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- 10/01/14--10:45: _Paper Trail: Greil ...
- 10/02/14--09:45: _Rising: Future Brown
- 10/03/14--09:00: _Show No Mercy: Godf...
- 10/06/14--13:05: _5-10-15-20: Mary Ti...
- 10/07/14--13:05: _Rising: Lydia Ainsw...
- 10/08/14--12:00: _Electric Fling: New...
- 10/09/14--12:30: _Articles: Our Bandw...
- 10/13/14--11:30: _Overtones: Notes Yo...
- 10/14/14--13:25: _5-10-15-20: Vashti ...
- 10/15/14--14:15: _Interviews: DJ Quik
- 10/16/14--12:50: _Update: Arca
- 10/17/14--09:50: _Rising: Objekt
- 10/20/14--09:55: _The Out Door: Overl...
- 10/21/14--11:05: _Articles: ‘Pataphys...
- 10/22/14--13:20: _Rising: Tobias Jess...
- 10/24/14--09:00: _Update: Panda Bear
- 10/27/14--11:20: _Articles: Event Hor...
- 10/28/14--13:10: _Guest Lists: Clark
- 10/29/14--13:00: _Articles: Run the J...
- 10/30/14--12:25: _Paper Trail: Season...
- 10/01/14--10:45: Paper Trail: Greil Marcus: The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs
- 10/02/14--09:45: Rising: Future Brown
- 10/03/14--09:00: Show No Mercy: Godflesh
- 10/06/14--13:05: 5-10-15-20: Mary Timony
- 10/07/14--13:05: Rising: Lydia Ainsworth
- 10/08/14--12:00: Electric Fling: New York Nights
- 10/09/14--12:30: Articles: Our Bandwidth Could Be Your Life
- 10/14/14--13:25: 5-10-15-20: Vashti Bunyan
- 10/15/14--14:15: Interviews: DJ Quik
- 10/16/14--12:50: Update: Arca
- 10/17/14--09:50: Rising: Objekt
- 10/20/14--09:55: The Out Door: Overlooked Experimental Records 2014
- 10/22/14--13:20: Rising: Tobias Jesso Jr.
- 10/24/14--09:00: Update: Panda Bear
- 10/27/14--11:20: Articles: Event Horizon: Black Constellation’s Revolutionary Now
- 10/28/14--13:10: Guest Lists: Clark
- 10/29/14--13:00: Articles: Run the Jewels: Last Rappers Standing
- 10/30/14--12:25: Paper Trail: Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
At the beginning of his new book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Greil Marcus rattles off a list of every Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee in the museum’s 28-year history. It makes for a gargantuan sentence, filling the next six pages with hundreds of names. Chuck Berry and James Brown kick things off, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana wind things down, although Marcus includes a few likely future candidates: N.W.A., Pearl Jam, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z, among others.
The list is startling and purposefully tedious, yet it’s also some of the most intriguing rock writing of the year. Divorced of all context and achievement, those names become nearly meaningless as they demonstrate just how rigid the popular conception of rock ‘n’ roll history has become. It’s music rendered as a predictable timeline, a mechanistic presentation of the who’s without the where’s, why’s, how’s, or what’s. It’s like trying to learn about the Presidency by memorizing all 44 chief executives. That history, Marcus suggests, is safe and comforting in its immutability; the only way it will change is when we add on to the end of it. This is rock ‘n’ roll history made dull and useless as anything other than something to push against.
That’s exactly what The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs does. It reads like a natural extension of Marcus’ previous books, including Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music(1975) and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989). More specifically, the new book reads like a full-length version of his long-running column Real Life Top Ten, a compendium of pop culture—not just songs, but films, performances, television shows, whatever strikes Marcus’ whim—that currently runs in The Believer.
Using a similar strategy, Marcus presents history as “a continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers,” which means the 10 songs he probes in this book aren’t the expected hits. There’s no Elvis at Sun, no Beatles conquering America, no Dylan plugging in, no Nirvana eradicating hair metal from the world. Instead, Marcus writes about “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies, “All I Could Do Was Cry”, “Money Changes Everything”, “In the Still of the Nite”, and “Guitar Drag”, the soundtrack to an art installation created by pulling an electric guitar behind a pick-up truck. His intent is not to represent the major trends and subgenres of rock ‘n’ roll, but to choose songs as useful avenues for exploring rock ‘n’ roll as a spoken language.
Pitchfork: The book’s title almost implies a wink, as though pushing against the idea that rock ‘n’ roll can be adequately summed up in ten songs.
Greil Marcus: I always believe in titling books after what they are, if you know what they are. Years ago I put together a collection of pieces about Elvis, his cultural life following his death. I had always called it my Dead Elvis book. So when time came to give it a title, I just though, why not call it Dead Elvis? Boy, people didn’t want to call it that. It’s obnoxious. There’s something really ugly about it, but that’s what it is. There were stores in the South that wouldn’t stock it because the title was too obnoxious. I guess it is. It wasn’t meant to be.
In this case, I realized I was writing about 10 songs, and it was supposed to be a history of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s such a perverse idea. I could have called it A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. That would have been the modest and reasonable thing to do. Of course, there are many histories, and anybody else would choose very different songs. So that would be the humanistic way of doing it. Instead I opted for the fascist way of doing it. The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. As if these are the songs and this is the history, which of course isn’t true. I just felt it needed a kind of arrogant humor to it.
Pitchfork: There’s a bit of that in the long list of Hall of Fame inductees.
GM: My six-page sentence. I had to be so careful to make sure I wasn’t leaving anybody out, and I probably did. I tried to include everybody in the chronological order of when the given individual made his or her mark and entered the story of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the very conventional history, and I wanted to get it over with. Get it killed and buried so that we could completely ignore it and go off to new terrain. That was fun.
Pitchfork: How did you go about choosing and sequencing these particular songs in the book?
GM: When I came up with the idea of the book and had a sense of what I was going to do, I knew from that instant that the first song—the first chapter in the book—would be “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies. For years and years whenever I heard that song, on the radio or just playing it myself, I just thought, this is it. This is what rock ‘n’ roll is. Everything I want it to be. This could have been the first rock ‘n’ roll record. It could have been the last rock ‘n’ roll record. It has a spirit. It has a drive. It has a melodic momentum. It has a beat that didn’t exist before rock ‘n’ roll. It didn’t happen in the 50s or 60s; it happened in 1972 and wasn’t even heard until 1976. But none of that matters. This is more the thing itself than any other record I know, so I hate to write it. Even if I can’t do it very well, even if I can’t live up to the song, I have to do it.
I knew I was going to write about “Transmission”. It’s absolutely rock ‘n’ roll. It has a desperation and a freedom and a fear and a willingness to go to the absolute extreme, to break through any boundary, in pursuit of maybe something the singer doesn’t even know about—what he has to find and what he has to flee. It’s all about extremes. I knew I had to write about that song, not because I was this great Joy Division fan. I only got their music after the band ceased to exist, after Ian Curtis killed himself in 1980. When I first listened to Joy Division, Tony Wilson, who ran their record company, had sent me their first album from England, and I just didn’t find my way into it. It was seeing Anton Corbjin’s film Control, in 2007; that’s when their music caught me.
Pitchfork: That film plays an enormous role in that chapter.
GM: There’s that scene in Control when you have these actors playing their instruments and you have this actor, Sam Riley, doing the singing. They’re not lip synching; they’re performing as Joy Division. These are the roles they’ve taken. It’s not a real band playing “Transmission”. It’s not even a Joy Division tribute band. It’s just a bunch of actors doing a job in a film. And yet, the song itself brought out in these people—or demanded of these people a commitment and a willingness to break things. To break things in themselves. To break things in the conventional understanding of what a song is.
And they did it! The songs brought out things in them that I have to believe they didn’t know were there, regardless of how many times that scene was rehearsed and shot. And what a remarkable thing that is—that this song can sing people just as they’re trying to sing it. That became the conceptual germ for the whole book: the way in which songs move from people to people, from place to place, from time to time, from voice to voice, as if the song itself is a kind of virus. What is that William Burroughs said? Language is a virus from outer space. Songs move like viruses until they find the right host.
Pitchfork: Films play a huge role in this book, even when they’re not very good. Cadillac Records might as well exist for Beyoncé’s scenes.
GM: In some ways it’s a terrible movie. It’s a biopic. A biopic is one thing after another. There’s this pretense that a life has this great dramatic arc, that it’s going to make tremendous emotional sense. Most of us don’t have lives like that. The attempt to impose that sort of structure on a life is most often going to ring completely false. And it does in that movie. I don’t the writer or the director or Adrien Brody had any great commitment to the idea of Leonard Chess as a character. Forget who he was. Who could he have been? Forget what he did. What could he have done? Try to imagine yourself in his place. I think that’s what happened in Who Do You Love? The actor who played Leonard Chess, Alessandro Nivola, is magnetic. You want to know what he’s going to do next. You don’t ever know what he’s really thinking, and you’re not even sure he knows. Maybe he’s running on instinct, but he’s got great instincts. He’s afraid of absolutely nothing.
I love the way songs are used in movies. So many of the most intense and unforgettable musical experiences in my life have been when songs appear in a movie in a way you would never expect. My fantasy is always that the director of the musical supervisor has spent years looking for a chance to get his or her favorite song into a movie. And suddenly they can do it. There’s an extraordinary moment in Dead Ringers when “In the Still of the Night” is playing over a scene of Jeremy Irons’ characters dancing with Isabelle Adjani. I think David Cronenberg carried that song with him since 1956 and waited until he found a place for it. It may not be true. I didn’t ask. As arrogant or as stupid as it may seem, as a critic I’m not interested in what the artist or the performer thought he or she was doing. I’m more interested in what happens to the music when it’s out in the world. And I’m interested in other people’s responses to it and my own response to it. Intent doesn’t have much to do with anything. I don’t think my own intent, whatever it may have been, is interesting or tells you anything about the book.
Pitchfork: Did you conceive of the book as an extension of the Real Life Top Ten?
GM: I’ve never really thought about it. There’s stuff in that column that found its way into this book. There’s a paragraph-long item that might have been the spur for a five- or six-thousand word chapter. That column is wonderful for me because it gives me a chance to focus as tightly as I can on one thing that seems interesting or extraordinary to me. It allows me to throw in anything I want and make connections or let things just sit there. Whereas with the book, the form demands that I relax a bit so that the writing opens up in lots and lots of different directions. What seems to be one song turns into many songs, or what seems to be happening in one particular period opens up into another period maybe 20 or 40 years later. You find the story in the song; there might be lots of gaps in the story but you can hop form one place to another. I guess I tried to have the same feeling of no pressure writing these chapters as I do writing the column.
Pitchfork: The way these chapters hover around the songs reminded me a bit of the New Literary History of America, almost as though this book was an extension of that volume.
GM: That was a wonderful project. I edited it with Werner Sollors, and I can’t believe we did it in three years. It came out so much better than either of us had ever hoped for. We were just shocked by the quality of the entries that we got from people. That book—and the pieces I wrote for it—raised my ambitions to try to do better work, to do work that was more grounded and as accessible as it could possibly be without compromising the broadest cultural or political or aesthetic frame of reference that I could work in.
When we got to the end of the book, Werner and I realized that we didn’t have a piece on The Sound and the Fury and we didn’t have a piece on Moby Dick. Werner suggested we flip a coin to figure out which of us would write what, but I wanted to write about Moby Dick. And it was pure fun. It was one of the most playful things I ever wrote. I knew the book well enough that I could ramble through it and grab scenes and characters and lines of dialogue without much effort at all, and let them all connect up to the way the book is part of our national conversation. It’s a frame of reference that everybody knows. That was the idea for this new book—of rock ‘n’ roll as a language that everybody understands. People speak in different ways, but they understand that regardless of how it may come to them, a song they’ve never heard before from a period they’ve never lived through can sound like it was addressed directly to them.
Pitchfork: The book seems to reach out and draw all of these things into the songs—films, books, even politics. But the song remains at the center of each chapter.
GM: Really it’s all about the songs. It’s about the way a song can come loose from the person who wrote it or from the people who first performed it. Then it becomes something out there in the world that is public and accessible to anybody. And anybody has a right to re-sing, rethink, or restage as they choose. They can do violence to that song. When Cyndi Lauper heard “Money Changes Everything,” she heard a very different story than Tom Gray did. He wrote and recorded it with his band the Brains five years before Cyndi Lauper recorded it, but she heard something very different. I find that kind of transmission totally thrilling.
Pitchfork: You teach creative writing at the New School in New York. How does that inform your writing, in particular a book like The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll?
GM: In lots of different ways. About two years ago I had a seminar that was wonderful. The students were so brave and so full of imagination. They were open to everything. It wasn’t necessarily that any one student said anything particularly brilliant that sent me down a new road. It was just being in a room week after week with people who were so alive to ideas and to songs. They were being exposed to music they had never heard before—old American folk music—and they brought nothing to it other than their own enthusiasm and intelligence. And the way they heard this stuff and talked about it showed just how narrow and trained my own way of listening could be. So when I was listening to something, I would try to act like I’d never heard it before. You can be listening to a song you’ve heard maybe all your sentient life, and suddenly you hear a line differently. You hear the lyrics more clearly or you hear a rhythm line under the main melodic theme that you never noticed before. You hear something else that is being communicated—a secret desire being voiced that the rest of the song doesn’t know about. There’s a secret the song is keeping from itself. That’s a marvelous experience.
Future Brown by Christelle de Castro
The story behind Future Brown's name is a good one; as member Fatima Al Qadiritold The Guardian earlier this year, it involves a friend's magic-mushroom trip and subsequent experience of a color that doesn't exist in our current temporal plane—a fitting vision for a multi-ethnic crew whose fusion of grime, R&B, and futuristic club music defies linear narratives and holds up the metaphorical melting pot as a kind of gold standard for the global underground.
If there's an origin story behind the group itself, though, "It was probably many-layered," laughs J-Cush (Jamie Imanian-Friedman), another member of the bi-coastal and bi-continental quartet, alongside the Kuwait-born, London-based Al Qadiri and Los Angeles' Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, of the duo Nguzunguzu. "I think Nguzu were in New York, and I think we were walking in the West Village somewhere and talking about it," he says over Skype from New York, while his three bandmates join the call from L.A. and the Hague, where Al Qadiri is playing a show.
Maroof interrupts him. "Yeah, I remember a phone conversation, but I dunno," she says, and the whole group breaks up in laughter and static. It makes sense that no one might remember precisely how they came together as a unit, if only because the four producers have been working together in various configurations for some time, even as they've all pursued their own projects. Maroof and Pineda have their duo Nguzunguzu, crafting icy grime for the Fade to Mind label and making beats for Kelela. J-Cush runs Lit City Trax, a label whose roster—including Visionist, DJ Marfox, DJ Spinn and the late DJ Rashad—traffics in grime, Afro-Portuguese batida, and Chicago footwork, among other 21st-century club styles. And Al Qadiri has explored an idiosyncratic take on "sino-grime" on releases for UNO NYC, Fade to Mind, and Hyperdub, in addition to her runway soundtracks for the New York designer Telfar.
"I feel like it happened very quickly," says Al Qadiri of the quartet's inception. "Me and Asma noticed Daniel and Jamie working together, and me and Asma had been trying to make tracks for a year, but we were never in the same place at the same time. It was always via the internet. And Nguzu, Daniel and Asma, had been working together for a while. And me and Jamie had just hatched the idea to start working together, so we just had a very quick conversation about why is this happening, and that we should all work together."
By early 2013, they were holed up in a studio in New York, sketching out the outlines of their collective vision, and they reconvened when their schedules allowed. Last November they released "World's Mine", a glassy grime cut featuring Ruff Sqwad's Prince Rapid and Dirty Danger along with former Roll Deep member Roachee; that month they also appeared at MoMA PS1's Sunday Sessions, debuting unreleased material while accompanied by choreographed basketball drills as part of a series co-curated by Pitchfork. (The video projections they included in the performance, created by Thunder Horse Video, have become a regular part of their DJ appearances; ravers wandering into their set at Barcelona's Sónar festival this summer could have been forgiven for wondering if they had accidentally stumbled into a sports arena, given the Jumbotron-style graphics whooshing by.)
This September, Future Brown signed to Warp Records. Their debut single, "Wanna Party", featuring the Chicago rapper and R&B singer Tink, is out November 4. It also includes "World's Mine". For now, the group's members are staying mum about their debut LP, aside from the fact that it will feature a wide range of featured vocalists. (Last year, that list was said to include Kelela, Shawnna, 3D Na'tee, Maluca, Riko Dan, and Ian Isiah.) But in a Skype conversation spanning four time zones, they were happy to talk about streetwear, basketball, and trainspotting among friends.
Pitchfork: How did you come together in the first place? What made you decide to make it a group?
Fatima Al Qadiri: The four of us were working with each other in a completely ass-backwards way. I was working with Asma, Asma was working with Daniel, Daniel was working with Jamie, Jamie was working with me. It was a weird kind of loop that wasn't formalized into a whole. We just came to the decision one day that we should all work together, and that it's not conducive to our time or energy for us all to be separated this way. So then we decided to form a unit, but the person who invested in us in order to make it happen was Charles Damga, the head of UNO NYC records. He was pivotal in getting a studio space, paying for features—because this was a project with a lot of vocalists, you know? He's a really integral part of this puzzle.
Pitchfork: Have you all been working together in the same studio, or has it been a kind of virtual collaboration?
FAQ: Only minor editing has been done over the internet or remotely. It's all been written in person in the studio, live.
Pitchfork: How does a typical track come together? Do you begin with bits and pieces you've written individually, or do you start from scratch?
Asma Maroof: It's different every time. Sometimes, maybe Fatima will have a melody ready, one that she's made, or we'd start from scratch, and it would be just like, "Ooh, I like that sound." What is really beneficial being in a production group is having other sets of ears to be like, "Oh yeah, keep doing that." Sometimes, when you're alone, you question that.
Pitchfork: You all represent overlapping but slightly different sounds; when you're working together, is it your similarities or your differences that tend to inform the work?
AM: I think we definitely play on our similarities more, because we have a wide range of kinds of music we're all interested in, everything from dancehall to reggaeton to R&B to hip-hop.
FAQ: Because our main goal for this collaboration is to make music for vocalists, that's the first thing that comes to the fore when we're working. It's like, "Oh, who could potentially go on this?" It's always with a vocalist in mind, which is very different for me, let's say. When I work on music, I never think about vocalists. They're the last person I'm making music for. And vocalists, especially ours, come and go very quickly, or their feature fee gets higher and they get hot really quickly, so there's a definite urgency to get the track done and out to them.
Future Brown by Christelle de Castro
Pitchfork: When you're starting a track, do you usually know which singer you have in mind, or do you write it first and figure out the vocalist later?
Daniel Pineda: Sometimes we start with the idea that we want to make a track with somebody, and a lot of times we continue with that from the beginning, and sometimes it'll just come about in the making. And then sometimes we'll change direction and say, "Oh, this sounds like something cool for this person." It'll just happen organically.
Pitchfork: For "Wanna Party", did you and Tink actually meet up in the studio?
AM: At first we sent her beats. We were going to do it remotely, and then we weren't getting in touch with her. When me and Daniel came to New York to continue working on tracks with Fatima and Jamie, we were out to dinner and I just randomly went on her Twitter and called the number on her thing, and then her manager called me back in the next two minutes, which was just like, "Whoa, cool!" That kind of spawned it. Then she ended up coming out to New York to do a show for Lit City, and we did two days in the studio.
FAQ: No, one day. Six hours.
Jamie Imanian-Friedman: She recorded those two tracks in like two hours.
FAQ: That was the first time she had recorded outside her father's basement.
Pitchfork: For your DJ sets, are you basically doing a back-to-back-to-back-to-back thing?
FAQ: I feel like it's more fun to DJ like that than alone. You're vibing off each other. We prefer to have one of the vocalists or MCs that we've recorded with on stage, if the opportunity permits. It reflects more that our collaboration is with vocalists. None of us are quote-unquote live performers. We're all DJs, this is what we do. To play our music live—it's just not genuine for us to do that, you know?
JI-F: We're debuting a lot of new material, and hopefully nine out of ten times we'll have a vocalist there.
Pitchfork: Are your sets pretty freeform, or does a lot of planning to into them beforehand?
JI-F: I think it's pretty intuitive. We'll pow-wow and talk about the Future Brown stuff. Someone might say, "I want to play the 'Wanna Party' remix," or "I want to play 'World's Mine'" or whatever, sure.
FAQ: We all like the same music, we all want to hear the same music, we all want to DJ the same music, pretty much. There's never a moment in the set where I'm like, "This track sucks." It's more like, "What the fuck is this track, I need it!"
Pitchfork: Do you trainspot each other's selections?
JI-F: I mean, yeah, like in a good way. Someone will play something and I'll be like, "Why haven't I heard this? Why don't I have this? I need this." But I don't think there's ever any envy or weirdness about it. We're all really happy to get to play together.
Pitchfork: You did a soundtrack for Telfar's SS14 collection, right?
FAQ: No, I did the soundtrack for his SS14 collection. The video that was online was kind of like an ad, it wasn't for the runway show. That was an instrumental that was used for Telfar but is going to appear on our album with a couple of vocalists that I'm not going to disclose right now. Telfar's amazing. I've been making soundtracks for him since 2007, so I've had a long-term collaboration with him for his runway shows and music.
Pitchfork: In recent press photos you're all in Hood By Air. Are you fairly deeply connected to the avant-streetwear world?
FAQ: We're wearing Telfar too, along with HBA. Hood By Air is Shayne Oliver, who's a good friend of all of ours.
Pitchfork: That avant-streetwear world seems to be gaining a lot of traction right now.
JI-F: There's definitely going to be a lot of really bad brands trying to capitalize off that soon.
FAQ: This is the thing: DIS, HBA, Telfar, these are all old friends, you know? Shanzai Biennial, they all come from the same New York house, let's say.
Pitchfork: It's a New York thing, but, thanks to the internet, it's not limited to New York.
JI-F: It's why our record was possible—that we're not allowed to talk about, sorry.
FAQ: Really! Don't go there. But I mean, we wouldn't have been able to get in touch with Tink if her manager's phone number wasn't on her Twitter handle, you know what I mean? Shit like that. It wouldn't have been possible. If this was 10 years ago, how would we have gotten in touch with her? It really would not have been an easy feat to accomplish.
Pitchfork: It's a different model of underground communities talking to each other.
JI-F: These are all old friends too, in the fashion side of things. That's kind of more natural, that they're just finding success around the same time. And I guess with the music and fashion, there are a lot of people in the fashion world that are really focused on music as well. We found a little lane with that, but it's not specifically our thing.
Pitchfork: I noticed there's a lot of basketball imagery in your work, like the image attached to "World's Mine" on your Soundcloud page, or the dance performance that accompanied your PS1 show in 2013.
FAQ: That was a collaboration between DIS [magazine] and us and Thunder Horse Video. Thunder Horse created the stage, which was two basketball courts, and DIS cast the basketball players to perform choreographed drills to our music.
JI-F: We had a conversation about trying to create this visual language with DIS and Thunder Horse, and somebody brought up that we had a lot of basketball references in some of our lyrics, and it was from that point that we started making those visuals.
AM: What's cool about our collaboration is, you know, we're a team, there's four of us, there's two boys and two girls, and in the performance we had both women and men. So it's playing off us being a team, or maybe even sometimes a two-on-two game, I don't know. You can take it there, I guess.
Justin Broadrick has been an active musician since his teenage years, but unlike your average high school punk with a resume featuring bands nobody remembers, he'd joined and left Napalm Death by the time he was 16. And he’d started even earlier that that, founding the electronic-focused Final when he was 13 and, a year later, hooking up with Fall of Because, co-founded by future Godflesh partner G.C. Green.
Over the years, Broadrick's kept busy—he played in GOD, Scorn, Head of David, and in the “supergroup” Greymachine with members of Isis and Jesu, and has recorded solo material as Pale Sketcher, Techno Animal, and JK Flesh. He's best known, though, for co-founding industrial metal heroes Godflesh in 1988 with aforementioned childhood friend G.C. Green and for his longstanding, increasingly airy Jesu, which he founded in 2003 after Godflesh called it quits in 2002.
For people of a certain age, Jesu is probably the first act they associate with Broadrick, but the new Godflesh album should shift that a bit. After reforming in 2010 with Green for some live Godflesh shows (including a co-headlining set with fellow lifers Swans at Supersonic Festival in Birmingham), the duo are back with their pummeling drum machine. They recently released a very solid EP, Decline & Fall, and are about to put out a truly great LP, A World Lit Only by Fire (out 10/7 on the band's own Avalanche Recordings). For these new efforts, they’ve returned to their roots—specifically 1988’s Godflesh EP, 1989’s Streetcleaner, and 1992’s Pure—while also expanding upon what they did best.
Broadrick's trajectory is similar to that of Michael Gira: both remained so active with various projects over the years that when a "reunion" or "reboot" was announced it didn't seem surprising. And, like Swans, Godflesh are making music that stands with, and at times goes beyond, their seminal material. Unlike Gira, though, Broadrick’s not quite an elder statesman: Because he got started so long ago, and has been in the public eye all that time, you'd assume he's in his 60s, but when I caught up with him via Skype, he was just about to turn 45. We spoke about the new record, the state of Godflesh, and things in general in 2014.
Pitchfork: You’re turning 45. You've been making music for so long, via all your different projects, that 45 seems incredibly young to me.
Justin K Broadrick: When I first started making music, for about the first 10 years, I was always the young kid. Everyone referred to me as such in any band. When I joined Head of David, the other guys, apart from the bass player who was two years older than me, were, like, 27. They were 10 years older than me. And then with Godflesh, Ben is five years older than me, so I've always been the kid.
Then when I hit 30, it's been a fucking downward spiral into being an old man ever since. Now I get referred to as an old dude. I remember meeting some people in my mid-20s who were having conversations about that and they were, like, "Hold on, you were in Napalm Death when you were 15? Shit, I was still fuckin' playing with toys." It's like, I was as well! I saw someone the other day and we were talking about Michael Gira's age. He’s how old now?
Pitchfork: He’s 60.
JKB: Wow. That gives hope for us all.
Pitchfork: I honestly think the music he's making now is the best he's ever made.
JKB: For my own tastes, it's quite controversial, but I can't even listen to Swans anymore. It doesn't do it for me at all, but I absolutely adore the early records and, on that same token, I wouldn't in any way wish for them to come back and repeat themselves. It's just not to my taste what they do, but I absolutely admire and respect the band. Whether I like the records that they make now or not is immaterial. They're such an impact on my life when I was young that I'm really happy they exist and really happy they're popular.
Pitchfork: Why did you decide to return to Godflesh? I know you started to play shows before you recorded new material. What was the reason behind the decision to play shows again and then to release new music?
JKB: The whole focus on reforming Godflesh was to ultimately make new music. We knew that we'd be going in and doing, so called, "reformation shows," which is all good because it would put enough money in our pockets to be able to invest back into a new record. I really felt, in my blood, that I needed to go back to this context of expression, which is very dear to me. I definitely missed it throughout Jesu's career. Ultimately, I initiated a couple of projects that were the catalyst for wishing to play as Godflesh again or wishing to write new material—the Greymachine record and the JK Flesh material. Both were just the path leading to me wishing to write again as Godflesh.
Pitchfork: After years of doing Jesu and all these other projects, how did it feel to go back to Godflesh, something you hadn’t done for 13 years?
JKB: I started Godflesh in my late teens and it led all the way up until I was 33 or something—really formative years. For all of us, this is a big chunk of our lives where we hopefully grow and evolve in some way. The transition from Godflesh to Jesu was really painful, not just because of the personal things I was experiencing. Jesu was a document for a lot of the pain that went on around that period of both a breakup I went through, the end of Godflesh was really sticky and messy, and just a lot of shit that'd come to a head at that time. I was using Jesu as an escape from that and a way to sort of document what I was going through, which was a good platform for the whole of Jesu's career, ultimately. It was hard, initially, to perform as Jesu, because I was used to a much more aggressive performance. Whereas Godflesh, I found to be a very unconscious performance. Halfway through Jesu's career—without Godflesh existing—it struck me that I was searching for [that] outlet again.
Pitchfork: Was it stressful to return to something after that many years? Certain records—Streetcleaner, Pure—are held up as iconic. Was there any stress in your mind, like “I'm gonna come back and screw up the legacy”?
JKB: Yeah. There was a lot of self-doubt before the first performance, and, unfortunately, the first performance went completely wrong via the usual technical demons that seem to have plagued most of our careers. I've always been doomed to technical fucking bullshit. It's quite bizarre. I almost invite it, I think. I do feel as if my own music as quite flawed, and it's that frailty or lack of technical proficiency that goes hand-in-hand with some sort of professionalism. I always felt that art should be somewhat flawed. That almost appears like it's an excuse for fucking up, but I like fuck-ups.
At first, it was so technically wrong that it was pathetic. We could've just turned around after that and said "fuck this." It's quite fortunate that the performance that followed that, the second reunion performance, was in our old hometown of Birmingham in the UK, the legendary Supersonic Festival. That was amazing! We just gave it our absolute all, which seemed to be enough, fortunately.
Ironically, we've quite literally played some of our best performances ever since we've reformed. A lot of people reform and all they talk about is nostalgically romanticizing the great old days, but a lot of the older days for us were appalling. We did some really horrible tours, loads of horrible shows, quite often imploded on stage, quite often technically things were wrong, a lot of PA's back in the day were appalling. We find now that soundsystems are really fantastic. Our last U.S. tour, we even curated the bill. Back in the day, you'd be with agents who would literally tell you to fuck off if you asked for another band.
I visualized where I'd wanted the band to go musically, but I didn't wanna commit anything for a good year-and-a-half. That just paved the way for the new material. And we just felt like, “Fuck expectation,” ultimately. There's always gonna be people saying they were so much better back in the day, but we feel utterly confident that this material is as good as any record we've made.
Pitchfork: How was it different recording Godflesh now? Technology is different 13 years later.
JKB: Ironically, Godflesh started off as this band embracing technology—essentially, we had a hip-hop drum machine. On paper, the whole thing with Godflesh was this marriage of down-tuned, highly textural, filthy guitar and bass with a drum machine which is derived and inspired by what's happening with old school hip-hop in the '80s. Even in the late '80s, before we got dumped in with the metal thing—which gave us a career, so I wouldn't even say that cynically—we were viewed as a byproduct of the American noise rock scene.
Clearly, we loved Big Black, but that wasn't one our sources of inspiration for using a drum machine. It was more Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C. Do you know what I mean? I'd always loved hip-hop. That was it. People would miss the point entirely because we were seen as some noise rock derivative and my former band before that, Head of David, comes straight out of the noise rock thing. It was very, very easy for people to say, yeah, they're just influenced by the American stuff like Swans, Big Black, Sonic Youth, and so we really felt they were missing the death metal influence, which was pretty clear to us, of primitive death metal, and everything else that come with it.
Eventually, by the time we signed to Earache and they presented us to a metal crowd it was then the metal people getting it, which was fantastic. It was initially really hard for us to digest the fact that metal audiences who had literally just come out of Skid Row, dudes with fucking big hair were getting into us. But it was an extreme metal explosion, an odd marriage of sound in a way.
We're still using our original drum machine, but it's literally welded to sample banks of some of my favorite producers of the 2000s, which was the Neptunes, Timbaland, and a lot of these sort of people. For me, these people were making great productions in the mid-to-late-2000s. I don't like what these people are doing now, but they were coming up with some absolutely heaving drum machine sounds, so I managed to acquire a lot of their sample banks, both legally and illegally, and have been sort of marrying those sounds to our old drum machine sounds, so it's got this old school hip-hop mixed with new school sounds.
Texturally, I think it still sounds quite similar, but it's quite clearly updated. I mean, what modern technology has done has afforded us the luxury of abbreviation and being concise with time, I think. Things that it would take you a week to do can now be done in a day, which is absolutely awesome because you can concentrate on the bigger picture. It's absolutely fantastic, but we still like limitations. Godflesh still likes parameters and to exist within a set of limitations because otherwise it's too open.
Pitchfork: Yeah, a good example of this is Chinese Democracy. Guns N' Roses' early material—Appetite for Destruction, in particular—was amazing. But there were financial and other limitations to that, and it gave them focus. Then, when you have 15 years of tinkering around in the studio and adding synthesized sitars, it just kind of floats into this amorphous wanking, and it loses impact.
JKB: They clearly had too much time on their hands. Endless fucking money—I think when you can be that supremely self-indulgent sometimes it's easy to get up one's own asshole. I need parameters. I need discipline.
Pitchfork: You used an eight-string guitar on the new album. How did that come about?
JKB: I was trying a seven-string initially because I was using a seven-string with Jesu the entire time but I found that I was still coming up with a lot of stuff that was too reminiscent of earlier Godflesh. We are honoring what we set out to do initially, but for me, we're not repeating it. We're continuing from where we left off. The eight-string was a great way to tune to a ridiculously lower level. I wanted to see how much lower we could go. Especially with something like Streetcleaner, we were tuning low and doing stuff that a lot of people at that point hadn't really done. People have done these things, but maybe not as defined or as abstract as a lot of the stuff that was on the periphery. I wanted to go further than that and eight-strings, also, could afford me a level of discordance that I couldn't reach previously. The eight-string is just a beast. It's a very, very beastly guitar. A huge heavy beast of a guitar, as well. It's nice. A six-string feels like a fucking ukulele now.
Pitchfork: It’s a good time for dark electronic music. If you listen to something like Kanye West's Yeezus, it's pretty noisy with loud drums, and he got Evian Christ to do production and Hudson Mohawke and Arca. It's an interesting time for Godflesh to return amid this whole musical landscape of people discovering darker music.
JKB: Absolutely, and living in averagely darker times than we have in a bit. That's a very interesting record you picked as an example of something that is, essentially, mainstream—Kanye West picked all these very cool underground producers to sit around in a room to make a beat. It's a really screwed up record, and I know a lot of mainstream hip-hop people, have been listening to things like Aphex Twin for years. When somebody first played me some of that album, I was just like, "Woah!" Some of it wasn't that far off from stuff I was doing with Techno Animal in, like, 2001, which at that time was met with utter derision and swept right under the carpet never to be heard of again.
Pitchfork: There just seems to be more of an overlap with heavy music and electronics right now. People, like Dominick Fernow, who were known for doing noise are making electronic music. Someone like Haxan Cloak's doing shows that are so heavy and bodily that people are kind of feeling like they're gonna vomit.
JKB: Electronic music, for me, has been the only real pioneering music that actually does push boundaries and is constantly futuristic. I don't listen to that much guitar music because I find it consistently regressive. It's, by and large, not the future. I'm always interested in very, very futuristic music and, like you said, with that happening, bridging the gap between the physicality of organic guitar music and trying to translate that into something electronic is really fascinating. Yeah, and I still feel Godflesh does bridge that gap. Obviously, with Godflesh we do treat our guitars almost as electronic instruments because, ultimately, there's no showiness to what we do.
I've never been a huge prog fan. My background is punk. My background is learning how to play a bar chord and listen to Discharge records when I was a kid. That was most important to me, at first. It's always been feel over technicality. That's what I like about electronic music is you don't really need to be that learned or educated in any particular context. You can just make sound, noise even, whatever it may be. This is a really important aspect of what Godflesh does. We don't do numerous takes even when we record. If we fuck up just a little, we always leave it in there.
Pitchfork: The new material is so stripped back, it's hard to place the year it was made. You wouldn't think it came out in 2014. Not that it feels like a throwback, but it's sort chiseled to a barebones space that feels somehow distant... There’s so much technology available, and this temptation of, “Hey, we can add this and do this and do that...” Humans and machines are so interconnected, there's so much possibility: People walking down the street checking phones while listening to headphones while reading a digital billboard… it's refreshing to have this sound “other” in some ways.
JKB: Yeah, that's it. We were quite aware of the fact, even after making the record, sitting down to listen to it, that it felt timeless in the context that you're referring to in that it's pretty much hard to place. If it sounded like that in five years from now, we would probably say the same thing, I think. Fuck knows where music will be in five years, but I still feel as if, yeah, we could've made this 10 years ago, we could make it in 10 years time.
Fortunately, I live in a fucking rural environment, so I don't see that many human beings, which is a pleasure. But when I do tour and we're doing shows and stuff and you're out in the city and the rest of it, it is a constant. People said, wow, this is futuristic music. This is still about that fusion of man and machine. I'm just like, it's been happening for years! It's right before you. You're connected to it right now. It's so ridiculous now. I'm sitting talking to you now. We don't even need a landline. It's amazing that I'm sitting here with two computers in front of me, a phone in front of me. It's overload.
Pitchfork: Like you're saying, you're turning 45 and I just turned 41, so we're both at this kind of age where we had a large part of our lives without internet or computers, but we're still young enough to know how to use the stuff, so we're in this weird position where we've had both things.
JKB: I feel somewhat privileged because I often feel very sorry for kids. I often feel very sorry for 20-year-olds and teens who, you know, who grew up with the internet and have grown up completely connected because, for me, people like you and I know what it was to struggle, but it wasn't a struggle. It was great! It was fantastic. The thrill of the hunt. You know, searching out music, art, whatever. The journey was often as good as the destination, you know. Now we've got the destination immediately. In fact, we have about 18 destinations all at our fingertips simultaneously, so much so that it's rendered quite meaningless. I feel privileged that I can appreciate it. I can truly, truly appreciate it because of my age. I've had the benefit of both worlds. I've had the benefit of swapping demo tapes with people across the other side of the world and waiting three weeks for it to arrive.
Pitchfork: The first song on the new album is called "New Dark Ages”. Is that an ironic title?
JKB: Yeah, it is quite ironic and it's loaded, like most Godflesh. It's ambiguous, but obviously, ambiguous within a whole realm and context of negativity. But yeah, it's ironic. A few people have said to me, "Oh yeah, the forthcoming dark ages," and I'm like, "No, we're already there, man." [laughs] Do you know what I mean? We've been there for fucking years.
Pitchfork: Does that tie in with the album title, too? A World Lit Only by Fire feels like this very primitive idea.
JKB: Yeah, absolutely. That's it. For me, it's the resignation to the savage within. Cultures have gone down and rebuilt again and I'm sure we're all facing the same level of extinction. Bloodshed is what it's always been and it's still going on now. The savagery being committed in so-called fucking advanced, when you look and see a fucking children's hospital bombed in fucking Gaza you feel like fucking vomiting. These are advanced people. These are fucking, you're fucking savages, man. You're disgusting. You're as disgusting as people were that were doing this in World War II, World War I, in fucking Vietnam, Pol Pot, and all the way down the line. For me, they're still absolutely savages looking for any excuse for bloodshed. I catch myself with my own moments of bloodlust and anger and hatred. Yeah. It's succumbing to the atavistic being, that lineage all the way from the dirt and still just being a sword-wielding fucking caveman.
Pitchfork: I never really thought of Godflesh as a political band. People use the term "a lifer," someone who came from punk and doing death metal and grindcore and sort of sticking this out for the long haul, in a way that, in and of itself, is a political or punk act. Do you ever think of Godflesh in that sense or your musical projects in general that you've sort of stuck and stayed the course and committed to a certain way of life based around underground music?
JKB: To some extent, but I always fear dogma. I don't like anything that's dogmatic because it becomes purely religious again and I despise any form of organized religion. But I do still, relative to that, consider myself a very spiritual being. I fear being seen as political in any context because it's so limiting, but I do feel Godflesh is a protest music of sorts. That was the background that I came from, discovering Crass when I was such a young kid and being led to Throbbing Gristle and so on. But also the recognition of manners, of being a flawed creation. I always felt at odds, politically, with people, and with any group of people that congregate and declare themselves as some sort of movement. It's usually motivated by wishing to dominate other people.
Pitchfork: So with this whole overall worldview and aesthetic, is that why you decided to release it on your own label instead of shopping it around to other labels?
JKB: Absolutely. I mean, after so many years of varying interests and relationships with record labels...we started off with some very bad relationships, which pretty much dogged most of Godflesh's early career, if not the entirety of its early career. I think we've become so disenchanted with record labels...I had some lovely experiences as well, mostly in the last 10, 15 years, with many people who I trust and whose intentions have been entirely honorable.
But it seemed that having this career this long, and understanding how this industry works so well, it would be foolish for people like myself to give this to record labels. When really, in this day and age, when the industry's so diminished anyway, and there's nowhere near the amount of money in it as there was 15 years ago. We're about as DIY as it gets. Which is honoring what we come from, honoring what we intended to do, and honoring the punk background that I had. And why I thought records should be made, even as a kid. I had a cassette label in 1983, 1984, which released Power Electronics, my own stuff, the early material, totally inspired by the way Crass Records was, and Industrial Records by Throbbing Gristle, and inspired by bands like Whitehouse and their label, Ramleh and their label. These were DIY labels. I knew, then, as a 13, 14 year old, that these larger labels should be the enemy, ultimately.
They're run by fucking accountants and bank managers, and what do these fuckers have to do with music except reaping the dividends of it, you know what I mean? I was explaining this to someone the other day, and I was talking to someone quite conservative, a metal interview, but they were really shocked. The entire...They asked me on every level, and it was rhetorical questions, but it was like they almost couldn't believe it. They're like, "You engineer your own records?" "Yeah." "You produce your own records?" "Yeah. "In your own studio?" "Yeah." And then they were like, "But you design all your record sleeves?" "Yeah." "You make all the photos yourself?" "Yeah." They're like, "But it's on your own record label?" "Yeah!" [laughs.]
And it's like, there isn't anyone else in this equation, but it isn't necessary to have anyone else in this equation. It's got that far where I manage most of our own tours now. And that's just begun because you don't need someone else to translate for you.
It's as simple as that. I've got a young son who's three years old, and I'm trying to balance ten zillion projects at the same time. Often people say, "Oh man, employ someone else." And I'm like, no, because it won't get done right. And they're like, "No, it's just that in your opinion it won't get done right." And I'm like, that's enough though, isn't it, really?
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 installment, we spoke with 44-year-old Mary Timony, formerly of Helium and Wild Flag, and currently of Ex Hex, which releases its debut album Rips this week via Merge.
I have fond memories playing with the neighborhood kids where I grew up in Washington, D.C., and my earliest musical memory is my dad listening to "American Pie". I didn't get the lyrics—"What does ‘the Chevy to a levee’ mean? And what's 'whiskey and rye'?"—but I remember riding my tricycle around thinking about those words, like, “Wow, there's this whole world of adult stuff that I don't understand.” But I still knew the song was really sad and heavy because it had to do with death and music dying. It's the first memory I have of music really affecting me.
I was obsessed with Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown, and there was a bunch of Blondie on the radio around that time, actually—"Call Me", "The Tide Is High", "Rapture"—along with John Lennon’s "Starting Over", Rick Springfield’s "Jessie's Girl", the Go-Go’s "We Got the Beat". I was also obsessed with this radio station called Q107 in D.C., and I would listen to it every night before going to bed because they had this show called "The Top 10 at 10". I was really fascinated that it was a competition, and that some songs could be better than others. I would call all of my classmates, and make my own charts about what songs they liked, and bring it to school. But no one was ever as interested in it as I was. It was sad!
That's the year I went to my first punk rock show. It was kind of a big year. I lived down the street from Ian MacKaye's dad, so when I was little, my family was friends with the MacKaye family, and we used to play together. When I was a teenager, my mom told me that Ian and Alec MacKaye were in these punk rocks bands and that Alec dyed his hair with leopard spots, which I thought was really cool, but I didn't know anything about punk rock.
But when I turned 15, my friends were like, "There's this really cool thing going on. These kids are having these shows in community centers, and we should go check them out." So I went to my first punk rock show around January of '85. It was right after the period in D.C. that was called "Revolution Summer"— a vibrant time in the hardcore community here. This show happened to be at the Chevy Chase Community Center, and it was Rites of Spring and Beefeater. That totally changed my life, and after that, I went to every punk show that was going on and hung out with punk kids. I was super into that scene. But my favorite band from that time was Rites of Spring, and it still is.
By the time I was 19, my friend Christina Billotte and I had started a band, and we were starting to play out. We met at a show, and she was like, "Hey, I heard you play guitar. Do you want to jam?" I feel so lucky that she was the first person I started playing music with because she's such a genius. I'm still such a huge fan of her music. So around this time, I was playing in Autoclave, but it was weird because I was also in college in Boston. We only played shows when I was at home for the summer or for Christmas.
I had a cassette of The Velvet Underground in my car and I went on this road trip with a friend at the time. Driving back from California, we listened to that tape basically every day for three weeks. That record changed the way I thought of music completely. And later, when I heard it on a turntable, I realized that the cassette player in my car was playing everything really slowly—there was something even more subversive about it that way.
Helium had just recorded The Dirt of Luck and we were just doing our thing. I think we were kind of spacey, to be honest. We spent a lot of time recording The Dirt of Luck, and I like how it came out, but in terms of touring, I was a dumb kid who was just like, "Touring's really hard! I don't want to do it that much." In retrospect, we really should have done it more. But we were lazy. [laughs]
There were a lot of bands in Boston at that time; I think we shared our practice space with Juliana Hatfield and Letters to Cleo. [Helium bassist] Ash [Bowie] was also in Polvo, and their album Celebrate the New Dark Age came out the same year as The Dirt of Luck. That record is a masterpiece of ‘90s guitar music. I loved it. Ash is one of the best guitar players there is, and not a lot of people really know it because he doesn't play out a lot. I learned a lot from Ash and tried to emulate his style in my own music.
Helium had broken up, and I had done one solo record, Mountains, and I was getting ready to do The Golden Dove. It was a bit of a dark year for me, actually, and those records reflect that. They're just miserable records about being depressed. At the time I was just using my songs as diary entries: "This is all the stuff that's going on in my brain, I'm going to put it in a song." It was kinda therapeutic, but I didn't see it that way. It just seemed normal. [laughs] I went back to them recently, and I was like, "Oh my god, I can't believe I had the balls to say all that stuff in a public place!" Super raw. At some point in my life I'll be glad I made them, but I can't listen to them now. I'm in such a different place.
I was listening to a lot of stuff around then, but I was super into Can and was going back into '70s English punk stuff like the Adverts. I went to the beach outside of Boston with a friend every Wednesday during one summer. It'd take 45 minutes to get there, and I'd listen to the Slits’ Cut on a cassette a lot in that car. Everything's just so different about it. The rhythms are so interesting, and the lyrics are really great and funny, and the guitar playing is crazy.
Around this time, I moved down to D.C. to record with [Fugazi drummer] Brendan Canty, one of my friends from when I was a kid. When I was growing up, Marion Barry, the mayor of D.C. at the time, put on these summer youth programs where you would get paid minimum wage to do activities, and one of the activities was “play in a band in a church basement.” [laughs] A lot of people who ended up being in bands in D.C. were in that youth program, and I met Brendan Canty through that. So I came down here and started recording [2005 album Ex Hex] with Brendan and Devin Ocampo at Inner Ear Studios. I like that record a lot—it's probably my favorite solo record that I did. I moved back into the house I live in now, which is the house I lived in with my family until I was 5.
The record that I thought of for this age was another one I had on cassette in my car—Richard Hell and the Voidoids' Blank Generation. I listened to that record over and over for a year, every day. Then I started reading all of Richard Hell's writing, too.
I was in a band at the time called Soft Power, and we opened for the Raincoats on my 40th birthday. It was mindblowing to play with them because I'm just such a superfan: It's not often that you see women over 50 playing rock music, and that meant a lot to me.
I've been pretty involved in teaching here in D.C. for about 8 years now, and I make sure to put all the kids I teach in bands. A bunch of them have kept going, and now they're playing their own shows, and I'm recording them, and I'm a fan of their bands. They write really cool songs. It's been very fulfilling.
Photos by John Michael Fulton
Lydia Ainsworth's pop experiments sound like they’re made for big screens. Close your eyes while listening to her recent debut, Right From Real, and the considerable power of her orchestral strings, horns, and dense, wordless harmonies transports you to a dark cinema, where surreal images tumble like falling skies, and it’s not quite clear what comes next.
So it makes sense that the Toronto-based Ainsworth is a composer of film scores who studied at both McGill University in Montreal and New York University, where she finished graduate school in 2012. At McGill, she once composed a Philip Glass-inspired score for a 50-piece orchestra; at NYU, she studied with Joan La Barbara, a pioneer of extended vocal technique who sung for John Cage, Steve Reich, and Judy Chicago. It was La Barbara who encouraged Ainsworth to sing on the film scores she was making, which she did for the first time in 2011. That same year, when a friend asked Ainsworth to perform at a party, she began writing her own songs in earnest. "I didn't have any material," Ainsworth explains of that first Brooklyn gig, "so I wrote a couple of songs and got a little orchestra together." Those songs, "White Shadows" and "Candle", became the seeds of Right From Real.
A self-described perfectionist, Ainsworth spent two years creating her debut LP. Owing to the record’s meditative quality, Ainsworth would take her demos and walk with them for hours around her Bushwick neighborhood, near the Montrose L train, over the Williamsburg bridge and back, clearing her mind to find perspective. She was inspired by "the notion that the impossible is possible, and is all around if you only look hard enough," searching for a middle ground between beauty and terror. The resulting collection has the appeal of pop eccentrics like Kate Bush or Bat for Lashes, if refracted through the skewed kaleidoscope of her label, Montreal's Arbutus Records, which released early work from a kindred spirit, Grimes.
Ainsworth grew up playing the cello with an interest in composing. Working on scores, she used banks of hypothetical instruments to make soundscapes and, in the process, became proficient in programming electronic music. Though most of the sounds on Right From Real are synthetic—including the horn section and the boys' choir—she recorded her own cello parts and also culled sounds from her scrapbook of orchestral samples, recorded at sessions for her film scores. Ainsworth's background also connected her with filmmaker friend Matthew Lessner—she scored his 2011 film The Woods, about "hipsters who move to the woods to start a utopian society"—and he ultimately contributed Right From Real's cover photograph and penned half the lyrics. The collaborations befit Ainsworth's grandiose vision. She often brings dancers (and, recently, a snake) onstage, and talks casually about drawing inspiration from 17th-century baroque artist Guido Cagnacci, along with Giuseppe Verdi's liturgical requiem, avant-garde icon Meredith Monk, and the workings of dream logic.
We spoke while Ainsworth was in Montreal, fine-tuning the live arrangements for her string players before heading to Ottawa to open for Owen Pallett.
Pitchfork: You said once that you'd like your music to feel like "shivers caused from a lucid dream." What do you mean by that?
Lydia Ainsworth: My aim with music is to offer an alternative experience. I'm always aiming to tap into a different spectrum of feeling—one that allows you to use all of your perceptions—and chasing the feeling of magic and aliveness and of seeing things a little differently.
Pitchfork: Were there any specific dreams that inspired Right From Real?
LA: It wasn't one particular dream, although I did have a really intense dream during a surgery, which was like an out-of-body experience. I was having my appendix out and was on morphine, smack in the middle of writing the album. I can’t say what happened in the dream, it’s really private. But after that, I was drawn to these paintings by the baroque artist Guido Cagnacci. He painted all of these iconic women on the brink of death—Joan of Arc, Cleopatra. The women had these blissful, serene expressions, and yet, they were amid such dark and horrifying conditions. The juxtaposition of blissful serenity and haunting terror was something I could relate to. They really inspired my vocal production.
Pitchfork: What’s the significance of the album’s cover?
LA: Matthew [Lessner] took the photo in Colorado and sent it to me at the beginning of my writing process. It was my screensaver for a long time. I was drawn to it because it's all birch trees, and I grew up singing to a birch tree in my front garden. You know how birch trees have black lines drawn into the white bark, like faces? I would make up songs and sing to the face outside my window. I loved this photo for that reason—I would look at these birch trees on my computer and sing to them. Singing has always been a huge part of my life.
Pitchfork: You were also interested in Bulgarian singing when you were working on the album, right?
LA: Yeah, I found a CD at the McGill library of field recordings from Sofia, in Bulgaria. They were mostly three-part vocal harmonies and they blew my mind. I loved the close harmonies and the power of the singing style, the texture. I was just watching YouTubes all the time, trying to emulate the style while living in New York. It's a very loud, strong way to sing—I was pissing all my neighbors off. I had a lot of banging on doors.
Pitchfork: You played the cello from a young age. Did that influence the music you make now?
LA: The cello is the instrument of the orchestra that is most closely aligned with the human voice—it’s so expressive and has such a range of emotion. It definitely influenced the way I write melodies. The Elgar Cello Concerto is the most beautiful melody to me. I was so obsessed with it growing up.
Pitchfork: Did you listen to a lot of classical music when you were younger?
LA: Definitely. Mostly pieces with really strong melodic lines. I loved Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Mozart. But I listened to a lot of pop, too. I loved Madonna, Ace of Base, and Spice Girls, and also Peter Gabriel, Tom Petty, and Björk.
Pitchfork: What made you interested in studying film scoring?
LA: I was studying composition at McGill but didn't connect with the academic side of composing. I'm a lover of melody, and the kind of music we were pushed to write almost rejected any sense of melody. I felt more at home when I was collaborating with filmmakers. I had an opportunity to attend this program for film scoring where we got to score a short clip of a film with a 50-piece orchestra. It was this very cheesy Hollywood blockbuster that I'll never remember, a scene from an action movie with a bulldozer crushing a city, like a poor man's X-Men. But I had never written for live instruments before. It had only been in theory, writing scores on paper and never hearing the results. When I had the opportunity to write for an enormous orchestra and hear it back, it was the most powerful experience.
Pitchfork: What was your piece like?
LA: I was really inspired by Philip Glass' score for the film Koyaanisqatsi. That was my introduction to minimalism, and also a reason I was really into film scoring at the time. I was also really into Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock's collaborations. It’s like a mix of the two.
Pitchfork: Of the films scores you've made, do you have a favorite?
LA: I’ve scored a lot of experimental films that haven’t had a lot of visibility. My favorite was one called Island to Island, which was this amazing found footage video of the Staten Island Ferry, moving from Manhattan to Staten Island, in one long take. There was a beautiful shot of the Twin Towers in it. It's the first film score that I used my voice in.
Pitchfork: Are there any other film scores that made an especially profound impression the music you're making now?
LA: I loved the Peter Greenaway/Michael Nyman collaborations for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Thomas Newman’s score for American Beauty was inspiring to me as a kid. Of course, Wendy Carlos’ A Clockwork Orange—the film wouldn't exist without the score, and vice-versa. On the album, I wasn’t just inspired by film music, but in wanting to become a film score composer.
Pitchfork: Your live shows seem to have a lot going on visually, including dancers, an orchestra section, and I heard you had a snake onstage recently.
LA: I love how the visual aspect can bring a heightened level of experience to the viewer. It's something I want to develop for future shows. I went to an arts high school and had a lot of friends who were in the dance program and we would collaborate. I really enjoy the energy created by having another performer onstage.
Pitchfork: I really like the style of dancing in your video for "Malachite".
LA: I was blown away by the choreography of this woman Princess Lockeroo. She’s a world-renowned waacker, and I knew I wanted to have that style of dancing, which originated in 1970s L.A. and is all about hand and arm movements picking up on the intricacies of the music. I discovered Princess Lockeroo because she was teaching at a dance school I was attending. I’ve never taken a waacking class though, I was taking African dancing.
I drew inspiration for the song "Malachite" from Verdi's requiem—the choral interjections and general vibe. I love requiems, and that one in particular was a true cathartic experience. It's a really theatrical requiem and is beautiful and haunting, just like those paintings I mentioned. It has that juxtaposition of elements I was drawn to.
Pitchfork: The filmmaker Matthew Lessner wrote some of the album's lyrics. Do you still consider the songs to be autobiographical?
LA: Matthew wrote half the lyrics, but musically, I'm drawing from highly personal emotional places within. I'm also sometimes singing from the perspective of a character outside of myself. On "Malachite", I'm singing as a little boy who is telecommunicating—I pictured myself as Danny from The Shining.
Matthew and I never really discussed the meaning behind the lyrics. All I know about the lyrics to "Hologram" is that they are about a recurring dream he had, in which the world is ending. That really resonated with me, after having my out-of-body experience; it was something I could latch onto and incorporate into the melody I'd written. And he's had this dream before, so he knows that everything is going to be OK.
Pitchfork: What about the juxtaposition of manipulated electronics and big orchestral strings is appealing to you?
LA: I was experimenting with Logic, and it was a natural instinctive progression. I started with this notion of wanting everything to be sounds that came from me only. I had just read a manifesto by this composer Matthew Herbert that outlines how you should write a piece of music. And it was like, "You should only have sounds or real instruments that you've created." The manifesto also says that you can break it at any time, which I definitely did. [laughs] But that was a nice framework to begin with.
Pitchfork: Manifestos that allow you to break them are the ones that hold up.
LA: It's true. Those are the best ones.
A1 “Last Night”
In the same way that images from pop culture can present you with a degree of seeming familiarity with New York City without ever actually stepping in a Chinatown puddle, waiting in vain for the 7 train, or inhaling the steam rising out from a manhole cover in Midtown, I knew about David Mancuso’s The Loft before I knew anything about The Loft. At the turn of the century, a tip on a message board from New York DJ Dan Selzer mentioned that the best way to hear the music of a neglected dance producer named Arthur Russell would be via a compilation called David Mancuso Presents the Loft. Situated in the heart of Texas at the time, I special ordered the set from a CD store, waited three weeks for it to arrive, and then experienced a strain of leftfield disco far removed from the “Jammin’ Oldies” rotation. The fact that The Loft parties were ground zero for modern dance music was an epiphany, as was learning that Mancuso’s intent involved reenacting the joys of childhood—early fliers often depicted scenes from “The Little Rascals”—to frame a sense of innocent wonder amid the dangerous climes of NYC in the early 1970s.
Within a year, I was in the city myself, but it would be almost a decade before I experienced The Loft in the flesh. Recently, Mancuso’s Loft resurfaced in two different ways. New York’s long-running Beats in Space radio show invited Douglas Sherman (who now helms The Loft parties, thrown semi-annually at the Ukrainian National Home) and The Loft Crew into the studio for a live mix. And out at MoMA PS1, the West Village-based White Columns Gallery hosted a party for the release of visual artist Martin Beck’s new book, Last Night.
It’s not your typical art book. Across 118 pages typed up in Helvetica font, Beck presents a list of all the records that Mancuso played the night of the last Loft party, at 99 Prince Street, on June 2, 1984. “I came upon the so-called Prince Street Reels, a tape recording of the party from that night, so I started to collect the songs and listen to them in sequence,” Beck tells me a few days later. “It struck me as a timely document of a changing environment in mid 1984, as something very pleasurable in the midst of massive change: the growing AIDS crisis, gentrification in SoHo, digitization of music, etc.”
It took 13 hours to play through the songs listed in Last Night, which range from Strafe’s “Set It Off” to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang #5” (a classic Arthur Russell disco production) to the entire side of a Pat Metheny album. Each page of Last Night is not unlike a Discogs entry, listing the runtime, production credits, record label, and year of release. Sure enough, a copy of the book was set up near the turntables as Beck and others played each selection in order while turning the pages.
Beck’s re-assembling of Mancuso’s set is a much easier task today than it might have been even 10 years ago. The experiment started out simply enough, he says: “I wanted to hear the songs in sequence on a good sound system in a room with other people and see what happens.” His expectations were also set low: “A recreation would be impossible, given the specificity of The Loft parties, so the event was conceived as a listening session with the option to dance.”
Last Night’s 13-hour dance party won’t soon be mistaken for a night at the original Loft. The disco ball was about a tenth of the normal size, there was no balloon drop, and the two speakers set up in PS1’s Print Shop didn’t quite achieve the same transportive effect as a battery of painstakingly tuned Klipschorn floorstanding behemoths. The revelers weren’t Loft regulars executing wild dance moves, but rather mostly art kids with their tote bags wiggling, a few politely applauding after each unmixed selection. Even so, there were moments when a wormhole could open on these songs—during the skipping electro-soca beat of Eddy Grant’s “California Style” (page 81), or the extended cavernous percussion break of Risco Connection’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” (page 99), for instance—making the passing of time irrelevant.
A2 “A Night at Mangiami’s”
Though Dan Selzer has had a hand in everything from running Acute Records, to releasing mix CDs as Crazy Rhythms, to designing cover art for the epochal Metro Area album, last month’s Strategies EP for Golf Channel Recordings, under the moniker New York Endless, marks his first solo effort. The three-track release is a nuanced beauty, with sidelong closer “Benefits Arrive, Life Goes On” absorbing Kraftwerk’s “Europe Endless” and reconfiguring it in the image of Gotham: Italo, krautrock, house, and disco all blended together.
Golf Channel also released three singles that pay tribute to an inauspicious part of 21st century NYC nightlife: the Lower East Side eatery Mangiami. For 8 years, it was a casual hangout spot for DJs and the like—on Monday nights, you could run into any assortment of folks, from DJ Harvey to Beats in Space host Tim Sweeney. It was a casual spot where DJs who command stages throughout Europe might come to spin anything ranging from the early dancehall of King Kong to Loleatta Holloway’s epic “Catch Me on the Rebound”. If the party really took off after all the dinner dishes were cleared, patrons would navigate a neck-breaking set of stairs to the basement, where things could stretch to the wee hours. These near-anonymous disco edits showcase such eclecticism, from teasing out dusty disco cuts to greater lengths to—in the case of one side—making an argument that even Waylon Jennings could make a damn fine song for dancing.
B1 “Campfire at Night”
Camp Lakota is spelled out in split wood along a fence, and from behind the dark of trees emanates a telltale throb of bass. It’s the inaugural edition of the Sustain-Release Festival, two nights of camping, techno-dancing, basketball-playing, pool-partying, bunk-bedding, and vinyasa-flowing upstate in the middle of September. The event was put together by Aurora Halal and Zara Wladawsky, two Brooklyn residents and underground dance music revelers. Halal curates the roving dance party Mutual Dreaming and Wladawsky is a buyer for dance music mecca Halcyon. And even though this is the first iteration of the fest, featuring primarily tri-state area acts like Ital, Joey Anderson, Bryan Kasenic from the Bunker, Blondes, and Jus-Ed, it replicates the giddy thrill of being set in the unknown, of mingling with other strange, awkward kids, of being far from the city, of well… being at camp. And even better, being at the camp from an episode of “Full House”.
“Everyone has a soft spot for camp, with its soft and fuzzy memories of childhood,” Wladawsky says, to which Halal adds: “I also went to Bard for college, so being upstate is really special. It’s just a magical place to me.” Both tell me that their primary memories of electronic music occurred not in smoke-filled clubs or warehouse parties, but in secluded parties set away from the city.
Halal raves about one party in particular, thrown at a friend’s hand-built stone house set amidst an apple orchard outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania about 7 years ago. “It was not like a rave, more of a 80-person sleepover weekend,” she says. “That weekend introduced me to the culture of dance music via this very specific and personal thread. What really stuck with me was the sense of freedom and community that comes with setting up a temporary autonomous zone.”
Wladawsky, meanwhile, was born in the city but grew up in the UK. As a teenager, she cut her teeth on smaller festivals, going to see Optimo in Glasgow, and then about 6 years ago, she was invited to Freerotation Festival, a “700-capacity music festival in Wales that’s members only,” she says. “It’s all about family and this sense of community. I want people to have that here in New York, something that really moved me and really changed my life for the better.”
At Camp Lakota, in the hall designated as the Bossa stage, there’s a stack of tumble mats and a hung hand-painted sign that enthuses: “Welcome to Gymnastics.” Flag-shaped painted art panels span from 1976 to the recently-wrapped 2014 summer season. Wandering from Bossa to the Main stage involves strolling down a wooded path and then crossing a basketball court, bass thumps replaced by the intermittent dribbles and yips of pickup games played by girls in peasant dresses and crossing-guard vests.
Techno is the fare on both stages, and as the night extends into the wee hours, the beats begin to blur together, each act taking on the quality of light. Joey Anderson’s excellent DJ set has bands of red light jagging across the screen behind him while Clay Wilson’s hard techno features a red light focused to the intensity of a laser. Blondes are aglow in pointillist dots of red and blue which switch to long lines of white as their set wears on. On another stage, the trio Forma have a broad swath of white light that swoops through the crowd—dancers put their hands through the plane, a spectrum of all colors revealed on their fingers. Outside in the dark of the country night, I find that I’m more acutely aware of such illumination: a patch of red and blue where tree roots jut up; a string of lights through the tree branches that gently shine on the path; and in the canteen, homemade lamps make the light overhead breathe, dimming and brightening.
“I feel like electronic music is so abstract and requires a lot of concentration and relaxation,” Halal says, adding that after Sustain-Release’s inaugural success, it will return to the woods again next year. “You have to be fully in the mood in order to go on that psychedelic inner-journey.” For Wladawsky, being far from New York City allows for certain parts of the psychic shell to fall away: “You just leave yourself. You shed your urban skin and all the distractions, including your reception on your phone.”
At one point, I lament having no service and look up, as if to find some distant satellite. After so much time in the city that doesn’t sleep, I suddenly realize the stars and waning moon, luminescent and brilliant in the night.
In October 1994, Mosaic Communications Corp. released a beta version of what would become popularly known as Netscape Navigator. The Internet had, of course, existed in some form for about three decades already, but with the advent of Netscape, it effectively went mainstream, transforming from a shadowy, text-based network of academics and BBS nerds into an easily accessible, visually enriched, all-encompassing digital universe that forever changed the way we kill time, research for term papers, consume pornography, and, of course, acquire music.
To mark this point of no return in the evolution of humanity, we asked various artists about their earliest experiences with the Internet: where they accessed it, what they searched for, how it inspired their future pursuits, and whether they had any sense of the overwhelming impact it would have on our lives. In particular, we surveyed musicians who are old enough to remember life in the analog age—and for whom that first click was as momentous as their first kiss (or as underwhelming as their first time having sex).
Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham
Remember The Anarchist Cookbook? In the early days of me having a computer at home, it was all about going on BBSes to find these recipes to make bombs and weapons. I tried maybe two of them, and then realized that it was decidedly out of my league. It was a pre-September 11th world, much more innocent. The acquisition of bomb-making materials was all childhood fun—no FBI to be worried about back then!
But once I got into punk rock, I stopped with the acquisition of anarchy files. I heard Timojhen Mark, who owned [punk distribution hub] Vacuum, was having an auction to sell off all his records. So I went online, and it was a virtual representation of every Want List I could ever imagine at that age. But these records were all going for exorbitant prices, so I would go on the Internet every lunch hour at my school library and just look. At that point, a lot of the Internet’s appeal for me was about the exoticism of just being able to look at these records that I could never acquire. At the end of the day, the Internet is all about whatever kind of pornography you happen to be interested in. For me, it was record porn; if I only knew how accessible all those records would ultimately become.
It was 1996 and I was at the house I grew up in Baltimore; we had an Apple computer with a dial-up modem, and I discovered a fan message site for Pavement. That was the only thing I went on there for until college. It definitely gave me an early glimpse into the world of Internet opinions, and people’s self-importance—the feeling that people just want to say everything online that they can’t say in reality. That said, I did manage to meet a few cool, like-minded folks out there, but I never met them in person. For me, there’s always been this discrepancy between what happens in reality and what happens online.
I was 17 or 18—old enough to have fully loved and lived in the era of paper letter-writing—so I wasn’t entirely taken by the Internet and its novelty of not having to lick a stamp, or not having the chance to make a collage and wait a week to have a friend see it. When I moved away from my hometown, a friend suggested we “email,” and it was the first time I heard the word. I remember not understanding where I was supposed to get these “emails.” The computer wasn’t yet something that went anywhere—it was a big huge grey box on my dad’s desk. I actually cherish those memories of absolutely not fathoming what was supposed to be happening. The same goes for the first time I used a cellphone and had an out-of-body sci-fi experience.
I was on a friend’s home computer, and they had Prodigy, which was the first version of the Internet available to the public. I hated it. It looked like a super-slow, shitty videogame where nothing happened. The next time I really used the Internet was when the only thing we all knew about was AOL; I remember feeling like it was painfully slow, but that email was pretty fuckin’ cool. I kept checking to see if someone had sent me an email, which was rare. Now, I would give anything to escape the 20,000 unread emails in my inbox. I also remember it taking about five minutes to load a JPEG of a naked woman and thinking, “This will forever delay the way I masturbate.”
Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer
I went to a guy's loft at Brown University in Providence to smoke weed with my bud, and he showed us a Metallica chat room. Shortly thereafter, that same guy burned me my first golden CD-R. Two things about that day: 1) People talk about everything but Metallica in Metallica chat rooms and 2) People type horrid things when there are no consequences. It was pretty cool.
I was on a Final Fantasy-like quest for rare, unearthed records and had to collect them all. I still download lots of obscure music, and porn. Thank you, Internet, for making me crazy. I can’t see straight and I know everybody's personal business now!
I first used the Internet in 2001. My girlfriend at the time helped me pick out a Sony laptop because I was releasing a book in Portugal and needed to put my lyrics in Word documents to send to the publisher. My neighbor Lisa came over to help me set up an email account. From that point on, I’ve never used the Internet for anything other than email and Word documents; the Internet has not dominated my life in any way. I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, any of it. I don’t even have a smartphone. I write music, I record, I tour, I deposit checks. Fuck everything else.
Do you remember your first time using the internet?
Where were you?
My office in Austin, Texas
How did you access it?
What did you search for?
What was your first impression?
In college, I had to sign up for an .edu email as part of my class work, and I thought it was a total waste of time. I probably even called it a fad. It wasn't until Thursday played a record-release show for Full Collapse, in 2001, that I saw a glimpse of the future. The whole crowd knew every lyric to every song on the record, which hadn’t yet been available in any format at all. When I asked kids how they knew it, they said, “We downloaded the record on the Internet.” I was baffled.
In the late ‘90s, when indie labels started offering MP3s on the Internet, I would sit at my desk at work—I was a secretary—and go to each label site and spend 15 minutes downloading each song, because the bandwidth was so slow. I would stare at the downloads all day. Then, I would spend an hour burning the songs onto a CD for my Discman. It all took forever—but I was more appreciative of the songs since it took so long to get them.
I heard about web browsing from my younger brother—he was in a Ph.D program in the sciences, and the Internet was the kind of thing he knew about and I didn’t, like gene-splicing. My first career in music with Galaxie 500 had already had its up and downs via zines, postcards, and ultimately faxes from booking agents, record companies, and lawyers—no email in sight. Naomi and I started publishing at Exact Change that way, too—with an IBM typewriter, an exacto knife, and the local copy shop as our back office. Once we got our first Macintosh, the advantages to publishing were obvious and immediate; we knew right away it would only be a matter of time before we would be typesetting and designing our books this way. But for our music? It never occurred to me that it would play a role. I guess that’s why we're not venture capitalists. Actually, I don’t think we’re even capitalists.
My first experience with music online was listening to "Incorrect Music" with Irwin Chusid and Michelle Boulé on the RealPlayer WFMU archives in 1998. Still the best.
Metz’s Hayden Menzies
Before the Internet, I used to rack up huge phone bills at my parents’ house booking tours—thanks, mom and dad! The best resource available at the time was this zine/analog database called Book Your Own Fucking Life. It had listings for venues, bookers, promoters, bands, labels, and squats all across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. It was basically a version of the Internet without all the trolls.
Photo by Ashley Frangie
In high school, we had an actual class about what a search engine was, and I thought it was bullshit. I was a bit of a Luddite and wrote my college essay about how computers were ultimately going to ruin the world. I have since changed my tune.
At home, we had AOL dial-up that you plugged into the landline. At first, a sibling used it it to trade crispy bootlegs of a jam band that I will refrain from naming. But the best use of the early Internet for me was that I could stop buying Guitar Player for the Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin tabs: I was really excited to find so many songs at my fingertips as people started to upload tablature. The Internet not only gave us access to any song, but also how to play them—the democratization of the secret blueprints that make up all the songs we love. We take that for granted now, but it was like being handed the keys to the candy store as a teen.
When I was a teenager, I’d go to this Bone Thugs-N-Harmony fan site where you could hear weird bootlegs and rare recordings of Bone Thugs and their collaborations, strange verses, and remixes that never made it on a record. I remember having to use RealPlayer to listen to all these things in the worst quality, but I was such a fan that it didn’t matter at all. I would be the most excited kid ever after spending 45 minutes downloading a song.
Pallbearer’s Joseph D. Rowland
My initial experience with music online was still old-school in theory. I was getting more into underground music and was living in a pretty rural area, where top speeds for Internet usage were still 28k dial-up. So I would seek out music from online distros and order things completely unheard, just based off descriptions, like the old days—just making blind buys from Robotic Empire and No Idea Records in particular. There were a few instances of actually taking a couple of hours to download songs, like a preview of “Scimitar” off of Floor’s self-titled record, and I was totally blown away. It was life-changing.
I was way behind the curve. I did not care about the world wide web or anyone on it for a long time. I felt it was a waste of time and energy. I am a caveman, a Luddite. I prefer sticks, rocks, and shiny things to the written word. I like to build furniture and musical instruments using old hand tools; I spend hours in junk shops around the world searching for obsolete woodworking tools.
But in a move that altered my life forever, my friend Damon the horse doctor showed me eBay around 2000. Holy shit—so this is the Internet? OK! I was on a tool-buying spree that would possess me for a couple of years. I would look at little pictures of these rusty gems and then, 10 days later, they would arrive in the mail. So thrilling. I was finding the finest planes, saws, and chisels from 19th and early 20th century Europe, America, Japan. I finally got a grip and decided I was in danger of becoming a hoarder.
A few years later—let’s say 2008—I was on tour with Shearwater and sitting in the back of the van, where I did a lot of drawing and reading. I decided to write a bossy list of rules [about being on the road] using a grouchy, curmudgeonly voice I usually reserve for inner dialogue. Jordan Geiger from Hospital Ships helped write the list. I emailed it to maybe 10 people thinking they would find it amusing; one of them found a naked picture of me with a sword covering my naughty thing on the Internet, attached that picture to the list, put it up on his blog, and boom! Within a week, people were telling me they had read the list and thought it was funny everywhere we went, including countries where they mostly don’t speak English.
I hoped the list would slowly make the rounds among traveling musicians, but this thing was a meme almost overnight! And at a time when I was still barely an Internet user. Go fuckin’ figure!
Japandroids’ Brian King
The first music website I ever used was AllMusic. You could see all of a band’s records, and because they were ranked, you could say, “Oh, maybe this is the first one I should get.” But the feature I really remember using was their recommendations—“If you like Neil Young, you might like Townes Van Zandt or Tom Waits.” That was a good resource for discovery in those days, because I came from a small town—if you discovered one band, there was no way to find out about the 10 other bands from their scene. We’re kind of force-fed music suggestions on the Internet now, but back in 2000, that instantaneous exposure to a whole bunch of new stuff was remarkable.
Caribou’s Dan Snaith
My father was a math professor and, due to the largesse of academic grants—and the lack of things other than computers that mathematicians can buy with them—we had the Internet at our house before anyone else I knew. I was 16 and I’d been familiar with email for a while—I earned my pocket money before I was 10 sending out emails about mathematics conferences for my dad on a computer with a black-and-orange monochrome monitor. But starting up Netscape and being able to look for anything I liked was a revelation. The only problem was, I couldn’t think of anything to search for.
I remember the first time I used the Internet just following links for different categories rather than searching. Not surprisingly, I followed the “Music” links and ended up at Rolling Stone’s nascent website. The pages were very slow to load, and I’m not sure there was much content on there at that point, but still: being able to turn on a computer and connect to the latest news in the world of music was a big deal to a boy like me, stuck out in the country without a drivers license.
The Vaselines’ Frances McKee
The first time someone gave me their email address, I had no idea what to do with it, but I was intrigued. It was September 1997, and it was at the end of a yoga retreat I was attending. The gentleman who gave it to me had ulterior motives, and it took a while to shake that dog off my ankles. Anyway. My computer at the time made quite a large humming noise and it didn’t actually do very much. Then, technology developed much faster than my brain, but the turning point came when I bought a Mac laptop with GarageBand. I put my Tascam four-track to the side and had some great fun with my new toy. As luck would have it, Eugene [Kelly] and I started writing [the Vaselines’ 2010 album] Sex with an X. When we wrote Dum Dum [in 1989], we were pretty much in each other’s pockets. This time around, we only met up once a week, so Eugene started emailing his ideas. What was this sorcery? I could add his ideas to the songs we had recorded on GarageBand and—get this!—I could add my ideas and send it back. Holy crap! I still don’t take this for granted. But the best thing was I only had to see Eugene once a week.
My stepfather taught at the University of Toronto’s Erindale College, so he had a Commodore PET for work that I recall using as early as age 3, and a modem I was using at age 5. On top of that, my father, who was an entomologist, was a system operator for one of the main entomology BBSes in North America, which was called Ombus—the Latin term for bumblebee. So I had PCs in one house, Commodores in the other. My older brother got me into BBSes, and initially, when I was like 10, I was logging on to play Trade Wars or share pirated games, and then it was a lot of message-boarding about queer-support stuff, to be honest. I was growing up in the country, so it was useful and amazing to have this method of communicating with civilization. Message boards have always been my favorite mode of communication—I was Facebooking before you were born!
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s Conrad Keely
I was enrolled in a course at Evergreen State College called “Artists in Technoculture,” which gave students a taste of the future world to come. Required reading included William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and we learned how to use a very early version of Photoshop—2.0, maybe? At the time, the Internet was text-based, and we were introduced to something called “email.” I didn’t see the purpose of it, since the only people who’d read my email were students studying this “Internet” at other colleges. Two years later, I finally realized what the Internet really was for: looking up the unintelligible lyrics to my favorite early R.E.M. songs.
The Juan MacLean’s John MacLean
In 1995, my band Six Finger Satellite was about to embark on a big tour of Canada. Our manager had this idea that we would write a tour diary on a laptop, and it would be published on the Internet. I picked up the laptop and received a quick tutorial that thoroughly confused me. It was using a Unix operating system. I remember thinking it was all so complicated. I didn’t really see the point, and was sure there would be no way this Internet stuff would ever become popular. In retrospect, having us do that was a pretty visionary move.
Then, I kept hearing talk of how brick-and-mortar stores would soon be a thing of the past, that all shopping would be done online. I found this enormously depressing at the time. It seemed like a movement toward a terrible way of life. It all sounded like something out of a science-fiction movie, and if I could have glimpsed just 20 years into the future to see human beings willingly becoming commodified iPod docks, I would have been paralyzed with grief.
Photo © Harrison Family
Recently, Dhani Harrison was rehearsing “Let It Down”, from All Things Must Pass, when a member of his band told him he was playing his own father’s song wrong. “I was doing my own solo, not the one in the song, and he couldn't take it,” Dhani laughs. “And he was right! I was fudging the chords a bit. I sighed and said, ‘OK then, let's go back and figure it out.’”
Of all the impossible-to-recreate sounds made by the Beatles—Ringo’s drum fills, Paul’s bass lines—George Harrison’s lead guitar might be the most elusive. Even his own son has spent most of his life struggling to grasp its essence. “For most of my early life, I tried not to learn my father’s music,” Dhani says dryly. He’s joking, at least partly: He has spent years preserving, protecting, and archiving his father’s legacy, and he knows every note, down to which guitar played it. In September, he oversaw the remastering and reissuing of Harrison’s first six solo records, which were recently released on Capitol as The Apple Years: 1968-1975.
So if you are looking for someone to explain the near-mystical quality of George Harrison’s guitar playing—or at least grapple poetically with its spirit—Dhani is your best bet. “My father once said to me, ‘I play the notes you never hear,’” he remembers. “He focused on touch and control partly because he never thought he was any good, really. He knew he was good at smaller things: not hitting any off notes, not making strings buzz, not playing anything that would jar you. ‘Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,’ he would say. ‘I just play what's left.’”
I just play what's left. There probably isn’t a more self-effacing way to describe it. But Harrison’s playing, both in the Beatles and in his solo work, has always sounded this way, like whatever resounding truth remained after all else was exhausted; it is an inner music. Like a chess master who stares motionless at the board while the pieces move in his mind, Harrison’s hardest work always happened before he began playing, as he painstakingly arranged and rearranged chord shapes: In her foreword to his memoir I, Me, Mine, Olivia Harrison fondly remembers her husband writing at home, one ear cocked to the side, endlessly working and reworking chord formations.
“He looked very hard for the notes that were most suggestive of the whole,” Dhani says, offering something close to a defining philosophy behind that rounded, softly glowing tone. There is something almost metaphysical about its loneliness. His lead guitar was never a “lead” in a traditional sense; it is just one voice in an imaginary choir. His lilting solo on “Something” is both foreground—you can sing every note of it—and background, as misty and distant as the orchestra behind it. You could never imagine reaching out and touching it.
Maybe it’s due to this remoteness that his style has quietly resisted cliché or aging out of fashion. Bands that would never cite rock-god contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page regularly namecheck him as an influence. “His chords were sometimes more a cluster of notes that, to my ears, are beautifully dissonant,” says Weezer guitarist Brian Bell, who recently took part in a massive benefit concert called George Fest. Like all Harrison acolytes, Bell’s appreciation zooms in on granular moments. “The turnaround lick over the last chord in the chorus of the Beatles’ ‘Help’ functions on many levels,” he explains. “It’s such an innovative use of the open G and B strings ringing out, while a minor 3rd shape chromatically descends below it.”
“He mixed playing chords and single-note runs similar to a jazz player,” agrees Matt Mondanile, guitarist for Real Estate. Mondanile is a similarly unshowy player, someone who seems to convey the meaning of every note he plays so completely that you occasionally forget to notice him. He hones in on the way Harrison’s lead lines wind around lead vocals. “I do that all the time,” he says. “On ‘Fake Blues’, ‘Beach Comber’, ‘Green Aisles’—basically any time an arpeggio floats around the melody, I'm playing Harrison,” he laughs.
When I ask Dhani which of his father’s guitar lines linger with him today, he points instantly to the opening of “I'd Have You Anytime” from All Things Must Pass. (“I think that's the Les Paul from ‘Gently Weeps’,” he muses.) Talking about the part, he uses the word “riff,” but it sits wrong—a “riff” is generally flashy, hard-angled, designed to snag your attention. The line on “I'd Have You Anytime”, with its hesitant dips and quavers and sudden, weightless leaps, rarely rises above a murmur. Like a lot of Harrison’s most lyrical playing, it feels more like a product of breath than hands.
This is not an accident. “When my dad was growing up, a lot of the pop music he loved had all these horn parts—Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis,” notes Dhani. “A lot of the great solos that he heard growing up were actually played on horns, and you can hear some of that turn up in his playing. As he got better and better, you started to hear less fret noise, and there was almost this laser-light quality to his sound—the pick disappeared.”
It is this liquid quality that is hardest to pinpoint. The tone evokes a zither, a clarinet—something more delicate, nuanced, and lyrical than an electric guitar. His style was so careful it was nearly self-annihilating—appropriate for someone so concerned with Eastern concepts of self. He was, after all, the Beatle who famously sat with Ravi Shankar and attempted to master the sitar, and although he failed to become a professional (or even passable) player—"I should have started at least  years earlier,” he lamented in I, Me, Mine—the study led him to new possibilities on the guitar neck. The precise string-bending on “My Sweet Lord”—that famous swan-necked swoop of a melody—would have been impossible if he hadn’t sat for three years, trying to master the “diri diri da ra da” of Shankar’s exercises. “As far as writing strange melodies and also rhythmically it was the best assistance I could have had,” he wrote.
I ask Dhani how he knows, within seconds, if a player has been directly influenced by his father. “There’s two ways,” he answers. “Not to sound like an asshole, but there’s the cheap, easy imitation, and then there’s the person who is genuinely influenced. Anyone can try and replicate that slide sound; I’ve heard it in records before and just thought, ‘God, we have to sue those guys.’ But then you’ll hear someone like Blake Mills, or—and this is a bit of an off-the-wall one—Josh Homme. I don't know if he’d be offended by my saying that”—he laughs—“but I mean it as the highest compliment.”
Ultimately, it is a kind of restraint, a way of seeing, that distinguishes Harrison’s playing. His ear was drawn to the smallest possible units of motion, his “quiet Beatle” stillness allowing for a heightened form of listening. “I’m really quite simple,” Harrison told Derek Taylor in I, Me, Mine. “I plant flowers and watch them grow...I stay at home and watch the river flow.” He was mocked, sometimes, for the self-seriousness of these statements, but this attention radiates from the center of his music. “It’s not suppression, it’s just discipline,” says Dhani. “He’s the reason no one can really cover the Beatles faithfully. The songs and the harmonies are one thing, and you can kind of work those out, but at some point there’s going to be a George Harrison solo, and that solo is usually perfect. So what do you do? If you start changing it, thinking you’re going to do something better, it’s not going to work out for you. It's hard to go in and start replacing things in those songs, because that’s the way that they are.”
Photo by Whyn Lewis
5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This time, we spoke with 69-year-old folk godmother Vashti Bunyan, who released her debut album, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970, only to disappear from the music world for more than 30 years. In 2005, her second album, Lookaftering, finally arrived, featuring acolytes including Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. Her third—and perhaps last—album, Heartleap, is out now via Fat Cat/DiCristina.
When I was 5, my older brother came back to London from a year at an American college with all these 33 rpm records, and he and my father set about putting together a record player. Among the records was my father's favorite classical music, and that's what started my fascination with recorded music—I just didn't understand how those wiggly lines on the vinyl translated into these sounds! My most memorable is Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony—I have such a clear memory of my father conducting his imaginary orchestra from the top of the stairs at our house.
There was a film about Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker, and I was hopelessly in love with him. He sang a song in the movie called "Farewell to the Mountains", and I cried over that film for weeks and weeks—probably wearing a Davy Crockett hat throughout. There was also a song about Davy Crockett which mentions that he killed a bear when he was only 3, and I didn't like that. That’s still a violent image for me now! A bear is such a wonderful thing.
The beginning of the ‘60s was an exciting for new music, especially music coming from America. All through my childhood, I listened to BBC radio, but it wasn't a great way to discover new music. There was this other radio program called Radio Luxembourg, which was broadcast from Luxembourg, and I listened to it on a small transistor radio. It faded in and out, and you could only barely hear the songs every so often, but that was where I heard the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. And the song that sticks with me was the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”—it caught me at 15 and it still catches me now. It’s the most perfect song.
I grew up in London and was sent away to art school at 15, which I didn’t like one bit. [laughs]But just before I was sent away, I saw a film called Expresso Bongo, which was about the sort of sleazy music industry in SoHo—I was so taken with it and wanted to be involved with pop music. Then I got thrown out of art school for playing guitar and writing songs rather than going to classes. [laughs]
I went to New York and stayed with my sister after I was thrown out of school, and I found The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in a shop. I knew “Blowing in the Wind” from my boyfriend at school, but he refused to teach it to me because he thought Dylan songs should not should not be sung by a girl. That relationship didn’t last long [laughs], but at least it led me to Bob Dylan’s existence. So when I saw that album in the window in the Village, I immediately pounced on it—it opened my mind and educated me more than anything else had ever done. It also made me want to be a wandering singer myself.
By the time I was 20, I’d made a single with [Rolling Stones manager] Andrew Loog Oldham, “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind” [written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards]. Over the next five years, a lot happened to me musically, but it ended with me leaving the music business and my family and everybody, and running away from London.
One of the reasons I gave up music so early was seeing Joni Mitchell on an old black-and-white TV. She was singing “Both Sides Now”, and I was so overwhelmed by her brilliance that I thought I could never come anywhere close to that. So I turned away from music altogether. Looking back, it’s stupid—I shouldn’t have compared myself to other people. But with Joni Mitchell it was really hard not to. She was so clearly extraordinary and she seemed to say everything that I’d ever wanted to say or do by bringing simple, acoustic musicinto the mainstream and have it be of value. I thought, “Oh, I can’t do that.” And I didn’t for another 30 years.
From the time when I gave up on music and moved to rural Scotland, I didn’t listen to very much music at all. I purposefully avoided it. It just made me very sad. I had this beautiful little old magic guitar, which hung on the wall wherever we were, but whenever I picked it up I couldn’t make it sound like anything that didn’t remind me of all the failures I’d had. Eventually, I gave it to my son when he left home. I never picked up a guitar again until way, way, way later.
Around age 30, I started a street market store selling junky, farmhouse antique things before it became fashionable. But it seemed to do really well and I made some money for the first time and bought a car with a tape player in it. That was the only music player I had access to, and the only tape I had was Bob Marley’s Live!, which got played over and over, and my children probably know every word.
My first son was born in 1970, just before Just Another Diamond Day came out. My daughter was born three years later, and then I had my last child in 1986, when I was 41. I spent 29 years in all taking children to school. [laughs] And in fact, when my last child left, I started writing songs again. I was quite quickly aware that maybe that’s why I hadn’t been writing.
When I was 35, we took the kids out of school one day and just drove for two or three months around Europe in that car with the tape player. My children’s school wasn’t happy about their absence, but they got the most wonderful education. There was a song called “Girls Talk” by Dave Edmunds, which was written by Elvis Costello, and it captured all of us. We just yelled it out as we were going up and down mountains, to Greek islands and back. It really defines that little trip for me.
Into the ‘80s. Again, I didn’t seek out music, but sometimes it filtered through—like Giorgio Moroder and Phil Oakley’s “Together in Electric Dreams”. I was beginning to get interested in electronic sounds and all that could be done in a short song.
I was at a bar in Glasgow when I heard the Blue Nile’s Hats, and I didn’t know what it was. I just knew that it was completely wrenching my heart apart. It wasn’t until two years later that a good friend sent me Hats on a homemade tape, and everything seemed to fall into place. I moved to [Edinburgh] with him, and we’ve been together ever since. It became a very important piece of music to me. It embodies everything I’d felt about moving from the country, where I’d lived for 20 years, and going to the city, where I’d grown up. It spoke the city to me. It still does. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to live in the country again, though I don’t have any regrets about it. I’m glad I did it. I got so much from it.
Before I got together with the friend who sent me Hats, all the time I’d known him—from about 1973—he was always playing music. I never knew what it was, but there was always something on his turntable and I always liked it. When we got together, he gave me the musical education that I had missed in all that time I turned my back on music altogether. He showed me JJ Cale and Jackson Browne and all these people. But the one I listened to the most was the Band, and the song I listened to most was “Whispering Pines”.
I love Monica and Brandy’s “The Boy Is Mine”. Every time I listen to it—and it must have been a million times—the harp part at the beginning of the song just captivates me. It’s everything I love about what could be done with electronic music; a human being could not actually play that, and I found that fascinating. I played that quite a bit for a small grandson when he couldn’t settle, and he went quiet instantly. There’s something about the introduction to that song.
I was always interested in electronic music and I always wanted to have a go at it. With the royalties from [the reissue of] Just AnotherDiamond Day [in 2000], I bought a Mac and a little keyboard and a mixer and I tried to learn Pro Tools. I couldn’t play violin or piano, but I could make these arrangements, and it was the first time I’d ever had access to that kind of thing.
I was invited by Animal Collective to make a small EP with them for the Fat Cat label in the UK, which led to a deal with them, because they heard my demos. We set out about looking for a producer for the new stuff, and they told me about Max Richter, so my music for 60 is Max's The Blue Notebooks. He was living in Edinburgh at the time, and I just knew that he was the right person; my early influences were my father's collection of classical music and certainly Max's music education was classical. That's where we met.
Although I can't write music like he can, we somehow managed to make Lookaftering, and he didn't want to use any of the electronic stuff that I made my demos with. I missed them, but I think he was right. Max was the most wonderful producer because he made me do things that I thought were beyond me. There were also people on that album like Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and Adem—people who were so generous. For this new album, Heartleap, I wanted to come out from the shelter of other people because I've learned quite a lot in the last 9 years. I wanted to see what I could do on my own.
Playing live after so long was terrifying at first. I saw Devendra at one of his shows in the UK before Lookaftering came out and asked him, "How do you get on the stage without falling apart?" And he said, "Well, you just do it until you're used to it and it doesn't matter anymore. You don't get frightened after a bit." He was absolutely right. The fear receded, and I started to enjoy it. I haven't actually done any live shows for about four years, so now that we're starting again, I have to keep Devendra's words in mind and get on with it.
Gareth Dickson sent this song called “Two Trains” to Fat Cat, and they knew I was looking for a guitarist to start doing live performances, so they pointed him out, and I was captivated immediately. I thought it was the most beautiful song. I wrote to him in January 2006 and by February we were headlining at Barbican in London, which is a huge place, and neither of us had done anything like that before. We were both so completely terrified, but we did it, and he's been playing guitar with me ever since.
At this point, I’m ready to take a bit of a break, but I don't feel as if I'll never write anything more. I probably will. But the concept of an album can be quite tyrannical—you've got to provide a set amount of songs that'll fit together in a certain amount of time. But I'm sure I'll write more music. I won't ever turn my back on it again like I did before.
When I meet DJ Quik in the lobby of a hotel in Times Square, he appears ageless, dressed simply and accented by a long, untied black du rag. In conversation and on record, the 44-year-old is a lively storyteller, guided by the same intellectual restlessness that has kept him engaged and essential across the last 25 years. As a producer, he's worked with the boldest names—2Pac, Janet Jackson, Jay Z, Snoop—but the best way to take in his wide-ranging skills as a rapper, songwriter, and studio mastermind is by listening to his solo catalog, which now boasts The Midnight Life, his wildly funky ninth—and, he says, second-to-last—album.
Quik received something of a critical reappraisal over the past few years, with many citing his previous record, 2011's Book of David, as an example of a veteran artist finding the key to continued creative regeneration. Meanwhile, his overarching sonic influence on rap and R&B has come into finer focus; a few years ago, he revealed that he had even produced the drums for 50 Cent's "In Da Club". It helps that he's one of the most musically talented producers in hip-hop, someone whose proficiency has always felt like a side effect of the will to create rather than the mercenary craft of an industry employee.
But even now, the recognition must feel like something of a bittersweet consolation prize. Quik's fortunes rose and fell just ahead of his contemporaries in the 1990s, before he lost his major-label deal around the turn of the century, shrinking his recording budgets considerably. Younger artists today may not realize how much the money enabled, but to Quik, the '90s and early 2000s were an industry golden age that inspired some of history's greatest art. Even in that period, though, he didn't quite fit, a round peg in a square hole.
As much as he laments the segmentation of popular culture, the supposed death of R&B and gangsta rap, and the evaporated big budgets of the CD era, Quik's eccentricities still flow unbroken in an effort to make music that brings us together. “We know the industry is in the fucking doldrums, but that's not what it's about,” he says. “We make music to be happy, and people still need to hear that—people still need music, even if there's no music industry.”
Pitchfork: What's the most difficult part of starting a new record at this point?
DJ Quik: Just being motivated to do it. Because I feel like if I'm not going to change the game or do something innovative, then I'm not motivated. And sometimes it's hard to listen to new music and get motivated, because it's elementary to me—no disrespect to new artists, because that's where we started, too. But it's like they're way back there in first grade, and I'm in college now. So to be able to impress, you have to get to this middle ground where you're not too advanced so it goes over people's heads, and you're not too minimalist where people think you're just trying to rob the game and not stretch out.
Pitchfork: What are you trying to do with The Midnight Life?
DJQ: Book of David came from a darker place; I was having family trouble and I didn't understand why my family would turn on me just for saying, “No, I can't give you guys free money anymore, I can't help you with these dreams that y'all got that ain't going to come true. I've got to support my own family and myself.” They just went crazy. They wanted to rob me. They felt entitled to my money. That was scary, because these are people who know where you live. Even though they're family, they're dangerous. That leached into my album, like sewage.
With Midnight Life, I had no distractions, no family issues at all. I ended up starting to throw Super Bowl parties and inviting my family over to do karaoke and eat and drink. I was saying, “I forgive you even though you put me in jail and I lost a fortune fighting you. It wasn't worth it. I should have just gave y'all the money instead of going to lawyers.” But hell, I'm over it. You can't hate somebody for the rest of their lives over one mistake. So we've got mutual respect, and I got back to the party.
After I went through so much grief, I was trying to be funny to balance things out. So I started hanging around with motherfuckers like Katt Williams and learning comedic timing. You hear that shit on the opening skit, where it's like, "Hip-hop needs a banjo!" It's retarded. But then the first song [“That Ni***r's Crazy”] comes on—and there's a banjo. Funky!
I don't take myself seriously; nothing on this album is too serious. Except maybe "Puffin the Dragon", where I delve into what my grief period was like and how I lived through it. That song holds tension all the way to the end, and then just breaks and goes into this '80s-type, Pink Floyd-ish, Fender Rhodes-y, big snare a la Billy Squire's "Big Beat" shit. It turns into some cool jazz and resolves, which is my way, musically, of saying: “Look, you guys gave me olive juice and bitters, and I turned this shit into a motherfucking sweet martini.”
Pitchfork: One of my favorite tracks on the album is the instrumental "Bacon's Groove". Tell me about your longtime guitarist Robert Bacon and that record.
DJQ: I met Bacon when we couldn't get the clearance for War's "Slippin Into Darkness", which was going to be "8 Ball" on Quik Is the Name, my first album. He came in and just strummed around, and the lightbulb went off, like, “Oh my God. This dude is from Detroit, so he knows soul and funk, and he can play all the stuff that I hear in my head—so I don't have to sample it!” I just kept getting him work; he played on everything I produced. He ultimately ended up co-producing my second album, Way 2 Fonky, because we had got close. It was like, “Dude, let's make a musical revolution.” And he taught me. Now, I can do music easily; I turned into a musical beast.
“Bacon's Groove” is like a '70s classic soul ballad instrumental—Bacon is so good, it's like you've got to put him in that era. I love him, man. I wish I could play guitar like that. I envy him when he's doing it, because he doesn't even flinch. He makes the guitar sing, and talk, and cry, and laugh. How do you get all of that out of a piece of wood and some metal strings? I don't even get it. For this track, I invited him to the studio to do a groove with me, and it ended up becoming his own. I did the drums, he did the bass and the guitar. But when I was sitting there mixing it, I was like, "This shit is ridiculous. This don't even belong on a rap record." I don't think The Midnight Life is a rap record, it's a music record. Just real big production and stretched-out musicianship. Really virtuoso, if you will.
Pitchfork: What kind of music are you listening to now?
DJQ: Just old '70s shit. I mean, I do listen to new stuff, like Spoon. I like shit like that. Coldplay, obviously. Anything Dr. Dre still does. I bought Young Jeezy's album, 50's new album. I still support it. But I just keep going back to “Soul Train” and I wonder: How did we lose our culture? Black people used to all do the same thing on Saturdays. We all watched “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand”, got our fashion and dance tips, and then we emulated it and bought those records that we heard. Now it seems like there is no culture. The school of fish are all separate. Everybody's just randomized, listening to their own thing in their earbuds, and there's no uniformity. That bothers me.
On "Broken Down", from this new record, I'm rapping about how motherfuckers don't even kick it the way we used to kick it. We used to throw parties in the park, get booze, barbecue, have fun—the same shit you seen on the "'G' Thang" video. People don't do that anymore. You go to the park and everyone's all pocketed and separate [gestures at an invisible phone]. That's going to be the downfall of music, if anything. Nobody enjoys one thing anymore.
Pitchfork: You've made a lot of classic party records records over the years—do you throw parties? Are people still coming to your crib on the weekend?
DJQ: The club scene is different now. I don't want to tear up my home anymore. I still do the music, but I don't partake in the parties as much. The parties happen when we book the studio. That's a safe place. Get alcohol, food, girls, homies, and have these small listening parties while I'm recording. And that energy always gets into the music. But they're more scaled down and not as frequent as they used to be; I used to throw mad parties because I had all this damn money!
Some of them got out of hand. People wanted to fight, steal necklaces off of people's necks. A little weird. I had to have armed security at my house. I was young, 21, 22. But that's what we were inspired by: party music. We had already lived a hard life growing up in Compton, all the violence and police brutality. We just wanted to throw that shit to the wind and kick it.
Pitchfork: On that note, have you been paying attention to what's going on in...
DJQ: … Ferguson? Of course I have. All I have to say is that's been going on forever. It just seems like the people in Missouri couldn't take it any more. That was a pressure point. Hopefully it will bring change to the way they police out there. It's ironic that the officer hasn't even been indicted or brought up on charges. The way he killed that boy, it was macabre.
Sometimes, when cultures feel like they've been abused, they just snap. That's how riots happen. When Trayvon Martin was killed, it built tension in black people. And now with Ferguson it's like, “OK, enough's enough.” People revolt.
Pitchfork: Your music has often been very tied to what you are going through in your own life, but have you ever wanted to be more explicitly political?
DJQ: Yeah, honestly. I say a few political things on this album, like statistics about the schooling of black children—they're 18% of the school population by race, but they make up more than half of the expulsions or suspensions. So it's like, “What are the black kids learning?” I hate those numbers, so I mention them. But I don't think that I could carry the Public Enemy torch. I wanted to do that, you know, but N.W.A. had that lane taken. So there wasn't really much I could do except talk about how not to let the gangs and the drugs and the streets and the police take you down. If I could elaborate more and be more political, I probably would. I think it makes sense for my music. I would be like Gil Scott-Heron.
Pitchfork: Rhythm-al-ism, from 1998, is a record that wrestles with a lot of big ideas as far as violence and music and how they interact.
DJQ: Rhythm-al-ism was a lot of emotion. I had just buried my best friend and was dealing with the grief. My nephew killed my assistant manager out of drug-induced rage. I couldn't believe it; I mean, I knew [my nephew] was a little touched—he would crash my cars and go try to hide them somewhere like I'm not going to see it. I'm like, "Did you hurt anybody?" "No, I ran!" I still tried to help, but ultimately he was doing some methamphetamine; I didn't even know what meth was back then. How do you go that crazy to where you kill somebody? You know what I mean? It's not that serious.
So he snapped while I was working on the Rhythm-al-ism, and I had to stop recording and bury my friend, take care of his family, adopt his daughter. She's now my goddaughter. Then I had to pick up the pieces and still finish that record. Out of that came records like "Down, Down, Down", and "We Still Party", and "Hand in Hand".
Pitchfork: Most artists reach a stage in their career and are no longer are as good at what they do. How do you maintain such a high level of creativity?
DJQ: The motivation sometimes comes when you least expect it. I try to keep an open mind. I'm not willing to just do shit because it's time. I'll still hone stuff. I listen to the radio, just like a running back trying to hit a hole—he's trying to find some place where nobody is and get there to score. That's what I do now. I've got super creative people around me. I don't think you should ever give up on trying to push the bar a little bit higher.
If you listen to "Pet Sematary", it's based on the movie Pet Sematary, where you bring dead things back to life, and they're not quite the same. The cat, a baby, whatever. People have been talking about how R&B and gangsta rap are dead, but with that song I did a total gangsta rap lyric to a total R&B track, and people like it. It's like a five-bar arrangement as opposed to the normal four-bar, sixteen bars, and hook. This shit ended up being a musical journey, and that's creative. It just feels good, too. If I'm in the studio, recording and being creative, it sparks other songs. Now we've got to top that one with something else that's cool.
At some point, I probably will run out of rhythms I can use and sounds I can beef up. And the most creative I've ever been on records was not even on my records. It was with Dr. Dre, when we were working with Truth Hurts and 50. I was findings samples and making clap sounds that nobody else was doing. Just super raw, raucous-ass beats. Hopefully I can catch that back and do another "In Da Club". Wouldn't that be awesome.
Pitchfork: Do you see yourself performing for the rest of your life?
DJQ: No. There are times now where I've got to do an hour-and-a-half-long show and I need my hype man. It's like, “I'm gonna take this small aspirin break!” It becomes a workout. I always said if I see Ice Cube and Too $hort still doing it, then I'll still do it. But now I'm looking at both of them like, “Damn, did we miss the stop?” No disrespect, I love Ice Cube and Too $hort onstage. But I just feel the burn myself sometimes.
So I've got probably another year or two before I sit back in the studio and engineer. I still want to be an architect and score films and do other things. I always said as long as I've still got teeth and hair and I look cool when I look in the mirror, then I'll do it. You never want to look like an old fart doing young rap music. At what point does "Sweet Black Pussy" become not explicit, but perverted? [laughs] I look down and see little kids in the audience and I'm like, “Oh man, I hope I'm not poisoning these kids!” The one comment I get all the time is, “Man, you don't understand—I got a whoopin' listening to your music, I got my tape snatched, I got put on a punishment, I got my ass beat!”
But I'm no more explicit than Eazy-E was. Like on "I'd Rather Fuck You", he's like, "Bitch! You don't have to front on me bitch, don't be afraid, it's only a dick!" He's got skits where he's shooting the person in the car, blowing their brains out and shit. We listened to that and it was so over-the-top that we just knew it was fake. So our shit became over-the-top to where it was fake. Then art started to imitate life, and vice versa—you've got motherfuckers trying to come to the studio to kill you and motherfuckers standing outside with fucking ARs and glocks everywhere. You can't thrive in a studio environment like that!
Pitchfork: What is the next step for you?
DJQ: I set out to do 10 albums over my career. I got sidetracked all those years where I wasn't recording, there was just too much personal shit going on, too much trying to get people all on one page so they can be a part of the movement and help me get to the level where Dre is. People like to pull you down, they don't really want to see you up there. In 23 years, I could have had 23 albums! But I would take time off from my own stuff to work with these other artists that were calling for me, like Raphael Saadiq, Jay Z, Whitney Houston, Janet, Rick James—you name it. I was working on everybody's stuff.
Pitchfork: Would you trade that time collaborating for more time to work on your own material?
DJQ: Hindsight being 20/20, I think it's OK. It's one of the reasons I became “underrated,” because people didn't know that I was doing all that shit: helping 2Pac and Pharoahe Monch and trying to produce everybody. I probably should have done more records. But since the music industry is [going downhill] I want to drop my 10th album immediately after this one, so I can have my discography done. That will be my ultimate book.
Pitchfork: Is there an album of yours you think is slept on?
DJQ: Balance & Options. There were a couple of songs that actually didn't make it to the album. I sampled the Doors' "Riders on the Storm"—I paid 17 grand to get real strings and orchestration, and then [Doors keyboardist] Ray Manzarek, rest in peace, didn't clear it. [Manzarek] was very picky about who he chose to carry the Doors' legacy. It's like, “Motherfucker, my life mirrors Jim Morrison's more than anyone else! I'm a young poet with this hair and this revolutionary music.” He didn't see it like that. He saw me as an outcast. I was brokenhearted.
And another thing: When I listen back to that album, I realize that I was going through a vocal change. There was a raspiness and an urgency, as if I wasn't getting enough sleep. I was getting this growl. There was a lot of struggling going on, then I lost my record deal [after Balance & Options] and went independent. So, from then on, I had to cut costs, which affected all of my independent records, and I hated that. With this new record, I was able to use my publishing money to record in the studio with no distractions. My voice is back, I sound like the old DJ Quik. It's like I rode through one of those Pacific Ocean storms and made it back to land. That's what it sounds like.
Pitchfork: A lot of people say that you've aged very well. What's your secret?
DJQ: People don't believe this shit, but I had an accelerated life in my 30s because I was trying to do the studio and the personal life. I wasn't sleeping. I started to see these big ass bags under my eyes. Crows feet. Receding hairline. I was like: "AHHH!" So I got rid of my sister Jackie, who was a stress bug, like, "Sis, I love you, but you're taking all my money and going to be happy with other people, then you come to me with problems. You gotta go." She used to do my hair and would put rubber bands in it and just rip it out. I was about to have a horseshoe! My mother was like, "What's wrong with your hair?" I was like, "Your daughter Jackie is doing it." She's like, "Son, you've got to get a new beautician."
So I went to some new beauticians, got my hair back healthy. And I bought this machine that exercises your muscles [with an electric pulse]. I had jowls and shit coming in, so I used to put baby oil gel on my face and put that thing right by my eye and work those muscles for 30 minutes. And it would burn after a while! It hurt! But I started seeing results. It was the funniest thing: When do mail-order things work? I thought it was a hoax. But before you know it, my face was all tight. The crows feet were gone. My jawlines came back up. My dimples came back. That thing worked! I ended up losing it, and haven't used it in over 10 years, but for anybody that's got some facial issues—fuck plastic surgery. You've got hundreds of thousands of muscles in your face, exercise them and they'll tighten up just like when you lift weights. [laughs] Plus, my moms is a beautiful little creole woman. I got it from her.
Photo by Daniel Sannwald
Over the last two years, Alejandro Ghersi has managed to approach the center of popular music by making deeply experimental art. When he was called upon to share samples of his music with Kanye West in preparation for Yeezus, he took a risk and offered what he describes as “the strangest music I had.” It worked: West liked what he heard and asked the Venezuelan-born producer known as Arca to join the album’s now-fabled sessions. Along with a few glitchy and sensuous 2012soloreleases for NYC label UNO and last year’s positively shape shifting &&&&& 12”, he’s also worked with one of the most potentially revolutionary new stars of the moment, FKA twigs, and more recently, teamed up with someone quite familiar with exploring the mainstream’s teeming fringes—Björk—co-producing her forthcoming ninth album.
And now, the 24-year-old is finally getting around to releasing his proper debut album, Xen, next month via Mute. The record features his most outré work to date: without the vocal samples he used on earlier tracks, it sounds even more alien, incorporating some of the downtempo melodies of Aphex Twin along with anxious flashes of minor-chord classical arrangements, all filtered in a way that feels both viscous and metallic.
Given his highly elastic songs, which can be doomy and elusive, and his relatively low public profile, I guessed Ghersi might be solemn or gruff in person. But when we meet at a diner one evening in New York, he’s open and thoughtful, exuding a boyish, cheerful optimism. Dressed in white with a jeweled choker, he talks about adding a personal bridge to his otherwise difficult art: “I can imagine someone listening to the record and it going through one ear and out the other,” he says. “So one entry point is to understand the person who made it.”
Pitchfork: Xen has very few vocals, so song titles like “Family Violence”, “Sad Bitch”, and “Lonely Thug” can’t help but carry a lot of weight.
Alejandro Ghersi: I love vocal music, but I’ve had a hard time understanding myself through the English language. So it just seemed to me that if I relied solely on creating a voice out of the music, then I might be able to reach something more profound on this record. With song titles, I try to keep a healthy sense of humor while saying something at the same time. With “Sad Bitch”, I imagine someone willfully exerting energy to assert themselves in a negative way, and that person being really sad on their own. With “Lonely Thug”, I constructed a fantasy character who was very masculine and strong and almost threatening, but his demeanor belied some complication.
Pitchfork: Most people have learned about you through your affiliation with Yeezus, is that weird or frustrating for you?
AG: The abrasiveness of &&&&& was a bit of a response to that, but it didn't really bother me, and I completely understood. Still, it made me want to take a step back. I felt like if I started talking about it a lot, it might've been a bit opportunistic. I wanted to give myself some space.
When they originally reached out to me for Yeezus, I made the decision to send Kanye the strangest music I had. I had no idea that the album would sound the way it did, or that Kanye was in that headspace, but I just thought, “Well, this is what I'm doing now. I should be as honest as I can, even if it means that it's not meant to be.”
Pitchfork: Some people accused Kanye of leeching off the underground for the sound of Yeezus and then taking credit for it. What’s your take on that?
AG: I don’t think it works like that. Someone can only be vampiric if you allow it. I've always just been really charmed and intrigued by how motivated Kanye is and how interested he is in culture. For him to work with producers from non-traditional places, in terms of a major-label releases, was something that you can commend, not something you should punish. The truth is that it definitely was a very high-pressure working environment because it was very ambitious, and of course, if you're shy and there's lots of people, it's not the easiest place to coexist with this thing that's happening. But I definitely didn’t feel taken advantage of.
Pitchfork: You’ve also said you’re working with Björk on her next album. How did you meet?
AG: It was serendipitous. Three years ago, my manager asked me: “Who do you want to work with?” The first person I named was Björk. I also said André 3000 and Missy [Elliott]. He was like, “OK, but we’re realistically not going to be able to do that.” And then, after &&&&& came out, he sent it to one of Björk’s collaborators without even telling me. In a very beautiful and graceful way, she reached out to say that she had appreciated it. I was walking through some marshes with [my boyfriend] Daniel and I got this email and I just cried. I couldn’t believe it.
Then we met in London. She'd just finished her tour and asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested in DJing an after party to celebrate. I just kind of rolled up my sleeves and, as humbly as I could, said I would love to.
Pitchfork: What does that collaboration sound like?
AG: It’s not really my music, so it’s difficult to answer. I’m just a tiny piece of the equation. But it’s been completely healing spending time and working with her; listening to her music changed the way I write, since I was really young. It's as simple as that. Imagine making a new friend that is into the same kind of music as you. It's very innocent, you know?
Pitchfork: When you envision your career, do you see yourself focusing on Arca as a solo project, or do you want to be more of a behind-the-scenes person?
AG: I need both. It's all about balance. That's been a huge recurring thing in growing up—allowing two things to exist in the same space even though instinctively they might not be designated to. I much prefer the tension between two things; they're symbiotic.
Photos by Joe Dilworth
Say it with me now: Objekt. It's satisfying. Evocative. Sturdy as a squat metal box. It's everything a techno producer might want in an alias: solid, resolutely functional, and vaguely Teutonic, thanks to that hard, angled "k." So it's ironic that the music TJ Hertz makes under that name always sounds in flux. The same might be said of his career.
His debut 12”, released on his own eponymous label at the beginning of 2011, was greeted as a shot across dubstep's bow, and it was, in a sense. The Berlin-based Brit later confessed that "Tinderbox" and "The Goose That Got Away" were intended as a pastiche of dubstep conventions, written as a means of wriggling out of a creative rut. A few more tracks followed in a similar vein, but by the time listeners began to think they'd gotten a bead on the young producer, his records were already bending back towards more convoluted forms of techno, dazzlingly detailed and full of rippling, snapping rhythms. Wobble turned to whip crack.
Since then, Hertz, who formerly spent his work days developing signal-processing algorithms for music technology company Native Instruments, has scattered a fewmoresingles, turning into a kind of dancefloor destroyer, straddling livewire electro and noise-besotted techno. The 27-year-old’s debut album, Flatland, which arrives via Berlin's PAN label next week and is currently streaming in full via Pitchfork Advance, doubles the size of his repertory in one fell swoop. In doing so, it considerably, and provocatively, complicates any assessment of what kind of music—what kind of object—his really is.
Far from the hard-edged club tools with which he made his name, there's little on Flatland that's destined for the dancefloor. Tempos are often slow, the mood gelatinous. Structurally, it's as slippery as the shiny strip of film that scrolls across its cover, feeding back upon itself in a tangle of recurring motifs—crunching metal, blown-glass glissandi, cosmic church organ.
That maze-like quality is intentional. "In the later stages of writing the album, I realized that it often seems to reference itself,” says Hertz. “I liked the idea that it could be an analogy for the same story being told in a lot of different ways." The title, Flatland—a reference to a 19th-century satire set in a two-dimensional world—followed from there: "I also liked the idea of being able to see the entire scene at once, without being limited by your position."
This omniscience will play out in Flatand’s forthcoming video for “Second Witness”, which was created with a rig lined with about 200 pinhole cameras. “You load five rolls of 35mm film into it and expose it all at once with a flash, so if you manage to capture an object mid-flight, you can see it from every angle at once,” explains Hertz, who likens the effect—which can be previewed here—to a lo-fi version of The Matrix’s famed bullet-time visuals. “It looks ethereal and strange and weird, and relates to the theme behind the album—seeing that one object can cast very different shadows."
Pitchfork: So much electronic music right now is interested in analog-inspired sound design and old-school styles, but there's something very hi-def, even futuristic, about your music.
TJ Hertz: It's very much a product of my working process. Initially, it started out as a result of me not being able to finish a track in less than a month, because everything just keeps getting processed and processed. But then I just realized that's what works best for me. I don't really use dry sounds very often—it's relatively rare that I'll take something straight from a drum machine or a synth and use it as is. There's a lot of sonic twisting going on.
Pitchfork: How did you get interested in sound processing—in this idea of sound as a substance that could be manipulated?
TH: It was quite gradual. I've been making music since forever, but when I was younger I was much more interested in making things as pristine and perfect as possible, and it's only in the last 10 years, since getting into electronic music, that that turned on its head.
Pitchfork: I like the album’s emphasis on composition. Even a comparatively uptempo track, like "Ratchet", feels like it's always twisting and turning. It's not your typical club track that goes up, plateaus, and then goes back down.
TH: Totally. And the tracks that sound quite clubby don't actually work very well as club tracks anyway, precisely because they're structured and designed in a way that's more befitting to the album format. One thing I noticed in the earlier stages of writing the album is that what worked for my singles tended to overload the senses when you've got track after track after track. The most effective albums, to me, are ones where each track really knows its place in the context of the record. Basically, you can't have a record full of tracks that are like finished records themselves.
Pitchfork: The album underscores the sense that it's a really good time for experimental techno right now, too. It's not a move away from the dancefloor, necessarily, but there are quite a few artists taking the sort of risks that haven't been heard for a while in club music.
TH: I feel like it's going both ways at the same time. You've also got people making ever straighter and more austere techno and moving back towards this very grey functionality, which is cool, although I don't know how long people are going to remain interested in that.
Pitchfork: Is that something you notice in Berlin?
TH: I'm not sure there's a dominant narrative in the Berlin club scene right now, but I’ve noticed that local DJs who I'm playing with in cities around Europe who might have been playing, for want of a better word, bass music four years ago are now playing really impenetrable techno. I find it curious that this broad color palette has faded to grey in some quarters. But there's also some allure to the austerity of it, especially for people who are getting into it for the first time. That certainly happened to me. It just happened to me a couple of years before it was what you would hear in every club around town, so I didn't get quite as sick of it.
Pitchfork: I caught your set at Sónar last year and was surprised to see you in that big space, really blowing it out. Are you doing a lot of gigs of that size?
TH: That was definitely the biggest gig I've played. That summer I did quite a lot of festivals, but apart from that, I'm playing in clubs, and that's where I'm happiest. A lot of people can't stand festivals and feel like they're faceless and soul-destroying, but in moderation, I like the bigger gigs as well. You play fewer notes in between the beats; you play more hi-hats and you get more hands in the air. [laughs] It's a different experience, but I really like the mix. Sometimes I'll have weekends where I’ll do a really rocky-but-fun student-y party on a Friday for 200 people, and then play some super-professional, shiny, relatively impersonal club the next day. I like that contrast.
In this edition of The Out Door, we talk with drummer and electroacoustic explorer Jon Mueller about the final chapter of his project Death Blues, go behind the scenes of the vital reissue label Superior Viaduct, and learn the educational inspirations behind the work of guitarists Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge. But first, we highlight some of this year's experimental releases that deserve more attention. (Remember to follow us on Twitter and Tumblr for all types of experimental music news and information.)
I: The Out Door’s Overlooked Records 2014
The following list features records we love but haven’t mentioned in The Out Door or reviewed for Pitchfork due to space or time constraints. We’ve also excluded records that we reviewed (with artist commentary) in our 200 Wordsfeature on Tumblr, but we hope you’ll check out all the great releases from that ongoing weekly series, too. Here are 10 more records from 2014 that have earned a first, second, or umpteenth look, in alphabetical order by artist.
Dorval & Devereaux: Dorval & Devereaux[Moon Glyph]
This first collaboration between British Columbia’s Crystal Dorval and Wisconsin’s Beau Deveraux feels like '80s New Wave and '90s Shoegaze extracted and abstracted, stripping away traditional song structures so all that’s left is repetitive, subliminal hypnotism. There’s a bit of faded-VHS chill in the pair’s warped approach, but I don’t get the sense that they’re trying to reprocess memories; the melodic loops here are too pure for such ulterior motives. There is a ton of atmosphere, though, something Dorval as White Poppy and Deveraux as Samantha Glass are both seasoned at creating. On Dorval & Deveraux, it sounds like a skill they’re thrilled to discover anew.
Jason Lescalleet: Much to My Demise [Kye]
There’s an eerie, almost-horror-movie aura to Much to My Demise. Jason Lescalleet has always had an uncanny ability to inject abstract sounds with palpable moods, but this time around the intensity is almost visible, like a ghost peering out from your speakers. That effect is even more impressive when you consider the simplicity of Lescalleet’s sounds: one track is primarily halting piano chords, another occupies much of its time with a helicopter, and the daunting “Tragedy of Man” sounds like a Hitchock score slowed down and submerged in water. The record isn’t all icy chill; in many places there’s a serenity and even a majesty, but the best part is how it makes your skin crawl.
Jackie McDowell: Baptisia[Hairy Spider Legs]
Jackie McDowell is essentially a folk musician, but her brand of folk aligns more closely with meditative drone and space-bound minimalism than earthen songcraft. That was the case with her music as Inez Lightfoot, and it’s even more true on Baptisia, her first solo record under her own name. There are certainly songs here, but structures and chord changes are less important than moods and atmospheres, built through instrumental repetition and prayer-like vocal focus. The point of each track seems to be mindfulness, and McDowell’s music consistently draws your attention to a speck of time that she seems to freeze and zoom in on. Under McDowell’s microscope, whether it be an acoustic strum or held organ tone, the smallest instant can sound infinite.
Naked Island: Naked Island[Peak Oil]
It’s hard to think of two more idiosyncratic and stellar underground artists than Brian Pyle, aka Ensemble Economique, and Felicia Atkinson, aka Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier. So for those who’ve followed both, the prospect of a collaboration between them sent expectations soaring. Naked Island perhaps isn’t as good as each artists’ respective peaks, but it’s close. Its two sidelong tracks are single-minded, each riding out a consistent beat while layering waves of blissful hum and sky-seeking voices on top. But otherwise they contrast: “Deep, Transcendent Waves of Golden Light” sounds like an EE track with Atkinson guesting, while “Play It As It Lays” is murkier and less predictable, seeming to grow infinitely as it pulses forward. It suggests the potential for growth with Naked Island is infinite too, should they keep this partnership going.
Noxagt: Brutage [Drid Machine]
The Norweigan noise-rock trio Noxagt put out three excellent records on Load in the mid-'00s, but hadn’t done much since. Brutage is their first album since 2006, released by Drid Machine alongside a collection of unreleased material from 2000 to 2004. Play those two records side by side and you’ll be impressed by how the band’s 8-year hiatus meant no loss of bludgeoning power. In fact, the on-the-nose-titled Brutage might actually be heavier and more skull-rattling than their previous work. The song titles are in all caps, and the sound itself is also an uppercase yell, doled out like a boxer delivering head blows until his opponent—in this case, the listener—staggers into a trance. In their first go-round, Noxagt seemed like a logical extension of Amphetamine Reptile-style sludge-punk and Don Caballero-like math-metal, but now that there’s less of that happening, they sound more like themselves than anyone else.
Peeesseye: Sci Fi Death Mask[humansacrifice]
Peeesseye were one of the most fascinatingly indefinable groups of the '00s. Their records often delved into abstraction and noise, and they were capable of unruly abandon, but there was always something thoughtful about their music, as if a master plan lurked way beneath the surface that you might discover if you listened long and hard enough. As a result, all of their records sounded different, and none of them sounded like Sci Fi Death Mask, a posthumous release comprising the band’s final recordings in 2010. The fact that its opener is called “Let The Hate Flow” does not seem accidental—there’s some pretty dark aggression in the growling, grating sounds here, but also an eerie calm. It’s like the trio knows they’re going to slay you, so why rush it? The peaks remind me of the clanging, string-pulling heights of New Zealand noise conductors A Handful of Dust, but Peeesseye possess an unpredictable intensity all their own, and it’s sorely missed.
Janek Schaefer: Lay-by Lullaby [12k]
There’s a lot of concept behind UK-based sound artist Janek Schaefer’s latest album. It began life as a sculptural installation at a London gallery, playing from a car radio, and some of its sounds come from Schaefer’s field recordings of the M3 motorway. Yet Lay-By Lullaby doesn’t sound conceptual, or even very literal. At times you can hear the sound of cars passing, but they blend cozily into static, ambience, and meditative tones. Often field recording-based music intends to transport you to a tangible place, but to me Lay-by Lullaby feels less like a trip down the road than a retreat into the subconscious, a beguiling mesh of dream sounds and memory echoes from an artist who knows that the most affecting music can also be the most abstract.
Telecult Powers: Black Meditations [Experimedia]
For six prolific years now, mysterious duo Telecult Powers have managed to capture the earthy, tree-struck vibe of more traditionally jammy rock collectives while dealing almost exclusively in electronic-based sound. It may sound like a pretty simple concept—trip out to blipping synths and blurting computers rather than fuzzy guitars or rumbling drums—but not many have pulled it off, and few as well as the duo of Mister Mathews and Witchbeam. On Black Meditations they remagine Kenneth Anger’s Satanic film rituals as electronic seances, albeit with some tongue-in-cheek, Ed Wood-style campiness (the sample at the end of “Take a Sip From Our Devil’s Cup” is like Vincent Price reading from Plan 9 From Outer Space.) The album’s spirit-conjuring atmospheres deepen with repeated listens, where so many others’ attempts at enchantment vanish like smoke in a magic trick.
Unholy Two: Talk about Hardcore [12XU]
Grabbing punk by the throat and caking it in heavy mud seems like a pretty logical thing to do, yet few bands have even attempted it, much less pulled it off. Unholy Two have been on that shortlist for a while, but Talk About Hardcore thrusts them near the head of the class, rivaling the best of Unsane, Sightings,White Suns, and more. The 10 mostly-short songs here have all the muscular energy and desperate noise-spill you’d expect from the above comparisons, but there’s also a bit of a metal crunch to Unholy Two’s attack that gives their songs extra weight, as if it takes extra reps to lift these two-ton chords. You might find it hard to remember a particular song, but for me that’s part of the charm of Talk About Hardcore—the way it gets your whole skull humming rather than just your mouth.
Watery Love: Decorative Feeding [In the Red]
Richie Charles sounds half asleep on the opening track of Watery Love’sDecorative Feeding, stoically talk-singing over thick, simple guitars. He wakes up fast though, spending the rest of this beautifully exhausting album exerting his lungs hard through a series of authoritative yells. His bandmates match that howl with heavy sludge that alternates between lumbering dirge and punk stomp, like a vintage Touch and Go band—I think Killdozer most often—who can’t decide whether to snort speed, huff glue, or chug codeine. Charles (who also runs the excellent Testostertunes label) keeps the lyrical concerns basic too; a typical song finds him ranting about “Competing Odors”. But he and the band can find profundity in unlikely places, especially in the album-ending line “Unlike you dickheads/ I welcome death,” which through insistent repetitions becomes a kind of life-affirming mantra.
II: Jon Mueller: Death Blues Is Dead
The first time Jon Mueller heard Ensemble, the final album from his multimedia art project Death Blues, he could hardly tell it contained music that he had written. But he could tell it was perfect.
Mueller is a powerful drummer and inquisitive electroacoustic explorer, complementary characteristics that have made him especially prolific during the last 20 years. He’s worked in small experimental ensembles, like the Portable Quartet, and in strings of duos with like-minded sound explorers, like Z’EV and Jason Kahn. In a string of bands—first Pele, then Collections of Colonies of Bees and now in the Justin Vernon-fronted Volcano Choir—he’s been the pounding pulse behind a particularly resplendent and amorphous version of post-rock. In records under his own name, such as 2007’s brilliant Metals, he’s combined those interests in the textural and the charged into sustained ripples of thunder.
For the first half of this decade, though, his principal musical concern has been Death Blues, a highly collaborative and commanding band meant to sing, shout, and stomp against the inevitability of mortality, or for life to be lived before death has its way. At points, Death Blues has included a full choir and upright bass; on Ensemble, it’s Mueller, composer William Ryan Fritch and a crew of friends contributing essays about the vagaries and valences of existence.
Ahead of the third and final Death Blues album, Mueller, based in Milwaukee, fosterd a long-distance collaboration with the California-based Fritch. Mueller had become obsessed with Fritch’s records and reached out largely to get to know him. They talked about how they’d both been turned on by music at an early age, and Mueller told him about the concepts and questions that drove Death Blues. Fritch soon started writing new material based on their conversations. He flew to Wisconsin, recorded with Mueller and took what Mueller thought was a nearly finished record back home for some final tweaks. Mueller didn’t hear it again for months.
“I started to wonder what had happened to it. And finally, I got an almost entirely different record back. Hearing all this stuff I’d recorded, I barely recognized it any more,” he says. Fritch had spliced chunks of songs into other songs, rewritten entire string sections, and swapped parts for new creations. It was as if the album had swallowed itself.
“It wan an out-of-body experience, surreal but beautiful. I said, ‘This is it,’” Mueller remembers. “It was out of the context of how I wrote the drum parts. I knew it was the thing we made, yet I didn’t know if it was. When I hear any of it now, I’m still shocked.”
Ensemble is a bit shocking: As though performed by a chamber ensemble with time-shares in heaven and hell, these nine tracks move with an ecstatic and creeping unease. During “Obtain”, Mueller cuts a kinetic hi-hat beat through a carousel of disembodied horns and strings and hammered guitar melodies, those drums eventually building into a triumphant assault. “Participant” slips and slides through a theme park of gliding melodies and prepared pianos, the rhythm working double- and triple-time to push it all toward a climax that arrives instead as a plateau. By album’s end, a sense of the unknown prevails, the music’s relentless motion producing a vertigo that turns up into down, left into right. The desired effect, Mueller says, is to raise questions about confusion and chaos.
“The first record was very concrete and obvious in so many ways, very specific and black and white,” he explains. “But Ensemble is about the mystery and complexity and unknowns in our life. How do we deal with that in order to get back to those fundamentals? There’s a backwards mirror process to this whole project, because it ends with the beginning, with the questions.”
Death Blues began during a morning walk in New Orleans in 2011, while Mueller was visiting the city to speak at Loyola University. Mueller started to move through the city early one day; by the afternoon, the vision for the music—its sound and spirit—had crystallized.
“I remember being at the airport, just thinking, ‘I can’t believe I have all this stuff I need to do right away. I need to get started,’” he says. “It was a very intense feeling.”
Everyone he spoke with, it seemed, lingered on ways the landscape had shifted since Hurricane Katrina, which had ravaged the Gulf Coast six years earlier. They told Mueller that they knew a storm like Katrina would come again, but they didn’t worry about leaving. At first, he reasoned that the ignorance was a touch insane.
“Nobody had an exit plan, even though they were all acknowledging that this all was going to be wiped off the face of the Earth. But I realized that the talk centered on admiration for the place and the traditions, the things that exist there are that invisible,” he says. “It struck me as a microcosm of a life philosophy: We all know we’re going to get wiped out. So instead of trying to hopelessly run from that, how can we embrace the stuff that’s good, the stuff that makes the moments that you have that are worthwhile? It’s what we’re all dealing with.”
The answers to those early questions were eager and adamant, as revealed on Here, a short Death Blues primer, and the project’s self-titled debut. The six pieces on that first full album possess an unwavering gaze, an unflinching stare at the void. On “Find Yourself,” tantric vocals hang against hammered guitar strings, their overtones slipping into a bed of noise that sits coolly in the middle distance. Later, during “Acceptance,” bass notes hang low and ominous between Mueller’s steadily escalating drums. It’s like a Swans crescendo tucked into a record’s locked groove.
But Mueller warped and distorted those realities on the next two Death Blues LPs, released in short and decisive order this year. Issued by SIGE in June, Non-Fiction is the bridge between the primitive punch of the band’s origins and the twists of Ensemble. That same punch is there, with drums pounding behind vocals stretched like skin across the surface. By the end of the 17-minute “Are,” however, those layers have swallowed one another, so that the vocals begin to feel like drums, the drums like melodies. “Do,” the album’s other half, adds and subtracts elements as though on an aleatoric whim; the momentum you thought you’d felt mutates without notice.
“On the first record, everything was streamlined. Conceptually, it was very obvious. It had a stoicism to it. But Non-Fiction came as a reaction to that obviousness, pointing out that I know things aren’t as simple,” he says. “Non-Fiction is another way of seeing reality. In context, together, we’re not sure what this is all supposed to mean, or what it’s saying. Calling that sense of confusion reality is the world that we really live in. It can get crazy and difficult and cause us to do crazy and difficult things. But if we remember that obvious and simple stuff, maybe it’s not so complex and difficult anymore. That’s the main question that Death Blues asks.”
Or asked, at least: Ensemble is the final release for Death Blues, intended as a project with a specific arc rather than a band or a brand that Mueller has to keep pushing until it grows stale. On a recent solo tour in the Midwest, he was already exploring fresh concepts for a record under his own name. The ability to jump from project to project has long been a driving force for Mueller, something that’s opened up his sound to an influx of new collaborators and concepts. He worries not about the next sudden idea, or where it will push him, but the day that they eventually stop.
“I’m probably always going to have ideas for music that is Death Blues-ish. That’s normal. How you think and ideas that you get excited are you,” he offers. “It would be easy to take this new stuff and say that it’s like Non-fiction or the first record, so maybe it is Death Blues. No, it’s not: Death Blues was not a band. I’m not just carrying the torch until it burns out.”
—Grayson Haver Currin
III: Superior Viaduct: Making the Past Present
Steve Viaduct of Superior Viaduct records. Photo by Nellery Hill.
“I’m sometimes surprised how little music is actually available,” says Steve Viaduct, who runs Bay Area reissue label Superior Viaduct. “After 60-plus years of LP’s [being made], and every day more and more reissues coming out, there is still a ton of music that is virtually unheard.”
Viaduct isn’t alone in his desire to shed light on music that would otherwise vanish. The recent cultural trend of obsessively celebrating - perhaps even fetishizing - the past, combined with the resurgence of vinyl, has naturally led to a rise in reissues. Excellent work is being done by reissue-only labels (Light in the Attic, Numero Group) as well imprints that combine old and new (Fire, RVNG Int’l, Feeding Tube).
For aficionados of underground rock and experimental music, though, it’s hard to think of anyone more vital than Superior Viaduct. The label has resurrected music from a wide range of styles: post-punk, modern composition, jazz, electronic. But it’s all connected by an appeal to a certain kind of listener, the kind that devoured fanzines like Forced Exposure in the pre-internet days and travels to see every minute of both the Big Ears and Cropped Out festivals today.
“If you follow the curatorial path of our releases, I think it makes sense,” Viaduct asserts. “For someone who knows Crime or Glenn Branca, it’s not too far of a leap to Sensations’ Fix or Noh Mercy or even Phill Niblock. For me, it’s about pioneering music that is still relevant today. It’s always exciting to hear something that sounds like it was recorded in 2014 and then have your mind blown when you find out that it was released in 1979.”
Viaduct’s mind was first blown by music in the 1980s, when he grew up in Cleveland skateboarding and seeing all-ages punk shows. He was inspired by labels too: “I still remember studying Dischord’s catalogue every time it arrived in the mail, which back then could fit on a single-sided postcard,” he says. After moving to San Francisco, he helped put together an exhibit about '80s underground venue Club Foot. “It was then that I realized that many of my favorite records were out-of-print for decades and some great bands had never before been released,” he recalls. He began Superior Viaduct (named after a street in Cleveland) with the goal of “a more historical/documentarian approach that you might see in small galleries.” In accordance with those origins, the label’s first ten releases were by Bay Area punk bands.
Superior Viaduct's cover for the never-before-released soundtrack to Andrei Tarkovksy's Solaris.
Viaduct’s catalogue has since expanded to represent his wide tastes, encompassing the experimental roots music of Henry Flynt, the pioneering French prog of Richard Pinhas’ Heldon, and, most recently, the slobbering proto-punk of Cleveland’s Electric Eels. “I wouldn’t put out a record that I didn’t personally like,” Viaduct says. “Sometimes we are asked to do records because they’re rare. It’s easy to decide not to do those, if I don’t like the music.” Hence bigger names like Devo and the Residents sit in the Superior Viaduct roster next to artists who might not even come up in a Google search were it not for the label.
It might be tempting to connect these diverse releases with a broad aesthetic stamp, perhaps a uniform packaging style that would brand each issue as a Superior Viaduct product. But, refreshingly, all cover artwork is reproduced as it was on the original record; the only additions are an SV logo and sometimes new inserts with photos and notes that add historical context. In the cases of archival records of unreleased material that need original art, Viaduct still keeps things simple. “I think that the label has a pretty defined aesthetic in terms of artwork: simple imagery and not too much text,” he says. “Some of the best album designs are ones that don’t have any text on the front cover.”
Superior Viaduct has released a few CD titles, but the majority are on vinyl—a choice less about collectibility than practicality. “Vinyl is the format that most of our releases originally came out on, so it makes sense to do them that way,” Viaduct explains. “Also, I love the quality of vinyl. From hyper-limited pressings of outsider folk artists to audiophile classic bebop albums, there is no mistaking one record for another. I’m not so sure that you can say the same about digital releases, which tend to be all done the same way.”
Stranded, the Oakland record store co-owned by Steve Viaduct
Besides running the label, Viaduct also co-owns a record store in Oakland called Stranded. A few months ago he quit his day job to concentrate on the store and label full-time; Superior Viaduct has plans for 25 releases next year. It sounds like a pretty exhausting schedule, even for a diehard, but Viaduct makes it sound like a dream. “There is nothing like digging through the archive of one of your favorite bands,” he gushes. “It is sometimes hard to contain the fan-boy in me when opening boxes that have been in the basement for 30 years and finding rare cassettes or random photos with cryptic scribbles on them.”
We asked Viaduct to gush some more, and give us some details behind five of the most interesting Superior Viaduct releases.
Alice Coltrane: A Monastic Trio
This stunning 1968 LP was pianist/harpist Coltrane’s first as a leader, recorded in the year after her husband John’s passing. Her playing is consistently surprising, and inspires high-level performances from veterans Pharoah Sanders (sax) and Rashied Ali (drums). “She was one of those unheralded geniuses that really should be more of a household name than she is,” says Viaduct. “She went above and beyond the task of carrying on the legacy of her husband, fusing together all sorts of traditions (jazz, new-age, classical) to make totally singular and unique music. Even before our reissue came out, I played A Monastic Trio all the time at my record store, and customers would constantly ask: Wow, what is this?”
Crime: Murder By Guitar
The late 70’s SF punk band Crime only released three singles during their existence, but those (and other recordings) have been issued numerous times in the intervening decades. Murder By Guitar is perhaps the finest yet, combining those three 7"s with previously unheard studio material. “I first heard Crime while living in Cleveland. Someone made me a dub of a dub cassette of their singles, which was so muffled and warped, but perfect for driving around unplowed streets in the winter,” Viaduct recalls. “The dual lead guitars have an almost call-and-response quality that drills into your head and reads your mind. When I moved to San Francisco, I thought that I would magically find originals in the bins of the local shop. Nope. Like everyone else, I have been waiting years and years for this LP collection to come out.”
Henry Flynt: Graduation
Among his many innovations, Henry Flynt combined modern drone compositional techniques with traditional Southern music into something he called “new American ethnic music,” or “avant-garde hillbilly.” Graduation, recorded in 1980was meant as his first album in this style, but its original label never released it; a CD edition emerged in 2001, and Superior Viaduct’s issue is the first vinyl version. “The music is so pure, and Peter Moore’s photos of the recording sessions are so perfect,” says Viaduct. “We put his mysterious 8x10 prints on a plain white jacket as if they were just laying around, waiting to be discovered—much like Flynt’s profound work.”
MX-80 Sound: Hard Attack
This Bloomington, Indiana band has carved out a long history of unpredictable avant-rock, and it all began with Hard Attack, issued in 1977 in the UK on Island Records. “When people ask me what does MX-80 sound like, it’s hard to know what to say because they occupy a space that exists between genres. Proto punk? Free-jazz? My usual answer is to just put on Hard Attack,” says Viaduct “The band has a legendary work ethic (rehearsing 6 nights a week, 52 weeks a year) and they put the same effort towards the reissue project. Not only did they go back to the original tapes and find 19 unreleased tracks, they put in countless hours to meticulously restore the album to sound like it was always meant to be. All I could do was stand back and listen in awe.”
Sensations' Fix: Fragments of Light
Italy’s Sensations’ Fix spent most of the 70’s as a trio, but their debut was actually a solo concoction, made by guitarist/keyboardist/singer Franco Falsini when he was living in the US. Released on Polydor in 1974, it’s much more diverse and unpredictable than the group’s reputation as proto-New Age travelers would suggest. “A friend of mine from Italy introduced me to Fragments of Lights, and I was blown away the first time I heard it,” Viaduct remembers. “There’s a lot of cool kosmische textures going on, but for me it keeps coming back to this meditative vibe that I think a lot of bands today are trying to translate. Earlier this year I finally got a chance to meet Franco Falsini, and I was not disappointed when he said that he hears Fragments the same way.”
IV: Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage: Anyone Can Learn Guitar
Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge
In early October, Chris "Critter" Eldridge inducted his father into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. Standing on stage in front of a packed house that had filed in on red carpet, wearing ball gowns and suits, Eldridge explained how his father, Ben, and his band, the bluegrass advancers The Seldom Scene, had impacted his life, long before he could play guitar. He’d marveled at their skill and their spirit and now, more than 40 years since they became a band, at their stamina for evolving.
Eldridge seems to have inherited that last trait: Though he’s just past 30, Eldridge has already joined The Seldom Scene, founded the bluegrass journeymen The Infamous Stringdusters, played with pop stars and become an anchor of the Punch Brothers, a string band making simultaneous inroads in pop, classical, bluegrass and jazz.
You can hear all of the reflected in Avalon, Eldridge’s collaboration with Julian Lage, another guitar polyglot. A one-time child prodigy who has emerged as a refined instrumental craftsman, Lage has toured with Gary Burton and Jim Hall, made roots music with David Grisman and delved deep into theoretical concerns at the Berklee College of Music. Just this week, at John Zorn’s Lower East Side show space The Stone, Lage hosted a residency that traced those wide interests by moving from collaborations with songwriters and string quartets and picking alongside Eldridge to sets with electronics and Zorn himself.
Before a show at The Standard hotel in East Village, Lage and Eldridge sat to talk about the various teachers who brought them through all those styles. You can hear it, too, on Avalon, a live record where even the most complex guitar passages feel as natural and easy as Eldridge’s plain country singing. They dip and dive through the standard “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” cling to economy for “Mean Mother Blues” and wrap into delicate tangles during the stunning original “Steady Proof.” It’s a sophisticated guitar LP that doesn’t sound sophisticated, an effort that folds its intense erudition deep beneath its lovely surface.
Chris "Critter" Eldridge's Teachers
The Seldom Scene
My thing with teachers is that I didn’t have a lot, not in the sense of, “Oh, I’m going to study with my teacher now.” That said, I grew up with a lot of people who, on records or in life, were mentors. Growing up with The Seldom Scene was a huge thing. They’re a really awesome band, and I got to hear them all the time. But I got to know them as people. I got to see that these guys were real and hung out backstage and ate breakfast, and I would see them walk up onstage and play this incredible music. The idea of playing music and playing great music was something that always seemed very attainable, something that normal people do.
Tony Rice's Records
When I got a little older and started playing guitar seriously, I wanted to play electric guitar. All my cheesy guitar heroes were coming out of the ’80s, plus guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I took a few lessons as a kid at the local guitar shop. They were undoubtedly helpful to show me a few things, but nothing I really took with me. I stopped doing that, stayed obsessed with music and sucked at it for a really long time. I was very much not a child prodigy.
And then I found Tony Rice’s music. A light bulb went off. With all this music that I’d been listening to and obsessing over for five years, Tony Rice was an outlet. All this stuff I had been putting in my head, I could find a way for it to get out that made sense. I picked up a lot of the values I hold dear and that define me as a musician at that point. What I admire in Tony’s playing is that there is a clarity of thought, a purity of tone, a tremendous amount of rhythmic integrity. When Tony Rice is playing guitar, especially when he was young, you didn’t hear what he was playing. You heard what he wanted you to hear. He had this ability as a conjurer.
Jazz in the Conservatory
I went off to college at Oberlin. For the first time, I had a guy who was a teacher and mentor, the jazz guitar teacher Bobby Ferrazza. As a player, he was super rooted in the old tradition. Pat Martino was his teacher.
I was not interested in playing traditional jazz guitar, but he’s very open-minded. He recognized that I was serious about all of this, and he gave me the space to follow my path. He would see if I was struggling and see if there was a way to think about something that would open up a box I had put myself in. All the knowledge he tried to pass on to me was knowledge that I needed at that time, rather than trying to say, “This is what you should do.”
At Oberlin, they do this thing called winter term. The month of January sucks in Northeast Ohio, so you take it off. You design an academic project, and you do it in January. I thought that it would be awesome to go study with Tony Rice, because I was obsessed. My dad knew him for ages and played on his records. He was a guy we knew. To my absolute surprise, he said, “Come on down and stay with me a week.”
I went down to his house, and we spent the whole week hanging out in his basement—listening to music, talking about music, talking about what it meant to be a musician. We played almost no guitar. In fact, that entire week and even in my whole life, we’ve never once sat and player guitar together.
That was the vast majority of my experience having a teacher, spending that week with him. I was 19, and I was really into this idea—as a teenager would be—of being the greatest flatpicker, the most crazy flatpicker, anybody had ever heard. I was playing all these stupid Eric Johnson licks over “Cat on the Cane.” He said, “What are you doing, man?” The whole point is that your job is to collaborate with other musicians, to make sounds that are pleasing to listen to. That doesn’t mean they need to sound pretty. But you’re here to make music, and your music is going to be received by somebody. That was hugely pivotal.
Chris Thile has such a clear vision about the way he thinks music should be, and it’s uncompromising. By being in that situation, I’ve learned how he thinks about structure. Just to see how his mind operates has been fascinating. I’ve learned to be in a band, how to coexist with four other people and make musical sacrifices for the greater good. A lot of times, those dreams I talked about of being when I was a 19-year-old, there’s no place for him in Punch Brothers, not in the guitar chair. I wind up playing power chords half the time. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but I had to learn that lesson. The music is much bigger than me.
Julian Lage's Teachers
His Father, Mario Lage
I’m the youngest of five children, and my dad bought a guitar when Eric Clapton’s Unplugged came out. I would have been about four. Like a lot of people of his generation, he had the desire to play the guitar, like Clapton with an acoustic playing “Layla.” He took two guitar lessons. That whole year, I begged my parents for a guitar. They said, “No, but if you still want it when you’re five, we’ll get you one.” I obsessed, and when I was five, my parents got me a guitar.
My dad is a visual artist. He had been prodigious as a boy, and he had opening shows when he was 12. He didn’t go down that path, but he understood what it took and how to cultivate curiosity. I had that: I was crazy for anything with the guitar. My dad was a waiter at the time. Someone gave him a life-sized poster of Bruce Springsteen’s Telecaster. My father, being a visual artist, got tracing paper, traced the Tele and went to Home Depot and got a couple of piece of plywood. He cut us out these fake Telecasters, for all of us. We could paint them different colors. Mine had a purple pick-up. I would go to bed with it. It eventually fell off the top bunk and cracked. I was so devastated.
When I got a guitar, he made the very interesting decision that he wanted me to learn to improvise first. He was concerned that if I learned songs, there might be a chance of me playing them incorrectly, and that would be discouraging. And he didn’t want me to play acoustic, because he’d heard that could be hard on the hands. So, it was a Stratocaster with an amp.
On the first day, he said, “This is an A pentatonic scale, and here are three or four positions.” It’s your dad, so if he tells you something, it’s true. But now I realize that’s so advanced to lay on a little kid. He would play blues progressions, and he would say that anything I played was right, just as long as it was within certain parameters. I did that with him everyday for about six months before he went to work. After those six months, my parents noticed that I had a propensity for it, so I started studying at the local guitar store.
The Jazz Guru of Northern California
That led to Randy Vincent, the jazz guru of Northern California, who was my teacher from when I was 8 until 12. I took two three-hour lessons from him for about five years. He would show me everything he knew. He turned me onto Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery and Django. I would get frustrated because he would just talk to me like an adult: “You should consider imposing this on this.” My dad would have to sit there and translate, because I was just a little boy. I’d say, “What’s superimposition?”
Ali Akbar Khan
When I was an early teen, I started studying Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California. I studied tabla and sitar and took one lesson from Ali Akbar Khan, which was incredible. I went to his house. It was an hour lesson, and he spent about 45 minutes just tuning my guitar. I’ve never heard an instrument be more in tune. Not until a decade later, I thought, “That was the lesson.” Then he showed me a raga and said you can improvise within it. He was one of the early proponents for, with Indian music, saying, “You can do it on any instrument. You don’t have to be strict classical.” That left an impression.
When I was a teenager, I started touring with Gary Burton’s band. He's the first person I saw who embodied being a professional musician and everything that came with that. If you’re a virtuoso, you’re on time. You do your taxes a certain way. You communicate with adults a certain way. You construct a sentence a certain way. You give the audience credit and know they can handle whatever you give them. You don’t play down. A lot of those attributes that Critter got from Tony, I ended up getting from Gary.
Berklee College of Music
I went to Berklee College of Music and studied with Mick Goodrick. That was my guy for about two and a half years. A lot of it wasn’t about guitar. A lot of it was about child psychology. His thing was to go way back, to study how you learn, to address patterns in your thinking that might be getting in the way of you realizing a creative spark.
Also, he was into being unapologetically a guitar player. This is not an instrument you should apologize for or wish was a piano. As a jazz musician, that’s often a thing: “Too bad I don’t have 88 keys or the lyricism of a sax.” He said you should be so proud to play the guitar.
There’s a funny division between guitar as an everyman instrument and the more advanced realms of understanding, like jazz or classical, which says that you need to know X, Y and Z before you’re even able to really play that music. X, Y and Z often include certain polyphonic considerations, like two voices at once, which are often easy on the guitar if you don’t put them in this box of “I have to get there.” That’s something that early classical composers knew about the guitar. They’d say there are harmonics. There are bending notes. People who looked at it really objectively didn’t see the caste system that’s in place with contemporary guitar pedagogy. But now you have to get through all these levels. That’s very stifling. At what point do you have permission to dismantle that? Mick was saying you have permission to dismantle that.
My Tony Rice is Jim Hall. I met him when I was 11. I was a superfan. I went to every show he did in the Bay Area. He made himself very available to me, saying, “Hey, I’m Jim. What are you working on? Have you ever thought about this?” It was like we worked for the same company, and I just happened to be new to it. He wasn’t a fan of the past. He would say, “It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” He didn’t have as romantic a notion of the golden age of jazz as I did and a lot of people do. He would say, “I was white. I was playing with black musicians. And we couldn’t stay in the same hotel. Things weren’t good.”
When I moved to New York, I started going over to his house just to visit. I’d go over and hang out with him and his dog and his wife, Jane, and just talk and take him out to lunch. We ended up playing together and doing a small bit of touring. We celebrated his birthday a few days before he passed away. We took him out to lunch. It was like going to the well, to see his kind of punk-liberal attitude. When you see older dudes, someone in their 80s or 90s, you realize they’ve had their eyes open for a long time. But he didn’t seem stiff in his ways. He had that edgy thing: “We could write a setlist tonight, or we could play free. What do we have to lose?” It consistently pointed out how uptight I was, given all my education.
Teaching One Another
Julian Lage: Our courting period of a couple of years was punctuated by epic guitar-nerd-out sessions. We would run into each other at a show and be like, “I’m working on this thing with harmony or this technical problem. You should come over.” We’d play freely for maybe an hour and a half and say, “Whoa, what was that?” And then we would dissect it: “What are you doing with your right hand?” or “Have you ever considered this?” It was a mutual lesson. I’ve never had a relationship with someone that was so uplifting, with someone who could call me out on things and say “Have you considered this?” and follow it up with, “Let’s bring it to the bandstand.”
Chris Eldridge: Julian has had such a great life with teachers and having a series of mentors his entire musical life. And he’s very natural at teaching. Julian is my music guru at this point. We just check in. Julian is this Zen master at this stuff. When we play free, which we do a decent amount, you’re surrendering to the idea that two people are having a musical conversation, and that there is no sense of right or wrong. Punch Brothers can be very empirical. I love that about it, but it’s an extremely different mindset than what we do.
Julian Lage: It’s an allegiance to whatever your sense of abstraction is, whatever your concept is in that moment of messing things up. That’s deserving of both of our energy. If Chris is going there, I’m like, “I’ve got your back, man. That note is the note.” When there is a right or wrong equation, it doesn’t feel appropriate. We can sell it two of five shows, but for three, it seems delusional. It’s good that we can see that with each other.
—Grayson Haver Currin
French poet and playwright Alfred Jarry is best known for his three Ubu plays—most notoriously Ubu Roi, which caused a riot upon its first performance in 1896. Depending on who you believe, the uproar was caused either by the play’s first word, merdre (which could be translated as “shittrr,” or “shite,” or “crrap”... you get the idea) or by its radical departure from theatrical norms—actors, for instance, were required to affect the jerky movements of marionettes. Either way, the pandemonium made Jarry famous across France. For lyrical poet W. B. Yeats, who was in the audience, the play signaled the end of an era: “After all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm… what more is possible? After us the Savage God.”
Although we should be careful of conflating Jarry with Ubu’s monstrous king, his own behavior was colourful to say the least. He reportedly shot at a fellow dinner guest with his beloved Bull Dog revolver (later owned by Picasso, an admirer) and, towards the end of his life, is said to have regularly consumed two liters of wine and three absinthes before midday. But his friends and acquaintances, among them Paul Gauguin and Oscar Wilde, did not regard Jarry as a mere clown. Although he died at just 34, Jarry gave us a lot more than Ubu. He was a journalist, novelist, and pioneer of book design. He also invented ‘pataphysics.
Though ‘pataphysics can be seen as a philosophical prank, it’s hard to knock a concept widely acknowledged to have paved the way for Dada, Futurism, Surrealism, and the Theatre of the Absurd.
Concerned with contradiction rather than rational logic, ‘pataphysics is an inherently slippery subject, and any attempt at explanation runs the risk of taking a joke too seriously. “‘Pataphysics will examine the laws which govern exceptions,” declared Jarry, who also defined it as the “science of imaginary solutions,” describing “a universe which can be—and perhaps should be—envisaged in the place of the traditional one.” While there was an element of science in this abstract philosophy, Jarry himself described ‘pataphysics as extending as far beyond metaphysics, as metaphysics extended beyond physics.
That might sound clear as mud, and certainly ‘pataphysics can be seen as a spoof, a prank: a mischievous celebration of the paradox that hardly deserves serious consideration. At the same time, Jarry’s pseudoscience appealed to everyone from the Marx Brothers to Marcel Duchamp, with Baudrillard, Beckett, Borges, and Ballard among the many others in Jarry’s debt. It’s hard to knock a concept widely acknowledged to have paved the way for Dada, Futurism, Surrealism, and the Theatre of the Absurd. In such a context, the charge of taking a joke too seriously becomes in itself faintly absurd.
‘Pataphysics has also been an important influence on music, or at least on specific musicians in a number of genres. Cleveland art punks Pere Ubu took their name from Jarry's most famous character while, in 1989, industrial pioneers Nurse With Wound released an album entitled Nurses With Wound Present the Sisters of Pataphysics. Among composers, devotees include Gavin Bryars and John White, both of whom released records on Brian Eno’s wonderful Obscure label in the 1970s. Seventies psych rockers Hawkwind and experimental hip-hop producer DJ Spooky are among the disparate others to have been inspired by ‘pataphysics. It was even referenced on “Maxwell's Silver Hammer”, from the Beatles’ Abbey Road, after Paul McCartney heard a version of Jarry’s Ubu Cocu on the BBC.
As far as I know, however, only one band has been officially recognized by the Collège de ‘Pataphysique—founded in Paris in 1948, long after Jarry’s death—and that band is Soft Machine. Robert Wyatt, who emerged in 1966 as the group’s drummer and singer before forming the band Matching Mole and then forging a solo career of rarely paralleled credibility and consistency, had the spiral ‘pataphysics logo painted on his bass drum, and still has a copy of Jarry's writing on his bookshelf today.
“Jarry is funny, and I like so much of the visual art his freedom from logic inspired,” explains Wyatt. “Alfie [Wyatt’s wife and creative partner] passed on to me an unattributed saying: either see it as part of the dance or as if there's a great weight on you. So Surrealism celebrates freedom from rationally perceived reality and describes an aspect of ideas that have long been accepted: the dream worlds of religious art, for example, and fairy tales. But to me, in practice, the simplest and least pretentious access to the celebration of the fanciful is the joke: life as part of the dance.”
Wyatt was introduced to ‘pataphysics in 1967, when Soft Machine—already established, alongside Pink Floyd, as darlings of the London underground scene, and about to tour the States with the Jimi Hendrix Experience—performed a live soundtrack to Ubu Enchaîné at the Edinburgh Festival. By the time of their second album, Wyatt was introducing the band as “the official orchestra of the College of ‘Pataphysics,” going on to prove these credentials by singing the letters of the alphabet in reverse. This was a clear echo of Jarry himself, who had advocated the backwards meal, commencing with brandy and ending with soup.
Always interested in modernism, it is no surprise that Wyatt felt a broad affinity with the Frenchman, whose Ubu Roi had arguably kicked off the whole movement. In particular, Wyatt shares his interest in the ambiguity of language and his emphasis on childhood memory: the grotesque character of Ubu was modeled on Jarry’s unpopular physics teacher, Monsieur Hébert. Jarry’s habit of turning up to the opera wearing a paper shirt adorned with painted black tie also predates Wyatt’s trademark stage outfit—a jacket drawn onto his naked torso in crayon—by over half a century.
So far so funny, but Jarry had a darker side too. The composer and academic Andrew Hugill talks of the “deeply serious humour” of ‘pataphysics, while playwright and translator Kenneth McLeish has referred to ‘pataphysics as “taking seriously the business of taking nothing seriously at all.” This clearly chimes with Wyatt. “I have long thought that funny reaches places to which serious has no direct access,” he explains. “Tragedy has inevitability, but comedy can go anywhere, so I don't find comedy less valuable than tragedy.”
Jarry’s brutal, irreverent humor, at once bleak and celebratory, continues to influence Wyatt’s thinking today: He is quick to laugh and even once described himself as a “sit-down comedian.” (Wyatt has been paraplegic since falling from a fourth-story window in 1973.) Yet it’s not hard to see his humor as the tears-of-a-clown flipside of a generally bleak outlook, from which life is nothing more than a cosmic joke.
“I do think life is grim,” he nods. “You know that saying: The devil is in the detail? I think the devil runs the show, and God is in the detail. The show itself is devilish but, out of that, little beautiful moments can be plucked with luck and skill.”
In terms of his music, the influence of what Wyatt refers to in emails as “Patafizzix” is perhaps most obvious in “Signed Curtain”, a meta-ballad he recorded shortly after leaving Soft Machine. “This is the first verse, this is the first verse,” it begins, and continues in similarly self-referential fashion: “this is the chorus or perhaps it’s the bridge…” And when Wyatt sang on a song for composer John Greaves’ 1996 album Songs, he finally got his chance to deliver the line: “Peel’s foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep.” It is, surely, the longest grammatically correct palindrome in popular music—and it could have come straight from Jarry’s pen.
‘Pataphysics can also be used to explain, or at least to interpret, Wyatt’s political decisions. Denounced as a Stalinist after he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1979, he came back with the Stalin-praising “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’”. But crucially, the track had originally been released by an American group, the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, during the Second World War. It was an uncomfortable reminder for the fiercely anti-Communist leaders of both Britain and the U.S. that, just a couple of decades earlier, the former figurehead of what Reagan called “the evil empire” had been good ol’ Uncle Joe, the West’s ally against Hitler. As well as demonstrating precisely the mischievous sense of humor that so-called Tankies were supposed to lack, this was also an example of the ‘pataphysical concept of clinamen: the slight swerve that creates an entirely new meaning.
Wyatt is no longer a member of the Communist Party but he does still regard Marxism as the most useful lens through which to see the world. Fittingly for a man who has described Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as one of the greatest political satires ever written, he does not see Marxism and ‘pataphysics as mutually exclusive. In fact, they are closely linked, even if politics is dominant: He is, he says, a ‘Pataphysical Marxist rather than a Marxist ‘Pataphysician.
“‘Pataphysics came first,” he explains. “It found me. I did not look for it. But then, a decade later, the politics, too, arrived uninvited. I gradually realized that the world is at war, and we were all implicated. This put me in the same position as any artist in wartime. Do I ignore it, like Matisse, or participate, like Picasso? I accept that both reactions can be seen as, well, acceptable. Matisse and Picasso loved each other, after all.”
“If it were just professional politicians who were bullies and cowards,” he goes on, “these things could be fought out in the open, democratically. And indeed, in domestic politics, they often are. But the collusion of the mainstream media, mostly controlled by unaccountable vested interest groups, leads to an appallingly blinkered consensus regarding foreign affairs, which I cannot bring myself to ignore. In fact, I'd say ‘pataphysics, Dada, and the Theatre of the Absurd prepared me fairly well for considering a wide range of alternative possibilities—not just in art but, by extension, in the world of human communities as well.”
So perhaps ‘pataphysics, Jarry’s semi-spoof philosophy, remains pertinent over a century after its conception. Or is the whole thing just a joke long past its sell-by date? What does Wyatt say to those who think Jarry was simply having us on?
“‘Pataphysics offers a way of looking at things in another way,” he replies. “If it doesn't suit you, no harm done. That's the deal with artists, ain’t it? In his case, the subject is scientific enquiry, but that doesn't mean it's ‘science,’ which is the search for irrefutable evidence. So in a sense, ‘pataphysics is a deliberate oxymoron. Religion is often based on oxymorons: life after death, virgin birth, and so on. In fact you could almost say ‘pataphysics is one of the few such oxymoronic mind-exercises that does not seriously claim to be ‘the truth.’ So the question might as well be, ‘Are theists just having us on?”’
Marcus O’Dair is the author of Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt, which will be published by Serpent’s Tail on October 30. O’Dair is also appearing in conversation with Wyatt at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on November 23, as part of the London Jazz Festival.
Photo by Sandy Kim
In the middle of 2012, Tobias Jesso Jr. bottomed out. Hard. Reeling from a recent breakup, the Vancouver native was riding his bike through Los Angeles, where he had tried—and failed—to make it as a behind-the-scenes songwriter for a few years, when a Cadillac blindsided him, sending him flying, his hand smashing down on the car’s hood ornament. As the driver sped off, Jesso looked down to see a gnarly gash and lots of blood... and then looked up to see a man pedaling away with his bicycle. “He literally waved to me as he was leaving,” says Jesso over Skype, still in disbelief—he holds up his palm to reveal an emergency-room scar in the shape of a “J.” The next day, as he wondered whether his hand would ever work quite as well as it did before, he found out his mother had cancer. That was it. He moved back into his old bedroom in North Vancouver, utterly lost and dejected, feeling like a failure.
With all of his musical equipment in storage back in L.A., he turned to his sister’s abandoned piano, an instrument he had never really played in a serious way. Though Jesso’s experiences with music up until that point—including stints as the bassist for mid-2000s Killers Lite band the Sessions as well as for Avril Lavigne Lite wannabe pop star Melissa Cavatti, and fruitless attempts to write pop songs for other artists—were marked by a youthful desire for success, when he started putting chords and lyrics together at that piano, things were different.
“I felt like I couldn’t play music for success anymore because I didn't succeed,” he says now. “It was a good feeling.” After a few days back home, he woke up from a dream, sat down, and wrote “Just a Dream”, a disarming lullaby about a father’s words to his one-day-old child in the face of an impending apocalypse. He had never felt comfortable with his own casually imperfect singing voice before, but he recorded a hissy demo of the track and posted it to YouTube. “That was the first song I ever wrote where I was like, ‘This is for me, and I'm singing it—take it or leave it,’” he says. “And I got a good response from it.”
A week later, Jesso sent a Hail Mary email to bassist and producer Chet “JR” White, whose band Girls had just broken up, with some kind words and links to his demos. Just a few hours later, White wrote back, which led to a phone call, which—following Jesso’s mother’s recovery—led to recording sessions in San Francisco, and a deal with True Panther Records. “As soon as I walked away, the doors I'd been trying to open the entire time unhinged, and everyone said, ‘This is all right,’” the 29-year-old marvels, flashing a broad, genuine smile outside of his manager’s house in the Hollywood Hills on a recent sunny afternoon.
His forthcoming album Goon, due out next year, features production from White, along with the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, the New Pornographers’ John Collins, and studio guru of the moment Ariel Rechtshaid. It also boasts Jesso’s wonderfully plainspoken songs of heartbreak and apprehension, which bring to mind a less snarky Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson, or a more hopeful Nick Drake. On the classic-sounding “Hollywood”, he tells an autobiographical tale about going through the showbiz wringer. “I think I’m gonna die in Hollywood,” he sings near the end of the song, before unexpected horns swell up, suggesting an unlikely afterlife.
Pitchfork: How did you originally get into music?
Tobias Jesso Jr.: In high school, I tried to impress girls by playing acoustic guitar; I was the kid who had a Sum 41 patch on his bag and wrote “punk” underneath it. I had no clue. I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Killers and the Smiths, really. Then I joined a band, the Sessions, and we ended up winning a worldwide music competition called Emergenza. We went from Vancouver, to Calgary, to Montreal, and then we won Canada. So they flew us to Germany, and we won the whole thing! We didn’t know exactly know how or why. I was as green in the music business as you could get.
Then we got the opportunity to record with [Metallica producer] Bob Rock, who spent a few weeks on turning our songs into “Bob Rock gold.” But it didn't shine the way I would have wanted it to. Listening back to what we'd recorded, I had that pit-in-your-stomach feeling; in the year or two since we had started the band, our musical tastes developed, so by the time we heard our songs back, I was like, "Damn, this just sounds like a band that wants to be the Killers.” They were also dressing us up like Simple Plan, and it was going down that road fast, and I didn't even know what that road was. I was just in the car, like, "Where are we going?" And when we finally got out and took a look, it was like, "I need a ride home."
Pitchfork: After the Sessions broke up, how did you end up in L.A.?
TJJ: Well, the most embarrassing chapter in the book that is my musical career is how I ended up in a fake backup band in a music video for this girl Melissa Cavatti. [laughs] Back in Vancouver, a few guys from the Sessions and I did the shoot, really knocked it out, tried our best. And this girl's dad was like a billionaire, and he came up to us after and said, "Do you want to play in her band?" We didn't take it seriously, but our management at the time was like, "This is a very serious offer." So we were like, "OK, let's go!" They moved us down to L.A., and we thought, "When we get off the plane, we're going straight to Hollywood and there’s going to be a red carpet thrown out for us to walk on straight into success!”
Then we spent about a year in this gigantic space, rehearsing eight songs every single day. It was relentless. And it was all for two shows. Because after that, she was like, "OK, I'm going back to school." So then, I moved to Silver Lake, in a 400-square-foot apartment, and for two-and-a-half years, I was really grinding, trying to get to the core of writing songs.
Those little views into success make you hungry for it, and that makes you try to do something you shouldn't be doing—which could sum up my musical career until I gave up completely and moved back to Vancouver in 2012. In L.A., I was doing it for success. I really was. I wanted to be in the studio writing songs for pop artists. I would still love to do that; Adele's my favorite artist. But that time in L.A. was also like a wake-up call that that's not going to happen. Everything came down to a point where I was like, “I'm not that guy! I'm the guy that makes those guys coffee, and that's that.” And my record is about exactly that: Los Angeles and failing and a breakup.
Pitchfork: How did you feel when you moved back home to Vancouver?
TJJ: I felt so guilty. I was in this small room upstairs like, “This is all I deserve! And I don't even deserve this!”I had that real conversation with my mom where I was like, “I really don't know what I'm going to be. I don't know what I want. The cards aren't falling where I thought, so I'm confused.” She was super fine with it.
Then I wrote “Just a Dream”, and from there it was a real shift. It was not even close to any of the other music I had written before. I hadn't really dove into any slow ballads, and it was my first time on piano. That was literally as fast as I could play. And every demo was the first I'd ever performed that song right. I felt I could send “Just a Dream” out to my friend, even though I wasn't the type of guy who would put my voice on something and send it to a friend. As far as the lyrics, I wasn't trying to be too poetic about it. I don't think I could be poetic if I tried. I didn't think twice about it.
Around this time, the band Girls had broken up, and I was a huge fan—Christopher Owens has a great voice, but he was one of my first anti-voice heroes. I was like, “Wow, he's just going for it.” It was more like a purging than him showing off.
Pitchfork: So what happened after you emailed Girls’ JR White some of your demos out of the blue two years ago?
TJJ: He wrote back and said, "Please call this number." I called him and he said, "How many songs do you have? Do you think you could write some more?" I was like, "I definitely think I could write some more!" And then I started playing piano for 12 hours a day and really trying to study why songs worked this way and that way, and what I liked about structures.
JR was like, "Come down to San Francisco and you can write here and sleep on my couch.” So I tried to go down and got rejected at the American border. Then I tried to to go down again and got rejected again. They basically said, "We will never let you in for over a week without a work visa again." When I finally got the visa and tried one more time, the immigration officer was a real hard guy and he got me so shook that I promised him a credit on my album. I saw him again when I went back to Canada, and he was like, "How's that record?" I was like, "You're gonna be on it!"
Pitchfork: The demos you’ve put out have a very ‘70s singer/songwriter feel, is that what the album will sound like?
TJJ: I love Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson now, but I wasn't listening to that when I wrote the songs on the album; everyone assumes I was pulling from this inspiration that I had no idea about. I really didn't want a '70s record, and I'm trying to be very conscious about not going down that road too much. I wanted to make something contemporary.
Pitchfork: A lot of your songs, like “True Love”, are hopelessly romantic, would you describe yourself that way, too?
TJJ: Yeah, I feel that way all the time. I mean, I've been in love since I was 14; it’s always focused on someone or something and it's always unrequited. It's led to a lot of cheesy lines, but it's also the way I am. I want to be romantic, and songs are a good way to do that.
Photo by Fernanda Pereira
If you were on the right wavelength—chemically, or otherwise—Noah Lennox’s recent run of Panda Bear shows were a sight to behold. The closing moments were particularly eruptive: As the sounds wound down, three women with painted faces appeared on a screen and proceed to vomit all over themselves, repeatedly, with shit-eating grins. One of them even lapped up the vomit from her chin. As far as big finishes go, it was effective and kind of hilarious.
When I bring it up to Lennox at Brooklyn’s Cafe Colette later on, he laughs knowingly, and proceeds to do his own impression of the vomiting trio. “The decision to end with that image is very intentional,” he says with a sincere grin, a look of excitement that stands at odds with the purity of the music associated with his solo work. “It’s funny to me, and it’s pretty rocked-out, too,” he says. “Though I miss out on the visuals onstage sometimes.”
It’s understandable that Lennox can’t constantly marvel at longtime visual accomplice Danny Perez’s trippy, occasionally grotesque imagery—which also includes kaleidoscopic images of candy and a short video of a masked figure destroying a stuffed panda bear—because he’s got a vast array of electronic equipment to manipulate, including an Octatrack board, which allows him to trigger and tweak pre-loaded sounds in real time. But the most important weapon in his sonic arsenal is still his voice, a strong, sonorous instrument that is the touchstone of his solo releases as well as many of Animal Collective’s most memorable songs.
Lennox’s latest solo record, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, due out January 13 via Domino, gives his choirboy pipes more of a workout than ever before, a collection of melodically rich tunes that bubble up and burst as a distinctly murky glow surrounds them. The album, which, like 2011’s Tomboy, was co-produced with former Spacemen 3 member Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom. But unlike the monastic, moonlit ballads that marked that album, Grim Reaper instead harkens back to the heady, sampledelic vibes of his landmark 2007 LP Person Pitch. “When I listen to Tomboy now, it sounds very somber and serious in tone,” Lennox says reflectively. “This new record has more of a sense of humor. It’s not wacky, but it’s the sound of me having fun.” The new record is preceded by this week’s Mr. Noah EP, which includes its first single and three non-album tracks.
Lennox utilized stock sample packs in putting together Grim Reaper’s songs in an attempt to showcase a more simplified sound; a few songs, such as the stunning seven-minute ballad “Tropic of Cancer”, count as among the most straightforward music he’s made yet. “My previous tendency was to fuzz my music out a little bit,” he explains. “But this time I wanted to make really simple melodies that were more clearly defined.”
Lennox’s lyrics have frequently touched on universal themes—family, protection, self-doubt—and Grim Reaper finds the 35-year-old dealing with the realities of encroaching middle age. “I’m getting older, and my kids are growing up—my daughter is 9 years old, and my son is 4,” he says. “I often feel like I’m climbing up a mountain to get to the top, but lately, instead of looking up towards the place, I’m looking down. That feeling is central to this record.”
Granted, those feelings might not be easy to pick out of Lennox’s songs (even with a lyric sheet at hand), and that’s intentional. “Everything I talk about on the songs was inspired by personal events,” he says. “But I whittled away at the words so that they’d feel more universal and less about things that happened to me.” Indeed, the lyrics on Grim Reaper are considerably more obtuse than what’s come before it and loaded with animal imagery—a callback to Animal Collective’s “Derek”, the closing song from their 2007 album Strawberry Jam, which was a tribute to a deceased pet. “I grew up with a lot of pets and my family’s currently on the threshold of getting into that world,” he says. “I have a thing with wolves and dogs, especially—the sound of a wolf howling was a big inspiration for a lot of these songs.”
Pitchfork: The idea of getting older is a narrative thread that runs through this album, and the title seems to explicitly reference death.
Noah Lennox: There’s this dub record by Augustus Pablo, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, and I always thought that those type of album titles were sick, so I sort of did my own version of that. I didn’t want this record to seem dark and drab—I wanted it to seem more playful-sounding, and that title feels very comic book-y to me.
Pitchfork: With a live show that relies almost entirely on electronic equipment and the use of sampling, is your setup particularly accident prone?
NL: I’ve actually had a lot of trouble with these machines lately. What they do is amazing to me, and it was my hope that I could be flexible with them, because the other samplers I used to perform with were limiting. I love my current setup, but it glitches out on me all the time. I’ve had four or five shows now where a component craps out during the show and I’m troubleshooting the rest of the set, which is not fun. It’s not always obvious to the audience, but the guys on my team always know—probably because I’m up there looking pissed off.
But it’s important to have an element of discomfort present. If the set was totally perfect, the performance might suffer a little bit. When I go into a show thinking, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this,” it’s like when an animal gets cornered and thinks it’s going to die. My senses are heightened, and I hope that makes me perform better. There’s a lot of great ways to put on a show, but the thing about improvisation is that your chances of doing something that feels alive and exciting is as high as your chances of completely falling on your face. I love seeing shows where I don’t know what to expect. Sometimes it feels like stuff is falling apart and then coming back together, and that sort of atmosphere can be very exciting.
Pitchfork: You’ve lived in Lisbon with your wife and children for a decade now. Do you ever get the desire to return to New York?
NL: When I moved away, I was ready to leave [New York] but I didn’t know where I wanted to go. It was at the end of an Animal Collective tour and we had taken a couple of days off just to decompress. I fell in with a group of people and met this girl, and she and I would visit each other. After going back and forth for a while, I decided to try it out [in Lisbon]—it seems like a rash decision now. [laughs] I miss things about New York and America in general, for sure. But if I moved back here, I’m sure there’s things I’d miss about Portugal too. As far as I’ve seen in my life, there’s positives and negatives about pretty much any place.
Pitchfork: How has fatherhood changed your day-to-day life?
NL: I definitely went out to shows more when I was younger, but we still go out every once and a while. There was a show in a park in Lisbon in the middle of the day that I went to right before this tour—the bill was Moodymann, Dâm-Funk, Carl Craig, and Isolée, and it was the best thing I’ve seen in a while.
Pitchfork: Your daughter’s almost 10 now, is she getting interested in making music herself?
NL: Not really. She’s more of a visual person, she loves to draw but she doesn’t care about music that much. I’ve tried to get her interested in my music—sometimes I’ll be like, “Check this out, look at this electronic instrument”—but she has no interest. I haven’t been able to convince her yet. I’ll keep trying, though.
With their fearless art sparked by issues of race, equity, and unconscious connection, outsider collective Black Constellation offers a radical reckoning of our current cultural moment.
Dazed and reverent, several hundred people wander the halls of Seattle’s Frye Art Museum as improvised music swirls through the space like liquid, one moment bass-heavy and hypnotic, the next sinister and insistent. Stationed in nooks around the museum, Ishmael Butler, OCnotes, Erik Blood, and Tendai Maraire weave together drum machines, digital effects, filtered guitar, congas, keyboards and vocal incantations, each musician connected to the other via headphone signal. The sound is similar to Shabazz Palaces, Butler's outré hip-hop project with Blood and Maraire, but stretched oblong and pulled inside-out. The quartet’s sonic sculpture—almost four-dimensional, attuned to and enhanced by its environment, abstracted by sheer duration—lasts for four nonstop hours. Around 10 p.m., the music fades, the crowd breaks its quiet, and applause surges through the museum like a wave.
"Expanding the Now: The Continual Line", as this night in early September is called, is the culmination of an exhibit of visual art at the Frye called Your Feast Has Ended. In its abundance of symbol and object, in its originality and execution, the whole affair feels ambitious, consequential beyond its modest Seattle setting.
Your Feast Has Ended centers on the work of three visual artists from different parts of the world: Nep Sidhu from Toronto, Nicholas Galanin from Alaska, and Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes from Seattle. Their art dwells on patently difficult themes like appropriation, oppression, access, and revolution. It meditates on the metaphysics of language, architecture, and ritual. It riffs on and ridicules pop-culture consumerism. Rather than canvas and paint, it’s fashioned from marble and parchment, chromed steel, taxidermy, porcelain, wood, video. And it dresses up the artists—literally—in bad-ass leather finery inspired by African-American visionaries like Octavia Butler, the Universal Zulu Nation, and the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Galanin's “Inert” paws the floor in the center of one gallery, a rug coming to life as a taxidermy wolf; his “Indian Children's Bracelet” is a set of iron handcuffs. A series of Alley-Barnes' mixed-media collages hang on the walls of another gallery—vintage letterman jackets, Hudson's Bay blankets, and other textiles folded and arranged into arcane glyphs and given titles like “Wait! Wait! Don't Shoot (An Incantation for Jazz and Trayvon)” and “Der Raubüberfall”(which Butler tells me translates to “The Heist”, presumably a nod to Macklemore's breakthrough album). The three square monoliths of Sidhu's “Confirmation” triptych hang in the Frye's entry gallery. Constructed of planed marble and anodized aluminum, they loom heavy with weight literal and symbolic, Sanskrit translations of Alley-Barnes' poetry and Shabazz Palaces lyrics drawn by hand and disappearing into mandala-like infinity.
“Inert” by Nicholas Galanin. Photo by Wayne Leidenfrost/The Vancouver Sun. Courtesy of the artist/Frye Art Museum.
The artists, plus the four musicians, plus Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White of hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction, are all in attendance. Along with Seattle-born, L.A.-based filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, they comprise the collective known as Black Constellation. The group came together in the last three or four years; nobody's exactly sure when. Butler is the polestar but the Constellation is only visible as a collection. Most of the time it exists as an amorphous extended family, occasionally collaborating—spooky action at a distance. This night is a commingling of its core members exercised in a very visible, tangible way. Black Constellation incarnate.
There is no Black Constellation manifesto; "We don't hold meetings," Irons tells me later. The thread between the crew is the breath of life, the consecration of the act of creation. And meaningful creation in 2014 might not be a two-way street. It probably is not a polite conversation.
We're heading into an American future in which white people are no longer the majority, where racism and gender bias are publicly acknowledged as the enemy of progress. The cultural vanguard has pushed the boat away from the status quo, into uncharted waters toward collectivism and the inevitable reclaiming of power. Artists like Black Constellation are steering the ship.
What happened at the Frye—the reason Black Constellation exists—transcends the fundamental flaws of our mediated landscape, one that positions #Ferguson alongside #Pharrell, that conflates glamor with talent, product with art. The artists certified a feeling that's on the cusp of consensus, something we all feel but, like a trick of the eye, flits away before we can fully engage. Black Constellation articulate that feeling—the bittersweet, phantom-limb sensation where genuine human relationships are supposed to be.
It's there in Lese Majesty, the recent full-length from Shabazz Palaces. It's there in Rize Vadzimu Rize, from Tendai Maraire's Chimurenga Renaissance project. It's there in every mixtape THEESatisfaction drop and Black Weirdo party they host, every album Erik Blood produces. It was there at the Frye. The music, the artwork, the lyrics, the titles—taken together, they comprise a not-so-subtle provocation, a challenge to a commercial compromise issued by people who embrace outsider status as a form of credibility.
Black Constellation is doing by example, not didacticism; no easy lessons stem from this crew. But a stanza from "Ishmael", the tent pole track from Lese Majesty, offers a hint, a path, toward an encompassing ethos. Butler raps:
From a future’s past platoon
Brought forth in rhymes
From secret memories of way better times
When we was raisin’ high
Couldn’t sell us none of this shit
You could back us against that wall
But you’d hear that click, another clip
I’m asking, Where did it go?
What happened to my folks?
All our beauty bought by empty corp
Loving what you don't
I can’t understand it
Why we ain't hold sway
And place ourselves behind
All these things we paved the way
"Blackness is a very important part of our thing," Blood tells me later over several Buffalo Trace whiskies at a Seattle cocktail bar. "It’s a detail, but it’s an important detail. It’s our perception of reality. It affects the art that we make and how we view things in the world and how people listen to us. Black music is for everybody—but people still feel weirdly threatened." That threat is of engaging eye-to-eye with a group of people who have been systematically diminished, who are now moving upward and forward, who don't care whether or not you get it.
That's the sense I get meeting with Alley-Barnes and Butler in the Frye's café patio a few days before “Expanding the Now”. Talking to them about what the art means—foolish. Meaning happens everywhere, on a moment-to-moment basis.
"The art is actually the leavings, man," Alley-Barnes says. "This is what Western society has failed to understand in all the years that you guys—I'm comfortable saying 'you guys'—have been studying these things."
You guys. That's me, the nosy journalist? The concerned white guy? The only person here not part of Black Constellation? Yes, yes, and yes.
"You get really interested in the mark that's left but pay no attention to the motion it took to make it, or what the training was, or why that mark has that curve, or any of that, and that's backwards,” he continues. “So now you've got all these industries focused on the ephemera or the leavings of sacred things. And part of the difficulty for a lot of people is that you guys don't start at a seed or any level of root growth. You're talking about the skin of the peach that fell and hit you on the head having never looked up or down."
The suggestions here are deep: Intellect does more harm than good. Media is a series of clueless, pointless arguments for the sake of argument. Art and music have been commodified and drained of the vitality required to create them, fire turned to ash and then sold to the lazy and gullible who don't know themselves enough to question the whole equation.
Alley-Barnes has long been Black Constellation's primary scribe; he penned the group's earliest bios, which read more like sci-fi mythology than press materials. Where the rest of the collective swaddles social critique in lyricism or metaphor, he's bold and querulous. He visibly winces at my questions—he's basically just humoring me—but the intellectual connection between him and Butler is seamless.
"Language is a very superficial way to communicate," Butler says, "and people feel like because you can read and talk that you're somehow superior than other people who communicate in different ways. It's not that it don't matter, but it just don't really matter to us like that."
Me, struggling: "So the art is the thing?"
"Not just the art," Butler says. "Inhaling and exhaling is the thing.”
He continues: “This is not to be exclusive or elite or separate, but to let you people understand that this notion of the individual being of ultimate importance is lame and weak and, most of all, corny. There's feast and then there's famine. Those that have been hungry, not allowed to participate in the feast—that's not going to continue. This blind, comment-less avarice and greed for nothing, selling out of the culture for no reason without really gaining anything but personal stuff—that's over."
My conversation with Sidhu, conducted over the phone while he's in his Toronto studio, takes a similar direction, albeit in a more patient tone. He too is skeptical of vague curiosity coming from agenda-driven media. He's looking for a more direct connection between art and audience, even a total dissolution of the perceived distinction between the two.
“Hip-hop has always been a balancing,” he says. “I want to see fine women getting down to music as much as I want to see thoughtful rebellious chants. When it starts becoming one thing, it's dangerous and boring.”
“And people don’t want to rely on instinct anymore, they rely on pre-programmed ideas of what a certain style is supposed to look like and how they can monetize that and things have become more about the brand than the idea itself,” he continues. “The only way to go up against that is to celebrate what vanity and rhythm and sexuality and geometry looks like to us. And hopefully it points to the potential of what could be. There's no mantras, none of that. We just want the world to speak for itself and people to get down with it and dream through it."
“(Re) Confirmation A” by Nep Sidhu. Courtesy of the artist/Frye Art Museum.
The dreaming—that feeling of unconscious cosmic connection—is what calls a zealous slice of the world to Shabazz Palaces and Black Constellation. Scholars in New Orleans and New York, experimental musicians in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, a writer in Seattle who's followed Butler's every move since his old group Digable Planets put out their first album in 1993. Constellation's legacy is over two decades in the making, grand tenure in pop culture timekeeping. Even if Alley-Barnes is right about pointless chatter, we continue to engage in it because we believe we've intuited something crucial from the art. There's gospel here. There's truth.
"There's never been a conversation!" Blood says about the illusory cultural give-and-take that Feast addressed. "It's always been: This is how it is as told by those on high. There are people that decide what's right and people either accept it or fight against it. Fighting against it shouldn't be taken any more aggressively than the status quo. Think about the way things are discussed in polite society versus how things actually are—they do not meet.
"In this city, we live in this liberal bubble isolated from the rest of the world," he says, talking about Seattle but potentially referring to any urban center in America. "Our troubles are small. So when we're confronted with the reality that the rest of the world lives in, it disrupts this bubble. Because we feel like we're doing all the right things: We're living in a good place; we're voting for the right things; we're buying the right shit that doesn't hurt the Earth. But we're ignoring the fact that human beings are not being listened to. Grown men and women are still being treated like animals, their opinions not being heard, and when you treat someone like an animal for decades they begin to react like an animal. If you have to just accept that's what's happened to us, we're not going to try to have a conversation on your terms. We're not going to be polite. We don't have time to explain everything."
That such a radical reckoning could come from a place like Seattle isn't as remarkable as it seems. At any given time, this city holds more ambivalence and more potential than even its residents can know. Legal weed, $15 minimum wage, marriage equality, a socialist city council member: These are signifiers of a community groping toward a new kind of future. The Northwest is the last American place, the inexorable terminus of Manifest Destiny, and history is made here like lava forming new landmass. The Seattle most of the world sees is the most ham-fisted, obvious part—grunge classically; Macklemore lately. But a dark magic seeps from the cracks of the city and is here for the finding.
For example, Black Constellation. The group delves headfirst and eyes-open into the currency of race in America, but race is only the starting point. The art zooms toward issues of balance, sustainability, equity. Issues of humanity. A push toward equity led by "those on high" is cynical, even insulting. But when the push comes from the outside, it’s grounded in reality beyond the bubble. When it comes from a set of accomplished artists with a strong, positive vision of the future, it's gilded in cultural cool. To acknowledge the truth of history, the urgency of the present moment, the open horizon of the future—that's expanding the now.
“Wait! Wait! Don't Shoot (An Incantation for Jazz and Trayvon)” by Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes. Courtesy of the artist/Frye Art Museum.
"Think about certain ruins that aren't around anymore, certain languages, certain civilization, certain cultures, certain things that have quote-unquote vanished off the face of the Earth," Butler says. "There were cool people then, stylistic people, brilliant people, artistic people, sexy people, nice people, beautiful people. All these people contributed to the energy of that civilization, and who knows where it shows up in this day and age. The future teeters on the edge of the now."
Putting live music in an art museum is unconventional but not unprecedented, and the history of hip-hop is built on polymath collectives. The gravity of Black Constellation comes not from novelty but the timing of the message: Your Feast Has Ended. It feels right because it is.
Shabazz Palaces is currently touring around the world. THEESatisfaction will release a new album early next year. Erik Blood is working with a slew of Seattle luminaries and readying his next solo record. Nep Sidhu, Nick Galanin, and Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes are showing their work online and in the far corners of North America. No need to gaze toward the heavens to find the Black Constellation. It's coming to you.
Photo by Alma Haser
Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with virtuoso electronic producer Chris Clark, whose seventh album, Clark, is out November 3 via Warp.
Best Book I’ve Read Recently
While making this album, I read a science fiction novel called Annihilation, which is about a speculated alien invasion. It's so dark, with some proper creepy moments.
At its best, science fiction makes you look at the world from a completely outside perspective and feel separate from normal human experience, which can be very weird. At the time I was reading the book, I was isolated and working quite intensely during the day in a barn in the English countryside, not really seeing anyone, getting into these weirded-out states, and going for late night walks on my own [laughs]—which is not something I do normally. But all that helped me to be taken out of myself a bit.
It relates to the idea of just imagining that you're not human. Also, getting weirdly human sounds out of mechanical inanimate objects fascinates me, like making a synth sound like a human cry or laugh. That's just the most endlessly inspiring thing to me.
Dumbest Recent Purchase
I bought this really stupid pair of socks because I'm probably at an age where having a daft pair of socks feels rebellious. It led me to this thing that Mark Pritchard taught me, which is to always take off your shoes for a show. Honestly, it works really well. I'm usually very nervous before a gig if I'm in my shoes, but if I take them off, suddenly it's like everyone's in your front room. It brings this cocky confidence to the live show. I recommend it to anyone.
First Record I Bought Myself
I was about 7 and it was Bananarama’s True Confessions. There was a photo of Bananarama in the liner notes, and the nose of one of the singers was missing, and I remember discussing it with my friend and saying that we still quite fancied her.
It would have to be that Bananarama image in full, on my chest.
Dream Merch Table Item
I reckon Clark licorice would be pretty good.
Favorite Music Video
The one with Noel Gallagher talking so scathingly about all the old Oasis videos. It's the best postmodern pop music video ever. Strangely humbling for him.
Favorite New Artist
Sophie. I know a lot of people think his music is satire, but there's too much commitment and craft involved for it not to be serious. It can be humorous and still moving. I don't know why people make those divisions—can't it be just what it is? He’s got some great melodies—and if you transposed them onto different instruments, they would still be great melodies.
That’s something I think about a lot with electronic music: How would this hold up if you tried to translate it onto real instruments? We're in this era where we can listen to textures, and I love that. But it's weird to think that, if the power runs out and computers finally die, how will we remember this music in 50 years? How can that music be translated and continued? It's scary, because it's all very perishable. But that doesn't make it any less of a worthy pursuit; it makes it more exciting, in a way. Even so, I like the idea of form being something that can transcend genre or technology, and that's something I want in my music.
Scott Walker would be interesting, but I'd want him to go back to the Scott 3 era, which I'm sure he's not up for at all.
My Morning Routine
Now, I'm a very early riser. But when I was a student, I used write music stoned until 5 in the morning. I would get lost in sheets of grey noise and reverb because I was so high and sleep-deprived—and then think I had created the eighth wonder of the world… until I’d listen to it with a hangover the next day.
But then, when I was around 23, I started treating it more seriously; if I'm not up by a certain time now, I know the work won't be as sharp. Across the four-month period when I did this new album, I got up at 6 in the morning and worked until 6 in the evening. When I wake up at an early hour, ideas come quite easily because I’m not scrutinizing my mood with thought. The music just happens. It's when thought comes in that everything starts going wrong and it can turn into some abstract intellectual prog nightmare. That said, I'm not judging anyone that gets up after 8. Or am I? [laughs]
Favorite Recent TV Show
There was this British show called “Utopia” where they let out a horrendous flu that kills people and then give out the vaccine for it, but the vaccine sterilizes humanity. And it's got some amazing sociopaths in it. I love TV that makes you care about a murdering sociopath.
Favorite Record Store
I'm such a post-Internet kid. I just always buy MP3s. I haven't been to a record shop in years. I should support them. I haven't got a vinyl player set up in my flat, anyway.
Best Recent MP3 Purchase
"Gotta Have the Pokey" by Raheem Hershel
Favorite Recent Audiobook
I've got Madame Bovary on loop—the guy narrating it has this amazing voice that sends me to sleep. It's 16 hours long, so I've got no idea of the structure of the story, but I like going to sleep to it. Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night and there'll be this passage about a sunrise and it makes me have these amazing dreams. I'm not sure I know how it ends yet, but I'm sure I've heard the ending about four times by now.
How two 39-year-old rap underdogs combined vulgarity, politics, and cartoons in order to become one of the hottest hip-hop duos in America
Inside the two-story main cabin on board the S.S. Tyrannic—ringing the balcony, posted up the staircase, packed onto the first floor—a crowd of young men and women are clad in spandex suits and masks, beards and wigs, capes and facepaint. One guy carries a huge spear. They shout along to the music, hands chopping through air. A man with a quiver of arrows slung across his back shifts his longbow to make way for an oversized milkshake dancing his way through the balcony. It's the weekend of Comic Con in New York, and the party is in full swing on Adult Swim's three-hour tour up to the George Washington Bridge, then down to the Statue of Liberty.
Right at the center of this torrent of costumed insanity, Jaime "El-P" Meline, in denim and a fitted New York Yankees cap, stands next to "Killer" Mike Render, in all black, on a small patch of hardwood. "We came dressed as Run the Jewels," El jokes. Behind them, their DJ wears a hat that reads "Business as Usual," a reference to classic New York hip-hop duo EPMD. And within the large audience of comic book fans, nerds, cosplay enthusiasts, and cartoon aficionados pressed around the pair, there are many young men who know each song by heart, and shout out every lyric.
It's October 2014 and, in the upside-down free-for-all that is modern popular music, one of the hottest hip-hop duos in the United States is made up of a pair of 39-year-olds who've banked off interstitial cartoon music for a rare late-period career renaissance. Not even a second wind, really—maybe a third or fourth. These two are no strangers to critical acclaim, but it's been years since either artist received as much popular attention as they have since officially joining forces last year. "Something special's happening,” El tells me before the boat ride. “There's so much energy, it's ridiculous—me and Mike have tapped into something crazy."
Run the Jewels are on the S.S. Tyrannic at the behest of Adult Swim, the fiercely irreverent late-night programming block on Cartoon Network that has played no small role in the group's success. Although the duo's new album, Run the Jewels 2, was released this week through Mass Appeal Records—a new independent label co-founded by Nas—Adult Swim has in many ways been the group's primary patron. The company has not only provided up-front funding, but actually introduced the two rappers, and has consistently promoted their work to a large audience outside of the music industry’s typical outlets.
Run the Jewels upward momentum owes a considerable debt to one man in particular: Jason DeMarco, the Vice President and Creative Director of On-Air for Adult Swim. Prior to the group's performance, he's greeted by an unending line of well-wishers and friends; as many people seem interesting in speaking with him as with the artists themselves. "El and Mike have had heights they've achieved," he says once the line has shortened. "But right now, Run the Jewels is as big as either of them has ever been on their own." This comes with an obvious disclaimer: He's invested in the group's success. But he's either utterly convincing when working the refs, or simply genuine. Forthright and magnanimous, DeMarco explains his role as that of an eager fan—largely because that's exactly what he is.
He first met Killer Mike when he needed a last-minute contribution to the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” soundtrack in 2007. At the time, Mike was operating at a creative peak in a commercial downturn, recording what would become 2008's I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. His career began in the early 2000s with conspicuous high water marks—a verse on Bonecrusher's crunk anthem "Never Scared", another on OutKast's smash single "The Whole World". Signed to OutKast's Purple Ribbon imprint, Mike found his opportunities disintegrating when André 3000 departed, leaving Big Boi to manage the roster on his own. "I was very hurt when André up and left," Mike admits.
But by 2008, Mike's independent music felt like a substantial, urgent force in an Atlanta scene driving hip-hop's broader conversation. His records had an expansive sound that fit snugly alongside established Atlanta stars like T.I. and Young Jeezy. But where T.I.'s music was often implicitly political, Mike—who references Ice Cube's scathing George H.W. Bush-era touchstone AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted as an ideal model—weaved his street stories with an unabashedly explicit political conscience. Most importantly, his pointed rhymes felt organic—a natural extension of the principled rapper's intelligence and shoot-from-the-hip personality.
Unfortunately, this creative outpour occurred in an era when record sales were rapidly dwindling. "Those Pledge records did good for me and they’re the foundation that this Killer Mike is built on,” he says, “but I was judging myself on physical sales and didn't understand that music sales were declining overall." With the industry falling apart, he was ready for retirement. "I was disappointed because I felt like I had spent a career working to still be viewed as a protégé," he recalls. "So I said, 'Fuck this shit. I'm gonna join the church.'"
"We drink Hennessy and smoke marijuana," Mike says when asked about how he prepares for a show now. Run the Jewels are wedged into a small private room on the S.S. Tyrannic’s second floor, just before taking the stage. Seated beside Mike is his wife, Shana, with whom he opened a barbershop in 2011—one of several entrepreneurial moves he'd made, along with voice acting for the Adult Swim program “Frisky Dingo”, as he felt his career drying up. Sitting across the narrow cabin is El-P, who says he'd considered giving up as well. "It occurred to me in a moment of being exhausted," says El, speaking of his long career not just as an artist but as a label owner. "And I wasn’t just exhausted for the week or the day or the year, it was like, holy shit, 10-years-exhausted."
As much as the end of the 2000s seemed to spell the end for Mike's career, Definitive Jux—the indie label El-P founded in 1999 as an alternative to the then-ubiquitous major label system—was in the process of breaking up, increasing his stress. But music was the last thing he'd leave behind. "The thing that saved me was that I never fell out of love with making music,” he says. “So I just threw myself into that and said ‘fuck everything else,’ and all sorts of good shit started happening." Not that he had many options. "I didn't graduate high school, you know—I'm gonna have to be a rapper for awhile."
When his solo debut, Fantastic Damage, was released in 2002, El-P and Def Jux were the toast of hip-hop publications coast to coast—even if, like many indie labels, their sales only peaked in the five figures. This was an era when commercial hip-hop had substantial aesthetic breadth: With any move an independent artist made, the marketplace could respond in kind, either co-opting the artist (El-P and Eminem both placed songs on onetime indie hip-hop bellwether Rawkus' Soundbombing II compilation before the latter took off for the pop stratosphere) or finding a grander gesture to eclipse it. (Was there an independent rapper with as much manic star power as Busta Rhymes or an independent producer with Timbaland's chops?) Hip-hop's future was pop music's future, too.
In contrast to the aesthetic idealism of the mid-'90s underground, Def Jux explicitly took a stance not against mainstream music—Clipse's "Grindin'" was a live concert staple for El's DJ in 2002—but against its business model; all artists were promised an even split on royalties. Nonetheless, El's music was heavily influenced by his nonconformist inclinations, his production approach eschewing traditional underground East Coast styles. To El-P, the formula is pretty simple: "I was trying to make EPMD records, but apparently I'm too weird and it just came out as this other sound.”
Influenced by '80s hip-hop and film soundtracks, he blended his nervous grooves with robotic textures and a general ominousness. ("i swear to god i could make a beat with a banjo and a church organ only and someone will call it 'dystopian sci fi'," El once tweeted.) His music also offered a particularly confrontational, masculine brand of righteous political anger, a distrust of the system and the compromises it extracts in exchange. A record on his debut describing his upbringing in Koch-era New York, for example, is titled "Squeegee Man Shooting", its centerpiece lyric about a police-involved killing complicating its nostalgic frame.
Def Jux certainly wasn't the only independent label of the era, but it was the most press-savvy of the bunch, intentionally or otherwise. The label appealed to a trend-conscious audience, and give or take a few regrettable branding decisions (circa 2003 merch included Def Jux trucker hats, and they momentarily joined forces with alt-pornography site SuicideGirls), to a certain subset of young men invested in hip-hop in 2002—including this writer—it seemed like the only one that mattered.
Another devout Def Jux disciple was Adult Swim's Jason DeMarco. "After [Fantastic Damage], I just followed him forever," he says. In 2007, DeMarco started Williams Street Records, a company that would release all music from Adult Swim's properties. One of the first projects they worked on was El's "Flyentology" music video. "From there, El and I realized we were very similar people with very similar backgrounds,” DeMarco says. “We became friends."
El continued to work with DeMarco and Adult Swim, remixing Young Jeezy for a project called ATL RMX in 2009. "When El was making that track, he told me, 'No one ever thinks of me to work with these Southern MCs, but I want to work with everybody,'" DeMarco recalls. "So I said, 'Would you be willing to come down and get in the studio with Mike for a day, we'll fly you out and just see what happens?' He said, 'Yeah, why not. Fuck it.' And within an hour of meeting each other, they were both high and laughing, and I just left. I came back a couple of hours later, and they had three songs."
After El returned to New York to work on his 2012 album Cancer for Cure, it was Mike—a fan of El's since hearing his ‘90s group Company Flow—who insisted they return to the studio. "Mike and I bugged the shit out of him until he agreed to do it,” DeMarco recalls. Backed by Adult Swim's weight, Mike 2012 album R.A.P. Music—produced entirely by El-P—was critically well-received; the duo's partnership had begun in earnest.
Run the Jewels 2 is the sequel to the pair's spontaneous debut, which was recorded in a month and released last summer. "With the first record, we didn't have any grand plans,” says El. “We didn't know what the future held.” Leading up to that album, El-P and Mike's audience skewed older—many of their fans had followed the rappers for years. But as their partnership took hold, with El and Mike bringing out the most vicious and immediate version of each other, their audience seemed to snowball—and get younger.
Of course, this is partly thanks to their exposure via Adult Swim, which attracts about 1.5 million viewers on weeknights, many of them college-age men. "[El] has told me that when he goes anywhere, people now tell him, 'I first heard your music on Adult Swim and had to look it up, and then I discovered Run the Jewels,’” DeMarco says. “I don't think we're responsible for El's success, but I do think his music being on television every single night doesn't hurt."
Two almost-40-year-old rappers making music that resonates with a young audience is no small feat, even with Adult Swim's metaphorical megaphone. Nonetheless, both artists can't help but indulge in a bit of wishful thinking about what might have been had they joined forces much earlier. It also points to why their success isn't merely a matter of marketing, but a result of undeniable interpersonal chemistry—which most often manifests in free-associative riffs. For example:
Mike: If I'd met El earlier, we could have changed the face of music by this point, but he always says it wasn't supposed to happen.
El: It wasn't. We had to go through all the shit...
Mike: In 2003, if I could have made something to rival AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, we'd be 50 Cent rich! We'd be broken up by now! We'd hate each other! [laughs, high fives]
El: Fuck you! Separate chefs! [laughs]
Their personal relationship is intertwined with the music: a blend of humor and principled aggression, coupled with the general impression that they're simply good people. Also not to be underrated is their career-long consistency. El's production remains one of the sharpest tools in Run the Jewel's kit, idiosyncratic but functional, the gradual refinement of an evolving artist. "The thing I love about music is, if you do it long enough, you get better and better at translating what's in your head to a medium,” says El. “That's why I keep doing it.”
This consistency is a feature, not a bug. "Not only have they picked up a new audience entirely, they've also never lost their original audience," suggests DeMarco. "That makes people want to root for them—because they're just doing it the right way and they seem to be having fun doing it." Fun is also what enables the group's politics to flower without consuming the whole.
As writers, they've continued to push themselves, rapping with studiously dense internal rhymes, a baroque, wordy style that has the muscular punch of a comic book; somewhat juvenile and often over-the-top, it helps explain their appeal to young Adult Swim viewers: "I Jake the Snake 'em, DDT 'em in mausoleums/ Macabre massacres, killin cunts in my coliseum!" Killer Mike is direct and explosive; El more impressionistic. Both dig the comic potential of vulgarity; "Love Again (Akinyele Back)" is a tribute to the sex rap of 2 Live Crew and ‘90s MC Akinyele, of "Put It in Your Mouth" fame.
But it’s not all about glorious pulp punchlines. Their strategy for Run the Jewels 2 was an intensified version of the first record. "We wanted it to be meaner and darker, and say things close to our hearts," El says. The laser-focused “Early” features a police-shooting narrative from Mike, who has recently spoken out on the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. And the most compelling moment on the record is "Crown", a song that complicates the group's usual point of view, as Mike confronts the regrets of his past—the moral compromises he felt he needed to make. "I carry around a lot of guilt,” says the father of four. “I sold drugs and I was successful at it. If you have any type of humanity or morality, that's going to fuck with you the rest of your life." On the song, he raps about selling drugs to a pregnant woman—a character based upon a composite of two women he'd known in his real life. "The child that I rapped about is not mentally disabled for real,” he says, “but I needed to add a weight of gravity and the sum of my fears."
Mike had struggled to finish the track, getting caught up at its conclusion. "I would get to a point and just get so fucking sad,” he says. “Then my wife reminded me that one of my grandma's favorite records was 'Lay My Burden Down', a negro spiritual. That's what my grandmother had tried to get me to understand my whole life: put your responsibilities to other people and your worry and your shame down. As humans, we carry our hurt and guilt, and until we put all that shit down, we can't pick it up.
"People don't accredit Killer Mike and El-P with having the humanity that we do,” he continues. “They don't understand that the darkness and the anger that we rap about comes from a place of love, care, and concern. Everything about that song is just so human. You can't turn away from it."
As a boy, Peter Bebergal became fascinated with all things strange, terrific, and ineffably other. That led to an obsession with horror magazines, monster model kits, scary movies, comic books, fantasy novels, and Dungeons & Dragons. Also: rock‘n’roll. Growing up in the 1970s, Bebergal bore witness to a blossoming of rock music that brought with it a peripheral-yet-unshakeable association with the occult, which dovetailed with his interest in the eerier fringes of pop culture. Many of those experience are recounted in his 2011 memoir,Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, and he’s drawn out and expanded these themes in his excellent new book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll.
Rather than advocating occultism as a religion, Berbegal probes the overlap between the practice of magic and the playing of music with the cool eye of a scholar. He received his Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and he’s a contributor to The Quietus and BoingBoing, among others, which lends Season of the Witch an academic heft and gravitas. It’s also a flat-out blast to read, a rhapsody on the way myth continues to inform our lives in the 21st century. The book not only looks deeply into the esoteric tradition that flows from Robert Johnson, to David Bowie, to Jay-Z, it frames the sonic iconography of the fantastic and satanic in a way that resonates far beyond the songs themselves.
“There’s a generation of young people who still
want some sense of meaning beyond what appears
to be a world that’s not what they’d been promised.”
Pitchfork: One of the most vivid parts of Season of the Witch is the introduction, when you recall being a kid and reading a quote from famed occultist Aleister Crowley—“Do what thou wilt”—in the runoff groove of your brother’s copy of Led Zeppelin III. Why did that affect you so deeply?
Peter Berbegal: It was the mystique and the mystery—someone took the time to etch these letters into the runoff, and it was a difficult thing to find. Not everyone knew about it. It was like uncovering some secret, esoteric wisdom. I didn’t know who Crowley was at the time and I didn’t even understand anything about Jimmy Page’s own personal life or the fact that he was interested in the occult. But there was something about the band itself that functioned as this weird vessel for getting access to some mysterious knowledge.
The Crowley quote etched into the runoff of Led Zeppelin III. Photo via Every Record Tells a Story.
My brother used to take me to his room and play [the Beatles’] “Revolution 9” just to freak me out. He would say, “You know Paul McCartney’s dead, right? There are clues all over. Let me show you.” When you’re 7 years old, you wonder how this could all be true: Who’s in charge of all this? Even though there’s a part of you that knows it’s not true, there’s something about that feeling that transcends the music itself. The fact that the rumor persists implies that the music and the band and who they are in the world is connected to something bigger than what we imagine it is. That ignites a fire. Even to debate it is part of what is so powerful about the occult imagination.
What is it about rock‘n’roll that fires that particular part of the imagination, even for those whom ideas about religion would have seemed anathema? They may not want to believe what the Christian or Jewish mainstream has to say, but they’re willing to go to their rock albums and look for some transcendent, almost divine knowledge.
Pitchfork: It’s like rock gnosticism.
PB: Exactly. And I tried very, very hard not to make a single metaphysical claim in the book, because I don’t have any metaphysical claims to make. But there is something to be said for the persistence through history of a particular way of seeking and experiencing that is outside of normal perception, to have an experience that is not mediated by any church, this ecstatic encounter. The metaphor for this encounter has often been some horned deity, or Pan-like figure, or even Dionysus, who has been the stand-in deity for the spirit of rock‘n’roll. It’s the archetype for this wild god, and if you get too close, you’ll be both liberated and destroyed.
However archetypes like that get transmitted, either through what you’d call collective consciousness or even just our own DNA, it found a perfect moment in rock‘n’roll to express itself in a new way. Even the gender fluidity that’s so much a part of rock, and the intoxication around the use of drugs and alcohol, and the communal aspect of the rock concert are all very much reminiscent of this ancient Dionysian principle. Part of it is the fact that we unconsciously make a pact with the rock performer. It’s like when I go and see a stage magician: I know going in that it’s a trick, and there’s some secret behind it, but I am absolutely willing to sit in that audience, completely suspend my disbelief, and allow myself to be hypnotized. To allow myself to be tricked.
The same happens in our relationship to rock‘n’roll, especially in that moment of the live show. The audience allows itself to accept this potential for transcendence. It’s an agreement that we make, either consciously unconsciously, with the musician. All kinds of things get released that way. It’s very powerful. At its base, it’s that part of us that’s going to look at an album cover for secret messages.
Pitchfork: Early in Season of the Witch, you make the distinction between myth and metaphysics, saying that you’d rather focus on the former than the latter. Can you clarify that decision, and what prompted it?
PB: The word “occult” is so loaded that to even use it in a book title is dangerous. People are either going to assume you’re a full-on, nut-case believer or that you’re a secret emissary of the Devil. [laughs] To me, the truthiness of the occult is irrelevant to the truth of this thing that’s called the occult imagination. That’s where all these things get expressed. It’s similar to the way I was taught to study religion and theology: The way in which people behave tells you much more about religion than what they tell you they believe. The way a community is gathered and the way it expresses itself through literature and other art forms is more authentic. The same goes for the occult. I wanted to write about the way belief shapes culture and individuals, and the only way to get at that was to look at the stories that have been told. Sometimes those stories are manifested in music, and that is a much more honest way to get at what the occult is about than trying to say whether or not spirits exist.
Pitchfork: Another disclaimer in the book is the fact that your scope is limited, and every band with an inverted pentagram in their logo is not going to be covered. Where did you draw the line, and what bands were tough to leave out?
PB: I realized early on that Season of the Witch had to be anecdotal and I had to find those few examples that, for me, really encapsulate what I’m trying to get at. Obviously the biggies are in there: Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath. But then I went to bands that maybe aren’t as well known, like Hawkwind or Arthur Brown. They may not have had the same commercial success, but their impact on other musicians, and on the culture of rock‘n’roll, was so great. They were much more important than bands like Blue Öyster Cult or the Doors, who certainly played with some of these ideas.
Pitchfork: There’s no shortage of occult stories in black metal, yet that didn’t make it into the book either. What was the reason behind that choice?
PB: Because I was really trying to look at the origins of the occult’s relationship to rock‘n’roll, the book basically ends in the early ‘90s. The last chapter takes a contemporary look, mostly to bring things full circle, and I talk about current metal bands like Sunn O))), Ghost B.C., and Om, although none of them are black metal. I didn’t want to get into that since the books on black metal and the occult, like Lords of Chaos [by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind], have already been written.
Pitchfork: In the book, you say we’re currently experiencing “an Occult Revival in rock music and popular culture.” How so, and why now?
PB: The Internet has a lot to do with the ability to transmit these ideas. There was a time when you had to find out about the occult by going to a specialty bookstore or through mail order. We’ve also come to another strange cultural moment in our relationship to religion where it seems as though the loudest voices are either the fundamentalists or the atheists. There’s a whole generation of young people who still want some sense of meaning beyond what appears to be a world that’s not what they’d been promised.
The same went for those in the ‘60s. People today don’t have the exact same set of issues, but they are still echoes of all those same things. People are turning again to the seeking of transcendence. Burning Man is a great example of this new new-age moment, an intersection of art, music, and all kinds of weird ideas about the universe. [laughs] I’m not a sociologist, so I couldn’t say 100-percent why this is happening, but there definitely does seem to be a quiet explosion of people becoming interested in these ideas. What’s most interesting to me—and you see this in underground music in a really interesting way—is how these things are being used as a way of expressing something that’s artful rather than literal. You have a lot of bands that are returning to the use of occult images, particularly in metal. But there are also more popular artists like Jay-Z, or Damon Albarn and his opera about the magician John Dee.
These things are coming back to the fore, and I’m pleased to see how much of it is being expressed through art and music. It’s this question of how much we need to embrace the actual beliefs of the occult to embrace what’s really compelling about these images and ideas, and the way they can be used to express what it means to be human.