so long, it's hard to remember a time when it wasn't.
K: It was such an interesting time back then, because it was so mysterious. I remember that when I really liked a track, I had to listen to the DJ that I heard play the track before and hope that he would play it again, because I had no clue what it was or where to get it. Plus, I didn't have the money to buy any records anyway! Now, you can Shazam something and know exactly what it is. That has its benefits, but back then, it was so magical. It was so different and so alien to what commercial music was. It was such an extension of my body—there was a time when I was borderline religious about techno music.
Pitchfork: More than many electronic artists, you manage to straddle the mainstream and the underground. How do you manage that?
K: It's all about how much you let yourself experiment. The reason I started doing Kölsch is because the commercial end of things became very limited. I really enjoy the challenge of making a radio record, and it's super interesting to limit yourself to the 3:33 mark, and verse/chorus, and so forth. I've been doing that for many years and I enjoy that, because it is really difficult. But at the same time, I just wanted to let go and do something different. I needed to have that extra output. Five years ago, it wasn’t so segregated, and you'd be able to play more underground tunes in a more commercial set. Now, everything has to fit into this mold, especially with EDM—everybody's playing the same 15 tracks.
Pitchfork: Were you surprised by the worldwide success of “Calabria” and its subsequent remixes in the 2000s?
K: What's so funny is that "Calabria" was originally an underground record. That first thing that came out in 2003 was basically inspired by Jeff Mills' "The Bells". I wanted to see how far could I go with just one loop: When does it get boring? In a sense, it was never intended as a hit record. It was just, "Let's see how far can I get by letting this melody do what it does."
Pitchfork: Considering the longevity of the track, I would assume it must have bought you a certain amount of time and freedom, as well.
K: That's exactly the point. That's why I got back into making more experimental tracks, because I don't really have to think too much about paying the rent in the same way as everyone that hasn't had the fortune of having a big record like that.
Pitchfork: Do you still get decent royalties from that song?
K: Of course, yeah. It's become what my old manager would call a wedding song—an evergreen thing that you put on at a wedding and everybody jumps up and goes for it.
While Richard D. James has made plenty of music in the 21st century, culminating with Syro, his comeback as Aphex Twin, it’s his 1990s work that remains the most evocative and influential. Across a handful of albums and singles rendered both in his bedroom in Cornwall and (allegedly) in an unoccupied bank in South London, James provided a sonic blueprint for the next generation of producers in the realm of electronic music and beyond.
As his landmark 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II turns 20 this year, it’s now easy to see his influence on the likes of Four Tet, Caribou, Jon Hopkins, Rustie, Radiohead, and countless others. Even Kanye West sampled Aphex Twin’s piano etude “Avril 15th” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (albeit poorly, according to James). And when electronic dance music finally invaded mainstream culture in the U.S., there was more than a smattering of Aphex Twin’s influence to be had on its big-tent acts, none more so than Skrillex, who now pushes the punishing frequencies that James often deployed onto immense festivals crowds around the world. (It’s no surprise that Skrillex even posted to his Facebook that Aphex’s “Flim” is his favorite track of all time.)
Invigorated by the sounds of acid and, a few years later, the frenzied thrills of jungle, James set about creating a body of work through the ‘90s that spanned from rave culture at the start of the decade to complex, experimental music just as “electronica” was becoming a media buzzword. In a career filled with strange U-turns and piss takes (such as a DJ set involving two slabs of sandpaper and a microphone stuck in a blender), James then devised perhaps his greatest trick of all, making his odd sounds cross-breed with the pop mainstream via twisted singles like “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” before bowing out of the public eye.
Few in the history of electronic music were as prolific and polygonal as the man who once used the moniker Polygon Window for his productions. In that era, James also went by myriad aliases that even the most hardcore of fans could scarcely keep track of: AFX, GAK, Q-Chastic, Soit - P.P., Blue Calx, Bradley Strider, Universal Indicator, Caustic Window, the Dice Man, Power-Pill, Smojphace, and maybe even more. It’s all but impossible to limit Richard D. James’ output to just a few releases, so consider this list a primer.
Bradley Strider: “Bradley’s Beat” (1991)
One of many names James deployed during the early ‘90s, Bradley Strider was responsible for two 12” singles, and the latter is a fine example of the producer’s way with hard-edged-yet-highly-percussive techno, suffused with strange noises scraping in-between the spaces. The metallic-tinged beat and oddly-tuned strings suggest a sound somewhere between Indonesian gamelan, Watazumido-Shuso’s Mysterious Sounds of the Japanese Bamboo Flute, and West African kora, all of it mixed into RDJ’s peculiar dance sensibilities. It’s an early example of James and his Rephlex label releasing music twitchy enough to transcend the physical, earning the cheeky genre tag: “braindance.”
Various Artists: The Philosophy of Sound and Machine (1992)
Released six months before the similarly influential Artificial Intelligence compilation (which gave rise to the term “intelligent dance music”), this comp from Kirk Degiorgio’s ART label and James and Grant Wilson-Claridge’s nascent Rephlex imprint is a fascinating document of the connection between Detroit (in the form of a remix by Derrick May) and vanguard UK producers including Degiorgio, Black Dog, and B12.
James appears under three separate pseudonyms here, each one fleshing out a slightly different aspect of his sound, predicting the young producer’s range even at this early stage. There’s a hiccuping hand drum dissolved in an acid wash made as Q-Chastic; a Chicago-indebted track made as Soit – P.P. entitled “n.IASP”, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the first Selected Ambient Works; and a haunting, beatless track under the name Blue Calx that would re-appear two years later as part of Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
After a big rave single in “Didgeridoo”, James released his first full-length as Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. The title itself is a misnomer of sorts, in that few of the tracks actually scan as “ambient” in the purest sense and because it suggests these recordings date from when James was only 14 years old. But within the primitive, recorded-to-tape tracks of SAW reside the seeds that would blossom through James’ catalog for the rest of the decade. There’s plenty of the tricky drum sequencing that would underpin every subsequent album, the eerie synth work that would come to the foreground on the “sequel” to this record, and the highly-attuned melodic sense that would inform AFX’s future pop turns. The record's sample from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would prove prescient: “We are the music makers/ And we are the dreamers of dreams.”
Seefeel: “Time to Find Me” (1993)
In the mid ‘90s, James was operating at a creative peak unlike anyone else of the era, and along with his own wealth of material he found time for a handful of remixes. The most winsome one was for fellow Londoners Seefeel, whose own music inhabited a space somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and Aphex Twin. James took the band’s single from their Polyfusia album and—rather than gut and deconstruct the track in his own image, as he did with everyone from Jesus Jones to Nine Inch Nails—he basically left most of “Time to Find Me” untouched. Sarah Peacock’s childlike vocals remain echoing throughout, with a more pronounced beat behind it all. There’s a fast mix as well as a slow mix, both having their own particular charms.
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)
The black monolith at the center of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sentient oceanic planet undulating in Solaris. The seemingly abandoned spacecraft in Alien. It’s hard not to think of SAW II in these same futuristic, haunting, skin-prickling, mysterious, and perhaps post-human terms. Influenced by lucid dreaming, synaesthesia, and, as James once said, the sensation of “standing in a power station on acid,” SAW II is a highly influential electronic album with only a few actual beats across its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. There’s plenty of disembodied vocals, cascades of bells, the eerie giggles of a haunted fun house, gorgeous glissades of elongated tones, and the type of slow menace that typifies those nightmares you have where your body moves at half-speed. No one has done dread and grace quite as expertly since.
GAK: GAK (1994)
An anonymous 4-track single housed in Warp’s telltale purple sleeve, the purported story behind GAK (another one-off moniker) was that James submitted it as a demo to Warp, and it was declined. But the smash success of his other albums led the label to pull it back out. Whether or not that is true (and almost any tale about James through the years should be taken with a heaping spoonful of salt), GAK offers up minimal-yet-brusque techno, hinting at the kind of tracks that Mike Ink and Thomas Brinkmann would soon be releasing in Berlin. But as it comes from James, it’s cut with a touch of melancholy coursing beneath the beats.
Gavin Bryars: “Raising the Titanic—The Aphex Twin Remixes” (1995)
In 1995, Aphex Twin’s music began to interact with sounds outside of electronic circles, as best exemplified in two releases from that year. One was the Donkey Rhubarb EP, which sported an orchestral (and overly dramatic) reworking of “Icct Hedral” by none other than minimalism maestro Philip Glass. The better merger of James’ skewed electronic vision to classical music, though, was featured on this rare CD promo item (and was later included in the 26 Mixes for Cash comp in 2003.) It features James remixing one of the finest minimalist pieces of all time: British composer Gavin Bryars’s understated 1975 work The Sinking of the Titanic. The producer turns in a sumptuous track featuring haunting choirs, an undertow of strings, and a beat that sounds like it was bashed out on the side of a ship’s hull.
AFX: Hangable Auto Bulb EP and EP2 (1995)
In the mid ‘90s, jungle and drum’n’bass heralded in a seams-rupturing, maximal strain of dance music in contrast to the sleeker forms of house and techno. James was a huge fan of pirate radio jungle of that era and in tackling drum’n’bass under his AFX alias, he set about doing it in a characteristically twisted way. Both volumes of Hangable Auto Bulb (the EP names themselves anagrams of his previous Analogue Bubblebath EP series) teem with deliriously over-caffeinated cartoon vehemence that fans soon deemed “drill’n’bass.” No matter how furious the beats are though, James’ aslant melodies come through. The warped voices of “Children Talking” and “Everyday” evoke the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and when Aphex Twin’s music was played for Stockhausen as part of a feature in The Wire, the pioneering electronic composer responded: “I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work… Because he would then immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look for changing tempi.” To which James replied: “I thought he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine…then he'd stop making abstract, random patterns you can't dance to.”
Aphex Twin: Come to Daddy (1997)
As the pseudonyms fell to the wayside as the decade wore on, James concentrated on Aphex Twin almost exclusively. Rather than pushing forward a sense of anonymity, which was prevalent in electronic dance music at that time, James instead began to cultivate a cult of personality based on his own visage. The “Donkey Rhubarb” single put his face on eerie teddy bears, and the visuals for “Come to Daddy” (James’ first collaboration with video artist Chris Cunningham) took that up a notch, his menacing grin now transferred to a gang of Children of the Corn-like kids who look like they just emerged from the fields.
Even if “Come to Daddy” first scans as a parody of death metal and the “menacing” sounds favored by stars like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, James’ humor and brilliance shine through. In just over 30 minutes, he does punishing frequencies in the title track, whimsy on each subsequent remix, jaw-droppingly complex beats on “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball”, and gentle playfulness on “Flim”.
Aphex Twin: Windowlicker (1999)
The apex of Aphex Twin’s ‘90s output, “Windowlicker” is the summation of James’ experimental bent being twisted into the form of a pop song, resulting in one of the oddest avant-garde singles to ever ascend the pop charts, reaching #16 in the UK and praised as NME’s Single of the Year in 1999. Collaborating once more with Chris Cunningham, the 10-minute long-form video opens with a profane, piss-take on West Coast gangsta rap visuals. And this time, James’ crooked-toothed, ginger-haired face is applied to a series of bikini models.
James’ late ‘90s tracks are a mix of indifference and deep-focus consideration. The complex beats whiplash and morph with every measure, a wonder of programming that feels both sensuous and queasy. The hummed vocal hook sounds cast-off and bored, with James’ girlfriend of the time cooing a bit of French that translates loosely as: “I like to make dog turds.” Tossed-off yet overwhelming in its craftsmanship, there’s little like it in the realm of electronic music—or any other type of music, for that matter.
Photo by Thomas Neukum
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 36-year-old Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith, whose latest album Our Love is out October 7 via Merge.
Just before I was born, my parents moved to Canada from England. We lived near London, Ontario, in a neighborhood of old Victorian houses and big lawns—a very idyllic place to grow up. There were no fences between the yards, and everyone just ran around playing together. My dad was a mathematics professor, and my mom had studied math, but once my two sisters and I were around, she was at home taking care of us.
A bunch of British folk musicians made this album called Morris On, and I sat in front of the record player and listened to it for hours. Morris is a style of music as well as dancing—it's like an even-worse version of American square dancing, with people dressed up in ridiculous costumes. It's a totally embarrassing anachronism, but my parents loved it. And at that point, I was too young and impressionable to make any decisions of my own, so I got really into it, too. The first time I ever appeared in a newspaper I was dressed up in full Morris-dancing regalia at this event when I was about 5. It was a local paper—they’ll cover anything.
I don’t know if he ever made it outside of Canada, but there was this dramatic synth-pop guy Gowan, and he had an album called Strange Animal, and it was just everywhere. If you ask any Canadian of a certain age, they’ll remember this song. I was enthralled by the theatricality of rock and pop at that point—people with that Thompson Twins-esque hair. We didn’t have a TV in the house until I was much older, but I managed to watch this video somehow and I thought it was the coolest, craziest shit I have ever seen. I watched it again on YouTube the other day, and it is so corny and stupid and terrible. [laughs] It's fun to try to get back into your mindset as a kid, though.
In the video, there’s an animated sequence at the beginning, and a voiceover that describes the evolution of man—this horrible play on the fact that the title of the song is “Strange Animal”. Though, it's funny, an ongoing theme with my relationship with music is that I never know the lyrics to anything. Now, I think Gowan is in Styx—like he opened for them at some point and they adopted him into the band way after anybody gave a shit about Styx.
My family moved properly into the country at this time, near Dundas, Ontario. There wasn’t much to do. My bus ride to school was about 40 minutes long. I was stuck. One of my sisters is 8 years older than me, so when I was around 10, she was influencing my music listening a lot. I remember thinking it would be really cool to be in a rock band and have a leather jacket and turn up my collar; I fancied myself as a bit of a rebel then, which is something that didn’t really apply to me later on in life. Maybe that's me asserting some degree of independence over my parent’s taste, but it was definitely also about the fact that I thought my sister was awesome. I mean, she’s still great, as are my parents, but at the time I was totally enthralled by the idea of teenagehood, which seemed a lot better than being 10.
A few years before 15, I was super into Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Pink Floyd, trading Jethro Tull bootlegs with people in school, and transcribing Rick Wakeman keyboard solos for my piano teacher. I had big square glasses and a fiery-red mullet of ringlets that were falling down over this purple silk shirt that I wore all the time. I had another tie-dye T-shirt with dolphins jumping all over it, too.
Then, right at 15, my friend Koushik, who has released music on Stones Throw, gave me the Orb compilation U.F. Off, and it blew my mind. I had zero context for it; nobody else in my school or town would listen to this kind of music. I was used to complicated solos, and this was just repetitive, weird music with spoken-word loops going on forever. It was very hard for me to wrap my head around. I really grappled with it and thought: “Is this something that I just don’t like at all or something exciting and different and new?" Pretty shortly after I was introduced to that Orb CD, I got a little sampler and a keyboard, and was making electronic music myself.
My friends in high school were a cross-section of stoner guys who listened to Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and stoner guys who listened to Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. I begrudgingly started playing keyboards in a band called Kaptain Hairdo with a friend of mine, who’s actually the guitarist in Caribou now. We played stuff like Dinosaur Jr., Redd Kross, and Eric's Trip—I hated that music at the time, but I just wanted to be in a band. We practiced every weekend because it was a good excuse to hang out and smoke—well, I wasn’t smoking joints, but the other people in the band were. But then we would get onstage and everything would go totally wrong. We'd play once a year at the school’s battle of the bands, and all the Grateful Dead and Metallica dudes would be like, “That was the worst shit I’ve ever heard, get the fuck out of here!” [laughs] I was doing other musical things, too: the school band, piano lessons, playing instruments all the time. I was already being taken over by music.
Growing up in an academic family, I learned to have an appreciation for things on the periphery of culture; when your parents are focused on a certain thing, you see the world through that lens. And math professors are definitely some of the weirdest people you’ll ever meet—they're eccentric in a way that isn’t easy to categorize, because one person will be a concert pianist, and the next person will only wear "Weird Al" T-shirts. Everybody’s doing something strange; my dad once self-published a surrealist novel. He wasn’t your typical dad in a small town. He had an imagination bigger than what was on the TV. My dad liked that fact that I was a bit of an eccentric in the same way that he probably was.
I went to Toronto for university and finally got out of small-town life. In the years running up to 20, I was playing jazz piano for hours and hours everyday, and I thought that might be what I was going to do. So when I decided to do math at university, it was a real flip-a-coin moment. By that point I was constantly making and recording electronic music on a computer, keyboard, or sampler, and I realized that being a straight jazz piano player and only studying that could be a dead end. I decided that going to school for mathematics and doing music by myself was the way to go.
I got really into jazz after a friend of mine gave me the The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, which is this encyclopedia of every jazz record of the last 40 years. I read the entire thing. That's when CD burning became an option, and HMV had a completely unlimited return policy: You could buy as much music as you wanted and then return it all as long as you kept a receipt. So I'd go there a few times a week, buy 10 CDs, burn them, and return them a couple of days later. So I listened to every jazz record in this book, and gradually it became clear to me that I was less interested in the conventional jazz music that I’d been taught by my teachers in high school and more interested in this amazing stuff I had no idea existed before, like Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, and late John Coltrane. Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity is still one of my favorite records. It’s like the perfect marriage of insane out-there-ness with beautiful, elemental melodies. The melody of the track "Ghosts", in particular, is like this this eternal thing that was plucked out of collective human culture.
I was also listening to Tortoise, Stereolab, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Spiritualized—stuff on the fringes. I was interested in music that deconstructed the rules, which could seem at odds with studying mathematics. But this is also the time when everything changed for me with respect to math. In high school, mathematics always came really easily to me, but it was pretty functional. When I got to university, though, I signed up for a real calculus class, and it was a revelation, because it was totally different than anything I’d done before. It was all self-directed: They gave you a problem and you had to deal with it. All of a sudden, there was this analogy with creating music. Math was now creative in the same way: It was about being intuitive and exploring an idea until something became clear. It was one of those moments when I finally started to understand what my dad liked so much about math, too.
For me, music has always been about the thrill of starting with nothing and ending up with some melody or sound that connects with me in some way. My friends and I started throwing these parties were we would DJ, and that's when I started to think that I could press a 12" myself and see what happened with it. I spent all my time making music, because I felt like there was hope that one day I could make it happen. And it started happening.
During a summer break, I went and worked in this mathematics lab in Hewlett-Packard in Bristol, England. I went to this music festival nearby completely by myself, and I saw Fridge, which was Kieran Hebden [aka Four Tet]’s band at the time. Kieran’s first Four Tet record had just come out at that point, and that was another revelation, because it was influenced by jazz, but not the shitty jazz that I would hear in a St. Germain record. It was the real shit. The same stuff that I loved about jazz was in there, so that’s part of the reason I thought I might have something in common with this guy. So after Fridge's set, I just went over and started talking to them, which is uncharacteristic of me. I’m still close friends with all three of them, and Kieran’s become a huge part of what I’ve done musically, so it’s amazing that it worked out so fortuitously. The first demo I sent was to Kieran, and that was the music that got me signed to Leaf, which put out my first record.
Aphrodite’s Child consists of Vangelis and Demis Roussos, and 666 is this concept album from 1972 about the apocalypse. It's really fucked up, a very strange record. There's a track on it called "Infinity", which is just like a woman screaming somewhere between having an orgasm and being murdered, and underneath it is this crazy drum beat. It’s just one of those weird LSD records, but it's so ingeniously produced! It had all the craziness I was looking for in music at that time.
By 2003, I’d moved to London to start a Ph.D and, as you’d imagine by listening to Up in Flames, which came out that year, I was really into psychedelic rock records again. But now I was interested in finding drum breaks on them. My first record had just come out and I was starting to get DJ gigs and do remixes. I wasn’t quite your average student anymore because I could fly off to Berlin or take the train over to Paris on the weekend and do a gig and have this crazy experience. But Up in Flames precipitated a crisis, where I realized that I couldn't just keep going around playing this maximalist psychedelic music with vocals while standing behind a laptop. Then Ryan Smith, the same guy who had let me into the band Kaptain Hairdo in high school, said, “Let me know if you want to put a band together.” That’s when we started doing live shows. I was thankful that I had all this background in playing live music—it wasn’t like I had only ever made music on a laptop.
I finished my Ph.D in 2005, and my thesis was called Overconvergent Siegel Modular Symbols—it’s such a cumulative subject that I can’t even explain one of those words without you taking a bunch of courses. It’s ridiculous. It relies on another definition that relies on another definition, and all these things mean precise things. It goes back forever. Getting a Ph.D was like a requirement in our family: Both of my sisters also have Ph.Ds, and they're academics. So it was a surprise when things started developing in a different direction for me. I definitely didn’t get the Ph.D to satisfy my parents, but it probably did have that effect to a certain degree, where they were like, “Well, he got the Ph.D, now he can do whatever he wants.”
I did the Ph.D because I really enjoyed it, and then right when it ended it was obvious that I wasn’t going to do that anymore and I was going to spend all my time doing music. I never did math or music to get a job. I was lucky enough that I never got to the point where I had to think, “Oh shit, I’m going to have to do something to provide for myself.” Things just fell into place, because I was already working at them like a mad person all the time. I can’t even really remember how I made an album and finished the Ph.D at the same time. It seems like insanity in retrospect, and it was. But I just kept at it.
This is 2008, and I had just put out Andorra, but I was getting back into dance music, which was something that I hadn’t paid much attention to for a while. But I was still mostly listening to dance music in my bedroom rather than going to clubs. One night, I went to see Junior Boys, who are friends of mine from the same small town where I grew up, play with Liquid Liquid in London. Then Theo Parrish was playing at Plastic People, which is a little club just down the street, and he played these tracks for long periods of time. It was a catalytic moment for me that reinvigorated my interest in dance music. It was so diverse, challenging, and fun—it was this amazing social experience as well, which is obviously a big part of what club music is all about. That night was the impetus for Swim going in a dance-y direction, and also for putting out dance 12’’s and DJing more as Daphni.
When I first got into dance music with the Warp stuff, it was about being obtuse and clever, but when I came back to it, it was more about the trajectory through disco; the sexier side of dance music more than the intellectual side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still dweeby, but it connected with that whole love of the older records I had been collecting.
I'm less of a music hermit now, and more connected with people I work with, and my friends and family. And Our Love is a record made by somebody in their mid 30s—it's not like puppy love, it's a complex and ambiguous thing. Specifically, "Can't Do Without You" is trying to synthesize that euphoric feeling of love with something melancholic. That song represents a few different relationships in my life, and there's something dysfunctional about how it obsessively repeats this one line over and over. One of the types of love that I think about is our parents' generation, and how they are still connected to one another, but they're also kind of knotted together in a way. It's functional and dysfunctional at the same time.
I've had the classic Stevie Wonder albums on all the time recently, because I had a daughter and I wanted her to hear this music. Initially, Our Love, was going to be much more hyper-digital, glossy, and glassy-sounding. It ended up being much warmer, and I was like, "Where did that come from?" So while I wasn't listening to the Stevie Wonder records in work mode, I realized they were doing exactly what I wanted to do. There's so much of his personal world in there and they're so generous and giving. When you take these albums out, you feel like you're being loved by Stevie Wonder. My daughter isn't too into the Stevie Wonder records, though—she'll make me turn shit off if it's not "Wheels on the Bus". [laughs]